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.) 

No comments: