Saturday 1 September 2001

Philosophical Poems as Caricatures of Thought (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 1 Spring 2001


By Chengde Chen  

I have changed my way of doing philosophy since the mid-nineties, from writing papers to writing philosophical poems, with the conviction that philosophy can be made more interesting and accessible. It is reality that the academic style of writing scares off many who would otherwise be interested in reading philosophy. Can literature help? (There are at least twenty times more people who read poetry than those who read philosophical papers.) The answer may be inferred from the fact that in the 20th Century there were two, but only two, philosophers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature - Russell and Sartre.

Understandably, writing philosophy in the form of poetry is unlikely to be recognised as either philosophy or poetry. However, whether this is something that can be done is not a matter that can be concluded by debating, but should be judged by the works that have been written - to see if they are philosophically valuable as well as poetically worthy.

The Editor of The Philosopher, has asked me to write an introduction to explain briefly how philosophical poems can have a place in philosophy as 'caricatures of thought'. Hegel once said 'architecture is frozen music'. How would this poetic expression be compared with a usual academic statement like 'architecture entails similar aesthetic features as art'? Is it like a concise caricature compared with a realistic painting, being more imaginative, more vigourous, more profound, and therefore, more accurate?

Beyond analysis

Philosophy, as intellectual inquiry, pursues the truths beyond common sense through rigourous logical analysis, appearing as an abstract reasoning process. Poetry, as a literary form, is used for describing feelings or stories, presented through images and imaginative language. It is generally held that the two cannot go together because poetic language does not have the logical rigour that is vital to philosophical inquiry, whilst the abstraction of reasoning will cost poetry its vividness.

Does this inevitably abstract nature of philosophy mean that images should therefore be excluded - or the opposite: that images are hence a more valuable supplement? The answer, I believe, is the latter.

Many philosophical theories are remembered through their vivid images. For Plato's theory of the truth of ideas, we remember the image of the 'cavemen' watching shadows on the wall, while for his theory of motivation and the reason/ will/ desire trinity we remember the image of a 'carriage' with two horses and a driver. From Zeno's Paradoxes, we recall how Achilles failed to catch up with the tortoise, as well as the 'flying arrow' being at rest; for the paradox of set-theory, we remember how Russell's 'barber' became puzzled; for Popper's falsificationism, we recall the one black swan contrasted with the many white ones; and finally, for Rawl's theory of justice, we remember how people in 'the original position' were covered by 'the veil of ignorance'.

And so on. The importance of an appropriate image to an abstract theory cannot be overestimated. Like images, imaginative language is also not only acceptable but indispensable to philosophical thinking. It is those well-refined and imaginative expressions that are most memorable in philosophy, such as Pythagoras 'All things are numbers', Protagoras 'Man is the measure of all things', Descartes 'I think, therefore I am', Kant's 'Man is an end', and Nietzsche's 'God is dead'. Do such powerful expressions give the impression that philosophers should also be poets?

If poetic language is not an enemy but an ally of philosophy, can poetry be used for writing philosophy? Poetry is a powerful literary form that can do many things, from expressing love, declaring war, to advertising toothpaste (some say that the best of modern poetry is in advertisement, and this is not entirely a joke). The tradition that poetry does not engage in reasoning is based on the understanding that logical rigour and poetic vividness are undermining each other. But, does poetry have to be image after image, all the time, so as to exclude reasoning? There is no such a literary rule, and what is required is that the reasoning involved should be so interesting that it can be appreciated poetically. In fact, the shared interest of pursuing profoundness does provide the potential for poetry to marry philosophical reasoning, so as to make poetry deeper and philosophy more lively.

There were philosophers who wrote philosophy through poetry successfully. Xenophanes and Parmenides were two famous ones in ancient philosophy, and the latter's On Nature is a very serious philosophical inquiry written as a long poem. So Aristotle, the man who started the scholastic style of writing philosophy, reckons that 'poetry is more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history', because 'poetry is concerned with universal truths' (Poetics).

In the modern age, if Goethe was counted as a great poet with philosophical thinking, then Nietzsche was a great 'poet-philosopher' - his poems form an important part of his main contribution Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the 20th Century, T. S. Eliot, as a philosophical poet (who was a student of Russell), discussed metaphysics through his very imaginative poems (The Four Quartets). As for why imagination can help in understanding the world, Sartre explained that imagination is an alternative mode of consciousness, and is addressed to the same objects as perceptual consciousness but to these objects 'as they are not' (L'Imaginaire). Architecture is indeed not music, but the imaginative expression 'frozen music' does tell us a lot about it. This 'unreal perception' is more profound than many real ones, because it is revealed through an 'inner link' , which so-called philosophy is about.

My experience of writing philosophical poems has made me believe that poetry can deliver philosophical ideas and make them more powerful. Compared with a philosophical paper, a philosophical poem is simpler, but more striking, somehow like 'a caricature of thought'. A caricature seems not as lifelike as a realistic painting, but it is its simplification and exaggeration that highlights features, and so guides viewers to appreciate the essence more 'accurately'. Here are few examples to illustrate such efforts:

´ To argue that religion is a man-made institution: 'We like to be praised so we praise God. We like big houses so we build churches. What runs through God's veins, is the blood of human beings'.
´ To explain the market and technology through human nature: 'Human beings are intelligent, human beings are competitive. The intelligence of competition is the market, the competition of intelligence is technology'. 
´ To reveal psychological similarities between love and religion: 'Love needs longing, just as a deity must be distant. Marriage deletes space, just as there is no religion in Heaven'. 
´ To state the precision of thoughts: 'Writing can be precise because thoughts can be. When reaching the level of no explanation, it is the water that can't be washed by water'.
Why should such writing be taken as philosophy?

Firstly, the issues are philosophical, in the sense that some hidden conceptual links which are generally significant can be revealed through reasoning. If a poem has achieved this, it has accomplished a task of philosophical inquiry.

Secondly, the tension between logic and literary needs requires that logic comes first. It may sacrifice certain literary attraction to maintain logical clarity and consistency (including using the means of definition, proposition, and inference), but never sacrifices logic for literary gains, nor takes advantage of language ambiguity to achieve false reason.

Thirdly, although reasoning in poetry may not be as rigourous as in philosophical papers, sensible use of poetic language can make it logically sufficient for delivering philosophical ideas. Logical precision is something acceptable within a range, just as most philosophical writings are not as rigourous as those written in formal language, as some logical formalists insist.

Finally, I would add that because it is philosophy, it makes poetry. When a poem is arguing philosophy, its literary loss, caused by abstraction, is compensated by the beauty of reason: the forcefulness of logic and the attraction of exploration. With the help of powerful images, metaphors, associations, humour, antithesis, and other rhetorical or structural means of poetry, a reasoning process can be presented beautifully as well as powerfully. But this is hardly a mission for those who lack imagination.

There can be many kinds of philosophical poems, from long pieces of serious investigations on big themes to short pieces of enlightening discussions. One of the advantages of short or medium pieces is that they can be welcomed not only by journals, but also at poetry readings, as I have experienced at various such events. This is most encouraging, because communicability is part of the philosophical process.

To the poems... 

Address for correspondence: 


In recent years, Chengde Chen's works have been accepted by publications in both philosophical and poetic fields, including: Five Themes of Today (Open Gate Press, London).

Caricatures of Thought (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

Philosophical Poems as ‘Caricatures of Thought’
by Chengde Chen

On High-heels and Foot-binding
  The heel of a high-heel shoe is the binding of foot-binding 
It has been the same road under different feet 
The footsteps of the hundred year women's movement 
is merely an aesthetic change from the Chinese to the Western - 
turning a compelled two dimensional restriction 
into a freely chosen three dimensional bending 
The social status is raised for a shoe-heel 
while the price is walking on tiptoes for life 
Oh, the ever-suffering feet, no matter how innocent you are 
the definition of 'feminine beauty' is to deform you 
Because this is the base enabling men to stand firmly 

On Love and Religion
  When I am in love 
it is like worshipping 
Longing is the temple 
Kissing is Heaven and Earth 
When I am worshipping 
it is like being in love 
Praying is sweet whispering 
Enlightening is the climax of the soul 
Being in love is deifying the object 
beautifying, privileging, and immortalising 
Man and deity attract as opposite sexes 
Life is ruthless medium for both 
Love needs longing 
just as a deity must be distant 
Marriage deletes the space 
just as there is no religion in Heaven 
A deity is an eternal lover 
A lover is a temporary deity 
So, some who have failed in love 
turn to religion, which is nearby 
Love plants seeds 
The deity becomes seeds himself 
The soul is conceived 
What follows nine-months pregnancy is faith 

How to Prove 'Doctors are Lower than Prostitutes'
If we agree on two seemingly reasonable assumptions 
we can prove the morality of doctors is lower than that of prostitutes 
The first assumption is: 
in a fully commercialised society everything is a commodity 
so all professions are businesses for making money 
The second assumption is: 
making money from agony and from pleasure are different - 
the higher the degree of compulsion, the lower the morality 
Then, it follows that a doctors morality is lower than a prostitute's 
Because when a doctor says "no money, no treatment" 
he is blackmailing a person in crisis 
While when a prostitute says "no money, no sex" 
she is merely trading goods for goods 
So, a man in a white coat is not necessarily an angel 
and a tall hospital can be lower than a brothel 
Is this strange? 
But this is the new ethics of a fully commercialised society 


On Boxing
  The madness of the thousands around the boxing ring 
is civilisation's sincere appreciation for barbarity 
Hit him! Hit him! Hit him again! 
Let the skull be smashed by the heaviest blow 
so that the plasma bursts out at body temperature 
If the ancient fight between gladiators and lions 
had some solemn heroism of competing against nature 
then men destroying each other in modern boxing 
is only a business of turning blood reeking into profit 
But the spectators then and now belong to the same civilisation 
- enjoying others expressing your own brutish nature! 
Roars delivered by language are still roars 
Barbarity transmitted by television is still barbarity 
Cruelty with regulations is still cruelty 
except that it can be more cruel! 
When a sport is destroying 
the competition is war 
All those condemnations of violence and sympathy for the injured 
including the noble talk of the Red Cross and RSPCA 
are merely putting on an act 
The seething excitement over the boxing ring has declared loudly: 
civilisation is a false appearance, as we are still what we were!

Aphorisms in Lyric (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

St. Matthew Writing from a Medieval Book of Hours (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A Christian Sense in Philosophy   

By Zura Shiolashvili  

Aphorisms can be seen as an art: making the best connection between existing knowledge so as to reveal some truth through the shortest expression. There seem to be two conditions for achieving this: first, the aphorism must be both profound in the thought that it expresses (not just a commonplace or triviality) and the language used must be strong yet terse. If all of these are achieved, the aphorism can be both enlightening and memorable.

Very few philosophers have tried to use this approach in their philosophy, although it was certainly there in the Ancient tradition of the Chinese sages, as well as in the writings of Parmenides and other Ancients. More recently, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein seemed to write almost in aphorisms. Here Zura Shiolashvili sets out to prove the case.

A word is like a brush that paints a picture, and its creator tries to breathe heart and a soul into it, whilst simultaneously expressing the sounds of nature, philosophy, music... An aphorism is seen then as a merging of art and philosophy - the separation of which, one from the other would leave just small pieces, devaluing that eloquent picture intended to guide us towards the truth.

Or an aphorism can be characterised as being like a valuable stone. The purer a stone is, the more precious. The same too, with the thought. But thoughts from the top of the true art have to captivate us not only with the beauty of their summits - but with the depth of their precipices as well. And these are precipices that should be filled with love - for the more saintly the basis of thought is, then the more brilliance its fruit will display, and it is the brilliance of the colours of this very fruit that represent philosophy. The fruit is its wisdom, the sainthood, its truth.

The free body with its instinct is the same beast that fights for existence. As the equilibrium of life is in pleasure, the beast is excited towards a pleasure by that bestial part which is within it. For the gained freedom is the loveliness of its passion, in this loveliness it gratifies the whim and finds its equilibrium.

It is difficult to be heartless by bewitching senses and allowing their jollification in the vivifying world. To go deeper - is it worth sacrificing ourselves for the pleasure of such attractiveness if it betrays the genuine essence - betrays the beauty? And when the glamour of body subjugates us, displacing that love which embodies our second source of cognition, our conversion into mere animals is happening.

To be insatiable with brutish passion is to be similar to the swine. Yet, in spite of that, the symbol of the swine's freedom is dirt . . . life is pleasant even for the swine. In the end, to close the book, we can give to all colourations of these views another face with the same meaning. If we tie together these points in one bunch of ideas, and then model a little sculpture from them, like a sample of art, indeed this should not be named prose, poem or wisdom, but merely the sculpture that it is. But its philosophical idea will be common for all of them . . .

Embroidery of each word with the thread of truth provides us not only with a supply of meaning to mediate on, but physically impacts on our feelings, making us more humane. In the emptiness of consciousness with the image of thoughts, it sparks such a beauty that before it the whole brightness of materialism is seen to be worthless.

Answers to questions connected with the spirit and its values too often leave a distinct emptiness in the heart, and the reason for this emptiness is the superficiality of these answers. Imperfect, they are unable to exist long. In this way aphorisms claim to be to be the beautiful answer for the replenishment of this emptiness.

One of the main functions of the frame by which they are styled is the personification of the punctually exact thought. On the one hand, as the complicated solution of an equation, which always gives our consciousness a possibility to breathe out, on the other, this solution reveals a grain of the new thought that is by now philosophy in itself. The content of wisdom could be called a key to a science of the soul, the science through which we shall create and conceptualise ourselves. For if we cannot conceive ourselves like this, what are we? Where are we from?

Scientific research about the universe is unconsummated - a frame made for the picture and not vice versa. The limit that divides and connects the soul and material world is that miracle we call God - and for believers the belief in this miracle will lead to a solution to the equation - to the questions science and philosophy generate.

One of the main reasons for matter's formation is in the emptiness in which it is yielded up, and without which it could not exist. So, it is that with the blend of the matter and emptiness, existence springs up this is where the thought builds its nest. If we recognise that this world embodies the little fruit of cosmic energy in which the thought exists, how much more real is the existence of such an element? And then the Questions: What is thought? From where has it been originated? Through what kind of nature do human minds mediate ?

Philosophy is unimaginable without wisdom, or is it that wisdom could not be without philosophy? The essence of both is truth, and their indivisible connections may be the only true art - so without this art both wisdom and philosophy are unimaginable. With it, their harmony is like the perfume of that fascinating garden which makes us drunk with the hope of eternity. And to be fully sober in such a garden is not only the negation of their beauty, but a kind of blindness too.

True words always charm and stay invariable. Through their thoughts we go somewhere far away, and not only to this extent. And the beauty of that perception which only human nature can neither imagine nor create nor conceptualise...

To the aphorisms...

Address for crrespondence

Zura Shiolashvili, email:

For publication of my writings my special thanks to:

The editorial board of The Philosopher;

Martin Cohen through whose efforts many versions for this publication have been done;
the online magazine New York Review
and Janice Curran-Koppell;
to Dawn A. Phillips,
S. Rebecca Bamford,
Simon P. James,

– at Philosophical Writings.

The Aphorisms (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

Aphorisms in Lyric
- A Christian Sense in Philosophy

by Zura Shiolashvili

1. Music is not just that which you listen to - it is also that which you see.

2. You search and cannot find, you eat and cannot be sated - this is to live in gloom!

3. A beast does not suffer bestiality but the human has to.

4. Everyone will receive the sacrament with death, just a handful, with life.

5. It is thought that beautifies a human being.

6. Through the thought, a part of matter and emptiness is personified it is the thought in itself, there is left neither the matter nor the emptiness.

7. The mystery of life's composition is in the unit of the fleeting moment. Its whole essence is in prolongation of this moment.

8. The greater the height you conquer, the lower you stand. Just because of this modesty, the blind trample you.

9. Life kills harder than death.

10. The future is the yoke for those who can not see.

11. When asses are in council, a pooch is howling all the time.

12. The beasts have their leader as well, but through that barbaric choice that is called brutality, and its essence is fear. (Is it not more dreadful to be a beast?)

13. You stand on the peak, the bottom of precipice moves your soul even there - this is the emptiness.

14. Who opens an eye, it burns the hardest of all.

15. Sometimes the heart treasure turned into a stone, holds dear much more, than the days it had been the treasure.

16. A cock who looks down on hens pecks just as a hens do! If you cannot bow, don't dream about height.

17. The value of hope is equal to immortality.

18. To be abandoned does not mean, as yet, that you are forgotten.

19. Buried and unconquerable is the one who fights in loneliness.

20. Thousands lament over you - this love is great, you lament over thousands - this love is greater.

21. A body is the fruit of the ground - the word is the fruit of heaven.

22. Science is the body of thought, philosophy is the spirit of thought.

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