Dante, Plato, Aristotle
Dante, Plato, Aristotle
The assignment is poetry v. philosophy. Plato speaks of a quarrel b/t poetry and philosophy. He dismisses the arts while Aristotle defends them. DO we see traces of this quarrel in later traditions? If so, where? And how is it played out there? For this essay, in addition to Plato and Aristotle, focus on Dante’s Inferno. (Please look to see if my thesis is clear and strong, my evidence is all relevant, and whether this whole essay persuades you) Throughout his life, Plato strongly believed that the arts and philosophy directly opposed each other.
On the other hand, Aristotle defended poetry as an aid to philosophy. Dante, a philosophical poet, successfully synthesizes Plato and Aristotle’s views in the Divine Comedy of the Inferno without compromising either school of thought. He acknowledges the fact that while the arts have its uses within the material world and philosophy its uses in the spiritual, both need the other to be complete. Both Plato and Aristotle agree that poetry brings about great emotion which has a lasting impact on the individual and society. However, they disagree on poetry’s emotional effects.
In Meno, Plato believes it results in harm while Aristotle argues that it leads to improvement in Poetics. Upon closer inspection, we see that Dante’s Inferno contains a philosophical significance underlying its poetic style. Poetry and philosophy work towards the same end, but in different ways. There is no doubt that poetry is an imitation. What Aristotle and Plato dispute over is the source of that imitation. Plato strongly states that the arts are mimetic, twice removed from the truth. They are an imitation of the ideal entities in the realm of the forms, in which all things are perfect.
For instance, tragedy presents multiple possibilities and situations rather than a single essence. In Meno, Plato’s Socrates discusses the difference between doxa and episteme. Poets, politicians and priests utilize doxa, a type of knowledge that is not mediated through any intellectual reasoning. This further demonstrates the composition of the material realm. Right opinion, or doxa, flees from the mind just as the materialistic body quickly perishes. Socrates says opinion is not worth much until it is “fastened with reasoning of cause and effect” (Plato 65). He is alluding to episteme, true knowledge that remains in the brain.
This is accomplished through intellectual inquiry in the ideal realm. Throughout the dialogue, Menon insults Socrates by saying he looks like a stingray, alluding to a type of numbing-drug. However, Menon proves to have false knowledge as Socrates shows how anamnesis occurs via the Socratic Method. Only when he experiences aporia, the state of confusion and realization of one’s ignorance, can he reach true knowledge. The reference to the drug, pharmakon, symbolizes how Menon became numb to the false, material world in order to transition to the divine realm where all things originate.
While Plato asserts that imitation comes from the true essence of things, Aristotle believes it has its roots in human action. In Poetics, he examines how humans have an instinct for imitation, harmony and rhythm. We often learn our earliest lessons from mimesis. Aristotle asserts that the only way to reach the ideal is through action. He views it as a horizontal developmental rather than a vertical one, as Plato did. By the process of energia, we move from potential to actuality. This is also analogous to the concept of the material to the ideal. We come out of the cave and into the sun through our own activities.
As the arts best represent action, tragedy contains knowledge because it presents psychological possibilities and universal truths about ourselves. Each possible reality may be the ideal essence. Tragedy, after all, is an imitation of action and of life, not men. The stage externalizes what’s within our souls. The actors play out the meaning of life which the audience can safely inspect without endangering themselves. This perspective is extremely human-centric compared to Plato’s divine ideal. For instance, tragedy contains plot that is action-centric and based on the structure of incidents.
Unlike a story, a plot’s events can be resequenced in any fashion. This is like an experiment in which the stage is our lab. A plot can furthermore be split in two ways: complex or simple. A complex plot contains peripeteia and anagnorisis. The latter, similar to Plato’s Meno, shows the progression from ignorance to knowledge. Yet the characters on stage, even after making decisions, are still susceptible to Fortune’s will. Thus peripeteia occurs, alluding to God and the divine realm we ultimately reach with the aid of anagnorisis. There are some things people can’t control.
However, what we do imitate and control are our actions within the material world. For Aristotle, action was the most significant aim to focus on. In Dante’s Inferno, the poet Virgil guides Dante into Hell. Poetry begins to act as a gentler remedy compared to philosophy. It is more relatable to the human mind and physical world. Through catharsis, Dante must eliminate all emotional tumult to become enlightened. This process of catharsis is similar to the movement from the material to spiritual realm. Paradiso, the highest realm, is where true intellect exists and where we become one with God.
In the second canto, Dante demonstrates the wickedness of emotions and the materialistic realm when Virgil tells him: Your soul has been assailed by cowardice, which often weighs so heavily on a man- distracting him from honorable trails- as phantoms frighten beasts when shadows fall. (lines 45-48) This is an extremely Platonian perspective. Partially right, Plato believed that tragedy produced cowardly leaders as it appealed to passion rather than logic and reason. Through Virgil, Dante demonstrates how the arts, especially poetry, are effective in cleansing the soul of emotion by experiencing or contemplating it.
Much like the Socratic Method in Meno, Dante must become “numb” to false knowledge via catharsis and begin with a clean slate. He accomplishes this by observing the damned in the inferno. When he passes through aporia, only then will he become enlightened and obtain truth. The shadows are a reference to Augustine’s “visio corporals,” the cave of pure materiality, in which false knowledge resides. Dante says in canto one that man must come out of the “shadowed forest” (line 2) where he is “so full of sleep” (line 11).
All this is accomplished through human action, represented through tragedy and poetry. Furthermore, Virgil symbolizes the coming emergence of Christian Rome through Dante. He has already taken Aeneas to the Underworld, setting up the entire story. Parallel to this, poetry lays the necessary foundation for the coming age of philosophy. Dante uses typology of the inferno to paradiso. Like the Hebrew Bible, the inferno remains incomplete and foreshadows what’s to come. The New Testament completes the text, in the same way philosophy does to poetry. Each is interdependent on the other.
In the Inferno, Dante fails to read the inscription to the Gateway to Hell, demonstrating how the archaic style of backgrounding no longer resounds in the new age of foregrounding. This method brings to light how the mind reads and interprets with reason. Because the material realm is incomplete, Dante cannot move to this abstract, spiritual meaning without first going through the forest. In the third canto, Virgil describes to Dante how those in hell have “lost the good of the intellect” (line 18). The mind can never be fulfilled as it is a pure sensory experience.
This is proven when Virgil is only able to guide Dante so far. He cannot take Dante beyond the material realm because he is not a Christian. He represents the arts, the non-metaphysical. A higher entity, Beatrice, will lead him to paradiso. Virgil declares in canto one: “If you would then ascend as high as these / a soul more worthy than I am will guide you” (lines 121-122). Likewise, we can think of poetry, represented by Virgil, as a disguise to philosophy, the eventual remedy of Beatrice. While philosophy speaks of a thing itself, poetry uses metaphors as a transition to reach a philosophical conclusion.
It is a vehicle for truth in its own peculiar way, addressing our minds through imagination, sensibility and feelings. Dante can synthesize Plato and Aristotle’s views because they are working toward one common goal: the divine, the cave of pure intellect. The mechanisms of philosophy are simply a more sophisticated turn on poetry. Traces of Plato are still seen in Dante, especially when he states in the fifth canto: “Those who undergo this torment are damned because they sinned… subjecting reason to the rule of lust” (lines 37-39).
However, in tragedy, what seems irrational and absurd to the audience becomes permeated with reason as it speaks the universal truth about ourselves. The arts show there is something beyond human thought and action as the audience learn how we cannot control everything. There is something beyond this human, materialistic world that we cannot begin to understand. This is God, which is exactly what philosophy aims at. It speaks the truth, not only of human action, but of the existence of the ultimate good. In this way, poetry consists of rational thought and intellect.
Virgil tells Dante in canto eight: “Forget your fear, no one can hinder our passage; One so great has granted it” (lines 104-105). We are turning inward to our souls to reach the divine. This also speaks of God’s infinite and unexplainable power. God makes the impossible possible. Dante had to go down into the deepest level of hell to see the divine. This irony demonstrates catabasis and anagogy, the one single movement towards God. Furthermore, Cassius and Brutus foreshadow Judas’ betrayal. These three make up the material inversion of the Holy Trinity. We are able to see God in Lucifer.
This demonstrates the typology from the inferno to paradiso as well as the process of recollection in Plato’s Meno and Aristotle’s Poetics. Just as Dante had to move through death to experience life, the reader must pass through poetry to obtain philosophy. All thinking about God involves moving from the material to the realm of the forms. The divine uses metaphors, our language, to help us understand. We are able to indirectly talk to God through poetry as He determines our fate. It was his will to send Dante into Hell. Like poetry’s catharsis and philosophy’s pharmakon, Dante engages his mind as he journeys through the inferno.
By looking and contemplating the suffering of the damned, he becomes reconciled to aspects of his life which would otherwise be nonsensical. Both the poet and philosopher seek the existence of God and of the metaphysical. Although Dante recognizes that the arts have limited utility, he realizes how poetry helps lay the foundation for philosophy through the Aristotelian and Platonian method. It has a cognitive function by helping to better appreciate and complete philosophy. As Venantius Fortunatus wrote in his hymn Vexilla Regis, “… by death did life procure. ” Likewise, by poetry did philosophy come about.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 31 October 2016
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