The Philosopher and the Poet – Siblings in Intuition

Aristotle teaches that the philosopher and the poet both attend to the marvelous, and thus enjoy an occupational kinship. We might expand upon his observation by identifying the effects of such attention, that is to say, what do marvels represent that bring the unlikely bedfellows of philosophy and poetry into companionship?

To begin with, good poetry gives us words that chart an unseen path to wisdom. But the effect is at times so magical that some Puritanical cultures have outlawed poetry as bordering on sorcery (even the republic proposed once by Plato seems to suggest this, as also some forms of radical Islam, ever on the outlook for mimics of God). Still, aside from its abuses, poetry is often seen as leading to the selfsame end pursued – though by different means – by philosophy: namely, intuition into truths, and sometimes truths of a superior, transcendent order.

In poetry, the senses and the imagination, gently guided by reason and grammar, poise themselves before a sensory world pregnant with meaning – images, symbols, correspondences, pallets of colors, modalities of music, surprising narratives and a sea of emotions – only to react upon them with a power that, at first blush, challenges the empires of logic. As every writer of poetry knows, and every reciter of poetry learns, an inner eye is opened at those unpredictable junctures when all the nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs, linked and unlinked by a fickle dance of prepositions, suddenly light a fire. And in its flickering light, something is seen.

The philosopher follows a different road, paved with explicit principles and careful arguments, but always maintains – or always should maintain – a lifeline to the concrete by the ministrations of his imagination. In this faculty both poet and philosopher meet, exchange courtesies and then go off on their parallel voyages. For the philosopher, images are points of reference, reminders of the real, whereas for the poet they are the stepping stones on his poetic itinerary. But both of them are exploring reality. And both regain some measure of every child’s virginal contact with the world – in that unmistakable moment when they realize they are amazed.

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