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On inspiration.

It is one of the most mysterious moments in any one's life, the instant when things "click" and fall neatly in place, or a new idea flashes in the dark. It

happened to Nietzsche on the shores of Lake Silvaplana, when he felt, "6000 feet beyond man and time."(1) It happened to Poincare as he placed his foot on the steps to climb a bus, and to Archimedes as he soaked in his bathtub. Mohammed "blinked beyond the where" (Al-Hallaj's words), Descartes woke up from a dream, and Coleridge from a drug-induced stupor; the results in all instances were extraordinary.(2)

The mysterious instant goes by many names: inspiration, enlightenment, illumination, intuition, insight, vision, revelation, and discovery. The names indicate different modalities of one and the same experience; they reflect the many metaphors we use to express the particularities of our experiences. Some of us feel spoken to by muses, spirits, and gods;(3) some experience a kind of clarity;(4) some gain new perspectives or glimpses into the world, themselves, or others; while for some it is as if a veil that hid a jewel of untold price had been lifted, as happened once to the hunter Actaeon as he parted the brush and saw the radiant beauty of Artemis at her bath.(5)

As the names vary, so do the lifestyles of the recipients. Religious mystics speak of ecstasy and satori; poets, painters, musicians, dancers, and historians invoke their Muses; while scientists and mathematicians, parsimonious and prosaic, claim only hunches and intuitions.

This phenomenon has been pondered endlessly, especially in the religious literatures of both East and West. Psychologists became aware of it at the beginning of the century, but mostly ignored the mountains of interpretative data previously accumulated.(6) The focus of research and writing shifted: while mystics assumed that the experience unveiled the mysteries of the divine, psychologists became interested in the nature of insight as a mental state. A similar shift occurred in the approach to art. While artists pursued vision, psychologists discussed whether visionaries suffered from pathologies more or less than the general population, and wondered if the products of art, like dreams, could be psychoanalyzed. In this way the truth of the artistic vision became irrelevant. The expressive aspect of art, its emotional dimension, assumed paramount importance, especially in music and poetry, and it became almost a truism to say that all art is primarily expressive, and the more so the more inspired its origins. The view arose that all inspiration is good, and all musical and poetic works are equally worthwhile because they are "inspired." The distinction between inspiration and truth became lost, and it remains so, the victim of the relativism that must attend all purely individual expressions of feeling.

The question of the relation between feeling and fact is not new. It was carefully studied by many in the past, perhaps principally by Plato. He may not have been as aware as we are of the emotions and their role in perception and expression, but he did acknowledge their existence, and in his explanation of artistic inspiration he presented a view that integrated both passion and perception, truth and feeling, in the process of artistic production.

Plato's view of artistic inspiration is intimately connected to his overall theory of knowledge, whose main import is that the fundamental reality of the world is to be found, not in the realm of appearances, but in the intelligible though real realm of the Forms. The true reality of a thing is not its appearance but its archetypal essence or eidos, its Form. Consequently, knowledge of an object cannot be adequate if it remains at the level of the sensory; it must rise to the intuition of the object's eidos, of its Form. Anything short of this intuitive apprehension may be pleasurable and even useful, but it cannot be true and perfect knowledge, since it has not reached the quintessential nature of every thing, the Forms. To remain at the level of the empirical and the imaginary is to be a doxosophist or doxophilist.(7) As a Kantian would say, it is to be enamored of the transitory beauty of the phenomenal world, neglecting the noumenal. On the other hand, the true philosopher, while appreciating the beauty and attraction of the phenomenal world, is not satisfied by it, but presses onward to the vision of the archetypal beauty of the world, and eventually of the Form of Beauty itself.

The distinction between doxophilia and philosophia is important for understanding Plato's view of inspiration: the madness of those possessed by the muses (Phaedrus 245A). It is the divine aspect (Ion 534C-D) which renders artistic work sublime and moving.

Plato saw inspiration as an irruption of the divine into the ordinary.(8) Inspiration is divine madness (theia mania), enthusiasm, possession by the daimonic elements. Socrates himself speaks of inspiration as "a divine and daimonic element" (theion ti kai daimonion [Apology 31D]) that acts as a starting point (motivation, desire, yearning) for the human in the ascent to the divine. It is, therefore, crucial: without its goad no movement takes place toward the higher reaches of knowledge and reality.

Inspiration may be a necessary condition of true art, but it alone is not sufficient. Here Plato introduces a distinction between mere inspiration and true inspiration. Inspiration by itself is only a maddening inner suggestion, a direction toward something deeper than is experienced in everyday life, beyond what is observable in phenomenal reality. But inspiration does not, and cannot, reveal what it is the artist is to search for and find. Artists pushed by the force of inspiration alone will dazzle all by the apparent sublimity of their ecstatic utterances and by the seeming depth of their concentration, but they will fail to connect with the most fundamental core of the thing depicted, the core of eidetic reality, the realm of the Forms. As a madness, inspiration impels artists on, but only knowledge can guide their search. If inspiration is like the wind all vessels need for movement, knowledge is the helm. Art based on mere inspiration, therefore, or art which is pure venting, loses itself among the lures of particular phenomena. It differs from true art, which seeks for the universal, the archetypal: true art is "of the whole" (Ion 534).

Failure to make this distinction accounts, according to Plato, for the many problems encountered in the interpretation of artistic works. To many, the works of artists seem childish, self-contradictory, full of errors, impious, and even immoral. There is no cause for wonder here. Inspiration is a state of divine possession. Seized by the daimonic, artists nevertheless must interpret its promptings. If they are not at the same time grounded in the real knowledge of the truth, they are likely to err (Ion 534E). Moreover, approaching the phenomenal world purely as phenomenal, they cannot be expected to detect illusions, unreality, and untruth. Even from the point of view of the spectator, inspirational art must remain essentially empty and superficial. For it only delivers knowledge twice removed from the fountainhead of truth and reality. Most art, Plato maintains, suffers from this insufficiency (Apology 22). The true artist, on the other hand, seized by the power of the daimon, will employ its force as impetus to look for the Forms, and use the phenomenal as a stepping stone toward the real (Timaeus 29B, 48E, 92C; Cratylus 432B-D; Republic III.401C). True artists will not be satisfied with the mere reproduction of the beautiful likeness of things, but will search for and manifest the Form of Beauty Itself immanent in the world. As Verdenius puts it,

art . . . has a double aspect: in its visible manifestation it is a thing of the most inferior value, a shadow; yet it has an indirect relation to the essential nature of things. The intensity of this relation depends upon the degree to which the artist succeeds in illuminating the higher aspects of the intermediate plane, viz. of visual reality. Thus imitation, when viewed in the light of a hierarchical conception of reality, may constitute a reconciliation of realism and idealism in art.(9)

That this is Plato's meaning is quite clear from his likening the philosopher-king to an artist (Republic VI.500-501). So far as Plato is concerned, only the philosopher can be a true artist?

I should add, with Aristotle, that fixing on the Forms as on the North Star when buffeted by gales is not an easy thing, nor does it happen suddenly, like the sighting of the beam of a lighthouse in a storm. Aristotle conveys this idea by calling art (techne) an intelligent habit of making.(11) Habit (hexis) is a stable and lasting disposition, a steady inclination toward an object or toward certain behaviors.(12) As inclination, habit connotes the power or capacity (acquired, of course) to act or behave consistently in a certain way. Maritain calls this capacity "an inner quality or stable and deep-rooted disposition that raises the human subject and his natural powers to a higher degree of vital formation and energy - or makes him possessed of a particular strength of his own."(13) Aristotle might not have objected to Maritain's terming habit a "master quality, an inner daimon,"(14) since in effect, it confers upon the human subject a certain character of possession, a certain compulsion. This possession differs from that of inspiration in that it is focused, stubborn, and single-mindedly attentive. The person with a habit is, indeed, possessed, driven in many respects by the energy of a daimon toward the specific objects around which it has been formed. If inspiration is a divine madness of the mind, dispersing and centrifugal, habit is the steadying hand of the pilot. Habit confers on the artist "an inner strength . . . which perfects him with regard to his ways of acting and makes him - to the extent to which he uses it - undeviating in a given activity."(15)

It should be clear that the habit meant here is different from the habituation of skills developed through practice and exercise. The latter meaning is not, of course, excluded; but above all, art involves the habituation of contemplating ideals. Art involves habituation with beauty. It involves the development of a stable, continuous, lasting congeniality and connaturality with beauty in its multivaried forms. Without this habituation, art is devoid of its fundamental nature. "To produce in beauty," says Maritain, "the artist must be in love with beauty. Such undeviating love is a supra-artistic rule - a precondition, not sufficient as to the ways of making, yet necessary as to the vital animation of art- which is presupposed by all the rules of art."(16)

Hence one can formulate the cardinal rule of art: Love beauty and do what you will.(17) Given the habituation with beauty, the rest will naturally follow. The habituation with beauty will give the artist the capacity to make beauty appear under the promptings of inspiration.

Scholars often take into account only Plato's description of the intellectual and artistic search; they neglect what he considered the culmination of this quest, the mystical vision of and union with the Good. But without this dimension, it would be impossible to understand historical Neo-Platonism's mystical turn. Inspiration, therefore, must be considered also in the context of one's self-development; and while in art inspiration is attributed to the Muses, here it is understood to flow from none other than Eros, that charming child of Poros and Penia.(18)

Plato envisioned human development in a way that extended beyond mere intellectual wisdom and contemplation. It involved what Cornford termed "the education of desire,"(19) the ultimate reaches of which are steeped in mystical experience, for the knowledge of arete is not the result of any direct teaching but "a new type of cognition, which cannot be learned from anyone else, but if the thought in the soul of the inquirer is led on in the right way, arises of itself." This takes place under the inspiring impulse of Eros in oneself yearning to attain one's true nature, and therefore it is a "moulding of oneself" (Republic 500D).(20)

Nettleship summarizes the intellectual delineations of this acme of moral virtue (described in Republic VI.490A-B and 500B-C):

Beginning with the instinctive attraction to what is familiar, passing on into the ready receptivity for all that is admirable in nature and art, with the unconscious grace and refinement which accompany it, it has now become the consuming passion for what is true and real, at once the most human and the most divine attribute of the soul, the crowning gift and complete embodiment of perfect manhood.(21)

The affective and even religious elements are found, not in the Republic, but in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. Several of the speeches in the latter - for instance, Alcibiades's - indicate some of the ascetical practices required to begin the march toward the mystical heights sketched later by Diotima. Detachment from individual and physical beauty is followed by learning to value moral beauty and to contemplate the unity and kinship of all that is noble and honorable. There follows the relish of abstract relationships, culminating in a divinizing union with Beauty itself, as in the Mysteries. Thus the individual, "perfecting himself through perfect performances becomes truly perfect" (Phaedrus 249c).(22)

In short, under the inspiring impulse of Eros, the intellectual, the esthetic, and the moral culminate in the mystical, where Truth, Beauty and the Good are One.

The most prevalent metaphors for inspiration have usually been the muse, the god, the guardian angel whispering in our ears, and there is nothing wrong with that unless they become exclusive. We speak of inspiration as an impelling force, an auditory push, but the same effect may be achieved by being drawn in: we fall from the crest whether shoved or sucked by vertigo, and thus other metaphors present themselves. Questing is but one way of describing the journey; Jung spoke of "the eternally sucking gorge of the void."(23) Whether we drive or are driven, the reaching is the same. The metaphor, here, dons a feminine garb. We glimpse Socrates led by Diotima. Odysseus, battered wildly by the seas stirred by Poseidon, heads for Ithaca, his skiff piloted by Athena; just as Dante, lost in the middle of life's way, is guided by Beatrice; and Faust, compelled by contract to be satisfied, is saved unsatisfied by Marguerite. The surge that carries us is not alone the intellect, robust and masculine, but equally the eternal feminine which draws us to the heights.(24)

This receptive/feminine view of inspiration disappeared as psychology, modeled on science, eliminated the feminine as force while emphasizing masculine creation. Truth, feminine in Greek and Latin, lost its allure, leaving psychologists nothing to study but the chase.

Finally, one must note that being anchored by visions of the Forms does not mean knowledge is the measure: we are not so much anchored as tethered. True, we cannot seek what we know not, but we can love beyond all thought. What miserable beings we would be if we could not; after all, our knowledge is always partial and incomplete. This is especially so of the infinite openness, god or future, toward which we tend. Drawn in flight toward the mountain range we can soar beyond it to the limitless unknown. Dante discovered this when, having reached the Divine Throne, his vision failed,

And yet the will rolled onward, like a wheel In even motion, by the love impelled That moves the sun in heav'n and all the stars.(25)


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," in Ecce Homo, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), 295.

2. For Poincare, Descartes and Coleridge, see Brewster Ghiselin, ed., The Creative Process (New York: Mentor, 1952).

3. According to Julian Jaynes, the phenomenon of inspiration as the hearing of voices (of the Muses or of any other agency) is explained by the fact that the right hemisphere (parieto/temporal location corresponding to Wernicke's area) originates auditory signals which are transmitted to the left hemisphere's Wernicke's area through the anterior commissure. This explains why poetry, originally, was "sung," not crafted. See his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).

4. Joe Brodie to Michael Murphy, quoted by Adam Smith, Powers of Mind (New York: Random House, 1975), 187. See also Plato, Letter VII 341C-D.

5. Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 137-249.

6. See, among many others, Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought (New York, 1954); Catherine Patrick, "Creative Thought in Artists," Journal of Psychology 4 (1937); Albert Rothenberg and B. Greenberg, The Index of Scientific Writings on Creativity: General, 1566-1974 (Hamden, Conn., 1976); Carl R. Hausman and Albert Rothenberg, eds., The Creativity Question (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1976).

7. Whitney J. Oates, Plato's View of Art (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972), 35-36.

8. Jung saw inspiration, especially of the visionary kind, as an irruption of the collective unconscious into the ordinary, of such force, that in such instances "human life is ruled and molded by the unconscious as against the active will, and the conscious ego is swept along on a subterranean current, being nothing more than a helpless observer of events. The work in process becomes the poet's fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe" ("Psychology and Literature," in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, quoted in Ghiselin, The Creative Process, 22).

9. W. J. Verdenius, "Plato's Doctrine of Artistic Imitation," in Gregory Vlastos, ed., Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1971), II, 270.

10. Paul Friedlander, Plato, 3 vols. (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1958), 2:133.

11. Nic. Ethics VI.4 [1140a 23].

12. Aristotle, Categories VIII [9a 10 and 8b 27], and Metaphysics V. 20 [1022b 3-14].

13. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 48.

14. Ibid., 49.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 58-59.

17. Paraphrasing St. Augustine's "Love and do what you will" (Tract. 8 in Epistul.).

18. For Plato, Eros is "a great spirit [[Delta][Alpha]i[Mu][Omega]v], and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal" (Symposium 202C; Timaeus 90; Friedlander 1:41 and 53). As intermediate (that is, as having and not-having) Eros can act as the starting point, motivation, inspiration, yearning, and desire for the fullness of what is had incipiently.

19. Francis Cornford, "The doctrine of Eros in Plato's Symposium," in Gregory Vlastos, ed., Plato. A Collection of Critical Essays, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1971), 2:121.

20. In our times Richard Rorty has revived the idea of education as self-creation or "edification" (Bildung) in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980). See also Rene V. Arcilla, For the Love of Perfection (New York: Routledge, 1995), and Kenneth Wain, "Richard Rorty, Education, and Politics," Educational Theory 45, no. 3 (Summer 1995), 395-409.

In his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (New York: Vintage, 1968), Walter Kaufmann claimed that Nietzsche's "will to power" was to be understood as "a creative striving that gives form to itself" (282). This was Nietzsche's way of synthesizing Eros and Nous, Dionysus and Apollo- or, as Freud would say, the Id and the Ego.

21. Richard Lewis Nettleship, The Theory of Education in the Republic of Plato (New York: Teachers College Press, 1968), 23.

22. The alliteration reproduces that of the Greek: [Greek Text Omitted], [Greek Text Omitted]. On the implication of teloumenos [Greek Text Omitted] see

Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), especially chap. 3 and notes, and Marvin W. Meyer, ed., The Ancient Mysteries (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987). Also, briefly, Ignacio L. Gotz, "A Note on Myth, the Mysteries, and Teaching in Plato's Republic," Alexandria 3 (1995): 271-75.

23. "Septem Sermones," in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Pantheon, 1962), 383.

24. Goethe, Faust 12110.

25. Dante, La Commedia, "Paradiso," xxxiii, 142-45.

IGNACIO GOTZ is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator for the Humanities and Creative Studies at New College, Hofstra University.
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Date:Dec 22, 1998
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