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Proceedings of the XXII World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 26, 2008

Philosophy and Literature

Robin Attfield
Pages 13-19

Philosophy on Poetry, Philosophy in Poetry

The relations of philosophy and poetry include but are not exhausted by Plato’s hostility to mimetic poetry in the Republic and Aristotle’s defence of it in the Poetics. For poetry has often carried a philosophical message itself, from the work of Chaucer and Milton to that of T.S. Eliot. In yet earlier generations, poetry was chosen as the medium for conveying a philosophical message by (among Greek philosophers) Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles, and (at Rome) by Lucretius, who struggled both with the Latin language and with the standard metre of didactic poetry, hexameters, to spread what he considered enlightenment and to reach for his Epicureanism an audience that might otherwise have remained unreached. To the extent that poets such as Lucretius succeeded, the philosophical critics of poetry in the tradition of Plato would have to recognise merit in some mimetic poetry. (Thus Lucretius compares clouds of atoms to flocks of sheep, which he graphically depicts.) Yet a defence of poetry other than Aristotelian katharsis would be needed for works such as those of Empedocles and Lucretius. Perhaps Enlightenment can be conveyed equally well in verse as in prose, mimetic components notwithstanding; for some purposes perhaps it can be conveyed uniquely well. De nihilo nil fit, to quote Lucretius, comprises an example.

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