Philosophy and Ugliness

Plato’s Republic is typically read as a largely serious study of the notion of justice, both as a social and individual virtue. It is often criticised in this light for promoting a model of social order characterised by inequity, repression and callous inhumanity. An alternative interpretation (Strauss, Bloom) stresses aspects of Platonic irony, arguing that Plato only appears to support a misguided utopia. Actually, he provides a trenchant critique of any such thing. This interpretation distinguishes between a naive (ostensible) and esoteric reading of the Republic, arguing that the latter offers a more enlightened perspective on the complex relationship between private, philosophically absorbed virtue and public, philosophically informed political engagement.

I wonder whether a middle ground is possible between these two positions? It would seem more likely that Plato writes at once seriously and humorously. The model of societal justice that Socrates recommends is bound by fundamental contradictions, but not in a way that disguises an esoteric meaning. Rather it seriously, and with a deliberate sense of provocation, explores various questions and possibilities of justice. It does this with an attitude that cannot be reduced to either philosophical gravity or comic levity. Socrates is regularly cast as a trickster, not only in his feigned humility and sharp dialectical skills, but also in terms of his capacity to expose vacuous thought and discover a new and better grasp on everyday concepts. He subjects ordinary ideas to criticism in order to rejuvenate conventional ideas and the capacity for thought itself. More particularly, Socrates is regularly described as a ‘pharmakeus’, which indicates this double character of magically poisoning minds and provocatively renewing them. The pharmakeus traces a legible relation to the pharmakos – the Ancient Greek festival figure who renews the city by acting as its scapegoat and being cast outside it (through literal sacrifice, exile or ritual mockery). The Cynic Diogenes exemplified this figure in philosophical terms. His contemporary Plato describes him as a ‘more extreme Socrates’. Diogenes’ poverty, exiled ‘cosmopolitan’ identity, public display of private bodily functions, lack of respect for authority and calls for people to rethink every aspect of their social being positions him as a wise fool, who is aligned closely with the ugly, abject and yet revitalising pharmakos. Just possibly, Plato’s Republic also mobilises aspects of this cultural tradition, even if in more subdued form, even while also signalling a break with this tradition. This helps to explain the complex tone, mediated sense of voice and playful features of contradiction in the Republic. These serve less to undermine his arguments than to constitute the grounds of their philosophical and political potential. The ironic reading of Plato highlights that the Republic represents less the explication of an entirely coherent philosophical position than a theatrical invitation to philosophical thought. Rather than simply teach us the notion of justice, it draws us into philosophical reflection on the topic. It aims specifically to cast us outside our ordinary modes of thought. This is enabled through a carefully calibrated combination of seriousness and irony.

Extending upon this, perhaps philosophy itself, despite its apparent attitude of seriousness, retains some distant memory of the pharmakos? This relates not only to its provocative aspect – its capacity to dispel complacent illusions – but also to the abject character of the pharmakos, who is traditionally represented as a contemptible, ugly, old man. Approaching death, falling beyond the sphere of ordinary productive and reproductive social life, the pharmakos appears at once profoundly repugnant and yet somehow offers scope for inner renewal – precisely through their publicly enacted social exile. In these terms, we can trace a relationship between ugliness and philosophy. Philosophy is associated with wisdom, which takes time to develop (perhaps even the capacity to think against the grain of time, beyond its ravages, as well as within the pain of its obvious passage). Philosophers appear as old people – as people who have had sufficient time to live, reflect and think. They are conventionally ugly outwardly but manifest an inner beauty – the beauty of the mind. This can be portrayed as a superior beauty but can also be regarded as a poor compensation for the immediate, unreflective beauty of youth. It is important to stress that philosophy, in its ugliness, is not altogether irrelevant to the beautiful, but rather, in its concern for the beautiful and its obvious alienation from it, serves to constitute its coherent identity and meaning. It is attracted to the beautiful. It renders the beautiful manifest by recognising and describing it, as well as through an inner longing, through a sense of what it itself has lost. On the other hand, beauty itself conserves an aspect of ugliness, which relates to its self-absorption, its lack of concern with anything else, and its effort to entirely externalise ugliness. The ambiguous figure of the pharmakos is crucial here. It not only punishes and exiles ugliness and corruption but also serves as a salutary reminder within the space of the living (the beautiful) of their inevitable participation in just these qualities. This doubled paradigm has the additional implication of portraying a more positive potential, which is the ambivalence, the suspension, of philosophy as a species of beauty/ugliness and death/non-death.

Philosophy is plainly associated with rationality. According to Plato, the rational justice of society depends upon philosophical rule. Similarly, the just arrangement of the human soul depends upon the rational-philosophical supervision of appetites and emotions. Rationality enables self-awareness, autonomous freedom and moderation. But does this also imply that the human soul is affected by the ambiguous character of the pharmakos? What is it that rationality represents? What does it want particularly? Is our inner ruler too close to death to want anything or do they actually want far too much? The pharmakos signals a perverse source of value linked to the intimate experience of ugliness and the prospect of separation from the vivid sphere of social life. This sense of grotesque being – at once mourning and laughing – retains a perverse aspect of desire. Rationality disguises an underlying desire linked to an uncertain suspension between life and death. With no way of adequately thinking this through, of resolving this underlying tension, rationality (philosophy) puts on an air of being utterly superior and disinterested. Yet any sense of coherent distance from appetite and emotion is illusory. It has complex implications, indicating both an expression and repression of its own longing, its own sense of loss, its own fear of death and its own desire to live and to die. But rather than undermining rationality, exposing its bad faith and limits, this field of ambivalent feeling also provides the very basis of its capacity to be wise. However, this can only take benevolent shape if rationality can find the means to see and acknowledge its grotesque aspect – its identity as pharmakos. This is demonstrated precisely through an attitude that involves both seriousness and humour, a love of beauty and a sense of irony. Recalling that it not only conceives its capacity to rule but is also cast, grumbling and laughing, outside the city, philosophical rationality, at its best, involves a close sympathy not only with those who would exile it but with whatever the outside represents.

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