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Dr. John F. Nieto:
“The Object of Poetry and its Truth”

Posted: March 11, 2019


“The Object of Poetry and its Truth”


By Dr. John F. Nieto
Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
Tutor Talk (prepared text)
February 20, 2019


1. The comments I will make this afternoon concern the proper object of poetry and the truth that object admits of. I hope to situate this truth more or less “between” the that of ethics and prudence and the truth of history, taking that word to include not only history proper but also biography, memoir, and the like. Correlative to such a claim is the understanding that history, poetry, prudence, ethics and philosophy as a whole each involve a satisfaction and pleasure proper to themselves.

2. I can illustrate this claim by stating that often people desire a poetic satisfaction or pleasure from philosophy and ethics, while they also desire an ethical, philosophical, or even an historical pleasure from poetry. However close these habits come to one another, they remain distinct and even have realms of thought between them in which only dialectic is possible. I thereby claim that many kinds of attention fall outside the attention proper to one habit of the soul or another.

3. At the same time I think it worth note that some people cannot or cannot without great difficulty rise to philosophical contemplation of truth. Many cannot understand Euclid’s definitions of proportion or follow demonstrations about proportion who see proportion in sensible things around them. They may even see proportion in these things better than a mathematician. So many, perhaps most men, cannot contemplate moral and spiritual truths in an abstract and universal manner. Nothing I am saying denies that such people justly turn to poetry as a way to glance at such truths more universally and directly than the way we see these things in daily life.

4. But let me immediately state that poetry has no concern with truth according to the strictest sense of that word. I accept as clear something I will later defend, Aristotle’s claim that, “[Speaking truly or falsely] does not belong to every sentence, as prayer is a sentence but not true or false. Let the other [sentences] be set aside; for the examination of them is more proper to rhetoric and poetics.”[1] While logic concerns speech insofar as it has truth and falsehood as properties, rhetoric and poetry respectively cultivate some utility and pleasure found properly in speech.

5. Again, in his Metaphysics Aristotle dismisses an argument founded on a line from the poet Simonides[2] with a proverb, roughly translated as “Poets tell many lies.” I think the proverb implies a popular recognition that we ought not take the statements of poets as bearing truth as immediately proportioned to reality. Nonetheless, I think it right that we speak of and seek out the “truth” proper to poetry, that is to say, the truth of the poetic object, as will be clear in what follows.

6. To make the object of poetry clear, I will do two things. First, I will draw upon Aristotle’s Poetics to describe the object of tragedy and propose ways which other kinds of poetry share in and fall away from that object. Second, I will consider the universality of this object. After considering the object of poetry in these two ways, I will go on to examine what it means to speak of truth and falsehood in attention to its object.

7. In the Poetics Aristotle clearly holds that tragedy imitates human action as it proceeds from intellect and will and ends in happiness or misery. Thought and character respectively exhibit the intellect and will of the dramatic personages. I emphasize here that character is the moral character in the dramatic person; it does not name the person as a character in the play.[3] The change, which is usually from happiness to misery, arises from thought and character in the best plots.

8. But such an action is the object of tragedy only insofar as the imitation causes a movement or catharsis of pity and fear. As Aristotle makes clear, some tragedies bring about this catharsis merely through the presentation of suffering. While he suggests something more sophisticated for the budding poet, he recognizes Homer as surpassing all others, though neither of Homer’s epics uses the general plot he thinks best.

9. Further, the imitation brings forth movements of these passions insofar as they are pleasurable. While Aristotle distinguishes the poet’s work from that of the rhetorician and the set designer, he seems to distinguish this pleasure from everything else proper to the tragedian as the work most proper to the tragedian.[4] I will claim as I proceed that this is the most “formal” of the elements that enter into the poetic object. This pleasure completes the poetic object and generally the object of imitation as such. Even if the object inspires pity and fear, should these passions fail to please us, the tragedian has not succeeded in his work. If a poet fails to use the most effective plot devices yet evokes in us pleasant feelings of fear and pity toward the dramatic persons, he has achieved his most proper effect.

10. I will make some broad comments about other parts of poetry and other arts. First, I include by the name of poetry, what we now call fiction or literature. I consider poetry in this sense to have three principal species, whether written in verse or prose. The drama and novel or novella focus on one principal action that leads to the misery or happiness for the principal dramatic person or persons. The epic poem or epic novel looks at action more or less as it leads to the happiness or misery of a people. Lyric poetry, including ballads and the least developed of short stories, merely invokes some passion or passions related to happiness. This genus or genre of poetry is so closely tied to music that it cannot be properly separated from song lyrics.

11. Yet again, all three parts of poetry or literature may be comic as well as tragic. This is not the place to begin to speak of comedy in any detail, apart from the fact that as a genus it stands as something inferior to tragedy in many ways, while having as its work evocation of a pleasure proper to itself. At the same time tragedy and comedy have been blended in many ways, even if such a work almost inevitably turns out principally one or the other. I mention Jane Austen and the greatest of Dickens’ works, Bleak House and Little Dorrit, as examples on one side. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet, as focused in the character of Mercutio, provides an example on the other side.

12. Again, many genre of fiction fall away from these genre as they pertain properly to human life on earth, and so on. What we call fantasy, science fiction, fable, and so on, all find some place as less perfect forms of those genre I have mentioned. By less perfect I do not mean bad in any way. The worker bee is less perfect in form than the queen without being a bad bee. So even Tolkein does not aim at something fully human in his elves, wizards, and hobbits,

13. Likewise, some works fall in between these. Perhaps the ballad itself is a good example. It tells a story, yet almost always focused on one predominant passion, as is more proper to music or an ode. Another example might be Trollope’s Palliser novels and again his Barchester nobles, each set of which and even both sets together are not merely a set of distinct novels yet do not constitute an epic. So, again, War and Peace is a thoroughly modern epic, while Anna Karenina is somewhere between a novel and an epic novel.

14. The other imitative arts, so far as I can see, fall away from poetry, especially dramatic poetry, insofar as it alone uses, so to speak, the power of all of them. The drama includes music, dance, painted sets, and so on. Each of these arts, however, stretches when it tries to tell a story. Nonetheless, each has a power it can exhibit best when divorced from the demands of the story. We see best all that painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, and music can do, when they stand by themselves.

15. Still, I am claiming, each is cause of some pleasurable emotion or passion. Like the catharsis of tragedy, these passions pleases us from some reference, however remote, to happiness or misery. Of course, I cannot defend these claims here. And my comments regarding tragic poetry cannot illuminate all of these arts equally. Rather, they stand closer to some and farther from the nature and power of each imitative arts.

16. Let me return to my comments on tragedy and restate those judgments in another way. Through our natural desire for happiness, we bring forth every other desire or appetite we entertain. If we now enjoyed perfect happiness, we would not desire anything other than resting in it. So, through our desire for happiness, we also bring forth all our passions. To give a rough sketch, we feel hope to attain happiness through having this or that, fear of losing it by doing this, joy in attaining it by doing one thing or another, and sorrow at losing or missing it by choosing this or doing that. All our sensible passions spring in some way from the apprehension or the illusion that something sensible will be an instrument to our happiness or misery.

17. In our lives, this is a very messy business and we rarely feel these passions in a pure way and as they bear immediately and directly upon happiness or misery. Above all, we usually experience them before things at some remove from ultimate happiness or misery, in circumstances dominated by the need to act. And that is the natural purpose of these passions, to order us according to bodily desires to actions that will make us happy and fend off misery. This point is central to distinguishing the objects of the moral life and the imitative arts and seeing the good that each leads us to.

18. Though our lives are so “messy”, we do experience a certain pleasure, however paradoxical, in crying, for example, at times that truly call for it. I merely propose this as an example of a truth that I cannot elaborate upon. Every exercise of passion, in fact, every exercise of every power of the soul that includes some awareness, is pleasant to the extent that the exercise is perfect and complete. Every passion, even pity or fear, is pleasant insofar as we feel that passion toward the right object, at the right time, in the right measure, and so on.

19. Tragedy provides that possibility. The poet makes an object that deserves our pity and fear. If well-executed, the poet’s imitation draws forth pity and fear in a manner proportioned to the hero’s desert. We even experience this as a difference between tragedy and comedy. There seems to be no limit to how silly and trivial the comic can be, so long as it is not outright shameful. But, if the tragedian wastes our emotions, if he draws out our compassion upon a character who proves underserving, we rightly feel indignant. He has squandered our emotions.

20. And, as an imitation, the poet’s work as completed by the passions it arouses remains an object of contemplation rather than a principle of action. Let me elaborate upon this point. The abstraction of drama from reality is crucial to the pleasure proper to tragedy. I will mention two ways abstraction serves this pleasure.

21. First, the dramatic action is inevitably more simple than actions of the moral life. At the very least, they are simply over, when the curtain falls. Again, the persons of the drama have a moral character usually only slightly more complex than character as considered by moral philosophy. The character of each dramatic person is almost always much less complex than character as prudence and history must consider it. Here I think precisely of moral simplicity. Oedipos is an upright, conscientious, magnanimous, affectionate but irascible man. He simply does not have other elements to his character except as these are implicit in those mentioned, if I have mentioned all the elements of his character.

22. Second, the abstraction from life allows us to attend to human action precisely as it is proportioned to these passions. In themselves, these passions do not exist for the sake of observing them and enjoying them. Rather, they exist as principles of action. To experience our emotions as we ought disposes us to act as we ought. Pity leads us to acts of mercy; fear prepares us to be cautious for ourselves or others. Tragedy frees us from such action so that we can merely enjoy these passions. We do not have to use our pity and fear to strengthen us as we care for Oedipos in the long years between Oedipos Rex and Oedipos at Colonus.

23. Let me add here that in tragedy we do not enjoy these passions as abstractly as music does, at least music separated from poetry. Music attends to these passions merely in themselves and that gives it a strength of another order. But poetry feels them as completing our attention to human action as it leads to happiness or misery. This brings the powers of writing and reading poetry very close to those concerned with human happiness, namely, moral science and prudence. This fact also augments the beauty proper to poetry and gives it great articulation. I believe that these aspects of poetry make it of particular necessity to speak of learning and beauty, before I complete my discussion of the poetic object.

24. Many think Aristotle holds that poetry aims distinctly at learning—and they usually mean learning moral truths—because Aristotle mentions learning in offering each to the two causes or occasions of poetry at the beginning of the fourth chapter of his Poetics. I think instead that he mentions learning in this discussion to show that poetry, like scientific knowledge, is proper to man and in some way perfects him as a man. Even if scientific knowledge perfects man more than the enjoyment of poetry, the latter perfects him in a way scientific knowledge cannot.

25. The first cause he mentions is that imitation is natural to us. Imitation is not something that comes to us accidentally and happen to find useful. Man is imitative in a way that exceeds all other animals. We see this even from our childhood. We first learn by imitation. Though Aristotle must have learning to speak and to eat with a spoon in mind, I assume he also speaks of the way children learn as they play. Children play “soldiers” or “house” or “pirates”. I assume he wants us to notice that such play is something like a drama.

26. The second cause or occasion he points out is that all enjoy imitation. I emphasize the fact that he does not propose that imitation is a kind of learning as the second cause. Nor does he propose the fact that learning is pleasant as the second cause. And though he will associate imitation with learning in his explanation of its pleasure, I do not think this is learning except in an extended sense of that word.

27. He offers as a sign of our enjoyment in imitation the fact that we enjoy looking at images even of things we see with pain. He mentions bugs and corpses here. But I assume his sight is set on tragedy, where we enjoy seeing things happen which we would not enjoy, if they happened to ourselves, our family, or our friends.

28. In explaining this second cause, Aristotle mentions learning again. He even speaks of syllogizing. We enjoy attention to such things because everyone enjoys learning, not just philosophers. I think he brings this up, again, to associate the act of attention to an imitation with an act more distinctly intellectual. He wants to show us that poetry fulfills us insofar as we are human and have an intellect, though I will argue below that intellect must be understood here in a determinate manner. Still, poetry does not merely relax us as animals subject to exhaustion but does something higher.

29. Now, the act that Aristotle calls learning here is the recognition that the actor is “so-and-so”. In an historical drama, for example, we might say, “That’s Prince Hal,” or “She’s Joan of Arc.” But this is not merely to get the names of the dramatic persons right. The act is most properly to see the sort of man imitated in the stage actor who imitates that sort of man. We see this more clearly when people fail to do so: not to see Clytemnestra’s designs early on in Agamemnon, to fail to appreciate the quandary that Creon finds himself in in Antigone, to view Don Quijote and Sancho Panza as object of vulgar amusement as the Duke and Duchess do in the second part of Don Quijote.

30. In each case the spectator fails to see the object imitated in the imitation. He may see nothing but the imitation or he may think he sees something else. But the proper poetic act is to see some aspect of human nature as we find it in reality in an imitation proportioned to that aspect of human nature. Yet I am not saying this attention need involve an ability to bring this aspect of human nature to mind or to express this in words.

31. Again, the act proper to the spectator at a tragedy is to see someone fall from happiness to misery in the actors on the stage or the moving pictures on the screen. Here I am understanding Aristotle to propose that the object of poetry is something universal or, rather, something more universal than the object of the moral life or history. Let me dwell on this a moment. We might see a play or a film and enjoy looking at beautiful actors and actresses. We might dream that something similar might happen to ourselves. We might follow the story in the way that we follow a joke or an anecdote. These provide some pleasure and relief from the difficulties of life and none of them is in itself wrong or even inappropriate. But these are not the acts described by Aristotle as the pleasure proper to imitation.

32. In drama—and some share in this belongs to every art—we properly see human life in those who are not living the life we see. The realism of film can make it difficult to distinguish the image and the object imitated. This is one reason for the cult of film stars. But unless we see one in the other, we do not perform the act that Aristotle calls learning here, albeit by a kind of metaphor, as I see it. The act proper to poetry is to see human life in actors moving and speaking or merely in words recited out loud or in imagination. The power to pay attention to things this way is a cause of poetry, according to Aristotle, because it is pleasant. To sum up, to attend to an imitation of human life that bears the proper order to happiness and misery precisely as it is an imitation pleases us because happiness pleases us, while we fear misery and pity the miserable insofar as they do not simply deserve their misery.

33. Later I will speak more about the truth of poetry. Here I will make some comments about its beauty. In the Politics Aristotle considers why music should be part of education. I think he clearly includes poetry under this name, as his examples suggest. His teacher and predecessor Plato did so quite explicitly in the Republic. Aristotle mentions three ends of music and, by their community, of poetry: amusement, education, and the pastime of freemen in their leisure.

34. He excludes amusement because it is merely a sort of relaxation and because it is not of itself something noble. Sleep and drinking provide relaxation too. In fact, the Greek word here is etymologically the word “childishness”. I should add here that I think the main objection people have to the claim that the imitative arts, especially tragedy, have pleasure as their end is the belief that those who say so have mere amusement or entertainment in mind. Let me add that I do not think finding amusement or entertainment in poetry as something bad. I think it dangerous never to find amusement or entertainment in the imitative arts, though I also think it childish never to find something more there.

35. While Aristotle holds that music is part of education for the sake of pastime or enjoyment, he says the students will not use it this way until they are grown. Lest anyone object to the name “pastime” or “enjoyment” here, I point out that Aristotle uses this word in the Metaphysics to distinguish the imitative arts from menial arts and sciences. In the Ethics, he uses the word to describe time spent with friends as well as the contemplation proper to philosophers. Most significant is the fact that in the Metaphysics he also uses the word to name God’s life as eternally pleasing.

36. Aristotle thinks that music and poetry exercise children in enjoyment of noble passions, while they are students. In this sense, I think Aristotle holds that poetry can teach us, insofar as it habituates us to enjoy feeling rightly toward things noble and shameful, especially before we face moral reality in itself. So reading Jane Austen can train one to feel rightly toward marriage if read at the right time in life.

37. Note that this is not an education in the abstract truths of the moral life. Perhaps this is one reason Aristotle thinks it better to speak of music here. If we think of poetry’s power to educate as something music also shares in, we see more clearly that the very catharsis of emotions that these arts provide “train” the passions to rest in a certain object. Again, perhaps the powerful way in which music habituates people to rest in ignoble passions serves to illustrate their common power more distinctly.

38. At present I would focus on the fact that the enjoyment or pastime Aristotle speaks of here is something noble and not merely an entertainment to relax us. Yet he also considers it a kind of pleasure. It might help if we recognize that the word noble, in Greek, also means beautiful. The sort of enjoyment proper to the free is something beautiful or noble and it demands that they enjoy noble or beautiful passions.

39. Now the beautiful is defined by pleasure. The beautiful is what pleases when we see or apprehend it. In the arts this apprehension involves seeing life in an image in some way abstracted from life itself. In tragedy, in particular, the pleasure occurs precisely insofar as we feel pity and fear toward the right objects in the right measure. The beautiful that we encounter in poetry is human life as rightly evoking certain emotions. To say this object is noble is to recognize that to be able to feel rightly toward the object of poetry demands a certain excellence in our passions.

40. But I also insist that this is not the excellence of the moral life or the excellence of intellectual contemplation. To be able to discriminate the better and the worse in poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and dance is not a moral or intellectual superiority, though it can dispose us to these excellences. Not only does attention to what is truly beautiful exercise us in feeling rightly toward human life, it also habituates us to enjoy contemplation over action.

41. Anyone who has spent much time in an opera house or an art gallery should see these truths. Many, however, spend much time in such places because they do not see this. Many in the world of the fine arts think that they are better people precisely because they have some excellence proper to this sphere of life. Many things said about Beethoven suggest that he thought like this.

42. Let me sum up what I have said about the object of tragedy, and indirectly of all poetry and imitative arts. This object is an imitation of human life, immediately or at some remove, especially insofar as human life aims at happiness and flees from misery. The imitation is properly human and involves a kind of learning or contemplation insofar as we see one thing in another, we see human life in actors pretending to live life or in reading aloud the words describing such a life. Such imitations are beautiful insofar as they present objects worthy of the emotion they evoke, most eminently, pity and fear, as these bear upon the greatest end of human life, happiness and misery. Above all, I would point out that the beauty spoken of has its nobility from the nobility of this end as the object of a contemplative pleasure. I think this last point is the truth Plato is aiming at in the Symposium.

43. I now want to look briefly at what Aristotle means by speaking of poetry’s concern with the universal. Now, I take it as rather evident that poetry does not have the universal as such as its object. A poem is not about love but about the beloved and the lover and perhaps about the force of love impelling the lover toward the beloved. It may speak of love universally. Poetry may even present a literary person whose name is Love. But poetry does so to attend to the beloved or the lover. In dramatic poetry the medium and manner impose this demand. Some actor must instantiate any concern with the universal, usually as an instance of that universal. I do not deny that others forms of poetry have greater freedom here, though I will usually speak at this level

44. I think we easily see that the actor can stand at many different levels of universality. I will point out a few levels though I think it impossible to do more than indicate general possibilities here. Some literary persons are real personages of history: Shakespeare’s Richard III and Tolstoy’s Napoleon and Shaw’s Joan of Arc. I note these especially to the extent that the dramatic persons distinguish themselves in one way or another from the historical persons. At another extreme is the character Everyman from the medieval mystery play of that name. He is in some way an instantiation or personification of the universal. In statuary, Rodin’s Thinker is a personification of the philosopher. Lady Mab in Mercutio’s poem seems such a personification and I could list many others. Most literary characters stand between these extremes but decidedly closer to those drawn from history.

45. This is not an accident. We do not feel passions toward universals as such. The passions pertain to the body and demand something bodily as their immediate object. So we see that, generally speaking, the more concrete the literary character is, the more that character is able to inspire passions in us. Even the case just mentioned of Queen Mab, a personification of the power of dreams and delusion, moves us in part from the concrete description of Queen Mab acting on those vulnerable to her as they sleep. The poem takes on greater power when we recognize its sinister character as Romeo proceeds toward Juliet and toward the terrible fate that awaits them.

46. While I said that most literary characters are closer to the historical, I did not intend to deny that variation of degree occurs here too. This is more true, for example, in persons closer to the center of action than those farther. Again, comedy has more freedom here than tragedy. Yet tragedy also provides interesting examples. Hamlet and Orestes in many ways share the same moral predicament. Each is a prince whose father, the king, has been murdered by a close relative associated romantically with the hero’s mother. Some supernatural visitation spurs each hero on to avenge his father.

48. At the same time, Hamlet and Orestes are quite distinct as dramatic persons. And Hamlet is more distinctly concrete than Orestes. Yet further, this very distinction allows particular actors to play Hamlet in a variety of ways opposed to one another without destroying the integrity of Shakespeare’s dramatic person. And, in the end, one can feel much more for Hamlet because of the concreteness of his depiction.

49. I want to make one more observation about the universality of the poetic object before passing on. This is a psychological observation. While the intellect, in the strictest sense of that word, as it name a power proper to the immaterial part of the human soul, is necessary to our attention to the object in poetry, I think that immediate attention to that object does not belong to the intellect in this sense. Rather, a bodily power, seated in the brain must be the power that immediately knows the object of poetry. This power bears many names including “intellect”. We Aristotelians call it the cogitative power, particular reason, and the passive or corruptible intellect in distinction from the potential or possible intellect. We recognize it as at least part of calculative intellect. The neuroscientists call it the pre-frontal lobe. Further, the sensible appetites—what the Greeks called spirit and desire—must also bear immediately upon this object. Pity and fear as the belong to poetry are sensible feelings rather than acts of the will.

50. These sensitive powers, seated in bodily organs, must serve our attention to poetry and other arts precisely because they are imitations existing in sensible media. We do not attend to human life in itself but in these sensible media. Only a sensitive power can immediately apprehend and respond to such an object. Yet more obvious on the side of the passions, we feel these passions in our body. The contribution of the intellect as such is significant in many ways, but it always ministers. This is an important way in which the imitative arts, even if they stand above the manual arts, do not rise to the order of liberal arts.

51. Having said this, let me add that our use of the cogitative power or calculative intellect and the sensitive appetites in our attention to poetry is more abstract than our use of these powers in history or in the moral life. In some way the calculative intellect must be at work in all these powers. In history it works especially with memory and with the records and documents that memorialize our memories. In the moral life the calculative intellect must size up or judge the singular standing before it as the basis for a prudential judgment of how to act toward that singular. The moral virtues complete the moral act by determining the appetites to move with an intensity proportioned to the prudential judgment.

52. In poetry, we do not need to form historical or prudential judgments of sensible individuals. We do, however, need to grasp and understand judgments of things and persons not completely individuated as they enter into the poet’s plot. Sometimes the poet clearly expresses such judgment; sometimes he insinuates it; sometimes he leaves it hanging. Insofar as we are better at this, we attend to poetry better. But, unlike the historian, we do not have to judge what actually happened in the past. Unlike man as such, we do not have to act. This is a significant “abstraction” of these powers. And this abstraction touches our sensitive appetites as well.

53.  I pointed out earlier that this abstraction in our intellectual and emotional attention allows us to enjoy the poetic object both from its simplicity and from its freedom from action. Let me conclude this section by pointing out in passing that this pleasure is imbues the poetic object with artistic beauty. Now I will turn to the sense in which the poetic object has a truth proper to it.

54. As I stated at the beginning, we do not turn to poetry for truth in at least two ways. We do not take the statements of the narrator or the actor as if they refer to sensible reality. We understand these statements to refer to the imagination. In the imagination we see human life in the mere pretense of it before us. This is where the cogitative power or calculative intellect judges the object and this is where the passions enjoy it.

55. Again, we allow the poet to “make things up” about the sensible world. In the world of poetry, many things we judge universally false—at least in certain orders of truth and falsehood—serve as principles to the story. We admit the Cyclops in the Odyssey and the fairy world of Midsummer’s Night Dreams with admiration rather than objection. Even Plato admits his objections to the falsehoods in Homer stand against his enjoyment of Homer’s poems.

56. Here the word “fiction” helps us. Plato did not have such a word and this led him to judge anything we call fiction false. I think this also led him to judge that some falsehood—what we call the noble lie—is not morally objectionable. In this sense Aristotle judged that truth and falsehood as considered by logic does not belong to poetry. The proverb, “Poets tell many lies,” suggests that the mind naturally sees this, even if one needs a mind like Plato to begin a more careful consideration.

57. Now I want to speak about the truth we do or should find in poetry. But I want to establish another limit, beyond the one proposed by Aristotle. The limit to truth I am considering here can take many forms, but I have named them all “frames” by a metaphor from painting. Someone else suggested that the silence before and after musical performance is a kind of frame and he also pointed out that the frame is a real part of the painting. I will not say more about the metaphor. I will turn to observe certain limits to the truth in poetry.

58. In fairy tales we have some well-known frames: “once upon a time” and “and they lived happily ever after.” We hear these phrases separate everything in between from the real world and, in a sense, they do not form part of the story. Instead, they indicate in some way that we must turn to imagination and to what should happen in life and to what should have happened “once upon a time”.

59. I will present three more sophisticated examples of this sort of frame. The most clear is the hero’s suicide. The suicide of Romeo and Juliet, for example, does not invite us to judge suicide a legitimate moral act. Nor do we grieve that in the end the couple sinned and went to hell. Rather, we take the suicide as expressing the impossibility of happiness without the beloved. Poetry can do this because the dramatic characters and their souls do not exist when the curtain falls.

60. I must point out, however, that suicide is not always a frame in this way. The suicide of Smerdyakov, for example, in Brothers Karamazov lies within the novel’s plot. It is a moral act illustrative of one side of the Karamazov moral character. The suicide manifests this aspect as something distinct in that Karamazov and latent in the others.

61. Frames do not exist only at the beginning and the end of a work. They can exist within. So Gertrude’s exquisite description of Ophelia’s death enters Hamlet as a kind of limit to the play’s reality. I cannot resist recitation of her lines:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Now, no one but an enemy could have observed this death and failed to save Ophelia, and an enemy would not have seen the beauty of her death. But we do not attend to Gertrude’s report in search of the sort of truth we seek in the moral life. Rather, we sense that this death is so beautiful it be seen.

62. The last frame I will point out will be more clear by noting an opposite to it. In Hamlet, the hero offers counsel to his mother, Gertrude, on how to wean herself from her attachment to Claudius, whom she now knows to be the villain of the story. Hamlet says, “Refrain to-night, And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence: the next more easy; / For use almost can change the stamp of nature.” Rarely do we hear such sound moral philosophy in poetry of any kind.

63. However true the moral judgment in this passage, we cannot criticize Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov when he presents characters—I have Grushenka especially in mind—who become morally good in one moment. After a short period of wavering between two romantic ideals, merely settling her mind upon one course or the other, Grushenka devotes herself in moral rectitude to the man who really loves her. Life is not this way and no one should take this as a pattern for the moral life as he might take Hamlet’s advice.

64. In calling these limits frames, I am suggesting that some truth, above all moral truth, can be found within literary works. Let me distinguish three orders I find in such truth. First, there is the truth implied in Aristotle’s distinction in plots. Some plots are repulsive; others evoke human feelings. But only a certain fall to a man of real but limited goodness produces the pity and fear proper to tragedy. I think it important to recognize that this order of truth is prior to poetry. Life teaches us these things and art depends upon life for these judgments. Such truth is in poetry but only as a foundation—the poet is in no way a principle to this truth.

65. Second, the judgments involved in poetry about who is a good man and what constitutes a fall are close to real moral judgments. While the poet lives in a culture that imposes certain limits, he does have real power to encourage us to agree with him in his judgments. I assume, however, that everyone has experienced the power of a play, a film, or a novel to use the passions to lead us to make false judgments about such questions. At the same time, that poetry can lead us to false judgments shows also that it can lead us to make true judgments. I think this is more or less the end Aristotle proposes for music and poetry in education.

66. Let me make four observations about this sort of truth in the poetic object. First, the poet leads us to this truth through our sympathies with the character and through the intensity with which we feel his suffering. While the intellect rests in a judgment of right and wrong, good and bad, the passions lead it one way rather than another.

67. Second, because he proceeds through the passions, the poet cannot lead us to attend to virtue as it is most proper to the moral life, except incidentally. Above all, he cannot distinguish what we call natural virtue—the bravery or justice that someone has from temperament—from acquired virtue which is the result of habituation and prudential judgment. Much less can he distinguish either of these from Christian virtue that comes from God. This inability contributes to the poet’s power to lead one astray but it also limits him in his power to lead directly to a moral object. In this way the poet is much like the historian.

68. Third, the habituation to make such judgments in the moral life itself does not fall within the power proper to the poet. Life itself will prove these judgments true or false and form experience of the various elements of the moral life in the prudent soul. Yet the poet can habituate us to enjoy making one sort of judgment or another and provide matter for dialectical consideration of these truths. His work can impede our ability to attain experience in the moral life, if these prevent us from resting with pleasure in true judgments. They can also facilitate growth in moral experience, insofar it encourages us to enjoy true moral judgments. I merely point out in passing that the intense pleasure of experiencing the poetic object is an occasion for some to think that the pleasure in that object is a moral pleasure. They think society exists to refine souls to enjoy artistic pleasure.

69. Fourth, because the poet leads us through passion as something pleasurable, he cannot lead us to rest in intellect against the passions, except incidentally. We feel the rightness of Cordelia’s attachment to truth and a just estimation of duties and responsibilities. This cannot immediately help to habituate us where intellect and passions stand opposed. At the same time, the poet can help habituate us to enjoy more excellent passions over those more base. We feel the pleasure in Cordelia’s attachment to true love and affection and disgust at the base desires and intentions of her sisters.

70. My final distinction of a kind of truth found in poetry is very general. In fact, I think the greatest power poetry has toward moral truth is a general one—quite beyond any power it has to lead us to determinate moral truths. Poetry helps us to feel the distinct beauty and ugliness proper to the moral life. While it cannot lead us directly there, it separates an imitation of this sort of beauty from mere sensuous beauty and mere sensuous pleasure—each of which is enemy, in its own way, to the moral life.

71. In daily life we find it difficult to enjoy this beauty. Time and imperfect experience make many cynical about the reality of this beauty. But this temptation to cynicism is itself a temptation in the passions. We fear moral beauty does not exist. We pity ourselves that the real world is morally ugly. Poetry cannot solve this problem. But it does provide both relief and encouragement and for a very good reason. At the heart of poetry, in our deepest attention to it, we realize, though not abstractly, that the imitation we enjoy is an imitation of human life.


[1] On Interpretation 4 (17a3-6).

[2] Cf. 9 The line is in the same poem examined so carefully in Plato’s Protagoras.

[3] Later I will use the word “character” to name the dramatic personage.

[4] Cf. 1450a30-312 & 39-b3; 1452b29-30; 1453b10; 1462b1-2; 1462b18.


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John F. Nieto (Spring 2019 Tutor Talk)
Thomas Esser (’18)

“It’s wonderful how, in the integrated curriculum, everything matches up. You’ll be reading one thing in language class, and then it will come up again in philosophy, and goes on to affect everything you read from then on. You get a deeper understanding of each discipline by seeing how they connect with the others.”

– Thomas Esser (’18)

Chino Hills, California

“I was moved and edified by your remarkable fidelity to St. Thomas Aquinas. Your academic program proposes an original way of training men and women capable of reading, thinking and interpreting tradition correctly.”

– Marc Cardinal Ouellet

Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops