Seeing Beauty in All People through the Mystical Philosophy of Plotinus

Probable bust of the great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus

I’ve recently begun more serious study of Neoplatonism through primary sources, starting with the Enneads of Plotinus.

This collection of mystical writings begins, interestingly, with a treatise on beauty, which connects readily to both moral goodness and truth for the Neoplatonists, so by beginning with aesthetics Plotinus is by no means addressing merely incidental topics, but actually going right to the heart of his metaphysics of The One, The Intelligence, and the Ideas.

For Plotinus, beauty has an essential unitive and intelligible quality to it: “In what is thus compacted to unity, beauty resides, present to the parts and to the whole. In what is naturally unified, its parts begin all alike, beauty is present to the whole. Thus there is the beauty craftsmanship confers upon a house, let us say, and all its parts, and there is the beauty some natural quality may give to a single stone” (I, 6 [1], 2 ¶6. trans. Elmer O’Brien).

Beauty is beautiful because it is exemplary of the relationship between multiplicity and The One — there is an essential coherence between parts and whole, where the parts are in some harmonious relationship with one another so as to allow some emergent unity to come about.

Plotinus also uses the metaphor of music to explain this phenomenon: “In the realm of sound, unheard harmonies create harmonies we hear because they stir to an awareness of beauty by showing it to be the single essence in diversity. The measures in music, you see, are not arbitrary, but fixed by the Idea whose office is the mastering of matter” (I, 6 [1], 3, ¶4).

For those of us familiar with some music theory, this explanation makes good sense. The beauty of music emerges from relationships between different tones, which create harmonies and melodies as they are brought into relationship through time.

More important than a sensual beauty such as is active in music or art, however, is the beauty of excellent character. In classic Greek form, the virtues play an important role in Plotinus’ philosophy. On the topic of moral beauty he writes that “every virtue is a beauty of The Soul — more authentically beautiful than anything mentioned so far” (I, 6 [1], 1, ¶9). And later, expounding on the beauty of specific virtues: “In yourselves or other you see largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness, the courage behind a majestic countenance, gravity the self-respect that pervades a temperament that is calm and at peace and without passion; and above them all you see the radiance of The Intelligence diffusing itself throughout them all” (I, 6 [1], 5, ¶1).

The beginning of Ficino’s preface to his Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads

So the virtues — being more subtle than is possible with forms of sensuous beauty due to its inherent materiality — are closer in kind to the Intelligence, and hence by cultivating their beauty within oneself, one progresses on the mystical path and conditions one’s being in such a way as to become more open and perceptive to subtle realities.

This last point, about conditioning one’s perception through the cultivation of virtue deserves further explication before I move on to providing some original commentary, Inshallah. In the final section of this treatise on beauty, Plotinus writes, “like anyone just awakened, the soul cannot look at bright objects. It must be persuaded to look first at beautiful habits, then the works of beauty produced not by craftsman’s skill but by the virtue of men known for their goodness, then the souls of those who achieve beautiful deeds” (I, 6 [1], 9, ¶2).

He continues, “only the mind’s eye can contemplate this mighty beauty. But if it comes to contemplation purblind with vice, impure, weak, without the strength to look upon brilliant objects, it then sees nothing even if it is placed in the presence of an object that can be seen. For the eye must be adapted to what is to be seen, have some likeness to it, if it would give itself to contemplation. No eye that has not become like unto the sun will ever look upon the sun; nor will any that is not beautiful look upon the beautiful. Let each one therefore become godlike and beautiful who would contemplate the divine and beautiful” (I, 6 [1], 9, ¶3).

For Plotinus, like knows like. To fully contemplate beauty, one must oneself be beautiful, and have the acuity of perception to recognize that beauty within oneself, specifically in the soul.

So in this schema, we have beauty that is cohesive and unitary, but not necessarily immediately available to an observer — a developmental process between the observer and the object of beauty must necessarily take place before the depth of beauty can be fully realized.

Let us return to Plotinus’ metaphor of music. In this example, he references harmony in particular. In more recent music theory, we’ve come to realize that any combination of tones can create a chord, a harmony; it is just that these harmonies contain within them more complex relationships than we find within something like a major chord. Many listeners may initially find the dense, dissonant clusters of tones in contemporary atonal music disturbing and ugly — far removed from what we typically think of as beauty. With exposure and intellectual reflection, however, one may come to appreciate the deeply complex relationships of sound presented by such compositions, but this taste is something one typically needs to develop — as is the case in Plotinus’ theory when it comes to more subtle forms of beauty, as explained above.

Some may protest that such a contemporary example is very far removed from the aesthetic standards of Plotinus’ own day that it is not reasonable to claim his philosophy would support something so novel and distinct from what he likely had in mind — he writes strongly against ugliness in the same treatise, and atonal music is clearly ugly!

The natural beauty of a sunset. Original photo, Jared Morningstar.

To this I would respond by drawing the reader’s attention to Plotinus’ phenomenology of beauty, which clearly distinguishes this from a mere pleasantness in aesthetics. He writes, “seeing [beauty], one undergoes a joy, a wonder, and a distress more deep than any other because here one touches truth. Such emotion all beauty must induce — an astonishment, a delicious wonderment, a longing, a love, a trembling that is all delight.” (I, 6 [1], 4, ¶2–3).

Evidently, beauty is a deeply evocative experience which can be as productive of distress and trembling as it is of joy. And this makes sense considering the mystical slant of Plotinus’ thought — in the mystical vision terror at divine majesty can be just as common as awe at divine love, and the experience of beauty is patterned in the same form for the Neoplatonic philosopher, as mentioned at the outset.

So, considering all of this, I want to draw out some implications for our own spiritual development, particularly with regard to how we view others in this life. Perhaps Plotinus would disagree with my assessment here, but I think there are good reasons for such a perspective within his ideas, at least what I have encountered thus far.

My basic claim is this: just as aesthetic development is required in order to appreciate the beauty of the complex relationships between the musical elements in atonal music, likewise moral development is required to see beauty in all people — even those whose appear to us as having ugly characters — and in becoming able to perceive this beauty, we actually refine our own souls, becoming more beautiful ourselves.

It would be easy to conclude, from Plotinus’ thought, that there is no beauty to be found in the lives of the unvirtuous — he basically says as much explicitly, talking about the ugliness of their zeal for base, worldly passions, which are ugly due to their mingling with materiality in his mind. This perspective seems to accord well with many peoples’ basic intuition, but that does not mean this is a healthy or spiritually efficacious viewpoint to hold.

To look upon a person with obvious flaws (we are all such people, if we are being honest), and to choose to cultivate an appreciation for the complexity of relations which have brought them to this point — this is a more sophisticated standpoint than fixating on the ugliness of certain of their actions or traits, and Plotinus’ own thinking affirms this. It requires the development of a deeper discernment, a discernment which can intuit a unity of a more subtle or complex nature, but this is exactly what Plotinus is encouraging in his mystical and aestheticized virtue ethics.

Eve Tempted by the Serpent, painting by William Blake.

What does this look like, practically? It looks like seeing the cycles of abuse and trauma in peoples’ lives, and realizing this can unconsciously motivate behavior; it looks like recognizing that people are trying to make the best with the resources they have, but maybe they weren’t given much support; it looks like realizing luck and tragedy can be just as productive of a person’s circumstances as their intentional cultivation of virtue, and a bad situation can break even the strongest of people at some times. Seeing from these perspectives gives you a greater appreciation for the unity of a person’s life, and allows you to approach them from a more intentional perspective.

Earnestly seeing the brokenness and sins of others is also productive of seeing the same within our own lives — again, like knows like, but an appreciation must be developed here to hone one’s perceptions. Of course, we don’t want to look at these things within ourselves and sink into misery, but to have a genuine appreciation for the fallen aspect of humanity as is revealed first and foremost within oneself — this is very productive of humility, which is certainly a virtue of considerable beauty.

To instead insist on seeing evil and ugliness in others causes one to retain evil and ugliness within oneself, often unconsciously. Like knows like here as well, but whereas a certain development is required to intuit the essential unity behind all things, to see ugliness and evil — forms of incoherent multiplicity — requires no training or contemplation.

In making enemies, in perpetuating shame, in thinking that we are superior to others — in all of these and myriad other patterns of behavior, we continue to bring evil into this world. On a deep level, to see evil is to be evil. Only through coming to see beauty in others can we truly break away from cycles of trauma — but such is the demand of the spiritual path.

May we all be made beautiful, so that we may see the beauty of this world all the more clearly. And through our transfigured sight, may we be empowered to beautify life all the more.

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Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview