Literature And Philosophy: A Symphonic Fusion

Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’ That is the novel's eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers.
—Milan Kundera


1.0 Introduction:
An explicit debate have been in practice  on some specific issues about the relationship between literature and philosophy, with theorists tending to support one of the following positions: The deffering ideas dominant in this regard are: a) literature is essentially philosophy;  b) philosophy is literature; 3) philosophy and literature are distinct entities. The position that literature is philosophy could be supported by examining the works of specific  authors whose writings clearly explicate and  expound on philosophical ideas and whose intention  would clearly have been an examination of some specific philosophical issues.
The latter position is that which tends to be most vigorously supported, with views at different ends of the spectrum from the idea that philosophy should extensively utilise literary devices and literary works and vice versa to the view that philosophy should do as it does for other disciplines and only explore the formal issues of literature that is, that the main concern of philosophy with literature should be in the context of philosophyof literature. The second view point i. e philosophy as literature Derrida can be quoted who argued that philosophy is treated as being above literature because it is deemed to be pure and rational, not involved in the use of rhetoric and figures of speech, as literature is. However,he argued, philosophy is also ruled by rhetoric, and so in the sameway that a piece of literature can be used in philosophy, philosophy can be read as literature (Selden, 1993, p. 151). This is a position that has been also defended by Rorty. This defence is done on the basis of stretching the definition of literature to include “just about every sort of book which might conceivably have moral significance”, without any interest in the literary qualities ofthe work (Rorty in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, quoted in Lamarque and Olsen, 2002, p.194). By far the greatest level of support in the literature has been for the third  view that the two are distinct subject areas. One theorist has argued that this distinction was seen in some Greek philosophical writings and is exemplified in Plato’s writings, where he clearly argued that poems(literary works) are “representations at the third remove fromreality and easy to produce without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances and not realities” (Plato, 1987, p.365, Part 10, § 1, 598e – 599a).
Having done this review, it is quite clear that a part of the debate about the distinction between philosophy and literature is the attempt to define both what philosophy and literature are, and what each should do. The debate may last long if the intension of the author is not taken into consideration. Philosophers who choose the ‘less traveled path’ of thinking prove themselves different from average man.  From ages, they have been contributing to the development of every sphere of life.  But sadly enough, philosophers and philosophy have not always been of great demand in spite of the influence they have exerted on the development of society.  In fact, thinking, particularly, philosophical thinking is a task that demands extensive study and development of a critical attitude; therefore philosophers have extolled reflection ahead of doing and have promoted the wisdom over other kinds of development. Hermann Hesse, the laureate of the young generation, with his full–blooded intimacy with the universe, couldn’t keep himself away from expressing his views on human development and essential education of the self.   Presented here is the bifurgation of various philosophies augmented in his works.
2.0 Hermann Hesse: A literary Figure cum Existential Thinker

Hesse is very well – known in fashioning his own inner experiences into a personal myth or metaphor enacted in and through language.  His subjective fictions give account of life in its all colours with rich experiences of the world.  There is no single sphere of life which had not been talked about by Hesse.  His search for ‘self – knowledge’ may linger in readers’ mind and spirit life long.  His heroes, like an existential man, searching for meaning in the meaningless world, refuse to be average men who consolidate the existing form of a race, a species and a way of life but choose their own way.  Hesse is a lover, observer and participant of life who has enriched, varied and diversified fields of knowledge by exploring his first handed experiences with the depth of his scholarship.  The Saturday review of New York Times has observed, “No other German writer has spoken out about life as passionately as Hesse . . . An existential intensity and a depth of understanding that are rare in contemporary fiction”.  This makes him an existential thinker.  A short description of five of his noves will prove that in his novels his concern is certainly to highlight his philosophical ideas, but he has done this  in such a manner that the philosophical ideas become interweaved into the development of the plot, characters and other elements that are part of what defines a literary work. His Major works of art loaded with philosophical undercurrents are:
(1)        Siddhartha (1922) : Describes an inner journey of a traditional Brahmin boy from discontent in religious rituals to freedom from all the bondages.  He ultimately lives in harmony with the self and the given reality. (Total no. of pages : 152)
(2)        Demian (1919)  :  Describes the protagonist’s quest to find what his life is, and is going to be.  It depicts his endeavour in seeking mentorship.  Accompanied and prompted by his mysterious classmate Max Demian, he descends from and revolts against the superficial ideals of the world, and rests has awakening into a realization of self. (Total no. of pages : 158)
(3)        Steppenwolf (1924) :  Depicts the duality of human nature through the character of Harry Haller, who feels battle within him between his two selves : a man and a wolf.  Longing for a wolfless life, he learns to switch over to affective side from intellectuality and learns to reconcile the thousand selves of his personality. (Total no. of pages  : 253)
(4)        Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) : Is a story of a young man, Goldmund, who wanders around aimlessly throughout medieval Germany after leaving catholic monastery school in search of ‘the meaning of life.’  Goldmund is learning important things by plunging into experiences.  The ways of learning about life employed by an artist contrasts with that of a thinker, Narcissus (Total no. of pages : 312)            
(5)        Glass Bead Game (1943) : Describes a journey of a boy, who rises to the highest post ‘Magister Ludi’, in a pedagogic province called Castalia to the real world to serve the larger culture.  He understands the essence of history which helps him to be free from the bondages of that rule – driven system.  (Total no. of pages : 520).
3.0:      Hermann Hesse’s Philosophical Thinking
Historically, Hesse’s philosophical thinking ranges from 1898 to 1962.  Through this reflective and productive period, he underwent the influence of some schools of thought.  He established linkage with Jung’s psychology of self and some of the eastern philosophers.  During the early phase of his writing, readers evidently feel the presence of these influences.  But he grew as a mature writer as he tried to assimilate various thinking and added his own thinking into it.  His originality is felt in his writings.  Evaluation of Hesse’s philosophical thinking is presented here in two major sections.
This section of the report presents he categorization of his ideas within certain philosophical perspectives.  The evaluation shows that Hesse has evolved a fusion of ideas by selecting the best tenets from different schools of thought and translated them for charting his heroes’ quest for individuation.
Hesse and Existentialism
Hesse’s views about life and about how people understand life go parallel with that of existentialism.  His heroes transcend the existence given to them and create their essence in their journey to individuation.  Following this, Hesse projects his heroes deciding for themselves what is right and wrong and what is good and bad.  Hesse’s Steppenwolf is based on the existentialist idea taken from Kierkegard. (
The following tenets of existentialism can be traced in Hesse’s novels:

  • The self is in a state of making.  It is not definable or predictable.
  • The self in making tries to overcome the wasteful and endeavours to reshape itself.
  • Experiences trigger learning of an individual.
  • Rationality becomes a hurdle in remaining just ‘a being’.  Irrational self is more free and prone to development.
  • Spontaneous flowing with the situation leads to attain the status of ‘existential man.’
  • Risk involved in the action makes an individual attain maturity.
  • Ethical principles are derived by contemplating on one’s experience.
  • Situations are primary, not traditions, values or any a – priori principles.
  • The relation of I – Thou is established when the otherness is transcended.
  • Spontaneity and unplanned life are characteristic features of a person’s life in present.  It starts a journey from self deception to authentic life.
  • A journey to the self demands gradual switches over to emotions from reason.  A person intending to know his self gets indulged into irrational acts.
  • Existential ennui leads to a deep sense of homelessness.
  • Wandering, suffering and having glimpses of meaningful life is almost a prescribed itinerary of a self-searching person.

Hesse and Buddhism
From Hesse’s diaries, we get glimpses of India and Indian religions.  ‘It helped him shape his thoughts for Siddhartha’, Hesse confessed.
The basic teaching of Buddha is formulated in four noble truths and the eight fold path.  Following this, Siddhartha begins with a premise that suffering exists and a release from it must be found.  Suffering, awakening from sleep of ignorance, and self – reliance are the concepts / ideas of Buddhism which are found in Siddhartha too.
Here are some common points evident in Buddhism and Hesse’s thinking:

  • A person can awaken himself from the sleep of ignorance.  (Siddhartha discarding the worldly life)
  • Worldly life leads to unhappiness and suffering.  (In samsara, Siddhartha loosing his three capacities: to think, to wait, to fast)
  • The suffering is curable.  The cessation of desire is the end of suffering (Siddhartha listening to holy Om sound after letting his fatherly affection go).
  • Right speech and right actions lead one live an authentic life.  (Siddhartha talking to his father, Samanas, Gotama).
  • Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness develops Samadhi: mastery over one’s own mind.  (Siddhartha listening to the river)
  • Understanding reality as it is, not just as it appears to be (Siddhartha having reverence for a stone)

Hesse and Hinduism
There are obvious parallels between Hinduism and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.  Most critics even assert that Hinduism is more significant source for the book Siddhartha.
The central problem of Siddhartha and the Gita are similar: how can a man attain a state of total indifference (anaasakti) and serenity by means of a long and arduous path?  The character’s development can be divided into three stages: innocence followed by knowledge (sin), which jointly leads to a higher state of innocence accompanied by increased awareness and consciousness.  In the Gita, the path is similar, but not identical; it goes from action to knowledge to wisdom.
The following principles of Hinduism get reflected in Hesse’s works:

  • Action is the first stage in the one’s long road to perfection. (Siddhartha plunging into actions).
  • Knowledge of the world leads to knowledge of the self which together leads to knowledge of the absolute.  (Siddhartha attaining knowledge of the self by remaining in samsara)
  • The renouncing of all earthly attachments is a necessary stage.  [Siddhartha letting his son go].
  • An individual must find and follow his own path, for the ultimate goal cannot be attained by any form of imitation, however noble and admirable the model teacher may be.  (Siddhartha refuses to follow Gotama).
  • The final stage is characterized by reverence for all and wisdom (Siddhartha feeling one with all at the end).
  • Reverence for the basic five elements (earth, fire, water, air and space).  Feeling a divine presence in these elements. 
  • Meditation and contemplation are the ways to achieve moksha.

Hesse and Taoism
Taoism emphasizes various themes such a naturalness, emptiness, detachment, receptiveness and spontaneity which are found in Hesse’s novels too.  Taoist notion of inner conflict and of man struggling to come to terms with himself are evident in Siddhartha, Demian, Narcissus & Goldmund and Steppenwolf.  Finding unity beneath apparent dichotomy is presented by Hesse in projecting polarities in these novels.
The following tenets of Taoism are present in Hesse’s novels:

  • River represents logos of life. (Siddhartha listening to the river and experiencing unity of all)
  • Do not fill but drain out.  (Sinclair, Harry, Siddhartha, Goldmund and Knecht plunge in ‘effortless doing’ and try to debecome what they had become).
  • Masculinity and feminity is present within each of us.  (lives of all except of Knecht are shaped through interaction of Yin and Yang).
  • Intellectual approach to life creates dichotomy.  (Siddhartha, Goldmund, Sinclair, Harry experiencing dichotomy when living a rational life).
  • Spiritual fulfillment is achieved by using a state of ‘no–mind’ (Siddhartha achieving nirvana in the company of Vasudeva and the river).

Hesse’s Original Thinking (Hesseism)       
Apart from his adherence to some philosophies, Hesse shines out as an original thinker while depicting his characters attain individuation.  Presented here are the ideas given by Hesse which are unique in nature.  Through these ideas, Hesse poses himself as a thinker who has enriched varied and diversified fields of human life with his philosophical undertones.
Following are his exclusive ideas commenting on human life in general:

  • Life means ‘project individuation.’
  • Life is spiral.
  • ‘Life –here and now’ makes one free from past worries and future expectations.
  • Being is volatile, it seeks a composer. 
  • Metaneeds transcend basic needs, leading a person from outer circle of self to the inner circle of self.
  • Three qualities – to think, to wait and to fast are valuable qualities which withstands the effect of the outer force of man.
  • Man, if discards his pragmatic motives, accepts everything as it is and give assent to everything, he experiences cosmic harmony.
  • Affective thirst calls for an inquiry.  Knowledge is not purely a cognitive phenomenon.
  • Man of learning creates a fluid like, changeable knowledge which becomes the part of the learner.
  • A person’s intelligence neglecting the cosmic wisdom becomes an evil.
  • Self corrective wisdom is more important than the creation of knowledge.
  • Static mind obstructs learning.
  • Desire is not tantamount to love.

 4.0 : Conclusion:
Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn’t unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular—where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.

References :

  • Kenosians. (1995). Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature.  New York.  Peterland Publishing Inc.
  • Malthanner, Johannes. (1952). Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha. The German Quarterly. Vol. 25. No.2: Published by American Association of Teachers of German.
  • Manheim, Ralph. (1979).  Hermann Hesse: Reflection Great Britain.  Triad Panther Publications.
  • Michels, Volker. (1977). Hermann Hesse: The Writer’s Renaissance and Its Causes.  Bonn–Bad Godesberg.  Inter Nations Publication. Demian. (1999).Tr. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck. Perennial Library Edition. New York.
  • Narcissus and Goldmund. (1971). Tr. Ursule Molinaro. Bantam Books. New York.
  • Reflections. (1974).Tr. Ralph Manheim. New York. Farrar. Straus and Giroux.  
  • Siddhartha. (1971). Tr. Hilda Rosner. Bantam Book. New York.
  • Steppenwolf. (1963). Tr. Basil Creighton. Penguine Books. London.
  • The Glass Bead Game. Tr. Richard and Clara Winston. Bantam Books. National General Company. New York. 1969.


Sanjay Chotaliya,
Assistant Professor,
Government Arts College,
Vallbhipur, Gujarat