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On the Superiority of Poetry to Philosophy and History

Sorry–this one is kind of long, but is well worth the read.

‘….So that the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous
action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that have a most
just title to be princes over all the rest; wherein, if we can show
it rightly, the poet is worthy to have it before any other
competitors. {26}

Among {27} whom principally to challenge it, step forth the moral
philosophers; whom, methinks, I see coming toward me with a sullen
gravity (as though they could not abide vice by daylight), rudely
clothed, for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things,
with books in their hands against glory, whereto they set their
names; sophistically speaking against subtlety, and angry with any
man in whom they see the foul fault of anger. These men, casting
largesses as they go, of definitions, divisions, and distinctions,
with a scornful interrogative do soberly ask: Whether it be
possible to find any path so ready to lead a man to virtue, as that
which teacheth what virtue is; and teacheth it not only by
delivering forth his very being, his causes and effects; but also by
making known his enemy, vice, which must be destroyed; and his
cumbersome servant, passion, which must be mastered, by showing the
generalities that contain it, and the specialities that are derived
from it; lastly, by plain setting down how it extends itself out of
the limits of a man’s own little world, to the government of
families, and maintaining of public societies?

The historian {28} scarcely gives leisure to the moralist to say so
much, but that he (laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing
{29} himself, for the most part, upon other histories, whose
greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of
hearsay, having much ado to accord differing writers, and to pick
truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago
than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world
goes than how his own wit runs; curious for antiquities, and
inquisitive of novelties, a wonder to young folks, and a tyrant in
table-talk) denieth, in a great chafe, that any man for teaching of
virtue and virtuous actions, is comparable to him. I am “Testis
temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuncia
vetustatis.” {30} 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 honourable
face in the battles of Marathon, Pharsalia, Poictiers, and
Agincourt: he teacheth virtue by certain abstract considerations;
but I only bid you follow the footing of them that have gone before
you: old-aged experience goeth beyond the fine-witted philosopher;
but I give the experience of many ages. Lastly, if he make the song
book, I put the learner’s hand to the lute; and if he be the guide,
I am the light. Then would he allege you innumerable examples,
confirming story by stories, how much the wisest senators and
princes have been directed by the credit of history, as Brutus,
Alphonsus of Aragon (and who not? if need be). At length, the long
line of their disputation makes a point in this, that the one giveth
the precept, and the other the example.

Now {31} whom shall we find, since the question standeth for the
highest form in the school of learning, to be moderator? Truly, as
me seemeth, the poet; and if not a moderator, even the man that
ought to carry the title from them both, and much more from all
other serving sciences. Therefore compare we the poet with the
historian, and with the moral philosopher; and if he go beyond them
both, no other human skill can match him; for as for the Divine,
with all reverence, he is ever to be excepted, not only for having
his scope as far beyond any of these, as eternity exceedeth a
moment, but even for passing each of these in themselves; and for
the lawyer, though “Jus” be the daughter of Justice, the chief of
virtues, yet because he seeks to make men good rather “formidine
poenae” than “virtutis amore,” or, to say righter, doth not
endeavour to make men good, but that their evil hurt not others,
having no care, so he be a good citizen, how bad a man he be:
therefore, as our wickedness maketh him necessary, and necessity
maketh him honourable, so is he not in the deepest truth to stand in
rank with these, who all endeavour to take naughtiness away, and
plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls. And
these four are all that any way deal in the consideration of men’s
manners, which being the supreme knowledge, they that best breed it
deserve the best commendation.

The philosopher, therefore, and the historian are they which would
win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both,
not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down
with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance, and so
misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him
shall wade in him until he be old, before he shall find sufficient
cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract
and general, that happy is that man who may understand him, and more
happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side the
historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be,
but to what is; to the particular truth of things, and not to the
general reason of things; that his example draweth no necessary
consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine.

Now {32} doth the peerless poet perform both; for whatsoever the
philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it,
by some one by whom he pre-supposeth it was done, so as he coupleth
the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture,
I say; for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that
whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which
doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul, so
much as that other doth. For as, in outward things, to a man that
had never seen an elephant, or a rhinoceros, who should tell him
most exquisitely all their shape, colour, bigness, and particular
marks? or of a gorgeous palace, an architect, who, declaring the
full beauties, might well make the hearer able to repeat, as it
were, by rote, all he had heard, yet should never satisfy his inward
conceit, with being witness to itself of a true living knowledge;
but the same man, as soon as he might see those beasts well painted,
or that house well in model, should straightway grow, without need
of any description, to a judicial comprehending of them; so, no
doubt, the philosopher, with his learned definitions, be it of
virtue or vices, matters of public policy or private government,
replenisheth the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom,
which, notwithstanding, lie dark before the imaginative and judging
power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking
picture of poesy.’

From Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy

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