Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Democritus on aesthetics

So for Democritus all that exists is the atoms and the void.  This is reality.  Appearance is based in some way on this, but basically it is not to be trusted.  Well, the senses do tell us that movement and change is possible.  At least we get that from them. Yet, "Sweet exists by convention, and so does bitter, warm, cold, and color; in reality there are atoms and the void." (The First Philosophers tr. Robin Waterfield, Oxford, 2000, 176)  The conventional is the perceptual, which is not really real.  All that we grasp when we grasp things is something that changes "depending on the condition of our bodies, of the things that enter into it, and the things that impinge upon it."  Sextus Empiricus tells us that Democritus believed that there is a bastard kind of knowledge which belongs to "sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch." (176)  Moreover, Democritus liked to stress the relative nature of sense perception:  the same thing that appears sweet to some tastes bitter to others.  So "sensible qualities are perceived by us but do not essentially inhere in bodies," although admittedly some are "inevitable consequences of the aggregation of certain kinds of atoms" as in the quality of heat being the result of aggregation of spherical atoms. (177) Qualities other than heavy, light, hard and soft, do not really exist: "they are all modifications brought about by changes in our sensory apparatus."  That sensible qualities do not really exist is shown by that fact that "they do not appear the same to all creatures" (179) 

Further his atomism militates against the notion of organic wholes in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is the notion of organic whole that allows for rich conceptions of beauty and aesthetic experience.  Democritus says that the entanglement of atoms (as Aristotle tells it) "fails to generate anything whatsoever with a truly single nature out of them, since it is perfectly stupid...to think that something which was two or more could ever become one." (173)  Moreover, the atoms only act on one another based on contact, but "their contact does not make them a single entity." (172)  For Democritus, adds Aristotle, "creation is just modification."  But isn't it much more than that?  This is one of the deepest problems for aestheticians who seek inspiration from the atomists.

His theory of dreams is of some interest since he held that images penetrate the mind to give images during sleep, and that such images may come from furniture, clothing and plants, among other things. (187)  In part, this passage is an explanation for belief in ghosts, but it could also be seen as an early discussion of the ways in which the phenomena of everyday life can affect us through the imagination, how they can take up complex background meaning, especially in a dreamworld context.  Some of this discussion can be seen as though it were a theory of portraiture.  He writes, "but they also enlist and take along with them the reflections of a person's mental impulses and desires, and his qualities and emotions.  When the images strike with this baggage they speak as if they were living creatures, and tell those who receive them the opinions, thoughts and desires of those whose emissions they are..." (187-88) The eidolon act like really good painted or sculpted portraits in that they carry with them and express the internal lives of the person portrayed.  But if this is so, doesn't this militate against his denial of internal relations and organic wholes elsewhere?

To be sure, Democritus has a theory of happiness in which happiness and misery are properties of the mind (189) and happiness is identified with contentment understood is "determination and separation of pleasures" (189). So there is room for aesthetic pleasure here, but one wonders what role this kind of experience can have if it has nothing to do with reality.  Moreover, happiness as contentment, seems to him to be more a matter of freedom from fear, than the sum of aesthetic pleasures. (190)   At most it is a matter of "a moderate amount of enjoyment." (190)

According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus wrote various works related to aesthetics including "On Rhythms and Harmony," "On Poetry,"  "On the Beauty of Verses," "On Euphonious and Cacophonous Letters," "On Song," "On Painting," all of which were lost.   Most of these aesthetic things fall under the book category of "mousike" and a second, related category, "Concerning Homer, or On Correct Epic Diction," under which "On Song," "On Words," and "A Vocabulary" were included.  Painting falls in the category of "techne."  This has led some to argue that he was the first philosopher to systematically concern himself with aesthetics, although this is hard to credit given Plato's contemporary discussions in his dialogues of such things as beauty, imitative art and rhetoric.

He did say,  according to Cicero, that without madness there would be no poetry, an anticipation of Plato.  On his view, no one becomes a good poet "without a daring spirit and without a breath, let us say, of madness."  Of Homer he said, according to Dio Chrysostom, that he was endowed with a nature that was sensitive to divine influence and "built up a harmonious construction of words of every kind."  ("Democritus' Mousika" Aldo Brancacci, in Democritus: Science, The Arts, and the Care of the Soul, Brill, 2006, 201).  It is interesting that he combined divine influence with harmonious construction of words in his mind.

As for the use of the art, Diodorus tells us how Democritus saw civilization arising where "Once fire and other utilities were recognized, the crafts were slowly discovered and with them whatever else can benefit communal life."  (Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, 2001. 221).  Note also Plutarch who says
"Yet perhaps it is ridiculous for us to make a parade of animals distinguished for learning when Democritus declares that we have been their pupils in matters of fundamental importance: of the spider in weaving and mending, of the swallow in home-building, of the sweet-voiced swan and nightingale in our imitation of their song." Plutarch   "De sollertia animalium" as published in Vol. XII 
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1957 

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