THE INTEGRATION OF POETRY AND LIFE

The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.

Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?

Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?

Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?

And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?

And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.

Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.

This is what Byron meant when he said:

“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”

This is what Shelley meant when he said:

“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”

According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.

The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.

In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.

Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.

Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.

Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.

The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.

As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”

Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.

In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.

Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of  what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.

The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’

We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.

Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.

The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.

Life is coming for us.

Take my hand, poet.

Let us quietly flee.

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POE AND WORDSWORTH IN ELITE EIGHT ROMANTIC BRACKET BATTLE!

Wordsworth, who recently defeated Marx, contemplates advancing past Poe to reach the Elite Eight

If one reads Scarriet one is not under the usual illusions about Edgar Poe; one understands he was a thousand times more than the “macabre” writer as perceived by those who have been sadly deluded, and we include here the editors of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and the various busybodies of the ‘book world’ who are clueless in the typical snobbish manner of the helpless bookworm.

It is important that art does not get reduced to content; art’s medium is not simply a blind receptacle for politically-approved, fashionable rhetoric—the sort of ‘meaning’ which the dense and unphilosophical type is always searching for in order to have their uninspired world view confirmed.

The ‘medium is the message’ is not the point either; it is precisely the duality of medium and message, the way they interact, which is crucial.

Poe, by inventing genres, by being a master and inventor of so many mediums, is the most important literary figure America has produced. The rest is mostly content or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ fiction: the South as presented by Faulkner, the Cubist reality of Joyce, the junkyard collage of Pound, with the whole Modernist project the same: foster illusion by dismantling the medium. The illusion, or the fiction, in the common parlance, is the autobiographical content in which the writer’s guts unspool, as it were, and the Fiction Writing instructor urges the color of ephemeral detail fill up every line in the “realist” project.

The paradox of Fiction striving, at all costs, to be realistic, to break the rules of form in such a way that content (data, info, ‘what is said’) is all, so that the medium disappears in the sprawl of what is communicated—this paradox of The Attempt To Be Real dressing itself up and calling itself Fiction (or Poetry) seems to be lost on many, who don’t see it as a paradox at all. But it certainly is.

Defenders of paradoxical ‘Real Fiction’ may reply: the Real is paradoxical, the Real is always an attempt, and not realized, and Fiction just happens to be one flexible and very important way to reproduce or experience the Real.

This response will satisfy some, but we object to it for the following reason: the Real is always an attempt, true, but this defines Fiction as failure—either it reflects our failure to know Reality or it reflects Reality the Unknowable. In either case, such a project is bound to be haphazard. The Socratic admonition to know what we don’t know is not the same thing as celebrating ignorance, or not knowing. The medium is something we can know, and for this reason alone, it deserves our attention; if proportion and pleasure belong anywhere, they belong to the way the medium captures reality, for this is what art, by definition, is; this is all we mean when we refer to form—form, or, more accurately, the form in space and time—the form of form—which is what we as artists know; otherwise we have no way of distinguishing reality from art, and reality trumps all understanding and becomes experience—the kind of experience which is experienced, and for that reason has no public or social existence, no art. Without the medium, there is no science. The painter begins with a rectangle laid against reality, and through this “window” discovers what can be scientifically known—the artist becoming an artist only insofar as he is a scientist.

Back to Poe, America’s Daedalus. Poe was scientific, not fictional. Detective fiction is a template, and not in the least concerned with persons and cultures. The writing of the populist poem, “The Raven,” with every formal aspect contributing to a unified effect as of a framed painting, with the accompanying essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” was like the work of a Renaissance Master in the studio. The science of perspective was behind the advances of Renaissance painting; these profound advances occurred precisely because the artist made this question paramount: how is reality to be portrayed in my painting? For when the artist wrestles with perspective, with how every part of the painting is viewed in space and time by the human eye in time and space (when the viewer ‘walks by’ a portrait, do the painting’s “eyes” follow, etc) measurement comes to the rescue of mere seeing.

Art which abandons perspective destroys art’s scientific medium and gives it over to that realm of imitation in which the viewer is charmed by mere colors. Do the colors charm the viewer “in reality?” Yes—and no. Do we “see” the moon as larger than it normally appears—when the moon is near the horizon, with objects that are closer—“in reality?” Yes. But here we see what Plato and the Renaissance painter were onto, in becoming self-conscious of imitation and human weakness and measurement: the issue, if looked at in the right way, is not  about being anti-art, at all, but rather it is about creating, or exploring, standards (based on science) for great art.

The rediscovery of Plato fueled the Renaissance. Here is Plato (Book X, The Republic):

Has not imitation been shown by us to be concerned with that which is thrice removed from the truth?

Certainly.

And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed?

What do you mean?

I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance?

True.

And if the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water, and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the act of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.

True.

And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding—there is the beauty of them—and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?

Most true.

And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rationale principle in the soul?

Plato is not saying to ignore or eliminate human weakness with its merely imitative propensities; Plato only asks that we become aware of error as we make art; it is the triumph of Platonism to bring about this self-consciousness in the artist; Plato’s condemnation of imitative projects, in which the medium is played down or ignored, is only one superficial aspect of Plato the Republic-builder’s intent. And why is the medium, as medium, so important? Because the medium is precisely that measuring vessel which brings us closer to reality as we make art with the medium as our guide (not as an end). This is true for perspective in “illusionistic” painting as it is true for formalism in “idealistic” poetry, aspects which Modernism and its obsession with trashy/fragmented reality has intentionally destroyed, as it seeks to define ‘the medium’ as something artificial, which interferes with reality and needs eventually to be sloughed off, like a Futurist snake shedding its ancient skin. But how deluded! And here we see the error of modern art in a nutshell.

“Artistic illusion” is when the medium is dismantled and disappears; the illusion becomes, in fact, delusion, as when we think a painting is “real.”

Perspective in painting is not simply an imitation of perspective in life—it is an investigation of the visual system itself, which includes both the perceptive mechanism of the individual viewer and geometric or mathematical truth, which, together, navigates and attempts to know higher reality within various contexts.

Let us quote from Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art:

I do not think there ever is “false belief or conception” when we look at a work of art. Arthur C. Danto’s discussion of illusion (in the sense of false belief or conception) shows clearly why we should hold this view:

“If illusion is to occur, the viewer cannot be conscious of any properties that really belong to the medium, for to the degree that we perceive that it is a medium, illusion is effectively aborted. So the medium must, as it were, be invisible, and this requirement is perfectly symbolized by the plate of glass which is presumed transparent, something we cannot see but only see through (as consciousness is transparent in the sense that we are not conscious of it but only of its objects)…So conceived, it is the aim of imitation to conceal from the viewer the fact that it is an imitation, which is conspicuously at odds with Aristotle’s thought that the knowledge of imitation accounts for its pleasure. In Plato’s it evidently did, and it is this form of the theory I am working with now. Taken as a theory of art, what imitation theory amounts to is a reduction of the artwork to its content, everything else being supposedly invisible—or if visible, then an excrescence, to be overcome by further illusionistic technology.”

Art can be pro-Medium or anti-Medium; the Medium can be seen as a glory, or at least as a necessity, as it was for the Renaissance painter exploring perspective, as it was for Plato, in which the Medium equalled “measurement” which comes to the “rescue” of blind imitation, as it was for Shelley, who said the poet would be a fool not to use rhyme, and as it was for Poe, a Medium-based writer if there ever was one, frustrating the typical reader of autobiographical content. An important point here: the glory of the Medium is not something “artificial,” even as it escapes the “ephemeral fact” in the “scientific-how-to” of its Medium-ness. The rectangular window of the Renaissance painter pictures reality not artificially, so much as naturally and scientifically. Rhyme and meter belong to science; they are not artificialities getting  in the way of reality, so much as a concession to how vast and unknowable reality qua reality is, making measurement and limit necessary, not only for art, but for knowing reality at all. And further, the Medium works with Content; the Medium does not simply exist statically by itself.

And then we have the anti-Medium school, which really does believe in a Reality better known without the nuisance of the bullying, “old-fashioned” limitations of the Medium. This includes, really, the entire Modernist project of the last 200 years, which attempts to either fight free of the Medium’s limitations, or hold it up as a joke or a gimmick.

So here we are: Wordsworth is an early Modernist who is best known—even as he worked brilliantly in poetic forms—for praising poems which imitated the “real speech of real men:” the implication of this revolutionary project is that reality—the real speech of real men— can be conveyed “without poetry, or that cumbersome Medium known as “Verse,” which, the Reality-loving Modernist is quick to point out, is “artificial,” just as Renaissance perspective is “artificial.” To the Modernist, all art is “artificial,” and the quicker we get rid of this diversion, the better. We have already pointed out how wrong-headed this is; but we should point out here that indeed, if the Medium is too removed from Reality, if it is badly or ineptly wrought, then, yes, it will be artificial and inept, in the very sense of the Modernist critique. But the Modernist threw out the baby with the bath water. For the Modernist, the Medium itself, no matter how excellent, became a nuisance and an enemy.

Perhaps we are being unfair to Wordsworth; since he did work in the medium of poetic formalism, what he meant perhaps, with his explicit talk of the “the speech of real men” was only his way of saying that his medium was a vehicle for the real, and not a medium, only. Just as Plato called measure beautiful, Wordsworth, in the same vein, was insightful enough to intuit plain speech as poetry. But not so. Art either stoops or elevates. It either pretends to give us reality-without-medium or acknowledges that art is reality-through-medium. The gods of Keats are more artistically profound than the beggars of Wordsworth, or, more importantly, Keats’s gods are not further from reality than Wordsworth’s beggars, and are closer to reality, if Keats uses the Medium of Verse better. No one can claim an over-arching reality which is superior to medium and form. Ever.

Poe laughed at Wordsworth’s apology for his own poetry’s “awkwardness” in W.’s “Introduction to Lyrical Ballads;” the medium of music was necessary for poetry’s enjoyment, Poe felt, and in his little essay, “Letter to B.,” Poe quotes some awkward lines of pure doggerel from Wordsworth for the purpose of ridicule, and refers to the “doctrine” of the “Lake School” as overly “metaphysical.” By contrast, Poe had nothing but good things to say of Keats’ poetry. Pleasure. Idealism. Medium. Music. These are mandatory for the poet. If one wishes to be “wise” or “political” or “realistic” or “informative,” let the author use prose. This advice could not be more simple. Which is why, perhaps, the educated today ignore it.

WINNER:POE

 

 

 

THE CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHERS DESIRE THE SWEET 16!

Plato of The Republic matches up in Round Two with Philip Sidney, poet and author of “A Defense of Poetry,” who died fighting for Queen Elizabeth against Catholic Spain.

Plato was the greatest pro-poetry philosopher, despite those who think the opposite is true.

Sidney, in his Defense, praises Plato, and well, of course. The poet never affirms, and therefore he does not lie, says the clever Sidney, and this is true of The Republic, too, an invented place. In the ideality of its invention, a poem is going to kick the poets out, for only one poet belongs to the true poem. The poet is not in the Republic. The poet authors it. And only then do we begin to understand.

As poets, we each carry around our own Republic, in which no other poet is admitted.  And this is how Plato shows the way to the true—Republic.  There are many heavens inside of heaven.

Plato defeats Sidney in Round Two. PLATO IS IN THE SWEET 16!

***

Aristotle must get past Dante to advance in the tournament: another philosopher battles his student—Dante lived in the dark ages before Plato was widely translated, when Aristotle was “the Philosopher” among scholars and poets.

Dante’s mission, like that of Thomas Aquinas, was to reconcile Aristotle’s scholarship with Christianity, and, clever Dante puts Aristotle’s moral divisions (from Aristotle’s Ethics) in hell, and Christianity reigns in heaven. Reconciliation, indeed!  It is similar to how poets like Sidney reconciled “defenses” of poetry with Plato: the Poem, the Republic, Heaven, the Ideal, is true, self-justifying, and knowledge-seeking.

Dante upsets the mighty Aristotle and advances to the Sweet 16.

***

Is it some accident of fate that places Aquinas against…Pope?  The latter is a poet of such remarkable dexterity and reasoning on all things human, poetic and divine, that what chance does a mere 13th century theologian, dividing up reality to serve Aristotle—the body—the soul—and virtue, in the name of eternal salvation, have?

Presumptuous Man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind!
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why JOVE’S Satellites are less than JOVE?
Of Systems possible, if ’tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?
Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
Nay, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho’ labour’d on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
When the dull Ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God:
Then shall Man’s pride and dullness comprehend
His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;
Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought;
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Alexander Pope

It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways. First, because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion, as is evident from induction. Now it has been already proved (Q. 2, A. 3), that God is the First Mover, and is Himself unmoved. Therefore it is clear that God is not a body. Secondly, because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality. But every body is in potentiality because the continuous, as such, is divisible to infinity; it is therefore impossible that God should be a body. Thirdly, because God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.

Thomas Aquinas

This is what invisible reason looks like: in verse, colored by a hectoring poet; in theology, manifested by a theologian logical to a fault.

Pope and Aquinas both belong to that long line of thinkers (dead white males) who justify the ways of God to Man and believe the world made by God is “the best of all possible worlds.”

This sort of thinking cannot be justified by the modern mind or the modern temper, which fixes on known imperfections and slides along with its morality based on that.  The perfection does not translate into what the moderns understand, and Pope: “Of course it’s not going to look like perfection to you, you worm!” doesn’t make the modern feel much better.

The issue is really one of: what is the universe? And how much of the universe can we trace downward to particulars and upward to abstraction at the same time?  Those who contemplate this are philosophers and worthy of the name.  Poets, and all who involve themselves in Letters, ought to pursue this question, as well.

Pope’s poetry propels him to victory.   Alexander Pope is in the Sweet 16!

***

In the last Classical Bracket contest, Addison duels Maimonides.

We shall look, very much at random, at a sample of writing, and therein determine the winner on the basis of this. Addison wrote an exemplary play and both men wrote so much; we can only look at moments.

 

I mentioned several characters which want explanation to the generality of readers: among others, I spoke of a Pretty Fellow; but I have received a kind admonition in a letter, to take care that I do not omit to show also what is meant by a Very Pretty Fellow, which is to be allowed as a character by itself, and a person exalted above the other by a peculiar sprightliness, as one who, by a distinguishing vigour, outstrips his companions, and has thereby deserved and obtained a particular appellation, or nickname of familiarity. Some have this distinction from the fair sex, who are so generous as to take into their protection those who are laughed at by the men, and place them for that reason in degrees of favour. The chief of this sort is Colonel Brunett, who is a man of fashion, because he will be so; and practices a very jaunty way of behaviour, because he is too careless to know when he offends, and too sanguine to be mortified if he did know it. Thus the colonel has met with a town ready to receive him, and cannot possibly see why he should not make use of their favour, and set himself in the first degree of conversation. Therefore he is very successfully loud among the wits, familiar among the ladies, and dissolute among the rakes. Thus he is admitted in one place, because he is so in another; and every man treats Brunett well, not out of his particular esteem for him, but in respect to the opinion of others. It is to me a solid pleasure to see the world thus mistaken on the good-natured side; for it is ten to one but the colonel mounts into a general officer, marries a fine lady, and is master of a good estate, before they come to explain upon him. What gives most delight to me in this observation, is, that all this arises from pure nature, and the colonel can account for his success no more than those by whom he succeeds. For these causes and considerations, I pronounce him a true woman’s man, and in the first degree, “a very pretty fellow.” The next to a man of this universal genius, is one who is peculiarly formed for the service of the ladies, and his merit chiefly is to be of no consequence. I am indeed a little in doubt, whether he ought not rather to be called a “very happy,” than a “very pretty” fellow? For he is admitted at all hours: all he says or does, which would offend in another, are passed over in him; and all actions and speeches which please, doubly please if they come from him: no one wonders or takes notice when he is wrong; but all admire him when he is in the right. By the way it is fit to remark, that there are people of better sense than these, who endeavour at this character; but they are out of nature; and though, with some industry, they get the characters of fools, they cannot arrive to be “very,” seldom to be merely “pretty fellows.” But where nature has formed a person for this station amongst men, he is gifted with a peculiar genius for success, and his very errors and absurdities contribute to it; this felicity attending him to his life’s end. For it being in a manner necessary that he should be of no consequence, he is as well in old age as youth; and I know a man, whose son has been some years a pretty fellow, who is himself at this hour a “very” pretty fellow.

Joseph Addison

 

Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.”

Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration. “It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfectionwhich is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. This is equivalent to saying that a certain man was rebellious and extremely wicked, wherefore his nature was changed for the better, and he was made to shine as a star in the heavens.” Such was the purport and subject of the question, though not in the exact words of the inquirer.

Now mark our reply, which was as follows:–“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition. Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation; namely, the intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that “man was created in the form and likeness of God.” On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandments, as it is said: “And the Lord God commanded Adam” (Gen. ii. 16)–for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding. Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g., it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical,” it is “good” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tob and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Ps. viii. 6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper. Then he fully understood the magnitude of the loss he had sustained, what he had forfeited, and in what situation he was thereby placed. Hence we read, “And ye shall be likeelohim, knowing good and evil,” and not “knowing” or “discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words “true and false,” not “good and evil.” Further observe the passage, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. iii. 7): it is not said, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw”; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong. Besides, you must know that the Hebrew word pakaḥ used in this passage is exclusively employed in the figurative sense of receiving new sources of knowledge, not in that of regaining the sense of sight. Comp., “God opened her eyes” (Gen. xxi. 19). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah xxxviii. 8). “Open ears, he heareth not” (ibid. Xlii. 20), similar in sense to the verse, “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. xii. 2). When, however, Scripture says of Adam, “He changed his face (panav) and thou sentest him forth” Job xiv. 20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away. For panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires. In accordance with this interpretation, our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labour, as it is said, “Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee” (Gen. iii. 18), “By the sweat of thy brow,” etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, “And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken.” He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: comp., “Thou shalt eat the grass of the field” (Gen. iii. 18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, “Adam unable to dwell in dignity, was brought to the level of the dumb beast. May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed.”

-Moses Maimonides

Maimonides reasons like a champion when he discourses on the punishment of Adam, pointing out that truth and falsehood are not the same as (moral) good and bad—the “apparent” truths.  But we are thoroughly charmed by Addison’s “Very Pretty Fellow,” a wonderful observation of human nature—who reminds us of the Adam of Maimonides.  It is true: humans are obsessed with good and bad—with morality, to the degree they do not discern pure truth from falsehood, and this is our “curse.” It is not that morality is not important, but it is a step down from the reasoning power of the intellect.  The contestants compliment one another, even as they fight to eliminate the other, and in this case, the more modern moment of example-citing triumphs, though we hate to say goodbye to the Jewish scholar.

Joseph Addison wins, and advances to the Sweet 16!

BOCCACCIO BATTLES SIDNEY

Philip Sidney: loved Christ, poetry and Plato

BOCCACCIO:

They say that poetry is absolutely of no account , and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of the gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things. They cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors.

Poetry proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adores the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction. Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, nay, counterfeit sky, land, sea, adorn young maidens with flowery gardens, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry. Yet if any man who who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a laudable poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be wrought out are wanting—I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric.

 

SIDNEY:

 

Now for the poet, he doesn’t affirm, and therefore never lies.

The poet never makes any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.

Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Poetry may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of its sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused.

Now Plato his name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all the philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical. Yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides like ungrateful apprentices, were not content to set up shops for themselves but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which, by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them, the more they hated them.

Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. The poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods, not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. One may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the cause why oracles ceased, of the divine providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams, which the poets indeed superstitiously observed, and truly (since they had not the light of Christ) did much better in it than the philosophers, who shaking off superstition, brought in atheism. Plato therefore (whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist) meant not in general of poets to misuse, but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief), perchance (as he thought) nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning: who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.

 

We love how Sidney understands that “Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry.”  Sidney is more subtle than Boccaccio, handling the same theme: poets are bad/good. If only poetry had a monopoly on “lewd;” it would be more popular: Boccaccio is right of course, as is Sidney, poetry can be naughty or nice; it isn’t poetry that is ever the problem—the question is, who is using it and what are they using it for? Today we don’t ask this question: we merely whine that no one reads it—without defining what it is.

 

WINNER: SIDNEY

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