Jeremy Bentham, Push Pin, and Poetry

The Founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham once said, ” All poetry is misrepresentation.”   A pretty utilitarian concept, of course!  He asserted that push-pin (a trivial but popular game of that time) is as good as poetry or that a push pin player is as good as a reader of poetry. Art, he maintained, was devoid of utility.

How many of us who are passionate about reading and writing think this could be true that poetry is nothing but words dressed in their Sunday best?

In an age where STEM subjects get the bulk of attention in academics, poetry might be considered by some as masquerading the truth or embellishing the reality or even misrepresenting facts.  Scientists and Mathematicians might not be moved by rows of daffodils or the many ways to love or the rolling hills or plight of a black woman running from her white molesters or even factual details of wars. But whatever garb poetry wears, its body is made up of the blood inspired from reality.

So is poetry an impassioned truth or is poetry misrepresentation? It depends on who you ask this question. But according to Bentham a game of push pin is better any day as more people can engage in it than in poetry.

Bentham wrote, ” The utility of all these arts and sciences,–I speak of those of amusement and curiosity,–the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnished more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.”

Bentham proposes quantity. John Stuart Mills, another Utilitarian, talks about ‘quality’.

A few years of being blissfully in a rocking love life or three decades of being in a plain but stable marriage?

Of course, Mill’s theory comes with its own problems. He thinks higher pleasures are more desirable than lower ones.

Poetry has been defined by the age in which it is written. It need not be understood or used as a formula to achieve something, it is a subjective concept, a piece of music, a moving piece of symphony targeted towards those who are affected by it. If you find solace and pleasure in a game of push-pin versus poetry – do so by all means. Just don’t compare the art of poetry which truly fuels the soul for a longer time and enhances the senses to an activity that gives pleasure for a shorter duration.

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