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 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 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?


No comments: