• Chelsea Slack

The Times They Are a-Changin': An Aristotelian Defense of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Win

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a large part of the literary world is up in arms. The spinner of songs, which often operate as ballads, has finally been recognized for his superior command of the craft. Yet some say he is not worthy. Some say he is not a “real” poet. However, Sara Danius, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Literature, compared Dylan to ancient poet Homer. Clearly, the committee thought equality among writers should extend to someone whose medium is set to music, as is the case with poignant-voiced Bob. Aristotle says, “Justice is equality, but only for equals; and justice is inequality, but only for those who are unequal.”[1] But why is Dylan equal to other writers, to other poets, and what, if anything, does he have to do with Aristotle? Dylan deserves equality because equality is what he exhorts. This puts him in good company, as equality has been a subject addressed by innumerous authors, including 1993 Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. It cannot be said that Dylan is without merit, and since Aristotle says merit warrants honor, it should not be said that his win is unjust. Much of Dylan’s work represents the modern conception of equality, which is in many ways a stark contrast to Aristotelian equality.

It is without question that Aristotle’s works on the topic of justice and equality have greatly molded the modern legal system.[2] For Aristotle, both justice and equality are broken up into two groups. Justice is made up of two parts – moral, or universal, justice, and particular justice, or justice that denotes equality.[3] Hence, equality is a part of justice, but, it is a separate issue from the moral half. Additionally, the equality side is divided into rectificatory, also known as commutative, and distributive justice.[4] Distributive justice is based on rank or merit. In Politics, Aristotle uses the flute analogy to explain the concept.[5] When distributing flutes, the most talented and knowledgeable players should be the recipients. The societal rank of players would bear no significance.

Rectificatory justice deals with correcting imbalances between two parties, or violations of the “golden mean.”[6] A wage paid to an employee by an employer would meet the golden mean if it were appropriate for the amount and quality of work performed. If the amount is too little, or too great, then it would not be just or virtuous, since, “Virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.”[7] Rectificatory justice is also used to rectify situations in which one party has an unfair advantage over another, such as in commerce, or one party has injured another party through thievery, abuse, etc.

Modern ideas on justice and equality, although quite clearly based in ancient thought, differ greatly from Aristotle’s teachings of inequality equaling equality. If, as Politics says, justice is equality for those that are on the same playing field, and our honors are dependent upon our virtues, undoubtedly it becomes important to understand how to measure merit. But then again, are those who belong to a higher social or economic class not capable of more meritable achievements? Take the flute example – obviously, it seems useless to give a flute to someone who has no idea how to play it. But, what if that person belonged to a group that had been greatly oppressed and had no opportunity to learn how to play an instrument? This is an issue Bob Dylan addresses in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” stating, “Where black is the color, none is the number.”[8] Moreover, if merit and virtue is the issue, then who gets to decide what is virtuous and meritorious? In Politics, Aristotle himself expresses concerns about the ability of those who must judge equality.[9] What happens when the system is corrupt, or at minimum favors one group over another? “Oh my name it is nothin’, my age it means less” are the opening lines from “With God on Our Side,” in which Dylan expresses the marginalization of young people, Native Americans, Jews, etc.[10]

The above examples discuss distributive justice, but rectificatory justice in modern times can also be problematic, although it is a bit closer to what we now consider equality. When rectifying an inequality, such as a thief stealing fifty dollars from a victim, “simple reciprocity” can be used.[11] So, the victim should be reimbursed an equal amount to what was stolen. It would not matter if a virtuous man stole from a wicked man or a wicked man stole from a virtuous man.[12] In certain cases, however, simple reciprocity will not work. If a person assaults another person, the answer is not to simply assault the assaulter – some other type of punishment must be doled out. And it is in these cases that, once again, the issue of a corrupt system comes into play. Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” uses the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers to illustrate how the Jim Crow system perpetuated injustice and pinned both blacks and whites into rigidly unfair roles.[13] This system prevented the perpetrators of Jim Crow-motivated crimes from being punished appropriately.

Since the Nobel committee announced their pick, many have argued that Dylan does not belong on the same playing field or even in the same league as other Nobel Laureates. New York Times staff editor Anna North penned an opinion piece in which she says, “When the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.”[14] As if Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” are any less powerful than Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. On the other hand, even if Dylan’s songs were to have technically less literary value than poems, or novels, or dramas, this does not make him any less of a writer. According to W.P. Pomerleau, Aristotle teaches, “Those who are financially richer are not necessarily morally or mentally superior.”[15] Thus, laureates such as poets W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot could outstep Dylan in style, but that would not necessarily make them superior. To play the devil’s advocate on the issue of style, we could suppose that Dylan is indeed lacking in that area. What, then, makes him a poetic heavyweight worthy to join the ranks of acclaimed Nobel winners? His substance, of course. And it is that same substance which fills so many of Dylan’s lyrics that is at odds with the kind of justice Aristotle articulated. It would be a decided error to put Bob Dylan in a league anywhere near Aristotle. But, the very fact that Dylan so frequently and ardently discusses issues that were also addressed at length by one of the greatest thinkers of all time means he is most definitely worthy of the Nobel win.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York, NY, United States: Dover Publications, 2000), 62.

[2] James Bernard Murphy and Richard O. Brooks, eds., Aristotle and Modern Law (Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Co., 2003).

[3] Anton-Hermann Chroust and David L. Osborn, “‘Aristotle’s Conception of Justice,’” Notre Dame Law Review 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1942).

[4] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence H. Irwin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999).

[5] Aristotle, Politics, 68.

[6] Chroust and Osborn, 130.

[7] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 27.

[8] Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, New York: Columbia Records, May 27, 1963.

[9] Aristotle, Politics, 38.

[10] Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side,” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, New York: Columbia Records, January 13, 1964.

[11] Chroust and Osborn, 141.

[12] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 80.

[13] Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, New York: Columbia Records, January 13, 1964.

[14] North, Anna. “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel.” The Opinion Pages (The New York Times), October 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/opinion/why-bob-dylan-shouldnt-have-gotten-a-nobel.html.

[15] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (University of Tennessee at Martin), s.v “Western Theories of Justice” by Wayne P. Pomerleau, accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.iep.utm.edu/justwest/#SH1b.

#rhetorics #journalism #music


© 2018 by Chelsea Slack