Matthew Arnold suggests how a thoroughgoing Platonism might help us think through art, criticism, and more: “the application of ideas to life” in his suggestive phrase, art becomes, if we take “ideas” as a surrogate for the “ideas” that are Platonic forms, the application itself. Whereas the study of philosophy is the study of forms themselves, such as Justice, Truth, Beauty, all at a level of generality beyond application, the critical task becomes the study of how and where those forms are successfully applied to life; the study of life, regardless of how forms are applied, might be said to be the purview of history.
It would be of little help if this meant that critics needed, before setting out, to have beside them a list of forms to which they would appeal as they undertook the study of a particular work. For one thing, that would be to take the Platonic fantasy far too seriously, for another, the identification and awareness of forms, if we do take Plato seriously, emerges from thinking about them and their application, rather than prior to it. But a Platonic version of Arnold in mind, we could at the least say what happens when we do find a work of art moving; the work represents an application of forms.
The critic’s task opens: to articulate which forms have been applied—and this can only happen through an experience and study of the application itself. For some critics, in some traditions and at some moments, the task is more descriptive: bringing the work of art under the right predicates (“beautiful,” “grave,” “severe”), with an argument or suggestion that these are rightly applied to life (that is, a work of great tenderness would need to appreciate where tenderness is not applicable or appropriate), and with a sense of the range of application—how much of life is taken in. What results is not a description or account of the forms (philosophy’s work), but a description and account of them as they have been applied. In English criticism, Samuel Johnson is probably the greatest critic in this line. He would probably shudder at the thought that his descriptions and predicates had anything to do with Platonic forms, and that would make no difference to his task: the predicates are not the forms exactly, and the Platonic account is only one possible account to which a practitioner need not subscribe (if they want one at all).
Another critical style, the line of Empson and intense analysis, is also possible: the application proceeds by ways of judgments that must contain their own validating grounds and conditions. The critic’s task is to unearth these. The forms themselves are not, as it were, fully delineated and described, but their force and contours emerge in the criticism; their application being analyzed, their presence is immediate. Such a critic might be deeply historical (Auerbach), deeply verbal (Empson); the application itself happens in history, with and against language.
Arnold himself represents another line: his sense of the critical task extends beyond literature, beyond even, ultimately, the written word. It would lead to Aestheticism, if the only form that mattered to him was “Beauty.” But Arnold sets himself, at times, as a critic of life, of culture, of men and manners (his heir in the twentieth century is Lionel Trilling): he wants to know the best that has been said and thought, which means understanding the application of forms to life in whatever realm.
In his introductory What is Ancient Philosophy, Pierre Hadot argues that philosophy for the Ancients was always bound up with a practical dimension of life: his account of Socrates ends with Plutarch’s description of the philosopher whose philosophizing was brought to bear on, and flew out of, and was ultimately indivisible from, his experiences on the battlefield, in the gym, at drinking parties…the implication, for the critic of Arnold’s stripe, might be that all of these places are suitable for the application of forms, and that a healthy culture is one that recognizes that—or at least allows it, since it is up to the critic to do the recognizing. It makes a night at the pub more defensible on lofty grounds.
In such an account of the critic and culture, elitism is latent; but it need not be; it could lead one to look more widely for the application, to question what we assume the application must be, and to work to ensure that more can apply it for themselves. It could also entail, looking at the example of Socrates, just how difficult (how demanding on self-consciousness and self-reflection) the application of many forms can be in daily life, and appreciate that art can communicate and involve others, and a great many, in the application of forms to life as nothing else can. On these grounds, I think, we can make more sense of Arnold the educator and Arnold the proselytizer of criticism, whether or not he would consider such bald Platonism as I’ve articulated to be affront to his refined pragmatism.
Criticism by Arnold and others aspires to truth, but not only that: it moves and is moved towards other forms too, as it appreciates and participates and helps others participate in forms that others have applied. Criticism is not creation–as Arnold knew–but at its best, it’s an application of ideas made possible by an intense participation in how others have applied them. In that application and participation, it is at one with the common impulse to not just live but live well.