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  • Aquinas on Poetry and Theology
  • Paul Murray OP (bio)

The hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.

Summa Theologiae, I, q.1, a. 9, ad 2.

What best uncovers the truth of things? For most people, I suspect, the obvious answer to this question is our capacity to think, the ordinary yet extraordinary gift of human reason. But, if that's the case, what are we to say about poetry in relation to truth? Does the genius of poetry serve to reveal truth or does it obscure it? This question is almost as old as imaginative literature itself. As one commentator puts it,

Plato raised it early, and answered it negatively. He denied poetry any claim to truth, in both the logical and the moral senses of the word: —the logical, because poetry, according to him, imitates an imitation of reality and is thus thrice removed from the truth of the Ideas; the moral, because poetry is a lie, a fiction that "feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up." Aristotle was the better philosopher here. He saw that poetry grew out of man's mimetic and harmonic instincts, [End Page 63] and that, though dealing in fictions, it was akin to philosophy in its adumbrations of the universal: "Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical than history, for poetry tends to express the universal, while history describes the particular."1

Aquinas, as we know, is often inclined to take the side of Aristotle and, in this matter, he has no hesitation in emphasizing the mimetic genius of the art. He writes for example, "Poetry makes use of metaphors for the sake of representation since as human beings we naturally take delight in representation."2 And he says further, "The poet's task is to lead us to something virtuous by some excellent description."3 But elsewhere Aquinas speaks of poetry or poetic knowledge as being "deficient in truth" (defectum veritatis).4 What can he possibly mean by such a declaration? At first hearing, it sounds like a rather unlikely statement for a Christian artist and theologian to make. Is Aquinas not aware that divine revelation itself, in its final and definitive expression, makes use again and again of the language of poetry?

Aquinas, as it happens, has no hesitation whatever in asserting that in Holy Scripture "spiritual truths are fittingly conveyed with bodily metaphors."5 He cites a passage from the Old Testament in which, through one of the prophets, the God of Israel declares: "I have multiplied visions, and I have used likenesses by ministry of the prophets" (Hos 2:10).6 And, then, in a further, clear affirmation of the language of metaphor, Aquinas notes: "God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. It is natural for human beings to come to intellectual truths through sense perception, since all our knowledge takes its origin from the senses."7

Aquinas, when addressing the subject of poetry in these texts, is clearly affirmative in his judgment. Why, then, does he find it necessary elsewhere to speak about poetry as deficient in truth? To answer this question it will be helpful to understand the context in which the phrase defectum veritatis occurs. In the Summa, for example, when Aquinas employs the phrase, his concern is to compare [End Page 64] poetic knowledge and expression with sacred knowledge and expression.8 And he is impressed by the fact that poetry, unlike theology, tends by its very nature to resist abstraction. In that sense, it remains inaccessible to speculative thinking. He writes, "Poetic knowledge is about things which because of their deficiency of truth (propter defectum veritatis) cannot be laid hold of by reason."9 Walter Ong, commenting on this statement, remarks,

[Aquinas] is aware of the unsatisfactory and inconclusive nature of discussion about any poem. Because of its peculiar insistence on remaining concreted within the act of apprehension itself, a poem resists the very abstraction by which we would understand it. Abstraction, in one way or another, destroys it, dissolves it away. So we must content ourselves largely with simply apprehending the poem by reading or hearing it read, and as for...


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