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philosophers on poetry


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Plato (c. 429—347 bc)

Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570—475 bc) Greek philosopher

Parmenides (b. c. 515 bc)

Philodemus (c. 110 bc — 140 ad)

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The engagement of philosophers with poetry was a recurrent and vital feature of the intellectual culture of Graeco‐Roman antiquity. By c.380 bc, Plato in his Republic could already refer to ‘a long‐standing quarrel between philosophy and poetry’. Early Greek philosophy, while closely related to poetry (Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles wrote in verse), set itself to contest and rival the claims of ‘wisdom’, sophia, made by and on behalf of poets. Xenophanes, repudiating anthropomorphic religion, cast ethical and theological aspersions on the myths of Homer and Hesiod; Heraclitus expressed caustic doubts about the idea of poets as possessors and teachers of insight. Philosophy and poetry could be considered competing sources of knowledge and understanding. The stage was set for lasting debates about their relationship.

Plato, while emulating poetry in his myths and in features of his dramatic writing, produced a far‐reaching critique of poetry's credentials as an educational force within Greek culture. Though sometimes scantily concerned with complexities of context, he responds to an existing tendency to regard poetic works as carrying normative significance: the putative ‘truth’ of poetry, which he so often (though not invariably) impugns, was in part a matter of taking poetry to provide models of human behaviour and morality. Plato's anxieties over poetry are based, besides, on an awareness of its immense psychological power, esp. in the theatre. Yet despite the Republic's proposals for severe political censorship, Plato's dealings with poetry remain ambivalent and deeply felt: he quotes, echoes, and competes with it throughout his dialogues. But his critique rests, from first to last, on the premiss of philosophy's superior wisdom and judgement.

Aristotle too is committed to the superior range of philosophical thought, but much readier than Plato to allow the independent cultural value of poetry. In Poetics 25 he asserts that poetic standards are not identical to those of polītikē (ethics/politics), and the treatise as a whole, respecting generic traditions and recognizing the status of poetry as a distinct art, elaborates categories that focus upon the internal organization of poetic works. Yet Aristotle's stance is still markedly philosophical, not only in its method and many of its concepts, but also in discerning an affinity between poetry and philosophy. Poetry ‘is more philosophical than history’, because it ‘speaks more of universals’. Aristotle's discussion of tragedy and epic ascribes to them the capacity to reveal deep features of human ‘actions and life’; the pleasure of poetry arises from an experience that is simultaneously cognitive and strongly emotional.

By the later 4th cent., philosophical schools had established an institutional status which made their relationship to a traditional education in mousikē (poetry and music; see education, greek, 1; music, 1) an urgent question. Both Epicurus and Zeno 2 are said to have rejected such conventional paideia. Yet the attitudes of their schools towards poetry were more complex and divergent than this suggests. Epicurus followed Xenophanes and Plato in attacking poetic myths as purveyors of false religious beliefs, to which the proffered antidote was his own natural philosophy. He asserted the need for philosophical judgement of poetry: ‘only the wise man can discourse correctly about music and poetry’. Epicureans acquired a reputation for rejecting poetry; Metrodorus provocatively declared it unnecessary to know even the openings of Homer's epics. But the possibility of a more positive evaluation remained open, given the school's commitment to pleasure as the criterion of value: Epicurus himself allowed that philosophers could enjoy artistic performances. An Epicurean rapprochement with poetry was eventually effected both by Lucretius' great work, and by the critical writings of Philodemus, who regarded poetry as principally pleasurable, morally neutral in itself, yet capable of conveying ideas compatible with Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius and Philodemus demonstrate that Epicureanism had, by the 1st cent. bc, space for a subtle range of stances towards these issues.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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