Poets are the Legislators of the World: the Case of Shakespeare and Cervantes

By Bob Arnold

A very great thinker in the footsteps of Gottfried Leibniz, Wilhelm von Humboldt, developed through the science of philology the manner in which the potential intellectual power of languages is shaped by their particular internal capabilities to express profound ideas. The model Humboldt demonstrated of Sanskrit’s inherent power to combine words indefinitely and thereby creating neologisms is an excellent example of this. Sometimes languages undergo changes for the better or worse. If one reads the works of Elizabethan England with an eye toward the power of language to improvise and invent on the spot as it were through such openness to do the same, it is quite astounding what we have lost in that way.

The mission of Dante Alighieri, as far back as the late thirteenth century, to create a vernacular Italian language capable of conveying the most profound poetic conceptions is a further conscious recapitulation in the mold of how language culture develops across broad swaths of history. One could also quite rightly attribute this to the Augustinian mission of the imitation of Christ so fervently held by Dante and his followers. The great educational movement, out of which Nicholas of Cusa emerged, the Brotherhood of the Common Life, is yet an even further advancement of this very same mission that eventually launched what became the unique experiment in republican self government, the United States of America.

The issue of the language to engage us in dialogue to challenge and replace our misguided axioms of belief really is omnipresent in human history because it is embedded inextricably in that which makes us human. That is, our unique capacity to change our behavior as no other species may to come into increase concordance with natural law: be fruitful, multiply and take dominion over nature. However, the self conscious, inner-directed purpose to promote and transmit this power to the general population has historically appeared at crucial epochs where conditions were ripe for individuals to act. Such were the efforts of Plato and his dialogues. And it is no coincidence that Plato’s exposure of the Greek pantheon of ruling gods as stand-ins for submission to a corrupt Athenian oligarchy, when effectively taken up by future thinkers has created time and again a wonderful uplifting Renaissance in science and art benefitting humanity.

Great art, whether it be drama, literature, poetry, music, painting, or sculpture has a universal transformative property. It can change history in its role of evoking self reflection in its audience. Like a tragedy wherein the doomed course of society is brought before the minds-eye through exposing the critical flaws in its inadequate ideology, art brings upon the current stage of history humanity in its ideal timeless aspect toward the same dialogue that rightfully confronts each and all due to our shared higher nature. In essence, the so called myth of Prometheus being eternally punished by Zeus and his coterie of false gods is more real in governing the root cause of ongoing history than is our day to day existence. An adequate creation of the artist thereby stands above the simple emotions that drive ephemeral passions and by necessity fulfills a function of bringing forward the ineluctable elements of what humans were destined to be. Creative reason as celebrated and enhanced by its own power of self conscious reflection whether it be in tragedy or comedy.

I turn now to the subject of this report: Shakespeare and Cervantes. Recall that Spain and Portugal had starting in the century after Dante and his student Petrarch, begun to transform the science of navigation and exploration. In fact, it was the globe mapping hypothesis of Cusa’s great collaborator Toscanelli that led to Christopher Columbus’ proposal to the Spanish to finance his voyages of exploration. The current European ruling families of the time were engaged in unending internecine wars as was their oligarchic nature. Especially, the Spanish Hapsburgs and the English and Dutch royal houses became rivals in exploiting the new trade routes that were opened up. However, the great Florentine Golden Renaissance going back to Dante spurred on the methods of Augustine, Plato and the Islamic Renaissance to portend a blossoming of technology’s benefits to increase the standard of living to uplift the European population and break the stultification of the feudal system upon which these families founded their rule.

There was an attempt to bring some concord between the England of the Tudors and the Kingdom of Spain that had financed Columbus with the marriage of Catherine into the Tudor dynasty. This set off a plot of the agents of Venetian trading and financial oligarchy to play their geopolitical games of setting each against all and resettling their apparatus of control in the soon to be British Empire.

Yet , nonetheless, even in the midst and aftermath of the chaos and carnage set off by the manipulation of the mad king Henry VIII by the offices of the Venetian monk Francisco Giorgi, et al. so rightfully denounced in Marlowe’s play the Jew of Malta. The novel Don Quixote produced by Miguel de Cervantes stands as among the most beautiful literary works ever created. Likewise do the contemporary body of plays by William Shakespeare.  They are of their age, but yet herald a power as Shelly propounded in his essay upon the aesthetics of poetry to act as “legislators of the world through means of profound and impassioned conceptions of society and nature.”

Cervantes in Don Quixote takes on the mental shackles that prevented the Spanish society he lived in from acting as participants in truly human endeavors that could have brought the promise of the new world then newly discovered for the benefit of humanity rather than the continuing abyss of Habsburg slave trade. Reading Don Quixote from the first page to the end there is a consistency of purpose that indeed unifies the entirety of the work (which is a sine qua non of all art of any form.) It is a polemic, albeit an unstated one. However, it is never put into any simplistic propositional form and therein lies the irony of the standard of living art. To challenge those axiomatic assumptions that are misdirecting society is the first step in the process of hypothesis formation that can rescue it from the apparently inalterable tragic abyss. Great art provides no moralistic lessons or formulae; it rather pricks the conscience and challenges the emotions to produce a problem solving orientation by elevating them toward an inviolable and universal quality of beauty. It is immortal in that sense.

The chivalric tales of gallant knights and forlorn hapless maidens have rightly long gone by the wayside. These were the popular fare that engorged and stultified the population of Cervantes’ Spain. Like Sancho Panza and his constant recitation of meaningless old saws and mother’s tales, our population is caught up in the strictures of conventional pragmatism, without even questioning from whence it arrived. Is it any wonder then that given the drumming into our generation of baby boomers that it was cool to nihilistically partake of mind altering drugs that we are in the midst of an epidemic of suicides and overdoses?

On the other hand, Cervantes does offer a way out of the stagnation in the character of Sancho Panza that is quite telling on multiple levels. Sancho is given an Island to govern, in jest and in order to toy with him for the amusement by typically jaded and arrogant members of the Spanish petty nobility. The deliberate bating of the apparently backward peasant Sancho by means of an insoluble aporia or paradox by his tormentors leads to a wonderful resolution on a higher moral plane that demonstrates that Sancho and his class, if you will, can overcome the ills of the fixed and decaying system. The duty that Sancho was malevolently given was the task to act as judge of the truth and to mete out justice to those brought before him upon charges. As a trick, there is brought a man to a bridge where Sancho is performing his duties as judge. Upon being asked to state his purpose so that Sancho could judge its truth or falsehood, this fellow declares that he has come to be hanged upon this very spot. The dilemma is that if he is speaking the truth then he cannot be hanged. After pondering a bit, Sancho elects to show mercy given that Don Quixote’s principles would have him err on its side in such a case. (Cervantes here delightfully presages the drubbing that a very nasty Bertrand Russell received from Kurt Gödel through his proving the absurdity that formal propositional logic could ever be the basis for true scientific progress.)

So too, Shakespeare exposed the often tragic courtly intrigues of the degraded ruling royal families. And by way of mirroring on stage the bestial truth through internal dialogues he made transparent that governance of the European feudal nobility was fatally flawed. As Shakespeare ironically has Hamlet declaim, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” 

It is indeed of no little moment that after the death of Shakespeare these great plays were chopped up into strings of pretty soliloquies to be performed by the likes of strutting actors like Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln himself would recite whole scenes from Shakespeare during the perilous crisis that nearly dismantled the promise of America ending the arbitrary rule of these same targets of Shakespeare’s wit. The great man is said to have remonstrated that this practice had the effect of decorticating Shakespeare’s plays by turning them into mere “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Today, we are forever bombarded with a high tech version of the Roman Circus. This week as I write in the midst of a global Coronavirus pandemic, the Super Bowl is being played. Hoards of fans will gather to gawk and party, like so many revelers in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, even though they have been forewarned that this will cause yet another spike in the ever mutating and deathly virus.  And in common with the age of Columbus, we have a virulent oligarchy bent upon engaging in never ending wars in order to secure their power and deliberately suffocating the productive economy to promote their own version of superstitious earth worship in the guise of science. Yet like that bygone era we have hope for a new age of immense potential for scientific breakthroughs that will incur untold benefits for the future well being of humanity. It is of no small moment that one of Shakespeare’s the Tempest was centered around the promise of a new world. The escape from the rotted system of the relics of feudal knights errant, to embark upon founding a new world free from the failed conventions of the old world was never so pressing. So too is the mission set forth some 60 years ago for colonization of space and all that entails in breaking free of the fetters put upon us by popular entertainment and mischooling.

It is a matter of what Schiller spoke to in his great aesthetic letters, educating the emotions and will for enough of our forlorn population to produce leadership to emulate the level of attainment of the sublimely beautiful soul. This was the joint mission that characterized the age of Cervantes and Shakespeare. The works of these two world historic poets still operate across the centuries as a fugal dialogue of cultures toward attainment of the self governing principle brought to fruition in this new world with the constitution of the United States. And the artistic celebration of the sparks of genius to solve the apparently intractable problems we as a species continually confront lives on through our own mental reconstruction of these. It is that inherently and inviolable property that humanity uniquely possesses in potential in overcoming the relic of feudalism that had degraded the principle that all are created equal.

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