Monday, July 30, 2007

The ocean of beauty

Having recently read Plato's Symposium, a phrase kept resounding repeatedly in my head - a metaphor I hardly noticed when reading the text - the words, 'the ocean of beauty', 'the ocean of beauty'. The sound of that pleased me and I began thinking about why I have been drawn to Plato's (and of course, Socrates') philosophy ever since reading the Republic 3.5 years ago. (I know disciplined scholars frown upon such emotional outpourings, but please indulge me, if you will, as I think the allure of these particular ideas is common to many who have "conversed" with Socrates). Below is an excerpt which serves to illustrate the promise of Plato - that is, the attraction of his and Socrates' ideas - from the discussion of love and beauty in the Symposium:
. . . the lover is turned to the great sea of beauty, and, gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom, until, having grown and been strengthened there, he catches sight of such knowledge, and it is the knowledge of such beauty . . .
First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form . . .
This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stars: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful.
Symposium 210d-211d
Plato (rather, the character of the wise woman Diotima) has described the dialectical ascent from loving a particular person's body to loving the beauty common to all bodies to loving all beautiful things to loving finally the beauty common in all things - the Beautiful itself apart from any worldly form. This is 'the great sea of beauty': just imagine what it would be like to behold with the mind or the soul such an infinite ocean! No, not the beautiful mountain scape or a vigorous young visage - no, the very element of delight taken from both, from every beautiful thing ever created, in fact, taken and unified. What could kindle more joy than seeing such a mindscape?

By no means do I mean to elevate Platonism to the level of a religion nor do I think that the Socratic method is flawless (in fact, my inclination is that Plato would have us, in the words of scholar J.M. Cooper, "constantly question everything that any speaker says . . . to engage a person effectively in the right sort of search for truth"). What I mean to say is that while some philosophers offer humanity castles of ideas molded on self-styled sandless foundations, or tempt men with promises of supermen status, or spell out liberation from some perceived oppressor, Plato's promise is pleasing in its simplicity: to see the Beautiful, to possess the Good, to understand Justice, to live a good life, a truly virtuous life.

In his essay titled "Platonic Love" in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari writes of the relationship between love and the forms of the Beautiful and the Good:
In view of such passages as [Symposium] 201c and Phaedrus 250c-d, let us say that the beautiful is thought of as the quality by which the good shines and shows itself to us. We can then claim that the ascent to the Beautiful itself [i.e. the path of love described above] is indeed also an ascent to the Good itself, but described so as to bring out at every turn what it is about the good that captivates us. (260)
One can almost swim through these ideas, writhing and wriggling and almost tasting the succulent nature of things. How far, it seems to me, has modern scholarship - with its cutting-edge ideas and methodologies - diverged from Socrates' vision of inner ascent. Why make the mental effort, travel the road, without the promise of transcendant destinations?

I will rest this thought with a passage from the Judeo-Christian tradition, to which I am drawn even more than to Platonism but for similar reasons of promise, about Wisdom's banquet:
Wisdom has built her house,
   she has hewn her seven pillars,
She has slaughtered her animals, she
           has mixed her wine,
   she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she
   from the highest places in the town,
"You that are simple, turn in here!"
   To those without sense she says,
"Come, eat of my bread
   and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
   and walk in the way of insight."
Proverbs 9:1-6

Friday, July 20, 2007

To believe or not to believe

Reading The Economist kindled my thoughts (as commonly happens) a few days ago. A review of a new biography on Benito Mussolini ("The cruelest years", The Economist, 14 July, 2007) begins, "Ernest Renan, a 19th-century French philosopher, once famously observed that national identity requires a collective work of amnesia." Of course this article is suggesting that the Axis nations have struggled to forget their inglorious role in the Second World War in order to continue living with dignity. I began to wonder about collective amnesia in other societies.

It occurred to me that collective amnesia (or suspension of disbelief or even a noble lie to use Plato's terminology) is an understudied force in history. So many attributes of American society especially depend on noble lies such as that "all men are created equal", that all possess intrinsic rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and that a wealthy, handsome and successful man is no better than a poor, ugly and miserable woman. This was not always so in history. Ancient Roman society had no such notions of equality and natural rights while birth, wealth and beauty meant everything for moving up the social ladder. The ancient Roman way is more intuitive - are not those gifted by nature more deserving of social goods as well? - while the American way demands feats of faith and imagination. And yet who would argue that the American way of equality and individualism is the worse of the two?

Josiah Ober, a classicist at Stanford University, observes similar suspensions of disbelief in ancient Athens in his book Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Ober argues that the masses' exposure to theatrical drama trained the citizen-assemblymen to suspend their disbelief when the predominantly upper-class and educated leaders of the assembly spoke negatively about wealth and likened themselves to the common masses. A kind of symbolic rhetoric developed which on the one hand was fraught with imaginative inconsistency, but on the other hand also preserved for several generations an unlikely society, one founded on ideals of equality and direct democracy in a time of tyranny and rigid stratification.

So, in the best of societies - those founded on democracy and respect for the individual - we observe ideals accepted on faith which otherwise run against the grain of observable reality. Students of history, it seems to me, would do well to study those imaginative ideals popularly believed for the greater good and the manner of their unlikely acceptance.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thesis thoughts

Since I may reference it in future posts, I am replicating below the abstract for my senior thesis research project in history titled, Age of Wisdom: The Rise of Genius Ethicists in Greece, China, Israel, and India in the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C. Please humor me and tolerate my generalist tendencies.
As the classical period was dawning in Greece, the Zhou dynasty was decaying in China, the Babylonian conquest was looming in Israel, and the "great kingdoms" were reigning in India, there arose thinkers from these nearly isolated societies whose social commentary has profoundly influenced their respective cultures.* In the spirit of exploring the intellectual bedrock of these important civilizations, this project will study their great thinkers of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. - Socrates and the Presocratics in Greece, Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the Babylonian Captivity-era prophets of Israel, and the Buddha in India - and the societies from which they emerged. This project will seek to critically analyze commonalities between the compared thinkers' ideas in their historical and cultural context. The Greeks and Chinese will be closely compared because of their secular answers to man's dilemmas, while the Hebrews and Indians will be paired as examples of religious responses. What in each society allowed for the cultivation of genius? What characterizes a 'golden age' of thought? How do developing civilizations solve cultural problems? These are main areas of inquiry along which this project will proceed.

*The ancient historian Chester Starr once wrote, "Historians have often noted in amazement that the Buddha, Confucius, some of the major Hebrew prophets, and the first Greek philosophers all lived within a century of each other...these four outlooks are among the greatest forces which have molded subsequent civilization." See Chester Starr, A History of the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 143-144.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plato paraphrased

As much as Socrates is my Superman, this spoof of The Republic (Digested) on the Philosophers' Magazine blog was too good to not split my sides with laughter:
A funny thing happened on the way to the agora. I bumped into that Socrates. He was having a chat about justice with all and sundry.
“I bet you know all about that!” asked Polyasskiss.
“I know nothing at all,” replied Socrates. “Which actually makes me considerably cleverer than you.”
“Now, to justice. Do you think justice is simply the most powerful getting their way?”
“Of course.”
“You’re wrong.”
“Anything you say, Socrates.”
“You’re all wrong because you’re like monkeys brought up in a cave who don’t know the difference between reality and shadows.”
“I’m a monkey brought up in a cave who doesn’t know the difference between reality and shadows.”
“That’s why you should be ruled by philosophers.”
“But aren’t philosophers rubbish politicians who end up getting condemned to death?”
“How simple and foolish you are, my simian friend. The fact that philosophers get killed rather than crowned kings proves how suited they really are to rule.”
“Ahhhh! I get it! Actually, I don’t.”
“Well, think of it like this. Take a vertical line, divide it in two, one third of the way down, then divide each of the remaining parts further into two according to the same ratio. Call the top segment intelligence, the next one reason, the next one belief and the last one total cobblers. Is that clear?”
“Certainly Socrates.”
“Now, a just person is like a just state.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just coming to that.”
“Sorry. I just wanted to keep the pretence of a dialogue going.”
“What I mean is, you can make all sorts of analogies between things and if you do it cleverly enough you can build a whole philosophy on dubious comparisons and no one will notice.”
“God, you’re wise.”
“I’m not God, my friend, but yes, I’m very, very wise, but also ignorant, so therefore supremely modest really.”
“Is this chat going to go on much longer? I’ve got some shopping to do.”
“Every person has an excellence and they should stick to doing what they do well. We’re men and no one talks crap better than us. So leave the shopping to wives and slaves.”
“I think that more or less sums it up, Socrates.”
“Now, come back tomorrow and I’ll explain why somewhere in the heavens there is a perfect form of the kebab.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Reflections worth reading

I was at a library book sale this spring and chanced upon a modest-looking paperback book titled, Reflections on History and Historians (1986) by Theodore S. Hamerow. The author was a retired professor who had taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a pleasant discovery for a Badger like myself. I read the book in the following few days, immensely enjoyed it, and have decided to write a bit about it here (a cursory glance on JSTOR revealed two mediocre academic reviews of Hamerow’s work in the late 1980s, of which I liked the one in The Public Historian much more than the one in The Journal of American History).

Although he is reflecting on the decline of his profession at the end of a distinguished personal career, Hamerow is able to supplely illustrate “the crisis in history” by reserving judgment and giving each voice its due expression. He narrates well the rise and decline of the historical profession (a painful journey for an aspiring historian like myself) from the days of amateur aristocrats like Edward Gibbon, to the giddy professionalization of the craft in the late 1800s, through the failed (but valuable) experimentation after the Second World War, and up to the present epistemological dilemmas of the field today. After allowing due time for all other opinions to be heard (the pessimists and the optimists, the cliometricians and the traditionalists) Hamerow offers his own insight into the future of history departments at universities around the globe:

It certainly does not imply that history is about to disappear from the college curriculum, the way theology or rhetoric disappeared. But it does seem that history as an academic discipline is approaching the position reached by the classics sixty years ago or by philosophy forty years ago, that is, branches of knowledge, once regarded as essential, which are still included among the course offerings of any respectable college as evidence of a commitment to higher learning, but no longer with a wide appeal to students and teachers. Such disciplines gradually come to perform a ceremonial rather than a practical function in the academic community, a little like caps and gowns worn in commencement processions. History is beginning to move in this direction, and while it still has a long way to go before it reaches the exoticism of Greek and Latin, the similarity to the process by which the classics arrived at their present situation is too close for complacency. (28)

Hamerow comments further that the humanities, by becoming the status symbol of the dominant class in earlier centuries, doomed themselves in the contemporary world which no longer sees “learning as a means of achieving personal cultural fulfillment but of pursuing collective social justice” (31). History pales in comparison to social sciences like sociology and economics at playing the new game.

Hamerow’s greatest insight, though, is one which seeks to explain the raison d’ĂȘtre of history. That is, Hamerow frees us from the unnecessary marriage of historians to institutions:

That is what Handlin meant in reminding us that “the historian . . . will find something to say as a historian only through the creative tension that arises from exercising the full power of his imagination and understanding against the unyielding evidence that survives the past. He can continue to do so as an individual even if the crisis in the discipline should leave him without a community of investigators of which to be part.” In the present winter of their discontent, historians would do well to ponder that. (204)

In other words, the chauvinism that academic historians frequently show towards popular amateur writers of history is generally unfounded: history—truthful stories about the past—have always and will always exist to fulfill the instinctual yearning of human communities to remember years gone by. Institutions are only secondary.

I also enjoyed and took into consideration Hamerow’s comment that “[m]ost members of the profession do not concern themselves with theory, and those who do are generally no better historians than those who do not” (205). It is a pleasant and, after consideration, intuitive idea that “the nature of historical learning . . . [is] spontaneous, almost instinctive.” The last paragraph of the book reads like a manifesto for the discipline of history which can be carried as a standard soundly into the 21st century. In the closing sentence, Hamerow evokes for the final time the father Herodotus’ justification of history:

Our ultimate purpose in studying it, however, will remain one expressed long ago at the first dawning of historical consciousness: that the deeds performed by men shall not be blotted out by time, and that the great and marvelous works of Greeks and barbarians shall not be without fame. (243)

To a young student of the past, at least, Theodore Hamerow’s articulate, funny and insightful reflection on the vocation of history is as refreshing as it is sobering.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Epicurus and the gods?

I have lately been perplexed about questions related to the nature of pleasure and pain and have turned to several sources in this inquiry, among them the Greek philosopher of hedonism: Epicurus. An enjoyable website, which models itself as “a modern on-line version of the Garden” writes that Epicurus helped “lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism... His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural... [emphasis added].” In other parts of the website, the author writes that future Epicurean thinkers like John Locke and Isaac Newton reverted to “intellectual contortions... to make room for God in their metaphysical systems”, in opposition to “modern science and modern social organization” which do away with deity altogether. The author of this website assumes that, even if Epicurus himself was not an atheist, then his philosophy naturally lends itself and evolved into secular humanism and that the Master would surely agree with such progress.

Admittedly, I have not read all of the primary sources concerning Epicurus, but his own Letter to Menoeceus does not suggest to me that Epicurus would approve of modern secular humanism. The first thing Epicurus writes after exhorting Menoeceus to follow his teachings is, “believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind.” Epicurus continues, “it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.” Finally, towards the end of his letter, the first thing that Epicurus suggests a “superior” man possess is “a holy belief concerning the gods” and that he be “altogether free from the fear of death.” So, according to this letter of Epicurus’, God (or the gods) does exist though “the multitude” might not have correct beliefs about him, he punishes the ungodly and upholds the pious, and the ideal man must correctly understand God.

Hence I am puzzled that the author of the above website, as well as perhaps other contemporary Epicureans, sees Epicurus as the harbinger of atheistic/agnostic secular humanism. Even the entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary perplexes me, which states that in the Epicurean system the gods “take no thought for this cosmos or any other” and that men should not “[expect] favours or punishments from them.” Epicurus’ own Letter to Menoeceus seems to say something different.