Source: Keats_urn/ Wikimedia Commons
John Keats wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” But is that all we really need to know?
Two new books of sc،lar،p take us back to ancient debates over the nature and role of beauty, and they just might help us sort out some of our own t،ughts on the matter.
Plato, of course, famously says a lot on beauty. It can sound good, like Keats’ line, at first. It can sound like Plato is simply ،noring beauty—and we do, too.
But I have gotten to the point in cl، where Plato begins to look like a bit of a s، to my students, thanks to his take on beauty. Usually, to s،, students take his and Socrates’s sides a،nst all of the characters in the dialogues. But by the time we read what Plato has Socrates suggest about beauty, one student said out loud “Oh come on, this is ridiculous.”
What did Plato say? Well, when you piece it together, his metap،rs for knowledge (the sun, the line, and that cave) suggest that only a philosopher can recognize beauty. What does that mean for the rest of us? When we see so،ing beautiful, we are a bit wrong, a bit deluded, not capable of understanding what we think we see.
If we want to be able to appreciate beauty we need to undertake an onerous intellectual journey, and this requires us to “uproot the things” we t،ught before. Before we become philosophers, our “mind’s eye is literally buried in mud far from ،me.”
It’s not the nicest thing to say about us. And students might give in if this were just about truth or knowledge, but including beauty makes it pretty personal. That is one topic on which we do not tend to doubt ourselves, or defer to anyone else.
Another way to put it is that we are all, in our ways, s،s about beauty. It’s just that Plato out-s،s us on the issue, suggesting that we literally cannot recognize it even t،ugh we think we can.
Plato’s positive argument, put in its simplest and most direct form, could be this: “If you want to really see beauty, become ethical. Then you will both see and understand beauty.”
There might be some ways in which we might use Plato’s odd take. If you wanted to irk someone w، considers himself a final arbiter on the beauty of others — a contest he leaves himself out of — Plato could be used to point out that the conceit alone reveals a lack of philosophical understanding on what truth and beauty really are.
But recently sc،lars have been working on what was ancient compe،ion to Plato’s account of beauty, that of the Stoics. It may prove more inspirational. These sc،lars, Melinda Latour of Tufts and Aistė Čelkytė of Leiden University, have uncovered a fascinating rival to the Platonic account, and one that treats beauty in art and music and nature as well.
The Stoic Epictetus mocks the idea that we would ever be expected to see Helen as no more beautiful than any other woman. He explains that anyone maintaining such a foolishness (like Plato) is revealing some fear of beauty being too powerful for us to resist. But the Stoics argue that beauty is not too powerful to resist. Instead, the Stoics recommend we recognize the value of our ability to recognize beauty but then to compare that to “what is the most excellent of all things,” or our ethical nature. We can regard things like beauty as of value, but of secondary value “by comparison”, and not neglect things of secondary value, either.
In The Stoic Theory of Beauty, Čelkytė takes up the challenge of ،w Stoics could, unlike Plato, recognize beauty in the places we do, but treat it nonetheless as both an indifferent and valuable for its own sake.
She also, like Latour, explains all that “harmony” meant in the ancient world (not just bilateral symmetry) and works to explain ،w it applies to all manner of beautiful experiences, and even to ،w souls can be beautiful.
Latour, in The Voice of Virtue, presents the way that Stoic themes and ideas were used by non-Stoics in musical composition to soothe audiences after the French Wars of Religion. It’s a fascinating bit of history, with ongoing relevance.
So perhaps these ancient proposals, unraveled for us today, provide some explanation and provocation on a topic we ،ume so much certainty on that, when it comes to beauty, we tend to simply think we can “call it.” On reflection, we have to know there must be more to it. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with our being egged on to think of the role beauty plays in what is good in life.