The quarrel begins with Plato (428 BC – 348 BC), who presents a mimetic theory of art whereby the artist functions as a mirror to nature, reflecting and/or imitating the observable universe. The mimetic theory of art is, according to M.H. Abrams, the oldest and “most primitive” of the theories. Plato holds that the value of art should be judged in terms of verisimilitude -- i.e., either by its relation to truth or by the degree to which the created object resembles the imitated object.
In the Republic, Plato describes the three realms -- the realm of forms, of particulars, and of shadows. It is the category of shadows into which art falls, as the artist’s creation (being an imitation of an imitation) is the furthest removed from the ultimate truth, i.e., the realm of forms. Similarly, Socrates provides the analogy of the three beds. The first bed is the Ideal bed, which exists within the realm of forms. The second bed is that of the carpenter, and is of the realm of particulars. The third bed is the one portrayed by the artist in his painting. Because this third, simulated bed is twice removed from the truth (the bed of the realm-of-forms), Plato refuses to admit the artist into his utopian republic, since artists do nothing but propagate un-truths and arouse the baser emotions of man, leading them astray.
With Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC), we see one of the first defenses of poetry by a non-poet. Though Aristotle began as a disciple of Plato, espousing to his students his and Socrates' ideas, later in life he began to formulate his own theory of drama and challenge the claim that poetry was, at best, distracting, and at worse, corrupting. Aristotle developed a system of analysis based not on art’s relation to truth, per se, but rather on its manner of imitation. To go back to Socrates’ bed analogy, Aristotle argues that the value of the third bed (the one in the painting) is not contingent upon its relation to either the first or the second bed. Instead, Aristotle argued that art should be considered independently from truth, and should be evaluated on its own merits. The manner of its imitation, he insisted, is more important than whether it accurately resembles that which is being imitated.
Still, Aristotle’s argument is a far cry for the purely independent basis for aesthetic analysis developed centuries later by Kant. In fact, Aristotle leaves plenty of room for a moral interpretation of his work, most conspicuously in his claim that the three functions are to teach, to please, and to move.
Raman Selden writes in his introduction to The Theory of Criticism from Plato to the Present that, unlike Aristotle and Plato, Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) is “more interested in the practical questions of how the poet may delight and instruct an intelligent reader, than in defining what a poem is or what literature is.” By including “instruction” among the poet’s tasks, Horace admits a didactic function to poetry, and he advises that the chorus should always make clear which of the characters is behaving in a manner worthy of emulation.
But Horace seems to drive a wedge between truth and poetry with his description of a “second nature,” or the world created by the artist. According to Horace, it is no longer the sole duty of the poet to mirror the observable world. In addition to this task, he must also mirror the reflections seen in other mirrors -- i.e., the poet must draw from “the literary canon,” which was at the time the established repertoire of poems and plays. This marks a major shift in the understanding of mimesis, and in fact pulls us further away from Plato’s advocacy for the mirroring of Truth.
Building upon the moral foundations first laid by Aristotle, Sir Phylip Sidney (1554-1586) develops a didactic theory of poetry in his “An Apologie for Poetry.” In it, he reformulates Aristotle’s arguments in both aesthetic and moral terms. Buy building an argument for the moral legitimacy of poetry, he seeks to fend off poetry’s Puritanical detractors who insist that poetry possesses the power only to corrupt otherwise virtuous minds.
Given the moral, aesthetic, and political nature of poetry, Sidney argues that poetry is the “architectonic,” ranking it above all other fields of knowledge. Poetry, as it deals with both the realms of forms and of particulars, is superior to the field of history, which uses only empirical evidence and particulars. It also ranks above philosophy, which is limited to the realm of forms and a priori argument. Poetry, by contrast, “coupleth the general notion with the particular example,” and also possesses the power “to move” – something which, according to his reasoning, neither history nor philosophy possess.
Moreover, poetry is utopian in nature -- i.e., it possesses a moral idealism not found in history, which is concerned only with what was. Poetry, by contrast, is concerned with could have been and with what could be. Responding to the claim that poets propagate untruths, Sidney counters by stating that the poet is, in fact, the “least of liars” since he “nothing affirms, and therefore never Lieth.” According to Sidney, he is the least inaccurate among the physicians, philosophers, astronomers, and historians. His moral vision is also utopian, since he is the creator of possible worlds to which inspired readers may strive. In this regard, too, history, which is full of stories of evil men going unpunished, is inferior to utopian poetry, where the good can and do prevail.
Furthermore, Sidney argues that this “second nature” created by the artists (i.e., the above-mentioned “third bed,” which Socrates denounced as the furthest from the ultimate truth) is not necessarily a negative quality. “Only the poet,” he writes, “doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclopes, Chimeras, Furies, and such like.” Poetry, he suggests, is an improvement upon nature, and it is the duty of the poets to complete or perfect the world, as it were. The shadows, previously degraded by Plato, are as important to Sidney as that which cast them.
Picking up where Longinus (first or third century AD) began, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) mark the move away from the external world by focusing on the subjective mind as interpreter of external phenomenon. Paying close attention to psychological introspection and subjective emotions, Hobbes and Locke pave the way for the Romantics, who place the emphasis for their aesthetic theory directly upon on the creative artist himself. With the Romantics, the work is no longer seen in terms of its relation to “universe” or “truth,” or even to the manner of imitation, but rather to the subjective experience of the artist.
The aesthetic analysis of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) ushered in the art-for-art’s-sake movement, and marked an important shift toward the work itself. After Kant, the work of art came to be seen as an independently functioning and self-sustaining “heterocosm.” John Stewart Mill (1806-1873) and other radical Romantics took this further, proclaiming that the imitation of universe is of no importance and that proper art need not bear any relation to truth.
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) builds a system of poetry based upon this newly formed subjectivism, but stops short of totally denying the reality of any independent outer world. Wordsworth rejects the “subjective idealism” of Bishop Berkeley in favor of Kant’s waffle-iron theory, and he “argues” in his poems that reality exists neither in some outer Platonic realm nor in total subjectivity, but rather within the web of interaction between the external and internal. This truth, he argues, is experienced by man through the participatory act of “half-creation.”
“ . . . of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,― both what they half create,
And what perceive.” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 105-107)
Though it seems that in modern times there has been no resolution to this ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, there has been a reconciliation of sorts. It is unarguable that in the 20th century philosophy moved in the direction of poetry, as it became more and more aware of the problems and limitations of its mode of discourse ― namely, language. For a moment, philosophy quit doing “philosophy,” and took “a step back” to engage itself in some of the more fundamental problems of language and its relation to that which it signifies. Though there has not been any resolution between poetry and philosophy (in the sense that one proved right and the other wrong), there has been a merging of the two great rivals, so that, in a sense, today they have become nearly indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps it is this consolidated form that will prove to be the true “architectonic.”
[For a more thorough history of the quarrel, see The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy, by Thomas Gould.]
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