Greetings and health from Marcus Tullius to J. W. Worthy
The priority given by our friend Goethe to art is by no means without merit. But don't you think he may have placed his cart a bit before the horse, or horses. He argues that art must promenade out ahead of all else, drawing the team of good sense and morality along behind. Art deserves her triumph, to be sure. Art is surpassingly important, no doubt. We must not forget, however, that the art of good writing derives all her force and power from the lessons she teaches, and from the comfort she gives.
Good taste is of course indispensable. What, I beg you, can be more tasteless than some priest ululating his unvarnished comforts to mankind? I can answer that. Yet more tasteless than the ululating priest is the wise man squatting before you and delivering himself, with great satisfaction, of the truth. I wonder at the endless patience of youth, that they are able to sit and listen to some old man droning his interminable "facts." Heavens, your civilization even bought their books, humorless recitations of opinion masquerading as truth.
I admit it, I do understand the vanity of these self-important soothsayers. Have I not devoted my own entire life to preaching Greek philosophy to the Romans? But nota bene, please take note that I nowhere speak as myself. Like Plato, I at least have the good taste to allow someone to come forward whose character conforms to the particular point of view being advanced at the moment. What was so offensive about most of the writing in your day was its assumption of some one point of view or other to be uniquely valid. This flaccid humorlessness is just in bad taste, that's all.
Now of course art can no more dispense with her truisms than a coachman can parade down the road without viewing the horses' backside. The artist may even have some desire to speak some truths, here and there. Most of the time, he is just using them for his own decorative purposes. For example,
This above all, to thine own self be true.
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Shakespeare? Well, yes and no. Shakespeare's art. Polonius's platitude. We have not caught Shakespeare advocating, but a lean shanked old dodderer importuning vigorous young Laertes, eager to get out into the real world.
I do not know that I am prepared to go along with Goethe when he places art above the truth, but he is after all, when it comes to producing art, an authority. He is not an authority, in any case, on the uses to which we put his art. Some may use poetry to teach the banalities the poet incorporates in his work. Most of us use good letters, however, just as I say again and again in the Tusculans, for the comfort they afford us in this difficult life. --Pardon me, just as one of the characters in the Tusculans says.
Living, and letting live, I remain
Your faithful Mark Tully
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