Rationalist Poetry Fans, Unite!

byScott Alexander10y20th Mar 200934 comments


Related to: Little Johnny Bayesian, Savanna Poets

There are certain stereotypes about what rationalists can talk about versus what's really beyond the pale. So far, Less Wrong has pretty consistently exploded those stereotypes. In the past three weeks, we've discussed everything from Atlantis to chaos magick to "9-11 Truth". But I don't think anything surprised me quite as much as learning that there are a couple of rationalists here with a genuine interest in poetry.

Poetry has not been very friendly to the rational worldview over the past few centuries. What with all the 19th century's talk of unweaving rainbows and the 20th century's talk of quadrupeds swooning into billiard balls, it's tempting to think it reflects some natural order of things, some eternal conflict between Art and Science.

But for most of human history, science and art were considered natural allies. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, an argument for atheism and atomic theory famous for being the ancient Roman equivalent of The God Delusion, was written in poetry. All through the Middle Ages, artists worked to a philosophy of trying to depict and celebrate natural truth. And the eighteenth century saw a golden age of what was sometimes called "rationalist poetry", a versified celebration of Enlightenment principles.

When William Wordsworth launched his poetic jihad against rationalism, he called his declaration of war The Tables Turned. On a mundane level, the title referred to an argument he was having with his friend, but on a grander scale he was consciously inverting the previous order of Reason as the virtue of poetry. Thus:

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Over the next few years, he and fellow jihadis John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley were wildly successful in completely changing the poetic ideal. I can't begrudge them their little movement; their poetry ranks among the greatest art ever produced by humankind. But it bears repeating that there was a strong rationalist tradition in poetry before, during, and after the Romantic Era. In its honor, I thought I would share some of my favorite rationalist poems. I make no claims that this is exhaustive, representative, or anything else besides my personal choices.

The most famous rationalist poet is probably Alexander Pope (1688-1744), perhaps best known for writing Isaac Newton's epitaph:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.1

Indeed, Pope spent much of his career praising science and human reason, while also simultaneously lampooning human stupidity:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;
Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th'empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule--
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

I can't claim this as a complete victory for rationalism, since it was in the context of Essay on Man, a mysterianist work declaring that humans should never overreach their pathetic mental powers and question God's supremacy. Even the quoted passage is a little ironic, intended to convey that humankind, with such amazing science, had a tendency to shoot itself in the foot when it tried to overstep its bounds.

But Pope's appreciation for scientific progress was genuine, and he was also deeply interested in overcoming bias (which he, in his pre-Samuel Johnson way, called "byass"). His Essay on Criticism sometimes reads like a strangely spelled, classical-allusion-laden rationalists' manual:

Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools [...]
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend--and ev'ry Foe.

He exhorts us to think for ourselves, rather than take things on faith or blindly accept authority:

Some ne'er advance a Judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading Notion of the Town;
They reason and conclude by Precedent,
And own stale Nonsense which they ne'er invent.

But equally he reminds us that reversed stupidity is not intelligence:

The Vulgar thus through Imitation err;
As oft the Learn'd by being Singular;
So much they scorn the Crowd, that if the Throng
By Chance go right, they purposely go wrong;

And tells us to admit our errors, learn from them, and move on:

Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
An make each Day a Critick on the last.

At the end, he describes the person he wants judging his poetry: someone who sounds rather like the ideal rationalist.

Unbiass'd, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho' Learn'd well-bred; and tho' well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin'd;
A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind;
Gen'rous Converse; a Sound exempt from Pride;
And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side.

Pope came from a time when any person of good breeding was expected to be learned and able to converse about the scientific discoveries going on around them; an age when reason was actually trendy. There have been few such ages, and hence few such poets as Pope. But other rationalist poetry has come from people who were mathematicians or scientists in their day jobs, and poets only in their spare time.

Such a man was Omar Khayyam, the eleventh century Persian mathematician and astronomer. He did some work on cubic equations, wrote the Islamic world's most influential treatise on algebra, reformed the Persian calendar, and developed a partial heliocentric theory centuries before Copernicus. But he is most beloved for his rubaiyat, or quatrains, which recommend ignoring religion, accepting the deterministic material universe, and abandoning moral prudery in favor of having fun.

There are some beautiful translations and some accurate translations of Khayyam's works, but the rumor among those who speak Persian is that the beautiful translations are not accurate and the accurate translations are not beautiful, and that capturing the true spirit of the original may be hopeless. FitzGerald in particular, the most famous English translator, is accused of playing up the hedonism and playing down the rationalism. I've tried to select from a few different translations for this essay.

On determinism:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help - for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

On atheism:

What! out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent him dross-allay'd--
Sue for a Debt he never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

In every step I take Thou sett'st a snare,
Saying,”I will entrap thee, so beware!"
And, while all things are under Thy command,
I am a rebel - as Thou dost declare.

On Joy in the Merely Real:

If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank - the truth I tell -
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.

And unlike Alexander Pope, who is horrified, HORRIFIED at the thought that mankind might challenge God's divine plan, Omar Khayyam thinks he could do better:

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Needless to say, his contemporaries shunned him for such blasphemies. What would he say, they ask, when called before the throne of Allah to account for his beliefs? Well, he told them, he would say this:

Although I have not served Thee from my youth,
And though my face is mask'd with Sin uncouth,
In Thine Eternal Justice I confide,
As one who ever sought to follow Truth.

Compare the clarity of Khayyam, who is prepared to stand before God and justify himself without fear, to Pascal, who insists that we abandon our own intellectual integrity on the imperceptibly tiny chance that we might accrue some material gain. I find this quatrain - "in thy eternal justice I confide, as one who ever sought to follow Truth" - the only fully satisfying answer to Pascal's Wager.

Piet Hein (whom I've quoted here before) was another scientist who turned to poetry. During his career as a theoretical physicist and mathematician, he developed the superellipse and the game Hex (later studied by John Nash). His career as a poet began when the Nazis invaded his native Denmark. The censors would have prohibited any obviously rebellious literature, so he turned to writing odd little poems that seemed innocuous until you thought about them long enough, at which point they became obvious critiques of dictatorship. He continued writing after the war, usually on the theme of keeping things simple and avoiding stupidity.

This, for example, seems appropriate to a site called Less Wrong:

The road to wisdom? -- Well, it's plain
and simple to express:
      and err
      and err again
      but less
      and less
      and less.

If you've read Are You A Solar Deity or Schools Proliferating Without Evidence, you may see the humor in this quatrain about fitting the data to the theory:

Everything's either
concave or convex,
so whatever you dream
will be something with sex.

On the first virtue:

I'd like to know
what this whole show
is about
before it's out.

On the fifth virtue:

Truth shall emerge from the interplay
   of attitudes freely debated.
Don't be mislead by fanatics who say
   that only one truth should be stated:
truth is constructed in such a way
   that it can't be exaggerated.

On making an extraordinary effort:

Our so-called limitations, I believe,
apply to faculties we don't apply.
We don't discover what we can't achieve
until we make an effort not to try.

On fake justifications:

In view of your manner
    of spending your days
I hope you may learn,
    before ending them,
that the effort you spend
    on defending your ways
could better be spent
    on amending them.

Appropriate to the Singularity or to any of a number of fields:

Eradicate the optimist
 who takes the easy view
that human values will persist
 no matter what we do.

Annihilate the pessimist
 whose ineffectual cry
is that the goal's already missed
 however hard we try.

On reversed stupidity:

For many system shoppers it's
 a good-for-nothing system
that classifies as opposites
 stupidity and wisdom.

because by logic-choppers it's
 accepted with avidity:
stupidity's true opposite's
 the opposite stupidity.

On shutting up and doing the impossible:

'Impossibilities' are good
 not to attach that label to;
since, correctly understood,
if we wanted to, we would
 be able to be able to.

And even some poets who had no such formal acquaintance with science considered their poetry allied with its goals: an attempt to explore the universe and celebrate its wonders. This one's from Don Juan by Lord Byron, commonly (but, according to his own protestations, erroneously) classed with Wordsworth as a Romantic. I won't say there's not sarcasm in there, but Byron has a way of being sarcastic even when saying things he believes:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation --
'Tis said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation) --
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
In a most natural whirl, called "gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since immortal man hath glow'd
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.

And wherefore this exordium? -- Why, just now,
In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,
My bosom underwent a glorious glow,
And my internal spirit cut a caper:
And though so much inferior, as I know,
To those who, by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars and sail in the wind's eye,
I wish to do as much by poesy.

There's no sarcasm at all in this next declaration of Byron's, where he vows hostility to everything from despotism to religion to mob rule to fuzzy thinking to the Blue vs. Green two-party swindle:

And I will war, at least in words (and -- should
My chance so happen -- deeds), with all who war
With Thought; -- and of Thought's foes by far most rude,
Tyrants and sycophants have been and are.
I know not who may conquer: if I could
Have such a prescience, it should be no bar
To this my plain, sworn, downright detestation
Of every depotism in every nation.

It is not that I adulate the people:
Without me, there are demagogues enough,
And infidels, to pull down every steeple,
And set up in their stead some proper stuff.
Whether they may sow scepticism to reap hell,
As is the Christian dogma rather rough,
I do not know; -- I wish men to be free
As much from mobs as kings -- from you as me.

The consequence is, being of no party,
I shall offend all parties: never mind!
My words, at least, are more sincere and hearty
Than if I sought to sail before the wind.
He who has nought to gain can have small art: he
Who neither wishes to be bound nor bind,
May still expatiate freely, as will I,
Nor give my voice to slavery's jackal cry.

Byron on the progress of science, and on rejecting disproven theories:

If from great nature's or our own abyss
Of thought we could but snatch a certainty,
Perhaps mankind might find the path they miss --
But then 't would spoil much good philosophy.
One system eats another up, and this
Much as old Saturn ate his progeny;
For when his pious consort gave him stones
In lieu of sons, of these he made no bones.

But System doth reverse the Titan's breakfast,
And eats her parents, albeit the digestion
Is difficult. Pray tell me, can you make fast,
After due search, your faith to any question?
Look back o'er ages, ere unto the stake fast
You bind yourself, and call some mode the best one.
Nothing more true than not to trust your senses;
And yet what are your other evidences?

Again on the same topic (and some thoughts on the "wisdom of crowds"):

There is a common-place book argument,
Which glibly glides from every tongue;
When any dare a new light to present,
"If you are right, then everybody 's wrong"!
Suppose the converse of this precedent
So often urged, so loudly and so long;
"If you are wrong, then everybody's right"!
Was ever everybody yet so quite?

This is Byron at his sarcastic best on the value accorded truth in society:

The antique Persians taught three useful things,
To draw the bow, to ride, and speak the truth.
This was the mode of Cyrus, best of kings --
A mode adopted since by modern youth.
Bows have they, generally with two strings;
Horses they ride without remorse or ruth;
At speaking truth perhaps they are less clever,
But draw the long bow better now than ever.

I can't help ending this by saying a word in praise of the Romantics. Yes, they may have gotten their rainbows in a tangle, and they may have hurled every curse they could at "Reason", but I think they were less opposed than they let on. Consider as anecdotal evidence Percy Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford after refusing to recant his atheism. What the Romantics hated was anyone telling them how to think, and their quarrel with a science they did not understand was less with its methods and more that it seemed an authority. Thus John Keats, in the same year he wrote Lamia, also penned perhaps the greatest statement of the Joy in the Merely Real ideal ever, writing:

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

I think given an hour to talk to him and set him straight I could've convinced him there is no loss of beauty in accepting Newton's optics. It is true, after all.

I end with Shelley's description from Mont Blanc of the godless yet ordered essence of the universe that he worshipped:

The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law.

The laws that govern our own thought processes are the same laws that bind the infinite dome of Heaven. What better statement of the rationalist worldview could you ask for?

Now, what are your favorite rationalist poems?


1: I have since spotted the following addition to Pope's couplet:

It did not last; the Devil, howling "Ho!
Let Einstein be!" restored the status quo.