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  • Speculative Philosophy and Speculative Style
  • Donald Phillip Verene (bio)

Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.

—A. N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education

Introduction: The Ancient Quarrel

In a digression, Heraclides of Pontus, in his dialogue Perites Apnou, "On the woman who stopped breathing," attributes the coining of the word "philosopher" to Pythagoras (Gottschalk 1980, 23-25). Leon, tyrant of Phlius, impressed with the ingenuity and speech of Pythagoras, asked him what skill or sophia he possessed. In his well-known reply, Pythagoras said that he was not a sophos but a philosophos, perhaps implying, as Diogenes Laertius reports, [End Page 33] that only the gods are wise—a clever response, so as not to arouse suspicion that he might possess a divine power, transcending Leon's political power. When asked further, to say what the nature of such a person was, Pythagoras likened the philosophoi to the spectators at the Great Games, those who attend them with the sole purpose to see what occurs, not to compete or to conduct business transactions.

From the time of Pythagoras to the appearance of the Platonic Socrates in the tenth book of the Republic, the Greek world had not resolved the question of whether the sayings and writings of the philosophoi were a new kind of poetry or embodied a new kind of knowledge. Were the thoughts resulting from this philia to be regarded as an extension of Homer, the poet of poets, whose wisdom was conveyed through the recitations of the rhapsodes? Or were these speculations to take their audience into another sense of things? This is the question Plato decides to answer before engaging his readers in the myth of Er that concludes the Republic.

The Platonic Socrates holds Homer in the highest regard as the poet who educated Greece, but whose teachings cannot be admitted in the ideal city. For, "if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law [nomos] and that argument [logos] which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community" (Plato 1991, 290). Poetry can be admitted into the city only if its productions are governed by virtue. If poetry is simply admitted, the speech of images and emotions will rule over the speech of ideas and the good.

To explain this position to the poets and the lovers of poetry, let us, as philosophers and founders of this city in speech, say to them, lest they "convict us for a certain harshness and rusticity, that there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry." Let us say further that if they "have any argument to give showing that they should be in a city with good laws, we should be delighted to receive them back from exile, since we are aware that we ourselves are charmed by them." Even the lovers of wisdom have an inborn love of poetry. "But as long as it's not able to make its apology, when we listen to it, we'll chant this argument [logos] we are making to ourselves as a countercharm, taking care against falling back again into this love, which is childish and belongs to the many [hoi polloi]" (Plato 1991, 290–91). [End Page 34]

Whether or not there actually is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry we do not know, but we will say so in an effort to make the poets understand that the criticism of their productions is not just that of a few thinkers who are going against the longstanding Homeric basis of Greek paideia. The issue instead is the determination of what philosophy is. Its outcome sets the agenda of Western thought. The poets and the philosophers are makers, but they are not craftsmen. They are not makers of objects. They are makers in words. The sense of poiein as "to make" must include not only the composition of poetry but the speechmaking of philosophy.

Although on the...


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