Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Poetry and Morality

POETRY PROVIDES US WITH ANOTHER KIND of knowledge obtained through a process of connaturality, rather than knowledge through syllogistic type reasoning. At its most essential, the poet "feels" his knowledge: he does not derive it by hammering out syllogisms and enthymemes. In Maritain's view, then, there is such a thing as "poetic knowledge," a knowledge that is obtained through connaturality. Particularly since German Romanticism, poets (and therefore mankind at large) have become aware of poetry's unique intellectual vision, the "poetic knowledge," a short of intuition and feel, which is at the heart of the poetic expression.

The poet has realized that he has his own way, which is neither scientific nor philosophical, of knowing the world. Thus the fact of that peculiar kind of knowledge which is poetic knowledge has imposed itself upon philosophical reflection. . . . Poetic knowledge is non-conceptual and non-rational knowledge: it is born in the preconscious life of the intellect, and it is essentially an obscure revelation both of the subjectivity of the poet and of some flash of reality coming together out of sleep into one single awakening.

Maritain, 18. For Maritain, the decisive features of poetic knowledge are its reliance on the "instrumentality of emotion," as well as its tendency towards "utterance and creation." Maritain, 18, 19. This subjective emotion derives from a "preconscious life of the [poet's] intellect," and grasps an "existential reality" through intention and intuition, and so allows for a "grasp" by the poet upon some "existential reality as one with the Self it has moved." Maritain, 19. This deeply subjective grasp is, at the same time, desirous of exhibiting itself "in the manner of a sign." Maritain, 19. The subjective reality of the poet, his response to some reality, therefore, is a blend of experience and intuition and desire for expression. It seeks to "have the self known in the experience of the world and the world known in the experience of the self." Maritain, 19.

While they may be confused, this poetic experience and the knowledge that comes from it is distinct from philosophical or scientific knowledge. It is also distinct from mystical knowledge--whether that mystical knowledge is supernatural or "natural". At germ, its source is subjective. Its unique vision is both inward and outward, and so it both captures the world in some poetic way, but also expresses it outwardly by word, and "terminates in a word proferred." It is therefore clearly unlike mystical experience which, at its heart, is silent. Poetry tends, moreover, to derived from "free creativity of the spirit," whereas mystical experience is patently more submissive to the reality outside of ourselves, or the reality that is within ourselves, but which is nonetheless greater than ourselves. It would therefore be wrong to equate poetic knowledge with mystical knowledge. We are talking about two difference kinds of connatural knowledge:
Poetic experience is busy with the created world and the enigmatic and innumerable relations of existents with one another, not with the Principle of Being. In itself it has nothing to do either with the void of an intellectual concentration working against the grain of nature or with the union of charity with the subsisting Love.
Maritain, 18. And yet, poetic knowledge is not a mutually exclusive knowledge. It need not elbow out mystical knowledge. Indeed, both poetic knowledge and mystical knowledge tend to appear together, and act in a mutually cooperative way. The poetry of St. John of the Cross or the hymns of Lactantius or Jacopone da Todi, or, more secularly, the poetry of Czesław Miłosz, come readily to mind as examples of this. In some cases we have a blended union of poetic, mystical, and conceptual knowledge mixed together in a beautiful synthesis--the hymns and prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas might be cited as examples of this.

Poets, of course, ascribe great value to their experience and their unique type of knowledge. And properly so. Yet in some cases, poets have virtually idolized this form of knowledge as the only true form of knowledge. Whereas, for example, Kant overemphasized conceptual reason, "pure" reason to the detriment of other forms of connatural knowledge, someone like Shelley, overemphasized poetic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. Poetry is but one of the divinities in the Pantheon of human knowledge, it is not the one God, nor is it the revealed word of that God. But this was not the view of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, in his famous essay, "A Defence of Poetry," puts upon the poet and his poetry, too much of a burden. He absolutizes poetry and the poetic experience:

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.

Pace Shelley, poets are not prophets or priests nor are they legislators. There may be prophets that are poets, and poets that are prophets. There may be priests that are poets, and poets that are priests. There may be legislators that are poets, and poets that are legislators. But the offices are different, and they ought not be confused, though often, when blended and rightly synthesized, provide marvelous instances of harmony and a remarkable beauty of expression. A poet can take us to heaven, but he can also lead us--one may cite Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal--to hell.

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