A comparison of Plotinus’ philosophy of art and beauty with that of Plato

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A comparison of Plotinus’ philosophy of art and beauty with that of Plato

Plato’s separation of art and beauty created a tension in his writing. His main preoccupation was with beauty and his regard for art was marginal by comparison. Plato’s treatment of art had further divisions and conflicts not easy to reconcile. On the one hand, his ideas about art were indivisibly linked to his key moral and metaphysical concerns in the Republic, where it was concluded art could only exist in a severely restricted form, and on the other, as in the Phaedrus, art could be so inspirational it could connect the artist directly with God in a form of divine mania.

This essay explores two key shifts away from Plato, which are often argued for in Plotinus’ philosophy: the high status that Plotinus attributed to art in the earthly realm; and how art accesses ultimate reality. The factors that accounted for these shifts will be highlighted and tested against the ideas of Plato. Crucial to this is Plotinus’ interpretation of mimesis.

Before any attempt can be made to examine Plotinus’ central ideas on art and beauty, it is first necessary to adumbrate his main metaphysical ideas.

At the core of the whole universe is the One, the origin of everything and to which everything will one day return. However, the One is beyond knowledge and description, and for it to connect with mortals it mediates through an intelligible realm comprising Intellect and Soul. Intellect is in a state of eternal contemplation of the One, holding perfectly together all intelligible thought, but its role is also active because it creates the Soul. The Soul contemplates Intellect and is the intermediary link between the intelligible realm and that of humans; it too fulfils a creative role bringing forth all worldly things as well as the souls of individual beings: it is thus eternal but operates in time and history.

Plotinus argues that humans are weakened and estranged from the One but they can participate in Intellect and Soul and this stirs in them a yearning to return to the One following a route that is the ‘pathway of art’. Beauty emanates from the One similar to the way that a star discharges light that loses energy as it travels vast distances through different atmospheres before finally diffusing in its weakened state on earthly matter.

Like Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus inherited the Pythagorean definition of beauty which comprises order, harmony, measure and proportion. Plotinus took issue with this by asking how Pythagoras’ theory could be applied to compound entities without parts, such as colour or light, because unlike material objects they cannot be described in terms of symmetry; yet they can be described as beautiful. This conclusion clearly parallels Plato, who in his Philebus argued at 51c-d that non-composite things like colours ‘import their own kind of pleasures’ and ‘are by their very nature forever beautiful by themselves’. Plotinus extended his argument to include spiritual qualities such as virtue and truth. Virtue can be beautiful, but how can it be symmetrical or depend on symmetry to account for its beauty? Plotinus concluded from this that beauty must essentially be different from symmetry (Ennead 1.6.1). Plotinus considers that in a beautiful face where symmetry is a prominent feature, symmetry is only one manifestation of beauty, not its cause. Beauty, therefore, is a quality.

Bredin/Santoro Brienza conclude that for Plotinus, ‘the primordial quality and fundamental metaphysical attribute of all reality is unity. Beauty also as a universal characteristic of all reality consists in unity’.[1] Beauty cannot, therefore, come from matter, as matter, just like symmetry, has no metaphysical unity in and of itself. It is rather the ‘Soul’ that ‘makes beautiful the bodies which are spoken of as beautiful; for since it is a divine thing and a kind of part of beauty, it makes everything it grasps and masters as beautiful’ (Ennead I.6.6.). Beauty thus gives a spiritual charge to matter, imbuing it with its ideal form.

Plotinus thus appears to be close to Plato in the sense that the soul inside humans desires to be united with the Good or the One, a state in which Beauty is apprehended. Plotinus at times uses language that is directly influenced by passages from Plato, like the following one which is indebted to the Symposium (203b). Plotinus talks about the state of pure apprehension of beauty as like being drunk with wine, ‘filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated with this beauty’ (Ennead 5.8.10). In the Phaedrus 251a-256e, Plato also considered the reaction of the soul in the presence of beauty, viewing it like a recollection of Beauty itself which had once been seen by the soul in a previous existence. Participating in the form of beauty stirs a remembrance of a former happy state when the absolute form was once apprehended. But, as O’Meara asserts, ‘Plotinus sees soul… as recalling, not just one Form [ie. of beauty], but the whole world of Forms'[2], or in other words that which perfectly holds all the forms: the One, or in Plato’s terms, the Good. The experience of beauty in the earthly realm, then, rather than be a potential distraction or a danger as Plato argued, becomes for Plotinus a distraction of a noble and good sort, because it carries us immediately away from ugliness and other base qualities into the heart of perfection itself, where virtue and beauty co-mingle.

It is clear that Plotinus was fully committed to elevating the status of art. Art’s mimetic qualities cannot therefore be understood in a restrictive Platonic sense advocated in the Republic, whereby art merely imitates ultimate reality in an inferior way. In Plotinian terms, because art manifests beauty in the physical world, this emphasises its autonomy. Plotinus states that the ‘arts do not simply imitate what they see, but they run back up to the forming principles from which nature derives; then also… they do a great deal by themselves, and, since they possess beauty, they make up what is defective in things’.(Ennead 5.8.1). Plotinus’ interest in looking at and analysing the ‘teleological dynamism of human experience’ draws him closer to Aristotle’s ideas of art mimesising nature[3]. This influence is also clear in the following passage, which for some has been viewed as a summation of Plotinus’ ideas about art.

Let us suppose a couple of great lumps of stone lying side by side, one shapeless and untouched by art, the other which has been already mastered by art and turned into a statue of a god or of a man… and if of a man not just of any man but of one whom art has made up out of every sort of human beauty. The stone which has been brought to beauty of form by art will appear beautiful not because it is a stone… but as a result of the form which art has put into it. Now the material did not have this form, but it was in the man who had it in his mind even before it came into the stone; but it was in the craftsman, not in so far as he had hands and eyes, but because he had some share of art. So this beauty was in the art (Enneads 5.8.1).

This seems to point to the same conclusion that Plato reached in the Phaedrus, at least by implication, that when an artist is drunk with divine nectar his philosophical systems are over-ridden and are replaced by a pure communication between him and God. Plotinus implies here that this communion is achieved through the artist’s intimate connection with nature. In going back to the Reason-Principles or the forming principles of nature, Plotinus believed that the ‘pathway of art’ allows one to travel on a metaphysical journey. The created piece of work becomes one point on a series of interconnected pathways that, to use the words of Eco, have a spiritual ‘luminous current’ running through them.[4] It is thus the purity of art’s relationship with the One that accounts for Plotinus’ high regard of art.

Plato of course argued in Republic that only the philosopher could attain true knowledge a.............


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