Shall We Allow Poets in the Republic? Part Three

By Gerald Therrien

At the end of part 2 of ‘Shall We Allow Poets in the Republic’, we came upon the proposition that poets either must be ‘possessed and insane’ and derive their inspiration from some divine influence – like the oracles and prophecies of the priests and priestesses of the gods, or that poets received their inspiration by ‘enthusiasm’ from the Muse. 

In order to try to find a way to understand this enthusiasm, we’ll dive into Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ dialogue. [Note: translation by Thomas Taylor, 1804.]

Phaedrus met Socrates, who was to be his partner in ‘corybantic fury’ of discourse (i.e. unrestrained frenzy of emotion), and they began talking about Lysias, ‘the most skilful writer of the present age’, and of his oration on love – that ‘one who does not love ought to be gratified rather than a lover’.

At first, Socrates spoke about the truth contained in some of the fables, whose interpretation was ‘the province of a man vehemently curious and laborious, and not entirely happy’.  Socrates, ‘according to the Delphic precept, to know thyself’, does not speculate on things that are foreign from ‘the knowledge of myself’, but instead he wondered whether he was a wild beast (possessing more folds than Typhon, and far more raging and fierce) or was a mild and simple animal (naturally participating of a certain divine and modest condition) – perhaps, this was a hint of the forth-coming discussion of the different types of enthusiasm: raging and fierce, or divine and modest.

Phaedrus then read from Lysis’s oration that,

        – ‘it appears to me that I am unworthy to be deprived of what I wish to obtain, because I am not one of your lovers: for lovers, when their desires cease, repent themselves of the benefits which they have bestowed; but there is no time in which it is proper for those void of love to repent their beneficence’, and, that ‘it will be more advantageous to you to be persuaded by me than by a lover’.

– that lovers are negligent of their own concerns, that they bestow benefits and undergo labours that may result in their own loss, in order to confer favours that are worthy of the objects of their love.

– that lovers are always prepared to satisfy the desires of their beloved, even if it offends others, and they are willing to injure the former subjects of their regard, if the present objects of their love thinks it to would be fitting. 

     – but that those who are devoid of love don’t blame themselves for neglecting their affairs, don’t complain of their labours or of disagreeing with their friends, that is caused by their beloved object, but they do willingly what they think will be acceptable to the object of their beneficent actions.

– that, regarding the ‘calamity’ of this ‘passion’ of love:

lovers themselves confess that they are rather diseased than prudent, and that they know their ill condition with respect to prudence, but are unable to subdue it’, and that ‘such as are not infected with love, being better than these, content themselves with enjoying that which is best, rather than the opinion of men’.

     – that lovers keep the objects of their regard from associating with other lovers, keep them from the company of those who possess any thing good, and cause them to abandon their friends.

     – but non-lovers don’t envy their association with others, but rather dislike those who are unwilling to be their familiars and think that they are benefitted by their associates.

     – lovers will praise both their sayings and action, lest they should offend them, will consider as calamitous, things which cause no molestation to others, and consider as pleasant, things which are not deserving of delight.

     If one listens, instead, to a non-lover:

but, if you are persuaded by me, in the first place I will associate with you, without caring for present pleasure, but for the sake of future advantage; not vanquished by love, but subduing myself; nor for mere trifles exciting severe enmity, but indulging a very little anger; and this but slowly even for great offences: pardoning, indeed, involuntary faults, and endeavouring to turn you from the commission of such as are voluntary.  For those are the marks of a friendship likely to endure for a very extended period of time.’

It seems to be unclear, whether this oration is actually in favour of love, or rather is against love, and also, it is seems to be unclear what Lysias means by those he calls lovers, and by those he calls not-lovers.

            To this, Socrates replies that we, first, should know about the thing that we are talking of, or we will wander far away from the truth; that most people are ignorant because they don’t know the essence of any thing, and can show nothing more than ‘probable reasons’. 

‘Whether the engagement of friendship ought to be entered upon with one who does not love, rather than with one who does, we ought to know what love is, and what power it possesses … (and) whether it is the cause of advantage or detriment.’

‘… there are two certain ideas in each of us, endued with a ruling and leading power, and which we follow wherever they conduct us.  One of these is the innate desire of pleasures; but the other an acquired opinion, desirous of that which is best.  But these sometimes subsist in us in a state of amity, and sometimes in a state of opposition and discord.  And sometimes the one conquers, and sometimes the other.  When opinion, therefore, is led by reason to that which is best, and vanquishes, it is denominated, from its vanquishing, temperance.  But when desire irrationally allures to pleasure, and rules within us, it is called from its dominion, injury.  But injury possesses a multitude of appellations: for it is multiform, and consists of many speciesFor the desire, which without reason, rules over opinion tending to that which is right, which draws it down towards the pleasure of beauty, and being vehemently invigorated by its kindred desires about the beauty of body, leads and subdues it: this desire, receiving an appellation from its strength, is called love [i.e. Eros].’

            Socrates discusses this ‘erotic’ lover, that ‘the greatest injury, which he is the cause of, is that of depriving his beloved of the means of becoming eminently prudent.  But he becomes more prudent through divine philosophy, from which the lover is necessarily compelled to withdraw his beloved, through his fear of being despised.’

            It would seem to begin to be clearer to us, that Socrates refers to our desires ruled by pleasure, as ‘erotic love’; that he refers to our desires ruled by reason, as ‘temperance’, and to our being ruled by this temperance through reason, as ‘prudence’.  But most importantly, he refers to our ability to become prudent through ‘divine philosophy’!!! – but what is this ‘divine philosophy’?

            After re-thinking about the orations (the one of Lysias, and the other by Socrates – as compelled by Phaedrus), Socrates is ‘agitated by the fury of the Nymphs’ (the Erinyes) and fears that ‘according to Ibycus, I should offend the gods, but acquire glory among men’.

He realizes that their discourses has been foolish and impious, and that if someone had heard them talking just then, ‘would he not have thought he was hearing men educated in ships and who were perfectly unacquainted with liberal love’,  because ‘if Love, as is really the case, is a god, or a certain something divine, he cannot be in any respect evil: and yet in our discourse about him he has been spoken of as evil.  In this, therefore, we have offended against Love.’

            Socrates says that if they had offended ‘a divine nature’, that they must now seek atonement – ‘an ancient purification for those who offend in matters respecting mythology, which Homer did not perceive, but which was known to Stesichorus’. [Note: Ibycus and Stesichorus were considered to be two of the ‘nine lyric poets’ of Ancient Greece. Perhaps, we can discover the ‘divine philosophy’ through these lyric poets?]

Socrates now presents a new ‘metaphorical’ oration, a retraction of the earlier one in imitation of Lysias, and the new one in imitation of Stesichorus, that –

the discourse is not true which asserts that, though a lover should be present, one who is not a lover ought to be gratified before him, because the one is agitated by fury, but the other is prudent in his conduct.  For if it was simply true that mania is evil, this would be beautifully asserted.  But now the greatest goods are produced for us through mania, and are assigned to us by a divine gift.’

            Socrates is telling us that we should take a closer look at this ‘mania’ – that it is not a mania agitated by fury (i.e. eros), but a mania that is a divine gift.

One mania, as employed by the predicting of the prophetesses and priestesses, is called prophecy (i.e mantic); another mania, as employed by prudent men investigating the future, through birds and omens, is called augury; but a third type of mania comes to us from the Muses – a mania that rouses a tender soul with odes and poetry, and ‘becomes the means of instructing posterity’.

But he who approaches to the poetic gates without the mania of the Muses, persuading himself that he can become a poet, in a manner perfectly from art alone, will, both as to himself and his poetry, be imperfect; since the poetry which is produced by prudence vanishes before that which is the progeny of mania’.

‘…that love was not sent from the gods for the utility of the lover and his beloved.  But, on the contrary, it must now be shown by us that mania of this kind was sent by the gods, for the purpose of producing the greatest felicity.

It is necessary, therefore, that, beholding the passions and operations of the divine and human soul, we should understand the truth concerning the nature of each.

[Note: This should remind us of St. Augustine (the patron saint of poets, perhaps), writing in his book on poetry, ‘De Musica’, that goes through pain-staking detail of the musicality of the Latin language and of every different meter and feet (i.e. the rhyming and the timing) of Latin poetry, and then, when he finally comes to book 6, he tells us to throw out everything we learned in books 1 to 5, because poetry should not be about what is in our words, but should be about what is in our soul.]

            Socrates then gives a most moving oration on the immortality of the soul – ‘for that which is perpetually moved is eternal’; but that respecting ‘its idea’, a perfect description of its nature would be extremely long-drawn-out and divine, but to describe a ‘similitude of this idea’ would be much shorter and human.  He then says that it is similar to the metaphor of a charioteer, and the horses and winged chariot of the gods.

While the horses and chariots of the gods are good and proceed with easy motion, those of ‘other natures’ are mixed – one of the horses is good and beautiful, but the other is of a contrary nature – and these of ‘other natures’ proceed with difficulty and labour.  And so, only the gods can reach the extremity of heaven and ‘behold what the region beyond heaven contains’, but the head of the charioteers (of the other souls) are, at times, raised into the super-celestial place, but being disturbed by the contrary horses, scarcely obtain a vision of perfect realities – and through the tumult, contest and perspiration, they must depart, and fall again to the earth.

According to the ‘law of Adrastia’, the soul which has seen the most, informs ‘the body of a philosopher, or of one desirous of beauty, or of a musician, or of one devoted to love’; and this law orders the other souls into lower ranks, according to their perceptions of divine reality.  (And at the end of their life, these souls shall be judged – those who passed their life justly pass into a higher rank, while those who acted unjustly pass into a lower rank.)

And so in this way, the philosopher will become filled with a fourth kind of mania – ‘a divine enthusiasm’ – that is the means by which any one, on perceiving a portion of terrene beauty, from their soul’s remembrance of the divine reality – that which is true – may recover his wings to fly again.

            ‘This enthusiasm, therefore, is, of all enthusiasms, the best … and he who is under the influence of this mania when he loves beautiful objects, is denominated a lover’.

            ‘Indeed, we behold no splendour in similitudes which are here, of justice, temperance, and whatever else is precious in the soul … but we then saw splendid beauty, when we obtained together with that happy choir, this blessed vision and contemplation … but beauty, as we have said, shone upon us during our progressions with the gods; but on our arrival hither we possessed the power of perceiving it, shining most perspicuously, through the clearest of our senses … but now beauty alone is allotted the privilege of being the most apparent and lovely of all things’.

            Our souls, similarly, if we are informed by eros, will descend to a lower rank of souls, and become like ‘hunters and gatherers’ of pleasure, but if we are informed by agape, will ascend to a higher rank of souls, and become like ‘explorers and discoverers’ of beauty.

Socrates and Phaedrus begin anew their discussion of love, but not from the standpoint of Lysias’s love (eros), but from the standpoint of the philosopher’s love (agape), that:

‘… (he) who thinks, that the clear, the perfect, and the serious, ought only to take place in discourses which teach and are delivered for the sake of learning, and which are truly written in the soul, about the just, the beautiful and the good; and who judges that discourses of this kind ought to be called his legitimate offspring – that, in the first place, which is inherent in himself, if he should find it there, and afterwards whatever offspring, or brethren, spring in a becoming manner from this progeny of his own soul in the souls of others … a man of this kind, Phaedrus, appears to be such a one as you and I should pray that we may be’.

… to call them wise, Phaedrus, appears to be a mighty appellation, and adapted to a god alone; but to denominate them philosophers, or something of this kind, seems to be more convenient and proper.’

And so, our poets, placed in the sixth rank of souls, wishing to rise to that first rank of souls, the philosophers, must become filled with ‘divine enthusiasm’ – that joy, that searches for that ‘earthly’ beauty that can remind us of that ‘divine’ truth – and then, our poets shall be allowed in our republic!

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