The Quarrel between poetry and philosophy Poetry as Philosophical Self-Criticism

  • David Roochnik Boston University


Philosophy for Plato requires self-examination.  As Socrates says in the Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”   But how can a philosopher examine this very belief? It seems impossible. After all,  a philosopher seriously challenging the conviction that philosophical examination is good would do so by means of philosophical examination. As such, he would beg the question.  This paper argues that in the Phaedo Plato addresses this problem.   It  analyzes Socrates’ dream , which enjoins him to “make music and work at it.” For years Socrates thought that this meant that he should practice philosophy, which he took to be the highest form of “music."  Now, on his deathbed, he reconsiders. Perhaps it meant that he should compose “poetry,” the quintessentially non-philosophical form of human discourse. And so, hours before he dies, he puts the fables of Aesop into verse and composes a hymn to Apollo.  The thesis of this paper is that, in a stroke of brilliant but nearly paradoxical consistency, Plato shows his readers that genuine philosophical self-examination requires poetry.