An Imaginary Conversation on Mount Olympus between Poets and Philosophers
We have seen that the uniqueness of Vico’s philosophy within the Western tradition lies in its pointing out that the poetical, far from being unfriendly to reason, is complementary to it and necessary for the grasping of a holistic view of Man’s humanity. Without it rationality degenerates into the rationalism of ideological fanaticism, unable to contemplate worlds outside of one’s own abstract schemes, even into what Vico dubs the “barbarism of the intellect.”
In the last column we have concluded the journey into Vico’s mind. By way of a post-script, and using Vico’s own methodology, I’d like to leave the readers with an image which may help them recollect such a journey: a conversation on Mount Olympus between some heroes of the mind, both poets and philosophers.
Vico: Good morning Plato. Here is a letter just delivered by Hermes. It is addressed to me but I’d like to share it with you. It supports my insight that even avowed rationalists and clever chess-players when impelled by powerful emotions, will return to the origins of language and break out in song and lyrical poetry. It is a poem by Jelaluddin Rumi.
Plato: Who? Never heard of him; sounds like a barbarian’s name. But then you already know what I think of Homer himself. I doubt that this Rumi will change my mind on the nature of poetry vis-à-vis reason. The poetical, not only does not lead to truth but often it is a tool of deception. It is all there in book X of The Republic.
Vico: The Republic is your letter and it has been delivered already. But let us stay with this particular letter from a particular poet in a particular place in time.
Plato: Your problem, dear Vico, is that you have misread the classics of Western philosophy or you would know that, as Olympus is beyond the clouds, outside of time and space, the habitat of the gods and demigods such as ourselves, truth is not found in the particulars of time and space and the world of the senses. You would know that within history and its contingent events there is only appearance and self-deception. I am concerned with the essences, the universal, not the particulars of the phenomenon as apprehended by the senses. I am no Anglo-Saxon empiricist or pragmatist. Mine is not the world of science but of philo-sophia.
Vico: I know your opinion of history and its particulars, Plato, but be kind enough to humor me for a while and let us at least hear what this fellow Rumi has to say for himself or Hermes’ delivery will have been in vain. Surely you are curious! You would not know Rumi; he was born some fifteen centuries after your time in Balkh, Afghanistan. He was a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, another mystic of the times. But on Olympus time and space do not matter, yes? In any case, like you he ran an academy in Konya, Turkey, and was a scholar and a brilliant teacher. He dealt with ideas. He considered himself enlightened by the light of reason. Then something happened to him in 1244 when he met Shams of Tabriz, and from then on he became a poet and dealt only with poetry.
Plato: Not so fast, Vico; before you continue lecturing us on the origins of language as poetical, let me take a look. Uhmm. Homer it is not! But obviously there is a meaning to this poem that I cannot seem to fathom yet.
Vico: Maybe it is not meant to be understood. Why don’t we read the poem together and perhaps we shall know whether or not Rumi is a philosopher with the mask of poetry on, or rather a poet who thinks through images? Classical Greek theater did exactly that: it spoke through masks but there is nothing wrong with putting on masks when no deviousness is intended. You ought to know that Plato. When one reads Homer its authenticity is unmistakable; Homer is the common wisdom, the common sense, of all the Greek people, the teacher of Hellas before the arrival of full fledged rationality and your Academy. A true poem is always true to life and as such it is devoid of the irony and cynicism of rationalists. The fact that the poetical is more authentic shows that it came first when men were endowed with a robust imagination; just as children still are so endowed. To return to origins is to return to the poetical, albeit at its origins it was not self-conscious poetry.
Plato: You know quite well my views on that Vico. We need not repeat them here again or we’ll go on ad infinitum… But, are you telling me that this passionate gothic poem from the Middle Ages, and by a Moslem to boot, is more authentic than a well reasoned logical argument expressed in classical Greek or Latin?
Vico: Indeed. The logical argument may be clever indeed, even very clear and distinct, but as such it can better hide what is authentic. Poetry being more naïve is less able to be ironical and cynical, unless one reduces it to a mere didactic tool or to a moralizing sermon. But why don’t we read the poem rather than continue arguing about the nature of poetry?
Plato: Fine, if you insist. Let us do so, and then we shall see how you defend it rationally under the light of reason. But please conduct your defense in prose, not in poetry or I may get seduced by the beauty of the poem.
Vico: Here is the poem written by Rumi and delivered by Hermes, but please remember that this is a translation from the original Arabic; as such it may deliver the content but be unable to be faithful to the form which is always integral part of any poetical work in any medium.
Plato: Yes Vico, I understand, but as philosophers we are more interested in its content, its logos or meaning. Go ahead please and read the poem.
Vico: Let’s do so. I would only ask you to please close your eyes as you listen to it. Keeping your eyes opened can only be a distraction:
“…Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo. You might say, ‘The world outside is vast and intricate. There are wheat fields and mountain passes, and orchards in bloom.’
At night there are million of galaxies, and in sunlight the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer. There is no ‘other world.’ I only know what I’ve experienced. You must be hallucinating.”
Plato: Here is a reason, if we needed one, of why some poets ought to be run out of the polis. The logos of this poem is what I would characterize as the philosophy of regression. Back to the cave! Obviously this poet has regressed from the hard won world of reason to his mother’s womb and there determined that one can only speak authentically out of one’s own experience and only poetically. And so if one has no experience what does one speak of? Of nothing? Don’t you see Vico that this is nihilism pure and simple? We are here now on Mount Olympus, in a better world, consorting with the gods, but I was able to see this world when I was living on earth too, and I apprehended it with my own God-given reason, and I dare say I was not hallucinating.
Vico: I would rather call it the philosophy of origins, Plato. One does not regress. That is impossible within time unless we can find a way to travel faster than light. If you mean regressing culturally, that I can understand, for only sixty years ago the Nazis regressed to the cave of the barbarism of the intellect and did crimes that not even primitive man ever did. There was even a famous philosopher who was speaking at the time of “originative thinking” and instead ended up joining them. What I am proposing is returning with one’s imagination to the place of origins where form and content, mythos and logos, are one, to be able to go forward again. One proceeds by respecting the phenomenon. Part of the phenomenon is time and space. Some of us may be able to dispense with imagination and deal in abstractions and universals. But even you Plato did not disdain to create your own myths, such as that of the cave to which you just alluded. Speaking of the devil on Mount Olympus, look who is here, Homer. How is it going Homer?
Homer: Fine, thank you. I may be blind Plato, but I heard your comments to Vico about poetry and the poetical in general. I cannot say I am very surprised. You never minced words on the issue. Surely you will soon be writing a new law to make sure that blind people like me do not enter Olympus. And yet you understood Rumi’s poem as read by Vico with your eyes closed. Your imagination did the work that needed to be done. Had you been an embryo your imagination would have been there potentially in your genes, but would have had nothing to work with and your wonderful Platonic other world of justice and peace and goodness would have been unperceivable. It would appear that to perceive the perfect, one needs to begin with the imperfect; to get to the universal one needs to begin with the particular, yes? That might not have been so at the very beginning when the Word was and that’s all there was, but something seems to have gone wrong and it is not so now, and we need many words and still do not perceive the light. Unlike the gods, the verum factum is not convertuntur for us. We do not think and make at the same time. And surely you know that I believe that Vico understood better than you what I was all about. I was not an esoteric poet the way you are an esoteric philosopher: I was merely the exoteric common wisdom of the Greek people.
Plato: I understand your sympathy for Vico who crowned you none other than the true educator of Hellas, dear Homer; for I too am fond of your poetry; it is great poetry but whether is proper for the common good of the polis, that’s another story. Its proper place is at a wedding banquet as entertainment, not a serious academy. But that still does not solve our conundrum. Does poetry lead to any truth and why did Rumi regress from rationality to the poetical?
Homer: Here we go with regression again. That is why, dear Plato, you need to keep your ears open and read, really read out loud book III of Vico’s New Science which is dedicated to the discovery of the true Homer. Why should it be embarrassing for an intelligent rational man such as yourself to admit to changing one’s mind in the light of further revelations from worlds that you, as an embryo in a womb, cannot even fathom yet by the mere light of reason? Remember Dante’s “lantern man” (the poet Bertran del Bornio) in a cave doing light to himself with his own decapitated head?
Plato: Are you trying to turn the table around on us by judging philosophy via the poetical?
Homer: Not at all. I judge not, and because I judge not my poetry is able to see another world alien to me and my concerns and describe it. That is your problem Plato. You want to see clearly with the eyes of the intellect; you are proud of your “sharp vision” and yet refuse to open your ears to other worlds that have no part of your theoretical abstract concerns and your transcendent forms. You reduce those worlds to the sensual and the Epicurian. On that route I am afraid we eventually end up with what our friend Vico here calls “the barbarism of the intellect.” You were too close to the poetical and the heroic to be affected by that kind of barbarism, but it was not so with a rationalist such as Descartes 2000 years later, who wished to simply dispense with the poetical as so much childish stuff and ends up dehumanizing Man. Today down there they think of man as another machine: as so much extension into space. I am afraid that to get to the source of light you need to look inward and for that you need ears more than eyes dear Plato. With ears you may be able to return to origins, the poetical, and thus recover your whole humanity. Another famous philosopher, Pascal, put it best: the heart has reasons that reason know not.
Plato: And how pray, do you propose to do that right here and now? You certainly have not convinced me yet nor do I expect to ever be convinced by mere poetry. I need logical proofs, reason, not smoke and mirrors, dear Vico.
Homer: I have a solution which may do for the moment, my friends… Let us ask our postman Hermes, who is still around eating lunch, to go and fetch us from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the famous painting by Rembrandt of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer; that is to say myself, the common wisdom of the Greek.
Plato: What does Aristotle have to do with anything here? Everything he knew he learned it from me.
Homer: Plenty, for he was the one who while appreciating your instruction and while remaining friendly to you, disagreed with you on the importance of the experience of the senses and the existences of the ideas in another Platonic world, no pun intended. He also believed that Truth belonged to no one man but accumulated over time, as he points out in his Metaphysics. But we need a poetical painter (Rembrandt) to illustrate that message and we need Hermes to carry the message, so that the readers, by simply remembering the image presented to them, will hermeneutically, share in this conversation and become part of it.
Vico: As you know, Homer, I added a frontispiece to The New Science, with you in the very center of it, which had the very same hermeneutical function you just described.
Homer: That is precisely where I got the idea. In fact, I would be grateful if you cared to elaborate a bit on the image of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. Here is Hermes, already back from the Metropolitan museum. I see that he is still able to beat the Internet. Go ahead Vico.
Vico: I will do so briefly and schematically. Otherwise we leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination. In looking at this painting, the viewer should contemplate several things, just as Aristotle seems to be doing. He should in the first place dwell on the fact that for a holistic humanity both philosophy (reason, content, logos) and the poetical (mythos, imagination, the poetical) are needed, and they need to be in harmony with each other; friendly to each other; complementary to each other. The artist, Rembrandt for this particular painting, functions as a messenger of sort. He is trying to persuade us of something but not via language, but via art revealing a poetical image. This rhetorical strategy presents us with the inner meaning of what is being displayed while at the same time appealing to our aesthetic sensibilities. Both are important to apprehend the whole for the True is also the Beautiful and the Good as you Plato have taught us. It seems important to me to be aware that this is one man reflecting on another man who is blind but is as the same time a ‘seer” able to see, via imagination, with his inner eyes. In looking at this painting the viewers need to turn and look into themselves the way Aristotle seems to be doing by looking at Homer’s bust. Art becomes here a mirror reflecting its creator; it becomes a mythos that can be recollected at any time by the viewer. Thus one gets to self-knowledge; a type of knowledge not emphasized by the classical philosophers but important in understanding history as “the story of Man.” If this painting does not accomplish that for the viewer, then it is mere sterile decoration or entertainment; an excuse to go to the Metropolitan museum and have tea talking of Michelangelo.
Plato: Vico, I am afraid that you still have not convinced me with your rhetorical stratagems. We need to meet for tea some other time and continue the discussion; but not at the Metropolitan Museum. Perhaps Yale University may be a better place.
Homer: I am afraid it will all be futile; for those who are deaf to the poetical are truly blind!