Literature and Virtue in Sidney's Apology for Poetry Essay

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Literature and Virtue in Sidney's "Apology for Poetry"


In "An Apology for Poetry" Sir Philip Sidney attempts to reassert the fundamental importance of literature to society in general as well as to other creative and intellectual endeavors. Though Sidney's work does provide a synthesis (and in some cases an aberration) of much Greek and Roman literary theory, his argument aspires to go beyond an esoteric academic debate. Literature can "teach and delight" in a manner which other methods of communication do not possess (138). The moral/ethical impact any literary text has upon a reader is of paramount importance to Sidney. The argument Sidney presents and develops is built around the assumption that literature has the capacity to
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Where philosophy deals solely with the universal, history is consumed with the particular. Literature is able to deal with the same abstract moral/ethical (universal) concepts with which philosophy grapples by providing examples rooted in concrete, albeit fictionalized, details. History is too concerned with the accurate recording of facts to make any conjectures on such broad, less substantiated concepts. Literature exists between and above history and philosophy because the knowledge it conveys (knowledge of the good) is the best and most useful knowledge that exists. As Sidney states, "no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry" (149).



Sidney attempts to provide an utterly rational foundation for his claims, however. He develops a systematic analysis of the mechanisms employed by literature to teach virtue. He sorts literature according to its works and its parts. The works of a literary text can be seen in four specific ethical effects which it should seek to elicit in a reader. Sidney defines these four as: the purifying of wit, enriching of memory, enabling of judgement, and enlarging of conceit (139).



In order to purify the…

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