What Hath Shakespeare to Do with Socrates?

In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare has his protagonist attempt to determine whether the king, his uncle, is guilty of killing his father by organizing a play in which the events of his father’s murder are cast in another setting so that he may observe his uncle’s reaction. This “play within a play” (titled “The Mouse-trap”) will allow Hamlet to observe his uncle’s reaction, to see if, indeed, he is the murderer. It is an attempt, using the dramatic arts, to “catch the conscience of the King.”

This scene offers readers a chance for personal reflection on not only the function and role of the dramatic arts, but on the larger question of what literature has to do with knowledge, with ways of knowing, and the aptitude of literature for engaging in philosophical pursuits. Hamlet says that the purpose of the theatre (or literature) is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to [human] nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Shakespeare tells us that one of the main functions of literature is to hold a mirror up to human nature and to reveal the inner truths, impulses, and realities of human beings, as well as the “form and pressure” of any given age and culture, and so it is complimentary to and in partnership with philosophy, which shares the same goal. Each of these disciplines—literature and philosophy—achieves something titanic in its quest for knowledge and truth, though neither ever fully attains it. Both pursue the same ancient, eternal goal, albeit through a different medium.

If all of us, as Aristotle said, desire by nature to know, then it stands to reason that at some point we would wish to know what it is that we know, how we know what we know, or even whether we can know anything with certainty at all. Thus, the question of how literature functions philosophically, or how it treats philosophical ideas—and by contrast, how philosophy treats its own ideas, distinct from the operations of literature—hinges in large part upon the question of knowledge: upon each discipline’s contribution to ways of knowing and the fullness of knowledge.

Plato vs. Literature

But like all relationships, which mysteriously and fearfully tread along a harrowing cliff of harmony and discord, literature and philosophy share a long history of drama and beauty, passion and friction. It began with Plato, who notoriously banned the poets from his ideal state in his Republic, and took aim at the Rhapsodes and the poets in the Ion. His views might seem intemperate, but Plato was neither a skeptic nor a fool. So what did the great philosopher have against literature?

First, Plato felt that the Rhapsodes (those who publicly recited Homer’s works from memory) were imitating Homer, who himself was imitating nature. For Plato, the physical world (“the world of becoming”) was an imitation of the perfect world of true reality, the forms (“the world of being”). Thus, when a poet through his art imitates objects of the physical world, he is imitating what is already an imitation, thus drawing his audience away from true reality.

Second, Plato felt that poetry appealed to the weaker part of our soul—the irrational, passionate, and emotional part of our tripart soul. For Plato, the soul is comprised of a rational element, a mediating element, and an irrational element. Disciplines like philosophy and mathematics are negotiated by our reason (the Apollonian/masculine), while poetry is negotiated by our irrationality (the Dionysian/feminine). In other words, we access the world of the forms through our rational component, whereas our irrational component takes us away from them. So the conflict between literature and philosophy can be seen to be between literature and emotion on one side, and philosophy and rationality on the other. Since Plato’s preferred discourse was rational argumentation, it is fairly obvious which side he was on.

Responses to Plato

Proponents of literature through the ages have responded to Plato in three primary ways. The first is a kind of passive agreement with or extension of Plato’s views. This skeptical perspective holds that literary works treat philosophical ideas as objects of aesthetic concern presented rhetorically, while philosophical works treat such ideas as objects of cognitive concern presented argumentatively. In this view a literary work leads to a dramatic or poetic (aesthetic) destination, and a philosophical work leads to an epistemic (truth/knowledge) destination. Each discipline has its own domain and purpose, and they are mutually exclusive.

The second response has been to point out that Plato himself was a literary craftsman par excellence. His dialogues, highly creative and rich in poetic and dramatic effect, remain a unique form of literature. His philosophy incorporated an imaginative dialectic, replete with metaphors and analogies, symbols and myths. The Republic itself is an extended metaphor or parable. This view sees Plato the philosopher as the most elevated poet, and his poetry as the most elevated form of philosophy.

The third response comes from Plato’s star pupil, Aristotle. In his formal treatise, the Poetics, Aristotle argues that the “world of becoming” is the real world, and the ideal forms exist within each created thing. Aristotle re-imagines the idea of mimesis (imitation) as something natural and good: All humans desire to know; we delight in imitation because that is how we learn. This is the view echoed by Shakespeare.

What is the instinctive desire behind our delight in imitation? Harmony. We respond with natural delight to balance, order, and unity. According to Aristotle, the best place to find this harmony is in poetry and drama—and in particular, tragedy. In tragedy, the poet selects the vital, crucial essences (the inner realities of human nature, as Hamlet said) from the daily, repetitive, stream-of-conscious events that make up a life, and transforms them into a tight, unified plot. Mimesis is a distillation of the dross of everyday life into the vital principles of who we really are—or, for example, who Orestes really is in Aeschylus’ Eumenides—the man who suffers through a trial and receives the blessing of the new democratic rule of law which ends the curse of the House of Atreus.

These various critiques of Plato remind us that the domains of literature and philosophy have never been truly or effectively sundered. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates says that the “feeling of wonder is the touchstone of the philosopher, and all philosophy has its origins in wonder.” Since literature, too, begins in wonder as it seeks to represent the beauty and complexity of man and nature, it is helpful to understand how literature yields knowledge, how it expands our ways of knowing toward a fuller kind of knowledge.

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