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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Truth as Circe

Still pursuing a Pre-Platonic line, in this essay I look at Truth and Art from a particular Nietzschean, Post-Platonic Perspective. It also contains a special plea for Poesy in the Grand Style:

Truth as Circe


The Sooth-Sayer's Paradox

Things that are true, and things that are just, have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.

Pace Aristotle, Falsehood - like the Devil - has the best tunes, while Truth displays a nature so questionable that we 'stay' in vain 'for an answer'. Even Lord Bacon, while taking Truth somewhat for granted, was at pains to wonder how on earth 'the son of God' would be able to stomach the lies, deceptions and distortions that now prevail 'down here below'. (1)
Indeed, Man's fall must have been thoroughly wretched, for not only does he now have a propensity for the Lie rather than Truth, he also exhibits a real delight in the 'wooing of it'.
Truly, 'Life is in love with the lie.'
Bacon's celebrated essay may well have prompted another sparkling discourse on the same subject by Nietzsche in his Preface to 'Beyond Good and Evil'. 'Suppose', he opines, that 'Truth be a woman!' - Well, if so, then philosophers have been somewhat inept at courting this particular 'wench', who - as Nietzsche tells us in his Zarathustra, would much prefer the hand of a warrior.

Whereas Plato separated Truth from Art, Nietzsche, who saw himself as the antipodes of that philosopher, drew them intimately together. Yeats, much influenced by Zarathustra, understood this well when he wrote that "we poets should be good liars, remembering always that the Muses are women, and prefer the embrace of gay, warty lads."

Nietzsche rejected the 'Truth assumption' which had offered itself as the Holy Grail to Western philosophers for so long, claiming instead that there is 'no Truth, only interpretations'. But Truth has never been short of manly champions prepared to defend her honour.
Roger Scruton, for example, has even warned that such scepticism can drive a man mad, implying that Nietzsche's own mental breakdown was due to the very same! To Scruton, the matter is plain; without Truth, we would not have the Lie, and more to the point, we would not be able to have any meaningful discourse between ourselves without Truth. A spiteful opponent may reply that by uttering such platitudes, Scruton is not so much refuting Truth relativism here, as rather proving the Nietzschean view of cuckolded philosophers.
Scruton seems to be a Platonist, and it is in his revolutionary over-turning of Platonism that Nietzsche gives a radical re-evaluation of Truth; it was a view more likely to be found among artists and poets. The poet Ted Hughes for example, says that "we can define truth baldly as 'what is and what happens'. But when a man tells a lie, it actually does happen that he tells it, and that is a truth. His awareness of telling the lie is another truth. The truth he conceals, but knows about, is another truth. The consequences of his lie, which follow mechanically in his conscience, which he perhaps doesn't know about, are another truth. And so on. In one lie, there speaks a whole family of truths. His words shape the lie, but the truths speak through distortions of his vocal chords, his expression, his gestures, and by some electrical flash that we call telepathy."

The last point recalls an aphorism of Nietzsche's to the effect that when we tell a lie, the truth is revealed by 'the mouth' we make. On that reticent character of veracity, Hughes points out that "a strange quality of truth is that it is reluctant to use words. Like Cordelia, in King Lear. Perhaps the more sure of itself a truth is, the more doubtful it is of the adequacy of words."

(1) Bacon's essay 'Of Truth';


The Death of truth

There is no exit from the circle of one's beliefs.
[K. Lehrer] 

But Hughes does not go so far as to take the path of the Sophist Gorgias and deny the very existence of Truth. Perhaps because to do so would be to fall into the trap of the liar paradox, where relativism bites its own tail. But this argument, as irresistible as it is, has the odour of sophistry. As St. Augustine puts it;

"Everyone who observes himself doubting observes a truth, and about that which he observes he is certain about a truth. Everyone therefore who doubts whether truth exists has in himself a truth on which not to doubt ... Hence one who can doubt at all ought not to doubt about the existence of truth."

While the sceptic seems destined to doubt scepticism itself in order to be consistent, are the advocates of Absolute Truth able to avoid similar pitfalls? Perhaps not, if we listen to the Christian Existentialist Kierkegaard;

"Subjectivity is the truth. By virtue of the relationship subsisting between the Eternal Truth and the existing individual, the paradox came into being. Let us now go further; let us suppose that the eternal essential truth is itself a paradox. How does the paradox come into being? By putting the eternal essential truth into juxtaposition with existence. Hence when we posit such a conjunction within the truth itself, the truth becomes a paradox. The Eternal Truth has come into being in time; this is the paradox."

On the dogmatic truths of religion, Kierkegaard has this to say;

"It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its Truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence."

Religion today as in the past makes the most extravagant claims for Truth; 'God is truth', 'The Bible is God's Word', and religion itself is known by Believers as 'The Truth'. And how do they know that it is all true? - In a word, by Faith.
This kind of Truth is at the root of human culture, as Savitri Devi writes;
"Whether Hindus or Greeks, Egyptians or Japanese, Chinese, Sumerians or ancient Americans - or even Romans, the most 'modern' among the people of antiquity - they all placed the Golden Age, the Age of Truth [Satya Yuga in Sanskrit scriptures], the rule of 'Kronos' or of 'Ra' or of any other gods on earth - the glorious beginning of the slow, downward unfurling of history, whatever name it be given - far behind them in the past."

Perhaps this most common and ancient belief that the Fall of Mankind was nothing other than the 'loss of truth' would explain the scarcity of Truth and the monopoly of the Lie!
Devi again;
"And they believed that the return of a similar Age of truth, foretold in their respective sacred texts and oral traditions, depends not upon man's conscious effort but upon iron laws, inherent in the very nature of visible and tangible manifestations, and all pervading; upon Cosmic Laws."

We may think that in modern 'rational' societies such beliefs are untenable; but have we really experienced the 'Death of Truth'? The myth of a Golden age dies hard. But what of the 'baldly stated' truth that Hughes referred to earlier? The very rational matter-of-fact truth;- that exists, surely! Leibnitz thought there to be only "two kinds of truths; truths of reasoning and truths of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible."

Factual truth is rather unspectacular in comparison with the Truth of the Absolute. To quote Vico;

"Just as divine Truth is what God orders and produces as He comes to know it, so human truth is what man arranges and makes as he knows it."
But there is nothing mundane in the truths of history. What could be more important to humanity which is - hopefully - ever anxious to avoid past mistakes. Yet few historians can fully agree on their version of events, always coloured as they are by the inescapable necessity of perspective and prejudice.


My Honour is Loyalty

Hemlock was always the response of a ruling class beaten in argument. We shall dare to question everything, and we are not afraid to answer any question. When civilisation rocks, its foundations are open to question; and it is only the discovery of facts which can enable a firmer foundation to be built. Let all things be discussed, and let truth prevail.
[Oswald Mosley 1953]

 We need then to build on our foundation of Truth, as nothing else could be firmer. Sextus Empiricus [fl. late 2nd century AD] made three main distinctions between "those who undertake philosophical investigations." Firstly, those who think that they have discovered the Truth, "and are properly called dogmatists." Secondly there are those who think it impossible to discover the truth because there is no such thing; and thirdly those "sceptics" who "persist in their investigations," who we may call Agnostics of Truth.
But what of this word 'truth' itself, what does it signify? The German motto Meine Ehre heißt Treue has 'true' in its older sense of 'loyalty'. Digging deeper for the 'root' we find that the word for 'truth' in Old English is identical with that for 'tree' [OE treow]. This may seem puzzling until we think of both our arboreal pre-history and the cultic importance of 'the tree' among our heathen ancestors. The Norse Poetic Edda preserves that religion's insistence that the world itself is a huge tree, Yggdrasil, and that the Norse 'Adam and Eve' were an ash [Ask] tree and an elm [Embla] tree respectively, which were given human qualities by the gods Ōthin, Hoenir and Lothur;

To the coast then came kind and mighty
from the gathered gods three great Aesir;
On the land they found, of little strength,
Ask and Embla, unfated yet.

Sense they possessed not, soul they had not,
Being nor bearing, nor blooming hue;
Soul gave Ōthin, sense gave Hoenir
Being, Lothur, and blooming hue.

An ash I know, hight Yggdrasil,
The mighty tree moist with white dews,
Thence came the floods that fall adown,
Evergreen o'ertops Urth's well this tree.
[Völuspá, 17]

Frazer's Golden Bough gives some startling accounts of the 'Worship of Trees' among Germanic pagan tribes, as follows;

"In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe, the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history Europe was covered with immense primaeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in the ocean of green ... From an examination of the Teutonic words for 'temple', Grimm has made it probable that amongst the Germans the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods ... How serious that tree worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit's navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of the tree."

From the strict taboos relating to trees in pre-Christian society we arrive at an early recorded meaning of the word as covenant [Gothic triggwa] still exists in its cognate 'truce'. This develops readily into the idea of being true [i.e. loyal] to an agreement, bound by an oath etc. Generally, one becomes trust-worthy [or by extension, things become so], or honest [truthful]. By the Middle English period 'truth' assumes the familiar meaning of 'agreeing with reality' and therefore of 'telling the truth'. This sense was not completely absent in Old English but was covered by a different word, 'sooth', which survives in the archaic 'sooth-sayer'. Even more, 'sooth' is derived from an earlier form, '*sonth', which shows it to be cognate with 'sin'; as Barney notes;
"The idea of the true and the idea of the guilty are related through the idea of emphatically being the one", and so "is etymologically related to forms of the verb 'to be', like OE sint, Modern German sind, Latin sunt.

It is Truth as an abstraction that has concerned philosophers and theologians most of all. Nietzsche, for example, describes the overcoming of Ideal truth. from being 'a reward and consolation' to the wise man, the 'true world' becomes unknowable and an object of sceptical inquiry. Here it loses all its 'sooth-ing' qualities, and becomes redundant and then 'abolished'. It is at this point that Nietzsche makes his revaluation; as Plato had divided the abstract world of Ideal Truth from the everyday world of appearance [which latter was seen as paradoxically unreal], the abolition of the Ideal Truth meant also the abolition of the 'world of appearance'. However, many of the old Ideals continue to linger, casting their shadows on the cave walls.



Truth as Circe: Error has transformed animals into men; could truth be capable of transforming man again into an animal?

The various philosophical theories of truth, whether 'correspondence', 'coherence', 'nominalism', and so on, fail to grasp their object in any conclusive manner. This would indicate to some that the fault lies in trying to quantify the unquantifiable. This analytical approach to truth is based on the idea that there is a relation "between the thing that is true, and the thing that makes it so" [Scruton]. But attempts to nail down this 'relation' often fall foul of the inescapable circle of thought. As Scruton says when criticisng the correspondence theory, "we anchor our thoughts, but only to other thoughts", adding, "others still reject the whole idea of truth as a relation, regarding it instead as an intrinsic property of whatever possess it. There are even those who argue that truth is neither a property nor a relation, and that the concept is merely redundant."
He then goes on to admit, notwithstanding his opposition to Nietzsche, that "to speak of truth and its role in discourse is one thing; but we should not assume that in doing so we are referring to an independent reality."
There are those who argue that certain truths are 'out there' in the Universe, waiting to be discovered. Mathematics is an example of this sort according to Frege who said that "the thought which we express in the Pythagorean Theorem is timelessly true, true independently of whether anyone takes it to be true. It needs no bearer. It is not true for the first time when it is discovered, but is like a planet which, already before anyone has seen it, has been in interaction with other planets."
Despite having the advantage of escaping the circle of thought of coherence theory, such non-human truth is uninspiring to many philosophers as it fails to ground itself in a meaningful theory of human existence. Millikan puts forward "an alternative," which calls for "norms" to be grounded in "evolutionary biology ... Let Darwinian natural purposes set the standards against which failures, untruths, incorrectness’s etc. are measured."
We are reminded here of Nietzsche's 'biologism' which states that, "the perspectival is the basic condition of all life ... 'semblance' is the  reality which resists transformation into an imaginative 'world of truth'. A particular name for that reality would be 'Will to Power', designated of course intrinsically and not on the basis of its ungraspable, fluid, Protean nature."


Illumination or Illusion?

Is the artist a genuine creator or merely a copyist who narcissistically reflects reality?
With the current primacy of the hyper-reproduced image, it may appear that we have wandered into a hall of mirrors, unable to distinguish between the reflection and the thing reflected. But perhaps it has always been so; there is a strong argument to suggest that all art tends toward the condition of verisimilitude;

"When we take up a work of poetry or prose fiction we begin with that which literary critics commonly call the poetic suspension of doubt. We resolve that during our reading  we will believe that whatever the author tells us actually happened, and that we will vicariously be present when it happens and will experience the emotions that we would experience if we were physically present: when we read tales of the marvelous and praeternatural, we make a temporary act of faith and accept the world that the author has created." [Oliver]

Any public cynicism towards the arts may have been compounded by the artistic love of masks. Pound's first collection of poems was appropriately entitled Personae;- by adopting the personae of various songsters and rhymesters from the past, he sought to define his own fugitive self;

If thou hast seen my shade sans character,
If thou hast seen that mirror of all moments,
That glass to all things that o'shadow it,
Call not that mirror me, for I have slipped
Your grasp, I have eluded.
[Pound, The Flame]

So if artists are dishonest and their audience made up of willing dupes, how can art be evaluated objectively; are not those who see it as their place to critique the arts somehow charlatans by association?
Nietzsche, a philosophical lover of masks, derided Wagner for being 'an actor', with a 'talent to lie', who had brought about an "overall change of art into histrionics which is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism). 'The Lohengrin Prelude' furnished the first example, only too insidious, only too successful, of hypnotism by means of music: the actor Wagner is a tyrant; his pathos topples every taste, every resistance;- 'What is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true' - this proposition contains the whole psychology of the actor. In declining cultures, wherever the decision comes to rest with the masses, authenticity becomes superfluous, disadvantageous, a liability; only the actor still arouses great enthusiasm." [CW]

To Pound, art had been corrupted by bourgeois values. Now the artist had become a salary man, a stooge, a flunky. For this reason he made his Anglo-Saxon Seafarer jibe at the burgher's contentment, while his 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberly' presents a mordant attack on the mediocre values of the middle-class;

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
No, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the Classics in paraphrase!
The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme.

There is an overwhelming sense here, of the concept 'artist' having fallen from a once 'Golden age'; and that the modern 'business artist' [The phrase was one of Warhol's self-appellations] is a typical product of the 'mammon worship' that prevails in modern society. However, this conflict between the artist and society has been a part of Western culture at least since Plato, who in the Republic set this view out plainly enough;

"The things that a painter creates are not real; what he produces is not the essential Form or the Ultimate Reality, but something that resembles reality." [Book X]

And this is the charge to be laid against the arts: do they just imitate reality - and are therefore ephemeral, or even pernicious - or, to speak in their defense, do they reveal far more, making artists in Shelley's words, "the unacknowledged legislator's of the world". 


Aesthetics and Counterfeiting

The Platonic dichotomy between a (mystical) Real-World of Absolute Truth, and the world of quotidian 'appearance', has had a huge impact on the history of Western thought.
To Plato, "those who see beauty in only one area, for example the arts, are not true philosophers, because they do not see the Absolute Beauty. - Such a one is 'dreaming', for they see the image of truth, and not truth itself."

On this basis would Plato outlaw poets from his Ideal Republic. The 'Absolute Beauty' he talked of "is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality and superior to it." It is in fact the 'Ultimate Reality', "the Absolute Unchanging realm of knowledge;- Reality itself."

This 'realm' was given a Godly moral supremacy;

"The mind as a whole must be turned away from the world of change, until it can bear to look straight at 'Reality', which is what we call 'The Good'."

Tolstoy, concurs;
"I think that every reasonable and moral man would again decide the question as Plato decided it; let there be no art at all than continue the depraving art or simulation art, which now exists."

To Tolstoy art had "become a prostitute, always adorned, always saleable, enticing and ruinous." But unlike Plato, who had condemned art per se, he considered that 'true art' had indeed existed once, only it had since been "replaced by imitations of art. It has in course of time ceased even to be art at all, and has been replaced by counterfeits."

The terms 'simulation' and 'counterfeit' are applied repeatedly by Tolstoy [even to the art of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Bach and Beethoven, to name but a few!]. This is reminiscent of Baudrillard's work a century later, who felt that Western culture had gone beyond the 'imitations' castigated by Tolstoy, and had now substituted the "signs of the Real for the Real itself: the Real is no longer the Real."

He lays the fault for this at the door of Capitalism, "which was the first to feed throughout its history on the destruction of every referential, of every human goal, which shattered every ideal distinction between true and false, good and evil, in order to establish a law of equivalence and exchange."

Similarly, Tolstoy has said that the cause of 'counterfeit art' was "the remuneration of artists and professionalism", and also indicted 'Schools of Art', finding it unthinkable that art could be 'taught'. Likewise he attacked 'art criticism', the purveyors of which were "erudite, perverted self-confident individuals", seemingly unaware that "to a good work of art, all interpretations are superfluous."
These critics "pay most attention to, and eulogise, brain-spun invented works, and set up these as models worthy of imitation."

Tolstoy places much emphasis on that product of 18th century Neoclassicism, the discipline of 'Aesthetics', which sought to define 'the Beautiful', saying that such a mode of study is not only harmful to art, but is also a waste of time because it defines 'nothing at all' save the truism that beauty causes a 'kind of pleasure.'

'Aesthetics' was seen as a symptom of the modern 'alienation' of the artist;
"The 18th century marks the development of the strictly modern institution of the museum. It is no accident at all that museums should begin at a time when philosophers were elaborating a separate discipline of aesthetics: the two events flow from the same historical condition of man, in which from beginning to end all human thinking is rooted." [Barret]

To Heidegger, "when Aesthetics achieves its greatest possible height, breadth and rigour of form, (2) great art comes to an end."

This is a position no less extreme than that found in Tolstoy and Baudrillard, but are we really to accept that great art is dead?
The 'movements' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Dada, may certainly indicate to some that there is a serious malaise. As Honegger exclaimed; "have we lost the arts?"

(2) Heidegger pinpoints Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics 1828-9.


Romanticism and Pessimism: The Artist as God

To name an object is to take away three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which consists in the happiness of guessing little-by-little; to suggest it: that is the dream.

Both the despair and decadence of Romanticism, and the violence and nihilism of Modernism, are quite proper to counterfeit art according to Baudrilliard because it "always connotes something diabolical: the uneasiness before the mirror image. There is already sorcery at work in the Mirror. But how much more so when this image can be detached from the mirror and be transported, stocked, reproduced at will: all reproduction implies a kind of Black Magic."

A growing technological mastery of nature meant a concomitant ruthless exploitation of her resources, both animate and inanimate;

"It is with Romanticism that a strange new chord of anxiety is sounded: man has entered upon some new and uncertain turning-point in his history in the course of which he will become severed from Nature so that the voice of the poet will not be heard and poetry itself become a dead art of the past." [Barret]

The severance of art from life becomes painfully apparent as the great Romantics struggle to heal the schism and return to a Golden Age. Lord Byron wrote that;

"'Art' comes over me in a kind of rage every now and then ... and then, if I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad. As to that regular, uninterrupted love of writing ... I do not understand it. I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain." [Letter to Moore, 1821]

Here we see two extreme views of the artist. On the one hand the inspired, primal, shamanic; and on the other, the level-headed contractual maker of product. The Symbolist poet Rimbaud gave the best known formula of the former in his Lettre du Voyant (1871), where the poet as 'voyant' or visionary claims abrupt access to new horizons of consciousness, which contrasts with the rational Newtonian ascent 'on the shoulders of giants'. The first is a Wotan-like self-sacrifice for the Unknown, while the second is the gradual discovery of 'Nature's Laws'.
The Romantic view that poetry is 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' [Wordsworth], also marks its aversion to the art of Realism where;
 "Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word 'mimesis'; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture."

But to Schlegel, 'mere representation' was 'not enough'. It was necessary for there to be a 'spark of divine enthusiasm'. From this, the artist came to see himself as a God, while art developed towards abstraction.

Against the background of such movements as Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism, Camus wrote that;

"Periods such as ours, which are bent on unity to the point of madness, turn to the primitive arts, in which stylisation is always found at the beginning and end of artistic movements; it demonstrates the intensity of negation and transposition which has given modern painting its disorderly impetus towards interpreting unity and existence. Van Gogh's admirable complaint is the arrogant and desperate cry of all artists: 'I can very well, in life, and in painting do without God. But I cannot, suffering as I do, do without something that is greater than I am, which is my life - the power to create."


Art as Will to Power

We have art in order not to die of the truth.

Following the Pre-Platonic practice of positing an arche to characterise, in Heidegger's phrase, 'the basic occurrence of all beings', Nietzsche saw art as the metaphysics of existence, which was itself, fundamentally, 'the will to power'.
It is only through art that we can acquire the clearest glimpse of the basic configuration of the will to power.

Nietzsche eschewed the Platonic segregation of the world into Appearance/Reality, because to him the apparent world was the only reality, and therefore of course, the realm of art.
It was the task of art to give form, and to provide a 'stimulant to life'.
The life-denying decadence of a Schopenhauer or Buddhism was poison, because the artist must needs be a yea-sayer: Art is Absolute Affirmation.

Here Nietzsche moves beyond the pure irrationalism and death-wish fantasies which are found in the Romantics. Art was rather to be a 'counter-movement to nihilism'; and the basic physiological and psychological state of the artist was one of rapture [Ger. 'Rausch'].
But this was not the pure subjectivism of the Romantics, but instead a radical synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
Rapture was not only inward, but an opening-outwards and an 'attunement' with 'Beings in the world'. As Heidegger interpreted it, "we ascend beyond ourselves. Such ascent beyond ourselves, to the full of our essential capability, occurs according to Nietzsche in rapture.
"Thus the beautiful is disclosed in rapture.
"The beautiful itself is what transports us into the feeling of rapture.
"From this elucidation of the essence of the beautiful, the characterisation of rapture, of the basic aesthetic state, acquires enhanced clarity. If the beautiful is what sets the standard for what we trust we are essentially capable of, then the feeling of rapture, as our relation to the beautiful, can be no mere turbulence and ebullition. The mood of rapture is rather an attunement in the sense of the supreme and most measured determinateness."

This brings us to the importance of form. Nietzsche again;

"What it takes to be an artist is that one experience what all non-artists call 'form' as content, as 'the matter itself'. With that, of course, one is relegated to an inverted world. For from now on one takes content to be something merely formal- including one's own life." [WP]

As Heidegger tells us, Nietzsche's 'method' was one of reversal, or rather re-valuation. By this process, 'Art is now worth more than the Truth.'


Grand Style

Grand Style: when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject.

'Grand Style' [der grosse Stil] was how Nietzsche referred to the Classic form which he saw as the basic structure of existence. It was 'where the extremes of chaos and form advanced under the same yoke. Grand Style disdains to please or to persuade: rather it commands; it wills. Art 'erupts' in he body as rapt-ure; yet it paradoxically has to impose values. 'Being Stamped onto Becoming' is the formula for The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, and this is the essence of the will to power. There is no question of a 'letting go'; in order to cultivate the 'rare protracted, measured victory over plenitude - that is Grand Style - man must be made 'hard, natural strong; more wicked.'

The theory of the 'grand style' went back at least as far as Longinus and his 'sublime'. The distinction between Great and Mean style had its root in the nobility - or its lack - of the artist himself. Grand Style was typified by 'noble diction' and 'elevated composition'.
Renaissance theory differentiated between base style, middle style and high or grand style. Grand Style was only to be used for epics and tragedies.
In 18th century art, Racine's work is seen to exemplify Grand Style, and in Neoclassicism Grand Style usurps all others. 19th century Romanticism sees a reaction against Grand Style. In English literature Matthew Arnold forcefully argued for Grand Style [see his Preface to Poems of 1853 and his 'On Translating Homer' of 1862], putting forward Homer and Pindar as his touchstones for Grand Style amongst the ancients.
Arnold distinguishes between the 'grand style simple' - as in Homer, and the 'grand style severe' - as in Milton. [cf. Perminger ed. for the above]

Arnold's own poem 'Balder Dead' aimed at the Grand Style;

So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clove;
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw--
'Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm.
And all the Gods and all the Heroes came,
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor,
Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries;
And on the tables stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimm'd skulls the wine.
And now would night have fall'n, and found them yet
Wailing; but otherwise was Odin's will.
[opening of Balder Dead]

 For Arnold, the Greeks "are the highest models of expression, the unapproached masters of the grand style." [Preface to Poems]
This is because "they want to educe and cultivate what is best and noblest in themselves." [ib.]

In a discussion on Arnold's use of 'grand style' [in 'Essays and Studies' by members of the 'English Association', Volumes 1- 2, 1948-9] Bailey says that the grand style "belongs rather to the calm than to the storm, though perhaps no calm will give it but that which the storm has preceded." Compare Nietzsche's Zarathustra's, 'the stillest words bring the storm'.
Bailey goes on to say that the grand style is "the style which takes the spirit from the poet's overpowering consciousness of the presence of greatness ... a thing of fine line than of rich colour; sculpture rather than painting; with nothing voluptuous or even overflowing, in it, quiet, austere, with a kind of stern simplicity."
Here we hear the sound of Apollo's lyre and realise that the dualism of Apollo/Dionysos is once more at work in this characterisation of the Grand Style.
Bailey makes a Nietzschean claim for the amorality of the Grand Style;
"The essential quality of grand style is greatness, and the point is that greatness is not the same thing even as beauty and goodness."

Much of the controversy in the above discussion was due to Arnold excluding Shakespeare from the Grand Style. Arnold and Nietzsche were in agreement that Shakespeare's work is too mixed [i.e. of base and middle styles along with grand] to be Grand Style per se. Another point of agreement, given Nietzsche's extolling of the gaya scienza, was Arnold's view that "the poetry of the langue d'oc, of southern France, of the troubadours, is ... the first literature of modern Europe to strike the true and grand note." ['On Translating Homer']

Important for the present essay is Arnold's assertion that poetry is "thought and art in one."
And that;

"The substance and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness." [ib.]

The British poet John Wain decried the lack of grand style found in modernism;
"The throwing away of form in contemporary poetry and the arts generally is the result of that jelly-bellied democratisation - in a mass society only the lowest level of finesse is acceptable - and partly of sheer mental confusion."

For Heidegger, poetry is the art form par excellence for the Grand Style, because it "is not mere ornament of culture, but the primary and essential form of language. Hence, the thinker who exposes himself to poetry may gain through it some unique access to the meaning of Being." [quoted in Barret]


Art and Truth

Had Nietzsche really 'healed' the bifurcation first made explicit in Plato?
Heidegger saw another split manifest itself in Nietzsche's aesthetics. He described it as "the Raging Discourse between Truth and Art", stating that, "the relation between art and truth is a discordance that arouses dread."
Heidegger seems to retain the Platonic ideal of Truth, which is ruled out by Nietzsche, in order to create the persisting duality of Art/Truth. Indeed, dualities themselves are ubiquitous, whether subject/object, soul/body, [yin/yang] and so forth.
Baudrillard proposed that, "any unitary system, if it wishes to survive, must acquire a binary regulation."
Although he goes on to claim that we have now left "the metaphysic of Being and Appearance", and have arrived at "Indeterminacy and the Code. Cybernetic control, generation from model, differential modulation, feedback, question/answer etc.; such is the new operational configuration. Digitality is its metaphysical principle, and DNA its prophet. It is in effect in the genetic code that the 'Genesis of Simulacra' today finds its most accomplished form. Once more, that delirious illusion of uniting the world under the aegis of a single principle; that of the genetic code with the technocrats of biological science; a neo-capitalist cybernetic order that aims now at Total Control."

Baudrillard's dystopian view offers a surprising position on Art;

"Today, when the real and the imaginary are confused in the same operational totality, the aesthetic fascination is everywhere: all that replicates itself, even if it be the everyday and banal reality, falls by that token under the sign of art, and becomes aesthetic. And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality."

This may be 'art', but it is 'counterfeit art', it is not art in the 'Grand Style'.

Because poetry is, as Novalis said, "the elevation of mankind above itself," so does it achieve a place of central importance as the most Rapturous of art forms, which "does not belong to historical time and the tabloid scrimmage of ideologies, but to Natural Time, where the flower of five million years ago is still absolutely up-to-date, and even some way in the future, always just ahead of the avant-garde of any fashion." [Ted Hughes, 1986]

Suddenly we have acquired the wide range perspective proper to Grand Style, where we realise for example that, "the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, were not 'ancient' at all. The epithet 'ancient' was applied by the 18th century historians who thought that the world itself was new and that the people who they called ancient had lived near its beginning. But the Assyrians, Egyptians and the rest had inherited several thousands years of civilisation, exactly as we have done." [Tudge]

'Civilisation' is synonymous with the Logos;- and poetry is the most concise and profound artistic expression of 'the word'. To Heidegger;
"Basic words are historical. That does not mean simply that they have various meanings for various ages which, because they are past, we can survey historically; it means that they ground history now and in the times to come in accordance with the interpretation of them that comes to prevail. The historicity of the basic words, understood in this fashion, is one of the things that must be heeded in thinking through those basic words."

It is worth bearing in mind, particularly in today's apocalyptic climate, that 'The End of Art' prophesied by Heidegger is far from implying an absolute eradication. It suggests rather a new evolution of creativity beyond anything previously imagined. I earlier referred to the Platonic conception of the 'Real world', and how Nietzsche [in TWI] rejected this notion as, "an idea become useless, superfluous, therefore a refuted idea."
He then asked himself, "what world was left? The apparent one perhaps? ... But no! With the real world we have also done away with the apparent one! ..."


Selected Bibliography:
Abrams, M. The Mirror and the Lamp, 1953
Arnold, M. Poems: Second Series, 1854
Arnold, M. Selected Prose, Penguin 1970
Ayer, and O'Grady eds. A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, Blackwell 1992
Bacon, F. Essays, Cambridge 1908
Barney, S. Word-Hoard, Yale 1977
Barret, W. What Is Existentialism? Grove 1964
Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and Simulations, 1981
Byron, Selected Prose, Penguin 1972
Camus, A. The Rebel, 1951
Devi, S. The Impeachment of Man, Noontide 1991
Devi, S. The Lightning and The Sun, National Vanguard 2000
Frazer, J. The Golden Bough, 1906–15
Heidegger, M. Nietzsche, trans. Krell, Harper 1979
Heidegger, M. Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper 1971
Hughes, T. Collected Poems, 2003
Longinus On The Sublime,
Mosley, O. Policy and Debate, Euphorion 1954
Nauman, E. The New Dictionary of Existentialism, Citadel 1972
Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil, [BGE]1886
Nietzsche, F. The Twilight of the Idols, [TWI]1888
Nietzsche, F. The Case of Wagner, [CW]1888
Nietzsche, F. The Will To Power, [WP] 1885-9
Oliver, R. Against the Grain, Liberty Bell 2004
Perminger, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, MacMillan 1974
Poetic Edda, trans. Hollander, Texas 1962
Plato, The Republic, trans. Griffith, Cambridge 2000
Pound, E. Selected Poems, Faber 1968
Rimbaud, A. A Season in Hell, The Illuminations, trans. Peschel, OUP 1974 
Scruton, R. Modern Philosophy, 1994
Scruton, R. Philosophy: Principles and Problems, 2005
Sidney, P. The Defence of Poesy,1579
Tolstoy, L. What Is Art? trans. Maud, Minet 1971
Tudge, C. The Time Before History, 1997

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Presocratic Primer IV: Man is the Measure

Of all the Pre-Platonics, Nietzsche regards the Sophists as being the closest to what he saw as real Hellenic culture. One of the most enduring statements of the Sophists is Protagoras' famous dictum:

Man is the measure [metron] of all things, of those which are, that they are, of those which are not, that they are not.
[Socrates stating the doctrine of Protagoras of Abdera in Plato's 'Theaetetus']

 I The Idea Meme

If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty to consider the evanescent as essential.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
[Eliot, The Wasteland]

Much of the works of the Pre-Platonics has come down to us like shards of a shattered vase, which fragments have been gradually winnowed by time and chance.
Now they glitter over philosophy's landscape and are in many ways superior to the towering skyscraping systems which form its mainstream skyline.

Such splintered maxims were described by Socrates as "dark sayings, thrown out".
The Sophist Protagoras' [c.490-420BC] main treatise 'Truth' was known alternatively as Καταβαλλοντες ['the wrestling throw'] suggesting that Sophistic philosophy had its origins in the Agon, or contest, where a hold - sure to beat an opponent - is sublimated into a verbal 'knock-down argument'.
The few extant fragments of Protagoras' treatise emphasise the enduring quality of aphoristic form. A long work of complex reasoning can be lost and forgotten, but a single burnished saying has immense survival value if it can be spread like a spore via the work of subsequent carrier authors, ready to pullulate once more in the minds of succeeding generations.

II On the Aphorism

An aphorism that has been honestly struck cannot be deciphered simply by reading it off: this only is the beginning of the work of interpretation proper, which requires a whole science of hermeneutics.

The truly profound aphorism is tested and 'proven' by Time. The aphorists who had an eye for posterity eschewed the transient and gave utterance only to that which transcended their own place and time. They condensed the thought into the word before carving it deep into the immortal stone.

There are two types of aphorism: the lapidary as described by Nietzsche above, and those emitted like sparks from the fiery intellect.
The latter can betray a philosopher who has a mordant scepticism toward eternal verities and who thinks that all things, the philosopher himself included, are in a state of perpetual Becoming.
The spontaneous and unsystematic aphorist often possesses the promise of paradox. Protagoras stated with more than a hint of ambiguity that;

"There are two opposing arguments [Logoi] concerning everything."

This affront to the law of non-contradiction is the sine qua non of the Sophistic and Nietzschean philosopher.

III A Godless Man?

Socrates and Plato were shocked by the Sophists because they had no religious aims.

The atheistic tone of the introductory lines of Protagoras' treatise, 'man is the measure of all things' [Παντων μετρον ανθρωπος], was highlighted by Plato in his late work, 'The Laws';

"Now it is God who is, for you and me, of a truth, the 'measure of all things', much more truly than, as they say, 'man'."

Nietzsche's Saint in the Forest  held a similar view;

Now I love God not man. Man is too defective a thing for me."

This was, though, the same Saint who had not yet heard from Zarathustra that 'God is dead!' Protagoras appears to be an agnostic in comparison to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, particularly when we consider the former's statement;

"Concerning the Gods, I am unable to know either that they are or that they are not, or what their appearance is like."

But we should note the similar construction to the second clause of Protagoras' dictum; 'On the things that are [in this case the gods], that they are; the things that are not, that they are not.' Protagoras doesn't perceive that the gods 'are' himself, although he may well conclude that 'they are' according to another man's differing perspective. This was not so much agnosticism as a sceptical relativism.
But this is almost typical of the ancient Greeks. As Foucault says;

"The Greeks didn't worry about the after-life, or whether Gods exist or not. That was not really a great problem for them. The problem was: which 'techne' do I have to use in order to live as well as I ought to live?"

This in nuce was the aim of Sophism.

IV The Rank-Ordering of Man

One Law for the Lion and Ox is oppression.

We needn't rush into a thorough-going scepticism if we accept - as no doubt the ancients did - that some men are superior 'instruments' to other men.
The Sophists thought that man had progressed to civilisation from a savage pre-history;

"The first men lived like animals - at length their hardships impressed on them the necessity of combining for survival, and with the need for rational communication they gradually learned to turn their inarticulate cries into speech. A holder of the progress theory was Protagoras, the first and greatest of the Sophists." [Guthrie]

Human progress, although deriving from a common ground, was far from uniform. In Plato's Cratylus, Socrates, when adopting an extreme relativist interpretation of 'man is the measure', objects to its implications on the basis that it destroys the natural hierarchy between men;

"The assertion of Protagoras can hardly be correct, for if what appears to each man is true to him, one man cannot in reality be wiser than another."

In other words, the unwise cannot have a true perception of reality, and Protagoras should have said that 'the wise man alone is the measure of all things'.

Another disturbing Sophistic notion for Plato was the belief that excellence [Arete] could be taught.

How then do we understand the word 'man' [ανθρωπος] as it appears in the saying of Protagoras: does it refer to man as an individual, or else does it refer to man in the universal sense?

Universal man, as understood by the Post-Enlightenment Zeitgeist is anachronistic to 5th century BC Greece, where Greek was separated from Greek, and there was a gulf between any educated Greek and a 'barbarian' [a non-Greek speaker and therefore 'babbler'].
We may go even further with Foucault and say that the Greek idea of man was entirely 'masculinist';

"The Greek ethics were linked to a purely virile society with slaves, in which women were underdogs whose pleasure had no importance, whose sexual life had to be only orientated toward and determined by their status as wives. There was a dissymmetry, an exclusion of the Other, an obsession with penetration, and a threat of being dispossessed of one's own energy."

V Anthropos/Chthonos

But the terror of destruction is only one side of the chthonic power;- food and hence life grows from the depths of the Earth.

Our term 'humanity' bears only a superficial resemblance to the Latin humanitas. The 'humanity' of Rome, like the Greek, was actually divisive, rather than all-embracing. This is how it was possible for spectators at the Roman gladiatorial games to feel no pity for the victims who were considered to be lower grades of humanity. To a Roman any such sympathy for a criminal condemned to certain death by combat was irrational.
The Latin root 'homo', meaning man, is related to 'humus', soil, and derivable from the Greek chthonos earthly, native; indigene; of the underworld. This indicates that not only was the Classical concept of man exclusive, but that it was also built upon a dark substratum of fear.
The Greek word for man, anthropos, has a specialised peculiarly Hellenic twist to it. Even in modern Greek the term means not just man, but civilised man. Muller says that "the etymology which the ancients gave the word, deriving from 'ο ανωαθρων', 'he who looks upwards'," is fitting for the man who has studied the Kosmos, mastered the Logos, and would say along with the fiercely aristocratic Heraclitus that, "one man is worth ten thousand if he be noble."

The man in Protagoras' statement therefore can't be the bland 'human being' of modern terminology. It cannot be insignificant that the Hellenes chose to refer to their conception of man as 'the exalted', preferring this to the usual Indo-European variations of the root 'man' used, necessarily, in our translations.

VI Measure and Metre

Most of the expressions we use are metaphorical: they contain the philosophy of our ancestors.

It is said that in Greece the ancient poets were the first philosophers and educators. It follows then that many of the Pre-Platonics wrote their philosophy in verse, and that the Sophists initiated the study of literary criticism and philology. In this company we should not take any of our words for granted, not even this word 'man', As Muller wrote, "our poets make poems out of words, but every word, if carefully examined, will turn out to be itself a petrified poem, a reward of a deed done or of a thought thought by those to whom we owe the whole of our intellectual inheritance."

When we close in on the word 'man' we see that it, and its derivative Mnâ- occur in Greek in such words as μενος, mind, and
μνήμη, memory.

The Indo-European 'man' was a thinker, raising himself above the non-cognitive, just as the Greek raised himself above the barbarian.

The act of thinking involved the act of memory [Mnâ-]. Aristotle divided animals into two classes, "those whose sensations remain, μονη, and those whose sensations do not remain. Those who do not remain possess no knowledge, γνῶσις, beyond sensation, while those whose sensations do remain are again divided into two classes according as they are able or not to gather the permanent sensations which remain, λογος."

The root sense of 'man' then, is to remain or retain, and is closely connected with memory, Sanskrit Manas, μενος, Mens, mind. Not surprisingly, to the Greek, 'memory' was the Mother of the Muses Nine.
As we examine the word 'man' we notice a circular and almost tautological  tincture to 'man is the measure' at this level. To measure, 'metron', 'mens', is from the same root as 'man'.
The ability to hold onto experience enables one to then esteem and quantify that which is retained; such is the task of reasoning which is the very definition of what it is to be a man.
We can now imagine our exalted Greek scrying the heavens for "the moon which seemed to measure the sky, and in doing so helped man to measure the time of each lunation, of each moon or month man and moon were working together, measuring together, and as a man helped to measure a field or to measure a beam might be called a measurer, say Ma-s, from Ma, to measure, to make; thus the moon also was called Mas, the measure, which is its actual name in Sanskrit, closely connected with Greek μεις, Latin mensis, English 'moon'." [Muller]

VII Vitruvian Man

 Man is the metre of all things, the hand is the instrument of instruments, and the mind the form of forms.

What was the glory of the Renaissance? The attempt to transvalue Christian values: to make the opposite values, the noble values, triumph.
[Nietzsche, A 61]

The men of the European Renaissance took Protagoras' saying to mean that man is the standard of perfection for all things. Relativism and scepticism were used only selectively to dissolve the dogmas of Medieval religion.
Vasari's life of 'Leonardo da Vinci' stated that "Leonardo was of so heretical a cast of mind, that he conformed to no religion whatever, according it perchance much better to be a philosopher than Christian."

Leonardo's illustration [1511, above] for a manual by the Roman architect Vitruvius [a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus] provides a visual equivalent in Renaissance terms for Protagoras' aphorism. Richter, an editor of Leonardo's notebooks describes how the proportions of the human body are here related to the most perfect geometric figures and may be said to be integrated into the spherical cosmos.
But the concept of Virtù was not all pervasive as Sir Francis Bacon recognised;
"It is a false assertion that the sense of Man is the Measure of Things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well as the sense of the mind are according to the Measure of the Universe."
Bacon then presages the modern anti-humanist view which sees man as insignificant and contingent - Sartre's 'man is a useless passion' - in a Universe that will eventually be seen as meaningless.

 VIII Blood Brothers

Power lovers tend to adopt the maxim of Protagoras.

When combined with the afore-mentioned hieratic view of man, 'man is the measure' has totalitarian implications. As Joad says;
"A familiar development of Protagoras' maxim is that the 'great and powerful man' is the measure of all things ... that the great man is exempt from the dictates of morality which are only a rationalisation of the timidities of the herd."

Drawing this implication, the 'might is right' doctrine is given a classic expression in Plato's dialogue named after the Sophist Gorgias, where Callicles espoused it with evident relish;
"In my view nature herself makes it plain that it is right for the better to have advantage over the worse, the more able over the less. And both among all animals - and in entire states and races of mankind it is plain that this is the case - that Right is recognised to be the sovereignty and advantage of the stronger over the weaker."

According to Guthrie, Nietzsche was 'blood brother to Callices', and this is not so far off the mark, particularly as Nietzsche gave his heartiest consent to the Sophists. The following passage is important to the discussion as it declares that 'real' Hellenic culture ended with the eclipse of Pre-Platonic philosophy by Platonism;

"The Greek culture of the Sophists had developed out of all the Greek instincts; it belongs to the culture of the Periclean age as necessarily as Plato does not: it has its predecessors in Heraclitus, in Democritus, in the scientific types of the old philosophy; it finds expression in, for example, the high culture of Thucydides. And - it has ultimately shown itself to be right . Every advance in epistemological and moral knowledge has reinstated the Sophists - our contemporary way of thinking is to great  extent Heraclitean, Democritean and Protagorean. It suffices to say it is Protagorean, because he represents a synthesis of Heraclitus and Democritus." [WP 428]


IX Sophistry

Expect poison from standing waters.

The fact that Protagoras is not just a footnote to Plato testifies to the irreducibility of the idea meme. History tells us that the platonic philosophy emerged victoriously from antiquity, while Sophism - like the word itself - fell into disrepute. The term which was once used to describe the 'Seven Wise [i.e. Sophoi] Men - of which Thales was one, and was consciously adopted by Protagoras, had been turned on its head to mean at best a quibbling pedant, and at worst an unscrupulously deceitful liar.

To Plato, Protagoras' perceived value-relativism undermined his sense of Absolute Truth. Plato was therefore engaged in a philosophical agon to refute the Sophists. Protagoras was known as the first 'professional' philosopher, an 'intellectual technician, a good orator, a good persuader'. Says Guthrie;
"One subject at least the Sophists all practised and taught in common was rhetoric, or the art of 'Logos'. In Athens in the mid-fifth century, to be an effective speaker was the key to power. 'The word is a mighty despot', as Gorgias said in one of his surviving declamations."
To take money for their teachings, as the Sophists did, seemed to the purists of Plato circle as unphilosophical and ignoble. But then Plato was an aristocrat who did not need to charge for his teachings. Not only that, but the methods employed by Plato's teacher, Socrates, of question-and-answer or dialectic, was of little use to the Sophists who - as Plato said in the Phaedrus - "held the probable in more honour than the true." Plato also sharply criticised their eristic [i.e. arguing for the sake of it] tendencies, as well as their indulgence in what he coined as 'misology' and 'antilogic'.
With hindsight we can say that Plato was always going to win, especially when 'put to the people', who - en masse - prefer the comfort of Absolute Values to the uncertainty of mere possibilities. "Society", said Emerson, "is servile from want of will, and therefore the world wants saviours and religions." And this is apposite if Nietzsche was right to describe Christianity - as he did - as 'Platonism for the people'.
But the Protagorean position will continually resurface throughout history.

X Human Truth

The Sophists were not ideologically unified, but were a diverse collection of peripatetic philosopher-educators who were always viewed as outsiders in the Greek world. And yet they provided a humanist schooling far superior to any seen in the region hitherto. A well-rounded curriculum was offered to the fee-payer who could hope to emerge as a man of consequence in the intellectual and political milieu.
Protagoras can be described as an anti-metaphysician and his epistemological stance was one of common-sense empiricism. The existence of 'other-worlds', perceived by Pure Reason, but uncorroborated by the senses, were not - to him - worth dwelling on. He was part of the reaction against Eleaticism; to this end he is said to have written a polemical work, 'Against those who posit the Unity of Being.' It was the perfection of the Parmenidean One which having rendered plurality and movement untenable, then resurfaced in Plato's 'Theory of Forms'.
The Sophists like the Ionian natural scientists trusted the senses but preferred to innovate in studies like anthropology. It was due to the Sophists as much as to Socrates that philosophy came down to earth. Importantly they came to ask what in human culture was the result of convention [nomos], and what the result of nature [phusis];
"Protagoras did not believe that laws were the work of nature and gods but that they were formulated as the result of a consensus of opinion between the citizens who hence forth considered themselves bound by them." [Guthrie]
To the Sophists the philosopher was a 'physician of the soul', for just as a physician could cure the sick in body, a good rhetorician could supposedly heal the sick pysche of a listener. Even though Plato's pupil Aristotle also inherited his enmity towards Sophism - the charge of making the weaker argument the stronger was levelled against them by Aristotle - he actually adopted many of their strategies for his own philosophy.

XI Theaetetus and the Protagorean Doctrine

Assuming that it is not precisely man who is the 'measure of things'.
[Nietzsche BGE3]

Having gone a way to establishing the very substantial grounds for disagreement between Plato and Protagoras, it must be said that the full and seemingly objective account Plato gives of the Sophistic philosophy in his Theaetetus is remarkably balanced. This dialogue has a disciple of the then recently deceased Protagoras called Theaetetus in discussion with Socrates and others. Theaetetus' grip of the Protagorean doctrine is none too sure and Socrates of course obliges to play devil's advocate. For clarity I will identify his exposition directly with Protagoras.
Thankfully, Plato never succumbs to the temptation to distort an antagonist's views. Rather he has Socrates give an astonishing recital of Protagoras' philosophy which demonstrates a Sophist-like ability to embrace both sides of an argument.
Intriguingly, Socrates claims that Protagoras' "remarkable doctrine" has both an esoteric and an exoteric dimension, the latter being only for the 'common herd'.
He focuses on 'man is the measure', interpreting it as a piece of solipsistic relativism; i.e., "any given thing is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you - you and I being men".
Further he "declares that nothing is one thing just by itself; it cannot be called by some definite name, nor can it be said that it is of any definite sort."
This denies the possibility of atomism, of course. Also, all things are said to contain their antithesis;
"If you can call a thing 'large', it will be found to be also small, if 'heavy', to be also light, and so on."
And "there is no single thing that is, in and by itself."

Things do not have any definite place, nor do the qualities of the things. A colour is not in one's eyes, nor is it in the thing itself;
"What you call white colour has no being as a distinct thing outside your eyes nor yet inside them, nor must you assign it any fixed place and abide there, instead of arising in a process of becoming."
The colour then "is a thing that has arisen out of the meeting of our eyes with the appropriate motion."
The thing, its qualities and the percipient, are all mixed together and always in a state of flux. We (mis)use language to disguise this reality; we isolate objects, posit stability, talk of the sameness of things when even we ourselves, "never remain in the same condition."


This is a very different sensibility to Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, being more akin in visual terms to the art of Cubism, such as the Braque portrait above. The factitious nature of Renaissance perspective becomes apparent. The miracle is that we are able to believe to believe in a stable non-chaotic universe. No doubt, as Nietzsche contends, man's very survival as a species has depended to a large extent on this 'falsification of reality'.
Socrates says that "a whole series of philosophers agree", and draws a lineage from "Protagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles", to the poets, the founder of Comedy Epicharmus, and Homer, and asks "who could challenge so great an array, with Homer for its captain?"

Ouspensky ventured that "Western thought, in creating the theory of evolution, has overlooked the destructive processes." Protagoras, however, was careful not to make this mistake, opposing 'Perishing' to Becoming. Just as the latter is produced by movement, perishing is produced by what is, relatively speaking, rest.
Echoing Heraclitus he refers to "the hot of fire, which generates and controls all other things, and is itself generated by movement and friction - both forms of change." Socrates then goes on, in true Presocratic fashion to stack up a series of examples to reinforce his thesis;
"The healthy condition of the body is undermined by inactivity and indolence", the intellect [or soul] needs to be exercised or else "by inactivity, dullness and neglect, it learns nothing and forgets what it has learned."
"Stillness causes corruption and decay, when motion would keep things fresh."
The argument is extended to the Cosmos;
"So long as the Heavens and the Sun continue to move around, all things in Heaven and Earth are kept going, whereas if they were bound down and brought to a stand, all things would be destroyed, and the World, as they say, turned upside down."

Protagoras does have an arche of sorts, which is movement itself;
"the first principle is that the Universe really is motion and nothing else."
And not surprisingly, 'Being' in the Parmenidean sense is to be "ruled out altogether."

Socrates summarises the doctrine into three statements;

1) Man is the measure,
2) All things move like flowing streams, and
3) Perception is knowledge.

XII Relativism

The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule.

One cannot ignore the irony with which Socrates delivers Protagoras' philosophy in the Theaeteus, hoping to demonstrate that it has a core of self-refutation. At one point he mocks;
"I am surprised that Protagoras did not begin his 'Truth' with the words, 'The measure of all things is the pig', or the baboon, or some sentient creature still more uncouth. There would have been something magnificent in so disdainful an opening, telling us that all the time, while we were admiring him for a wisdom more than mortal, he was in fact no wiser than a tadpole, to say nothing of any other human being."
Here Socrates brings out what he sees as the absurdity of the view that every (subjective) experience is tantamount to being an objective truth. But Protagoras explicitly argues against the concept of an objective world per se. There can, for him, be no 'raw data' because there can be nothing in and by itself; all things are intertwined and interdependent: there is no separate 'object' nor a separate 'subject'.

Now Socrates, faced with only a partial success, makes a direct attack, charging the Sophist with self-contradiction, because if everybody's opinion is true, Protagoras must acknowledge the truth of his opponent's belief about his own belief, where they think he is wrong. Therefore he must agree that his own view is both true and false at the same time, which is self-contradictory.
Socrates is thus able to pin Protagoras down and force him to accept an objective scale of values. In some frustration, he is portrayed as if he would have responded to the Socratic dialectic with aristocratic disdain, calling it an "appeal to the vulgar."
Protagoras has fallen for the trap and has to admit the objective values of good and bad. Some men are wiser than others he says, "and as for wisdom and the wiseman, I am very far from saying that they do not exist."
To consolidate his position, Socrates makes an appeal to his concept of the expert: we go to an expert in a particular field when we want advice in that area. We do not go to a plumber for advice on public speaking, for example. Again, the Sophist would have to agree that there is an objective scale of expertise;
"Protagoras must admit that one man is wiser than another and that the wiser man is the measure."
As for the notion that the Self is constantly in flux from moment to moment and therefore does not provide an absolute standard of judgment, Socrates counters that the reality of the individual and uninterrupted personal identity and memory refutes this. If Protagoras was right then each man would be in the grip of a confused amnesia.
Yet, despite all this, can Socrates really convince the Protagorean that there is a realm of Absolute Truth of which the phenomenal world is but a pale and disfigured shadow?

XIII Truth

Education is not implanted in the Soul unless one reaches a greater depth.

One could argue that here the onus falls on the Platonist to prove the existence of the Absolute. Just as the language that doesn't change soon becomes dead, so life itself in such a condition rapidly degenerates.
Relativism represents a living network of meaning which is constantly shifting and evolving. But because the relativist necessarily relates, he cannot do away completely with the little 'local' truths of meaning and value.
Hence the contradictory nature of the doctrine, and the impossibility of the absolute rejection of values;
"Nihilism, the belief in unbelief, always reveals a need for belief, support and buttress."

Is not the need for consistency a particularly conservative, Platonic imperative? One could reply with Whitman, "do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself - I am large I contain multitudes." And with Nietzsche again, "one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions." Socrates successfully led Protagoras into self-contradiction, but in so doing, has he really refuted 'man is the measure'? - I think not, but the argument rages on like an ever-living fire.
And what of Truth? Has the word not been press-ganged into service by Platonism? A thousand years ago the word meant 'to promise, faith, fidelity, loyalty, trust ... belief' - belief, i.e. that which one holds dear [Old English lief, leof; love].
Are our cherished truths ultimately, as Nietzsche has it, our unrefutable errors? As for the laws of Physics, their truth is - as the scientists admit - only provisional.
Of course, these provisional truths are often seen as dialectical points on the journey to a grand Truth. Protagoras' attitude to Platonic Truth is similar to his attitude to the gods - a studied indifference. If there is a truth of some kind, then it is to be judged only by its efficacy; whether it is 'good to believe' or 'bad to believe'.

XIV The Indestructible

Behind every question there is always another question ad infinitum; my subtextual question here has been:
How is it that Protagoras' statement which so fascinated Plato continues to fascinate?
A question that is answered in part by the very asking of the question itself. To go back to Plato's treatment of Protagoras, we can say that given his circumstances and prejudices, Plato ennobled himself by giving his opponent a fair hearing. Perhaps he did so because the Sophists were, like himself, anti-atomists. It is rather disturbing to hear from Diogenes Laertius that Plato wanted to burn the works of the atomist Democritus. As Milton said, "he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself."
It was the burning of Helvétius' De l 'esprit (On Mind) in 1759 that moved Voltaire to state the Free Spirit's favourite maxim; "I might disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is a natural statement from one who believes there to be two sides to every argument; so Pascal: "a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once."

'Man is the measure' proves that you cannot kill ideas - rather they may hibernate in the forest of human culture patiently awaiting their rebirth. Protagoras' time has come and that is why we are closer to him today than we are to Plato.

Selected Bibliography:
Aristotle,The History of Animals, 350 B.C
Da Vinci, L. Notebooks, ed. Richter, 1883
Dillon and Gergel, The Greek Sophists, Penguin 2003
Foucault, M. The Foucault Reader, Rabinow
Guthrie, The Sophists, Cambridge 1971
Muller, M. Biographies of Words, Longman 1898
Nietzsche, F. Thus Spake Zarathustra, [TSZ]
Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil, [BGE]
Nietzsche, F. The Will to Power, [WP]
Nietzsche, F. The Antichrist, [A]
Plato, Theaetetus

Additional Links:
Max Müller works on-line:üller 
 On Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle