On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
By Mark Twain
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
In Chapter Four of On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer who in his book Ethics wrote “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it. . . . Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” It is a matter of obtaining clarity in understanding and then acting accordingly.
As Karen wrote
In our highly individualistic age, we think of things like conscience and courage in mainly individual terms. In its individualism and its experientialism, Huck’s brand of courage is that particularly modern kind described by Charles Taylor as the “quest for authenticity.” Huck’s courage is in overcoming a malformed conscience in order to do what reason and nature confirm is transcendentally and eternally good and right.
But the cultivation and expression of virtue (and vice) and the formation of conscience is not merely an individual act but also a communal one. In addition to shaping individual experience and character, great literature has a role in forming the communal conscience and public virtue. We can understand a great deal about a culture—its strengths, its weaknesses, its blind spots, and its struggles—when we examine the literature that it not only produces but reveres.
How has your quest for authenticity required courage? Has literature informed or shaped your decisions?