Philosophy in Fiction by Diana Janney

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Diana Janney

Diana Janney

Author Diana Janney on how and why she includes philosophy in her fiction . . .

When fiction encourages readers to reflect – for instance, on values, on religious issues, on aesthetics, on love, on questions about life and death – it is philosophical. There is philosophical comment and reflection in most of the classics: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and a multitude more. A novel does not have to refer to philosophers to be philosophical.

As I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in Philosophy at University College, London, I have a strong background in the subject. It continues to fascinate me. In all my novels to date, and in my next that I am just finishing, I weave philosophy into the plot. I believe in the importance of encouraging readers towards thought-provoking subjects. However, I do this in an accessible way, through strong, interesting characters, which is a reason why the combination of fiction and philosophy works so well. Even readers who have never studied philosophy, as well as those who have, are finding the ideas and themes fascinating when seen through the eyes of these characters.

What better way to attract people to philosophy, to explain the concepts, than through interesting characters and a compelling story? It is surely why parables were chosen as a way of encouraging religious discussion, and why Plato chose the form of dialogues to engage with his audience in philosophical thought.

Man of UnderstandingTo give an example, in my latest novel A Man of Understanding, the two main characters are a philosopher-poet, Horatio Hennessy, and his young grandson, Blue Ellerton. Blue’s parents have died in an accident before the story begins and Blue is sent to the mountains of Mallorca to live with Horatio, whom, mysteriously, he has never met. It is an unusual combination – the extrovert, enigmatic, talented, intelligent Horatio, who has lived alone for many years in Mallorca since the early death of his wife, and the introvert, sensitive, grieving, awestruck Blue, who has never met anyone quite like his grandfather before. Communication is difficult between them at first, but through Horatio’s huge love and knowledge of philosophy, soon the barriers of communication are broken down and Blue becomes as fascinated by philosophy as Horatio is.

Horatio selects Aristotle as a role model for Blue, knowing that Aristotle, like Blue, was orphaned at a young age, and then educated by a guardian uncle, who taught Aristotle about philosophy and poetry, the two subjects that now fascinate Blue, too.

At times of pain and suffering, we’re often drawn to big questions, abandoning the trivial. Through contemplating subjects together such as virtue and love through Aristotle’s eyes, Blue and Horatio learn much about themselves and each other. Philosophy helps them to grow, to develop the soul, to help one another, by the questions it asks and the answers it urges us to explore.

This is the beauty of philosophy. It may not always give us answers, but, importantly, it encourages us to keep asking. For example, Horatio teaches Blue about Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, or golden mean, namely the concept that virtue lies at the midway point between two extremes, or excess and defect as Aristotle describes them, so the virtue of courage is, according to Aristotle, the midway point between rashness (excess, too much) and cowardice (defect, too little). Blue considers this, then asks Horatio whether Aristotle would think it was a bad thing, an excess, to love someone too much. Horatio reflects at length before giving Blue an answer as to what Aristotle says about love and friendship, and how Horatio himself sees love. In so doing, Horatio shares with Blue his innermost thoughts, doubts and fears, whilst teaching Blue important lessons about human relationships.

Philosophy has caused them both to reflect in very different ways, each with their own challenges to overcome. It is a moving part of the story that demonstrates the rational and emotional force of philosophy. It is wonderful when the thoughts of great philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Descartes become alive in the imagination and encourage us to create our own philosophical thoughts, questions, answers.

To those unfamiliar with philosophy, textbooks and papers on the subject can sometimes seem dry, hard to understand, distant from everyday reality. A novel can make the subject exciting. It comes alive. It is accessible. A novel can place philosophy in our practical, everyday lives. A novel can show why the subject is important. A novel can demonstrate the relevance of philosophy when asking ourselves difficult questions. Philosophy should not be seen as an abstract subject, remote from reality. I encourage readers to consider, for instance, by adding context through a novel, what the golden mean is about, and how Aristotle describes love and friendship in his Ethics. I hope readers will learn from Horatio, as Blue does when he asks Horatio how we know if a work of art is a good one, what the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume means when he discusses Aesthetics in his paper Of The Standard of Taste.

I aim through my novels to persuade readers to learn more about philosophy. I seek to encourage debate. I like to hear readers’ views on the philosophical topics I raise. I want readers to feel, when they close my book, that they’re sorry to be leaving behind individuals with whom they could share their thoughts, their philosophical questions.

It was a huge honour when my novel A Man of Understanding was chosen by the people as the Runner-Up in the People’s Book Prize 2023 Fiction category, of which Frederick Forsyth is the Patron Emeritus. It speaks volumes about the people’s appreciation of philosophy in fiction.

If you would like to read more about my novels, my website is www.dianajanney.com. I have also recently opened an Instagram account on @dianajanneyauthor. Please feel free to say hello.

(c) Diana Janney

About A Man of Understanding by Diana Janney:

Man of UnderstandingIt takes a man of understanding to rebuild a shattered soul: a man with a deep and learned grasp of philosophy and poetry, a man who can nurture and inspire an enquiring mind, a man with the wit and humour to bring the world alive.

That enigmatic man is Horatio Hennessy. His grandson Blue is that shattered soul.

Following the death of twelve-year-old Blue’s parents, his new home is a Finca in the mountains of Mallorca, with the grandfather he has never met before. Bur is Horacio up to the challenge, or is he merely trying, through Blue, to make good his past?

Gradually a bond evolves between them through a shared love of poetry. But when secrets are uncovered, will understanding turn to misunderstanding? Will two souls be shattered this time?

Absorbing, moving, witty and profound, A Man of Understanding is a beautifully-told story of the search for a higher understanding of the self and others, interlaced with poetry, philosophy, and love.

A Man of Understanding by Diana Janney (published by COGITO Publishing) was Runner Up in the People’s Book Prize 2023.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Diana Janney is the author of the novels The Choice and The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose, which has been translated into four languages (Spanish, German, Dutch, Portuguese), produced as an audiobook by the BBC, and the film rights were sold to a British film company. Formerly she practised as a barrister in London, after having qualified as a solicitor at a leading City of London international law firm. She read Philosophy at University College, London, where she received a First for her Masters thesis on Kant and Hume, and three Scholarships. Diana has received international acclaim for her writing, which combines her philosophical knowledge with her wit, poetry and keen observation of human nature.

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