Chapter One from Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society by Metta Spencer (Paradigm Publishers 2006) -- return to


Suppose you seek professional advice about a problem and this is what you’re told:

By your family physician: “Say ‘Ah.’ ... Well, it’s just a nasty cold -- which isn’t surprising. Your Immunoglobulin A count is far too low. Take these two aspirins. And we need to boost your immune system. I want you to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Annie Hall tonight. And after your cold’s gone, consider making more time for lovemaking. A little romance every day or two will improve your health. If your wife isn’t in the mood often enough, try writing poetry for her. If that fails, just improvise on your own.”

By your career counselor: “I don’t think you should quit nursing school just yet. Yes, the training is stressful but nursing fits your personality. Besides, your school has a program in recreational music. You play keyboards, so join the group. Making music is one of the best cures for stress. But don’t watch E.R. or any crime or suspense shows for a while. Seinfeld would be okay, or -- even better -- inspiring films such as It’s a Wonderful Life.

By your marriage counselor: “Clearly, you two still love each other and you don’t fight. Your problem is existential. You’re bored. Your life together lacks meaning. Both of you are thrill-seeking idealists, but you’re stuck in hum-drum jobs that you don’t dare quit. You need a joint project bigger than yourselves. I recommend two new TV shows: Civilian Peacekeepers and A Green Cross Team. They’re funny and adventurous, but not violent. The characters are preventing a war and saving the environment. Then check out their web sites for groups you can join and work together on such issues. Joseph Campbell advised, ‘Follow your bliss.’ Your bliss will come from doing something valuable for the world.”

If these proposals seem wacky, just stay with me. By the end of the book, you’ll consider them quite reasonable. We’re going to explore the potential of entertainment to enhance the quality of your life -- your emotions; your physical health; your moral and spiritual worldview; and the significance of your contributions to society. And among all the forms of entertainment, we’ll find that television drama offers the greatest potential value.

But perhaps you think that entertainment doesn’t have any value -- that it’s just a leisurely waste of time? That it doesn’t do anything?

Ah, but it does! And you can use it far more effectively.

Entertainment has several obvious uses. First, it seizes and holds our attention. It presents us with a situation that takes our mind off our own concerns. We enjoy a diversion that psychologically requires some resolution. (What kind of pitch is he going to throw now? Is Rhett Butler actually going to walk out on Scarlett? Does this hockey strike mean the season will be cancelled? Who altered the murdered billionaire’s will?)

People differ in their liking for surprise and physiological arousal. Today, the key attraction of movies and TV may simply be engagement with swiftly moving, eye-catching events. You have to pay close attention just to figure out what’s going on. Indeed, this intense engagement with complex entertainment probably stimulates your brain and makes you smarter.

Second, entertainment helps us manage our moods. Even if your life is satisfying, you may run short of certain passions and begin to feel “beige-colored” if you go without entertainment for a while. We all have emotional holes that we fill up with rodeos, casinos, ferris wheels, sidewalk art shows, and other forms of entertainment. (I’ll call art a kind of entertainment instead of something different from, and necessarily better than, entertainment.)

Think of the shivers of fear you get from Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. Or the exaltation of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Or the triumphant joy of winning a Scrabble tournament. Or the serene, loving sorrow of Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture. Or your laughter at Don Juan De Marco or Harold and Maude. Those moments of intense emotion may have been stronger than anything you had felt within a month of everyday living. Most lives are not very emotional. For example, if you are an average adult you laugh about 15 times per day -- a sharp decrease from hundreds of times a day in your childhood.

But you need laughter. It’s protects your health and replenishes your zest. If you laugh when nothing is funny, you will appear goofy and people may not entrust you with serious responsibilities, but if you rent a comedy, you can laugh 20 times an hour and still be considered normal. Imaginative fiction, whatever the genre may be, stimulates vicarious feelings that you can re-play mentally later as you take a shower or drive around town.

When you are stressed, you will probably choose a comedy instead of a heavy drama, but there are other times when you may want a tragedy or an intergalactic laser war. You have different emotional needs to fill at different times. One objective of this book is to suggest how to elevate your overall emotional well-being and even your health by selectively using resources from your cultural environment.

A third use of entertainment is to hone our ethical sensibilities. Stories and dramas, in particular, can function as a kind of therapy or “soul work,” much as the ancient Greeks used the theater and moral philosophy to explore one crucial question: How should human beings live? Greek entertainment was not meant to cure neurotic individuals, but rather to show normal people how to live better. This is one aspect of entertainment that I’ll particularly address in this book -- the potentially therapeutic effects of stories. For example, as Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty notes, “the novels of Proust and James help us achieve spiritual growth, and thereby help many of us do what devotional reading helped our ancestors to do.”1

Emotions and ethics are interdependent. If evil triumphs in the plot, you feel bad. Emotions are quivering internal sense organs for perceiving human virtues, desires, and relationships. If yours don’t quiver anymore, maybe you’ve been de-sensitized by over-exposure to pain. But sometimes, even if you are still sensitive to human misery, you may choose a story about wrongdoing anyway, knowing that it will make you feel worse. We‘ll consider why.

A fourth use of entertainment is to illustrate and critique social theories and practices. A novelist may draw our attention to a social problem, for example, and spur us to invent ways of overcoming it. As Rorty suggests, fiction makes us rethink our judgments and break with our own pasts. “The resulting liberation may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions.”2

Some entertainers actually avoid this aspect of showbiz. For example, the movie magnate Samuel Goldwyn told his writers: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union!” But in fact, writers can’t help sending a worldview, even if they try. The message of Goldwyn’s cotton-candy song-and-dance films was exactly his own philosophy: Avoid thinking about the implications of what you’re doing. (Yes, there‘s room in the world for cotton-candy too, but not every day.)

The Harms and Benefits 0f Entertainmmnt

Sometimes entertainment does more harm than good -- or it can just be a waste of time. Indeed, people often assume that it is almost invariably useless. For example, a few years ago I found myself reproaching my son by saying, “You don’t seem to think television is important.”

"Exactly. In fact, I think TV is bad,” he replied. “It rots the brain. We got rid of our cable recently and suddenly I started doing all kinds of useful things, such as working in the garden.”

Most television programs are bad, of course, and none of them pull your weeds, but my son meant more than that. He was saying that watching TV is inherently harmful. I don’t agree, but I wasn’t surprised by his remark. Since Plato’s day, people have criticized all kinds of entertainment. For example, more than once the Christian church banned theatrical performances, and for hundreds of years, no plays were performed before audiences in Europe.3

Nor are other fictional products always more acceptable. Flaubert was prosecuted for publishing his novel, Madame Bovary, though it too implied a criticism of fiction by depicting a silly woman whose judgment had been ruined by romantic novels.

But in contrast to such censoriousness, some societies have encouraged forms of entertainment marked by actual (not just play-acted) violence and excess. For example, the Greeks allowed for a period of sexual revelry every year when devotees of the wine god Dionysus went on an alcoholic binge. The Romans adopted the idea, calling their holiday a bacchanalia. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the custom evolved into Carnival, just before Lent, when wild sexuality and other kinds of indulgence were accepted that were prohibited at other times.

And for a truly ghastly form of entertainment, consider the ancient circuses. The Romans enjoyed displays of mortal combat for the last two centuries before Christ and the first three centuries thereafter. Slaves and convicts were thrown to lions and killed before cheering crowds. Hosts would even invite people in to dine and provide two or three gladiatorial fights to the death for their guests to watch while reclining after their meal. Everyone applauded with delight when each of the contestants was killed.4

You and I consider this a horrible cultural tradition. But what about other degrees of abuse? Where do we draw the line between acceptable and deplorable? How about dueling? Prize fights? Cockfights to the death? Play-acted fights in which no one is really injured? Video games with spaceship battles? Batman comic books? (Say when.) If we search for moral standards by which to appraise leisure time amusements, we can find no consensus whatsoever. We must think the issue through for ourselves, as we’ll do as we go along. But we won’t reach any agreement. Individuals differ markedly -- and always will. Reading this book won’t change that.

The effects of entertainment can be good, bad, and mixed. If Greek dramas, gladiatorial fights, television shows, novels, orgies in celebration of Dionysus, auto-theft video games, or soap operas are harmful, that poses a problem. And if a type of entertainment event enlightens, delights, and inspires, as some of them do, that poses an opportunity. Indeed, of all conceivable ways of fostering a global florescence of civilization, I think the most promising approach is to improve entertainment.

Of the many consequences of entertainment, I will discuss mainly its effects on emotional well-being, health, and moral/spiritual sensibilities. We will find complex causal interactions among these three factors. Vicarious wrongdoing can make you miserable, and misery can make you sick. I’ll ask what makes a form of entertainment exciting and interesting, which nowadays matters greatly to many people. Fast-paced action, ambiguous plots, and puzzling mysteries are more popular today than stories exploring the characters’ inner struggles, beliefs, and relationships -- which I personally care about more.

Some literary critics deny that their own emotional responses and ethical judgments are fair grounds for judging a work. I believe, on the contrary, that you should always notice both your emotional response to a story and its deeper messages. Throughout Part I of this book, I’ll discuss the psychological factors that link culture, emotions, and physical health. In Part II, I’ll demonstrate an ethical/emotional approach to cultural criticism. That method requires critics to express their feelings about the works they review. Hence in the chapters discussing the two television series, Northern Exposure and Street Time, my comments will become more subjective.

Enhancing Global Culture

We need to enhance the excellence of culture on a global scale. Such a goal has been proposed by the Dalai Lama and the United Nations, who respectively are promoting cultures of “compassion” and of “peace.” Indeed, their concern about culture prompted me to write this book.

In a meeting with Western scholars in 1991, the Dalai Lama was discussing how to teach compassion by non-religious approaches. He said,

"I think it’s very important to try to present moral principles without any religious involvement. It is a reality now that out of five people, only one or two are religious believers. So, we must be seriously concerned with the remaining majority.... [As for those non-believers who] are quite neutral about compassion, you must still find some way to reach those people.”

The American psychologist Daniel Goleman replied:

"Your Holiness, you raised the point that three to four billion people on the planet have no religious belief. The question is, what kind of ethics can appeal to those four billion? I’m going to present experimental scientific evidence suggesting a completely new path for approaching that question: that the body’s own mind, the immune system, provides a basis for a de facto ethical system in the difference between emotional states that help one stay healthy and live longer, and those that promote disease.... [These scientific findings will suggest how to] convince people to live ethically who have no religious belief but only the individualistic ethic, ‘Whatever I want is what I should get.’ Perhaps you can say it is in their self-interest to be loving, not to be angry.”5

The Dalai Lama jovially thanked Goleman for reporting on this biological research, which provided the secular rationale for which he had been searching. He adopted Goleman’s suggestions. For example, when he received an honorary degree at my university in April 2004, he spoke about this research linking health to emotions and ethics, and urged academics to foster a culture of compassion.

It may sound contradictory to practice altruism for such a self-centered reason as concern for one’s own health and happiness. If one gains from experiencing loving-kindness, perhaps the health benefits should be only a nice side effect, not one’s primary motivation. Still, I tend to take Goleman’s and the Dalai Lama’s side on this. If scientific research can influence people to cultivate loving-kindness, let’s use it.

But if four billion human beings are non-religious these days, what are they doing instead of worshipping? How do they spend their time? When do they reflect on their deeper values or examine their own souls? Where can we find them and communicate with them?

When it comes to moral reflection, the secular substitutes for religion are psychotherapy and personal growth programs. I’ll devote little attention to such approaches, but a lot of attention to entertainment -- especially fiction and drama, which may affect our hearts and minds just as deeply.

Before the Altar or the Screen?

The four billion people who are absent from worship services are spending their time at movie theatres, soccer stadiums, magazine shops, iPods, cell-phone games, and DVD-playing laptops. The entertainment industry is booming. During a 17-year period in the 1980s and ’90s when household spending increased four percent in Canada, recreational spending increased 40 percent. Such expenses as athletic fees hardly changed, but home recreational equipment -- especially cable -- increased by 253 percent. In the United States and Canada, spending for entertainment is higher than for health care and clothing.6Many of these cultural activities are shallow or harmful, but fiction has the potential to inspire and enhance the quality of whole cultures.

Novels and dramas arouse emotions -- such as religious awe, laughter, love, fear, anger, disgust, and grief -- which may influence our hearts and minds in a lasting way. Passions make us recall events more clearly than usual. An example is the so-called “flashbulb effect,” which sears a powerful emotional experience into your memory. You probably recall exactly where you were on September 11, 2001, but not at the same time on September 10. You also remember best the messages of highly emotional discussions or dramas. Stories on the screen shape global culture, teaching terrible or wonderful lessons.

The United Nations has dedicated the first decade of this millennium to developing a culture of peace. They call on us to contribute to the creation of such a culture. I had been a peace studies professor and peace journalist for two decades before this proclamation demanded a response from me. Peace workers generally address structural problems, not cultural ones. For example, we seek to eliminate nuclear weapons and land mines. We seek to end the use of children as soldiers. We call for spending on democratic institutions and economic development instead of weapons. We promote an International Criminal Court with jurisdiction over rulers who perpetrate crimes against humanity. And so on. Such reforms are structural changes.

Culture, on the other hand, is the symbolic currency of hearts and minds. The Preamble to UNESCO’s mandate states: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Nevertheless, few peace researchers believe that war will be ended by changes in the minds of men and women. Instead, they expect that structural reforms of our political, economic, and legal systems will gradually enable us to manage discord without bloodshed.

To re-shape a culture sounds harder but it is just as necessary as institutional change. Structural innovation can’t outrun cultural innovation, just as a dog’s front legs can’t outrun its back legs. Fortunately, large-scale cultural changes are increasingly feasible -- and not by heavy-handed methods such as censorship, preaching, brainwashing, or didactic teaching. Instead, a culture of peace can be stimulated by depicting warm, likable characters in TV dramas handling wisely the same difficult conflicts that trouble us all. Audiences around the world will choose such dramas if they are entertaining and challenging instead of bland. This is the answer to the challenge issued by the United Nations. Entertainment already holds the attention of five billion people. In the hands of brilliant storytellers, it can teach them compassion and loving-kindness; heroism; the thrill of discovery; and ethical courage in the face of adversity. Alas, few of us imagine such plots by ourselves; we have to be given stories to experience vicariously. That is the task of entertainers. Fortunately, we have technological ways now of recording, preserving, and disseminating superb ones widely in durable, portable form.

Culture kits

Culture originates in the imagination, but it must also become objectively physical, so as to move from one mind to another. A writer puts words onto a page; years later, a reader harvests them. A television crew puts a tender relationship onto tape; years later, a viewer’s tears and hormones flow while watching and re-creating it vicariously.

Sometimes culture kits contain ideas which, though no longer alive in any mind, remain physically present, ready to be absorbed as second-hand notions by another mind. Take the Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example. As part of Egypt’s culture, their meaning was forgotten until the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. On it was a text engraved in three languages: hieroglyphic, Greek, and Demotic. Since Greek and the Demotic were still understood, the Frenchman Champollion compared the texts and worked out which words were represented by which hieroglyphs. Since then, much of ancient Egyptian culture has become accessible again and the ideas can once more be discussed. But for many centuries, the ideas encoded in hieroglyphs existed objectively, but not subjectively, since no one could read them.7

An immense accumulation of culture exists as objectively concretized records -- in pharoahs’ tombs, encyclopedias, databases, DVD shops, and cookbooks. This is humanity’s cultural storehouse, and while it is vastly important to you, it is a mistake to suppose that your own mind is simply a passive recipient of it, or that culture forces us to act as we do. It is a resource that we may draw upon or forget about. To enhance culture globally will involve both creating excellence and reorganizing the display of the world’s cultural resources so as to make superb works conspicuously available for everyone who wants to experience them.

But what is most worth preserving and sharing? In reflecting on that question, we become cultural critics. The objective of the second part of this book is to teach such criticism by example.

This book is a meditation on the optimum use of entertainment. It’s my answer to the Dalai Lama’s and the UN General Assembly’s call to support a culture of peace and compassion. What changes in actual entertainment would make such refreshing results possible? I’ll promote two changes in literary and dramatic practice.

First, I’ll encourage the adoption of ethical/emotional criteria in evaluating entertainment. Such standards don’t apply to all types of entertainment (garage sale hunting, jazz bands and quiz shows come to mind as exceptions) but many works of fiction and drama suggest answers to this question: How should human beings live? That’s the core question in ethical criticism. Audiences look for answers from cultural producers. Instead of going to temples and chapels to reflect on the quality and emotional wholeness of their lives, people nowadays buy DVDs. The “industry,” as showbiz calls itself, already informs audiences on spiritual and social issues, but they could do far better in supporting human flourishing if they recognized their own impact. Ethical/emotional criticism puts those concerns foremost.

Second, I’ll suggest the amplification of one factor in scripts and novels: reflective thought. Entertainment has gradually become more complex and less understandable. This maxim prevails among writers: “Show, don’t tell!” Fictional characters today don’t talk much about the meaning of their situations or the lessons they learn from their experiences. We are supposed to infer their subjective experiences only from their actions, if at all. Writers may hope that audiences mull over the plots afterward and find the implicit messages, but I doubt that this happens very often. Often the action is too quick to comprehend, so we just move on to the next story unless the author makes us stop and think.

Do TV and Video Games Make Us Smarter?

However, some people do try to figure out such stories, and for them, grappling with the increasingly complex plots may be intellectually beneficial. Just when this manuscript was ready to go into production, an important book was published: Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.8 In it he argues that videogames and television dramas confer valuable cognitive skills on the players and viewers. Instead of expressing the usual opinion that popular culture dumbs us down, Johnson shows that it is becoming increasingly sophisticated and intellectually challenging. For example, instead of having a single plot, today’s best TV shows require us follow as many as a dozen distinct plot threads in a single episode, some of them continuing from previous or into subsequent episodes. Each script contains numerous allusions that the audience is not expected to understand, plus a few that are subtly explained to us. There are “in-jokes” and references to events that happened several seasons earlier -- or even to unrelated novels, stories, and songs with which only a few viewers will be familiar. Close attention is necessary just to figure out what is going on, moment by moment, and this effort makes us smarter, says Johnson.

He has evidence, too. IQ tests are designed so that the average is set at 100. However, for many years, people have been doing better year by year when taking the tests -- though this is not usually recognized because the designers simply keep setting the bar higher, to keep the average IQ at 100.9 Entertainment deserves some of the credit for the advances.

Television syndication now earns more money than the original runs of TV shows. An episode today is usually written for multiple viewings. Fans will watch it eight or ten times and expect to discover something new each time -- so the writers have to produce increasingly clever scripts. People don’t use television to improve their IQ, but that is an important side effect, of which researchers had previously been unaware.

Johnson has definitely discovered something important. (In Chapter One, I too suggest that TV makes us smarter, though I don’t try to prove it, as he did.) However, his main argument needs to be qualified -- and to some extent he qualifies it himself. Though it is true that IQ levels have been increasing steadily for many years, those increases have been limited to certain types or aspects of intelligence -- especially the capacity to visualize and recall spatial relationships and to strategize in pursuing a given goal. (Video games are especially good at training for strategizing.)

For the most part, Johnson treats intelligence as a single entity, but actually it is a combination of different capacities. For example, Oxford psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen distinguishes between “systemizing” ability (at which males usually excel) and “empathizing” ability (at which females tend to be superior). He says there are corresponding structural differences between typical female and male brains -- though many perfectly normal persons have brains like those of the opposite sex. The typical male brain, he says, “systemizes” -- it’s hard-wired to focus predominantly on how things work rather than what other people are experiencing subjectively. Typical male thinking, according to Baron-Cohen, involves fascination with systems, such as science, baseball statistics, mathematics, train schedules, maps, and machinery.10

The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardnes has identified, not one or even two, but about nine distinct intelligences: (1) linguistic, (2) logical-mathematical, (3) musical, (4) spatial, (5) bodily-kinesthetic, (6) naturalist, (7) interpersonal, (8) intrapersonal, and (9) existential. (He is uncertain that the “existential” aptitude is a full-fledged intelligence, since its connection to a particular area of the brain has not been established. It is an attunement to spiritual/religious/philosophical questions, such as “Why are we here? What’s it all about, in the end?")11 Gardner’s inter- and intrapersonal intelligences evidently correspond to Baron-Cohen’s “empthizing” skill.

If, say, you’re low in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, you shouldn’t become a surgeon. But fortunately, if you score high in only a few types of intelligence, you can often rely on those enough to get by and avoid the rest. For example, I have good linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential capacities, but am seriously subnormal on mathematical, musical, and spatial skills, which I dislike having to use. In fact, I avoid precisely the kinds of TV shows and video games that supposedly would make me smarter.

As Johnson has shown, by exercising a particular mental capacity, you can strengthen it and even alter the corresponding part of your brain. He argues that today’s complex television and video games make us smarter -- but doesn’t say which of these nine types of intelligence they boost. I think they are tailor-made for systemizers with high spatial and logical-mathematical intelligence. People who are already good at those skills are probably attracted to them, which strengthens those aptitudes even more. However, those of us who excel more at empathy will not even try to figure out the kind of puzzles that Johnson enjoys and cannot, therefore, benefit from them.

Johnson’s notions and mine are different but complementary. The difference is that he explicitly does not consider the impact of television’s content at all. He views the message of a show as irrelevant; what counts instead are the mental calisthenics it gives the audience and the way it alters their brain structure.

I think the content of entertainment is exactly what matters most. That’s what I’ll focus on -- the meaning of stories and the empathy involved in following characters as they handle their dilemmas. It’s not only intelligence -- and definitely not only visual spatial memory or strategic rationality -- that we should gain from stories, but wisdom, emotional insight, and a capacity for addressing societal problems.

The improvements Johnson sees in television (the new complexities and ambiguities that make us “smarter") may actually coincide with a decline in the aspects of stories that make us “wiser.” For example, in modern novels there has been a steady decline in the exploration of character.12 Readers in earlier periods encountered unique fictional personalities such as Leopold Bloom, Gatsby, and Don Quixote, but today characters with such full inner lives are rare in fiction, and especially in films. I think this is because of the dominance of fast-moving, puzzling, multiple-threaded plots. To show us characters going through deep experiences, an author must reflect discursively about their spiritual or intellectual quandaries. We don’t expect profound insights from swift-moving crime shows, videogames, or American Idol. I’m not criticizing people who enjoy video-games and TV plots with surprising twists and snappy dialogue. It’s just that individuals enjoy very different kinds of experiences. A fast-paced, complex game or cop series that stimulates a systemizer’s brain may leave others cold unless it also calls for empathy and reflection (interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential intelligence). Stories that boost systemizing and strategizing intelligence do not usually pose questions about the value of what the characters are doing. Those that do so exercise our existential and empathizing intelligence. This cultural imbalance needs to be corrected. Without discussing inner experiences, motivations, or social theories, stories teach nothing about how human beings should live. I’m claiming a bigger share of our culture’s products for empathizers.

Johnson is probably right: Television can make you smarter.

Can it also make you wiser? Or is entertainment the worst possible way of gaining philosophical insight? Plato held the latter view. We must reckon even today with his arguments. Since this book will appraise the value of entertainment versus other ways of gaining insight and pleasure, I’ll begin by reviewing the ancient quarrel between philosophers and dramatists. I believe that philosophy and story-telling actually stimulate us in complementary ways -- but we must explore how they can complement each other. And thereby hangs a tale. An old, old tale.

Popular Culture in the Axial Age: Aristotle vs. Plato

Recall the cultural environment in Athens 2,500 years ago, when the fight began between philosophy and drama. That period resembled the ferment, uncertainty, and social contagion of our own day. If you worry about today’s “cultural globalization” -- the spread of ideas from one civilization to another -- then you would have been shocked by the globalization of the so-called “Axial Age” between 700 and 200 BCE.13 Within about 500 years, the great world religions and philosophies -- including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in the Middle East, and rational philosophy in Greece -- were invented and spread around the eastern hemisphere, all the way to Europe.

Everyone traded ideas. People were dissatisfied with their old religions and were adopting new teachings that emphasized universal compassion and transcendence.14 There was high population growth, capital accumulation, commerce, and urbanization throughout a huge part of the world. Merchants traveled across Southwest Asia, the Middle East, Greece, and North Africa,15 hawking their wares and spreading ideas throughout a vast area.16

For hundreds of years, the stars of Greek popular culture had been professional storytellers who recited mythic poems of Homer and Hesiod about their gods, the Trojan War, and the legendary dysfunctional families of Agamemnon and Oedipus. Lively performances and frequent drama competitions were the Greeks’ main religious practice, their way of educating youth, and everybody’s favorite entertainment -- the showbiz of their day.

But in the seventh century BCE, the Greek alphabet was invented. Writing encouraged a more critical and rational way of thinking. The old oral myths had been unverifiable stories, but now historians began writing down eye-witness accounts, and philosophy became recognized as a new way of thinking, based on argumentation rather than story-telling. Fact-based, logical reasoning began rivaling mythology as a way of making sense of life.

Can You Get Wisdom Vicariously? Philosophy versus Showbiz

This cultural transition did not go smoothly. Indeed, the leading Athenian philosopher, Socrates, was executed for impiety against the gods and for corrupting young Athenian guys by teaching them critical thinking. The accusations against him were led partly by the poets, who wanted to buttress the old traditions. This fight was deadly serious.

Socrates had not been impious, but he had disputed some of the poets’ accounts of the gods’ behavior. Take, for example, the myth about Zeus transforming himself into a feathery swan and raping a young girl, Leda. Since gods are moral, this story must have been false, Socrates argued. Naturally, the poets and devout Athenians responded angrily. After a trial, they gave Socrates a cup of poison to drink. He did not mind much, for he believed that a god had ordered him to provoke the Athenians, and he had obeyed. Besides, he expected to be reincarnated. He had learned about rebirth from a Greek mystery cult, Orphism, which had originated in an Indian religion, Jainism.17 (Both Jainism and Buddhism, flourishing in India, had adopted the idea from earlier Hindu teachings, the Upanishads.)

Though Socrates never wrote down his own ideas, his students -- especially Plato (427-347 BCE) -- wrote on his behalf. Plato wrote in the form of scripts: dialogues between Socrates and friends. Initially Plato started by reporting what Socrates had actually said or what he might well have said. Still, having started putting words into his mouth, Plato continued almost until his death at age 80.

After the death of Socrates, Plato visited the followers of the late mystical mathematician Pythagoras before returning to Athens and establishing a school of philosophy. His greatest student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), in turn would tutor the handsome, short-lived military genius Alexander the Great.

Aristotle differed from Plato in many respects but they did agree in two ways: First, they both appraised the popular culture of their day (notably drama) in terms of ethical and emotional criteria, as we’ll do too. Second, they both were supremely logical, rational thinkers. Their approach became the basis for the scientific method, which tries to get closer to the truth by a process of elimination. Scholars and scientists look for contradictory explanations and successively eliminate the false ones until, ideally, only one possibility is left standing. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is forever trapping some poor fellow into contradicting himself and making him admit that his original belief must have been wrong. (This rigorous kind of reasoning -- called logos -- is immensely valuable. Still, as we’ll see, its “either/or” logic does not always yield the wisest solution. Sometimes contradictions can be worth retaining instead of eliminating. For example, ambiguity in stories can sometimes be more enlightening than clarity.)

But it is two disagreements between Plato and Aristotle that will haunt us throughout this book, for nobody has yet settled them. First, they disagreed about whether it is better to pursue spirituality or mastery of this empirical world. Second, they disagreed about a key question of this book: the social value (if any) of popular entertainment, whichin their day was the performance of Homeric myths and dramas. Plato considered such “second-hand wisdom” useless, for only philosophizing had value. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that dramatists sometimes taught profound lessons to audiences, and he tried to identify the principles for doing so. For now I’ll deal only with the latter controversy.

What is the Value, If Any, of Popular Entertainment?

This second disagreement between Plato and Aristotle concerns the value of drama and poetry. (Actually, the two men may never have debated it face-to-face.18 Long after Plato had expressed his views, attributing them to Socrates, Aristotle wrote on the subject without acknowledging that he was criticizing his teacher’s opinions.)

Plato worried about the evil effects that supposedly would result from the proliferation of art and drama in Athens. Second-hand, vicarious wisdom was, to him, an oxymoron. He even mistrusted the process (called mimesis) of copying, representing, or reproducing things -- even as paintings and sculptures -- because it gave only “second-hand” experiences and ideas. He particularly disliked drama because he believed that young people would imitate the immoral acts shown onstage. One could not attain excellence by imitating others -- even good models -- for only rational philosophizing yields true understanding.

Plato certainly had a point; people (even adults) often do imitate others -- including gross acts from popular entertainment. Youths are especially susceptible. Still, it is astonishing that the trashy popular entertainment to which Plato objected included Greek tragedies that today we count among the highest works of art ever created! (Will some television shows of our day be considered great art 2,500 years from now?)

Aristotle was more optimistic. He did not worry that Athenians might copy the immorality depicted in plays. Indeed, he considered the theatre therapeutic; audiences could actually benefit by vicariously experiencing terrible situations. It would purify their souls through catharsis19 and make them into better citizens. His wonderful essay on dramatic criticism, The Poetics, offers technical and ethical advice for playwrights. Aristotle recognized the theater’s powerful influence on the moral and spiritual development of the public. Yet I still take Plato’s concerns seriously and must reckon with them.20 Enormous harm certainly has been done to society by bad storytelling -- whether or not we accept his verdict that all or most myths are harmful.


The United Nations named this the decade for creating a culture of peace. The most promising way is through entertainment, which is far more than merely a diversion from “reality.” Yes, entertainment is sometimes worthless -- but at other times it’s inspiring. It influences our moods, our moral and spiritual values, and our commitment to social reform -- for better or worse. It can make us healthy or sick; it can teach us or corrupt us. It can make us smarter or wiser -- and sometimes both, and at other times neither. Here we’ll consider which kinds of entertainment are worthwhile and how to foster them. As cultural critics, our evaluations must be anchored in our private emotional and ethical responses.

Steven Johnson maintains that popular culture is increasingly challenging and complex. He attributes to that trend another, well-documented finding: that people are becoming more intelligent, generation by generation. However, not all aptitudes are improving. He discusses the skills learned by mentally mastering this increasing complexity, but he does not discuss the content of the entertainment products, as I shall do.

When we explore the content of entertainment products, we find that the most influential ones are stories and dramas. Increasingly nowadays, popular culture reaches people who do not belong to formal religions, and it can have as much moral or spiritual impact as the devotional stories our ancestors used to read. I want story-tellers -- writers, producers, actors, publishers, and critics -- to take more seriously their role as creators of a global culture of peace.

But my proposal would appall Plato. He opposed drama and poetry, which induce us to live vicariously through characters and to imitate them. He considered that the worst way of imparting wisdom. He insisted that people should reason critically together rather than emulating fictional persons.

Aristotle, on the other hand, considered the popular entertainment of his day mainly beneficial. A good tragedy would purify our emotions. Accordingly, he developed ethical guidelines for playwrights. We’ll consider his arguments later, along with Plato’s entirely legitimate warnings about the dangers of imitating.

Can Plato and Aristotle be reconciled? Can storytelling lend emotional power to objective, rational modes of discourse? And can storytellers provide the kind of fast-paced, multi-threaded complexity that supposedly trains our brains, yet also stimulate us to empathize with characters and think seriously about societal and philosophical issues? These questions form our agenda.


1 Richard Rorty, “Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises” on his home page:
2 Rorty, “Redemption from Egotism.”
3 Brander Matthews, The Development of the Drama. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912) pp. 107-146.
4 Sissela Bok, Mayhem (New York: Perseus Books, 1999) p. 15.
5 Goleman in Healing Emotions, pp. 33-34, 44.
6 Vinay Menon, “Why We Like to Watch,” Toronto Star, August 3, 2002.
7 Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 147.
8 Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actully Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).
9 Johnson, pp. 139-56. Evidence to the contrary is often cited: that literacy rates are not improving around the world. However, as I read that evidence, it is problematic too, since the literacy measurements are set to test individuals’ ability to read at the level required for functioning well in everyday life. Because everyday life is increasingly complex, these tests also are made increasingly difficult, which makes comparisons across time questionable. People need higher and higher reading skills in order to handle everyday matters. What is clear is that people who use computers have higher prose reading skills than those who do not. See Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. OECD and Statistics Canada, 2000.
10 Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, (New York: Perseus, 2003).
11 Howard Gardner, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), pp 27-48.
12 Lee Siegel, “Freud and His Discontents,” New York Times Book Review Sunday, May 8, 2005, pp. 29-30.
13 Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, Trans. by Michael Bullock. (Elliot’s Books, 1949); Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “The Axial Age: The Emergence of Transcendental Visions and the Rise of Clerics,” European Journal of Sociology 23 (1982), pp. 292-314.
14 Karl Jaspers, op cit.
15 Andre Gunder Frank, in an International History Review of David Christian’s book, Maps of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
16 Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (Watson-Guptil Publications, 2001).
17 McEvilley, p. 197.
18 The lost second book of Aristotle’s The Poetics, which dealt with comedy, may have contained a polemical response to Plato. See Stephen Halliwell, “Aristotle’s Poetics,” in George A. Kennedy, ed. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 1: Classical Criticism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 150.
19 “Katharsis” meant “purification,” though not always by the same means. To Plato in Laws, katharsis meant purification of the soul through successive reincarnations. See Thomas McEvilley, the Shape of Ancient Thought (New York: Allworth, 2002) p. 99. But Martha Nussbaum translates the word as “clarification” -- a more cognitive term. See her The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 388-90.
20 I should mention briefly a related opinion held by some critics today: that it’s not modern stories but modern technology that harms people. Jerry Mander, notably (and in stark contrast to Steven Johnson) argues that television is always bad for people, regardless of the content of the programming. He says it is hypnotic, inducing alpha waves in the viewers’ brains. I am not perturbed by this. Occasionally I even try to get into an alpha state by meditating. To me the important issue instead concerns the moral and social consequences, positive or negative, of imitating fictive characters. See Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: HarperCollins Quill, 1978).