SHELLEY ANSWERS PLATO
D. R. Khashaba
Shelley was a great Plato lover; he was also a born poet for whom poetry was a religion. Plato too was a born poet but had a love-hate attitude to poetry
issuing from two different sources, the one moral and the other a theoretical fancy. Whatever may have been Shelley’s proximate incentive in writing his
famous essay “A Defence of Poetry”, he could not have helped having Plato and Plato’s inimical stance towards poetry at the back of his mind throughout.
Early in the essay Shelley hails Plato as “essentially a poet — the truth and splendour of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most
intense that it is possible to conceive.” In effect, Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” is an answer to Plato. As Plato found it necessary in all reverence to
answer ‘Father Parmenides’ (Sophist), so Shelley finds it necessary to answer the divine Plato. Yet we do not go wrong if we say that the whole
essay is of Platonic inspiration.
Let me first explain what I mean in speaking of the two sources of Plato’s love-hate attitude to poetry — or rather of the hate element; the love requires
neither proof nor explanation. In the first place Plato was enraged by the immoral and irrational stories about the gods propagated by the poets, chiefly
by Hesiod and Homer. Books II-III of the Republic provide sufficient evidence of this. Then I suppose Plato, to mollify his bad conscience about
his adverse stance towards poets and poetry, concocted the theory of imitation at the third remove of Republic X, belying his own insightful view
of poetry as inspiration (Apology 22c, Symposium, Ion). Let us now turn to Shelley’s Defence.
Shelley opens his essay with a seminal distinction between reason and imagination. Reason, according to Shelley, may be considered as “mind contemplating
the relation borne by one thought to another”. Imagination on the other hand may be considered as “mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them
with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” The one
mode (imagination) is synthetic, the other (reason) is analytic; “its action regards the relations of things, simply as relations, considering thoughts,
not in their integral unity, but as the algebraical representations which conduct to certain general results.” Shelley continues: “Reason is the
enumeration of quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole.” (‘Value’ here =
intrinsic nature, essence.)
I know of no better succinct statement of the Socratic-Platonic conception of knowledge and of the radical difference between science and philosophy than
that condensed by Shelley in this prophetic opening paragraph. I believe that in these few lines we have the whole answer to Plato’s deprecation of poetry
and art as imitation. (The charge of immorality is answered by Shelley further on in the essay.) I will first give my own expanded interpretation of this
pregnant passage before going further. In fact the essence of what I refer to as Shelley’s answer to Plato is contained in the rich first two paragraphs of
the essay and I will mainly concentrate on these.
Reason or reasoning, considers the external relations of ideas externally; this is the dianoia which occupies the lower division of the upper
section of Plato’s Divided Line (Republic 509d-511e), yielding not true epistêmê (understanding) , but doxa (opinion,
much as this sounds odd to our modern Positivist ears). It is the investigation of things en tois ergois (in the outer world) which Socrates in
the Phaedo (95e ff.) forgoes for the philosophical investigation en tois logois (in the mind). Reasoning, scientific thinking, Kant’s
pure reason, is, as Shelley rightly sees, concerned with quantities and the relations of quantities. These are objective, empirically given, never
apprehending thoughts “in their integral unity, but as the algebraical representations which conduct to certain general results”, which ‘general results’ I
call scientific transitional approximations. It is only in ‘imagination’ – in which, with Shelley, I include philosophizing – that the mind, shedding upon
thoughts its own light, composes from them other thoughts “each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity”. As I have repeatedly stated
in my writings, the aporia (perplexity) to which the Socratic elenchus invariably leads, is meant to reveal that the inner reality of the thought
can only be beheld in the self-evidence of the idea (its “integral unity”) in the mind. Moreover in imagination the mind composes “other thoughts, each
containing within itself the principle of its own integrity”. This is a clear affirmation of the creativity of the mind. This is what Plato usually callsphronêsis, though in the Divided Line (with Plato’s notorious disregard for terminological uniformity) he designates noêsis or simply nous. The creativity of the mind is definitely affirmed in the Republic (490a-b on which I repeatedly commented in my writings) and in
Diotima’s speech in the Symposium. Shelley penetratingly sees that the creative faculty “is the basis of all knowledge”.
The fertile distinction of the opening paragraph is followed by a most profound development of the notion of the creativity of imagination, which I will
try to do justice to. The notions of cause and effect lose their artificial abstractedness and separation (as in the common theoretical usage) and are
revealed to be, on the plane of creativity, inseperable aspects of an integral act (Brtgson’s notion of duration; Whitehead’s notion of ‘event’). We never
in life (except in the theoretical abstraction debunked by Hume) meet a cause without the accompaniment of its inbred fulfilment. In living nature an event
is not caused but unfolds like a sprout from the seed. The fertilized ovum does not cause the baby; it unfolds into the baby. It is only in the carcass
dissected by empirical science that the seed and the sprout are seen as cause and effect. Shelley elucidates this in a manner which, to do it justice, we
can only designate as poetical and profoundly philosophical at once. Shelley has a deep insight into the wholeness of living, creative process not
approached by professional philosophers until Bergson and Whitehead and still unglimpsed by the common run of academic scholars.
We can now follow Shelley’s prophetic elucidation in his own words and examples which I will give with the minimum of interpretive interference.
Shelley first defines poetry, in a general sense, to be “the expression of the imagination”. He continues: “Man is an instrument over which a series of
external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to
ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being … which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone but harmony”.
The creativity of poetry and art is a wholly internal, completely unified modulation outflowing in spontaneous expression. This is a view which consciously
or unconsciously does away with the representation of poetry and art as imitation. At this point we move into deeper waters where the distinction of cause
and effect vanishes when we see poetic creation exemplifying the creativity of all reality. From the long second paragraph I pick up the following stray
sentences, with little comment, to give a peep into the metaphysical insight with which this prophetic passage is replete.
“A child at play by itself, will express its delight by its voice and motions …” “The savage … expresses the emotions produced in him by surrounding
objects” and in his “plastic or pictorial imitation” he is not merely imitating but expressing “his apprehension of them”. “… lamguage, gesture, and the
imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.” “The
social sympathies … begin to develop themselves from the moment that two human beings coexist; the future is contained within the present, as the plant
within the seed …” This is the principle of the integral unity, the living, throbbing wholeness of all that is real, and it is no wonder that a poet
anticipates professional philosophers in giving explicit expression to it. Past and future are empty abstractions. Unless the present be heavy with the
future there would be no future; indeed there would be no extant world.
Further on we read: “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one” — a clear echo of Plato. Hence a poet gives expression to the one
reality that transcends all time, place, and multiplicity. Hence Shelley asserts that “Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton … are philosophers of the very
Plato unfortunately did not have a term for ‘imagination’: had he thought of poetry as creative imagination he would have seen the inaptness of his
doctrine of mimêsis (imitation) and he would have seen that his own conception of philosophy places it firmly in the same class as poetry and art.
“The great secret of morals” Shelley writes, “is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists
in thought, action, or person, not our own,” This only apparently contradicts Socrates’ identification of knowledge and virtue. The ‘knowledge’ preached by
Socrates is self-knowledge — knowledge of a form, a model, of perfection elected by one as one’s inner reality, as that within one that is enhanced by
doing what is right and damaged by doing what is wrong. That is why when in the Socratic examination the conclusion is reached that virtue is knowledge and
then it is further asked “What knowledge? Knowledge of what?” the only answer is: knowledge of that very excellence we were seeking to define. — I find
this fully in harmony with Shelley’s “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another
and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”
Shelley sums up the gist of his essay in a few words: “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by
working on the cause.” This is not distant from what Plato himself says of the role of music in early education. (To anyone who might object that I find
identities and similarities where there are none, I reply that a philosopher sees similarities and analogies where others see differences.)
I pass over Shelley’s ample and profound treatment of the question of morality and immorality in poetry and art, though this can be seen as a direct answer
to Plato. I also pass over much else that is of the greatest significance and beauty, sucb as Shelley’s long brilliant “critical history of poetry and its
influence on society” as I do not wish to extend this note much further.
D. R. Khashaba
September 13, 2016.
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