Ethics and Poetry / Joshua Alan Sturgill
“In all periods of human history, ethics is related to a vision of reality.”—Hossein Nasr.
I’m currently working retail at an excellent bookstore, which gives me an opportunity to overhear excellent conversations on literacy, politics, world events. Rarely, though, do I hear conversations about ethics. Of course, one group will complain about the behavior of another. But it’s rare to hear people who agree on a behavior discuss why they agree and whether what they believe stands up to serious critique.
What I have found is that ethical expectations generally come from unexamined (therefore poorly articulated and perhaps faulty) ideas about the meaning of human life in the context of the Real. So one of the functions of the poet is to go and fetch Reality—to look out at the dark or light or rainbow of givenness and report on what is there. A true poet—any good artist—is as much a journalist as a craftsman. But the poet does this work not from duty, but out of a holy compulsion. The result should be that poets and readers of poetry are confronted with what was once beyond their vision, and adjust their lives accordingly.
Easy to consider in this regard, because we hear of it every day, is the opposition between political parties. This may be the best example I know of ethics-without-examination. Each side assumes the other to be “obviously” wrong. It’s more common to hear one party’s critiques of another—loud, triumphal—than to hear a party seriously consider its own position. How can we even really be sure that Democrats and Republicans are all that different at heart, since rarely will either side engage in and disclose its self-examination?
Perhaps a humorous example, since politics dissolves so quickly into chaos. What if we were to discover that, at heart, “cat people” and “dog people” were nearly identical in worldview? Not because cats and dogs are the same, but because the two groups’ understanding of the meaning or purpose of cats and dogs is the same. We could take a statement by the “cat people” and simply negate its points or replace the word “cat” with “dog” and come up with a perfectly plausible statement in support of dogs.
We have done no serious philosophical work. We have failed to understand, perhaps, that cats and dogs are simply not interchangeable, not co-equivalent, not inversions. Cats and dogs may be ontologically distinct.
The poet’s work, then, is to quietly shed light on the meaning of cats and dogs. To get metaphysical: the poet must delve into the Form of Cat and the Form of Dog, without losing touch with fur and food and affection. This revealing may be direct or indirect. But it must be sincere.
The artist or poet has a very difficult work ahead. There are no audiences anymore for poetry because no one wants to see physics joined to metaphysics, ethics joined to reality. In fact, no one believes there is such a thing as metaphysics—which is precisely the study of Form, meaning and purpose, from which ethics, conduct, and choice should come.
Homer understood metaphysics. Homer, physically blind, nevertheless had one eye on Olympus and one eye on the deep past. He was watching the battle at Troy unfold. He was able to speak poetic truth—and his audience, hungry for truth, chose and debated and adjusted its ethics accordingly. They needed no distinction between poetry and reality, because one was a door to the other.