Art: the Lover’s Worship

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates’ interlocutor, Phaedrus– who is a mentee of the rhetorician Lysias– lures him out of the city in order to recite a speech given earlier by his mentor. The speech is about lovers and non-lovers and to whom the beloved should prefer to commit their time (pederasty is weird, but it is the context of the ‘erotic’ dialogues). I don’t care to go on about the details of this rich dialogue, but I do want to point out a crucial distinction that permeates throughout the dialogue between Socrates’ reception of a beautiful world and Phaedrus’ meaning-making of a sophistic[1] world.

Once Phaedrus and Socrates arrive at the place to which they were walking and settle on abiding there for the recitation of Lysias’ speech, Socrates then and throughout the encounter– to the irritation of Phaedrus– begins to carry on and on about the scenery surrounding them. Socrates entertains several myths regarding the leafy arbor they find themselves within; he even reaches the point at which he claims to be almost entirely possessed by Nymphs. So engulfed in his divine experience regarding their location, when Socrates sets out to recant his speech that Phaedrus demanded, he does so as an explicit act of repentance and offers his recantation in the form of a Palinode to Love.[2] Socrates refuses to reduce anything to mere parts of function– as mere banality, even speech[3] – this is what I believe the Phaedrus is about.

Phaedrus, according to Catherine Pickstock, represents “the wavering allegiances of the market.”[4] His ‘owning’ and ‘concealing’ of Lysias’ speech in his coat jacket represents the sophistic proclivity to create, own, and disseminate ‘truth’ as is most useful for their own glory/fame. Sophistry then, in its rejection of ‘truth’ in favor of ‘form’ actually maintains a preference for a type of ‘truth’ that is indiscriminate of time, place, or person, and is only accessed and used for manipulation. This is what Socrates would go on to critique the rhetoricians of doing, though they probably (hopefully) would have rejected this not-so-generous construal by Plato. I don’t care to argue the details here– Pickstock does a great job in After Writing– but, the point of contrast is Phaedrus’ concern for the largest quantifiable amount of ‘truth’[5] even to the point of threatening Socrates with violence if he wouldn’t stop talking about silly things like scenery, and making up myths about cicadas, and get to the important task at hand– a speech about love.

This leads me to a conversation I was having yesterday about art and beauty. What is beauty? What is art? I’m comfortable with saying that art is some sort of creative process that ‘produces’, ‘extracts’, or ‘construes’ beauty somehow (I can’t imagine talking about art without using scare-quotes– it’s too vast and incomprehensible a topic for me). But if art involves some interaction with beauty, then what is beauty? For Plato, the beautiful object­– say, any particular thing: a rose, a sunset, an afternoon rain, a boy or girl, etc.– draws the lover-of-beauty because the Form of Beauty that resides to whatever degree within that object reminds the lover’s soul of the time before (it fell into a body) when it flew around the celestial spheres of heaven, gazing at the undiluted perfection of Beauty-as-such.[6] The lover thus is perpetually drawn to beautiful things, longing for the unified infinite expression of Beauty that he/she once gazed upon– of which, all beautiful things are but temporal, imperfect instantiations.

To treat beauty like Phaedrus and his Sophist friends is to make the world into countless instances of meaninglessness– utter banality. It is to see the breathtaking scenery, to hear the cicadas singing overhead, to feel the cool streams flow over your tired feet, as only an opportunity for capital gain, control, manipulation. However, for Socrates, to be a philosopher is to be a lover and thus to receive the gift that is the natural world from god(s)/Forms/the Divine/the Good/the Transcendent/etc.– to see, hear, and feel the divine in all things and to respond in worship. For Socrates, the world is not to be made, but received because it is never lacking transcendent participation (via the Forms etc.), and therefore it never lacks meaning; meaning is to be discovered, not merely made. To be a lover-of-beauty is to humbly participate in Beauty. The artist then must absolutely reject the notion of banality. The artist must be a lover.

So what is Beauty? It is, though unspeakable, the direct infiltration of the transcendent into the immanent and the madness that lures the immanent back to the transcendent. Beauty is what possess the lover.

What is art? Art is the lover’s worship.


[1] ‘Sophistic’: of the likes of the Sophists of whom Socrates includes the Rhetoricians of his day.

[2] Phaedrus 243b (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995). Palinode: an ode or song recanting or retracting something in an earlier poem (Merriam-Webster).

[3] This is, after all, what the rhetoricians set out to do: to reduce speech-making and speech-giving to an art of manipulation. Such a reduction is incongruous with Socrates’ metaphysical world.

[4] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 6.

[5] Ibid. “His intention is to solicit the maximum quantity of speech from Socrates.

[6] This is a summary of Plato’s Theory of Recollection as enumerated in Phaedrus 249d-250b.

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