Philosophy in Writing: Explicit vs. Implicit?

John-Ronald-Reuel-Tolkien-10-500x337There are two underlying approaches to writing anything with a philosophical basis or concept behind it. Regardless of everything else you do, you must choose to be either explicit or implicit in your writing. However, regardless of which you choose to adopt in your own writing, it is important to recognize and understand the importance of both styles and their respective advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to tell you which one is better for your personal writing; they can both be effective or ineffective equally, but personally, I find myself drawn more towards those writers whose philosophy takes on an implicit form, but that is just me.

Tolkien’s writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit) are prime examples of the subtle and intricate nature in which Tolkien conveys his philosophy. The connections between his stories and the ‘real world’ are obvious to the reader on a conceptual level, yet difficult to pinpoint in detail. This is precisely what it means to write the implicitly true; Tolkien believed that an implied truth was far more readily accepted by the common reader than an explicit one. He wanted to create a story which was true in its meaning, even if it is untrue in regards to the actual existence of the world and characters that he created. In this way it can be accurately said that all stories are true, even though some of them never happened, for all stories carry truths, both implicitly and explicitly. As to the question of which one is better or which one ought to be chosen for a particular story I am afraid that I cannot begin to answer that for you; yet to speak out of personal preference, I find writings with implicit morals to be much more fascinating because of their heavier reliance on the active engagement of the reader. Anyone who has any inkling of knowledge about Christianity can read the Chronicles of Narnia and make the connections, but without any clear knowledge of Tolkien or the Silmarillion it is easy to conceive of (in part because it happened prior to the publishing of the Silmarillion) someone reading the stories of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit without picking up on the subtle Christian truths woven throughout the story which I do not have the time to mention here. Tolkien’s ability to create a world so relatable to our own despite its vast differences is just one attestation to the power and importance of implicit philosophy.

jack13On the other side we have the explicit; perhaps the greatest examples of explicit truths are Aesop’s Fables. These short stories are famous for their practical applications and stated morals. Really any story with an obvious or stated moral to it can be considered explicit; it is the obvious connections to daily life that make it explicit. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also explicit in their connections to general church theology. Aslan is obviously representative of God and his actions are clearly reminiscent of God’s actions in Christian theology. He dies to save a boy who betrayed Aslan and the boy’s family and was resurrected. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth does not have any clear correlation to Christian theology on the level that Narnia does and this is one of the reasons for which Tolkien, who as we mentioned before believed that implied truth was more powerful than its explicit counterparts, critiqued Lewis’ writings. He found the truths to be too obvious and too blatant compared to his much more subtle way of expressing similar underlying beliefs. Despite Tolkien’s harsh opinion, I do believe that the explicit is important as well, especially for younger audiences. A child is not going to pick up on the subtleties of Tolkien’s writings whereas they might find the lion Aslan to be a comforting reminder of what they learned in church, or what their parents taught them about right and wrong.

An Examination of The Revenge Quest

Today we have another post from Neal Gibson:

Hello again, readers. Last week I wrote a post dealing with Philosophy and the many roles it plays in reading and writing. I am here to announce that starting next week I will begin a series regarding philosophy of writing that will build off of that post.

count-of-monte-cristoHowever, in the meantime I wanted to compare briefly one of my favorite literary classics, The Count of Monte Cristo, with Les Misérables. What struck me as the most interesting, upon seeing the recent Les Misérables film, was the many similarities between Jean Valjean and Edmund Dantès. Both are wrongly imprisoned (or at least given an unjust sentence in the case of Jean Valjean) during their youth and have the best things in their life taken away from them as they serve out their time in prison. This is not what interests me so much as their respective reactions to it. Early on in Les Mis we see Jean Valjean trying desperately to find his way in a world that was cruel to him and in his desperation he turns to the very crime he first committed; thievery. His thievery is met with kindness by the man he was stealing from, and this drastic dissonance with Valjean’s expectations shocks him into the realization that he is more than his past and he must overcome it. This is not unlike Edmund Dantès prison in the Chateau d’If, wherein he faces despair until fate brings him into contact with the Abbe Faria: another prisoner who has created a tunnel to escape but accidentally runs into Edmund Dantès’ cell. Both characters escape this part of their lives; Dantès physically escapes from the Chateau d”If and comes into a large fortune which he uses to secure a place for himself within the high societies of France and Italy. Jean Valjean break his parole to escape his unjust label as a dangerous man and uses this freedom to gain considerable wealth and a respectable position in the town he ives in. It is here, though, that the initial contrast must begin, for while Jean Valjean sees his second chance as a chance to do right and help people who are in the situation he once was in, Edmund Dantès becomes solely focused on revenge.

les-miserables-musical-poster-01As both characters embark on their journey we can see a profoundly interesting fact; both of them become generous with their wealth and seek to do good for society despite how distinctly opposite their motivations. Jean Valjean helps Fantine and Cosette because he wants to show Fantine that there is still good in the world and that God is still kind. The Count spends some portions of his wealth to help save his former employer from bankruptcy and humiliation. Yet despite his obvious generosity the Count never hesitates to take his revenge upon the guilty parties in his misfortune at every chance he gets and even goes so far as to plot them out diligently in his spare time. On the other hand we have Jean Valjean who continuously forgives the man who wronged him to the point where Javert kills himself because his duty demands that he recapture Jean Valjean but his conscience will not let him. Because he is an honorable man and he could not bear to either fail in his duty or wrong Jean Valjean again, Javert felt forced to take his own life instead. Both characters believe they are doing right by their actions; they both feel like they are on a mission from God which makes the differences in their choices all the more fascinating to observe. I think that their different reactions ultimately stem from differing views of God in their lives. The Count sees that all the people who have wronged him have prospered for it, and one of them married the Count’s former fiancé. Where was God in all this? The Count believes that he was given his second chance to act as God’s right hand in exacting justice and vengeance on those who sinned against him. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, thanks to the kindness of the priest, understood that his second chance was given so that he might not make the same mistake and that he might act as God’s mercy and kindness on people who otherwise would never see it.

It is remarkable to see how both the Count and Jean Valjean came to the same conclusion in the end, despite how very different the paths were that they took; revenge is not ours to take. Even though the Count takes his revenge he admits that he took upon himself a task which belongs to the Lord and he was wrong in doing so. It was not until the end of the story that the Count realizes that God is merciful and so we ought to be as well; Jean Valjean learned this lesson much earlier and it is this that stayed his hand when Javert was in his hands. This is perhaps the major lesson of both the Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables, and it is one which should never be overlooked or downplayed.

Philosophy, What’s it Good For?

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Today we have the first post from a new writer. Welcome Neal Gibson:

Philosophy? That’s just for people who have time to sit around and think. If you’re like me, this describes how a lot of people in your life think of philosophy, but there is so much more to it than that. Philosophy is part of nearly every aspect of our lives and one of the best ways this can be shown is through writing. How an author creates a world or a character or a scenario gives the informed reader a very clear picture of what message the author is trying to send; his philosophy of writing. It can be different for every book they write, but it is always there and it is something which any writer needs to take into account with their own works. I’m a student of philosophy so I am exposed to it much more than your average Joe; this helps me see the philosophies behind many classic novels and plays. To name just one example which I recently studied, Existentialism plays a robust role within the framework of writing primarily seen during the post-World War Two era and afterwards, although its early stages took root long before the war. As a philosophy, it can be seen perhaps most notably within the works Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Camus (although there are many others); and while Existentialism may be present as an overall philosophy behind their respective works, they each had their own personal philosophies of writing.

When I begin writing a story or a paper or really anything, I always sit down first and decide what my core ideas are going to be. If I’m writing a story I ponder how I want to portray good and evil, which characters are going to provide a moral compass, and what I want the reader to learn from the story (whether we like to admit it or not, every story we see or read teaches us something and some lessons are better for us than others). What underlying beliefs guide your characters? How will the main characters change throughout the story and what will cause these changes? These are both important questions to ask when dealing with the philosophy of a story because ideally, what you want to share with your readers is what they actually get out of reading your story.

This beautiful piece was done by LasloLF. His work can be found here.
This beautiful piece was done by LasloLF. His work can be found here.

Of course, I’ve mostly been focusing on characters so far, and yet a philosophy of writing can permeate into much more of any authors work. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth is filled with symbolism and metaphor which allude to the deeper beliefs he held about Christianity and the world during his time of writing. Sauron, the unseen evil, is spreading a cloud of literal and symbolic darkness over the world of man. Gandalf the White arrives with the morning sun to save the day at Helms Deep. Tolkien uses the Ents and the forests to personify nature, and, in a way, show that even nature itself fight against evil. Tolkien is showing that evil is not natural, it is not something that just happens, and it needs to be fought against. The sacrifices that Sam and Frodo and the others make to destroy the evil ring, and ultimately Sauron, show Tolkien’s belief that we, too, must be willing to make sacrifices in the daily struggle against evil in the world around us. Freedom, happiness, and peace are not given freely to everyone in the world, they must be fought for and achieved.

Aragorn was possibly one of the best portrayed characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Aragorn was possibly one of the best portrayed characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

These symbols provide a powerful tool for any author to use. In my experience, I tend to find an author’s choice of symbols within a given story to be the best marker for understanding their philosophy. Many authors use darkness to symbolize evil, and rightly so, but if an author chose to symbolize light as evil what might that say about his view of evil? Context is obviously important, but I would likely take it to show that evil likes to mask itself as something good or illuminating. Did not the Serpent tempt Eve in the garden with the fruit by explaining that it would illuminate the world for her; that she would become like God. Evil is rarely so overt as to be darkness: it often comes to us as a blinding light that gains our trust before it leads us over a cliff.

 

J.R.R. Tolkien is commonly considered the father of modern fantasy.
J.R.R. Tolkien is commonly considered the father of modern fantasy.

Tolkien was a master of symbolism within the realm of Middle Earth, virtually everything he created served as a symbol for something, and, in some cases, multiple places or characters represented different aspects of the same thing. For example: Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo all represent different aspects of the Christ. Gandalf had to die to stop evil from destroying mankind’s last hope and was reborn. Aragorn is the rightful heir of Gondor, the greatest of the kingdoms of Man, but he forsook his throne to become a lowly ranger, quietly defending the lands of mankind from enemies until the time has come at last for him to return as King. And of course there is Frodo who is chosen to be the bearer of the source of evil; the one ring. It is his job to take this burden, which man cannot bear, and destroy it for their sake, and he does so willingly, by his own choice, because he knows that there is no other way.

I have only briefly touched the many aspects of symbolism that manifest Tolkien’s philosophy of writing, but I hope that by showing some specific examples of his choice of symbols I have given you the tools for understanding how effective symbolism is for giving deep meaning to a story, appreciating many wonderful works in a new and exciting way, and applying symbolism to your own writing in a meaningful and thoughtful way to best express your philosophy of writing.