Monday, February 08, 2010

Blooming youth again

Many thanks to everyone who has sent helpful suggestions on my recent post. I've now three more texts that I think are important in the background of Aristotle NE 10.4.

The first text I have in mind is Plato Republic 601b. Socrates is considering poetry. A poet, he argues, adorns his account of cobbling or generalship or some other activity with metre, rhythm, and harmony. But when his poetry is stripped of these elements, the words that remain are ‘like the faces of men who are youthful (ὡραίοι) but not really beautiful, when the bloom of youth (τὸ ἄνθος) abandons them’. What seems clear is that this bloom is something relatively fleeting, being visible only for a brief period when the young man is at a particular stage of his growing maturity. This is certainly a text that Aristotle knows well because he refers to it in his discussion of similes at Rhet. 3.3 1406b36ff. and we might therefore presume that it is a text the reader of NE 10.4 might also be expected to call to mind. In terms of the relationship between pleasure and activity, the claim that there are young men who nevertheless only display this bloom of youth for a brief period during their youth would imply that the simple presence of the underlying disposition is not sufficient for this completion but that the completion only comes about under certain ideal circumstances.

Now, two more Xenophontic texts to put alongside Mem.2.1. Second, at Mem. 1.6.13 there is a similar and use of the term. Antiphon has noticed that Socrates does not charge for people to engage him in conversation and claims that if Socrates is honest then he does not charge for something he considers not properly to be worth anything. But if he is honest then he cannot be wise. If he is wise and his conversation is worth something, then he is not honest because he does not charge for it. In response, Socrates draws an analogy between wisdom and physical beauty (ὥρα 1.6.13) since it is thought that both can be either fine or shameful. Physical beauty is shameful if its possessor sells it to anyone who wishes to pay for it as a male prostitute (πόρνος) might; but it is noble if someone should recognise it and become a find and good erastēs as a result. Indeed, we might even consider such a person to be continent (σώφρων). Again, there is the strong connection between this particular form of physical beauty (ὥρα) and a youthful object of desire. In addition, we find here a distinction between two possible reactions to this beauty on the part of the young man concerned and his lover. The more base version sees the beauty as an opportunity for monetary gain on the part of the boy and sexual pleasure on the part of the lover. The more elevated version sees the beauty as instigating a longer-term bond which is related to and may even cement certain virtuous traits in the lover and his beloved.

Third, towards the end of Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates is contrasting two distinct kinds of relationship: one in which the attachment between lover and beloved in based on an appreciation of goodness and virtuous character and another in which the lover is simply bent on gratifying his physical desires. In this latter case, Socrates claims, the boy neither shares in a bond of erōs with his lover nor even does he share sexual pleasure with the older lover but instead is merely selling his physical beauty (ὥρα) in the market place (Symp. 8.21).

Now, to work out just how these all inform NE 10.4...

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