Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book III Plato's Republic

The key idea of Republic Book III is “grace.”  The passage I am interested in is the following:  “Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful;  then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear.”  (Jowett translation in Art and its Significance ed. Stephen David Ross, 3rd. ed., 31)  Focus on the idea of an effluence that flows through the eye and ear through fair works both as beauty and as the good.  Focus also on the idea that, in having this, the youth “dwell in a land of health.”  Consider also the paragraph in which this work appears, one in which Socrates stresses not only the poets but artists of all sorts, who are expected to express the “image of the good” in their works. (So much, by the way, for the idea that Plato did not have a conception of "fine art" as a collection of creative art practices).  The world described is a kind of utopia in which the arts, not only poetry but also sculpture, weaving and architecture, are expected to express not corrupted taste and moral deformity but something noble.  Clearly, as has often been stated by scholars, the Greek concept of the good here is closely allied, almost identical with, that of beauty.  We may disagree with Plato’s actual conception of the good life, but consider the possibility of a world in which the good as equivalent to the beautiful flows into eye and ear.   (This, by the way, is much closer to what Shusterman has called somaesthetics then we would usually attribute to Plato.  Is my note, then, a deconstruction of Plato?  It is only if we adhere to a simplistic view of what makes Plato Plato.  My assumption is that Plato has an often hidden somaesthetic side.)  And consider that this is not the usual image we get of Plato as someone who holds the good to be completely detached from our world of change as well as from the body and its interactions with the environment.  The imagery is similar to that of the atomists, for example Plato's contemporary Democritus, when they talk about perception in terms of effluences.  We should also not forget the contrast, the other side of the coin.  Plato writes prior to my quote:  “We would not have our guardians grown up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.”  The other option draws not from a theory of perception but from a theory of nutrition.  But this is embodied too: we perceive as beings with bodies and we eat as beings with bodies. 

So, as Socrates says, “grace and harmony are the twin sisters of goodness and virtue and bear their likeness.”  Now consider an application to our own world.  We might, in a Platonic vein, ask if the poverty of our lives ethically speaking might not be the result of losing track of the intimate relationship between the ethical life and the life devoted to creative activity, to every “creative and constructive art” as Jowett's translation has it.  

The bridge concept is that of grace as related to rhythm:  “grace or the absence of grace is the effect of good or bad rhythm.”  Do not, for a moment, think about the specific rhythms Plato recommends, but simply the notion that some rhythms express a good life, and some not.   Some, as he says, are expressions of a “courageous and harmonious life.” for example.

Back to the flow then:  Plato sees the flow into the eye and the ear as “like a health-giving breeze from a purer region.”  One thinks here of Nietzsche and all of his anti-Platonic reasons for emphasizing the idea of health, his body-centered reasons.  Plato’s position is strangely close to that of Nietzsche, but perhaps more nuanced.  It is these effluences that “draw the soul from the earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.”  They are in a sense preparation for higher beauties that can only be observed by reason.

Interestingly, Plato believes that this all leads up to, logically leads up to, the idea that “music is a more potent instrument than any other” and the reason for this is that, get this!. “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul” and fasten on these and impart grace on them.  Think about the metaphysics of the soul here:  the soul is something that has inward places, and these are not said to be touched the most by reason, at least in the case of the child, but by the very physical rhythms and harmonies of music.  So it seems that Plato is calling for a transformation of life focused on ways in which the creative arts can remake the world and thereby our innermost souls, sensuously, and yet in a way that is also in accord with some sort of rule of reason to be introduced later in life.  The idea is to shape our souls when young, to make them graceful, rhythmic in the right way, and harmonious.  The young man or woman, through this shaping process will gain good taste (yes, Plato actually has a concept of good taste) which will come before the age of reason.  Such a young person, Plato says, will justly praise the good and despise the bad “even before he is able to know the reason why.”  When reason comes “he will salute” it as a friend because he has already become familiar with it by way of his immersion in the creative arts.

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