Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: Three Philosophical Poets

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe by George Santayana. 1910.

Writing about philosophy is not so easy, likewise for poetry. Writing about their intersection is, then, quite the challenge. It would seem that while many words are needed to provide context and explication, only a very few will impart a sense of clarity. Likewise living in and observing the world are also required for making the most of these subjects. How does one study these worlds, then? Diligently and over a long period of time. Maybe that's not such a useful answer, but it's probably true. There is plenty of help to be had, but the quality and approaches of that help widely varies. Of philosophy and poetry both it is trivial to find general books, "On Poetry" or "Great Poetry" or even "Writing Poetry" and books too specific. The academic world is particularly good at providing the specifics: I'm sure someone has scanned every line of Lucretius and I'm sure there's an article on Aristotelian influence on 17th century pre-Metastasian opera libretti. I pass over entirely the 20th century "schools" of approach which mean to deconstruct and then, at best, to cobble back together again. Murdering a poem to dissect it (and then dissecting it) and getting lost on a philosophical byway is not the path toward appreciating, and using and living, art and philosophy. What is required is something which broadens your horizons and gets out of the way.

As such I'm grateful to whoever at Barnes and Noble decided to re-issue George Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe. The text has passed into the "public domain" in American copyright law and I understand it is now available from a few presses. It is also available for free online, here. I bought it from Barnes and Noble for about seven dollars. Nonetheless I had not heard of it before and coming on the heels of our recent inquiry here into philosophy and art, I gladly snatched it up. I didn't really know what I was in for as I am not terribly familiar with Santayana and his work.

Opening up to the following page from the section on Dante I read:

Love itself dreams of more than mere possession; to conceive happiness, it must conceive a life to be shared in a varied world, full of events and activities, which shall be new and ideal bonds between the lovers. But unlawful love here cannot pass out into this public fulfillment. It is condemned to be mere possession–possession in the dark, without an environment, without a future. It is love among the ruins. And it is precisely this that is the torment of Paolo and Francesca–love among the ruins of themselves and all else they might have had to give to one another. Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us,–abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already. Only an inspired poet could be so subtle a moralist. Only a sound moralist could be so tragic a poet. [p. 93]

Ary Scheffer. 1855. Oil on Canvas.

I was sold. Yet I'm not sure what to say in this "review." Perhaps just a few remarks about and selections from each section will suffice. Pardon my if I quote liberally, as I wish not to summarize but to pass on some of Santayana's beautiful analogies and descriptions. There would be little point for me to summarize Santayana explaining Lucretius.

The book is in fact a collection of six lectures "with a few additions" read at Columbia University in February, 1910 based on one of Santayana's courses. The preface begins on a note of frank modesty:
. . . my book can make no great claims to learning. It contains the impressions of an amateur, the the appreciations of an ordinary reader. . . I am no specialist in the study of Lucretius; I am not a Dante scholar nor Goethe scholar. My excuse for writing about them, notwithstanding, is merely the human excuse which every new poet has for writing about the spring. They have attracted me; they have moved me to reflection; they have revealed to me certain aspects of nature and philosophy which I am prompted by mere sincerity to express, if anybody seems interested or willing to listen. What I can offer the benevolent reader, therefore, is no learned investigation. It is only a piece of literary criticism, together with a first broad lesson in the history of philosophy–and, perhaps, philosophy itself.
What a wonderful sentiment, one which I'm tempted to adopt as the premise for this blog. Three Philosophical Poets is no treatise or dissertation. It is not a mighty tome assembled to change the world or cudgel you into the author's viewpoint nor a desperate attempt to cull something new from works which have been extensively written on, in one case for thousands of years. Rather, reading Three Philosophical Poets is like listening to a finely mannered house-guest who begins, "Isn't it funny how Lucretius. . ." and then proceeds to share his brilliance and insight. It is a brilliance which does not dazzle, though, but rather which illuminates heretofore invisible vistas. Regarding philosophy, often thought of as a ponderous topic, while we will delve to its roots we won't muck about there for long. Santayana does not really consider all of the myriad implications of every statement of these books. We are looking at essentials here, for the most part, and likewise Santayana, while he stops to say what an author misses, is mostly pulling out the best of each work.

The introduction begins no less encouragingly than the preface, "The sole advantage in possessing great works of literature lies in what they can help us to become. . . We can neither take away nor add to their past value or inherent dignity. It is only they, in so far as they are appropriate food and not poison for us, that can add to the present value and dignity of our minds." What an extraordinary sentiment. It will be the author's goal not only to discuss the three major schools of European philosophy and the greatest artist and exponent of each, but to suggest they are compatible. The first is Lucretius, to whom the world is one great machine and whose De Rerum Natura describes the birth and nature of all things. This is the school of naturalism, of materialism in natural science, humanism in ethics. A thousand years later Dante comes to us, "who partly understands his destiny; his own history and that of the world are transfigured before him and, without ceasing to be sad, become beautiful. The raptures of a perfect conformity with the will of God, and of union with Him, overtake him in his prayers." This is supernaturalism.

"Still later, the Teutonic races that had previously conquered Europe have begun to dominate and understand themselves. They have become Protestants, or protesters against the Roman world. . . They turn successively to the Bible, to learning, to patriotism, to industry, for new objects to love and fresh worlds to conquer; but they have too much vitality, or too little maturity, to rest in any of these things. A demon drives them on; and this demon, divine and immortal in its apparent waywardness, is their inmost self. . . Their will summons all opportunities and dangers out of nothing to feed its appetite for action; and in that ideal function lies their sole reality. Once attained, things are transcended. Like the episodes of a spent dream, they are to be smiled at and forgotten; the spirit that feigned and discarded them remains always strong and undefiled; it aches for new conquests over new fictions. This is romanticism. The greatest monument to this romanticism is Goethe's Faust." [p.7]

Perhaps you can see why I have taken the liberty of quoting Santayana at length. Yet Santayana is not merely going to catalog and describe these movements for us and quickly delves into a great question: why are the most "adequate and probably most lasting expositions" of these three schools of philosophy made by poets? "Are poets, at heart, in search of philosophy? Or is philosophy, in the end, nothing but poetry?" A fine question we recently pondered.

If philosophy is simply an investigation into truth, then no, there is not so much in common between philosophy and poetry. Epicurus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Kant were not poets. ("leafless forests" he calls them.) Santayana reminds us how even Lucretius himself said his verses relative to his ideas were like the putting of honey on the rim of the cup of medicine for a child. This statement which seemingly refutes any connection between art and poetry, Santayana sees to unite them. Yes, philosophy is along and arduous path but the order it reveals is beautiful, and that same beauty is forever the aim of the poet. Philosophy is but a tool and not the end itself, the end is insight, or theory or θεωρία, "a steady contemplation of all things in their order and worth."
Such contemplation is imaginative. No one can reach it who has not enlarged his mind and tamed his heart. A philosopher who attains it is, for the moment, a poet; and a poet who turns his practised and passionate imagination on the order of all things, or on anything in the light of the whole, is for that moment a philosopher. [p.9]
This sounds plausible and good, but how can the poet be a good poet if he is a philosopher, philosophy being such a reasoned and dense thing, and poetry, "something winged, flashing, inspired?" Poetry exists in the increase and relaxation of tension, existing essentially in moments. Most verse exists to carry us to those moments, moments of poetic insight and perspective. Is not some of it merely mechanical, designed to bring us somewhere else and not significant in itself? It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself. Yet Santayana does not delve into practical concerns about the length of a poem and whether one can really take it all in at once. We might infer that there ought not to be "vulgar lines" or that they ought seamlessly carry us over into moments of greater insight and intensity, albeit brevity.

So if the brief moment is significant for being of greater scope, "how much more poetical ought a vision to be which was pregnant with all we care for? Focus a little experience, give some scope and depth to your feeling, and it grows imaginative; give it more scope and more depth, focus all experience within it, make it a philosopher's vision of the world, and it will grow imaginative in a superlative degree, and be supremely poetical." The poet-philosopher has to imagine, symbolize, and give expression to this, and we must strive to suspend it all at once in thought before us.
As in a supreme dramatic crisis all our life seems to be focused in the present, and used in colouring our consciousness and shaping our decisions, so for each philosophic poet the whole world of man is gathered together; and he is never so much a poet as when, in single cry, he summons all that has affinity to him in the universe, and salutes his ultimate destiny. It is the acme of life to understand life. The height of poetry is to speak the language of the gods. [p. 12] [1]
Sometimes the poet may err and his work may be lose sight of the part or the whole and sometimes we are unable to live in the poetic moment, for we do not speak the poet's language or cannot keep in our head at once what he asks us to. Yet this is such a beautiful sentiment of what poetry and philosophy should be, rather, could be: a synthesis of all that is significant made beautiful.

I. Santayana's sweep in describing the poems and philosophies of Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe is remarkable. One would not have expected Lucretian Epicurean materialism to be presented with such vigor and enthusiasm in the 20th century. Santayana is downright persuasive in presenting the world of De Rerum Natura, and "presenting the world of" is exactly what he does for the three works. He does not give us dry criticism or line-by-line analyses. He presents the poem with the zest of a discoverer or delighted observer, and with such clarity we forget the abstract nature of what seems so clear:
One of the first things that impresses the poet, the man of feeling and reflection, is that these objects that people the world all pass away, and that the place thereof knows them no more. Yet, when they vanish, nothingness does not succeed; other things arise in their stead. Nature remains always young and how in spite of death at work everywhere; and what takes the place of what continually disappears is often remarkably like it in character. Universal instability is not incompatible with a great monotony in things; so that while Heraclitus lamented that everything was in flux, Ecclesiastes, who was also entirely convinced of that truth, could lament that there was nothing new under the sun. [p.18]
Such observation gave birth to the notion of all we observe being passing forms of a permanent substance, whether we call it change, or "the triumph of time," or put it as Lucretius did, that nothing arises in the world not helped to life by the death of some other thing:
 Alid ex alio reficit natura, nec ullam
Rem gigni patitur, nisi morte adiuta aliena.

We see this flux in Lucretius, that between Love and Strife, most notably as the revolutions between Venus and Mars. Ruling the universe together, the former cultivating the latter ravaging. This natural flux cares not for particulars but only the movement itself. In Lucretius life is the result of a chance, the "acme of the dance of atoms," and the philosopher at the top of the wave, the "foam in the rolling tempest; and as the wave must have risen before he bursts into being, all that he lives to witness is the fall of the wave."

Fear not death, then, but what a disconsolate life. Anyway what is feared is not death, or even suffering, but "the defeat of a present will directed upon life and its various undertakings." [p. 41] Indeed life to Lucretius is a mad one.

Yet Santayana has a few regrets of Lucretius, who was slightly too blind to pleasures in life, like friendship, and something with which to reinforce the materialistic view: supernaturalism. The emotions which Lucretius associated with his atoms and void, with his religious denials and his abstentions from action, are emotions necessarily involved in life."

II. Santayana considers the essence of supernaturalism that things are to be understood by their uses or purposes and not by their antecedents: that what is best ought to be. "The use of the body is the mind, whatever the origin of the body may be." This concept he traces to Socrates but it is in Dante that the idea had its greatest expression. In Dante the Aristotelian ethics, the Neoplatonic cosmology, the living Hebraic and Church traditions, and the parallel classical tradition, converged. He fused all into one moral unity and one poetical enthusiasm. The fusion was perfect "between the personal and the traditional elements. He threw politics and love into the melting-pot, and they, too, lost their impurities and were refined into a philosophic religion."

"Throughout the Divine Comedy, meaning and meaning lurk beneath the luminous pictures; and the poem, besides being a description of the other world, and of the rewards and punishment meted out to souls, is a dramatic view of human passions in this life; a history of Italy and of the world; a theory of Church and State; the autobiography of an exile; and the confessions of a Christian, and of a lover, conscious of his sins and of the miracle of divine grace that intervenes to save him." [p. 82]

Dante and Virgil in Hell, or The Bark of Dante. 1822. Eugène Delacroix.

Dante, then, is not just a philosopher. He looks not at philosophy, but beyond to theology, just as he looks beyond the other woman to Beatrice. Yet still he looks further: "the eyes of Beatrice reflect a supernal light. It is the ineffable vision of God, the beatific vision, that alone can make us happy and be the reason and the end of our loves and our pilgrimages."

III. If there is perhaps too much Dante in the Divine Comedy, and perhaps Dante's world places man in too high a place, such is the essence of Romanticism. The Romantic hero:
. . . disowns all authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that he springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, and that the future of his soul is infinite. In the romantic hero the civilized man and the barbarian must be combined; he should be the heir to all civilization, and, nevertheless, the should take life arrogantly and egotistically, as if it were an absolute personal experiment. [p.113]

Santayana's journey through the many episodes and faces of Faust is exciting and brimming with insight, but it won't do to recap it here. Nonetheless, the passage on Helen is particularly good:
It is evidence of Goethe's great wisdom that he felt that romantic classicism must be subordinated or abandoned; that Helen must evaporate. . . Perhaps in the commonwealth he is about to found, Faust would wish to establish not only dykes and freedom, but also professorships of Greek and archaeological museums. And the lyre of Euphorion, which is also left us, may signify that poems like Byron's Isles of Greece, Keats's Grecian Urn, Die Götter Griechenlands of Shiller, and Goethe's own classical pieces will continue to enrich European literature. This is something, but not enough to lift Faust's immense enthusiasm for Helen above a crass illusion. That dream of a perfect life to be lived according to nature and reason, would have ended in a little scholarship and a little pedantry. Faust would have won Helen to hand her over to Wagner. [p. 139]
It is the pursuit not the end which defines the Romantic view: "everything is worth pursuing, and nothing brings satisfaction–save this endless destiny itself." Yet while the Romantic hero was just born Mephistopheles is ancient. Willing evil, championing darkness, he reminds us of the folly of living. Yet "while everything falls successively beneath his sickle, the seeds of life are being scattered perpetually behind his back. The Lucretian Venus has her innings, as well as the Lucretian mars. The eternal see-saw, the ancient flux, continues without end and without abatement." [p. 128]

It was a perceptive mind that saw the philosophical thread running through Lucretius, the poet of nature, Dante, the poet of salvation, and Goethe, the poet of life, and the contrasts of substance, morals, and immediacy in their works. Great works and artists all, but in combination! Lucretius sees all in proper place, Dante the distinctions of all forms of good and beauty, and Goethe the passion of the present.

What would a work perceptive of all three be! Santayana waited for the poet who would make it, and so do we. In the meanwhile we have quite a bit to work with.

[1] One recalls a similar sentiment from Beethoven in a letter to a young pianist: "Do not only practice your art, but get at the very heart of it: this it deserves, for only art and science raise men to the God-head." [link]


  1. That book sounds right up my alley, as does each of the three poet-philosophers individually. And I'd never heard of it till now. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I'm very glad I stumbled upon the book too; he really makes the these three traditions come alive, which is a literary feat itself. Such certainly makes one suspect he was a great teacher too.

    P.S. There is also a Google Books version: