The Poet's Inner Child

Art is incredibly childish.

Image result for pablo picasso boy with
Boy with a Dog - Pablo Picasso
Aristotle exposes the childish artist in The Poetics, when he suggests that humans write poetry/literature because it is natural for humans to imitate. He teaches, "Imitation distinguishes humans from other animals, for humans are the most imitative of all animals." He believes that humans establish their earliest understanding from imitating, naturally take delight in imitating, and learn from but also take delight in watching others imitate. Throughout this consideration, Aristotle reminds his students that this is true for humans since early childhood. For the seasoned reader of Aristotle, this should be surprising, because Aristotle also believes that humans do no begin to exhibit rational faculties until later in their lives. So, humans imitate before they can think. (What I mean by think is what Aristotle would call exercising a rational faculty. The two aren't totally coextensive, but for the sake of a general understanding it will do.)

This drastically qualifies the Aristotelian picture of human life. For Aristotle, a human being is a human being the instance that its body has the potency for all the sorts of things a human could do, e.g. laughing, thinking, imitating. However, these things develop over time. Although children have the potential to think, they don't fully show the signs of thinking until they're about five years old. Even then, they don't think enough to do metaphysics properly, thereby contemplating the divine and fulfilling their nature, until they're fifty years old.

In other words, Aristotle understands that thinking, exercising reason, is hard. It takes time to be able to do it, and it takes more time to be able to do it well. Humans can imitate before they can think, and humans acquire what is necessary for thinking by imitating. Having reason is what makes us human, or at least it is for Aristotle, but in order to begin to use reason we must imitate human action - and that is the work of the poet.

The poet, then, is less concerned with knowing things in the way of a philosopher, and more concerned with knowing things in the way of a child who is coming to know. However, knowing things in the way a philosopher does still concern the poet. This is pretty much coextensive with the two final causes of poetics. It's worth mentioning now, I'm very unsure about the truth of the rest of this post - but I'm speaking as a poet, not a philosopher. I hope that's a sufficient excuse.

Poetics has two final causes. The first is catharsis or a purging of emotions. This seems obvious to human experience. Aristotle lays this down in The Poetics as well, but nobody knows what he means by catharsis, although everybody feels it when they cry at the end of Othello. The second final cause is teaching virtue. Aristotle doesn't say that, Charles De Koninck does, which might be just as good. In his unpublished essay Art and Morality, Mr. De Koninck argues that because poetics is imitation of human action, it must represent human action correctly. The science of human action is ethics, and as Aristotle proves in his Nicomachean Ethics, humans are happy in as much as they properly exercise the powers (or virtues) of their soul. This is true for the most part, but exceptions are made according to the fortune of a particular person. Therefore, in as much as poetics is imitating human action, happy people should be virtuous and sad people should be vicious unless their lives are being influenced by acts of fortune. The problem is just what Erich Auerbach brings up in his book, Mimesis, which suggests that the stories which human beings are most interested in telling are those which concern a powerful act of fortune.

Nevertheless, if the poet is concerned with imitating human action, the poet must also be concerned with knowing what human action is. For this, the poet must be concerned with Ethics, as well as any other discipline which concerns human action in as much as it concerns human action. So, the poet learns phycology and metaphysics and physics because they're part of the human experience.

The first final cause of catharsis is concerned with evoking emotion or acting on our most primordial desires to imitate and take delight in imitation. However, the second final of trying to imitate correctly to teach virtue requires an act of reason, namely, knowing as a philosopher does. Nevertheless, knowing in the way of a child is more immediate to the poet because it is the sort of thing the poet does (imitate) and has a more approximate final cause.

Final musing #1: Learning this was a big relief for me. Although I am a classicist, one of my favorite painters (if not my favorite) is Pablo Picasso. A quote of his which has always moved me is, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Artists have a tendency to be very stuck up, myself included, but the true artist is childlike, as is the true priest, the true saint, and even the true philosopher.

Final musing #2: Brief interjection: Chapter four of Aristotle's Poetics is where he lays down that humans learn by imitation since early childhood. This could shed light on two other writings by Aristotle - the first is his Politics, I'm thinking of the final discussion on education of youth where he expounds on the importance of art in the education of the young. The other text which might be of some use is Book two of chapter nineteen of the Posterior Analytics, where Aristotle discusses how we know first principles. I wonder of the "soldiers stopping" has anything to do with children imitating.

Happy Sunday,

-J. Hector Guardiola


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