Sheer Poetry


The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous.
– St Thomas Aquinas

WHEN THIS QUOTE Surfaced in my Twitter timeline this morning, there was first an urgent recourse to Google. The reader is strongly advised to Google any random quotation: so many float around and around with no citation and no original source. Did you know that St Francis ever said nor wrote that bit about “use words if necessary”? Really. There is no source at all – except the internet. Google everything. Anyway… there was recourse to Google. This one is authentic. It comes from St Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 1, Lesson 3. For a better context:

Further, he points out that perplexity and wonder arise from ignorance. For when we see certain obvious effects whose cause we do not know, we wonder about their cause. And since wonder was the motive which led men to philosophy, it is evident that the philosopher is, in a sense, a philo-myth, i.e., a lover of myth, as is characteristic of the poets. Hence the first men to deal with the principles of things in a mythical way, such as Perseus and certain others who were the seven sages, were called the theologizing poets. Now the reason why the philosopher is compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonders.

Note that there is “concerned with wonders” instead of “the marvelous”. That seems to be a translation into English done by whoever translated Josef Pieper’s On Leisure into English. I don’t have the book handy, just this context from Wikiquote:

And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics [I, 3]: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation towards the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work!) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return
– Pieper, J. (2015). Leisure: The Basis of Culture. United Kingdom: Ignatius Press.
(The translation itself is from 1963. I don’t own the book, so I’m not sure, but it’s possible the second half of the book, The Philosophical Act, is a different text? This Aquinas quote with “wondrous” is also the Epigram for the Philosophical Act.)

Update, my friend R. indicates The Philosophical Act “Was Heißt Philosophieren?” was a series of lectures delivered around the time he wrote Leisure, so they’ve been published together in English (as Pieper recommended).

Pieper says it’s not easy to fathom why poets come in here. Your host does not fancy himself a philosopher, but would love to be tagged with St Thomas’ phrase, “theologizing poet” and he has heard at least one philosopher divide between theology and philosophy. Perhaps Aquinas turned a corner here where Pieper was out of his ken.

So, venturing into Theology, let’s turn a corner ourselves to the Epistle of St James. In 1:22, James invites his readers to “be doers of the word, not hearers only”.

First, there’s Word, λόγος Logos. Logos here is the same word as is used in John 1: “The Word”. It’s the mind, the thought/plan/pattern behind everything. It’s the Wisdom of God active in the world and in each thing in the world. Every thing in the world has its own logos, it’s own participation in God’s wisdom. Contemplating the logoi (plural) in God’s creation eventually brings us to contemplation of The Logos, that is, Jesus himself.

Then, consider Doer which here does not mean “someone who hears the gospel and responds with actions”. It’s a verb serving as a noun. It conveys the same difference as between, “you love me” and “you are my lover”. This is important because the word, in Greek, is ποιητής poietas, a maker or a poet. In today’s internet lingo we would say “creator”.

St James’ whole phrase, in Greek, is Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου ginesthe de poietai logou: Become poets of the Logos.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: poets are not always the Good Guys in philosophy. St Thomas must have known that Plato had banished almost all poets from the Republic. The reason being that poets tell mythological lies – think Homer, here. Poets that teach virtue can stay, though. These poets ov virtue are, perhaps, the ones to which Aquinas is comparing philosophers. But, of course, Aquinas is also a theologian. Thomas knows that poets of virtue are welcomed in the Heavenly Kingdom, but he does not know Greek so he doesn’t know about “poets of the Logos”. Yet, not only can we see the philosophers of the past and present as poets of virtue – dealing in the wondrous – we can also see them now as poets of the Logos as well. Yet there’s more here: for St James calls us all to do that. This poetic action is the vocation of all Christians! In fact, to not do so is to have failed to live the faith fully.

This means the Philosophical Act of Poetry is part of our Christian Action in the world: we are called to mark out the threads of Christian Poetry from the past (as I mentioned in my post yesterday) but also to weave those threads of wonder into the on-going tapestry of time today and going forward. We are creating soul for the world. We are not permitted to escape this duty. It is the real evangelism: to make the good news incarnate around us.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

From a letter to Diognetus

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.