The Beautiful (and the profane)

(This will be, as usual, a loosely scattered set of reflections. But I hope you thoroughly enjoyed the featured image.)

Hegel tells a Dick joke in the Phenomenology, illustrating how the contradiction of the spirit is that the most sublime resides in the most base. He goes—the penis is both for urination (the most basic bodily need) and reproduction (the highest form of human activity). Yes. This is not very funny. But one would have appreciated it when one is knee-deep in his thick, swampy prose. (In an adjacent passage, he makes a similar joke to illustrate the same point when he discusses phrenology—“The spirit is a bone.”)

This is, in some sense, what Plato was working off in the Symposium, his most famous dialogue, one centered around Eros. (Love in its more sexual manifestations.) There—putting many, many interesting discussions aside—he proposes that eros, sexual attraction, can lead to moral goodness. (This is, of course, in the background of Ancient Athens where adult polis members had homosexual relationships with younger ones to introduce them to adulthood.) We are on the journey through a ladder of love, on the bottom is the body, and we go up to the soul, and end up in the form of the beautiful. Where we, the soul, literally make love with the form, or, at least strive to do so, when we are engaging in philosophy. (Certainly far away from the half-dead philosophy faculties around the globe today!)

And the form of the beautiful, for Plato, ultimately unites with the form of the Good and the True in a kind of tripartite gathering. So the beautiful, really, is true and the good. (And although Plato valued the form of the Good over all other forms, Hannah Arendt makes the nice argument that he was pushed to change his philosophy to adapt to his politics when in his early days he elevated the form of the Beautiful over the Good.)

There is, again, another beautiful metaphor for pregnancy in the Symposium. Philosophers are pregnant with thoughts and beauty is the midwife (the Socratean maieutic method) that delivers the thought into the world. What is more surprising is that in a thoroughly Hegelian moment we are first pregnant before engaging in intercourse to get the baby, so to speak, out—which probably had something to do with Plato’s doctrine of recollection. One sometimes simply cannot believe how rich Plato’s texts are.

And Socrates, it has been noted, never gets drunk because he is already too drunk on thinking.

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