In the Phaedrus, Plato defines rhetoric as “the art of enchanting the soul.” I wonder if Edgar Allen Poe draws from this in his essay The Poetic Principle. There he writes, “I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.”
Poe, very clearly, argues that the poetic principle is the act of elevating the soul. But elevating it to what?
“Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.”
Poe suggests that the poem elevates the soul to “apprehend the supernal Loveliness.” He continues by noting that this is most fittingly accomplished through a persistent contemplation upon the Beautiful.
Plato, on the other hand, wishes to “enchant the soul” toward apprehending Truth.
I begin by asking as a teacher, “Why do I wish to lead my students’ souls towards apprehending Truth?” Apart from recognizing that the soul, by nature, desires Truth, I think that it is to propel the student toward right actions, toward virtue. I want to be careful by not suggesting that the singular purpose of education is training students to do the right things. I think that can easily slip into a rigid moralism.
The educator’s efforts must labor toward the cultivation of “living souls”. I am referring to the Hebraic conception of the nephesh, particularly how it is used in Genesis 2:7. A “living soul” is not simply an immaterial faculty of the human being, but the whole person.
When I mention leading the soul towards virtue, I am implying that the soul must first be rightly ordered so that the person may rightly act being governed by the wise and virtuous soul.
But, what carries the soul from seeing (apprehending Truth) to doing? Not only this, but in order for the soul to desire doing a thing, it must nourish a love for that particular end. We are fixed within a tension between what is and what ought to be, between what we are and what we know we ought, and even desire, to be. How do we bridge the expanse between these two realities? This is the task of education.
I believe this is answered when we turn to the imagination. The imagination carries one from what is to what ought to be. But, the imagination must first be infused with a love for the desired end. This love will empower (charge) the imagination, and help the imagination to keep its course.
How important it is to orient the student towards a healthy love for Truth, and to feed the imagination with the material it needs to reach such wise and virtuous ends.
“The height of the imaginative standard will do no harm. We are called to imitate one who is inimitable.”