A Case for the Restoration of Art to the Republic
Nietzsche was right: Plato was wrong—not merely esthetically, but philosophically. And the latter derives from the former. He was wrong philosophically because he was wrong esthetically. He separated heaven from earth—mistaking an artistic form for a philosophical distinction.
Plato dictated the marriage of philosophy and rationality; he pronounced man’s preoccupation with art illegitimate and sent the temptress out of his ideal republic. Philosophy has forever since remained more or less faithful to his assigned spouse, but the fact cannot be ignored that he has kept a mistress. He has invented excuses to invite art back into the state and has assigned to her from time to time various respectable titles of citizenship; she has served as handmaiden to priests and prophets, nursemaid to sick or weak souls, teacher to children and the impressionable—but meanwhile philosophy has always maintained lodging for her in his own house, has never resisted long the temptation to retire with her to his own private chambers for his pleasure and most profound satisfaction. For many centuries art was not considered an appropriate companion for philosophy, but in the last hundred years a reassessment of rationality and the language that invariably attends it has engendered considerable disillusionment with that lady, and it is possible to imagine that she has been an imposter all this while. It is even possible to speculate that Plato took the servant for the lady, and sent the lady away. I recommend, not the dissolution of a successful marriage, but the rehabilitation of a broken one.
To leave my fable and launch into a proposition more concrete—to assert that philosophy should appropriate the language that is art—I submit first the following premise: a rational proposition is a work of art. Art is the genus, rational form a species. What is art? my reader demands. In a broad and perfect sense, art is: separating the dark from the dark. Art is with the energy of the mind grasping for, getting hold on, holding—and then saying: something. Art is the expression of the content of the mind or heart of man. Then every utterance of man is art, you say. Not rational statement only, but the babbling of fools as well. Yes, I reply, and more than every utterance—every movement of muscle, every sign of being. But while I claim that this is art per se, the art principle, only God Himself is so far author and reader of such art; such art is not what I suggest philosophy need espouse. Such art philosophy does espouse; such art philosophy itself, and every enterprise of man whatever, is.
The art that I propose to be the just language for philosophy is man’s conscious, deliberate, recognizable (and sometimes recognized) expressions of being. This is hardly better, you say. Every act of consciousness is included in this entitlement; and of course rational statement is art under such a comprehensive definition. Exactly, I reply. Now, the differences in art are only differences in degree. Art is more satisfactory as it is more profound; gold is enriching, but more gold is more enriching. We see that man has categorized his “art” forms as science, history, philosophy, and art. Of these four, the last two are the most profound, for they include the first two as means and as objects of study. It is the last two that were cut off from each other by the error of Plato’s rational proposition. And it is the last two that I am proposing to combine, to marry, to lose each in the other in order to achieve the most profound experience of consciousness and the most perfect expression of the experience possible to us.
But art has not been commonly defined as I have defined it here. “Art” has referred to a work of inspiration or genius that represents or expresses through the media of architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry either the fact of man’s experience, an emotional response to it, or a conceptual interpretation of it. And so in my schema “art” as it has been commonly defined is a species, like rational thought, of the larger genus, Art.
And what is philosophy? Philosophy is the work of ’the conscious mind to understand and express its own existence and experience and significance, if any. Philosophy is the highest concern of man; it is the aspiration toward total consciousness. But since Plato’s theories became predominant in Western thought, philosophy has been primarily man’s rational definition and explanation of himself and his experience of consciousness. Matters that do not lend themselves to rational analysis have been considered inappropriate to the study. Indeed, philosophy for the last two centuries has been the study of rationality itself and is at the moment bent on an investigation of the process of thought, that is, the process of language. What lies beyond language? The dark again—and art, I contend, to best penetrate it.
Let us consider Plato’s decision to separate art from philosophy. In Plato’s system of ideal forms art was anomalous on these grounds: (l) it was insignificant because it was imitative—twice removed from ideal form and weaker for each remove; (2) it was theoretically unsound because it was irrational—inspired by and inspirer of passions; and (3) it was, therefore, socially obnoxious because it undermined the order of the state—indulging and exacerbating men’s weaknesses and vices as well as neglecting to instruct or correct them. The first two charges are matters of definition and logic and are basically metaphysical in content. But the last charge is a social, moral proposition and can be referred to life at large, to history, to experience.
What, exactly, are the weaknesses and vices in man to be so vigorously denied? In The Republic Socrates prescribes censorship of the works of Homer and Hesiod for the purpose of instilling certain salutary notions in the malleable minds of children and the impressionable minds of citizens, and of preventing the incursion of pernicious notions. Socrates censors Homer’s misrepresentation of gods on rational grounds. He argues that God must be good; He can not deceive; He will not change. Homer’s gods are represented erroneously when they are shown involved in quarrels, vengeful deeds, and wars. But there is a further insidious effect of Homer’s misrepresentations. Homer’s gods and heroes and men exhibit weaknesses such as fear and grief and exuberance; they exhibit vices such as hate, deception, intemperance, avarice, disobedience, etc. Such models inspire simiiar attitudes and behavior in children and citizens who attend to them. Art engenders opposition to the rational order Plato wishes to impress upon the state.
The rational order is restricted; it excludes much of the actual. The weaknesses and vices in the character of man, apparent to Plato, are, though reevaluated, apparent still in the nature of man today. Weakness and vice may not be rational, but they are a part nonetheless of man’s experience. Art represented to Plato a door onto the irrational, and he tried to close and lock it. A perfect solution for man. The dark menaces. Go into a room; turn on the light; close the door. Stay inside.
But the dark that menaces exists in the very fact of the light. The light manifests only in and because of the dark. The dark and the light are the boundaries of one phenomenon: the nature of man.
If opting for the rational simplifies and purifies the problem of philosophy, it also falsifies it. That falsification is sensed by modern readers of Plato’s works. Beyond the logic and the lectures of the Academy, impure people press and jostle in the streets—the objects of Plato’s philosophizing—to be metamorphosed into future subjects for his ideal republic. And the character of Socrates himself towers above the gods, heroes, and men he impresses into the service of his republic. Not only does the philosopher/ruler model the nature of the gods upon his own (and his disciples’) nature, not only is he licensed to lie in behalf of the state, but he is even allowed to express sadness at the necessity of putting aside a vice. The wise philosopher laments the loss of art!
Excluding the irrational from philosophy by edict, excluding art from philosophy as unworthy because contaminated with the irrational, Plato excludes the fertile ground from which philosophy itself springs. (Schiller and Blake and Nietsche and Freud bear witness.) And indeed philosophy has forever since suffered from the deprivation of art. It is for lack of her that philosophy has turned away from the reaches of the vast imagination, turned solipsistically upon itself—and eaten its own heart.
Plotinus knew. He performed the deed I am proposing—the marriage of philosophy and art, the rational and the esthetic, the mind and the imagination. He explicitly rejected use of the rational faculty alone.
. . . for all the principles of this order, dwelling There, are as it were visible images projected from themselves, so that all becomes an object of contemplation to contemplators immeasurably blessed . . . If we have failed to understand, it is that we have thought of knowledge as a mass of theorems and an accumulation of propositions, though that is false even for our sciences of the sense-realm.1
Wisdom itself is seated in the intellectual principle (which Plotinus takes care to distinguish from a reason-principle). And the intellectual-principle is beautiful. Art is not anathema in such a scheme. Indeed, Plotinus directly refutes Plato’s mimetic objection to art; art derives from the generating principle from which nature itself derives, and it produces higher forms. The artist does not imitate the objective manifestations of nature; he imitates the creative principle in nature; therefore, the artist is able to add to the art object a degree of beauty or idea missing in natural forms. Art is closer to the ideal than nature itself! Neo Platonism indeed!
Plotinus, then, was not by Plato’s definition, strictly speaking, a philosopher. He was, I suppose, a prophet, a visionary—an artist. While Plato’s name is synonymous with Philosopher in the Western vernacular, Plotinus is remembered largely for his rendering of Platonic theory acceptable to Christianity ignored imagination and concentrated only on the objects it could analyze rationally. It turned to history and politics and science—to the “real world.” Art was never entirely excluded from philosophy, but it was not rationally justified as a serious study. Art was a fascinating enigma—a phantasm that would not disappear, however embarrassed for credentials it might remain.
Hume was among the first to turn upon rationality and to express skepticism as to its reliability as the basis of understanding. Reason is only as sound as its first premise, he said, and any first premise is not derived from reason and is in fact assumed upon no recognizable authority whatever, is therefore suspect. Down tumbles the entire edifice built upon reason. Hume discounted the central rational principle of cause-effect, maintaining that no one had ever been able to demonstrate any actual necessary relationship of the kind between any two events. We can only say that one event customarily follows upon another, he said, and we can fall into a habit of expecting the second to follow the first. More than custom we cannot confidently assume. Reason, he concluded, is good only for the manipulation of measurable, quantifiable phenomena. And in his own work he went about his philosophical studies and his esthetic experiments and experiences, believing philosophy more intellectually respectable and finding art more beautiful and compelling (the temptress in my earlier fable). He achieved something of a marriage of the two in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, where his polished style embodies his refined philosophical thought. But in his philosophical statement, he consigned art to the status of an achievement of undeniable but unaccountable validity and significance. While he undermined philosophy’s faith in reason, he contributed little toward the rehabilitation of art.
And then Kant mapped it out: the mind and the imagination. To Hume’s skepticism (and Descartes’ dualism) he opposed a new theory of the rational.
First he separated the knowable from the unknowable—the rational from the irrational. The knowable consisted of the phenomenal universe. The unknowable—such matters as the origin of the universe, the relationship of parts to wholes, the possibility of free will, and the existence of God—he assigned to a “noumenal” realm, beyond scrutiny, beyond determination.
In his philosophical inquiry into the phenomenal realm, Kant attempted a correction in point of view similar to the shift Galileo had given to
the scientific inquiry into the physical laws of the universe in the 17th century.
Heretofore philosophy had tried to bring the mind into agreement with the objects it observed; now Kant proposed to change the philosophical perspective: to bring the objective universe into agreement with man’s mind.2 He analyzed the structure of the mind. The mind, he said, contains certain a priori assumptions—spatio-temporal relationships, for example, causality.
Through these assumptions man perceives the universe. It is not possible to know that the assumptions are valid—that is, that the universe actually contains the relationships the mind insists upon. But man can assume the relationships in order to order his own experience. For Kant the first premise is experience. The self is,
through experience. The universe is, so far as man is a part of it, through man’s experience. Man can not know the universe in any other wise—and he need not.
Kant, therefore, moved rational philosophy from its previous ground, where it had been misapplied, as he thought, to the objective universe and to metaphysics, and reestablished it in new territory, the ground of the self and experience.
But Kant’s system, like Plato’s, could not deal effectively with the noisy rabble in the streets. Matters of religion and ethics depend on matters
of God and free will—and none are matters for rational philosophy. Kant admits that these issues are central to man’s experience; and he deals with them as closely as rationality will take him (and, his critics claim, beyond).3 But the cultural spirit of philosophy has discounted, more or less, Kant’s forays into
the metaphysical, and has taken for its own only the central body of his
And beauty? Is beauty anomalous in Kant’s system? My answer is yes.
Beauty seems to rise monumentally from nowhere, to exist outside man’s conceptualization—to be, somehow. Man recognizes it, simply. (Plato would not be mollified, but Plotinus would be pleased.)
And art? Kant gives an account of the nature and power of art exactly to the purpose of this paper:
In a word, the aesthetical idea is a representation of the imagination associated with a given concept, which is bound up with such a multiplicity of partial representations in its free employment that for it no expression marking a definite concept can be found; and such a representation, therefore, adds to a concept much ineffable thought, the feeling of which quickens the cognitive faculties, and with language, which is the mere letter, binds up spirit also.4
Art includes the rational and reaches beyond it. Indeed, art, in Kant’s theory, provides a bridge from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm. And across Kant’s bridge lies the realm of the irrational. Then why can’t the imagination give the rational mind a lift and set it over in the realm of the
Why not, indeed; and Schiller and Blake and Shelley jubilantly crossed this bridge and on the other side founded universes of beauty and power, intellectually and morally compelling.
Philosophy too begins to make use of Kant’s bridge. For example, Hegel proposes a Platonic absolute, in many respects like Plotinus’. Hegel’s ideal is absolute Idea. Through history, according to his system, absolute Idea “unfolds” itself, becomes conscious. This awakening is the developing thought of man—the progress of philosophy. In Hegel’s theory the universe of sensuous form is assimilated into the spirit of Idea—absolute Idea is concrete Idea. Art and religion are subsumed by philosophy. Now Hegelian philosophy seems to present the final triumph of the very faculty that Hume, Kant, and others have seemed to be conspiring to humiliate, the rational intellect. But it is not 18th- century or even 19th-century rationalism that Hegel champions. It is a Platonic absolute. It is Plotinus’ phenomenological spirit of beauty.
And therefore it is not art alone that has been transcended, but rationality, in its usual sense, as well.
Hegel’s controversial theory of art runs in this wise. Art is defined as:
. . . merely one mode and form through which the divine, the profoundest interests of mankind, and spiritual truths of widest range, are brought home to consciousness and expressed. . . . the peculiar distinction . . . being that its presentation of the most exalted subject matter is in sensuous form, thereby bringing them nearer to nature and her mode of envisagement, that is closer to our sensitive and emotional life.5
Art is the first, most primitive (as Vico proposed) impulse of man toward language and rational thought. Its characters are image, metaphor, metonymy; its metaphysics allegory and symbol. It contains the physical in the abstract.
The spirit is mired in the corporeal . Hegel’s system depicts primitive art grappiing through architectural form to signify idea; but primitive idea
is indeterminate, and the material of the form can only signify content, not express it.
The art develops in Greek sculpture to a perfect (“classical”) expression of content in form. Finally art moves into its “romantic” period
where it attempts to express idea that lies beyond the phenomenal world. Here painting and music and poetry carry sensuous form as far into the spiritual realm as it can go—and then philosophy casts off the physical form altogether and ascends toward heaven—absolute Idea.
Hegel, and Vico, are correct in recognizing that the first impulse toward language is sensuous. But they are in error when they think that abstract thought is a perfection of language. It is indeed a purification in the
sense that racial segregation is purification, in the sense that Plato made the same distinction when he separated rationality from art. But if we have
discovered anything in the last few years in our preoccupation with language itself, it is perhaps that abstract language removes our cognition from the experience it intends to represent and restricts or skews our conceptualization. The experience to be expressed lies about us, stretches from horizon to horizon,
and the thin line of logic we own with which we attempt to weave our net to hold the matter does not suffice. The primitive experience—the initial, immediate confrontation with the real—is still the experience of every man at every moment. So long as that experience is sensuous, art is the language to express it. Certainly if the real is Hegel’s absolute concrete Idea as he describes it, purely rational thought will not express it. Plotinus wrote:
. . . as it seems to me, the wise of Egypt—whether in precise knowledge or by a prompting of nature—indicated the truth where, in their effort towards philosophical statement, they left aside the writing forms that take in the detail of words and sentences—those characters that represent sounds and convey the propositions of reasoning—and drew pictures instead, engraving in the temple-inscriptions a separate image for every separate item: thus they exhibited the absence of discursiveness in the intellectual realm.6
I do not mean to insist that the physical world is the real world and that man is ineluctably mired in it. Indeed I repudiate the notions of physical and spiritual realms. I’m eager with Hegel to insist that the physical world is the spiritual world. Physical creatures, how could we see spirit if it did not manifest in physical forms? And as the physical world is the spiritual world, incarnate, art is the expression of philosophy. As Hegel found man himself to exemplify the ideal artistic concept—the perfect form to express its content, embodiment of the human spirit—so nature is the perfect form to express the content (idea) of the universe. Indeed, perhaps the physical universe has been all this while the very region of totality proposed variously by Plotinus and Hegel and Heidegger, and perhaps the language of the universe is the language of art; total sensuous expression of total being. The physical universe is an art form.
And so while man stumbles about under the weight of his own desires and doubts, straining to see himself and “say” himself, longing to see God, he unnecessarily denies his own instinct to hope, his impulse to speak, when he denies the legitimacy of the imagination and of the language closest to his heart. Art is the language of philosophy.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Selection from The Philosophy of Fine Art. In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp. 518-531.
Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp. 314-323.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Ed. Eric Steinberg. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977.
Jones, W. T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed., rev., New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975.
Kant, Immanuel. Selection from Critique of Judgment. In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp. 379-399.
Plato. Selections from Ion, Republic, Laws. In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp. 12-46.
Plotinus. Selection from On the lntellectual Beauty. In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp. 106-113.
Plotinus, Selection from On the Intellectual Beauty, in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971, pp. 108-109.↩
W. T. Jones, Kant and the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed., rev., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975.↩
Immanuel Kant, Selection from Critique of Judgment, in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed., Hazard Adams, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971, p. 398↩
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Selection from The Philosophy of Fine Art, in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., p. 518.↩
Plotinus, p. 109.↩