Monday, September 20, 2004

Week 05, Augustine et al., Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney Notes

Intro: S is fighting Gosson’s “School of Abuse,” which this comic playwright had ironically dedicated to him. Gosson makes the usual arguments that drama is licentious, and says that theaters incubate and cover all sorts of immorality on the audience’s part.

Behind S’s argument are Christian Psychology and Humanist educational doctrine. Let’s discuss psychology in looking over the text, but here’s a brief account of humanist education: Sidney borrows from Horace’s dictum that poetry should teach and delight. Similarly, Sidney says that poetry teaches us by pleasing us. What, then, does a Renaissance humanist mean by education? The term means “full development of all one’s faculties, with human perfection as the goal.”

The point is not simply to memorize content; it is to develop a person’s potential. E-ducere means “a leading forth,” and the aim is a well-rounded and virtuous individual. Keep in mind that virtus connotes power, force, strength (cf. virtú). Education should develop a person’s moral and intellectual powers so that he can act in the world. As Sydney puts it, “well doing” is the goal of all learning. We learn for the sake of doing. This practical goal contrasts with the heavier touch of scholastic erudition.

Classical and Medieval Liberal Arts: Trivium = grammar, rhetoric, logic; Quadrivium = arithmetic (#), geometry (# in space), music (# in time), astronomy (# in space and time). In scholasticism, which combines philosophy/ theology, goal is scientia, wisdom, or science in liberal sense. (Opposing this = practical learning that we get from servile arts.)

Renaissance humanists are impatient with their church-bound medieval counterparts; their own encounter with the ancients, combined with changes in economics, environment, and the emergence of national cultures and languages, makes them prefer the Roman emphasis on the language arts as vital to civic culture. Therefore, poetry, despite many arguments about its relation to rhetoric or the art of persuasion, is an important branch of the language arts. Cicero himself had said poetry should be part of a young person’s studies.

Exordium: Pugliano praises his own horse; Sidney backs Pegasus, Muse of Poetry. S pretends he’s just illustrating point that everybody thinks his own job’s best. This is typical of S’s “sprezzatura” style: easy-seeming grace, even carelessness. That’s best way to fight boorish Gosson. Sidney is not trying to be overly erudite -- his sprezzatura-style argument reflects the passionate workings of the poetry and drama that he is defending against Puritan moralists who see it as dangerous and connect it with the behavior of a licentious audience.

330-31/936. S follows Aristotle on imitation, with nature as the source. But while other disciplines are limited by their subject matter and must work with what already is, for better or for worse, the poet’s intellect escapes such narrow ties. The poet conjures for us our Golden-World beginnings; he is the “Wizard of Ought.”

This emphasis on the poet’s creative power is pre-romantic: S is not saying that the poet’s mind takes on godlike powers to create an independent reality. Rather, he’s using faculty psychology to argue that the poet’s wit, has a freer range than other people’s, and so the poet can go beyond imitating nature. And by “wit” he refers mainly to the imagination, fantasy, and memory. Those are three of the inner wits, and their function is to process and recall sensory data. (Other two are judgment and sensus communis.) This is a much more mechanical and passive idea about imagination than we will find in romantic poetics, where the mind is more original and creative than combinatory and receptive.

331/937. S also follows Aristotle in saying that poetry gives access to universal patterns: the poet makes not a particular Cyrus but a universal Cyrus, a “speaking picture” of a virtuous king. The poet grasps the principle by which nature made the original Cyrus, so he can complete Nature’s work by recognizing the eternal Form immanent in that material Cyrus, giving us a pattern of moral conduct to imitate. S says that our faculties encompass nature’s workings, and the poet’s work therefore honors God the first “maker” of the original Cyrus.

331/937. Erected Wit/Infected Will. Here is the faculty psychology behind S’s defense. The point is simple: when humankind fell, the will, appetite, and reason went out of sync, so that we are constantly being pulled away from virtuous conduct due to our lowest appetites. In order for virtuous behavior to reign, our will must be properly aligned with God’s plan for us. Since unfortunately we are usually “misaligned” in these latter days, we need pleasing patterns to realign our will so that it can let reason work as it should, and action happen as it ought.

331-32/938-39. The three kinds of poet: David, philosophical poets such as Lucretius, and poets who “imitate” only “what may be and should be.” These latter are the ones we need today. S says that what constitutes a poet is moral purpose -- the poet imitates in order to deliver universal moral lessons. Verse form helps us remember poetry, enhancing its effect. S begins making distinctions between the poet the philosopher and historian by reminding us of this moral purpose: “the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” And he further describes the body as a dungeon imprisoning the mind. In sum, a medium that appeals to the senses leads us beyond the senses; this is in accordance with what we said about Augustine and Aquinas.

334-40/940-43. Only the poet teaches in a sufficiently concrete and delightful manner; historians remain tied to things as they really happen in an unjust world, imitating a corrupt world’s ways may further corrupt us. Philosophers teach only in abstractly, and cannot move us to virtuous action. Poetry moves us to learn, and to behave well, we will put our learning to good use. Poetry mediates between abstraction and materiality, sense and understanding; it is medicine for the fallen, taking us back to first principles and possibilities, causal patterns.

348-49. The charges laid at poetry’s door: 1) there are better uses of time; 2) poets lie; 3) poetry is morally corruptive; 4) Plato banished poets. As for 2, the poet “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Besides, people don’t take what they see on a stage or read in a fable as literally true. We know how to keep our distance from make-believe and yet take it seriously enough to profit by it morally, while truth-narratives like history may mislead us. S may recognize here what Aristotle doesn’t in Poetics: history requires invention and “emplotment.” Poetry, at least, doesn’t make false promises or bogus systems of abstraction. It mediates between sense and spirit for fallen humanity.

350-51. On 3, any instrument can be dangerous if misused -- if it couldn’t hurt someone, it wouldn’t be worth much. So “man’s wit abuseth poetry.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

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