A dialogue, between John and David:
John: Consider a fictional character, one who is well-developed by a master of his trade. Someone like King Lear. Is King Lear real?
David: No, naturally not. King Lear doesn’t exist. He was invented by William Shakespeare.
J: OK, so tell me something about King Lear.
D: He was a vain and foolish king, who succumbed to the flattery of his two evil daughters and was angered by the truth-telling of his one wise daughter, with disastrous results.
J: Now, you have just predicated things about King Lear. You have made statements about attributes which King Lear possesses. How is that possible if he doesn’t exist? How can you say things about something that is nonexistent?
D: Well, I meant that he doesn’t exist in history, in reality. He only exists in our minds.
J: So if something only exists in our minds, then it doesn’t exist? Does Beethoven’s 9th Symphony exist? Would it exist even if every written copy and audio recording of it were destroyed, but people still remembered it? Would it be real then?
D: Sure, but you’re talking about the work as a whole. Beethoven’s 9th exists just like the play “King Lear” exists. That doesn’t mean that the actual person, King Lear, really exists. He’s a fiction, invented. He’s not a real person. You can’t touch him.
J: I can’t touch my dead grandfather either. Is he real?
D: Yes, but in a different sense. He existed once. There was a point in time when he existed. King Lear never existed.
J: I can’t touch the Holy Spirit either. Is the Holy Spirit real?
D: Of course, but again, in a different sense. God exists spiritually. King Lear does not exist spiritually. There is not a soul or a spirit out there called “King Lear”.
J: But when I think “King Lear”, if I am familiar with the play, a whole set of ideas pops into my mind. I think of the choice he made to give his kingdom to the two older daughters who flattered him, and his rejection of his younger daughter who told him the truth. We think of Lear having done that. How can something that isn’t real do anything? How can a nonexistent thing call into my mind all of these ideas and associations? King Lear is such a popular and classic play because it so beautifully illustrates the foolishness of vanity and the importance of listening to hard truths, and the destruction that flattery causes. I am a wiser person for having known the character King Lear, and so are many others. How can something unreal affect people like you and I?
D: OK, so in a sense perhaps he exists. King Lear exists in the sense that he is a real character in a fictional work, who has characteristics and does things within that fictional work. But he is only real in that sense. Normally when you ask if someone is real, you are asking whether the person is an actual historical figure or whether he is merely the product of fiction. Like Odysseus, for example- was he an actual person about which Homer wrote exaggerated accounts, or was Odysseus entirely invented? We don’t really know the answer to the question yet, though we suspect that the first assertion may very well be true. So you still can’t really say that King Lear was real. King Lear was created by a man, just invented out of nothing.
J: I was created out of nothing as well, by God. Am I real?
D: Of course you’re real. You’re sitting right there. I know you.
J: But as we’ve established, we know King Lear as well. We know his characteristics and personality. We know the choices he made and the results of those choices.
D: As you said, God created us. We are real, but we are not real in the same sense that God is real. God exists of Himself. We are created by Him for His purposes. In that sense I guess you could draw an analogy between the relationship of our existence and God’s existence on the one hand, and the relationship of King Lear’s existence to William Shakespeare’s existence as well. Both are real, but not in the same sense.
J: Yes, I think you’re on to something there. At the same time, we should be careful, since the analogy is inexact. Everything that is bears that relationship to God. Everything was created by God- William Shakespeare and the plays that Shakespeare wrote. But man was created in the image and the likeness of God, so it should not disturb us to think that man can create real things in some sense out of nothing, bearing that image of God in his creation, though of course because he’s not God, he could not do so in the same way that God creates out of nothing. In a relative sense, though, cannot man create real things (like King Lear) simply out of his own mind, which yet do not rise to the level of his own existence, in the same way that God creates real things that nonetheless can never rise to God’s own level of existence?
D: So you’re saying that our relationship to God is in some sense analogous to King Lear’s relationship to Shakespeare? Wouldn’t that have troubling implications for the freedom of our choices? King Lear is just a predetermined play. Are our lives like that?
J: Well, we judge the morality of characters in the play, don’t we? Earlier you referred to King Lear’s two evil daughters and her one wise and good one.
D: Yes, but that’s just within the play.
J: King Lear and his daughters only really exist within the play though. So of course it is only within the play that they can be said to be good or evil. And yet we judge them as such. On what basis to we judge a character in a play to be good or evil if the character was simply doing what he or she was written to do?
D: Well, that’s the purpose of the play, or one of them. In the play and in most works of fiction, there are heroes and villains. Good guys and bad guys. Sometimes their characters are complex- there are tragic heroes and anti-heroes and sympathetic villains. But their actions and choices in the play shows whether they are good or bad or some mixture of the two.
J: Choices? How can they be said to have choices? Their lives were written in a play, made up by a playwright. Did King Lear have a choice whether to listen to his evil daughters or his good one?
D: Well, not in an absolute sense of course. Shakespeare made those choices. But within the context of the play, which is the only context in which the characters actually exist, they have choices. Within the play, Lear had a choice, and his bad choice reveals his tragic flaw and leads to his doom. If he had no choice, then the play reveals nothing about right or wrong at all. If he was forced or tricked to do what he did, then the play would reveal nothing about his character, and really have no purpose at all.
J: So you’re telling me he had a real choice, but one which only had reality within the limited context of his own limited existence, and that his real choice (within that context) revealed his character, for which he is rightly judged. And all of this is true, within that context, even though looking at it from another perspective, from the higher and more truly real perspective of his creator, William Shakespeare, every aspect of Lear’s existence was entirely predetermined according to Shakespeare’s own purposes and designs for creating him.
D: Yes, I guess that’s right.