Thursday, January 11, 2007

philosophy vs poetry

Thanks to Plato, there has been a rather silly but very interesting controversy as to philosophy vs poetry. Plato started it by demeaning poets, especially Homer, for telling so many tall tales that had little to do with understanding and living in the "real" world. For Plato, wisdom could only be found through the pursuit of philosophy, not listening to the epic adventures of Achilles and Ulysses. Homer was for Plato what pop culture is for us today: a lot of fluff and goofiness to keep us entertained, nothing more. A kind of "opiate for the people" so to speak.

(For an interesting discussion of this topic, check out Harold Bloom's book "Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?")

Yet Plato's disciple Aristotle certainly didn't seem to view poetry as a bad thing, not even the epic poet Homer. Aristotle even went so far as to lay down some ground rules as to what a really good poem should be like, but there is no suggestion from Aristotle that poetry had anything to do with the pursuit of wisdom. To him, it was just a neat little art form, not much more.

But here's the question: what is the best possible source of wisdom, poetry or philosophy? Is it right for philosophers to ignore or even despise poetry, or is the wisdom they are seeking right there in Homer, Shakespeare and Whitman?

For me personally, I think it is rather obvious that the best practical wisdom and insight comes from poetry, not Plato and Aristotle. If you ever have a hard time getting to sleep, just pick up "the complete works of Aristotle" sometime and wade through that. You'll be asleep within four pages, guaranteed.

But if you want something with a bit of action to it, get Robert Fagle's translation of Homer's Iliad. Yeah, the Iliad has it's dry spots, but starts out with a bang, and there is a deep wisdom to Homer that Socrates, Plato and many others simply do not appreciate.

Why is poetry a better source of wisdom than philosophic texts? Because ever since Plato and Aristotle, philosophy has limited itself to that which can be understood through reason alone, like math, logic, and those sort of things. Lately, a rational empiricist approach to science has left us even more alienated, along with the rise of militant atheism in the 19th century. There was never much interest in emotions or feelings, rather emotions were thought to be the antithesis of good philosophy (perhaps with the exception of "love" --but love can be an attitude as well as a feeling). The culmination of this sort of "dissing" of emotions can be found in the fictional person of Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.

Homer, on the other hand, begins his huge epic poem Iliad with the 'rage of Achilles'. It is emotional from the very first words, and cares little about finding out the secrets of the physical world, and is much more interested in delving into the secrets and the darkness in men's hearts.

The same can be said for the great epic poem of the Indian/Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad Gita, where prince Arjuna in goaded into action by Lord Krishna (the avatar of God). The focus of the Gita is not on the secrets of the physical world, but the secrets of existence itself, and our relation to our own existence. It is much closer to the Iliad than it is to Plato's dialogs, and takes emotions and feelings quite seriously, if only so that one can transcend them, into a higher realm of being.

But those texts that are the most honest and the most "down-to-earth" when it comes to emotions, are the books of the Christian/Hebrew Bible. Unlike Plato and even the Gita, emotions are never downplayed or made to be irrelevant, but are celebrated, commended, and even condemned. The most emotional character of them all, especially in the Hebrew writings, is that of God himself! While he's mostly (and inaccurately) remembered for his anger, it must be contrasted with his love and concern for his people, and those of other nations as well. He is a loving God who gets angry when is love is spurned, not an angry God who demands to be loved. When God gets the most angry, it is often due when the Israelites get caught up in the typical concerns of life: getting rich, getting along with others, making a name for yourself, meaningless religious rituals, and that sort of stuff, and by doing so, they begin mistreating the poor, the widows, the homeless orphans. That's the behavior that God gets most angry with: selfishness. Just read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah to get a taste of it.

Many of the great biblical books and biblical passages are poetry. The exception is the first five books of Moses, which can sometimes be as dry and boring as reading a meatloaf recipe, but some of the greatest stories and insights come from those first five books as well, and there are parts which certainly seem much more poetic than narrative. I would go so far as to say that the first chapters of Genesis are more of a poem, and an epic poem at that, than a literal creation account given my an impartial observer. Those first few chapters of Genesis are also a source of deep wisdom, for those who can contemplate it's depths.

I have come to the conclusion (and in complete agreement with Harold Bloom) that in order for one to be truly wise, to really have understanding, one must know and understand poetry. You can get by without reading Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, but you will not be wise without knowing the Iliad, King Lear, and Leaves of Grass. But more importantly, you must come to know the great poetry of the Bible, especially Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. These biblical poems are not always that easy to read, nor understand, but still they sit at the very crux of western civilization, even more so than Homer or Virgil. (I know there are classics professors who would scoff at this, but it is my humble opinion anyways.) Homer and Virgil you can do without, (just rent "Troy" instead) but those three books of the Hebrew cannot, not if wisdom is your desire. After that, then read the Greeks, Romans, and Indians. Or better yet: Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. And then Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and James.

Biblical poems are not the end of wisdom, but they are a great beginning.

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom..."
(Psalm 111:10)

<>< TM


multisubj yb said...

Well presented, though biased towards bible. This is a natural, birth affiliation. Pl. do not be afraid of comments and enable moderation. After all, your savior faced crucifixion. Can't you face criticism?

theodicy said...

multisubj yb:

My bias towards the Bible has little to do with birth affiliation, and a lot to do with my search for wisdom. In America, there is freedom to be whatever religion or belief you want to be, despite what your parents were or their desires for one your family will kill you if you decide to be a Buddhist rather than a Christian. They won't even disown you.

As for comments, my blog, like most has comment moderation turned on so that I don't have to go around deleting spam posts for erectile dysfunction and that sort of thing...

Everything I post is open for criticism, as long as it is honest and intelligent criticism, not just name calling or insults. I don't want this blog to turn into another MySpace or YouTube type environment.

<>< TM

Anonymous said...

well said.

Anonymous said...

But have you read it all—read . . . EVERYTHING?

Have you read the Koran, The Book of Mormon, Bakhtin, Confucius, Hafiz, etc. etc.?

If no, you are not fit to judge that the Bible is a better source of wisdom than any of those I named above and a myriad more—unless you judge through faith, which is an altogether different "judgement."