WTF Is Art? Plato’s Reflections on Beauty and Love

Art surrounds us, yet plenty of people inherently believe that they don’t “get” art. In our WTF Is Art? series, we give you a crash course in art appreciation to help you understand the intrinsic value—and nail your next dinner party conversation. (Miss the first installment? Learn about Plato’s beef with art here.) In this round, we cover Plato’s reflections on the nature of beauty and how beauty can define art.  

As we previously discussed, Plato was the original art critic, skeptical of art’s intrinsic value. Art was, in his opinion, simply an imitation of nature—and not as good as the real thing. However, in addition to the idea that art imitates nature, the idea that art is inherently beautiful was also a highly developed idea in ancient times. These concepts were often at odds: The pursuit of beauty could often diverge from imitation of nature. To address this, Plato used his theory of knowledge to establish beauty as integral to the ideal form of a thing, its true nature.

According to Plato’s philosophy, the ideal form is the most beautiful, perfect image in our minds—for instance, the idea of the house, is the most beautiful house of all the houses. Beauty isn’t merely superficiality or compensation for lack of morality, but is a necessary part of “what things are when they are most real,” as Robert Williams wrote in Art Theory: An Historical Introduction.

In Plato’s Symposium, beauty is established as that which inspires love, and love is defined as a desire for beauty. While that longing can be one of possession, it is also an attraction to the eternal. At its most base level, it is a lust for procreation, which is as close as many creatures get to the immortal. On the other hand, at its highest form, love—if properly pursued—can lead the spirit toward an understanding of absolute beauty, goodness, and truth.

As Plato points out, the lover suddenly sees the beauty of their beloved surrounding them: “The beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another.” This idea, that love can inspire desire for the individual to evolve into appreciation for the whole, is one of Plato’s most influential contributions, as many thinkers adopted his idea. This process speaks to the depth of the inner life of the individual, as the human state of being is ever-changing.

So, how does this relate to art?

Plato neglects to connect the visual arts to his philosophies on beauty, as his primary concern is the relation of beauty to truth. He does, however, hint at how one could apply his observations to art. For instance, he says all arts rely on a “science of measure,” discerning between the extremes and arriving at some tasteful average. That suggests that beauty may be quantified in some way.

Pythagoras (for which the Pythagorean Theory is named), who lived about 100 years before Plato, pioneered the belief that numbers make up ultimate reality in the universe. As such, the idea that beauty may be reflected in mathematics—things like ratio and symmetry—is something we recognize in the elements of art and design today.

The earliest demonstration of the idea that a work of art is most beautiful if made according to numerical standards is the famous sculpture known as the Canon by mid-5th century BCE sculptor Polykleitos, which features the clear use of proportion. In On Architecture, Vitruvius summed up the principles that create beauty in both man and buildings, writing that symmetry must be present in a building if it is to be beautiful: “For if a person is imagined lying back with outstretched arms and feet within a circle whose center is the navel, the fingers and toes will trace the circumference of this circle as they move about. But to whatever extent a circular scheme may be present in the body, a square design may also be discerned there.” (Leonardo da Vinci illustrated these measurements in Vitruvian Man 15 centuries later.)

While there is no denying that the human eye is aesthetically drawn to proportion, what about art that stirs the soul in other ways? Isn’t art, after all, subjective? Enter the philosopher Plotinus. He attempted to explain and organize Plato’s philosophies but instead created a new school of thought known as Neoplatonism.


A sculpture believed to depict Plotinus.

Plotinus disagreed with Plato in two important areas: first, that art is imitation; and second, that beauty can be boiled down to mere proportion or symmetry.

“Since one face, constant in symmetry, is sometimes fair and sometimes not, can we doubt that beauty is something more than symmetry, that symmetry itself owes its beauty to some remoter principle?” he debated. For Plotinus, the idea that beauty is simply symmetry lacked explanation for the undeniable beauty of light, color, a sunrise or sunset—things that can’t be divided into parts.

Plotinus agreed with Plato’s  Symposium definition of love, and expanded upon Plato’s concept of spiritual ascent. The next step the lover reaches in their journey is a perception of unity with the whole of humanity, which Plotinus refers to as the “world-soul,” which leads to higher intuition (“mind”), which then leads to recognition of mind as a single principle (“world-mind”)—the closest point human thought can reach to ultimate reality (“the One”). The soul originates from the One, and in experiencing beauty the soul recognizes the unity from which it came, and is attracted to returning.

According to this thinking, Art is re-creation rather than imitation, according to Plotinus, and “all that matters is the relation of the finished product to the idea in the artist’s mind; in fact, the finished product is always much less important than the idea.” As the soul is descended from ultimate reality, so is the idea appearing to the artist, and their re-creation is a way of connecting to the One. While he acknowledged that idols are humble expressions of the divine (not divine themselves), Plotinus’ belief that the experience of beauty in art brings the soul closer to divinity is a far more magical view than Plato’s suspicious criticisms of the realities of art.

Next up, we’ll discuss art in the Middle Ages. Stay tuned!

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