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Is There An Actual Resolve To The Age-Old Argument Between Poetry & Philosophy?

Mask mosaic in the Capitoline Museum


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is another quote from Olivier Sedeyn, in his remarkable introduction to Leo Strauss’ study, ‘Socrates and Aristophanes’; published here in his French translation. Edition de l’ éclat, collection Polemos,1993.


What was the difference between the Socrates of Plato and Xenophon and that of the comical poet Aristophanes? The ‘argument between philosophy and poetry’ is not, contrary to what we may think, an argument between two completely opposite activities. If we stick to the presentation of Socrates by Aristophanes, we could be led to think it is. But if we take into account of the fact that ‘our’ Socrates is Plato’s and Xenophon’s, the founder of classical political philosophy and who is a model of humanity, we may then think that philosophy is not so foreign that it seems to poetry and that is closer to comedy than tragedy.  In fact, the city-state is tragic in essence, whereas the philosophy of Plato’s and Xenophon’s dialogs are truly comical in nature. In other words, ‘Socrates and Aristophanes’ remind us the link that exists between philosophy and poetry, between the writing of philosophy and poetry. And it is not random that the philosophy of Plato and Xenophon is precisely very ‘written’. And this wise and witty writing is the instrument of choice for philosophical training. And who does not see the likeliness between the taunting of the braggarts and the deflating of the boastful in the comedies of Aristophanes and the Socratic demystification of all those who pretend to know when they actually know nothing?

If we turn towards Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socrates, we observe this: Socrates remains openly a theorist, explicitly in Plato (but with much nuances and much irony), while his theorizing is more clandestine in Xenophon. That does not make him a sophist. On the contrary. He is concerned about justice and ‘natural’ justice. It is perhaps upon this very question that the difference between the Socrates, founder of classical political philosophy, and the comical poet Aristophanes is the greatest, insofar the understanding of justice by the poet as ‘non-natural’. – “Justice is necessary, it is desirable in itself”, (page.391). The justice Socrates defends in Plato’s ‘Republic’, by demand of those two remarkable youth that are Adimantus and Glaucon, is good in itself and independent from its social consequences (the reward, see the speeches of the two brothers at the beginning of book III, and the definition of justice in book IV, as in book V and VII). There is truly on this point the will from Strauss to underline the superiority of philosophy upon the poet. But to conceive justice as necessary, like a thing that we cannot do without, but that is not immediately pleasant, doesn’t imply at all that we criticize justice (“this is perfectly compatible with the defense of justice”, page 391). He is a master without equal in the art of treating other men in the art of conducting a conversation without hurting the feelings of his interlocutors, or in still doing it but being as gentle as possible. He is also obviously familiar with the knowledge of poetry and he is “of all the Athenians, the only one to practice true political science” (‘Gorgias‘); and he is also quite literate in all the things of the realm of Eros. So, to sum up: if we consider that the art of treating others, the poetical knowledge and the erotic art are all about the same thing, the relationship between people, then Socrates owns to the highest degree this practical knowledge.

We wrote, in our translation of another of Leo Strauss’ books, ‘City and Man’, our first translation of his works, that he upsets our well-defined categories about what is philosophy, or about a thought that is quite close, not to say closer to the philosophy of Socrates or of the ‘classical political philosophy’, by looking outside of the usual boundaries towards writers who are not considered as philosophers, who are not today and who were not at the time they were living either. The reading Strauss is making of Hesiod, Aeschylus, especially of Thucydides, Xenophon and Aristophanes, shows how well we should not be satisfied with labels such as, ‘philosophy’, ‘history’, ‘poetry’. He goes on to extract this though where it is hidden and we did not wait for the so-called ‘modernity’ to recognize that it lays not only in philosophical treatises. But the paradox that Strauss is tacitly facing is that, in a certain way, philosophy is to be found ‘more’ in works that are apparently ‘non-philosophical’ than in the didactical works of the philosophers-teachers. One could claim like Strauss that philosophy written in treatises is in a certain manner a betrayal of philosophy, that true philosophy cannot be written, and if it were to be it should be done in the manner of dialogs, exactly what Plato and Xenophon did. Philosophy ought not to be didactical; if it teaches, it should not be directly. Philosophy ought to be, in some manner, poetical. Poetry who would have its place in the greatest of the city-state must not, in opposition to what we may think, be compared with pious conformist libels.


So, what is it with this ‘old argument between philosophy and poetry’, as spoken in the ‘Republic‘? Independently of the understanding of this passage in its proper context, we would likely think, as it is also Strauss ‘opinion, that this argument ought to be resolved in favor of poetry. Of course, it does not mean that philosophy must disappear in favor of poetry; nor that we are in Plato’s greatest of the city-states. There is no poet-king, despite the fact that the good poet is certainly a master for the law-makers because he teaches the nature of human passion, the human nature. It is certain that the greatest of the city-states, governed by the philosophers does not exist and never will, and if the poets can be considered as poet-kings because of their influence upon the good rulers and the people, it is difficult to speak of a real perfect city-state. Therefore, the essential point is the acknowledgement of the imperfection of the city-state, unsolvable imperfections that only could be attenuated, and, the poet and the philosopher will strive to make their readers and disciples understand the interweaving of legal necessity and natural necessity, with the impossibility to satisfy completely neither one neither the other and at the same time persistently strive towards a perfection of the individual man. Man in his particulars is keen of a perfection that the city-state is unable. “The city-state is tragedy in essence”.

Socrates-Roman fresco-Selcuk-Ephesus-Museum. Turkey
Is There An Actual Resolve To The Age-Old Argument Between Poetry & Philosophy?

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