Give Sight

In his essay titled Why I Write, George Orwell postulates four motives for writing, aside from the desire to be paid: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. The first is that selfish desire for fame and power, to be talked about, to be known, to influence the affairs of man. The second is the love of the art, for the clever arrangement of words and the typography of the page. The third is the desire to record facts as they are, to make the truth known for posterity.

The last, and this is what Orwell identified with most strongly, is the desire to influence the political landscape, to make known the injustices of the world so that things could be set right, to push the world in the right direction, or at least the direction the writer believes is right. Indeed, Orwell goes to say that “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

Orwell uses the word “political” in the widest possible sense, that is, how society should be governed, and, if I understand correctly, also in the philosophical sense of how man should live. It’s difficult to find any long lasting written works that do not have a political foundation, whether it is Dante illustrating the sins of man through a journey from the depths of Hell to the spheres of Heaven, or Shakespeare voicing his philosophy through the mouths of the characters in his plays, or Hugo shining rays of light on the lower strata of 19th century society – all great work, irrespective of whether or not it is a work of fiction, has a political core.

Meaningful writing has a purpose beyond that of simple entertainment or of generating conversation. Its purpose is to improve society, to improve our life, by teaching us certain truths that the author has learned. John Ruskin puts it well in his essay on books, Of Kings’ Treasuries, by saying that good books give us sight. By teaching us what to look for, and the value of those things, we learn to tell apart the good from the bad, to pass better judgements using our sharpened vision. We grow and become wiser. And that is the only sort of writing that ever improves us as people because all the rest, information and entertainment, it just passes by and leaves us in the same state that we are when we first come into contact with it.

Plato wrote about this in his famous Allegory of the Cave, where a philosopher, who has lived all his life imprisoned with other slaves in a dark cave, is able to stumble outside to see the world of light. The slaves back in the cave are all tied up so they can only see the world of shadows in front of them, not being able to look directly at themselves. They see a flat, distorted picture of how things really are. It is the philosopher’s task to tell them the truth, to explain to them that what they see are merely shadows, projections of what’s real. He must give them sight.

It’s a big ask, but the sort of writing that helps people see the world in a new light, and in turn, make better judgements based on this new knowledge and perspective, is the only type of writing that has real meaning, the only type of writing that will ever last. The rest? Information, conversation, rumors, entertainment, speculation… it’s all transient, it will all be forgotten by the morrow. I don’t know whether or not I will ever succeed, but I know what it is that’s worth writing, what’s worth striving for, and I will try my best to do it. You should, too.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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