Monday, January 04, 2010

"Might And Ought To Be" Mystery Solved

Ayn Rand repeatedly, in The Romantic Manifesto, misquoted a phrase from Aristotle's Poetics. Chapter 5 opens:
The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because "history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be."
In fact, Aristotle's account left out the "and ought to be". I and others had wondered, for some time, how she had gotten that quotation wrong. Had she read something misleading, or had her memory played a trick on her? Some even suggested she was purposely misquoting.

Jennifer Burns, in her new book on Rand, tracked down the original source of the error:
It appears that Rand drew this concept not from Aristotle, but from Albert Jay Nock. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943), 191, Nock writes, ‘History, Aristotle says, represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.’ In her copy of the book, Rand marked this passage with six vertical lines.
Note that Rand's Aristotle "quotation" actually comes word-for-word from the description Nock gives of Aristotle's position. She merely drops the "only".

So Burns has solved the mystery
of Rand's misquotation
of Aristotle's explanation
of why fiction is deeper than history!

UPDATE: Stephen Boydstun, in the comments, writes: "Robert Mayhew spoke of the Nock source in connection with his paper at the 2005 meeting of the Ayn Rand Society." Which would pre-date Burns, I guess!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Robert Mayhew spoke of the Nock source in connection with his paper at the 2005 meeting of the Ayn Rand Society. In an exchange with the audience, it seemed that he and others had been tying the quote to Nock for some time before that paper.

The ARS session this year, on intellectual property rights, was more interesting than I had expected. But anyway, I had many other sessions from which I expected great things, and I was not disappointed. Bought some new books, of course. Walter is planning new book shelves.

David Potts roomed with me at this APA, and that was neat. We were at the Marriott on Broadway. This is the new way to do philosophy. You are absorbed in the deepest most intense philosophical presentation, and out the window there are the most amazing lights from a parallel universe.

Fortunately, the Amtrak comes through Lynchburg, and I was able to take the sleeper both ways. Very dependable with the weather, and nice for my back. Got some good philosophy reading done on train.

Hope you and family had good holidays.

--Stephen Boydstun

JohnJEnright said...

Stephen, thank you! And I'm glad to hear you saw David and had a good time at the ARS session.