My old teacher, the classicist (and Scots Nationalist)nDouglas Young, once interrupted a boring conversationnabout television by declaring loudly, “Speaking of Aeschylusn…” When one of his naive colleagues insisted, “But Douglas,nno one was speaking about Aeschylus,” Young responded,n”Yes, but I want to be speaking of Aeschylus.” This month,nwhen I ought to be writing an essay on why virtually every reallyngood American poet of the 30’s hated Franklin Roosevelt,nI have decided, instead, to be speaking about Aeschylus, ornrather about the moral and social significance of literature.nWhat is art good for, anyway? The older critics used to declarenthat the functions of poetry were two; entertainment andninstruction. There may be other, more vital functions for allnI know, but the billions of dollars we Americans spend onnfilms, television, and popular music attest to the importancenof “the arts” as entertainment and to the value we place uponneven very bad art.nBut entertainment is, to a very great extent, a morally andnpolitically neutral quality. We may be entertained by a caricaturenof Ronald Reagan or a spoof on Jesse Jackson; somenpeople enjoy Jane Austen, while others take their pleasure fromnthe Marquis de Sade. The difference lies in the character andnoutlook of the readers, and our character and outlook arenformed, to some extent, by the books and films and music thatnwe have enjoyed.nThe formation of character is a problem that lies at the centernof ethics. What is the purpose to a theory of goodness, ifnit does not provide some account of how people actually becomengood? Some aspects of our character we inherit as humannbeings with specific ancestors, but these aptitudes are onlynthe raw materials out of which persons are made, and whilenwe cannot make bricks out of sand—or silk purses out of sowsnears—sand can be turned into building blocks, stained glassnwindows, abrasive sandpaper, or cat litter.nAmong the major forces that determine our character—theninfluences of home and church and friends, for example—I includenthe arts, even in their crudest and most vulgar forms.n”Experience,” said Poor Richard, “keeps a dear school, butn12/CHRONICLESnPERSPECTIVEnI Love to Tell the Storynby Thomas Flemingn- ‘ c.*^.^^ .*nnnfools will learn in no other.” But in one very important sense,nthere is no school but experience in which we learn the greatestnlessons of life. We cannot learn how to become decentnand unselfish men and women or loyal citizens by memorizingnlists of rules or copying the tricks of argument taught bynthe ancient sophists in Athens and by the modern sophists ofnthe philosophy departments at Harvard and Yale. We learnnour moral and social lessons by doing and being done to.nSpeaking of Aeschylus, it is his lesson of pathei niathos, thenwisdom that comes from suffering (in its broadest sense).nThe heroes of tragedy do not have an easy time of it, imbibingnthe lessons of experience. Unfortunately, it takes usnyears to realize the consequences of folly and self-indulgencenand decades to discover how to love our neighbors as ourselves.nA man with no assistant but his own conscience mightntake a lifetime in learning the simplest moral truths—so circumscribednare we within the little social spheres we inhabit.nMost of us live within small social groups of a few dozennfriends, colleagues, and neighbors who belong to one or twonsocial classes. We can only fall seriously in love once or twicenin our lives, and most of us are able to have at best a halfdozennchildren, to work at one or two professions. We lose anparent only twice. We die once in a lifetime.nIn books, however, the whole world is ours. Hamlet maynask of the player, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,”nbut the suffering and vengeful wife of Priam has taught generationnafter generation something of what it is like to lose everythingnincluding your own moral balance.nA writer can pack an entire lifetime into a novel of three tonfour hundred pages or distill the essence of a love affair into ansonnet. If for most of us everyday life has the power of nearnbeer, then fiction is more like Burgundy or claret, while poetrynand music have the strength of cognac or Chartreuse. Perhapsna better metaphor can be drawn from perfume, since it takesnthousands upon thousands of petals to produce a single dropnof attar of rose. It is only in art that we can live, “breathingnconcentrated otto, an existence a la Watteau.”nBut, someone ought to object, the writer only can live onen