In fact, literature is intimately connected with the exercise of power

In fact, literature is intimately connected with the exercise of power

Nor was the situation particularly different in the Islamic world or in the East

Throughout history, literature has generally been the province of people insecurely seated within the political elite. Literature, with a few famous exceptions (the work of ong a few others) is not written by actual rulers. Nor is it written by the landed elite. It’s usually written within societies that have grown large and complex enough that they need a body of learned administrators – people who depend for their livelihood on service to the state, in whatever form it might exist. And literature arises almost as an accidental byproduct of the creation of this class.

If there can be any defense made of literature, it’s that the ruling class usually doesn’t find it particularly useful, other than as an example of how to write good prose. Some of the literature we now read originally had some sacramental place in society: the plays of ancient Greece were performed in a yearly festival sponsored by a wealthy citizen. But more often, literature yearned for more importance than it had: Virgil tried to flatter Augustus with the Aeneid, but it had no effect on the governing of Rome (its effect was, if anything, more pronounced almost 1,300 years later, during the Renaissance, when it provided the seeds for an Italian national identity). Literature has an effect on future generations, if at all, when it is baked into a people’s conception of itself: as Petrarch, who died in exile, influenced the men who would someday exert so much influence in the republics of Italy.

Generally speaking, though, the most powerful people in history had little use for learning. The aristocracy throughout the Middle Ages was illiterate; with a few exceptions (Augustus, Claudius, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian), the Roman emperors were not patrons of the high arts; scholars have tried and failed to find any evidence in Alexander the Great’s life of the influence of his supposed tutor, Aristotle. The Roman elite during the Republican period was famously disdainful of civilization as a Greek import: the only arts they cared for were war and rhetoric.

Nevertheless, it’s true that writers have tended to come from the very highest rungs of society. It’s rare in the extreme, at least before the Italian Renaissance, to see a writer with a background in the trades or in the merchant class, although literacy must have been common among these classes at various points in antiquity.

This is one reason why I treasure this body of work: it’s the one time in antiquity when women seem to have been allowed to speak for themselves, and these writers have an unrivaled understanding of power and moral ambiguity, especially as it relates to relations between the sexes

Writers tended to proliferate around centers of government, and many writers held major roles in government. The philosopher Seneca ruled Rome for a time under Nero; Cicero played a key role in the late Republican period; Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli all held positions in government; so did Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, and a whole run of English poets, right up until the emergence of Elizabethan theater provided a popular outlet for literature. Churchmen were responsible for most medieval literary production, but even here, literature was not a common vocation amongst ecclesiastics, and literary (as opposed to religious) writers tended to be either papal legates or court chaplains – people connected to government. Averroes and Avicenna both served in royal courts. Confucius famously sought and Kolumbian tyttГ¶jen morsiamet failed to receive a governmental sinecure, and many famous Chinese poets held government posts.

Japan is a rare exception to these prevailing norms. For a time in Heian Japan, literature appears to have been dominated by courtly ladies: Sei Shonagon, Lady Murasaki, and other women composed famous novels and diaries that are still read today. But even these were women ensconced at court, serving as priestesses, wives, and ladies in waiting.

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