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  • Lucky Truth
  • Robert Bringhurst (bio)

Opening statement to the Conference on Poetry and Philosophy, University of Warwick, 26 October 2007.


Plato is wonderfully clear and insistent that love is the foundation of philosophy, even though for him and for everyone else in his tradition, this insistence is belaboring the obvious. Plato speaks a language in which philosophy is called philo-sophia, love of wisdom. So do we, of course—but Plato wants to think that, while misguided individuals may deliberately tell lies, words themselves—Greek words at least—would never do so.

If only, in his language, poetry had happened to be called something like ὀντοφιλία (ontophilia, love of being) or φιλογαῖα (philogaia, love of the earth)—something descriptive of poetry’s posture. But poetry, in Greek, has a name that points to the joinery it involves and to what you might call the homesteading side of its nature. If Plato’s language, in which he placed such trust, had given him a different cue, he might have thought more fruitfully and charitably about what poetry and philosophy have in common.

Plato is also wonderfully certain that music lies at the root of the moral life, and he loves the idea that it lies at the root of ontology too. It puzzles me that neither he nor Aristotle ever draws the corresponding link between music and logic. Given the overlap—plain to them both—between music and poetry, this might have solved a problem. All that was missing (or so it seems to me) is the simple admission that a musical mode or scale is a syllogistic form; that truth has a musical ring; that logical conclusion and tonic resolution are allotropes of one another, forms of the same thing.

I, at any rate, find it fruitless and unappealing to try to speak of poetry and philosophy without bringing music into the core of the discussion. These three domains seem to me to form a kind of conceptual nucleus, where the involvement of all three is what it takes to hold any two of them together. And I think that this is so for a good reason: because poetry, truth, [End Page 197] and music are names for aspects of reality as well as names for things we make and do.

A musical education is now a rare thing in the so-called civilized world, and in its absence any conceptual or practical conjunction of poetry and philosophy is apt to be transitory or cold—or else a matter of blind luck. Luck and music, let us remember, have something to do with each other too. Music, you could say, is the lucky form of truth: truth in its most fortunate, favored condition. It may not be a universal or perpetual state of affairs, but it is a natural state of affairs—which we naturally try to emulate or replicate whenever we make music or write poetry or do philosophy.


T. S. Eliot turned as a young man from the study of philosophy to the practice of poetry. In those days, he had some harsh ideas about the verse-writing philosopher-poets Parmenides, Xenophanes, and Empedokles. He was more tolerant of Lucretius, on the curious ground that Lucretius was less inventive. “The original form of a philosophy,” Eliot wrote, “cannot be poetic.” Then he goes further: “Without a doubt, the effort of the philosopher proper, the man who is trying to deal with ideas in themselves, and the effort of the poet, who may be trying to realize ideas, cannot be carried on at the same time.”1 I am here to quarrel with that claim.

Poetry is a word with several related senses. Most importantly, in my view, it is a name for a characteristic or condition of reality. Poetry is the lucky form of reality, not just the lucky form of language—in the same way that music is the lucky form of truth, not just the lucky form of sound. If poetry is indeed a characteristic of reality, and if philosophy is the attempt to understand and accept reality, then poetry isn’t something philosophy needs to avoid (nor even something it can escape), and those “ideas...