20 March 2006

Beautiful Speech

In the Symposium, Plato argues, in effect, that the impulse to philosophize, rooted in eros, naturally gives rise to beautiful statements, not unlike love poems.

We are familiar with the idea that beauty is taken to be a mark of truth in mathematics and theoretical science. This then raises the question: What is the role of beauty in philosophical theory? Do we evaluate a philosophical view--and should we--on the grounds that it is or is not beautiful? If we do, or if we should do so, then are we to look for beauty in the view as a whole, or in how it is expressed, or in its capacity for beautiful expression, or in some other thing? (Also, do we and should we reject a view because it is 'ugly' or 'repugnant'? It seems so, when we dismiss something as 'absurd', atopon.)

These questions came to me last Thursday, at Suzanne Stern-Gillet's lecture in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy ("Introspection Plotinian and Augustinian"). Some of the passages that Prof. Stern-Gillet quoted from Plotinus and Augustine were so astonishingly beautiful, that one could hear a kind of gasp of wonderment and awe coming from the audience as we heard them. That these passages were read by Prof. Stern-Gillet with a poetic reverence certainly added to the effect. Here I quote two of these:

If...there is to be conscious apprehension (antilepsis) of the powers that are present in this way, we must turn our power of apprehension inwards, and make it attend to what is there. It is as if someone was expecting to hear a voice which he wanted to hear and withdrew from other sounds and roused his power of hearing to catch what, when it comes, is the best of all sounds which can be heard; so here also we must let perceptible sounds go (except in so far as we must listen to them) and keep the soul's power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from on high. (Plotinus)

...it is absurd to claim that the mind does not know as a whole what it knows. I do not say that it knows wholly, but that what it knows, it knows as a whole. When it, therefore, knows something of itself which it cannot know except as a whole, it knows itself as a whole. But it knows itself as knowing something, nor can it, except as a whole, know anything. Therefore it knows itself as a whole. (Augustine)