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A Socratic Dialogue on Art and Beauty
[The following is a Socratic dialogue I have written to help get at the meaning of the word beauty. All characters are fictional, except of couse, for Socrates]. Atreus is the director of the Art Gallery of Athens, and has to determine which of two paintings will be displayed in the main foyer of the gallery during the grand opening next week. Unfortunately, the foyer can only accommodate one of the paintings, and since it will be this painting that will receive the most attention and make the strongest impression with the gallery visitors, Atreus wants to ensure he places the more beautiful of the two paintings there. Finally Atreus decides which of the two paintings is more beautiful and hangs it in the foyer.
The next day, Atreus spots his old friend Socrates walking by the gallery, and asks Socrates what he thinks of the painting in the main foyer. Socrates exclaims that the painting is exquisite. Atreus then goes on to tell Socrates of the difficulty he had in trying to decide which of two paintings was to be hung in the foyer. Atreus explains that after much difficulty, he finally determined which of the two paintings was more beautiful. Upon hearing this, Socrates has the following conversation with Atreus.
SOCRATES: Atreus, I envy you greatly. If I was curator of this gallery, I would have spent a lifetime deciding which of two paintings were more beautiful, yet it only took you a single day.
ATREUS: Surely Socrates you do not give yourself enough credit. You are one of Athens most intellectually gifted citizens. You would have no difficulty in determining which of two things were more beautiful.
SOCRATES: No Atreus, you give me too much credit. I would never be so foolish as to claim that I could determine which of two things were more beautiful, for I do not even know what beauty is.
ATREUS: Surely you must know what beauty is. The notion of beauty comes so naturally to us that to claim not to know is simply foolish. Even a child knows what beauty is. Are you just putting me on, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Not at all Atreus, I am only asking what beauty is out of complete and utter sincerity. Please won’t you lend me a moment of your precious time and impart on me your knowledge in this particular area?
ATREUS: Very well Socrates. Beauty is that which we find physically attractive, things that are pretty, things that look good, are pleasant to look at, pleasing to the eye and so forth. Surely you would agree?
SOCRATES: So Atreus, beauty is simply that which pleases the eye?
ATREUS: Of course, Socrates. It is as simple as that. You see, the notion of beauty is not a difficult concept to grasp; you understand it already.
SOCRATES: My dear Atreus, I am troubled by one thing. What are we to make of music that people speak of as beautiful? Are we to say that they are mistaken in their thinking and that only that which is physically appealing is beautiful?
ATREUS: No, Socrates, of course not, music too can be beautiful.
SOCRATES: But I thought beauty was that which is pretty, pleasing to the eye, things that look good, etc. Are you now saying that your definition of beauty was inadequate? If so Atreus, please try again to tell me what beauty is and be as exact as you can in your explanation this time.
ATREUS: We will simply adjust our definition of beauty to include those things that also sound beautiful. Will that do?
SOCRATES: I am not sure, Atreus. We’ll have to investigate this new definition further to see if our understanding of beauty is adequate. Let me ask you this Atreus, is our dear old friend Cronus beautiful? (Here I imagine the fictional character Chronus to be a withered unattractive old man).
ATREUS: Surely Socrates, most would not think so. Cronus is of such an old age that any beauty that once was with him has now left.
SOCRATES: But Atreus, our friend Cronus has given all his wealth to charity, has worked a lifetime as a volunteer, and is widely considered a virtuous person by all who have met him. Would it be wrong to say that Cronus’ character has moral beauty?
ATREUS: No, I suppose it would not be wrong to say that Socrates. I would agree that Cronus’ character is morally beautiful.
SOCRATES: Therefore I am left to conclude that beauty is not only that which is appealing visually and audibly, but there can also be beauty in character, is this correct Atreus?
ATREUS: Yes this is so Socrates.
SOCRATES: And what is it about Cronus’ moral character that makes him beautiful?
ATREUS: Cronus’ moral character is considered beautiful because the acts he performs are morally praiseworthy; his acts are good acts.
SOCRATES: Ah, so am I to understand that beauty must express good in order to be beautiful?
ATREUS: Yes Socrates, that is right. What has beauty must express good.
SOCRATES: Good Atreus, you are doing better. I feel we are getting closer to understanding what beauty is. Now, is beauty a part of good, or is good a part of beauty? Or do both terms have identical meaning?
ATREUS: I am afraid I don’t understand the question Socrates.
SOCRATES: Is all that is beautiful good, or is all that is good beautiful?
ATREUS: All that is beautiful is good.
SOCRATES: Yes, but what about the second part of the question, Atreus? Is all that is good beautiful?
ATREUS: No, Socrates. All that is good is not beautiful. For example, we might say that Pythagoras is good at math, but it would be inaccurate to say that Pythagoras is beautiful at math. So good and beauty are not interchangeable terms.
SOCRATES: Very good Atreus. So we shall say that beauty must be good in order to be rightfully considered beauty. But let me ask you this Atreus. Do you consider plays to be beautiful?
ATREUS: Of course Socrates, there is great beauty in plays. A play is a work of art. A play is a beautiful thing, it expresses raw human emotion, it teaches, it entertains, etc.
SOCRATES: And what about the play Orecleia, Atreus? Have you seen it? (This is a fictional play created for this dialogue)
ATREUS: Yes Socrates, I have seen it. It is a beautiful play, with all of its elegant costumes, poetic dialogue, and so on. Orecleia is a true work of art.
SOCRATES: But Atreus, the central message in Orecleia is terribly immoral; it is about cheating, stealing, and lying. Its main characters are completely immoral too. Are we to still say that it is beautiful even though it contains much that is not good?
ATREUS: Of course Orecleia is still a beautiful play, Socrates, even with all the immoral elements.
SOCRATES: But why, Atreus? We have already said that that which is beautiful must be good, yet Orecleia has much that is bad. Are we to now say that beauty can express something bad and still be beautiful?
ATREUS: Yes, it looks that way Socrates. I am not prepared to say that Orecleia is not beautiful just because it contains bad; I maintain that it is a beautiful play. Therefore, I am left to conclude that beauty can contain bad and still be beautiful.
SOCRATES: Lets not be too hasty now in our conclusions Atreus. Maybe people find the play beautiful in spite of the fact that it contains some bad? In other words, maybe the play is beautiful because it contains more good than bad?
ATREUS: By Zeus, Socrates, that’s it. Beauty can still be found in that which contains some bad, as long as there is more good overall than bad.
SOCRATES: So do the people only like the morally good parts of the play? That is, do they only find beauty in the parts of the play that have a good moral message?
ATREUS: No, people enjoy the immoral aspects of the play too. People enjoy the conniving characters who cheat, lie, steal, etc. These characters do not detract from the beauty of the play; in fact, I think they add to its beauty. These unsavoury characters serve to make the play more interesting and more realistic; true to life.
SOCRATES: Do you not see what you have done just now, Atreus? You have admitted that people find beauty in badness too. Therefore, how can we hold that beauty must express good in order to be beautiful?
ATREUS: I don’t know Socrates. I just know beauty when I see it. I sometimes find that which is bad beautiful, sometimes that which is good beautiful. Beauty is up to the person judging it.
SOCRATES: I see Atreus. Perhaps this new revelation will lead us to the answer of what beauty is. If beauty is up to the person judging it, then can everything be beautiful? Can even the most disgusting of creatures, the most mournful music, and the most conniving character be beautiful?
ATREUS: No Socrates, of course not. There are limits as to what can be beautiful.
SOCRATES: Great Atreus. We are now on the brink of discovering what beauty is. Tell me what the limits are to beauty. For surely where the limits of beauty are to be found, we will find the true essence of beauty.
ATREUS: Please Socrates, I have grown weary upon this endless questioning. I am not able to describe the limits of beauty. I will give one last attempt at defining beauty. See this flower that grows here? This flower is beautiful.
SOCRATES: In virtue of what is this flower beautiful?
ATREUS: This flower is beautiful in virtue of the way it makes me feel. This flower instils in me a feeling of beauty.
SOCRATES: So beauty is a feeling?
ATREUS: Beauty is that which one feels when one is looking at something appealing, or pleasing to the senses, such as this flower.
SOCRATES: So beauty is that which one feels when sensing something appealing. But appealing is the word you used to describe beauty. Therefore, your claim would be that beauty is that which one feels when one is looking at something beautiful. My dear Atreus, you have not given me any clearer picture of what beauty is than what I already had before I came here. I feel that if we spend just a few hours longer, we will be able to determine just what beauty is, Atreus. Won’t you stay and enlighten an old fool?
ATREUS: Please Socrates, I must go. I have just remembered some final preparations for the gallery that I need to do right away. Goodbye Socrates.
What I have intended to show here is an example of a Socratic dialogue. Like most other dialogues, Socrates, or one of his friends is confronted with a dilemma of a philosophical nature. At the heart of this dilemma is the true meaning of the term “beauty.” In this dialogue, Socrates claims to have no clear notion about what beauty is, yet his interlocutor, Atreus is considered somewhat of an expert in this area. Atreus, feeling confident he knows what beauty is, gives in to Socrates’ plea to define the term. In Atreus’ attempt to define beauty, Socrates finds problems with each definition.
The philosophical aim of this dialogue was to demonstrate that Atreus’ understanding of beauty was inadequate. Continually Atreus has to expand his definition of beauty in order to please Socrates. The end goal was to get Atreus to contradict himself. Just when Atreus feels as though he has given a thorough, all-encompassing definition of beauty, he ends up contradicting himself. He says that all that is beautiful must be good, but then he is forced to admit that there is beauty in what is bad too. Finally Atreus gives one last attempt at defining the term, but this too, is not good enough for Socrates.