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.        

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