II. Art and Age

The Philosopher preaches and practices the greatest form of art

~ Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helion by Claude Lorrain

The philosopher is the ideal human being. He is a champion of civilisation and thus, a patron of art. He knows that although there can be art without civilisation, there cannot be civilisation without art. For art improves nature. And civilisation being a human society that has achieved an advance state of development in the areas of intellectual, cultural, political and moral refinement would not be possible without the advent of art. Though the philosopher is committed to the pursuit of the truth, he believes that ‘painters and poets have leave to lie[1]’ for their contributions to civilisation and beauty in the form of art.

But what constitutes art? What are the works that are deemed worthy of the word art? Why do we judge some works as those of art and others as not?

The term ‘art’ is very ambiguous and often subjective. For something to be considered a work of art, it must first fulfil several conditions. The most common standard is beauty. But because ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder[2] and a common benchmark for what is beautiful is nonexistent, we often also loosely attribute the word ‘art’ for works of all shapes and sizes that give us pleasure and satisfaction. Hence almost anything that can kindle both our liking and interest as objects of contemplation and enjoyment can be considered works of ‘art’. Be it witty poetry, flower arranging, calligraphy or song writing, many things can be considered ‘artistic’ in the eyes of the philosopher.

True works of art however, are by no means just a pretty picture or a tranquil tune. Within every true work of art are embedded philosophies, purposes and principles. They are a standalone form of expression containing their creator’s individuality, his experiences, his hopes and his dreams. When the philosopher contemplates a work of art, he sees not only the painting, but also the motive behind the painting. Likewise, the philosopher hears not the melody in the music, but also the emotions and experiences behind every successive musical note that the composer desires to invoke. Art for the philosopher transcends the material world and exist only in the world of idea and representation.

Behold the Palace of Versailles[3], with its magnificent architecture, its exquisite hall of mirrors and its splendid lakes and fountains. Its design was meant to intimidate, impress and inspire. The structure stands solely to portray the glory and splendor of the old Sun King of France[4]. Look at how the three-sided structure opens up the interior court to create the expansive entrance called the cour d’honneur[5]. When one sees the majesty this architectural masterpiece, one may even forgive all the suffering that the French endured during the Ancien Régime.

We find beauty and joy within so many things that art has to offer. When we hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9[6], the deafness of its composer serves only to allow the music of his soul to be sung to everyone else except himself. Then move next, from painting to painting, from Leonardo da Vinci to Raphael, from Michelangelo to Botticelli, and from Caspar David Friedrich to Renoir. Finally go watch with a keen eye and a sharp ear the comedies and tragedies of Shakespearian wit. Now stop and think of the pure nature of such works, laid in front of you within your mind.

How can one not be a patron of art? How can the philosopher not admire art in all its forms when he claims himself to be the ideal human being?

Look within yourself and ponder how much more is left before one understands humanity’s vanity. Whether it is pride, wit, melancholy or suffering, the intellect admires art above all else. A world without art is like a world devoid of feelings and emotions, a world without colour, without sounds, without the glorious rays of the sun and the calming glow of the moon. Such is a world of fire and ice that no philosopher will ever choose. Better that we live with suffering within a world of art than live within a world without the possibility of beauty. Art first seduces us with such said beauty and entices us with such profound depth. Even philosophers succumb to it unknowingly. And uncontrollably, we fall in love with the painting and the painter, the poetry and the poet until lastly, the philosopher falls in love with humanity and civilisation itself.

For the purpose of understanding and appreciating art, the philosopher is trained from birth. Though he does not immerse himself into art itself, he recognises various categories of fine art, namely, painting, poetry, music, architecture and drama. He studies their various forms and learns of the way they invoke beauty. Perspective is the final attainment of the philosopher when it comes to art. The Muses[7] have their place within his heart and although he does not worship them, he knows of their value in retaining the vitality of humanity’s culture and civilisation.

What then is the art of the philosopher?

The philosopher practices and preaches the greatest form of art. And that is the art of literature. Pictures for the philosopher are but books of the unlearned. Although there are pictures in poems and poems in pictures it is only within the written word that one can find the most accurate and precise tool for communicating ideas to himself and to the world around him. Hence the philosopher is a writer, and his art is the art of writing. Within his bosom, he knows that the pen is mightier than the sword[8].

But why is this so?

‘Words fly, writings remain[9].’ The permanence of the written word is the sole source of strength that the philosopher wields. It is his sword, his shield, and his spear. Though writing may destroy memory, they will engrave themselves within history. The greatest art is the one that has the greatest age. And art made using the written word far outlast any other fine art. They outlive their authors and outpace generations. “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” said Victor Hugo. There is but one way that an idea can persist after the moment of thought and that is through writing it down with pen and paper.

Books ruled the world. Voltaire was right when he stated in his Philosophical Dictionary that the whole of the known world, with the exception of the savage races, is govern by books alone. In the Middle East and Africa, the Quran and the Torah is hugely dominant.  Europe and a large part of America, both the North and South, submits to the authority of the Bible. While in the China, the writings of Confucius and Lao Tzu have been prevalent. India on the other hand has never really forgotten the Vedas. Even today every human being submits to the laws found within books of laws and regulations! Yet it is sad indeed that the amount of people who do read and write daily are but a tiny fraction of the world’s total population. And those who do read, read only the bestsellers and popular fiction that have no value in the eyes of the philosopher. But when asked who rules the nations across the globe, we answer, those who can read and write.

In order to write, one must first read. Better to write nothing at all than to write the common nonsense that illiterates produce on a massive scale. The philosopher knows that ‘a great book is a great evil[10]’. And so he reads widely to ensure that what he writes will not be twisted into ways he did not foresee. You cannot open a book without learning something[11]. Even a badly written book is a ‘good’ example of a badly written book. One can still learn how to not imitate such flaws when learning the art of writing. Although reading more and absorbing more knowledge may not make a man a better philosopher, it would most certainly help in the process.

The philosopher however, does not devote his time simply to any reading material. He chooses wisely for he understands that the greatest art is the one with the greatest age. Just as surely as ‘things present are judged by things past’, ‘today is the scholar of yesterday[12]. Hence, the importance of learning history in order to learn how ‘history repeats itself[13]. Although ‘time devours all things[14], time is also the father of truth. Tested, perfected, reiterated, retranslated and rewritten, some of the most ancient writings contain the truth of humanity that only time will tell.

So go dig out the books of old, reread Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Logic. Think deeply through the passages of Spinoza’s Ethics and venture through the mazes of metaphysics with Kant as a companion. At every different age comes a different kind of art. But when we think of art and age, we realise that the truth has never changed. Most new books are but variations, commentaries or bad copies of old ones long forgotten. The philosopher must bear in mind that ‘coming events have casts their shadows before[15]’ and what has been, may be. Keep one foot in the past and the other in the future but never forget that the truth comes only with time.

[1] Adapted from Horace’s Ars Poetica (1st Century BC).

[2] This sentiment has been traced back to the Greek poet Theocritus (3rd century BC).

[3] The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France before the French Revolution.

[4] Louis XIV was called the Sun King of France.

[5] ‘Court of Honour’ is an architecture term used for a three-sided courtyard.

[6] Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral” is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven.

[7] The Muses were nine Greek Goddesses that were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. They each were regarded as a protectress of a different art or science.

[8] A saying that can be traced back to Cicero (1st Century BC).

[9] Latin form, Littera scripta manet.

[10] This is a quotation from the poet and scholar Callimachus (3rd century BC).

[11] Chinese proverb

[12] An ancient Roman saying implying that we must continually learn from the past.

[13] Marx (1852) attributed the idea to Hegel (1770 – 1831) although the thought is ancient.

[14] This is a quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1st century BC).

[15] This is a quotation from Thomas Campbell’s ballad “Lochiel’s Warning” (1803).

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