Boethius was in mourning of life
Till Philosophy comes and cures his strife
With poetry and prose, instruments used
For thinking pure thoughts to be cured.
Though Plato says “Boo! Poetry’s an imitation to you,”
The Lady replies, “Poetry raises man’s mind
And gives a glimpse of the divine.”
This whimsical poem demonstrates a difference between two philosophies on the nature of poetry. Many people when thinking of philosophy do not think of poetry. In fact, Plato banishes poetry from the perfect state for its imitational and emotional components, which would be unbeneficial to the philosopher who examines reality with reason. Nevertheless, Boethius, a Platonist himself, claims and demonstrates through his very usage of poetry in The Consolation of Philosophy that poetry is an appropriate instrument of philosophy. Surprisingly, Lady Philosophy herself illustrates this concept by engaging in poetry. To appropriately examine this dilemma, one would have to examine the nature and purpose of poetry. Although it appears that poetry is a mere imitation and distraction from reality, I think that poetry is an appropriate and beneficial instrument of philosophy, because poetry is the sanctification of language, thereby enabling the mind to transcend the self.
According to Plato, poetry would essentially be a distraction for philosophers. He affirms that all art, including poetry, is an imitation of reality and thus cannot depict actual knowledge. In the Republic, Plato through the character of Socrates banishes poetry from the perfect state asserting that the poet “uses names and phrases to color each of the arts. He himself doesn’t understand; but he imitates in such a way as to seem, to men whose condition is like his own and who observe only speeches, to speak very well . . . using meter, rhythm, and harmony” (601a). To Plato, the poet beautifies language to deceive people into believing his words. Hence, poetry according to Plato may be considered a deception because one who engages in poetry wastes effort and emotion on an imitation of reality. Based on these ideas, one would have to agree that poetry cannot be beneficial to philosophy because a philosopher is one who loves wisdom and reality. It would thus be contradictory that a philosopher would engage in poetry.
Furthermore, it appears that poetry primarily influences emotion as opposed to the intellect. Aristotle, though he differs from Plato, claims that the purpose of art involves the direction of emotion. In Poetics, Aristotle states that all forms of art are imitations that differ “from one another in three respects—the medium, the objects, the manner or mode of imitation” (1.1). This statement indicates that art must primarily involve emotion since these techniques naturally imitate emotions that are appropriate to the idea imitated. For instance, a poem may be written in iambic pentameter to give feelings of normal speech or there may be certain words with accents that produce designated feelings. If poetry inherently involves emotions, poetry ought not to have a place in philosophy since philosophy focuses on reason as opposed to emotion.
However, art is more than an imitation. It is an image through which man is able to express the self. Imitation is a technique used to create the effects in art and is not the art itself. This is seen in the fact that art is not merely effects since these effects are always directed towards an idea expressed in the art. The artist is one who expresses an experience in an image, such as in painting, music, or poetry. By creating an image which by being an image expresses itself, the artist mentally acknowledges his own experience. All people experience through the mental acknowledgement of an image because experience requires knowledge. If one knows about an experience, one must have mentally acknowledged an image in the mind. This is why in a work of art an experience may feel more realistic than an experience drawn inartistically; the artist due to his skill of technique provides a greater and more coherent way for man to relay an image to the mind. In a sense, all people who think and express are artists, but the ones who are artistic express themselves more accurately. In her essay “Toward a Christian Esthetic,” Dorothy Sayers states that the poet “is a man who not only suffers the impact of external events but also experiences them. He puts the experience into words in his own mind, and in doing so recognizes the experience for what it is” (162). Sayers observes that the poet creates recognition through an expression in words. For poetry in particular, man is able to experience and thereby know through the language in a poem. All thoughts are in words, meaning that man’s capacity to experience and know is determined by his usage of correct and appropriate words. Because the aim of poetry is to piece together these correct and appropriate words, poetry is therefore a proper instrument to draw the self to experience truth and wisdom.
In spite of Aristotle’s claims, a philosopher can engage in poetry without sacrificing the integrity of thought. Gerard O’Daly observes that in The Poetry of Boethius that “sweet, soft song and grave seriousness of purpose are . . . not incompatible” (33). Since poetry primarily expresses the idea it images forth, there is nothing inherently wrong or emotional with the use of poetry, but with the poet expressing the idea. An example of this is found in The Consolation of Philosophy when Boethius invokes the Muses of Poetry. Boethius in his grief states, “I who once with joyful zeal / Am driven by to enter weeping mode” (1). The anguish that Boethius encapsulates in his poem is not a result of his use of poetry, but rather a result of the “barren thorns of Passion” (4). Banishing the Muses of Poetry, Lady Philosophy states, “Sirens is a better name for you and your deadly enticements: be gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure” (5). In this demand, Philosophy indicates since she has her own Muses that certain poetry can be used in philosophy. This is demonstrated when Lady Philosophy expresses philosophical statements in poetic form. Philosophy states describing the knowledge of God:
What is, what was, what is to be,
In one swift glance His mind can see.
All things by Him alone are seen,
And Him the true sun we should deem. (119)
In these lines, Philosophy depicts the omniscience of God in poetic verse. This does not hinder the integrity of wisdom since it is a serious poem unhindered by passion. As seen in Lady Philosophy’s use of poetry, there is no issue in using poetry to express philosophy.
On the other hand, it may appear that Boethius’ poetry is merely for emotional healing as opposed to philosophy itself. According to Aristotle, the purpose of art is to produce the appropriate emotional responses. Aristotle states referring to the use of proper language in Tragedy, “in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play . . . through pity and fear [effect] the proper purgation of these emotions (1.6). Through artistic poetry, man is able to respond correctly to the depicted image depending on how the image is portrayed. If this is the purpose of art, poetry ought to be a result of philosophy as opposed to an instrument.
According to Boethius, however, poetry is not merely for emotional healing. C.S. Lewis observes in The Discarded Image that all that is in the Consolation is meant purely for philosophy as part of the disciplines and propriety of his trade since it is certain that Boethius chose to write philosophically (77). This indicates that his philosophy and thus the poetry he uses are not for mere emotional healing. This can be observed in the last poem that Boethius delivers in the dialogue, which contains no mention of the self and gives complete focus to philosophy (123). This type of poetry is fitting in philosophy because in philosophy one is focused on truth. Boethius therefore considers poetry as an instrument in philosophy.
Of course, one may argue that poetic form would hinder the freedom of language and thought that is found in prose. Prose is surely simpler than poetry since it is without meter and form. Surely, there is a certain beauty in the freedom of words since prose is the natural form of language. People do not speak naturally in poetic verse. Hence, prose would be simpler to understand and thus a better form of expression in philosophy.
Conversely, poetic form is the sanctification of language and therefore thought. It is a better form of expression than prose simply because it is meant to be spoken. Since all thoughts are in words, all thoughts involve images produced by the senses. When a person thinks of a word, that person in his mind produces an image of sound, sight, touch, smell, or taste that corresponds to that word. By engaging in poetry, one expresses an image far more complete since poetry improves the image of one’s words. Poetry involves the use of breath, tongue, lip, and teeth to express with sound and rhythm an image far more meaningful than mere prose. In a poem, phrases are intentionally formed so that the sound and rhythm of one’s words express an image accurately. Poetical images in this sense portray one’s experiences much more truthfully because they further utilize the capabilities of language to express the whole of one’s experience and relay a better image to the mind. By engaging in poetical philosophy, one therefore better expresses the beauty of wisdom. Boethius states to Philosophy, “You are the greatest comfort for exhausted spirits. By the weight of your tenets and delightfulness of your singing you have so refreshed me that I now think myself capable of facing the blows of Fortune” (47). Lady Philosophy through poetry is able to express philosophical conclusions with the beauty of words. Because man’s capacity to understand is determined by the capabilities of his language that form his thoughts, the beauty of wisdom is therefore better expressed in the beauty of words. Since wisdom is beautiful, the words of man ought to express this beauty as well, especially if man desires to appreciate wisdom to his greatest capacity. Poetry is therefore the purification of language and thought in that it expresses one’s ideas more adequately than prose.
It is in the very form and conventions of poetry that the mind of man transcends itself. In The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton, Gabriel Syme, a philosopher and poet, rebukes the anarchist poet who abandons all conventions and laws in poetry by stating:
It is you who are unpoetical . . . The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train may indeed go anywhere . . . But man is a magician and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria and lo! It is Victoria (4–5).
In this monologue, Chesterton illustrates the beauty of order and convention. It is the victory of man to have order and convention because that is where goodness and truth lie. In language, man’s victory is therefore found in the very order and conventions of poetry. Man essentially “hits the mark” in poetry where his expression of an idea is one with the form, sound, and rhythm of his words. Lady Philosophy states:
For I have swift and speedy wings
With which to mount the lofty skies,
And when the mind has put them on
The earth below it will despise[.] (86)
The aim of philosophy is to raise the mind of man to transcend the self, meaning that one will gaze upon the divine and understand truth. Since man thinks in words, the usage of poetry improves man’s capacity for meaning in language and therefore thought. As a result, man is able in poetical philosophy to further experience the divine and thus achieve victory in thought by beholding the divine with a poetical image.
In poetical philosophy, man further conforms to the likeness of God by imitating this cosmic idea of expression as seen in the Trinity. In poetry, the words of man become flesh as they are imaged forth in being spoken. St. Augustine, a prominent bishop and theologian from the early church, states in Confessions that the Word is “spoken eternally and by it all things are uttered eternally” (226). Since the Word as the image of God is eternally spoken, it is conclusively part of the nature of God to express Himself through the Word. The Word is one with God in being an image. Man therefore through poetry imitates the divine because in poetry the images of his words become one with his ideas. It is thus a part of man’s nature to know the self through the images man produces in words. The words of man become flesh in being spoken and a truthful image when attuned to one’s ideas. By attuning one’s words to reality in poetical philosophy, one therefore imitates God in a cosmic idea of expression where the meaning of one’s ideas and the image of one’s words are one.
In conclusion, although one may condemn poetry as unfit for philosophy for its imitational and therefore deceptive qualities, poetry is a justifiable and beneficial instrument of philosophy because poetry, the sanctification of language, enables the mind to transcend and experience the divine. Art itself is more than mere imitation; it is the expression of an image through which man is able to come to know reality and the self. In poetry, one better expresses knowledge because there is a greater capacity to express the self; poetry is meant to be spoken such that it involves the use of sound and rhythm to express an image far more meaningful than mere prose. Although the forms and conventions of poetry may appear to hinder the freedom of thought, poetry is in actuality the victory of man through which man is able to express the meaning of his ideas and in expressing philosophy to the self, transcend earthly things to view the divine. Through poetical philosophy, man imitates this cosmic idea of expression as seen in the incarnation where the Word became flesh. Poetry is thus a beneficial instrument of philosophy because in poetical philosophy, man accomplishes greater heights. In other words, man achieves victory in thought.