Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

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Wordsworth’s Kites

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Red Kites were alive and well in the 1800s in the Lake District. I have found three separate references to kites in the poems of William Wordsworth and one mention by his sister, Dorothy. There may be more references than these but they alone prove that the iconic birds were a common sight in the Lake District just over two hundred years ago.

The first two instances are from Wordsworth’s narrative poem, Michael and from Dorothy’s Journal, dated 11 Oct 1800.

Greenhead Gill, mentioned at the beginning of Michael is a mountain stream/ravine behind the Swan Hotel, which is north of Grasmere.

If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage! for around that boisterous brook
The mountains have all opened out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.
No habitation can be seen; but they
Who journey thither find themselves alone
With a few sheep, with rocks and stones, and kites
That overhead are sailing in the sky.

As was usual with Wordsworth, some of his lines were prompted by his sister Dorothy. It seems Wordsworth was writing the early drafts of Michael in Oct 1800. She writes in her journal:

After dinner we walked up Greenhead Gill in search of a sheepfold. . . The colours of the mountains soft, and rich with orange fern; the cattle pasturing upon the hill-tops; kites sailing in the sky above our heads. Sheep bleating and in lines and chains and patterns scattered over the mountains.

The third reference is from the autobiographical The Prelude, Book First:

The heart is almost mine with which I felt,

From some hill-top on sunny afternoons,

The kite high among the fleecy clouds

Pull at her rein like an impetuous courser,

*

The fourth from his long poem, The Excursion:

With care and sorrow; shoals of artisans

From ill-requited labour turned adrift

Sought daily bread from public charity,

They and their wives and children – happier far

Could they have lived as do the little birds

That peck along the hedgerows, or the kite

That makes her dwelling on the mountain rocks!

In many of Wordsworth’s poems place-names are mentioned so it is possible to walk in his footsteps. When my parents were alive they lived at Troutbeck Bridge and I would often set off from there to walk behind Rydal Mount (one of Wordsworth’s residences) in the White Moss area. Easedale Tarn, accessible from Grasmere village, was another favourite, and nearby Helm Crag with its famous ‘Lion and the Lamb’ rock.

A mere decade or two after Wordsworth’s sightings, Red Kites began to be persecuted by Gamekeepers and by the closing decades of the nineteenth century they were extinct in England and Scotland. In the 1990s reintroduction programmes were established in England and Scotland. Our North East birds came as chicks from the Chilterns. They were released in the Derwent Valley in Gateshead in a four year project. There is a link in my blogroll to Friends of Red Kites.

I have been in touch with a curator-trainee at Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s residence at Grasmere) and she tells me kites have been seen recently soaring overhead, so that is good news!

An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

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To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

Ruskin & the Moral View of Art

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I like coming across books by chance. This is one such: a copy of John Ruskin’s A Joy Forever, bought for £1 in an Amnesty bookshop. It is an edited transcription of a series of talks he gave in Manchester about the economics of art and about art education. The talks were given in 1857 and there are five essays in total in the book.

The collection is a fascinating mixture of Utopianism, moral aestheticism, dogmatism and naivety. Ruskin is worth reading today in order to mine the nuggets of gold from the occasional dross. Apart from anything else he is a master-stylist of the essay form.

Ruskin is a typical Victorian and takes an elitist, moral view of art. He believes in an aesthetic ‘gold standard’ – that certain works of art stand head and shoulders above others. Contrast that with today’s relativistic, ‘anything goes’ view of art. Postmodernism has abandoned the gold standard: the high priests of post modernism maintain there is no qualitative difference between Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. High culture and low culture are anathema in the current art lexical.

As Glenn Ward states:

There is, for example, no self-evident reason why Bach should be seen as better than Bacharaach. This is not necessarily to say that they are the same, just that they are equal. Everything swims in the same social sea of signs, images and meanings. [ Teach Yourself Postmodernism, 1997.]

I don’t want to get bogged down in too much of a criticism of postmodernism, but I should confess that I find it difficult to jettison the gold standard completely. At the same time I can also see the value of originality and experimentation.

It is tempting to simplify Ruskin and write him off as a hyper-conservative critic, out of touch with modernity. He famously dismissed Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, accusing him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ At the same time he championed JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this Introduction I want to argue that many of Ruskin’s ideas are worthy and still relevant today.

In his first essay, The Discovery and Application of Art, Ruskin considers how a society nurtures and encourages its young artists, how artists are employed and how works of art are distributed and displayed. I will bypass his main explorations and merely give a few examples of his general view of art and artists to see if they are still relevant today.

I will start with a quote which many may dismiss as encapsulating an archaic, obsolete view of art:

Now, no branch of art economy is more important than that of making the intellect at your disposal pure as well as powerful; so that it may always gather for you the sweetest and fairest things. The same quality of labour. . . will produce a lovely and useful work or a base and hurtful one. . . its chief and final value, to any nation, depends upon its being able to exalt and refine, as well as to please; and that the picture which most truly deserves the name of art-treasure is that which has been painted by a good man.

The notion that art is in any way morally uplifting has been cast into the dustbin of postmodernism. Yet the question of moral influence goes back to Plato and his somewhat draconian expulsion of poets from his Republic. Nearer to our own times, the Romantics championed moral purpose, Wordsworth even seeing moral instruction in nature.

Most of is will baulk at Ruskin’s reference to the morality of the artist – that art should be the product of a ‘good man.’ I will consider this point in a moment.

If we no longer expect artists to take the moral high ground, we are more comfortable with the notion of moral indignation in the service of social justice. The feminist and political stances of Kinda Kahlo and Kara Walker, respectively, are cases in point. Such artists go against the tide of postmodern rejection of moral commitment.

Now, is it possible to defend Ruskin’s view of the ‘morally good’ artist? It would seem, on the face of it, naive and idealistic. Artists such as Francis Bacon and Gauguin were not paragons of virtue but produced works of lasting quality. However, we could be generous to Ruskin, and interpret the idea of morality in broader terms of the artist being morally engaged, and, above all, being self-aware and committed to ‘self-overcoming’ – to use a phrase from Nietzsche.

William Blake comes immediately to mind in this respect. His whole oeuvre is the result of self-overcoming – in his words, ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ and seeing the sacred in everything. [‘Everything that lives is holy.] He demands in himself, as well as us, nothing less than a perceptual, spiritual and moral transformation. [If you wish to examine in detail his view of human potential I recommend studying his Illustrations of the Book of Job. When I say examine, I mean studying his engravings with a magnifying glass and reading a good commentary such as Joseph Wicksteed’s Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Probably you will only appreciate the depth of his vision if you are prepared to spend many hours, days and weeks on this work!]

Idealism in art and politics is seen as naive and is often contrasted with empiricism and practicality. However, if we are to avoid a climate-induced apocalypse we all need the imagination and moral commitment to leave behind our infantile greed, violence and rape of the planet. We need to put into practice the principles of non-violence [ Ahisma, meaning ‘not to injure.’] and cooperation, and become true stewards of the planet, nurturing eco-systems instead of denuding them. This will most likely see the abandonment of capitalism in its present form and the abandonment of the insane doctrine of run-away economic growth. What has this to do with art? Art has always been both a product of the times and questioned its own times. Need I say more?

Here, to end, is Ruskin’s eloquent denunciation of our destruction of cultural artefacts as a result of war and indifference:

Fancy what Europe would be now, if the delicate statues and temples of the Greeks – if the broad roads and the massy walls of the Romans. . . had not been ground to dust by mere human rage. You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm – we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish – ourselves who consume; we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth when it frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years; but we have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes.

In my next blog I will look in more detail at what Ruskin has to say about art education.

 

 

Boarding School Survival: Part 2

This third painting shows the ‘dark winds’ of karmic consequences in later life; the fire symbolises the anger and perhaps the redemptive power of self-awareness. Mortality is also an obvious theme, with the skull-like mask.

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The school I attended was burnt down many years after I left; perhaps a fitting end to the building. The seven years I spent at the school were not unmitigated hell though: I found some enjoyment in activities such as sport, art and walking in the Lake District. (Hence the mountains in the first two paintings.) However, I believe the seeds of my adult difficulties were planted and cultivated during these years. Along with other psychological wounds, I became institutionalised: of course, without knowing it at the time.

Ironically the school motto was, We Seek the Truth; this would become an unconscious mantra for the rest of my life. As an adult, I became quietly obsessed with finding a spiritual refuge, first joining a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford in the 1970s, attending Krishnamurti’s talks in the 1980s and many years later embracing Buddhism.

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The last picture shows the beginnings of release from suffering – among many interpretations here, even depression could be seen as a mask. ‘Buddha-nature’ is the intrinsic ‘goodness/perfection’ at the heart of all of us and that which Buddhism says cannot be harmed by circumstances. The burning school could be seen as ‘burning up the painful memories’ – once I acknowledge these painful feelings, in a spirit of deep acceptance – very difficult, as anyone who has experienced abuse will know – I can, hopefully, live without anger or resentment. It’s an ongoing process. (Meditation and living an ethical life are the two main supports of Buddhist practice. (Ethics here includes how we treat ourselves and others. Buddhist practice involves the transformation of hatred, greed and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.)

Perhaps you could say that I wouldn’t have been so determined to find a spiritual path if I hadn’t been subject to the school heartache and trauma. I have had to ‘dig deep’ to find any sense in life and I believe I’ve put Carl Jung’s assertion into practice. His life’s work and psychology is based on recognising the shadow self; integrating and transforming it within the whole psyche. He wrote:

No tree grows towards heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

Buddhism has a similar image; the lotus blossom whose roots reach down to the mud (symbolic of hatred, greed and delusion). After sufficient time, the flower opens in immaculacy above the water.

We are cautioned in Buddhist practice not to get stuck with ‘our story.’ We have to move on from the hurt and not see ourselves as victims. This is not always easy and I have found paradoxically that going over and over my past circumstances has enabled me to get it into perspective. Today, I can live in the present moment more often without the past intruding, and, as you may read in my other blogs, appreciate the simple things in life such as bird-song or walking in the countryside with friends.

Boarding School Survival: Part 1

 

Mental Health has become more prominent on the socio-political agenda in recent years so it feels the right time to write this more personal blog.

Boarding School Survival Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition rarely talked about. It is similar in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis. Here is one comment about it:

[Children] who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices … When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don’t even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering. This, as we know from the psychological research evidence, often leads to further psychosomatic difficulties in terms of overworking to the point of burnout, multiple serious health problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.”

Petruska Clarkson BMJ, Vol. 322, 31/3/2001, reviewing Nick Duffell (2000) ‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System‘.

And, to reiterate some of the common symptoms:

  • problems with relationships

  • fear of emotional intimacy

  • sexual problems

  • substance/alcohol abuse

  • inability to express feelings

  • learning quickly to suppress painful feelings

  • workaholism/career addiction

  • depression and other mental health problems

  • fear of spontaneity/unable to enjoy life

  • fear of authority

Just as not all war combat personnel will experience PTSD not all ex-boarders will experience these symptoms to the extent that their lives are seriously impacted. However, even some of those who don’t have explicit symptoms may well have buried the hurt so deep within themselves that neurosis will possibly surface eventually.

It was not until my late thirties that I recognised, or acknowledged, I had depression and not until much later that I really made the link between my going to a boarding school and my mental ill-health. You are lucky in the UK(and probably financially well-off) if you manage to get psychotherapy; I had to deal with the trauma by myself.

There was no pastoral care, or what today we call safeguarding, at the school I attended from age 12-19yrs. Some of the teachers were sadistic and psychological abuse was common.

I did these paintings when I was 72 and they ‘process’ the emotional damage in a sequence. The first one shows a boy alone – this is the crucial point; on no account did you let on that you were homesick, or sad, to others. It is even the case that you didn’t let on to yourself that you were sad or stressed!

 

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The second shows the anguish and feelings of abandonment: again completely private and suppressed. I was influenced by Munch’s Scream when creating the main figure in the composition and in painting the background.

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The next blog will show the final two paintings and conclude the description.

Love & Diotima’s Ladder

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I did an online course about Plato and one of the assignments was to rewrite part of a dialogue where Socrates is asking Euthyphro what justice and piety are. As usual. Plato makes Socrates’ debating partner look a bit dim so I have redressed the balance. ‘Love’ in Socrates’ philosophy is ‘love of knowledge’ as well as love in relationships.

SOCRATES: As it is, I know well enough that you think you have true knowledge of what’s holy and good and what is not. Tell me, then, most worthy Euthyphro, and don’t conceal what you think it is.

EUTHYPHRO: Well, dear Socrates, as you know there are the four virtues; justice, prudence, courage and wisdom. You yourself have talked endlessly about your Theory of Forms, where the virtues reside as universal perfections. In my understanding they reside with the gods.

SOCRATES: Goodness, Euthyphro, I am amazed you remember my discourse of a year ago! However, you still haven’t told me what holiness or goodness actually is.

EUTHYPHRO: I remember your Allegory of the Cave where you talk about true goodness being like the sun but that we humans live in semi darkness mistaking the shadows for reality.

SOCRATES: Again I am humbled by your memory and understanding. Please continue; tell me how we become the best people we can be.

EUTHYPHRO: Can I remind you of another person who sheds light on this subject as well as yourself Socrates?

SOCRATES: Of course.

EUTHYPHRO: Do you remember the wise lady Diotima?

SOCRATES: Of course. Are you going to tell me about her Ladder?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Diotima says that a young man should first of all love a person for their beauty. This is how most of us are attracted to each other isn’t it Socrates?

SOCRATES: Yes, indeed.

EUTHYPHRO: After a while, say a few years, the young man should realise that many other people are just as beautiful. He will ascend a few steps on Diotima’s Ladder.

SOCRATES: So, is the idea that he becomes less obsessed with his first love?

EUTHYPHRO: You could say that but really he must venerate wisdom above physical beauty.

SOCRATES: Yes, but this demands a complete change in how we usually view love.

EUTHYPHRO: Exactly, we must have an experienced guide at this stage on the ladder.

SOCRATES: So, tell me about the next few rungs of the ladder.

EUTHYPHRO: Next he should widen his love and appreciation to include animals, institutions, buildings and anything else in the world which is beautiful. In short he must learn not to take sense-experience as his main source of knowledge.

SOCRATES: Now we are getting to the crux of the matter. Please go on Euthyphro.

EUTHYPHRO: He must develop intellectual contemplation and leave behind likes and dislikes dependent upon sense experience.

SOCRATES: I am astonished once again at your understanding Euthyphro. And next?

EUTHYPHRO: Well, the culmination of his meditations is nothing short of a glimpse of the Eternal, Socrates. What he’ll see doesn’t come and go or cease to be and doesn’t increase or diminish.

SOCRATES: So starting off with worldly love he ascends from the things of this world until he can bear the brightness of the sun in our allegory Euthyphro?

EUTHYPHRO: Exactly.

SOCRATES: You mentioned a guide before. Who is this Guide?

EUTHYPHRO: We all remember you talking of your Daimon Socrates! It is the inner voice of conscience sent by the gods to be our guide in choosing right from wrong.

SOCRATES: Well said Euthyphro. So, the Daimon is the mediator between we humans and the gods. Is that what you mean?

EUTHYPHRO: This is what you yourself have said Socrates and Diotima agrees with you.

SOCRATES: I think we can sum up now. For us to be truly happy we have to live a virtuous life. We have to listen to our Daimon and cultivate contemplation of the Forms. The highest good is unchangeable (like the sun) and if we catch sight of it gold and clothing and good-looking youths will pale into insignificance beside it.

EUTHYPHRO: Well put Socrates. And what about rebirth? Do we come back again and again until we learn these lessons?

SOCRATES: I’m afraid Euthyphro, that question will have to wait for another day.