Poetic Knowledge Chapter 2

Chapter 2

  • He begins with an interesting discussion of Plato’s views of poetic knowledge from The Republic. This has been an issue for me and Taylor espouses the view closest to my own that Plato’s censorship was more religious than anything else.
  • Quote from Werner Jaeger: Art has a limitless power of converting the human soul – a power which the Greeks called psychagogia. For art possesses the two essentials of educational influence – universal significance and immediate appeal. By uniting these two methods of influencing the mind, it surpasses both philosophical thought and actual life.
  • Here in chapter 2 Taylor draws connection with a book I had read in advance of reading him, Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture and Pieper’s discussion of scola / skole the Latin and Greek terms for leisure from which we derive our English term school. Thus school and leisure are brought into connection.
  • Here is precisely another way of stating the distinction between the poetic mode – requiring a condition of leisure – and the scientific; that is, the world of effort, work, the labor of proof, and, in the ‘drill and kill’ methods mentioned earlier.
  • All of the educational experiences detailed in The Republic fro the child – songs, poetry, music, gymnastic – are meant to awaken and refine a sympathetic knowledge of the reality of the True, Good, and Beautiful, by placing the child inside the experience of those transcendentals as they are contained in these arts and sensory experiences.
  • He has a great quote from Shakespeare on poetic mode:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

  • …in a post-Cartesian, rationalist world, the fact that Plato insisted that this knowable universe is ultimately spiritual in nature, and that “Genuine knowledge was immaterial, intellectual, and eternal as were the perfect forms upon which it was based,” are positions simply no longer fashionable or “correct,” rather than theories that have been disproved.
  • I was very intrigued by his survey of the likenesses and differences between the educational theory of Plato and Aristotle. I won’t quote from it, but it is worth the time: pp. 18ff.
  • Here, then, is the end of education for Aristotle, “the practice and exercise of virtue,” which corresponds with Socrates’ desire for the guardians to produce “good character,” with both philosophers depending on the same kind of means of education to take the student’s whole being into experiences of virtue, at least, in some sympathetic, vicarious way, which, as has been explained, is the heart of poetic knowledge.
  • He stays very much in the line of Pieper in his discussions of Aristotle and leisure. …real education requires a certain contemplative spirit (leisure)…and it is in leisure (skole) that we prepare for an active life of virtue,…
  • To summarize this polemic for poetic knowledge, he states: an education with the foregoing in mind, an education for beginners, would be poetic, which means, to draw heavily on direct and vicarious experience that engages and awakens the senses; for example, gymnastic, poetry, music.
  • A great way of setting forth this forth is in his “Goldilocks” analogy: The point is that both Plato and Aristotle recognized that the senses, of their own nature, make a proportionate selection of what is pleasant, what is the “mean” — not unlike the tale of Goldilocks who finally selected the bowl of porridge that was not too hot, not too cold, but “just right.” This “just right” is poetic knowledge, the judgment of the senses, without which all higher learning tends to become dehumanized and increasingly destructive.
  • Because wonder is so much a part of poetic experience in that it is rooted in the sensory-emotional response of man to “things as they are,” it is well to clarify this term before proceeding. First of all, wonder is an emotion of fear, fear produced by the consciousness of ignorance, which, because it is man’s natural desire (good) to know, such ignorance is perceived as a kind of abrupt intrusion on the normal state of things, that is, as a kind of evil. Something is seen, heard, felt, and we do not know whtat it si, or why it is now present to use. There can be mild or extreme degrees of ear, wonder, at these times. But notice — unlike modern perversions of this natural impulse, such as the extraordinary and fanctastic sounds, sights, and sensations artificially produced for a designed effect in films and video games — the traditional idea of wonder expressed by Aristotle operates within the ordinary, simply “things as they are.”
  • He then moves through some great discussion of how Augustine saw Poetic Knowledge, great reading but not much that I wish to quote or comment upon.
  • Unlike the scientific mode of learning that proposes methods and systems for acquiring knowledge, the tradition that has been thus far reviewed reveals rather a way of knowledge, like a path or winding road, with interesting detours off the road, more than the superhighway of modern education.
  • He has a great lengthy quote of Newman’s concerning the Benedictine Rule of monks:

The monks were too good Catholics to deny that reason was a divine gift, and had too much common sense to think to do without it. What they denied themselves was the various and manifold exercises of the reason; and on this account, because such exercises were excitements. When the reason is cultivated, it at once begins to combine, to centralize, to look forward, to look back, to view things as a whole, whether for speculation or for action; it practices synthesis and analysis, it discovers and invents. To these exercises of the intellect is opposed simplicity, which is the state of mine which does not combine, don not deal with premises and collusions, does not recognize means and their end, but lets each work, each place, each occurrence stand by itself, which acts toward each as it comes before it, without a thought of anything else. This is simplicity is the temper of children, and it is the temper of monks.

  • Another really important quote he makes from Newman is:

Poetry, then, I conceive, whatever be its metaphysical essence, or however various may be its kinds, whether it more properly belongs to action or to suffering, nay, whether it is more at home with society or with nature, whether its spirit is seen to best advantage in Homer or in Virgil, at any rate, is always the antagonist to science. As science makes progress in any subject matter, poetry recedes from it. The two cannot stand together; they belong respectively to two modes of viewing things, which are contradictory of each other. Reason investigates, analyzes, numbers, weighs, measures, ascertains, locates, the objects of contemplation, and thus gains a scientific knowledge of them. Science results in a system, which is a complex unity; poetry delight sin the indefinite and various as contrasted with unity, and in the simple as contrasted with systems. The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use a familiar term), to master them….[Poetry] demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet…Poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love.

  • Poetic Knowledge perhaps has as its last and greatest champion the theologian: Thomas Aquinas. Taylor spends several pages opening up St. Thomas’ views of the poetic mainly by use of a work on his aesthetic: Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas.
  • Therefore, as I present the last source from the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas, this poetic perception must be taken into account, in addition to what Eco says, that “If art could simultaneously instruct and delight…, this was because the medieval sensibility, like medieval culture as a whole, was an ‘integrated’ sensibility.” In other words, unlike modern society – which is more scientifically arranged and focused on the part, the bit, and the “byte,” the exception, and the bizarre isolated example not necessarily connected with anything – medieval man, like ancient Western man, considered the universe a whole and living reality, significant and mysterious.
  • In these discussions, he forms the following chart for showing the Order of Poetic Knowledge: (which won’t show on this blog – I will link to it when I can get it posted somewhere)
  • On particularly compelling quote from his discussion of this chart is: Recall too, that Socratic education presupposed the child’s innate ability to imitate, and given this broader understanding of imagination and its Latin origin, much more than the sounds of poetry and music, more than the movements of gymnastic were being followed, but an image of them and of their experience is set in the interior of the human being.
  • When Wordsworth writes “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky,” there has been no movement toward scientific knowledge of what has been seen; rather, this is the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for to be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest. At this moment, something of the rainbow’s reality is truly known, but rational explanation alone is insufficient, in fact, impossible, for this is the gaze of contemplation, of love.
  • He has a great discussion of the confusion in our time between emotions and feelings. I won’t quote from it, but it is very helpful (pp. 53ff)
  • He finishes this full and deep chapter with a summary that notes two ways in which the term poetic has been applied to the subject of knowledge. First there is the intuitive and effortless feature to all of learning (the general principle) by which the mind arrives at knowledge, in being qua being. Then secondly, there are the particular experiences (the specifics) of wondrous and pleasurable experiences in particular in learning that bring so much of the liveliness to the act of learning.
  • Overall, this is a heavy and philosophically oriented chapter, but central to “getting” his point. Teachers must contemplate these things.

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