I remember a passage in Plato’s Symposium, which I don’t have with me and which I don’t really have the patience to find, and it was a typically Platonic, gnostic sort of passage regarding levels of intelligence and wisdom: the lover of souls and minds is superior to the lover of bodies, probably because the soul is immortal, godlike, and perfect, while the body is made of temporary stuff, a Protean Ship of Theseus, constantly changing, impossible to define, and soon reduced to dirt “stopping up a bunghole.” One of my more sensuous friends complained about Plato’s disdain of the physical world and his seemingly Buddha-like adoration of the mystical and the unseen, but at least in the case of Socrates we can tell rather easily why it’s important to focus more on the mind than the body:
…once I caught [Socrates] when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike — so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing — that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.
(I lazily stole this quote from wikipedia)
Socrates, the notoriously ugly man, is the shining source of ancient Greek philosophy, God-The-Father in the hypostases of Himself, Plato the Holy Spirit and transmitter of His Words, and the mutable Son, crucified on the rood of exile, the most human of them all, Aristotle. But to judge Socrates based on his looks, you would feel nothing but repulsion; this sickening Matroyoshka doll is full of infinite beauty.
I live in South Korea, a country where it is standard business practice to demand a photograph along with your resume every time you apply for a job, and where, at the moment, it seems my wife is the only Korean woman in her twenties who has not surgically lengthened her nose and enlarged her eyes to look as much as possible like the impossible Platonic ideal of Korean beauty (who herself looks as if one of her parents is a grey, and whose avatars, in the incarnate form of various celebrities, are plastered to every wall, window, and screen, in the country). This isn’t to say that plastic surgery or superficiality is unknown to America, my home, but in Maine and Massachusetts, where I spent most of my American life, I can’t remember ever seeing someone walking around with Joan Rivers’ botoxified face or Pamela Anderson’s cubical breasts. It always seemed like more of a West Coast thing, since in California people are prancing outside in the sunshine all the time where the whole world can see them, while four years ago in rainy Maine I was holed up for two months straight before I got on the plane for Korea. I was only able to see the sun when this plane rose up above the clouds…
No company I’ve ever heard of in America asks for pictures along with résumés. That’s not to say people don’t discriminate based on appearance, but a person’s achievements are, at least ostensibly, considered more important; in Korea, too, a (K)Ivy League degree is what gets you your coveted Samsung-wage-slave-corporate-cubicle-cog-in-the-machine-I’m-so-happy-I-don’t-have-to-think-for-myself-anymore lifetime gig: not your fake nose. Still, superficiality really seems to reign supreme in this place: products are primarily sold by simply pairing them with the faces of celebrities: my son cannot go outside without being complimented (catcalled) by middle school girls and old ladies, probably the greatest victims of this anti-woman culture, people who sometimes make a point of telling my wife that my son is only beautiful because all mixed-race children are beautiful; it has nothing to do with our genes—as if our genes belong to us, rather than we to them.
I am also not immune in any way to being infected by this superficiality.
I was talking with a Chinese friend two days ago: he was bothered by the claim, made by some Koreans, that their country possesses a five thousand year-old civilization. The wikipedia page for the History of Korea was once Orwelled by one of these Korean patriots, who made a point of stating that Korean civilization was one of the oldest on Earth, but thankfully after much wrangling and wrestling this absurd line was finally removed. There were videos on youtube declaring that Koreans invented the airplane, and the very best, a Korean-made satire of these ridiculous claims, has found the true origins of pizza.
These different Asian countries, China, Korea, Japan, and others, are all proud and fiery and nationalistic, and yet it bothers them that numerous incredible technologies were first invented in America. Korea’s portfolio, at least according to the English wikipedia, is comparatively slim. And so historians and nationalists stretch their histories back as far as possible, since, superficially, that looks impressive—though if you were to ask King Gwanggaeto about his nationality: “Hey! Are you from Korea?”, he would say: “What’s Korea?”, since the idea of the nation-state is only about two centuries old, and before that people were loyal to leaders or faiths rather than flags and passports—and this historical superficiality is linked to the physical superficiality that forces women to spend millions of won, to risk their lives, in fact, to alter their faces: the dangerous and destructive and simplistic and un-Socratic belief that if a person looks beautiful, that person’s thoughts must also be beautiful.
This isn’t just tied to Samsung’s relentless pirating of Apple’s ideas, or China’s notorious intellectual theft of America’s military technology: it goes back to human evolution, as well: why human beings triumphed over their competitors in the primitive primordial savannah. Cheetahs are faster, lions are stronger, elephants are bigger, ants are more numerous: but humans are the smartest beasts of all, and their brains are what pushed them ahead of their competitors in the distant past, and their brains were still revolutionizing philosophical thought in the Athenian Golden Age, and their brains are still changing the world now, and so long as a country like Korea believes that physical appearance is important enough to warrant a photo stapled to every résumé, so long will it be destined to follow and copy those who recognize the Platonic importance of the mind over the shifting untrustworthy mirage of the body.