It’s one thing to say, as a general principle of literary art, that a work must get within its judgments the conditions of those judgments. It’s another to say, as a general principle, something substantive as to the nature of those judgments, skirting as it does a remark on what the substance of all literature must be—but that is what I’ll try here, with the caveat that it is so general a statement as to provide no way of differentiating between one poem and another, one novel and another, or any such thing. It is instead a way of focusing thought, and clarifying it, on the distinct power that literature of merit would seem to possess.
The cat is already, as it were, out of the bag, for in writing “the nature of those judgments,” I’ve appealed to the word “nature,” that I would put rest my case upon: the conditions of judgments rest upon, quite broadly, a sense of what is natural, of what nature entails and includes. By “nature,” I do not mean a substance, but the concept itself, which does not need to consciously figure in judgments in order to be implied in them: a sense of what it is in the order of things for an entity to become or do. “Rain is wet” might be an example; or “tulips blossom in spring”—more controversially, one person might think it natural that “people forget the full intensity of pain,” or other truisms. It is not, in other words, a lofty concept.
In the sense I use it, it is, however, Aristotelian, though also, depending on how we read Plato, Platonic. I will rely on a reading of Aristotle’s De Anima by contemporary philosopher Sebastian Rödl from his recent (2018) long-essay/monograph, Self-Consciousness and Objectivity: An Introduction to Absolute Idealism. Rödl introduces Aristotle’s text in order to clarify what is meant by a “first power,” something that forms part of an explanation of action and thought, without itself being determined as the capacity to act or know; it is that which is in turn determined as the power to act well (ethics) or know truly. In this reading, human beings are possessed of first powers that are determined by a first act into second powers, which then permit specific acts of knowing that might fall under the category of “science” (knowing the true) or of “ethics” (knowing the good)—and possibly, we might think, of aesthetic (knowing the beautiful). This distinction of first poweràsecond power/first actà second act, as a whole, describes the original act of human judgment, which is described completely by the laws of logic (inference, non-contradiction, time as Sebastian Rödl argues it in his Categories of the Temporal), is itself always incomplete, always allowing further acts of knowing, themselves explained by the principles of science.
In contrast to this manifold characteristic of human life is that of “the animal,” a category known empirically but not necessarily equal to all creatures we would describe as animals. Here is Rödl:
Let us call a power, such as sight, that is not divided into first and second power a simple power. Then the point of marking the distinction of first from second power in this double way transpires when we consider whether a simple power corresponds to the first or second power. A power of sight like a second power to know in that it enables the animal possessing it to see things, namely, those things that are visible to that kind of sight. At the same time, it is like the first power to know insofar as an animal has the sight it has on account of its species. We may express this, and Aristotle expresses it, by saying that it has the power of sight by birth. For an animal belongs to its species by birth, everything contained in its species it possesses by birth. We may also say that an animal has its sight by nature (“phusei”), for its species is its nature (“phusis”), So that two ways in which Aristotle contrasts first and second power indicate that, in a divided power, two things come apart that are one in simple powers: the character of a power as enabling her who has it to do what it is a power to do; and the character of it as possessed by her who possesses it by nature, or birth. The power to know that a human being has by birth, by nature, by being a human being, is not a power to know anything; conversely, a power to know something is power that she who has it does not have by birth.
“Phusei” for humans is matter that is only a power to know something or anything once it has been determined into a form; that determination, though, is not an act; we refer back to first power, and we speak of a “phusei” (first power/nature) having been determined as a power to know, only once it has been so determined; the first power’s having been determined allows for us to know it as a first power—a necessary first power, a necessary initial state of unformed matter or nature, if we are to make sense in our explanations of how we know what is to be what it is (this is beyond the scope of this post, but it is the subject of Rödl’s entire book). Let me clarify this point by going back to Rödl’s own words, as he reads Aristotle:
Where there is a division of first and second power, the first power is not a power in the primary sense. It does not put its subject in a position to do what it is a power to do. This is to say that the threefold division of power, power/act, act is not a sequence of two twofold divisions. The first power to know does not relate to its second powers in the way in which a simple power relates to its acts. While acts of a simple power spring from this power, a second power to know does not spring from the first power to know. The first power is not a power to acquire a second power to know; the power to acquire a second power is that second power.
If the power to acquire a second power is that power, then a second power comes from itself. And this is what Aristotle says. In Nichomachiean Ethics, 1103a, he distinguishes virtues and crafts (technai) from powers like sight in this way: the former spring from their acts; the latter precede their acts. A power that precedes its acts is one that its subject has by nature (“phusei”), while those that spring from their acts it does not have by nature…This is a distinction of primary powers, that is, powers that enable her who has them to do something [in Rödl’s account of human knowing, the second power acts as a primary power, but the first power does not–OB]. A primary power that its subject has by its birth is a simple power; and when what the subject has by birth, or “phusei,” is not a primary power, then the primary power is a second power. Neither the Metaphysics nor the Ethics identifies a first power that underlies virtues and crafts as second powers. But we can give it a name: it is the power to act, or live, well; it is the power to know the good.
We said a second power comes from itself. Aristotle says a second power comes from its acts. This is the same. For, a second power comes from its own acts, acts of it, this second power, therewith it comes from itself. One might argue that this is impossible: a power cannot come from itself, coming from acts that come from it. For, one would have to have it in order to acquire it, which shows that one can never acquire it. Aristotle calls this argument sophistical, and responds that there is no first instance in which one is acquiring a science, just as, in general, there is no first instance in which something is moving; being in the process of acquiring a science, one has already acquired it (some of it), just as what is moving has already moved (some) (1050a). And surely this is right: there is no time when a child comprehends what she knows through general principles. Any judgment of what is, and is happening, here and now—a second act—always already involves an understanding, however inchoate and vague, of how things are, and what happens in general—first act.
Aristotle does not identify a first power underlying the virtues. Yet he suggests that we bear a relation to the virtues by nature: we are constituted so as to receive and sustain them (“dechesthai”, “lambanein”). This constitution is the first power to act well, or know the good. By virtue of this first power, we are subjects of powers, acquiring and sustaining them, that are not “phusei,” but spring from themselves. (121-122)
I find this an inspiring (and inspired) reading of Aristotle, speaking to the distinction between nature (“phusei”) and second nature, that power to act, which is inseparable from habituation, education, language, and reasons.
But the account also features, without anxiety, two divisions that might, in the eyes and minds of philosophers other than Aristotle, provoke stress. First, there is the division between creatures (“animals”) with simple powers, wherein no distinction of first/second power is possible or necessary, and ourselves, where that distinction is inherent in all of our accounts of knowledge. Second, though it is not the case that we are severed from, or other than, “phusei,” there is a sense in which, our nature having been determined in the power to know, what we know, our specific (second) acts of knowing, which occur within the context of history, education, and language, are susceptible of going wrong—and we can become aware of this because, on the one hand, the manifold of first poweràsecond power/first actàsecond act establishes itself as natural, as a natural extension of nature itself, and because, on the second hand, we can look around and disagree, and find that the natural extensions are so various and potentially discordant as to suggest that some are not natural at all.
In both cases, we find ourselves at odds with other versions of nature. In a footnote to these passages, Rödl says that Jonathan Lear, in his book Radical Hope, has illuminated “how the first powers relate to the second powers” in the sphere of “practical knowledge” and ethics. Lear’s moving study of the demise of the Crow nation, and the loss, for them, of the possibility of action, after the destruction of the conditions in which the meanings of action were possible for members of the nation, might be read, with Rödl’s note in mind, as an essay on how the first power can, through an act of profound creativity and reinterpretation of tradition, be determined anew as a second power capable of sustaining a way of life that is both continuous and distinct from that which has been lost. (Beyond the very real material and physical crises that will ensue in the event of massive climate upheaval, Lear’s book can also be read as an attempt at diagnosing the anxiety many feel about the devastation of our nature that would ensue from the devastation of the nature of our environment.) In other words, Rödl’s note on Lear suggests that there is space for reflecting on, and critiquing, what form our second power takes and on how it emanates in second acts, and that such reflection and critique occurs against a backdrop of the concept of “nature.”
What should be apparent from Rödl’s reading is that Aristotle replaces the realm of forms with “nature,” not as a particular state or entity, but as a metaphysical concept without which we cannot make sense of our being, and from which we are both derived and, in some ways, distinct.
When I say that a sense or understanding of “nature” is itself inherent in the conditions of judgment, as well as the judgments themselves, this is the nature to which I refer. And in so saying, I am not limiting myself to poets: a thought of “nature” is, per Rödl, inherent in all of our thoughts, carrying with it a shadow of the “unnatural.” But in poetry, literature, and art in general, I am suggesting that division between the unnatural and natural, is apprehended, registered, sometimes exacerbated and strained, sometimes closed; it is subject to constant query. Whatever else, that is an object of artistic understanding, as well as its condition—it being open always to the suspicion of its own unnaturalness, it sometimes presenting itself as a discovery of what is unnatural in the midst of the natural, at other times a recovery of the natural amidst the unnatural.
Aristotle’s account, and Rödl’s reading of Aristotle, like Jonathan Lear’s, soothes. What does it soothe? What is the object of its therapeutic care? One possible answer can be found in Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, and his own seemingly very different account of the soul, offered near the start of Phaedrus. I will quote from Jowitt’s translation, available free online. Socrates speaks to Phaedrus, seeming to correct his misapprehension about the nature of the soul:
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite-a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him. I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing–when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. For immortal no such union can be reasonably believed to be; although fancy, not havingseen nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and also a soul which are united throughout all time. Let that, however, be as God wills, and be spoken of acceptably to him. And now let us ask the reason why the soul loses her wings!
The wing is the corporeal element which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good, wastes and falls away. Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order. They see many blessed sights in the inner heaven, and there are many ways to and fro, along which the blessed gods are passing, every one doing his own work; he may follow who will and can, for jealousy has no place in the celestial choir. But when they go to banquetand festival, then they move up the steep to the top of the vault of heaven. The chariots of the gods in even poise, obeying the rein, glide rapidly; but the others labour, for the vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained:-and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul. For the immortals, when they are at the end of their course, go forth and stand upon the outside of heaven, and the revolution of the spheres carries them round, and they behold the things beyond. But of the heaven which is above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily? It is such as I will describe; for I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul. The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad, until the revolution of the worlds brings her round again to the same place. In the revolutionshe beholds justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute; and beholding the other true existences in like manner, and feasting upon them, she passes down into the interior of the heavens and returns home; and there the charioteer putting up his horses at the stall, gives them ambrosia to eat and nectar to drink.
Such is the life of the gods; but of other souls, that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer into the outer world, and is carried round in the revolution, troubled indeed by the steeds, and with difficulty beholding true being; while another only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world and they all follow, but not being strong enough they are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion. The reason why the souls exhibit this exceeding eagerness to behold the plain of truth is that pasturage is found there, which is suited to the highest part of the soul; and the wing on which the soul soars is nourished with this. And there is a law of Destiny, that the soul which attains any vision of truth in company with a god is preserved from harm until the next period, and if attaining always is always unharmed. But when she is unable to follow, and fails to behold the truth, and through some ill-hap sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice, and her wings fall from her and she drops to the ground, then the law ordains that this soul shall at her first birth pass, not into any other animal, but only into man; and the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature; that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be some righteous king or warrior chief; the soul which is of the third class shall be a politician, or economist, or trader; the fourth shall be lover of gymnastic toils, or a physician; the fifth shall lead the life of a prophet or hierophant; to the sixth the character of poet or some other imitative artist will be assigned; to the seventh the life of an artisan or husbandman; to the eighth that of a sophist or demagogue; to the ninth that of a tyrant-all these are states of probation, in which he who does righteously improves, and he who does unrighteously, improves, and he who does unrighteously, deteriorates his lot.
In light of Aristotle as Sebastian Rödl reads him, Plato’s mythic account of the soul might be heard as an account of the determination of nature in second nature, albeit here spun into a tale of loss and a fall. Rather than an opposition to the simple powers of animals, the opposition is to the other extreme, the Gods, who exist as pure intellect; Rödl, in his account, suggests such a position is offered by those who argue that an explanation of the second act (what specifically is known) can rest complete in reference to the second power/first act (the general principles of science)—there is, on such an account, nothing more to be known, no contrary that is even possible. Nature has as it were determined itself into a state of perfect knowing. On Plato’s account, this is what we yearn to reach. It is not unpersuasive, then, as a description of human activities that, being human, are complete in their incompletion: we are driven to further acts of knowledge, to further principles of science, because contrary judgments are possible, because we proceed by inference, because we know through and by means of categories of the temporal. We live in absence; we are complete as humans in incompletion. Aristotle, however, finds nothing tragic in the situation (and indeed his notion of the tragedy involves the crossing of a norm, the moving beyond what is natural for humans).
Plato’s passage has famously been taken up by the poets (Wallace Stevens, at least), who, though demoted to the level of personal trainer, seem to find solace that Plato has in mind something else when he writes of the imitative artist, and in fact belong with the lover of beauty and follower of the muses in the first rank of humans—and on this account, the conditions for all poetic judgment are keen, slightly maddening, sense that there is some gap between our experiences as natural and our experiences as creatures fallen from a complete belonging to “nature.” There is, in Plato’s myth, a clue to how Aristotle’s much drier De Anima, and the metaphysical richness that Sebastian Rödl sees there, might be not a guide to the poets, but something of a guide to the territory in which they—like all the rest of us—live and act.