Friday, May 8, 2009

Plato's Beauty Pageant

This article reports on a recent "beauty pageant" that took place in Saudi Arabia:

Sukaina al-Zayer is an unlikely beauty queen hopeful. She covers her face and body in black robes and an Islamic veil, so no one can tell what she looks like. She also admits she's a little on the plump side.

But at Saudi Arabia's only beauty pageant, the judges don't care about a perfect figure or face. What they're looking for in the quest for "Miss Beautiful Morals" is the contestant who shows the most devotion and respect for her parents.

"The idea of the pageant is to measure the contestants' commitment to Islamic morals... It's an alternative to the calls for decadence in the other beauty contests that only take into account a woman's body and looks," said pageant founder Khadra al-Mubarak.

"The winner won't necessarily be pretty," she added. "We care about the beauty of the soul and the morals."

To me, what is interesting about this pageant is that it represents a concretization not just of religion but the more fundamental philosophy upon which modern religion is based: Platonism.

In my post, Meet Cass Sunstein - Your Choice Architect, I discussed the influence of Platonism on his evil ideology. Here, in a completely different context, we see the influence of Plato again. It is not coincidental that his philosophy appears in evil contexts. Why is this so?

According to Plato, actual things are just imperfect reflections of ideal forms that can only be accessed by the enlightened.

According to Socrates [Plato's representative], physical objects and physical events are "shadows" of their ideal or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by physical objects, physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances. For example, Socrates thinks that perfect justice exists (although it is not clear where) and his own trial would be a cheap copy of it.

The allegory of the cave (often said by scholars to represent Plato's own epistemology and metaphysics) is intimately connected to his political ideology (often said to also be Plato's own), that only people who have climbed out of the cave and cast their eyes on a vision of goodness are fit to rule. Socrates claims that the enlightened men of society must be forced from their divine contemplations and compelled to run the city according to their lofty insights. Thus is born the idea of the "philosopher-king", the wise person who accepts the power thrust upon him by the people who are wise enough to choose a good master. This is the main thesis of Socrates in the Republic, that the most wisdom the masses can muster is the wise choice of a ruler.

Plato's philosophy leads to a rejection of this world, i.e., reality, in favor of an idealized or perfect world as conveyed to the masses by enlightened Philosopher Kings (like the Pope, the Ayatollah, or Cass Sunstein). It is obvious that such a philosophy is the essence of religion. In fact, Platonism was hugely influential on early Christian theologians. For a detailed accounting of the early Christian church and the influence of Greek philosophy I highly recommend, The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman. For example, Freeman discusses Clement of Alexandria [c.150-c.215]:

Clement was in effect drawing on Middle Platonism, which stressed the power of "the Good" or "the One" to act in the world through the Platonic Forms. Platonism was ideally suited to providing the intellectual backbone of Christianity in that Platonists, particularly Middle Platonists, were dealing with the concept of an unseen, immaterial world in which "the Good," or God, could be described as absolute while at the same time being able to have a creative and loving role. Middle Platonists had developed the idea of the human soul from earlier Greek philosophy. They saw the soul as distinct from the human body and able to exist independently of it and to make its own relationship with a providential God, who, in his turn, might reach out to it living and creatively through the Forms, or "thoughts of God," as they were now described by Christian theologians.
To Plato, everything in the world is an imperfect reflection of the ideal, so logically, this doctrine leads to a disdainful, contemptuous view of reality and of man's nature. Consider the Christian doctrine of Original Sin which regards man as inherently sinful by virtue of having obtained knowledge and the capacity to be human in the Garden of Eden. Note that the essence of religion is faith or belief in the absence of evidence, which is considered a virtue. Note that religion urges the rejection of this world in favor of a heavenly after life; it promotes the worship of an unknowable God; it demands the rejection of sexual pleasure, and in the case of the beauty pageant (and in Islam generally) the literal cover up of physical feminine beauty.

Another important feature of Platonism mentioned in the Freeman quote is the separation of the body from the soul. Note the explicit recognition of this dichotomy by the pageant founder: "The winner won't necessarily be pretty," she added. "We care about the beauty of the soul and the morals." Again quoting Freeman (p. 146):

In contrast to Aristotle, who had talked of the soul as the essence of a human body, using the analogy that a body without a soul would be like an axe that cannot cut, Plato had stressed the independence of the soul from the body and its continuing existence from one body to another.
This doctrine was hugely influential on early Christian theologians such as Origen who argued:

that the soul was preexistent to the body in which it came to live and could move on to others after the death of a body (transmigration), but gradually the belief was consolidated that each body had its individual soul given to it at conception and that soul continued to exist eternally after the death of the body, something Aristotle could never have imagined. It could enjoy the happiness of heaven or the suffering of punishment in hell for eternity.
Origen stressed that the process of learning "true reality" requires devotion and commitment, an attribute of paramount importance to the pageant contestants:
Origen drew on the Platonic idea of a long, disciplined period of training before it was possible to achieve knowledge of the true reality - in their case God. The first step, the desire to commit oneself to the long path ahead, was the most important. This created the possibility of being "transformed, " a key concept for Origen. Those who selected themselves for "transformation" were the equivalents of Plato's Guardians, and like the Guardians their selection distinguished them from the those less committed to recovery.
Note how this philosophy naturally leads to the false alternative between "morals" and "physical beauty". Under this doctrine, in contrast to the Forms or God, physical beauty is regarded as fleeting and imperfect. Accordingly, to the Platonist, it is much more important to devote or commit one's life to the soul which is eternal. Therefore, the choice offered by this false alternative is "morals", i.e., sacrifice and the dictates of dogmatic authority or "beauty", i.e., the physical realm detached from morality.

Today, we see this all around us. It is implied in the false alternative between "religion", represented by the Religious Right in America or the fundamentalist Muslim fanatics in the Middle East, and subjectivism, represented by modern cultures' glorification of physical power and brute materialism detached from the concept of morality. It is implied by Cass Sunstein's distinction between the "consumer" who imbibes "infotainment" and the "citizen" who aspires to higher ideals. It is implied by the pageant founder when she declares:
The idea of the pageant is to measure the contestants' commitment to Islamic morals... It's an alternative to the calls for decadence in the other beauty contests that only take into account a woman's body and looks."
In reality, if morality is derived objectively, i.e., through reason using man's life as the standard of good and evil, then it becomes obvious that one can and ought to be moral and beautiful. In other words, there is no necessary dichotomy between the achievement of rational egoistic values and physical beauty. Under this philosophy, the philosophy of Objectivism, the idea of morals without beauty or beauty without morals or a beauty pageant where the contestants cover their bodies, can be seen as the ridiculous and disastrous false alternative that it is.


Harold said...

This is a good post, I think. You've taken a single concrete, examined it within an objective philosophical context, and linked it to others based on common essentials. We need more of this type of thinking :O

Well, in a recent podcast (begins at 13:40)Peikoff reads a letter from a listener who makes a great point about rationalism and the effect it has on how people view the physical...especially sex.

I don't think it's possible to overestimate the pervasiveness of this type of thinking, even among objectivists.

Doug Reich said...


Thanks for your kind comment.

I did not listen to Dr. Peikoff's podcast yet but for thanks for linking that.

Yes, I agree that rationalism is certainly everywhere. Especially, the Christian "Puritanism" as it regards sex is probably the least appreciated. It so infects our culture that it is hard to imagine. I find a good way to try and get away from this is to consider sexuality in Ancient Greece or in places without a tradition of Christianity. I have seen some history channel type shows that have documented this and their culture was obviously completely different shall we say.

Seeing Muslim women draped in clothing from head to toe especially in this country absolutely creeps me out. It is a tragedy.

Harold said...

"I find a good way to try and get away from this is to consider sexuality in Ancient Greece or in places without a tradition of Christianity."
Funny you mention that. Peikoff talked about nudity and the Greeks in his most recent episode.

"Seeing Muslim women draped in clothing from head to toe especially in this country absolutely creeps me out. It is a tragedy."
I find it disgusting and outrageous. Several months ago I was in Chicago O'Hare and there were these 3 Muslim girls (or women...I couldn't tell). Only their their hands and eyes were visible. They were being searched and I guess having their identities checked and were being put behind a special screen. Towards the entrance I saw a large man (probably their father/husband/guardian) in Middle Eastern garb watching this spectacle with his arms folded. I'm sure he would have been on the phone to some pressure group had those women been forced to show their faces openly.

Neil Parille said...

Mr. Reich,

Your understanding of Original Sin is incorrect. Likewise, Christians don't believe God is "unknowable."

As far as the Freeman book goes, you might want to check out David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions for a brief critique:


Along the way Freeman provides a few damning passages from the church fathers (always out of context and without any mention of the plentiful counterexamples found in the same authors), attempts long discourses on theological disputes he simply does not understand . . . offers vague assertions about philosophers he clearly has not studied . . .


-Neil Parille

Doug Reich said...


How exactly is God "knowable" in the sense that we know a tree or a rock exists? That is what I meant by "knowable". Properly, "knowable" means "provable" in the sense that something known must ultimately be reducible to an observable fact. Otherwise, how do we know it? If God were "knowable" in the sense that he were provable, there would be no religion and no need for the concept of faith which means belief in the absence of evidence.