A reflection on Aristotle’s Poetics
Throughout my musings, I have covered archaic philosophers from several different cultures, but I haven’t touched on the rich literary traditions from which these authors sprung. The works of the Early Greek Philosophers are smattered with the lines of Homers Iliad and Odyssey, while the Vedas form the base from which the Upanishads were wrought. In China, Confucius based his whole system of thought around the conservation, cultivation and propagation of the great works of earlier Zhou civilisation – the Five Classics. In this reflection, I hope to provide something of an apology – a defence – of my decision to pass over such influential texts, while at the same time considering the role which art of all forms, including literature, has to play in philosophy.
Firstly, why have I chosen – to this date – to pass over the great works of literature, transmitted both orally and in written format, in favour of those texts and authors considered to be more traditionally ‘philosophic.’ I would like to begin by remarking that it is not only these texts but all works of a mythologic nature. My reasoning lies in the roots of what I consider to be the important difference between seeking understanding and accepting a worldview. For me, despite the literary merits of the earliest epic, poetic and dramatic works, their intention is not to inquire, but rather to instruct. For me, the line that differentiates philosophy – as in the love of wisdom – is not the claim to perfect knowledge but rather the invitation to engage in the search for truth.
For myself, the superior text acts not as a catalogue of received wisdom – the reading and memorisation of which provides superior insight – but rather should act as a sharp slap in the face. We should be confronted, and the best text serves not as a comforting blanket which acts to soothe our egos and fluff the bigoted self-satisfaction of the ignorant but as a red-hot poker driving us on towards greater learning. If the only merit that a text can lay claim to is the ornateness of its prose or the novelty of its usage, then it serves only an aesthetic function.
However, I also want to point out that the beauty of a text does not preclude it from acting as the vehicle of transmission for greater insights. For myself, the humour and tragedy found in the writings of Plato only heighten the poignancy of their message. I have mentioned previously that one must be careful not to warp the minds of an audience through emotion (see on the Crowd). However, one equally fails to live up to the expectations of an individual pursuing learning if they render their thoughts in so obscure or dry a manner that they are impossible for the layperson to comprehend. To this end I find the obsession with arcane unintelligibility of the modern academy to be frustrating, for it shuts off their discourse from both understanding and critique.
The incomprehensibility of prose is not a new issue, for most of our history, the greatest minds of any age have been engaged in a desultory argument over the nuances of doctrine – often talking straight past one another. If generosity in spirit is a necessity for the learner to comprehend the works of others, then it is similarly a duty to provide one’s work in the most accessible of formats – thus limiting the opportunities for misunderstanding. In this sense, I think that literature does serve an important role for thinkers of all stripes – it provides a common vocabulary of terms, metaphors and phrases which can be used to transmit in shorthand the complex and difficult aspects of ones thought. In this sense, even if one must be a philosopher to understand the world, it necessary to become a poet to describe it. If this is the case, then truly art is too dangerous a subject to be left to the artists.
Johannes Vermeer, the Art of Painting, 1665–1668