Both “A” and “not A” cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect. Napoleon was the emperor of France or he was not; water is made of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule or it is not—in each case, both things cannot be true at the same time in the same way.
Logic is the tool of understanding, while poetics is the tool of vision. Logic indirectly brings your intellect into conformity with abstract truth. Poetics directly brings your whole soul—the intellect, will, and imagination—into contact with the concrete truth.
You can understand most things—nobility, sincerity, compassion, love—through the intellect, but such an understanding is incomplete. Through a strictly logical approach, you only see things, so to speak, from the outside. It never involves your whole being. But when you see these concepts in the actions of a character in a novel, it grabs all of you. You perceive it with the eye of your mind and the eye of your heart—in three dimensions. You see it from the inside rather than the outside.
But poetry (and by that word I mean what it has always traditionally meant—namely, literature in the broad sense) is not limited in this way. Poetry does not violate but transcends the laws of logic. In a story, something can be something and not be something at the same time. This is the whole power of symbolism and metaphor: one word, or one idea, or one character can be something that it is not—at the same time and in the same respect.
Logic is human; literature is angelic.
Logic is human because it requires us to go through a complex set of steps in order for us to find truth—a process our human nature requires us to go through. But literature is angelic since, like it was said to be to the angels, it is immediately and directly accessible.
Truth is immediately apprehensible through the literary object which is the thing it symbolizes.
Lewis’ Aslan is not Christ, but he is; Tolkien’s Galadriel is not Mary (or Eve), but she is; Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is not the American dream, yet he is; Melville’s Moby Dick is not nature itself (or God), but he is; Steinbeck’s Pearl of the World is not mammon, but it is.
Even though it’s not.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2012 edition.