Bibliotherapy

Proclus-The Muses, As Divine Possession And Madness.

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‘Apollo and the Muses’, by John Singer Sargent.

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From Proclus’ ‘Commentary of Plato’s ‘Republic’, Essays 5 and 6, ‘on Poetics and the Homeric Poems.’ Robert Lamberton translation, notes and introduction. SBL, 2012. Essay 6, book 2. Pages 261-263-265.

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…‘In the ‘Phaedrus’, then he calls this inspired poetry ‘possession by the Muses’ and ‘madness’, saying that it is granted from above to a gentle and pure soul and that its task is to awaken and enrapture the soul with odes and other poetry, and its goal is to set in order the myriad acts of the ancient, in order to educate posterity.In this text it is perfectly clear to all, in the first place, that the original and primordial cause of poetry is the gift of the Muses. Just as the Muses fill all the other creations of the father, both visible and invisible, with harmony and rhythmic motion, even though, by illuminating the souls of which they take possession with a trace of divine symmetry, they bring to perfection divine poetry. Since the entire action of the illuminator consists in divine presence, and the one illuminated gives himself over to the impulses that come from the illuminator and steps out of his own character and subjects himself to the actions of the divine and uniform, this, I believe, is why Plato calls such illumination both ‘possession’ and ‘madness’. He calls it ‘possession’ because it takes power over the entirety of what is moved by it and ‘madness’ because those illuminated to abandon their own activities and enter into its identity.

Second, it is clear that Plato has even defined the qualities that the soul destined to be possessed by the Muses must have, when he says, ‘taking a pure and gentle soul’. The hard and resistant soul, insensitive to the divine illumination, is opposed to the action of possession, for she belongs more to herself than the illuminator and is not readily receptive of its gifts. Moreover, the soul that is possessed by all sorts of other conceptions and filled with considerations that are diverse and the opposite of the divine obscures the divine inspiration, mingling her own states and actions in the impulses coming therefrom. Therefore it is necessary for this soul that is to be possessed by the Muses already to have acquired both these qualities in advance: She must already be gentle and pure so that, on the one hand, she may be entirely docile and sympathetic towards the divine and unmoved, unreceptive, and impermeable towards other things.

Third, Plato adds the shared task belonging to such a capacity of the soul and to possession and madness from the Muses. Awakening and enrapturing indeed constitute this accomplishment to which both contribute with their actions-the illuminated and the illuminating, I mean-the one moving downwards and the other spread out below it to receive its gifts. The ‘awakening’ is a wakeful straining by the soul and inexorable movement, a return from the fall into γενεσις (genesis) back toward the divine; the ‘rapture’ is inspired movement, and a tireless dance around the divine, bringing the possessed to perfection. And again, there is need of both of these so that the possessed will not be subject to fall back into the inferior and will easily move towards the better.

And so, fourth, as far as setting in order the myriad deeds of the ancients is concerned, and through these instructing posterity, it is clear in advance that he is saying that this kind of poetry renders human things more perfect and more radiant through the divine and that true education comes from this poetry for those who hear it. This inspired kind of poetry should by no means be deprived of its capacity to educate. I believe the whole matter of education to be different with reference to the state of mind of the young and to that of those already educated in civic life and now needing to hear a more mystical teaching about the divine. Indeed, this sort of poetry is preeminently educational for its audience when it is inspired and when this divine element in it is clearly perceptible to them. Superficial contact with it, however, does not grasp the mystical truth hidden within.

This poetry, then, created by the Muses in gentle and pure souls, Plato appropriately places before every other human art. He maintains that the poet who does not have this sort of madness is imperfect himself and that his poetry, which is that of a reasonable man, fades into obscurity in the presence of that of the madman, because human conceptions are in every way inferior to the gifts of the gods.’

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