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We, the Poets, Are Teachers of Men

 

We, the Poets, Are Teachers of Men 

What was the purpose of ancient theater? When architects carefully crafted a space for impeccable acoustics, optimal viewing angles, and exquisite beauty, they labored in the service of what? When actors crammed lines and rehearsed for hours, when costumes were sewn and fitted– what was it all for? 

The Greek dramatist Aristophanes would say education. In his comedy The Frogs,1 he, in the mouth of Aeschylus, explains the function of good poetry:  

Aye, such are the poet’s appropriate works: 

And just consider how all along 

From the very first they have wrought you good,  

The noble bards, the masters of song.  

First, Orpheus taught you religious rites, 

And from bloody murder to stay your hands: 

Musaeus healing and oracle lore; 

And Hesiod all the culture of lands, 

The time to gather, the time to plough. 

And gat not Homer his glory divine 

By singing of valor, and honor, and right,  

And the sheen of the battle-extended line, 

The ranging of troops and the arming of men? 

 

For boys a teacher at school is found, but we, the poets, are teachers of men.  

We are bound things honest and pure to speak.2  

“We, the poets, are teachers of men,” Aristophanes wrote, and the poets, he said, teach various things: religious rites, the culture of the lands, the arming of men. While not all poetry teaches every various skill to men, all poetry forms the imagination of that man. For the human imagination is not neutral ground. Edmund Burke called the imagination a wardrobe, and he bemoaned how French revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century had vandalized it. He wrote: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”3 The moral imagination is the furnished imagination, the one with the “superadded ideas” which raise us to dignity. But when we “rudely tear off” the drapery, humanity slumps into the idyllic imagination. As Russell Kirk put it: “[the idyllic imagination] rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.”4 The idyllic wardrobe is plain but still standing; however, the idyllic quickly crumbles to the diabolical, which tears down the wardrobe altogether, and “delights in the perverse and subhuman,” as T.S. Eliot wrote,5 for there is no reason for the wardrobe to stand anymore. “In the wardrobe,” wrote Ashlee Cowles, “hangs everything that separates humans from beasts– all the symbols and signs which assure us we are not animals only but spiritual beings…”6 In the wardrobe hangs culture. Uprooting culture uproots the knowledge of man’s spiritual nature, and he prowls around as the most bestial of beasts. Culture maintains the integrity of the wardrobe, and Aristophanes seemed to think his poetry belonged there. If we can understand the nature of his art, we can see how he was right.  

Aristophanes was a Greek dramatist, and drama is staged poetry. Poetry tells a story in music, and staged poetry puts the story and music on the tongues and lips and in the movements of humans; it is incarnate poetry. Thus we participate with the story and music, and we add this experience to the wardrobe. Happily, story and music are two of the most excellent furnishings. Story is the way we experience the synthesis of all reality, so to know reality, and thus morality, we must have a story. Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher, when asked how to improve society, said this: “Neither a revolution nor a reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future, so that we can take the next step… If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.”7 

 Stories also fill the wardrobe with other people, reminding us that we are the body of Christ,8 and places, reminding us that we are the temple of the Lord.9 Story commands much of how we think of God, ourselves, and the world.  

Just as powerful as story, is music, to which dramatists set their stories . Music is necessary for right interpretation of the story, which is why, since the Greeks understood this, the majority of a Greek play dwells on the Chorus singing the Odes to interpret the action.10 For as Christians we know that faith comes by hearing, and Paul names the Christians the kletos or “called ones.” The Shema does not begin with “See, O Israel,” but “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one.”11 Music captures the invisible things that sight, and sometimes even story, cannot.12 Music sets the atmosphere in the imagination; it answers the question: “What kind of place is this?”  

With story and music, both of which appeal primarily to the imagination, drama lavishly adorns the wardrobe with the “decent drapery of life.” So Aristophanes spoke truly: the poets are the teachers of men. But he also spoke truly about his kind of drama, Greek drama. Greek culture is pagan culture, but even paganism serves a moral imagination, for it offers a contrast between the two worlds. It clarifies just exactly where man fails without the grace of God, just exactly how man has fallen, and therefore, just exactly why the gospel is such good news. Paganism is a great signpost pointing to Christ, and after reading signpost after signpost, how satisfying it is to arrive at Christianity, throw down the bags, and be home. One might wonder how keenly Aristophanes realized his longing for that home. 

He at least expressed this home better than most, for, though not a Christian, he attested to the power of his art to nourish a moral imagination, which for us anno Domini, is a Christian imagination. And this highlights the true function of the imagination: aiding the ability to perceive God,13 anywhere and everywhere. And, having perceived Him, we adore Him. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that “every common bush is afire with God, but only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit around picking blackberries.”14 May we have the imagination to see that fire, and the perception to hear when it is God calling out to us.  

 Bibliography 

 Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Aurora Leigh.” The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, edited by D.H.S. Nicholson, and A.H.E. Lee. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917; Bartleby.com, 2000.  

 Baumgaertel, Jim. “Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich.” Proclamation, Invitation & Warning. December 13, 2018, https://procinwarn.com/counterfeit/storytelling-myth-frank-viola-ivan-illich/ 

 Cowles, Ashley. “What Is Imagination? Part 3.” Rabbit Room Press, August 10, 2016, https://rabbitroom.com/2016/08/what-is-imagination-33/  

 Callihan, Wes. “Lesson 1: Background: The Development of Theater.” Roman Roads Media, video lecture, 23:27.  

 Eldredge, John; Curtis, Brent. The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God. United States: Thomas Nelson, 2001.  

 Lewis, Clive Staples. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. 

 Prinzi, Travis. “The Moral Imagination, Part 3: Competing Desires.” Rabbit Room Press, April 27, 2009, https://rabbitroom.com/2009/04/the-moral-imagination-part-3-competing-desires/  

 Roman Roads Press.  Drama and Lyric: Old Western Culture Reader, Volume 2. Moscow, ID: Roman Roads Media, LLC, 2020. 

 Turley, Stephen R. Echoes of Eternity: A Classical Guide to Music. Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2018. 

 

 

1. Roman Roads Press, “The Frogs” in Drama and Lyric: Old Western Culture Reader, Volume 2 (Moscow, ID: Roman Roads Media, LLC, 2020), 484-579.

2. Roman Roads Press, Drama and Lyric, 551.

3. Ashlee Cowles, “What Is Imagination? Part 3,” Rabbit Room Press, August 10, 2016, https://rabbitroom.com/2016/08/what-is-imagination-33/

4. Travis Prinzi, “The Moral Imagination, Part 3: Competing Desires,” Rabbit Room Press, April 27, 2009, https://rabbitroom.com/2009/04/the-moral-imagination-part-3-competing-desires/

5. Prinzi, “The Moral Imagination.”

6. Cowles, “What Is Imagination?”

7. Jim Baumgaertel, “Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich,” Proclamation, Invitation & Warning, December 13, 2018, https://procinwarn.com/counterfeit/storytelling-myth-frank-viola-ivan-illich/

8. 1 Cor. 12:27 (New International Version)

9. 1 Cor. 6:19 (NIV)

10. Wes Callihan, “Lesson 1: Background: The Development of Theater,” Roman Roads Media, video lecture, 23:27.

11. Deut. 6:4 (NIV)

12. Stephen R. Turley, Echoes of Eternity: A Classical Guide to Music, (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2018).

13. Romans 12:2 (English Standard Version)

14. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Aurora Leigh,” The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, edited by D.H.S. Nicholson, and A.H.E. Lee, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917; Bartleby.com, 2000).

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