On Beauty

On Beauty

On Beauty is Plotinus’ first work listed in Porphyry’s chronological ordering of the Enneads. According to John Dillon and Lloyd Gerson, the text is a “relatively accessible introduction to Plotinus’ difficult systematic thought.” This assessment seems right, as almost all the familiar Plotinian characters are present in I.6: the Good, Intellect, individual soul, and matter, discussed in more or less ascending order. Moreover, beauty is a fitting introduction insofar as it naturally shows itself or manifests itself in and through material things. As Plotinus puts it, beauty “gives itself” (διδὸν ἑαυτὸ) to beings and “settles in” them (ἵδρυται οὖν ἐπ´ αὐτοῦ). Hence, a treatise on beauty should be accessible by nature.

And yet, Plotinus’ text is rather obscure. It seems to lack a central argument. Rather there appear to be many different arguments about the nature of beauty and its various interactions with matter, soul, and Intellect. What’s more, the text has a very high entry cost, as Plotinus assumes that the reader has read and familiarized himself with the Symposium and the Pheadrus, the two Platonic texts most explicitly concerned with the Beautiful. Plotinus’ use and development of themes from the former dialogue alone makes analyzing I.6 extremely difficult. For example, Plotinus enters, whether knowingly or unknowingly, into one of the Symposium’s most important debates about love. This debate, between Diotima and Aristophanes, is about whether we love things because they are beautiful and good or if we call things beautiful and good because we love them and they resemble ourselves. Characteristically for Plato, we do not get a definitive answer in the dialogue. Aristophanes never gets the chance to respond to Diotima’s (or rather Socrates’) criticisms of his account that love is love of the self and what is similar (συγγενὲς) to it. His voice is drowned out by the applause following Socrates’ speech. Plotinus, though, seems to want to reconcile the two positions in I.6, as he maintains that we love what is from the same stock as ourselves (τὸ συγγενὲς), but that this kinship between the lover and the beloved is explained by Form and ultimately by the Good. Likewise, Plotinus develops a theme that Plato only hints at in the Symposium. Attempting to educate Socrates about the nature of love, Diotima exchanges the Beautiful for Good. Socrates doesn’t know why people want to possess beautiful things, but he does know that people want to have Good things because these will make their possessor happy. Yet this shift in the text raises a question as to whether the Good and the Beautiful are identical for Diotima. Plotinus argues at the end of I.6 that this question can only be resolved by distinguishing between the Good and the Intellect. For what is above Intellect is “simple” (ἁπλοῦν), entailing that the Good and “primal Beauty” (καλὸν πρῶτον) are the same. Yet the Beauty of things in their multiplicity is explained by Intellect its contents.

But this is only discussed at the end of the I.6, whose other parts I seem to have skipped over. So, let’s return to the text and to its structure as a whole. I.6 has nine chapters, though I take it that these are meant to be divided into three groups of three. Chapters 1-3 concern Beauty and its relation to the body, 4-6 treat of immaterial Beauty, and 7-9 are about the origin of the Beautiful. These divisions correspond roughly to the four questions that Plotinus introduces at the beginning of the treatise. He writes:

What then indeed is it that has actually made us imagine bodies to be beautiful and our sense of hearing incline to sounds, finding them beautiful? And as for the things that depend on directly on the soul, how are all of these beautiful? Is it because all of them are beautiful by one identical beauty, or is it that there is one sort of beauty in the body and another in other things? And what, then, are these sorts of beauty, or what is this beauty?

These are the central questions of the treatise, to which Plotinus gives the following answers. With respect to why we think bodies are beautiful, he says that this is because of the presence of intellectual Form in matter, which guides, unifies, and settles in it. Regarding the beauty of souls, like actions, practices, and virtues, these are beautiful because they manifest pure Form. Whether Beauty is one or many, Plotinus suggests that all things are beautiful by the same Beauty insofar as everything is produced by the Good. However, material and psychic things manifest beauty in different ways, such that one might also say that there are different sorts of beauty.

But how does Plotinus argue for each of these claims? Let’s begin with the first division, which has to do with the beauty of matter. Chapter 1 starts from a fairly standard Platonic insight. We call many things beautiful, not just sights and sounds, but also practices, virtues, and theorems. Hence, one might wonder whether these beautiful things have something in common that makes them all beautiful. If so, what is it? Let us start with bodies, which are most apparent to the senses. What is the shared beauty of bodily things? Perhaps body itself? But beauty cannot be the same thing as corporeality, for “bodies sometimes appear beautiful and sometimes do not.” Therefore, “what it is to be body is different from what it is to be beautiful.” Since the appearances beauty and body are not coextensive, they must be different things, otherwise one would always appear with the other. The beauty of bodily things has turned out to be something immaterial.
Perhaps, then, beauty is a kind of symmetry that obtains between parts and wholes, as certain Stoics seem to have thought. A beautiful work of art, like a pointillist painting, might be beautiful because each point somehow contributes to the whole and this ‘contributing to the whole’ is what makes a thing beautiful. But Plotinus says this can’t be the case because there is a kind of agreement between ugly things, such as when two false statements agree in saying something foolish. But “beauty is indeed not made up out of ugly things.” Moreover, simple things, like pure colors, lightning in a night sky, and the light of sun are beautiful in some way. But the view of beauty as symmetry seems unable to account for this. Finally, things with an identical symmetry, like a proportioned face, may sometimes seems pretty but in other times not. Hence, the mere fact of symmetry in a thing does not entail that a bodily thing is beautiful, which means bodily beauty (and beauty generally) cannot be the same thing as symmetry.

What, then, could be the beauty of bodily things? Plotinus thinks we have a clue when we remember that there must a similarity between known and knower, or between the beautiful thing perceived and that which recognizes beauty. If this were not the case, then we would never recognize anything as beautiful. But this is absurd from a phenomenological point of view, we think and say that things are beautiful all the time. But how is this perception possible? There must be something “akin” (συγγενὲς) between perceiver and perceived that explains why we “incline towards” (ἐπινεύειν) beautiful things and “rejoice” (χαίρει) in them. This connection is developed in chapter 2, where Plotinus asserts that what is shared between the two, what allows for this recognition, is Form, having ruled out matter earlier. Both the perceiver and the perceived participate in Form in some way. The soul of the perceiver is a Form inasmuch as it was originally a divine thought within the beings of Being (ἐν τοῖς οὖσιν οὐσίας). And material things receive Form inasmuch as a thing’s matter, which has many parts, receives and conforms to the unity of Form. Though these claims may seem like wild metaphysical leaps, in fact they are necessary once we grant that (1) beautiful things share a nature in common, (2) matter cannot be this shared nature, and (3) that there has to be a similarity between knower and known. If matter is out, all that is left is Form, mind, and intellectual appearance (εἶδος).

In chapter 3, Plotinus points out that this kinship between the beauty in soul and the beauty of bodies is rather surprising. Form in the soul does not have parts. As Plotinus said earlier, form is one (ἓν ἦν αὐτὸ i.e. τὸ εἶδος). But material things obviously have parts. So what kinship can there be between the beauty of simple forms in souls and the beauty of composite matter? Plotinus appeals to the fact that we can perceive things in the world as unities or wholes. Whenever “sense sees a shape hovering (or supervening on) other shapes in a pre-eminent way” (μορφὴν ἐπὶ ἄλλαις μορφαῖς ἐκπρεπῶς ἐποχουμένην), it “takes together all at once (συνελοῦσα ἀθρόον)” the form that is spread out in many places in matter. Then perception “leads the form back and into the interior part of the soul.” This form is “agreeable, harmonious, and dear to the soul. In other words, perception picks out the unities in things by taking all of a material thing’s parts together and discerning the Form animating the whole composite. This power of taking things together explains how we pick out the beauty of things with parts and how there can be interaction between simple things in the soul and composite material things in the world. Plotinus gives two examples of this process in action. Imagine a body with many parts painted in the same color. Or again imagine a harmony present in two sounds. Both the colored body and the harmony have parts and are in some sense many. But we perceive both as unities, as ‘an orange thing,’ say, or as ‘an octave.’ This must be because the soul can pick out the partless (ἀμερές) unities in things and measure them against what it already knows. By the end of chapter 3, then, we can state that beautiful bodies are beautiful insofar as matter is shaped by Form and we perceive beauty in matter because simple and partless Forms are present in both souls and bodies, which are picked out by sense perception.

Having grasped the beauty of material things, though, through their participation in or accommodation to Form, one can and should ask why immaterial Forms are beautiful. After all, if material things are beautiful by immaterial Form, then immaterial Form must itself be beautiful. The nature of immaterial beauty is taken up in chapters 4-6. Plotinus begins this section by saying that it is difficult to explain immaterial beauty to one who has never seen it for himself. It would be like describing the beauty of a painting or a view to someone born blind. And yet we do perceive immaterial beauty, according to Plotinus, for everyone at some point experiences “astonishment, sweet amazement, longing, love, and pleasant excitement” (θάμβος καὶ ἔκπληξιν ἡδεῖαν καὶ πόθον καὶ ἔρωτα καὶ πτόησιν μεθ´ ἡδονῆς) in relation to knowledge, habits, and virtues. These frenzied states are surprising and impossible to account for by appealing to material properties. For example, if we perceive or consider a virtuous action, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe giving up his life for the sake of a stranger, it would be absurd to say that our admiration, shock, and love of his act can be explained by appealing to St. Maximilian’s color, shape, magnitude, or extension. Even if we need matter in order to perceive the “splendor” (φέγγος) of the virtues, the beauty of the act itself is not reducible to material properties. On the contrary, the phenomenology of a charitable, wise, or prudent act is, in an important respect, colorless, extensionless, shapeless, and without magnitude. So then what do we perceive when we perceive a virtuous deed and why does it create awe? Plotinus argues that we perceive and are amazed by the purity of Form itself which is somehow manifest in the virtuous action. What makes St. Maximilian Kolbe’s action amazing and lovable was that it embodied and expressed the pure form of charity, though this is obviously a Christian virtue. A pagan could say perhaps that a soldier falling on a grenade to save his friends embodies the pure form of courage, a philosopher who disdains things in this life for the sake of contemplating god manifests wisdom, and so on.

Pure virtuous acts, then, express pure Forms. This explains why, for Plotinus, all of the virtues stand in some negative relation to the body. Courage is a lack of the fear of death and separation from the body, greatness of soul is contempt for things in this life, and wisdom is contemplation of the intelligible and not of things in this life. These virtues, moreover, help the soul loosen itself from the body. A virtuous soul becomes “purified form, reason, incorporeal, noetic, and wholly of god, who is the source of beauty and every such thing that has kinship with the beautiful.” This is difficult to understand. It isn’t clear whether Plotinus is saying that we are capable of becoming incorporeal while we are in the body, which is absurd, or something about the virtuous soul’s port-mortem condition, as is more likely. In any event, Plotinus thinks the virtue makes us similar to god (ὁμοιωθῆναι εἶναι θεῷ). And this process is complete when we go to “where god is” (ἐκεῖθεν) along with “beauty and the rest of fate of beings (τὸ καλὸν καὶ ἡ μοῖρα ἡ ἑτέρα τῶν ὄντων). We become like god, in fact, when we join him in the world of the intelligible.

This leads to the final three chapters of the treatise, which concern the origin of the beautiful. Having been assimilated to god and his intelligible thoughts, one might still wonder why god’s thoughts are beautiful. It seems one can raise the problem of universals even after death. For if god’s thoughts are all beautiful but many, what do they have in common that makes them all beautiful? The rest of I.6 is surprisingly unhelpful in this respect, for it seems like Plotinus has run out of explanations. He repeats that one needs to become beautiful if one wants to see beauty, and god-like if one wants to see god, since only like perceives like. Yet he has already told us this much in our ascent to Intellect. What’s more, the religious imagery of divesting one’s earthly garments and approaching the inner sanctuary of the temple do not add much to his account of Beauty beyond mind. We already knew that form was divine, since it exists in the mind of god.

But perhaps we shouldn’t demand too much from Plotinus at this point, for how is he supposed to help us conceive of what he calls “inconceivable beauty” (κάλλος ἀμήχανον). All he can do is help us put away spatial ways of thinking about beauty and exhort us to virtue and the contemplation of beautiful practices. Having said that we need to posit the Good or primary Beauty in order to explain the unity of the beauty of gods thoughts, it would be foolish and somewhat unseemly if he went on to explain this Beauty. For it is in some sense causally prior to thought and the multiplicity of intelligible forms. And if this is the case, there are no explanations left to give. Discourse, which must proceed through subjects and predicates, that is, through what is many, cannot grasp what is absolutely simple. All that is left for us to is to do is contemplate that Beauty which is itself alone “uncorrupted, simple, and pure.”

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


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