Two thousand five hundred years ago, Socrates turned the poets away from his utopian Republic. He claimed that poets were too dangerous because they created illusions that led citizens away from the truth. The antidote he suggested was a philosopher king: a wise leader who would censure poets and guide them in their creations.
The Philosopher King would not allow poets to tell stories of evil gods, like those in Homer’s poems. Instead, the Philosopher King would guide the poets to display the gods with dignity and honor so that their actions would be an example for the citizens to emulate.
But it is not only poetry that the philosopher king would like to censor. All the arts would be under the control of the philosopher. For example, the Philosopher King guided musicians to compose martial pieces to toughen up warriors and prepare them for war instead of sentimental tunes that might soften them and inhibit their ability to serve and protect their country.
With Nietzsche’s 19th century critique of Socrates, Socrates came to be seen as someone who censored ideas and emotions, and therefore limited human potential. Nietzsche suggested that the artist is one who, after enduring the trials of fate, could create and mold himself into his own work of art, a self of which he could be proud when he died.
These two thinkers had two different approaches to art. Socrates suggested that artistic truth was beyond human experience and existed in the world of the divinely rational; Nietzsche, on the other hand, suggested that artistic truth was relative to human experience and the connections we ultimately make with each other.
These different points of view lead to the question of whether beauty is objective or subjective. Is there real beauty that exists beyond sensual perception, serving as a yardstick by which we can judge what is beautiful and what is not? Or is beauty based on our subjective, ie relative, experiences of the world around us?
The crowning glory of philosophy
Italian painter Pompeo Batoni provides what I think is an artistic answer to this question. In 1747, Batoni painted “Mercury crowning philosophy, mother of art”.
At the far left of the composition, the god Mercury, dressed in yellow with his winged helmet and holding his caduceus (staff), leads our gaze into the pictorial plane. It points to an angel on the far right of the composition. The angel prepares to crown a woman named Philosophy with a laurel wreath.
The central point is philosophy. She is modestly dressed, but the golden crown already on her head and the scepter in her hand reveal her royal stature. She is holding one of Plato’s books in her hand, and her other hand is open as if ready to give or receive something, and this leads our gaze to the toddler below her, whom we we can presume to be the child of Philosophy.
The child is seated among artistic tools: brushes, a bust, a compass and a lyre. The child holds a torch in the darkest area of the composition, and the position of the torch brings our gaze back to the angel behind Philosophy.
Batoni’s answer to a question in progress
So how does Batoni’s painting provide an answer to the philosophical question posed above? Let’s start with Mercury first.
Mercury is the Greco-Roman messenger god. He relays messages between the gods. The staff he holds is the caduceus, given to him by Apollo – god of the sun, beauty and music – after Mercury invented the lyre. Already we can see Mercury’s connection with the divine, with art and with beauty.
Mercury orders the angel to put the crown on the head of Philosophy – a reward that comes from above. Philosophy looks up at Mercury as he instructs the angel, which reassures us that philosophy focuses on the divine messenger and therefore on the divine message.
Interestingly enough, the laurel wreath is placed just above the crown that philosophy already wears, and we can assume that it will cover and not replace its earthly crown.
Philosophy holds a book by Plato, who was the spokesman for Socrates. Batoni lets us know what philosophy he finds beneficial for the arts: It is the philosophy of Socrates that is in the best interests of the arts and the public.
Philosophy presents its hand as if it were giving and receiving something. Maybe she does both: Maybe she receives a divine message from Mercury and gives a divine message through her child, who represents the arts.
In this sense, philosophy is the medium through which art presents a divine message. Is that why the child holds a torch in the darkest area of the composition, as it represents the divine message that can guide humans out of darkness and into the light of divine truth?
Batoni seems to suggest, like Socrates, that the purpose of art is to exhibit divine messages for the benefit of civilization. Divine, not human, experience becomes the absolute standard by which beauty is judged, and the path to the divine is through philosophy, that is, the study of wisdom, which finds its source in the divine.
Socrates is often accused of censoring the arts because he hijacks poets and the illusions they create. Yet we cannot practice wisdom without also practicing discernment. In other words, we must say yes to some things and no to others. In other words, wisdom requires a certain degree of censorship.
So, yes, Socrates can say no to poets who create illusions, but in the tenth book of Plato’s “The Republic”, Socrates encourages poets to plead their case and defend themselves. According to our interpretation of Batoni’s painting, which poets could Socrates admit into the republic? To which poets would Socrates say yes?
Is it not the poets who deliberately engage in the pursuit of truth for the good of society? Couldn’t it be the poets who let the love of wisdom—philosophy—give birth to their art? Wouldn’t it be the poets who seek and express what is precisely divine?
Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart” series, we interpret classic visual arts in a way that can be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each artwork to see how our historical creations might inspire our own innate goodness.