Before You Read a Poem, Know that Poets Are Liars (Plutarch)

From Plutarch’s Quomodo Adolescens Poetas Audire Debeat (16a-c)

“First of all, it is best to introduce the youth to poems when they have already learned as a watchword the saying that “poets tell many lies,” some willingly, and others unwillingly. They lie willingly with an eye toward pleasure and attractiveness—things which most people pursue: they feel that the truth is rather more severe than fiction. This is because that truth occurs in reality and does not change even if it ends in displeasure. Fiction, since it is formed by speech, easily changes its direction and turns to pleasure from something that might cause pain.

Hence, neither meter, nor style, nor magnitude of speech, nor fit of metaphor, nor unity and composition have as much seduction and charm as the well-woven plot of a fantastic tale. So, just as in painting color is more moving than a line drawing because it is more life-like and illusory, so too will fiction mixed in with persuasive poetry be more striking and cause more pleasure than a poem well-built in its meter and diction but devoid of myth and fantasy.

This is why Socrates, when he was inspired by some dreams to poetry—since he had been a champion for truth his entire life—was not a believable or natural creator of fiction and instead worked the tales of Aesop in to epic verse because he believed that it was not possible for poetry to exist apart from some fiction.”

Πρῶτον μὲν οὖν εἰσάγειν εἰς τὰ ποιήματα δεῖ τὸν νέον μηδὲν οὕτω μεμελετημένον ἔχοντα καὶ πρόχειρον ὡς τὸ “πολλὰ ψεύδονται ἀοιδοὶ” τὰ μὲν ἑκόντες τὰ δ’ ἄκοντες. ἑκόντες μέν, ὅτι πρὸς ἡδονὴν ἀκοῆς καὶ χάριν, ἣν οἱ πλεῖστοι διώκουσιν, αὐστηροτέραν ἡγοῦνται τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ ψεύδους. ἡ μὲν γὰρ ἔργῳ γιγνομένη, κἂν ἀτερπὲς ἔχῃ τὸ τέλος, οὐκ ἐξίσταται· τὸ δὲ πλαττόμενον λόγῳ ῥᾷστα περιχωρεῖ καὶ τρέπεται πρὸς τὸ ἥδιον ἐκτοῦ λυποῦντος. οὔτε γὰρ μέτρον οὔτε τρόπος οὔτε λέξεως ὄγκος οὔτ’ εὐκαιρία μεταφορᾶς οὔθ’ ἁρμονία καὶ σύνθεσις ἔχει τοσοῦτον αἱμυλίας καὶ χάριτος ὅσον εὖ πεπλεγμένη διάθεσις μυθολογίας· ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ἐν γραφαῖς κινητικώτερόν ἐστι χρῶμα γραμμῆς διὰ τὸ ἀνδρείκελον καὶ ἀπατηλόν, οὕτως ἐν ποιήμασι μεμιγμένον πιθανότητι ψεῦδος ἐκπλήττει καὶ ἀγαπᾶται μᾶλλον τῆς ἀμύθου καὶ ἀπλάστου περὶ μέτρον καὶ λέξιν κατασκευῆς. ὅθεν ὁ Σωκράτης ἔκ τινων ἐνυπνίων ποιητικῆς ἁψάμενος αὐτὸς μέν, ἅτε δὴ γεγονὼς ἀληθείας ἀγωνιστὴς τὸν ἅπαντα βίον, οὐ πιθανὸς ἦν οὐδ’ εὐφυὴς ψευδῶν δημιουργός, τοὺς δ’ Αἰσώπου μύθους ἔπεσιν ἐνήρμοζεν ὡς ποίησιν οὐκ οὖσαν ᾗ ψεῦδος μὴ πρόσεστι.

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