Published September 24, 2010 by:
In Poetics, Aristotle praises poetry as "a more philosophical and a higher thing than history," singling out poetry's ability to express the "universal" as the factor which makes it superior. The "universal" in Aristotle's sense of the term is the realm of possibilities, the manifold imaginable outcomes that may stem from the "actions" of "a person of a certain type," while history, on the other hand, does not express the universal but the "particular". History consists of the actions, words, travails and experiences of a certain person or persons at a certain place in a certain time during a certain situation with a singular outcome; the very idea of "possibility" is essentially meaningless in such a context. History, after all, is the recording of what has already been, and in any outcome only one possibility is ever selected (perhaps by fate, chance or God) to actually occur, but when it has occurred any discussion of further possibilities is only so much speculation. Poetry, according to Aristotle, has the ability to describe human events with a "universal" eye focused on the "law of probability or necessity". However, it is my contention that the connection between poetry and philosophy is much stronger than Aristotle's narrow conception of the "universal" in Poetics.
In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates discusses the "pure Forms and Ideas" that underlie all existence. These Forms are eternally perfect and, in a sense, universal; the absolute ideal of any one emotion or abstract concept can be pursued by all people, even if they've no idea what that absolute ideal would be like. One may have had a taste of it in youth (as in love) or witnessed it carried out against the rightfully accused (as in justice) and while one may not have seen the maximally perfect manifestation of that Form or Idea, the imagination can run wild trying to formulate what such a manifestation would be like. Due to the vagaries of human creativity and personality, innumerable possibilities can be exhausted in this pursuit, and exhausted poetically in a way that they cannot be through almost any other medium (certainly not through history). The lyrical quality of poetry lends itself not only to the expression of the eternal and universal but to the worldly and emotional, and, ultimately, to the existential. This view of poetry and philosophy transcends Aristotle's narrow focus on the "possible" by embracing the already existing and the never to be, enabling the expression of important philosophical concepts like consciousness, experience and emotion.
Sappho's love poems provide a very emotional and personal example of the contemplative self, expressed through poetry. Emotional reflections like those present in "Like the very gods in my sight is he" bespeak a deep awareness of the physical manifestations of love and their amazingly simple stimuli. Sappho starts the poem by comparing the lucky man who is charming Sappho's female beloved to a god. He is able to sit close to her, listen to her, and look into her eyes - all the things Sappho wishes she could experience. Sappho then goes on to describe the various physical effects that start to overtake her: "fever shakes my body," "sweat breaks running upon me," "paler I turn than grass is," culminating finally with a feeling of having just staved off the ultimate physical effect, death. The disparity between the very simple and seemingly benign stimulus and the very negative effects (including what may be sudden antipathy towards life itself) is enormous. Sappho has recognized the importance of emotions (namely love, jealousy, despair and hopelessness), catalogued the surprisingly out-of-balance physical effects some of these emotions have caused, and poetically expressed the entire experience from her subjective perspective. The poem conveys universality but it's universal beyond the scope of Aristotle's definition; everyone can relate to seeing their beloved or their crush speak to someone in a manner so intimate that you feel, rightly or wrongly, it should be reserved only for you. This is universal not in the sense of the possible but in the sense that it is a universal human experience. It is not a "person of a certain type" bounded by necessity and possibility, but all persons of all types experiencing something common and relatable. In its articulation of a universal human experience, "Like the very gods in my sight is he" makes a fundamentally philosophical observation about the nature of love and longing.
The Song of Songs in the Old Testament of the Bible also displays plenty of emotions, but in a much less moving manner. The endless praises and the comparisons of lovers to animals and armies lacks the emotional depthand reflection Sappho manages to bring to her poems in far fewer words. However, a different kind of philosophy can be found here, and one that is ultimately just as personal: morality. In section 8, the subject of virginity arises. A little sister who "has no breasts," apparently on the cusp of puberty and the torrent of hormones that comes with it, is told to "be a wall" and not to "be a door." If she is a wall, the family will "build upon her a palace of silver." If she's a door, they'll "enclose her with boards of cedar." Virginity is to be prized and maintained, her elder sister says, because "I am a wall, and my breasts like towers: then was I in his eyes as one that found favor." Morally, then, a female must remain a virgin in order to gain favor from her family and the eyes of a male. The male in this case may also represent God, making this a moral command from on high. Whichever it is, there is clearly a moral lesson being passed on here, with disobeying resulting in scorn from your family, a dearth of choice prospects for a husband, and (if you so choose to interpret it) damnation from God. In a very brief space, section 8 of the Song of Songs lays out three major and convincing arguments for a young girl to remain a virgin. Conveying such moral lessons through poetry is certainly something very philosophical, and it is not the mere expression of the "possible." In other words, it's the not "could be" being expressed but the "ought to."
Homer's The Iliad is brimming with philosophical undertones and overtones, from morality and ethics to honor and virtue, and Aristotle himself repeatedly references the epic poem when making philosophical arguments, e.g. mentioning Priam during his discussion of Solon's argument for happiness and the supplicating Thetis begging Zeus to help Achilles as an example of high-minded behavior. The Iliad is indeed full of situations, characters, speeches and fates that can be plucked from the poem and dropped into any number of philosophical arguments to illustrate a point, and it typifies the kind of "philosophical" poetry Aristotle has in mind when he praises poetry over history in Poetics. The examples Aristotle took from The Iliad have a very universal feeling about them, and represent an important demonstration of the "universal" connection between philosophy and poetry: certain types of people in certain situations doing any number of possible things. The self-serving foolishness of Paris, the courageous cynicism of Hector, and the deadly vindictiveness of Achilles are all "universal" in this sense, as they are not any particular real person but a mythical "personage," as Aristotle calls it, who represents a certain type of person in a certain situation, and they can be applied to any number of other situations as a universal marker for such-and-such an attitude, a situation, a feeling, or (in the case of Priam) an end.
The connection between the actions, commands, and experiences of mythical figures (as in The Iliad), real individuals expressing their subjective experience (as in the poems of Sappho) or nameless lovers (as in the Song of Songs) to philosophical arguments and concepts repeatedly transcends mere possibility or a certain person doing something that can be applied "universally" in Aristotle's sense of the term. While the standard of his universality is met in The Iliad, it completely misses the deeper well of experience at the bottom of the poems of Sappho and the commanding morality of the Song of Songs.
Poems are not some elevated art form that can be cherry picked to compliment a philosophical argument, but are a kind of philosophy in themselves. The connection between philosophy and poetry is so strong precisely because one leads directly to the other. Even the occasionally tepid pronouncements of undying love in the Song of Songs leads one to wonder, philosophically, "What is love and why is it so important?" Sappho's moving poems about her experience in love are so powerful because of her ability to convey the emotions behind her experience. She is not just in love, she is painfully in love, calling upon gods to give her aid so that she can be with her beloved ["Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite"] and feeling near death at the mere sight of her beloved with someone else. The simultaneous longing for loving connections with others and utter loneliness inside herself creates an extremely existential emotional dichotomy that is instantly relatable for virtually all reflective individuals, inviting a philosophical examination into not only her experience, but our own.
Aristotle's definition of the "universal" is simply too inadequate to accurately express the deep bond between philosophy and poetry. Subjective experience, in particular, and the philosophical questions that arise from it, are glaringly absent. Aristotle states that "it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may have happened". This view only cripples the creative and philosophical possibilities of poetry and art. As Sappho so deftly illustrates, some of the most moving art is art borne from personal experience. I would argue that even the most fantastical poetry has a subjective core, as any real understanding of the emotions involved in even the most outlandish of settings and situations still needs some kind of personal experience by the artist to ground it in emotional reality. A possibility itself is just one of any number of potentialities that can come about only in the context of what has already happened. While Aristotle was correct in holding poetry above history in its relation to philosophy, and in many ways the "universal" (broadly applied) creates a bridge between them, there are no "rules that the poets should observe" apart from "Don't write in prose."