Morality and the Muse

What is the relationship between artistic creativity and morality? Plato sought to ban the poets from his ideal civilization because he felt poetry was a mere imitation of good and evil, and could negatively influence the morality of the masses. Two thousand years later, Percy Shelley argued that poets create the moral condition of the world by igniting empathy through their imaginative works. Yet the moral condition of the artists themselves remains relatively unaddressed by Shelley. History has shown that artists have not always been exemplars of the good in their personal lives, and that service to the creative muse often undermines their moral standing. If the ethical influence of art is so powerful, what does this mean for the moral condition for the world? Do the immoral digressions of some artists outweigh or negate the good influence of their works? Or is the world ultimately a better place because of the moral sacrifices of our great artists?

In Book X of the Republic Plato argues, through the voice of Socrates, that poets ought to be excluded from his ideal state because of the immoral effect poetry has upon its audience.[1] Plato writes that the poet does not create, but simply imitates, “though in every case he does not know in what way the thing is bad or good,”[2] he merely represents life in all its distortions. Those who hear this imitative poetry are at risk of being swayed by it, potentially leading to their ethical demise. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch writes in a discussion of Plato’s Republic, “…when artists imitate what is bad they are adding to the sum of badness in the world; and it is easier to copy a bad man than a good man.”[3] Yet, whether the poet is representing good or ill, because their work is merely imitation, for Plato it is not truth, and only truth can convey ethics to others.

Plato refers to the greatest poet of the Hellenic world, the man whose epic works still influence the minds of the young and impressionable to this day, to fuel his argument against poetry: Homer. In the voice of Socrates he asks, “…is Homer reported while he lived to have been a guide in education to men who…transmitted to posterity a certain Homeric way of life…?”[4] In response, Socrates’ companion replies no, Homer was neglected in his lifetime, which leads Plato to conclude that this was because Homer merely possessed “the art of imitation” and not “real knowledge.”[5] For Plato it is only real knowledge, or truth, that can inspire one to be morally good.

Yet, today the name of Homer still prospers, and his works, but not his way of life, have indeed entered into posterity. In rapt admiration, Percy Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, “Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses.”[6] For Shelley, the moral character of those who read Homer and the other great poets are shaped by these verses. However, what is key here is that it was not Homer’s way of life, as Plato pointed out, that descended to those who still experience his poetry, but the characters in his art that gained immortality.

What happens within the poet, or any other kind of artist, while in the process of artistic creation? I myself am an artist, and when fully engaged in an artistic project certain aspects of my ethical character begin to fall by the wayside. When caught in an inspired frenzy the external world falls away: I do not nourish my body in the way it deserves, I cut myself off from intimate contact with friends and family. If distracted I can become harsh and irritable. For the time being, every part of myself becomes devoted to completing the work at hand. However, I know the potential depravity of my own patterns are minor in comparison with the twisted roads some artists may descend in pursuit of creative inspiration.

Over the centuries, many artists have become ensnared in the Faustian bargain of creativity. Whether it is an adulterous affair with the woman or man who seems to be one’s muse, or the enticing song of opium, the curling tongue of absinthe, the inspirational voice of heroin, cocaine, liquor, or even the sweet melody of tobacco as one cigarette follows the next and words flow with every inhale. In comparison with its begetter, the piece of art that is born so often is an angel in the dark forest, which draws admirers the world over, and like those of whom Shelley writes, are “awakened to an ambition of becoming like”[7] the art they behold.

The artist is beholden to the muse of inspiration, or as Murdoch writes, “a kind of divine or holy madness from which we may receive great blessings.”[8] One cannot will creativity to arise, but must coax it forth. Shelley writes exquisitely that

the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.[9]

The muse is fickle, and indeed both divine and mad. She needs to be nourished, which may easily lead to the moral demise of the artist.

Who is this vital inspiration? Poets have given her many names over the millennia, but the Greeks once worshipped her as Mnemosyne, or Mneia, whose names mean recollection, the first Muse of artistic inspiration. Her three daughters are Melete, Mneme, and Aoide, known also as contemplation, memory, and song. Later in Greek mythology the number of Muses increased to nine, one for each of the arts practiced in the ancient Hellenic world.[10] These “mothers of the singers”[11] were hailed by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, each in the opening lines of their epic masterpieces.

Jean Gebser, in his The Ever-Present Origin, writes of the Muse and the Siren as two poles of the poet’s soul, one giving inspiration, the other beckoning to death.[12] The word Muse, which means “ponderess” and gives us the word “to muse” in English, enters the German language as the two words Musse and Müssen. While Musse means “to contemplate,” Müssen means “must” or “compulsion.”[13] It is this tightrope between the two, the contemplative Muse and the compulsive Siren, that the artist walks on the path of creation, needing both to impel herself forward, each step as uncertain as the next word or brushstroke.

It is the nobility of the art potentially inspired by such a muse that makes the world’s great artists worthy of the high praise which Shelley and others bestow upon them. Shelley writes of the forgotten flaws of these artists: “Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow;’ they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.”[14] For although, as Murdoch writes, these artists are motivated by a “divine or holy madness,” [15] it is the divine source of their mad inspiration that redeems them. Something beyond the human is working through the artist, a sacred source, a holy muse, and it is this spark of divinity that generates the shining moral character of the final work of art.

For Shelley the imagination is the “great instrument of moral good”[16] because it allows one to feel empathy for another. The most powerful art and poetry can allow the person experiencing it to wholly place herself in the experience of another, and through her imagination to empathize fully with that other. The emotional experience of empathy, as the philosopher Jacob Needleman writes, is “that which moves us to physical action or to the act of human speech or to the real wish to love and serve or to partake in the great struggle for what is objectively good and right and just.”[17] It is the empathic connection between the observer and the art which leads to moral action, not the inclusion of morality itself within the work of art. Shelley felt that a poet should not include his own conception or ethics in his art because these would be bound to the time and place in which he lived, and would therefore not have the desired moral effect upon later generations.[18] For example, although Tolstoy accused Shakespeare of a “lack of moral clarity,”[19] it is the fullness of his characters in their goodness or their evil that allows his audience to completely empathize with the struggles of the protagonists and antagonists alike. Shakespeare allows his audience to work out for themselves, in their own internal moral struggles, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good from what they see genuinely represented before them.

Socrates said that we can only become virtuous when we know what virtue is.[20] Such virtue we learn from the example of others before us, by empathically experiencing the stories of those who once lived. We become porous to such stories through engaging the voices of art, which can bind to our emotions and allow us to fully feel what others have felt. Plato understood the powerful effect of art and poetry, for although he banned it, he banned it in his own poetic voice that has endured through the ages.

Needleman defines a human being as “the being who yearns to love,”[21] and love, as Shelley writes, is the “great secret of morals.”[22] Love is the ingredient which allows us to open ourselves enough to empathically engage with others, to wholly understand what another feels and experiences. Yet love is not a physical object which can be passed from generation to generation; instead it must be portrayed ever and again by those who can trace its ideal form: beauty. As Murdoch writes, the enjoyment of beauty is the mark of a moral soul,[23] and in the words of Needleman, “…evil simply cannot be contained in the same mind that contemplates… beauty.”[24] Therefore, the artists who are able to depict beauty, in all its dimensions, are able to bestow an understanding of morality beyond what even they may be able to entirely comprehend.

Shelley, in language beyond eloquence, captures the gift the world’s great artists have given us:

…it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.[25]

It is the world’s great artists who have shaped the moral codes by which we live, even if their own lives as individuals were as morally ambiguous as any of our own. For working through them was something greater than the mere human: their art is a mingling of human and divine, which sends ripples of truth out through cultures and epochs, shaping the lives of all who encounter their works.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Translated by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter Conradi. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999.

Needleman, Jacob. Why Can’t We Be Good? New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Plato, Republic. In The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, 575-844. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Harvard Classics 27. (2001): Accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html.


[1] Plato, Republic, in The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 820.

[2] Ibid, 827.

[3] Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter Conradi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 390-391.

[4] Plato, Republic, 825.

[5] Ibid, 825.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in Harvard Classics 27. (2001): accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html, paragraph 12.

[7] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 12.

[8] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[9] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 39.

[10] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 318.

[11] Ibid, 317.

[12] Ibid, 208.

[13] Ibid, 317.

[14] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 43.

[15] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[16] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[17] Jacob Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good? (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008), 89.

[18] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[19] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 400.

[20] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 36.

[21] Ibid, 264.

[22] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[23] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 402.

[24] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 83.

[25] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 36.

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