Aphra Behn: worthy opponent of Thomas Aquinas




It seems that the Holy Scripture should not use metaphors. For that which is proper to the lowest science seems not to befit this science, which holds the highest place of all. But to proceed by the aid of various similitudes and figures is proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences. Therefore it is not fitting this science should make use of such similitudes.

Further, this doctrine seems to be intended to make truth clear. Hence a reward is held out to those who manifest it: They that explain me shall have life everlasting. But by such similitudes truth is obscured. Therefore to put forward divine truths by likening them to corporeal things does not befit this science.

Further, the higher creatures are, the nearer they approach to the divine likeness. If therefore any creature be taken to represent God, this representation ought chiefly to be taken from the higher creatures, and not from the lower; yet this is often found in the Scriptures.

On the contrary, It is written: I have multiplied visions, and I have used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets. But to put forward anything by means of similitudes is to use metaphors. Therefore this sacred science may use metaphors.

It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparison with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of nature. Now it is natural to Man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things. This is what Dionysius says: We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except that they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils. It is also befitting Holy Writ, which is proposed to all without distinction of persons—To the wise and to the unwise I am a debtor—that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.




I think the Tragedies not worth a farthing; for Plays were certainly intended for the exercising of men’s passions, not their understandings, and he is infinitely far from wise, that will bestow one moments private meditation on such things: And for Comedie, the finest folks you meet there, are still unfitter for your imitation, for though within a leaf or two of the Prologue, you are told that they are people of Wit, good Humour, good Manners, and all that: yet if the Authors did not kindly add their proper names, you’d never know them by their characters; for whatsoever’s the matter, it hath happened so spitefully in several Plays, which have been pretty well received of late, that even those persons that were meant to be the ingenious Censors of the Play, have either proved the most debauched, or most witless people in the Companie: nor is this error very lamentable, since I take it Comedie was never meant, either for a converting or confirming authoratative direction: in short, I think a Play the best entertainment that wise men have; but I do also think them nothing so, who do discourse as formally about the rules of it, as if it were the grand affair of human life. This being my opinion of Plays, I studied only to make this Play as entertaining as I could, which whether I have been successful in, my gentle Reader, my Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-candied Reader (which I think is more than any one has called you yet) you may for your shilling judge.


When Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225) writes “all our knowledge originates from sense,” we are surprised to find a Church Father from the Middle Ages opining thus; Enlightenment philosophes are better known for this opinion.  Every Platonic “form” is grounded in the senses, as well; thus ideality is, especially in the modern age, greatly misunderstood.

Aphra Behn is delightful, but an Aristotle she is not.







  1. Anonymous said,

    April 10, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    This isn’t about winners and losers. Why treat philosophy (or profound questions in general) as if it were part of a junior high school wrestling match?

    To enter the 21st century (and no one who has run the Iowa Writers’ Workshop SINCE Paul Engle has advised students to write what they know, so I think we can move well beyond that), here’s what another fiction writer has to say on the subject of writing (yes, it’s on Oprah’s magazine, but his comments are worth reading):

    “We don’t know, exactly, what we’re doing when we’re starting something. We have a vague and skeletal and oafish idea that we articulate to ourselves as a justification for beginning, but that’s about it. It turns out, thank God, that what we end up with is more intricate and subtle than that. Mostly because it turns out that our intuition is a greater genius than we are. And mostly, too, because we’re not declaiming when we write fiction; we’re exploring. We’re turning characters that we’re getting to understand with more intimacy and confidence loose in certain situations, and observing their behavior, and what we believe and feel is then being mimed back to us. We’re in the process of teaching ourselves, and allowing the reader to follow along. Grace Paley’s nice way of putting it is that we don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know. Tobias Wolff’s version is that every time you write you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.

    “If that’s true, and we don’t know what we’re doing at first, then at least for a little while when we’re trying to compose something, we need to remember to cut ourselves some slack. There’ll be plenty of time for brutality later, when revising the mess we made. But we need to be allowed to make that mess in the first place. When we shut ourselves down prematurely, it’s as if we came across a child happily playing in the sandbox and asked what she was making, and when she said she didn’t know, we told her, ‘Then get out of the sandbox. If you don’t know what you’re making, you have no business in there.’ Or if she answered, ‘I’m making a castle,’ we responded, ‘Oh, a castle. That’s original. No one’s ever made a castle before.’

    “That girl in the sandbox has every right to respond, ‘I don’t know if it’s original. I won’t know until I’ve made it.'”

    * * * * *
    My conference on Monday with Laura van den Berg, who flew into Des Moines from Boston, went well, by the way. She mentioned Jim Shepard, so I read a couple of interviews of him later that day.

    A superb reading was given by Alan Heathcock yesterday, though he didn’t read from this collection but, instead, read a story that was in Esquire (and he gave a very funny introduction to the evolution of that piece):

    • powersjq said,

      April 10, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      “This isn’t about winners and losers. Why treat philosophy (or profound questions in general) as if it were part of a junior high school wrestling match?”

      Nobody thinks that this is about winners and losers. That being said, organizing this parade of literary “theory” as a competition firstly provides a structure that has the potential to draw out earnest defense, which might (if anyone gets energized enough) take us beyond the level of undergraduate compare-contrast; and secondly makes the point that these kinds of contests (who is the greatest philosopher, who gets which prize for theory, for poetry, for whatever) are empty except for their potential to draw forth excellence through striving. Both as individual humans and as a nation, the Greeks wrestled before they philosophized. Arete referred to qualities of body before it referred to qualities of soul, and it was—and remains—thoroughly invidious.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 11, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      “We write about what we don’t know about what we know.”

      This is nonsense.

      The whole issue of ‘first thought, best thought’ versus ‘the more planning the better’ is batted about quite often.

      It is ALWAYS better to have a plan.


  2. Anonymous said,

    April 10, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    I do not read Powers’ comments. He can quickly become verbally abusive, committing the very sins of which he accuses others (e.g., ad hominem attacks). A word I never use but will in this context: I’ve observed and experienced singularly toxic exchanges with him on this site, and I don’t plan on doing so again.

    • powersjq said,

      April 11, 2014 at 11:06 am


      I’ll skim yours and respond to whatever’s substantive within them.

  3. Anonymous said,

    April 10, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    (The comment above was made by Laura R.)

    Now, an astute comment by Laura van den Berg, with whom I met in conference on Monday morning, about “literary fiction”:

    You and I were recently bemoaning the idea that “literary fiction” equals “realism.” So many critics say this, despite the long history of “literary” writers like Kafka, Borges, Saunders, and so on. Although a lot of your stories might be called realist, they often contain elements of strangeness—detectives that name themselves after the Pythagorean Theorem, sand eating, rival masked bank robber gangs, etc.—that turn the world askew. Is “realism” something you work towards or against in a story?

    Laura van den Berg:

    I love many realists, but very strongly resist the notion that realism presents a less stylized, more authentic version of the world. All fiction is a magic trick, but instead of pulling a rabbit out of a hat the aspiration—for me at least—is to do a trick that accesses or reveals some kind of truth. But realism is every bit as engineered, as stylized, as non-realism; it’s just that the tricks are different. I think that false correlation between “authenticity” and “realism” still exists and it bugs me. Actually even the idea of going to fiction for “authenticity” bugs me. Do you know what I mean?

    * * * * *
    Like me and many of my classmates at Arkansas, Laura van den Berg’s work tends not to be autobiographical. In fact, it would be impossible for some of it to be autobiographical.

    Alan Heathcock cares very much about authenticity, but I think he defines that term differently from the way she does. He, too, makes up much in his fiction. Why else do we call it “fiction”? Memoir is a different genre, though the two can intersect at points.

    What I was trying to say earlier, Tom, is that the beauty of philosophy lies the argument–some of which are far more cogent and carefully reasoned than others. I can’t get as enthusiastic about our picking a “winner” or “loser” without defending or making a case for our choices of what qualifies as a “good” position–or at least that’s the case for just about anyone I know who’s studied so-called analytic philosophy, though the one Continental guy I studied under, who was brilliant, expected strong arguments as well. My emphasis on quality arguments is hardly controversial within the discipline.

    As far as the jargon associated with philosophy is concerned, it should be used as sparingly as possible. I still see far too much of it in the stuff coming out of many English departments. If that’s their version of “philosophy,” they can keep it–PLEASE!

  4. Anonymous said,

    April 10, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    P.S. Laura van den Berg and Alan Heathcock are very different kinds of fiction writers. I’m closer to him in content and style, but I’m also very different from both of them. (I also haven’t reached their level of development, but I’m at least getting a bit closer, I think.)

    And yet, all three of us have MFA degrees. Despite claims about some kind of “workshop story” dominating the scene out there, I’ve seen a huge range in the fiction that comes out of workshops–or at least the good ones–and is produced by graduates of those program. And why not? In my experience, “serious” fiction writers are pretty independent thinkers.

    The story of mine that Laura van den Berg read is ALMOST there, almost “done.” I’ve entered and won three fiction writing contests: two at Iowa State University (where I did NOT major in English), each for $500, and one, for a $1,000 scholarship, at a community college that has just completed a literary arts festival that would have been impressive at many four-year institutions. (And, again, thanks for your congratulations on the most recent one, Tom. It was gracious and kind of you to say.) Still, those first two stories didn’t, to me, feel ready for prime time–meaning, publication. (I never entered the competitions that were worth $1,000 in graduate school; the place was already competitive enough as it was, though I’m now glad I went through that.)

    After Heathcock’s reading yesterday, he took a few questions. After a fairly long pause, I raised my hand and said, “Did you get very many rejections early on, or was it overnight success for you?”

    He laughed and said he’d gotten an ENORMOUS number of rejections early on. One particular story got fourteen of them, and each time, he’d look at the story again and decide it could be made better. That particular story, he added, later won the National Magazine Award. He said, “It wouldn’t have won that award if it hadn’t have been rejected fourteen times.” It was the story Peacekeeper, in his collection, the latter of which won the Whiting award in 2012.

    He also said that earlier on, he lowered his standards a couple of times by trying to get stories into journals that were easier to get into, but he now wishes he hadn’t; he hates the idea of anyone finding those stories today: “I’ve never regretted the rejections, but I’ve regretted a couple of publications.”

    The autobiographical elements in his stories become transformed tremendously in his writing, as they do (in my view) by any good fiction writer; the artistry takes precedence over fidelity to “what really happened,” or at least it does for all the good fiction writers I know when they’re writing fiction and not memoir. (But memoir also requires “shape” and other elements of artistry because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t differ much in style or quality from the average article in the local newspaper).

    Heathcock also came across as an especially nice guy–humble and with a wonderful sense of humor. Despite the violence and other dark elements in his stories, I would describe him as a very “humane” writer, and I’m using that word in its very best sense.

    A very fun and funny interview of him that’s less about literature and more about the unexpected about him–a “self interview”:

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 11, 2014 at 1:34 pm


      The argument is the means, not the end.

      In poetry, one could say the argument (the means) IS the end.

      In philosophy and rhetoric, however, the argument must be guided by the truth. A well-made argument is important; that goes without saying, and grammar is probably as important as logic.

      Some truths will not be contained by a ‘good argument.’ That’s what I think you fail to grasp. For instance, my claim that most literary fiction is autobiographical offends you—because you look around for ‘the argument’ that can defend such a claim. But the truism that all knowledge begins with sense experience can never be elucidated by a ‘fine argument.’ My certainty that most literary fiction is autobiography is based on a truism.

  5. Anonymous said,

    April 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    P.P.S. Sorry, that was an exceptionally long P.S., but I hope it’s a worthwhile one for a few readers, at least.

  6. Drew said,

    April 11, 2014 at 1:17 am

    Poetry, you dazzled my eye
    teased me with unearthly visions;
    got me too high.

    Primed my soul to fly to heaven
    then marooned me upon the earth
    sixed for seven.

    You called across celestial shores
    glowing in empyrean colors
    then shut your doors.

    Lost in your amusing mazes
    I followed fast your golden thread
    through dark phrases.

    Muse-abused and undelivered
    my heartstrings wavered, stalled, then stopped –
    arrows quivered.

    Poetry – you’ve cheated on me;
    winked and flirted, then escorted

    Spare me further cantos, curses,
    keep your holy delirium,
    unhinged verses…

    On second thought, oh Lady cruel –
    humiliate me – lead me on.
    (I’m still your fool.)

    Dominatrix, queen of the word
    for you I’ll suffer untold shame.
    I’m undeterred.

    P.S: Laurel van der Berg did not write the above

    • powersjq said,

      April 11, 2014 at 10:16 am

      Another winner, Drew. I particularly like “Muse abused and undelivered.”

      • Drew said,

        April 11, 2014 at 7:58 pm

        Thank you for lyrical encouragement, gentlemen.
        I am posting one poem per day in observance of April as National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo 2014)
        This one has a super-sexy graphic with it so make sure you come visit my blog during this, the cruelest month.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 11, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      I agree, Powers.

      Wonderful job, Drew!

      Your best poem, yet.

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