BMCR 2023.01.35

Plotinus on beauty: beauty as illuminated unity in multiplicity

, Plotinus on beauty: beauty as illuminated unity in multiplicity. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, 29. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. x, 219. ISBN 9789004510197

According to Porphyry’s chronology, the first treatise Plotinus wrote was “On Beauty” (I 6[1]). Having apparently written nothing until he was close to 50, this fact presents us with the tantalizing possibility that Plotinus thought the topic had some programmatic importance. In fact, the treatise does not really serve well as a sketch or introduction to Plotinus’ system. The treatise V 1 [10], “On the Three Primary Hypostases” seems to function in that role. Yet with the help of Ota Gál’s intense and highly intelligent focus on “On Beauty” as well as its “companion,” V 8 [31], “On the Intelligible Beauty,” we can better see how Plotinus understands beauty as the connecting tissue of his entire system. What I mean specifically by this is that most accounts of the Platonic system give us a static tableau of principles or “levels” of reality, often presented in a diagrammatic format. Concentrating on beauty allows us to see the actual dynamism of the system, for beauty is a relational property of being, the property of attracting us. Of paramount importance is the fact that we would not be attracted if the ultimate source of being were not eternally making it so. It is beauty that regulates, that is, makes “regular,” the procession and reversion that is at the center of the entire cosmos.

Gál’s book is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation done under the auspices of Charles University in Prague and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. It is a book that is somewhat difficult to summarize since it amounts to a very close commentary on the above two treatises along with parts of VI 2 [43], VI 6 [34], and VI 7 [38], wherein beauty is discussed at some length. The introductory chapter sets out the author’s hermeneutical principles. Gál is, I think, correct in brushing aside any suggestion of doctrinal development in the decade or so during which these treatises were written. Accordingly, he arranges his chapters in a way that reflects the hierarchical elements of the system, not according to chronology. And with respect to beauty itself, he aims to show how it provides the “continuity” among the levels of the system (p. 5). Gál adds another reason for beginning with I 6, namely, that with Plotinus’ dual perspectives, “bottom up” and “top down,” what is most immediate to us is the former, especially in our encounter with the physically beautiful (p. 8), and it is through beauty that we return to the source of everything, and why, as the source, it must be identical with our goal. Altogether, the book is structured as a study of beauty first at the level of sense, then soul, and then Intellect, culminating in Plotinus’ argument that the origin of Intellect and its beauty is in the One or Good (p. 12).

Chapter Two is a survey of the phenomenal field of beauty in I 6 (pp. 14-16). Gál counts some 39 uses of the term to kalon in this treatise, making a distinction between those things that are beautiful because they participate in Beauty, and those things which are beautiful a se, because they are bodiless. The latter include the Forms, souls, and Intellect itself. In this chapter, Gál addresses the crucial question of whether Plotinus, undoubtedly following Plato, especially in his Symposium, thinks that participation in beauty means participating in a single Form of Beauty. The author argues that since beauty is said by Plotinus to be caused by a form, not the Form of Beauty, a single Form should not be postulated (pp. 21-24). Beauty is what is possessed by anything with form, excluding only matter, which is formless. Things that participate in Forms are thereby to some extent or to some degree beautiful; the Forms themselves have beauty as a property. Further, since the intelligible world is, as Plotinus says, a one-many, or an eternal integrated unity, a measure of the beauty of anything here below that partakes of a Form is the extent to which it achieves or images that integrated unity. Even the simplest sensible beauty is beautiful because it partakes in that which is implicitly complex, a complexity that is evident to Intellect and to everyone insofar as they return to their own undescended intellects. The impact of beauty on the soul is obviously crucial (pp. 24-28). Our souls are loci of embodied desires for apparent goods, many of which are taken to be beautiful. To the extent that we identify ourselves with the ephemeral subjects of these desires, we content ourselves with apparent beauties. To the extent that we identify with our intellects, our true selves, we shun the apparent for the real. What differentiates non-veridical appearance, that is, apparent beauties, from veridical appearance, that is, real sensible beauties, is exactly what Plato says in Sophist differentiates real eikones from phantasmata, namely the possession or the lack of summetria, or integrated unity according to kind.

The third chapter is a commentary on V 8 [31], “On the Intelligible Beauty.” Although the paradigm of beauty is Intellect, intelligible beauty is found also in the sensible world insofar as it is intelligible. The relational property of beauty in the sensible world is found in sensible form. But, of course, sensible form is also intelligible to us as form. There could be no form in the sensible world—and so, no beauty—if there were no intelligible world. But since the intelligible world is productively active, there could also be no intelligible beauty if there were not sensible beauty (p. 49). Indeed, there could be no sensible beauty without matter, which is entirely bereft of form, something which emphasizes the continuity of the dynamic system. What of the beauty of soul, intermediary between Intellect and the sensible world? Because we have rational souls, we are images of Intellect (and our own undescended intellects). And insofar as the forms of sensibles are taken up into our souls, including our sense faculties and imagination, as well as into our embodied discursive intellects, there is beauty there, too. Especially in the acquisition of virtue, and the self-awareness of this, does soul become beautiful (p. 52). The self-construction that Plotinus speaks of elsewhere is literally a beautification project. So, our desire for the beautiful, which is in fact a desire for the Good, is illuminated self-love. Gál moves on in this chapter to an excellent discussion of the variegated Intellect, the one-many and how it is an integrated unity (p.57-67). This account requires an encounter with Aristotle’s insistence on the unqualified simplicity of primary being. If, and only if, the first principle of all is “above being” is Plotinus justified in saying that primary being is poikilos, and since primary being is the paradigm of beauty, all beauties are integrated unities each according to its own kind. The integrated unity of the Forms is their internal relatedness, imaged here below by the external relatedness of the parts of sensible beauties. As Plotinus says, wisdom (sophia) is just the self-awareness of paradigmatic integrated unity.

The brief fourth and fifth chapters focus on VI 2 [43] and VI 6 [34] and Plotinus’ discussion of the megista genē of Plato’s Sophist and Numbers. The connection of these chapters with the theme of this book is somewhat tenuous. Gál’s rationale for treating these topics is that the Greatest Kinds and Numbers serve specific purposes in the integrated unity of the paradigm. The Kinds unify the Forms and Numbers provide “structural delimitation” for the intelligible world (p. 88). In these difficult chapters, especially the fifth on Numbers, Gál is primarily concerned with the unifying role of the Kinds and Numbers. I confess that I found much of the author’s discussion here too compressed and allusive. He is probably right though—if I understand him correctly—in suggesting that the priority of Number (ordinal, not cardinal) to Being is owing to the Platonic insight that intelligibility is fundamentally a mathematical notion, that is, it is order. So, Number is an instrumental cause of paradigmatic beauty.

The long and rich chapter six discusses VI 7 [38], the great treatise on Intellect, the Forms, and their source in the Good. Among the many topics in this treatise, Gál focuses on beauty as found in Intellect and, in a sense, even in the Good (pp. 108-163). The most straightforward sense in which the Good can be said to be beautiful is that it is the cause of the being of all that is beautiful, and that the effect is always contained within the cause. This is somewhat facile, although not exactly mistaken, since the Good, being absolutely simple, cannot really have predicates, including “beautiful.” As Gál ably shows, a more profound explanation for the beauty of the Good is that the beauty of Intellect depends on its self-sufficiency (pp.123-135). That is, the existence of the intelligible world contains the explanation for why it is. To know what Triangularity is is to know immediately that Triangularity cannot not exist; in other words, there is no explanation for its existence other than its essence. Yet Intellect’s self-sufficiency is not unqualified (p. 145), since the Good or One is or has the dunamis pantōn. It is, virtually, all things. If this is called “hyper self-sufficiency” or being beyond self-sufficiency, in either case there is, again, in a sense, beauty in the Good or One. Indeed, it is almost impossible to separate conceptually our desire for the real Good and our attraction to the beautiful as a property of Being. Although Gál does not explore this bit of exegesis of the system (see p.142), it would seem that if the Good is beautiful independently of Intellect, this is the motivation for the ascent “beyond” Intellect in mystical experience. If cognitional union with Intellect is not the absolute terminus of desire, then this would explain why Plotinus acknowledges the possibility and desirability of a kind of super-cognitional union with the One. That is perhaps why Plotinus in VI 8, 15 makes the astonishing claim that the One is erōs and for this reason beautiful.

The seventh and final chapter is a sort of summary, emphasizing in particular the role of beauty in the dynamic continuity of the system. Here we see that our permanent desire for the Good is always through beauty (pp. 171, 174). The beauty of being, that is, the beauty of form, is just the integrated unity of any complex, occluded by matter in the sensible world and transparent to the intellect in the intelligible world. For Plotinus, it is life that is manifested in the variety of integrated unities, including the cosmos itself. But it is beauty that provides the unity. This explains why moral decay is loss of beauty and also why that which is merely apparently beautiful but not really so cannot be the real Good that we all seek.

I have passed over a number of technical points of interpretation regarding which the author might be fairly challenged.  But to do that in a short review would be to fail to convey the much more important point that this is a very good book, well worth the time not only of one interested in Plotinus and in the topic of beauty, but also in the view held universally by all Platonists that beauty is not separable from morality or from metaphysics.