Jeremy Bentham on “Push-Pin versus Poetry”

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. The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consist [sic] in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through coloured media, and strive to make every one else do the same. It is true, there have been noble spirits, to whom poetry and philosophy have been equally indebted; but these exceptions do not counteract the mischiefs which have resulted from this magic art. If poetry and music deserve to he [sic] preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.

Jeremy Bentham, from The Rationale of Reward, excerpted and reprinted in: The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), p. 94. Emphasis added.

If you don’t know what push-pin is, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push-pin

Questions: Are children’s amusements really equal to (or better that, in all truthfulness, for Betham) than the ‘high’ arts? How does taste come into play here?

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~ by logorrheic on October 5, 2010.

5 Responses to “Jeremy Bentham on “Push-Pin versus Poetry””

  1. Man this is a tough question. I go back and forth between an answer. First, I DO want to say there is a difference between ‘high’ arts and ‘low’ arts. I WANT to make this argument, but find it unsuccessful. The main problem for me is; how to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. The distinction I want to make is, intellect. Similar to Mill, bodily pleasure = lower, intellectual pleasure = higher. Again, it seems like almost any lower pleasure can be a higher in some way (Drinking sounds like a lower, but not to a wine connoisseur). So that leaves me with the second option.

    These pleasures ARE equal. Like Bentham says. But again the problem here is simple. I WANT to argue poetry is somehow ‘better’ than pushpin, I just cant do it.

  2. An alternative to Bentham’s proposal would be the two activities stimulate different areas of our entity. In most of us there is enough room to enjoy both activities in different ways, and not leave the fine arts only for the discriminant minds. Exceptions, surely do exist.

  3. Pushpin was unable to stand the test of time while music and poetry leave an indefinite mark on humanity.

    Nobody plays pushpin anymore but many listen to Beethoven and read Plato. Should the arts then not be held supreme to such trite pleasures?

  4. Bentham sets things up so that value is measured by pleasure, but one can object that pleasure is neither the sole nor the most important measure of value. Poetry and music cultivate intellectual abilities such as reflection, discernment, concentration, and contemplation, none of which are exercised by push-pin, which is a diversion from intellectual activity. Poetry can certainly help one discover what is worthy of reflection and contemplation, and in that sense it can help create and transmit a culture where the value of anything is understood by contemplating its inherent worth, and not simply by calculating how much pleasure it produces. Rather than ‘fatal’ to poetry, truth is vital to it, for poetry unconcerned with the truth of things ceases to be poetry and becomes mere rhyme.

  5. […] First, it might be possible to make an objective rank-ordering of experiences, so that not only is poetry better than pushpin, but Wordsworth is better than Leigh Hunt because the former’s verse is superior. […]

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