The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy

The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy

Thomas Gould
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 346
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    The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy
    Book Description:

    Affecting audiences with depictions of suffering and injustice is a key function of tragedy, and yet it has long been viewed by philosophers as a dubious enterprise. In this book Thomas Gould uses both historical and theoretical approaches to explore tragedy and its power to gratify readers and audiences. He takes as his starting point Plato's moral and psychological objections to tragedy, and the conflict he recognized between "poetry"--the exploitation of our yearning to see ourselves as victims--and "philosophy"--the insistence that all good people are happy. Plato's objections to tragedy are shown to be an essential feature of Socratic rationalism and to constitute a formidable challenge even today. Gould makes a case for the rightness and psychological necessity of violence and suffering in literature, art, and religion, but he distinguishes between depictions of violence that elicit sympathy only for the victims and those that cause us to sympathize entirely with the perpetrators. It is chiefly the former, Gould argues, that fuel our responses not only to true tragedy but also to religious myths and critical displays of political rage.

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6186-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxviii)

    Pathos is our name for the power of some events to stir us to a mysteriously agreeable sadness. It is also our name for the emotions awakened by such an event, a mixture of tenderness and sympathy. When the occasion is some turn or observation in our own lives, pathos may be associated with a sense of loss; even then, however, it is thought to be of value and hardly painful at all. And when it is created by a drama or story, or by music or art, it may be esteemed for its ability to ennoble us or to...

      (pp. 4-7)

      The trial and execution of Socrates was a consequence of several different kinds of crisis, political as well as religious; but it is likely that one of the issues was the one stated most prominently in the actual charge against him. Socrates was accused of holding and fostering a vision of divinity that was incompatible with Athenian piety. He was thought to honor novel divinities, literally “novel divine things,” and to teach the young to do so also. In theApology(31 d 1) andEuthyphro(3 b 5) Plato appears to interpret the mention of novel divinity as a...

      (pp. 8-12)

      Plato’s earlier dialogues are dramatic recreations of the effect Socrates had on those whom he met in the marketplace. Plato wanted the whole world to share that special experience. Socrates is shown in the act of embarrassing or irritating the great or notorious as well as the obscure or very young. The contests often end without a resolution, but we are made to understand that the distress caused by Socrates’ unnerving questions can sometimes be the beginning of a new enlightenment.RepublicI may well be the last Platonic dialogue of this sort. As we pass to Book II and...

      (pp. 13-18)

      Plato’s Socratism was tested, as it were, by the totally unjust conviction and execution of Socrates in 399. Plato records his own revulsion at the event (Epistle7.325 a–c) and describes the grief of those who were present at the drinking of the poison (Phaedo116–17). And in 354 Plato had to endure the news that his much-loved student Dion, ruler of Syracuse, had been murdered at the instigation of one of his followers (a fellow member of Plato’s Academy).¹ In both cases the defeats were seen by Plato as Socratic victories. Socrates was not made unhappy in...

      (pp. 19-21)

      Although it is sometimes formulated without any reference to divinity, the basic principle of Socratism is really a theological premise or series of premises. Divinity is entirely good; all divine interventions in human affairs produce good and only good for the human beings; “good” means the same for mortals and for divinity; we must always start with our knowledge of “good” for mortals and infer from that which of the stories about gods and heroes are true holy stories and which are not. Plato’s objections to tragedy are also essentially theological. They grow directly and naturally from his Socratic objections...

      (pp. 22-28)

      None of the numerous occurrences ofpaschein/patheinin theIliadorOdysseyrequires us to assume that anything but bad is being endured.¹ Yet the occurrences in Homer do exhibit two contrasting uses: the speaker may believe that the suffering was brought on by the sufferer himself—that is, that it was punishment he deserved; or he might believe that the suffering was wholly unmerited.

      As we might expect from their dramatically different theodicies, the two epics give different weight to the two uses. In theOdysseyit is typically assumed that god-sent suffering is deserved. Menelaus, for instance, has...

      (pp. 29-35)

      Why plato had to return to the question of the poets at the end of theRepubliche himself makes clear. All had not been said yet, and besides, “it is clearer now” why the poets must be banished, “now that the various kinds of psyche have been distinguished” (595a 6-7). Plato’s moral and theological objections were set forth in Books II and III, but at that point in his argument he could not explain why even good men find tragedy and its anti-Socratic vision so appealing, a source of such pleasure.¹ Nor had he hit yet on the most...

      (pp. 36-48)

      We shall have many opportunities in Part II to examine the language ofpathosin the surviving tragedies. For the present I shall confine myself to two passages, passages in which the poet appears to address himself to the central question: why do we take such profound pleasure in pathē?

      The first passage occurs in the parodos of theAgamemnon.The dancers, respected elders of Argos, dread a newpathos,the murder of their king by his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, when he returns from Troy. (This event is called apathosatLibation Bearers1070, for instance.) They know it...

      (pp. 49-54)

      Only once does Aristotle say what the function of tragedy is, its final cause, its that-for-the-sake-of-which: through pity(eleos)and fear(phobos)it achieves a cleansing(katharsis)of pathēmata corresponding to these (Poetics1449 b 27–28).¹ The most important means for achieving this goal is the plot(mythos),especially plots that have reversals, recognitions, andpathē(1452 b 10).Pathēare defined as fatal or painful acts, “such as deaths in full view, ² violent pains, woundings, things like that.” Pity and fear are carefully defined (1453 a 4–5; cf.Rhetoric1385 b 13). Pity is what we...

      (pp. 55-62)

      Aristotle seems to have gone quite far toward an accommodation with the traditions that emphasizedpathē.Still, his admiration for popular religion is that of an outsider. On the whole, he found less to praise or imitate than Plato had. This is especially true of his references to the mysteries. We have two accounts of Aristotle’s attitude toward the mysteries; both probably refer to the same passage from his lost popular workOn Philosophy.¹

      Synesius, a learned Neoplatonist from Libya who was nevertheless a Christian bishop during the last five years of his life (he died about A.D. 414), tells...

    • 10 Pathos, pathos, passion, and Passion
      (pp. 63-69)

      The theological crisis called by Plato “the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” seemed less and less urgent as the fourth century progressed. The main reason for this appears to have been the resounding triumph (among the literate, at least) of Plato’s arguments in favor of “philosophy.” When one reasons, whether as theologian, moral teacher, or literary critic, one is employing the part of the psyche that “philosophy” appeals to. When we think rationally, “philosophy” seems merely right. How can we get people to improve their minds and character if we do not train them always to hold themselves responsible...

      (pp. 70-75)

      Inrepublicx Socrates expresses what seems to be a sincere hope on Plato’s part that partisans of poetry will be able to counter his arguments with a sound defense. Socrates warns his companions, however, that, if the defense proves inadequate, they will have to renounce their love for poetry, however distressing that renunciation may be. For the real contest is truly momentous, he says (megas . . . bo agōn . . . megas, Republic10.608 b 4), much more so than people realize. The question whether to be a good or bad man is much too important to...

      (pp. 76-79)

      The function of “great literature,” says Yeats, is “the Forgiveness of Sins.”¹ He means, it turns out, that the readers or audience are forgiven their sins, much as believers are by holy stories. In Part II we shall examine Yeats’s “Easter 1916” as an example of a politicalpathostransformed into literature, in a tradition at least as old as Euripidies. Yeats argues in this poem that even lives otherwise wasted in meaningless activity, or marred by failure, or disfigured by brutishness, can be transformed by the right kind ofpathos,“Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” He...

      (pp. 80-86)

      Unlike yeats, Jung failed to connect his dark vision of reality with the power of myth and literature in general. This is presumably a consequence of his piety: a person who puts supreme value on religion—not a religious-like experience, but the assurance of the literal reality of an actual god—will usually balk at the thought that what he cherishes is the satisfaction of a psychological need, a need that could just as well have been satisfied by another of the world’s religions, or even by literature, had his sensibilities been trained correctly.¹ It is not too surprising therefore...

      (pp. 90-103)

      Theiliadandodysseybequeathed to tragedy two patterns. The action of theIliadtakes place in a world that guarantees little justice for individual human beings. This allows us to enjoy what might otherwise have been painful instances of true justice. TheOdysseygives us a world of general and long-range justice. And this allows us to enjoy what might otherwise have been painful instances of injustice. Let us take theOdysseyfirst.

      The poet has Zeus himself, at the very beginning of the poem, object to the way mortals so often blame the gods for the catastrophes they...

      (pp. 104-116)

      The veneration of heroes more than anything else sets Greek religion off from other religions.¹ The piety the Greeks felt toward their heroes was a major source for much that we admire in their achievements, including the development and perfection of tragedy. A hero was neither man nor god. Like us, he must suffer and die; but he does not die altogether. Like a god, he continues to live after “death” and to punish and bless forever. There were hundreds of heroes, associated in many cases with the ancient tombs all over Greece. Some of these heroes were feared or...

      (pp. 117-129)

      Neither theIliadnor theOresteiais a direct exploitation of hero religion, a deliberate attempt to reproduce its special solemn thrill in an easily recognizable form. For that we shall have to wait until Sophocles. In a hero story of the Sophoclean sort, the death of the hero is usually of supreme importance, also the hero’s awe-inspiring passion as he approaches death and the special signs that he has passed into a new, more godlike existence after hispathoshas run its course. In theIliadwe have the characteristic wrath; but the hero’s fated death is not foreseen...

      (pp. 130-140)

      As we pass from Aeschylus to Sophocles we find a shift from the exploitation of initiatory religion to that of hero religion. Hero religion, one senses, is something Aristotle felt more comfortable with. He disliked “religious shock,” toteratōdes,the sudden visual scene that convinced the audience of a supernatural presence (Poetics1453 b 9). Hero stories could be responded to as literature. (Aristotle hardly mentions the gods in thePoetics.) But perhaps we should not be too quick to go along with Aristotle in this. It may be that Sophocles, no less than Aeschylus, engineered scenes that thrilled the...

      (pp. 141-154)

      Plutarch explains the slow progress of the would-be Platonist by comparing it to Sophocles’ account of the stages by which he shook off the influence of Aeschylus and found his own voice (Moralia78 e–79 b). There is a fabled land, says Plutarch, where it is so cold that words spoken in winter cannot be heard until they thaw out in spring: so also a person who reads Plato’s words in youth may not understand them until he has softened in old age. As our judgment acquires stability we learn to welcome things that produce character(ēthos)and greatness...

      (pp. 155-170)

      Anger as a manifestation of divinity is hardly limited to Sophoclean hero stories. It is quite common in the world’s religions. The Greeks recognized many varieties of violent divinity—Hephaestus burning, Poseidon shaking the earth, Zeus thundering, Ares raging in battle. There are also visions of Apollo punishing with his deadly arrows, the Furies driving those tainted with blood guilt into violent insanity, Dionysus inspiring women to brutal murder on a vast scale, and so on. Any of these phenomena might be imagined as a manifestation of anger. The Romans expected divinity to make itself felt as authoritative energy,numen,...

      (pp. 171-188)

      The “ancient quarrel” was not limited to poets and philosophers in the fifth century. Even history might be narrated in such a way that the historian appears to be taking a stand in the “quarrel.” Thucydides moves us by a narrative of the last days of Nicias. He gives us details calculated to make us deeply regret his execution. We hate the callous men who ordered it after promising that they would not do so. We pity the good Nicias, however exasperated we may have been earlier by his caution and uncertain judgment. The story ends with a summary not...

      (pp. 189-204)

      When modern readers turn to Euripides they often feel that here at last we have the invention of “modern” theater. This impression arises from three characteristics, all of which set Euripides off from the other ancient tragedians.

      First there is his use of a very “modern” kind of irony: the adoption of a mocking tone—sometimes bitter, sometimes playful—a voice that makes the audience focus on the playwright himself and not on his play alone. As in most modern uses of this technique, it is an instrument for social and moral criticism, part of a deliberate attempt to irritate...

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 205-208)

      Is the power of “thepathositself” an invariable ingredient in tragedy? Is it perhaps the quality that makes a work “tragic”? From our examination of Greek drama this would seem at least to be in line with the poets’ own thinking in fifth-century Athens. But we must not insist that the climactic or final excitement of a play be an exhibition of apathos.“Philosophy” may triumph in the final scene or the final pages. All that is required is that seriouspathēbe exhibited along the way to the end. If we were to exclude from tragedy stories...

      (pp. 209-224)

      Over the entrance to the Academy was the legend, “Let no one enter here who is not already an accomplished mathematician” (Elias, commentary on Aristotle’sCategories118.18 Busse). Socrates’ habit of talking with anyone who would stand still for a cross-examination suggests that his criticisms of ordinary values could stir people on all levels of society and in quite brief encounters. But Plato believed that mankind’s best hope lay not in such chance meetings, but in the laborious training of a gifted elite. Even ordinary people, he thought, people in whom the intellectual vision that brings true happiness could never...

      (pp. 225-240)

      The quarrel Socrates and Plato picked with the tragedians was theological in the first instance. Plato’s psychological analyses came later, in further support of his objections to the religious vision implicit in tragedy. Now, Dionysus was the god, not only of ecstatic religion as such, but also of tragedy in particular. The two philosophers were therefore challenging Dionysian religion. To be sure, their piety did not permit them therefore simply to reject the worship of Dionysus. What they did was to redefine Dionysus.

      In the prologue of theSymposium,and again in the epilogue, we are told remarkable stories about...

      (pp. 241-257)

      Plato and freud both construct psychological models for the “ancient quarrel,” or rather for its sources within the human personality. In both models the lowest part of the psyche, theepithymētikonand the id, harbors aboriginal and violent phantasies that account for the alarming contents of dreams, madness, and religious and literary myths. In both cases, however, the idea was introduced in a fairly guarded way. Plato, as we saw, chooses the plots of famous tragedies for his list of bad dreams, and then says that the part that “awakens” when we dream also “awakens” when we watch a tragedy....

      (pp. 258-267)

      Plato’s perception of the poet’s influence as pernicious was obviously not the consequence of a personal distaste for poetry. As we have seen, it was dictated by the logic of Socratism: if it is not possible that a truly good person can ever be truly unhappy, then the vision central to “poetry” is false and dangerous. Plato has Socrates say that he is very susceptible indeed to the pleasure to be got from the poets, that he regrets the necessity to ban Homer and the rest from a city run by philosophers (Republic10.605 c-e), but that he saw no...

      (pp. 268-299)

      Who is right, Plato or Aristotle? From the sixteenth century to the present this has not seemed to be a very interesting question. Plato was wrong to condemn tragedy, Aristotle right to defend it. That much is clear. But if the question is which philosopher came closer to a true understanding of the nature of tragedy, the answer must be quite different.

      Let us begin with the broad area of agreement between the two. Both agree that apathosmust occur. Aristotle would not disagree with the outlines of Plato’s definition of apathosinRepublicII: it is a...

    (pp. 300-310)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 311-318)