18 April 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 5: erōs, art and imitation

Okay, now that we’ve taken some steps in a realist, High Tory direction regarding the irrational or, more correctly, prerational nature of erōs; regarding romanticism and celibacy; regarding the difficulties (and probability) of actual romance; and even regarding the balance between the Hellenising and Judaïsing elements in historical Christian thinking on the subject – perhaps it’s time to revisit one of the problems this series of blog posts actually set out to answer.

Turning to that greatest of metaphysical realists: the Phædrus, the Symposium and the Republic all get at the irrational, prerational element of the erotic urge, and highlight both its dangers and its potentials. Erōs comes from the lower, desiring part of the soul; and untamed (as with Lysias in his written speech) it can bend the higher, willing and noetic parts of the soul to its will in a tyrannical fashion until it becomes something monstrously unlike itself. Plato’s Socrates (depending on to whom he is speaking) holds forth variously that erōs is a brutal tyrant, that it is a philosopher, that it is a divine gift. And his gist in holding forth such a protean and manifold view of sensual desire is that such a love is and can be any of these things – depending on what elements of our soul participate in that love, and how. That is why the chain of being and the idea of the lives of the higher participating in and transcending those of the lower are so important.

But all this is so much useless blather without some concrete considerations. What exactly is wrong with, say, erotic art, and why is it wrong? To get at this question from the realist view, it’s necessary to bring everything we have behind us to bear on it. And here it’s necessary to consider why Plato was so harsh, so brutally unsparing even, on the greatest of poets, playwrights, lyricists and musicians in his Republic. The first considerations of law in his ‘city in speech’, as Socrates discusses with Glaucon and Adeimantus, have to do with everything the poets and dramatists cannot and should not be allowed to say, and all the forms of music the musicians should not be allowed to play.

It’s possible to overstate this case, of course, since Plato’s Socrates in his ‘mythic’ speech in the Phædrus generously allows artists to stand on the same level as lovers and philosophers in their vision and understanding of the divine truth. But in the Republic he sets himself up as an enemy of imitation – and particularly those sorts of imitation which enslave us to one or other of the ‘bestial’ elements of the soul. I imagine he’d have a word or two to say to me, what with my love of heavy metal music! But be that as it may, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon – who arms himself with the myth of Gyges – and Adeimantus that what actually is (whether existent or ‘just’) is superior to what merely seems or is widely held to be; this is the thrust of his arguments against the poets. And because he wants to make this point strenuously, he attacks the poets precisely where they are strongest: when using metre and rhyme and rhythm to evoke emotion and pathos in their listeners which is not in accord with their lived experiences!

And the way Socrates counters Glaucon’s myth of Gyges’ Ring (which allows Gyges to disappear and ‘appear’ at will, gaining renown, prestige, fame and pleasure whilst committing the worst deeds of adultery and murder) is with the word-image of the Cave, wherein people are enslaved – chained to a wall with their heads fixed to boards and unable to move left or right, looking at shadows flickering on the cave wall opposite and imagining, through want of experience of anything different, that those shadows are real. In Plato’s view, the really real consists in those ‘forms’ which matter participates in, that is-ness which makes a couch a couch. A singular couch itself is limited by its physical and temporal location, its fragility, its specificity. And the description of a couch, whether in art or in wordplay, is still further removed from reality even than a specific couch!

If Socrates was so harsh on poets and painters, then, for using wordplay and images to evoke feelings and sympathies in people which had nothing to do with their own lives or their own better natures, how then would he think of erotic art? Is such art not something that is much more literally seen in a place of darkness – say, a cave? Is it not, these days particularly, shadows cast by artificially-generated light on the wall of that cave? Is it not an imitation, a facsimile of something real which, if we allow it, enslaves us and binds us in fetters, and fixes our gaze by the urges of the desiring parts of our soul? Isn’t the real problem with it precisely that it is not real, but merely that it seems to be and promises to be (to some lonely and ravening part of our psuchē) real? Doesn’t its very lying promise of reality, aimed at that very ravening element, lead it into more and more ‘dreamlike’ (or nightmarish) states of degradation and violence? Does it not make it more difficult for us to go out and face the harsh light of real reality, lived among other people?

Plato’s Socrates is not a hater of erōs. He is not a Gnostic. If he were, he would not even speak or keep company with Glaucon, let alone such beautiful youths as Alcibiades or Agathon, as in the Symposium. He would not drink with them and hug them and speak with them to draw them out of their ways of life and thinking. Nor is Plato’s version of Socrates actually a hater of the arts, in the main. Otherwise, why would he use so many mythical stories and word-images and poetic turns of phrase himself, particularly when he is being most serious and least ironic? He simply wants us to see art that points people to some reality beyond itself and not confuse itself with what is real. But the first problem he would have with erotic art is precisely that it is an imitation of sex that not only is not and cannot be the real thing, but which invidiously promises a ‘real’ gratification that it can’t provide! Thus such misnamed ‘erotica’ contorts the desiring soul’s expectations of what it can ‘really’ get and how, and it drags the noetic and willing soul along with it and produces… well…

This is the big problem not only with such ‘erotica’, which produces illusions of love. We have an entire œconomy of marketing which produces similar illusions of meaning and fulfilment. We have an entire corporate media apparatus which produces illusions of information. We have an entire industry of CGI and sound effects specialists which produces illusions of mythos. We have an entire industry of think tanks, pressure groups and electoral PACs which produces illusions of civic participation and political community.

Is it really any wonder that the desiring parts of our souls are engorged and out of order?


  1. First, let me apologize for the long comment. I have a different reading of Plato than most -- I see him as mostly interested in ethics rather than metaphysics (and eventually discarding every system of ethics due to problems). To me he is the ultimate of philosophers because he understands problems, not solutions.

    I think to a large extent Republic and Phaedrus have to be looked at separately. Phaedrus is an exploration of the role of eroticism in morality, while Republic looks at the role of public religion in morality.

    In Republic, Plato's case is pretty simple: people emulate myths, so myths where people do bad things should be banished from the ultimately just Republic, at least for purposes of thought experiment (whether Plato was making a political recommendation or a critique, I tend to side with the latter).

    Phaedrus is different though. In Phaedrus, eros is shown to make people do bad things, while Plato disgards this eventually and says (paraphrasing) "sure, but it is divine madness nonetheless."

    So I guess from a Platonic philosophy perspective, I would see the issue with erotica as being something where something which shows the erotic in the wrong context to be something which tends to encourage life to imitate art while possibly in the right case, to encourage the wrong emphases.

    But there is another problem that seems to go beyond these things. Humans are both social and intellectual animals. And sexuality, properly, belongs to the social and experiential realm. An important problem with tying sexuality to images (mental, from words, or more life-like) is that sexual fantasy separates sexuality from interacting with actual people. This is a reason why pornography consumption is connected with inability to orgasm for men and a host of other sexual difficulties (because it separates the *idea* from the *experience*).

    If we are, like Aristotle suggested, like a dismembered hand when considered as mere individuals, then sex through fantasy is causes a harm against our social nature. And this has real effects on relationships quite apart from jealousy or other considerations.

  2. Hello, Einhverfr!

    Thank you for the comment, and no worries about the length! I do like thoughtful and involved comments particularly on topics such as these.

    First of all, I agree with you that Plato is first an ethicist rather than a metaphysician; but that doesn't stop him from developing a particularly subtle and profound metaphysics. It's clear that his first and overriding interests lie in how one should behave rather than how one should be, but if we're considering virtue seriously then the two questions are indeed tied up pretty closely, and that's just how he treats them.

    That insight more than any other is what leads me to consider the Republic and the Phædrus together. Socrates is talking to different people, and therefore his emphases are different. But he is treating the same subjects and pointing in the same direction. It's in the Republic, after all, that Plato attacks imitation with such bitterness - and particularly those forms of imitation which have an emotivist affect.

    In the end, I'm not sure where or even if we disagree. After all, the main point that I'm making here is that erotica is dissociative. It seeks to feed the many-headed beast with empty images and shadows that cannot possibly satisfy it, let alone that it actively shames and beats the lion and degrades the man. There is a metaphysical element to that ethical point, that human sensuality is meant to be experiential and social, and that pornography is neither but has to pretend to be both.