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Art, Love, and Beauty 6 2/2/08 Harries 1 6. The Birth of Aesthetics 1 Let me begin by returning to Aristophanes' sketch of the erotic nature of human being. We heard that to punish the prideful self- assertion of the circle-men, Zeus split these proto-humans into two. We are the fragments of this original mankind, seeking our other half in order to recover our own lost unity. The beauty that draws our love is a figure of this forever-lost plenitude. Beauty on this view figures what our present condition denies us and which we nevertheless seek. We are haunted by dreams of plenitude, of self-integration. Let me call attention once more to the role pride plays in this account: pride here means the claim to godlike self- sufficiency: not content with the limited perfection granted to them, Aristophanes' circle-men aspire to the self-sufficiency of the Olympians, only to become less than they were. The lesson that Aristophanes teaches is that the plenitude of which we dream is denied to us humans. We must learn to accept our fragmentary condition. The temptation to find satisfaction within ourselves should be resisted. We should not try to be as God. The self-love that would have us be like God, has to refuse the gift of love, whose acceptance alone makes us fully human. I suggested that beauty on Aristophanes' account is a figure of the perfection and self-sufficiency associated with the circle-
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2/2/08 Harries 2 men, a perfection that is denied to us, even as the idea of it haunts us. That is to say, we mortals are haunted by the idea of an unrealizable satisfaction. On a higher level that idea returns in Diotima's speech. Diotima understands sensible beauty as a figure of an absolute, now definitely timeless beauty. Gesturing towards this higher beauty, sensible beauty carries something like a promise of a deliverance from time. The aim of love, according to Diotima, is perpetual possession of the good. But to gain such possession we must find some way of escaping the rule of time. Love demands eternity. On its lower levels it seeks semblances of eternity by making sure that something of the individual will survive him, children most often, but also reputation, and what we have created, such as works of art. But the longing for self-integration that is love will not finally be content with such temporal counterparts of true eternity. It would dwell in timeless contemplation of the beautiful itself. The question is whether the idea of such a timeless dwelling is not as incompatible with the human condition as that of Aristophanes' circle-men, whether such dwelling is granted to mortals. I have suggested that on this Platonic view all beauty in time is figural, illuminated by an invisible beauty that transcends time. The beauty of a person or a work of art is only the figure of a perfection, denied to us by our temporal being, to which we are yet bound by that in us which transcends time, by the spirit. Sensible
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This note was uploaded on 04/12/2008 for the course HUMS 255 taught by Professor Karstenharries during the Spring '08 term at Yale.

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