The Ideal of Beauty
by David A. Beardsley
This work is copyrighted © 2012 under a
What is true anywhere is true everywhere. And let him go where he will, he can only find so much beauty or worth as he carries.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Culture
Beauty–be not caused–It Is
Chase it–and it ceases
Chase it not–and it abides
Overtake the Creases
In the meadow–when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro’ it
Deity will see to it
That You never do it.
Emily Dickinson, Beauty–be not caused–It Is
The Ideal of Beauty
Among philosophical or spiritual masters, Plato is unique in making Beauty an inherent quality of his Supreme Being, the Ideal. Indeed, he uses the terms almost interchangeably. Given the grim origins of most systems–born from sorrow, suffering and sin–it is not difficult to see the enduring appeal of his teaching, especially in other ages which were more predisposed than ours to the love of beauty. John Vyvyan captures this sentiment perfectly in his Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty :
Considered philosophically, love and beauty were invented by Plato. And whenever the European mind has theorized about them since–until the Freudians set a cat among the pigeons–some echo of the Symposium or the Phaedrus is nearly always to be caught. Even during the centuries when these dialogues were lost, their influence was felt through intermediaries; and when the Platonic revival came in the Renaissance, they pervaded the thinking of the age.
What does Plato mean when he speaks of beauty? What influence he has exerted on later “Idealists?” His teaching is of course closely associated with his teaching on Love, which will be the subject of another work in this series, but it is impossible to separate them completely. Beauty is the aim; love is the means to it, until they both merge into one knowledge of the Ideal.
As Emerson reminds us, “The ancient Greeks called the world κόσμος, (cosmos), Beauty;…” This idea lives on today, much diminished, in our word “cosmetic,” and even in Emerson’s time he lamented its devaluation, where beauty was “…a name which, in our artificial state of society, sounds fanciful and impertinent.” But to the Greeks and others of the time, beauty, orderliness, was an inherent part of the universe; in a sense, the universe was a beauty-producing machine. Today it is a given that flowers make themselves beautiful so better to attract bees to pollinate them and increase their numbers, an idea that I think most ancient Greeks would greet with pity.
Beauty was deified in the traditional Greek pantheon in the form of Aphrodite, born according to Hesiod directly when Ouranos, god of the sky, was castrated by Cronos and his “foam” fell into the sea. As Beauty, she elicits in people the emotion of love–albeit generally portrayed as sexual desire. The distinction of two Aphrodites, one heavenly and one earthly, goes back as far as the speech of Pausanias in the Symposium (180d). She was adopted by the Romans as Venus, and became a popular subject of artists and sculptors, (especially in that she was generally portrayed in the nude). The distinction made between the heavenly and earthly Venus was even more pronounced during Roman times; the first obviously being more associated with the spiritual or intellectual world, and the latter with sex and romance. Botticelli’s famous painting of The Birth of Venus can be seen as representing the moment when the one turns into the other.
There are other instances of stories and myths from early Greek times that relate to the centrality of beauty. One of the earliest is that of the “Judgment of Paris.” Briefly it is this: a wedding celebration for Peleus and Thetis is attended by all the gods and Very Important Mortals except one–Eris, the goddess of discord and strife, who as a guest tended to be as we would say today, a bummer. So true to character, she takes her revenge by tossing into the proceedings an apple on which is inscribed kallistēi, meaning “for the most beautiful.” So true to their character, this sets up a competition among three of the goddesses in attendance: Hera, wife of Zeus; Athena, patron goddess of Athens; and Aphrodite herself. Zeus is asked to judge, but, being wise, recuses himself in favor of the mortal Paris, who, not being so wise, chooses Aphrodite who has implied to him as a reward she will give him the most beautiful mortal woman–Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. So we see where this is going–Paris abducts her to Troy and precipitates the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad. Seen metaphorically, it is this theft of beauty that is in a sense the “original sin” of man, and which plunges him into prolonged discord and war. Somewhere Eris is cackling.
These ego-driven desires–the desire to be the most beautiful, and to own the beautiful–illustrate the pitfalls of erotic love as a source of strife. So in this expression, Beauty is seen as a source of evil, with Love limited and twisted into the service of the ego.
Proclus (412-485), the “Platonic Successor” in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic (quoted in Homer the Theologian p. 199-200) interprets it this way:
The myths want to indicate, I believe, through Helen, the whole of that beauty that has to do with the sphere in which things come to be and pass away and that is the product of the demiurge. It is over this beauty that eternal war rages among souls, until the more intellectual are victorious over the less rational forms of life and return hence to the place from which they came.
Commenting on this passage, Robert Lamberton says:
Helen, then, is worldly beauty, the fragmented imperfect copy of the form of the beautiful inhabiting the material world. The implication is that it is this beauty that entices souls (i.e., the Greeks) to leave their true home and to enter into a mode of existence for which war provides the most apt metaphor.
At the end of the Trojan War, it is of course the attempt of Odysseus to return to his “true home” that provides another vivid metaphor of the soul’s journey, facing and overcoming all manner of dangers and temptations. A more thorough analysis can be found in my The Ideal of the Odyssey.
Another cautionary tale is the story of Narcissus, who becomes entranced with his own beauty while gazing at its reflection in the water. (In Greek, the word Νάρκισσος is spelled with a kappa, a hard “c,” and is related to the word “narke,” “sleep or numbness,” and also of course “narcotic.”) Although set in ancient Greece, and perhaps having its origins there, the best-known account of this story comes from Ovid in first-century AD Rome, and also shows the perils of mistaking the reflection of beauty for the real thing, the earthly Venus rather than the heavenly. “He fell in love with an insubstantial hope, mistaking a mere shadow for a real body,” says Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book III) . And later:
What you see is but the shadow cast by your reflection; in itself it is nothing. It comes with you and lasts while you are there; it will go when you go, if go you can.
Soon he does in fact go, but it is because his body fades away, “and all the beauties which lately charmed his eyes.” Since they are only reflections, when the body goes they go as well. What we have is a fine poetic description of Plato’s Divided Line, of seeing beautiful things rather than Beauty itself, of looking down toward the transient rather than up to the permanent, and how our love of the limited keeps us also in the world of limitation.
The philosophers who preceded Plato in establishing the foundations of the Western tradition concentrated on qualities other than Beauty when describing their own visions, but the caution against the limited is always there. Anaximander spoke of the apeiron, the “unlimited” or the “Boundless.” It was said by Thales of Miletus that panta pleure theon: “everything is full of gods,” and that the Boundless has neither beginning nor end. It is in fact Being itself, unified, One; in the memorable description by Parmenides (translation by Richard G. Geldard, p. 25):
Only one account of the Way remains: Being Is!
Along this path there are many signs: Being is uncreated,
Eternal, Whole, of only one substance, unmoved
And without end….
Nor can we say it Was or it Will Be,
Because It Is Now, Whole, One, continuous.
It would take Socrates to add to these descriptions the essential characteristic of Beauty. But he doesn’t provide a definition or enter into a discussion of aesthetics; he uses the term axiomatically, assuming we know beauty when we see it. With so much in Plato’s world of the intellect, words fail, definitions fall short; we are compelled into the use of allegory and analogy. As Emerson says in his essay Michael Angelo, “This great Whole, the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt. It may be produced. But it cannot be defined.”
So how do we feel Beauty? My own sense is that the Beautiful is something that opens the heart and causes us to fall still; that it is somehow capable of cutting through the habitual noise and opinions of the mind and connecting us with the beauty within. The idea that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is usually taken to mean that it is subjective, and to the extent that we are individuals, it is. But there is another layer–that we do in fact have beauty within us, however much it may be covered over, and it is that which is educed in the presence of external beauty. If we look for it with our ordinary eyes, it is nowhere to be found–it flies from us like birds as we lumber about. But if we put ourselves in a state of receptivity, if we just accept rather than look to consume, we will find it everywhere. “Chase it–and it ceases Chase it not–and it abides.” It can touch us through its simplicity, such as Beethoven’s Fur Elise, or be transportive, such as his Symphony #7. Choose your own example, from art or nature, but we must always let go of everything we think we know in order to let it in. Its presence is often felt through tears.
Another quality of beauty is that it wastes nothing, needs no ornamentation. As Emerson says in his essay Beauty: “Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength with the least weight. ‘It is the purgation of superfluities,’ said Michael Angelo.” It does not draw attention to itself, or its proximate creator, but somehow always refers us to its absolute Source. Whether it be natural or manmade, beauty appeals to the mind and heart equally, and brings us to a sense of humility and awe. It becomes the beloved, and inspires in us the urge to create, or at least procreate.
In the formulation of later writers, notably Ficino, it is the expression received through the senses which evokes our desire to experience beauty in its absolute form: the Good. This connection to the Good–to Truth–has of course been expressed many times through history, probably the best-known being Keats’s from Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Or “Rien de beau que le vrai.” (“Nothing is beautiful but what is true.”) It is this quality that is always present in art that endures.
As cited in the quote from Vyvyan above, Plato provides Socrates’ descriptions in two main works: the Symposium and Phaedrus. For this focused examination, I will concentrate just on those passages which best illustrate Plato’s views: in no way should this be seen as a substitute for the reading of the entire work. (The quotations are from the translation by Benjamin Jowett, which I find generally more readable than that of Harold Fowler on the Perseus site.)
The overall subject of the Symposium is the praise of Eros, “Love,” which is loosely defined as a longing for union, sexual or spiritual. The entire work which consists of a number of different speakers looking at love from different limited viewpoints, and it is the host of the symposium, Agathon, who first makes the connection of love to beauty, in praising Love as supreme among the gods:
And so Love set in order the empire of the gods–the love of beauty, as is evident, for with deformity Love has no concern. In the days of old, as I began by saying, dreadful deeds were done among the gods, for they were ruled by Necessity; but now since the birth of Love, and from Love of the beautiful, has sprung every good in heaven and earth. Therefore, Phaedrus, I say of Love that he is the fairest and best in himself, and the cause of what is fairest and best in all other things.
There follows Socrates’ turn, and after making his obligatory protestations of humility, he proceeds to question Agathon on this relationship:
Remember further when you said in your speech, or if you do not remember I will remind you: you said that love of the beautiful set in order the empire of the gods, for that of deformed things there is no love–did you not say something of that kind?
Yes, said Agathon.
Yes, my friend, and the remark was a just one. And if this is true, Love is the love of beauty and not of deformity?
And the admission has already been made that Love is of something which a man wants and has not?
True, he said.
Then Love wants and has not beauty?
Certainly, he replied.
And would you call that beautiful which wants and does not possess beauty?
Then would you still say that love is beautiful?
Agathon replied: I fear I did not understand what I was saying.
You made a very good speech, Agathon, replied Socrates; but there is yet one small question which I would fain ask:–Is not the good also the beautiful?
Then in wanting the beautiful, love also wants the good?
I cannot refute you, Socrates, said Agathon:–Let us assume that what you say is true.
Say rather, beloved Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted.
At this point of course Socrates launches into his remembered dialogue with Diotima (“honored by god”) who was his teacher in things of love and beauty. It was she who taught him the argument he has just made: that Love, being of something, is less than the thing he loves. But, she says, it is this lack that causes people to become philosophers.
The truth of the matter is this: No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already; nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has not desire for that of which he feels no want….. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant….
The error in your conception of him was very natural and as I imagine from what you say, has arisen out of a confusion of love and the beloved, which made you think that all love was beautiful. For the beloved is the truly beautiful, and delicate, and perfect, and blessed; but the principle of love is of another nature, and is such as I have described it.
Diotima then goes on to make the connection between the Beautiful and the Good: that when we seek the beautiful we really seek the Good. “‘And what does he gain who possesses the good?’ ‘Happiness,’ I replied….” Seeking beauty brings us to the Good, and to all the good things which are its nature: happiness, immortality, and the fulfillment of love.
But how do we seek it? First we must give up the idea that beautiful things exist in isolation. As philosophers we should see the universal quality expressing itself in each beautiful thing:
For he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only–out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.
This is of course a practical application of the ascent described in the analogy of the Divided Line and of the Cave, as described in the Republic–the ascent from the particular to the universal, from the good to the Good, which results in the philosopher “contemplating the vast sea of beauty….”
But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty–the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions and vanities of human life–thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?
In the Phaedrus Plato not only draws the relationship between beauty and love, but describes this love as a kind of inspired or divine madness brought on by the beauty of the beloved. It is perhaps Plato’s most poetic work, and it is easy to picture him under the spell of this madness as he wrote the work, channeling Socrates and opening a small window into the world of the Ideal. As in the Symposium, it consists of a series of speeches on love, beginning with Phaedrus presenting a speech on love written for him by Lysias, his own would-be lover, trying to prove the case that the non-lover is a better choice than the lover. It is clever and full of rhetorical tricks, and we can almost hear Socrates as he listens to it saying “Just shoot me now.” (Socrates: “…he appeared to me wantonly ambitious of showing how he could say the same thing in two or three ways.”)
Socrates responds with a speech his own, undoubtedly better, and on a par with that of Agathon in the Symposium, but making the same point:
….he (the beloved) ought never from the first to have accepted such a demented lover instead of a sensible non-lover; and that in making such a choice he was yielding to a faithless, morose, envious, disagreeable being, hurtful to his estate, hurtful to his bodily constitution , and still more hurtful to the cultivation of his mind, which is and ever will be the most honorable possession both of gods and men.
But then as he is preparing to go back into Athens, Socrates is visited by his daemon, or guide, who makes him realize he cannot leave until he has made things right. As he says to Phaedrus, “That was a dreadful speech you brought with you, and you made me utter one as bad. …they had no truth or honesty in them, and yet they pretended to be something, hoping to succeed in deceiving the manikins of the earth and be famous among them.”
So the stage is set for Socrates to deliver his true speech under the influence of divine prophecy (“mantike”) or madness (“manike”). It is a work of jaw-dropping beauty itself, and the source of his famous analogy of a human being as a charioteer, with two horses, (“…one of them is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin; and, as might be expected, there is a great deal of trouble in managing them.”) and of the soul as a being which must grow wings to reclaim its divine origins. This speech, if not the whole dialog, needs to be read in its entirety, but I will just excerpt a part which is most relevant:
But of beauty, I repeat again that we saw her there shining in company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. But this is the privilege of beauty, that being the loveliest she is also the most palpable to sight. Now he who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted, does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other; he looks only at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget; he consorts with wantonness, and is not afraid or ashamed of pursuing pleasure in violation of nature. But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration; for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing from shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wings begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul–for once the whole was winged.
And in the charioteer analogy, he uses violent imagery to show how we must train the unruly mind in order to see the absolute beauty:
And when they are near (Beauty) he (the unruly horse) stoops his head and puts up his tail, and takes the bit in his teeth. and pulls shamelessly. Then the charioteer is worse off than ever; he falls back like a racer at the barrier, and with a still more violent wrench drags the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed and covers his abusive tongue and-jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground and punishes him sorely. And when this has happened several times and the villain has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one he is ready to die of fear. And from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear.
Since we don’t really know the content of what was taught at Plato’s Academy, we don’t know whether his “upward ladder” of picturing fair things and ascending through beauty to the good itself was actually practiced. But it seems likely: the progress of the soul from the particular to the universal was the predominant theme in many of the dialogues. It was also seen in “the practice of death” as advocated by Socrates in Phaedo–to realize that our bodies, and even individual minds and emotions, are transient, but that our souls continue to exist after these have fallen away. When this is realized, it shapes our feelings about love and beauty in this world. As Pierre Hadot says in What is Ancient Philosophy? (p. 69):
According to the myth of the preexistence of souls, the soul, before it came down into the body, saw the Forms, or transcendent Norms. Once fallen into the sensible world, it forgot them, and now cannot even recognize them intuitively in their images within the sensible world. Only the Form of beauty still has the privilege of appearing, in those images of itself constituted by beautiful bodies. The amorous emotion which the soul feels before some beautiful bodies is provoked by the unconscious recollection of the soul’s vision of transcendent beauty during its previous existence. When the soul feels even the humblest earthly love, it is this transcendent beauty which attracts it.
Although, as with many other spiritual traditions, Plato also saw the limitations of the body and its ultimate inconsistency with the “upward ladder,” it was part of his genius to recognize also that it could be the starting point of the spiritual journey. It is entirely possible that he drew on this universal human experience to free his students from its limitations and lead them out of the cave of the merely sensible to the one beauty everywhere.
The same approach is found in the teachings of Plotinus, one of the most prominent of the teachers in the Ideal tradition, some 700 years later in Imperial Rome, the 3d century AD. Although the “school” he founded did not really survive him, it was quite prominent during his lifetime, and he counted the Emperor Gallienus among his followers. In one of the first talks of his to be preserved, by his scribe Porphyry, he speaks of bodily beauty and its ability to awaken the soul.
Let us, then, go back to the beginning and determine what beauty is in bodily forms.
Clearly it is something detected at a first glance, something that the soul–remembering–names, recognizes, gives welcome to, and, in a way, fuses with.
But if anything, he is even more adamant than Plato that the physical form should be let go in favor of finding the permanent beauty within oneself.
Let him who can arise, withdraw into himself, forego all that is known by the eyes, turn aside forever from the bodily beauty that was once his joy. He must not hanker after the graceful shapes that appear in bodies, but know them for copies, for traceries, for shadows, and hasten away toward that which they bespeak.
Having had the experience of this beauty however, he insists that we must make ourselves worthy of remaining in it presence, and asks the question “How can one see the beauty of a good soul?”
Withdraw into yourself and look. If you do not as yet see beauty within you, do as the sculptor does of a statue that is to be beautified: he cuts away here, he smooths it there, he makes this line lighter, this other one purer, until he disengages beautiful lineaments in the marble. Do you this too. Cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one radiance of beauty. Never cease “working at the statue” until there shines out upon you from it the divine sheen of virtue, until you see perfect “goodness firmly established in a stainless shrine.”
No eye that has not become like unto the sun will ever look upon the sun; nor will any that is not beautiful look upon the beautiful. Let each one therefore become godlike and beautiful who would contemplate the divine and beautiful.
In another essay, On the Intellectual Beauty, Plotinus elaborates on the Idea of Beauty as it exists in what Plato, in the Divided Line analogy, calls the realm of the Intelligible. Plotinus provides an extensive description of this realm, and speaks of the vision of Beauty the gods have when “There:”
This vision Zeus takes and it is for such of us, also, as share his love and appropriate our part in the Beauty There, the final object of all seeing, the entire beauty upon all things; for all There sheds radiance, and floods those that have found their way thither so that they too become beautiful; thus it will often happen that men climbing heights where the soil has taken a yellow glow will themselves appear so, borrowing colour from the place on which they move. The colour flowering on that other height we speak of is Beauty; or rather all There is light and beauty, through and through, for the beauty is no mere bloom upon the surface.
All that one sees as a spectacle is still external; one must bring the vision within and see no longer in that mode of separation but as we know ourselves; thus a man filled with a god–possessed by Apollo or by one of the Muses–need no longer look outside for his vision of the divine being; it is but finding the strength to see divinity within.
After the death of Plotinus in 270 the baton was taken up by Porphyry and other of his students, but with the rise of Christianity their influence began to wane. Most of the works of Plato and Plotinus were consigned, mostly untranslated and largely unread, to libraries and monasteries as the Roman world continued to disintegrate.
But it would be a mistake to think that this ideal of beauty was forgotten: as John Vyvyan said about Plato, “Even during the centuries when these dialogues were lost, their influence was felt through intermediaries….” There were hints of them in St. Augustine and others, although they did take on a Christian vocabulary, as well documented in Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. But as the Church grew in power and wealth, a rift developed between those who used that wealth to finance beautiful works of art and other material objects, and those who saw this as a waste of money that could be used to support the poor. It was a tension the would continue (and still continues).
But over a thousand years after the death of Plotinus, a seemingly insignificant happening would help set in motion a series of events that would mark the return to the Western tradition of looking inward to see the beauty of the soul. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), although a good Catholic, became a secular celebrity in Europe through his own writing, and started the process of rediscovering the works of many of the ancient, mostly Latin, writers. But he was also familiar with Plato and other Greek philosophers. According to Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Not only did he possess a Greek manuscript of Plato, but he seems to have read some of the dialogues when he took his lessons in that language, and he claims to have read the available Latin translations of Plato, that is the Timaeus and the Phaedo. …Plato is the prince of philosophy, Petrarch says, in his treatise on ignorance….”
In 1336 he climbed Mt. Ventoux in southern France, in a sense “because it was there.” “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote in a famous letter to his former confessor, and goes on to allegorize the climb in the language of the ascent of the soul:
…I finally sat down in a valley and transferred my winged thoughts from things corporeal to the immaterial, addressing myself as follows: – “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain, happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life. But this is not so readily perceived by men, since the motions of the body are obvious and external while those of the soul are invisible and hidden. Yes, the life which we call blessed is to be sought for on a high eminence, and strait is the way that leads to it. Many, also, are the hills that lie between, and we must ascend, by a glorious stairway, from strength to strength. At the top is at once the end of our struggles and the goal for which we are bound….”
And later, after reaching the summit:
While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver. I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intention of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.
“Now raising my soul…to higher planes,” “nothing is wonderful but the soul,” “I turned my inward eye upon myself;” these are all sentiments that would have been endorsed by Plato or Plotinus–or St. Augustine. The rediscovery of the soul of the human being, and its ability to transcend itself, lays the groundwork for the Renaissance.
The Florentine Renaissance
There was perhaps no time or place is history where beauty was more worshipped than Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries. And the intellectual powerhouse behind it was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), whose synthesis of Platonism with Christianity provided many artists with the secret language they needed to demonstrate the beauty of the Ideal in the clothing of the Church. He was I would say first a Platonist and then priest of the Church, but he found a way of expressing his ideas which did not run him afoul of the Inquisition as did his student Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and so many others.
One way he did so is by referring to the Good as God, and also by reformulating the “ladder of ascent” analogy to be a circular movement of the beauty of the Good out to the mind of men through love and back again. The ladder is in fact provided by the Good, if we can only learn to see it. In his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, or De Amore, he describes it this way:
This divine quality of beauty stirs desire for itself in all things: and that is love. The world that was originally drawn out of God is thus drawn back to God; there is a continual attraction between them–from God to the world and from the world to God–moving as it were in a circle. This circle may be said to display three qualities: beginning in God it is beauty; passing into the world, it is love; and returning to unite the creation with the Creator, it is pure delight…. God is the beauty that all things desire: by this their longing was kindled, and in the possession of it they will be content. Here the ardour of all lovers comes to rest, not because it is spent, but because it is fulfilled.
In Speech VI he elaborates on this ascent to include four levels of being:
The beauty of the Body you can obviously see. Do you want to see the beauty of the Soul also? Take away from corporeal beauty the weight of matter itself and the limitations of place; leave the rest. Now you have the beauty of the Soul. Do you want to see the beauty of the Angel as well? Take away, please, not only the spaces of place, but also the progression of time; keep the manifold composition; immediately you will find it. Do you want to see also the Beauty of God? Take away, in addition, that manifold composition of Forms; leave utterly simple form; immediately you have reached the beauty of God.
The influence of Ficino and the Platonic Circle was carried on through the art of Botticelli and Michelangelo, both of whom studied under him, and Raphael who memorialized the tradition in his great painting in the Vatican, The School of Athens. However, the height of the Renaissance had ended in Florence around the end of the 15th century. The tension in the Church over support for these projects by the Medici and others gave rise to the severe monk Savonarola, who won over the populace and instituted the practice of the “bonfire of the vanities,” which resulted in the burning of who-knows-how-many works of art, including some by Botticelli. Soon though the tide turned against Savonarola, and he himself was publicly burned in 1498, a year before the death of Ficino. But the seeds of the Platonic concept of Beauty had been sown, and spread throughout Europe through the works of Ficino, and Baldesar Castiglione.
Castiglione–The Book of the Courtier
Although I would not put him in the same company as Ficino, Baldasar Castiglione (1478-1529) was also a very influential figure in the Renaissance, and played a huge role in reviving and spreading Plato’s conception of the ascent to beauty. Although by profession he was a diplomat, primarily in the service of Guidobaldo, the Duke of Urbino, like many educated Italians of the time he wrote poetry as well the work for which he is best known, The Book of the Courtier.
Primarily it is a handbook on how to cultivate the qualities needed to succeed in the highly politicized and status-conscious environment of the noble court. It became very popular in Italy in the years after 1528 when it was published, and thanks to the newly developed printing press became essential reading for all social strivers in the years after, even though for all intents and purposes the kind of chivalric world it described had practically disappeared. It was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby and published in 1561, where its influence can be plainly seen for example in Shakespeare’s choice of Italy, and Italian nobility, for many of his plays.
But today it is read mostly as a window on this vanished world where manners and “nonchalance” (the 16th century version of “cool”) reigned supreme. As George Bull says in the introduction to his 1967 translation, “It is hard, indeed, to think of any work more opposed to the spirit of the modern age. At an obvious level, its preoccupation with social distinction and outward forms of polite behavior creates an intense atmosphere of artificiality and insincerity.”
How does this reconcile with the requirement found in all Platonic literature to find the true self within as opposed to cultivating a kind of mannered mask behind which to hide?
The answer is only partially. After several chapters emphasizing the cultivation of artifice, The Courtier culminates in a soaring speech by Pietro Bembo on the nature of beauty and love that is fraught through with the language of Plato, Plotinus, and Ficino. Although to Bull “the language and sentiments seem inflated and occasionally grotesque,” it brings to mind the “inspired madness” which overtook Socrates in the Phaedo. (Bembo speaks of it as a “holy frenzy of love.”)
He describes the ascent of the “rational” soul through beauty in seven stages, beginning with its embodiment in a female form, which sparks the desire for procreation–that is, immortality–of which Diotima spoke, and which culminates in a kiss. “So the kiss may be called a spiritual rather than physical union because it exerts such power over the soul that it draws it to itself and separates it from the body. For this reason, all chaste lovers desire a kiss as a union of souls; and thus when inspired to love Plato said that in kissing the soul comes to the lips in order to leave the body.” This spiritual element permeates the Renaissance idea of courtly chivalry and the relations between the sexes.
Completing the ascent, the lover is brought into union with the Ideal of Beauty:
Always beautiful; most simple of itself and equally in all it parts; like only to itself and sharing in nothing other than itself; it is yet so beautiful that all other beautiful things derive their beauty from it. And this is the beauty indistinguishable from the highest good, which by its light calls and draws all things to it … So let us direct all the thoughts and powers of our souls towards this most sacred light which shows us the path that leads to heaven; and following after it and divesting ourselves of the human passions in which we were closed when we fell, let us ascend by the ladder whose lower rung bears the image of sensual beauty to the sublime mansion where dwells the celestial, adorable and true beauty which lies hidden in it. And here we shall find a most happy end to our desires, true rest from our labours, a sure remedy for our miseries, a wholesome medicine for our infirmities, a most safe harbour from the raging storms of the tempestuous sea of this life.
While none of this strikes me as “grotesque,” I can see how it could seem “inflated,” or hyperbolic. But I think that’s our problem, not Bembo’s. How many people today actually believe they have (are) a soul that is distinct from the body? How many actually believe there is a “highest good” that is not distinct from beauty? How many actually believe in the existence of this “sublime mansion?” It is only because we have let ourselves become so pedestrian in our thinking that these ideas seem outlandish. For anyone who has had the experience of absolute beauty as recorded by these different writers, it is not outlandish at all–in fact I think they would say that the words fell short. The beauty is still big, as Norma Desmond might say–it’s the words that got smaller.
It is the same with almost all modern “art.” When was the last time you heard the term “beautiful” describe anything? How many artists really seek it out? How many artists would say with Michelangelo, “It was I, Love, who in your youth, turned your feeble sight to Beauty; and that will lead you, living from earth to heaven.”? What was the last work of art that made you fall still, that filled you with awe? As with the professionalization of philosophy, which has disengaged itself from human beings, artistic endeavor has become a clique pursuing novelty for its own sake, or settling for the pretty, the clever, the catchy, the transient.
It is not just that the current fields are so barren; our lack of a sense of beauty cuts us off from the artists and philosophers of the past, who were not self-conscious about speaking its language and describing its landscape. These are the voices that sustained and nourished our civilization through centuries; we can barely understand them any more. We have plots, but not allegories; superheroes bent on revenge, but not human heroes seeking to slay the dragon within. We expect everything to be apparent on the surface; we don’t have time to sit with a poem and let it grow, let it fill the poem-shaped cavity inside us.
As a test case, I will just present, without comment, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 105:
Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.
Ralph Waldo Emerson