Plotinus, Neoplatonism and Beauty

Plotinus (ca 205-270 CE) was the founder of Neoplatonism, a school of philosophy inspired by Plato’s ideas some 600 years after the philosopher’s death. Plotinus was born in the Lycopolis of Egypt but lived a good part of his life in Rome. He was interested in philosophy from a young age which led him to study next to Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria and after seven years to explore the philosophies of India and Persia.


On Plotinus’s Metaphysics

Plotinus’s system has three basic principles, the One (or the Good), the Intellect and the Soul. The One is the absolutely simple first principle of all. It is both ‘self-caused’ and the cause of being for everything else in the universe. The first derivation from the One is the Intellect which is the world of the Platonic Forms. Just like in Plato, with Plotinus there are two worlds. The first is the material world we experience with the help of our senses. The second is the realm of Forms/Ideas, where things exist in their perfect, eternal, immutable state, ethereal and ‘uncontaminated’ by matter. In this system, it is always the case that every thing we observe around us is of lower value compared to its ideal counterpart in the realm of Forms. The properties of everything in the universe, according to this principle, have their owing to those forms whose instances these properties are. The third principle is Soul. To understand the role of the Soul we need to expose the two different types of desire found in Plotinus. The first desire stems from the Intellect and it is the ideal desire as movement towards the eternal, the ideal, the One. This is an internal movement of contemplation. The second desire is an external movement, a desire for things as far away from the One as possible. This second movement is related with desire for material delights such as food, sleep, water and the desire to know things that are external to the subject. The Soul is the place where the One takes its objective physical form and where the second type of desire is possible, while the Intellect provides the One with a foundation and a location where the first form of desire exists and can be satisfied.

The main issue with the Form theory of Plato and Plotinus is its very foundation. The idea that eternal, immutable forms provide material things with their attributes, constructs a world where change is impossible and the metaphysical world comes before the physical. If perfect forms constitute a first state out of which the material is derived, then how is it possible for something like an ideal to take a different shape? For example if we claim that a body is beautiful, Plotinus would argue that this is because we have internal, though blurry sensuous access to the Form of Beauty and the body in question mirrors qualities that are based on this Form. What happens then, when the taste of a society changes, and comes to value different bodies as beautiful? Form theory is not capable of answering this question convincingly. Because the moment Plotinus would accept that we no longer value beauty according to the same proportions and aesthetics, he would accept that either the Form of beauty changed or that we no longer have access to that Form, which contradicts his original argument. In any case, Plotinus’s theoretical exploration of beauty is more valuable as a historical document representative of an aesthetic current of its time, than a system of values to live by.


Beauty

In the Sixth Tractate of the first Ennead, Plotinus discusses in detail the nature of Beauty. Like Plato in the Symposium, Plotinus is careful not to embark on a purely aesthetic exercise when exploring beauty. His treaty is instead thoroughly ethical and related with his search for the form of Virtue. For him the Form of Beauty is another way to find Virtue and thus his aesthetics are dependent on his ethics.

The hierarchy of Beauty in Plotinus mirrors the one he establishes for Virtue with physical beauty being on the lowest grade. We can recognise physical beauty, according to Plotinus, because it echoes attributes of the form of Beauty, that resides in the Intellect. The beauty of a soul is considered of higher value, as closer to the ethereal world of forms, and the Good is the highest in the hierarchy as considered the source of all beauty:

And this is the ugliness for a soul: not being pure or uncorrupted like gold, but filled up with the earthly which, were someone to remove that from it, would just be gold and would be beautiful, isolated from other things and being just what it is itself.

Ennead I, VI 5

The soul, then, when it is purified, becomes a form, and an expressed principle, and entirely incorporeal and intellectual and wholly divine, which is the source of beauty and of all things that have an affinity to it. Soul then, being borne up to Intellect, becomes even more beautiful. And the Intellect and the things that come from the Intellect are soul’s beauty, since they belong to it, that is, they are not alien to it, because it is then really soul alone. For this reason, it is correctly said that goodness and being beautiful for the soul consist in “being assimilated to god” because it is there that beauty is found as well as the rest of the destiny of real beings. Or rather, true being is beauty personified and ugliness is the other nature, primary evil itself, so that for god, “good”, and “beautiful” are the same, or rather goodness and beauty are the same.

Ennead I, VI 6

In these lines we see that Plotinus is identifying beautiful with the Good/One and ugliness with the evil. Beauty in itself is a moral quality and as such aesthetics are not a separate field from aesthetics. Something is beautiful because it participates in the Forms that reside in the Intellect, which, in itself, is a manifestation of the Good. So the more beautiful something is, the more identifiable with the Good it becomes. Then, can we see true beauty? and what happens if we do?

What, then, should we think if someone sees pure beauty itself by itself, not contaminated by flesh or bodies, not on the earth or in heaven, in order that it may remain pure? For all these things are added on and have been mixed in and are not primary, rather, they come from that [the Good]. If then, one sees that which orchestrates everything, remaining by itself while it gives everything, though it does not receive anything into itself, if he remains in sight of this and enjoys it by making himself like it, what other beauty would he need? For this, since it is itself supremely beautiful and the primary beauty, makes its lovers beautiful and lovable.

And with the Good as the prize, the greatest and “ultimate battle is set before souls”, in which battle our entire effort is directed to not being deprived of the most worthy vision. And the one who attains this is “blessed”, since he is seeing a blessed sight, whereas the one who does not is without luck. It is not the one who does not attain beautiful colors or bodies or power or ruling positions or a kingship who is without luck, but the one who does not attain this and this alone. For the sake of this he ought to cede the attainment of kingship and ruling positions over the whole earth, sea, and heaven , if by abandoning these things and ignoring them he could revert to the Good and see it.

Ennead I, VI 7

Here Plotinus expresses the Idea that if someone managed to attain the pure beauty, then they would be perfectly content since this Ideal (the Good) is the source of all beauty, and thus there would be nothing else that could possibly overcome this state which resembles a revelation of some sort. In the second part of this passage Plotinus completely turns his back towards earthly delights which he find ephemeral and meaningless. True meaning and completion can only be found in attaining true Beauty and “seeing a blessed sight”. To achieve this stat, one has to look inside and search for the beauty within.

In this last part I am quoting a part where Plotinus explains how someone can look inside them and find Beauty.

What, then, is that inner way of looking? having just awakened, the soul is not yet able to look at the bright objects before it. The soul must first be accustomed to look at beautiful practices, then beautiful works – not those works that the arts produce, but those that men who are called “good” produce – then to look at the soul of those who produce these beautiful works.

How, then, can you see the kind of beauty that a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look. If you do not yet see yourself as beautiful, then be like a sculptor, making a statue that is supposed to be beautiful, who removes a part here and polishes a part there so that he makes the latter smooth and the former just right until he has given the statue a beautiful face. In the same way, you should remove superfluities and straighten things that are crooked, work on the things that are dark, making them bright, and not stop “working on your statue” until the divine splendor of virtue shines in you, until you see “self-control enthroned on the holy seat”

If you have become this and have seen it and find yourself in a purified state, you have no impediment to becoming one in this way nor do you have something else mixed in with yourself, but you are entirely yourself, true in light alone, neither measured by magnitude nor reduced by a circumscribing shape nor expanded indefinitely in magnitude but being unmeasured everywhere, as something greater than every measure and better than every quantity. If you see that you have become this, at that moment you have become sight, and you can be confident about yourself, and you have at this moment ascended here, no longer in need of someone to show you. Just open your eyes and see, for this alone is the eye that sees the great beauty.

But if the eye approaches that sight bleary with evils and not having been purified or weak and, owing to cowardice, is not able to see all the bright objects, it does not see them even if someone else shows it that they are present and able to be seen. For the one who sees has an affinity to that which is seen, and he must make himself like it if he is to attain the sight. For no eye has ever seen the sun without becoming sunlike, nor could a soul ever see beauty without becoming beautiful. You must become wholly godlike and wholly beautiful if you intend to see god and beauty.

For first, the soul will come in its ascent to Intellect, and in the intelligible world it will see all the beautiful Forms and will declare that these Ideas are what beauty is. For all things are beautiful, owing to these by the products of Intellect, that is, by essence. But we say that that which “transcends” Intellect is the Idea of the Good, a nature that holds beauty in front of itself. So roughly speaking, the Good is the primary beauty. But if one distinguishes the intelligibles apart, one will say that the “place” of the Forms in intelligible beauty, whereas the Good transcends that and is the ” source and principle” of beauty. Otherwise, one will place the Good and the primary beauty in the same thing. In any case, beauty is in the intelligible world.

Ennead I, VI.9

Readings used for this article

Gerson, Lloyd, “Plotinus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Fall of 2018: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plotinus/.

Paul Oscar Kristeller, “The Classic Sources: Introduction”, Aesthetics a Comprehensive Anthology , Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin (eds). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2017. pp 3-15.

Plotinus, Ennead I, VI, in Neoplatonic Philosophy. Introductory Readings, translated by John Dillon and Lloyd P. Gerson, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004. pp 18-30

*Cover: The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1618, Peter Paul Rubens, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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