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A Return to Divine Beauty: Socrates and Phaedrus

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean and does it hold weight? In this series, we’ll take a casual look at the philosophical debates concerning our experiences with beauty and art. Through questions and reflection, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of beauty and art and their place in our lives.

In 1752, the Italian artist, Giovanni Tiepolo, produced a sketch for the staircase ceiling of Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau, prince-bishop of Würzburg. Tiepolo called this work of art, “Allegory of the Planets and Continents,” and it revealed his ambitious plans for the prince-bishop’s ceiling.

The sketch depicts Apollo, Greco-Roman god of the sun, music and poetry, order and beauty. Apollo is shown in the heavens to the left of the composition, and he is about to begin his daily journey carrying the sun on his chariot. He can be seen in the distance, the brilliance of the sun like a halo behind his head and torso.

The gods around Apollo also correspond to the movement of the celestial bodies. To the bottom left are Mars and Venus. When together, Venus, goddess of beauty, distracts Mars, god of war, with her beauty, and there is peace as a result.

Mercury, mostly known for being god of messages and communication, is to the top left. To the right of Mercury are Jupiter, god of the sky and thunder, and Saturn, the god associated with time.

Tiepolo framed his depiction of the heavens with clusters of high-contrast figures that compositionally appear closer to us. The four sides that frame the composition represent the excellence of the four continents known at that time: Europe, Africa, Asia, and America.

At first glance, this sketch simply reveals an imaginative scene in which the heavens and earth coexist; the gods take their course throughout the sky, and humans live out the stories that come to compose history.

Upon closer inspection, however, this sketch, in relation to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” opens up a broader discussion on aesthetics and beauty.

Socrates and Phaedrus

In Plato’s “Phaedrus,” Phaedrus convinces Socrates to leave the city of Athens, something Socrates never does, to hear a speech on love. Socrates agrees and follows Phaedrus into the countryside to listen to the clever speech.

After listening to Phaedrus recite the speech in his possession, Socrates—claiming to be overcome and inspired by the gods—criticizes Phaedrus’s speech and produces his own speech, one that questions the irrationality of love.

But his criticism of love does not sit well with him, and Socrates produces a third speech celebrating love as something divine, and parts of this speech will be the focus here.

Socrates’s third speech is summed up as follows:

The gods ride their chariots to the edge of heaven “where its circular motion carries them around as they stand while they gaze upon what is outside heaven.” What they witness outside of heaven nourishes them, and the circular motion brings them back to where they started.

On the way, they view Justice, Self-Control, and Knowledge as they are absolutely, and they drink ambrosia before resting. This is the life of the gods.

Souls are immortal and live as if they are pulled by a chariot that has two horses: one rational and one irrational. In heaven, these souls attempt to follow the gods as closely as possible. Only those who make themselves most like the god they follow will be successful.

The other souls are unable to control and balance the horses that guide their chariot; they fall behind the gods and are unable to see the truth of things. Unable to gaze upon the truth, the souls are overcome with forgetfulness; they shed their wings and fall to earth.

The souls incarnate on earth into animals or humans. Living a human life with injustice will reap the soul a bad fate, but living life with justice will reap a good fate and may potentially help the soul replenish its wings.

And here is where beauty comes in: here, on earth, the soul sees the divine in the truly beautiful. Beauty on Earth helps the soul remember the god it followed in heaven; beauty on Earth helps the soul remember the divine path it once took, and such beauty inspires divine love. Here, the memory of heaven is the standard for beauty.

Witnessing this beauty, the soul stands outside of human concerns, and Socrates calls this “madness.” He says,

“Now this takes me to the whole point of my discussion of the fourth kind of madness—that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below—and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad.”

Unfortunately, though all souls have witnessed a certain level of truth, not all souls are able to be reminded of this truth by way of beauty:

“But not every soul is easily reminded of the reality there by what it finds here—not souls that got only a brief glance at the reality there, not souls who had such bad luck when they fell down here that they were twisted by bad company into lives of injustice so that they forgot the sacred objects they had seen before.”

From this point of view, beauty in an absolute sense is inseparable from justice, which for Socrates is morality. In other words, for Socrates, morality is a necessary precursor to experiencing divine beauty, the type of beauty that overwhelms the human soul making it care more for its memory of heaven than for the world it now occupies.

Even in heaven, the souls that see the most of the reality there are the souls that are most like the god they follow. The souls that fall behind are least like the god they follow, which suggests that they are immoral in terms of the standard for that god.

Beauty That Points to the Divine

Returning to Tiepolo’s painting, the people of earth—all races, cultures, ethnicities, and so on—are depicted below the heavens, adorned with cultural elements that make them identifiable.

The gods above represent the movement of the planets and stars in the sky, as well as light, beauty, order, communication, love, war, and time.

The humans below are unable to escape what the gods above represent. We are all confined to this small planet that is suspended in a space and time that appears to us to be infinite; we are unable to exist absent from the concepts represented by the gods.

The cultures found across all of the continents have placed importance on the sky’s movement, to the light of the sun and the illumination of wisdom, to communicating tradition, to the joys of love and the woes of war, all under the banner of a movement we call time. Tiepolo’s painting can “remind” us of this.

Socrates suggests that beauty can remind us of heavenly truth. This suggests that culture can be divinely inspired if the arts of each culture attempt to shock the soul into remembering the sights it saw in heaven, which requires that artists contemplate the heavens and what it means to make divinely inspired objects for their respective culture.

According to Socrates, if such objects are able to make souls remember heaven, the souls will be overcome with the madness of divine love and potentially regain their wings.

Postmodern thought has attempted to deconstruct this absolute view of beauty. How can the beauty of Europe be absolute for the beauty of Africa? How can the beauty of the Americas be absolute for the beauty of China? Admittedly, the enforcement of absolutes across cultures often leads to problems.

But this doesn’t mean that each culture doesn’t have a heavenly standard with which they can identify. The history of cultures around the world suggests that each has, at one point or another, a golden age that corresponds with an understanding of divinity.

Does Socrates’s exposition of divine beauty offer us a way to create beautiful and sacred objects that inspire divine love? Or do his ideas of absolute beauty, truth, and justice inevitably lead to one culture attempting to dominate another with its absolutes?

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

Categories
Arts Fine Arts Paintings

Catharsis: Aristotle’s Response to Plato

The Eye of the Beholder: Reflecting On the Purpose of Beauty and Art

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean and does it hold weight? In this series, we will take a casual look at the philosophical debates concerning our experiences with beauty and art. Through questions and reflection, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of beauty and art and their place in our lives.

Raphael’s School of Athens
In the early 16th century, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, the Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, painted one of the greatest frescoes of our known history, “The School of Athens.”

According to the artist and art historian, Giorgio Vasari, the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology…” and Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).

The fresco depicts over fifty figures, but we will only look at the two central figures who represent Plato and Aristotle.

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Raphael depicts Plato and Aristotle standing shoulder to shoulder. Plato is to the left and is thought to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci, one of Raphael’s contemporaries. Plato holds his book “Timaeus” under his left arm and points up to the sky with his right hand. He wears red and grey which may represent the intangible elements of fire and air.

Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, is to the right of Plato. He carries his book “Nicomachean Ethics” in his left hand and points his right hand forward with his palm facing the ground. He wears blue and green which may represent the tangible elements of water and earth.

What does all of this mean for aesthetics, our understanding of beauty, and how we experience the world?

Plato
In the “Republic,” Plato suggests that the world we experience with our five senses is but a shadow of a truer world, the world of forms. Plato describes this truer world in “Timaeus” as created by a divine craftsman who mathematically ordered and structured the universe.

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

If we look at the top of the composition where Plato points, we see geometrical forms that hover over all of the figures below. We can interpret that these geometric forms represent the order and harmony of the universe’s structure.

Interestingly enough, Leonardo, the very artist that Raphael uses as a model for Plato, illustrated Platonic solids for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions” in 1509. These mathematical models were thought to correspond with the divine order of existence.

“Truncated Icosahedron,” in 1509 by Leonardo da Vinci. Illustrations for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions.” (Public Domain)

Depicted below the geometric forms, but still above the human figures, are two marble statues of the gods Apollo and Athena.

Apollo, on the left, is the god of beauty, mathematics, and order. He is depicted with a stringed instrument in his left hand, which would make its sound beautiful according to the length — that is, the measurement — of its strings. The traditional musical scale of the west is mathematically ordered.

Athena, on the right, is the goddess of strategy and wisdom. On her platform, she balances the aegis, a shield possessing the head of Medusa. Anyone who would look into the eyes of Medusa would turn to stone, becoming both hard and unfeeling; Plato’s philosophy requires the abandonment of emotion for the pursuit of absolute, stone cold Truth.

Thus, Plato suggests that true beauty lies with the divine craftsman. True beauty is guided by the mathematically logical forms of our intellect absent any emotion. Artists who merely imitate nature are liars because they are unable to communicate these Truths that exist beyond mere appearances.

As liars, these artists risk leading people away from Truth with their works of art, and artists should be censored for this reason.

Aristotle’s Response to Plato

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Aristotle points his hand out toward the scene in front of us. Some of the greatest thinkers in known history are talking about, sharing, and debating ideas and experiences. Many are separated into small groups in which they work toward a common goal. Others work or think in isolation.

Just as the area above the figures represents aspects of Plato’s philosophy, the figures below represent Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle’s ethics concerned examining the causes and effects within nature to determine what actually worked to make life better.

In other words, we don’t have to go beyond nature to find Truth, because there are truths right here and right now that we must come to understand. One of those truths deals with our relationship with the world around us. For instance, we can often determine what is ethical action based on whether the effect of the said action produces a natural pleasure within us.

We imitate when we learn, and knowledge produces this experience of pleasure. We also gain pleasure from seeing something successfully imitated. Raphael’s ability to imitate the appearance of human beings in “School of Athens” gives us a certain sense of pleasure.

Thus, in contrast to Plato, Aristotle believes there is a place for imitation because imitation can produce pleasure within us, and therefore it must be ethical. One of these pleasurable experiences can occur by way of the work of art, and Aristotle calls it catharsis.

Catharsis is the experience in which we are overwhelmed with the emotions of pity and fear in such a way that they purify us. It’s like seeing a good movie in which we both fear for the safety and pity the plight of the protagonist. In a way, this emotional response — a type of compassion — gives us an experience that purifies us as human beings, and we become better because of it.

Thus, the arts can provide us with the emotional education on how to best live amongst our fellow human beings; it can show us how to think about, share, and debate our ideas and experiences as human beings in an ethical way. In other words, art can emotionally connect us with each others’ lived experiences. We can see this in Raphael’s fresco: he has placed people from different locations and time periods in the same painting, sharing their ideas and experiences with each other and with us, five hundred years into the future.

What do you think? Does Plato have a point: are the arts dangerous in what they represent, and should they be censored to only relay the intellectual and emotionless intentions of the divine craftsman? Or is Aristotle right: the arts educate us in our emotions and connect us with the human experience?

Or maybe these two aesthetic arguments do not contradict each other as much as we may initially think?

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

GK EDIT:

The Eye of the Beholder: Reflecting on the Purpose of Beauty and Art

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean, and does it hold weight? In this series, we will take a casual look at the philosophical debates concerning our experiences with beauty and art. Through questions and reflection, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of beauty and art, and their place in our lives.

Raphael’s School of Athens
In the early 16th century, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio da Urbino painted one of the greatest frescoes in history, “The School of Athens.”

According to the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology,” and that Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).

The fresco depicts over 50 figures, but we will only look at the two central figures, who represent Plato and Aristotle.

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Raphael depicts Plato and Aristotle standing shoulder to shoulder. Plato is to the left and is thought to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci, one of Raphael’s contemporaries. Plato holds his book “Timaeus” under his left arm and points up to the sky with his right hand. He wears red and gray, which may represent the intangible elements of fire and air.

Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, is to the right of Plato. He carries his book “Nicomachean Ethics” in his left hand and points his right hand forward, with his palm facing the ground. He wears blue and green, which may represent the tangible elements of water and earth.

What does all of this mean for aesthetics, our understanding of beauty, and how we experience the world?

Plato

In the “Republic,” Plato suggests that the world we experience with our five senses is but a shadow of a truer world, the world of forms. Plato describes this truer world in “Timaeus” as created by a divine craftsman who mathematically ordered and structured the universe.

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

If we look at the top of the composition, where Plato points, we see geometrical forms that hover over all of the figures below. We can interpret that these geometric forms represent the order and harmony of the universe’s structure.

Interestingly, Leonardo, the very artist that Raphael uses as a model for Plato, illustrated Platonic solids for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions” in 1509. These mathematical models were thought to correspond with the divine order of existence.

[Caption]“Truncated Icosahedron,” 1509, by Leonardo da Vinci. Illustrations from Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions.” (Public Domain)

Depicted below the geometric forms, but still above the human figures, are marble statues of the gods Apollo and Athena.

Apollo, on the left, is the god of beauty, mathematics, and order. He is depicted with a stringed instrument in his left hand, which would make its beautiful sound according to the length of its strings; the harmonic series of pitches is mathematically ordered.

Athena, on the right, is the goddess of strategy and wisdom. On her platform, she balances the aegis, a shield possessing the head of Medusa. Anyone who would look into the eyes of Medusa would turn to stone, becoming both hard and unfeeling; Plato’s philosophy requires the abandonment of emotion for the pursuit of absolute, stone-cold truth.

Thus, Plato suggests that true beauty lies with the Divine Craftsman, that true beauty is guided by the mathematically logical forms of our intellect absent any emotion, and that artists who merely imitate nature are liars because they are unable to communicate these truths that exist beyond mere appearances.

Aristotle’s Response to Plato

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Aristotle points his hand toward the scene in front of us; some of the greatest thinkers in known history are talking about, sharing, and debating ideas and experiences. Many are separated into small groups in which they work toward a common goal. Others work or think in isolation.

Just as the area above the figures represents aspects of Plato’s philosophy, the figures below represent Aristotle’s ethics, which concerned examining causes and effects within nature to determine what actually worked to make life better.

In other words, we don’t have to go beyond nature to find truth, because there are truths right here and right now that we must come to understand. One of those truths deals with our relationship with the world around us. For instance, we can often determine which action is ethical based on whether the effect of the action produces a natural pleasure within us.

We imitate when we learn, and knowledge helps produce this experience of pleasure. We also gain pleasure from seeing something successfully imitated. Raphael’s ability to uncannily imitate the appearance of human beings in “School of Athens” gives us a certain sense of pleasure.

Thus, in contrast to Plato, Aristotle believes there is a place for imitation because imitation can produce pleasure within us, and therefore it must be ethical. One of these pleasurable experiences can occur through experiencing works of art, and Aristotle called it catharsis.

Catharsis can be the experience of being overwhelmed with the emotions of pity and fear in such a way that they purify us. It’s like seeing a good movie in which we both fear for the safety and pity the plight of the protagonist. In a way, this complex emotional response—a type of compassion—gives us an experience that purifies us as human beings, and we become better because of it.

Thus, the arts can help provide us with the emotional education on how to best live among our fellow human beings, and it can show us how to think about, share, and debate our ideas and experiences in an ethical way. In other words, art can emotionally connect us with others’ lived experiences. We can see this in Raphael’s fresco; he has placed people from different locations and time periods in the same painting—sharing their ideas and experiences with each other and with us, 500 years into the future.

What do you think? Does Plato have a point: Should the arts only attempt to relay the intellectual and emotionless intentions of the Divine Craftsman? Or is Aristotle right in stating that the arts educate us in our emotions and connect us with the human experience?

Or maybe these two aesthetic arguments do not contradict each other as much as we may initially think?

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).