Krystale Rankin on Sir Philip Sidney's "The Defense of Poesy"

Published by admin_main on Wed 29 Sep, 2010

5. On 959-63, how does Sidney justify his assertion that poetry is superior to either philosophy or history? How does poetry better accord with Sidney's Renaissance definition of learning's purpose as action (960 middle), and in what ways do history and philosophy fail to do for us what poetry can? What relationship between pleasure and learning does the Christian author Sidney assert?

Sidney justifies his assertion that poetry is superior to both philosophy and history for numerous reasons. However, I must first point out that Sidney made it a point to show that history and philosophy are in competition with each other, while poetry is not in competition with either history or philosophy, but gives the best of both aspects that are present within history and philosophy.

Sidney quotes a historian on page 961 to show the tension between the historian and philosopher, "I am testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis." (Translated: I am the witness of times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger of antiquity.) "The philosopher," saith he, "teacheth a disputative virtue, but I do an active. His virtue is excellent in the dangerless Academy of Plato, but mine showeth forth her honorable face in the battles of Marathon, Pharsalia, Potiers, and Agincourt. He teacheth virtue by certain abstract considerations…"

This quote shows how both history and philosophy compete to convey the world but they convey two different aspects of the world. History can convey action-filled events of the world in a certain era. However, history cannot properly explain the mindset and values that occurred in the minds of the people at the time. This is because they are accounting for the events in history based on what they were taught and not what they had experienced. So they were unable to account for the mindset and values of the people. Philosophy opened a window into people's minds to see what values and principles brought them harmony but it was unable to recollect the actions that occurred in the world. Sidney shows poetry's strength and superiority over history and philosophy by saying it does not have either or characteristic but it combines the best characteristics of both history and philosophy.

Poetry is able to combine both the actions and values of the mind that had occurred. Poetry was able to display as the historian said, the "active" and was still capable of still showing the ideals of the philosopher, which is known as "the abstract values." Secondly, Sidney asserts that poetry is better than history because he says poetry exercises "patience and magnanimity", magnanimity meaning generosity of spirit or fairness, and that also includes moral goodness. He points out that historians "pick truth out of their partiality" on page 960. He asserts that poetry is more honest and superior to history because poetry consists of one writer, that one writer's truth, and morality. While history consists of multiple different interpretations and biased writers, so that the story varies by which side it is being told by, therefore, creating dishonesty and no moral good. Historians are to try and tell the truth of what happened based on facts, although they try to tell the truth, the event does not always reflect good morals judging on the outcome of the event. He also says a poet is better than a historian because a historian is "better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goeth than how his own wit runneth" on page 960. He claims that the poet is acquainted with the world he is presently in and taking notice of it while the historian knows the details of something that happened years ago and knows more about how the world works than his own inner moral values.

Thirdly, Sidney asserts that poetry is better than philosophy because philosophers have a condescending aura about them. He sees the philosopher "coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by daylight…and angry with any man in whom they see the foul fault of anger. … with a scornful interrogative" on page 960. Here, Sidney points out that that people either understand the philosopher's message or you are not as intelligent as the philosopher, however, with poetry there is a delight in the creative process and everyone can for everyone to understand the language, message, and prose without being scorned and subordinated to the poet and his work. Everybody can be entertained and left with a desire for virtue from poetry while with the philosopher; the message is left for only the philosopher to comprehend. Nobody else is able to connect with the message except the philosopher. Poetry is thus superior because it is a concept that is universal in morals and prose so that every person is able to learn, understand, and take part in poetry because they have no fear of being looked down upon.

Poetry better accords with Sidney's Renaissance definition of learning's purpose as action because poetry has an "earthly learning being virtuous action" as said on page 960. Sidney accords poetry as the better choice with the Renaissance definition by saying poetry has high virtue and has a wide capacity of learning to go forth with taking action. Basically, Sidney is saying the people who are learning poetry will take note of the good morals displayed in the poem and in the characters of the poem and apply the message that is moral and virtuous by taking action and doing good virtuous measures onto their own daily life. History and philosophy cannot be categorized in the Renaissance definition of learning's purpose because they are stuck in the "private end in themselves" as said on page 960. They do not use their knowledge or learning to help society or those around them, they do not use their knowledge for action, but to be "well-knowing" instead of "well-doing". Sidney believes that the poet is well aware of the affect poetry has on himself and others and is aware of the action. He considers ethic and political consideration in his writing while the other professions do not take this into consideration, their jobs do not serve purpose to teach others to take action or to serve a community but to educate themselves and not share with others. Poetry is able to share what they learn and observe with others while historians and philosophers are "scornful" and "a tyrant in table talk" and are only about self advancement. It should be, as said on page 962, "not gnosis but praxis" meaning not knowing, but doing.

History and philosophy fail to do certain things, according to Sidney, that poetry is apt in doing. They both cannot give the whole truth, they give partial, biased truth, they cannot give leisure to the moralist or act patiently and calmly towards those who are unknowing to the topic. They are unable to accept they are wrong and unable to be nice and noble. Most importantly, they cannot entice men to enter their world of knowledge because of their inability to make things easily understood. (These points are found on pages 960 to 961.) As said on page 962, about the poet "…is our poet the monarch. For he doth no only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it." The poet is sweet and endearing on his path in educating and teaching others about poetry and good moral that men are drawn to do the same profession as the poet, he makes a personal connection, which the historian and philosopher fail to do.

The relationship between pleasure and learning the Christian author, Sidney asserts is, highly important. He says that people must have a pleasure for the subject at hand to learn it. The reason for this is because it bring carefulness of the studies and the desire to get past the tediousness and difficult of the learning journey. He uses the difficult philosopher as an example from the passage on page 962. He says, "The philosopher showeth you the way, he informeth you of the particularities, as well of the tediousness of the way, as of the pleasant lodging you shall have when your journey is ended, as of the many by-turnings that may divert you from your way. But this is to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive studious painfulness, which constant desire whosoever hath in him, hath already passed half the hardness of the way, and therefore is beholding to the philosopher but for the other half. Nay truly, learned men have learnedly thought that where once reason hath so much overmastered passion a that the mind hath a free desire to do well, the inward light each mind hath in itself is as good as philosopher book.." I love that he uses the philosopher as an example to once set forth that the passion for poetry is not as bland and tedious as philosophy. He almost convinces the reader away from learning the way of the philosopher in that one section because it is gruesome and particular and you most likely will want to give up. Sidney is adamant that whatever you may want to learn there must be passion to learn about the subject, so the mind will have a desire to keep going. If there is a passion for the learning then there is pleasure and desire to learn the subject, thus, it is imperative to Sidney, to take pleasure and desire in what you may want to learn so within the long journey of the learning of the subject your mind will desire to keep pushing for more knowledge because your mind takes pleasure and passion in the subject.