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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Humanist Literary Theory

Following notes are by  Jyotsna S. of  II Year PSEng.
In the latter half of the chapter on Humanist theory, the traditions and thoughts of many influential thinkers stemming from both Platonic and Aristotelian thought have been examined. Before even attempting to consider what these thinkers have put down in literature and philosophy as their own traditions, it is necessary to examine exactly what the oral traditions of Plato and Aristotle themselves is.
The society of ancient Greece was one that thrived in almost all aspects that modern society can achieve standards of excellence in. It had highly developed and advanced systems of education, legislation and administration; some however arguing that literature itself was incomplete at the time, as ancient Greece only had to make do with drama and poetry. Nevertheless, the influence of Greece spread all across the rest of Europe and the world due to these main events: (not listed in chronological order)
1. The conquests of Alexander the Great
2. Trade routes including what would formally be called the silk route later on
3. Greece becoming a roman colony around 46 BCE.
4. The spread of Christianity across Europe
This helped the spread of Greek thought all across Europe, then Persia and Ethiopia and is the reason why most scholars refer to Greek philosophy as the foundation of western thought.
I’ve also put up a link to more on Greek philosophy:
The philosophers listed agree with either Plato and/or Aristotle in part, or disagree with both.
Coming to the philosophers and writers who explore the tradition of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, the first of them is:

Horace mainly explains that the purpose of poetry, or literature in general is that it is ‘dulce et utile’, or sweet and useful. Horace insists that poetry serves the didactic purpose that Plato seeks, but provides pleasure at the same time; therefore in essence, Horace states that the two goals are not incompatible. He says that poetry is a useful teaching tool because of its pleasure which makes it accessible. Like Plato, Horace also sees nature as the primary source for poetry but argues that poets should imitate both nature and other authors. Horace’s ideas are especially important as they define the ideas about literature that can be traced from the ancient world to the renaissance. Among other such important philosophers is the Neo Platonist St. Thomas Aquinas. Therefore you can see some traces of agreement with Plato on poetry.

One of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age, Sir Philip Sidney is most famous for his ‘’The Defence of Poetry’’, sometimes cited as the defence of poesy. Apparently he was influenced at least in part by Stephen Gosson. Sir Philip Sidney directly attacks Plato for his thoughts on poetry, the essence of his defence being that poetry , by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing it’s readers to virtue.
He also says that poetry completes a process that is left incomplete by nature, therefore teaching readers the inner meaning of the things and events of the material world. Finally, Sir Philip Sidney says that the mimetic form of poetry, instead of reflecting inferiority, presents a higher level of reality, something which lends shape to the otherwise raw observation of nature.

Perhaps the most striking element about Bacon is that he not only refers back to Elizabethan tradition, but defends it passionately. He follows Aristotle in the thought that poetry does not present an inferior representation of the world we live in, rather a world better than the one we live in. He also says that history and reason, although tied to human experience, only present the sensory world. Bacon argues that imagination can create realities not yet manifested if not limited by sensory or other experiences. He disagrees with Plato on the fact that poetry manipulates and lies to the reader, but instead Sir Francis Bacon says that poetry presents a ‘feigned history’ which speaks directly to the human soul. More importantly, Bacon felt that poetry is greater than rationality because reason can only observe the pre-existing material world, but poetry allows the mind to create its own worlds and rule over them.

Joseph Addison, of the Addison and Steele duo was not only famous for his numerous plays, but also for his thoughts on poetry, following Plato in the sense that he too is concerned with what poetry does to the minds of the readers, although unlike Plato he is less concerned with a poem’s moral effect, rather with its aesthetics; what he calls how the poem ‘delights’ rather than how it instructs. Influences of John Locke can also be seen in his ideas. Addison describes two types of pleasure in imagination:
· Primary pleasure- from the immediate experience of objects through sensory perception , such as seeing the vivid colours of a changing tree
· Secondary pleasure- the experience of ideas from the representation of objects, when those objects are not present. For instance, reminiscing about the tree and writing a poem describing it’s beauty or painting a picture of it.

Even though Addison gives more importance to the aesthetic quality of a poem or of literature in general, he states that imagination itself is less refined that the faculty of reason and is more commonly found in untrained minds. This he says because of his belief that reason investigates the cause of things whereas imagination is only content with experiencing them either directly or through representation.

Since Burke’s thoughts are somewhat vaster and can be traced back to many other schools of thought, I took the liberty of putting up one link that may prove useful.
Burke also follows John Locke in stating that all human knowledge comes from sensory experiences. Burke explains that imagination is a creative power that works in two ways-
1. To represent images of nature as perceived by the senses
2. To combine these images in new ways
Burke also says that imagination cannot achieve creations that are completely original, it only combines the images received from the sensory world, but imagination is not tied to the natural world. For burke, art is not a copy of the natural world, but a sort of recreation itself.
Burke also opposes Plato’s argument that art is merely a copy; instead says that the critical assessment of art must be based on the concept of taste. A shoemaker may want an accurate picture of a shoe, while a dancer may want a picture that gives a sense of the shoe’s motion and liveliness; an emotional rather than physical quality.

Taste is a matter of sensibility according to Burke, rather than a matter of reason or logic. He goes on to say that reason requires education and training, but sensibility can be developed to a greater or lesser degree in all individuals. In this aspect he seems to reflect the thoughts of Addison.
A concept which would further help to understand Burke is the Lethe, or the river of forgetfulness, a concept found in Greek mythology.
One important aspect to keep in mind while examining the thoughts of Samuel Johnson is that of the birth of fiction around the 18th century, following the rise of the novel as an important element of literature. Johnson says that fiction depends on the idea of mimesis, presenting stories which imitate nature or real life, unlike poetry or drama, however fiction depends on the idea of realism, presenting stories to readers as though these individuals were real people.
To understand Johnson, one must also look at the mixed concepts of fiction, poetry and realism, for which the roots of all these concepts must be looked at:
-the restoration
-the post reformation period of the 18th century
Like others, Johnson is concerned with the morality of literature. Quite simply, in his view good art is one that has a positive message and bad art contains a negative message, encouraging readers to replicate the behaviour found in literature. Therefore, Johnson feels that novels are potentially more harmful than poetry as they are more realistic in form; being easily mistaken for descriptions of real life. He also argues that Greek and Roman writers presented the best models for any literary art, which is why any critic or writer must have a thorough knowledge of the classical literary tradition.

Reynolds follows Plato in arguing that the highest and soundest kind of art and criticism refers to an eternal immutable nature of things, a kind of universal idea common to all times and all forms of art.
He is referring to a sort of irrefutable art that transcends time and genre, but the question of refuting art itself is derogated by Reynolds as he says that the assessment of a critic is subjective as he is but mortal. The solution to this problem, therefore, is to ‘’try and discover the principles of human nature on which all forms of imaginative art are founded, and then try to base an aesthetic standard on those principles.’’ He also agrees that one cannot be trained to feel just as one is trained to reason, however it is a well trained faculty to know when reason should give way to feeling.
In essence, Reynolds says that the great end of all art is to make an impression on the human faculties of imagination and sensibility, not on the faculty of reason.

Wordsworth broadly follows Aristotelian thought and also reflects the ideas of the school of romanticism, stating that anything closer to nature was superior to anything artificial.
Why did Wordsworth turn his attention to the language of speech and writing of the common man, so to speak? The answer lies in the examination of economic and social events of change at the time, that is, a poet catered to the common man more than ever, for the first time in history. Up until the mid 18th century, the subjects of poems were royalty as they were the sole patrons of poets. Now however, poets wrote about the common man who could afford to subscribe to them. He represented a large scale shift in European poetry towards the common man, infusing it with pastoral tradition. However, one can question as to how accurate Wordsworth’s descriptions of the common man are as he himself came from a feudal background and may have had little or no exposure to the average lifestyle or common man.

Keats’s views on poetry probably represent at best, Hellenism. According to him, rational thought breaks the world into subject and object for the purposes of classification and analysis in the Aristotelian process called ‘science’.
Keats speaks about an interplay , in the sense that sensations and empathetic experiences ( including poetry) break down the barriers between subject and object and insist on this interaction between the two entities. However, Keats also feels that poetry and science, empathy and reason are two incompatible elements which are also oppositional.
However, the most important key to understanding Keats in this context is negative capability, which in essence is the ability to stay comfortable with uncertainty and doubt without the need to find certainty. This is different from nihilism, which has an ingrained sense of hopelessness in it.

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