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Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context

Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context

by Andrea Wilson Nightingale


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521117791
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 07/30/2009
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Andrea Wilson Nightingale is an Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She is the author of Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (HB 052148264X; PB 0521 774330), and has written numerous essays on Greek philosophy and culture. She is a recent recipient of Guggenheim and ACLS Fellowships.

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Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy
Cambridge University Press
0521838258 - Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy - Theoria in its Cultural Context - by Andrea Wilson Nightingale


Think of the long trip home ./ Should we have stayed home and thought of here? Where should we be today?/ Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/ in this strangest of theatres?/ What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush/to see the sun the other way around?

Elizabeth Bishop, "Questions of Travel"

Questioning attains its own ground by leaping.

Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics

Italo Calvino's dazzling book, Mr. Palomar, offers a portrait of postmodern ways of seeing. Its hero, Mr. Palomar - named after a famous telescope - spends his time conducting experiments in viewing and contemplating the world around him.1 In a chapter entitled "The Contemplation of the Stars," Palomar ventures out to look at the heavens "in order to detach himself from the earth." In this endeavor, Palomar deliberately follows the example of the ancient Greeks who, he believes, achieved knowledge and tranquillity from this exercise. He goes to the darkness of a nearby beach and, after spending half an hour perusing his astronomical charts, settles down to study the stars.

This activity, however, turns out to be quite complicated: "to decipher a chart in the darkness he must also bring along a flashlight. The frequent checking of sky against chart requires him to turn the light on and off, and in the passages from light to darkness he remains almost blinded and has to readjust his vision every time" (43). In addition, Palomar wears eyeglasses to read, which means that he must put them on to study the charts and remove them to look at the sky:

In other words, to locate a star involves the checking of various maps against the vault of the sky, with all the related actions: putting on and taking off eyeglasses, turning the flashlight on and off, unfolding and folding the large chart, losing and finding again the reference points.

Instead of discovering the "exact geometry of the sidereal spaces" that the ancients found, Palomar sees a complicated and confused picture in which "everything seems to escape him." The heavens look unstable and contradictory, and he ends up distrusting what he knows: "oppressed, insecure, he becomes nervous over the celestial charts, as over railroad timetables when he flips through them in search of a connection" (47). Contemplating the stars leads to anguish rather than tranquillity, and Palomar's effort to emulate the ancients is thus thwarted. After spending several hours in this vain endeavor, Palomar stops and looks around: he now sees that a group of people have gathered around him to watch his frenzied activities, "observing his movements like the convulsions of a madman" (48).

In this vignette, Calvino performs a postmodern reading of an ancient tale: Plato's Analogy of the Cave, the foundational story of enlightenment. In books 5-7 of the Republic, Plato introduced a new kind of sage - a philosophic theorist "in love with the spectacle of truth." Plato describes in lavish detail how the philosopher detaches himself from the earthly world and journeys into the radiant realm of "reality." When he enters this region, the philosopher is at first blinded by the light of the sun that shines there. His eyes slowly adjust to this light, and eventually he can gaze directly upon the beings in the metaphysical realm, including the sun-like Form of the Good. He now sees that the shadow-figures in the cave were (at best) copies of the true beings in this realm, and that this region is the locus of true reality. With reluctance, he goes back into the cave and is initially blinded by its darkness. When he returns, the people who dwell there say that the journey has destroyed his vision; they mock him and think that he has lost his mind.

Calvino captures some central aspects of this famous story of philosophical theorizing. First, he reveals that Plato's tale is as much about blindness as it is about insight. For, like Plato's theorist, Calvino's Palomar experiences intermittent periods of blindness in his efforts to see and study the heavens. And he also blinds himself on a larger level, since he turns away from the human world to search for fixed truths (deliberately emulating the detachment of the ancients). Here, Palomar closely resembles his model, for the Platonic philosopher detaches from society in his quest for knowledge, and suffers from bouts of blindness as he journeys out of, and back into, the cave. Finally, like his Platonic predecessor, Palomar appears to the ordinary person as a mad fool. In both stories, the theorist is himself the object of public perception: other people see his blindness (but not, as it seems, his insight). In the Analogy of the Cave, the philosopher is not of course practicing astronomy. But the philosopher's effort to turn his gaze from darkness to light, from images to real beings, is wonderfully refigured in Palomar's move from star charts to stars, from artificial to heavenly light. Calvino also reminds us that Plato's Analogy is about heat as well as light - about passion and yearning as well as seeing. Palomar longs for the tranquillity that accompanies stable knowledge: he longs for the absence of longing, the end of wonder. He seeks sophia rather than philosophia - wisdom without its love. But Palomar ends in frustration and failure, whereas the Greek theorist transcends aporia, eros, and wonder. Or does he?

The Greek thinkers of the fourth century BCE were the first to call themselves philosophers, the first to define philosophy as a specialized discipline and a unique cultural practice. Creating the professional discipline of philosophy required an extraordinary effort of self-definition and legitimation. In addition to developing ideas and arguments, these philosophers had to stake out the boundaries of their discipline and articulate the ways that it differed from other modes of wisdom. Plato, Aristotle, and other fourth-century thinkers all matched themselves against traditional "masters of truth" even as they developed different conceptions of philosophy in competition with one another. In this period, the debate over the true nature of philosophy - and thus the highest form of knowledge - was lively and contentious. This foundational debate generated (among other things) a novel and subversive claim: that the supreme form of wisdom is theoria, the rational "vision" of metaphysical truths.

In the effort to conceptualize and legitimize theoretical philosophy, the fourth-century thinkers invoked a specific civic institution: that which the ancients called "theoria." In the traditional practice of theoria, an individual (called the theoros) made a journey or pilgrimage abroad for the purpose of witnessing certain events and spectacles.2 In the classical period, theoria took the form of pilgrimages to oracles and religious festivals. In many cases, the theoros was sent by his city as an official ambassador: this "civic" theoros journeyed to an oracular center or festival, viewed the events and spectacles there, and returned home with an official eyewitness report. An individual could also make a theoric journey in a private capacity: the "private" theoros, however, was answerable only to himself and did not need to publicize his findings when he returned to the city. Whether civic or private, the practice of theoria encompassed the entire journey, including the detachment from home, the spectating, and the final reentry. But at its center was the act of seeing, generally focused on a sacred object or spectacle.3 Indeed, the theoros at a religious festival or sanctuary witnessed objects and events that were sacralized by way of rituals: the viewer entered into a "ritualized visuality" in which secular modes of viewing were screened out by religious rites and practices.4 This sacralized mode of spectating was a central element of traditional theoria, and offered a powerful model for the philosophic notion of "seeing" divine truths.

The comparison of philosophical activity to theoria at religious festivals was not a casual rhetorical trope: this move had powerful ideological associations. For, by linking philosophical theorizing to an institution that was at once social, political, and religious, the fourth-century thinkers identified theoretical philosophy as a specific kind of cultural practice. By aligning their discipline with the traditional practice of theoria, the fourth-century thinkers attempted to ground theoretical philosophy in the social and political world. The philosophers claimed a specific place for theoretical activity in the polis, even though metaphysical contemplation per se detaches the theorist for a time from the social world. Indeed they explicitly raised the question of the role of the intellectual in civic and political affairs (a question that is still very much with us today). As I will suggest, all of the fourth-century philosophers located the contemplative activities of the theorist within the context of political life (albeit in very different ways). The detached activity of theoretical contemplation is, they claim, central to the life of a flourishing polis.5

Plato - who was the first to conceptualize philosophic "theorizing" - made full use of the model of traditional theoria, with its journey abroad, viewing of a spectacle, and subsequent return home. In the Republic 5-7 - the most detailed account of theoria in the Platonic corpus - Plato models philosophic theoria on the traditional practice of civic theoria.6 In this kind of theoria, the theoros journeys forth as an official witness to a spectacle, and then returns as a messenger or reporter: at the end of the journey, he gives a verbal account of a visual, spectacular event. The journey as a whole, including the final report, is located in a civic context. In Plato's account of philosophic theoria in the Republic, theoretical activity is not confined to the rational contemplation of the Forms; rather, it encompasses the entire journey, from departure to contemplation to reentry and reportage. The intellectual "seeing" at the center of the journey - which I call "contemplation" - is thus nested in a larger context which is both social and political. As Plato claims, the philosophic theorist will, when he returns, "give an account" of his vision which is open to inspection and to questioning. In addition, he will translate his contemplative wisdom into practical and (under certain conditions) political activities: his theoretical wisdom provides the basis for action. In the good city, moreover, the theoretical philosophers will rule the polis: here, Plato places the philosophic theorist at the very center of political life.

According to Plato, the philosopher is altered and transformed by the journey of theoria and the activity of contemplation. He thus "returns" as a sort of stranger to his own kind, bringing a radical alterity into the city. When the philosopher goes back to the social realm, he remains detached from worldly goods and values even when he is acting in the world. Even in the ideal city, the philosopher is marked by detachment and alterity - he possesses a divine perspective that is foreign to the ordinary man. This peculiar combination of detachment and engagement allows the Platonic theorist to perform on the social stage in a fashion that is impartial, just, and virtuous.

Philip of Opus (a member of Plato's Academy) offers a quite different account of philosophic theoria: his philosophic theorist contemplates the stars. As he argues, the true philosopher engages in the activity of astronomical theoria, in which he beholds and apprehends "visible gods" in the heavens. This activity cultivates the virtue of piety, which has a direct impact on practical and political action. Paradoxically, viewing and studying the heavens makes the philosopher a supremely good and virtuous man on earth. Like Plato, Philip claims that theoria provides the only proper grounding for political praxis: the theoretical philosopher can and should govern the city. But Philip diverges from Plato by directing the theoretical gaze to the physical heavens rather than the metaphysical Forms.

To these fourth-century theorists, Aristotle responds with a bold new claim: theoria does not lead to praxis. Narrowing the scope of theoretical philosophy, Aristotle identifies theoria as an exclusively contemplative activity. In fact, he even separates the processes of learning and demonstration from the activity of theoria. To be sure, the theorist will attempt to argue and account for his findings, but this is not considered part of the theoria. Rather, theoria is a distinct activity that is an end in itself, completely cut off from the social and political realm.

In his accounts of theoria, Aristotle retains the traditional notion of sacralized spectating, but he does not link this activity to the world of politics or praxis. Aristotle's theorist, in short, does not bring his wisdom into practical or political life. Indeed, as Aristotle claims, theoretical knowledge is completely "useless" (achreston) in the practical sphere: the philosopher engages in theoria for its own sake, as an end in itself.7 Where, then, does Aristotle locate the theorist within the polis? He certainly does not believe that the philosopher should rule or lead a political life. Rather, as he claims in the Politics (books VII-VIII), the polis as a whole should orient itself towards the education and leisure that allows the wisest men to engage in theoretical activity.8 Since business and politics are directed towards the higher goal of leisure, the good constitution should aim to promote noble leisure activities for citizens in the polis. According to Aristotle, the best and most proper leisure activity is that of philosophic theoria, since the perfection of intellectual virtue is the ultimate telos of the human being. Ultimately, practical and political activities should serve the higher purpose of creating the conditions for philosophic theoria, which is the best form of human activity. The good polis, then, must strive to bring about the full actualization of human capacities, even if only a few men can achieve this goal (i.e. the theoretical philosophers). Theoretical activity is thus given a unique and privileged place in the life of the city.

The fourth-century proponents of theoretical philosophy turned to the traditional practice of theoria in their efforts to conceptualize and articulate a new mode of wisdom. In aligning themselves with a venerable cultural practice, the philosophers claimed legitimacy and authority for philosophic theoria. They appropriated the traditional practice of theoria by translating the physical journey to a sanctuary into a metaphysical quest for truth: wandering was reconceived as wondering, physical seeing as intellectual "gazing." Fourth-century thinkers such as Plato, Philip of Opus, and Aristotle claimed that the philosophic theorist (theoros) gazes with the "eye of reason" upon divine and eternal verities.

The fourth-century philosophers differed quite strongly in their epistemological, psychological, ethical, and political theories. Yet all believed that wisdom takes the form of "seeing" truth. In this book, I will examine the Greek conception of the philosopher as a "spectator" - an idea that has had a profound impact on Western thinking. How did the fourth-century philosophers articulate and defend this new conception of knowledge? What is at stake, philosophically and politically, in identifying the philosopher as a sort of seer, detached from the physical and social world while he contemplates the verities? How and what does the philosophic theorist see? How (if at all) can the disembodied apprehension of truth be embodied and enacted in the practical realm? Where does the theoretical philosopher position himself vis-à-vis the political life of the city? In this study, I am not attempting to offer a philosophic analysis of fourth-century epistemology. Rather, I will investigate the foundational construction of theoretical philosophy in its intellectual and its cultural context, and explore the philosophical and historical ramifications of this momentous development.

There were of course many cultural factors and conditions involved in this radical reconception of wisdom in the fourth century: the implementation and impact of the technology of writing; aristocratic self-fashioning in democratic Athens and its opposition to democratic "wisdom"; the professionalization of numerous disciplines and occupations in fourth-century Greece; the creation of schools of higher education; and the decline of the city-state and the rise of imperial politics (which placed elites and intellectuals in a new position vis-à-vis the systems of power). In addition to analyzing the different philosophical constructions of theoria in the fourth century, then, we need to attend to the cultural and historical context in which this development occurred.


In the modern and postmodern periods, philosophers and scholars have analyzed and attacked "the spectator theory of knowledge" from many different angles; in general, they identify Platonic and Aristotelian epistemology (and Cartesian dualism) as the primary culprits in this philosophic enterprise. Most twentieth-century thinkers, of course, view Greek metaphysical philosophy with suspicion if not scorn. The conception of knowledge as theoria is, for some, a cowardly flight from the world of action and, for others, a pernicious power-grab posing as disinterested speculation. Modern attacks on the "spectator theory of knowledge" and its claims to objectivity have been numerous and diverse, ranging from phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty to pragmatists such as Dewey and Rorty, to poststructural and psychoanalytic theorists such as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Irigaray. Nonetheless, the nature and scope of "visual thinking" - and various forms of "the gaze" - continue to be analyzed in many different disciplines.9

Nietzsche articulates, concisely and trenchantly, some of the key claims in the modern (and postmodern) attack on the spectator theory of knowledge:

Let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject"; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as "pure reason," "absolute spirituality," "knowledge in itself ": these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective "knowing" . . . But to eliminate the will altogether, to suspect each and every affect, supposing we were capable of this - what would that mean but to castrate the intellect?10

Here, Nietzsche rejects (1) the notion of the disembodied intellect, (2) the conception of a non-perspectival viewpoint, (3) the claim that we can apprehend objective truths not constructed or affected by the human mind, and (4) the belief in a mode of cognition separated from will, desire, and the emotions.

This is powerful rhetoric, but it hardly does justice to the Greek theorists. In Plato's conception of theoria, theoretical knowledge is a sort of "hot cognition" (to borrow Damasio's term) in which eros and the affect of wonder play a key role in the activity of contemplation.11 Plato hardly "castrates" the intellect: on the contrary, theoria is fueled and sustained by erotic desire. In addition, Plato believes that theoretical philosophers can, at best, achieve only a partial view of the Forms - a view that is distorted (in differing degrees) by the ontological and ethical limitations of their souls. In order to "see" reality, in fact, the philosopher must become blind to the human world: theoretical vision is by no means panoptic. While Plato does not, of course, argue for a perspectival or constructivist conception of knowledge, his human philosopher never achieves a perfect, "frontal" view of the Forms.12 Finally, side by side with Plato's "official" account of theoretical contemplation as a disembodied activity focusing exclusively on metaphysical objects, we find another account that does not exclude the body from philosophic theorizing. For, in some dialogues, Plato argues that the visual perception of beautiful bodies - both human and celestial - plays a vital role in the activity of theoria. We are far, indeed, from Nietzsche's "will-less" subject with an "eye turned in no particular direction."

Most modern and postmodern critics of Greek theoria also emphasize the "spectatorial distance" that allows the subject to stand over against the object and apprehend it in a neutral and undistorted fashion: "objective truth" is achieved by reifying the object and keeping it separate from the viewing subject. As Hans Jonas claims, because of the spectatorial distance involved in seeing, the subject avoids direct engagement with the object; this separation of the subject from the object, in fact, produces

the very concept of objectivity, of the thing as it is in itself as distinct from the thing as it affects me, and from this distinction arises the whole idea of theoria and theoretical truth.13

Building on this notion of the subject gaining an "objective" (neutral, undistorted) grasp of its object, many thinkers have made the additional claim that theoretical "vision" objectifies the things it sees - it views the things in the world as objects available for the viewer's use and control. Thus Levin (a neo-Heideggerian) claims that vision is "the most reifying of all our perceptual modalities"; this reification, he adds, encourages the subject to control and dominate the object:

to the extent that the will to power captures our capacity for vision, there is a strong inveterate tendency in our vision to fixate whatever our eyes behold, to "bring it to a stand," a standstill, in our grasp and hold . . . Since the characer of our everyday vision is such that we tend to reify, to substantialize, and to totalize, philosophical thinking, increasingly under the sway of a vision-based and vision-centered paradigm, represents itself as standing positioned in a relation of opposition to being.14

Not surprisingly, once one brings in the will to power, it is but a short step to Derrida's assertion of "the ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and technico-political possession."15

I do not want to discuss the many and incisive attacks on the enterprise of Western metaphysics. Let me simply point out that these critiques of "ocularcentrism" are more pertinent to Cartesian thinking (and, correlatively, to modern science) than to Greek theorizing. In stark contrast to the Cartesian tradition, the Greek theoretical philosophers sought to change themselves rather than the world around them. Indeed, the theoretical understanding of metaphysical objects was far from a neutral, scientific apprehension achieved at a distance: rather, the Greek theorist distanced himself from the world in order to achieve a proximity to metaphysical objects. Greek theorizing was based on the kinship - rather than the distance - between subject and object. Because of this kinship, the theorizing mind could grasp and even identify with metaphysical objects. In this activity (which was itself driven by a "desire to know") the theorist experienced a powerful pathos: a transformation of self and soul.

What, then, is the nature of this pathology? Let us look briefly at the fourth-century theories of physical vision that provided the analogue for theoretical "vision."16 In the Timaeus, Plato claims that human beings possess "light-bearing eyes" (φωσφόρα . . . ὄμματα) - eyes that contain a "pure fire which is akin (ἀδελφόν) to the light of day" (45b). This internal light

flows through the eyes (διὰ τѽν ὀμμάτων ῥεῖν) in a smooth and dense stream . . . and whenever the stream of vision is surrounded by daylight, it flows out like unto like, and by coalescing with this it forms a single body (σѽμα) along the eyes' visual path, wherever the fire which streams out from within makes contact with that which meets it from without. (45c-d)

The human perceiver, then, sends forth the light contained in the eye beyond the boundaries of his body out into the world: the eye's "light" flows forth like a tentacle and meets with the "light of day," which is akin to it.17 Because of this kinship, the eye's light is able to coalesce with sunlight to form a "single body" of light. When this chain of light comes into contact with things in the world, it "distributes the motions of every object" to the body and soul of the perceiver.18 Seeing, then, is not the passive reception of external impressions or effluences but a participatory activity in which the human being interacts with its object in the medium of light. In fact, vision occurs when the subject reaches out and, in some sense, "touches" the object. The perceiver's visual faculty does not, however, become identical with either the light or the object of vision. Rather, the kinship between the "light-bearing eyes" and the external light allows for the perception of the quite different essence of the object.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

1. Theoria as a cultural practice; 2. Spectacles of truth: inventing philosophic theoria; 3. The fable of philosophy in Plato's Republic; 4. Theorizing the beautiful: from Plato to Philip of Opus; 5. 'Useless' knowledge: Aristotle's rethinking of theoria; Epilogue 'Broken knowledge'? theoria and wonder.

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Manirul More than 1 year ago
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!