Poet as Priest

“The substitution of poetry for religion as a source of ideals, a movement that began with the Romantics, seems to me usefully described as a return to polytheism. ”

-Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism”

The civil religion philosopher Richard Rorty characterizes as “romantic polytheism” starts from a premise of toleration for diverse personal religious explorations, but not-too-subtly wishes for a move away from the paternalistic and authoritarian institutions of traditional monotheism.  (He sees a substituting of science as less than adequate, it should be noted.)  He espouses “hope for a religion of literature, in which the works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope of each new generation.”  And further: “We should cheerfully admit that canons are temporary, and touchstones replaceable.”

“Once you become polytheistic,” Rorty says, “you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists–from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are.”  If there is need of such a figure as a priest, however, he nominates the poet, “[f]or poets are to a secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism.”

Can poet prove priest and poetry, canon?  Rorty clearly sees Walt Whitman as something like a paradigmatic figure in his preoccupation with “futurity” and “his sense of glorious democratic vistas stretching on indefinitely.”  In such visions, Whitman “tells us that nonhuman nature culminates in a community of free men, in their collaboration in building a society.”

Nietzsche’s attempt to “see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life,” like Arnold’s and Mill’s substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment’s attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as “symbolic,” and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.

-Rorty, op.cit.

 “Truth” is a much misunderstood and often maligned word these days.  For some, it only refers to the empirically verifiable.  For others, it points to transcendent verities that both include and transcend “mere” physical reality.  There is, of course, no reason that the word cannot contain both senses within it, as required.  The “polytheism” of Romantic Polytheism encompasses a notion of personal Truth that does not intrude on social consensus and collaboration.  (As Rorty characterizes it, this is a polytheism of many “goods.”)  This is–in an important sense–the Romantic inner quest for the Self, tempered in the forge of an awesome Nature.  I would argue that there is here an implicit call for personal authenticity as much as personal responsibility (to the social collective).

In the older Irish societies, the poet (Irish, fili) served the ruler personally and the tribe more generally as holder of tradition, but also as arbiter of traditional codes of justice and virtue.  The poet was understood to have genuinely visionary gifts and could wield the greatest weapon available against misuse of authority: satire.  The ruler was holder of the highest aspirations and virtues of the People and was expected to embody fir flatha, the King’s truth.  The intrusion of selfishness or greed into the society on the part of its fit representative was occasion for debilitation, both of the King and of the Land.  This could be brought about by the power of the poet’s words (holding Power to Truth, if you will).  For some, the poet stood in for the Land in a sacred marriage with the King, who stood in for the People, and the poet’s words reinforced the highest virtues of the society and provided a necessary corrective against degeneracy into egoism.

Down through long years of colonial oppression, the Irish poet and the bardic schools and courts that sustained the poetic tradition carried forward a narrative of the society and its values, not only in poems praising worthies of the past, but also in the aisling, the visionary poem of the embodiment of the Nation in the figure of a woman.

It should be noted–more than just in passing–that the poet’s work in ancient Ireland was embedded in a world filled with ritual.  Religion was not separate from other cultural institutions:  It was inextricably part of the fabric of daily life.  The poet’s work and its importance was supported by ritual.  Much the same can be said, of course, of the work of the tragedians of ancient Greece, which was composed for performance in civic festivals at which attendance was compulsory.

Whitman’s work encapsulated much of the nature of a people building a democratic and egalitarian society.  Like the Romantic poets of Europe, he drew on an ensouled Nature as embodiment of the Divine and cast it as partner to the uniquely American proletarian characters of his verses in constructing a Self and a future.  Rorty clearly prizes Whitman’s regard for the future.  Rorty does also, though, recognize the value of the “pantheism” of Wordsworth.  If Whitman is the poet-priest of the dawning fraternity of urban America, Wordsworth offers the divinity of solitude and communion with numinous Nature, often paired with deities from the Classical past.

As political philosopher Jason Boffetti has noted in his insightful analysis of Rorty’s gesture toward a “new public religious faith,” it is a bit “fuzzy” (a word Rorty uses himself, to be sure) as regards doctrine, but more “concrete” in terms of inspiration.  Literature, especially poetry (and I would add, drama), are understood to work on the soul of the individual and to point to, in the words of Paul Tillich, “a symbol of ultimate concern,” towards which all individuals can aspire and collaborate.

As a doctrine, perhaps, then:  Abstracting just slightly from a parochial concern with American democratic institutions, following the inspiration of the poets of the Romantic Era who freshly minted the forms of old Gods to serve the modern Soul–and the poets of the bardic past of Ireland–a project of “perfecting our Union,” not only among ourselves as “We, the People,” but between ourselves and the natural world embodied in our Land.  Sacralizing our Union and our Land, not because they have been supernaturally ordained or blessed, but because they are precious to us as individuals and as society, ought to be the first doctrine and thus the object for personal reflection and virtuous actions, as well as for social collaboration.

What is Romantic Polytheism?

When confronting a personal longing for the spiritual and the numinous, how does an individual committed to the values of public secularism balance inner longing with social responsibility?  Can a society find a home for ethical considerations and social justice outside of the mainstream monotheist religions?  American philosopher Richard Rorty, a pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey, explored these concerns in a 1997 essay entitled “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism.”

Known for his outspoken public atheism, Rorty struggled throughout his life with a longing for the spiritual and found academic philosophy to be lacking as a vehicle for this component of life.  With this essay, he announced a radical shift in his own worldview–there was, on his view, the possibility to follow a path suggested by earlier writers like James and Friedrich Nietzsche that fully embraced the Romanticist project of unfettered inner moral and aesthetic exploration and development alongside a public toleration and cooperation among varying religious practices and attitudes:  atheist, monotheist, polytheist, and so on.

In this context, Rorty argues for a modern polytheism, one that is Romantic in its embrace of “a paradigmatic project of individual self-development.”  The pursuit of inner moral and spiritual growth, governed by personal passions and aesthetic sensibilities, is bounded by responsibility to work on the social level for the communal good and to practice toleration for the spiritual practices of others.  In Rorty’s words, “[H]uman perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns–to worship their own gods, so to speak–as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.”  This balance of private and public moral spheres, where “faith” is private and social justice is the paramount public good forms the core of what political philosopher Jason Boffetti called “a new public religious faith.”

To be sure, by “polytheism” Rorty does not make reference to a plurality of supernatural beings.  As he puts it, “A romantic utilitarian will probably drop the idea of diverse immortal persons, such as the Olympian deities.”  Critically, though, “[S]he will retain the idea that there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life.”  Rorty seconds Nietzsche’s extolling the polytheism of the pre-Socratic Greeks for revealing “a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.”

For Nietzsche, the quintessence of Romanticism lay revealed in Classical polytheism, where  “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form–the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”

“You are a polytheist” in a secular age, in Rorty’s definition, “if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs…To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with power to intervene in human affairs. All you need do is to abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.”  For some individuals, there may be many gods (and for some, one or none); Rorty sees perhaps the most productive modern polytheism to be that which recognizes many goods.

Rorty follows in the tradition of Dewey and Walt Whitman in arguing for a religion of democracy, where the communal pursuit of social goods served in the stead of subordination to a transcendent parent figure who decreed values and norms.  For Rorty, poetry and literature supplant Scripture and if a priest is needed–and perhaps not–the poet can serve.

Finally, he sketches what he calls “five theses of pragmatist philosophy of religion”–the core of “Romantic Polytheism”:

First, “beliefs are habits of action…rather than all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world…and that frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview.”

Second, “the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as ‘symbolic,’ and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.”

Third, “pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction…between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation…Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals–from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs–may be another such paradigm.”

Fourth, “[I]t is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project.”

Fifth, “[t]he pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness.”

Can Rorty’s vision of a modern polytheism in which personal spiritual development works conjointly with a non-supernaturalistic public embrace of moral values carried in the aesthetic sphere–that is to say, by the poetic and the artistic–bear fruit?  Can this philosophical speculation yield a functional “public religious faith” as Boffetti suggests?