PHILOSOPHY AS POETRY
PHILOSOPHY AS POETRY
D. R. Khashaba
“For me, it is indifferent from where I am to begin: for that is where I will arrive back again.” Parmenides
Some twenty-six centuries ago a number of daring thinkers in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean laid the foundations of all philosophy and of modern science and mathematics.
Twenty-six centuries later we find the specialized sciences have amassed an astounding body of factual knowledge and have placed at the disposal of humans powers that may well prove too enormous for their own good.
Twenty-six centuries later mathematics has erected a dazzling edifice of, let us say, ‘demonstrable truths’, which not only made possible the exploration of outer space but also prepared the ground for the miracles of the digital revolution.
What has philosophy to show for its twenty-six centuries of persistent endeavour?
In the way of factual knowledge, NOTHING.
In the way of demonstrable truth, NOTHING.
(I will pass by the empty jabbering of ‘analytical philosophy’ in silence.)
Shall we then abide by Hume’s injunction and commit to the flames the works of Plato, Leibniz, Spinoza, etc.?
No! The fault is not with philosophy but with us. We should admit that we have mistaken the nature of philosophy; that we have misunderstood what is to be expected of philosophy and what philosophy is for; that to judge philosophy by the criteria of natural science or mathematics is to judge poetry likewise. For philosophy is indeed poetry.
I imagine that when I was born I found myself swimming in an ocean of colours and sounds that were not yet for me colours or sounds. (Strictly, there was yet no I to find and no self to be found.) Gradually the nebula of colours and sounds began to settle down into distinct things. In time a collection of those distinct things formed a relatively permanent central group that I separated as myself as distinct from my varying surroundings. Those things, the more permanent and the for-me-less-permanent, were given names and acquired meaning for me.
Meaning? That is a whole unfathomable world in a word. When human beings created language they created meaning. The birth of language proper – not merely gesturing or signalling by voice or motion, but the naming of things and actions – is the birth of conceptual thought. The creative mind that first named a thing initiated the world of thought. The world of thought is the specifically human world. As human beings, in our special character as human beings, we live in a world of thought.
The profound insight underlying Plato’s notion of forms or ideas escapes us just because it is so simple, so basic, so pervasive. Nothing has meaning for us, nothing is for our mind, except through an idea that is totally distinct from the thing. Locke spoke of ideas that came to us through the senses; Hume named these impressions to distinguish them from ideas proper; but these elemental impressions in themselves, apart from a receptive mind, are completely dumb. Nothing is for the mind, nothing is for me, unless my mind give it credence, investing it in a form of the mind’s own creation. We latter-day humans, inheritors of so much thought, are taught the words, but unless the mind ensconce the word in a form creatively flashed by the mind the word remains a dumb tap on the eardrum. Watch the amazement and the glee in the eyes of a twelve-month old child picking up the meaning of a new word. Helen Keller brings this out beautifully where she relates how she apprehended the meaning of a word for the first time.
“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” [finger-spelled by her inspired teacher on the palm of Helen’s hand] meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! …Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.”
Thoughts, represented by linguistic forms – words and structures – form the intelligible world in which we have our being as human beings. From the silliest urchin to Stephen Hawking every one of us lives in a private cosmos of thought; from the saintliest soul to the most abominable murderer we all live in worlds of ideas, values, purposes, and ideals, worthy and unworthy. Apart from my biological functions, my instinctive motions, my involuntary reflexes, and habitual acts that have become automatic, apart from those everything I do is completely governed by thoughts. I am not speaking of organized thinking, reasoning, or problem solving, but of what is more basic. I love, I hate, I retaliate, I forgive, all in obedience to thoughts, evaluations, principles in my mind.
But these worlds I live in, the private world of thought and the common external world which in its turn only has meaning for me, only has being for me, in virtue of the intelligible forms in which I clothe all things, are all bereft of permanence and bereft of certainty. The world of thought has its being in that I think it, and the being of the external world is an impenetrable mystery. All I know of the external world are fictions projected by the mind on the world. The most advanced physical and astrophysical theories are forms that lend intelligibility to the ultimately unintelligible world. The only thing that I know certainly and immediately is my inner reality out of which all these thoughts, all these interpretations flow. That inner reality I call my mind or my subjectivity; it is not a thing; it is not anywhere and it is not in time; it is purely and simply this creative activity, this spontaneous outflow of thoughts and deeds.
What I have written above will sound enigmatic and meaningless to minds conditioned by the modern positivist outlook to ignore our inner reality. Bear with me; I hope what follows will make it sound less enigmatic.
Eimi . (I am.) The beginning and end of all philosophy is contained in this little word. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is redundant. My inner being is the one thing that I know immediately and indubitably. Other than that all is interpretation, from the simplest sensation to the latest findings of astrophysics. That green leaf before me is only a green leaf for me when my mind picks it up as a green leaf. The conviction that the sun will rise tomorrow is a bundle of interpretations woven together.
Plato tells us that when the mind (psuchê) makes use of the body in considering anything, it is dragged by the body into the changeable and is then led into error and is confused and dizzied and is drunken (Phaedo, 79c). Then in 79d we have a winged passage which I render literally to keep as close as possible to the wording of the original: “When the soul (mind) all by herself reflects, she moves into that which is pure, always is, deathless, and constant, and being of a like nature to that, remains with that always, whenever it is possible for it to be by itself, and then it rests from wandering, and in the company of that, is constant, being in communion with such; and it is this state that is called phronêsis.” This is the life of intelligence; this is the ideal of the philosophical life. This is poetry, but not ‘mere’ poetry; this is poetical utterance intimating metaphysical insight.
Plato’s ideal of the spiritual life, life in the intelligible realm, finds poetical expression in the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and the Republic. In the Phaedrus we have the vision of a celestial home of intelligible forms whereon the gods themelves peer and are nourished. In the Symposium the lover’s soul ascends to behold absolute beauty and in communion with beauty divine, will bring forth not images of beauty but realities (212a). In the Republic the philosopher’s soul aspires to communion with reality, grasps reality by that in her which is akin to reality, and begets intelligence and reality (490a-b). This is the substance and essence of Plato’s philosophy. No theory and no doctrine but an ideal of life and a vision intimated poetically, prophetically, in myth and parable and metaphor. Our erudite scholars, taking the myths and parables for theories and doctrines, have no trouble in shredding them to tatters; they understand nothing. Only the simple of heart enjoy Plato’s works as poetry, dream with him, and are filled with wonder, wonder that makes them philosophers.
The philosophicsl soul, having realized that those who know of many beautiful things but cannot entertain the idea of Beauty in itself, go through life not awake but dreaming (Republic, 478c), and knowing that what is fully real is fully knowable, what is not real is in no way knowable, to men pantelôs on pantelôs gnôston, mê on de mêdamêi pantêi agnôston ( 477a), communing with the real in herself, envisages the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is beyond being and beyond understanding, yet is the fount of all being and understanding. It cannot be held in a thought nor can it be confined in a being, since its essence is not to be but ever to breed being and understanding. This is true eternity: not to be but to give being. Reality is pure act. The creator is a fiction, the created is evanescent. Hence the philosopher in communion with reality does not pronounce “truth” but testifies to the reality in intelligent creativity, in poetry and art and in metaphysical myth.
Where do we find that notion of perfection imaged by Plato as the Form of the Good? Nowhere but in the human mind. It is our ideal of Reality and it is our own reality. The idea of the Whole makes us whole, the idea of Reality constitutes our reality. In philosophizing we explore our reality, gain understanding, and give expression to that understanding and that reality in creative visions. Philosophers err when they fancy or when they claim that their visions have any substance other than the substance of dreams, for we are indeed “such stuff as dreams are made on”.
This is the alpha and the omega of all philosophy, an act all philosophers have been enacting, but all of them, with the exception of Plato, were deluded, thinking they had got hold of definitive Truth.
Philosophy is the child, the ekgonos, of the inner reality of intelligent humanity. The inner reality of a human being is intelligence. Intelligence demands intelligibility. The mind as the inner reality of a human being decrees that to be is to be intelligible. That was first explicitly formulated by Parmenides: “It is the same thing to be intelligible and to be” tauto gar esti noein te kai einai.
But Plato knew that all formulations of thought, however well founded, however carefully structured, are kneaded with the essential imperfection of all particular finite being, are necessarily riddled with intrinsic contradictions. If we are not to be dragged into falsehood, or worse, if our thought is not to be congealed in deadly dogma and superstition, we must constantly destroy the foundations of every thought by dialectic. Thus Plato tells us in the Republic (533c) and thus he demonstrates to us in the Parmenides. Thus philosophy gives creative expression to our inner reality, not in factual truths, not in inferential certainties, but in myth and parable. Leave deceptive truth to the practical affairs of daily life and leave elusive certainty to the useful fictions of science. The gravest sin in a philosopher is to pretend to truth or finality.
Plato has been berated for lack of system. Neither do his writings present a system nor could anyone reduce them to a system or derive from them a coherent system. I see this not as a fault but as Plato’s distinctive merit. It is this that makes him the wisest, profoundest, and most inspiring of philosophers. Plato probed the mysteries of being and of life and the greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of mind. He saw that no formulation of thought or of language could capture or encapsulate any of these mysteries. He also saw, and that was his special genius, that the secret of all mystery was in the mind and that in communing with one’s own mind one is in communion with all reality.
Plato was a poet, his mind teeming with insights and visions of the ineffable reality of the mind. He wrote dramatic masterpieces overflowing with intimations of those insights and visions. Those who go to Plato’s works searching for doctrines or truths or demonstrations, to them Plato remains a closed book. But those who go to Plato for inspiration, looking within their own minds, communing with their own inner reality, they commune with the soul of Plato.
Plato gave us no system, no doctrine, no theory, no truth. All his so-called theories and doctrines are at bottom myths and have their value as myths intimating profound insights. Plato gave us visions of reality intimated poetically.
All profound philosophy is mythical. Leibniz’ Monadology as myth is enriching. Spinoza’s Ethics as myth is ennobling. Schopenhauer’s Will and Idea as myth is enlightening. As truth — ask our erudite scholars, they have shown them all to be false.
Philosophy is poetry or, as I put it elsewhere, philosophy is oracular.
There is one reality, our own inner reality. All else is shadow and vanity of vanities. Philosophers, poets, and artists endlessly explore that inner, strictly inexhaustible and strictly ineffable reality, and give it creative expression.
In giving creative expression to our reality we are blessed with the insight that the very essence of our inner reality is none other than that intelligent creativity.
In being intelligently creative we find our reality, nay, we create our reality. Our reality is not a thing, not an entity, but an act, a creative act. If you say: This is myth, this is only poetry, I will say: Thank you, you have done me the greatest honour.
Cairo, February 15, 2016.