BOOK REVIEW: Hippias Major [a.k.a. Greater Hippias] by Plato

Hippias MajorHippias Major by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Socrates questions the arrogant sophist, Hippias, about the nature of beauty. The dialogue begins, as do most, with a meeting and pleasantries. This involves Socrates’ seemingly sarcastic praise of Hippias (we’re given no indication that Hippias sees the sarcasm, but – given the degree to which the sophist is in love with himself – that’s no surprise.) It’s possible Socrates is being sincere, but given the views attributed to him elsewhere, it seems uncharacteristic that Socrates should truly think Hippias wise because the sophist rakes in cash for making eloquent speeches.

The dialogue plays out with Hippias offering a range of unacceptable “definitions” of beauty. Hippias first presents a set of examples of things which are beautiful. This, of course, is unacceptable because if there is some common property of these varied entities, Socrates believes that property should be definable such that a person could see how the trait applies to other things. There are a series of other false starts involving goldenness, goodness, usefulness, popular agreement about what is beautiful, and a combination or two of the aforementioned.

Finally, Socrates suggests a definition of that which is pleasing to the eyes or to the ears. The discussion peters out after this definition is shown to be incomplete because pleasantness to eyes and to ears still begs the need of a common characteristic, as well as the fact that there are many concepts that are called beautiful that aren’t sensory experiences at all (e.g. a beautiful idea.)

This dialogue is more satisfying than Lesser Hippias, but is by no means one of the best. However, it does encourage thought about beauty, as well as about how both members of a set can have a characteristic that each does not have individually. If you’re interested in aesthetics, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

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POEM: Beauty

People prefer a face that can launch a thousand ships to one that can stop a clock. But did the clock-stopping face break the clockwork mechanism or halt the steady increase in entropy?

[Speaking of entropy, and it’s insistence on increase, a more disordered face reflects a more advanced state of progression, and yet that advancement isn’t honored.]

Back to the clock-stopping face. Breaking the brittle plastic gears of a mass-made clock is no great feat compared to ship-launching. But binding up the inexorable flow of the universe? That’s power.

POEM: What Is this Thing Called Beauty?

We see beauty in nature, but we see more in nature reigned in — kept in check by the hand of man. Why should a fresh-cut patch of grass please the eye more than its shaggy state of nature?

What soul doesn’t sore at the sight of a Japanese garden? It’s nature, but micromanaged in the slightest details of distance, shape, light, and order. Not a leaflet out of place. Gravel pads equidistantly furrowed with great precision. A bonsai tree could be called grotesque in its gnarled, shriveled deformation, but — instead — the bonsai has a universal visual appeal. Is it because they are stunted and deformed in precisely the manner man has chosen?

We see beauty in the human form, as well — but too rarely in our own. We like them depilated — plucked to the point that not a hair stands out of place. Biology tells us our eyes should seek the figure capable of staying strong while chasing prey across the savanna or gathering nuts and berries through wastelands where those foods are sparse. But our eyes covet those leaner than that — that leanness expresses our beloved ordered angularity.

Pure nature is frisson-laden — ever uncontrollable, unpredictable, and disordered. Its beauty is never separated from the fear it inspires.

Manicured nature offers a pleasing feel of dominion — an illusion of control that puts the mind at ease.