Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Plato and the Ladder of Love

My intro philosophy class is entirely graded by in class essays. The following is peripherally related to the discussion about moral relativism, as it delves a little bit into the semantic argument that makes up most of the discussion that will come into part three. I am getting to that post - indeed, most of it is written, but I felt it necessary to interject a bit about the nature of reality and the tools with which we perceive and understand it. This essay, a discussion of Plato's ladder of love and beauty, ties into that - a nice segue into the post that will introduce part three.

Please keep in mind this was a response to the essay question provided about forty minutes before I finished writing it. For those who might be less familiar with me...I do not believe in editing... Not usually, anyways.

Plato's ladder of love describes the ascendance of one's love for beauty, starting with a narrow view of physical beauty, to a view of the beauty of everything physical, to the beauty of minds, the beauty of institutions and laws and on to the beauty of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Plato continues this progression to an absolute abstraction, that of the beauty of beauty itself, but that is where I diverge - which I will get to in a moment. First, let's explore the earlier stages just a little.

While the implication is that we are talking about the beauty of other people, I think this can easily be extrapolated to everything in the world around us and ultimately makes more sense if we do. Thus the first rung, the narrow focused perception of beauty - what Plato refers to as "a beautiful body," can be extended to things that the individual finds overtly and easily aesthetically pleasing. A very simplified notion of beauty that is sharply limited to the obvious. It is an immature perception that is uncomplicated by the perception that there is ultimately a subtle beauty to things that are less overtly attractive. It is the beauty of roses, clear skin and comely features, the ocean on a lightly cloudy, sunny day. It is the beauty of the very basic.

When one begins to perceive the hidden beauty of the world - beauty that is less overt and obvious, one has transcended that first rung and moved to the second. This is where they perceive the beauty that is hidden in decay, faces etched with the lines and wear of time, falling down barns or the infrastructure of electrical and plumbing in a home. It is the beauty of molds and chipped paint. It is what is not as obviously aesthetically pleasing, yet nonetheless is inundated with the beauty inherent to all matter.

Next, there is recognition of the "beauty of souls," as Plato puts it - or the beauty of the abstract. The less than obvious. It is not just the beauty of the mind, but the beauty of how the mind perceives the world and the universe around it. It is nothing less than transcending one's base nature and understanding the world and the universe as something more than that which we can touch and smell and interact with physically. It is ultimately this point, at which one begins to understand beauty as more than just something that the senses express to our minds. It is also here that we become truly empathetic - where we learn to love without conditions and wish to care for and help others, because they are there and need us.

Then we come to perceive the "beauty of institutions and laws," or our culture and traditions. It is here that one becomes aware not just that there are these institutions in which we engage, but that these institutions are something beautiful - a wonderful, enriching aspect of who and what we are. It is where one begins to seek to understand not just the what, of how one lives, but the why. And it is here that one can not only perceive the beauty of these institutions as they are, but as they could be. From there, changes can be fostered - though fostering those changes is only possible when one ascends to the next rung.

The "beauty of knowledge." It is here that one becomes aware of the beauty in knowing and understanding the world. Where rote learning turns into absorbing, extrapolating and applying knowledge to one's life and to the world around them. It is from here that people are able to change their world - both in small part, closer into themselves and in larger part, rippling outward and changing large swathes of their world. It is here too, that one can begin to grasp the abstractions that largely speak to our humanity - our sentience, for what they are - abstractions. And that leads directly up to the next rung..."The beauty of beauty."

As I said, this is where I diverge completely from Plato. Where he would have us believe that this is the penultimate and something that transcends human experience, I would argue that this is both the top and ultimately the actual bottom of the ladder. It is the point at which one begins to understand enough that they can begin anew, with a fresh perspective - driven by an understanding of the abstract. It is here that many people perceive the supernatural - gods and magic. It is here that we try to transcend the world and delve into something beyond human perception - it is here that we lay the seeds for disappointment. Because we use this abstraction that is language and most of us ultimately accept that as a human construct, like all human constructs, it is flawed, we too often make the mistake of assuming that there is something greater than our flawed human existence.

This is not to say it is certain there is not, merely that there is absolutely no reason to assume there is. When all of our tools are flawed, how can we couch the world in absolutes? When nothing is perfect - nothing is absolute, why assume that anything is? Why assume that simply because we cannot perceive it, it must therefore exist at all? It might. There may be gods and magic of wondrous beauty and grace. But it is equally probable that indeed there is not.

Bottom line, why assume that beauty itself, the fundamental of Plato's realm of the forms, is anything more than an abstraction? It does not exist within the realm of the physical. We cannot "see" geometry in the natural world - perfect geometric forms cannot even exist in our minds. I can take a piece of paper and draw a rough sketch of a piece of plywood I need to cut to fit a space that needs decking. It is not the right size, nor is it proportional. It is just the outline of what I am going to cut, with measurements written on the sides. I can then take those measurements and translate them to the plywood, cut the plywood and it will fit the space. At no point were true measurements taken, nor were even the imperfect measurements translated - nowhere - not even in my mind, did the actual, perfect shape and measurements ever exist. The drawing I used to guide me wasn't even close to what it actually represented. Yet what I cut out of the plywood works.

Could it not be that language and even Plato's realm of the forms, which I perceive to be language itself, not be just another imperfect tool - flawed, but correct enough that it works?

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