- Poetic Knowledge and Cultural Renewal
It has been over a decade since the appearance of John Haldane’s essay, “Thomistic Ethics in America,” first delivered as a lecture at the University of Notre Dame and subsequently published in the pages of Logos. Haldane’s essay is in part an encomium to those thinkers and institutions that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, reinvigorated academic moral debate in the United States with arguments inspired by the thought of Aquinas. But Haldane’s essay is also a plea for greater promotion of Thomism beyond the walls of academia. The essay urges what Haldane calls the “restoration of serious moral thinking in American public life and in the culture more widely.”1 Haldane diagnoses a cultural degeneracy in American life, rooted in a pervasive and crippling moral skepticism. How to combat it? “With the truth,” is Haldane’s reply, “and not just any truth but that which matters most; the set of general truths about the structure of reality and about the human condition.”2 It is not that such truths had not been re-proposed and defended in the Thomistic revival Haldane praises. But even this revival was not immune from controversy. Debate throughout the 1980s and 1990s between the so-called “new” natural-law [End Page 17] theorists and “classical” natural-law theorists drew attention to the question of how the facts of human nature may or may not be related to our moral obligations. The old debates about fact’s relation to moral value returned in a dispiriting Thomistic reprise. In his essay Haldane offers his own reasons why we should reject the disassociation of fact and value, yet he does so not merely to score an academic point. For Haldane, the recovery of the idea of moral value’s dependency upon the facts of human nature is the key to the restoration of a truly serious moral culture.
By identifying the roots of modern skepticism in the divorce of moral value from fact, Haldane indicates that the cure for our cultural ills lies in resources other than the ones commonly available in our postmodern world. What is needed is a revival of forms of premodern moral understanding. The general strategy Haldane offers is that of presenting “ethical claims in terms that show their ground in commonly known facts about human nature.” Yet he concedes: “It is part of the cultural problem that those facts have themselves become somewhat obscured.” So what to do? Haldane submits: “I think the effort to render [facts about human nature] vivid in phenomenological consciousness is best pursued by those possessed of literary and artistic imagination, rather than by philosophers.”3 Haldane’s suggestion is that works of literary and artistic imagination are the most persuasive means of showing a degenerate culture the grounding of a Thomistic ethics in the facts of human nature. In short, Haldane proposes a retrieval of what Jacques Maritain calls “poetic knowledge.”
By poetic knowledge, we should understand a kind of knowledge that comes about via engagement with “poetic” imitations of reality. The term “poetry” is here used in the Aristotelian sense, as including all narrative art and lyric, though we might extend it even further to include music, painting, and dance, understanding with Aristotle that all of these arts are in their various modes mimetic of human character. The promise of poetic knowledge is that it makes a claim to real knowledge, a knowledge that cannot be substituted for by more purely conceptual, analytic modes of knowing. In this [End Page 18] article, I would like to explore the rich relationship poetic knowledge enjoys with moral philosophy in the Thomistic tradition—how it first makes possible and even, in a sense, helps complete our moral understanding. I also want to explore the ways in which poetic knowledge can help make Thomistic ethics an even more potent force of cultural renewal in our time. The poetry I will consider in what follows is the poetry I know best: works of narrative fiction. Nonetheless, what I argue has, I believe, intriguing implications also for drama in all its forms, lyric poetry, music, painting, and dance...