Toward the end of Horace’s treatise Ars Poetica, the author dips into the myths surrounding the origins of poetry to sprinkle his subject with magic. “While men still roamed the forests, they were restrained from bloodshed and a bestial way of life by Orpheus, the sacred prophet and interpreter of the gods – that is why he is said to have tamed tigers and savage lions. Amphion too, the founder of Thebes, is credited with having lifted stones by the strains of his lyre and moved them where he would with his sweet blandishment.” 1
This passage presents the reader with a marvelous vision; a player, by the beauty of his art, guides stones into place. The walls he builds create a safe space for national life and civic discourse. This image of the poet as the creator of cities evokes the classical understanding of the role of literary art in society.
It was a conception that already had a long history before the author of the Odes took up his stylus. Plato, fearing the raw emotional power of verse, famously banished all poets from his ideal city except those who might improve the morals of its citizens. His pupil Aristotle stressed the importance of moral character in tragedy.
For the writers of antiquity, then, literary art played a role in the formation of ethical citizens. The pleasure we derive from imitation and imagination could be turned to a useful purpose by presenting images of right conduct to follow. Poetry created a culture in which human beings could more easily pursue virtue, and a virtuous community could strengthen the state. Amphion’s lyre truly built the walls, not only of the Thebes, but of Athens and Rome as well.
In his treatise, Horace states that, “poets aim either to benefit or to please, or to combine the giving of pleasure with some useful precepts for life.” He continues, “This once was wisdom: to distinguish between public and private things, between sacred and profane, to build towns, and to inscribe laws on tablets of wood. For this reason, honor and fame were heaped upon the bards, as divinely inspired beings.” 2
Although the idea of bards as divinely inspired beings may have a romantic feel to us today, classical antiquity knew nothing of alienated poets scribbling their verses in drafty garrets by the light of guttering candles. For Horace and his contemporaries, the poet worked not in isolation but as an essential part of his community. Their role was to use delight to guide human beings toward the good. And as they shaped each reader, they helped create a culture with common values.
This conception of literary art as a force for good in society had a long run. The Fathers of the Christian Church adopted this view and promoted it. St. Basil writes in his treatise On the Right Use of Greek Literature, “Since we must needs attain to the life to come through virtue, our attention is to be chiefly fastened upon those many passages from the poets…in which virtue itself is praised.” And elsewhere in the same treatise, he says, “Just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also, those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls.” 3
As Europe moved into the medieval period, this understanding of the role of literature in society remained in ascendancy. Perhaps no poet has ever played upon Amphion’s lyre with greater skill than Dante. In the Florentine’s magnificent Commedia, each level of hell, each terrace of the purgatorial mountain, and each circle of heaven invites us both to delight and serious consideration of moral questions. Dante’s epic is cosmic in its scope, and the cosmos he portrays draws us to virtue.
Later, in the Renaissance, writers as diverse as Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sydney took this pedagogy of delight. Moreover, it was favored by a wide variety of humanists. For example, Milton clearly had moral intentions in the writing of Paradise Lost, and Sir John Harrington felt that poetry can “soften and polish the hard rough dispositions of men and make them capable of virtue and good discipline.” 4
For much of its history, then, Western Civilization promoted a common understanding of the role of the arts, and in particular, the role of literature in society. Poets, playwrights, and storytellers approached their craft not merely to give enjoyment but to better themselves and others. They sought to explore the human condition in all its aspects, including how we may best live.
In speaking of this theme, I do not wish to give the impression that the West has been the epitome of all the virtues. Unquestionably, the Europeans who plundered the New World had much to answer for in their genocidal conduct toward native peoples there and elsewhere. And one could indict the Western Civilization on many similar issues, from wars of aggression to the treatment of women. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is a benefit in this way of approaching literature. Books change a culture one reader at a time. Sometimes it only takes one person to take a stand against injustice and cruelty for others to follow.
Sadly, today, this vision of the arts has fallen on hard times. The walls of Thebes have crumbled, and Amphion’s Lyre lies discarded among the weeds. Critics, philosophers, and writers tell us that we have become too sophisticated for moral lessons clothed in words. Self-Expression and reportage have replaced the desire to build a city of the mind. Poets please themselves, and few dare pluck the strings and so project a world.
But perhaps at a time when the world is so interconnected that it is difficult to see Western Civilization in isolation, we may wish to return to this understanding. And in an era when nationalism is rising to threaten war and fascism may open before us again like a terrible flower to fascinate the gullible and subjugate the weak, perhaps more than ever, we need poets who will lead us to virtue with bright images of truth. We need an Amphion who will take up his lyre and build again the city walls.
- Horace, The Art of Poetry, Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Books p.109
- Horace, p.109
- St. Basil, the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, Public Domain, section IV, ff
- Defense of Poesy, Sidney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, Penguin Books p.239
Amphion’s Lyre, copyright 2021, Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.
Cover Art, The Ruined Wall on the Knott, by Tom Richardson, public domain
Additional Artwork: Amphion by Johann Ulrich Krauss, public domain