Literature and society | Inquirer Opinion

Literature and society

Literature is a body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age, with excellence of form and expression of universal or permanent interest in prose or verse.

Until Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer sought to establish sociology as a separate science in the mid-19th century, society was an aggregate of individuals whose collective character can be deduced from man’s basic nature. Society in its most inclusive meaning refers to humanity or to humankind at large. Since society has a distinctive way of life, through its culture and institutions, Spencer was led to focus on them rather than on the relations among the parts that form the collective whole.


Why write in a world constantly changed by computers and machines? Because, while reading is a declaration of freedom, writing is its fulfillment. Writers must write, to remain such.

The purpose of literature, said the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, is to declare something: A writer must have something to say. The world can live without books but, he added, it will perhaps be a better universe without people.


A writer was once assured that one’s work will be preserved in a library or museum. That was before the bomb. Now, no museum is safe from the bomb, Andre Malraux piously observed. William Faulkner fatefully asked in his Nobel Peace Prize address: “When will I be blown up?” Deep in their hearts, most people earnestly desire that the world should come to an end.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in “The Gulag Archipelago,” risked life and censure of the Communist Party to reveal to the world the purposive evils of “centralism.” Production quotas are not economic miracles but intolerable human burdens. Socialist realism outside of farcicality is in fact an impossible ideal. No literature will be sufficient to describe an enormous social prison.

The whole message of Albert Camus’ “The Rebel” is singularly stated: that liberty must be the ultimate aim of all coherent societies. But there is a whale of a difference between liberty and libertinism. Liberty is resonant only if there are clear limits to freedom. Unbridled freedom and anarchy are twins and libertinism implies: “Everything is permitted.” Novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote that freedom cannot be simply conceived. But the Jesuit scholar Horacio dela Costa stressed: “Freedom is liberty under law.”

The state is a composite of material resources that include land and people, and endowed with political power through a structure of government upholding sovereignty. The people constitute society, and there is, and has always been, a vast imbalance in the allocation of material resources and political power among them.

From the glorious days of Hellenic Greece to the grandeur of Imperial Rome, a numerically small elite has monopolized material resources and political power, and a numerically vast majority seems to have been nothing more than servitors of the elite. Essentially, nothing has changed since biblical times.

In what are known as mature democracies, the tensions that one might forecast are not sufficiently strong to upset their systems of governance. Instead, social disaffection is manifested in a rigodon of officials who manage the system.

In the pseudo democracies, (all of Africa and South America and most of Asia), some of which are candid autocracies (China, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, etc.), social tensions are intense, but social disaffection hardly does anything against the government’s firepower.


For the governments of pseudo democracies—almost every government at present calls itself “democratic”—the retention of power is a simple matter of maintaining its monopoly of violence, together with a ruthless policy of keeping the people fragmentized. Candid autocracies have realized, from the Shah of Iran to the government of East Berlin—and our own experience in Edsa I—that a people roused as a raging mass can break the morale of the military, win it over, and depose an autocratic regime.

Even mature democracies, in the management of government, have a survivalist stake in also fragmentizing the people, insofar as it is necessary to avoid a social disaffection pervasive enough to throw them out of power.

Thus, the survivalist question for all governments is how to maintain the social fragmentation that best suits their desire to stay in power.

In pursuing its policy of social fragmentation, every government has found it necessary to maintain a monopoly on public perception. In this day of relativity, what used to be known as “truth” is now called “perception.” Governments, quite cleverly, have avoided the pitfalls inherent in answering Pilate’s question, because absolutes are extremely difficult and politically dangerous to define. Besides, people are manipulated by appearances, and that is why for the adepts of realpolitik, perception is all. What tactics, then, must a government utilize to monopolize public perception?

For mature democracies, tactics involve the actual delivery of socially desirable goods and services to the people. For pseudo democracies, which more often are beset by mass poverty and cruel constraints on individual freedom, tactics involve the same pretense and compulsively blaming fabricated saboteurs.

But whether a mature or pseudo democracy, a government must be vigilant against criticism—the greatest corrosive of political power. To deflect criticism or to throttle it, or to render it harmless in various ways, is a necessary element in the maintenance of its power. It is thus in the management of criticism that the government’s relationship with the writer begins, and vice versa.

In general, a government is sensitive to criticism because it is convinced that acts do not speak for themselves in persuading people to its goodness. A government believes that people must be persuaded that its actions are not only good but also the best possible. No criticism is so enraging for a government than that which says, “It can be better.”

A government is also as cynical as the scriptwriter who said, “There is no right or wrong, there is only opinion.” Thus, as one may observe today, a government and its detractors struggle for public opinion on the very sound knowledge that such an opinion could fatally be transformed into mobs, barricades, civil disobedience, or electoral defeat.

To the extent that the writer contributes to the formation of public opinion, he or she is a critical concern of the government. To the extent that the writer criticizes the government’s policies and plans, the writer becomes a security problem to be contained or eliminated.

Reynaldo V. Silvestre, former chief, Office of Strategic and Special Studies of the Armed Forces, is a retired army colonel, bemedaled officer and multiawarded writer. A member of Class 1968 of the UP Vanguard in Diliman, he was teaching political theory at UP Manila when called to active duty.

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TAGS: Inquirer Commentary, Inquirer Opinion, literature, Reading, Reynaldo v. Silvestre, Society, writing
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