on plotinus/beauty

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.[1] 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], 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.[2] 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], 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], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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 [1], 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.

Aurelio Madrid



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.

[1] 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.

[2] O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.


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