In his short treatise How to Study Poetry , Plutarch (d. ca. 120) takes a somewhat cautious approach to the form. On the one hand, he commends poetry as providing an introduction to philosophy (in the ancient sense of a quest for wisdom to live a life that flourishes). On the other hand, he instructs the reader to begin with this principle in mind: the poets tell many lies, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not.
Unlike historical writing in which the historians imagination remains limited by events of the past (at least theoretically), poets aim to draw their readers into a narrative by the elaborate use of metaphor, metre, and other literary devices. One must view this as a kind of sorcery, according to Plutarch, especially when the poet profanes a virtue, turning it into a vice, or celebrates a vice thereby making it virtuous.
The promise and peril of poetry resides in its mimetic nature. As with other arts such as painting, poetry traffics in imitation. This act of mimesis is never a straightforward copy, which is why it must be subject to scrutiny. Like literary realism in the nineteenth century, mimesis in the classical world concerned more than mere imitation. It was about an imaginative reconstruction of life that attempted to distill its features and embody its moods. As the novelist Henry James puts it, the artist takes the faintest hints of life and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.
Plutarch gives the example of Timomachus depiction of Medea slaying her children as revenge for the betrayal of her husband Jason the Argonaut. What is to be commended in the rendition is not Medeas murdering her children, but how well the artist captured the act—-the form more so than its content. Yet, herein lies the rub. As a re-imagined portrayal, even the expressions on Medeas face can elicit sympathy or censure from the spectator.
As an ancient thinker, Plutarch knows those “diseases of the soul,” the passions, require therapy. He also recognizes the power of poetry and painting to shape the emotions and desires of the person (or to misshape them as the case may be). When poetry or painting celebrates base deeds in an act of mimesis, it elevates them and, in its own way, offers them up as enticing forms of life that the reader can drink in like a fine wine swirled around in the mouth until all of its flavor is absorbed. Unless, that is, the reader has the proper critical distance.
Such is the power of poetic art to shape emotions and desires (and so moral perspectives) that Plutarch suggests people who think real pigs are noisy and disgusting can through poetic form come to idealize them and conclude that in fact they are much maligned and misunderstood creatures. They are, as it were, the Chick-fil-A cows whose wit is only matched by their cute and slightly imperfect use of English.
It is precisely because of the power of art to shape the interior landscape of the human heart that ancient Christians both took it up and cautioned against it. The problem was not art per se, but failing to recognize the way in which art always conveys a vision that itself is part of a broader social imaginary, a background understanding to the world (see Charles Taylor). I tell my children over and over that they should not confuse what Disney presents to them on the screen with life. I warn them the way Plutarch warned his readers: the poets tell many lies.
In the postmodern landscape, we recognize all the more how artists seek to shape the interior life of persons. For example, in Quentin Tarantinos films violence becomes art to an extent that it elicits emotions and desires not normally associated with violent acts. It shapes the person. Whereas Augustine was concerned at the emotional upheavals produced in the theatre, we must remain alert to the way in which modern and postmodern art forms do the same.
Some Protestants like to talk about the noetic effects of sin, but these are really nothing more than the way in which emotion and desire shape thought. The warping of our moral beliefs stems from the warping of our emotions, our desires, our capacities to feel deeply about what is indeed important. C.S. Lewis certainly understood this point when he saw the abolition of humanity as the creation of men without chests. The first temptation, according to Gregory of Nyssa, was an appeal to the moral through the aesthetic, obscuring the beauty of true goodness in the half-light of lesser goods.
This is one reason why revivalist evangelicals, following the spiritual tradition, have emphasized (sometimes too much) the need for a dramatic encounter with transcendent love as the way of re-ordering human loves. To think right about poetry includes feeling right in the same way that to think right about ones fellow human beings flows from feeling right about them.
Mimesis for the Christian begins with the Spirits re-shaping of the person into the form of Christ. In this beauty, we see beauty. This ongoing conformity to the pattern of the age to come continues in and through the liturgical drama of worship, the Eucharistic celebration of the one eternal sacrifice, and the broader shape the church calendar gives to time itself. It is its own grand narrative that redeems time and calls creation back into the fundamental rhythms of triune life—-that eternally stable and immutable love that never ceases to move out from the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
These layers of tradition result from the Spirits own mimesis in the lives of the faithful. As Christians immerse themselves into this grand narrative, this economy of salvation, they encounter the Spirit again and again who shapes and forms them according to the Son so that they may return to the Father. Through being shaped by this narrative, which transcends all Christians be they theologians, bishops, or televangelists, not only do uniquely Christian poetic visions spring forth, but we begin to peer into the larger visions behind the poetic forms of others and so take to heart Plutarch’s admonition: “the poets tell many lies.”
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?