Philosophy12 Jan 2008 09:19 pm
“Remember how…beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality)…”
-Plato, Symposium, 210
Thus Socrates—that is to say, Plato’s incarnation of Socrates—would have us believe that a stranger from Mantineia first clued him into the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (many prefer Shakespeare’s rendering of the phrase). Although the preceding quotation appears in a passage concerning the good of friendship, one wonders what, if any, kind of aesthetic standards the philosopher attached to physical beauty.
Socrates was famously ugly—all that imperious, barbate statuary can be misleading—the extant sources are very clear in making a point of his brutish demeanor. He had bulging eyes, a snub nose, and fleshy lips “like an ass.” Nor was the philosopher in the business of improving upon the stamp of rude nature: He went about barefoot and unwashed, moving with a strange gait (so odd, it was said to intimidate enemy soldiers), and carrying a cudgel. He evidently never changed his clothes, using the same garments for his day-wear and pyjamas. Ever the gadfly, Socrates also let his hair grow long after the Spartan fashion, a look that couldn’t have amused the Athenian patriots of the day, still smarting from their defeat in The Peloponnesian War.
However, something must have endeared this smelly, unsightly, forbidding man of intellect to his fellows, or, at least, those of his fellows who did not force him to drink hemlock for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” Perhaps it was his inimitable way of bringing new perspective to old problems, often peppered with characteristic humor and irony. In Xenophon’s Symposium (V 1-10), Socrates compares his physical abnormality with Critobulus’ more pleasant aspect; by using use-value as his criterion for beauty, Socrates is able to prove himself the handsomer of the pair.
The stranger from Mantineia was in the right: In beauty, as in life, the nimble mind can outshine the fairest matter.
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