General vs Particular Knowledge

Kevin Dooley

Question 1.e

One point where Sidney summarizes his argument is on page 18, where he states, “For conclusion, I say the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely” while “the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher,” meaning that poets provide a much more accessible brand of philosophy than the philosopher’s themselves.  He further explores this dynamic of the poet as a philosopher for the common man vs. inaccessible traditional philosophers when he writes how poets can illustrate concepts with “a perfect picture…[that] yieldeth to the powers of the mind” while philosophers are stuck with “wordish descriptions.”  Specifically, he writes how, for a man who has never seen an animal such as an elephant in person before, a picture “well painted” would be much better at delivering its image than even the “most exquisite” of verbal descriptions, demonstrating the power of the “the speaking picture of poesy” (Sidney 16).  Another moment of conclusion is on page 21 where Sidney discusses how poets are superior to historians through the fact that they “not only…furnish the mind with knowledge” but also teach and encourage good morality.  He discusses this more specifically by showcasing how history actually is “an encouragement to unbridled wickedness” with figures like “the cruel Severus liv[ing] prosperously” and “the accomplished Socrates [being] put to death,” while poets “deviseth new punishments in hell for tyrants” in their work (Sidney 21).  Lastly, Sidney concludes his thoughts again when he states, on page 25, that the poet’s ability to draw delight from even the most horrifying things allows him to “draw the mind more effectually than any other art,” and therefore the poet “is the most excellent workman.”  Earlier, he elaborates on this by citing Aristotle’s proclamation that “those things which in themselves are horrible, as cruel battles, unnatural monsters, are made in poetical imitation delightful” (Sidney 23).  He then states how even “hard hearted, evil men” will be able to draw delight from poetry, while “despis[ing] the austere admonitions of the philosopher” (Sidney 24).

These instances of general vs. particular knowledge allow Sidney to clarify his arguments at key points while still giving his Defence depth.  By putting his more general statements after his more specific examples, he lets readers make sense of his work as they read on, bringing much needed summaries to the varied and dense examples that can sometimes get lost in his prose.  In his Defence, the general knowledge provides the overall structure on which the piece rests, allowing the particular examples to fill in the body and flesh out the work.  In addition, given that much of his general knowledge comes from Aristotle and not himself, his more particular examples allow him to contribute new knowledge to the discussion of poesy and make the Defence worth reading as a unique piece of work, even despite the large lack of originality in his general knowledge.  With his Defence of Poesy, Sidney is able to take the general teachings of Aristotle in the Renaissance’s spirit of copying the classics, and provide an update with the particular knowledge he brings in his work.

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