1. In my English department, the graduate students have formed a small colloquium that regularly meets to discuss someone’s work in progress. What has increasingly become pressing to me as a scholar-in-training is the question of what a scholar is, of my self-image as a literary critic. And this partly because it’s obvious that we grads all individually seem to have different ones, have an increasing variety available to us as critical tradition extends itself, and don’t have a space in which we can reflect together on this kind of self-reflection. There are literary theory courses, but rarely an opportunity to talk together about what it is we do. So I delivered the following as a talk to provoke a discussion about our own, individual self-images as literary critics. I framed the discussion around the two slogans in my title, in part because what I find helpful is to talk about alternative images or metaphors or distinctions for self-definition.
2. “Literature as equipment for living” is a slogan of Kenneth Burke’s. A friend of mine in the department had asked me what I had been reading this past winter break, and I said excitedly, “Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History,” and my friend scrunched up her nose and mouth like she’d eaten a stink bug and replied, “ugh, the rhet-com guy?” Rhetoric and Communications is a growing subdiscipline in English Departments around the country, and rhetoric as a disciplinary study has taken Burke to be the father of contemporary rhetorical theory. There’s often an amusing, though sometimes churlish, rivalry between these two halves of English Departments, but let me say, once and for all, that Burke’s main vocation was literary criticism, and not as a founder of rhetorical theory. In fact, reading his work, it’s hard to imagine a school formed out of it at all. (Side note: Richard Rorty once said to an interviewer asking about Rorty’s criticisms of Paul de Man, “I can imagine being grateful for de Man’s obsessiveness, that is, his habit of reducing to nothingness any given text he reads. When de Man does it it’s interesting, but when you get … thousands of de Man clones, it’s merely formulaic. I don’t think anyone would have objected to de Man if he had been a kind of Kenneth Burke figure, not training up generations of students.”  Rorty, apparently, wasn’t acquainted with the other side of some English Departments.)
The idea of literature as equipment for living has its seed in Attitudes Toward History (1937), a book that is part Emersonian-pragmatist in affirming the Optimistic, part speech-act/genre theory (the kind of thing you get out of an Ortega or Lukács or Bakhtin), part quasi-Marxist history, and part idiosyncratic dictionary of a critical vocabulary (things like “alienation,” “transcendence,” “efficiency,” “casuistic stretching,” “character-building by secular prayer,” “being driven into a corner” and—my favorite—“heads I win, tails you lose”). “Equipment for living” is a metaphor that Burke regularly employs, like the pragmatist habit of asking for the “cash-value” of an assertion or how one would “cash out” a metaphor. What follows is an attempt to spell out how I cash out his metaphor, but I begin by taking it to be his master-trope for the relationship between language and action. Here is a characteristic way Burke talks with it—in his discussion of William James, he begins by saying:
For his philosophic trinity [James] proposed ‘rationality, activity, faith.’ Faith invigorates the power of action; rationality provides method for the act. And since by rationality is meant a willingness to consider all available evidence, it should shape the act by tests of completeness and consistency. All of his fundamental assertions were designed to equip him and others for living. He ‘accepted’ the universe by admitting any faith (in progressive evolution, in God, in the benefits of prayer) that enabled him to have the sense of moving towards something better. … And so strongly did he need the concept of Better rather than the concept of Best, as a way of equipping himself for action, that he rejected absolutism always, preferring even the asymmetry of ‘pluralism,’ a doctrine that outraged his form-loving colleagues. (5-6)One will notice that this is fundamentally a pragmatist stance because it treats language—in this case, assertoric prose—as having an ethical function that swings free of truth. Indeed, by foregrounding assertion as having a function that is not truth-affirming, he risks outraging the same pieties the classical pragmatists did in their own instrumentalism about truth, potted in the misleading formula “truth is what works.” 
3. But literature is not assertoric prose—it does not make assertions, at least not explicitly. Or rather, not explicitly by the author. So we have at least two different pragmatic contexts with which to judge the metaphor. Before I get to talking about what that might mean for us, I want to just keep plunging ahead with literature. In 1938, a year after Attitudes Toward History was published, Burke published an essay entitled “Literature as Equipment for Living,” codifying his thoughts about this metaphor and the orientation it implies for the literary critic. (You can find it in his Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a book whose first few pages has a line poets love, “the symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude” (9). To understand that line’s formal dimension, you have to read it against Yeats , but its embodiment of pragmatism I’ll return to momentarily.)
In the essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Burke suggests that what he is up to in his work, and his selection for key critical terms “purpose” and “motivation,” is a “sociological criticism of literature” (293). To unpack this, he takes up the notion of proverbs and says that what they do is name “typical, recurrent situations” in the life of a culture. We then “find” ourselves, as it were, in the proverb and are directed in our thinking by it about our own situation. So, as examples, Burke lists off proverbs for consolation (“The worst luck now, the better for another time”), for vengeance (“fools tie knots and wise men loose them”), for foretelling (“keep your weather eye open”), and for wise living (“first thrive, than wive”). “Proverbs are,” Burke says, “strategies for dealing with situations” (296). And playing off the war metaphor of “strategy,” Burke says as against a baffled interlocutor, that “surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images…. One seeks to ‘direct the larger movements and operations’ in one’s campaign of living” (298). 
And so, Burke says, “each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary” for one can think of novels as “the strategic naming of a situation.” They “single out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it” (300).
4. This might be a good place to stop and collect our thoughts and codify some of the issues in play. I like the idea of taking books to name situations and provide the resources for thinking through them. It first of all requires an act of distillation on our part—these acts can be exceedingly useful, even outside the exam structure. What they provide is the framework of a perspective on how the book is to be read, the pattern in it to be called to the fore. For example, I could say that Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady displays the difficulties a woman faces in searching for autonomy in the face of both a culture of monogamy that infantilizes female choice and an aestheticist culture that flattens the moral parameters of autonomy. And what this distillation does is coordinate the ratios between paradigmatic moments in the text that provide the lens with which to read the other moments—for example, Mr. Touchett telling Isabel that “fortunately ladies are not obliged to give reasons,” Isabel telling Mr. Goodwood that she wishes to be free even to commit some atrocity, and Ralph hoping with delight to see what Isabel will do with her money. From this perspective (spoiler!), Isabel going back to Osmond is the inevitable tragedy precisely because it is the attainment of a robust moral autonomy wherein one takes on the burden of one’s choices.
What we don’t need to say is that a novel names only one situation—I think we can wipe away that possible implication from Burke’s formulation and say that novels, like life, are made up of an indefinite number of patterns of experience. And this, in fact, is what makes them such treasure troves for our equipment for living. For while I say “indefinite,” and really do mean it, novels really don’t present something so unmanageable as all that for the precise reason Burke says: they are concerted mobilizations of a finite range of textual phenomena. No matter what future interpretive lens comes down the pike, Isabel Archer will be a woman. Maybe someone will argue someday (or probably already has) that Isabel Archer is not the “lady” of the novel’s “portrait,” but it had better be the case that Goodwood’s got the penis and Isabel the vajj.
5. Now, after Burke’s suggestion about naming there’s the actual image of “equipment for living.” “Equipment” suggests to me a wider metaphorical value than the more narrow war metaphor of “strategy.” I think Burke should absolutely be read against Nietzsche in “Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense,” but both should be drained of their violence to establish the underlying adventure of life—and no adventurer ever leaves home without his or her equipment, as every D&D player knows. Without your equipment, you are naked and vulnerable. And this equipment, in this case, is language. This, again, dovetails with a certain philosophical pragmatism about language. The central strain of pragmatism from Peirce, James, and Dewey to Rorty and his student Robert Brandom—they all follow Alexander Bain, the American psychologist and, as it happens, rhetorician, in defining beliefs as habits of action. Our beliefs are not just indicators of but also shapers of our actions in the world. Our linguistic formulations are as much a technological development as anything wrought of iron or wood.
6. This leads me to a partial segue to the second term of my title: “spiritual exercises.” This is a term established by Ignatius of Loyola’s 17th century book of that name, but it has been resurrected by Pierre Hadot to talk about a mode of philosophy. Hadot was a colleague of Michel Foucault’s at the Collège de France and was one of the major scholars of ancient philosophy at the end of the last century. (I cannot more highly recommend the English translation of his 1995 book, What Is Ancient Philosophy? as an introduction to Greek philosophy, both for its readability, scope, and erudition.) In an essay entitled “Spiritual Exercises,” and reprinted in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot suggests that Ignatius’s Jesuit practices were built out of the resources of the earlier Stoic tradition, which had its own traditions of spiritual exercises (if perhaps avant la lettre). Hadot says that “attention (prosoche) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. … Thanks to his spiritual vigilance, the Stoic always has ‘at hand’ (procheiron) the fundamental rule of life: that is, the distinction between what depends on us and what does not.” And this for the Stoic, he says, “frees us from the passions, which are always caused by the past or the future—two areas which do not depend on us” (84-85).
If you’re like me, you might say, “well, that sounds wonderful—even bypassing the suspicious idea that the future doesn’t depend on me—but how does this spiritual vigilance work? How do I make sure that my self-consciousness is always awake? You can’t just want something or think you are a certain way for it to be the case.” And this is where I find Stoics to be pragmatists avant la lettre, for one important practical measure is the repetition and memorization of linguistic formula:
The exercise of meditation allows us to be reading at the moment when an unexpected – and perhaps dramatic – circumstance occurs. … We must confront life’s difficulties face to face, remembering that they are not evils, since they do not depend on us. This is why we must engrave striking maxims in our memory, so that, when the time comes, they can help us accept such events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand.’ What we need are persuasive formulae or arguments (epilogismoi), which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. (85)In the oral noetic economy—which is a fancy way of saying how the activity of knowing works in pre-literacy cultures—you only know what you can remember (a formula codified by Walter J. Ong somewhere). I think this goes for us, too, when we are away from our books, trying to figure out what to do at any given moment. If beliefs are habits of action, then reflection is a matter of cycling through your pathways of belief.
The idea of beliefs being but nodes on a spatial graph of interrelating lines is in part a metaphor given substance by Hans Blumenberg, a friend of Hadot’s and one of the great German intellectual historians of the last century, rivaling Heidegger and Habermas for both philosophical depth and acuity.  Blumenberg, in a little known but incredibly insightful essay on rhetoric, suggests that rhetoric be in part understood as a form of detour. It is a detour from action. This produces the old trope of the “man of action” and the “man of thought,” Achilles vs. Odysseus, or worse Socrates, who would stop Euthyphro from acting against his father for impiety with all his pesky little questions like, “do you even know what impiety is?” But consider how reasoning works—by inference. We infer one proposition from another, which means you transition from one sentence to another. In justifying your action, you take the time of multiplying sentences, which is time taken away from acting. Clearly for the Stoic this isn’t a bad thing—they want to mute action entirely in some cases, relieving us of our passions that form the fundamental motivations (hello Burke) for acting.
7. Turning back to Burke and “literature as equipment for living,” I pull out one way of thinking about it in terms of using remembered pieces of literature to think through life’s situations.  And one way of doing this is by formula—either your own distillation of memorable narrative moments or catchy aphorisms of the text itself. Literature, in this way, becomes part of your armament as you meet the demands of life on the field of battle.
You’ll notice, however, that this has made literature into an assertion-generating enterprise, at least as it relates to one’s life, in the form of these maxims or formulas. But, as I noted in section 3, literature isn’t assertoric prose—aren’t there other ways we might relate to literature that might also be important to living? And also: this is kind of making literature sound like self-help. Before turning this last screw, I want to take up a deficiency in the “equipment for living” metaphor that punches up, I think, one of the most important ethical issues of our time. On its surface, “equipment” suggests—like my description of the body naked and vulnerable without it—that there is an inner or essential or at any rate some self beneath the language that articulates it. This is an image from Romanticism, in part codified by M. H. Abrams’ “lamp,” and it is one pragmatists, at least, have to reject.  There is no hidden, ineffable self deep down—it is language all the way down, rhetoric all the way down, equipment all the way down.
And while this might spark a metaphysical argument, I want to first note that a shift from “equipment” to “spiritual exercises” helps articulate the pragmatist perspective. Our linguistified self is better thought of as a muscle, and though you only know what you can remember, you don’t only believe what you can remember in the same way that while you may not know that you have a particular muscle, you use it just the same—however, of course, wanting to throw the baseball harder and knowing what operates the humerus may lead you to pounding those pecks a little harder. (Recall Burke’s “dancing of an attitude” formula.)
But secondly, “equipment all the way down” suggests a new handle on the old fears of relativism and the infinite regress. If it’s equipment all the way down, and the point of equipment is to protect your “self,” then it’s just equipment protecting other equipment. While relativism’s fear is that there’s no non-relative basis upon which to judge one’s values, equipment protecting equipment might produce the more radical fear that one was born into the wrong tribe, given the wrong education. Relativism goes fishing for the bottom of the inferential detours, but this perspective sees that we stop all the time to use the equipment we have, whether or not we know there’s a foundation for it. And in a less radical case, equipment protecting equipment produces the problem of knowing which is the means and which is the end—what is a tool that could be discarded for a better one and what is an essential part of what it is to be me.
8. So, now, back to assertions and literature—as my reintroduction of “spiritual exercises” indicates, one of the reasons why I like books like Portrait of a Lady, Howards End, and Middlemarch, is that they are obviously produced by an extraordinary intelligence working through a complex situation. Solutions are, unlike in philosophy typically, not to the fore here, and one thing I like is thinking through the situations with the author, either via their intermediaries in the form of characters or their tropes via the complex functions of their narrators. This does not, let me hasten to add, work for every book (as my lengthening train of books I have trouble reading attests) as not all books are best named by this meta-perspective.
9. However, there is another more recent use of the term “spiritual exercises” that goes some way to opening a window on another use of literature. My way to it is to first go back to Hadot and ask for his reason for choosing the word spiritual:
In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word ‘spiritual.’ It is nevertheless necessary to use this term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use – ‘psychic,’ ‘moral,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘intellectual,’ ‘of thought,’ ‘of the soul’ – covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe. Since, in these exercises, it is thought which, as it were, takes itself as its own subject-matter, and seeks to modify itself, it would be possible for us to speak in terms of ‘thought exercises.’ Yet the word ‘thought’ does not indicate clearly enough that imagination and sensibility play a very important role in these exercises. For the same reason, we cannot be satisfied with ‘intellectual exercises,’ although such intellectual factors as definition, division, ratiocination, reading, investigation, and rhetorical amplification play a large role in them. ‘Ethical exercises’ is a rather tempting expression, since … the exercises in question contribute in a powerful way to the therapeutics of the passions, and have to do with the conduct of life. Yet, here again, this would be too limited a view of things. …[T]hese exercises in fact correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world, and to metamorphosis of our personality. The word ‘spiritual’ is quite apt to make us understand that these exercises are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual’s entire psychism. (Philosophy 81-82)This, I think, moves us a long way, especially with its emphasis on metamorphosis, self-transformation, transcendence. However, in the Stoic exercises themselves, the emphasis on maxims moves us back to putting thought first in priority, as does Hadot’s own formula that the exercises are “thought which takes itself as its own subject-matter and seeks to modify itself.” Is there another kind of exercise, one which the narrative form is peculiarly adapted to supplying?
In Rorty’s late essay, “Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises,”  Rorty says that
the term ‘spiritual development’ is usually used only in reference to the attempt to get in touch with the divine. But it is occasionally used in a broader sense, one in which it covers any attempt to transform oneself into a better sort of person by changing one’s sense of what matters most. In this broader sense of the term, I would urge that the novels of Proust and James help us achieve spiritual growth, and thereby help many of us do what devotional reading helped our ancestors do. (404)Rorty says that “aesthetic” and “moral” won’t do in this context because “beauty” and “moral” importance seem too narrow of categories to describe the sense of exaltation that James and Proust cultists feel when reading them. “This sense of exaltation is not the same thing as being bowled over by the sheer rhetorical or poetic power of one’s favorite passages. Such passages play the role that their favorite passages in sacred scripture play for the religious. They become mantras, and reciting them brings very present help in time of trouble.”
The sense of exaltation I am trying to describe is, instead, a result of reading books as wholes, of following plots through to the end, rather than with being rendered momentarily delirious by a startling poetic figure, a perfectly crafted couplet, or a splendidly balanced antithesis. … Following such careers [as Isabel Archer’s or Christian’s in The Pilgrim’s Progress] lifts up the heart by letting the reader hope that she herself might eventually overcome the immaturity, the confusion, and the incoherence of her days. … For the intellectual who finds James and Proust exalting, it is the hope that she will be able someday to see her life in this world as a work of art – that she will someday be able to look back and bring everything together into some sort of pattern … into a coherent story of maturation. It is the hope for rounded completion and self-recognition, and is more like a longing for shapeliness than like the ambition of transcendence. (405)
10. The experience of reading these books is an analogue to a religious experience—you don’t exactly come away with any new beliefs or formulae. “It is the experience of reading the novel,” Rorty says, “that makes one into a different sort of person, not the utility of a belief one might have acquired by various other means.” And the reason novels are good at this seems clear: they can show maturation. As a form, prose narrative seems better suited for showing it and thus producing that affective conduit that floods our motivational channels with that vague, life-giving substance we call “hope.”
Seeing various forms of literature as spiritual exercises is seeing them as acting on you and as you acting through them. Novels, especially those like Henry James’s or Conrad’s or Faulkner’s, are difficult forests that seem to have to have paths hewn through every time. I find poetry like Dickinson’s and Stevens’s to be spiritual exercises that I respond to, even if I find myself tripping and stumbling, my muscles distorted at angles they normally don’t find themselves in. What do they equip me for? I don’t know always. But I do like making the effort at spelling it out.
11. But not always. Burke, in his essay on equipment, alludes to his era’s “inspirational literature” and how “it is a strategy for easy consolation” (298). Burke does not shy from this aspect of the sociological approach to rhetorical and literary forms. When I had the chance to teach a course on American Romanticism, on the first day I read them a famous bit by William James in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” whose punchline, after James shows how ignorant he was of the lifeways of po’ Appalachian folk—“losing,” as he says, “the whole inward significance of the situation”—the punchline is: “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.”  I then posed to my students what I took to be the real problem before us: “how do you, the student, who is likely not going to become an English major let alone become a professional literary critic—how do you negotiate a class like this, what with ‘my strange indoor academic ways of life’?”
It seems natural to me to see this as implicitly a question about literary value, or “what is literature?” I confessed that I had no idea how to define literature or the literary, and instead suggested a distinction between works that challenge and those that don’t. To be properly democratic about “taste,” we can be snobs in our private lives, but not in our theories of the public good—you are not a “better person” for enjoying Moby-Dick over Harry Potter; different books have different purposes, and it isn’t clear that non-challenging works aren’t serving a good purpose (relaxation, for example, or derisively, “escapism”). An example is my inability to watch challenging movies, including most dramas—I rationalize it by saying it’s probably because I read challenging books all day, but either way, I’d much rather laugh to Will Ferrell or watch The Bourne Identity for the eighth time than try and watch Cronenberg or Twelve Years a Slave. 
The idea behind the occasional elitist stance toward books, and the idea that every democratic humanist believes intimately, is that it is good to be challenged; it is a primary social good to be challenged; it is an intrinsic good to be challenged occasionally. Notice I say “occasionally,” because it cannot be good to be constantly challenged because then you wouldn’t get anything done—this is the intimate relationship between thought and action that I was early talking about under the heading of beliefs as habits of action and detours. But it is good to be challenged sometimes—that’s the problem of sycophants, “yes men”—but where, when, by whom? Who do you trust to challenge you? I take it to be a mark of freedom that every person gets to decide for themselves when they want to be challenged—though in public matters I take it to be much less up to individual choice about when one can be challenged. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to sample a broad array of areas, avenues, ways of challenging oneself. And that’s pretty much it as far as the root of the humanities goes, and so the idea behind a literature class is to put some books under a student’s nose that I enjoy being challenged by and that maybe they will, too. The title of department under which a course is being offered merely tells you what kind of book you’ll most likely encounter in the course, though all bets are off in the actual course.
 “Worlds or Words Apart?” in TCF 137
 On classical pragmatism’s occasional instrumentalism about truth, see “What Pragmatism Is” or the later “Rhetorical Universalism”. An earlier discussion of truth in the history of philosophy that I still like is “Absolute Truth.”
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
- Yeats, “Among School Children”
 Compare this passage to Nietzsche’s most famous passage on truth: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically…” (“On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense,” trans. Kaufmann).
 I’ve also deployed it to discuss Brandom’s philosophy of language in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.”
 For more on this line of thought about using literature, see my forthcoming “Touchstones.”
 Abrams’s book The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) is a still standard study of the intellectual tradition of Romanticism’s revolution in understanding how the mind relates to the world via those two metaphors. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature does for philosophy what Abrams did for the intellectual traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. (It’s important, in relating those two books and their purview, to remember that people didn’t distinguish the activities of philosophers and poets the way we do now. Abrams’ study is more wide-ranging in its historical depth than Rorty’s, but Rorty’s has more depth in the philosophical significance of the major philosophical figures from Plato to ‘70’s professional philosophy.) Central to the second chapter of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is this point that Romanticism, despite making the important shift away from mirror metaphors (which create representationalist epistemological models like Plato’s and Descartes’), still retains a metaphysically pernicious model of an ineffable self.
 Collected finally in The Rorty Reader (2010), eds. Volparil and Bernstein, though it had been available as a manuscript-file for many years at Rorty’s website.
 From Talks to Teachers and to Students, in Writings: 1878-1899, 843.
 I did try once to rationalize my love of the form of comedy found in Ferrell-Apatow-Stiller by analogizing it to Romanticism. See “Just Bitching.”