Home » (Experimental Thoughts) » A Passage. Of Representation. Of Esoterica.

A Passage. Of Representation. Of Esoterica.

From O’Flaherty’s introduction to the Socratic Memorabilia of Hamann:*

[W]ithin a short time after [the death of Socrates,] this physically repellent Greek was almost universally acknowledged to have possessed the most beautiful soul of all his countrymen. As if to underscore this discrepancy between appearance and reality, Socrates was inclined to cast his teachings in a homely or grotesque form—a form which contrasted strongly with their ultimate meaning. If an appeal to Alcibiades’  testimony [in the Symposium] may again be made, the sayings of Socrates were like the satyr images which might be bought in the statuary shops of Athens, for, although outwardly grotesque, inwardly the satyrs were filled with likenesses of the gods. . . . The advent of a Socrates did not, however, shake the belief of his compatriots that spiritual beauty was of necessity accompanied by physical beauty. They continued to believe, as Hamann says, that beauty and strength of body and mind were “symbols of divine qualities and footprints of divine presence.” Yet the fact of Socrates’ existence and teaching remained as the massive unresolvable flaw in the idea, and no Greek could escape the disturbing paradox which he represented.

When Plato set about to write his account of the life and work of Socrates, he remained true in practice to the Greek ideal of the harmony between internal and external beauty, between reality and appearance, and presented the spiritual beauty of Socrates in a form famous for its consummate artistry. Thus, we are confronted with the paradox that a disciple who would only do honor to his master has in effect endorsed a theory of which his master was a living contradiction. . . .

What if there were a literary form, however, which more closely corresponded to the true nature of Socrates, but which ran counter to the conventional Greek notion of beauty? Such a form need not be the opposite of beautiful, that is, ugly, but its beauty should be of such a nature that it would appear imperfect, fragmentary, even obscure, pointing to that which is necessary for its understanding and completion. Such a form would thus witness to the truth that any reality which is significant for the human spirit always transcends its representations. Its very obscurity would be the emblem of our limited understanding of the deeper realities of life. It would transcend or beckon beyond itself, and would not, like the more rationalistic classical art, with its striving for perfection, balance, and clarity, imply that the subject had been exhausted and that it constituted an appearance which perfectly represented the reality for which it stood. Its beauty would be hidden to a great extent, and would therefore be invisible to the superficial eye, but would nevertheless be real and organically related to its visible aspects, and hence accessible to those who would take the trouble to discover it.


* Hamann, J. G., & O’Flaherty, J. C. (1967). Introduction. Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: a translation and commentary (pp. 10-13). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

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2 thoughts on “A Passage. Of Representation. Of Esoterica.

    • Thanks for pointing me to this idea!

      On the tangent of aesthetic representation in the environment:

      I myself have been considering an aesthetic way for my life and house. I want to represent the belief that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In order to draw my heart to something, I must invest my treasure there or make it my treasure: if I am to love my God and my neighbor, I can purposefully use an aesthetic to draw myself toward them.

      More specifically, in my house, I want to represent the principle that conversation—whether prayer with God or intimacy with one’s neighbor—is untouched by the eventual decay and destruction of all things; conversation, I believe, is a way of laying up treasures in heaven. We cannot take anything out of this world, yet God and neighbor are what the Christian can expect to remain in the world to come (see this poem for more on that).

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