In the third book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that just as poets ought to present character that is worthy of emulation, so also craftsmen (painters, sculptors, architects) should produce such works that “our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.” (Republic 401c–d, trans. Paul Shorey.) The breeze is aura (αὔρα), a word which elsewhere in Plato occurs in the phrase “the breeze of fortune,” which bloweth where it listeth.
Both expressions, perhaps influenced by the similar (though unrelated) word aurion, “tomorrow,” look to the future—happy for the youth in the salubrious region, uncertain for anyone subject to luck and chance. So does the one occurrence of aura in Homer (Odyssey 5.469, aurē), where Odysseus, just washed onto the Phaeacian shore, wonders what will become of him, and more immediately, what to do for the coming night. “The breeze from the river blows cold in the early morning,” he reflects—some say he means “mist” rather than “breeze”—so he determines to shelter in a grove that will shut out the wind, and cover himself with dead leaves, which we have learned from the Iliad to associate with the generations of men. The next day beauty, in the form of the princess Nausicaa, will bring him salvation. Thus aura, time, and beauty were brought together long before Plato. In Homer’s situation time future is protected by time past, that of the leaves which the wind cannot reach.
This makes me think of another breeze, not classical but identified by a classicist, and called an air (a word related to aura):
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
(A Shropshire Lad, XL.) Housman’s fatal air is a breath of memory that reminds of change and loss. In this way it carries the very feeling of time. Yet the blue hills in the shining land suggest a beauty that is permanent, if remote. This may inspire us to imagine that Plato’s nourishing breeze blows from the realm in which Beauty itself dwells with the other Ideas which the soul is capable of remembering. Of course the soul, or spirit, or life, psuchē, is inseparable from breath; the verb for blowing is psuchō, and incidentally that breeze from the river happens to be cold, psuchrē.
And as one wind blows in another, I think too of Rilke’s Nikolai Kuzmitch, who, from supposing himself wealthy in time, finds that he is spending it at a frightful rate, and presently comes to feel the wind of time, an actual draft, “all these tiny seconds, all equally tepid, each one exactly like the others, but fast, but fast.” With it come strange motions under his feet; so he stays in bed, where literature helps him: “When you recited a poem slowly, with a regular emphasis on the rhyme words, then something more or less stable existed, which you could keep a steady gaze on, inwardly of course.” (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell.)
A last association is to Socrates again, this time the garrulous one of Valéry’s dialogue Eupalinos, Socrate in Hades, who shows Phèdre there “the river of Time,” a “great flux … made of all the things that you have known, or could have known…. Here everything is negligible, and nevertheless everything counts,” somewhat in the way of the tepid seconds flying in the wind.