Philosophy, Rhetoric and Aesthetics

The world we live in is not that of Plato’s Socrates. It is a world of fragments. The tropic language with which we try to put it back together testifies to our alienation in its very use. Philosophy depends upon the figural use of language. Its most primal gesture is to say, when you say x, you really mean y. When you say justice, you think you mean revenge, but in fact you mean the restoration of equity and concord, etc. The words you speak generate other meanings that escape you and ensnare you. The other speaks through you. Let us, you and I, then, reason together and put these fleeting meanings, these words that escape, these thoughts that seem to come from some other place, back together, so we can function in the world, so we can live well, so we can do what we need to do. It is language’s irony that both demands philosophical therapy and allows the philosopher’s work to be done. If your language were not always transforming itself into something alien even as you speak, I would not be able to build new worlds of science and speculation with it. I would not be able to show you the error of your ways. I would not be able to imagine a poetic universe where sense would be restored. If words were not alienated from the world, then nothing could be discovered, nothing new could be meant. The entirety of our history would be the endless repetition of what is: a single sentence to infinity. We long for a restoration, for a return to a unity of the word and the world, but that restoration would be the death of meaning and hence of our desire.

In the last analysis, the inquiry into what should I do – if it is not based on positive or negative consequences – is on some level aesthetic. It is a question of the beautiful, the fine, the good. As Plato recognized, to kalon is no trivial matter. But if one is not capable of posing aesthetic questions in relation to one’s own behaviour, if one is not capable of asking ‘is such an action fit, in doing so will I become the person I would want to be?’ then such choices become mere calculations of risk versus reward. Ethics is reduced to accounting.

Of course, this recognition does not shield us from the sociopath. It does not prevent us from falling victim to the person for whom only the calculation of their own immediate advantage is relevant. The asshole’s cruelty and vulgarity still exist, his abject ugliness. Ethical concerns, in the end, are not about what others should do, but what I should do. They are about how do I form myself into the person I want to be in the community where I live. The aesthetics of existence give us a way of considering our conduct that is irreducible to immediate, material advantage, one that demands our resistance to the cruel, the ugly and the inhuman (to kakon), even when that resistance will come at our cost.