A Look at Forbidden Books and Phillip Sidney’s “Defense of Poetry” – The Saint Anselm Crier


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Literature is a beautiful and powerful thing. Yet, like all power, some fear it. Through literature, everyone can make their voice heard, but what happens when some do not want to hear that voice? This is the debate currently driving the rise of book bans in the United States: an old power struggle that has been the subject of much coverage. By examining the long and troubled past of this literary battle, including the chapter by Renaissance philosopher Phillip Sidney, one can better understand the front it occupies today. Through his “Defense of Poetry,” Sidney explores the historical, educational, and instructive value of literature: values ​​that have begun to fade under the growing shadow of the banned book movement.

One of Sidney’s arguments that still rings true through the banned book movement concerns the importance of literature in historical preservation. Today, a sense of control can be seen over how certain books are banned in an effort to rewrite history. Sidney argues that literature makes “pens sources of knowledge for posterity” (548). The key word in this statement is “pens”. Plural. The story cannot be told with one voice. It is a multi-layered landscape of different perspectives, opinions and viewpoints. To reduce this landscape to the only stories that are claimed to be “clean” and “useful” is to reduce it to a bare plane ravaged by drought. It is completely normal to disagree with certain points of view, to wish that certain historical stories never had to be told. But dissent is at the heart of debate, and debate is at the heart of change. Ultimately, if the world cannot learn from its mistakes – and the literature that describes them – it is doomed to make such mistakes again.

Just as literature is a crucial historian, Sidney also identifies the important work stories do as teachers. Teaching is a spark of flame, an opening of doors. But one of the biggest fears that drives a book to be banned is the idea that it might open the wrong door.

Some think that because they can’t find the value of a coin, it must have no value. Sidney argues instead that literature is the “first scout of ignorance”, allowing readers to gradually approach “more difficult knowledge” (548). Not all useful information resides in the most formal and eloquent texts. Lessons can come from any page and any author. The world is a very big place. To remove pieces of this world to “cut the messy edges” is to paint it falsely. To renounce a story based on secular opinion is to extinguish a flame before it has ever had a chance to burn.

A final connection that Sidney’s words have with the banned book movement is in the bits of beauty that are lost with each closed cover. It is by instinct to want to protect the youth of this world. But for many, that instinct tends to leap off the page prematurely. All it takes is one wrong word, one chapter, to lump a book together with the mass of mysterious potential dangers for young readers. In their generalizations, many forget that the world is already scary. Stories, however, can provide access to worlds that don’t need to be so scary. Sidney identifies that literature seeks to “beautify our mother tongue” (549). And beauty is different for everyone. Some see Harry Potter as an advocate of witchcraft and other threatening ideals. But for a child living in a world of melting glaciers and shrinking rainforests, these magical adventures make miracles possible. To ban a book without thinking is to steal a flash of beauty, a glimmer of hope, from a world that is already struggling to keep these things alive.

Although he made his assertions centuries ago, Sidney’s defense of the historical, educational, and inspirational significance of literature still resonates deeply with the ongoing debate over what makes writing “valuable.” The issues surrounding the banning of books highlight the extent of what can be stolen out of fear, especially when disguised under the idealistic hood of protection. Ultimately, this fear can only be conquered if one learns to see a book as more than a cover and pages, more than a pawn. As a society, we place great importance on the shoulders of our young people. We ask them to be better than we have ever been, to fix what we never could. But how can we expect our children to write a brighter narrative for this world with an incomplete prologue? Literature is a beautiful and powerful thing. And our current treatment is invaluable in deciding whether the stories of future generations will be ever-lighter or extinguished matches.

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