Lecture One: Plato, Aristotle, Blake

By Mark Lussier, Associate Professor, English

            As we discussed last class, the dialogue format deployed by Plato in both Republic (Book X) and Ion tends to solicit agreement with the point of view offered by Socrates, rendering the discussion somewhat pro forma. However, Plato’s representation of the very nature of poetic production, as a thrice-removed “imitative” art, received less attention in our discussion, and we must return to these to gain a sense of Aristotle’s break or rupture with Plato. To fully appreciate Socrates exiling of poets from his utopian republic, we should recall that value within the polis is defined by utility; things are valued “for our use, in accordance with the idea” (21). Since the poet crafts ‘images’ with unsure value relative to utility and the potential to disrupt social unity (i.e. Socrates offers numerous examples when poetry upsets the internal stability of the polis—“the power which poetry has of harming even the good” [27]), the poet is barred from discursive presence in the ideal state. Thus, for Plato/Socrates, poetry simply functions as “Imitation . . . a kind of play or sport” (25).

            As play and potential problem, poetry represents the destabilizing force of linguistic representation, and as such it is linked to the villain of Socratic/Platonic dialogues, the sophists, who were classical rhetoricians. The realm of representation pursued by poets is a mimetic art, where “imitation” is defined as thrice-removed representation of “the actions of men, whether voluntary or involuntary, on which, as they imagine, a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly” (26). And so, Socrates/Plato re-inscribe the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (28), yet they equally suggest that poetry “be allowed to return from exile . . . that she make a defense of herself in some lyrical or other meter” (29). Of course, this is precisely what a series of powerful thinkers, beginning with Aristotle and extending (for purposes of this course) to Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

            While the Republic articulates an idealized state, the dialogue with Ion concerns actual praxis in the world, and while Ion seems an unworthy opponent to resist the caustic critical gaze of Socrates, a recognition of the potential connection of the poet to the divine is metaphorically offered in the “image” of the “magnet”:

            This stone does not simply attract the iron rings, just by themselves; it also      imparts to the rings a force enabling them to do the same thing as the stone itself,             that is, to attract another ring, so that sometimes a chain is formed, quite a long      one, for iron rings, suspended from one another. (32)

Socrates’ use of an image as the core of his argument gains added interest when seen in the context of the denigration of the image with which the Republic opens: “Then the imitator is a long way off the truth, and can reproduce all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image” (23). The image, therefore, is the vehicle for the enthousiasmσs or “inspiration” at the core of poetic process, where “poets are nothing but interpreters of the gods, each one possessed by the divinity to whom he is in bondage” (32). Certainly, in both their defenses of poetry, Sidney and Shelley take up this language, since poets are linked to prophets, and this linkage between poetry and prophecy literally defines the tradition within which Blake operates.

            Interestingly, Socrates actually knows Homer’s work, as his ability to rattle off passages indicates, and underwrites his canny insight into the nature of Hellenic epic: “Wasn’t his subject mainly war, and hasn’t he discussed the mutual relations of men good and bad, or the general run as well as special craftsmen, the relations of the gods to one another and to men, as they forgather, the phenomena of the heavens and occurrences in the underworld, and the birth of gods and heroes” (30). While the thrust of Homeric epic encompasses the entire universe of events mundane and divine, the primary subject of those epics—war—was seen, by Blake, as an infection residing at the core of epic process as these are inherited by Dante, Spenser, and Milton. Blake’s records his dis-ease with the received classical tradition in “On Homer’s Poetry” and “On Virgil,” yet he equally takes up an argument with Aristotle as well, thus making these short works appropriate vehicles for our critical transition to Aristotle.

            Blake’s opening argument “On Homer’s Poetry” takes up the issue of “unity” as an abstract category, urging that “when a Work has Unity it is as much in a Part as in the Whole” (269). While the subject seems to be Homer’s poetic practice, the complaint, as the plate later makes clear, is directed at Aristotle, who argues late in the Poetics that “epic poetry [should] exhibit the same characteristic forms as tragedy . . . and is composed of the same parts, with the exception of song and spectacle” (60). Thus, Aristotle urges that both tragedy and epic offer a similar structure, a restriction against which Blake rebels. More directly, Blake then engages the second and sixth sections of Aristotle’s anatomy of poetic process when dismantling Aristotelian notions of character, which is secondary to plot in importance (43, 46-7). As Blake suggests, “Aristotle says Characters are either Good or Bad: now Goodness or Badness has nothing to do with Character” (269), which specifically addresses Aristotle’s idea that “Artists imitate men involved in action and these must either be noble or base since human character regularly conforms to these distinctions, all of us being different in character because of some quality of goodness or evil” (43). For Blake, especially in light of the representation of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the moral imperative, the very linking of “Unity & Morality” (270) is problematic, since such a view implies a ‘calculus’ or Moral Precept through which a poem might be judged. For this reason, since Blake sees Aristotle dictating rules from the past to bind the freedoms of then current creativity, he argues that “The Classics . . . Desolate Europe with Wars” (270).

            Blake’s view, which picks up on Plato’s insight into the warlike nature of Hellenic and Roman epic, receives further elaboration in “On Virgil,” where Blake argues that Greek and Roman models for epic poetry are problematic specifically because they encode a warlike ideology: “Greece and Rome . . . far from being parents of Arts & Sciences as they pretend: were destroyers of all Art” (270). This view leads to a crucial insight Blake extrapolates from classical epic (as discussed by Plato and Aristotle), namely that epic poetry, as a mimetic art, mirrors the ideological concerns of the culture from which it springs, and he later applies this thinking to critique the warlike activities of the British Empire itself, for “a Warlike State never can produce Art” (270). When viewing Aristotle’s discussion of poetry, then, Blake equates his model with “Mathematical Form,” since he seems to offer a prescription for the production of art. However, as most would recognize, Blake is quite likely being extremely unfair to Aristotle, since the Poetics seems to offer an anatomy or description of epic poetry, rather than simply offering a prescription.

            Turning now to Aristotle’s best-known work, one can immediately ascertain his critical differences from Socrates/Plato. First, while Platonic thought tends toward “Unity” or “Oneness” with ultimate reference to the realm of the Ideal, Aristotle (the son of a physician) pursues a more material approach to both literary acts and the text of the world, addressing the “Many” or Plenitude in the process. Second, while Plato would, to paraphrase Blake, circle around a concept via the dialogue format, Aristotle deploys a critical method that might be described as “anatomy.” Third, where Plato sees the “fictions” of the poet as swerving from the Truth and potentially destabilizing the polis, Aristotle views poetry as a means of constructing connections among members of a society, as his emphasis on “catharsis” (the synthesis or movement through fear and pity). Other differences are readily discernible from the extremely organized way Aristotle anatomizes each discrete aspect of poetic writing. While accepting the Platonic idea that poetic reproduction functions through mimesis or imitation, Aristotle proposes a more formal, less ideologically slanted approach for the analysis of poetics, when he describes the minute particulars that constitute poetry itself: “imitations are to be distinguished under these three headings: means, object, and manner” (44), and for tragedy (and perhaps epic poetry as well), “the most important of these parts is the arrangement of the incidents; for tragedy is not an imitation of men, per se, but of human action and life and happiness and misery” (46). Thus, the trajectory of Aristotle’s thought moves toward the “universal” (as seen in the crucial eighth and ninth chapters):

Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical and more significant that history, for poetry is more concerned with the universal, and history more with the individual. By universal I mean what sort of man turns out to say or do what sort of thing according to probability or necessity—this being the goal poetry aims at, although it gives individual names to the characters whose actions are imitated. (48)

For this reason, Aristotle argues that, for poetry (either dramatic or epic), “plot” is of primary importance while “character” is of secondary importance (Chapter Six: 46).

            Returning to Aristotle’s method, one can discern the play of empirical inquiry based ‘on Nature’ rather than a nebulous realm of the Ideal. Once Aristotle establishes the broad parameters of poetic acts (they manifest a beginning, middle, and end; they prioritize plot over character, they display the particular qualities of plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and melody, and they provide a continuum of concern that begins in a state of harmony, moves through a reversal of fortune, and creates recognition in both the characters and the audience alike), he moves systematically through each aspect of the poetic act, dismantling then contemporary drama and epic to elaborate their distinctive features (pp. 47-54). Such a systematic approach, in Aristotle’s view, suggests that “the art of poetry is more a matter for the well-endowed poet than for the frenzied one” (54), a statement that confutes the Platonic position assumed in Ion.

            As we will see when specifically turning to Blake’s illuminated books of prophecy, Blake synthesizes the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches even as he vehemently lambastes the “Classics.” In part, this Blakean tendency can be seen in the brief letters assigned for today’s class. In 1799, Blake received a commission from a patron Reverend Trusler to create a series of designs based on the “good and “evil” man, but Trusler rejects Blake’s designs as too fantastic. Blake defends the integrity of his visionary mode of engraving by arguing, first, that he seeks “to renew the lost Art of the Greeks” (701), and he actually goes on to verbally castigate his patron: “What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which cab be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care” (702). Blake’s designs were intended to ‘rouze the faculties to act’ (702), and he cites both Homer and Plato as visionary antecedents (702). Blake’s argument, finally, rests on his understanding of the relativity of vision itself, an insight now gaining wide currency in both literary criticism and theoretical physics (I have both Relativity and Quantum in mind): “I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint in This World, but Every body does not see alike. . . . to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers. . . . To men This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination” (702).