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Poets and Philosophers "Poetry is akin to philosophy . . ." A. N. Whitehead Professor Kitto quotes Plato's saying that "There is a longstanding quarrel between philosophy and poetry"; and he continues, "So there was : on the part of the philosophers, and most of all in Plato's own soul. But the poets were unconscious of it. Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides were philosophical poets if there ever were such, and myth . . . was their natural medium".1 Plato had no small contempt for the "knowledge" which poets gave us. He condemned it for being concerned only with copies of copies of reality, and for consequently misdirecting our attention away from the truly real. Professor Kitto remarks "It may well be that there were inferior tragic poets who deserved Plato's strictures, but so far as concerns the tragic poets whom we know, Plato's attack is absurd. It is the attack made on the artist by the philosopher who will not admit that there is any other road to the truth but his own".2 On the other hand we should be fair to Plato and put on record his willingness to "listen with friendly feelings" to anyone who will offer a defense of poetry, provided that it be in prose. The following pages amply satisfy this latter condition and their intention is as much to defend poetry against Plato as to defend philosophy against the charge of being hostile to poetry. We might note that poetry continues to be rejected from the citadel of knowledge, at least by certain philosophers. The charge brought against it is that poetry contains meaningless utterances. But the significant point is that a large part of traditional philosophy, namely metaphysics, to which Plato made such notable contributions, also shares the fate of poetry. The gates of the city of learning are closed to metaphysics since it also consists, so we are told, in the expression of nonsense. In fact metaphysics is in even worse plight than poetry since the nonsense of poetry is intentional, namely, with a view to aesthetic effect, whereas metaphysical nonsense is directly contrary to the intentions of the metaphysician. Poets talk nonsense because they want to : metaphysicians talk nonsense because they can't help it. 1 H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks, (Pelican Books, 1954). P- 201· 2 ibid. 373 374M. P. SLATTERY Thus professor Ayer tells us that "It is in fact very rare for a literary artist to produce sentences which have no literal meaning. And where this does occur, the sentences are carefully chosen for their rhythm and balance. If the author writes nonsense, it is because he considers it most suitable for bringing about the effects for which his writing is designed. The metaphysician, on the other hand, does not intend to write nonsense. He lapses into it through being deceived by grammar, or through committing errors of reasoning".3 It is significant to note that meaningfulness, in the above passage, is implicitly equated with the literal meaning of a term. This we find to be an excessively stringent attitude to language, and we doubt whether Plato, even with his suspicion of poets, would be so severe as this. Poets on the other hand, are more tolerant than philosophers. They are more generous with their praise and less exclusive in their attitude towards knowledge of reality. Dante, for example, did not stint his praise of Aristotle and St. Thomas. But Gerard Manley Hopkins is perhaps even more interesting in our present context since he seems to have considered that Duns Scotus expressed as a metaphysician what he himself felt as a poet. In his case then, we could even speak of a harmonic union between poetry and philosophy, each giving its appropriate expression to the same experience of reality. In his sonnet on "Duns Scotus's Oxford" Hopkins speaks of Scotus as he "who of all men most sways my spirits to peace; "Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not "Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;" W. H. Gardner, in his "Penguin Poets" edition of Hopkins' work, says of him that "he came across the writings of Duns Scotus, and in that subtle thinker's 'principle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 373-390
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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