The quarrel between philosophy and literature has been around so long that even Plato referred to it in “The Republic” as “ancient.” The rivalry not only has a history as old as Western civilization itself. It also circles around one of the deepest questions of all: which gives the truest perspective on human life? Is philosophy’s sublimely abstract distance — the view, as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis (under the guise or form of eternity) — the optimal place from which to glean essential truths? Or can they be yielded up only within the vivid intimacy of experience — if not the immediate experiences of our own lives, then the mediated experiences that narrative art affords? Does the view sub specie aeternitatis, in leaving out all the good stories, miss those large truths that are wrested out of the unexpected twists and turns that make us susceptible to love’s abandonment and grief’s annihilation? It is a good question, and Plato’s highhanded way of trying to resolve it in favor of philosophy — going so far as to recommend banishing poets from utopia — has fortunately not laid it to rest. Robert Hellenga’s sweet and lovely new novel, “Philosophy Made Simple,” may appear far removed from the quarrelsome old rivalry. But as Plato warned, appearances can be deceptive.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.