Friday, March 19, 2010

The fragility of goodness: luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy

"Haemon's advice is that the true way to being humanly civilized requires the preservation of the mystery and specialness of the external, the preservation, in oneself, of the passions that take one to these mysteries. Such a life has room for love; and it also has room, as Tiresias's life shows, for genuine community and cooperation. Only the person who balances self-protection with yielding in this way can be either a lover or a friend: for the completely passive victim cannot act to help another, and the Creonic agent cannot see otherness. The "razor's edge of luck" requires in this way the most delicate balance between order and disorder, control and vulnerability." (Nussbaum, M., p. 81)
Sexual 'being-with' cannot be stably prolonged, both because of its internally 'impure' structure of need and repletion, and also because it relies on the presence of an object that is not the lover's to command. Intellectual intercourse is free of these defects. (p. 182)
The openness of the lover brings with it this naked vulnerability to criticism. In the closed world of eromenos (in Greek homosexual custom a beautiful creature without pressing needs of his own), defects and treasures, both, hide confortably from scrutiny. Being known by the lover can, by contrast, bring the pain of shame, as the lover's eye reveals one's own imperfections. On the other hand this pain [...] may lead to some kind of growth. (. 189)
It is easy enough to see structural parallels between sexual desire and the desire for wisdom. Both are directed towards objects in the world, and aim at somehow grasping or possessing these objects. The fulfilled grasp of the object brings, in both cases, satiety and the temporary cessation of desire: no sphere seduces, 'no god searches for wisdom'. Both can be aroused by beauty and goodness. Both revere the object as a separate, self-complete entity, and yet long, at the same time, to incorporate it. But Alcibiades appears to want to claim something more controversial and anti-Socratic than this parallelism. With his claims that a story tells the truth and that his goal is to open up and to know, he suggests, that the lover's knowledge of the particulat other, gained through an intimacy both bodily and intellectual, is itself a uniqiue and uniquely valuable kind of practical understanding, and one that we risk losing if take the first step up the Socratic ladder.
Socratic knowledge of the good, attained through pure intellect operating apart from the senses, yields universal truths - and, in practical choice, universal rules. If we have apprehended the form, we will be in possession of a general account of beauty, an account that not only holds true of all and only instances of beauty, but also explains why they are correctly called instances of beauty, and grouped together. Such understanding, once attained, would take priority over our vague, mixed impression of particular beautifuls. It would tell us how to see.
The lover's understanding, attained through the supple interaction of sense, emotion and intellect, yields particular truths and particular judgements. (p. 190)
Moral (for myself): read Symposium:-)


artashes98 said...

If you are reading Plato, read The Republic!!
I just looked at Symposium's brief coverage in Wikipedia and was not impressed:
As far as the author you cite, Martha Nussbaum,
I would be extremely suspicious of a philosopher (and feminist at that!) who voluntarily becomes ... religious! (???):
"This period also saw her marriage to Alan Nussbaum (divorced in 1987), conversion to Judaism... Her interest in Judaism has continued and deepened: on August 16, 2008 she became a bat mitzvah in a service at Temple K. A. M. Isaiah Israel in Chicago's Hyde Park, chanting from the Parasha Va-etchanan and the Haftarah Nahamu, and delivering a D'var Torah..."

christina said...

If I ever get to read Plato, I'd rather start chronologically. But I don't think this can happen any time soon:-)

As to Nussbaum, well, in this book her religiosity is not a hindrance to her elaborations. Were it, I would have worried. Not now.

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