It is apt for Plato to describe the quarrel between poetry and philosophy as an ‘ancient’ one (Republic 607b). Art and poetry reflect on our humanity; so does philosophy. Perhaps the affinity between poetry and philosophy is most clearly seen in the domain of human conduct or ethics. Both disciplines offer means for the enhancement of understanding, but this also leads to competition and tension. This article will examine what a poetic work of art itself can say about morality and ethics, and how morality in poetry can differ from morality in philosophy.1 My example here is the final reconciliation of Achilles and Priam in the concluding book of the Iliad. The moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant will provide some examples for the comparison. But first more needs to be said about moral motivation in philosophy.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant raises the question of what constitutes the moral worth of an action. He seeks to discover under what circumstances an action becomes a moral one. He then puts forward a moral philosophy which emphasises the importance of rationality in morality and argues that inclinations and impulses contribute nothing towards moral worth. Instead, moral worth consists in one’s following a rational, a priori moral law which binds all rational beings.
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