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Poetry and Philosophy

Poetry and Philosophy

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
– Oscar Wilde

I started writing with the intention of becoming a philosopher. Words seemed to be the tools of philosophy, and so I have gradually become a man of words. But my interest in philosophy was not in becoming a wordsmith. For me, the purpose of philosophizing was always to understand the good life, not for the mere sake of understanding, but so that I could pursue it. Words were always to be a means to that end.

We are what we invest in, and so it is very difficult for anyone to invest themselves in something without coming to invest also some sense of their own identity in that investment. So it was with me and writing. Writing being a tool of philosophy, and so my pursuit of philosophy (itself, a means to the end of a good life), made me not just a person who writes, but a writer.

On its face, this is an ordinary byproduct of pursuing any given end. A mechanic must also be a wrench-wielder in order to be a car-fixer, after all. But not all means are equal, and means can have characters of their own. The character of writing, taken as a whole, is — and always has been — at odds with philosophy; not incompatible, but certainly under tension. I believe that this tension is the result of the nature of the power that writing wields, which is not “power,” but “influence.” This can be better understood by naming the two parties in the ancient and eternal war of words: the philosophers, and the sophists.

Let me be clear that the moral opprobrium attached to the label “sophist” is not as deserved as it appears on the outside (perhaps this is a rhetorical “win” for philosophy?). Many philosophers, from Aristotle and Cicero up to the present, have defended the art of “rhetoric,” or persuasion, which is what sophistry essentially boils down to. Philosophy aims to be the pursuit of wisdom, whereas rhetoric pursues power. Naturally, these are not necessarily mutually opposed. It can be wise to gain and utilize power. But anyone can see that very often, the utilization of power — or the means used to acquire it — can be at odds with wisdom and the good life. And so the philosophers have tried (in vain) to warn the public of the dangers of sophistry. Conversely, the sophists have mocked philosophers; this is their trademark tool of attack. But even with the warning and the mockery, sophists are often drawn towards philosophy over time, towards “truth” over the mere whims and prejudices of the public, which are the primary tool for effective persuasion. And of course, philosophers are forever drawn in by “the noble lie,” and other forms of persuasion diverging from philosophical wisdom and the good life for which it was once but a means.

But there is a very particular kind of danger latent in words. It is one which Yukio Mishima articulated perhaps better than anyone else, in his essay Sun and Steel, but one which I first came across in Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Short as it is, I will include it here in full:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

Wilde does not express clearly why it is so bad to pollute a work of art with an ideological or moral ulterior motive, or at least he frames it in purely aesthetic terms (this is, at least, consistent). But there is a non-aesthetic reason to avoid such things, to avoid writing like Ayn Rand, or Ursula K. LeGuinn.

Writing — and words in general — are immensely destructive tools. They can destroy a person’s reputation for years, even centuries. But because of their abstract and social nature, they are not constructive. They have power of a kind (influence) in getting others to act, but they do not create anything concrete on their own. Language evolved for communicating basic information, such as locations, weather, and the like, all of which is instrumental in nature. It extends one’s power outward, using one’s social sphere as a tool. This fundamental, instrumental purpose of language is critical in understanding why speech is, in fact, not naturally inclined towards truth, but away from it. Power concerns achieving desired results, and not with determining which results are desirable. At least, not directly. It is natural then that language would, by default, incline itself towards manipulation, deception, placation, and aggression. From the get-go, philosophy and its desire for “truth” has always been fighting an uphill battle against sophistry, the use of language for influence.

And at least in this vein, philosophy is hardly even an improvement over sophistry. For while philosophy at least does not destroy as brazenly and carelessly as sophistry, it tends to destroy more completely when it does destroy. More importantly, it shares one feature with sophistry: it tends not to create.

But in the world of art, words can be used to create.

Words that are used with a pure intent towards the creation of beauty, in stories, descriptions, lyrics, and poetry, transcend the natural destructive tendency of words, and become something akin to action, in terms of value provided. They are motivating, inspiring, and intrinsically valuable as ends in and of themselves, just as a flower garden or a beautiful piece of music or an excellent meal might be. This, one cannot say of even the greatest works of logic or rhetoric.

This is not to criticize destruction on its face. Some things are worth destroying, and we ought to be grateful that philosophers and sophists are here to do it. But from the perspective of the individual, only a particular and ugly kind of personality can be satisfied with destruction alone. For most, we need creation. This, sophistry and philosophy does not supply.

But the investment necessary to become a philosopher or a sophist is great, and as a result of educating oneself, the student of reason and rhetoric will eventually become a wordsmith of sorts. This is a skill, one which wields influence, and who would want to waste an acquired skill anyway? The opportunity cost alone all but requires its use, psychologically speaking.

This puts the would-be philosopher — and wordsmith — who has mixed feelings about the destructive tendency of language in a difficult position.

It is for this reason that I have been leaning more towards poetry in recent years. It is not so much a deviation from philosophy, but an outgrowth of philosophy, employed in a manner that avoids many of the temptations of sophistry. Story-telling in all forms is creative, and beautiful when done well, but from a language-perspective, poetry is the most pure form of creation with words. They say that novelists are aspiring short-story writers, and that short-story writers are aspiring poets. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems respectively analagous to the continuum from pop music to acoustic folk music to music that requires no lyrics at all to assist in the creation of emotion from sound alone. It might not be a coincidence either that poetry is sometimes described in musical terms, like “melodic.”

For this reason, I think it is natural that philosophers and aspiring philosophers should also pursue some form of linguistic art — not for the advancement of their personal beliefs, but purely for the sake of the art. This may have some beneficial effect on their linguistic talents within the realm of rhetoric, but to aim for this would be to miss out on the satisfaction of creation, both spoiling one’s own artwork and polluting the genre as a whole. It need not be poetry; many are inclined towards writing plays, or novels (like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). Perhaps even music. But whatever the case may be, I am convinced that a person cannot be whole without some creative skills to balance out their destructive powers.

Given the destructive power of philosophy and sophistry, why not take up a constructive past-time which utilizes the same tools?

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