I’d like to thank you for your patience. I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been concentrating on my Master’s program in Sacred Arts at Pontifex University. I am now over the halfway point. Additionally, I’m working on a book for my program about how ancient cultures and philosophers recognized the mathematics of beauty in the universe and how we have lost that in modern times. But, enough about me; let’s get to the article itself.
That being said, the information above is relevant to the topic of this post, which is Plato’s perspective on the arts and beauty. One reason this is important is because it directly applies to modern life. As you know, modernity is often characterized by ugliness. Whether it’s in city planning such as strip malls, or in modern art, much of which can be confusing at best. Part of the journey to rediscover beauty, what I call Renaissance 2.0, involves understanding what ancient philosophers believed about aesthetics and learning how to apply these principles to modern life.
And since my area of concentration is aesthetics, I will focus more on this topic in future writings. I have emphasized this area because I believe that beauty reflects the soundness and health of a culture. In our relativistic era, people pay little attention to propositional truth, showing limited belief in it. It’s possible that beauty based on objective truth and goodness will be a major pathway back to objective truth. I will delve deeper into this idea in future writings. But let’s return to the matter at hand.
To gain a better understanding of Plato, we need to trace back to the famous Greek philosopher and mathematician who significantly influenced Plato – Pythagoras.
Pythagoras – the Beginning of it All
Iamblichus (c. 245-325 A.D.), the Arab Neoplatonist philosopher, in his Life of Pythagoras, tells a very interesting story of how Pythagoras discovered the secret of the universe.
As the story goes, Pythagoras was walking down a street in Croton, Southern Italy. When, amid the din of all of the other noises, he heard the sound of blacksmith hammers striking metal.
Once, he was engrossed in the thought of whether he could devise a mechanical aid for the sense of hearing which would prove both certain and ingenious. Such an aid would be similar to the compasses, rules and optical instruments designed for the sense of sight. Likewise the sense of touch had scales and the concepts of weights and measures. By some divine stroke of luck he happened to walk past the forge of a blacksmith and listened to the hammers pounding iron and producing a variegated harmony of reverberations between them, except for one combination of sounds.-Iamblichus
And, after a brief investigation, realized that the hammers creating a harmonious consonant sound were in a specific proportion to one another based on their weights. When he later experimented with this “music theory” using strings, he discovered that when two strings with a 1:2 proportion were plucked together. It resulted in a musical octave. The 2:3 interval produced a perfect fifth, and the 3:4 ratio yielded a perfect fourth.
Consequently, the first four numbers, 1, 2, 3, and 4, held the key to understanding musical harmonies. Remarkably, these numbers also added up to 10, a figure Pythagoras considered perfect. He believed that this discovery might hold the numerical key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. Which he visually represented through his famous Tetractys. This geometric symbol illustrated how the first four numbers combined to make ten.
Because of this, the Tetractys held a central role in Pythagorean mystical worship. It was considered the key to the universe, describing the ‘music’ emitted by the planets as they, like musical strings, harmonized with each other.”
Plato and the Musical Harmonies of the Universe
Plato, who further developed these theories, was keenly aware of all this. One of his most renowned dialogues, which I hope to discuss eventually, is the Timaeus. In the Timaeus, Plato presents his “creation” story based on mathematical principles. While it’s too complex to delve into deeply right now, a central premise of Timaeus is that the Demiurge, the creator of the universe, fashioned the cosmos based on Pythagorean musical harmonies. Consequently, musical harmonies are intricately woven into the very fabric of the universe, including everything within it, including ourselves. This is why we resonate with the beauty of the cosmos and musical harmonies. We recognize a reflection of ourselves in them.
The idea of creating beauty by musical and mathematical proportions of the cosmos wasn’t lost on Gothic and Renaissance architects. They strove to incorporate these harmonious proportions when constructing iconic Gothic cathedrals and exquisite Renaissance churches. Notably, architects like Alberti and Palladio played instrumental roles in this endeavor. In fact, I would argue that Plato’s Timaeus not only influenced but also guided medieval and Renaissance architects and artisans. To put it differently, without the Timaeus, such architecture would be markedly different from what we are familiar with today.
Ancient Philosophy on Aesthetics
Before delving into Plato’s ideas about art and beauty, it’s essential to discuss the broader topic of aesthetic theory. Aesthetic theory has evolved significantly over the centuries since the time of the ancient Greeks, notably in recent centuries. Hence, interpreting Plato’s or Aristotle’s art and beauty views with advanced modern theories would be anachronistic. For instance, the aesthetic theories of the 20th-century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand played a pivotal role in reviving classical and Christian theories of beauty and applying them to his contemporary world.
Simply, you won’t find a comprehensive philosophy on art and beauty in Plato or any ancient Greek philosopher’s works. What you will discover instead are foundational but often incomplete ideas on this subject. Even within the works of the same author, there are often contradictions, with Plato being no exception. Plato build the ideas of those who came before him, such as Pythagoras, and introduce new perspectives on aesthetics. While his ideas may lack comprehensiveness, they compensate by profoundly influencing how Western civilization thought about and developed these concepts. Many of his ideas were passed down through the Neoplatonists, who, in turn, had a significant impact on medieval philosophers.
In this context, I aim to explore Plato’s thoughts on art and beauty from his dialogues. I will also attempt to discern if there is a coherent theme or if we can make sense of them. Starting with the premise that there is a distinction between art and beauty, let’s begin by exploring Plato’s perspective.
The Form of Beauty and Diotima’s Ladder
Plato, like Aristotle, was an idealist. They both believed that reality extended beyond the physical world into the realm of metaphysics. However, Plato’s idealism differed significantly from Aristotle’s. Plato envisioned an ideal world of forms—perfect, non-physical, eternal, and unchanging realities that corresponded to the imperfect, physical, and ever-changing objects in our familiar world.
For instance, among all the different types of chairs in existence, not a single one is perfect—not even close. There exists only one ideal chair, the Form of Chair, which resides solely in the world of abstract ideas. It is from this form of a chair that all the chairs in our world derive their essential “chairness.”
There is a form for almost everything we encounter in this world. Whether they are tangible things like chairs or abstract concepts like justice, beauty, and goodness.3 According to Plato, among all the forms, the Form of the Good holds the highest position. Even surpassing the Form of Being in rank and power.4
The setting of Plato’s Symposium is a drinking party where, among other things, the topic of the nature of love arises in the context of the various guests making speeches in honor of the goddess of love, Eros. As is customary in Plato’s dialogues, the minor interlocutors all offer their perspectives on what love is. And, after they completely miss the point, Socrates enters with his viewpoint. Which the goddess Diotima revealed to him in a mystical vision.
In the scenario that Socrates brings forth, love is a desire for beauty. In elementary forms of love, initially a beautiful body sexually attracts us. This is the lowest form of love since it is very narrow and specific. From there, as we climb the ladder of enlightenment, the beauty attracts us that we encounter in all beautiful bodies. This is not necessarily sexual, but more of a realization of the principles of beauty in general. From there, there is a shift from the physical to the emotional and spiritual, which is love for a beautiful soul. It is exactly here that the term “Platonic love” originated. Beautiful souls create beautiful laws and institutions. It is their love and beauty that comprise the next step. From there proceeds the love of the beauty of wisdom, which makes good laws and institutions possible.
Only a small number of enlightened people in society—the philosophers—possess this love of wisdom. Plato’s other writings would lead us to believe that this is the highest rung of the ladder, but it is not. Beyond philosophy is the love of beauty itself. This is more of a mystical experience than one of words and ideas. When someone unites with the form of beauty, they realize true love and attain immortality.
But tell me, what would happen if one of you had the fortune to look upon essential beauty entire, pure and unalloyed; not infected with the flesh and color of humanity, and ever so much more of mortal trash? What if he could behold the divine beauty itself, in its unique form?… So when he has begotten a true virtue and has reared it up he is destined to win the friendship of Heaven; he, above all men, is immortal.’Symposium 211e, 212a
Christian Neoplatonists like St. Augustine and those who came after him did not lose the imagery. They believed that the most elevated form of love involved gazing upon and becoming one with the beauty of God Himself. The “Beatific Vision” was how theologians referred to this. This concept is also evident in Dante’s writings, where he evolves from an erotic love for Beatrice to a philosophical comprehension of a mystical connection with God in the Divine Comedy. Similar principles of transformation are observed in the writings of various Catholic mystics, including St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
Plato’s Usage of the Word Beauty
The mystical love of the Form of Beauty is, then, the highest form of enlightenment. I believe it’s crucial to start here because it serves as an anchor for comprehending Plato’s aesthetic concepts. He assigns the Form of Beauty to a very elevated and significant position, just below the Form of the Good, which, in his framework, is the highest Form.
It is good to take a pause here and discuss briefly the Greek word for “beauty” which is kalon (καλόν). As you can imagine, there is no exact equivalency between modern English and ancient Greek.6 When we consider beauty, our primary focus is on something that pleases the senses. Plato’s use of “kalon” had both a broader and narrower scope compared to our contemporary usage. This aligns with the idea that if we were exclusively discussing aesthetically pleasing sensory experiences, the Form of Beauty in Diotima’s Ladder might not possess the necessary significance to meet this requirement.
To the ancient Greeks, kalon meant not just beautiful, but fine, admirable, honorable, or noble.7 It was more connected with virtue and goodness, having more ethical or moral overtones. Kalon has shades and layers of meaning. There’s something beautiful and appealing about being in the company of someone virtuous, like Mother Teresa, for instance. We’d describe her as a beautiful person even though she may not possess the physical attractiveness of a Hollywood celebrity. On the contrary, we feel repelled by a physically attractive politician who is a scoundrel.
On the other hand, kalon has a much narrower usage in Plato’s writings, particularly when he employs it to convey the concept of physical attractiveness. In Plato’s works, when referring to physical beauty, he frequently employs kalon to describe the allure of a person’s face or body, rather than using it to depict a statue, a tree, a work of art, or a scenic view, although he does occasionally use it in those contexts as well.8
Plato’s idea of mystical union and immortality is obviously connected with this broader Greek definition of beauty. What is pleasing to the senses is ultimately virtuous and good.
Beauty Versus Art
To delve into the discussion of modern aesthetic theories regarding the differences and the relationship between art and beauty is beyond the scope of this article. However, it’s worth mentioning that this is a topic that may be explored in future articles on this blog, if time allows. Even defining the concept of “art” would require many pages. Given that we are discussing Plato, I’ll focus on his concept of art.
For simplicity, let’s consider kalon as the transcendent, unchanging, eternal, pure Form of Beauty that all humans naturally seek, whether they are aware of it or not. Kalos is something good and desirable, with analogs in erotic love and physical beauty according to Diotima’s Ladder. Using this as our philosophical foundation, we can use it as a backdrop to elucidate Plato’s view of art.
Today, when we think of the arts, we often include a broad spectrum of forms such as painting, sculpture, theater, ballet, and more. In Socrates’ and Plato’s time, artistic expression was primarily associated with dramatic poetry, whether it was comedy or tragedy. This is not surprising, considering the significant influence of Homer on Greek society, reinforced by various Greek poets like Aeschylus, Cleophon, and Pindar, to name a few. Furthermore, it was the practice of the ancient Greeks to compare different art forms. When they discussed poetry, they often compared it to visual arts, continuing an ancient Greek tradition that Plato embraced in his writings. One could argue that this practice of comparing and contrasting art forms among the ancient Greeks was an early form of the philosophy of art. 9
Having established all of this, this begs the question of what was Plato’s view of the arts?
Plato’s Positive View of the Arts
Overall, I would say that Plato’s view of the arts was negative, which I’ll delve into further in the next discussion. With that said, I’ll begin by highlighting some of his positive perspectives as found in his various writings. Let’s commence with the following excerpt from Republic Book III. The context of the discussion revolves around the appropriate music to accompany dramatic poetry readings. In the dialogue, Socrates mentions four essential elements – style, harmony, grace, and good rhythm, which ultimately converge into simplicity.
Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity,—I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?Republic 400e
Notice immediately how he ties simplicity not to musical mechanics but to a “rightly and nobly ordered mind and character.” This aligns perfectly with what I mentioned earlier: the concept that beauty, or kalon from the Greek perspective, carried strong moral and ethical connotations. For the Greeks, artistic expression was not merely intended for entertainment but was intrinsically linked to the morality and virtue of an individual’s mind and character.
From this standpoint, the arts held significant power, and careful handling was imperative. Proper artistic expression emanates from a virtuous character and mind, while disordered art arises from a disordered mind. Consequently, it possesses the capacity to influence people, especially the younger generation, either positively or negatively concerning virtue. Due to this, it necessitates strict regulation by the state, as the state has a vested interest in fostering a virtuous citizenry, to prevent the descent into immorality and disorder. This summarizes Plato’s argument, a perspective quite distinct from our contemporary view of art.
In our current era, art is often regarded as a means of entertainment in its simplest form or as a way to enrich individuals in loftier pursuits, but not necessarily in a moral or ethical context. Artistic self-expression, again morally neutral, leads to personal enrichment of the same nature. The components of modern artistic expression are primarily subjective, in stark contrast to Plato’s notion that art is grounded in objective, and even transcendent, principles.
And also that good and bad rhythm naturally assimilate to a good and bad style; and that harmony and discord in like manner follow style; for our principle is that rhythm and harmony are regulated by the words, and not the words by them.Republic 400d
What is more important, the lyrics or the music? Plato would say the lyrics for reasons stated above.
And if our youth are to do their work in life, must they not make these graces and harmonies their perpetual aim?Republic 400e
Thus, according to Plato, the youth must continually strive to develop virtue, and the arts should serve this purpose. Here, he isn’t referring to musical harmonies but rather the harmonies of life and one’s character, which can be loosely translated as “integrity.”
“Grace” is another intriguing word. The Greek word for grace, “charis” (χάρις), like “kalon,” carries a strong moral and ethical dimension. In modern usage, grace may connote elegance or beauty. In a Christian context, grace often signifies God’s loving power to assist individuals in their times of need. For the ancient Greeks, it held both aesthetic and moral significance and played a central role in the organization of society. According to Bonnie MacLachlan, grace possessed “a transformative power grounded in favor, thanks, repayment, delight, pleasure, and, above all, reciprocity.” This concept was prevalent in Greek poetry, from Homer to Aeschylus.10
Plato proceeds to apply the principles from the art of poetry to the arts in general, even encompassing the technical (techne) definition of the art of manufacturing, which refers to skill, craft, or technique.
And surely the art of the painter and every other creative and constructive art are full of them,—weaving, embroidery, architecture, and every kind of manufacture; also nature, animal and vegetable,—in all of them there is grace or the absence of grace. And ugliness and discord and inharmonious motion are nearly allied to ill words and ill nature, as grace and harmony are the twin sisters of goodness and virtue and bear their likeness.Republic 401a
Notice the direct tie of the arts with morality when he states that “grace and harmony are the twin sisters of goodness and virtue and bear their likeness” Plato sees a one to one correspondence between the grace and harmony of the arts and the goodness and virtue of character.
Would we do well to adopt such a stand on the arts today or is this too radical? Imagine if, whatever we put our hands to, from the fine arts to the medical arts and even the art of manufacturing, was infused with transcendent moral significance? I would think that such a posture would transform society on a grassroots level. It would be like leaven raising the dough. If we had, for example, a moral and ethical perspective on shopping and eating out, would we have such ugly strip malls that pollute the landscape of American life? Do we create ugliness when we remove transcendent values from such mundane activities?
Before this occurs though, society would have to ask and attempt to answer the important spiritual questions such as what is the nature of God and what does he require form us to live a healthy and happy life? In a society such as this, there would be continuity between the church altar and the manufacturing plant down the street where the spiritual life of the church would transform the manufacturing plant. As an optometrist, I try to practice my “art” in this manner, and some of my patients have definitely noticed, for they have commented as much to me.
Plato’s genius in this is that he takes principles found in narrow definitions of artistic expression, i.e. poetry, and applies them broadly to all of life. Plato’s genius in this is that he takes principles found in narrow definitions of artistic expression, i.e. poetry, and applies them broadly to all of life. In Plato’s mind then, art, because it was so powerful, had the ability to transform the soul if used correctly or destroy society. This is because arts can have a profound effect on the youth, changing them for good or ill, even before they can rationally think through such ideas of morality.
And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason whyRepublic 401d-e, 402a
Given the fact that Plato held such a high regard for the arts as “a more potent instrument than any other,” it’s not surprising that he recognized the necessity for the state to regulate this powerful tool. Returning to our initial point, if musical harmonies are intricately interwoven with the fabric of the universe, then it logically follows that Plato believed in the importance of using the correct musical harmonies in educating the youth. If the universe itself is constructed with these harmonies, so are we, and only the right harmonies can resonate with us, ensuring that our lives align harmoniously with the cosmos rather than creating dissonance. This is why he issued the following warning:
But shall our superintendence go no further, and are the poets only to be required by us to express the image of the good in their works, on pain, if they do anything else, of expulsion from our State? Or is the same control to be extended to other artists, and are they also to be prohibited from exhibiting the opposite forms of vice and intemperance and meanness and indecency in sculpture and building and the other creative arts; and is he who cannot conform to this rule of ours to be prevented from practicing his art in our State, lest the taste of our citizens be corrupted by him? We would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.Republic 401b-c
It’s not a surprise for those familiar with Plato that he was an elite statist. As such, he advocated, as he does here, for state-sponsored censorship of the arts. This goes against the grain of what we’re used to in the West. That said, without resorting to such heavy-handed tactics, is there still an opportunity to revisit this idea of the moral influence of the arts? What do you think? Please comment below.
If you’d like to read more on this subject, I’ve included a link to a paper by Thomas R. Larson, a Catholic who revisits the idea of the transformative power of music from an ancient Greek and a medieval Catholic perspective, applying these principles to modern times. The paper is called Man, Music, and Catholic Culture.
I would like to end with a very beautiful quote from Plato that illustrates one of the highest views of art in all of his writings. Not all of his views on the arts were so positive. I will cover those in the next post. Stay tuned.
Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.Republic 401 c-d
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- For a further excursion in Hildebrand, please see the Hildebrand Project.
- I say almost, for in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, the topic is brought up of certain things that cannot have a Form such as hair, mud, and dirt! See 130a-e
- The Republic, 508d-e
- Symposium, 201d-212a
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”
- Fine, Jonathan, Beauty on Display, Columbia University
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”
- MacLachlan, Bonnie, The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry, Princeton University Press (April 19, 2016), ISBN 13 978-0691630762
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Volume I, Hildebrand Project (November 7, 2016), ISBN-13 978-1939773043
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Volume II, Hildebrand Press; First English ed. edition (February 8, 2019), ISBN-13 978-1939773104
Albert Hofstadter, Richard Kuhns, Editors, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, University of Chicago Press; 2nd edition (August 15, 1976), ISBN-13 978-0226348124
Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras
Larson, Thomas R., Man, Music, and Catholic Culture, St. Anselm Collage
MacLachlan, Bonnie, The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry, Princeton University Press (April 19, 2016), ISBN 13 978-0691630762