Philosophical Friday: Plato and Poetry

Plato_Pio-Clemetino_Inv305Though many have heard of Plato, less have read Plato or are familiar with his ideas. I am particularly interested in Plato’s approach to poetry and the notion of the Sublime. As such, I will briefly lay out how he approaches poetry and for what reasons.

At base, Plato perceives everything in the world as being based on a single form. So even though many imitations of that form are created and built, there remains only one true form of that object. For example, if a craftsman constructs a bed, it is based on the form of a bed; however, no craftsman can create the form itself. The form itself is only created by god. When the craftsman makes a bed, it is at second remove from nature because the craftsman specializes in making that particular form.

The painter and poet, though, Plato describes as being thrice removed from the original form, and hence he is deemed an imitator. As such, truth is not found in poetry and paintings, then; rather, the work of the painter or the poet is simply an allusion.

Moreover, he applies this framework to stories about the gods. In Book III of The Republic, he discusses stories about gods that are told to young, impressionable minds. These stories, he suggests, are often times problematic because they do not accurately depict the gods. For example, he cites Homer’s description of the gods: “Irrepressible laughter spread among the blessed gods / as they saw their Hephaestus bustling about the palace” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 69). In response, he claims that Homer’s view cannot be accepted because Homer does not represent the truth of the gods.

Put another way, Plato perceives Homer’s poetry to be twice or thrice removed from the truth, probably thrice. As such, he considers it to be a lie, an illusion. Therefore, it is considered to be untruthful by him.

Now, although it is Longinus who eventually highlights the centrality of the Sublime in poetry, this short discussion of Plato demonstrates how the notion of “truthfulness” is central to everything in life. With regard to gods, poetry, which is true and good for society, should accurately depict his preconceived notion about how the gods function. As such, theological content which aligns with Plato’s theological presuppositions are considered to be the most truthful.

The implication of this is that, while Jacqueline Vayntrub (2019) is correct to argue that the centrality of the Sublime in reading Biblical poetry finds roots in Longinus, the root of the centrality of theological content, namely the Sublime, reaches back even further to the very foundations of Western thought. These foundations of the centrality of the Sublime, though expressed in rudimentary form, are evident in Plato (5th century BCE).

On the Mahābhārata

One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.

First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.

Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.

Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.

In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.

Philosophy before the Greeks

I am hope to eventually read Van de Mieroop’s forthcoming book titled Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. It looks extraordinary. Here is little summary from the Princeton University Press website:

There is a growing recognition that philosophy isn’t unique to the West, that it didn’t begin only with the classical Greeks, and that Greek philosophy was influenced by Near Eastern traditions. Yet even today there is a widespread assumption that what came before the Greeks was “before philosophy.” In Philosophy before the Greeks, Marc Van De Mieroop, an acclaimed historian of the ancient Near East, presents a groundbreaking argument that, for three millennia before the Greeks, one Near Eastern people had a rich and sophisticated tradition of philosophy fully worthy of the name.

In the first century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily praised the Babylonians for their devotion to philosophy. Showing the justice of Diodorus’s comment, this is the first book to argue that there were Babylonian philosophers and that they studied knowledge systematically using a coherent system of logic rooted in the practices of cuneiform script. Van De Mieroop uncovers Babylonian approaches to knowledge in three areas: the study of language, which in its analysis of the written word formed the basis of all logic; the art of divination, which interpreted communications between gods and humans; and the rules of law, which confirmed that royal justice was founded on truth.

The result is an innovative intellectual history of the ancient Near Eastern world during the many centuries in which Babylonian philosophers inspired scholars throughout the region—until the first millennium BC, when the breakdown of this cosmopolitan system enabled others, including the Greeks, to develop alternative methods of philosophical reasoning. (Source)