July 25, 2008

The Seventh Letter


At one time “in doubt” as to its authenticity (1), Plato’s “Seventh Letter” is evidence of the ancient Greek philosopher’s expansion to epistolary discourse. Plato’s favored mode of arriving at “knowledge” was the dialectic method, the Academy’s “call-and-response.” Yet numerous 4th Century BC letters (now believed his) advance Plato’s ideas in long-form correspondence, even touching upon the politics and gossip of the day.(2) Within the “Seventh Letter” is Plato’s intriguing exposition of his thoughts about the ways that knowledge is “necessarily imparted”(3) and it was this particular passage which I selected for inclusive transcription in my installation, Song for Europe.

Song for Europe addresses four languages – Greek, Latin, French and English - whose influence continues to pervade Western culture. I have transcribed a brief selection from Plato’s “Seventh Letter” in Classical Greek(4) using my "text-bisection” process. In his letter, Plato cites the “circle” as an example of Form – independent of sensible objects, eternal, imperceptible, intelligible – and he describes how our “knowledge” of the intelligible “circle” is quite distinct from the different ways that we “know” the perceptible (sensible) object, i.e., by its name, definition and image. Thus, the Eternal Circle can never be manifested, either in language or visual reproduction, as these are “imperfect” ways of knowing:

“The differentiation of the perceptibles from the intelligibles and the analysis of the interrelatedness includes the imperfect embodiment of the transcendent in the immanent. For Plato, matter and form are locked in eternal strife, in that the immanence of the perceptible essentially betrays the transcendence of the form inherent as its predicate. Only the intelligible forms are what they are – the unceasing flux of the perceptibles precludes such purity and constancy.”(5)

As Baltes suggests, the “imperfect embodiment of the transcendent in the immanent” continued to perplex critical thinkers down through the centuries, eventually finding resolution if not sustained support in Jacques Derrida's post-structuralism. Plato’s rationalism clearly affirmed the necessity of knowledge but he was aware that it is “subject to error,” an idea that predates our 20th Century skepticism. Thus, for me, Plato’s advanced epistemology demonstrates how contemporary Western philosophy can be traced along a trajectory from ancient discourses in The Academy, and, whether supported or not, these ideas are relevant still. Indeed, our refutations of “old school” metaphysics (rationalism, ethics, logic) lend a certain credence through our denial.

Song for Europe attempts to engage an experience of knowledge through its concomitant vehicle – language. My intention in depicting the four influential European languages in bisected text (alternate upper/lower, partially legible sentences) is to invite readers/speakers of those “tongues” to participate, to “play” with the words and the meanings hidden there. This participatory play of and with text “stands in for” our experience of an artwork even as my text-bisection demonstrates the fragility of language.

Of all of the texts that will be transcribed in Song for Europe, Plato’s piece best encompasses an understanding of how historic knowledge has come to dominate our (Western) civilization. The idea that Western culture developed as representative of the “Eurocentric” standard has been around since the Renaissance, although it appears to be waning as culturally significant within the critique of post-colonialism.(6) Obviously, these cultures – Greece, Rome, France and England – have produced magnificence in arts and sciences, but so too we find despotic imperialism, racism and the urge to war. Nevertheless, the socio-political implications of Eurocentrism remain subsumed within their languages and reflect upon the nature of writing as a supplement – to speech, thought and ideology.


Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: The Seventh Letter (Greek) (2008), in process; © Copyright 2008.
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1. Malcolm Schofield holds that Plato was “the most reticent of philosophical writers” and his dialectic method effectively removed his “voice” from the dialogues. Thus, Schofield doubts Plato was the author because such letters would be “abrupt lurch out of his own carefully constructed literary persona.” From Schofield’s Plato: Political Philosophy, Oxford, 2006, 17.

2. The Seventh Letter is addressed to “Relatives and Friends of Dion,” and is Plato’s defense of his actions in visiting Syracuse and tutoring Dionysius II (son of Dion’s nephew, Dionysius) in philosophy and ethics: “Plato made three journeys to Syracuse, but became victimized by court intrigues . . . Plato's involvement with Dionysius II of Syracuse has attracted attention as the philosopher's attempt, apparently his sole attempt, to apply his idealistic political philosophy to real-world politics; and its general failure has struck some critics as a negative commentary on the practical applicability of a Platonic system.” From Wikipedia’s entry on The Seventh Letter.

3. This and subsequent quotations are from J. Harward’s translation of the Seventh Letter (40).

4. Plato wrote in Attic Greek and my transcription was copied from Harward’s (Polytonic Greek paired opposite its English translation) with all the idiosyncratic diacritics, diphthongs and “breathings” of this ancient language.

5. Baltes, John David. “Aisthetic Eros and Athenian Political Crisis: An Interpretation of Plato’s Seventh Letter,” Graduate Thesis (MA) submitted to Louisiana State University, August 2002, 50.

6. According to Edward Said, Europe’s self-image was constructed in relation to the “other,” i.e., Oriental culture. This established the European view of cultural superiority over the “degenerate” Oriental. “The development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another different and competing alter ego.” (Orientalism, New York, 1978, 332.)

2 comments:

tackad said...

even though this image is a detail of a work in progress - it just totally works and I like it.

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Many thanks for your kind words. There will be a limited-run, artists' book on the show available mid-August. Meanwhile, you can expect more posts on the other language selections over the next weeks.