Friday, June 10, 2005

The Muses and Philosophy

A friend told me he was all about the Muses yesterday. "I'm all about the Muses lately," he said. I was like, "Wuuurd?" and he confirmed that, yes, he was indeed feelin' the Muses. What I find interesting, however, is that he is a philosopher. He belongs to a tradition that repudiated the Muses, if not directly then most assuredly indirectly; it is in the Poets that the Muses sing, and poetry has been done-in since Plato.

Now it may be somewhat bold of me to suggest that because someone studies philosophy their views are naturally consonant with those of Plato. In fact, if I had made this assertion I would just be plain wrong: Nietzsche was probably the greatest modern philosopher and here was a man who disagreed with the most basic Platonic/Socratic principles. But my friend loves Plato. He has said before that even now it is Plato's world we live in. He knows the material and is especially bright. He has studied Political Theory at the University of Toronto under some of the greatest minds in Christendom. What, then, in the name of Socrates did he mean when he said he was feelin' the Muses, when he said he desired for the Muses to sing in and through him so that he could write some philosophy? Would not the influence of the Muses be antithetical to the very nature of his enterprise? Does not the part of the soul animated by the Muses run contrary to reason and is instead the province of the passions, the thymos, if you will? Don't the muses represent that which philosophy must do battle against and rise above? Homer called upon the Muses; Socrates rejected them. The Muses and Philosophy are foils, not friends, and it is this sentiment I believe which caused me not a little amount of consternation upon hearing his utterance. I had thought it is the aim of philosophy to neglect, or at the least control, that part of man which is persuaded and swindled by the comfort of the Muses, for it is their influence which obscures both reason and detached, rational thought about the unchanging and the eternal necessary for philosophy as envisioned by the Ancients. Philosophy rose in opposition to Poetry because it felt that it could find truth with reason, not "feeling" as Poetry does. But my question is not about which discipline approaches more closely the truth. My question, my doubt, is that Philosophy and Poetry, and by Poetry I refer to the Muses, are not congruent. And my answer is I don't believe they are. One may rightly dispute whether Philosophy is correct in repudiating the Muses, but I believe it is beyond dispute to say that Philosophy does not require, nor is aided by the Muses, and that it should, if it wishes to be true its principles, stop its ears with wax and ignore the call of the Sirens.

But my friend was drunk when he said this so he was probably just a little fucked up.


At 11:23 PM, Blogger Tim Smith said...

Good ending to an impressive pondering. Love it. That said - I'm a little concerned. You've made a certain demarcation between the muses and philosophy. Must they be entirely separate though? It seems to me that they are connected. Philosophy sets a grounding, and from my perspective it seems that muses are the icing on the cake. No person wants to be smeared as an oily paint in the great canvas. We must not smear our realities with that of poetry. But is life not more real with a hint of that which actually constructs our humanity? Somewhere on the canvas lies degrees of certainty and mathematics. They are the framework for the second layer of emotion. I'd hope the two could work together. Thoughts? Perhaps I'm off the map here.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger D. Harding said...

I think you're right, New Brow. I've thought quite a bit since making this post, and I think I might have been perhaps a bit rash in adducing such a strict distinction between philosphy and poetry. After all, isn't it the case that both disciplines have as their aim the contemplation of issues important to man throughout history? And if so, poetry can certainly claim this to be its province with as much legitimacy as philosophy. Today, when we read The Odyssey of Homer, it speaks to us because there is something there we can connect with and relate to. The works of Philosophers from the same age as Homer, however, do not have that same resonance; their issues are not still important to us; they are lost in their specific history.

That being said, Plato banishes the poets because he believes they do not deal with the truth - their concern is appearance. He says the poets can only imitate reality, and they are never able to truly represent it as the philosophers can. But I don't believe Plato makes a compelling argument for accepting this position. He takes for granted the reputation of philosophy and its relationship to Truth, casting his lot with reason rather than the passions.

What I was trying to say about my original comment on the muses, nevertheless, was that they elicit not reason from man, but emotion. It struck me as odd that someone would appeal to emotion in philosophy, when reason is its guiding force. However, I think perhaps that our preference for reason which began with the Greeks may be ill-advised, and ultimately, unsastisfactory. But that is something which I'll have to think more on.

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate it.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Sheamus Murphy said...

My friend it is not enough to know the good. You must love it as well. Recall that by definition philosophy is a love of wisdom. Love is a passion, of a sort directed by the muses, and in fact one of the animating forces of mankind, along with anger, hatred, shame, fear and so on. These passions swirl about us, and our reason can but direct them towards ends conducive to our fulfilment. Sublimation of the passions towards fulfilling man's potential for greatness is a project that philosophers and prophets have taken upon themselves throughout history, and our history is inseparable from their success or failure at this task. Jesus came along and bade us to love our fellow man, but well before that, Plato showed us why we should love the truth. Otherwise we would find ourselves running amok stabbing each other (without Jesus), and denying the truth when it goes against our own self interest (without Plato). Recall at the end of the Republic, in the Myth of Er (a fine poetic moment), the cosmos is characterized by the muses in perfect harmony.

Yes Plato burned his poetry, and he attacks the poets, but he later resurrects them. Clearly he saw his task as placing philosophy in charge of poetry. But that is not to deny the muses. It is put them in their place, like the wily Odysseus, rather than let them run wild, like Achilles.

Rousseau goes further. He recognizes that first and foremost is our sentiment of existence, our love of self, conditioned by nature, and everything has to run through this. Reason can direct this love of self to pity, compassion, and romantic love, all of which are the proper foundation of the love of others. But amour de soi, close to a love of nature itself, comes first.

So sit back and feel the sentiment of existence. Then think about where it leads you.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger D. Harding said...

But if we make reason the slave of the passions, which is what it seems you're suggesting, can we really claim to have achieved real wisdom? Aren't all our pursuits then ultimately limited to that which is, dare I say, most base in us? It seems that at some point we must regard those animating forces of mankind with a healthy scepticism, lest we be led to mere self-indulgent egoism and ignorance of the Truly good.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Sheamus Murphy said...


Since when were our passions necessarily the most base? Surely our reason needs to be employed to curtail our most dangerous passions. But consider that reason unaided by an animating force, like love, could be the most terrible of tools.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Hector said...

A piscean contribution to this discussion is made...

Wheely distinguishes between reason and the passions, i.e. what we now call emotions. Murphy takes this distinction even further by invoking the notion of sentiment. But he doesn't come right out and say what I was thinking when I read the comments...that the distinction between reason and sentiment cannot ultimately be maintained.

Hume was the first modern to really push this line of argument; Rorty took it up again in the twentieth century. Rorty builds on such analytics as Quine and Witgenstein to make the point that what we take to be reasonable, i.e. what strikes us as rational, is purely a matter of value expressed through action. (The emphasis on action is more apparent with our good friend Ludwig than with Willard, however.)

The realization that reason and sentiment obtain in the same manner, as expressions of value, leads directly to modern pragmatism. This is what allows Rorty to interpret Nietzsche and (by way of Mr Reed-like stretching) Martin Heidegger as pragmatist thinkers.

The upshot of this? We need to stop thinking as though rational thinking and sentimental, passionate thinking are different kinds of activities. They aren't. Our conception of reason follows from our values of clarity, rigour, elegance, and certainty in the art of persuasion. Our conception of passion follows from the way we value such things as beauty, honour, grace, warmth, humour, fear, and hatred as ways of being. Reason is a form of sentiment because it manifests only as an expression of human value.

H. M. IV

At 11:00 PM, Blogger D. Harding said...

Even if we grant this, the values expressed in rational thinking are different than those expressed in sentimental thinking. Some values are to a greater degree agreeable wtih philosophy, while others are not. The point of the original piece was that the "values" (if that's the term you want to use)that are the province of the Muses belong to the latter category. That we have recognized sentiment and rationality as values does not prevent one from drawing a distinction between different kinds of values, nor does it prevent one from acknowledging the essence of a value and the peculiar part of human being of which it is an expression.

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Mr. Beamish the Instablepundit said...

Santayana and Fukiyama set up a ping-pong table.

Santayana serves "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Fukiyama slices the ball back with a Hegelian stroke "We're at the end of history."

Santayana rebounds "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."


They went to Vienna
and sat in a Circle
to destroy philosophy
with words, those jerkles


(Found ya through comments on another blog... anyone who digs Strauss deserves a visit)


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