Today, perhaps more so than at any time in history, we are experiencing a divide between what is considered to be the “domain” or “confinement” of art as wholly separate from the domain of “politics.”
The irony of such a perception is its failure to recognise that the root of our political system was enjoined with the arts from its very inception.
Looking at ancient Egypt and Athens, mythos was dominant in all spheres of thought. Mythos, which pertains to anything transmitted by word of mouth, i.e. fables, legends, narratives, tales etc., would often hold within it a significant truth or meaning for the society as a whole. In other words, ideas that were pervasive in these cultures and shaped all aspects of life including its politics and sciences were shaped by mythoi, or the art of story-telling.
Homer’s great poems that are left to us today, The Iliad and The Odyssey, describe the events of the Trojan War and its immediate aftermath, events which marked the descent of Greece into a dark age. Following the Trojan War, approx. 1190 BCE, the civilization of mainland Greece collapsed, written language was lost, cities disappeared.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, written around 700 BCE heralded the reversal of the collapse, and the beginnings of Classical Greek culture.
These epic stories of Homer which had been passed down through the centuries by poet bards who had memorised entire texts, would travel all throughout Greece and recount these tales. These “stories” became a dominant cultural reference point for all of Greece and beyond, and are greatly influential to this day.
Why do you think that is? Is it purely the fancy of the imagination? Or can our mind, situated in the realm of the imagination, come to a profound discovery through mere “story-telling”?
As Shelley wrote in his “A Defense of Poetry”:
The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character…
Aeschylus (523-456 BCE), Sophocles (497-406 BCE) and Euripides (480-406 BCE) are considered to be the three greatest Greek tragedians. Greek tragedy competitions would be held between three different playwrights (selected half a year before), who were required to compose three tragedies and one satyr play each. The Greek tragedy festivities were second only to the Athletic competitions.
The Greek tragedies were not just for entertainment but often would contain a warning for those who did not heed the ill-fated decisions of its characters. Often, epic stories from the distant past would be selected due to their relevance to a present day situation or conflict. Much like during the time of Shakespeare, one could not simply criticize a war or a conduct of a specific ruling or influential group, but rather the dramatist would pick characters from either a fictional world or a distant past to showcase a foretelling. To reveal a truth that has remained hidden.
One could argue, those were simpler times, in today’s calculating and information-dominated world we cannot afford such fanciful, inexact thinking within the realm of “politics”. Well I would argue that this in fact only increases the urgency of art’s reintroduction into the realm of “reality” so to speak.
For example, have you ever searched for something, stubbornly staring at a specific area you were certain you left the item, but it is not there. You then proceed to rummage through your entire house, and then upon returning to that same spot, you realise, that the item you were looking for was always there? It was in fact right in front of you, but for some inexplicable reason, you could not “see” it at the time.
Well, in short, poetry gives us that ability to “see” something that has remained hidden from us.
It is not simply a matter of “logic” or “reason” that we can compel such things to reveal themselves to us, and no matter how much effort we put into insisting with our senses that we know something to be true, even our very eyes have the ability to show us a false image.
In order to investigate this further, let us take a look at Shelley’s constitution for poets and statesmen alike, “A Defence of Poetry.”
As Shelley discussed in this essay, there are:
two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced, and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity…
Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
As Shelley defines it, poetry may be defined as “the expression of the imagination.”
…poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true…
Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time…A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.
What Shelley is discussing here is the relevance of imagination as not something fanciful but in fact something that is crucial if a society is to advance and prosper. This is not an arbitrary form of imagination but rather the ability to see a potential, something that has yet to take shape; something that we can never hold and dissect, such as the concept of justice, or the concept of love, something that partakes in the eternal.
Shelley further says:
It is admitted that the exercise of the imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged that that of reason is more useful. Let us examine as the grounds of this distinction what is here meant by utility. Pleasure or good, in a general sense, is that which the consciousness of a sensitive and intelligent being seeks, and in which, when found, it acquiesces. There are two kinds of pleasure, one durable, universal, and permanent; the other transitory and particular…In the former sense, whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense, is useful. But a narrower meaning may be assigned to the word utility, confining it to express that which banishes the importunity of the wants of our animal nature, the surrounding, men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstitions, and the conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage.
Shelley here, is very clearly using the lessons of Plato, that every individual’s actions and thoughts in life are to seek for and acquire pleasure. However, there are two forms of pleasure, one that partakes in the eternal and one that partakes in the temporal. The latter can be said to be the domain of narrow utility. [For a more in depth study of this refer to Plato’s Gorgias.]
The most basic utility is a necessary condition for sustaining life. Our bodies after all, are made of flesh, and we require a constant replenishing of temporal goods, such as air, food, water, warmth. We take pleasure in these and that is a fine thing.
However, there is a problem that arises if we claim that that is the end all, be all of our existence. Our mind, though some will argue this point, is not fully participating in the temporal realm, but rather it is also situated in the eternal.
The fact that we can even fathom a concept of the eternal is evidence towards this. Our minds have the ability to partake in something that is beyond our direct sensing of a physical space time, and thus it partakes in the eternal.
Let us read on:
But whilst the sceptic destroys gross superstitions, let him spare to deface, as some of the French writers have defaced, the eternal truths charactered upon the imaginations of men. Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines labor, let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. They have exemplified the saying, “To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.” The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.
Shelley is warning, that to blindly follow the “calculating faculty” and straight-forward “utility” of a mere physical object will rob us of what it is to be human. These are indeed necessary “tools” but they should never be used to “govern” an individual or a people.
Therefore, how do we resolve this?
How do we create and maintain a society that is fluid enough to increasingly move towards improvement in all its spheres? It must have at its core “the soul” so to speak of what it is to be human and how this relates to something entirely larger than ourselves and our lifetime.
It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest sense; the definition involving a number of apparent paradoxes. For, from an inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature, the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures of the superior portions of our being. Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure which exists in pain. This is the source also of the melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself. And hence the saying, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of mirth.” Not that this highest species of pleasure is necessarily linked with pain. The delight of love and friendship, the ecstasy of the admiration of nature, the joy of the perception and still more of the creation of poetry, is often wholly unalloyed.
The production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense is true utility. Those who produce and preserve this pleasure are poets or poetical philosophers.
Here Shelley is making the point that the truly useful, the truly pleasurable, is what makes us truly good, truly our most “human.” However, this “highest sense” of pleasure is often linked with pain. This tends to deal with the struggle between the mortal v.s. immortal qualities of our being. [For a more in depth study of this refer to Schiller’s “On Tragic Art.”]
For instance, our mortality, in of itself, is a tragic thing. That our time on this earth is only for a relatively short while partakes in a type of pain, yet when our appreciation for life is all the more cherished and sacred, it gives us a greater, more rich and colourful pleasure than if we took such a life for granted.
However, there is an even higher sharing of pleasure and pain and this partakes in the eternal.
That is, why as an audience are we moved by the sacrifice of a character on stage for some other good? Why are we moved by such stories as Joan of Arc, Braveheart, and Romeo and Juliet?
It is in fact the most contrary thing to “logic” or “reason,” to go against our very physical existence, is it not? To forfeit life for a “cause”, for an “idea”? None of us desire death, so why would we be moved by another’s sacrifice of life for something beyond our physical existence?
It is a reflection that our truest and deepest desire is not for prolonging a mortal life, but rather the longing to participate to the greatest degree in something immortal.
Let us return to Shelley:
All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.
The best way to understand what Shelley is referring to here, is that narrow utility and dogmatic custom/tradition are closer to being truly dead, than the sacrifice of a Joan of Arc. To merely prolong a physical existence in all our bodily functions is no different from the existence of someone who has been lobotomised or is in a comatose state.
The greatest value to life is what partakes in something beyond merely the physical. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” means that our mind is what shapes our “reality,” it is what shapes our choices, our decisions, our future…our possibilities. Depending on the decisions we make, the course of our lives and of entire civilizations can be changed for the better or worse.
Imagination allows a hopeless situation to become a fortuitous one. It is imagination that seizes a rare opportunity when it presents itself, and it is truly from the imagination that we are able to “seize the day,” as the story of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” beautifully exemplifies to us.
And thus we conclude with:
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul.
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
This article was originally published on the Rising Tide Foundation.
Cynthia Chung is the President of the Rising Tide Foundation and a writer at Strategic Culture Foundation, consider supporting her work by making a donation and subscribing to her substack page for free.