Review, A New Philosophy of Literature, Geoff Ward, 7.3.2012

Book Review: A New Philosophy of Literature: The Fundamental Theme and Unity of World Literature

7 March 2012

A New Philosophy of LiteratureO Books

Poet, philosopher and cultural historian Nicholas Hagger on the universalist literary tradition, from ancients to moderns, and its vision of the infinite.

Western literary culture today certainly leaves much to be desired, skewed as it is mainly to the secular and materialistic, and away from the metaphysical. Here is a book of immense importance for literary studies, bringing to our attention that there is an alternative paradigm available for literature in the third millennium, if writers have the courage and the imagination to take it up.

Nicholas Hagger, in a companion book, The New Philosophy of Universalism: The Infinite and the Law of Order (2009), outlined a new philosophy restating the order of the universe, the oneness of humanity and an infinite reality perceived as light. He called for a new discipline to focus on the universe, nature, science, evolution and the rise of intellectual consciousness, and to seek evidence of a universal order as opposed to randomness.

Now in his monumental A New Philosophy of Literature, he states the fundamental theme of world literature, the main thrust of which is the revelation that the universe is ordered and permeated by an infinite reality which humans can know, and makes the case for a return to literary universalism.

Quest for an Ordering Reality Behind and Within Everyday Life

Hagger shows that this traditional material has been restated in the literature of every culture and age, and that the quest for an ordering reality behind and within everyday life was stronger originally than secular writing which, of course, holds sway today with this level of reality is missing. The new philosophy of literature would synthesise Classicism, Neo-Classicism and Romanticism within universalism and restore the metaphysical.

On his first page, Hagger comes straight to the point that at present we have a materialist literature with merely a personal and social reality, ‘presenting life in an accidental universe of purely physical processes that are devoid of purpose or meaning’.

He admits that his call for a revolution in Western literature is in fact a call back to tradition, and his springboard is the thinking in T S Eliot’s essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), in which poets are urged to cultivate a historical sense and a feeling for ‘the whole of literature of Europe from Homer’, and to be aware that no poet ‘has his complete meaning alone’.

Fundamental Theme Reflected in the Traditional Western Canon

How deeply the fundamental theme of world literature is reflected in the traditional Western canon is immediately apparent, offering a powerful justification for the retention of it – if such justification was ever actually necessary – in the face of what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘School of Resentment’.

One finds it particularly rewarding to read Hagger alongside Professor Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), Mark Roche’s Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004), Margaret Anne Doody’s The True Story of the Novel (1996), Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and Michael Schmidt’s magisterial works on the history of poetry. One finds much that is complementary and mutually sustaining.

Roche, for example, is concerned with literature as a teacher of virtue, and that there should be a return to it as a repository of human values. In a technological, secular age such as ours, he proposes, literature gains in importance precisely to the extent that our sense of intrinsic value is lost.

Literature Alternates Between Secular and Metaphysical Aspects

Hagger argues that, through time, literature has alternated between secular and metaphysical aspects, a quest for reality and immortality, and condemnation of social vices in relation to an implied virtue. Since classical times, the two antithetical threads have occasionally been synthesised by the many universalist writers he examines, from the Graeco-Roman world to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the Baroque, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian and Modernist periods.

Lessons of the past need to be relearned in terms of traditional taste. The greatest poetry, from Chaucer to Eliot, has pointed the way to transcendence which is the goal of the quest for reality under the metaphysical aspect of the fundamental theme of world literature. Poetry is most needed in a time of information overload but, as Hagger regrets, English poetry appears to be in terminal decline.


Geoff Ward British journalist, media consultant, author and lecturer/tutor in literature and creative writing

Nicholas Hagger