“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – John Keats
Art and Science, Beauty and Truth, Straining and Relaxation, Aristotle and Plato, Iris Murdoch and Music… in One Lesson
I read about Plato in college. I read his work in graduate school. At the same time, I was reading Plato’s dialogues, I was also reading Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student.
There is, as you no doubt know, a big difference between Plato and Aristotle. Plato was an idealist. Aristotle was an empiricist. Plato thought like a poet. Aristotle thought like a scientist. I came away from that experience with a great admiration for Aristotle and a sympathetic disdain for Plato. And I maintained that prejudice until about 10 or 15 years ago, when I began reading about quantum physics.
I found in quantum physics the same objections I found in Plato. The theories contradicted my observed experience. Time for me was fixed and linear. Space was space – not something that could curve into itself.
I still don’t understand quantum physics. But I cannot deny that its theories – at least some of them – have been proven to be true. They have proven themselves in the development of space travel and all sorts of modern contraptions that we use on a daily basis, including cellular phones.
And now, as I approach my seventies and can feel the acceleration of time, I have to wonder whether Plato was onto something real – that his theory about how the universe works was, like Einstein’s, in some deeper-than-science way true.
For example, in The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch makes an interesting observation about beauty. She says that you cannot experience it fully with your rational mind. You need a “shift of consciousness” from your everyday way of thinking to a sort of transcendent awareness. It’s a bit like a good trip on LSD, I suppose.
Nature, Murdoch believes, is always and infinitely capable of providing this experience. But the individual is not always and infinitely capable of having it. To have it, Murdoch says, one has to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”
It’s that phrase – “the world as it really is” – that had me thinking about Plato. You may remember the dialogue where Plato explains the allegory of the cave. It’s about illusion vs. reality. The idea: Because of the limited nature of human consciousness, we are incapable of understanding the true nature of reality. It’s as if we are trapped in a cave where we cannot see the real world outside. We see only shadowy figures reflected on the walls – and since that is the only thing we see, we believe that is all there is.
Coming back to Murdoch’s observation about beauty…
When, for example, I am studying a particular artist, I can come to understand his innovations, his historical importance, and even why his art is, by some, so greatly admired. This is a sort of understanding that is beneficial when it comes to the business of buying and selling art or for talking about an artist’s work with an interested party. But this sort of understanding gives me no help whatsoever in experiencing what is beautiful or wonderful about the art object. To have that, I must stop myself from straining to understand it and allow myself to be absorbed by it, And this I can do only by relaxing my neocortical brain and, as Murdoch puts it, experiencing the painting in “the deepest part of my soul.”
And this takes me to a thesis I’ve been working on for quite some time and the reason I’m dragging you into this: that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction/concentration and expansion/relaxation.
Human consciousness is capable of doing both. And both produce real benefits. Concentration gives us the means to advance ourselves and our surroundings in the tangible world, the world that Aristotle (and Newton) sought to understand. But expansion – relaxing the mind – gives us a way to know the intangible world, the subatomic world that I’m now thinking Plato was trying to understand.
Does that make sense?
Think about music. Listening to music – instrumental music – can give me this deeper and truer understanding of the world beneath the physical world without much trouble. I can listen to Bach or Beethoven or (especially) Mozart and go easily to that place that Murdoch is talking about.
I can experience what TS Eliot called “the peace… which passeth all understanding.”
I think music works best in understanding how this relaxed, “quantum” experience of truth (and beauty) works because it lacks language. Or rather because the language of music is non-verbal and therefore not cognitive. It provides a porthole through which I can slip into the “real” world of Plato and Einstein and Murdoch.
But you decide.