What We Don't See: Xenophon, "Memorabilia" I.3.12-13 & Kyla Houbolt, "on the wing"

Perhaps, when you are virtuous, it shows throughout your being. You don't just stand for something, you are seen to be it.

What We Don't See: Xenophon, "Memorabilia" I.3.12-13 & Kyla Houbolt, "on the wing"

Welcome! Some things of interest, and an introduction to the post below

I got a lot of value from Parker Molloy's interview with Joe Galbo, who makes memes for the US government. They both talk about going to "what works" in an age where saying boring things could cost lives. There's a real need to be effective communicators at a time when people flock to content that entertains as well as informs.

For me, the lesson was a bit different. I can't worry about being entertaining when talking about books that even the best students might be prone to neglect. I've got to worry about being relevant, which is a different task altogether. But being relevant doesn't mean neglecting things like being able to promote myself or explain what I do, though those tasks can be quite difficult. I've got to learn to talk about my blog more. Talk about what each post does, what I'm trying to achieve. And I've got to learn there's a visual aspect to this, that professional graphics and photos can help.

Jonathan Katz's newsletter on racial innocence and contrarianism is a short but necessary read. If you wonder why hacks selling the dumbest takes abound, he's got an answer a lot of people don't want to hear.

Below, I've spend some time wondering aloud about how we respond to what we don't see. The most famous thought on this topic, I believe, is that of Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: "the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." What I've written below is very different. What we don't see is how desire is a complex. Not just an impulse to possess or be with something or someone, but a desire which changes us and them, one which calls for new ways of knowing. My remarks are focused on establishing this as a philosophic concern, and I hope I've succeeded on that front.

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Xenophon, "Memorabilia" 1.3.12-13 & Kyla Houbolt, "on the wing"

The priority of the invisible features at a prominent moment in classical thought. This may seem strange as there’s nothing particularly subtle about Hercules’ strength, Archimedes’ boast of moving the world if given a point, Cicero’s republicanism. These figures wear their flaws, and more importantly their virtues, in spectacular fashion. But here’s Xenophon giving us a story about a time Socrates told him to stay away from someone beautiful:

“Heracles!” said Xenophon. “What a terrible power you ascribe to a kiss.”

“And do you wonder at this?” said Socrates. “Don’t you know that poisonous spiders not even half an obol in size crush human beings with pain and drive them from their senses merely by touching them with their mouths?”

“Yes, by Zeus!” said Xenophon. “For spiders inject something through their sting.”

“You fool!” said Socrates. “Do you think that when those who are beautiful kiss they don’t inject anything, just because you don’t see it? Don’t you know that this beast that they call beautiful and in bloom is so much more terrible than spiders that, while spiders inject something when they touch, it (even when it does not touch, but if one just looks at it) injects even from quite far away something of the sort to drive one mad?"

(Xenophon, Memorabilia I.3.12-13, translation Amy Bonnette-Nendza)

The comedy and simple construction of this scene deceive. It doesn't appear to be a big deal, except for nerds obsessed with ancient philosophy. Xenophon wants to kiss someone. Socrates yells at him, saying kissing anyone beautiful is dangerous. It's like beautiful people inject spider venom—you don't see what's happening until it's too late.

A frozen morning can reveal amazing little things. Before going to work, I took a few minutes to shoot this iced spider web, an abandoned kingdom in the middle of winter. I really love the power of macro photography to throw you in miniature and parallel worlds, so a garden becomes a universe to explore for hours…
Photo by Nicolas Picard / Unsplash

What could possibly be important about this? Consider that the ancients may be playing with a thesis about virtue. Perhaps, when you are virtuous, it shows throughout your being. You don't just stand for something, you are seen to be it. This is implicit in the Greek word kalon, which can mean either "noble" or "beautiful." If you try to reconcile the tension between a word referring more or less to political things ("noble") and another referring to aesthetic experience, you can get a conclusion like the following: how one is morally disposed displays publicly.

When Socrates posits that beauty exerts power, as it injects something invisible, he's critiquing this idea. Beauty itself, what is visible, has an invisible influence. He reverses the priority of the visible and invisible. What is seen leads to what is unseen, and this results in a number of difficulties. When what is unseen leads to the seen, reality can be simpler. Our thoughts become our virtues. When others see our virtues, they think virtuously and become virtuous. All is well and good.

When the seen leads to the unseen, we place ourselves in the middle of a messy, petty drama. Two would-be lovers, in Xenophon's telling, very much want to experience the pain of love. However, beauty is the cause, not the end. What is at stake, exactly? Kyla Houbolt's "on the wing" outlines another way of telling this story. Birds fly in patterns we don't understand, "following the pheromones," "bright traceries in air" invisible to us and perhaps to the birds themselves:

on the wing (from the poet's Twitter)
Kyla Houbolt

their flight makes no sense to us
following the pheromones
bright traceries in air
and we
can't see
a thing

Three things stand out to me in Houbolt's poem. First, "their flight makes no sense to us," how the invisible is taken to be irrational. We don't see the plan, so it must not make sense. But if one presses, the invisible points to questions which are anything but irrational. What chemicals trigger desire in birds, causing them to fly to each other? When two grown men argue about the appropriateness of their desires, are they under the same spell?

Photo by Tavis Beck / Unsplash

Second, I wonder about the invisible being physical, something that could be glimpsed under the right conditions. I've got all these ideas which I treat as otherworldly and believe worthy of devotion. In the end, however, what I want most is as real as concrete. If I want to be a certain way, then I need specific moments in my life where I demonstrate to myself I can be that way.

The third thing which strikes me is closely related to the second, but is not exactly the same. There's the revelation of the unseen, the potentially "bright traceries." What is unseen may not be eternal, but its power makes the world, pushing us in turn to see that much more. Eventually, what was unseen becomes visible.


We have identified a complicated dance between desire, visibility, and rationality. Does it mean anything? Can it be of any use to us?

We often speak of the ancients as embracing wonder, but that isn't true for all of them. Some were mindless goons who believed that in fighting they would prove their prowess. Others were so "virtuous" they failed to see the world collapsing around them. They refused to see, in some cases, what a privilege their morality was, walking into situations in which they were manipulated.

A lustful Socrates in the midst of berating one of his younger companions does not sound like he is beyond manipulation or being manipulated. He's a far cry from wonder, we might believe. But it is possible for us to see, in his speech, how beauty becomes wonder. We have to put aside his ridiculous warning that beauty is always dangerous to be around and to be avoided. Rather, we can glimpse the more interesting notion that beauty becomes something else entirely in the perceiver of it. As if we never really see with our eyes, that the mind's eye is all we truly have.