Political Philosophy and Poetry

"Political Philosophy and Poetry," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Jun. 1960), pp. 457-464.

Encouraged by his desire to oppose Jaffa’s insistence that only great men capable of great deeds can undergo great sufferings, Burckhardt confides his own understanding of what makes Lear great. “He is great because he does not cheaply and feebly strike bargains with his disillusionment, because he wills and lives his terrifying fall into truth so uncompromisingly and vastly that he is transfigured.” This statement is not drawn from the words of the play nor is it formally different from the kinds of things Jaffa said. The only difference is that it is shallow and pretentious; the terms are woefully imprecise. It could be applied to almost any tragic hero. At best it gives one the warming sensation of being deep in being able to feel such things. The quarrel between Jaffa and Burckhardt is not between one who prescribes an arbitrary framework to the poet and one who lets the poet teach him. It is rather between one who reflects on the dramatic phenomena and attempts to make distinctions which will account for the differences among men and one who does not. Shakespeare presents men to us who have different characters and who pursue different objects. They face problems, and unless those problems are defined we cannot understand their responses. Perhaps a genius such as Shakespeare can see and feel the problems at a glance. But the rest of us must reason them out or risk total misunderstanding. Our emotions are not enough because they need training to reach Shakespeare’s level. The real basis of Burckhardt’s position is an emotionalism, a belief that the most important things are grasped by feeling. All this leads to is an impoverishment of our feelings. He professes great admiration for two of Jaffa’s formulations. I do not know what he thought was meant by them; but, if he understood them at all, he has thereby accepted Jaffa’s argument. For all Jaffa was trying to do was to give some clear and distinct notion of what such words as “self-knowledge” and “justice” mean within the universe of King Lear.