Some Affinities

Updated - Here is what I have been trying to say in posts I am now editing over in a Balzacian twist (Jowett also writes that Plato may have progressively edited his works, too; I have reverted my previous posts to draft). I hope you will forgive my caprice on this blog, and trust I am always trying to present here my best, even if I am bound to fall short.
I think Plato in the Republic is making an educator's joke at the difficulties of the idea of educating all people (ha ha, modern world), when it is a fact that we humans seem happier to recycle untrue stories about our neighbours and take those appearances at face value without developing the skill of assessing the underlying motives, which may be ideas that had not occurred to our limited idea of man. When I write limited, I am not thinking about lofty metaphysical-type ideas, but, say, the simple ability to be inspired by a short exchange with a neighbour that ends with a smile. Some would say to such an exchange: What were you trying to get out of it? But there may be no interest, except for the exchange of ideas, to reach those that are not one's own, and perhaps a smile.
Plato seems to be saying something about the misinterpretations that might be diffused by people who are exposed to complex ideas before they understand that along with understanding comes much deception. We are to learn to "eliminate the trivial and the false from our idea of humanity; to abstract from the best sources". Those sources are those that present human life at its best: "bravery and endurance in time of war, good counsel and fidelity in time of peace; at all times courage for individual achievement, coupled with reverence and an instinctive feeling that communal interests are supreme". Knowing the good makes it easier to identify the trivial and the false, which is complicated because sometimes ail before we recognise salubrity. The complexity tests the affinities guiding our interpretation.
There are virtues regarded as common across culture - and time. Gadamer in Truth and Method writes that "the greatest achievements in the human sciences almost never become outdated". Bravery, patience, wisdom, fidelity, community are always vital elements to humanity.
It is because man is sometimes superficial, uncritical of his motives or understanding, that Plato thought art ought portray only that which is virtuous. And the classical view of art is that it is to fill in where nature falls short, to depict the ideals that are not always realised in the situation around us.




According to Plato, we are not meant to conduct ourselves as jellyfish, directed by the flow of circumstantial current, but reign superior through our (rational) ability to measure and weigh, to train sympathy through habit in order to be happy. Aristotle concurs x.6: the same primitive joys of the rich man are available to slaves (bodily pleasure) but no one would say the slaves are happy: happiness lies in other things - like virtue. Plato illustrates virtue through the illustration of the man who has lost a son and mourns more in private than in public because of the laws of decorum that instruct that nothing is gained by ceding to impatience: grief may blind a man from seeing how to apply the "healing art" instead of wasting time crying like a child. In that (harsh) illustration we see that the point of experience, and of stories, is to learn to look for what is best: what can be put to best use out of what we have - not what we do not have. Both pleasure and pain are not how they might first appear.
It has become a literary trope since Tolstoy to say that man is divided from man, and made particular, through that which he is lacking (through his sadness) and not through what he possesses (happiness). What has made man love what he has not in this modern age?
In Paul Hazard's Crisis of the European Subject are many answers to this question, but I will extract his reading of Don Quixote, II, where he and Sancho meet a Knight who lives within his means, is content with routine, friends, freedom within limits, humbly sharing what he has, making peace, and living according to the recipe of concordance of heart, mind, and senses. "But times change, and fashions with them. That precious recipe of his won't count for much with the next generation, and, when his grandsons arrive ... they will regard [him] as a very out-of-date old gentleman ... No more, for them, out of that spell of calm, when a man might go about his lawful occasions with a tranquil mind. Giving vent at last to desires so long repressed, off they will hie them, up and down the world, looking for trouble."
In response to all of the resulting cultural relativity (seen not only in travel but in the museum), Gadamer offers the antidote of mortality. It is also mortality that Plato offers as one of his antidotes to wandering thought in the Republic.




It may be that our age is too far gone to understand the "measure" and "limits" of mortality. Classicist Edith Hamilton apparently said in an interview I cannot find, that "life had become too far complex since the age of Pericles to recapture ... the calm lucidity of the Greek mind, which convinced the great thinkers of Athens of their mastery of truth and enlightenment". She called their thinking "simple directness". But if Gadamer is correct, if my affinities are justified, their lessons are timeless. Gadamer writes that "Classical means the duration of a work's power to speak directly."
Who does not relate to the depiction of the ugly sea monster in Plato's Republic, Glaucus, disfigured by his own imperfection - yet still a figure of hope because, as Socrates says, we are saved through our affinities: we may be saved if we love the beautiful and the wise, categories that do not change with time.
But change with the particulars of unhappy perspective, as Tolstoy taught. Hazard writes: "Fundamental concepts, such as Property, Freedom, Justice and so on, were brought under discussion again as a result of the conditions they were seen to operate in far-off countries, in the first place because, instead of all differences being referred to one universal archetype, the emphasis was now on the particular, the irreducible, the individual; in the second" empiricism. In the humanities, however, empiricism can be subjective. In the humanities, where Plato remains, cast out of science, we are taught that to lack proof does not an untruth make, and are shown, in this context, the saving grace of argument. Since the Theogony, we have seen that with truth comes much untruth - and have been so warned ... to use our words and the power of our attention carefully.
We are not so alone as we might think we are sometimes. This is what I want to say. Sometimes there are strings of days when I feel cast out from this world and terribly alone, and suddenly, most unexpectedly, I chat to a neighbour, and am reminded that we are each hauling our own individual set of problems - universal in that we each have them. If I am an opportunist, it is in this sense of communication, to share something, so much the better if crowned with a smile, the crown being the release.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License