We’ve all heard the expression “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but what does it mean and does it make sense? Over the centuries, philosophers and sages have debated the nature of beauty, its importance, and its origin.
About 600 years after Plato, the ancient philosopher Plotinus (205-270 AD) studied philosophy in the great city of Alexandria and interpreted Plato’s philosophy for a new era. Plotinus became the founder of the Neoplatonism school of philosophy. He also talked about beauty.
By extrapolating from the book Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present of Monroe C. Beardsley, we can dissect Plotinus’ understanding of beauty in order to learn from it.
Plotinus and the source of beauty
What does Plotinus think of beauty? He states bluntly: “So this is how the material thing becomes beautiful – by communicating with the thought that flows from the divine. »
In summary, Plotinus says that an object is not beautiful in itself, but is beautiful insofar as it is transformed by an artist in such a way that it communicates what is divine. In order to achieve this goal, the artist must know, at least in part, the form or idea that arises from the divine, and this is only accomplished if the artist is first transformed to align with the divine.
Ironically, since the divine transcends the material world, the artist must turn away from the material world before he can embellish it. He must turn his gaze inward and surrender, as Plotinus suggests, “morally excellent”.
To understand what moral excellence is and what beauty of the soul entails, Plotinus suggests that artists need go no further than our understanding of ugliness. The ugly soul, according to Plotinus, is “dissolute, unjust: full of lusts; torn by internal discord; assailed by the fears of his cowardice and the envy of his pettiness”.
Plotinus lets us know that the ugly soul is not natural. We are not naturally ugly. Ugliness – moral inferiority – is something that masks our true nature, a nature that aligns with the form or idea that “arises from the divine”. To regain our grace, we must strive to cleanse and purify ourselves back to our original nature.
In other words, turning our gaze inward is not simply accepting ourselves as we currently are, but it is an active cleansing of the ugliness of our soul so that our true and beautiful nature can shine through. Plotinus says: “It is by becoming a good and beautiful thing that the soul becomes like God. »
Only after the soul has transformed into its original source of beauty, a divine beauty, can it then transform the material world into beauty: a beauty that flows from the divine.
The purpose of art for Plotinus, according to Monroe C. Beardsley, is that “the soul rejoices in recognizing its own objectified nature, and thus becoming aware of its own participation in the divinity”.
In other words, when the artist transforms matter into beauty, he produces a way for human beings to experience, connect, and form a path to the divine. According to Plotinus, “When we recognize the beauty of an image, we after all remember, however dimly, the eternal beauty that is our home”.
The beautiful sculpture of Pygmalion
The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, at least in part, can reveal to us the connection between the morally excellent artist who has a beautiful soul, the beautiful work of art and the divine.
According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 17 or 18 AD), the myth of Pygmalion was a song sung by the semi-divine Greek musician Orpheus after he invoked the gods for “to be the beginning of [sa] song “. Consider both Ovid and “A Book of Myths” by Jean Lang to tell the story of Pygmalion.
In this story, the daughters of Propoetus, also known as the Propetids, denied Venus, the goddess of beauty. The Propetids even dared to prostitute themselves in the temple of Venus, which angered the goddess.
The sculptor Pygmalion, disgusted by the vices of the Propetids, decided to renounce the company of women. Instead, he focused on creating beautiful art, and this passion for creating beautiful things drove him.
His devotion to beauty eventually allowed him to create an amazing sculpture of a woman, “an image of perfect feminine beauty”, says Ovid. Lang adds: “He didn’t know how it happened. He only knew that within that great mass of pure white stone seemed to be imprisoned the exquisite image of a woman, a woman he had to set free. »
Pygmalion was amazed at the beauty of his creation. It was almost as if this portrayal of female beauty was alive, so alive that he gave her a name. He called her Galatea. The beauty of Galatea drove him to adore his creation to the point of obsession. He bought her presents, dressed her and kissed her.
On the Feast of Venus, Pygmalion stood before the altar and asked the gods to grant him a woman as his sculpture. Venus was present at her feast and heard Pygmalion’s prayer. Satisfied with Pygmalion, she granted her wish.
Pygmalion returned home and found Galatea alive. He thanked Venus and married Galatea.
Plotinus and Pygmalion
How can Plotinus’ exposition of beauty be correlated with the myth of Pygmalion? To recap: Plotinus suggests that true beauty stems from the divine and can only be created here on earth when the artist – having achieved a level of moral excellence by purifying the ugliness of his soul – communicates divine beauty in an earthly creation.
In the myth of Pygmalion, Venus, goddess of beauty, is the divine source from which springs true beauty. The Propetids disrespected Venus by prostituting themselves in the temple, a place of expression of gratitude to the divine source of beauty.
Thus, the Propetids represent the ugliness that can infect the beauty of the soul. They denied the existence of a divine source of beauty, a beauty beyond the material world, and instead participated in the monetary exchange for sexual pleasure, an act no doubt inspired by greed and lust.
Pygmalion, however, turns away from the Propetids and the ugliness they represent, thus purifying his soul. By turning away from earthly temptations, Pygmalion presumably achieves a higher level of moral excellence, thus producing a work of art so beautiful that it inspires him with great love and adoration.
Here it would be easy to conclude that the Pygmalion mythos simply represents a man’s sexual desire for a woman he can control (since we can assume that he would be unable to control the Propetids, but would be able to control its creation). However, another interpretation suggests that this myth is probably much more than that.
Pygmalion seems to control very little throughout the mythos. He does not know how he produced this magnificent work of art, admitting that its beauty exceeds its ability. He wants to bring Galatea to life, but cannot do so without the help of Venus. The only thing he shows himself to be in control of is himself when he turns away from the lust and greed represented by the Propetids. Everything else, such as the creation of Galatea, his worship of Galatea, and the birth of Galatea, seems to be divine.
Galatea is not a simple sculpture that transforms into a woman. On the contrary, it represents the manifestation of divine beauty. Pygmalion’s love for Galatea represents our appreciation and love of divine things as we cleanse ourselves of ugliness that can cloud the nature of our souls. It is the divine source of Galatea that makes it special. Otherwise, Pygmalion would have had this reaction to every sculpture he created. Their eventual marriage suggests our desire to be united with the “thought that flows from the divine.”
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