Being, Appearance, Becoming: A Thought on Xenophon, Memorabilia III.10.6-8

What is below is very speculative. Like this blog, it is a work in progress.

Xenophon, Memorabilia III.10.6-8, translation Amy Bonnette:

When he [Socrates] visited the sculptor Cleiton once and conversed with him, he said, “That the runners, wrestlers, boxers, and pancratists that you make, Cleiton, are beautiful I both see and know. But how do you work into your statues what especially draws the souls of human beings through their sense of sight, namely, the appearance of being alive?”

And when Cleiton, perplexed, did not answer quickly, he said, “Is it by likening what you make to the forms of living beings that you make your statues appear more lifelike?”

“Yes, indeed,” he said.

“Do you, accordingly, by making likenesses of what in bodies is pulled up and down by the postures, and what is squeezed together, pulled apart, stretched tight, and relaxed, make them appear more similar to true bodies and more persuasive?”

“Certainly,” he said.

“And doesn’t the imitation also of the passions of the bodies that are doing something cause a certain joy in those who behold it?”

“It’s plausible, at any rate,” he said.

“Should one, then, make likenesses also of the threatening eyes of those who are fighting, and imitate the look of those delighting in the victory they have won?”

“Exceedingly so,” he said.

“Then the sculptor must make likenesses of the passions of the soul by means of the form.”

The issue is not beauty; it is the “appearance of being alive.” Since the “appearance” depends on making something “lifelike,” the question is literally that of human being. After all, a “likeness” is not just any sort of “image:” it is inasmuch it is not the thing it resembles. That logic implies that if you understand the “likeness,” you understand the object it resembles fully (strictly speaking, you understand something critical to the identity of the original. I use “fully” here because of the theme of creation); you know in what aspects they are duplicate, and in what aspects they differ.

This is, of course, a beautiful thought. While it drives certain aspects of philosophy, it really drives theology and any extended reflection on nobility. Recall that we come to understand the divine things by analogy.

It is not accidental that Socrates has chosen a sculptor to discuss this topic; a “lifelike” statue seems to be lifelike even though it is still. But life properly speaking isn’t “being” – it is situated in “becoming,” motion. And wouldn’t you know, but a still statue has many components resembling motion within it. Each “appearance” is that of a thing in motion, and the whole is a moment that captures what is/who is a particular runner or boxer or whoever. The philosophic aspect of this teaching is in the terms “pulled apart:” philosophy is the practice of dying and being dead; to analyze is to separate body from soul for every thing thought through. The “being” here is composed of “appearances” of “becoming,” i.e. other “beings” that are incomplete, states of objects captured in time. One cannot say “this is X” and then attribute its own history to it in subject/predicate form: “X did such and such at 0800,” for the “essence” isn’t revealing the object, the object’s history is demonstrating the essence.

Now that last notion is not a hard and fast rule: we note that human reason works differently depending on what we want to do. What is “reasonable” logic in one situation does not fit another. Sometimes it will be the case we know something thoroughly, and we will be watching it play itself out over time. But in another case – especially that regarding the animate – we don’t really know, we can’t really know. We “know” the animate through the character of their choice, not even the precise choice itself. We “know” the character because we relate to certain passions and certain results.

Why is “know” in scare quotes? Because this is obviously not knowing; we have been divorced from philosophy yet again. The sculptor makes likenesses of the passions of the soul by means of the form; the philosopher does not. The sculptor depicts victory and shows victorious people which we rejoice in. We’re back to nobility, and yet it seems almost no words have passed on the page. The separation occurred shortly after “pulled apart:” the depiction of the passions to cause joy or any other emotion is not an inquiry into what is, as much as an attempt to create what is. That attempt, quite obviously, has a crudity built into it: we don’t understand fully what we’re trying to shape, but are creating nonetheless. The philosopher is merely holding back and trying to see life for what it is, and in that sense stands outside of life.

1 Comment

  1. Perhaps since the “likeness” is locked in the fleeting moment (it can only depict one small part of the whole therefore it is only a piece of the “motion”).

    If we were to take each piece of the clock separately none of it would be the clock…it must be all there or it is not actually what it represents…but then anything broken or unwhole cannot be what it is…so this doesn’t work!

    Should I keep going? Or am I creating chaos? : )

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