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Literature In The Early West

The Hellenistic Greeks had a robust sense of the different kinds of writing within the idea of grammata. In book 10 of the Republic, Plato distinguished sharply, for example, between philosophy (dialectic), which he championed, and poetry, which he wanted to ban because of its propensity to settle for superficial views of things and to stir the emotions unnecessarily. Aristotle's treatises Interpretation (comprising grammar and logic), Rhetoric, and Poetics are some of the earliest examples of criticism. His Poetics is generally considered the founding text of literary interpretation in the West, though the term explicated by Aristotle is not grammata but poiēsis, which means "making" or "creating" as well as "poetry" and "poem." Nevertheless, the treatise clearly sets out a theory of literary genres and thoroughly anatomizes one of them—tragic drama—to demonstrate its essential structure; its psychological effects on its audience; its bases in Greek culture and myth; its distinctness from history and philosophy as well as from other types of poetry, such as epic and lyric; its ability to give pleasure and to reveal truth; and its relation to fate and the gods. Aristotle's ideas have remained touchstones throughout the history of literature in the West, and it would be fair to say that the academic study of literature would not be the same without them. They were revived in a dogmatic form by the French in the seventeenth century and are still routinely taught in the twenty-first century.

Romans such as Cicero used the term litteratura to mean both writing itself and learning. It was the early church fathers of the second century, such as Tertullian in De spectaculis, who distinguished between sacred and profane writing—scriptura versus litteratura—within the Christian tradition and who elevated the former above the latter for several centuries. During this period, the profane term literature and its cognates appear to have had little currency. In the British Isles there is a small canon of Anglo-Saxon poetry beginning in the late sixth century. With the exception of Beowulf, a narrative poem assembled from earlier sources in the seventh or eighth century, the development of a major classical genre, such as epic, seems to have been hindered for a time by the dominance of Christianity. In France literacy and learning were revived by the court of Charlemagne (742–814), king of the Franks from 768 until his death and Holy Roman emperor (from 800), but the legend of Charlemagne is handed down in various forms before the epic La chanson de Roland appears in early twelfth-century medieval France. The twelfth-century Poema del Cid, perhaps the most important of early Spanish epics, embellishes in courtly, Christian terms the deeds of a noble, eleventh-century Castilian soldier of fortune.

The patristic Scripture-literature hierarchy was vigorously challenged by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) in De vulgari eloquentia (1304–1309), a treatise defending "eloquence in the vernacular," albeit written in Latin and perhaps with Quintilian as a model. Dante argued, first, that profane literature could be read with the same seriousness and interpreted along the same lines as Scripture, and second, that morally serious profane literature could be written not only in Latin, which was then the language of statecraft and high culture throughout Europe, but also in the vernacular, that is, in the commonly spoken regional languages. Such regional languages were assumed at the time not to be governed by the rules of grammar and hence not to be suitable for important matters. Although Dante's ideas had a negligible influence in his day, his vision of vernacular literature would be realized in the subsequent rise of distinct national cultures following the fragmentation of Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe. Martin Luther's early sixteenth-century Reformation and perhaps more important, the translation of the Bible into modern languages prepared the ground for the later idea that literature, whether historical, philosophical, or imaginative, embodied distinct national spirits. Still, the study of vernacular literatures would not occur in most European academies until the nineteenth century.

In a fourteenth-century Scottish version of the lives of the saints, the word lateratour is used to mean essentially what its Latin root had meant for Quintilian and Cicero: familiarity with books, including the polite learning and elite cultural status associated with literacy. In 1513 Henry Bradshaw wrote in verse of "the comyn people symple and neclygent, / Whiche without lytterature and good informacyon / Ben lyke to Brute beestes" (vol. 2, p. 4). Something of Bradshaw's "good informacyon" persists in one of the secondary modern meanings of the term literature, which allows the term to denote the totality of written material on a given subject, as when one speaks of the literature on a particular medical treatment, or the literature on child development. In the part of the sixteenth-century school curriculum called the trivium, designed to teach both spoken and written Latin, grammar was intimately related to rhetoric and logic: to have "literature" was to write both persuasively and rationally. This academic synthesis, based on the study of Latin and Greek, persisted into the nineteenth century and also governed the early study of vernacular languages. Theater, both in the Elizabethan London of Shakespeare and in the fashionable seventeenth-century Paris of Corneille and Racine, supplied early intimations of the idea of literature in its primary modern sense: imaginative writing pursued as a vocation and for profit. It is in this context that in 1635 Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie Français, an essentially literary academy, for which Charles Perrault proposed in 1666 a section devoted to "belles lettres," to include grammar, eloquence, and taste. By 1710 the phrase "belles lettres" is used by Jonathan Swift in an issue of the Tatler magazine to denote a profession on a par with history and politics. On the whole, literature bears its traditional, inclusive meaning through most of the eighteenth century, as exemplified by Voltaire's definition of littérature in his


The word for literature in Chinese (wenxue) is an ancient term revived for twentieth-and twenty-first-century needs. In a Chinese schoolroom or bookstore, wenxue designates a familiar activity: the reading of poetry, plays, and novels augmented by criticism and the study of some historical and philosophical works for pleasure and instruction. The properties of wenxue map precisely onto those of European literature. This is not a coincidence or an astonishing parallel between diverse cultures but rather a case of influence, the contagion of modernity: the categories of thought that have framed the institutions of literature in the West since about 1800 also contributed toward reforming and refounding modern East Asian cultures.

Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) described two of his students as wenxue. Wen means "writing," "documents," or "culture" in an extended sense, including customs and ritual; xue means "learning." Hence Confucius has always been understood as saying that the strong point of these two disciples was in documentary knowledge, as opposed to others who specialized in policy or argumentation. Wenxue has been used as a metonym for scholars or schoolmasters as well as for the activities they engage in, primarily the preservation, interpretation, and transmission of written records. The vast and meticulously administered empire of China had a constant need for such literate men. Periodic examinations held at local, provincial, and imperial levels qualified and requalified candidates for office. The subjects covered in these examinations varied from reign to reign, but policy essays and poetic composition were prominent during most of the fifteen hundred–year history of the examination system.

It was not until the seventeenth century that wenxue began to be used, but only rarely, as a catchall term for polite or imaginative letters, as opposed to other kinds of writing. It seems that the impetus for the specialization of the term was given by foreign missionaries who wrote, both in the reports they sent home and in their Chinese evangelical texts, that the Chinese Empire was unique in selecting its high officials on the basis of literary attainment. From an internal Chinese point of view, the world of letters was multifarious, including every kind of verbal artistry and application, but not divided into the subspecies of verbal art and instrumental communication. That distinction came to be canonical for external reasons.

In the late nineteenth century, as the Meiji Restoration set Japan on a course of determined centralization and westernization, new Japanese educational institutions redistributed the many fields of letters to include foreign languages but to exclude most practical or scientific subjects. The term adopted for the faculty of humanities was bungaku—the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for wenxue. Within the humanities, bungaku specifically referred to literary disciplines, as distinguished from philosophical or historical studies. On the Asian mainland, as the Qing dynasty gave way to the People's Republic of China in 1911 the original Chinese term made a triumphal return—probably on the lips of Chinese revolutionaries who had studied in Japan—as an object of knowledge, a species of publication, a career path, and a division of learning. The definition and reform of this emergent field was a particular concern of the intellectuals associated with the May Fourth (1919) Movement, whose vision of a "Chinese Renaissance" implied a democratic political order, a scientific epistemology, and a national literature written in the vernacular. The imperial order of letters, in which elegance of expression was—without explicit differentiation—a resource to be wielded in the exercise of power as well as a social mark of distinction and a private amusement, had vanished. As in Europe, the new divisions of learning heralded a new society populated by a new kind of person.

Haun Saussy


The semantic range of the Arabic word adab, which in modern usage designates literature in the specialized sense of artistic writing, has shifted considerably over time. As an intellectual standard of cultivation, the notion of adab came into being after the emergence of poetry, the cardinal genre of Arabic literature, called "the register of the Arabs" (Allen, p. 104). The Arabic ode in the pre-Islamic era, originating in oral forms and possibly in song, followed an aesthetic that appealed primarily to the listener and had tightly codified tropes. The figure of the poet was associated with "divine inspiration"; the poet was seen as the tribal spokesperson, one who praised the tribe's illustrious past and hurled invective at its enemies. The connection between poetry and patronage, which predates Islam, grew after the establishment of the new religion: the shift to urban life and the espousal of eulogistic poetry by rulers and the administrative aristocracy as an enhancement of their prestige and power modified without at first annulling the role of the tribal poet. This new poet was the client of a given court, and poetry began to address new themes. It is speculated that etymologically adab referred to standards of conduct, to customs, and to enrichment. But the word "came to mean 'high quality of soul, good up-bringing, urbanity, courtesy' … corresponding to the refining of bedouin ethics and customs as a result of Islam," as well as urbanization, the emergence of a city-bred elite and administrative class, and contact with other cultures (Gabrieli, p. 175). The term gradually acquired an additional "intellectual meaning" and "came to imply the sum of knowledge which makes a man courteous and 'urbane'" (Gabrieli, p. 175). Such "profane culture" was "at first strictly national" and later, through contact with other cultures, developed from "Arab humanitas, into humanitas without qualification" (Gabrieli, p. 175). Although its primary significance is now homologous with the modern idea of literature in English—that is, imaginative writing—adab can still also be used to denote "good manners" and "refinement."

Derived from early prose antecedents, such as the compilations of the Prophet Muhammad's biography and of traditions associated with the pre-modern corpus, adab (the tradition of belles lettres written in classical Arabic) includes poetics, biography, historical and geographical writings, travelogues, rhetoric, compilations of entertaining anecdotes, and monographs. Debate about the origin of the modern Arabic novel has hinged on whether it is an imported genre or one that draws on indigenous antecedents, especially elite ones, such as the maqamah ("assembly," a form of fictional narrative in rhyming prose; also poetry and quotations from poetry). Scholarly discussions have tended to overlook popular antecedents such as The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabian tales of unknown origin probably collected in Egypt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries with a Persian frame narrative that is first mentioned in the tenth century C.E. In his study of the origins of modern Arabic narrative discourse (a term he uses to cover the short story, novel, and drama), Sabry Hafez approaches the issue through "intertextuality" rather than "genealogy." Tracing the "cultural revival" in modern Egypt and the Levant back to the eighteenth century, before Napoléon's occupation of Egypt, Hafez demonstrates that these new genres emerged through a complex and dynamic process based in socioeconomic and cultural changes. These included increasing urbanization, improved means of transport, the printing press, and education as well as "the rise of national and political consciousness, journalism and the contact with European culture and thought," largely through translation (Hafez, p. 64). The result was a new reading public with a different worldview and a demand for narrative texts. Such conditions encouraged writing that drew on a wide range of codes and literatures, writing that would eventually lead to the emergence of modern narrative forms.

Hala Halim

Dictionnaire philosophique (1764–1772)—"a knowledge of the works of taste, a smattering of history, poetry, eloquence, and criticism"—though by this time one can sense the semantic gravitation of the word toward its emerging and narrower modern meaning (Wellek). Not until the late eighteenth century, however, was the word literature actually used more narrowly to designate imaginative writing per se, that is, the genres of poetry, fictional narrative, and drama.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterature - The Appearance Of Literacy, Literature In The Early West, By Way Of Comparison: Literature In Chinese