Philosophy and Poetry? (A call for comparanda)

(I have not forgotten that this is an “Indian Philosophy” blog, in case you are only reading the first sentence of this post…)

The question of how we “do philosophy” is central to Plato’s Protagoras, where two models are on offer. There is the “sophistic” model, where a teacher gives lectures on a given topic to a paying audience. The topic is usually (and in the case of the Protagoras) the interpretation of a poem. This model has two centers of authority: the poet, who is believed to have some wisdom and more importantly some cultural currency, and the sophist, who uses his own wisdom to explain and critique the poet before his students. The other model is the “dialectical” one, which Socrates favors, and which I don’t need to explain in depth here.

Plato’s Socrates always prefers to philosophize dialectically, and at one point says that philosophy can only really happen among serious guys—no women, no music, and none of the “extraneous voices” of poetry. But he says this after playing along with his opponent by offering a sensitive and careful reading of the poem that Protagoras had suggested for discussion (an ode of Simonides). Clearly Plato is a little ambivalent about the role of poetry in philosophy: Socrates’ interpretation is really pro forma, and he makes it clear that we can’t confine ourselves to the “wisdom of the poets” if we’re interested in philosophical questions, but at the same time, he ends up making a compelling philosophical point about the difference between “being good” and “becoming good” through his interpretation of Simonides.

There is a particular juncture between poetry and philosophy that the Protagoras critically discusses: the notion that poetry contains a kind of wisdom which we can systematically “open up” and expand when we interpret poetry in a philosophical context. The context is philosophical by virtue of its overarching goals—a sophist teaching his students about virtue, for example, or Plato composing a dialogue about how philosophy should be practiced. Do we have similar junctures in Indian philosophy? Are there cases in philosophical texts where a work of poetry is made to do some important philosophical work?

Nothing quite comes to mind—but there are many examples of different types of junctures between philosophy and poetry in Sanskrit texts, and I’ll list a few here, both to exclude them from my call for comparanda and to roughly sketch a typology of interactions between philosophy and poetry (which partly overlaps with older typologies of interactions between śāstra and kāvya):

  • Philosophical texts that are organized around the interpretation of a verse text, which is nevertheless not poetry. People who aren’t familiar with Indian literature are liable to confuse “verse” and “poetry,” whereas no Indian author that I know of ever considered the Sāṃkhyakārikās (for example) to be a work of poetry (kāvya).
  • Vedic citations, for instance those that appear in the Paspaśāhnika of Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya. These definitely contribute toward making a (arguably philosophical) case for the study of grammar, but again, Patañjali  wouldn’t have considered the Vedas to be poetry (kāvya). (I am willing to bend a little on this point.)
  • Poetic texts that are rich in philosophical content, which is however not systematically elaborated in a philosophical context. The commentaries to works of poetry sometimes elicit these philosophical meanings, but I am looking for a less “occasional” investigation, something more like Appayya Dīkṣita’s Rāmāyaṇatātparyasārasaṅgrahastotra.
  • I should also note, in connection with the last point, that I don’t consider works like the Bhagavadgītā or the Bhāgavatapurāṇa to be “poetry” for these purposes. They have certainly attracted lots of interpretive attention. But I am more interested in the philosophical exploitation of the “wisdom of poets” (to use David Shulman’s phrase) than in the elaboration of what is already taken for granted to be god’s own truth.
  • Works of poetry that are straightforwardly meant to represent or inculcate already-systematized philosophical ideals. This excludes (perhaps invidiously: I am also willing to bend on this point) most of the “didactic” literature of Buddhists and Jains.
  • Poetry does play a major role in philosophical aesthetics: think of Abhinavagupta’s citation of the verse, from the beginning of the Śākuntala, where the deer cranes its neck in fear (grīvābhaṅgābhirāmam…). But this is exactly what we would expect, since such verses are what philosophical aesthetics is supposed to account for.

Needless to say, if this does turn out to be a gap in the literature—and not just in my exposure to it—it is not a censurable gap, since there are many ways of doing philosophy, and we shouldn’t expect the same inventory of approaches in all traditions.

10 thoughts on “Philosophy and Poetry? (A call for comparanda)

  1. The last point you make – about Abhinava – of course applies to the rasa literature in general, does it not? See Jagannātha’s Rasagaṅgādhara, at once deeply involved with poetry and a philosophical treatise on the Advaitic interpretation of rasa. But, of course, it is not a poetic work per se.

    Perhaps Vedānta Deśika, as amply argued for by Hopkins in Singing the Body of God?

    Then, there is also the question of kāvya = poetry, and perhaps we should look at the category of ‘the poetic’ more widely. Just now I was talking to a PhD student about reading the Gītābhāṣyas in a theopoetic way, as perhaps we can see the Śrīvaiṣñava ācāryas as seeing the work of the āḻvārs.
    This is in part your point about inventories of approaches, but also to ask whether the categories in an inventory might not always be stable from one to another approach.

    • Ram, I completely agree with you. I have frequently referred to Venkatanatha’s example as to the case of a thinker who took seriously the fact that poetry and philosophy have different potentialities and tried to use both when he had the one or the other purpose in sight. The Alvars’ hymns are also an example of poetry which has been interpreted as conveying deeper truths. The Vedantic concepts of acintya, anirvacaniya etc. have frequently been described as going beyond human intellects. This is the reason why, I believe, poetry was needed to convey their depth.

      Furthermore, Andrew, how would you interpret cases such as Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Paratrimsika? It seems to me as a case in which Abhinavagupta consciously refers to the multiple meanings possible in poetry (i.e., the 16 meanings of uttara in anuttara).

  2. I second Ram’s suggestion that we should to call into question the use of “poetry” as a synonym for “kāvya.” I would argue that the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā is poetry, if we define poetry as something like “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” But it the Bhagavad Gītā is not kāvya. Ergo, while it may be the case that all kāvya is poetry, not all poetry is kāvya.

    Dandin divides kāvya into three: padya (verse), gadya (prose), and miśra (mixed). As you rightly point out, not all that is written in verse is kāvya. And he classifies some prose as kāvya. I suppose Rāmānuja, who wrote the Śaraṇāgatigadya, is a “philosophical/theological prose poet.” It is when we try to find western equivalents for these categories that problems arise.

    In English too we have the category of “prose poetry.” But can we think of something written in verse in a western language that is NOT classified as poetry? (For this thought experiment, bad poetry still counts as poetry.)

    • I take both of your points: I was taking for granted (or rather bracketing) the equivalence between “poetry” and kāvya. Still, the case I was thinking of is a philosopher specifically invoking “Kālidāsa and similar texts” (i.e., kāvya) rather than “the Gītā and similar texts” (i.e., itihāsa, purāṇa, whatever) in order to make a philosophical point—outside of the “rasa literature” (which I meant to include under “philosophical aesthetics”) where we would of course expect it.

  3. Very interesting post.
    I think Hesiodos is a poet in so far as he was inspired by the muses. The same applies to Parmenides and his “Poem”. It is clear that his work is a poem, not philosophy. It’s a philosophical poem – and there’s no problem with that, apparently (I quote from

    “The steeds that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart
    Desired, since they brought me and set me on the renowned
    Way of the goddess, who with her own hands conducts the man
    who knows through all things. On what way was I borne
    along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car,
    and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket –
    for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each
    end – gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the
    Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils
    from off their faces and left the abode of Night.”

    The myths of the Platonic Socrates are also in the fringe of poetry – they are not logos, at least.
    I would also say that the Gita is also a philosophical poem.
    The relationship between religion and poetry in Greece is also very important, I think.

  4. Pingback: Philosophy’s crudity and Narrative’s epistemological value | elisa freschi

  5. I have been gnawing at what seems to be a long standing misinterpretation of Protagoras’s most quote aphorism. To me it seems very clear that the “relativism” commonly attributed to him is both incongruent with Democritus, his primary teacher and with the “All” presumed within Vedic/Tantric philosophies. The tacit assumption is that the Ionians were somehow walled off from any familiarity of the cultures just east of the nominal Persian Empire. A tacit sort of imperialism/presumption of West versus East despite the Silk Road commerce. Parmenides’s material is likewise “re-framed” or transposed.

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