e-book The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy (Princeton Legacy Library)

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There is room still for some kind of narrative poetry in that the unbanished poets are expected to sing of the laws with which their ancestors founded the city-republic, and to sing of the deeds, the gesta, of its great men. That the laws should be especially privileged is important, for they are part and parcel of the originary myths of a city or nation, and therefore of the story of the founding relationship between the polis and a tutelary god or gods who preside over its fate, its people, and its ethos.

Though the poets are at three removes from the truth in their imitation of things, if we follow the famous set of arguments in the Republic 10, EE about the couch, nevertheless they are accorded the ability to imitate passions with compelling accuracy and intensity. In short, the imitative poets are essentially hedonists. As Plato suggests in the Gorgias and elsewhere, the three form a dangerous triumvirate as the promoters of pleasure and thus of irrationality. They are the three heads of the Cerberus of hedonism.

Concerned as they are with arousing violent passions and feigning impious deeds turpia of the virtuous gods, their primary aim is not to establish an allegorical mask, to construct a rind that must later be diligently peeled away by the old and the wise. For the postulation of an allegorical sense is linked with non-affective and non-imitative ends antithetical to those of excitatory song and of ecphrastic and impassioned verse.

But this special case of pruriency is not at issue here. Rather, Ficino is confronting both the outward trappings of passionate bad poetry, where the obscenities and impieties are obvious and inflammatory, and the possibility, for the Platonist who already knows what he is looking for, of uncovering a hidden allegorical meaning that the young cannot discover without interpretative guidance But the situation is not so straightforward. In the Republic 2, D ff. Plato left others, that is, to delve into the epistemological status of any inherent or attributed allegorical meaning.

For what provokes us to the labours of correct interpretation is what compels us to become intellectually — and Ficino would claim also morally — engaged at the highest levels, since interpretation only becomes possible when we have overridden and tempered our passions. Even the search for allegorical meaning at the level of sustained double-entendre requires mental acuity and application, a temporary reining in of the stallions of wrath and desire, though they might be given their heads subsequently.

Correctly interpreted, the details of these superficially objectionable, passion-filled tales will emerge as the rind, the integumentum, involucrum or cortex, concealing the sweetest of theological fruits, turpia veiling mysteria. Ficino is shifting our attention away from the poet and his youthful prey towards the sagacity and intent of the Platonic allegorist and hermeneut.

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Pythagoras and Plato had banished Hesiod from the ideal city, Ficino argues, because of the impieties that bedizen his Theogony. Yet throughout his career Ficino thought of him as a high if unlettered rudior poet 13 , who occupied an honoured position in the succession of ancient poets and philosophers, the prisci theologi, while not being one of the symbolic hexad of sages culminating in Plato. In other words, Hesiod is both a banished and an honoured, a bad and a good poet.

Hence, for Ficino as for the ancients, there are two disparate kinds of theologian: first and foremost are the inspired philosopher-interpreters and then, entirely subordinate to them, are the poets they interpret Thus the same bad poetry that may mislead and inflame the young and thoughtless can serve as the catalyst for an ardent and righteous pursuit of the truth on the part of the old and the wise.

Having been banished from the city, Hesiod is allowed to return, but only under the patronage and protection of Hermes and his devotees. In a way he is prior to and sovereign over the poetic text, over indeed any text, however hallowed or unhallowed, however yielding or recalcitrant. The trouble is that even in a well-ordered republic the poets speak to the young as well as to the old, to the thoughtless as well as to the thoughtful. A generation gap exists, that is, in the acquisition of hermeneutical wisdom: on one side we find poetry heard literally and emotionally in and of itself; on the other we find it transformed by philosophical allegorizing and moral correction into theology.

Indeed, what are impieties, even scabrous impieties, inside the city become for the philosopher outside its walls the veils that must necessarily envelop all truly divine mysteries. For the wise interpreter does not dwell in the same city as its callow youth, as Plato had intimated in the Republic 9, E ff. The De amore 5. Like Plato, Ficino was reluctant to dismiss the sovereign of the Greek poets, the father of the ancient paideia, out of hand, or to deny him a place among the prisci theologi, given the Neoplatonic tradition and given the Christian allegorization of his epics by Byzantine scholars Though Homer seemed to be a bad poet in the sense we have been discussing and had to be banished from the ideal city-state, it was inconceivable to Ficino that Plato had meant to banish him entirely from the company of the philosophers.

For outside the city he is in the company of the philosophers, where he can be heard so to speak in exile He is interpreted, moreover, by the very philosophers who have voluntarily banished themselves from the passions, preoccupations, and levities of the corporeal world because they are citizens of a city within, citizens of the incorporeal polis of the Ideas—to invoke again the haunting passage at the end of the Republic 9, E-F.

The true philosopher, living as he does in a divine banishment from the affairs of this world, is the just and perfect lawgiver of this world. Indeed he is the judge who banishes the bad emotion-rousing poets from the ideal city, but who then revokes that banishment when the city is impregnably fortified by the sweeping powers of Platonic commentary and of its divine interpretation.

In effect, the philosopher is a virtuous Minos whose interpretation exiles the poets from their exile in this world.

Even so, he gives no sign of having done much more than skipped through the immense work, and, with regard to Homer, noting his interpretations of the mythic figure of Proteus and the rivers of Hades and that he had distinguished the soul from its idolum In the last decade of his life and as the great Platonic commentator of his age, he had other obsessions in short than the poets and their poetry. This essay reworks some of the material in that chapter in light of a different thesis. Note that I am consulting both the and versions.

I, esp.


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