Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.12: Review of Gould

Thomas Gould, The Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Pp. xxvii + 318. ISBN 0-691-07375-9. $39.50.

Reviewed by Stephen G. Salkever, Bryn Mawr College.

In recent years, a number of important works including those by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Stephen Halliwell, Iris Murdoch, and Martha Nussbaum, have drawn attention to the difficulty and complexity of the Platonic understanding of poetry, tragedy, and art. The aim of Thomas Gould's study, which takes as its point of departure Plato's brief and ambiguous discussion of an old quarrel or opposition between philosophy and poetry in Republic X, is very much the opposite: Gould proclaims at the outset that this old quarrel should be interpreted simply and precisely as a clash between two religious dogmas, one ("poetry") holding that human beings live in a world that is sometimes cruelly unjust, the other ("philosophy") holding that the good and the just are always rewarded with happiness, so that only the unjust are miserable. The insight that leads Gould to this grand reduction of complex and ambiguous philosophy to straightforward sectarian religious controversy is his belief that when Plato speaks critically of the pathos induced by the Greek tragedians he invokes what "was the right name for the operative event in stories essential to popular religion and to tragedy: catastrophic suffering, undergone by some great figure, man or god, far in excess of the sufferer's deserts" (ix).

Since "modern readers regularly miss this almost technical use of the word pathos," we fail "in our attempt to evaluate the tradition of hostility to exploitation of the pathos, what Plato called 'the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy'" (ix). Having ascribed this "technical" meaning to pathos (after a number of repetitions, Gould finds it easy to say that "pathos is by definition an event that is entirely or primarily unfair" [271]), Gould asserts that what Plato intends by referring to the old opposition is to define "'poetry' as the enterprise of those who wish to move hearers with accounts of pathe, and 'philosophy' as the mission of those who are hostile to this enterprise" (x). The leader of the hostile "philosophers" is Socrates, whom Gould treats as a preacher ("Although it is sometimes formulated without any reference to divinity, the basic principle of Socratism is really a theological premise or series of premises" [19]) who goes about Athens proclaiming the doctrine that "all good men and only good men are happy" (11): "The heart and soul of the Socratic revolution was the discovery that all good men and only good men are happy" (222).

Greek literature before Socrates, before philosophy, recognizes the claims of both "poets" and "philosophers" -- the Iliad (in which the hero suffers unjustly) is closer to the vision of the "poets," the Odyssey (in which the hero wins out in the end) to that of the "philosophers": "Both in religion and literature, the vision Plato calls 'poetry' is really an extension of the Iliadic not the Odyssean world view. The Odyssey belongs mainly to 'philosophy'" ( 23). But Plato is an implacable foe of tragic absolution, and Aristotle reconciles philosophy and poetry by trivializing the effect of the cleansing tragic pathos into a clinical purge or "flushing out" (208, 266) -- this reading of Aristotle's sense of katharsis in the Poetics is simply asserted (285), without any discussion of the well-known dangers of resting too much weight on a supposed technical sense of katharsis there.

The opposition between "poetry" and "philosophy" (Gould regularly presents them within quotation marks when they are used to refer to his two central dogmas or sects) is thus reconstituted as a clash between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and the friends of traditional popular Greek religion on the other, the latter seen as all those who recognize the way in which witnessing a representation of a pathos, of an unmerited suffering caused by a god, can elevate an audience by cleansing its members of the guilty feelings they harbor about their own inadequacies and misdeeds. How could a spectacle of unfair suffering give comfort to the pious and increase their reverence? By showing sinners that their sins will not always be punished: "Might that not mean that they themselves will fail to suffer everything they deserve? Such moments make some people feel close to their divinity and very grateful. But this is not a logic a Socratic would accept, of course" (20).

Socrates is unable to see the deep yearning we all (not only Greeks, but all human beings everywhere) have to see the universe as unjust and ourselves as therefore not responsible for our own unhappiness (34), since, according to Gould, Socrates rigidly insists on an absolutely just cosmos in which we and not the gods are to blame for our own unhappiness, and in which virtue always leads to happiness. We can understand the conflict between the two "theological" views, Gould says, by seeing each as reflecting one of two essential yet conflicting longings of the human soul -- the longing for justice (satisfied by "philosophy") and the longing for absolution and forgiveness (satisfied by "poetry").

Drawing on a brief discussion of Freud and Jung (all Gould's discussions are brief; the book is composed of 26 short chapters), Gould asserts that psychic health requires "philosophy," in the form of an active superego, but also the occasional healing release from the demands of the superego: "We may need this internal punisher. we obviously do need it. But we also need pathe, either in religion or in literature, visions that cleanse us -- temporarily, now and then -- from its tendency to destroy happiness" (224). This is the psychological truth that Plato is too obtuse to see -- unlike Freud, who "saw in the superego a force that could become, in some people, as irrational and life-poisoning as the lower part [of the psyche]" (30). The reason Gould gives for Plato's remarkable failure of mind here deserves extensive quotation, since it is nearly bizarre enough to be charming, and is a good sample of Gould's interpretive style: "The question is why Plato, who was the first to describe the superego with some precision, failed to recognize it as dangerous... The role played by Socrates in Plato's life may have been decisive, as I have suggested. Socrates appears to have been a benign paranoiac. He was a paranoiac inasmuch as his superego was abnormally strong -- so strong that he experienced it as a "voice" ready to censor his every word or deed whenever it was incorrect in any way. It was benign, however, because it was life enhancing, not life poisoning" (242). Needless to say, there is no discussion of what might be meant by this vaguely Nietzschean talk of enhanced and poisoned life; what is clear, however, is that Gould sees Greek philosophy as a serious threat to all that is noble and fine in the European canon: "As we shall see, the removal of all that Plato found objectionable in Greek literature would take the heart out of Shakespeare, the Bible, Dostoevsky, and much of the best of the whole western tradition" (12).

Gould is neither familiar with nor interested in philosophical discourse. By reading the dispute between philosophy and poetry as a disagreement over the value to human life of witnessing pathos interpreted in his "technical" sense, Gould manages without much trouble to establish poetry as complex, interesting, and compelling, and philosophy as dogmatic, stupid, and obsessive -- the vaunted "rationality" of the philosophers is trivial next to the wisdom of the poets (158-159). Moreover, philosophers (and also theologians and literary critics -- his brush is very broad) have ever been incapable of appreciating the wisdom of art -- either banning it with Plato, or trivializing it with Aristotle. Gould may be aware that European philosophy in the Christian era has frequently made the very point he makes about the centrality of unjust suffering and our experience of it to an appropriate understanding of the world. If he is, he never lets on. But for Hegel and Marx, world history is the slaughter-bench of individuals and ideals (someone once cleverly called the Marxian story of modern history "the long dark night of the prole"), remorselessly destroying the most blameless of mortals and purist of visions. For Kierkegaard, simple theodicy is an affront to genuine faith. Nietzsche's sense of the abyss has opened spacious fields for twentieth century philosophical reflection, most of which is as anti-"philosophical" in Gould's sense of philosophy as he is himself, though usually with a much more intelligent sense of the depth and value of the Platonic philosophy they reject. Gould's reduction of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is in effect a highly simplified version of Heidegger's attack on Platonic metaphysics.

In explaining "poetry" as that discourse that arouses a pathos of the deep unfairness of things, Gould pushes for a reading of Greek tragedy (and of much else besides) that asserts a strong continuity between the vision of the tragedians and that of Christianity, especially Pauline Christianity, with its focus on the Cross (115-116; 157). This allows Gould to do two things: first to treat Greek drama as reinforcing rather than challenging Christian sensibility; and second, to use this reading of tragedy as a way to criticize what he takes to be bad modernday Christianity on grounds that it has been captured by the "philosophers": "When Christ at the Passover broke the bread and distributed it, saying that this was his body, and passed around the wine, saying that this was his blood, then bade all to eat and drink, he was preparing a sparagmos and omophagia very like that in the Greek mysteries. If Christians were not so frightened about drinking more than a token of the wine, they would know Dionysus still" (232).

His readings of the Greek tragedies all lean forward toward Pauline Christianity as a touchstone for what is moving in the "poetic" experience: "A hundred years ago it may have been appropriate for Wilamowitz to warn against drawing analogies between the Dionysian pathos and the Christian Passion. But one can go too far. If we assume no more truth value for Christianity than for paganism, it is safe, indeed imperative, to be alert to similarities and continuities" (67, n.2). In spite of his concern to assert and re-assert the equivalence of the pathos of Athenian tragedy and the Passion of Pauline Christianity, Gould has interesting things to say about particular tragedies and tragedians, though his discussions of individual plays are generally brief and seem designed mainly to lend support to his global theories about religion, art, and psychic health. These discussions are sometimes lively and challenging; Gould believes that the greatest tragedies must be complex attempts to honor the conflicting truths contained in both "poetry" and "philosophy" (257). He is alive to the necessity and the difficulty of discerning irony in the voice of the poet (180), and willing to acknowledge the uncertainty of his readings of tragedies. But these readings are less interesting that they might have been had he seriously engaged other interpretations that preserve both the complexity and the coherence of the dramas without resorting to an anachronistic Christian reconstruction -- there is very little consideration of recent work on tragedy. Thus even when Gould's readings are not palpably driven by his cartoon vision of the earthy virtues of tragic art in religious and secular contexts and the high-toned and narrow foolishness of philosophy, his is not a book that gladly opens its interpretations to challenge and further discussion.

Still, Gould is at his best in his discussions of particular tragedies and in his brief remarks on later artistic representations and public events and their relationship to tragedy -- here, primarily in the final chapter on "The Nature of Tragedy," Gould can be interesting and provocative, though unavoidably helterskelter, given the storm of references to an extraordinary number of movies, poems, operas, TV shows, plays, paintings, asking whether these qualify as genuine tragedies or fall short in the manner of melodramas (in which suffering is redeemed by a presumably just vengeance -- as in Rambo) or sentimentality (in which our empathic suffering is eased by a falsely attractive consoling vision of the universe -- as in Love Story or On Golden Pond ) -- the distinction is made on p. 278. Sometimes he approaches useful wisdom of a political sort, as in his suggestion that the recollection of group victimization is a primary source of group cohesion (194n.), and in his critical treatment of the sentimentality of President Kennedy (296): "His frequent sigh, 'Life is unfair,' was irritating in a way that a sentimental story can be irritating. In both cases we are asked to accept something as profound and honest that we suspect is neither the one nor the other."

This reviewer frequently found Gould's Ancient Quarrel irritating in precisely this way; but a fairer conclusion might be that the author is a sophisticated and experienced reader of literary texts whose effort at a general account of tragedy is undone by his tin ear for philosophy and his love of simplifying and self-congratulatory theory.

The book is riddled with typographical errors. The publisher supplies an errata sheet correcting nine of them; I found six more, all of the annoying rather than sense-confusing variety.