Philosophical Works on Poetry (Plato, Aristotle, Percy Bysshe Shelley)

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In understanding Aristotle’s contrast between the poet and the philosopher, it is important to first understand what he means in discussing the two disciplines. He discusses the two in his work “Poetics.” Aristotle describes history as the account of a given subject over time. History is merely the relay of information from events that have already transpired. Poetry, meanwhile, is a form of imitation. Aristotle compares them as the arts of discussing what “has been” and what “could be,” respectively. He was under the impression that love for poetry stemmed from an instinctive pleasure that humans derive from imitation (mimesis), as poetry is an imitation of reality. For Aristotle, this imitative art gives the poet a certain flexibility in their pursuit of “ideal” truth, as poetry deals not with particular truths, but universal ones. Aristotle thus sees poetry as a legitimate pursuit of universal truth – particularly in morality and ethics- and is therefore a higher, more philosophical discipline than history and a perfectly acceptable method of moral teaching. He depicts this poetry as the source of the earliest lessons for children, even unknowingly, as it fulfills their sensational needs for harmony and rhythm. He further finds the poetic induction of catharsis, meant to be the purging, purification, and clarification of pent-up emotions, to be a positive moral force. These factors, in conjunction with the poet’s pursuit and depiction of universal truth, helps to make the activity pleasurable for its subscribers, which then acts as an amplifier to its cultural value.

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These opinions as it regards to the values and virtues of poetry served as a great departure from the views of Aristotle’s predecessor, Plato, who lambasted poetry as being based in the realm of falsehood. Plato was in the business of pondering the ideal, or the depiction of “ultimate reality.” By this he meant that an idea of an object serves as its purest form. Fiction, being a depiction of reality, which is then a depiction of the ideal, finds itself two steps too far from the ideal for Plato to take serious interest. It was thus an art based in illusion. Of this he says, “The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior and has inferior offspring,” and he continues that the creator of such art is dealing “in appearance only.” This kind of art, to him, fails to appeal to any rationality or truth. He uses the allegory of the carpenter and the chair.

Culturally, he opposed the romantic and sensational depictions that poets made of sensations as in pleasure and strife, and was concerned that it was instructive to moral decays in the pragmatism and frugality of people, and especially children. He was concerned that poetry had not only failed to cultivate reason, but that its emphasis on emotional thinking was a direct obstacle for its cultivation. Plato concluded that poetry’s harboring of undesirable passions, its lack of knowledge elucidation, and ultimately its lack of educational value are all sufficient reasons to abandon it. In the Republic, he even insinuates that poetry should be censored in his proposed “Polis” by force; “These tales must not have admittance to our State, whether they are supposed to have allegorical meaning or not.” Even Plato, however, can largely be seen as a poet in the way that Aristotle had defined it. Plato’s writings are scrupulously structured for rhetorical purposes into monoliths that are meant to serve as instruction and not merely as information. To summarize, Plato saw philosophy and imitative art as inherently counterpoised and incompatible with one another.

Enter Percy Bysshe Shelley, prominent 19th century romantic/epic poet. In his essay “Defence of Poetry,” Shelley makes two categorical statements about poets; He claims that “All authors of revolutions in opinion” are poets, and he therefore concludes that they are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This is because, as he says, they possess the “faculty of approximation” which allows them to communicate powerful emotions that can, as Aristotle worded it, be an invocation of catharsis in the consumer. Further, as Shelley claims, the poets of history are to be largely credited with creations of language, art, architecture, and even civilization itself. Shelley, viewing these influences as not only powerful forces but also positive ones, has his philosophy of poetics much more in line with Aristotle’s than Plato’s. Also like Aristotle, Shelley postulated that the urge to be poetic was instinctive, and even suggested the same instinct harboring an affinity for rhythm and harmony was the one that produced the necessity for language. Further like Aristotle, Shelley co-sponsored poetry as a means of achieving universal truth, and further acknowledged its cultural value.

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