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Plato on divine madness


To: Andrew W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on divine madness
Date: 11 April 2005 13:29

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your email of 1 April, with your essay for the Associate Award, in response to the question, ''The best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god'. (Phaedrus 244a) With particular reference to the Ion, Symposium and Phaedrus, assess Plato’s theory of divine inspiration (mania).'

This is a very good essay, which I enjoyed reading. I felt gripped by the tension between the differing views of Cavarnos and Bredin, and also deeply puzzled about what could account for the difference between them.

Then, when you came to Pirsig's diagnosis - that Plato's 'commitment to "dialectically determined truth"... usurps the Good' - that seemed to provide the answer. There is an unresolved tension right at the heart of Plato's philosophy. His method was deeply at odds with his intuitive understanding of the artistic process.

It follows (as I would interpret it) that we really cannot say what 'Plato's theory of divine inspiration' is because Plato did not really know himself. Or, rather, he didn't have a coherent 'theory' but rather an intimation of what was ultimately at stake which, try as he could, he was unable to express without seeming self-contradiction.

I like this approach because it preserves Plato's insights rather than sacrificing one or other for the sake of consistency. It still leaves one wondering whether, after all, there is a way of resolving the contradiction without sacrifice.

It could be argued that Plato's theory of recollection - if you take that theory seriously and not just as a metaphor for the notion that philosophical knowledge is a priori as some commentators have done - is itself a recognition that the method of philosophy can always only be a second best, a way of groping our way back to that wonderful state when we beheld the forms directly, unhindered by the barrier of our material existence, a state which we can hope to realize again when our souls finally become free from our bodies.

The problem with this is that it leaves the philosopher looking a bit foolish. Poets and artists do better than philosophers because they don't let unnecessary ratiocination to get in the way. They are directly in touch with ultimate realities, while philosophers spend all their time trying to reconstruct out of the apparatus of logic that which is higher than logic.

That way of putting it almost makes it seem that the charge of busying oneself with 'mere representations' applies pre-eminently to philosophy. They are the one's who make do with second-best knowledge!

I don't see that as a reductio ad absurdum of this interpretation. The way in which philosophical dialectic 'represents' (e.g. a philosopher's 'theory' of knowledge, or justice, or beauty) is still vastly superior to thinking in terms of pictures or examples which those ignorant of philosophy are condemned to do, lacking the power to generalize in the way demanded by the Socratic method.

- This is what I read into your essay. I apologize if it seems that I am putting words into your mouth.

My residual worry concerns the difference between the insights of the poet/artist and the actual creative process itself. It looks as though one were saying that the essence of art is pure knowledge - as if the process of creating an art work were merely accidental - as if there could be great poets who never wrote poems or great painters who never painted.

Does Plato have anything to say that relates to this? Mere craftsmanship may be lower than art in Plato's view, yet the creative act, to be realized, requires the craftsman's discipline. By this I mean, not just being good with one's hands or being trained to use a chisel or a brush, but rather conscious, self-critical awareness of the very process of creation. What Pirsig calls 'being on the quality track'. As we have discussed on a previous occasion, Jackson Pollock - contrary to what the casual observer might think - would be a prime example.

All the best,