The Good the Bad and the Ugly: The Geometry of Aesthetic Norms in Plato Plato often enthusiastically

compares the normative images of the good, the true and the beautiful. Frequently this rough equating does more to conflate the meanings of the three conceptual frameworks than to mutually illuminate them. In this paper I will try to show that at certain select places within the dialogues, Plato defies this sloppy practice and instead presents very clear and elaborate analogies as to the precise set of relations that hold among his various aesthetic concepts. I will try to show that an understanding of this aesthetic system enables us to appreciate the full scope of Plato’s aesthetic normative system. I will further try to establish that this understanding can help us to make clearer possible mediation between certain dualities in both Plato’s causal model and his ethical-political system. In the Gorgias, Socrates contrasts the fourfold distinctions of legislation and justice for the soul and gymnastics and medicine for the body, with their designated, shadowy analogs: sophistry, oratory, cosmetics and pastry baking: gymnastics:medicine::legislation:justice:::cosmetics:pastry baking::sophistry:rhetoric This complex web is meant to look at the differing arts of protecting and healing the body and soul in relationship to the arts of sophistry and rhetoric. The normative axes for these components is one of comparing the prophylactic and the restorative with respect to the body and soul, in both authentic and imitative modes. In this comparison rhetoric is paired with justice and sophistry with legislation in a relation of imitative vs.

The analogy is not brought to completion until the student has achieved a certain level of expertise. health is implied to be a concordance or balance: an orderliness between the pieces of a whole. disproportion. the Stranger begins to expand on our Gorgias analogy. disease and injustice. One point of controversy that this tight textual connection raises. These two instances of this single continued analogy recall the contemporary writing practices with a word processor and suggest that Plato may have done some “cutting and pasting” among his many scrolls. Tht. What are they? 2 . This interesting set of analogies might be merely paradic if it weren’t taken to a further degree in a latter dialogue. Beauty on the other hand is related to proportion or the order or similarity between the individual part and the whole: Vis. We have to say that there are two kinds of badness that affect the soul. and wickedness and ignorance of the soul with the fourfold analogs of discord. it would speak to the position that Plato’s works were more planned than evolved in their development. right at the point where the interlocutors have seemingly cornered their prey. In this somewhat deeper exposition of the model of orderliness. In the Sophist. The Stranger contrasts sickness and ugliness of the body. At Sophist 228a this elaborate model is expanded to include a more intricate model of the relationship between the virtues of moderation and justice.authentic technes of protecting the soul from future harm and restoring the soul from past harm. is the organization and development of the dialogues themselves. If my contention is correct as to the seamless continuity of this analog’s ratios.

gymnastic for ugliness and medicine for sickness.” So our former analogy has been expanded: ugliness (disproportion):disease (dissension)::gymnastics:medicine::: ignorance:wickedness::admonitions:refutation Putting the two analogies together we can note some of the implied interrelations. Do you think that discord is just dissension among things that are naturally of the same kind. a correlate to ugliness. The Visitor observes: “By seeing whether ignorance has a cu down he middle of it. admonition. and all of those things with each other? Tht.” and ignorance. wickedness. and the other is like ugliness. or elenchis. a “disease of the soul. One is like bodily sickness. Tht. Of course. There are two kinds of badness. teaching. So we’d be right if we said that wickedness is discord and sickness of the soul. don’t we see that there’s dissension in the souls of people in poor condition. between beliefs and desires. Vis. And ugliness is precisely a consistently unattractive sort of disproportion? Tht. These again are related to the two forms of the curative. don’t you? Tht.Vis. and a rough one. 3 . I don’t understand. Vis. Yes. anger and pleasures. This latter form is considered an “involuntary” cleansing in which those souls who are already infected with ignorance can be forced to “lose their inflated and rigid beliefs about themselves. Well then. Vis. cross-examination. If it has two parts. Absolutely right.” These two parts of teaching turn out to be a smooth part. reason and pains. and arises out of some kind of corruption? Tht. Vis. one for each of the parts of ignorance (229b). Yes. Tht. that will force teaching to have two parts too. I don’t know what I should say to that. But this double badness of the soul presents a difficulty for its possible cure. Presumably you regard sickness and discord as the same thing. Vis.

The good of the whole would seem to be the model of health. we must remain somewhat cautious that Plato has not conflated these as a diagnostic test for our own state of health. Plato has provocatively given us a geometrical clue to how we can follow through on this examination. What had been originally a sickness and an ugliness of the body were treated as if they were both forms of disease from the earlier analogy: the technes of gymnastics and medicine. because they are inherently competitive with each other. Along with the elaboration. there has also been a collapsing of conceptual relationships. It is only be understanding this internal conflict that we can begin to make sense of what this elaborate analogy is meant to clarify. or dissension is an uneven or dissonant ratio between parts “that are naturally of the same kind. We need not pause for indecision on the point. there are clearly problems that I believe that Plato expects us to work out. Even though gymnastics seems broad enough to be a preventative for both ugliness and disease.” Disproportion represents parts that are out of proportion with the whole. Discord. These two kinds of geometrical “badness” equally imply two competitive forms of aesthetic value or “good”. These two kinds of dissonance cannot be easily resolved.As interesting as this further development of our model has been. Ugliness and sickness are characterized by distinct forms of mathematical ratios: disproportion and discordance. where all the parts function “in balance” to maintain the metabolism of the 4 . Plato presents these concepts as whole-part relationships.

The good of the parts. Aggregations of parts have no unifying “power” or being. Circular motion is able to exemplify the seeming paradox of remaining immutable within a nexus of change: “and thus move in one place.” It is this dynamic element of circularity that captures the critical distinction between wholes and the sums of parts. Circularity can equally 5 .functional whole. Circularity is triply divine in Plato’s Pythagorean ontology. the holism of the cosmos is exemplified in the circularity of the motion. however. They represent a level of being that can only be “known” through a “bastard” form of reasoning. Circles are partless and therefore represent a level of being beyond the generative and corruptive. Circles also represent perfection of form in every element being equidistant from its center. First. This power to exemplify functionality leads to the third capacity of circularity. due to its fundamental qualities. would seem to be that of beauty in some autonomous norm of “proportionality” in imitating the whole. Partiveness is epitomized by the triangular forms of the receptacle. Circles also represent the possibility of perfect motion. It is functionality that helps us define specific and generic qualities. Their disordered motion is balanced by the harmonic and orderly motion of the heavens. We can better envision this inherent tension between the competing goods in the geometric elaboration of being in the Timaeus. Circular motion is paradigmatic of such functional unity. For parts to have a significant ontological unity they must be able to act in unison. Functionality is an intermediate ontical framework between things and concepts. Again. just as the circumference of circles that are said to stand still (Laws 893c).

finds something fundamental in this relationship between ὁλον and καθόλου. There has been a longstanding debate as to which of these causal mechanisms primarily carries the explanatory weight in accounting for how the forms are operative in the world of flux. In his introductory chapter to his commentary. This model of competing aesthetic norms also helps to clarify the relationship between Plato’s two apparently redundant ontological mechanisms. as his separate and distinct references to each of these mechanisms remains throughout all periods of his writing. Heidegger shows how the whole-part relationship discloses the structure of the universal-particular determination: 6 .be utilized to represent relationships between the scopes of concepts or that between parts and wholes. Both Plato and Aristotle utilize the familiarity of the part-whole relationship to illustrate and exemplify aspects of the more abstract relationship of universals and particulars. It is exactly this categorical equivocation that logicians from Aristotle to Frege have utilized to both enrich their conceptual models or fall prey to unseen fallacies. Medieval logicians mad special note of this parasitic relationship and extended the analogy to cover the parallel structure between logical categories and rhetorical “places”. Plato scholars divide evenly between which of the two approaches Plato finally adopted with a large middle group just contending the two are the same. Heidegger. participation and imitation. The problem of this dual model for the efficacy of the forms is played out in the equivocation between the model of parts and wholes with that between universals and particulars. But none of these three approaches can possibly be true to Plato. Plato’s Sophist. with his peculiar and penetrating sense for languages.

It would seem that beauty and health are systemically “incommensurable”. IN. they must be able to be “most tightly packed” or rectilinearly ordered. at any rate. Plato’s Sophist. 1992). It is the basis of good proportionality and its norm is beauty. The concept of ὁλον will be our path to a closer elucidation of the Being of καθόλου. or health. distributing itself proportionally to the small and the large. Under my own account imitation is what takes place between wholes and universals. There is. There he understands the καθόλου as a determinate mode of the ὁλον. p. a problem with this dualist approach to the causal influence of the forms. Proclus in his essay “On the Subsistence of Evil” differentiates between primary and secondary 1 Martin Heidegger. The functional activity of a integral whole can capture the unity of a universal holding it as an end.The term καθόλου is composed out of κατά and ὁλον. There is also resonance for this approach in the Neo-platonic tradition. These two forms of causal influence are mutually competitive. they must be circular. it somehow takes its origin through the perception of wholes. To the degree that parts can participate in the unity of a whole. 26.1 Even though Heidegger specifies that the universal can never be fully uncovered by an αἴσθησις. To the degree that any such “partitive” beings are to directly imitate the unity of the gods. however.” Mutual participation in the activity of the whole helps to bring parts or elements of a system into balance. Aristotle provides a orientation toward the ὁλον in Metaphysics V. 7 . 57. The Good processes down the hierarchy of the cosmos with its circular motions and indirectly influences all aspects of the world through this motion: “And we learn. that in this rotation such motion carries the largest and smallest circles around together. Participation is the relationship between parts in their interaction within a whole. being less and more according to proportion (Laws 893d). (Bloomington.

the same note will sound at a higher or lower pitch. Major harmonies are all small number ratios of whole numbers. It is in filling out the octave with the individual notes where the mathematics gets messy. This same aesthetic tension is reflected in the traditional problematic of cutting the monochord or “scaling”. First of all there is not any number of whole notes that fit into our octave in such 2 Proclus. The Ancient Greeks primarily used a diatonic tuning system to construct their musical scales. To the degree that one works with equals. The ratio 2:1 determines the octave. One form of good comes indirectly through procession down through the levels of henads. 1980). All being and power come from the good. From any given note. The major fifth (3/2) and major fourth (4/3) together make up a whole octave (3/2 x 4/3 = 2/1). These two forms of goodness and their reciprocal evils have clear analogs in Plato’s model of sickness and ugliness. so absolute evil has neither. one is like the other parts. There are two forms of secondary evil. relative to the two forms of secondary good in the cosmos. This means that the sizes of the individual notes were determined from their relationships with the major harmonies. It is secondary evil that is more pernicious. These two ways to goodness.evils2. Two Treatises of Proclus the Neoplatonic Philosopher. Primary or absolute evil is jus separation from the good. Beings within a given level participate in the unity of their henad and share in its good. But this sort of evil is uninteresting. The difference between these same two harmonies is a Pythagorean whole note (3/2 ÷ 4/3 = 9/8). are competitive and contrary to each other. 91 8 . To the degree that one imitates the gods one is unlike the other parts. But there is also a kind of direct route to the good through imitating the gods. p. participating with other equals and imitating the gods. (Montana. if one doubles or halves the vibrations.

This arrangement has strong advantages in terms of both range of usage and transposibility. Plato's option in the Timaeus is to fill in the octave with five whole notes and two Pythagorean half notes measuring 256/243. and this harmonic the Greeks felt to be "dissonant". In the Republic. The discrepancy between the size of an octave (2/1) and six whole notes ([9/8]6 ). no perfect harmonics in the modern scales. Modern scales. There are. In addition. are all equi-temperment. It follows 9 . when moving from one octave to another. An "octave" is almost exactly six whole notes. Only the major third (5/3) is closely approximated. Each distinct tuning had its own "mood" and were utilized to instill courage (Dorian). But these "half notes" are really less than the calculated value of half a whole note. making tuning and coordination almost impossible. more harmonic City of Pigs in the Republic. The problem of scaling comes down to mediating between the cuts down the middle (octaves and fifths) from those between the joints (notes and half notes). It is a widely known phenomenon in orchestras that the non-fretted instruments and vocalists will often "stray" from the written music to "seek out" the true harmonics. The one set of cuts is algorithmic or “syntactic” in form and unscaled in its application. moderation (Prhigian) or any assortment of virtues. leads to the need to create "half-notes". All of the diatonic scales suffer form this same limitation. the order of whole and half notes begins to shift.a way to preserve the major harmonies or maintain a simple small number ratio. post-date Bach. This means that all notes are composed of equal "half-notes". This introduction of "disorder" in the larger collection of notes is what prompted Socrates to favor the smaller. however. Plato discusses the "virtues" and weaknesses of the various models.

Such a sequence is arithmetic in the accumulative dominance of its "material. would have their “rectilinearity” moderated through such a continuous motion. the less freedom we can anticipate. others silver and some of iron and tin: Some animals are more equal than others. There is no right or wrong about such divisions.the pattern of a geometric series. Citizens that participate in a “good” republic. there is a serious conflict between the demands of moderation/equality and justice/freedom. ugliness and sickness. It would seem that one must choose one’s fault along with one’s virtue3. Equality/moderation is the virtue of the health of the parts. Its division is not "neat" or algorithmic. But if this difficulty can have a geometric expression. The second qualifies that some are made of gold. so might its resolution. Satiric parody aside. the less equality we can expect." These two kinds of “cuts” are operative in all scaling problems between absolute form and a given matter. and are emblematic of the contending forms of badness. Justice/freedom is their beauty. The more freedom allowed. 10 . The two parts of the Noble Lie are presented as consonant and unproblematic conditions. The more equal we are compelled to be. The closer that the participation was functioning towards a truly 3 Nietzsche was to turn this tension into a archetypal conflict between aesthetic and moral values – that of the warrior and that of the priest/philosopher. and determines a “contextualized” normative construction. The paradox between the causal influences of participation and imitation are also represented in the moral conflict of the Republic. they rather account to a semantic criterion of better or worse. one that is itself imitating the circular motion of the heavens. The first part tells us we are all brothers: All animals are created equal. The other is absolutely affected by the situation of where the particular octave falls in relation to the generative series. in the whole-part problem.

In such a well formed city women and men may agree to cloth themselves for wrestling matches and philosophers would willingly forgo their contemplation of the forms for the sake of the overall health of the system. we must see this citizen participation in a good republic as the necessary condition.good end. the more “many sided” the rectilinearity of its citizens would become. the propaduetic attainment of health. 11 . Since no amount of participation could ever achieve complete “squaring of the circle”. for the imitation of the gods in the final elimination of ignorance.

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