Socrates and the Puffy Poets

Of human foibles, “puffying-up-our-heroes” is pretty comical.   By “puffing up”, I mean that we assume our heros know more and can do more than they actually can; We let celebrities lecture us on economics, scientists tell us about the meaning of life, and religious specialists tell us about the deep principles of nature.  Using Buddhist teachers as an example, I tried to illustrate that point here:

Poets offer another good example of this false valorization phenomena.  Some folks puff up poets with far more insight than they deserve. I have two posts which explore puffy poets:

Thanx to James (a reader), I just learned of a passage from Plato’s Apology (copied below), where Socrates describes the poets of his time as claiming wisdom much beyond their reach. I am always pleased to find ancient Western philosophers who have said better what I tried to say:

The Apology : by Plato

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me – the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! – for I must tell you the truth – the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the “Herculean” labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and in this I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom – therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “Socrates and the Puffy Poets

  1. Tim

    William James, in ‘ Some Problems of Philosophy’ wrote:

    Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different form what it is.’

    Expanding on this idea he later added:

    ‘Historically it has always been a fecundation of four different human interests, science, poetry, religion, and logic, by one another.’

    I ran across these passages several years ago and was so struck by the forcefulness of his prose and the powerful implications of his statements, that I dog eared the page.This approach really resonates to me by suggesting a need for a balanced approach to what it is we think we know. Regarding poetry specifically he said,:

    ‘ To have some contact with it, to catch it’s influence, is thus good for both literary and scientific students.’

    I think he would agree that we need to ‘catch’ the influence of all four of the mentioned disciplines. There is an aesthetic feel to working out a logical truth table that is different from, but able to be compared to, the emotional upsurge we feel from reading a poem, understanding a scientific theorem, or contemplating first things. You have alluded to the notion many times in your posts, that agnostics and atheists need to recognize that there are positive aspects within religion(s), sometimes quite apart from their ontological validity. In a similar ‘spirit’, religiously minded people should:
    – Avoid demonizing science
    – Become committed to a logical way of thinking

    Singleness of human purpose, however variously instantiated, should be differentiated from singleness of mind.

  2. @Tim:
    I agree that learning from all fields is incredibly valuable. However, here I am writing about the inordinate valorization of a field.

    You write,

    “the emotional upsurge we feel from reading a poem…”

    Poems come in all forms: serious philosophical, light and humorus, descriptive, sad or informative. My poetry post shows how some people feel poets have a special insight into reality and deep wisdom merely by the fact that the author writes in the form of poetry. It is that lop-sided view I am writing against.

    I read poetry often, actually, and enjoy some of it. I read philosophy occassionally and like some of it. I read religious stuff at times and like a bit of that too. I hope I learn from all.

  3. Tim


    You reply,

    …here I am writing about the inordinate valorization of a field.

    By linking together science, poetry, religion and logic as elements of a balanced view of ‘things’ William James is making the same point you are. If the poet had special insight we would not need science, religion or logic. His view and your view are the same. That was the main point to be gleaned from my response to your post.
    Inordinate valorization of a field does indeed include poets as you say, but it extends in other directions and must include the scientist as well. As your quote by Richard Feynman asserts (sidebar),
    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
    I realize from your other posts on poetry that ( again per WJ ) you …” have some contact with it, to catch it’s influence…” It is because of this that I appealed to the need for balance. If the poet had special ‘true’ insight we would not need balance but would have Truth. We are on the same page, we agree, if we extend our criiticality towards all fields. Pedestals are for plants and sculpted heads, not poets or scientists

  4. @ Tim

    No, I am afraid you are not understanding my post. Instead, you are using this thread to make your own point. “Balance between religion, science, poetry and logic” is *not* my point. And I don’t care that James said it.

    I am only discussing the false valorization. Indeed, my post could be logically consistent with saying that poetry is completely unnecessary or religion is completely unnecessary.

    We don’t need “religion” for a “balance” –> that is what you tried to bring in. That was your “sub-post”.

  5. JSA

    It’s hilarious to see a philosopher talking about the uselessness of poets.

  6. @ JSA,
    Who said poets were “useless”?

  7. JSA

    I was being a bit obtuse. Most of the world considers philosophers to be, at best, useless. And here we have a philosopher claiming to be superior to poets. You have to admit that it’s funny.

  8. @ JSA
    Ahhh, gottcha. That was Plato’s voice — Socrates was much nicer and nearly as arrogant. 🙂
    He did claim to be superior to Poets only in that he admitted his ignorance — a qualified “superiority” if you ask me. But he never said they were useless — far from it.

  9. JSA

    And I count philosophy and poetry as two of my greatest joys, so I guess I am doubly a clown. 🙂

    I like Yeats’ poem about what is knowable through philosophy:

    “Wine comes in at the mouth
    And love comes in at the eye;
    That’s all we shall know for truth
    Before we grow old and die.”

    I’m toying with this idea that the dichotomy between philosophy and poetry is the dichotomy between objectivity and solidarity, as Richard Rorty described the Greek philosophers.

  10. Great poem — sounds like a drunken taoist.
    Hmm, I will have to wait to see your post about that dichotomy — can’t say I follow it.
    Like you, I enjoy poetry and think it is a fun tool of expression. But I look at it like dance, sculpturing, cartooning, singing and such — it is just another form that touches the mind. It can be deluded, destructive, joyful, building — but since it is merely form, it depends on the mind it is touching.

  11. @JSA
    Have you ever seen a poet or a scientist given way more credit than they deserve and granted wisdom beyond their field?

  12. JSA

    but since it is merely form, it depends on the mind it is touching

    Yes, you nailed it. That’s basically the distinction that Rorty is making. He says that Greek philosophers were among the first to try to find a higher truth that is independent of the mind it is touching — aka “objective” truth. Conversely, poetry is about expressing something that is shared between two or more minds (but not independent of those minds) — aka “solidarity”.

    Have you ever seen a poet or a scientist given way more credit than they deserve and granted wisdom beyond their field?

    Yes. It happens all the time, with people of every field. I’ve also seen the flip side many times, where people claim that someone is being given too much credit, but in my judgment they aren’t being given enough credit (this is common when the people doing the criticizing don’t actually know what it takes to be effective in the position they are criticizing). So I guess the lesson is that it’s pretty difficult to judge other people, and we should spend more time learning than judging.

    A few times, I’ve also been given way more credit than I deserve, and it feels pretty good 🙂

  13. me thinks this is the age old conflict of knowledge vs. wisdom. interesting debate.. but i think one informs the other and those who hold up one over the other are off their rockers.

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