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

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