Robert Frost, "Bond and Free" is a challenge to show not how philosophy engages particular issues in detail, but that it does so at all.

Robert Frost, "Bond and Free"

"What do philosophers do?" a student rightly asks. I find it useful to distinguish three ways we identify philosophers:

  1. Academics, scholars, and writers who study philosophic problems or the history of ideas
  2. Those who wrote books or created a body of thought which people wrestle with for decades, if not centuries
  3. People who are actually wise and seeking wisdom

I'm scared by how thoughtless and insensitive this world is. I think it's pretty clear other ages had some idea the third sort of person existed. That someone might be prudent, have special insight, or understand what was at stake. They didn't have to be exactly Leibniz or Noah or Gandhi; people understood that other people had values and were accompanied by a body of knowledge. And that some of those who had the values and knowledge could be exceptional.

Our age is fanatical. We built a cult in the name of being practical which reduced maturity to making money. This opened a door to a cursed hierarchy. The billionaire and the preacher are in the same business: they tell the poor they don't work hard enough while taking what little money they have. It speaks volumes, well before COVID-19, that Bill Gates read up and consulted with experts on pandemic threats. It's like you have to be rich to be a prophet. (Or a prophet only wants to know the future to play Draft Kings or sell Bitcoin.)

That fanaticism, I submit, means it is that much harder for us to see if someone is wise. I myself am tempted to believe that wisdom is a toolbox that has a solution to every problem I can conceive. I have to remind myself that's not what wisdom is. As much as I would like to be a human toolbox myself, useful to all, that too is a failure of moral vision.

Robert Frost's "Bond and Free" features luscious language and a folktale-like story about devotion. It's a gorgeous poem and I do not seek to criticize the work itself. I do believe, though, that it reflects a lot of people's notions of wisdom, notions which have caused significant damage. Already I can hear the complaints. A number of people I went to school with think Frost a Classic American™ Poet, one who represents a tradition of literature and reflection which we abandoned for unfettered capitalism and a compensated bureaucracy. My response to them, I believe, is the same as what Plato must have said privately to the poets: the nationalism is the problem. Frost sought popularity, greatness as the American poet, and that shouldn't be forgotten when he offers us a story which people pay handsomely to hear:

Bond and Free
Robert Frost

Love has earth to which she clings  
With hills and circling arms about—  
Wall within wall to shut fear out.  
But Thought has need of no such things,  
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.
On snow and sand and turf, I see  
Where Love has left a printed trace  
With straining in the world’s embrace.  
And such is Love and glad to be.  
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.
Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom  
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,  
Till day makes him retrace his flight,  
With smell of burning on every plume,  
Back past the sun to an earthly room.
His gains in heaven are what they are.  
Yet some say Love by being thrall  
And simply staying possesses all  
In several beauty that Thought fares far  
To find fused in another star.

In terms of craft, this is exquisite. The first three lines, before the couplet, have an "earth" which drops heavily when said. It resounds. The short "i's" of "clings," "hills," "circling" do not challenge that weight. "Wall within wall" concludes this short song, the repetition of "wall" itself a wall.

The trouble is the story. Love "clings" to this earth, "shuts fear out," leaves "a printed trace / With straining in the world's embrace." Love is sharing others' burdens, being a couple, making a family. The earthly things which exhaust us. So far, the poem is beautiful. Then there's "Thought." By contrast, he's free and decadent. He flies beyond the earth, going to the stars. He gets a bit burned. No one knows his value, because "His gains in heaven are what they are."

Photo by Cagatay Orhan / Unsplash

Can we get real? This poem was published in 1916. A year before, the KKK began to revive because of the release of "The Birth of a Nation."  You've got people a year later threatening to kill their German-American neighbors if they don't buy Liberty Bonds. Nine years later, at the Scopes trial, we can see how thoughtful American society has become. Of course Frost is allowed to write a folktale, and we're allowed to admire its craftsmanship. But it definitely feels like someone who can command attention of some significance has created a work more akin to propaganda than art.

I can't hold Frost to the standard of being "socially conscious," nor do I want to. But I am reasonably sure he's aware that being an intellectual or academic has always been a difficult position in America. If you do it right, people hate you. Here's William Dowling:

In America, a sense that university education represents a "higher" level of intellectual consciousness that threatens the ethos of mass democracy goes back to the beginnings of the republic.

It is nicely caught, for instance, in the bitter irony of a letter written to The Port Folio magazine in 1806 by a North Carolina correspondent, reporting that the "enlightened legislature" of his state has just stripped funds from the university because it has "discovered that education was inconsistent with democracy; that it created an aristocracy of the learned, who would trample upon the rights and liberties of the ignorant, and that an equality of intellect was necessary to preserve the equality of rights."

When Frost creates a caricature of "Thought" which finds popular appeal, I have to wonder what he's doing. It can be argued that he's merely posing a playful question: "some say Love by being thrall / And simply staying possesses all" which Thought finds in another star. Why can't he wonder if Love alone can give us what Thought seeks?

When I pose the question that way, you can see another problem. "Love" and "Thought" are gross oversimplifications. Even speaking about something more specific, like Socrates' lust for knowledge, is an oversimplification. But the latter can open a line of questioning about what knowledge, say, a philosopher really wants. "Love" and "Thought" left alone, in the popular imagination, by a writer with literary ambition has consequences. It's not that people will go to his poem to find out whether thinking for oneself has value or not. But they can find their suspicions of someone who reads too much reinforced. And they might start spouting off, not unlike a preacher or Presocratic, authoritatively about "Love" or the whole of "Thought." I've known people who have done this.

This problem has been on my mind because it is a challenge to show not how philosophy engages particular issues in detail, but that it does so at all. The notion that you go to philosophy class to ask "Is there a God?" is not merely prevalent among the "1 + 1 = 3" crowd. It's actually plaguing good students, students who need to make finer distinctions. I want them to know that they are building an understanding through time spent with an issue. When you do this, you tend not to speak in grand categories. You want to show you know the issue, expanding your ideas carefully by degrees. Speaking about all of "Love" or all of "Thought" is a fun game to a point. It's a tendency, ultimately, that undermines one's own craft.

After all, Frost has done something remarkable with craft. He's created a paean to older forms of poetry and myth. And he's done so in a folksy, popular manner, one which might quietly criticize those who have no need for "Thought," as they can't possibly know his heavenly gains. This should be a moment of celebration for American letters. But the ability to see what Frost is doing might be undermined by Frost's own poem. It's been anthologized and taught, but its conceit is either too playful or too accepted to warrant criticism.