One of the exciting and relevant reasons for turning to the Greeks is that in the work of some Greek philosophers —-specially that of Plato—- one finds what are perhaps the best, the deepest, and the most lively discussions on the tensions between philosophy and art as conflicting ways of life. In dialogues such as the Symposium, the debate reaches a real climax. There Socrates and Aristophanes battle it out. The basis for their discrepancy in part revolves around the nature of desire and the possibility of human self-sufficiency and happiness.
This is not to say that in modern times one does not find authors who see the importance of touching on such a debate. One indeed finds it particularly in the work of Nietzsche who moves permanently between both camps. Nietzsche the philosopher, Nietzsche the artist; as if unable to decide, as if as moderns we can no longer decide. He seems, in a sense, weary of both activates as we have come to understand them. But of course, Nietzsche touches on the debate in a very different way than Plato. In contrast to Nietzsche’s penetrating psychological fragments on the artist —-arrived at in the solitude of an introspective stance—– the beautifully artistic and dramatic form of a Platonic work such as the Symposium lies in that the dialogue makes the discussion almost alive and politically situated.
Moreover, Nietzsche stands as the primary source of a radical critique which has as its direct aim Socrates and his tradition. This is evident early on in his The Birth of Tragedy in which Socratic rationalism is set up against Greek tragedy which, by the end of the book, is assured its place as the unquestionable winner of the debate. Tragedy reaches the summit of expressive art. However, in tragedy self-sufficiency remains an impossibility because the tragic is by nature akin to the incomplete, to the flawed. Socrates, in contrast, teaches the possibility of self-sufficiency as the highest form of life.
But before pointing out one of the fundamental tensions between Platonic philosophy and art, a brief contextualization. Postmodernism, which began in architecture and therefore is closely linked to art, is the name of a critical stance towards modernity. It is set dead against the modern notion of enlightened reason which seeks to bring everything to the presence of a unequivocal and unimpaired lighting. Some of its proponents go so far as to interpret the work of authors such as Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way that widens the challenge not only to modernity, but rather to the whole of the Western tradition. In this respect they see crucial failings in the very origins of the Western tradition; a tradition whose foundations many find in the works of Plato, specially in his Republic. They emphasize, in this respect, his alleged desire to banish poetry and seek a rational understanding of the whole once we are liberated from the cave.
As the years go by, such an interpretation of Platonic philosophy seems to me less legitimate, less plausible and less interesting. At least three powerful reasons for this position stand out clearly to me now. On the one hand, there is here a confusion between modern reason and the ancient ideal of rationality. Secondly, such proposals are quite blind to the artistic merit of the dramatic form of Platonic philosophy itself which reaches us in the form of carefully, artistically created, dialogues. And finally, such overwhelming critiques fail to recognize the fact that it is Socrates who first tries to understand the political nature of us as human beings living in society. For some, specially in the Straussian tradition, Socrates’ concern is in the first instance with human affairs, not transcendental ideas.
What is the relevance of this debate to contemporary artists? HUGE. On the one hand, they may benefit from reading authors such as Michel Foucault who takes up seriously Nietzsche’s discussions on art. For him the only means of subverting this all-encompassing rationalistic project is life made artistic. The aesthetic configuration of oneself is the sole means of protest in an increasingly alienating world of micropowers. Foucault’s work adamantly defends the possibility of what he calls an “aesthetic of existence”. As he puts it: “the principle work of art one has to take care of , the main area to which one has to apply aesthetic values is oneself, one’s life, one’s existence. “ (p. 245; see also Nietzsche TGS #290) If reason no longer can guide our lives, art must lead the way. But on the other hand, contemporary artists might become more aware of the type of art which they are led to produce in this attempt to seek countermeasures by contrasting this stance with Socratic views of art and, in general, the role of desire in human affairs.
Let me just say briefly that, as far as I can see, the uniting thread which both camps address differently is the topic of “desire”. For the artist desire is the beginning and the end. The beginning for it is that which grants motion to the work, the end because the work expresses desire in a sublimated fashion. The Socratic philosopher, in particular, also begins with desire, but his/her erotic desire reaches out to another very different end. The end is erotic self-sufficiency. Among many other things, Socrates continuously asks whether a desire that has no limit to its gratification can in the end make a person fully human. As against Nietzsche, and the postmodernist defense of tragedy, Socrates defends the possibility of a certain happiness in philosophical excellence.
Xenophon –—who is now little read— captures dramatically this sense of Socratic self-sufficiency in a passage in which Socrates, as is frequently the case, defends himself against an attack which he does not initiate. This dialogical interchange between Antiphon and Socrates might in a sense make us more aware of the nature of desire and its puzzling presence in our human lives. Xenophon reports this conversation went like this:
“It is worthwhile in this regard also not to omit his conversations that he had with Antiphon the sophist. For Antiphon, wishing to draw his close companions away from him, once approached Socrates when they were present and said the following.
“Socrates, I, for my part, thought that those who philosophize should become happier. But you, in my opinion, have reaped from philosophy just the opposite. You live, at any rate, a way of life such as no slave would abide from a master. You eat and drink the poorest food and drink, you wear a cloak that is not only poor but the same one during summer and winter, and you are continuously without shoes or tunic.”
“Moreover, you do not take in wealth —-a thing that both delights in its acquisition and makes those who possess it live more freely and pleasantly. If, accordingly, you too dispose your companions as do teachers of other work as well, who show their students to be their imitators, you should hold that you are a teacher of unhappiness.” And Socrates replied to this:
“In my opinion, Antiphon, you have supposed me to live so painfully that I am persuaded you would rather die than choose to live as I do. Come now, let us examine what you have perceived to be hard in my life.
“ Is it that those who accept money are under necessity to produce what they are paid for, but that by not receiving it I am in no necessity to converse with whomever I do not wish? Or do you deem my way of life poor in the belief that I eat less healthy things than you, or things that provide less strength? Or is it that my regimen is harder to procure than yours because it is more rare and costly? Or that what you furnish yourself is more pleasant for you than what I furnish myself is for me? Don’t you know that the one who eats most pleasantly has the least need of relish, and the one who drinks most pleasantly least desires drink that is not at hand?
“Regarding cloaks, you know that those who change them do so for reasons of cold and heat , and that they put on shoes so that they will not be prevented from walking due to what pains their feet. Now then, have you ever perceived me more than another remaining inside because of the cold, fighting with someone over a spot in the shade because of the heat or not going wherever I wish because of pain in my feet?
Don’t you know that when those bodies are naturally weakest practice they become stronger at what they practice and more easily bear it than the strongest who does not practice? And don’t you think that, by always practices patient endurance of the things that chance to befall my body, I bear all things more easily than you who does not practice?
“Do you think that anything is more responsible for my not being enslaved to stomach or sleep or lust than that I have other things more pleasant than these that delight not only in their use but also by providing hopes that they will benefit always? Moreover, this at any rate you know; that those who do not think that they are doing well do not experience delight, but those who believe that they are nobly progressing, either in farming or seafaring or whatever else they chance to be working at, are delighted on the grounds that they are doing well.
Then, do you think that the pleasure from all these things is as great as that from believing that one is becoming better and acquiring better friends? I, for my part, spend my life holding these things. And if indeed it should be necessary to benefit friends or city, is there more leisure to attend to them in my present way of life or in the one that you deem blessed? And who would go on a campaign more easily, a person unable to live without a costly way of life, or one for whom what is at hand is enough? And who would surrender more quickly to a siege, the person needing what is hardest to find, or the one who has enough when he makes use of what is easiest to abstain?
“You seem, Antiphon, like one who thinks that happiness is luxury and extravagance. But I, for my part, hold that to need nothing is divine (theios), that to need as little as possible is nearest to the divine, and what is divine is best, and that what is nearest to the divine is nearest to what is best.” (Memorabilia I 6, Xenophon, Translated by Amy L. Bonnette; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)
Interpreting these words is no easy matter. But I truly believe Van Gogh also sought a similar type of self-sufficiency as well. His poverty is very much akin to Socrates’. But what Van Gogh affirmed through his own decisions and desiring activity was quite other than what Socrates held to be the highest good available to humans. One could conclude by saying: seeking to avoid the tension between philosophy and art might leave each of the parties safer to themselves, but safety is not primarily what philosophers or artists are all about.