The Charles De Koninck Project

De Koninck on Art and Morality, with a Note on History

In Art and Morality, with a Note on History, De Koninck argues that art, especially in its poetic form, serves a moral purpose, taking as the foundation of his argument St. Thomas’ remark in the Proem to his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics with respect to poetica that “it pertains to the poet to lead toward something virtuous by means of a suitable representation”.

Having shown by way of a consideration of imitation how poetry is not “a didactic instrument”, as are the preceding parts of logic (sc. rhetoric, dialectic, and demonstration), he explains how it nevertheless has a “light” whereby it manifests one thing through something else–that light being none other than the quasi-universality of an imitated action consisting of incidents linked together by likelihood or necessity.

In a companion piece on history, he addresses the position of certain contemporary Scholastics who take exception to Aristotle’s view in the Poetics “that poetry is more philosophic and more elevated than history because it is more universal;” whereas “St. Thomas speaks of history as quaedam narratio;” and that “[f]urther, it is often said that poetry is infima doctrina. Obviously then if history is less philosophic than poetry and poetry is infima doctrina, history is not doctrina at all.”

But in agreement with Aristotle’s understanding of history (cf. Poet. ch. 8, 1451a 16-35; ibid, ch. 23, 1459a 17–3), De Koninck meets their objection by explaining how certain works of history admittedly having a scientific character–the chosen example being Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War–owe that character to their authors’ prior grasp of political philosophy, whereas history as such, being concerned with the particular and contingent–that is to say, with what happens for the least part, or per accidens–can have no comparable “light”.

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