The battle for the arts and minds of men

Images of Excellence - Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle's Politics - Plato's World
October 13, 1995

These three books admirably illlustrate the continuing relevance of Plato and Aristotle to contemporary philosophical and political thought.

Joseph Cropsey has proposed a philosophical sequence in seven of Plato's dialogues. He bases this on biographical references in their texts to events leading to and embracing Socrates's accusation, trial and death. Taking the dialogues in this proposed biographical order, the Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Sophist, Statesman, Apology, Crito and Phaedo seem to constitute a unified treatment of philosophical questions relating to man's place in the universe and how mankind copes with it. For instance, at the end of the Theaetetus, Socrates tells his friends that he has to go to the archon's office in connection with a law case that is being brought against him. In the Euthyphro, we find him actually in that office talking to Euthyphro, who also has a serious legal problem. The dialogues successively deal with perception and cognition; religion and piety; dialectic and ontology; the dialectics of philosophical statecraft; the philosopher's defence of his mission in the face of public disapproval; the religio-contractual questions involved in the individual's relation to his city state; and finally, in the Phaedo, the immortality of the soul and the related question of permanent and universal realities. Cropsey offers a discussion of the Protagoras as a prelude to that of the sequence. Although this dialogue does not belong in the proposed sequence, Cropsey finds it helpful at this point to consider Protagoras's man = metron theory, which is attacked in the Theaetetus.

Certainly Cropsey does not reject our vulgate notion of the chronological sequence in which the dialogues were composed. Our paradigm, based on stylistic analysis - both the old-fashioned shoe-box and the modern computational kind - remains intact. According to this view of Plato's work, the Euthyphro, Apology and Phaedo are distinctly earlier than the Theaetetus and Sophist. Also, the Sophist's presentation of the Forms (eide) as possibly miscible classes seems at least to some extent an attempt to solve problems stemming from the Phaedo's view of the eide as hard-shelled ontic elements. Of course, there is no proof that Plato did not intend us to see, irrespective of the stage of his career in which dialogues were composed, a pattern of the sort Cropsey proposes resulting in a novel about the philosopher's progress towards eternity.

Whatever the uncertainties about this thesis, we can be confident that we have here an elegantly written challenge to Platonists. Each chapter is a careful narrative of its respective dialogue, more elaborate in argument, but comparable in clarity and acuteness with What Plato Said, the work of another distinguished Chicagoan Platonist, Paul Shorey, some 60 years ago.

For Plato, Art was not a singular upper-case item, but a plurality of technai, all involving mimesis, that is, imitative representation of a world that itself was only an imitation of reality. Consequently practitioners of the arts are compelled to operate on a level several cognitive notches away from reality. The truth is not in them. They deal in the non-rational (alogon), the emotional and the emotive. This generates awkward complexities in the individual and in society. Hence Plato's recommended control and censorship of the arts.

Christopher Janaway capably controls this complex theme, scrutinising arguments about art throughout the body of Plato's work. In the early Ion, Socrates refutes the claims of a Homeric reciter called Ion to be an expert in the skills of those he recites about, including military leaders. The Republic's arguments about the arts are more widely known; but in later dialogues, such as Philebus and the Laws, distance from reality and inability to tell the truth remain an obstacle to the arts being accepted. Art is not knowledge, nor a bearer of knowledge, except by the divine accident of inspiration. Plato praises artistic beauty and is prepared to make use of philosophically sanitised arts in his projected communities. It may sometimes be a vehicle of supernatural communication, but this is no substitute for philosophical enquiry.

Janaway holds to the view that art, the arts, our reactions to them, their definitions, and their possible social integration, remain in the realm of the variable and the plural. He appears to agree with Aristotle that artistic activity is part of our nature. Beginning with Plato, social philosophers, ideologues and rulers have been so sensitive to the possible influence of the arts on those whose lives and thoughts they wanted to manage that they have continually interfered with this area of human experience and activity.

As Janaway reminds us, the arts produce surprises, and these are inimical to system. Plato was convinced that we become like that which we experience and unavoidably come to approve it, irrespective of truth. Janaway suggests that Plato could have found it difficult to understand our post-Renaissance, post-18th-century view of art as a gateway to reality. Plato was no "Platonist" about the arts, but he did not think of them as a minority preoccupation.

Aristotle collected 158 city-state constitutions. His account of one, Athens, has survived. His concentrated report of the project, the Politics, has, together with his Ethics been immensely influential in the evolution of Western political philosophy. I suppose we should recall Aristotle's view that some people were by nature more probable slaves than others, and that he did not think highly of people who worked the land. Also worthy of remembrance is the fact that many people alive at present exist in conditions of near-slavery; which hardly can be ascribed to Aristotle's influence. It is not in Plato's Republic and Laws that we encounter the first balanced discussion of the citizen, but in the Politics. Here also we have an extended description of man the social creature (zoon politikon) who in a city-state context is a moral agent integrated purposefully by the very fact of his humanity in a society that transcends him, and both in its idealised and more practicable forms enables him to fulfil his potentiality in the development of a good life. A citizen is not determined by his environment. He is not a function of economic forces, but a natural creature capable of choice and purpose. The city in which he lives deviates from its natural purpose when it is governed in the interests of its governors, not its citizens.

Fred D. Miller's book is a timely clarification of Aristotle's political philosophy. He is aware of the need for a new examination of its main themes at a time when the growth of sociobiology has renewed interest in Aristotle, who sees man and nature as multidimensional, interdependent and purposed. For Aristotle, purpose is not a matter of competition for resource in a field of unruly striving. Nature is not a mystical agent sorting and picking winners with a pin. Neither individual nor social life is properly purposed without virtue.

Miller provides a closely reasoned scrutiny of the contents of the Politics, and a historically and linguistically sophisticated examination of Greek terms that seem to overlap in various degrees our own conceptions of rights, claims, natural law, contracts, social and other, justice and property. Both where he finds coincidence of understanding and where he points out sharp differences his arguments are constructive, supported by a massive array of secondary and periodical literature from almost up to the time of publication.

This book is an impressive contribution not only to Aristotelian studies, but to political science at large.

David Rankin is professor of ancient philosophy, University of Southampton.

Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts

Author - Christopher Janaway
ISBN - 0 19 824007 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 240

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