Archive for the ‘Transcendentalism’ Category
This excerpt from Emerson describes so well the ascent to love and knowledge of God by of Beauty in Plato’s Symposium, or Diotima’s Ladder, that I thought I should share it:
In like manner, personal beauty is then first charming and itself when it dissatisfies us with any end; when it becomes a story without an end; when it suggests gleams and visions and not earthly satisfactions; when it makes the beholder feel his unworthiness; when he cannot feel his right to it, though he were Caesar; he cannot feel more right to it than to the firmament and the splendors of a sunset.
Hence arose the saying, “If I love you, what is that to you?” We say so because we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself and can never know.
This agrees well with that high philosophy of Beauty which the ancient writers delighted in; for they said that the soul of man, embodied here on earth, went roaming up and down in quest of that other world of its own out of which it came into this, but was soon stupefied by the light of the natural sun, and unable to see any other objects than those of this world, which are but shadows of real things. Therefore the Deity sends the glory of youth before the soul, that it may avail itself of beautiful bodies as aids to its recollection of the celestial good and fair; and the man beholding such a person in the female sex runs to her and finds the highest joy in contemplating the form, movement and intelligence of this person, because it suggests to him the presence of that which indeed is within the beauty, and the cause of the beauty.
If however, from too much conversing with material objects, the soul was gross, and misplaced its satisfaction in the body, it reaped nothing but sorrow; body being unable to fulfil the promise which beauty holds out; but if, accepting the hint of these visions and suggestions which beauty makes to his mind, the soul passes through the body and falls to admire strokes of character, and the lovers contemplate one another in their discourses and their actions, then they pass to the true palace of beauty, more and more inflame their love of it, and by this love extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out fire by shining on the hearth, they become pure and hallowed. By conversation with that which is in itself excellent, magnanimous, lowly, and just, the lover comes to a warmer love of these nobilities, and a quicker apprehension of them. Then he passes from loving them in one to loving them in all, and so is the one beautiful soul only the door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. In the particular society of his mate he attains a clearer sight of any spot, any taint which her beauty has contracted from this world, and is able to point it out, and this with mutual joy that they are now able, without offence, to indicate blemishes and hindrances in each other, and give to each all help and comfort in curing the same. And beholding in many souls the traits of the divine beauty, and separating in each soul that which is divine from the taint which it has contracted in the world, the lover ascends to the highest beauty, to the love and knowledge of the Divinity, by steps on this ladder of created souls.
Somewhat like this have the truly wise told us of love in all ages. The doctrine is not old, nor is it new. If Plato, Plutarch and Apuleius taught it, so have Petrarch, Angelo and Milton.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (‘Love‘; Essays, 1st Series)
The other day I noticed an interesting and often-overlooked detail of Plato’s Republic. The entire conversation which it records took place in the midst of an all-night festival dedicated to Bendis, the Thracian Artemis, a goddess associated with the Moon and the sister of Apollo.
Imagine, if you will, the goings on. Socrates, the protagonist of the Republic, walks 10 miles from Athens to the port of Piraeus, where the newly established festival in honor of Bendis takes place. First there are opening ceremonies and rituals, then a procession. At night there is a mysterious horse race where riders carry torches. Finally, the crowds disperse to enjoy a night-long festival, the details of which we know little.
Between the afternoon and evening festivities, Socrates runs into some acquaintances, who invite him to their nearby house for conversation. There they carry on into the late hours or morning in conversing about the nature of Justice. Meanwhile, all around them, the religious festival to Bendis is taking place. Surely this must have created a unique ambient energy that charged and inspired the conversation. (Anyone who has experienced such an all-night festival will understand this, and those who have not can easily imagine it.)
My musing (no pun intended) on all this produced something like a personal epiphany: I suddenly realized how, while Plato is so often considered the ‘son of Apollo,’ that is, a philosopher of the intellectual or solar aspect of the psyche, he is also a philosopher of the lunar, feminine element — and arguably no less so.
Indeed, it is testimony to the vice-grip that rationalism has had on philosophy during the last 150 years that Plato’s strong feminine aspect is not readily apparent. In earlier centuries this was not always so. The ‘other’ Plato — the mystic, the philosopher of love and Beauty, of poetry and music — was known and celebrated. Thus we have the vast European esoteric tradition which owes so much to Plato, the love philosophy of the pivotal Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, and the Platonic/Neoplatonic great chain of being central to Medieval art and culture.
Academic philosophers for the last century-and-a-half have explored every nuance of Plato’s rationalism. Indeed, this has reached the point where the productions are too often sterile exercises in vanity and mere scholasticism. To ignore Plato’s lunar side and his love mysticism, is to remove the heart and soul of his philosophy — indeed to deny the very meaning of his word philosophia, love of Wisdom.
The place to begin, of course, is with Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s great work on love. An indication of the extent of modern neglect of this dialogue is that the last book on the topic that even tried to be definitive was written in 1963 (Thomas Gould, Platonic Love, Oxford). Meanwhile dozens, if not hundreds of books have appeared since then treating of Plato’s more rationalistic dialogues, exploring in excessive detail every part and nuance of them.
We are indeed living in a hyper-rationalistic age. A good term to describe this is orthocentrism — the oxymoronic nature of which describes precisely the issue: a rationalistic bias which removes us from our center, assuring disharmony, conflict, incompleteness, and, in the end, untruth.
Of course, it may be objected that the opposite error can occur — to be too mystical, to intuitive, not rational enough. Let us not forever operate at the level of excess, reaction, and counter-reaction. We must have both: rationalism and mysticism, Apollo and Artemis.
But we must not imagine that Plato, the wisest of the Greeks, was oblivious to this. Let us gain a new understanding of Plato as a holy (whole, holistic) philosopher.
How better to conclude than with verse? Here is a beautiful specimen of Platonic cosmic love poetry by the Florentine, Girolamo Benivieni (1453—1542; J. B. Fletcher, transl.)
In Primal Good flows to the world of sense;
When it had birth; and whence;
How moves the heavens, refines the soul, gives laws
To all; in men’s hearts taking residence,
With what arms keen and ready in resource,
It is the gracious force
Which mortal minds from earth to heaven draws;
How it may light, warm, burn; and what the cause
One love may earthward bend, one heavenward bear,
A third sustain midway ‘twixt earth and heaven …