What Plato forgot

Plato bases his ethical theory on the idea that the microcosm (man) should seek to conform to and imitate the macrocosm (the State and, more generally, the cosmos and the eternal order of things). This is why he uses the State as his primary point of exploration and reference in The Republic. To this end, as he begins his discussion of justice in that work, he proposes “that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.” From this macrocosmic perspective, he claims, it will be easier to view justice and injustice and to associate these to the lives of individuals. In this way, the macrocosm acts as both an allegory for and a source of morality in Plato’s thought.

A problem arises in Plato’s thought, however, when he subjects the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the State in a way that determines man’s value based solely on what he can contribute to the State from his position of subservience to the State. Interestingly, the same criticism applies equally to the ethical ideas of Confucius, Plato’s near-contemporary in China, whose ideas similarly subject man to the State. This is the heart of the objection raised by Julia Annas in her feminist critique of Plato; according to Annas and in opposition to other modern thinkers who have seen Plato as a feminist because of his argument that men and women of the guardian class in his Republic should be given equal roles, Plato, in continuity with Greek thought of his time, sees women as inherently inferior to men but desires their equality within a certain class because he sees such equality as a benefit to the State, although even this conclusion is rather self-contradictory and perplexing when Plato’s thought is considered as a whole.

This problem of the subjection of man to State (or even to cosmos) has been discussed in a more general way by other thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, who have also pointed out how troubling Plato’s position is. Its flaws are particularly evident for people today, who live in the shadow of ideologies such as Nazism and Soviet Communism which subjected man to State and viewed him only in terms of what he could contribute to that collective. To modern eyes, as a result, Plato’s ideas more often appear as an oppressive regime of terror than as a perfect utopian society. As Russell pointed out once, Plato modeled much of his thought on the ideal State on his impressions of the Greek polis Sparta as it existed in his own day and, had Plato’s utopia ever become a reality in Syracuse, where Plato attempted to make it real, or anywhere else, the effect would have been essentially the same as what actually happened in ancient Sparta: a city-state that produced no great philosophy, no great art, no great literature (very much unlike democratic Athens for which Plato held such disdain and which yet made his career possible) and which was perpetually in a state of war both within and without.

Where I believe that Plato was correct is in his belief that the temporal values of man must be based on eternal values in order to have lasting, meaningful values that are context-free. One need only look at nearly any of the great movements for human rights in the history of Western civilization (or the similar movements Western ideas have inspired throughout the non-Western world) to see the effect, and, I would aver, the necessity, of the need for a concept of eternal values. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one short work which exhibits this reliance of the movements of human rights on the ideas of eternal, transcendent values and a “natural law” that stands above man’s laws and can be used to measure, and to oppose, the particular values of any particular society or individual. It is this idea which inspired and gave the intellectual basis, as King points out, for the various movements against infanticide, against oppression of women, against economic exploitation, against slavery, against segregation, and in favor of the equality and universal dignity of human life.

Where Plato went terribly wrong was in his forgetting that each individual has value and must, to adopt Kant’s terminology if not his ideology, be seen as an end in himself (or herself) and not as the means to an end. While man must, in a sense, conform to the macrocosm of the cosmos in its eternal values and in natural law, he must never become merely a cog in the machine; rather, each microcosm, in order to be a perfect microcosm, must retain value consonant with the macrocosm as a whole rather than merely a portion of it. In short, while Plato discovered an important source of values, his great mistake was to forget the purpose for which he was searching for this source of values to begin with.

Form and emptiness

One more key concept of Mahayana Buddhism must be touched on here, a concept that is crucial to Lin-chi’s entire doctrine. This is the concept of shunyata — emptiness, or nondualism. Mahayana Buddhism in its writings manifests a profound distrust of words, insisting that the highest truth or reality can never be formulated or conveyed through verbal teachings, and Ch’an masters will be found repeatedly harping on this theme. When Mahayana texts designate the absolute, or highest truth, as emptiness, they mean that it is empty of any characteristics by which we might describe it. This is because it is a single, undifferentiated whole, and the moment we being applying terms to it, we create dualisms that immediately do violence to that unity. Hence even the term emptiness itself must in the end be rejected, since it implies that there is something outside of emptiness that is not empty.

If reality is a single, all-embracing oneness, with nothing whatsoever outside it, then the entire phenomenal world as we know and perceive it, all time and all space, must be included within that unity. In the end, then, the absolute must be synonymous with the relative or phenomenal world; or, as the Heart Sutra puts it, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Burton Watson, The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, pp. xxi-xxii

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.