Philosophy has always had an odd place in the novel, and vice versa. So often will philosophers refer back to great writers just to make their points clearer, and so often will great writers refer back to philosophers just to add a basis for their ideas. It is even gotten into that habit that philosophers have written novels. This has been an immensely popular phenomenon. Philosophers like Voltaire, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard have all written novels and the like that help to better demonstrate their philosophy. In the same realm, writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Byron, Goethe, and Proust are hailed for the influence on philosophic thought as well as literary value.
So first of all, what can be said that causes the relationship between philosophy and literature? The most obvious answer is that in literature everything down to the diction and structure of the novel can contribute to the point. Take Camus and his novel The Stranger. The main character, Meursault, narrates the story in the stream of consciousness style that was so famously popularized during the modernist period. The sentence structures vary, mostly consisting of short concise statements strung together to display the total indifference, in even towards beauty found in words. The Stranger brings us those famous opening lines: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” So from the very beginning it is apparent the philosophical standpoint of the narrator. That of nihilism. The story continually displays it, the total indifference towards his mother’s death, murder, imprisonment, injustice, and sex. Every part of this novel forms a cohesive philosophy used by Camus in his philosophical essays to further make his point about the destructive effects of nihilism.
The novel influences philosophy in the same manner. Nietzsche once claimed about Dostoyevsky that he was “The only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn” and it shows. Dostoyevsky played a crucial role in developing the thought of many existentialists such as Nietzsche and Sartre, and coincidentally also helped develop their literary style.
Another reason why philosophers turn to novels is for their aesthetic appeal. For instance, one feature of Voltaire’s philosophy is the skepticism towards established truths, the absurdity, and humour in life. This is why in his famous novel Candide, Voltaire essentially satirizes all of philosophy and existence. Candide is a bumbling idiot who stumbles through life and allows Voltaire to make clever quips towards all cultures, customs, ideas, and peoples. It is even common for Voltaire to jab at himself in the novel, as nobody is too noble to be made fun of in the eyes of Voltaire. By making such a humorous novel, Voltaire aims to point out the absurdity in everyday things and push the limits of what can be mocked, and, like few other philosophical novels, Candide is truly meant to be enjoyed.
The history of philosophical literature has been a long and complex one. Originally philosophy had closer ties to poetry. The famous poem “The Clouds” by Aristophanes featured Socrates as a main character, and verse was more art of choice since prose had not become a developed art form. However, roots of prose can be seen even in ancient times. Take Plato’s dialogue of “The Symposium”. The opening paragraphs is not in the traditional dialogue fashion, and reads more like a common prose piece. Of course poetry was continued to be hailed by philosophers for its aesthetic value, but as the art of prose began to elevate, so did its philosophical value.
As the future of literature and philosophy, it’s hard to tell. It’s very easy to say that the relationship is dead. One looks around and thinks “I hardly see any equivalent to Candide or Thus Spoke Zarathustra in today’s society!” but I would claim one misses the point with that attitude. As of now the relationship is simply evolving. Many people like to claim that philosophy is dead, and whether or not that is true, it has great implications for the novel. Like novels can still display philosophical thought, such as the novels of Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy, but whether or not they are simple reflections of culture or aimed at developing a philosophical thought is another thing. In my view, which is a very modest one, I haven’t the slightest clue what will happen in the future.
So lastly my advice to any such writers wishing to visit the realm of philosophical literature is this: read the great works before you (written by both philosophers and philosophical writers), develop your own system of philosophy, or at the very least, your own skepticism or proposal of philosophy, and finally craft a narrative/ style that best fits the point you wish to make. This is much easier said than done. But just like with most things, if you work hard enough, in the end you might be able to convince yourself of your own success.