The Ancient Quarrel


Raphael’s The School of Athens

Are you a poet or a philosopher? Do you look at the world as beautiful or knowable? Is mystery or intelligibility more important? This is the “ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry, truth and beauty, and it goes all the way back to Plato.

In the tenth book of The Republic, Socrates considers the place of poetry in a just state in dialogue with Glaucon (who really isn’t given any good lines). Following the theory of forms, he proposes that imitative art, such as painting and poetry, is thrice-removed from reality. First, is the form that all other instances of a thing derive from. Second, is the thing that is physically crafted. Finally, there is the imitation of craft through poetry or painting. Since in Platonic thought, the form is primary and truth is prioritized, and since poetry encourages lower passions instead of reason, poets are exiled from the Republic.

There’s an underlying assumption to this argument that I find most striking: poetry is under the jurisdiction of the state. It is something that should yield to the same hierarchical structure from the Philosopher-King on down. This is a fascinating contrast to Socrates as gadfly in other dialogues, such as Euthyphro. Ultimately only poetry ordered toward governance, like hymns are safe from exile.

Socrates, however, also acknowledges some good in the affective aspect of poetry. He notes how both he and Glaucon have been charmed by poetry and how much he holds Homer in awe. In a final move, he offers to let poets back in if an argument can be raised to defend them, but this does not outweigh the importance of truth in his system.

Aristotle raises that defense in the Poetics. While Plato’s argument through Socrates begins with an ontological analysis of the human soul and its faculties and draws from that a final end for the individual and the state that has no room for poetry and grief, Aristotle begins with an examination of imitative art and the origin of poetry. This is a decisive break. Rather than examining poetry from the standpoint of a perfect political order, Aristotle begins with the natural order. In this, he sees two causes in the origin of poetry. First, imitation is natural. Children imitate others from a young age, and Aristotle sees this as a defining quality of the human person. Second, this same imitation leads to delight, and an important aspect of this delight is that in witnessing imitation, one also learns. Here, education and the affective response are linked in a way that seems to be a direct response to Socrates’ disbelief that Homer had educated anyone, or more importantly from the perspective of The Republic, benefited any state.

Aristotle then moves on to create a taxonomy of poetics. The origins and distinctive features of tragedy, comedy, and the epic are discussed as though they are different species.

Like with Plato’s use of the phrase “ancient quarrel” that has come to identify this debate today, it can be exciting to read how ancient the concept that iambic pentameter is most like speech is:

For the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial intonation.

I wonder what Gerard Manley Hopkins would have to say about this (oh, don’t be surprised, I wonder what Hopkins would have to say about basically everything). As a Classics professor, he would know all of these ancient texts intimately. Two of the translations linked to above, (The Republic and Euthyphro) are by one of Hopkins’s tutors, Benjamin Jowett. But he designed Sprung Rhythm to mimic natural speech while avoiding “same and tame” lines.

Now that, in good Aristotelian fashion, the origins are considered, the terms are defined, and the taxonomy is firmly in place, the purpose of poetry can be ascertained. For Plato and Socrates, poetry promoted lower faculties of the soul and led the listener away from the rule of reason, but for Aristotle, the end of poetry is the catharsis of strong emotions. In this way, poetry is not a liability for the state but an asset.

Plato begins with the question, “What is justice?” while Aristotle instead wonders what poetry is, leading to two different theories of mimesis. However, both the awe Socrates has for Homer and the delight at imitation that Aristotle describes, point to this shared core of the affective side of poetics.

So where do you stand on this most ancient of quarrels?

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