Monday, 15 December 2014



Theatre and Philosophy: the lies in Plato’s closet

Paul Monaghan

University of Melbourne

Philosophy, a discipline concerned with truth, being, and the foundations of knowledge, was predestined to abhor the theatre, which is premised on lying, appearance, and the construction of false worlds (Puchner 2006:41).

The relationship between theatre and philosophy has certainly been a problematic one. As Martin Puchner notes, on the one hand, ‘despite its tendency towards the material, the theatre has … fascinated a discipline that shuns immediate physicality’. On the other, however, philosophy is ‘a discipline that apparently needs to prove its dignity by distancing itself from everything associated with theatrical spectacles’ (Puchner 2002: 521-2). Philosophers have frequently reviled the theatre and those who practise it, and theatre has just as often featured ‘mock philosophers who are exposed as fools and charlatans on the stage’ (Puchner 2006:41). Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates is mocking; in a contrary turn, and with equal theatricality, the counter- or ‘masked’ philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed with somewhat less humour that Socrates has killed tragedy (Nietzsche 2000:81-86). The living body is a defining feature of theatrical performance, but there is a long-held belief in Western philosophy that if the body is involved, then knowledge is not. Krasner and Saltz note that ‘very few professional philosophers have focused in depth on questions pertaining to the phenomena of theatre or performance (Krasner and Saltz 2006:1). Yet as Puchner and others have pointed out, the words ‘theatre’ and ‘theory’ derive from the same Greek verb, thēorēo, a word with a range of meanings related to ‘seeing’ (Puchner 2002:521-2, 531; Fortier 2002:5). Like siblings or neighbouring states, theatre and philosophy may be more closely related than many in either field appear predisposed to acknowledge, and consequently their practitioners seem destined to fight, perhaps forever, over common territory.

This paper takes as its premise that, as Puchner notes, ‘The best place to observe how closely antitheatricalism ties philosophy to the theatre is the very origin of this "prejudice", namely Plato’s dialogues’ (Puchner 2002:522). It is in Plato’s quasi-theatrical philosophy that the two ‘lies’ I examine here can be discerned. The paradigmatic proposal that human life is, metaphysically speaking, an ‘untruth’, is Plato’s synthesising and transformative response to the Pre-Socratics, and constitutes his lasting legacy to Western philosophy. The second and perhaps more deliberate deception examined here is what I am calling ‘the lie in Plato’s closet’, a term that references Puchner’s designation of Plato’s dialogues as ‘what one could call the first closet drama’ (Puchner 2001:523). I argue that not only did Plato use theatrical means to reject the embodiment involved in performance, but that the sibling rivalry between theatre and philosophy extends to the attempt by both to deal with the mind-body’s entrapment in phenomenal time-and-space – what the Greeks referred to as Ananke – and our apparently insistent desire to escape from it.

The lie of phenomenal life

Elsewhere I have used the metaphor of ‘Diotima’s Staircase’ to express the vertical journey of the philosopher in Plato’s – and more generally in Western – metaphysics, from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm (Monaghan 2008). In Plato’s Symposium the character ‘Diotima’ explains to ‘Socrates’ that a lover of phenomenal bodies is able, with proper tuition, to gradually ascend, as if climbing a staircase, towards the love of Beauty itself (211C, in Rouse 1956:105-06; :99). Love of the phenomenal body is, naturally, inferior to love of ‘Truth’ itself. The staircase and the ladder feature in the mythology of many cultures where they symbolise, amongst other things, ‘communication between heaven and earth with a two-way traffic of the ascent of man and the descent of the divinity’, and ‘access to reality, the Absolute, the Transcendent, going from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality’ (:94). As Baldon et al suggest, ‘It is not without reason that the stairway is called a flight, for by it, foot over foot, earthbound man may rise to the height of birds’ (:13). The staircase suggests we can escape the earthbound conditions that in part define what it is to be human, but in addition to its vertical aspect, the staircase moves horizontally through space and time, suggesting a potentially long process is involved in such an ascension.

The notion of ‘Diotima’s Staircase’, with its step by step climb towards a higher reality, is integral to Plato’s theory of Forms and the basis of both his ontology and his epistemology. The verticality of Plato’s metaphysics permeates all aspects of his philosophy, and numerous passages repeat Diotima’s image of a graded ascent towards the ‘real’ and unchanging realm of Forms (see Symposium, 190B, Republic 511B, and cf Phaedrus 246-48). At the bottom of the stairs are found phenomena, ‘things that appear’ or that unfold themselves to the senses. Phenomena are mere ‘appearance’ - imperfect, unreliable, in a state of constant flux in the material world. They are lies in the sense of being not-truth. At the top of the stairs are noumena - ‘things that are perceived by nous’ (or Mind), unchanging, perfect paradigmatic essences of phenomena. These essences are usually called in English the ‘Ideas’ or ‘Forms’, but neither of these translations captures the force of the Greek word idéa, which implies neither a material substance or shape (as suggested by ‘Form’), or that the entities exist in our minds. Rather the idéa are immaterial, mind-independent essences that exist independently of human perception in a transcendent state of Being, and are perceived – primarily, or at least initially – through rational thought (Republic VI, especially the ‘cave’ allegory; Phaedo 73-7). The ‘Forms of Forms’, called variously the Good, Beauty, Zeus, God, or Truth, is envisaged as being above and beyond the other Forms (Cornford 1945:221-3), and in this highest reality there is no multiplicity, only eternal, unchanging Oneness, a Unity that transcends all individuation. Truth and Not-Truth, then, are at opposite ends of the staircase, but intimately related to one another.

Ananke: mind and body in chains

The relationship between noumena and phenomena is further explained by reference to Plato’s use of the Greek word Ananke, a concept usually translated as ‘Necessity’. According to the Greeks Ananke is an inexorable force in the universe that lies behind all ‘bindings’ or ‘constraints’, whether they are physical, metaphysical, social or relational (the ‘bonds’ of family, of love and so on). Ananke in this broad sense is found in Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Pindar, Bacchylides, Apollonius Rhodius, Pausanias and Suidas (; ). In very early Orphic myth, Ananke is brought into being with the birth of Kronos (Time) at the violent separation of heaven and earth. Ouranos had been constantly joined to Gaia in sexual union, until Kronos, their youngest son, castrated his father, with the result that – understandably, and quickly – Kronos left his wife alone. The Moirai or Fates are Ananke’s daughters, who are born after the violent separation of Heaven and Earth, along with Ker (Death), the fate of all mortals (Hesiod, Theogony 217f). In some early Orphic versions of the myth, both Kronos and Ananke have the shape of a serpent that coils around all things in the universe (). Ananke is a ‘constraint’ or ‘shackling’ due to the nature of something, and applied to human life it is, as Arrowsmith describes it, ‘that set of unalterable, irreducible, unmanageable facts which we call the human condition’ (Arrowsmith 1959:55), and which goes by various names: destiny, fate, the gods, death, suffering, and so on.

Ananke also encompasses the complementary and mutually intertwined forces in Greek myth called Eros (Love), ‘agreement and unity between two elements as dissimilar as feminine and masculine’, and Eris (Strife), ‘conflict and discord at the heart of what has been unified’ (Vernant 2002:13). In Eris, unity tends towards multiplicity; in Eros, multiplicity tends towards unity. Both are ‘constrained’ to do so by the inherent relationship of opposites that is also evident in Greek philosophy in the series of dichotomies God/Man, One/Many, Mind/Body, Stasis/Change and so on. The concept assumes that there is a conflict of opposites at the heart of all things, but that these opposites are forever bound together. The very early emergence of the universe involved the ‘separating out’ of that inner conflict into independent but mutually dependent forces under the influence of ‘Old Eros’, also called Phanes (the god who makes things appear) or Protogenos. First there was Chaos, an undifferentiated and ‘impenetrable murk in which all frontiers are scrambled’ (Vernant 2002:4), and from within Chaos emerged Gaia (Earth). From within (feminine) Gaia emerged her opposite, (masculine) Ouranos. Thus also from within Gaia are brought forth her two earth-bound vertical poles, Mount Olympus and Tartarus. The later manifestations of Ananke, Eros and Eris, are specifically the forces that bring together two separate and opposite entities or beings to form a third – and then force them apart again.

There is a similar tension between opposites, as Louis Awad notes, in Plato’s metaphysics and in his use of Ananke. For Plato, Mind ‘has a penchant towards Matter’, a desire for materialization in the phenomenal world of appearance (Awad 1963:12). Despite the fact that ‘creation’ in this sense, as Awad asserts, is a ‘Sin … Original Sin’ (Awad 1963:13), in that the materialisation of Mind necessarily involves a ‘Fall’ from an original state of perfection, this penchant towards Matter is a Necessity acting upon Mind which it cannot resist. By Necessity, then, Mind and Body are constrained by each other. In Plato’s Timaeus (47e ff), the character ‘Socrates’ explains that although divine Intelligence (Logos) is the principle architect of the universe, Ananke is its ‘errant cause’: ‘For this world came into being from a mixture and combination of Ananke and logos’ (47e; cf 68e-69). But, as Tarnas notes, ‘precisely because of its problematic nature, Ananke serves as an impulsion for the philosopher’s ascent from the visible to the transcendent’ (Tarnas 1991:45). In other words, it is because of Ananke that the philosopher climbs Diotima’s Staircase.

And it is the individual soul (psuche), or mind (nous) that bridges the vertical gap between man and god, or phenomena and noumena, and that allows one to climb the staircase. In various passages the body is explicitly described as the soul’s prison (a notion with a very long shelf life in Western metaphysics). The ideal philosophical life is one in which the divine spark is cultivated as much as possible so that the soul climbs the staircase and remains there, god-like, with no need to be reincarnated once again into a corporeal state (see Cornford 1975:351). In this way, the soul is able to escape the bonds of Ananke in the time-and-space prison of the body (Phaedo 67c-d).

The Hyperanthropos

I want to introduce another term here, the hyperanthropos or ‘more-than-man’. The first known use of the word itself is in a comic dialogue called Kataplous (chapter 16) by Lucian of Samosata in the second century A.D., in connection with Prometheus, the Titan god who taught mankind how to live independently of the gods by giving them fire, and who is strongly associated with Ananke and suffering in human life. But I am using the term hyperanthropos as a useful shorthand for a concept that had appeared in one form or the other from Homer and Hesiod onwards, was dominant in Greek culture, and has continued to play an important role in Western metaphysics. The hyperanthropos was, and is, either part man, part god (for example, the Homeric Heroes), or a man who is raised well above ordinary men by reason of his intellect (philosophers), physical abilities (athletes), or the great benefits he provides mankind (such as Prometheus). The protagonist in Greek tragedy was a hyperanthropos who had been ‘separated out’ from the Chorus, and whose actions had enormous ramifications for that community of ordinary (often very ordinary) men and women. Socrates himself was seen as a protagonist and hyperanthropos by Plato, and Plato has been regarded as such throughout the centuries, along with the ancient Greeks in general. Jesus Christ, the Renaissance (and Nineteenth Century) alchemist, Marx’s ‘world-historical individual’, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and the Romantic and Modernist artist-genius (with whom Prometheus was associated: Monaghan 2005) are all hyperanthropoi. Whatever is thought to be at the summit, the hyperanthropos is always someone who is further up the staircase than ordinary men, and it is his Mind/Soul that allows him at least a partial escape from the chains of Ananke. For Plato, it is only a philosopher, one who is ‘initiated’ into philosophy’s secrets (see Rowe 1998:193-4), who can become a hyperanthropos (Symposium 202d-203a: Rowe 1998:78-81; and 204a-b: Rowe 1998:82-3). As Padel puts it, ‘Nous brings out the thought that something inside human beings is divine … in the sense of sharing divine power or knowledge’ (Padel 1992:33). Note the linking here of knowledge and power; Plato’s vertical system encompassed the ‘Ideal’ State apparatus in which the One at the top ruled over the many via a ‘natural aristocracy’ of quasi-hyperanthropoi and the military. Hitler, too, was a hyperanthropos of a kind, whose performance of power involved the strategic use of monumental flights of stairs (Kuhns 1997:90, 223).

Since our Mind derives from the Universal Mind, and is of the same substance as it, that is, since man was ‘born head downwards’ from God (in a striking metaphor used in Plato’s Timaeus 90), knowledge is in fact an act of remembering the static and mathematically precise reality that once we (or rather our Minds) were a part of. This concept is explored in Plato’s Phaedo and Meno (see also Guthrie 1989:96; Taylor 1949:135ff , on the theory in Meno, and 186ff on Phaedo). The correct apprehension of the Forms is called ‘knowledge’, and knowledge must therefore also be eternally unchanging and universal. The world of change and appearance that we experience through our bodily senses is not ‘real’, precisely because it does change. Becoming is sensible, Being is knowable. The body is therefore a place of forgetfulness, of ‘unknowing’ and lies. If the body is involved, then knowledge is not.

Plato on Theatre

The arts hold a notoriously bad place in Plato’s dialogues, and theatre worst of all. Not only, in Plato’s view, are the arts in general focused on reproducing the phenomenal world of appearance, they do so with mimetic methods (acting, painting, sculpting, reciting) that are themselves of that world. Artistic image-making encourages the belief that the material world is ‘real’, that the image of the material world is also real, and – worse – that artists have knowledge of the Forms (that is, that they are - Platonic - philosophers). In fact the artwork is, as Plato said, ‘at the third remove from the essential nature of the thing’ and the artist is ‘third in succession from the throne of truth’ (Republic X.597e; Cornford 1975:327). Again, note the correspondence there between power and knowledge.

Theatre is particularly blameworthy in this regard, and in addition turns what is already a multiplicity (the phenomenal world) into ‘a licentious multiplicity of roles’ (Phaedrus 245a, Ion 534b; Barish 1981:12-3, 24) of the kind that is anathema to the order and permanence of the ideal state (Republic X.434b-d; Emlyn-Jones 2007:103). As an educative tool for the transmission of cultural norms, theatre cannot be compared to philosophy that alone is capable and interested in propagating knowable truths (Republic 605df; cf Laws 2.658a-659c; Barish 1981:5, 9ff). As Barish puts it,

Theatre being the quintessentially mimetic art, acting being radically founded in the multiplication of roles and transgression of boundaries, all that is urged in suspicion of poetry, music, recitation, and the other arts must apply here with a maximum of force and a minimum of regretful qualification (Barish 1981:26).
The University bean-counters could not have put it more succinctly. Plato sees theatre as mired in relativism and corruption (Laws III.700b-701c) and associates it with the sophists (Sophist 267a-b) against whom his philosophy was at least initially directed (Guthrie 1989:101ff). And it worth mentioning here that the Sophists had cast doubt on the possibility of human beings ever possessing firm knowledge of anything; we may hold ‘true belief’, they suggested, but be unable to know that it is true (Osborne, 2004:66-7).

The final nail by which theatre would lie in its own coffin is that the human body is fundamentally important to it as a medium. Whether presented in a normative or ‘spiritualised’ (heightened, athleticised) state, the body is the most obvious and constitutive feature of the theatrical medium, at least in its existence as performance. No matter how much the actor is vilified and suppressed, adored and mythologised, or simply ignored, it is a simple fact of definition that without the actor’s physical presence - with an audience – there is no theatrical performance (:55; :129-30). As the primary element in a performing art, the animality of the human body in live performance is thick with an only partially quantifiable and ‘readable’ ‘phenomenal heaviness’ (States 1985:37); the body resists concrete, stable and precise meaning in theatre as it does in life outside of theatre. As a perishable quantity subject to birth and decay, the body as a whole is irredeemably immersed in the world of Becoming, and any artform that is inseparable from it must be treated as suspicious at best. If the theatre is involved, then knowledge, and philosophy, is not.



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