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Plato and Platonism, a non-fiction book by Walter Pater

Chapter 10. Plato's Aesthetics

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_ [267] WHEN we remember Plato as the great lover, what the visible world was to him, what a large place the idea of Beauty, with its almost adequate realisation in that visible world, holds in his most abstract speculations as the clearest instance of the relation of the human mind to reality and truth, we might think that art also, the fine arts, would have been much for him; that the aesthetic element would be a significant one in his theory of morals and education. Ta terpna en Helladi+ (to use Pindar's phrase) all the delightful things in Hellas:-- Plato least of all could have been unaffected by their presence around him. And so it is. Think what perfection of handicraft, what a subtle enjoyment therein, is involved in that specially Platonic rule, to mind one's business (to ta hautou prattein)+ that he who, like Fra Damiano of Bergamo, has a gift for poikilia,+ intarsia or marqueterie, for example, should confine himself exclusively to that. Before him, [268] you know, there had been no theorising about the beautiful, its place in life, and the like; and as a matter of fact he is the earliest critic of the fine arts. He anticipates the modern notion that art as such has no end but its own perfection,--"art for art's sake." Ar' oun kai hekaste ton technon esti ti sympheron allo e hoti malista telean einai;+ We have seen again that not in theory only, by the large place he assigns to our experiences regarding visible beauty in the formation of his doctrine of ideas, but that in the practical sphere also, this great fact of experience, the reality of beauty, has its importance with him. The loveliness of virtue as a harmony, the winning aspect of those "images" of the absolute and unseen Temperance, Bravery, Justice, shed around us in the visible world for eyes that can see, the claim of the virtues as a visible representation by human persons and their acts of the eternal qualities of "the eternal," after all far out-weigh, as he thinks, the claim of their mere utility. And accordingly, in education, all will begin and end "in music," in the promotion of qualities to which no truer name can be given than symmetry, aesthetic fitness, tone. Philosophy itself indeed, as he conceives it, is but the sympathetic appreciation of a kind of music in the very nature of things.

There have been Platonists without Plato, and a kind of traditional Platonism in the world, independent of, yet true in spirit to, the Platonism [269] of the Platonic Dialogues. Now such a piece of traditional Platonism we find in the hypothesis of some close connexion between what may be called the aesthetic qualities of the world about us and the formation of moral character, between aesthetics and ethics. Wherever people have been inclined to lay stress on the colouring, for instance, cheerful or otherwise, of the walls of the room where children learn to read, as though that had something to do with the colouring of their minds; on the possible moral effect of the beautiful ancient buildings of some of our own schools and colleges; on the building of character, in any way, through the eye and ear; there the spirit of Plato has been understood to be, and rightly, even by those who have perhaps never read Plato's Republic, in which however we do find the connexion between moral character and matters of poetry and art strongly asserted. This is to be observed especially in the third and tenth books of The Republic. The main interest of those books lies in the fact, that in them we read what Plato actually said on a subject concerning which people have been so ready to put themselves under his authority.

It is said with immediate reference to metre and its various forms in verse, as an element in the general treatment of style or manner (lexis)+ as opposed to the matter (logoi)+ in the imaginative literature, with which as in time past the [270] education of the citizens of the Perfect City will begin. It is however at his own express suggestion that we may apply what he says, in the first instance, about metre and verse, to all forms of art whatever, to music (mousike)+ generally, to all those matters over which the Muses of Greek mythology preside, to all productions in which the form counts equally with, or for more than, the matter. Assuming therefore that we have here, in outline and tendency at least, the mind of Plato in regard to the ethical influence of aesthetic qualities, let us try to distinguish clearly the central lines of that tendency, of Platonism in art, as it is really to be found in Plato.

"You have perceived have you not," observes the Platonic Socrates, "that acts of imitation, if they begin in early life, and continue, establish themselves in one's nature and habits, alike as to the body, the tones of one's voice, the ways of one's mind."

Yes, that might seem a matter of common observation; and what is strictly Platonic here and in what follows is but the emphasis of the statement. Let us set it however, for the sake of decisive effect, in immediate connexion with certain other points of Plato's aesthetic doctrine.

Imitation then, imitation through the eye and ear, is irresistible in its influence over human nature. And secondly, we, the founders, the people, of the Republic, of the city that shall be [271] perfect, have for our peculiar purpose the simplification of human nature: a purpose somewhat costly, for it follows, thirdly, that the only kind of music, of art and poetry, we shall permit ourselves, our citizens, will be of a very austere character, under a sort of "self-denying ordinance." We shall be a fervently aesthetic community, if you will; but therewith also very fervent "renunciants," or ascetics.

In the first place, men's souls are, according to Plato's view, the creatures of what men see and hear. What would probably be found in a limited number only of sensitive people, a constant susceptibility to the aspects and other sensible qualities of things and persons, to the element of expression or form in them and their movements, to phenomena as such--this susceptibility Plato supposes in men generally. It is not so much the matter of a work of art, what is conveyed in and by colour and form and sound, that tells upon us educationally--the subject, for instance, developed by the words and scenery of a play--as the form, and its qualities, concision, simplicity, rhythm, or, contrariwise, abundance, variety, discord. Such "aesthetic" qualities, by what we might call in logical phrase, metabasis eis allo genos,+ a derivation into another kind of matter, transform themselves, in the temper of the patient the hearer or spectator, into terms of ethics, into the sphere of the desires and the will, of the moral taste, engendering, nursing [272] there, strictly moral effects, such conditions of sentiment and the will as Plato requires in his City of the Perfect, or quite the opposite, but hardly in any case indifferent, conditions.

Imitation:--it enters into the very fastnesses of character; and we, our souls, ourselves, are for ever imitating what we see and hear, the forms, the sounds which haunt our memories, our imagination. We imitate not only if we play a part on the stage but when we sit as spectators, while our thoughts follow the acting of another, when we read Homer and put ourselves, lightly, fluently, into the place of those he describes: we imitate unconsciously the line and colour of the walls around us, the trees by the wayside, the animals we pet or make use of, the very dress we wear. Only, Hina me ek tes mimeseos tou einai apolausosin.+--Let us beware how men attain the very truth of what they imitate.

That then is the first principle of Plato's aesthetics, his first consideration regarding the art of the City of the Perfect. Men, children, are susceptible beings, in great measure conditioned by the mere look of their "medium." Like those insects, we might fancy, of which naturalists tell us, taking colour from the plants they lodge on, they will come to match with much servility the aspects of the world about them.

But the people of the Perfect City would not [273] be there at all except by way of a refuge, an experiment, or tour de force, in moral and social philosophy; and this circumstance determines the second constituent principle of Plato's aesthetic scheme. We, then, the founders, the citizens, of the Republic have a peculiar purpose. We are here to escape from, to resist, a certain vicious centrifugal tendency in life, in Greek and especially in Athenian life, which does but propagate a like vicious tendency in ourselves. We are to become-- like little pieces in a machine! you may complain.--No, like performers rather, individually, it may be, of more or less importance, but each with a necessary and inalienable part, in a perfect musical exercise which is well worth while, or in some sacred liturgy; or like soldiers in an invincible army, invincible because it moves as one man. We are to find, or be put into, and keep, every one his natural place; to cultivate those qualities which will secure mastery over ourselves, the subordination of the parts to the whole, musical proportion. To this end, as we saw, Plato, a remorseless idealist, is ready even to suppress the differences of male and female character, to merge, to lose the family in the social aggregate.

Imitation then, we may resume, imitation through the eye and ear, is irresistible in its influence on human nature. Secondly, the founders of the Republic are by its very purpose bound to the simplification of human nature: [274] and our practical conclusion follows in logical order. We shall make, and sternly keep, a "self-denying" ordinance in this matter, in the matter of art, of poetry, of taste in all its varieties; a rule, of which Plato's own words, applied by him in the first instance to rhythm or metre, but like all he says on that subject fairly applicable to the whole range of musical or aesthetic effects, will be the brief summary: Alternations will be few and far between:-- how differently from the methods of the poetry, the art, the choruses, we most of us love so much, not necessarily because our senses are inapt or untrained:--Smikrai hai metabolai.+ We shall allow no musical innovations, no Aristophanic cries, no imitations however clever of "the sounds of the flute or the lyre," no free imitation by the human voice of bestial or mechanical sounds, no such artists as are "like a mirror turning all about." There were vulgarities of nature, you see, in the youth of ideal Athens even. Time, of course, as such, is itself a kind of artist, trimming pleasantly for us what survives of the rude world of the past. Now Plato's method would promote or anticipate the work of time in that matter of vulgarities of taste. Yes, when you read his precautionary rules, you become fully aware that even in Athens there were young men who affected what was least fortunate in the habits, the pleasures, the sordid business of the class below them. [275] But they would not be allowed quite their own way in the streets or elsewhere in a reformed world, to whose chosen imperial youth (Basilike phyle)+ it would not be permitted even to think of any of those things--oudeni prosechein ton voun.+ To them, what was illiberal, the illiberal crafts, would be (thanks to their well-trained power of intellectual abstraction!) as though it were not. And if art, like law, be, as Plato thinks, "a creation of mind, in accordance with right reason," we shall not wish our boys to sing like mere birds.

Yet what price would not the musical connoisseur pay to handle the instruments we may see in fancy passing out through the gates of the City of the Perfect, banished, not because there is no one within its walls who knows the use of, or would receive pleasure from, them (a delicate susceptibility in these matters Plato, as was said, presupposes) but precisely because they are so seductive, must be conveyed therefore to some other essentially less favoured neighbourhood, like poison, say! moral poison, for one's enemies' water-springs. A whole class of painters, sculptors, skilled workmen of various kinds go into like banishment--they and their very tools; not, observe again carefully, because they are bad artists, but very good ones.--Alla men, o Adeimante, hedys ge kai ho kekramenos.+ Art, as such, as Plato knows, has no purpose but itself, its own perfection. The proper art of the [276] Perfect City is in fact the art of discipline. Music (mousike)+ all the various forms of fine art, will be but the instruments of its one over-mastering social or political purpose, irresistibly conforming its so imitative subject units to type: they will be neither more nor less than so many variations, so to speak, of the trumpet-call.

Or suppose again that a poet finds his way to us, "able by his genius, as he chooses, or as his audience chooses, to become all things, or all persons, in turn, and able to transform us too into all things and persons in turn, as we listen or read, with a fluidity, a versatility of humour almost equal to his own, a poet myriad-minded, as we say, almost in Plato's precise words, as our finest touch of praise, of Shakespeare for instance, or of Homer, of whom he was thinking:--Well! we shall have been set on our guard. We have no room for him. Divine, delightful, being, "if he came to our city with his works, his poems, wishing to make an exhibition of them, we should certainly do him reverence as an object, sacred, wonderful, delightful, but we should not let him stay. We should tell him that there neither is, nor may be, any one like that among us, and so send him on his way to some other city, having anointed his head with myrrh and crowned him with a garland of wool, as something in himself half-divine, and for ourselves should make use of some more austere and less pleasing sort of poet, for his practical [277] uses." To austerotero kai aedestero poiete, ophelias heneka.+ Not, as I said, that the Republic any more than Lacedaemon will be an artless place. Plato's aesthetic scheme is actually based on a high degree of sensibility to such influences in the people he is dealing with.--

Right speech, then, and rightness of harmony and form and rhythm minister to goodness of nature; not that good-nature which we so call with a soft name, being really silliness, but the frame of mind which in very truth is rightly and fairly ordered in regard to the moral habit.--Most certainly he said.--Must not these qualities, then, be everywhere pursued by the young men if they are to do each his own business?--Pursued, certainly.--Now painting, I suppose, is full of them (those qualities which are partly ethical, partly aesthetic) and all handicraft such as that; the weaver's art is full of them, and the inlayer's art and the building of houses, and the working of all the other apparatus of life; moreover the nature of our own bodies, and of all other living things. For in all these, rightness or wrongness of form is inherent. And wrongness of form, and the lack of rhythm, the lack of harmony, are fraternal to faultiness of mind and charac- ter, and the opposite qualities to the opposite condition--the temperate and good character:--fraternal, aye! and copies of them.--Yes, entirely so: he said.--

Must our poets, then, alone be under control, and compelled to work the image of the good into their poetic works, or not to work among us at all; or must the other craftsmen too be controlled, and restrained from working this faultiness and intemperance and illiberality and formlessness of character whether into the images of living creatures, or the houses they build, or any other product of their craft whatever; or must he who is unable so to do be forbidden to practise his art among us, to the end that our guardians may not, nurtured in images of vice as in a vicious pasture, cropping and culling much every day little by little from many sources, composing together some one great evil in their own souls, go undetected? Must we not rather seek for those craftsmen who have the [278] power, by way of their own natural virtue, to track out the nature of the beautiful and seemly, to the end that, living as in some wholesome place, the young men may receive good from every side, whencesoever, from fair works of art, either upon sight or upon hearing anything may strike, as it were a breeze bearing health from kindly places, and from childhood straightway bring them unaware to likeness and friendship and harmony with fair reason?--Yes: he answered: in this way they would be by far best educated.--Well then, I said, Glaucon, on these grounds is not education in music of the greatest importance--because, more than anything else, rhythm and harmony make their way down into the inmost part of the soul, and take hold upon it with the utmost force, bringing with them rightness of form, and rendering its form right, if one be correctly trained; if not, the opposite? and again because he who has been trained in that department duly, would have the sharpest sense of oversights (ton paraleipomenon)+ and of things not fairly turned out, whether by art or nature (me kalos demiourgethenton e me kalos phynton)+ and disliking them, as he should, would commend things beautiful, and, by reason of his delight in these, receiving them into his soul, be nurtured of them, and become kalokagathos,+ while he blamed the base, as he should, and hated it, while still young, before he was able to apprehend a reason, and when reason comes would welcome it, recognising it by its kinship to himself--most of all one thus taught?--Yes: he answered: it seems to me that for reasons such as these their education should be in music. Republic, 400.

Understand, then, the poetry and music, the arts and crafts, of the City of the Perfect--what is left of them there, and remember how the Greeks themselves were used to say that "the half is more than the whole." Liken its music, if you will, to Gregorian music, and call to mind the kind of architecture, military or monastic again, that must be built to such music, and then the kind of colouring that will fill its [279] jealously allotted space upon the walls, the sort of carving that will venture to display itself on cornice or capital. The walls, the pillars, the streets--you see them in thought! nay, the very trees and animals, the attire of those who move along the streets, their looks and voices, their style--the hieratic Dorian architecture, to speak precisely, the Dorian manner everywhere, in possession of the whole of life. Compare it, for further vividness of effect, to Gothic building, to the Cistercian Gothic, if you will, when Saint Bernard had purged it of a still barbaric superfluity of ornament. It seems a long way from the Parthenon to Saint Ouen "of the aisles and arches," or Notre-Dame de Bourges; yet they illustrate almost equally the direction of the Platonic aesthetics. Those churches of the Middle Age have, as we all feel, their loveliness, yet of a stern sort, which fascinates while perhaps it repels us. We may try hard to like as well or better architecture of a more or less different kind, but coming back to them again find that the secret of final success is theirs. The rigid logic of their charm controls our taste, as logic proper binds the intelligence: we would have something of that quality, if we might, for ourselves, in what we do or make; feel, under its influence, very diffident of our own loose, or gaudy, or literally insignificant, decorations. "Stay then," says the Platonist, too sanguine perhaps,-- "Abide," he says to youth, "in these [280] places, and the like of them, and mechanically, irresistibly, the soul of them will impregnate yours. With whatever beside is in congruity with them in the order of hearing and sight, they will tell (despite, it may be, of unkindly nature at your first making) upon your very countenance, your walk and gestures, in the course and concatenation of your inmost thoughts."

And equation being duly made of what is merely personal and temporary in Plato's view of the arts, it may be salutary to return from time to time to the Platonic aesthetics, to find ourselves under the more exclusive influence of those qualities in the Hellenic genius he has thus emphasised. What he would promote, then, is the art, the literature, of which among other things it may be said that it solicits a certain effort from the reader or spectator, who is promised a great expressiveness on the part of the writer, the artist, if he for his part will bring with him a great attentiveness. And how satisfying, how reassuring, how flattering to himself after all, such work really is--the work which deals with one as a scholar, formed, mature and manly. Bravery--andreia+ or manliness--manliness and temperance, as we know, were the two characteristic virtues of that old pagan world; and in art certainly they seem to be involved in one another. Manliness in art, what can it be, as distinct from that which in opposition to it [281] must be called the feminine quality there,--what but a full consciousness of what one does, of art itself in the work of art, tenacity of intuition and of consequent purpose, the spirit of construction as opposed to what is literally incoherent or ready to fall to pieces, and, in opposition to what is hysteric or works at random, the maintenance of a standard. Of such art ethos+ rather than pathos+ will be the predominant mood. To use Plato's own expression there will be here no paraleipomena,+ no "negligences," no feminine forgetfulness of one's self, nothing in the work of art unconformed to the leading intention of the artist, who will but increase his power by reserve. An artist of that kind will be apt, of course, to express more than he seems actually to say. He economises. He will not spoil good things by exaggeration. The rough, promiscuous wealth of nature he reduces to grace and order: reduces, it may be, lax verse to staid and temperate prose. With him, the rhythm, the music, the notes, will be felt to follow, or rather literally accompany as ministers, the sense,--akolouthein ton logon.+

We may fairly prefer the broad daylight of Veronese to the contrasted light and shade of Rembrandt even; and a painter will tell you that the former is actually more difficult to attain. Temperance, the temperance of the youthful Charmides, super-induced on a nature originally rich and impassioned,--Plato's own [282] native preference for that is only reinforced by the special needs of his time, and the very conditions of the ideal state. The diamond, we are told, if it be a fine one, may gain in value by what is cut away. It was after such fashion that the manly youth of Lacedaemon had been cut and carved. Lenten or monastic colours, brown and black, white and grey, give their utmost value for the eye (so much is obvious) to the scarlet flower, the lighted candle, the cloth of gold. And Platonic aesthetics, remember! as such, are ever in close connexion with Plato's ethics. It is life itself, action and character, he proposes to colour; to get something of that irrepressible conscience of art, that spirit of control, into the general course of life, above all into its energetic or impassioned acts.

Such Platonic quality you may trace of course not only in work of Doric, or, more largely, of Hellenic lineage, but at all times, as the very conscience of art, its saving salt, even in ages of decadence. You may analyse it, as a condition of literary style, in historic narrative, for instance; and then you have the stringent, shorthand art of Thucydides at his best, his masterly feeling for master-facts, and the half as so much more than the whole. Pindar is in a certain sense his analogue in verse. Think of the amount of attention he must have looked for, in those who were, not to read, but to sing him, or to listen while he was sung, and to understand. [283] With those fine, sharp-cut gems or chasings of his, so sparely set, how much he leaves for a well-drilled intelligence to supply in the way of connecting thought.

And you may look for the correlative of that in Greek clay, in Greek marble, as you walk through the British Museum. But observe it, above all, at work, checking yet reinforcing his naturally fluent and luxuriant genius, in Plato himself. His prose is a practical illustration of the value of that capacity for correction, of the effort, the intellectual astringency, which he demands of the poet also, the musician, of all true citizens of the ideal Republic, enhancing the sense of power in one's self, and its effect upon others, by a certain crafty reserve in its exercise, after the manner of a true expert. Chalepa ta kala+--he is faithful to the old Greek saying. Patience,--"infinite patience," may or may not be, as was said, of the very essence of genius; but is certainly, quite as much as fire, of the mood of all true lovers. Isos to legomenon alethes, hoti chalepa ta kala.+ Heraclitus had preferred the "dry soul," or the "dry light" in it, as Bacon after him the siccum lumen. And the dry beauty,--let Plato teach us, to love that also, duly.



267. +Transliteration: Ta terpna en Helladi. Pater's translation: "all the delightful things in Hellas." Pindar, though I have not located the poem to which Pater refers.

267. +Transliteration: to ta hautou prattein. E-text editor's translation: "to do only things proper to oneself." Plato, Republic 369e.

267. +Transliteration: poikilia. Liddell and Scott definition: "metaph: cunning."

268. +Transliteration: Ar' oun kai hekaste ton technon esti ti sympheron allo e hoti malista telean einai. E-text editor's translation: "Does there belong to each of the arts any advantage other than perfection?" Plato, Republic 341d. Pater's reading is perhaps anachronistic in suggesting that Plato anticipated modern thinking about the autonomy of art.

269. +Transliteration: lexis. Liddell and Scott definition: "a speaking, speech . . . a way of speaking, diction, style."

269. +Transliteration: logoi. Pater's contextual translation: "matter."

270. +Transliteration: mousike. Liddell and Scott definition: "any art over which the Muses presided, esp. music or lyric poetry set and sung to music...."

271. +Transliteration: metabasis eis allo genos. Pater's translation: "a derivation into another kind of matter."

272. +Transliteration: Hina me ek tes mimeseos tou einai apolausosin. E-text editor's translation: "lest they draw the reality only from their imitation of it." Plato, Republic 395c.

274. +Transliteration: Smikrai hai metabolai. E-text editor's translation: "our senses are inapt or untrained." Plato, Republic 397c.

275. +Transliteration: Basilike phyle. E-text editor's translation: "royal tribe."

275. +Transliteration: oudeni prosechein ton voun. Pater's translation: "[they] would not be permitted even to think of any of those things." Plato, Republic 396b.

275. +Transliteration: Alla men, o Adeimante, hedys ge kai ho kekramenos. E-text editor's translation: "But indeed, Adeimantus, the mixed kind of art also is pleasant." Plato, Republic 397d.

276. +Transliteration: mousike. Liddell and Scott definition: "any art over which the Muses presided, esp. music or lyric poetry set and sung to music...."

277. +Transliteration: To austerotero kai aedestero poiete, ophelias heneka. Pater's translation: "some more austere and less pleasing sort of poet, for his practical uses." Plato, Republic 398a.

278. +Transliteration: ton paraleipomenon. Pater's translation: "oversights." The verb paraleipo means, "to leave on one side . . . leave unnoticed." Plato, Republic 401e.

278. +Transliteration: me kalos demiourgethenton e me kalos phynton. Pater's translation: "not fairly turned out, whether by art or nature." Plato, Republic 401e.

278. +Transliteration: kalokagathos. Liddell and Scott definition: "beautiful and good, noble and good." Plato, Republic 401e.

280. +Transliteration: andreia. Pater's translation: "manliness."

281. +Transliteration: ethos. Liddell and Scott definition: "an accustomed place . . . custom, usage, habit."

281. +Transliteration: pathos. Liddell and Scott definition "1. anything that befalls one, a suffering, misfortune, calamity; 2. a passive condition: a passion, affection; 3. an incident."

281. +Transliteration: paraleipomena. Pater's translation: "oversights."

281. +Transliteration: akolouthein ton logon. Pater's translation: "follow the sense." Plato, Republic 398d.

283. +Transliteration: Chalepa ta kala. E-text editor's translation: "fine things are hard [to obtain or understand]." Plato, Republic 435c.

283. +Transliteration: Isos to legomenon alethes, hoti chalepa ta kala. E-text editor's translation: "Perhaps the saying is true--namely, that fine things are hard [to obtain or understand]." Plato, Republic 435c.

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