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Ethics through Literature
Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture
Brian Stock

The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures

2008 • 160 pp. 5 1/2 x 8 1/2"
Literary Criticism / Philosophy

$45.00 Hardcover, 978-1-58465-699-9

“In this concise, but finely researched, volume, Brian Stock undertakes a dazzling and impressively detailed, exploration of Western theories of reading. . . Readers . . . would do well to consider the many branching... [continued in Reviews below]”—Literature & History

An investigation into the relationship between ethics, reading, and the creative imagination in Western culture

Why do we read? Based on a series of lectures delivered at the Historical Society of Israel in 2005, Brian Stock presents a model for relating ascetic and aesthetic principles in Western reading practices. He begins by establishing the primacy of the ethical objective in the ascetic approach to literature in Western classical thought from Plato to Augustine. This is understood in contrast to the aesthetic appreciation of literature that finds pleasure in the reading of the text in and of itself. Examples of this long-standing tension as displayed in a literary topos, first outlined in these lectures, which describes “scenes of reading,” are found in the works of Peter Abelard, Dante, and Virginia Woolf, among others. But, as this original and often surprising work shows, the distinction between the ascetic and aesthetic impulse in reading, while necessary, is often misleading. As he writes, “All Western reading, it would appear, has an ethical component, and the value placed on this component does not change much over time.” Tracing the ascetic component of reading from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance and beyond, to Coleridge and Schopenhauer, Stock reveals the ascetic or ethical as a constant with the aesthetic serving as opposition, parallel force, and handmaiden, underscoring the historical consistency of the reading experience through the ages and across various media.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“In this concise, but finely researched, volume, Brian Stock undertakes a dazzling and impressively detailed, exploration of Western theories of reading. . . Readers . . . would do well to consider the many branching pathways opened up by Stock for further exploration on this exceedingly important question.”—Literature & History

“Anyone with the courage to take up the daunting question ‘Why do we read?’ has to be admired. Moreover, to situate this response within the entire history of both Western philosophy and literature is even more courageous. Stock is clearly a formidable historian of ideas, and the sheer number of passages concerning reading that he uncovers from the history of ideas makes the book well worth reading.”—Philological Quarterly

Ethics through Literature may engage readers who are studying classical and medieval literature, exploring approaches to criticism that focus on readers’ responses, or studying works where the act of reading itself plays an important part in the development of characterization or of plot. Stock does not make a single, sustained argument; rather, he explores a wide range of medieval and classical texts, critics, and philosophers to explain the importance of the act of reading and to invite others into an exploration of the light that might be cast on whole periods of literature if more attention were paid to the roles that reading and the portrayal of reading play in the cultural transmission of ethical and aesthetic ideas and ideals. . . .To read Stock is to re-enter the world of Ernst Curtius. In Stock’s case, the topos is the scene where reading takes place, and the historical task is to see the relationships among scenes of reading in major and minor literary works in the context of classical and Christian view of the value of art.”—Christianity and Literature

BRIAN STOCK is emeritus professor of history and literature in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. He has written a number of studies that deal with modes of perception between the classical and the early modern period including The Implications of Literacy, and Augustine, the Reader.

Thu, 14 Mar 2019 13:08:14 -0500