Poetic Meter as Habituation to Metaphysics

In the Republic, and again in his late dialogue the Laws, Plato has Socrates and the unnamed Athenian both identify the art of poetry with music and make two powerful claims in its regard.[1] First, music is the chief component of education, that is to say, the formation of the soul so that it will seek wisdom and justice.[2] Such education begins in early childhood and therefore is pursued by way of habituation—instilling habits in the young person, who has not yet been formed either to desire reason or to be rational so that he will eventually pursue these ends, that is, pursue virtue, on his own.[3] The two dialogues have significantly different points of emphasis. The Republic emphasizes poetry’s role in creating a desire for virtue through the presentation of its appealing images, and, by way of its identification with music, its intermediary role as a part of mathematics and the other liberal arts, in the soul’s ascent to the contemplation of the good.[4] The Laws, conversely, attends to poetry’s more immanent activity of habituating the young, as its rhythms impose themselves on and govern the wild, instinctive, animal movements of the child, and bring such movements to a sociable and virtuous order.[5] Education, in the Republic, is above all a journey of ascent, from appearance to being and truth; in the Laws, conversely, it entails a descent of the music first given to us by Apollo and the muses, into souls in a state of becoming, and this is an intra-worldly and civilizing enterprise.[6]

The dialogues conclude not just that music governs, but that, a second point, it must also be governed. Because of music’s pedagogical, soul-ordering, power, only in its examined and established forms may it be admitted into the city. For, music is itself a lawful order that forms the soul to the spirit of the laws. A corruption of music will lead therefore to a corruption of the soul and the corruption of the city.[7] What historical understanding of the nature of poetry and music could possibly justify the grandeur of these claims? Further, what account of the soul and the nature of education could force upon us such a public concern with habituation to the rhythms of poetry?

Such postulates and the questions they raise inspire the position that is summarized in my title. Poetic meter may play a role in our habituation—that is, our becoming connatural—to the fullness of truth, the knowledge of being that is metaphysics. As Plato proposes, an order of language plays a mediating role between the rhythms of our bodily life and the attainment of a vision of the rhythm or harmony of reality as an intelligible, or truth-bound, whole. To advance this claim, I want to provide an account of: a) how poetry has been understood historically as the paradigmatic art form; b) the central role meter plays in it; c) the role meter plays within classical theories of the habituation of the intellect, such that it enables us, as a propaedeutic or habitual metaphysics, to enter into a contemplative encounter with being and truth; and finally, d) to suggest that it is a real cultural and pedagogical participation in metaphysics itself, by which I intend that, in its unthematic expression of being and truth, poetic meter educates the soul and civilizes the cultural or social order, by articulating and manifesting what exists as an eternal and simple unity in the sacred order.

If these claims are true, then we will have a clearer light on what it means for education to form the soul, not least, because we will see it is not only a certain set of ideas, of theoretical or narrative (mythos) content, that constitutes the material or substantive good of education; and, it is not only a methodical practice, a way of thinking, that constitutes the formal good of education. There seems to be a particular part of education that is at once formal and material, a substantive perception of a form, a form that substantiates the soul, and because it is this, it has a distinctive, perhaps a superior, role to play in education. Poetry is at once an education in a way of seeing and a reality seen.

Too often, this synthesis has been pushed off to the domain of the feelings, under the term “sensibility.” Or, it has been brusquely and uncertainly passed over, as in Kant’s third critique, where the contemplation of beauty stands between the cognitive and desiring powers.[8] Kant there concludes that beauty must be a symbol of the good, but not that its form could directly indicate goodness.[9] He further declares, on this tenuous basis, that it is the mark of a good soul that one should enjoy the contemplation of the beautiful, but this seems a claim that only obscurely follows from the main channels of his analytic.[10] My final thesis in large part concurs with his that poetic form, and aesthetic form in general, is formative of culture, but I would not leave this idled in certain ambiguities of sentiment and subjectivity, but, with Plato, seek to renew the classical claim that things formed in accord with number mediate between the soul and being, fitting the former for conformity to the latter.[11]



Consider these words of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium:


Well, you know for example, that “poetry” (Poiesis) has a very wide range. After all, everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry, and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet . . . Nevertheless . . . As you also know, these craftsmen are not called poets. We have other words for them, and out of the whole of poetry we have marked off one part, the part the Muses give us with melody and rhythm, and we refer to this by the word that means the whole. For this alone is called “poetry,” and those who practice this part of poetry are called poets.[12]


Diotima states here that poetry is the paradigmatic art form: it is the first instance of making and is also the model to which all subsequent instances of making refer by analogy. Her etymology, better founded than most Platonic etymologies, indicates that the art of poetry reveals something to us about the nature and significance of the human activity of creation, both in the aspect it shares with other kinds of making and in three ways in which it is set apart from them. Poetry instances most obviously what its name indicates, the human capacity for a) making, for bringing a new thing into being that transcends any parts from which it may derive. But, as Diotima suggests, if poetry clarifies what it means to create, it does so because it is a privileged kind of creation. Poetry is that kind of making which derives from something above us, it entails a coming into the world, a disclosure in the world from beyond the world. In brief, it is a making made possible only by its dimension of divine gift. But not just any gift: as she puts it, the muses give poetry to us with “melody and rhythm,” which is her way of gesturing toward poetry’s three other distinctive elements, each of which involves its own particular kind of disclosure of what lies beyond the world within the world: it is a kind of given-making that involves b) Memory, c) Metaphor, and d) Meter.



By Memory, I refer, above all, to what the Greeks seem to have intended by an activity born of the muses. Of the nine muses, six govern different genres of poetry; all nine are the children of Mnemosyne.[13] Memory is the mother of the muses. As I have argued elsewhere, this informs us that the Greeks understood the arts as an essentially story-telling activity;[14] memory is the repository of those completed forms, ideal and organic wholes, that may be manifested or given expression as stories, which are then wrought as a sequence of events, a plot, which, encountered in time, may be taken in and contemplated in the memory of its audience.[15] This reveals much about the role of memory and the arts to the ancient mind. Time scatters, memory gathers, and the muses bequeath; the temporal is made permanent in eternity, and then given to man, in time, as a lasting gift; the ephemeral takes on permanent or ideal form, which can finally be received by the perceptive and knowing mind. The human memory cannot of itself overcome the passage of time, but only insofar as it participates in the divine and immortal eternity Mnemosyne represents.

We find this first expressed with a certain paradox in Hesiod’s Theogony. Beginning and ending his song by singing of the muses, Hesiod tells us their singing delights


. . . the great mind of Zeus, their father, who lives on Olympos,

as they tell what is, and what is to be and what was before now[16]


The muses are heavenly, their first audience is Zeus, and the subject of their song runs over the whole course of time, past, present, and future. Only a few lines down, Hesiod shows they are equally comprehensive of space, first singing “the glory of the majestic race of immortals,” then the glory of Zeus as “the father of gods and of mortals,” and finally,


the Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-

wearing Zeus, delight his mind that dwells on Olympos

by singing the race of human kind, and the powerful Giants.[17]


The muses furnish therefore a theology—the origin of all things—a metaphysics, the orderly and unified principle of reality as the rule of Zeus—and a history, the events of human life in the world. That their intelligence may be complete, they span the gap between the mortal and immortal by filling it with giants. The way they give it, which is suitably formed for both gods and men, is remarkable. In singing the eternal whole gathered by memory, those who listen forget their sorrows so that “all the thought” is of the song itself, leaving “no care” to trouble “their spirits.”[18] In a revealing paradox, the daughters of memory sow forgetfulness. But, of course, what this entails is the forgetting of what merely passes for the sake of what has passed, or will pass, but has now been gathered into lasting form. We momentarily leave the temporal behind in an ecstasy of the eternal; and, in this case, the eternal is an intensive manifold of the temporal.[19]

For Aristotle, it was just that third formulation, the muses’ singing as an imitation of the history of human action, that is to say, the making of plots, or story-telling, that constituted the essence of poetry and gave it a philosophical, because universal and eternal, quality. Hence his chief claim about the nature of poetry would be to raise two muses—Calliope and Melpomene, if not others—above Clio, the muse of history. Epic and tragic poetry he shows to be distinctly philosophical activities.[20] By contemplating the particulars of a plot in the memory—not the divine memory, but human memory note—the mind could rise from a knowledge of individuals to one of universals, of actual passing events to generalized probabilities about types of men, meaning, those who are good or evil.[21] Story-telling regarding human actions is a means to ethical truth, for Aristotle, which is a great but not the highest kind.[22] Clearly this is not the highest kind for Hesiod either, but Aristotle’s Poetics seems to lower the horizon of the poetic until its concern with “men and giants,” as it were, makes it a kind of ethical philosophy, greater than history, but not touching on realities beyond what can be imitated, that is, beyond life in the world of changing being, of physica.[23]

It may clarify this comparison to note that Hesiod declares Calliope, the muse of epic, as the one who “holds the highest position.”[24] As Hesiod’s actual practice in the Theogony shows, he considers the epic to comprehend all three dimensions of the muses’ song, and so it is above all about the gods themselves as highest realities. For Aristotle, one presumes, Homer provides the authoritative type of the epic, not Hesiod.[25] And, Aristotle sees, quite plausibly, Homer to be primarily concerned with the plot-forming actions of men.[26] This explains why, what readers of Aristotle might expect to be another “m” definitive of poetry, mimesis, imitation of actions, is in fact but one aspect of poetic representation that may be gathered under the rubric of memory. We shall see below that there is still another.



Everyone will recall that, in the Republic, Plato has Socrates speak of a supposed “ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry, one that provokes him to exile the poets from the city altogether.[27] Having deprecated the poets for imputing salacious actions to the gods, and for being mere imitators of goodness who do not know the thing itself, Socrates will, in the Phaedrus, rank them as literally sixth-rate human beings.[28] He does so for the very reason Aristotle praises poetry: poetry is a mere imitation of that which can be imitated—of changing, sensible being—and so it is all too “earthly.”[29] It speaks of “men and giants,” their actions, of which it provides only the appearance not the reality.[30]

But let us recall the context where this occurs. Socrates is himself reciting a palinode, a poem in which the poet retracts a previous statement. His poem, he says, will tell what no earthly poet’s poem has ever told before; it will disclose to us that “place beyond heaven,” the “plain where truth stands,” where being truly is and so the eternal reality of subsistent ideas that are “the subject of all true knowledge.”[31] He can disclose these things only because he is reciting a poem, and his poetry seems to consist of speaking by way of metaphor in the broadest sense. In its exemplary form, as Socrates conceives it, metaphor is a concrete image of a purely intelligible truth. Imitations repeat as appearance what exists elsewhere as appearance; metaphors give appearance to the invisible; they give sensuous expression to the purely intelligible. Metaphor’s elements of trope and analogy make it possible for the highest reality in some sense to be seen and made-known to the human soul. “It would take a god and a long time to examine in every detail what kind of thing the form” of the soul is, Plato confesses. Divinity and immortality would be required. But a poet can “describe what she is like” in a briefer span.[32] The expressions of likening, tropes, that is to say, all those figures of speech of which metaphor is the paradigm, are no mere ornaments to be tacked onto an otherwise sufficient literal statement. Metaphor is, rather, a dense, compact means of giving the eternal expression within the temporal, the invisible expression in terms of the sensible or imitable. The soul is a chariot drawn by two horses around the circular horizon of the heavens; ideal forms are “seen” by the mind and nourish or pasture the soul. The life of mere sensation without reason is a dark cave, whereas the good is the sun. The appearance of a material body does not merely participate in Beauty itself; appearances figure forth, they symbolize or manifest what is otherwise beyond our figuring.[33]

This is the second sense in which poetry is given by the muses; by the use of metaphor, it reveals the highest mysteries of reality, including the nature of being, goodness, truth, and beauty. Contrary perhaps to our expectations, Plato seems to hold a higher valuation of poetry than Aristotle. What Aristotle praises, Plato dismisses as a knowledge of appearances rather than forms, and of the earthly rather than the heavenly, but only on his way to re-founding poetry as essentially metaphorical and therefore metaphysical. Poetry is not an imitation of human action, but a disclosure of being itself.[34]



Aristotle and Plato respectively honor poetry as divine in terms of the mnemonic and metaphorical “muses,” but Diotima’s speech makes clear there is a third element to poetry that decisively sets it apart as the paradigm of making. She tells us that, whatever else the “Muses give us,” they give it with “melody and rhythm.” The meter, the measure, of the poem is what subtends and holds together its other elements. Meter is the ground of poetry, as being is the ground of reality. This is how Hesiod renders it, when he speaks of their “immortal music” which “all the black earth re-echoed to them as they sang.”[35] The metered-memory of the heavens finds its echo in the meter-suffused memory of its worldly, mortal audience. Meter may be the child of Mnemosyne, but it also gives birth to memory in the individual person, because it is mnemonic.

Whether beyond the horizon of the world or beneath it, poetry as measure, as music, constitutes its essential mystery, bearing within it the forms of memory and the revelations of metaphor. Hesiod concludes by speaking of “the lovely beat of their footsteps” which “sprang beneath them as they hastened to their father.”[36] Meter is the rhythm that lies beneath, that stands-under poetry. As such meter holds memory together; it is time’s plot. And meter enacts in itself an intersection of the individual and temporal with the universal and the eternal; it is intrinsically analogical and, so, metaphysical—the primordial metaphor given to us by the muses to express the order of reality.

A much later figure makes the strongest case for these last two claims about poetic meter. St. Augustine, in his many passages discussing poetic meter, describes it as a temporal incarnation of eternal truth and being, as a way of marking the finite with the infinite, and of raising the finite up to the infinite. In this he offers us a pedagogy of metaphysics and natural theology (the highest subject of metaphysics).

In the early dialogue, “On Free Will,” Augustine demonstrates the existence of God to his friend, Evodius, on the premise that, if there is a reality that transcends their individual intelligences and which may be known in common by all intelligent beings, that will be Truth Itself and this will be God. An example of some such reality that “remains complete and unchanged” whether any creature knows it or not is not far to find. Evodius provides it: the “science of numbers is there for all reasoning persons . . . It remains true and entire.”[37] We come to know numbers not from sense experience of material things. Unity is the first principle of number, and material things qua material have no unity, but are infinitely divisible and so per se “innumerable.”[38] We know unity by an “inner light,” a spiritual rather than a material source of truth that is alone capable of furnishing the idea. Further, “holy books conjoin number and wisdom,” where wisdom is the beholding and possessing of truth, and truth is God.[39] In consequence, the numbers that contingent material things “bear stamped upon them” are intelligible signs of the truth and being of the absolute.[40] The perception of number is a spiritual act wherein we learn of the material by way of an illumination from the divine, even as the divine is also disclosed to us by way of the “stamp” of intelligibility present in things.[41]

Another early dialogue, de Musica, makes explicit that these arguments for number as disclosures of the divine being and truth not only can be applied to the numbers of classical prosody—metrical feet—but must be. Meter is the subject of that entire work, its first five books being a tedious dialogue on the different kinds of Latin metrical feet. But, in Book Six, Augustine picks up the rudimentary scraps of a theory of metrical numbers to be found earlier in the dialogue and stitches them into a unity that transcends them. There, his concern is to describe the relation of the different ways numbers manifest themselves so as to show an intimate, analogical connection between the numbers that order the movements of the body, the sounds in the ear, the numbers present in the memory, and those to be found in intellection and by which we judge all the rest.[42]

This dialogue repeats the account of number found in On Free Will, but deepens it in at least three ways. First, Augustine draws on ancient traditions, including the Pythagorean, to suggest that numbers constitute all created being in the universe.[43] Second, the six kinds of number he defines serve as an attempt to explain how spiritual number gives form to material being, and how the numbers constitutive of material being may be received into the memory and the soul of the human being, so “that we may pass from corporeal to incorporeal things.”[44] And, third, it traces the movement of the soul turning from the metrical numbers that measure movement and speech to those numbers of the spirit that reveal God.[45] In all this, Augustine makes clear an identity between mathematical and poetic number that makes explicit what is left somewhat ambiguous in Plato’s dialogues. He clearly justifies our thinking of meter in connection with whatever he may say about the revelatory significance of number in general.

As we observed above in passing: in the Phaedrus, Socrates declaims that the perception of a material beauty reminds the soul of its knowledge of the unconditioned idea of Beauty Itself in which the material thing participates.[46] Augustine’s early dialogues iterate this basic claim of participation metaphysics, but shift the exercise from the joyful surprise of beauty to the active discernment of number as sign of truth, though, as will be made clear in a moment, he associates number and wisdom not only with truth but also with beauty. He does this for a number of reasons, of which I shall explore just one. In the prosody of ancient Greek and Augustine’s Latin, verses are measured—metered—according to the principle of quantity. The syllables of a line are counted out and ordered according to a sequence of long and short syllables, where two shorts equal one long, so that each syllable as it were bears a number proper to itself, and versification as a whole is the art of giving words form according to numbers. For Augustine the rhetorician, and the classical world more generally, to perceive poetic meter is to perceive number, and that perception Augustine has invested with absolute significance, because it enacts the truth’s illumination of the soul. We realize the truth that we already know only in consciously turning inward upon the self and reflecting on what we find.[47]

These moments in Augustine suffice to show that he perceives number as a way of marking the temporal with the eternal, the material with the intelligible. Poetic meter is literally an instantiation of this, where order can be seen to be conferred by art and received by memory. Number gives Augustine a perception of the existence of God as truth, and the simultaneous whole of the art of verse helps him envision the creative mind of God as eternal even as what it creates is scored by temporality.

Number is not a material principle, but an intellectual one that makes the material and the audible to hold together, to receive and express their own unity, intelligibility, goodness, and beauty.[48] Metrical numbers mediate between poetic speech as passing, unintelligible sound and as a total, abiding intelligible form. Poetry is paradigmatic of making, we have seen. But note the way in which the measure of a verse is a sort of paradigm of paradigms. It is more than a likening, a metaphor, for the unconditioned, but its very incarnation; it is the intelligible whole that we struggle to hold together in the memory and which forms the memory. It is, quite simply, an encounter with being and truth, one that manifests in a microcosm the good order of the macrocosm. The music of poetry, its metrical order, is expressive of the musica mundana, the music of the world-order that the Greeks called the cosmos.[49]

These insights become all the more compelling when we consider the difference between the quantitative meter of classical prosody and the accentual-syllabic measure of modern English versification. They are not of course commensurable. In classical verse, syllables seem to have their number built into them, whether by actual duration or convention; a particular syllable simply is short or long, and this identification seems to be relative only to the system of measurement as a whole. In accentual-syllabic verse, stress is subject to context and position within the metrical foot. This caused the first poets of modern English, during the Renaissance, considerable confusion and anxiety and led them to propose, to no great effect, an establishment of quantity in English.[50] I mention this now in evidence of modern poets’ concern not to lose the role of meter-as-number as foundational to poetry. The organizing principles of meter changed with the emergence of a new language possessing principles of its own, but the sense that the truth of poetry abided not exclusively, or even chiefly, in its imitative-mnemonic or its metaphorical functions remained. If English verse was going to have a form expressive of being and truth, it would have to manifest some kind of number, and accentual-syllabism, with its paradigm of the iambic pentameter, is what of necessity came. That English iambic feet are expressly relative in a way classical quantities are not further reinforces just those qualities of meter and number Augustine had discerned. The numbers of iambic-pentameter do not inhere in the syllable, but rather come in to being through the ordering of syllables relative to one another. In a more explicit or frank manner, as it were, accentual-syllabic meter is relative and so reveals its dependence on a reality that transcends it and in terms of which alone it may be measured.

Despite the evident anxieties in the literary criticism of the renaissance that accompanied it, the shift from quantitative to modern accentual-syllabic meter came as a happy one. Such a turn allows modern English verse to illustrate the way meter not only expresses an eternal order, but also the way in which eternal principles confer form on the formless. No English syllable is stressed or unstressed in itself, but only in relation to others within a grammatical phrase or a metrical foot. Meter gives to every syllable a refinement of order it would not possess on its own, though it is one that works in conformity to the internal principles of the language itself. Poetry is in this way not only a kind of ontology, it is an ontology that manifests in the contingent and temporal what fully exists only in the eternal and transcendent.


On the Idea of Habituation

The account of habituation that has been most influential in our history has been Aristotle’s. It was his that passed into medieval scholasticism and informs Christian moral doctrine. Aristotle contrasts the intellectual and the moral virtues. The intellectual virtues a) pertain to faculties proper to the soul; b) and as per se natural to it; and c) whose excellences are attained through learning; which issues in d) a knowing of truth. The moral virtues, in contrast, a) pertain to the composite of body and soul, insofar as the soul governs the body; b) but there are no natural faculties of which the virtues are the perfection; and so, c) they must be imparted into the person through a process of habituation, wherein the repetitions of the body, reinforced by pleasure and pain; d) these repetitions gradually give shape to the soul—create in it a second nature—such that it comes to take pleasure in doing what is good. Our virtues of knowing are learned, our faculties of doing are acquired by habit. Although there are dimensions to Aristotle’s thought that call this division into question, in general it is fair to say that, for Aristotle, there is no possibility of habituation to metaphysics.

For many dimensions of human life, Aristotle’s formulations seem the superior ones. We can, for instance, learn what is good, but the disposition to do what is good is something more and other. Some of us do what is good by habit, by second nature, even when we are not quite sure why we do it. But there are parts of our experience left out of Aristotle’s division. The moral virtues become connatural to us, to use the scholastic term, but as the philosopher Jacques Maritain discovered in his effort to be faithful to Aristotle and Aquinas, there must also be a connatural kind of knowing. That is to say, some things we know come to us with a habitual ease, a pure alacrity, an absence of conscious learning, such that, in the modern age, we have often resorted to the language of instinct, intuition, inclination, sentiment, and sensibility. This leaves Aristotle’s theory sounding unsatisfactorily rationalistic.

In Plato, we find no category of the experience of knowledge that seems to fall outside the soul as rational or that radically separates the intellectual and the moral virtues. This is most often explained in terms of Plato’s conviction that virtue is a kind of knowledge, which can make it seem as though he gives inadequate attention to the body’s drag upon the soul, or the desire’s interference with the clear operation of the intellect. For Christians in particular, he is less helpful than Aristotle in the effort to explain how our fallen and perverse dispositions can lead us to do evil even when we know the good.

Such criticisms are fair enough, but Plato’s account of knowledge and virtue has at least one quality that Aristotle’s lacks. We see there that the whole soul, with all its aspects of knowing and desiring, is unformed and so undirected at birth. The role of poetry as story-telling is so central to the Republic, and the role of poetry as measured rhythm is so central to the Laws, precisely because it is the soul’s basic desire for reason that needs to be created within it and brought to order. The soul actually needs to be planted with intellectual potencies not already germinal within it.[51] We have to be habituated not only to desire what is good, but to be inclined to reason and truth as the perfection of the soul—its virtue—par excellence.

This conforms well to our routine experience that some formation of the intellect and desires together has to occur, before the young person can begin to learn with reason. Before one comes to see a truth of particular importance, one’s vision has first to be formed, to be habituated to its light. Poetry operates outside of reason, Plato frequently remarks, but that is to the good because—at its best—it precedes and creates the capacity for reason and order in the soul. It habituates us to reality before we come to learn—to know—of it. Modern terms like “sensibility” keep this formation too far from reason, as if a feeling for knowledge had no intrinsic connection to a capacity for it. In Plato’s account, the correlation is clearer and more satisfactory. The young soul is planted with and reformed by the image of truth so that it will eventually have the capacity to know the truth itself when it sees it. The same can be said for the good and the beautiful. In brief, the intellectual life has its own habits and these are intrinsic, not ancillary, to it.


Poetic Meter as Education by Habituation

In discerning the numbers of meter, we encounter an ontology that habituates. Our minds are being formed to become perceptive of number, as our first sensuous experience with rhythm matures into one that, while never losing its foundation in the sense, becomes intellectual as well. As Augustine’s de Musica argues, the number in the body and in the ear remains but comes to be “judged” by number in the soul. We see in the poem, those numbers in the soul giving shape to the linguistic world around us.

Philip Rieff argues, in My Life among the Deathworks, that culture is an act of world creation in which “sacred orders” are translated into “social orders.”[52] The numbers of pure mathematics give spiritualizing and therefore civilizing shape, through meter, to the forms of the English language.[53] In the passages from Augustine we have examined, he consistently depicts the movement of the mind toward truth as an active discernment, an engagement in philosophy. One may know and make use of numbers without realizing their metaphysical significance, their way of revealing indivisible and measuring truth through its measured “stamp” on infinitely divisible, distended creation. But one has not really understood what one was experiencing until becoming conscious of the source of that “stamp” of being on the place of becoming.

In comparison with Augustine, Plato and Aristotle are at once more at home with and more distrustful of, poetry’s way of standing outside the conscious, subjective reason. Socrates disapproves of the poets because they wield matters they do not fully understand; but, this is inevitable, not because poetry is beneath reason, but because its truth is given from above by the muses through fits of divine madness.[54] Aristotle similarly expresses what I take as amazement regarding poetic composition: because the imitation of poetry is such a fundamental and natural human activity, it almost defeats analysis. For example, the ability to write poetry well cannot be taught, but must either come naturally by genius or, again, by madness to the poet.[55] The numbers of poetry give themselves with a pre-theoretical promiscuity; they are intelligible before the active inquiry of philosophical reasoning becomes conscious of them as such. As we have just seen, for Plato and Aristotle, this constitutes their specifically formative power.

Poetry is in this particular sense a habituation to metaphysics. A primordial ontology that governs and orders the soul before the soul has become rational enough to order itself. Its measures can act on us independent of, and even in contradiction to, our consciously held metaphysical commitments. In doing so, meter can form or reform those commitments in accord with its order. If this venerable but bold premise is true, then we as stewards of our culture should greet it with some relief. In introducing a young mind to a poem, we may be tempted to think our students have only learned from the poem insofar as they can recapitulate its mythos, or insofar as they respond to or are formed by the actions and characters it presents in imitation. We have grounds for also trusting in the form of the poem to resonate with and to give form to the soul of the student, to prepare that student for a perceptivity of form in general, including the form that makes being intelligible and which therefore allows us to know and order ourselves in accordance with the world.

This puts a burden on us to restore prosody to its traditional place as a part of grammar. This would entail, first, that the young be taught to read verses aloud with an ear discerning of their meter; they should also be made to memorize its most finally crafted achievements. And, second, they should be taught to compose in verses as they are now taught to compose in sentences. This, not so that they become poets in a professional or exalted sense, as if poetry were the practice of their lives, but that education may become what Plato calls “argument mixed with music,” intended as a “savior of virtue throughout life.”[56] That they may learn to hear and discern the order that lies inchoate just beneath the surface of the English language and bring it to some refinement. With Plato, I believe we too should trust the unfolding of well-ordered numbers to discipline the natural movements of the young until they become fitted for the self-government of civility and to the contemplation of what lies beyond all number, beyond the measured order of the heavens, but which causes them to be.

[1] Plato recognizes a distinction between the formal properties of music and verse and the substantive content of poetry as mythos, story, anticipating Aristotle’s firmer, not to say categorical, division between verse and poetry (Aristotle, Poetics 1447a-b, in The Complete Works Vol. 2 (Jonathan Barnes, Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)). In the Laws music—as language, tunes, and rhythm—imitates the form of beauty (668b) but also that actions that constitute a story (668d-e, 669d), but the emphasis throughout is on music and poetry as arts of “rhythm and harmony” (672d-e), which inform the voice (673e) and the body, in dance (672e). In the Republic, these formal qualities are subordinated to mythos, to poetry as a mode of story-telling, but the two are still held together (376e, 377c), such that the good images of the poet (401b) lead to the conclusion that music is “sovereign” in education (401d). All references to Plato are from John M. Cooper, Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), unless otherwise noted. All references to the Republic are from The Republic of Plato (Allan Bloom, trans. New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[2] Education consists of gymnastics, for the training of the body, and music for the forming of the soul (Republic 376d), but finally for the formation of the soul as primary (410c). In Laws, it might be better to say that that education is the soul coming to reign over the body, attaining virtue (653b), wisdom and justice (Republic 429a, 433c), so as to turn a youth into a good man (641b).

[3] Habituation begins before reason and rightly-ordered desires are found in the soul; good habits are what put them there in the first place (Republic 395c, 401d-e, 518e). Habits are not themselves knowledge or virtue (522a).

[4] Education should lead one away from an identification of truth with appearance to the senses (Republic 476b, 509d). Because sensible appearances are formed by truth’s measure (Republic 486d), we can discern the measurement within appearances because given to them, and proceed to the measuring ideas which gives measure to things (Republic 508a, d). As we move from appearances to the good beyond form and being (Republic 509a) we are guided by those arts which ween us from judging in terms of the senses and prepare us to contemplate what is purely intelligible and most real (521c), but which are not themselves beyond all knowing: mathematics and the other arts are “steppingstones and springboards” (511b), and so are “probably . . . one of those things . . . that by nature lead to intellection” (523a), but are not intellectual itself. They are on the path toward, they are preparatory for, our taking “hold of being” (525b, 533b-c).

[5] Human beings move about—jumping and skipping—in virtue of their animal or bodily natures, in response to pleasure and pain (Laws 653a, d-e). Music and education, given by Apollo and the muses (653e) bring this disordered movement to order, that is to say, into conformity with “rhythm” and “harmony” (653e). Order therefore comes into the world and gives the human soul form that was previously absent. Rather than weening the soul from an attraction to the realm of becoming and habituating it to being, the soul in the world is refined or civilized, becoming virtuous (672d).

[6] This shift in emphasis on education is indicative of a broader shift in Plato’s metaphysics, argues Hans Urs von Balthasar, where the view of the sensible world as a “land of unlikeness” to be transcended for the intellect’s contemplation of the good gradually becomes a view of the world as itself a divine order such that the cosmos, far from being a distant participation, comes to be equated with God (The Glory of the Lord Vol.4.210-214). The Republic’s ethical dimension consists primarily of intellectual ascent and a participation of the soul in an order that always transcends it; in the Laws, in contrast, we find “an aesthetic ethic immanent in the world” (4.213).

[7] On the corruption of soul and city by music, see Republic 424a-e. On the need to govern storytelling, see Republic 397d, and to purge the city of wild rhythms, see Republic 399e. The good of the city requires “permanent and stable” rhythms, after the strict practice of the Egyptians (656d), not the lawless novelties allowed by the Greeks (Laws 660b).

[8] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (Werner S. Pluhar, trans. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987), Introduction III (17-18).

[9] Kant, Critique of Judgment, I. 59 (228).

[10] Kant, Critique of Judgment, I.42.

[11] Kant, Critique of Judgment, I.60.

[12] Plato, Symposium 205c-d.

[13] Hesiod, The Works and Days/Theogony/The Shield of Herakles (Trans. Richmond Latimore. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991),Theogony l. 53. The nine muses are named in ll. 78-79.

[14] James Matthew Wilson, Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 244-257.

[15] Aristotle indicates that a plot is precisely a form that can be taken in and held as a whole in memory (Aristotle, Poetics 1451a). When he turns from tragedy to epic poetry, he notes that a plot should have “all the organic unity of a living creature” (Poetics 1459a). All quotations from Aristotle come from the Barnes edition unless otherwise noted.

[16] Hesiod, Theogony, ll. 37-38.

[17] Hesiod, ll. 50-52.

[18] Hesiod. ll. 55, 61.

[19] W.B. Yeats’s poetry and prose show their debt to Hesiod on these points, as with the last line of “Sailing to Byzantium,” but also his frequent recurrence to the fragment of Heraclitus, “”Immortals become mortals, mortals become immortals; they live in each other’s death and die in each other’s life.”

[20] Aristotle rejects meter as the primary attribute of poetry, though he recognizes it as the necessary “means” (Poetics 1447b); he also rejects figurative language, what I shall discuss under the rubric of metaphor, as the primary attribute, in part because it falls under the subject of rhetoric rather than poetry (Poetics 1456a), though he does consider such language an important, subordinate element in poetry (1458b-1459a).

[21] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters” (Poetics 1051b).

[22] Poetics 1448a. That this is not the highest kind of knowledge is clear from Nichomachean Ethics 1141a, which dismisses the political (and so the ethical) as a highest knowledge and 1177b, which avows contemplation as an act and life beyond specifically human actions.

[23] Aristotle, Physics 193a (where the subject of physics as the nature of changeable substance is established). Clearly, Aristotle’s account of poetry retains all the emphasis on poetry as narrative of the Republic but reconfigures it in keeping with the more immanent account of being and education we find in the Laws.

[24] Hesiod, l. 79.

[25] See, James C. Hogan, “Aristotle’s Criticism of Homer in the Poetics” (Classical Philology 68.2 (April, 1973): 95-108). No references to Hesiod appear in the Poetics, for reasons explained in David Conan Wolfsdorf, “Hesiod from Aristotle to Posidonius,” in the Oxford Handbooks of Hesiod (A. Loney and S. Scully, eds.). Aristotle’s ten references to Hesiod treat him as a theologian—and a doubtful one at that—rather than as a poet.

[26] On this, see Aristotle, Poetics 1448a, where the concern of epic is stated as men, i.e. “agents who are necessarily good men or bad.”

[27] Plato, Republic 607b.

[28] See Plato, Republic, 377a on the immoral quality of poetry about the gods; Apology 22b-c on the ignorance of the poets; and Phaedrus 248e, on the ranking of souls.

[29] Plato, Phaedrus 248e. Plato elsewhere writes that the imitation of poetry is of human actions (Republic, 603c), and so is the evident source of Aristotle’s poetic theory and in accord with it—until such moment, that is, that Socrates the inspired philosopher becomes the true poet, as he does here and, by implication, in the Symposium (see, Wilson, Vision of the Soul, 292).

[30] Aristotle’s account of poetry would seem not to be true, Socrates suggests, because Homer cannot make men virtuous (Republic, 600a).

[31] Plato, Phaedrus (Trans. Stephen Scully. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2003), 247c, 248c, 247c.

[32] Plato, Phaedrus, 246a.

[33] Plato, Phaedrus, 246b-247c.

[34] On this point, see my “Four Ways of Encountering Poetry and Religion,” Contemporary Poetry Review (cprw.com), June 2006.

[35] Hesiod, Theogony ll.68-69.

[36] Hesiod, Theogony ll. 70.

[37] Augustine, On Free Will II, viii, 20, in Earlier Writings (J.H.S. Burleigh, Ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953).

[38] On Free Will II, viii, 22. This concurs closely with Plato in the Republic (529d), but not so clearly with the metaphysics of the Laws, and certainly not with the hylomorphism of Aristotle, wherein every individual substance is itself a formed unity.

[39] On Free Will II, viii, 24-ix, 26.

[40] On Free Will, II, xi, 31.

[41] Augustine, The Teacher xii, 40.

[42] Augustine, On Music, in Ludwig Schopp, The Fathers of the Church: a New Translation, Writings of St. Augustine, Vol.2 (Robert Catesby Taliaferro, trans. New York: Cima Publishing, Co. Inc, 1947), 338.

[43] Augustine, On Music, 154, 159.

[44] Augustine, On Music, 325, 330-334 (on numbers acting on body and soul).

[45] Augustine, On Music, 337-338, 350-355 (on the turn from numbers in the memory to those that transcend it and are present in God).

[46] Phaedrus 254b.

[47] See, Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 137. (on Augustinian inwardness as route to transcendent truth)

[48] On matters related to this point in Plato, see D.C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 124-127.

[49] Plato, Gorgias, 508a. See, John Hollander, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 12-14.

[50] See, Hollander, 81; and also, John Thompson, The Founding of English Meter (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 135. Hollander suggests, somewhat obscurely, that is was the lack of “number” in accentual-syllabic verse that unsettled the English Renaissance poets, since the only mathematics would be the counting of stresses and syllables, rather than the arrangement of separate quantities in due order. Thompson contends that this grappling with the difference of ancient and modern prosody may not have helped the English poets clarify their theory or to establish a reliable new theory of quantity, but it did stimulate the refinement of their actual practice and bring the conventions of English meter to perfection in conformity with the conditions of the English language.

[51] See, Republic 607e and Phaedrus, 276e-277a.

[52] Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), xix.

[53] “to civilize is to spiritualize” (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry, 75).

[54] Plato, Phaedrus, 244a-245a.

[55] Aristotle, Poetics 1448b, on the naturalness of imitation and taking delight in imitation; 1455a on the capacity to enter into the experience of a character as a “special gift” or a “touch of madness”; and 1459a on the mastery of metaphor as a “sign of genius”.

[56] Plato, Republic, 549b.


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