Poetry and Philosophy

How should the soul be instructed? Plato gives two accounts to lead men’s souls to the harmony of justice. One account is the allegory of the cave, the other is Diotima’s ladder of love. I often think of Plato watching the great tragedies, taking notes in the bleachers. Does philosophy get us further down the track than the poetry of tragedy? The cathartic purge of watching a great person fall from one fatal flaw, following his or her fate to its ending, to its completion, thereby burning said tragic flaw inside the chests’ of onlookers watching in the crowd with wonder and curiosity. Tragedy wasn’t about getting popcorn and watching entertainment. It was serious. It was public education, which when audience members left, they kept on talking about it. It wasn’t a cheap thrill. It’s depth psychology, which shed’s light on our unconscious natures, revealing to ourselves something that we might have repressed our denied.

Plato’s Republic is a new kind of poetry, but Nietzsche says it’s too apollonian, too healthful, too rational at the expense of the dionysian which attic tragedy balanced with the apollonian. Socrates was a new type of hero; a tragic character without a tragic flaw. Having experienced tragedy myself, and having read a little philosophy, I must say it didn’t get me further down the track. To shed light on the unconscious, it took the aesthetic experience of writing a tragedy, and me reading poetry to finally acknowledge my guilt and understand the wrong path I was on. If Plato’s allegory of the cave is the philosopher’s way, even its author, mythologically speaking, gives it little power to instruct souls, for only one man steps out of the cave, and those he goes back to save are not persuaded to join him. Alas, but Socrates did save Plato’s soul at the expense of his own. So, there’s one exception, Plato.

In Plato’s Symposium we find another way to set oneself on the right path. Dante’s Divine Comedy is Diotima’s method of helping people ascend the ladder of beauty. The real beginning of Dante’s Comedy is Dante’s first sight of Beatrice, who forever remains in his soul henceforth. She passed away, yet she remained. He was exiled and he found himself in the woods of error, and she remained. Virgil took him through hell, recounting to him awful things that happen to those that don’t turn from vice and repent, and she remained. He ascends the mountain and learns, by way of moral virtue to find new strength, and she remained. When he was finally reunited in the Garden of Eden his heart felt Old Love, and she took him Paradiso and helps instruct him on the theological virtues until he catches a glimmer of beauty absolute inside the Primum Mobile. Beatrice was pivotal in his pilgrimage, in ordering justice in his soul.

Thanks to poets like Goethe and Dante, poetry and philosophy can mend together as it should, and as Schiller said, fuse the formal (Rational, experience) drive with the naive (childlike, wonder) drive, and create a play drive that engages people in all their faculties united to explore the depth of their souls, unweaving the labyrinth from their heart to their mind, where the shock of affectation can ignite, and create the grist to change. To align reasons with passions. To reflect. To examine oneself, and realize the myth they are living. To see the tragedy they are living out, and change course before the curtain falls, and it’s all over. Philosophy, even with Plato, lacks the affectation to grip passions and bridge them with reason. That is philosophy’s failure and tragedy’s triumph. So, when tragedy handed the baton to philosophy, we must reflect, did it get us further down the track? And realizing this shortcoming, how do we go henceforth in our ways of philosophizing? Sure, one can consume knowledge, and gain some insight into wisdom, but what do I say about living it? To look into the mirror of parallel lives, worlds of wonder and danger, feeling the narrative inside your body, experiencing empathically, a life as personal as your own, being led to where the imagination takes you, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven; from existential despair to the experience of transcendence, where time freezes and experience widens and you open your soul and feel contentment and wonder stirring, and it’s then that you intuitively grasp for something, just out of reach, and then you find yourself doing philosophy in the act of poetry. Reading between the lines, between the verses, which seemed like an echo but now rings in your soul.

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