When a philosopher’s science fails to be precise, we call it poetry.
The impulse towards science in ancient times—when few scientific facts were available—ancient cosmogonies, for example, becomes, in retrospect, a kind of poetry by default.
Plato, whose cosmology was the late dialogue, the Timaeus, is often called a poet. It’s not that Plato was a poet so much as he was a scientist who had to rely on a great deal of amazing guessing.
Is poetry really the guess-work of the scientist?
The world—which is born and dies, and which resides below Plato’s eternal Forms—is God’s unique and mutable poem.
Plato’s Forms are God’s truth—or what might be called the poet’s plan.
So Plato’s great theme: The eternal Forms are real and belong to science. The world doesn’t belong to poetry, because the world is already a default poem, but for the world and the poet to exist, the poet must think like a scientist.
The planning impulse of the cosmogonist writes the poem to make it more than a mere reflection of the accidents of the world.
We could say it was easier, or more natural for the scientist to be a poet in Plato’s day—precisely because science required so much guess-work. The scientist needed to be a poet, needed to have imagination, and speculate, in order to make sense of a world belonging to our ancient ancestors’ dimly primitive understanding of it.
Do we believe the world is still a mystery? In that case, guessing and dreaming—not just in poetry, but in what could be called poetic science, is still necessary.
Here, in a masterpiece of classical scholarship—Plato’s Cosmology, by Francis Cornford (1935)—we find the following, and note how Cornford describes the cosmology of Lucretius, all the rage at the moment because of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning bestseller, The Swerve:
The Timaeus is a poem, no less than the De rerum natura of Lucretius, and indeed more so in certain respects. Both poets are concerned, in the first instance, with our practical attitude towards the world—what we should make of our life there and how face the prospect of death. Lucretius believed that atoms and void are the ultimately real things of which everything that exists is built. Plato denied reality to what is commonly called matter; his real things are the Forms, and the bodies we touch and see are not built of Forms, nor are the Forms in them. Accordingly, for Lucretius reality is in the world of sensible things and he can offer statements about its nature which claim to be literally true; for Plato that whole world is an image, not the substance. You cannot, by taking visible things to pieces, ever arrive at any parts more real than the whole you started with. The perfection of microscopic vision can bring you no nearer to the truth, for the truth is not at the further end of your microscope. To find reality you would do better to shut your eyes and think.
There are two senses in which the Timaeus is a ‘myth’ or ‘story.’ One we have already considered: no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. Earlier cosmogonies had been of the evolutionary type, suggesting a birth and growth of the world, due to some spontaneous force of life in Nature, or, as in Atomism, to the blind and undesigned collision of lifeless atoms. Such a story was, to Plato, very far from being like the truth. So he introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.
The Atomists’ belief in innumerable worlds, some always coming into existence, others passing away, was an inference from their assertion of a strictly infinite void partly occupied by an illimitable number of atoms in motion. It was probable, they argued, that world-forming vortices would arise at any number of different places. Granted that our world is finite, that there is unlimited space outside its boundary, and that there are materials left over, from which other worlds might be formed, why should there not be any number of copies of the same model? The world, according to Plato, is finite.
Francis Cornford rocks. Re-discover him, people.
The poet is like God, a “divine artificer.” And the divine focuses on one perfect, finite universe, not an imperfect bunch, based on vague limitlessness.
If we think of Plato as the ancient artificer, Dante, the artificer of the middle ages, and Poe as the great modern artificer, this might be a good time to quote from Poe’s cosmology, Eureka:
Let us begin, then, at once with the merest of words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in nearly all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but an effort at one.
And what an ”effort” it is to imagine the entire universe! Surely it makes writing a poem easier! Or not.
Infinity is one of the important ideas for Poe, because like his great predecessor, Plato, a finite universe is the scientifically perfect universe Poe imagines; the infinite universe simply cannot work as our one unique universe of tangible lawfulness—and to read Eureka is to understand this fully, as Poe tirelessly makes crystal clear in his great theme of simplicity and oneness throughout the work.
Like Plato, Poe sees invisible creator and visible creation as two very distinct parts of the universe. And on it goes, the parts, the number, and how they fit together and impact each other in revolutions, orbits, luminosity, and gravitation, over time; all that challenges the cosmologist cannot help but inspire the poet in the most profound manner imaginable. Here is Poe, toward the end of his prose poem, Eureka, echoing Plato as he warns the reader not to confuse all-important “symmetry” in the world with its more important place in idea.
It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous—for the analogical—in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical—which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: —thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, belonging to that certain tribe of thinkers who could not follow Poe’s genius in its journey beyond the country village, once said that “consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Emerson surely had a more fragile consistency in mind.
Poe was no village realist. Poe was truly the idealist heir of Plato. From Eureka:
The wonderfully complex laws of revolution here described, however, are not to be understood as obtaining in our system alone. They everywhere prevail where Attraction prevails. They control the Universe of Stars. Every shining speck in the firmament is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less, whose still lingering luminosity is not sufficient to render them visible to us at so vast a distance, but which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centers, in obedience to the principles just detailed—in obedience to the three omniprevalent laws of revolution—the three immortal laws guessed by the imaginative Kepler, and but subsequently demonstrated and accounted for by the patient and mathematical Newton. Among a tribe of philosophers who pride themselves excessively upon matter-of-fact, it is far too fashionable to sneer at all speculation under the comprehensive sobriquet, “guess-work.” The point to be considered is, who guesses. In guessing with Plato, we spend our time to better purpose, now and then, than in hearkening to a demonstration by Alcmaeon.
The poet, to broaden the definition of poetry, is, like Plato and Poe, one who speculates—in the consistent spirit of one who imagines the universe, or, like a good cook, tells you exactly how God made the pie.