It was about five years ago, in 2009, that Roger Scruton’s essay, ‘Beauty and Desecration,’ appeared in City Journal. What is remarkable about the essay is that we had nearly forgotten that art was, until quite recently, not at all concerned with the transgressive and provocative. In fact, it is only after 1930, according to Scruton, that the view that the purpose of art is to desecrate won out and is now taken to be common sense in the art world.
This is the seventh set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Sloterdijk’s principal theses is available here.
Sloterdijk has written a book on anthropotechnics. He wants to redescribe human beings as those creatures who train themselves–some doing so explicitly, most implicitly–to become who they are. He wants to show, based on Nietzsche’s vitalizing distinction, that some training programs are life-enhancing while others are life-degrading.
In more recent posts, I have been examining how the adept, who has already seceded from ordinary life, trains himself to become extraordinary. Sloterdijk claims that material scarcity, life as a burden, sexual need, alienation, and death are the ‘five fronts’ upon which practitioners have fought. Today, I turn my sights on the third front with an eye to exercises concerned with overcoming sexual desire.
The dilemma of sexual desire has to do with rejection and affirmation. If one rejects sexual desire, then one’s desires can become infinite and perverse (call this the transgressive path). Yet if one simply affirms one’s sexual desire as it is, then the latter remains crude, course, unrefined (call this the pornographic tack). Hence, certain periods of human history have been deemed prudish or repressive with the response being that what is called for is sexual openness. Thus, the various dyads: pagan/Christian; Epicurean/Christian; Victorian/fin de siecle; 50s/sexual revolution–the list could be extended almost indefinitely. From a philosophical point of view, these dyads are not ways of overcoming sexual desire but rather forms of mutual reinforcement. In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale first has sex with Hester Prynne, only to lacerate himself afterward. The two go hand-in-hand.
There is a concordance between the world’s beauty and the beauty of one’s soul.
Beauty makes itself available.
Only, the soul must be ready.
The ready soul is a beautiful soul.
Beauty of soul is not easy to achieve.
Yet once achieved, concordance is achieved.
‘Why be gentle?’ my philosophical friend asked me. ‘That is a good question,’ I said.
At the beginning of Theaetetus, Socrates asks Theodorus whether there are any good young men whom he knows. Theodorus replies,
Yes, Socrates, I have become acquainted with one very remarkable Athenian youth, whom I commend to you as well worthy of your attention. If he had been a beauty I should have been afraid to praise him, lest you should suppose that I was in love with him; but he is no beauty, and you must not be offended if I say that he is very like you; for he has a snub nose and projecting eyes, although these features are less marked in him than in you. Seeing, then, that he has no personal attractions, I may freely say, that in all my acquaintance, which is very large, I never knew anyone who was his equal in natural gifts: for he has a quickness of apprehension which is almost unrivalled, and he is exceedingly gentle, and also the most courageous of men; there is a union of qualities in him such as I have never seen in any other, and should scarcely have thought possible; for those who, like him, have quick and ready and retentive wits, have generally also quick tempers; they are ships without ballast, and go darting about, and are mad rather than courageous; and the steadier sort, when they have to face study, prove stupid and cannot remember. Whereas he moves surely and smoothly and successfully in the path of knowledge and enquiry; and he is full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil; at his age, it is wonderful.
The young man Theodorus is referring to, Theaetetus, is exceptional in that he combines a ‘union of qualities’ such as intelligence with a mild temper, courage with composure, sureness with evenness. The crescendo: he is ‘full of gentleness.’
The adverbs–‘surely and smoothly,’ also ‘silently’–signal what is at stake. When I go gently, I do not go roughly or coarsely, harshly or in a shrill way, abruptly or violently or brusquely. I go slowly, softly, tenderly. According to the OED, I can be gentle-minded, gentle-natured, gentle-voiced.
Arguably, gentleness is the beautiful splendor expressive of the life of the virtues. I may relate news to someone, share an opinion, tell a story, approach an angry man, say farewell, carry a tune, touch a lover’s forehead, greet a neighbor whose car has broken down, introduce myself to a stranger, schedule something with a tentative soul, and so on. How do I go about this? To begin with, I exercise the salient virtue or virtues: attention, compassion, courage, temperance, kindness, composure, or whatever. But my success in this endeavor stands or falls, in many cases, based on the way in which this virtue is displayed. When I approach an angry man or say goodbye to a former friend, I want my compassion to be shown in a gentle way. The gentleness is beauty shining forth, softening the virtue or virtues in question. Courage too–a great power–can be gentle.
‘Why be gentle?’
First, because gentleness is the contrary of arrogance.
Second, because it is ‘world-encompassing’: to be gently courageous is to act in view of the other and at the same time to shape my character. My character is becoming gentler as I am gentle to him. My gentle courage enfolds self with other in a shared world.
Third, because it demonstrates the elevation of some virtue P beyond its ‘infancy’ to the level of beauty. No longer do I go hastily or clumsily.
Fourth, because it lets one act, speak, and demean in such a way that would go beyond withdrawal into silence on the one hand and beyond forcefulness on the other.
Fifth, because it maintains the harmony between my character and the world. Not only am I not in conflict, my soul thrown into discordance with itself; but also my soul still continues to stand in accordance with the world even though something difficult has been put before me.
Provisionally, I might argue that gentleness implies a unity of the virtues. (As Vlastos puts the unity of the virtues thesis in connection with Socrates, whoever has one virtue has them all.) About this, however, I am not sure.
A reminder to be ‘full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil.’
I look at the desert and I am besotted. Only, a dove atop a Joshua tree below copper-sage boulders. Near dusk, my fingers as singular as hers.