On Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’​ — The Madness of Love

David Proud
28 min readMay 13, 2022


Much Madness is divinest Sense -

To a discerning Eye -

Much Sense — the starkest Madness -

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail -

Assent — and you are sane -

Demur — you’re straightway dangerous -

And handled with a Chain -

- Emily Dickinson, (1830–1886)

Where does inspiration come from? An idea? And where do they come from? An object? A person? An occurrence? Upon something having been evoked? And why was it evoked?From the soul? From the Holy Spirit? (‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’. 2 ‘Peter’ 1:21). From the divine? In Plato’s, (429?–347 B.C.), early dialogue the ‘Ion’ Socrates, (c. 470 –399 BC), converses with a rhapsode, a reciter of poetry, this one also lecturing upon Homer, (fl. late 8th cent. BC), during the course of which exchange Socrates equates inspiration with a divine power, and the divine power to a magnetic stone that can not only move iron rings but in addition magnetize the iron rings so that they too can do likewise, leading to a long chain of iron rings, with each ring’s energy ultimately derived from that of the original magnetic stone. And if a poet is an accomplished poet this is not because he or she has read every book on his or her subject absorbing the details thereby but rather because he or she is divinely inspired:

Ion. ‘… I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man. But I do not speak equally well about others — tell me the reason of this’.

Socrates. ‘I perceive, Ion; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine to be the reason of this. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracle’s’.

Socrates likens inspired poets to Bacchic maidens who are out of their minds when they draw honey and milk from the rivers, and he inquires of Ion whether, when he recites Homer, he does not get beside himself, his soul not believing that it is witnessing the actions of which he sings, to which Ion responds that when he sings of something sad, his eyes are full of tears and when he sings of something frightening, his hairs stand on end, such that he is no longer in his right mind. Socrates asserts that this is exactly the effect which a rhapsode has upon his audience, the muse inspires the poet, the poet inspires the rhapsode, the rhapsode inspires his audience, which is the last of the iron rings in the divine chain. And in Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates contends that madness, as well as being an illness, can also be the source of our greatest blessings, for there are four kinds of inspired or divine madness (theia mania) There is that of prophecy, from Apollo, that of holy prayers and mystic rites, from Dionysus, that of poetry, from the muses, that of love, from Aphrodite and Eros:

‘The third type of possession and madness is possession by the Muses. When this seizes upon a gentle and virgin soul it rouses it to inspired expression in lyric and other sorts of poetry, and glorifies countless deeds of the heroes of old for the instruction of posterity. But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman’.

For Plato, all human beings according to Plato are able to recollect Forms, or Ideas, that is, universals, such as perfect Goodness and perfect Beauty, and hence they must have seen them in some other life or in some other world, and the souls that came closest to the Forms, or that experienced them most deeply, are reincarnated into philosophers, artists, and true lovers. And in virtue of the Forms still being present in their minds, they are totally absorbed in ideas about them and forget about earthly interests. Common plodding folk regard them as mad but if truth be told they are divinely inspired and in love with Goodness and Beauty. But for my part I find all this talk of divine madness rather unhelpful in understanding or explaining inspiration, evoking divinity and madness in senses that are unclear in the context, explaining something mysterious in terms of something mysterious. Dickinson’s exquisite little poem makes the point clear enough, people may appear mad but are not mad just misunderstood for being at odds with the majority, well, she does speak of divine sense but I doubt that she meant it literally but it is the antithesis of divine madness anyway. And how can people out of their wits create anything requiring a high level of skill, artistry and craftsmanship (technique, something that Socrates was rather belittling towards)?

‘Someone like myself, who claimed to be a real madman’, said Salvador Dali, (1904–1989), ‘living and organized with a Pythagorean precision…’

‘Parthenon’, 1881, Vasiliy Polenov

Socrates in his discussion of madness in the ‘Phaedrus’ contends that madness is not all bad if it is given as a gift of the gods, for then it provides us with much that is good and enriching, some of the best things we have, for instance the four types of divine madness cited above, prophetic madness, the initiatory or ritual madness, poetic madness, erotic madness And the madness of love is, indeed, sent by a god to benefit the lover and beloved at which point Socrates embarks upon a proof of the divine origin of this fourth sort of madness, a proof of which he claims: ‘Our argument will carry conviction with the wise, though not with the merely clever’. So let us delve into the ‘Phaedrus’ to see how he gets on, and to determine if we are wise, or merely clever, or neither.

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Phaedrus’ are as follows:

1. Lysias, (c. 445 — c. 380 BC), is reported by Phaedrus, (c. 444–393 BC), as having argued that it is better to be loved by one who does not love than by one who does, for the lover is moved by passion and can do harm.

2. Socrates at first agrees that love is irrational and therefore harmful, but on reflection he maintains that madness is sometimes divine, and that love is a kind of divine madness.

3. The soul is like a winged charioteer driving a team of horses, the charioteer, if inspired by love of the ideal, is reason or intelligence in control of the good horse (will) and the bad horse (passion).

4. Souls which have seen the most of Being, having known the eternal forms or Ideas of all things, pass into the bodies of philosophers, or lovers of wisdom, souls which are disciplined and full of wisdom return to their heavenly home.

5. Good rhetoric depends upon having true knowledge, the Sophists are mistaken in claiming that the appearance of knowledge is all that is necessary.

The ‘Phaedrus’ was most likely composed around 370 BC after the ‘Republic’ but before the six late dialogues, the ‘Sophist’, the ‘Statesman’, the ‘Philebus’, the ‘Timaeus’, the ‘Critias’, and the ‘Laws’. One of the principal reasons for placing the ‘Phaedrus’ after the ‘Republic’ is the number of passages in the ‘Phaedrus’ that would be difficult to understand except in the light of the ‘Republic’. The dramatic date of the dialogue is aroundt 410 BC, about ten years before the trial and death of Socrates, and it is a direct dialogue, that is, Plato does not use in this dialogue a narrator who retells to someone else a conversation of Socrates. The scene, a walk outside the walls of Athens to a shady spot along the banks of the river Ilissos, is an unusual setting for Socrates. There are only two characters, Socrates and Phaedrus, Phaedrus also having participated in two earlier dialogues, the ‘Protagoras’ and the ‘Symposium’.

There are several possible answers to the question as to what the Phaedrus is actually about. Love, rhetoric, philosophy are all possible answers, since all three subjects are significantly involved in the dialogue. Love is the subject of all three of the set speeches included in the Phaedrus, this does not, however, necessarily make love the subject of the dialogue. Rhetoric is examined and criticised, and then proposals are made for a reformed rhetoric capable of serving philosophy. Perhaps the most significant feature of this dialogue is Plato’s continuation of his effort to justify philosophy as the most worthy life of the soul against the opposing claims of the Sophists. The dialogue also presents a special method of philosophy, dialectic, which involves collection and division.

The ‘Phaedrus’ begins with an encounter between Socrates and Phaedrus. Phaedrus has spent the morning listening to a speech of Lysias on the subject of love. Socrates accompanies Phaedrus to a shady spot along the river Ilissos where Phaedrus reads a copy of Lysias speech. Scholars disagree on the genuineness of this long speech attributed in the dialogue to Lysias. Whether this speech was actually written by Lysias, or whether it is a clever caricature by Plato, it illustrates the reasons for Plato’s criticism of the rhetoric of the Sophists, for the speech argues upon the basis of self-interest the advantage of yielding to someone who does not love rather than to someone who does love. The basic reason offered for yielding to someone who does not love rather than to a genuine lover is that a lover is prevented by his passion from making careful calculations and is therefore likely to injure his beloved.

When Socrates criticises this speech of Lysias as repetitious and inferior to what he has heard from others on the same subject, Phaedrus challenges Socrates to construct a better speech. Socrates reluctantly agrees. Since Socrates insists that successful deliberation must follow definition, he begins his speech with a definition of love as irrational desire directed toward physical beauty, analogous to gluttony, which is irrational desire directed toward food. From this definition, which is the basis of Lysias’ speech but is not the definition Socrates develops in his second speech, Socrates concludes that the lover is more likely than the non-lover to harm the beloved. After this first speech, Socrates declares his remarks to be, along with Lysias speech, foolish, irreverent, and blasphemous. Socrates then proposes to atone for his defence in treating love as evil by delivering a second speech (a kind of palinode to use the technical terminology from poetry, a poem in which the poet retracts a view or sentiment expressed in a former poem).

‘Temple of Aphaea in Aegina’, Greece’, 1910, Harry John Johnson. (‘Queenly Muse, our mother! I entreat you, come in the sacred month of Nemea to the much-visited Dorian island of Aegina. For beside the waters of the Asopus young men are waiting, craftsmen of honey-voiced victory-songs, seeking your voice. Various deeds thirst for various things; but victory in the games loves song most of all, the most auspicious attendant of garlands and of excellence. Send an abundance of it, from my wisdom; begin, divine daughter, an acceptable hymn to the ruler of the cloud-filled sky, and I will communicate it by the voices of those singers and by the lyre. The hymn will have a pleasant toil, to be the glory of the land where the ancient Myrmidons lived…’ — Pindar, (c. 518 BC — c. 438 BC))

Socrates begins his second speech by denying the assumption of the first two speeches that all madness is evil, and he asserts that madness is divine rather than rather than evil when it inspires prophets to foretell the future, when it heals the sick by ritual purification, and when it stimulates the poet to the frenzy of composition. Socrates then declares that he will prove love to be a fourth type of divine madness. The first step in this proof is the argument for the immortality of the soul an argument that rests upon the nature of the soul as the self-moving principle of motion and that recurs in the ‘Laws’, but is not present in two earlier considerations of immortality in the ‘Phaedo’ and the ‘Republic’.

Although the immortality of the soul is demonstrated by argument, the nature of the soul is described indirectly by one of the most well known of Plato’s myths, whereby the soul is compared to a winged charioteer driving a team of winged horses. All the horses and charioteers corresponding to the souls of the gods are good, but the pair of horses corresponding to the human soul has one good horse and one evil horse. The souls travel through the heavens, but human souls lose their wings, fall to earth, and join bodies to form living beings. The three parts of the human soul are the same as those mentioned in the ‘Republic’, the winged charioteer corresponds to reason, the good horse to will or spirit, and the bad horse to the passions.

No human souls are able to follow the chariots of the gods to the place where true Being dwells, where the souls of the gods see with the eye of reason such Forms or Ideas as Justice, Temperance and Knowledge. In no human soul are the horses so completely under the control of the charioteer that the fullest version of true Being can be achieved, however, some souls rise higher and thus come closer and see more than others before falling back and losing their wings. The type of life assigned to a human soul at birth depends upon how close the soul has to come to the full vision of Being. Souls that have seen the most enters into the bodies of philosophers, then, in descending order, souls that have seen less of Being enter into the following types of persons, a law-abiding ruler, a statesman, an athlete or physician, a prophet, a poet, a farmer, and finally the two lowest types, a Sophist and a tyrant.

After each period of a thousand years a soul enters another human form until she finally regains her wings. Between the end of one life and the beginning of the next is a period of reward or punishment as earned in the previous life. It is possible for a human soul after the first life to be born in an animal, and for a human soul which has been born in an animal to be again born in a human being. But all souls born into human beings must have had some vision of Being, since only this vision of the Forms can explain how human souls can pass to universal concepts of reason from the particular impressions of the senses. For the souls it takes then thousand years to regain wings and to return to their heavenly home. A philosopher, however, who chooses the philosophic life three times regains wings in only three thousand years.

The love of beauty is called by Socrates the fourth and highest type of divine madness since one who pursues the beautiful things of this world is reminded of the Form Beauty and thus of the other proper objects of contemplation, Justice, Temperance, and the other Forms. Through love the soul begins to regain its wings, and the struggle in the soul of the lover against the purely physical carnal desires is represented in the myth by the difficult struggle of the charioteer to subdue the behaviour of the bad horse. The highest form of love results from the complete subjection of physical desires by both the lover and the beloved. The happiest lovers are those who achieve the philosophical life by the victory of the highest elements in their souls over the lower. Socrates concludes his second speech to the god of Love by which he atones for the blasphemous attack on love of his earlier speeches

‘The Acropolis of Athens’, 1846, Leo von Klenze

Phaedrus praises the speech of Socrates and then agrees with Socrates that there is nothing bad in writing a speech but only in writing a bad speech. Socrates then proceeds to examine the nature of good and bad writing. According to Socrates, the first requirement of a good speech is knowledge, whereupon Phaedrus responds with the claim of the defenders of rhetoric that what is believed to be knowledge by the audience is required rather than genuine knowledge. Socrates points out that rhetoric as a skill depends upon misrepresenting things, and in order to mislead successfully, the rhetorician must himself have knowledge. Socrates’ then turns again to Lysias’ speech which reveals Lysis’ lack of knowledge and his inability to organise a speech properly. On the other hand. Socrates finds in his own two speeches an illustration pf the philosophical method, dialectic. The method of dialectic, which also looms large in the ‘Sophist’, the ‘Statesman’, and the ‘Philebus’, involves collection and division. Collection of individuals under a single form and the division of generic forms into more specific forms (the Form of Living Thing into the Form of Plant and the Form of Animal) are essential to the definition which must begin successful.

Socrates reviews for Phaedrus the claims of the teachers of rhetoric and urges that allowances be made for their mistaken claims, since their ignorance of dialectic prevents them from properly defining rhetoric. As a positive example, Pericles’, (495–429 BC), superiority in rhetoric is explained by his study of the philosopher Anaxagoras, (c. 500 — c. 428 BC). The claims of the teachers of rhetoric that knowledge of the truth is not necessary since probability or likeness to truth is enough for success is again rejected. A successful orator must have knowledge of his subject, knowledge about the audience, and the ability to use the method of dialectic. Even then, competence will be achieved only by those who practice diligently. The wise man who becomes a successful orator will not direct his skill toward his fellow men, but toward speaking what is pleasing to the gods, and speaking the truth rather than manipulating the audience is the goal of the wise man. Writing on paper is inferior to writing on the soul of the learner because a written composition can easily fall into the hands of those who are unable to understand it.

The dialogue ends appropriately with Socrates’ prayer to the gods, a prayer that the inward life may not be hampered by outward possessions:

PHAEDRUS: ‘… Let us be going then, since the heat has abated’.

SOCRATES: ‘Surely we should first make a prayer to the powers of this place’.

PHAEDRUS: ‘Of course’.

SOCRATES: ‘Dear Pan and ye other gods who inhabit here, grant that I may become fair within, and that my external circumstances may be such as to further my inward health. May I esteem the wise man rich, and allow me no more wealth than a man of moderation can bear and manage. Is there anything else that we should ask for, Phaedrus? To me my prayer seems sufficient’.

PHAEDRUS: ‘Offer it for me too, Socrates; friends should share everything.

SOCRATES: Let us be going.

‘Parthenon i Athen’, 1873, Harald Jerichau

The various parts of the ‘Phaedrus’ may appear rather disconnected, one must endeavour to grasp the beauty of the whole. It starts off with Socrates and Phaedrus sharing three speeches concerning love, the first by the orator Lysias which greatly impressed Phaedrus, so much so that he made out a copy and reads it to Socrates. Lysias speaks as a non-lover, an older man seeking a youth to become intimate with him albeit he, the older man, does not love the youth. Socrates is critical, though not for his morals, but rather for its arrangement as a speech. He believes that he can do better and so offers a second speech that he heard from an unnamed someone, and he speaks with his head covered in shame for he now also speaks as a non-lover. The speech characterises lovers as mad and hence harmful to their beloved, and once he finished delivering his speech he says he must purify himself for he has been impious towards the god Eros. He offers a third speech he attributes to the poet Stesichorus, (c. 630–555 BC), a palinode, a recantation, in which he states that various forms of madness are good for us and not bad and the best of these is love. And his proof? That the souls of the gods and all other beings circle a vast hyperuranion (Platonic space beyond heaven where the Forms are) space in which Being itself resides, the Immortals gaze upon Being forever. But through their own injustice mortal souls sometimes fall into the bodies of human beings and other animals. The task of life is thus to love well, which is to say, the justice to fly back to the contemplation of Being.

For the human soul is like a chariot with a charioteer trying to manage two horses, one noble and high-minded, the other coarse and lustful, and when the charioteer and the noble horse conquer the soul flies upward in its love, when the base horse wins out the soul sinks to bodily pleasures and falls farther away from Being. Phaedrus is impressed by the beauty of the palinode, and as a consequence he and Socrates take up the question of what makes a speech beautiful. The embark upon a discussion of rhetoric in which Socrates displays a thorough knowledge or rhetorical techniques, but such techniques are only what come before rhetoric. Socrates asserts that rhetoric depends upon knowledge, upon knowing one’s subject, about the souls of all those whom one is trying to persuade. Rhetorical art is a tool, knowledge is primary, knowledge of the soul and of the whole of things. Without such knowledge a rhetorician is like a person who knows a lot about drugs while knowing nothing about sickness or health. From whence comes such knowledge? Through dialectic. The art of collecting and dividing subjects based upon their likenesses and their dissimilarities. Socrates is a lover of these activities.

Then Socrates and Phaedrus consider written speeches and their effects on readers. Socrates observes that at best writing serves as a reminder of something he has seen as well as a seed in the soul of the reader which through dialectics may blossom into knowledge, for the static written page cannot capture the motion of dialectics. Beautiful speeches inspire reflection, dialectical insight, and an assent toward knowledge. They cannot do your thinking for you. But they can inflame a desire to know, a love that raises the soul towards Being. And how are Love and Beauty connected? The answer is in Phaedrus and Socrates themselves, Phaedrus is a beauty inspiring love in others, he is a beloved, while Socrates by contrast presents himself as a lover, a lover of speeches and of dialectics. But Socrates does not love speeches for their own sake, he had said earlier that his main business is understanding himself, and loving speech without regarding speech as most important is a curious sort of lover but it explains his treatment of the three speeches. Of Lysias’ speech he is scornful, it is conventional, it sets itself out as daring but merely argues for friends with benefits, it suppresses the mad nature of love, while the second speech begins with love’s nature as madness but it doesn’t begin to investigate that nature. Indeed by looking directly at nature the second speech sets up the speaker to become blinded.

Socrates’ transition from Lysias speech to the second speech mirrors the transition from sophistry to natural science. But it is not a transition that satisfies him. And so in the third speech he moves to myth, however unlike the traditional myths that place the gods above all else Socrates’ myth treats the gods as second best, looking upwards to Being. It is a myth about the soul, the transition from the second speech to the palinode mirrors the transition from natural philosophy to political philosophy. The hyperuranion vision of that which is would appear to apply the knowledge of the soul, that which grounds true rhetoric, but is such knowledge possible. Phaedrus believes so. And Socrates after all composed his speeches with the soul of his young friend in mind. Phaedrus, who revels in rhetoric’s ability to deceive, but who also believes that rhetoric can capture the truth, the whole truth concerning the soul and all things. Socrates is a lover of speaking and speeches as well as a lover of learning, while in contrast Phaedrus is delighted by speech, a Bacchante and a reveller, he makes speeches and he inspires speeches from others, he generates he does not desire, he stands in for the god Eros, Eros the god causes Eros the desire, Eros does not feel Eros and Phaedrus represents the god, the beautiful, that is why he interests Socrates, for this Eros appears somehow to be the whole of things, the chariot, the charioteer, the horses, the gods, the universe, and the Forms beyond. Maybe the promise of completeness is what it means to be beautiful, and this is precisely that which Socrates recognises he lacks, for he is not beautiful he is ugly.he is not beloved, he loves, he is erotic, he is not Eros, he is not beautiful but he is good. This is the ultimate bit of dialectic in the dialogue, bringing together and separating Socrates and Phaedrus, merely one more example of how Platonic dialogues avoid the pitfalls of writing and rather embody the living breathing speech of one who knows.

So much for beautiful speeches. So much to talk about. As for all souls born into human beings having had to have some vision of Being, since only this vision of the Forms can explain how human souls can pass to universal concepts of reason from the particular impressions of the senses, interestingly in Carl Jung, (1875–1961), we find echoes of this Platonic notion in his contention that the artist is one who can reach beyond individual experience to access our genetic memory, that is to say, the memory, for instance the memory for language, that is already present in us at birth, hence it is no coincidence that in Greek myth the mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, or Memory (see my articles Fabled by the Daughters of Memory parts one to nine). But what about an account of inspiration that does not depend upon evoking something equally mysterious, like a cog in a machine that plays no part in its working? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), presents an account of inspiration while discussing Art in the ‘Absolute Mind’ section of his ‘Philosophy of Mind’. It may be briefly summarised thus:

‘View of the Theseion (Temple of Hephaestus) with the Acropolis in the background’, Max Friedrich Rabes, (1868–1944)

We can begin with the finitude of Art, the finitude of symbolic, which is to say, pre-Greek, and classical, which is to say, Greek, Art, which may well contrast with the infinite form of Christianity, but no Art, not even Christian Art, can adequately capture the infinite form. But this is an issue concerning one aspect of Art rather than a distinct type of Art, for Art incorporates, first, a work, considered simply as a thing existing among other things, second, an artist, and, third, an audience. This was noted by Socrates in the ‘Ion’ (see above) a disintegration (Zerfallen) arising from the finitude of Art. Another aspect of Art is its meaning (Bedeutung). As for intuition (Anschauung), sensory intuition is the specific form in which Art presents the Absolute Mind, (the undistorted, rational view of the truth, philosophy being its ultimate expression and hence superior to Art (the aesthetic) and to faith (the religious)), in contrast to representation, the characteristic medium of religion, and thought, the medium of philosophy. Nonetheless Art involves in addition representation (Vorstellung), for it conveys a meaning that goes beyond sensory intuition.

And the ideal (Ideal) is an Idea in a sensory or imaginative form. Productive imagination is responsible for symbols, though not for the production of signs, for it we may consider imagination to be as productive as memory but the latter is normally conceived as merely reproductive, and were if productive in the manner of imagination that would amount to misremembering, that is, imagining things, but in inventing signs memory is not imagining things. There is nothing to imagine in a sign (Zeichen) for a sign is merely any intuition rigged up to a representation, whereas imagination (Einbildungskraft) is irrecoverably pictorial (bildlich). The creation of signs requires inventiveness, but not for imagination, at least not for the type of imagination required for the creation of symbols, allegories and metaphors, and hence it falls upon memory (Gedächtnis) to take upon itself the task of the creation of signs (a sign is not a symbol for it is arbitrarily connected to a meaning, the connection with such meaning not being based upon any physical or actual resemblance between the sign and what it signifies).

A sign is a sensory entity that represents something that resembles it in no significant respect, for instance, the flag of a country is a sign of it, since, while it represents or stands for the country, it is qualitatively quite different, and so the natural immediacy that is only a sign of the Idea is qualitatively different from the Idea, for instance an Egyptian pyramid. And there is a further stage in which the natural immediacy is so transfigured that it shows only the Idea, and not, like a pyramid, a physical shape that has no intrinsic connection to the Idea. This is Greek art, especially a statue of a god, and beauty arises from the perfect match between the Idea and the form that expresses it. Pre-Greek art is symbolic in that the work resembles in some respect what it represents. A Greek statue of a god has a sensory form, it is a visible and tangible shape but this form also affects the content of the god, and to be represented in this way the god must be a unity of nature and spirit, not a purely spiritual unity in which the natural element is overcome and transfigured.

Unlike the Christian god the Greek god cannot dispense with its sensory form or be transmuted into a conceptual, philosophical form, therefore it is not absolute mind or spirit, spirit detached from the sensory world and self-contained. The Greek community was, like its gods, attached to externals, it was an ethical (sittliche) community and it provided substantial freedom in that the citizen is at home in the community and in harmony with its norms and institutions. But such freedom was only a custom (Sitte), not a subjective freedom. (See my article On Plato’s Apology — The Subjective Principle). The subject cannot withdraw into him or herself to ask what he or she really wants to do, or what he or she really ought to do, regardless of what the norms of the community prescribe, in particular the Greeks lacked the individual conscience characteristic of the Christian era. (‘The Greeks had no conscience’, said Hegel in the ‘Philosophy of History’, the more I learn about them the more I like them and would have liked to have lived among them). That is to say, the Greeks lacked inner depth and detachment from externals, hence their gods lacked inner depth and detachment from externals. For the same reason though the Greek gods could, unlike the Christian God, be depicted to perfection in sensory art, and the reflection into itself that the Greek subject lacked is infinite in virtue of the circular relation of the subject to itself.

The production of intuitions requires marble, paint, and so on, but also subjective images and representations, for the expression of spiritual content (Gehalt) requires in addition forms of nature with a meaning (Bedeutung), especially the human body. Art does not imitate nature in its externality, but nature in so far as it signifies spirit or mind, and the characteristic natural form is the archetypal or ideal natural form, for instance, the ideal human body, divested of idiosyncrasies and defects. There is no artistic merit for Hegel and we can imagine Socrates concurring in accurate pictures of sheer nature or, for instance, the production of noises indistinguishable from birdsong. The endeavour to represent absolute mind in sculpture fails, for what is represented is not Absolute Spirit detached from any particular society, but a national spirit (Volksgeist), a national spirit, the spirit of the Greek, or perhaps more restrictedly the Athenian people, though even such a national spirit is implicitly universal, but the endeavour to explicate this results in an indeterminate polytheism, the portrayal of an indefinite number of distinct gods, (Aphaea mentioned above was only worshipped on Aegina) representing as aspect of the national spirit, perhaps even an aspect of Absolute Mind, but with no clear principle of order among them, a reference to the art of a later stage than that of indeterminate polytheism, perhaps to the art of the Hellenistic period, that is, after the death of Alexander the Great, (356–323 BC), when non-religious art, such as individual portraiture, flourished.

To view something as immediate is to disregard the process by which it came about and view it just as it is in itself (this resembles Socrates’ point about one being blinded by directly at nature) so to view a work as immediate is opposed to viewing it as mediated or made by the artist. We must distinguish between the work, the artist, and the audience in understanding the Ideal, for the artist’s relation to the work is both constrained and free. To express the god, the work must display no sign of subjective particularity, no idiosyncratic contribution by the artist, hence the artistry is mere formality, the artist is, as it were, merely a midwife at the birth of the god. Artistry requires inspiration (Begeisterung) and if this involved thought, then the artist might be free in this respect, and that would introduce particularity into his or her work, but the artist just like everyone else is free only to the extent that he or she thinks. And inspiration does not involve thought, and so it is not free, inspiration comes to a particular individual, but since it is like an alien force to which the artist does not succumb freely, the artist’s particularity is not transferred to the work of art. The artistic activity has thus assumed the form of natural immediacy, the deity expressing itself in it in much the way that it might be thought to express itself in a thunderclap, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption.

‘Athens from the Gulf of Aegina’, William Lionel Wyllie, (1851–1931)

But this is not the whole story, for inspiration and the consequent impulse to artistic production may not be free, artistry requires technique as well as inspiration (indeed perhaps Socrates should have paid more attention to the role skilful technique plays in inspiration). The artist has to make choices concerning the materials to use and concerning his or her way of fashioning them, and et this point free wilfulness (Willkur) makes its entrance, and one supposes an element of particularity, for the choices the artist makes do not depend only on the inspiring deity nor are they the choices that every other artist would make, and hence with respect to its inspiration, the work is constrained and the artist is a servant of the god. But with respect to technique the work is free and the artist is the master (Meister, as in master of a craft). The artist’s mastery of the subject matter is more than his or her domination of the god, his or her artistic skill rather than his or her theological incompetence, and the artistic portrayal of God or gods is as much the work of God himself as of the human artist. In theological terms the artist believes that God strives for an adequate manifestation of him or herself in the world, but that since God is dependent for this upon human vehicles, artists, worshippers, theologians, philosophers, and so on, his manifestation is more or less imperfect, but that God should be so manifest is essential to God for it constitutes God’s self-consciousness.

Hence artists’ portrayals of God are an essential aspect of God himself, for God is by no means clearly distinct from humanity as he is in traditional theology, and hence our creation and appreciation of representations of God correspond to our understanding of ourselves, (this is certainly true of the god Eros, who as we learn from the ‘Phaedrus’ promises completeness .. the Whole, though of course he cannot deliver the Whole), our own self-consciousness and God’s self-consciousness, that is to say, our depictions of God, go hand in hand. Classical, by which of course we mean primarily Greek, Art attains a reconciliation (Versohnung) between the deity and the means of expressing it, and no prior search for a suitable expression, for a way of bridging the gulf between god and human, is needed, nor any explanation of the symbols that are employed, for when the Greeks observed a statue of the god they immediately felt that their god had been suitably represented, they did not feel that there is any mysterious remainder, any underlying essence, that defied adequate expression. In this respect Greek art differs both from pre-Greek art and from Christian art as it is characterized by its supreme beauty (Schonheit).

Sublimity (Erhabenheit), was considered by Edmund Burke, (1729–1797) and Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), as a dimension of aesthetic value coordinate with beauty, that characterizes objects that are magnificent and awe-inspiring rather than delightfully attractive, Hegel thought of it as an inferior type of art, symbolic art, primarily pre-Greek art, in which the reconciliation of form and content required for beauty is not as yet achieved. God is the object of pure thought, but a suitable expression has not been discovered, and this demonstrates that the meaning or content, that is the god, is not yet free spirit either for us or for itself, for were it so it or we would supply an appropriate form, a suitable form, an infinite form in which God is free, that is to say complete and self-contained, not dependent upon anything outside of God. Romantic art is roughly the art of the Christian era, while Classical art, that first extreme, does manage to express its god adequately, but that is because the god is only superficial personality, lacking the depth of the Christian God and thus satisfying the god in an external shape.

Romantic art, like symbolic art, is incapable of expressing the Idea adequately, while in symbolic art this is because the Idea is too thin and indeterminate to allow adequate sensory expression, hence it is merely seeking its shape. In romantic art it is because God is too profound to be susceptible of sensory expression, such a God does not require sensory expression, for that God is a pure, self-contained mind. But God does condescend to appearance, in the person of Christ, and artists can depict Christ, just as they can also depict worldly phenomena and events, that is, externality, in the belief that God constitutes their inner nature, their meaning. But since the deity disengages itself from such phenomena, they appear only contingently related to their meaning. For Hegel, Christian Art embraces apparently secular Art, for instance the plays of William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), as well as explicitly religious Art, because the secular world is imbued, though not very obviously and manifestly imbued, with the Holy Spirit (which takes us back to 2 ‘Peter’ 1:21, see above).

Hardly an eloquent and beautiful speech of the kind that Socrates delivers in the ‘Phaedrus’. One wonders what he would make of it.

Ancient of days! august Athena! where,

Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul?

Gone — glimmering through the dream of things that were;

First in the race that led to glory’s goal,

They won, and pass’d away — Is this the whole?

- Lord Byron, (1788–1824)

‘Athen nach Sonnenaufgang’ (‘Athens after Sunrise’), 1829, Carl Agricola



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.