WAS KEATS A FOOL?
D. R. Khashaba
Clever pundits dismiss with a condescending smile Keats' simplicity when he says
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
In this note I suggest that Keats' inspired statement is not mere soul-lifting poetical rhetoric, but encapsulates profound metaphysical insight. I do not intend to develop this suggestion here adequately. That is something I hope to do some other time. Here I merely sketch an outline for the benefit of whomever may wish to ponder it. In other words, this note is offered frankly and simply as a provocation.
The perfect model (I am allergic to the term 'paradigm') of indubitable truth is the axiom which rests in its own self-evidence, needing no external grounding and admitting no proof. Euclidean geometry is based on such axioms. That we now know that alternative axioms to those of Euclidean geometry are equally admissible and equally, or more, serviceable, does not invalidate the older ones. It only shows that our conception of truth has to be broadened. The whole of Spinoza's majestic metaphysical system rests on eight definitions and seven axioms taken as self-evident. That Spinoza's system has been taken to pieces by critics signifies no more than does the dethronement of Euclidean axioms. It only shows that our conception of metaphysical truth has to be revised.
The notion of truth has been a bone of contention in modern and contemporary philosophy simply because each of the contending philosophers works with her/his own narrowly defined conception of truth. But we would be gravely wronging Keats if we reduced his inspired dictum to a 'theory of truth'.
Factual truth is a strictly limited variety of truth and, although it almost monopolizes the term in modern usage, is the least significant philosophically. Of more philosophical significance is the truth exemplified in a great symphony or a good film. This is the truth of beauty: metaphysical truth is more akin to this.
Socrates, in the 'autobiographical' section of the Phaedo gives expression to a fundamental insight which, in my view, philosophers have not yet absorbed. Socrates presents the core of that insight in a truly oracular pronouncement:
It is apparent to me, that if there is anything beautiful other than the-beautiful-itself, it is for no other reason beautiful than that it shares of that beauty. ... If anyone tells me that anything whatever is beautiful by having a delightful colour or shape or anything else of the kind, I take leave of all that (for I get lost with such things), telling myself simply and solely, and perhaps foolishly, that nothing else makes it beautiful other than the presence of beauty. (Phaedo, 100c-d.)
I have repeatedly quoted and commented in my writings on the whole of the rich passage in which this statement occurs. Suffice it here to say that my interpretation, or my rendering if you will, of this insight is that the self-evidence of the intelligible form – engendered by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind – is the hallmark of philosophical truth: that self-evidence is of an essentially aesthetic nature.
I believe that in speaking of truth Keats must have had in mind what Plato meant by alêtheia. Throughout his works but principally in the Republic, Plato emphasizes the identity of alêtheia, ousia, and to on. In the Symposium Diotima delineates the progress from the experience of one beautiful object upwards to the vision of the Idea of Beauty. A beautiful object, then, as an embodiment of a particular perfection in intelligible immediacy is a unique expression of reality. As such it is truth in the only metaphysically significant sense of the word.