“What is truth?” Pilate had retorted, with no real intention of waiting for a response from the Messiah himself. “I find no guilt in him,” he announced, stentorian in his judgement and opaque in his intent, wiping his hands clean from a situation that threatened to destabilise the very fabric of the society he had been expected to regulate lawfully. Yet the question lingered and continues to linger today. What exactly is truth and how does one come to define it?
Often, people cite ‘science’ as being the source of ‘truth’. Science is an effective tool at uncovering and utilising what already exists but is sheathed in uncertainty, inquisition and vicissitude. Therefore, the scientific method provides a means to an end that is only as truthful as the theory that disproves a former theory of truth.
This segues into the idea of a theory of truth, which in itself is oxymoronic, for a theory cannot technically be true qua truth. So how then can one define truth as is completely and objectively?
This leads us to further questions about the objectivity of truth and how it can be verified. Can the criteria by which we define truth be considered objective? Or are they purely relative to the prevailing intellectual thought that, in itself, is subjective to the determinant social, cultural and technological norms specific to a certain locale or era.
To draw from Emmanuel Kant, it would seem that given the inherent fallibility of the human mind that renders each one of us uniquely susceptible to finite understanding and individuality, the closest we can possibly get to objective truth is ‘intersubjective’ truth; a general consensus due to similar circumstances of social conditioning. This therefore provides the nucleation of ‘conceptual relativism’ which posits that being shaped by a certain ‘language’ – of which pertains not just to the language of communication, but also the language of culture and its pervasiveness in the human conscience – would mean interpreting the world in a certain, subjective way. Therefore, being shaped by another ‘language’ would result in the interpretation of the world through another lens of subjectivity, labelled ‘objective’ by all those subscribed to said ‘language’.
Consequently, if inclined to such radical thinking, it would seem to suggest that there exists no real sense of objective truth in the world. Sartre’s dissertations on existentialism would have us believe so. He claimed that in a world unrestrained by objective, immutable and eternal truths, the onus was on us, its inhabitants, to create what is true to ourselves, thereby making ‘truth’ purely subjective. Sartre believed that without subjective truth, there could be no self-determination.
How does one represent truth in poetry then?
Plato had a number of concerns regarding the integrity and utility of a poet and the morality of poetry as an art-form itself. In his dialectic Ion, Plato describes a discussion between Socrates and the titular Ion, an award winning rhapsody of Homer’s epic poetry. Ion claims that Homer’s poetry is superior to all other poetry and that he is the only person who can properly incite the intended emotional response from a crowd due to his perfect understanding of the source material and his nonpareil method of reciting it. Socrates, ever the cynic, goes about deconstructing each of Ion’s assertions, bringing them into question.
Ion claims that he is a first-rate explicator of Homer’s works and that the works of any other poet, no matter how great, only pale in comparison. Socrates postulates that if Ion truly is an exegete of Homer, he must therefore be able to perfectly explain what the poet meant. Throughout his poetry, Homer describes many subjects that are concerned with specific provinces of specialisation, such as the art of war or the leading of nations. Homer, not being an expert in many of the fields he writes about, cannot verifiably lay claims to such specific fields of knowledge. Therefore, Ion’s claims are unfounded in that there is no way he is able to define as to how Homer was a superior poet to other greats, such as Hesiod, who themselves spoke of similar matters of esoteric knowledge. Hence, Ion, however earnest the encomiast, cannot claim to know precisely what Homer intended in his works, for Homer himself was in no position to provide honest information. What results, then, is a facilitation of a lie that is easily consumed by the masses with the intention of seeking applause and validation. Socrates sees this as an obfuscation of truth and one that appeals only to the baser nature of better men who look to indulge in the extravagances of entertainment rather than moral duties (such as, in typical Socratic lore, the intellectual pursuit of philosophy).
Plato extends upon this critique in Book X of The Republic where Socrates accuses poetry to be works of mimesis over truth. He indicts poets for misrepresenting the true nature of subjects about which they write and delivers a scathing critique, claiming that their works are so far removed from the truth that they morally impose upon the fabric of society. To demonstrate this, Socrates asks us to think of beds and tables. He postulates that there are ‘Forms’ (or ‘Ideas’) of these beds and tables that represent their true nature. These Forms are created by the Divine, therefore the carpenters who build these beds and tables work upon Divine inspiration, as though witnessing these Forms as blueprints which provide them with the knowledge to construct them. This, however, is but an imitation of the ‘truth’, as the Forms are manifests of the Divine, and therefore, cannot be reproduced in earnest by humans. Socrates then moves on to the ‘artist’, which, for the sake of our argument, we’ll consider to be a poet. The poet thereby creates ‘images’ of these beds and tables in their poetry, which are themselves imitations of Forms. Poetry, therefore, becomes a somewhat bastardised version of the Form, twice removed from the source; an abetment of the mimesis of truth at a third generation from its nature.
Thus, Socrates concludes that the poet is an ambassador of the misrepresentation of truth which makes them potentially dangerous for society. Considering Plato’s era, the poet was seen as a primary means of social conditioning; they not only provided entertainment, but also a source of learning. Their words appealed to the masses and both the aristocracy and the hoi polloi were consumed by their allure. Socrates believed that the people were being fed information that in itself was a fabrication of truth which only appealed to the baser notions of the soul. Consequently, he felt that it needed to be heavily censored and to only focus on good will and overall positivity. In some ways, one can liken his thoughts on poetry to the role of the media today.
Plato’s prodigal student Aristotle differed in opinion from his teacher. He agreed that although poetry was a representation of the truth, it was not inherently false in nature. Plato suggested a method of education that did away with the arts, poetry included, for they were misrepresentations of the truth. Aristotle however believed that learning was acquired through a world of representations. Plato believed that representational poetry sought only to incite harmful pleasure from its audience. Aristotle argued that representational poetry was pleasurable and ‘cleansing’ and therefore beneficial for the common man. He further stated that representations of harm and negativity through the arts would only serve to educate people in a controlled and creative space without fear.
Aristotle went at lengths to explain the importance of poetry to contest Plato’s position that it was nothing more than merely a device to pander to the whims of an audience. Plato believed that the greatest of all intellectual pursuits was philosophy and that pursuing representational poetry was moot. Aristotle drew comparisons between poetry and other schools of thought, such as history, the latter being an investigation into things that have already occurred, whereas the former relates to things that may happen. Poetry, therefore, is the more ‘philosophical’ of the two in that it involves probability and necessity, thus broadening its scope for all. His argument for poetry went further, for he recognised the opportunity for ‘katharsis’, not just for the writer, but even the reciter and the audience. Aristotle was of the belief that such mutual catharsis could result in the moral, intellectual and spiritual enlightening of all those involved, and thus, poetry was seen as an authority in ‘emotional liberation’ rather than ‘emotional weakening’ as Plato had described.
But did Aristotle believe that truth could be represented through poetry? As with Plato, he was also of the belief that poetry was the output of a sequence of representations, but he did not consider that a bad thing per se. By highlighting the mass appeal and wide scope for poetry, Aristotle touched on a significant point about truth. In order for something to appeal to the collective, it has to be captivating on a subjective level so as to, drawing upon Sartre, be truthful to all.
These sentiments were echoed by William Wordsworth, the great English poet who inspired the Romantics, who believed that poetry was an expression of truth qua the writer’s emotional state.
He determines a good poet, in the capacity of being an artist, has inherent creative ability, and in the capacity of being human, has the innate ability to experience emotions from their own mind. Armed with these two instinctive characteristics, the poem that originates from the poet’s mind is not an imitation of reality, but is a reality unto itself.
Wordsworth expounds upon his proposition, stating that a good poet becomes overwhelmed by feeling that manifests into poetry. The emotion that surrounds the poetry originates from the poet’s own mind, thereby appertaining to their subjective reality; no room for mimesis, as the source of inspiration is the reality itself. This reality is how, according to Wordsworth, poetry is able to capture the fundamental laws of our emotional nature. It is truth inchoate, raw and earnest. Those who listen to the poetry and are moved by it may experience something that is an imitation of this reality, but how they perceive it may have something to do with, to recall Kant’s radical line of thought, what ‘language’ they have been conditioned upon.
However, what they draw from the expression of truth from the poet is their own perception of the truth, which in itself cannot be falsified, for it is theirs and no one else’s. Consequently, we have a rendition of truth that is perpetuated by a sense of solipsism that may be informed by an objective consensus of intersubjective perceptions conditioned upon a certain ‘language’ that represents an abstruse ‘conceptual relativism’.
Which basically means that, in the end, the truth is present in poetry because it simply comes down to how you understand it. A good poem from a talented poet will elicit a response from a reader which originates from how they absorbed it. That, ultimately, is how truth is represented in poetry. It may be different from person to person, but alas, in the end, it is how one perceives it that matters. We can indulge in the endless badinage of intellectuals who continue to debate over what is true and what is not. Though essentially, it means naught. If poetry makes you feel something, then it’s real and true to you and to the poet themselves. If not, then perhaps the poem just wasn’t all that good in the first place.