Poets, Flattery, and the Invention of Religious Cults

Coluccio Salutati, de laboribus Herculis 1.13-15

“It is clear then that Plato, and not Athena – the mother of morals and education – decided that poets were to be expelled. Though six other cities claimed for themselves the honor of Homer’s birthplace, Athens itself, the seventh city of Greece, renowned for so many philosophers, glorified by so many citizens, and decorated by so many generals, most strenuously defended its own claim to be the birthplace of one man, who was blind while he lived, because he was a poet. Therefore, let not senseless garrulity condemn poets; first let people learn what poetry is, or what the business of poets is. Then, if they are so inclined, they may reprehend it. For the beginnings of poetic are are believed to have sprung forth from the most eloquent men, who were without doubt the most religious of their time and country. When it came to checking the savagery of those people whom they had raised to the sky more from admiration of their merits and virtues rather than considering anything human, the poets thought it useful that these men be cultivated by religion, and exerted themselves through praising them to persuade the people of this. They offered the most sublime style and the most ornate character of speech to this project, and wishing to excite the popular multitude to admiration of the men whom they praised, they did not employ a plain mode of speech, but changed words for other words and things for other things in the sweetest way, and thus led the listening people away from their senses to such a degree that, forgetting entirely about mortality, they believed with certainty that even those mortals whom they had seen themselves were not dead, but lifted into the heavens for their virtuous merits.”

File:Lafond Sappho and Homer.jpg

Charles Lafond, Sappho Sings for Homer

Censuit itaque Plato, non morum et doctrine mater Athene, pellendos esse poetas. Nam cum alie sex civitates ortum sibi vendicarent Homeri, ipse Athene, septima Grecie civitas, tot clara philosophis, tot civibus inclita, totque ducibus exornata, unius ceci dum viveret hominis, quia poeta fuit, nativitatem post eius fata sibi contentiosissime defendebant. Non ergo damnet poetas insensata garrulitas, sed prius addiscant quid poesis quodve poetarum officium, deinde, si videbitur, reprehendant. Nam huius artis initium a viris eloquentissimis atque secundum sua tempora et nationem religiosissimis sine dubio creditur provenisse. Cum enim ad cohibendam feritatem populorum eos quos illi meritorum atque virtutum admiratione plus quam humanum aliquid cogitantes extulerunt in celum, putarent utile religione colendos idque decernentibus populis suaderi ipsorum laudibus insudabant. Cui quidem rei sublimem stilum et ornatissimum dicendi caractherem adhibuerunt et volentes popularem multitudinem in eorum quos laudabant admirationem inducere non plano orationis genere sed verba pro verbis et res pro rebus suavissime commutantes audientes populos a sensibus taliter traducebant quod etiam quos viderant fuisse mortales non mortuos sed translatos in celum pro virtutum meritis mortalitatis illorum obliti certissima opinatione tenerent.

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