Saturday, May 21, 2016

Plato vs. Aristotle: some thoughts, hint Plato wins

Someone once said, I think it was Whitehead, that one is either a follower of Plato or a follower of Aristotle.  I have always felt closer to Plato.  This semester as a final exam project I had students in my Ancient Philosophy class take sides.  Most were Aristotelians, but there were a few Platonist in the crowd.  I confess that I have no love for Plato as traditionally interpreted, i.e. as a rigid dogmatist Pythagorean who attempts to understand the world as a merely reflection of ideal mathematics-like reality.  In relation to that Plato, Aristotle seems a breath of fresh air.  But the Plato I see is the one who wrote dialogues, who struggled every day with the questions of philosophy, who did not have rigid doctrines, who had a vision, yes, but also had a pragmatic side, thinking for instance that the bridle-user is the one best able to know a bridle, and who had a poetic soul even though he rejected imitative poetry in the ideal society.  I have always thought of Platonic Forms as ideal but not real entities, or at best quasi-real.  They are known as the objects of what we are searching for when we are trying to get at the essences of things.  They are charming although sometimes misleading hypostatizations of the process of Socratic dialectic. Aristotle thinks it is damning to charge Plato with giving us a mere metaphor when he says that things in the perceptual world participate in the forms.  But I think this is exactly what Plato intended:  a metaphor.  That Plato continued to believe in the Forms even after he raised the third man argument (in his version, it was the third largeness argument), shows that the third man argument does not hold much water when directed against what he really believe, not just against the caricature of a rigid Plato.  At first, Aristotle's corrective seems a good one:  forms are in things rather than in some separate unprovable realm, until you realize that it does not make much sense to say that ideals are in things. (It makes more sense to say that they are both in and not in things...more on that later.)  Aristotle's thinking about forms nicely translates into the idea that species have DNA, genetic plans that determine their development, except that DNA has nothing to do with ideals, as anyone with a genetic disease can confirm.  What is left of Aristotle when his forms are reduced to DNA?  When Plato has Socrates search for the form of Piety the answer cannot be some rigid structure pre-existent in things any more than it can be a rigid structure pre-existent in the world of Forms.  For Plato, I suspect the world of Forms, is every bit a myth, and even more useful as mythology, than the world of Gods it replaced.  Most important for me is that Plato leaves room for a powerful combination of mystic vision and ecstatic aesthetic experience. Diotima's philosophy as expressed by Socrates is the key to Plato's philosophy and its superiority to that of Aristotle.  It is noteworthy how weak Aristotle's defense of poetry is in the Poetics:  we should be happy with imitative art since it has therapeutic value, can get pity and fear out of our system, perhaps also give us a bit of knowledge of universals we couldn't get from history.  Blah blah blah.  Plato's attack on poetry is ironically much more friendly than Aristotle's milquetoast defense. The history of art might be seen as an attempt to say "Plato, you are right only in the sense that art has not achieved its highest goal, and certainly does not do so if it reduces itself to merely entertainment.  Art should reach to the realm of the gods, not wallow in the mud of mere amusement." Plato, by attacking art, became the hero of art.  Aristotle, by defending art, became its apologist.  Plato tells us at the end of the Republic that he is deeply moved by Homer and wishes someone would defend him.  Beware of getting what you wish.  Moreover, Plato does not attack art itself:  he sees the greatest artists, at least in the Republic, as creators of constitutions, i.e. as having grand cultural significance, not just as therapists eager to get you on the couch for a good cry. Not only that, but Aristotle is something of a thief.  It is not bad to borrow ideas, but a thief is someone who takes your property and claims it was always his.  Aristotle is supposed to be great for giving us the four causes, the material, final, efficient and formal, all of which are to be found in Plato, although not so neatly lined up.  Even the idea that the Forms can do nothing since they are in a separate world, although fair enough, is simply resolved by Aristotle by bringing in the idea of Love, much as Plato would anyway. Aristotle makes a big deal of dumping on Plato's notion of a separate realm, and then he finds he needs one himself, except his is ridiculously literal, i.e. the eternal realm of the stars and, beyond it, the Unmoved Mover, or fifty six of them, or whatever number he came up with.  (Don't you find this hilarious?)  The Unmoved Mover(s) is going to move everything by way of our love of it.  This is a far less sophisticated understanding of the relation between ideals and reality than that found in Plato's concept of the Good, which too moves us by way of our Love, as Plato makes perfectly clear.   Plato's idea of the Good can be consistent with Deism, Agnosticism or even Atheism, whereas Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is just a Theistic God ridiculously contemplating itself for eternity.  Perhaps Aristotle's only really good idea is his notion of potentiality and actualization of potentiality:  an idea, I suppose, that should allow us to forgive him for all of his other sins.  Oh yes, Plato did not quite have the idea of the final cause as distinct from the formal cause, but to be honest, neither does Aristotle, since he mushes them together as often as he distinguishes them.  At least Plato was not responsible for the years of bad science tied to over-reliance on teleology.  It took Galileo to get us back on the right track.  As for Aristotle's attack in the Nicomachean Ethics of Plato's concept of the good I just wish that Plato had had a chance to get back at him.  First, there is something disturbing about Aristotle's assumption, so contrary to Socrates, that we should base our notion of the good on common belief, as though commonality was itself an argument.  Again, and in the end, Aristotle is going to go the route of the conventionally understood Plato anyway in that he will see the final good as contemplation and scientific study just as Diotima and Socrates do in the Symposium (and yet the contemplation and study is really very different...Aristotle's being the study of an obsessive collector, whereas Plato's is that of a creative visionary).  But this is a far cry from the activist an idealistic Plato for whom the end result is the creative activity that comes out of grasping the Good. The happiness that Aristotle touts is OK, and better than most of what we get in this world, but seems strangely like the happiness that Nietzsche has so much fun mocking.   We get happiness in doing a job intelligently:  fine.  But when do we get joy?  What, happiness just is excellence at a particular skill?  I would like to see a debate in which Nietzsche and Plato take up against Aristotle and not against each other:  Plato and Aristotle are only superficially similar, whereas Plato and Nietzsche are only superficially different.   There is nothing Dionysian in Aristotle:  he is all Apollo.  Nietzsche gets his Dionysian/Apollonian duality from Plato.   Funny how these things work out.  Aristotle gives us the three lives of gratification, political activity, and study as the plausible routes to happiness, but all three are anemic versions of themselves.  As for gratification he has no idea of the way in which eros can animate the pleasure of the senses so that all else seems to melt away.  Plato at least recognizes how beauty of a boy's shoulder glimpsed in a gymnasium can be the start on a path to recognition of the great sea of beauty.  Aristotle, as does Plato himself sometimes, reduces the life of pleasure to the life of gratification: as though the whole point of sex was the orgasm, or the orgiastic life of Sardanapallus.  Aristotle cannot conceive of the Epicurean way of life, maybe even Epicurus couldn't, i.e. the life in which a taste of truly fine wine can give life meaning at least for a day. Similarly, his view of politics is cheap, a kind of Donald Trump view:  politics is all about fame, honor, reputation, making your name big so that everyone in New York City or Chicago can, has to, see it every day:  this is a far cry from the Solon and Lycurgas admired so much by Plato which themselves were so like the founding fathers of America, true politicians in every sense of the word.  Aristotle's and Trump's isn't the notion of politics is a creative craft. And this is the point overall.  Perhaps Aristotle missed it when thinking about potentiality:  creativity is a matter of actualizing something that only exists as quasi-real as a kind of beautiful illusion, a vision, something ideal.  Once we get rid of this, or reduce it to something like DNA, or reduce it to mathematical understanding (which Plato's other followers did) then the game is lost, only to be recovered by Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, each in their own way.  Even the life of study on Aristotle's view loses its generative power and becomes nothing but classification, all pretty much summed up by the notion that thinking could be explained by the syllogism,  All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.  (But since Socrates is one of the set that includes all men we could not possibly know the truth of the first premise without already knowing the truth of the second and also the conclusion.  Logic based on circular reasoning, to be short.)  There is much to be said for pursuing virtue as the mean and this will make for more happiness overall, but it is in stark contrast to radical world-making, to revolutionary thinking, to truly deep thinking.  Creative accomplishment is not going to be achieved by following the mean. Of course the good is something different in each craft...does Aristotle seriously think that Plato did not see that?  The good is not something definable.  It is ideal.  To seek the good in each craft is to seek to actualize the potential in each craft.  By the way, Aristotle's idea of potential is pretty much ruined by his association of it with matter.  The whole radical form/matter distinction is itself problematic as Heidegger observed.  Potential is not to be found in unformed matter:  unformed matter has no potential at all. Potential is to be found in breaking down boundaries, in looking to an ideal that transcends the actual.          

Monday, May 16, 2016

Aristotle on Amusement, Happiness, Everyday Life

In Book X of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle discusses happiness further.  It is here that he most clearly rejects a life of amusement and praises a life of study and contemplation.  It would seem on first sight that Aristotle would have little positive to say about the aesthetics of everyday life.  Happiness is an activity that is choiceworty, and amusement does not count in that.  Yet, amusement and entertainment make up a large part of what we consider makes life good these days.  For Aristotle, "pleasant amusements...are not chosen for other ends, since they actually cause more harm than benefit, by causing neglect of our bodies and possessions."  We often say that people who resort to amusing pastimes are happy, and Aristotle observes that they have a good reputation among tyrants, i.e. for their wit; but he also notes that "these powerful people have no taste of pure and civilized pleasure," which is why they resort to "bodily pleasures."  Decent people will consider these things base.  It is rather "the activity expressing virtue" that is most choiceworthy.   Moreover, it would be absurd if the goal of life were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves."  Indeed, effort aimed at amusement "appears stupid and excessively childish."  Aristotle does seem however to allow for amusement for relaxation since "we cannot toil continuously" and it is not relaxation that is our goal.  A slave "might enjoy bodily pleasures" but such a person would not be happy.   For more on amusement, happiness and the aesthetics of everyday life see my article in Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West Liu Yuedi Curtis L. Carter October 2, 2014 Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Friday, May 6, 2016

Aristotle on Nature and Artifacts


I want to explore for a bit the strange relationship between artifacts, particularly works of art, and natural objects in Aristotle.  The text I will be working with is Physics Book 2 Chapter 1, in the Reeve translation.  Natural things are distinguished from artifacts in that only the former have their principle of change and stability within themselves.  An artifact, of which he lists beds, cloaks and houses, “have no innate impulse of change.”  However, it turns out that such things are coincidentally something else, for example stone, and to that extent they do have such an impulse.  A doctor only causes himself to be healthy coincidentally since the subject of a craft like medicine is changed only by outside forces.  So even if the principle of change happens to be from within, as in the case of the self-curing doctor, it is not “in their own right.”  This implies interestingly that artifacts cannot have a nature and are not  “substances” in Aristotle’s peculiar meaning of that term.  A nature “is invariably in a subject” and that cannot happen to an artifact.  Aristotle rejects the idea that the nature of a bed is the wood since, even though rotting wood could become a tree the, result would not be a bed.  Antiphon believed that the craft of making wood into a bed is a mere coincident of the wood, and in a way Aristotle agrees with him.  But the problem with this is not in the account of the wood so much as in the materialism which Antiphon assumes:  that things just are their material substances.  A large part of Aristotle’s project, by contrast to earlier materialist philosophers, is to project something about craft back to nature, observing that the form of a natural substance is even more important than the material.  But doesn’t this dissolving of the boundaries between the conventional and the natural via bringing form to be essential to nature also lead to dissolving of the boundary in the other direction, i.e. in bringing the artifact closer to nature?  One way we speak of nature is as “the primary matter that is a subject for each thing that has within itself a principle of motion and change” and yet there is another way in which we speak of nature, i.e. in terms of the shape or form.  It seems sometimes that Aristotle emphasizes form as shape over form as something defined by a real definition, or treats both views of form equally, but note that he says that when something is only potentially flesh it is not yet flesh and only gets this “form by way of the account by which we define flesh.”  So the account given by the accurate definition has primacy over the form.  And that is why “form is the nature more than matter is.”  He tries to keep the natural and the artefactual separated, saying “just as we speak of craftsmanship in what is in accordance with craft and is crafted, so also we speak of nature in what is in accordance with nature and is natural.”  Can’t there however be something natural about craftsmanship? 
Back to Antiphon, he observes that some would say that “the nature of the bed is not the shape but the wood” because the sprouting would be a plant not a bed.  Yet he had only a few paragraphs earlier implied that the bed has no nature:  so how can he now speak about the nature of the bed, unless he thinks that Antiphon, unlike him, thinks the bed has a nature.  He thinks that Antiphon’s argument shows that the shape is also the nature since a man comes from a man. 
Then we get the odd sentence that “nature, as applied to coming to be, is really a road towards nature;  it is not like medical treatment, which is a road not towards medical science, but towards health” since medical treatment proceeds from medical science not towards it, while nature as coming to be is a matter of growing towards something, which he seems to think shows that the shape is the nature.  The shape in this case stands not only for the formal cause but also for the final cause:  even before he introduces the four causes (later in Physics) he is introducing this idea in these preliminary comments on nature.  What we are left with however is the idea that in the case of an art or craft the science comes first, it generating, in the case of medicine, the treatment, the goal of which is health in the subject.  The relationship of artifact to maker is peculiar in this way:  it is as though the combination of the creator and the artifact is a kind of natural unit:  it would be the self-moving unit similar to a human being or a plant. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

What is Medium? A sketch about a possible debate between Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, where Heidegger wins, but only by a nose

We constantly talk about competing philosophical traditions but often hesitate to actually have them come to terms with each other.  For instance Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, all writing roughly at the same time, all had a theory about the medium of fine art, one that was pretty central to their theories of art, and yet we see no accounts of the implicit debate between these philosophers (they probably never actually read each other.).  Both Dewey and Heidegger could, for example, be seen as both arguing in a profound way against Collingwood's concept of medium.  For Coillingood, medium is just related to the craft aspect of art, and really has nothing to do with art properly so called, which is to be found in the ideal realm of the mind.   Collingwood is deeply a dualist, although he has some interestingly anti-dualist ways of talking about the creative process in the studio:  he can be deconstructed in this way. For Dewey, by contrast, the relationship between medium and message is much more dynamic, much more difficult to tease apart.  Heidegger would join Dewey in rejecting Collingwood's idea of medium.  He would say that Collingwood's idea is a perfect example of the kind of dualistic way of thinking we find in the tradition of Western metaphysics, where the artwork is something above and beyond the medium, just a matter of applying form to matter.  (Heidegger would have a similar objection to Danto, whose dualism is much like that of Collingwood.)  He would also, I think, argue that Collingwood is too individualistic in his perspective, giving too much emphasis to the artist and too little to the way that Being can come into unconcealment in great art:  "the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work."  But Heidegger would also have a problem with Dewey's conception of medium.  Here the dialogue would probably be more subtle and complex.  Dewey and Heidegger would certainly agree that "there is something stony in a work of architecture."  But Heidegger goes far beyond that, particularly when he talks about the temple.  He says: "The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night."  There is a way in which the medium does not just exemplify itself but also does something to the surrounding environment in terms of the way it is experienced.  When Heidegger asks us to listen to Being he is calling on us to get back to the point where we can experience architecture in precisely this way.  So the material has a quality by which it is inter-animated by its relation to what Heidegger calls "the earth."  As Heidegger puts it "the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear [as it would in Collingwood], but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work's world," where "world" refers to the cultural world context of the work.  Dewey escapes the Collingwoodian trap to the extent that he brings in the notion that the universe serves as a kind of background to our experience of medium:  he is no dualist and usually deconstructs all forms of dualism.  And yet he doesn't go as far as Heidegger in the direction of a kind of religious atheism where the idea of medium becomes totally understood in terms of the earth/world dynamic in which earth is informed by its relationship to world and vice versa.  Today I feel that Heidegger gives us a richer and fuller view of medium than even Dewey.    

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Plato's Analogies of the Sun and the Line Deconstructed

Although deconstructionism is currently unfashionable I continue to find it inspiring as an interpretive methodology that allows for more creativity and depth of reading than one gets in a typical encyclopedia-style or strictly academic understanding.  One of my current projects is to read the great classics of philosophy with the eye of an aesthetician, this including works that do not have clear or obvious aesthetic or art-related passages.  This is related to my larger project of showing that aesthetics should not be considered peripheral to philosophy but rather as absolutely central.  So, to sum up, although Derrida is not fashionable within current aesthetic theory or in philosophy generally, and neither is aesthetics in English-speaking philosophy, I do not think that being fashionable is required.  It is ironic that one of main complaints about Derrida when he was fashionable was that the fashionable seemed to trump the true.  Now that he is not, perhaps we can just use his ideas about interpretation to focus on the true.  

The analogies of "the sun" and "the line," which appear in the Republic, are absolutely central to our understanding of Plato. In this post I will assume that the reader has recently read this material.  I will be mainly using the Reed translation as my point of reference.  The analogies are frequently taught, usually in conjunction with the "allegory of the cave," which itself was intended by Plato to explain "the sun" and "the line."

On the face of it, the metaphysics and epistemology set forth in these analogies is anti-aesthetic if aesthetics is seen as closely associated with perceptual experience, which would make sense given that the Greek word "aesthesis," which inspired Baumgarten in his coining of the term "aesthetics" in the 18th century, is associated with perception. "The line" gives us a hierarchy of being in which perceptual experience falls in the visible realm and in the realm of belief, below the intelligible realm, which is the realm of the Forms.  Using the allegory of the cave, we can see the business of the philosopher-king to be escape from a world of aesthetics into the intelligible realm.  This thought is intensified when we think of the arts, which are also usually associated with aesthetics.  Most of what Plato says about what we consider the fine arts falls under what he calls the "imitative arts," and these clearly would be classified in the lowest portion of the line, that is the realm of images and imagination. (The allegory of the cave tells a somewhat different story in that the arts, along with rhetoric and any other opinion-generating mechanism, are portrayed not as shadows on the walls of cave but as the activity of the puppeteers who project the shadows.)  Even the practical arts, which might for example include architecture, would not rise above the realm of belief, plants, animals and artifacts, which, although not as low in the hierarchy as the realm of images, is still beneath the intelligible realm.  So, strictly speaking, Plato is anti-aesthetic on most definitions of that term.  True understanding comes, according to Plato, from dialectic, and operates only at the level of the Forms.  

Of course there are a number of things that undercut this picture at least to some extent.  First, as has often been observed, although Plato downgrades images, it is obvious that analogies and allegories of the sort that he himself (or Socrates) is using here are images.  The allegory of the cave can itself be seen as a kind of story and it is hard not to see it as an example of imitative art.  How can Plato put any trust into something that he has just rejected? 

There are perhaps even more significant ways in which the standard interpretation, as valid as it is on one level, might be undercut, i.e. in a way to bring out a deeper more authentic truth. Take, as a starting point, the more complex role that images play in "the line" than it seems at first.  Images seem not to be able to stay in their place:  they seem to wander up the line.  Let me explain. We find that the mathematicians, who are concerned with the sub-realm of "thought" in the intelligible realm, use images in the dirt (or in my youth on blackboards) to make points about things that are not themselves visible.  These things that are used as images are called "hypotheses."  As Socrates puts it, "the soul using as images the things that were imitated before, is forced to base its inquiry on hypotheses..."  Moreover, the mathematicians "use visible forms and make their arguments about them, although they are not thinking about them, but about those other things that they are like.." (510d) [i.e. the mathematical Forms, such as the Circle] and, further, "the soul [of the mathematician] is forced to use hypotheses in the investigation of [the intelligible realm], not traveling up to a first principle, since it cannot escape or get above its hypotheses, but using as images those very things of which images were made by the things below them..." (511a)  The last quote clearly shows the kind of upsurging of images to which I have been referring.  

Plato himself seems to have been well aware that the images and imagination are not by any means stably down below. Of course it could be argued that images do not infect the uppermost realm since, at that level, dialectic moves without images. As Socrates puts it, reason grasps the upper realm "by the power of dialectical discussion treating its hypotheses, not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is, stepping stones and links in a chain), in order to arrive at what is unhypothetical and the first principle of everything." (511b)  It then "reverses itself" and deduces downwards to a conclusion.  In both processes, it makes "no use of anything visible at all, but only of the forms themselves."

Fine, but note again the two functions of hypotheses.  In both cases they are remarkably like analogies and hence like images.  Indeed, they operate as a kind of image even though in the intelligible realm. This happens fairly obviously for mathematicians at the first level: the mathematicians "make their arguments with a view to the square itself...The very things they make and draw, of which shadows and reflections in water are images, they now in turn use as images..." When something is used as an image that seems very similar to it actually being an image.  Now in dialectical (i.e. philosophical) discussion at the highest level the hypotheses are "treated not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is as stepping stones and links in a chain)...." (511b)  "Treating as" seems to be key here.  They are being used as images or in an imaginative way too.

So now, let us consider the unhypothetical, i.e. the first principle. The idea of dialectic is presumably that the philosopher engages in something like the Socratic dialogue in which he sets forth various definitions of the matter at hand, say "justice," each one of which is refuted, until he or she grasps the form of Justice itself, which is unhypothetical. Now we understand the unhypothetical in terms of the previous analogy of the sun.    

The analogy of the sun also contains a kind of infection or, to put it more positively, an upsurge of the aesthetic, although this time not in terms of images but in terms of two elements: a creative process similar to that of artistic creation and an intensification of experience similar to that produced by art. First, we already know that there is a close association between the Good and Beauty itself as discussed in the Symposium, although admittedly Plato makes clear that these are distinct in the Republic.  Nonetheless the Beautiful is at the top of the ladder of love in the same way as the Good is at the top of the realm of Forms.  

More important, the Good itself has some interesting features that relate it in some ways to aesthetics.  It is "beyond being" which means that it is strangely similar to anything that is fictional, for example unicorns.  Moreover, it seems to be understood mainly in terms of its effects. This is, of course, by way of analogy to the sun.  So the sun is understood in terms of its ability to generate light, which is seen as a necessary medium between the eyes and the visible world. Similarly the Good radiates truth and thus makes the intelligible realm intelligible.  It also sustains the intelligible realm in much the way that the sun sustains life by way of its rays.  This generative function makes the Good something creative, as though it itself were an artist.  One could even say, borrowing from Schopenhauer, that the world is the image of the Good, or perhaps the world is an image in relation to it as shadows are in relation to us.  It turns out, for Plato, that the Good even begot the visible realm as its analogue. (508c)   It is a creator God, but God not so much as maker but as father.  

In describing the analogy between the sun and the good colors play an important role:  the light of the sun "makes our sight see best and visible things best seen" and "when our eyes no longer turn to things whose colors are illuminated by the light of day, but by the light of night, they are dimmed and seem nearly blind.."  (508d) So, it is through the intensity and vividness of colors, when seen in their most appropriate light, that we draw the analogy.  Yet the intensity and vividness of colors is an important feature of painting as a fine art.  (Dewey observes that they gain this feature partly from the way they capture the other sense modalities, and he thinks another feature of this intensity, almost religious in nature, is the way in which the presence of the surrounding universe and its deeper nature is contained in the experience.  I will discuss this in another post).  Now it is grasping the form of the Good that also gives philosopher-kings their appropriate power, their ability to perceive the good in things and act appropriately.  As Socrates puts it,  "what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good" (508e)  

Again, the good is known mainly through its effects, through what it generates.  Thus the good is very unlike, and this is an important point, the Parmenidean One.  Rather than being distant from the world of change, the Good is its generator.  It is the source of creativity both in the world of the Forms and in the visible world. Moreover, although the Good is not Beauty, it is the most beautiful: As Socrates puts it, "Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things.  But if you are to think correctly, you must think of the good as other and more beautiful than they."  

Finally, just as the sun provides visible things with their power to be seen it also provides "for their coming-to-be, growth, and nourishment..."  and similarly the Good provides for the "existence and being" of the Forms.  Although Plato does not go into this I suspect (or can imagine a story that says that) the relationship between the Good, the Forms, the Sun and the visible things is dynamic and interactive, i.e. that the Good cannot work its magic without the Forms or even without the visible world.  

My reading has been deconstructive but not in the sense of destructive or skeptical.  Instead I have used the deconstructive method in a hermeneutical way, trying to uncover hidden meaning which I believe is really there.  In the last paragraph above I attempted a subtle transition to "what Plato should have thought...or would have thought if he thought his thoughts all of the way through."  What Plato should have thought would have been a lot closer to what Dewey thought.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Aesthetics and the two Cities of Republic Book II

Socrates describes two cities in Republic Book II, a healthy one and a feverish one.  It is interesting that he quickly dismisses the healthy one and spends most of his time investigating the sick one, although once he has devised an ideal Republic what we have what we will have in the end will be much closer to the healthy city.  In particular it will be missing many of the things that seem to make life aesthetically enjoyable not only for Glaucon and his friends but also for us. 

It is not clear that aesthetics is entirely absent from the healthy city even though the key concept is satisfaction of need, for example in clothing, food and housing.  There are craftsmen in this city, for example weavers and shoemakers, and Socrates does mention of the quality of their goods.  The quality would moreover tend to be increased by the provision that each craftsman focus on what he does best. He would, for example, "of necessity, pay close attention to what has to be done and not leave it for his idle moments."  (370c) resulting in "plentiful and better-quality goods."   (I am using the Reeve translation.)

An idea of the aesthetic situation of these people is made more clear when their lifestyle is described.  It is spare but pleasant.  For example, "for nourishment, they will provide themselves with barleymeal and wheat flour, which they will knead and bake into noble cakes and loaves..."  The idea that the cakes and loaves are "noble" might be an aesthetic judgment.  Nor do they go without desert, although desert will consist merely of figs, chickpeas and beans (what kind of desert is that?)  Parties happen too:  the citizens will "crowned with wreaths, hymn the gods," and the enjoyment of sex is also mentioned, although not in the Shorey translation. They will even have relishes, for example salt, olives, cheese, although again, this class strangely includes boiled vegetables. 

The "luxurious/feverish society" is something else again.  It is introduced when Glaucon replies that the healthy society is a society of pigs, not humans.  The fevered city will be much more like the city he lives in and the one we live in.  Some might find aesthetic experience entirely associated with the second city, but as I have argued, the first seems to have its own, spare, aesthetic. The luxurious society includes many crafts that Plato disapproves of in various of his dialogues.  Here, Socrates introduces it to see how justice and injustice "grow up" there as well as in the healthy one.   The new society is brought up since the healthy one will not satisfy some people.  They will now get furniture, more elaborate relishes, incense, perfumes, prostitutes, pastries, as well as painting, embroidery, gold and ivory (both presumably as parts of jewelry or decoration).  This requires that the city be larger and presumably more powerful.  In addition to increased everyday luxuries, the new city will require the imitative arts, many of which "work with shapes and colors; many with music - poets and their assistants, rhapsodes, actors, choral dancers, theatrical producers" as well as producers of adornments for women.  There will also be beauticians and barbers as well as fine cooks and, strangely, pig farmers.  Doctors will be needed, presumably to cure the citizens of all of the illnesses caused by overindulgence.  This greater level of luxury would require more land and hence the land of neighbors since what is needed for all of this is "endless acquisition of money," which then leads to war.  Socrates then goes on talk about war as yet another craft in which one can specialize.  

So, let's say that, following Rawls, one goes behind the veil of ignorance, and chooses between these two societies, between these two lifestyles that involve two very different aesthetic standards. This is, by the way, the kind of choice Rousseau later encouraged, that is encouraging us to choose the less luxurious one.  The "healthy" society is also chosen by many religious communities. The question is, do we pay too much of a price for our luxuries, luxuries understood to include a very large part of the things we consider good today, for example fine food?  If the cost of what Socrates calls "luxuries" (which are different in some respects from what we would call luxuries, of course) is war, perhaps they aren't worth it.  I just don't know:   I like my fine food, wine, art museums, fashion design, nice furniture.  I wouldn't want to have all of these at the cost of war.  Socrates does forget to mention, or is maybe unaware, that the healthy society also needs an army, not to protect its luxuries but to protect itself from enslavement.  So if we have to have the army, and hence the possibility of war, why not the luxuries too.        























Did the Ancient Greeks Scour their Sculptures for Contests?

Here's a puzzle.  We have always heard that ancient Greek sculptures were painted and that the current look of such sculptures in museums is wrong since the painting is gone.  However, and I am not sure anyone else has ever mentioned this, Plato indicates that statues were scoured for competitions.  Wouldn't that mean to take off the paint?  Could it be that the Greek aesthetic ideal was without paint?  Here is the passage, where the scouring is used as an analogy:  "My dear Glaucon, how vigorously you have scoured each of the mend in our competition, just as you would a pair of statues for an art competition."  Reeve translation, 361d. Admittedly, the scouring could just be a thorough cleansing.  The Shorey translation uses "polish" instead:  "how strenuously you polish off each of your two men for the competition for the prize as if it were a statue":  Shorey's translation does not imply that there were art competitions.  A polishing might just bring out the colors instead of scouring them off.