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Making Sense of Plato’s Taste

Afroditi Manthati Angelopoulou

University of Southern California

The aim of this paper is to evaluate the role of taste, one of the ‘lower’ senses, in the formulation of Plato’s aesthetic and moral judgments. My analysis is situated within the broader context of discussions concerning the complicated status of sensory experience in Plato’s writings. For example, it has been noted that Plato often resorts to visual metaphors to reinforce his anti-sensory stance (cf. for instance Nightingale 2004, 72-93; 2016, 58), while, as Ralph Rosen has recently argued, sensory experience and concrete, aesthetic pleasure are the necessary first step towards “a more abstract aesthetics” (Rosen 2013, 93). Such considerations focus primarily on vision, admittedly one of the ‘higher’ senses qua tools through which we engage with and interpret the material world. One “paradoxical aspect” of Plato’s aesthetic thought, however, emerges with his emphasis on “the unbeautiful features of Socrates’ own appearance and verbal style” (Worman 2008, 167). My own discussion aims to shed further light on such paradoxes in Platonic aesthetics, while it seeks to move beyond the visual paradigm, focusing instead on the role of taste as sensation, skill and sensibility (see Wright 2015). Through a careful consideration of a limited number of passages (primarily from the Republic and the Gorgias), I indicate how Plato’s ‘taste buds’ break with tradition (cf. for instance Rep. 607a: τὴν ἡδυσμένην Μοῦσαν) in order to reshape the taste of poetry, rhetoric and, importantly, philosophy (cf. Rep. 457c: παντὸς μαθήματος γεύεσθαι). I particularly argue that through the figure of the ‘disgusting’ Socrates (cf. Rep. 338d: βδελυρὸς γὰρ εἶ) and his pikroi logoi (Grg. 522b), Plato provokes his cultural milieu’s ‘gut reactions’ and challenges the categories of sweet and bitter, as these have been filtered through longstanding social, cultural and historical contexts. This paper then invites a deeper appreciation of the ways in which Plato’s visceral rhetoric manipulates his readers’ ‘lower’ senses to the full, to guide them in their path towards philosophy, starting from the material world and its ‘unhealthy’ habits (cf. esp. Theaet. 166e: τῷ μὲν ἀσθενοῦντι πικρὰ φαίνεται ἃ ἐσθίει). Ultimately, my analysis contributes to a better understanding of the nature of the relationship between taste, the senses, morality and aesthetics, as it emerges in some of Plato’s writings, while it seeks to redefine the ways in which we are invited to think through and with the body as we engage with Platonic narrative.

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The Body and its Travails

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