Saturday, September 27, 2014

Aesthetic Atheism and Plato's Phaedo

Why do I love Plato even in reading the Phaedo, where there are so many things he has Socrates say that I deeply disapprove of?   What is this fascination I have, as an atheist, with this thinker who clearly hates the body and loves this ethereal, invisible, really non-existent thing he calls the soul?  My ambiguous, deeply conflicted, feelings about Plato remind me of his own feelings about Homer and the "Homeric tribe" (by which he mainly meant the great Greek playwrights of his time).  He loved them but at the same time wanted them outlawed from the ideal Republic and, at the very least, censored.  I would not want Plato outlawed or censored, but when he has Socrates talk with such distaste about the pleasures of the body (and these include not just the pleasures of eating and sexuality but the pleasures of all the arts), I wonder at my continued fascination.  The whole idea of "two kinds of existence, the visible and the invisible...the invisible always remains the same, whereas the visible never does..one part of ourselves the body, another part is the soul...[which is] not visible to men"(79a-c)  seems ridiculous when taken literally.  Socrates even goes so far as to question empiricism itself, and hence the basis of all of our scientific knowledge:  "when the soul makes use of the body to investigate something, be it through hearing or seeing or some other sense....it is dragged by the body to the things that are never the same, and the soul itself stays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk, insofar as it is in contact with that kind of thing."  (79c)   The alternative is when "the soul investigates itself":  when it does this it "passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging...and experiences that which is called wisdom."  (79d) 

Again, what is my fascination with what, on the face of it, seems to be just so much hocus pocus and malarky?  I think there is a truth here and that it needs to be found through an, at least partially, sympathetic reading, one that interprets via applying a vigorous principle of charity.  This is part of the larger question of how we humans can communicate with each other even when we disagree so much on so many fundamental points.   It must require taking a different perspective, reading something that is perhaps intended as literal as metaphorical instead, and in a friendly way.  It is often interesting to read others one disagrees with while asking the question "how could that seemingly wrong theory be read in a way that makes it true or at least interesting?"  This requires distancing oneself from one's own disagreement, from one's considered stance, from one's "belief."  It requires not taking one's beliefs so seriously, or sticking by them so rigidly.  It involves imagining what it would be like to live in the conceptual and experiential world inhabited by one's ideological opponent.  It requires more than that, something like what Hans Georg Gadamer called a "fusion of horizons":  a fusion of one's perspective with that of the other other....finding some key or path that can open up a shared space and can thus make it possible for one's own horizon of belief to soften, become more flexible, expand, adapt, and try out new stuff. 

Back to Socrates:  when I read the Apology I am thrilled by the concept of wisdom as being something different from mere knowledge, and knowledge as being something more than a mere collection of true information.  Empiricism may be true, but needs  to be supplemented, for example by the kind of self-reflection found in the Socratic dialogue.  Empiricism collects data under concepts, but self-reflection deals with the concepts themselves. Self-investigation is a matter of questioning one's own assumptions, and, in the Socratic mode of wisdom, no longer considering oneself as knowledgeable as one once thought.  Empiricism which looks to knowledge based on the senses must be supplemented with self-knowledge, or perhaps wisdom, which is higher than self-knowledge.  Wisdom needs both the senses and reflective thought. 

Another possible truth hidden in here has to do with the term "same as themselves" as when Socrates says of the Beautiful itself that it "really is" and remains "the same and never in any way tolerates any change whatever." (78d)  Sameness is what rules the world of the Forms.  But, setting aside the mythology of such a realm, could we not say that "sameness" is something that we experience.  We can persuade ourselves in a Heraclitean or Derridean moment that the everything in the world is constantly changing, but in reality this is a philosopher's illusion:  in fact, we experience sameness every bit as much as we do difference.  Sameness seems more mysterious, perhaps, since we ask, how can different things be equated? To say that two things are the same seems a contradiction.  One part of the equation must be redundant, a mistake.  And to say that "a thing is the same as itself" seems to be saying nothing at all.  What can be more nonsensical because tautological than the statement "It is itself."  (Perhaps difference, too, requires sameness, as it makes no sense to say that two things are different if we cannot identify the two things.)  Yet, if sameness is experienced and if we even experience some things sometimes as being preternaturally themselves, or as exemplifying the kind of thing they are to such a degree that they seem to have a transcendent quality, isn't this experience somehow to be integrated into our thinking if that thinking is to be complete?  Granted, there are no Forms in some other realm or even in Aristotle's sense of universals. Still, there is  the phenomenology of it, the experience of things as partaking of sameness, i.e. in this special way.  Of course there are more ordinary uses of "same," uses that simply indicate redundancy.  When we discover that the morning star is the same as the evening star we discover that we only now need one term....we can drop the other.  I don't think this is what Socrates had in mind when he spoke of "the same" or "sameness."

Socrates says "the invisible always remains the same." (79b)  Perhaps the invisible symbolizes that aspect of a thing which is not quite part of sense perception but rather is in the aura of meaningfulness, of significance, that emanates phenomenologically (not physically) from the thing we experience when we experience it as beautiful or as participating in infinity, the divine, or "the one" (all of these things meaning much the same in this context.)  Each thing when it is perceived as participating in its own essence does precisely this.  And this is, in a way, invisible (say, for example, to someone else who only perceives the bland version of the object.)  Of course, Plato wouldn't like that, since an appeal to phenomenology is still empiricist, and the experience is still mediated by the senses.  But this is the best I can do with Plato.  He might call this a matter of grasping "with the reasoning power of the mind" (79a) but this would confuse the process of dialogue (which surely involves reasons and reasoning) and the end product, which is a grasping with the mind (or rather mind/body, as I would have it) of something apparently invisible.  Socrates' great discovery was in recognizing the power of dialogue as a practice of self-reflective examination that can reveal the essences in things, even though these are not to be taken as literally eternal and unchanging.

Sometimes I like to think that the hidden (and unconscious to Plato and Socrates themselves) message here, the truth behind the metaphors, is that there is an aspect of our experience that is as if divine, as if pure, as if unchanging, and that this is a necessary illusion.  But perhaps the world is also sometimes as if all impure, as if without the divine, as if totally changing, and perhaps this too is a necessary illusion (which would put a crimp in my avowed atheism.)

I favor a process that switches back and forth between those things Plato symbolically called body and those things he symbolically called soul.  There is some value in taking the perspective sometimes in seeing the soul as "bewitched by physical desires and pleasures to the point at which nothing seems to exist for it but the physical, which one can touch and see or eat and drink or make us of for sexual enjoyment" (81b) and for the soul to be bewitched in another way, i.e. as escaping the body and being "pure and by itself." 

To say that investigation through the eyes is "full of deceit" 83a can perhaps be read, against the intended grain, as saying that in the 21st. century our over-reliance on the visual image on screen leads to a kind of delusive shallowness that must at least be balanced by a search for wisdom, and this by way of dialogue (both internal and in the debate form) and a deeper form of writing, a form Plato called philosophy.  Hence:  "Philosophy...persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses insofar as it is not compelled to use them and bids the soul to gather itself together by itself, to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands, and not consider as true whatever it examines by other means...what the soul itself sees is intelligible and invisible."  (83b)  Perhaps, I have suggested, this is a necessary moment in the creative process of thinking (i.e. in any creative process):  not the final point, but rather something to switch to, to accept, although recognizing that it is a kind of fiction, a necessary myth, one that entails, interestingly, both extreme skepticism and extreme individualism (who would have thought that this was a demand of Plato's?) and extreme attentiveness to the invisible (auratic) aspect of things.  And then after that moment, toggle back to sensuous, visible world, and try to synthesize the two.  Isn't this better than simply rejecting Plato as giving us a false theory?



  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Plato's Phaedo and Beauty seen from the Perspective of Aesthetic Atheism

Most aestheticians ignore Plato's Phaedo.  It does mention the eternal form of Beauty, but it seems that Plato has more interesting things to say about Beauty in the Symposium and the Greater Hippias.  The Phaedo is generally treated as mainly about the Forms, of which Beauty is just one example.  But it is the first example he always gives, and so maybe it plays a more important role here than the other Forms mentioned. We learn early on that Beauty cannot be apprehended by any of the sense organs but only by the mind alone.  But the most interesting discussion begins at  99c 137 (I'll use both the Stephanus numbers and the page number from the Grube translation Five Dialogues, Hackett, 2002) where we learn about the early life of Socrates, his rejection of the materialist view of causality, and his similar rejection of the philosophy of Anaxagoras, who began by talking about Mind as a causal principle, but then ended by seeming more like a traditional materialist anyway.  This disappointed the young Socrates. He then came up (according to this autobiographical note) with a new theory of change, and a new methodology.  The new method is to take refuge from the blinding quality of apprehension of things through the senses in "discussions," by which he means investigating "the truth of things by means of words."  He interestingly sees words as not like images but more like facts in reliability. The new method is to start with a hypothesis, i.e. "the theory that seemed to me the most compelling," and assume that whatever agreed with this was true.  So he turns to his hypothesis of the Forms and proceeds from this, assuming the existence e.g. of "a Beautiful itself."  The end product of this new method, he predicts, will be to show that the soul is immortal (which is the goal of the Phaedo.)  His claim is that if there is anything beautiful besides the Beautiful itself it is so because it "shares" in the Beautiful.

Now the interesting thing comes in the next passage (100d, 138) where he rejects "other sophisticated causes" for example the claim that "a thing is beautiful because it has a bright color or shape or any such thing."  That is, he rejects any definition of beauty in  terms that would seem natural in that they would refer to some combination or mixture of things in the sensible world. Perhaps he rejects any definition of beauty at all! But whether that is so is not made clear here.  In any case, he would clearly reject a number of theories of beauty. He would, for example, reject formalism where the emphasis is placed on relations between lines, planes and colors.  Instead, he holds ("naively, and perhaps foolishly" -  recognizing the apparently outlandish nature of his claim) "all beautiful things are beautiful by the Beautiful."  And then, rather wildly, he calls this "the safest answer" in the sense of being safe from falling into error (as though this sort of safety was a sufficient  condition for truth).  Another way of putting the thesis is then offered: that it is "through Beauty that beautiful things are made beautiful."  Similarly, he argues that a thing is big because it shares in Bigness, or is bigger "by Bigness."  On the face of it, all of this seems "safe" only because it is tautological:  he seems to be saying that the beautiful is beautiful because it is categorized under the concept of Beauty, unless, of course, the form of Beauty (or Bigness), really does something here.  I suspect that the main point is that we cannot give an account of the beauty of a thing, cannot define it or break it down into parts, but that simply see an object as beautiful if we see it as partaking in this very different thing (because eternal and unchanging) called Beauty itself, i.e. we see it as partaking in the infinite or the divine, or the divine aspect of itself.  In secular terms this might be translated into a plausible hypothesis that a thing has beauty if it has an aura of the infinite, the divine or the eternal.  The existence of the aura does not require that there actually be something divine or eternal.  This then, is a kind of metaphysical "seeing as."    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plotinus and everyday aesthetics (and architecture)

For Plotinus (Ennead I.6, On Beauty, MacKenna translation) the beauty of the sensuous realm is hardly the most important kind of beauty.  Yet he has something valuable to say about it.  He begins his discussion of beauty by noting that there is both beauty of sight and of hearing (which includes music) in the sensuous world, as also a beauty of the realm above sense, including the beauty of human virtues.  He will quickly turn to focus on this non-bodily realm.  Still, he at least asks what makes material forms and certain sounds beautiful.  His larger issue is whether there is One Principle for both kinds of beauty, the embodied and the bodiless, only the later being beautiful in itself.  Since not all bodies are beautiful, he asks, what is it that "attracts the eyes" in a beautiful object, giving us joy at the sight of it?  Most previous thinkers identified this with symmetry of parts, along with "a certain charm of color."  We find this idea for example in the Pythagoreans, in Aristotle, and also in the Stoics.  On this view, "only a compound can be beautiful," and the parts only have beauty "as working together to give a comely total."  Yet, he argues, "beauty in an aggregate demands beauty in details."  A beautiful whole cannot be made out of ugly parts.  Moreover, there are things that are beautiful, for example, individual colors, the light of the sun, gold, lightning by night, and the stars, whose beauty cannot be understood in terms of symmetry.  Similarly in a beautiful musical composition the individual tones are delicious in themselves.  Moreover, things that are symmetrical are only sometimes beautiful.  So it follows that symmetry "owes its beauty to a remoter principle."  We also find that beautiful things perceived by the intellect, like noble conduct, excellent laws and abstract ideas also cannot be explained in terms of symmetry.  Note that, by attacking symmetry as that which defines beauty, Plotinus is attacking the notion that beauty can be objective in a science-like way.  The "golden mean" would similarly be rejected as the source of beauty, on his account.  Instead, he focuses on something more mysterious, a certain aura, one might say, that is exemplified by such things as the light of the sun, the shimmering quality of beautiful colors, and so forth.  (I discuss and update this concept in my book.)

What then is the Principle that makes material things beautiful?  Plotinus sees this Principle as something which the soul can perceive immediately, name, recognize, welcome, and, most importantly, enter "into unison with it."  The opposite of this happens when the soul falls "in with the Ugly" and denies and even resents the Principle.  The point is best made in this quote:  "the soul - by the very truth of its nature, by its affiliation to the noblest Existents in the hierarchy of Being," when it sees anything like such Existents (the Forms), "thrills with an immediate delight" because it senses its own nature as having this affinity.  To the question, "what is there common between beauty in this world and beauty in the bodiless world?" the answer is: "all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form."  Ugly things, by contrast, have not "been entirely mastered by pattern, that is, by Reason."  Beauty happens when Matter yields "in all respects to Ideal-Form."  Further, the Ideal-Form enters by grouping and coordinating "what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity," and thus yields a "harmonious coherence."  Here, "Beauty enthrones itself, giving itself to the parts as to the sum," as for example, when an architect confers beauty on "a house with all its parts," those parts including single stones which also may be given their beauty by "some natural quality." (One thinks of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water.)  The concluding idea of this chapter of his book is that the "material thing becomes beautiful...by communicating in the thought that flows from the Divine."  But in more practical contemporary (and atheistic) terms we might interpret this to mean that the beauty of a house is a function not just of the ordering of the parts but of the way that a non-mathematics-based aura can be found not only in the whole but in each of the parts, as if there were a divine presence giving these things their unity.  

Architecture is a leading idea in Plotinus's account of beauty.  and thus in Chapter 3 he asks, "On what principle does the architect, when he finds the house standing before him correspondent with his inner ideal of a house, pronounce it beautiful?  Is it not that the house before him, the stones apart, is the inner idea stamped upon the mass of exterior matter, the indivisible exhibited in diversity."  This passage is an interesting combination of Plato, Aristotle and something else harder to describe.  The description of the architect is just like Plato's description of a carpenter in relation to a bed in Book X of the Republic, where the carpenter look to the ideal bed in the world of Forms to create his own bed.  Aristotle would insist that creation of an artifact involves both a material cause and the formal cause, the form being imposed on the matter.  The notion "the indivisible" exhibited or expressed in diversity is unique to Plotinus at this stage (although in the eighteenth century we have the idea of beauty as unity in diversity in Hogarth, for example).  The phrase "the stones apart" seems, however, to contradict what he has previously said about stones.  Instead, one would think that the beauty of the individual stones contribute to the beauty of the whole, they being what he refers to as the diversity that is expressive of an imposed unity.  

Perhaps the most interested passage is the following:  "
So with the perceptive faculty:  discerning in certain objects the Ideal-Form which has bound and controlled the shapeless matter, opposed in nature to Idea, seeing further stamped upon the common shapes some shape excellent above the common, it gathers into unity what still remains fragmentary, catches it up and carries it within, no longer a thing of parts, and presents it to the Ideal-Principle as something concordant and congenial, a natural friend:  the joy here is like that of a good man who discerns in a youth the early signs of a virtue consonant with the achieved perfection within his own soul."

Consider "the perceptive faculty" to be what is later called the faculty of taste.  What this faculty does is mapped out in a sequence of stages:  (1) find a Platonic Form exemplified or expressed in the object (for example, Architecture within a building), (2) gather what remains fragmentary into a unity (by a kind of mental synthesis in perception), (3) internalize that unity within the mind, thus (4) erasing the division of the objects into parts (all parts are now seen as integrated aspects of an organic whole), and (5) posit the unity as congenial to the relevant Form, e.g. Architecture, from which (6) arises a joy in the soul of the critic (i.e. that part of the critic with greatest affinity with the world of Forms). 

The next passage is also quite extraordinary.  We had already learned that, on his anti-symmetry view, individual colors can be beautiful.  We now will see that this beauty is a function of the presence of the Form within the object perceived as beautiful and as a diversity unified:  "The beauty of color is also the outcome of a unification:  it derives from shape, from the conquest of darkness inherent in Matter by the pouring-in of light, the unembodied, which is a Rational-Principle of an Ideal-Form." (Color is not here a matter of mere charm is previously suggested or as found in Kant, but more like color as found in its use in stained glass windows in Gothic churches.)  The description of light as pouring in from the world of the Forms is reminiscent of Plato's explication of the metaphor of light as truth in the Allegory of the Cave.  However, here we see that this beauty, which is not, again, based on symmetry, is a function of the overcoming of darkness and of the equivalent notion of unformed matter, where the presence of the Ideal-Form is not found in the mere Platonic relation of imitation (as when a drawn circle imitates the Form Circle) but rather in a suffusion of light/color.  Fire is stressed in the next paragraph as being the body closest to the unembodied, as having "color primally," other bodies taking the Form of color from it, thus giving its light a particular splendour, "the splendour that belongs to the Idea."

This might on the face of it seem to be the end of the discussion of everyday aesthetics and Plotinus, as Plotinus in Chapter 4, leaves the realm of sense and images, the world in which beauty enters into matter to "ravish us." Instead, he focuses on "loftier beauties" of the soul unrelated to the sense organs, these beauties including noble conduct and learning, as well as the Forms of Justice and Moral Wisdom, themselves more beautiful than a beautiful sunset or dawn (something admired by Plotinus for its non-symmetry-based beauty based on light and its attendant color.)  Yet, from a modern secular perspective, the beauties of personal virtue are also beauties of everyday life (and not completely divorced from what the senses can perceive if we include within this the way that perception can be infused with meaning to the extent that we can see, for example, the nobility in a person we know to be noble).  Thus Plotinus asks:  "What do you feel in presence of the grace you discern in actions, in manners, in sound morality, in all the works and fruits of virtue, in the beauty of souls [and the beauty of yourselves within]?" Isn't this too a matter of everyday aesthetics, perhaps a necessary feature of it?  Is there not also a moral dimension to our perception of beauty in the people and people-produced artifacts and events around us?  Here, too, there is a kind of aura, or as Plotinus puts it in his overly-metaphysical way:  "shining down upon all [these moral virtues and their manifestations], the light of god-like Intellection." For Plotinus, it is that these things have reality of Being that makes them "really beautiful."  Again, the metaphor of light is invoked here as within the realm of physical beauty:  "this grace, this splendour as of Light, resting upon all the virtues."  I am not going to discuss Plotinus's Puritan-like fulminations against ugliness in the realm of bodily sensation:  this clearly opposed to one aspect of the aesthetics of everyday life, the aspect that includes the the very "pleasures of the body" that Plotinus despises.  Suffice it to say that in Chapter 6 Plotinus adds one point about the everyday:  "The beauty in things of a lower order - actions and pursuits for instance - comes by operation of the shaping Soul which is also the author of the beauty found in the world of sense.  For the Soul, a divine thing, a fragment as it were of the Primal Beauty, makes beautiful to the fulness of their capacity all things whatsoever that it grasps and moulds."  As with Plato, Plotinus has the soul conclude its upward path by rejecting beauties of this world:  it "can never again feel the old delight in the comeliness of material forms."  Moreover, he calls on the spiritual adept to "withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once mad his joy." Too bad for him, I say. 

One final comment may be made about Plotinus's vision of an aesthetics of personal self-improvement.  This can be read in a Pragmatist vein (for example in line with the writings of Richard Shusterman) which in fact would subvert his Plotinus' overall purpose.  We are able to see the virtuous soul and its loveliness by looking within:  "And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful:  he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely fact has grown upon his work. So do you also:  cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine."  


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Plato: Enemy of Everyday Aesthetics in the Phaedo

The idea presented at the beginning of the Phaedo (64c), that death is separation of the soul from the body, is explicitly stated in terms of enmity against "such so-called pleasures as those of food and drink" and "the pleasures of sex."  Moreover, added to these are "pleasures concerned with the service of the body" in which are included "the acquisition of distinguished clothes and shoes and the other bodily ornaments."  The philosopher is said to despise these things except when he cannot do without them.  So "the body" is associated with the everyday pleasures of life, although not including intellectual or moral pleasures.  Socrates' is an odd notion of "pleasures of the body" since it includes not only bodily pleasures but also pleasures associated with bodily decoration.  Still, at the very least, a very large part of the aesthetics of everyday life is explicitly rejected by Socrates.  He goes on and attribute to "the majority" the belief that anyone who finds no pleasure in these things does not deserve to live and is close to death. 

For Socrates, the body does not even contribute to the acquisition of knowledge since the physical senses are not accurate, and therefore are always deceptive (a strange inference!).  Moreover, the soul reasons best when it is not disturbed by the senses or by pleasure or pain.  So Socrates lumps pleasure and pain in with the senses as bodily.  Yet aesthetics usually deals with pleasurable and painful sensation (leaving open the possibility of aesthetic experience that is purely mental).  So, the entire region of aesthetics associated with the senses is disregarded.  It might as well be all of aesthetics since the term originated with Baumgarten's appropriation of the Greek word aesthesis, for "sense perception" and saw aesthetics as dealing with a kind of perceptual knowledge associated with the concepts of beauty and fine art. Socrates is famous in the Republic for throwing the arts out of the ideal society:  but here he is attacking sensuous aesthetic experience itself.  

Socrates says "the soul of the philosopher most disdains the body."  One thinks however of Richard Shusterman and the notion of somaesthetics, where there is a philosophical discipline that honors the body.  Can there be any resolution of this impasse?  Is the Pragmatist and the Platonist totally at odds even in the definition of philosophy?  At this point in the dialogue (65d) Socrates immediately introduces the Forms:  the Just itself, the Beautiful and the Good, all things that cannot be seen with the bodily senses.  (If Aesthetics were identified solely with the Beautiful, it could be saved in this way, although at a great loss.) These Forms are described as "the reality of all other things, that which each of them essentially is."  Grasping the thing itself through thought alone comes closest to knowledge of it.  

The Forms are only currently popular amongst mathematicians, and few would accept Plato's premise about the Just itself or Beauty itself. We could, however, salvage the Forms denying the literal nature of the story and saying that it is possible to contemplate the Forms in sensuous experience only if we treat them as if they were eternal and unchanging.  They become, on this view, a fiction necessary for creative contemplation.  This would of course involve denying that the philosopher will accurately grasp the thing itself "most perfectly" if he "approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning..."  Instead of freeing himself from the body, the Pragmatist Platonist (a living paradox?) would search out essences by approaching the object (the thing itself) through thoughtful perception and not through mere association of thought with any perceived thing.  Mere association would be too arbitrary!  Perhaps the true philosopher despises the pleasures of everyday life only to the extent that they are not part of a deeper project of contemplation in which the goal is to reach the essences of things (those essences now recognized as only "as if" eternal and unchanging.) 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What is Beauty? Aristotle's contribution: tragic beauty


Although Aristotle states a theory of beauty in the Metaphysics: “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (The Complete Works of Aristotle Barnes ed., volume 2, 1705, 1078a36), the theory he offers in the Poetics is quite different, and quite a bit more original.  The Metaphysics comment is preceded by a statement that the mathematical sciences say a great deal about beauty. 

The Metaphysics theory can be found as far back as the fragments and lore of Pythagoras.  Pythagoras gave us the terms "harmony" and "symmetry" both of which seem to be central to his (or the Pythagoreans') theory of beauty.  The reference to mathematics also connects both the Pythagorean and the Platonic notions of beauty.  Aristotle, by contrast to Plato, was generally more inspired by biology than mathematics, and this comes out in his discussion of beauty in the Poetics.  

It is also noteworthy that in The Organon Topics Book 3 Part 3 Aristotle says, "if one thing be desirable for itself, and the other for the look of it, the former is more desirable, as (e.g.) health than beauty. A thing is defined as being desired for the look of it if, supposing no one knew of it, you would not care to have it. Also, it is more desirable both for itself and for the look of it, while the other thing is desirable on the one ground alone. Also, whichever is the more precious for itself, is also better and more desirable. A thing may be taken to be more precious in itself which we choose rather for itself, without anything else being likely to come of it." [taken from R. B. Jones

But as I have said, the most interesting contribution to a theory of beauty is to be found in his Poetics.  There, he develops the notion of beauty as related to organic wholes.  Yet, his initial discussion of beauty does not actually mention the term.  It is in Chapter 3.  There, he talks about how imitation is natural to man, how we are the most imitative creatures, and how we delight in works of imitation. (I am working here with The Oxford Translation of Aristotle edited by W. D. Ross and appearing in Art in its Significance by Stephen David Ross, 3rd. ed., 1994).  It seems that this delight is an aesthetic delight.  He observes that we even delight in realistic representations of "the lowest animals" and of dead bodies.  (This sort of thing is accounted for by some 20th century philosophers in terms of "taking an aesthetic attitude." See, for example, Paul Ziff  "Anything Viewed.")  He further observes that we delight in a picture because we learn from it at the same time, for example we learn that a man falls into a certain category. Even  things we have not seen before can, when represented, give us  delight in the execution or coloring.  We know he is thinking of beauty here since he also mentions that harmony and rhythm are natural to us.

When Aristotle gets around to defining tragedy in Chapter 6 of Poetics he doesn't explicitly mention beauty and, since the purpose of tragedy is catharsis of pity and fear, it seems that beauty is not central to tragedy.  But there are two reasons to question this conclusion.  First, one could say that there is a kind of beauty in that which causes catharsis.   Second, his account of beauty is essential to evaluating tragedy.  I will discuss that later. Note also that tragedy is often full of depictions of painful things...and these were recently mentioned in the section on the value of imitation.  In the definition of tragedy he does explicitly mention "language with pleasurable accessories" by which he means "with rhythm and harmony superadded."  This may imply that these things provide a kind of beauty, although perhaps only as an add-on to the core experience of catharsis.  So the key issue is whether the play in its central purpose can be understood in terms of beauty.

The central discussion of beauty comes in the second part of Chapter 6 when Aristotle talks about the proper construction of a Plot.  We find that a tragedy is an "imitation of an action complete in itself, a whole of some magnitude" and that the whole should have a beginning, middle and end, the beginning and end being non-arbitrary.  I take it that "magnitude" does not just mean "size" but rather "appropriate size," and maybe even more than that, i.e. "appropriate size to be considered beautiful."  For then he says "Again:  to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangements of parts, but also a certain definite magnitude."  The analogy to the living creature will be picked up later as he expands on the notion of an organic whole.  Clearly it is not enough for something to be beautiful to be made up of ordered parts, but that the parts need to be arranged in a way similar to the way they appear in an organism.  Seemingly reverting to the Pythagorean view, Aristotle follows this by saying that "Beauty is a matter of size and order."  Still, he understands "order" now in a different way because of the animal analogy. 

But, before we go into the animal analogy, we need to consider his idea that beauty is impossible in a minute creature, or in one of vast size.  In the first case, the creature is not beautiful because it is indistinct, and in the second case it is not beautiful because it cannot be seen "all at once" and "the unity and wholeness ... is lost to the beholder."  So beauty has something to do not only with harmony, symmetry and order but also with clarity, unity and wholeness.  

When Aristotle applies this idea to poetry, he introduces a psychological dimension.  The beauty of a poem depends on our memory's ability to take it all in, much like the beauty of a large object depending on our perceptual ability to do so.  So, he holds, the longer a story is the more beautiful it is based on its magnitude.  Here, he is taking magnitude to mean "the right size."  However, he then gives another account of magnitude.  It is a length that "by a series of probable or necessary stages [the hero passes] from misfortune to happiness or from happiness to misfortune."  He says that this "may suffice as a limit for the magnitude of the story."  That is, the story has good magnitude if it has the right length for this series of probable or necessary stages to be worked through, i.e. making a good plot (and thus bringing catharsis to the audience.)  

Note that in the very next sentence, but the first sentence of Chapter 9, he also uses the phrase "probable or necessary," although in this case referring to the function of the poet, which is to describe "not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary."  So, part of what is meant by "magnitude" is the sense of probable or necessary movement within the poem with respect to the plot. This is the very thing that distinguishes poetry from history, which is only concerned with what "has been," not with what "might be."  Thus, Aristotle's defense of poetry's cognitive power against Plato, follows from his theory of beauty as magnitude, where magnitude is seen as a quality of an organic whole in which the parts are intimately related. 

The key quote in this is to be found in Chapter 8, which is mainly about the unity of a plot (unity being necessary for beauty).  That a plot is about one man is not enough to make it unified:  there must be one story. So here is the quote:  "so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.  For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole."  So, the organic whole is like the body of an organism:  if you take away an organ you will severely diminish the capacity for the organism to function.  Similarly the parts of the beautiful play are closely intertwined that if you take away one you will destroy the beauty of it.  This is Aristotle's original idea about beauty.

There is one qualification to this.  Aristotle also holds that something can be made more beautiful if it goes beyond just imitating an organic whole.  The painter or poet can make something true-to-life and yet make it more beautiful, by preserving the type and yet also making it nobler:  "Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed.  They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.  So too the poet, in representing men...[who have] defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it."  (Chapter 15)

It may not be that all forms of beauty need to meet Aristotle's standard as set forth here.  At the same time, it is arguable that organic beauty is a particularly impressive form of beauty, and may be distinguished from that which, although called beautiful, may be a simple beauty, or even merely charming or pretty.  The concept of "necessity" may be of value here:  there is a kind of necessity (not mathematical or causal) which reveals a compelling dynamic energy, that (coupled with such things as order, harmony and symmetry) gives us beauty in this sense.  Thus it would make sense to apply the term beauty paradigmatically to a great tragic play despite the painfulness of the events portrayed.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Plato's Take on Inspiration: The Ion

Socrates claims that Ion does not have art, but merely inspiration.  But what is inspiration?  Plato's Ion is often read in conjunction with Book X of the Republic, particularly in aesthetics classes.  There are some remarkable similarities and differences.  In both writings, the poet (and also the inspired interpreters of the poet, including the rhapsode, the critic and the actor) does not really know anything, and certainly does not know what he claims that he knows.  In both writings we have a series that starts and moves away from God.  In the Republic, God is the creator of the ideal bed, the carpenter is the maker of the bed in the world of appearances, and the painter is of maker the painted bed:  the painter is the imitator.  (The whole account of the three beds is there to define the true imitator.  Once we know how the painter, as well as the actor who pretends on stage to be, for example, a general, is to be distinguished from the creator and the true maker, then we have the "imitator" defined.  "Imitator" does not mean anyone who imitates but rather someone who merely captures the surface appearance of something.  Someone who holds a mirror to the world is also at this level.) 

In the Ion, the God (or the Muse) is the first magnet, which then gives its power to the poet, who is the second magnet, who, in turn, inspires the rhapsode (or the actor) as well as other artists (for example dancers and stage-designers) involved in performing his work.  The audience is at the fourth remove from the Muse.  The remarkable difference between the Republic account of the three beds and this is that in the Ion the poet is only two removes from reality, i.e. is in direct communication with God, and therefore takes the same place as the craftsman in the Republic.  I am not going to worry, here, about which work was written first by Plato, although I should mention that the Republic is generally considered a middle dialogue and the Ion an early dialogue, which would make any change of mind on Plato's part taking place after the Ion and before the Republic. 

There are some differences between the actions involved in the two sequences as well:  in the Republic the carpenter's bed is a copy of the ideal bed, and it in turn is imitated by the painter's bed.  In the Ion, there are not two processes, but just one:  inspiration, which is passed down from one magnet to the next.  It is more dynamic in this way.   Also, inspiration is just different from imitation.  One can imitate with skill, whereas no skill is involved in inspiration qua inspiration.  Inspiration is more magical:  the inspired person participates in the source of inspiration, they are as if one with the source. The experience of inspiration is closer to a religious experience, whereas the act of imitation could be secular, mechanical, and solely for entertainment purposes.  Imitation can involve more detachment, where only the surface form of the original is captured. Inspiration, by contrast, seems to pass on its inner essence:  the poet passing his inspiration from God on to the the rhapsode, and the rhapsode doing this for the audience.  Historically, artists have found more support in Plato's theory of inspiration than in his theory of imitation.  It is also interesting (and possibly contradictory for Plato) that  Socrates saw himself as inspired in some way.  In the Apology he often refers to a personal daemon, and there is a passage in the Symposium that implies that he is occasionally possessed by this inner spirit.  Also, he praises wisdom in the Apology and says that he has no real knowledge.  So, perhaps he is like Ion in being inspired by a God and in having no knowledge. (Someone who finds the Ion attractive as a theory of artistic creation might combine it in some way with the account of the Socratic way of life in the Apology.)  However, Socrates also asserts in the Ion that, although the poets and Ion may have wisdom, he does not have wisdom and is only interested in truth and knowledge.  This would be inconsistent with his position in the Apology that he has no knowledge, although not inconsistent with his commitment there to truthI cannot resolve this, although perhaps scholars who know the Greek already have.  

Another interesting difference between the two series (of beds and magnets) is that possession by the Gods in the Ion involves a highly imaginative experience.  Ion, for example, is ecstatic in the sense that he almost believes he is in ancient Troy as he recites Homers poetry.  This personal out-of-body imaginative experience is not described in the Republic account of the imitator.  Many, in reading these passages in the Ion, have felt that Socrates is, here, more sympathetic to the imitative artist than he shows himself to be in the Republic.

What I would like to do, here, however (and for those of you who have read so far, this is the meat of my comment), is note the very specific quality of being "out of one's mind" described in Ion.  Bear in mind that there are many ways in which one can be "out of one's mind," ranging from the relatively innocent moment of being so engaged with an aesthetic object as to forget oneself, to the more scary experiences of being deluded, obsessed, crazy, mad, or, in contemporary terms, entering into a manic-depressive or schizophrenic state.  So what does Socrates mean by "out of one's mind"?  He speaks of it in terms of Bacchic possession, a very specific kind of religious experience associated with intoxication, death and rebirth:  "like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind."  (I am working here from the Jowett translation at it appears in Art and Its Significance ed. David Ross, 3rd. ed., 1994, 48-9) 

So, what is it to "draw milk and honey from the rivers"?  I take it that this involves a kind of positive ecstatic experience when water takes on a quality that is metaphorically intensified.  This is similar to the description Edward Bullough famously offered, in explicating his concept of psychic distance, of the fog at sea which I discussed in my book (245-247).  He speaks of the fog as "a veil surrounding you with an opaqueness as of transparent milk, blurring the outline of things and distorting their shapes.." (759).  The Bacchic maidens, in short, are "out of their minds" in the sense that they engage in a radical form of imaginative seeing of the sort described by Bullough when he describes what he calls "psychical distance."  

Socrates goes further:  "the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses;  they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower."  (49). Socrates goes on to endorse this view of the poet, even referring to him (her) as "a light and winged and holy thing" like such a bee.  Such a poet is active in the sense that he or she goes from one source of inspiration to the next (the sources here, notably, being natural and not explicitly divine) and yet holy in being able to find the divine in everyday life.  So, the poet, positively understood by Socrates, is someone who is able to take a radical aesthetic approach to nature, being inspired by nature in an active way, i.e. in bringing songs from fountains and other natural phenomena which he experiences in an intensified imaginative/sensuous way (symbolized by the term "honeyed.")  Thus, contra Neitzsche, it turns out that Socrates has a Dionysian theory both of the creative process and quite possibly also of aesthetic experience.  Nietzsche, of course, must have known this.  He is inspired by one aspect of Socrates' theory when attacking the other.  Don't forget that the surface logic of the Ion is simply that  poets and rhapsodes are deceivers in pretending to have knowledge and self-knowledge, whereas they only have inspiration, a kind of second-best sort of wisdom (true wisdom would, of course, involve having true self-knowledge) that can only be held up if one seriously believes in God, something that Socrates makes rather unnecessary in some of his other arguments. It is only at another level of reading (focusing on the milk and honey text) that Socrates becomes an advocate of Dionysian forms of of experience, ones that also involve a form of active engagement that is highly imaginative, that e.g. involves encountering nature in an intoxicated or intoxicated-like way, seeing it with heightened significance, i.e. as having what, in my book, I called "aura."  Moreover, this experience of water as milk and honey is a kind of entering into another world, as when Ion seems to enter into the world of Homer:  a kind of magical transfer of the self.  (A similar view of the creative process can be found in Lu Chi's the Wen Fu as I have argued in an unpublished paper posted on my web page.) This, by the way, is not the same as another well-founded reading of Ion in which the inspired person simply becomes a spokesperson of the God, as like a medium in a seance.  I think that this reading is intended by Plato but is only on the surface level of the story.