Hugo Santander   




Ascendancy of Poetry over Philosophy

The intelligentsia of our time still operates under the assumption that any theoretical work should grasp the universal―that is, that it should settle the flux of reality into concepts. As Social Sciences tabulate statistical data in order to associate their endeavours with those of mathematicians and physicians, knowledge appears to be the product of a chronological discovery. Scholars quote exhaustively each other in specialised journals and newspapers to reassure readers and students of their progress and co-operative effort. A writer who ignores this linear progression is regarded with suspicion. He relies on the particular―on existence.

The distinction between art and philosophy is entirely academic. It dates back―as most philosophical mishaps, to Greece. Plato―according to Diogenes Laertius, wrote several lyric poems and tragedies. But his voice was feeble―a serious impediment for a playwright obliged to sing and perform his own verses. He was about to contend for a prize in tragedy during the Dyionisian Festival when he met Socrates. The histrionic impediments of Plato or the persuasive gifts of his new acquaintance drove him to burn his verses and to apply his days and nights to the study of philosophy.

Plato institutionalised philosophy as a profession; he founded the Academy and travel to Syracuse to carry out his political theory. From his early dialogues he attacked the philosophy of poetry:

«I went to the poets… I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them - thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them[1]».


Socrates demanded clear definitions from his interlocutors. But definitions rely on single general perceptions. A concept taken out of context presents fissures and contradictions. The Athenian poets, politicians or fellow philosophers who dared to comply to Socrates' demand were promptly refuted by his questions.

Socrates and Plato wanted to dictate a stable, reliable and universal truth to their fellow countrymen. But the ideology of mathematics differs from the ideology of the Academy. Mathematical formulae adapt to new variants and circumstances. Political theory is reluctant to change; the alteration of a given social system implies a contradiction within the system.  The downfall of a empire occurs when a political elite struggles to adapt outdated political principles to new social conditions. In their search for a universal discourse, Socrates associated knowledge to politics; his main purpose―as Aristotle pointed out, was ethical:

«Socrates… was busying himself about ethical matters and neglecting the world of nature as a whole but seeking the universal in these ethical matters, and fixed thought for the first time on definitions; Plato accepted his teaching, but held that the problem applied not to sensible things but to entities of another kind-for this reason, that the common definition could not be a definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing[2]».


Aristotle pursued fixed thought on definitions as well, paying special attention to 'sensible things'. He considered poetry more philosophical than history, and yet he reduced the inspiration of poets to the invention of myths. What is common to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is their search for a stable and absolute unity. But stability and absoluteness are contrary to the multifarious manifestations of life, as Karl Scheffler writes in a beautiful essay:

            «'We do not travel to arrive', says Goethe… The journey is pleasant for those who are willing to undertake it―for those who recognise in their path the main purpose of their journey. What is essential is the climbing the mountain. The view from the top is rather disappointing. Who looks for the fineness of nature―its manifestations and mighty effects, will joyfully discover in his path the pleasant whispers of the present. He will achieve a regular and lasting happiness―a serene and vivid happiness. The rambler finds his fate in his very path; nothing disappoints him, for he discovers the world in every casual circumstance.  In the same way we, wanderers of life, should manage our soul. Fate would never be so heavy against us as it is against those who long for a final respite to their efforts[3]».


Poetry has been dialectical from its very onset, but it never longed for an absolute understanding of reality. For centuries the dialectics of poetry have been more influential than the dialectics of philosophy. The greatest ethical changes in history have been promoted by poets and novelists, rather than by philosophers. The New Testament describes a society where all men and woman are equal (Luke 20, 36), a dialectical judgement able to  justify the most influential social revolutions of the past two thousand years.  About twenty years ago Kundera mentioned with circumspection that Cervantes―rather than Descartes, was the first and greatest writer of Modernity. His claim has been most discreetly ignored―for the Academy cannot accept within its marble precincts the meagre presence of a madman and the obese silhouette of a glutton.

Poets analyse the particular, its accidents and moods, e.g., whereas a historian or philosopher may discuss whether Creon, King of Thebes, was wicked or kind, Sophocles ponders according to each particular context. Creon was kind, as Oedipus recognised it at some point in his life:


...Bless you, Creon!

May God watch over you for this kindness,

better than he ever guards me[4]


But then he became cruel: 


You and your wicked way with words, Creon--

I've never known an honest man

who can plead so well for any plea whatever[5]


Complexity, rather than unity, is the essence of any literary work. Philosophers are used to hinder each other in their search for the hydra of unity. Poets, on the other hand, enquire with compassion on the abysms of existence:


I've much to ask, so much to learn,

so much fascinates my eyes,

but you... I shudder at the sight[6]


An artist wades on the waters of life, taken by streams that vary from day to day, from port to port, adapting his endeavours to new unpredictable circumstances:


We are not allowed to be. We are merely streams

We willingly flow in all possible shapes[7]


Universal judgements are contrary to poetry. In the last book of the Republic, Socrates remarks that had the poets a real understanding of their writings, they would devote at once to their implementation in life.  He was unable to understand that whereas philosophers provide rules, poets provide understanding. The greatest dramatic characters are not virtuous men, but thieves and murderers, as Thomas De Quencey remarks:


«What then must he [the poet] do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,--not a sympathy of pity of approbation[8])».


Aristotle distinguished three kind of poets: a) those who portrait characters worst than they are, b) those that portrait them as they are, and c) those that portrait them as they must be. Most philosophers fit into the third category. They are ethical poets.

A bard who aspires to the universal becomes a scholar. Goethe is widely admired on account of his dialectics. His style, notwithstanding, has the air of a commercial transaction―as Novalis remarked. Goethe's predictable characters, his expository style, his repetitions and twisted endings are mended by the weight of his ideas..

The institutionalisation of the Academy implied the institutionalisation of the Philosopher. As more universities were founded throughout Europe, scholar and professors tipped towards the systematic style of Aristotle. By the end of the 13th century the dramatic dialogues of Plato had almost become unfashionable:


«Plato’s writings… represented, and still represent, a major hermeneutical puzzle. Even if one could be sure which dialogic voice was Plato’s, in order to get at his philosophical position one still had to deal with developmental problems and contextual problems, literary problems of levels of meaning, degrees of seriousness, and irony that the scholastic method of reading texts was unable or unwilling to face[9]».


When Whitehead wrote that the European philosophical tradition consisted of a series of footnotes to Plato, he relied on the certainty that Plato's dialogues―as any artistic work, were open to diverse interpretations.

The most prestigious philosophers have been minor poets. Socrates composed a hymn to Apollo and a verse adaptation of Aesop days before his suicide. Plato wrote his dialogues in a musical style, halfway between prose and poetry―as Cicero observed. Tradition has preserved a series of dry epigrams and poems composed by Aristotle. Seneca wrote the better-preserved Latin tragedies. Schopenhauer published his complete poems months before his death. In one of his most pessimistic passages, he lamented the disadvantages of philosophy before poetry:

«The great advantage of poetry over philosophy is that poems subsist without impending one to each other.  We can, indeed, enjoy and appreciate the heterogeneity impressed on them by a single spirit. A philosophical system, on the contrary, has scarcely come into being when it is already being threatened to death by its brothers―like a newly crowned Asian King[10]».


Schopenhauer accused Fichte, Schelling and Hegel of grasping metaphysical concepts as poets and artists do[11]. His justification of Plato is rather clumsy:

«The written dialogue is a manifestation of philosophical thought. It presents two or more different, entirely opposite intentions on a given object. Such intentions are made either to engage the readers' judgement, or either to present a complete understanding of the matter into question… Without this purpose [a philosophical dialogue] would be just a trifle[12]».


Schopenhauer's attack against his fellow philosophers was less discreet than Hegel's attack against Kant, Kant's against Hume, or Hume's against Locke. Whereas a poet longs for recognition as another poet, the philosopher strives to become the summus philosophus.

Hegel entertained poetical aspirations in his youth, until his acquaintance with Hölderlin persuaded him to pursue a more suitable career.  His philosophical work, nonetheless, displays his artistic sensitivity. M. H. Abrams compares the development of philosophical consciousness in Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes to the growth of poetical sensibility in Wordsworth's Prelude[13]. Despite its longing for universality, Hegel's writings bear the craft of the Bildungsroman. The table of contents of his Philosophie des Geistes announces a series of metaphysical characters: Physical Soul, Sensibility, Feeling Soul, Habit, Intellect, Consciousness, Reason, Intuition, Recollection, Imagination, Memory, etc. Unlike Plato, Hegel recognised the relationship between poetry and the particular, but―always in compliance with the academic ideology, he ranked poetry below philosophy:

«… Equally little is it the purport of mental philosophy to teach what is called knowledge of men--the knowledge whose aim is to detect the peculiarities, passions, and foibles of other men, and lay bare what are called the recesses of the human heart. Information of this kind is, for one thing, meaningless, unless on the assumption that we know the universal[14]».


Hegel presents his philosophy as pure thought, divested of the passions and interests of art:


«This science [philosophy] is the unity of Art and Religion. Whereas the vision-method of Art, external in point of form, is but a subjective production and shivers the substantial content into many separate shapes...[15]».


Hegel attempts to elaborate a hierarchy of reality where the particular is subordinated to the universal. Accordingly all human beings―saved the philosophers, appear to be sick: «The sensitive life, when it becomes a form or state at the self-conscious, educated, self-possessed human being is a disease[16]». Actions, individuals and nations are but bypassed stages of a relentless movement: «The progress of mind [Geist] is development[17]».

Consequently Hegel dismisses poetry as «a thing of the past[18]», arguing that «thought and reflection have taken their flight above fine art[19]». The formulation of a new aesthetic theory, or a new science of art, becomes «a far more urgent necessity in our own days than in times in which art as art sufficed by itself alone to give complete satisfaction[20]». Art appears to be a mummy that The Philosopher, the University Professor or the journalist resurrects with his rhetoric:

    «They [the philosophers] think they show a respect for a subject when they de-historicize it, sub specie aeternit--when they turn it unto a mummy. All that philosophers have handle for thousand of years have been concept-mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive. When these honorable idolaters of concepts worship something, they killed it and stuff it; they threaten the life of everything they worship. Death, change, old age, as well as procreation and growth, are to their mind objections--even refutations… 'Moral: [the philosophers say] let us say No to all who have faith in the senses, to all the rest of mankind; they are all 'mob'. Let us be philosophers! Let us be mummies!’[21]».


The works of Hegel have been challenged by the flux of reality. Nietzsche was the first German writer to react against the academic ideology. Any attempt to discern his discourse would be doomed beforehand. The poet cannot be separated from the philosopher. Nietzsche articulated a far wider approach to existence than the one provided by philosophy itself. His invectives against Socrates and Euripides were but invectives against the philosophical schools of his generation:


«Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, reminds us of the kindred nature of the Euripidean hero, who must defend his actions with arguments and counter-arguments, and who thereby so often incurs the danger of forfeiting our tragic pity; for who could mistake the optimistic element in the essence of dialectics, which celebrates a triumph with every conclusion[22]».


The stoicism of Socrates and Plato irritated a sensual and egocentric Nietzsche:


«Let us but realize the consequences of the Socratic maxims: 'Virtue is knowledge; man sins only for ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy.' In these three fundamental form of optimism lies the death of tragedy[23]».


But then, years later, he confesses his admiration for Plato. Nietzsche was well aware of his own contradictions, and try to mend them by formulating his theory of masks.

In The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno refers to poets as philosophers. His standpoint was greatly influenced by Sören Kierkegaard[24], who by the middle of the 19th century cracked the prismatic building of German Idealism with one single sentence: «The [Hegelian] abstraction's risk is precisely in reference to the problem of the existence[25]». Decades later Theodor Adorno, a survivor of the wars that risked the very existence of humanity, wrote:


«The conception of a totality harmonious through all its antagonisms compels him [Hegel] to assign to individuation, however much he may designate it a driving moment in the process, an inferior status in the construction of the whole… with serene indifference he opts once again for liquidation of the particular…the individual as such he [Hegel]  for the most part considers, naively, as an irreducible datum…[26]».


Centuries before the birth of Hegel, Shakespeare had already condemned any systematic approach to the individual. «You won't pluck out the heart of my mystery», warns Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

One of the greatest misconceptions of aesthetics is that poetry corresponds primarily to emotions: «There is no question, then, that a work of art is presented to sensuous apprehension[27].» Thoughts appear to be the private privilege of philosophy. But emotions cannot exist by themselves. They require the assistance of the mind, or―as Kant pointed out in his third critique, they must be subordinated to the mind in order to become sublime. Hegel was well aware of the dialectics of art:  «[Art's] position is of the nature, that along with its sensuous presentation it is fundamentally addressed to the mind[28].» And yet the utmost effort of German Idealism was the suppression of feelings in the individual. Kant, according to Thomas De Quencey, died most perplexed by the fact that one of his best students married a poor woman out of love. His rational and insensitive mind could only understand matrimony in terms of wealth and prestige.

A writer divested of emotions is a nihilistic writer: «Is not memory inseparable from love, which seeks to preserve what yet must pass away?… Once the last trace of emotion has been eradicated, nothing remains of thought but absolute tautology[29]». Who cannot feel compassion for fellowmen becomes a misanthrope. Like Timon of Athens he would bark day and night about the pointless nature of existence:


Graves only be men's works and death their gain![30]



Anthropological philosophy has been unable to answer to the question What is man?, for man changes from age to age, from day to day, from hour to hour:


At Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday,  I gather

my diapers and my shroud, and now I am

A ceaseless series of cadavers[31]


In Macbeth, Shakespeare did not intend to portray a historical account of a Scottish Tyrant, but rather to give expression to a series of particular experiences. His poem includes diverse and contradictory attitudes towards life―a condition that a enlightened writer such as Voltaire could not digest. The stoicism of these lines may indeed have seduced his academic ear: 


I have lived long enough: my way of life

Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have; but, in their stead,

Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,

Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not[32]


Any conclusion about the 'philosophy' of Shakespeare, or even Macbeth, would be immediately contradicted by the following page:


Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That shruts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And there is hear no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

signifying nothing... [33]


The cries of Macbeth seem to anticipate the nihilistic philosophies that perplexed the past century. But Shakespeare never pretended to be universal. When his verses grasp the universal within the particular, the universal becomes the particular. His comedies and tragedies are sensitive works of understanding. In theatre―as in cinema, we are allowed to share the thoughts and feelings of Oedipus, Fedra, Hecuba, Macbeth, Lear, Tartuffo or Falstaff:

...look on Oedipus (...)

Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.

Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,

count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last[34]


Great poets are but witnesses of the sorrows of the doomed; they contemplate the depths of suffering as children who stand before the open sea:


The oldest hath borne most: we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long[35]


 The searchers of the Golden Fleece of unity are marooned. As the Academy slowly recognises the coexistence of diverse ideologies in diverse societies, the philosophical discourse becomes more poetical. But the distinction between poetry and philosophy must remain. The emphasis on the individual should be balanced with a political, ethical and metaphysical debate, least he individual be crushed under the weight of a consumerist ideology:


«In the hundred and fifty years since Hegel's conception was formed, some of the force of protest has reverted to the individual. Compared to the patriarchal meagreness that characterizes his treatment in Hegel, the individual has gained as much in richness, differentiation and vigour as, on the other hand, the socialization of society has enfeebled and undrmined him[36]».

[1] Plato, Apology, tr. by Benjamin Jowett.

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics, tr. by W. D. Ross I, 6.

[3] »„Man reist doch nicht, um anzukommen“, hat Goethe gesagt… Genuβvoll reisen wird nur, wer es um des Reisens willen tut, wem der Weg selbst das Ziel ist. Das Steigen am Berg hinauf ist das Wesentliche; der Blick vom Gipfel ist meistens eine Enttäuschungen. Wer nur das Auβerordentlich in der Natur sucht, ihre Phänomene und gewaltsamen Effeckte, der wird sich um den Genuβ des Weges bringen, auf dem die tausend Stimmen der Gegenwart flüstern. Das heiβt: um den Genuβ eines gleichmäβigen und dauernden Glücks; um das Glück, das in der belebten Ruhe ist. Wie es für den Wanderer, der im Wege selbst schon das Ziel sieht, keine Enttäuschungen gibt, weil sich ihm in jeder zufälligen Wirklichkeit immer die ganze Welt abspiegelt, so können auch den Lebenswanderer, der mit seinem Dasein so verfährt, Schicksalschläge niemals so schwer treffen wie den, der nur in der Idee lebt. Diesem ist gleich sein Leben zerstört, wehh ihm das imaginäre Ziel ganommen ist, weil all sein Lebensgefühl in der Idee des Ziels aufgegangen ist«. Scheffler, Karl, „Das Glück der Gegenwart“, in Gesammelte Essays (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1912), p. 17.

[4] Sophocles, Oedipus King, 1618-1620, tr. by Robert Flages (Harrisonburg: Penguin Books, 1982).

[5] Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 920-922, tr. by Robert Flages. Op. cit.

[6] Sophocles, Oedipus King, 1440-1442, tr. by Robert Flages. Op. cit.

[7]               Uns ist kein Sein vergönnt. Wir sind nur Strom

Wir fliessen willig allen Formen ein

Hesse, Hermann, Gesammelte Werke 9 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987), p. 472.

[8] De Quencey, Thomas, On the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, in Collected Writings, X, ed. David Masson (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1890), p. 391.

[9] Hankins, J., «Antiplatonism in the renaissance and the Middle Ages», in Classica et Mediaevalia: Revue Danoise de philologie et d'histoire, XLVII, 1996, pp. 359-376.

[10] »Ein anderer groβer Vorteil, Den poetische Leistungen vor philosophischen haben, ist dieser, daβ alle Dichterwerke, ohne sich zu hindern, neben einander bestehn, ja sogar die heterogensten under ihnen von einem und demselben Geiste genossen und geschätz werden können; während jedes philosophische System, kaum zur Welt gekommen, schon auf den Untergang aller seiner Brüder bedacht ist, gleich einem asiatischen Sultan bei seinem Regierungsantritt«, Schopenhauer, Über Philosophie und ihre Methode, § 4

[11] Ibidem, § 9.

[12] Ibidem. § 7

[13] M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), pp. 225 ff. Quoted by Desmond, William, Art and the absolute (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 16.

[14] Hegel, G.W.F., Philosophy of Mind, tr. by  William Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p.1.

[15] Hegel, G.W.F., Ibidem, p.302. Underlined by me.

[16] Ibidem, p. 101.

[17] Ibidem, p. 183.

[18] Hegel, G.W. F., Aesthetics, in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. Hofstadter, Albert and Kuhns, Richard (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 392.

[19] Ibidem.

[20] Ibidem.

[21] Nietzsche, F., Twilight of the Idols, 1, ed. and tr. Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, 1954).

[22] Nietzsche, F., The Birth of Tragedy, tr. Clifton P. Fadiman. (London: Random House, 1954), p. 99.

[23] Nietzsche, F., Ibidem.

[24] See Unamuno, Miguel de, Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida (Barcelona: Sarpe, 1983), p. 128-9.

[25] Kierkegaard, Sören, Afsluttende unidenskabelig Efterskrift, 3. Quoted by Unamuno.

[26] Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia, p. 17.

[27] Hegel, G.W.F., Philosophies of Art and Beauty. p. 405.

[28] Ibidem, p. 405.

[29] Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia, 79, tr. E.F.N. Jephcott (Thetford: Thetford Press, 1974), p. 122.

[30] Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, V, 1.

[31]             En el Hoy, y Manana y Ayer, junto

                Pañales y mortaja, y he quedado

                Presentes sucesiones de difunto.

De Quevedo, Francisco, El Parnaso Espanol, in Poesia de Francisco de Quevedo, ed. James O. Crosby (Madrid: Catedra,            1990).

[32] Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, V, 3 .

[33] Ibidem, V, 5.

[34] Sophocles, Oedipus King, 1678-1684, tr. by Robert Flages. Op. cit.

[35] Shakespeare, William, King Lear, V, 5.

[36] Adorno, Theodor. Op. cit. p. 17.

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