Ethics in Verse

Boston University Trustee Scholars are encouraged to develop well-informed and well-reasoned views of important political and social issues. The University neither expects nor wants Trustee Scholars to espouse all the same principles or commitments, but we do try to select students who have a sense of how to present persuasive arguments in support of their views. With that in mind, write an essay of no more than 600 words responding to the following:

“Poetry is of greater ethical import than history since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates the particulars.”


Aristotle was wise to say that “poetry is of greater ethical import than history since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates the particulars,” for poetry can put one inside the universal body of human experience, while history, like a mirror, simply reflects to one the external details of that body. A poem is of “greater ethical import” because it has an ethos. Verses form around a deep universal truth that the poem is desperately trying to relate to humanity through particulars. History, however, is little more than the literal account of details, and so it is much more difficult to find the depths of human experience beneath the particulars of history than it is beneath the particulars of poetry. I have experienced this proof of Aristotle’s claim, as poetry rather than history has infused me with the insight and emotion I need for a deeper ethical understanding of war. I have never experienced war myself, and so any of my knowledge or understanding of it comes from outside sources. Reading about World War One in a history book, I would learn that fifty thousand American soldiers died in battle, and even more due to disease. But I would have a hard time imagining human beings into this figure, putting faces to this huge number. In fact, I would have a very hard time even imagining what over one hundred thousand people look like as a group. I would also learn about trench warfare and the Battle of the Somme and gas-bombs, but other than dates, numbers of casualties, and literal descriptions of the fighting, what else would I really know? Could I even imagine the furious noises, smells, and sights? And so the particular facts and details of history relate little more than those particulars. They lack an ethos, because they simply describe experience without truly relating it. And so it is difficult to find truly great “ethical import” in history and its facts and figures, for it is hard to weep over a number. But in poetry, particulars are used to relate experience, to relate the universal. Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est does indeed relate particulars: particular details of a particular scene observed by a particular individual. It uses these particulars to relate something much greater, a much more universal truth. The soldiers “coughing like hags” and the man’s “froth-corrupted lungs,” ravaged by gas, are not just details describing an event. They also intensely reveal deep truths about war that seem to resound with universal human experience: it is nothing but fear, horror, and tragedy. I might be able to intellectually arrive at this truth through the particulars of history alone, but then the truth would lack the emotion, intensity, and the feeling of having tapped into some kind of universal experience. Thus poetry is of much greater “ethical import” than history, for it has guided my ethical understanding of war, an understanding I used recently in an attempt to avoid superficiality when the National Honor Society decided that we should send “thank you” cards to veterans. Keeping in mind Dulce et Decorum Est, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, All Quiet on the Western Front, and numerous others, I wrote: “I don’t think I can adequately thank you for facing the hardships of armed service, nor satisfyingly congratulate you on having survived them, nor fully and truly understand the depth of your experience. But I hope that you see my gratitude in the fact that I am trying.”

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