From learning to pity the misfortunes of the heroes of our novels, we wind up feeling too much pity for our own.--Borges (The End, translated by A. Hurley) [HT Michael Deckard]
If one grants that moral education is a possible consequence of engaged reading of novels, then an immoral education is also possible. This thought is familiar enough from Platonizing concerns about being stained in enduring fashion by entering into and, thereby imitating, characters that practice wickedness (recall). Borges takes the less familiar road, as if to say, who needs Philosophers to indict poetry?* His narrator does not explain how practicing pitying (fictional) others may lead to too much practice of pity of self. The problem may be that reading cultivates excessive reliance on a single virtue or psychological mechanism (let's call this the overshooting thesis); but upon second thought, I suspect that the point is that novels do not cultivate other virtues or psychological mechanisms that prevent excessive self-pity (let's call this the incomplete virtues thesis); such virtues are self-command, patience, cultivated hatred, etc. --unsurprisingly, these are all exhibited in The End.
To avoid confusion: having no self-pity at all -- Borges's Recabarren -- is also excessive. It may easily turn into habituated un-reflective "living in the present, as animals do." That is, pity, of others and self, may, Adam Smith teaches, prompt thought in particular if properly cultivated it will make us seek out the contextually salient causes that prompt our response.**
One may think that it is a cruel joke to interpret Borges's The End as a (lyrical) contest with Plato's Meno about the very possibility of moral education (see this piece by Stone). It is [spoiler alert], after all, about a deadly duel in which a prior killing is to be avenged. But the duel is preceded by a short exchange:
"I gave [my kids some advice," he said, "which is something you can never get too much of and doesn't cost a lot. I told them, among other things, that a man ought not to go spilling another man's blood."
A slow chord preceded the black man's response: "Good advice, too. That way they
won't grow up to be like us."
"Not like me, anyway," said the stranger
Is it possible to teach virtue if one is not virtuous by saying, as it were, Do as I say, but do not imitate me? Given the rarity of genuine virtue the hopeful answer to this question is 'yes;' given that I am professional educator, self-interest and public prudence tempt me into claiming the affirmative, but it is unclear what the grounds of hope might be.