March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
That the ancient 3rd century Neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus should choose to first write about beauty is in itself a beautiful thing. Why couldn’t one falling for a beautiful object, idea, or virtuous living, also be a person who falls in love with wisdom? It is in his introductory treatise, “Beauty” from the Enneads, that Plotinus makes the uncommon (yet entirely relevant) connection between aesthetics and ethics. This affiliation is relevant if we accept that the ethical life or better yet, the virtuous life is one that is beautiful to our universal conceptions of how one aspires to virtue. The spare objectives for this paper will be to first look at Plotinus’s opening sections of his treatise on the beautiful that analyze various qualities concerning a physical conception of beauty, and then continuing through the treatise to examine his way of transitioning from physical matters to an all-important aesthetic of virtue. In closing, a few ideas will be offered by which to contemplate Plotinus’s departure from the material.
Without any unnecessary forgoing, in §§1-3, Plotinus presents us with a few basic notions that have to do with a sensory perception of the beautiful, as visual, auditory, etc. These are immediately sketched in tandem with the idea that a virtuous life is also something of beauty. “Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits” are themselves beautiful (I, 6 , 1). But what of these things in relation to one another?—how is the virtuous related to a beautiful object? Firstly, Plotinus has to get us to understand what he means by a beautiful thing, a “bodily form,” this has to be done before one can know how appreciating virtue is aesthetical. A reason why this arrangement is valuable is that one might forget that to consider something beautiful might mean to go beyond the sensual. In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful can be something other than (commercialized) sight, scent, sound, touch, or taste. It is just as well that in Plotinus’s time there were those who thought that beautiful things had only to do with symmetry. In our own regard, this simple idea should not be cast off too quickly, since it does stand to reason that a beautiful face is one that is supposedly more symmetrical. Or in another vein, that a handsome building such as Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is beautiful due to its symmetry. Certainly too, a butterfly’s wings are beautiful in their symmetry. It’s easy to see why the ancient thinkers would have thought of beautiful things as possessing symmetry, yet it becomes clear for Plotinus that this is not the only trademark of beauty. Held within this notion, that beauty is tied to things that are symmetrical, is also the idea that these things must be composites—that they be made up of parts. To be sure, of the examples mentioned, these things are composite, a butterfly has a body in the middle of two wings, and St. Peter’s Basilica has a central dome flanked by two smaller domes on either side, and so on. Can one not find beauty in a non-composite thing? “But is not gold beautiful? And a single star by night?” (I, 6 , 1). In agreement with Plotinus, it will be said that gold’s power is beautiful all by its self, and that it doesn’t always need any of the aforesaid symmetry for us to cherish it all the same.
Along with these issues, there is another more pressing question. Since Plotinus privileges the virtuous with his consideration of the beautiful, this begs the question as to whether or not the soul’s ways can be said to be symmetrical. How can one suggest that, for example, an altruistic deed is symmetrical? There is much talk these days about living a ‘balanced’ life, implying a kind of symmetry brought about by weighing the good with the bad, or a life where good healthy living is made to be balanced with what?—equal measures of a bad, unhealthy life? It must be better said that such a life of ‘balance’ is instead, one made of careful moderation, temperance, and kindness, all attributes of virtue, but not a life measured into symmetrical components whereby the good is balanced with the bad, into neat, even proportions to be measured. “What yardstick could preside over the balancing of the The Soul’s potencies and purposes?” (I, 6 , 1).
Already, one gets the feel for what Plotinus wishes for his readers to see, issues of beauty are tough to define as is the very pursuit of a good life. One thing is already clear: symmetry doesn’t necessarily define the beautiful. But the beautiful in bodily forms has to be more than that, and it doesn’t just mean that bodily forms (physical objects) aspire to the virtuous either. For a physical object to be beautiful as with an artistic expression, it has to be “in accord with Idea” (I, 6 , 2). In §3 Plotinus writes on the way an object’s beauty relies on the Idea and the intelligible. This is given the metaphor of fire, whereby fire’s beauty inhabits physical matter much as an Idea inhabits a physical, created form. “Always struggling aloft, this subtlest of elements is at the last limits of the bodily” (I, 6 , 3). Fire is destructive as much as it is life supporting, and just as well, our ideas and concepts of things can destroy or create the man-made objects of this world. Plotinus cherishes this kind of connection from the mystical to the physical. The things of the physical realm, when touched by the hand of an artist whose soul is in alignment with the intelligible realm, partake in the discernible, laudable, and beautiful qualities of the Idea. A beautiful house is not only beautiful in its aesthetic composure, it is beautiful in the way that it is engineered to be a comfortable home that has ease of movement, organization, and is structurally sound.
And another profound thought is brought about in §4, here one finds out that if we are to recognize beauty, we must be able to find it as an aspect of our own soul. “Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul” (I, 6 , 4). How can one judge the character of others without already having a sense of what it means to have an upright character as a potential in ourselves? It’s easy to misunderstand honest virtue when we have fallen in with the depravity of the body’s lusts. This idea smoothly transitions into §5 where one can foster the beautiful from inside, providing oneself with such qualities as “largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness… [etc.]” (I, 6 , 5). But when the soul is sullied, it likes to wallow it its decrepitude. That paradoxical human trait the French call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) is not far from this downgrading of man’s soul described by Plotinus. How often does one hear of the variegated humiliations of desire, or the voluntary servitudes of the flesh, in which a man is willing to subject himself to when he is overly enamored with the body’s filiations? In spite of these hungers, what this suggests is the idea that the soul is already pure, and that when it wishes to taste earthly filth, it can still purify itself beyond that, “the soul is ugly when it is not purely itself” (I, 6 , 5). The beauty of gold now serves to metaphorically symbolize the purity that a soul can become when un-pure dirt is filtered from it, and then washed away.
Too close of an easy concession with the body draws the pure soul downward. To ascend up toward the beautiful the soul has to succumb to certain rejections of the bodily, e.g. “what is magnanimity except scorn of earthly things?” (I, 6 , 6). For Plotinus, the Good is beautiful as much as the “intellective” is beautiful. This has to mean that intelligence and the learned are forms of beauty, thus speaking mystically: The Soul is made beautiful in congruence with The Intelligence. By extension, a person’s soul is made beautiful in correspondence with the intelligible—with what is typically called wisdom.
For Plotinus, the beautiful souls have been “stripped of the muddy vesture with which they were clothed in their descent” (I, 6 , 7). Once man’s soiled habits have been cast off, he can again seek to become unified with the Good. His seeking for the Good will not be easy, since the comforts of the degraded body drag him away from it all the time. It is at this point, in §7, where one is not completely sure if the bodily has anything worthwhile to offer the soul, other than as mere vehicle. One is also led to wonder if rejecting the material world will be as beautiful as we are led to believe. Still, the beauty of an ascetic life is one where our goals are grand while our body is kept humble. The virtuous is kept alive in this direction upward. There is something to learn. The body is limited. To aim upward to the virtuous, what must be done? “We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing…” (I, 6 , 8).
Plotinus is good to remind his readers again that if they wish to be beautiful “by the virtue of men for their goodness” they will have to look inside themselves (I, 6 , 9). To become virtuous, one will have to look inside and work the soul as one who would sculpt fine marble. This kind of work is spiritual work, making the soul pure, emulating pure action, becoming a better person, and delimiting the pangs of the corporeal. To repeat, one cannot do any of this until we come to a closer comprehension of our own role, our own problems, and our particular shortcomings. When these virtuous thoughts are put into action, perhaps there will be time to take notice of Plotinus’s hierarchy, where Beauty resides with the Intellect, but does not completely reach the heights of the One, which is in closer proximity to the Good (from where Beauty originates).
But is beauty really as internal, rather than external as Plotinus suggests? It is clear that in our day-and-age, physical beauty is a quality that is highly valued. And it is also clear that being virtuous is highly valued. Of course, whether one takes the moral-high-ground, physical beauty will have to be subordinate. Who would voluntarily claim that physical beauty is better than virtuous action? Not many would say it with words outright. However, it can be observed that such dichotomies are not so obviously binary, and again how can such things be measured? Philosophically speaking, these sharp divisions between the body and spirit, matter and idea, figure prominently in a philosophic discourse beginning with Plato and beyond. It is because of this problem, between the mind and body, where one looks for the places where the two are reconciled, say with Phenomenology or other such ideas. With this said, one mustn’t become too cynical to discard Plotinus for his priorities, his hierarchies, and his divisions. Even though the world around us might privilege the beautiful face over the beautiful action, it continues to make sense that vain thinking is shallow. Plotinus’s way of placing the physical below the spiritual is idealistic without a doubt. This is problematic if one is to assume that such idealism is flawed, such cynicism prevails only if we repeatedly propagate it ourselves. Plotinus’s teachings are beautiful when one is ready to hear them. This is an idealistic effort, but a key factor will be what happens once the virtuous is put into action in the day-to-day of our lives. Only then will our idealism be actualized. Being good does not happen in a vacuum, it has to be meted out dynamically. The beauty of the good life is made possible by action. Plotinus was not only contemplative, he was wise and intelligible. If he had never put into words his beautiful thoughts, philosophy would be less pure, less wise.
Inge, Wiliiam Ralph. The Philosophy of Plotinus: The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-1918, Vol. II. New York, New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.
Pistorius, Philippus Villiers. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers Limited, 1952.
Plotinus, The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. New York, New York: Faber and Faber, 1969.
—. The Essential Plotinus. Translated by Elmer O’Brien. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964.
 Elmer O’Brien mentions that “Beauty” is “the earlier of the treatises” and that “for centuries Beauty was the sole treatise by which Plotinus was known.” Plotinus, “Beauty,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964, 33.
 O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.
March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Althusser
Of the three philosophers selected for this post, only one, Jean-François Lyotard writes specifically about art. Whereas the other two, Jean Baudrillard and Louis Althusser deal with complimentary issues that easily segue into aesthetics. With the question of how these French 20th century philosopher’s concepts relate to aesthetic issues, it will be worthwhile to briefly outline what each philosopher theorized, then in turn, how these ideas are relatable to aesthetics. Also, as much as their ideas can be put into an aesthetic context, each of these three thinker’s wide reaching ideas adapt to the political, the social, and the economic situation/s of our contemporary (post-modern) world without distortion.
Not only do all three philosophers share the same language and nationality, they also share in the legacy of Marxist thought. The most stridently Marxist was Althusser. One might be inclined to dub him a Marxist apologist. Because Althusser was so entrenched in Marxist doctrine, he arduously refined and reexamined how Marx was read. There is not just one way to read Marx, and Althusser had to find ways to read him that countered the political trends of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Althusser broke new ground in his description and theorizing concerning the inner workings of ideology, which Marx also identified as a problem, just not in the same degree that Althusser did. Ideology couldn’t be discarded, yet for Althusser, theory would take center stage. It was within theory that Althusser identified his concept of hailing. Hailing basically encapsulates interpellation. “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”
In the most general sense, interpellation means that all (yes all) ideology actively assumes everyone should take part in its ideological prescriptions. For capitalism this means that everyone is interpellated at the workplace: ‘there is no I in team.’ For society this means that everyone is interpellated in the public sphere: ‘shake hands with people you meet.’ For economics this means that everyone is interpellated in an economic sphere: ‘save your money for retirement.’ It all makes ‘common sense’ and none of these slogans are typically regarded of as ideological, since ideology works best when it doesn’t identify itself as such.
But what about art?—how does art interpellate the audience? A viewer mistakenly presupposes that everyone knows the ‘rules’ of the game, if such rules can be said to be real to begin with. Such presupposed rules could be an ideal that all art must somehow be beautiful, or that art must incessantly aspire to beauty. This simultaneously suggests that art cannot be ugly and that if art looks unappealing (to us) in some way, we judge to be wrong. Interpellation easily works both ways, art presents ideological subjects, as with social realism (Stalin adores the rosy cheeked proletariat). And as noted, an audience can bring its ideology to the act of viewing art, ‘my child can do that’ is code for: I cannot see the value in this painting, beyond the efforts of a child, because my narrow idealism demands nothing less than the allure of old-fashioned academicism.
Lyotard presents another way that Marxist theory affected philosophy and the arts, albeit his Marxist influence is much less militant than Althusser’s. Probably one of the first to put postmodernism into name, Lyotard wrote convincingly of a new kind of relativism, a.k.a. the metanarrative. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” This meant that the so-called ‘grand narratives’ of the past were no longer the only narratives that mattered, or that they were no longer the ones that carried the utmost power. These metanarratives are seen as stemming mostly from the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, such as: the authority of science, the dominance of Christian doctrine, and of course, the supremacy of rationalism itself. This idea has multiple readings, and most of it has a thin (and strong) Marxist thread throughout, that obviously seeks to delimit the powers that be. Decentralizing power means that a special kind of relativist paradigm must prevail, and this is a problem with Lyotard’s death of the metanarrative that cannot be addressed here, yet relativism should be recognized as a dominate symptom of postmodernity.
For society at large, Lyotard critiques, and calls into question, the ascendance of scientific supremacy. With his ideas, one is better equipped to seriously question if science does indeed have all the answers, and, if the scientific pursuit of getting to know the secrets of the universe is really all that helpful for mankind. Rationality too thinks it has all the answers, but it easily forgets the value of intuition, randomness and the uncompleted. Amidst these things, (postmodern) art has special place, since it tries to represent the unrepresentable, at least in Lyotard’s brilliant way of refining Kant’s aesthetic notion of the sublime. To represent the unrepresentable sounds like nonsense if one is only interpreting the idea with a rational lens. That which cannot be named, must be that which is mysterious and enigmatic. Paradoxically, if art chooses to negate the unrepresentable, it would look something like advertising, we’d all ‘get it’ and its value would fade, duly its essential and sublime mystery would be automatically lost.
Of the three theorists, Baudrillard stands as the most identifiable to a general audience, due to his (dubious and loose) connection to The Matrix. One easily forgets that Baudrillard wrote compelling philosophy, if the polished cinematic science-fiction—that’s supposed to emulate his ideas—doesn’t take half as much time to read as one of his finely crafted, labyrinthine essays. His idea of simulacrum replaces the real not by mere imitation, but by nothing at all. The simulacra are mostly the empty signs of capitalist excess and power relations. The referent is empty. Hyperreality defines this familiar pseudo-reality because we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the simulacra. “By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials…” Political scandal epitomizes what Baudrillard describes because we are simply unable to detect what real political power actually is, amidst the intrigue, gossip and scandal of Washington insiders. We are led to believe that politics has more to do with what makes the news, rather than the ‘boring’ work of actually getting things done on a daily basis. For the art world, Baudrillard’s concepts hit with surprising force during a time in the 80s and 90s when questions of the copy, appropriation, sampling, authenticity, etc., were becoming critical aspects of a postmodern reevaluation of the puritanical dogma/s of modernism. Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra is necessarily empty, and not a mere copy of reality, still, his foreboding pessimism glares with cynicism, since he exposes where we as a society are lacking. He presented a dystopian vision, yet the provocation haunts us all the same.
Where would we be if we were not critical of the transparent powers that impregnate authority? Marxism seems to have failed in the political arena, however, it continues to demonstrate its capacity to undermine established ways of thinking. Its power is dialectical. It moves critical thinking ahead by the strife of intellectual exposure and disclosure. It’s easy to be smug and narrow. These things don’t require alternative modes of analysis. All three of the philosophers presented here have demonstrated alternate routes from the mainstream. But, when will we listen?
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.” In On Ideology, Translated by Ben Brewster, 1-60. New York: Verso, 2008.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, 1-42. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory: 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” and “What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, 1-82. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
 Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and State Apparatuses,” 47.
 Althusser names this phenomena: denegation.
 Jean-François Lyotard, intro to “The Postmodern Condition,” xxiv.
 …never-mind what this means for an interpretation of Pop Art or Warhol’s claim that there’s ‘nothing behind it.’
 Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” 2.