- Dynamics of Vision in Plato’s Thought
The layperson may not have read any of Plato’s dialogues, but everyone will know what Platonic love is. Platonic love, in common parlance, is a love not of the body, but of the mind. The concept of Platonic love is derived from a passage in Plato’s Symposium, to be discussed below, in which a priestess explains to Socrates that beauty can be found not only in the body, and not even primarily in the body, but that beauty as such is the same wherever we encounter it, and moreover that there is a beauty far beyond that which is visible and can be perceived by our senses.
This characterization of beauty, however, which seems to underlie much of Plato’s philosophy as explicated in the dialogues of his middle period, must be seen against the background of a culture that was focused, not to say fixated, on the body and its beauty. Athenian culture, the aristocratic culture of those with whom Socrates associated himself, had as its ideal the kalokagathos—the excellent, accomplished, capable citizen and gentleman.1 This excellence could in theory always be analyzed as being composed of its two constituent aspects of being kalos and agathos: to be agathos is to be ‘good,’ whatever may count as good, but to be kalos is to be fine, handsome, and ‘beautiful.’ And often at the beginning of a dialogue Socrates is portrayed as deeply affected and attracted by the physical beauty of a young man or boy.
The dialectic of physical beauty and the beauty of the mind will be my starting point. In Section I, I look at a few well-known passages from Plato’s early and middle period dialogues: Lysis, Charmides, Meno, Republic, and Protagoras. The familiar picture arises of Socrates as an individual who, as is the case with the society he is part of, is captivated by, and to an extent erotically obsessed with, physical beauty; but the example from the Republic demonstrates that the souls of those who are subject, and in that way subjected, to physical beauty are as liable to be dictated in their thoughts and actions by ugly sights. But at the same time, Socrates from early on sets this vision of physical beauty in relation with a putative beauty of the soul and the mind; the philosopher who can see this beauty can free himself from the tyranny of the senses. In Section II, I provide the theoretical foundation of this assertion in looking at the Symposium, where the eternal form of the beautiful is introduced as the ultimate aim of all our striving, love, and friendship. But in the very act of the philosophers’ freeing themselves from all that is mortal, including their subjection to the senses, and the sense of sight above all, they subject [End Page 281] themselves, as demonstrated in Republic and Phaedrus, to a new rule—the rule of and determination by those eternal forms—so that the philosopher appears to be in no better a position than the ordinary lover of sights and sounds in respect of freedom and autonomy. In Section III, I attempt to deconstruct this picture through an interpretation of passages from Timaeus, which are read, as Plato intended them to be read, as allegorical. In Section IV, I conclude with a tentative suggestion of the consequences of this deconstruction for a new understanding of the dynamics of the metaphysics of both intellectual vision and the physical gaze in Plato’s thought.
I begin with some examples of the attractiveness of physical beauty and its power over the viewer.2 Near the beginning of the dialogue Lysis, the eponymous young hero is first encountered in a palaestra, or wrestling school (206E9–207A3):
Among them was also Lysis, and he stood among the boys and youths, being wreathed and outstanding to look at, worthy to hear not only the habitual kalos estin, but the designation kalos kagathos.
It is interesting that Socrates reports this as his first impression, when he sees Lysis from afar. Lysis is not just handsome, he has an ‘aristocratic’ appearance. Here, having seen...