Poetry and Prudence II
An interesting phenomenon recurs across Plato’s corpus: Socrates, in critiquing some other, pushes the critique to a point where it rebounds on himself, where it poses an issue that he, qua philosopher, must confront. He threatens to undermine himself. In his dialogue Ion, Plato has Socrates take a rhapsode to task: does he have mastery over his subject, or only a sort of divine inspiration and madness? It must be the latter, for Ion is “so wonderfully clever about Homer alone.” Were he truly a master of his subject, whatever that might be, he should be wonderfully clever about all poets. Socrates here is toying with Ion, but his critique ends up extending to poetry in general. For the method of argument Socrates pursues is to understand how to tell whether Homer or, say, Hesiod speaks better about divination, a subject on which they disagree. Socrates argues—and Ion accepts—that one must know divination to do so, and hence a diviner is the one competent to say who has spoken better. Since poets would speak well about all of life, this criticism attaches itself not just to those who evaluate poetry, but to the poets themselves: to speak well about all of life, poets must be masters in all domains—or merely divinely inspired. “You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.”
Now we can see that this criticism actually has one further expansion: it extends to the philosopher. For the philosopher, too, would speak about all of life: of the auto mechanic, whether he is virtuous, of the doctor, whether she is virtuous, of the judge, of the janitor, of everyone. To master virtue and truth requires being able to apply the notions, and that—by the very criteria Socrates has set out in his critique of the rhapsode—requires having mastery over every domain. Is the philosopher, too, then, divinely inspired? Or can the intellect manage to achieve such mastery? Plato, in writing in a poetic style, and in reminding readers of Socrates’ daimon to whom he listens, certainly not does make it easy to straightforwardly place him on the side of the intellect.
In either case, we can understand why Plato’s dialogues repeatedly come up against the problem of conflict between philosophy and poetry. The war is a turf war: philosophy and poetry conflict because their domains are identical. And I can add a third character to this skirmish: prudence, which also extends itself around every domain. The conflict between philosophy and poetry is really the flip side of the conflict between poetry and prudence—and of course philosophy and prudence have a history of enmity probably more storied than either of the other conflicts. One need only think of Pyrrho, or the Cynics.
Emerson, in his essay on “Heroism”, explores poetry caught between these two antagonists. While the topic is heroism, Emerson does much to link it to poetry: “Heroism feels and never reasons” (374) and is divinely inspired—“Where the heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of fame.” (378) Moreover, “A great man scarcely knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision, his living is natural and poetic.” (376) So we have heroism described in a way that aligns it with Plato’s conception of poetry.
What, for Emerson, is heroism, precisely? It is a warlike attitude toward external evil, a contempt for safety and ease, self-trust, an extreme individualism, obedience to a secret impulse of character. It is ashamed of the body, loves temperance for its elegance and not its austerity, does not condescend to take anything seriously—it is “the unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments.” (380) It is a Stoicism of the blood, and not of the schools.
And it is opposed to philosophy. Emerson puts it plainly: “There is somewhat not philosophical in heroism.” (374) Interestingly, Emerson goes on to explain this: “it seems not to know that other souls are of one texture with it” (374)—this sounds very much like the counterpart to his advice, in “Prudence”, that one should “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366). Emerson, perhaps unintentionally, almost seems to collapse the distinction between philosophy and prudence. Maybe the reason for this is that the solution to both sorts of opposition is the same. But to see that we need to see his exploration of the heroism/prudence conflict, which he discusses in much more detail.
Emerson is clear: Heroism as “obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character” runs afoul of prudence, as “all prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good.” (374-375) Heroism, at the time of the heroic act, is almost inevitably condemned by prudence, which measures acts by how they yield sensual prosperity. Likewise, the prudent “reckon narrowly the loss of time”, while “the soul of a better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults of life.” (375) Heroism is ashamed of the body, not in a self-loathing, ascetic way, but it shows a disdain for sensual prosperity.
So poetic heroism finds itself in inevitable conflict with prudence. “It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence.” (374) How does it overcome prudence, these objections? By ignoring them, mostly. “The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world.” (379) Once the hero has felt the impulse, he must act on it, without regret, without any attempt at reconciliation with the world. “If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.” (379) Heroism simply ignores the reproaches of prudence. “Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.” (380)
Emerson’s solution is thus not an attempt at reconciliation of any kind, of easing the conflict. He sees the conflict, and he takes his stand: he stands on the side of heroism, of poetry. We saw in my essay on “Prudence” that his proposal there for reconciliation was lacking, that he left us in a position of inevitable conflict where reconciliation seemed impossible. “Heroism” seems to address this problem by giving up the attempt for reconciliation, by simply siding against prudence. Emerson simply closes his ears to the objections of prudence. And this is more or less his solution to the conflict with philosophy as well: the hero listens to his impulse, feels and doesn’t reason, if reason—i.e. philosophy—objects, no matter: the hero does not listen. Nietzsche gave this solution pithy expression: “To close your ears to even the best counter-argument once the decision has been taken: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” (Beyond Good & Evil, §107)
So perhaps our first problem is resolved—or at least dispensed with. But Emerson raises one further problem, with which I end.
To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the great multitude of suffering men. (380)
The asceticism of heroism is something that “common good-nature” assigns to those who enjoy a certain amount of luxury. In this, poetry/heroism is lumped with philosophy, another pursuit that seems to require luxury, requires time that need not be spent simply fulfilling one’s needs. Indeed, one reason why Feyerabend takes Plato to task for his elitism is precisely because he sees this elitism as effectively condemning people for not having leisure time—see the first dialogue of his Three Dialogues on Knowledge. Perhaps a will to stupidity and a contempt of ease and plenty are possible when one has—ease and plenty, but in more impoverished circumstances the cry of prudence is not so easily silenced. The facts of Emerson’s own life bear this out: he was able to retire from his job as a minister and embark on his dizzying experimental voyages only because of his first wife’s inheritance. So we face the problem: luxury seems to be a prerequisite for poetry—when luxury is absent, prudence has the upper hand. Nor can Emerson simply make an elitist move of Plato’s sort, for it is the very task of poetry to find what is poetic in the, broadly speaking, illiterate. Emerson, in this essay, does not resolve the problem. So it lingers.
And, moreover, this is nothing other than our first problem, the problem of truly reconciling poetry and prudence. So that problem has not been solved at all. We remain left with the question: can there be a reconciliation between poetry and prudence?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
My version of the Ion is in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Emerson’s essay is in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. For Nietzsche, I used the Penguin Beyond Good and Evil.