Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (ctd.)

I was working against a deadline yesterday and couldn’t make it. That’s the problem Sidney didn’t have, as he didn’t publish. In today’s excerpt Sidney argues that the aim of all arts and sciences is to make people better – but astronomy, music and mathematics obviously fail at this, because noble as they are, their practitioners are themselves often fallible. They are just serving sciences to the mistress-knowledge – the knowledge of oneself and how to do good. So there are two strong competitors for this position, whom Sidney describes quite amusingly, personified by their practitioners. The first one is moral philosopher, sullen and dressed ‘rudely’ to show his contempt of outward things, carrying many books. He claims he is the only one to be able to teach what virtue and its opposite vice are. The other claimant is the historian, ‘laden with old mouse-eaten records’, basing his knowledge on histories written by other people, who in turn base their stories mostly on hearsay. He claims the philosopher teaches only disputative virtue, but he teaches the active one, by telling people about the people who set a great example in the past ages. He quotes the examples of such people as Brutus, Cesar’s assassin, who was inspired by reading the history of his ancestor, who expelled the Tarquin kings. Finally the philosopher and the historian can agree on this: the former gives the precept, and the latter the example.

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