Socrates on the self-sufficient life
One of the exciting and relevant reasons for turning to the Greeks is that in the work of some Greek philosophers ----specially that of Plato---- one finds what are perhaps the best, the deepest, and the most lively discussions on the tensions between philosophy and art as conflicting ways of life. In dialogues such as the Symposium, the debate reaches a real climax. There Socrates and Aristophanes battle it out. The basis for their discrepancy in part revolves around the nature of desire and the possibility of human self-sufficiency and happiness.
This is not to say that in modern times one does not find authors who see the importance of touching on such a debate. One indeed finds it particularly in the work of Nietzsche who moves permanently between both camps. Nietzsche the philosopher, Nietzsche the artist; as if unable to decide, as if as moderns we can no longer decide. He seems, in a sense, weary of both activates as we have come to understand them. But of course, Nietzsche touches on the debate in a very different way than Plato. In contrast to Nietzsches penetrating psychological fragments on the artist ----arrived at in the solitude of an introspective stance----- the beautifully artistic and dramatic form of a Platonic work such as the Symposium lies in that the dialogue makes the discussion almost alive and politically situated.
Moreover, Nietzsche stands as the primary source of a radical critique which has as its direct aim Socrates and his tradition. This is evident early on in his The Birth of Tragedy in which Socratic rationalism is set up against Greek tragedy which, by the end of the book, is assured its place as the unquestionable winner of the debate. Tragedy reaches the summit of expressive art. However, in tragedy self-sufficiency remains an impossibility because the tragic is by nature akin to the incomplete, to the flawed. Socrates, in contrast, teaches the possibility of self-sufficiency as the highest form of life.
But before pointing out one of the fundamental tensions between Platonic philosophy and art, a brief contextualization. Postmodernism, which began in architecture and therefore is closely linked to art, is the name of a critical stance towards modernity. It is set dead against the modern notion of enlightened reason which seeks to bring everything to the presence of a unequivocal and unimpaired lighting. Some of its proponents go so far as to interpret the work of authors such as Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way that widens the challenge not only to modernity, but rather to the whole of the Western tradition. In this respect they see crucial failings in the very origins of the Western tradition; a tradition whose foundations many find in the works of Plato, specially in his Republic. They emphasize, in this respect, his alleged desire to banish poetry and seek a rational understanding of the whole once we are liberated from the cave.
As the years go by, such an interpretation of Platonic philosophy seems to me less legitimate, less plausible and less interesting. At least three powerful reasons for this position stand out clearly to me now. On the one hand, there is here a confusion between modern reason and the ancient ideal of rationality. Secondly, such proposals are quite blind to the artistic merit of the dramatic form of Platonic philosophy itself which reaches us in the form of carefully, artistically created, dialogues. And finally, such overwhelming critiques fail to recognize the fact that it is Socrates who first tries to understand the political nature of us as human beings living in society. For some, specially in the Straussian tradition, Socrates concern is in the first instance with human affairs, not transcendental ideas.
What is the relevance of this debate to contemporary artists? HUGE. On the one hand, they may benefit from reading authors such as Michel Foucault who takes up seriously Nietzsches discussions on art. For him the only means of subverting this all-encompassing rationalistic project is life made artistic. The aesthetic configuration of oneself is the sole means of protest in an increasingly alienating world of micropowers. Foucaults work adamantly defends the possibility of what he calls an aesthetic of existence. As he puts it: the principle work of art one has to take care of , the main area to which one has to apply aesthetic values is oneself, ones life, ones existence. (pg 245; see also Nietzsche TGS #290) If reason no longer can guide our lives, art must lead the way. But on the other hand, contemporary artists might become more aware of the type of art which they are led to produce in this attempt to seek countermeasures by contrasting this stance with Socratic views of art and, in general, the role of desire in human affairs.
Let me just say briefly that, as far as I can see, the uniting thread which both camps address differently is the topic of desire. For the artist desire is the beginning and the end. The beginning for it is that which grants motion to the work, the end because the work expresses desire in a sublimated fashion. The Socratic philosopher, in particular, also begins with desire, but his/her erotic desire reaches out to another very different end. The end is erotic self-sufficiency. Among many other things, Socrates continuously asks whether a desire that has no limit to its gratification can in the end make a person fully human. As against Nietzsche, and the postmodernist defense of tragedy, Socrates defends the possibility of a certain happiness in philosophical excellence.
Xenophon ---who is now little read--- captures dramatically this sense of Socratic self-sufficiency in a passage in which Socrates, as is frequently the case, defends himself against an attack which he does not initiate. This dialogical interchange between Antiphon and Socrates might in a sense make us more aware of the nature of desire and its puzzling presence in our human lives. Xenophon reports this conversation went like this:
"It is only fair to Socrates not to leave unrecorded the conversations that he had with Antiphon the sophist. On one occasion, this man, wishing to transfer Socrates' associates to himself, went up to him in their presence and said: 'Socrates, I always thought that people ought to become happier through the study of philosophy, but it seems to me that you have experienced the opposite effect. At any rate, you lead the sort of life that no slave would put up with if it were imposed upon him by his master. You eat and drink the worst possible food and drink, and the cloak you wear is not only of poor quality, but is the same for summer and winter; and you never wear shoes or a tunic. Then, you never accept money, the receipt of which is cheering and the possession of which enables people to live with more freedom and pleasure. So if you are going to affect your associates in the same way as the teachers of other occupations, who turn out pupils after their own pattern, you should regard yourself as a teacher of misery.'
Socrates replied, 'You seem to have got it into your head that I live such a miserable life, Antiphon, that I really do believe you would rather die than live as I do. Come on, then: let us see what hardship you have detected in my way of life. Is it that those who accept payment are bound to do the work for which they've been paid, whereas I, since I don't accept it, am not compelled to converse with a person if I don't want to? Or do you depreciate my diet on the ground that it is less wholesome and sustaining than yours? Is it that my means of subsistence are harder to procure than yours, because they are rarer and more costly? Is it that you enjoy your provisions more than I do mine? Dont you know that the more a man enjoys eating, the less he needs a stimulus for his appetite, and the more he enjoys drinking, the less he craves for a drink that he hasn't got? As for cloaks, you know that people change them because of cold or hot weather, and they wear shoes to prevent things from hurting their feet and so impeding their movements. Well, have you ever known me stay indoors more than anybody else on account of the cold, or compete with anyone for the shade on account of the heat, or fail to walk wherever I wanted because my feet were sore? Don't you know that those who are physically weakest by nature, if they train with a particular end in view. become better able to achieve that end, with less effort to themselves, than the strongest athletes who neglect their training? And if that is so, don't you think that I, who am always training myself to put up with the things that happen to my body, find everything easier to bear than you do with your neglect of training? As for my not being a slave to my stomach, or to sleep, or to lechery, what better reason for it can you imagine than that I have other more pleasant occupations, which cheer me not only when I am engaged upon them, but also as giving me ground for hoping that they will benefit me always?
Besides, you must be aware of this, that those who feel that their farming or seafaring or any other occupation that they have is going well, are cheered by the consciousness of success. Now then, do you suppose that all these feelings give as much pleasure as the thought that one is becoming better oneself, and acquiring better friends? Well, I have this belief all the time. And then, if ones friends or the State needs help, which has more leisure to attend to this duty - the man who passes his time as I do now, or he one whom you regard as fortunate? Which could more readily go on military service - the man who can't live without an expensive diet, or the one who is content with whatever is to hand? And which would be sooner reduced to surrender in a siege the one whose requirements are most difficult to obtain, or the me who is satisfied with whatever he comes across? It seems to me, Antiphon, that you identify happiness with luxury and extravagance; but I have always thought that to need nothing is divine, and to need as little as possible is the nearest approach to the divine; and that what is divine is best, and what is nearest to the divine is the next best."
Interpreting these words is no easy matter. But I truly believe Van Gogh also sought a similar type of self-sufficiency as well. His poverty is very much akin to Socrates. But what Van Gogh affirmed through his own decisions and desiring activity was quite other than what Socrates held to be the highest good available to humans. One could conclude by saying: seeking to avoid the tension between philosophy and art might leave each of the parties safer to themselves, but safety is not primarily what philosophers or artists are all about.
Memorabilia I 6, Xenophon
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