The School of Athens is a fresco by Raphael that depicts ancient Greek philosophers, a tribute to the classical figures whose ideas fuelled the Renaissance. The central figures of the fresco are Plato (on the left) and his student, Aristotle (on the right). Both men clutch bound copies of their books, the teacher barefoot and world-weary, the student young and well-dressed. Plato points skyward with a single finger, a reminder that he believed universal ideas such as justice, beauty, courage, love, and other similar abstract concepts exist on a higher plane. They are perfect in this other realm, divine, and our own attempts to replicate them can yield only an imperfect copy. Nevertheless, to study these divine ideas can bring us truth through knowledge. Meanwhile, Aristotle, his hand parallel to the surface of the earth, believed that everything can be comprehended here through empirical study, an adolescent version of the scientific process that enabled us to attain some measure of truth through perception of reality.
Plato’s philosophy implies that ‘beauty’ embodies more truth than an object that is beautiful – the object imitates beauty, but is not beauty itself. Furthermore, the human concept of beauty is an imitation too, which means that any portrayal of beauty is a copy of a copy and, therefore, flawed. So all art is mimetic, mere imitation, and does not bring us any nearer to truth, which is why Plato was discomfited by the arts. Meanwhile, Aristotle believed that aspiring to portray beauty (or courage, or love, or goodness) could be a virtuous pursuit. Artistic depictions could correct flaws and bring us closer to these universal ideals, and this makes art useful.
Take a look at Still Life by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650). This painting depicts fruit, but it is not ‘real’ fruit. In fact, it is much more beautiful than real fruit. This is art correcting the flaws inherent in reality, as Aristotle said. It is beautiful but it is not fruit. To go into a fruit shop and expect to find fruit like this could leave a shopper feeling very disappointed. Therefore, it’s deceptive. There is another problem too. As QAGOMA explains on their website:
The still life is no longer an attempt to ‘find’ beauty, an end in itself, but is a means to an end; that is, its purpose is to demonstrate the affluence of the painting’s owner. Indeed, Coosemans’ still life can be characterised as pronkstilleven, a Dutch word that describes the painting’s extravagance and pretentious style. This is the beginning of Plato’s discomfort.
So while Aristotle wrote a book attempting to define drama, understand it, and construct rules for its creation, Plato wrung his hands about the poets and their command over us and our perception of reality. In The Republic, Plato writes the Allegory of the Cave, where we find ourselves chained down and doomed to watch shadows dance on the stone walls before us. This is all we know and this is our reality, but it’s not truth. Plato argues that only philosophy can break our chains and, by summoning courage, we can lumber into the light of day to be blinded by truth itself. Philosophy means contemplation, an interrogation of our humanity and reality. It means thought.
But thought is not easy. Consider Rodin’s The Thinker, a sculpture of a nude bronze figure perched on a stone pedestal, right elbow leaning on left knee, a chin resting on the back of a hand. It is an uncomfortable position to sit in – painful, perhaps – because thinking entails contemplation of our very nature, every imperfect part of it.
Thinking becomes even more difficult when we consider the age we live in, perhaps best summarised by Michael Crichton:
This is Plato’s nightmare. Instead of flickering shadows dancing on the stone wall, our reality is now dancing images flickering on a screen. A writer of novels may produce books that struggle to compete in a world in which everyone possesses hand-held devices, ostensibly designed to enable easy communication, that are often used because we’re bored. More from Charles Hill:
Furthermore, the internet delivers synopsis and analysis of any work of literature we care to search for. Sometimes, it will even deliver key quotes from famous literary figures, fragments of insight that displace the desire to sit down and read a classic in its entirety and contemplate its meaning.
To read literature can be considered, in the words of Matthew Arnold, a study of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. The canon of classic literature might then be considered a catalogue of the collective wisdom of humans much more insightful than ourselves. And if we consider the canon a museum of sorts, then the fragmented quotes italicised on scenic backgrounds and streamed through our social media feeds are just the shiny trinkets and jewelled baubles on display behind bullet-proof glass. Indeed, a tour around the museum shows artefacts of history but gives no understanding of history itself. To go even further, knowledge of the history of an ancient empire may reveal facts but may not reveal any truth. Meanwhile, Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may do just that; a contemplative reader may realise that all empires, no matter how powerful (and despite all the wars of defence and conquest, all the intrigue and court politics) will inevitably sink into the sand to be lost forever. That is, empire itself is a mortal creation of man and nothing more, a truth that should humble us and curb our own ambitions to attain power.
This is only a short example of how literature can reveal truth about what it means to be human, and this is what makes the great books “a possession for all time”, as Thucydides wrote. However, the truth isn’t always immediately clear. Sometimes intangible, often abstract, it requires the contemplation inherent in the solitude of reading. And let’s not forget the obligations of the creator too. Writers have to be honest while creating, smearing handfuls of their souls across the page, distilling humanity down to its essence, and, hopefully, revealing some truth of what it means to be us.
Of course, we are prone to fool ourselves, to ignore our flaws, to lie, and this can distort and blur the truth, or perhaps hide it. When Swift’s Gulliver happens upon the Land of the Houyhnhnms (pronounced hu-whin-ums), he encounters a species that thrives on pure reason and cannot even comprehend the concept of lying, explained by Gulliver to his hosts as “to say a thing which is not”. Perhaps our inclination to deceive each other and ourselves is inevitable or inadvertent, or perhaps, in itself, it’s human. Maybe that’s because confronting the truth of who we really are isn’t always a pleasant experience.
Circling back to our still life, realism versus romanticism is a choice between depicting fruit as it really is or fruit idealised to the point that it’s very nearly perfect. To write realism is to portray the world with all its flaws and horrors, but to write romantically is to idealise human nature. In modern terms, a writer might produce a story known for its ‘gritty realism’ while another author might produce stories that are ‘pure escapism’. As Wilde sees it, you lose either way. But perhaps Wilde hit upon something much more significant here. Perhaps our dislike of what we read emerges from the yawning chasm between what we want to be and who we really are.
Fiction, by its nature, is a fabrication, a collection of lies. Yet, somehow, great literature can tease the truth out of our consciousness and reveal itself. This is why it’s worth our time to sit down and read a novel, and really think about what it’s saying to us. This is also why it’s important for a writer to think about what needs to be said and to be honest in their writing. Whether the truth exists in a divine plane, or whether it exists here with us, it waits to be found, and art is a powerful way of revealing it to the world.