Some philosophical/theological thoughts I’m pondering as I am writing Poetics & Progym II for my high school students at Providence Prep. It’s a work in progress, but I thought I’d throw it out there . . .
Recall our definitions of non-fiction (language descriptive of things that have happened) and fiction (language descriptive of things as though they have happened.) Notice that neither definition contains the word truth. Why is this so? Because fictional work may actually contain more truth than a work intended to be non-fiction.
First, we must consider factual truth. In general, the non-fiction author intends to give the actual facts of a given event. But despite his best efforts and intentions, he may be unable to avoid setting forth those facts in accordance with his bias. Of course, there are authors who intentionally distort the facts in order to create propaganda. Because this word is often associated with blatantly evil intent, as in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, it has a negative connotation. In fact, propaganda, derived from a future active participle in Latin, can carry the meaning of duty, necessity, or obligation. Thus: propaganda may also be understood as that which ought to be propagated (literally, set forward).* Take, for example, the well-known anecdote of George Washington and the cherry tree. It may or may not be factually true, but it was first published in an early biography of Washington and subsequently picked up by textbooks and histories for young children.
But this actually leads us to the idea of poetic truth. In a literary work, the author or poet may show us through means of fictional characters or fictional actions and events who we are and/or who we ought to be and the way things are and/or the way things ought to be. Washington’s habits of integrity were documented in factual anecdotes and events. In the cherry tree incident, he is mythologized in a way consistent with that proven character. The poetic truth inherent in this story is that a character of integrity is built over a lifetime, and it may well be present even from his youngest childhood.
This is a deep and enduring philosophic debate which thinkers and theologians in every age have engaged. When Plato imagined his perfect Republic, he advanced the idea of the “noble lie” as necessary for peaceful and harmonious civil life. At the same time he pondered whether poets (storytellers) ought even be allowed in his perfect Republic, and finally concluded that they should be banned. Aristotle also examined the essence of factual truth and poetic truth:
The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is—for example—what Alcibiades did or suffered. ~ Poetics, Part IX
The Bible itself is filled with narrative. There is a wealth of historical non-fiction narrative concerning creation, the fall of man, Israel, the nations, the life of Jesus, and the growth of the early church. There are other stories in the Bible which could very well be classified as fiction under our definition. Nathan showed David the truth about his own guilt by telling him a story about a man and his beloved lamb (II Samuel 12). Jesus told parables filled with familiar people, places, and actions to illustrate truths about forgiveness, self-righteousness, and the kingdom of heaven. Whether the events in these stories happened in real time and space or not has no bearing on the fact that they communicate THE truth.
As you continue your pursuit of a life well-read in Poetics & Progym and beyond, look for the threads of this discussion concerning truth-telling in literary works. They are woven throughout the Great Conversation. Modern authors such as Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis have dealt with this subject in clear and compelling ways, and we commend their works to you. Most particularly. as you read and study your Bible, observe the marvelous ways in which God’s word weaves both factual and poetic truth into the ultimate glorious garment of gospel truth.
*This idea was first introduced to me by Wes Callihan in his Great Books class at Schola Tutorials, inspiring my little vocabulary study.