Wisdom’s Lover: The Philosopher and the Poet

In those eloquent passages of the Phaedrus on the divine madness of prophets, mystics, poets, and lovers, Plato’s mentor Socrates with subtle irony and elliptic elegance, his own madness notwithstanding,  once offered this advice to the poets:

If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses’ madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds. 1

(Translated by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff)

That this divine madness was a divine gift not to be confused with physical disease the ancients knew well. As E.R. Dodds in his excellent study The Greeks and the Irrational reminds us it is not clear in what this “given” element consists; but if we consider the occasions on which the Iliad-poet himself appeals to the Muses for help, we shall see that it falls on the side of content and not of form.2

The idea of poetic knowledge coming as a reliable gift of the Muses is central to poetry – as Dodds reminds us, for in an age which possessed no written documents, where should first-hand evidence be found? Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wider than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets, had (like the seers) their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future, remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace. By that grace poet and seer alike enjoyed a knowledge denied to other men. Dodds mentions that it is recent scholars who have emphasized that it is to Democritus, rather than to Plato, that we must assign the credit of having introduced into literary theory this conception of the poet as a man set apart from common humanity by an abnormal inner experience, and of poetry as a revelation apart from reason and above reason. Maybe this is another reason Plato hated Democritus and never even mentioned that great progenitor of materialism. *(Kindle Locations 1606-1609)

This conception of the poet as a special being and a transmitter of special knowledge that comes to us as a gift of the gods or Muses that is beyond the purview of reason or above it has been summarily dismissed or disputed by Philosophers from Plato’s time to ours. Ever since Plato said poets must be evicted from the Republic and murdered if they return, things have not been good between poets and philosophers. Yet, why do so many philosophers return to the divine madness of the poets for inspiration? In a recent group of posts dealing with Alain Badiou (Philosophy for Militants) I noticed his return to one of his conditions for philosophy: art… or poetry, in this case, and of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens.

In its long history there have been philosophical poets and poetic philosophers, there have been crossovers and castigators on both sides of the aisles, as well as those such as Wittgenstein. “Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent,” says the philosopher Wittgenstein in a mean little poem against poets. Negative thrust from “cannot” to “must” slams the sentence shut. Wittgenstein also says language is a scum on the surface of deep water. To put this differently, some things lie too deep for the scummy touch of words. In this at least poets and philosophers agree. Simone Weil says a poem is beautiful insofar as the poet fixes his mind on what cannot be said. Nietzsche says his ideas are less good after he writes them. Socrates never would write anything. Plato said a philosopher betrays himself by putting his ideas into words. We all remember that beautiful passage in which writing and painting, truth and the image of truth are formulated by Socrates:

You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support. (Plato’s Phaedrus)

Against this form of writing Socrates opposes the dialectic:

That’s just how it is, Phaedrus. But it is much nobler to be serious about these matters, and use the art of dialectic. The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be.(ibid)

A living discourse accompanied by knowledge and planted in the living soul like an immortal seed which sprouts forever and brings its carrier happiness. Ah Plato you sly devil. One wonders at Plato sometimes, hiding himself behind Socrates, wishing he could have been a poet, telling us that writing is a thankless occupation, and then tricks us with writing itself in the form of his dialogues.  And, of course, that final snippet from the Phaedrus On the Art the Dialectic:

First, you must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about; you must learn how to define each thing in itself; and, having defined it, you must know how to divide it into kinds until you reach something indivisible. Second, you must understand the nature of the soul, along the same lines; you must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul, prepare and arrange your speech accordingly, and offer a complex and elaborate speech to a complex soul and a simple speech to a simple one. Then, and only then, will you be able to use speech artfully, to the extent that its nature allows it to be used that way, either in order to teach or in order to persuade. This is the whole point of the argument we have been making.(ibid)

One wonders how either a poet or philosopher tasked with such a daunting set of criteria would ever begin to speak, much less write down anything concerning the truth. If we before beginning must know the truth of everything we are about to speak or write, that we before beginning to start such a task must first divide this knowledge about things into kinds until we reach the bedrock of indivisibility; and, next, that we must understand the nature of the soul in the same way as we understand things in themselves; furthermore, that before we can even begin to speak or allow someone to hear or read our work that we must first write or speak only in such a way that is appropriate to the particular soul or person that we are about to impart the seeds of such immortal knowledge; and, most of all, until we attain such perfection of truth, knowledge, and wisdom in the art of speech or writing we cannot call it art is to admit before one even begins that this is an impossible task and that no one human being will ever attain such a sublime art of knowledge, truth, and wisdom: let Sysyphus reign in such impossible tasks – the repetition of infinity. But then again this was the point of Plato’s sly old devil of a dialectician, Socrates, to begin with: knowing as he did in advance that he didn’t know anything anyway. Yet, it was in pursuit of such refined wisdom that he pointed the way: the way of his dialectic.

At the end of this remarkable prose poem of Plato’s Socrates comes to a conclusion of the matter telling Phaedrus:

If any one of you has composed these things with a knowledge of the truth, if you can defend your writing when you are challenged, and if you can yourself make the argument that your writing is of little worth, then you must be called by a name derived not from these writings but rather from those things that you are seriously pursuing. (ibid)

Phaedrus asks Socrates, simply, “What name, then, would you give such a man?” And Socrates answers:

To call him wise, Phaedrus, seems to me too much, and proper only for a god. To call him wisdom’s lover—a philosopher—or something similar would fit him better and be more seemly.

So it was this need to situate the disjunction between poets and wisdom’s lovers that Plato mentions in the culminating sections of one of his most famous dialogues that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Rep. 607b5–6), in support of which Plato quotes bits of several obscure but furious polemics—presumably directed by poets against philosophers—such as the accusation that the opponent is a “yelping bitch shrieking at her master” and “great in the empty eloquence of fools”.  Indeed, much of the final book of the Republic is an attack on poetry, and there is no question but that a quarrel between philosophy and poetry is a continuing theme throughout Plato’s corpus. The scope of the quarrel, especially in the Republic, also indicates that for Plato what is at stake is a clash between what we might call comprehensive world-views; it seems that matters of grave importance in ethics, politics, metaphysics, theology, and epistemology are at stake.3 To pursue this topic is outside the range of this post and would entail a long discourse on those relevant dialogues Ion, Republic, Gorgias, and Phaedrus.

There are some superb works on this topic:

  1. Raymond Barfield: The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry
  2. Susan B. Levin: The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition
  3. Stanley Rosen: The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in  Ancient Thought
  4. Massimo Verdicchio: Between Philosophy and Poetry
  5. George Steiner: The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works. Hackett Publishing.
2. Dodds, E. R. (1962-12-01). The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures). University of California Press
3. Griswold, Charles L., “Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/plato-rhetoric/

* I’ll need to make search of the actual book for page numbers. KL is horrid on this account.

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