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Andrew Watson

A comparison of Plotinus' philosophy of art and beauty with that of Plato

Plato's separation of art and beauty created a tension in his writing. His main preoccupation was with beauty and his regard for art was marginal by comparison. Plato's treatment of art had further divisions and conflicts not easy to reconcile. On the one hand, his ideas about art were indivisibly linked to his key moral and metaphysical concerns in the Republic, where it was concluded art could only exist in a severely restricted form, and on the other, as in the Phaedrus, art could be so inspirational it could connect the artist directly with God in a form of divine mania.

This essay explores two key shifts away from Plato, which are often argued for in Plotinus' philosophy: the high status that Plotinus attributed to art in the earthly realm; and how art accesses ultimate reality. The factors that accounted for these shifts will be highlighted and tested against the ideas of Plato. Crucial to this is Plotinus' interpretation of mimesis.

Before any attempt can be made to examine Plotinus' central ideas on art and beauty, it is first necessary to adumbrate his main metaphysical ideas.

At the core of the whole universe is the One, the origin of everything and to which everything will one day return. However, the One is beyond knowledge and description, and for it to connect with mortals it mediates through an intelligible realm comprising Intellect and Soul. Intellect is in a state of eternal contemplation of the One, holding perfectly together all intelligible thought, but its role is also active because it creates the Soul. The Soul contemplates Intellect and is the intermediary link between the intelligible realm and that of humans; it too fulfils a creative role bringing forth all worldly things as well as the souls of individual beings: it is thus eternal but operates in time and history.

Plotinus argues that humans are weakened and estranged from the One but they can participate in Intellect and Soul and this stirs in them a yearning to return to the One following a route that is the 'pathway of art'. Beauty emanates from the One similar to the way that a star discharges light that loses energy as it travels vast distances through different atmospheres before finally diffusing in its weakened state on earthly matter.

Like Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus inherited the Pythagorean definition of beauty which comprises order, harmony, measure and proportion. Plotinus took issue with this by asking how Pythagoras' theory could be applied to compound entities without parts, such as colour or light, because unlike material objects they cannot be described in terms of symmetry; yet they can be described as beautiful. This conclusion clearly parallels Plato, who in his Philebus argued at 51c-d that non-composite things like colours 'import their own kind of pleasures' and 'are by their very nature forever beautiful by themselves'. Plotinus extended his argument to include spiritual qualities such as virtue and truth. Virtue can be beautiful, but how can it be symmetrical or depend on symmetry to account for its beauty? Plotinus concluded from this that beauty must essentially be different from symmetry (Ennead 1.6.1). Plotinus considers that in a beautiful face where symmetry is a prominent feature, symmetry is only one manifestation of beauty, not its cause. Beauty, therefore, is a quality.

Bredin/Santoro Brienza conclude that for Plotinus, 'the primordial quality and fundamental metaphysical attribute of all reality is unity. Beauty also as a universal characteristic of all reality consists in unity'.[1] Beauty cannot, therefore, come from matter, as matter, just like symmetry, has no metaphysical unity in and of itself. It is rather the 'Soul' that 'makes beautiful the bodies which are spoken of as beautiful; for since it is a divine thing and a kind of part of beauty, it makes everything it grasps and masters as beautiful' (Ennead I.6.6.). Beauty thus gives a spiritual charge to matter, imbuing it with its ideal form.

Plotinus thus appears to be close to Plato in the sense that the soul inside humans desires to be united with the Good or the One, a state in which Beauty is apprehended. Plotinus at times uses language that is directly influenced by passages from Plato, like the following one which is indebted to the Symposium (203b). Plotinus talks about the state of pure apprehension of beauty as like being drunk with wine, 'filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated with this beauty' (Ennead 5.8.10). In the Phaedrus 251a-256e, Plato also considered the reaction of the soul in the presence of beauty, viewing it like a recollection of Beauty itself which had once been seen by the soul in a previous existence. Participating in the form of beauty stirs a remembrance of a former happy state when the absolute form was once apprehended. But, as O'Meara asserts, 'Plotinus sees soul... as recalling, not just one Form [ie. of beauty], but the whole world of Forms'[2], or in other words that which perfectly holds all the forms: the One, or in Plato's terms, the Good. The experience of beauty in the earthly realm, then, rather than be a potential distraction or a danger as Plato argued, becomes for Plotinus a distraction of a noble and good sort, because it carries us immediately away from ugliness and other base qualities into the heart of perfection itself, where virtue and beauty co-mingle.

It is clear that Plotinus was fully committed to elevating the status of art. Art's mimetic qualities cannot therefore be understood in a restrictive Platonic sense advocated in the Republic, whereby art merely imitates ultimate reality in an inferior way. In Plotinian terms, because art manifests beauty in the physical world, this emphasises its autonomy. Plotinus states that the 'arts do not simply imitate what they see, but they run back up to the forming principles from which nature derives; then also... they do a great deal by themselves, and, since they possess beauty, they make up what is defective in things'.(Ennead 5.8.1). Plotinus' interest in looking at and analysing the 'teleological dynamism of human experience' draws him closer to Aristotle's ideas of art mimesising nature[3]. This influence is also clear in the following passage, which for some has been viewed as a summation of Plotinus' ideas about art.

Let us suppose a couple of great lumps of stone lying side by side, one shapeless and untouched by art, the other which has been already mastered by art and turned into a statue of a god or of a man... and if of a man not just of any man but of one whom art has made up out of every sort of human beauty. The stone which has been brought to beauty of form by art will appear beautiful not because it is a stone... but as a result of the form which art has put into it. Now the material did not have this form, but it was in the man who had it in his mind even before it came into the stone; but it was in the craftsman, not in so far as he had hands and eyes, but because he had some share of art. So this beauty was in the art (Enneads 5.8.1).

This seems to point to the same conclusion that Plato reached in the Phaedrus, at least by implication, that when an artist is drunk with divine nectar his philosophical systems are over-ridden and are replaced by a pure communication between him and God. Plotinus implies here that this communion is achieved through the artist's intimate connection with nature. In going back to the Reason-Principles or the forming principles of nature, Plotinus believed that the 'pathway of art' allows one to travel on a metaphysical journey. The created piece of work becomes one point on a series of interconnected pathways that, to use the words of Eco, have a spiritual 'luminous current' running through them.[4] It is thus the purity of art's relationship with the One that accounts for Plotinus' high regard of art.

Plato of course argued in Republic that only the philosopher could attain true knowledge and see true beauty, an apparent contradiction of the arguments established in the Phaedrus. Plotinus is sure that contemplation of art is the pathway to God, in the process of which one automatically assimilates oneself to beauty or God. To describe this, Plotinus, as Plato does in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, reverts to metaphorical language.

One must come to the sight with a seeing power made akin and like to what is seen. No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like, nor can a soul see beauty without becoming beautiful. You must become first all godlike and all beautiful if you in tend to see God and beauty (Ennead 1.6.9).

Bredin/Santora-Brienza feel that this passage reflects the 'overall structure and spirit of Plotinus' philosophy' because it is focused on the 'concept of effusive participation and therefore of universal sympathy and attunement among all the orders of being'. They argue that empathy is a 'kind of cognition' that does not occur through discursive reasoning or empirical observation and analysis, 'but a direct, immediate and intuitive apprehension of reality and truth by means of images'.[5]

Cavarnos demonstrated through his study of the original Greek text that reason, as used by Plato, contained two meanings: one in the discursive sense; and the other in a contemplative, intuitive sense, the development of which was the more important of the two, being the only way to finally understand Beauty itself.[6] If we interpret Plato in this way it is always the intuitive faculty that seems to create genuine insights about ultimate reality; philosophy is also vital but only to harness and give structure and clarity to the streaming revelations that had been intuited. Plotinus is therefore developing to a higher pitch, a strand of thought already at work in Plato.

The extent of the influence of Plato's ideas about art on Plotinus ultimately seems to depend on whether we are comparing Plato as advocate of mania or Plato the proponent of restrictive mimesis. If it is the former, Plotinus' arguments do not seem quite as original as they would be if compared with the latter.

Let us accept Plotinus' views that beauty activates matter in a form of a supernatural current and that we intuitively understand truth and reality through contemplating images. But what sort of images? How can we be sure that the viewer is receiving or intuiting a supernatural beauty of the true sort, of a type which connects to the One? Plotinus does not seem to account for these difficulties, which is strange given that he elsewhere acknowledges that evil can be disguised as beauty. I may, for example, be looking at what I think is a beautiful image but one which belies a darker spiritual force. It is here that there appears to be a clear divergence between Plato and Plotinus. It is their views about art in the earthly realm that separates them.

Plato could not give art full autonomy in the earthly realm because he believed in the primacy of Morality or Knowledge. This was, I submit, because he knew that art, as revealed in a pure spiritual stream to the poet, as a direct message from God (an earth shattering experience), was not something that could be easily absorbed or communicated, unless the recipient had cultivated the correct moral atmosphere in his mind and soul. In other words, one must first know what morality is like before one can truly recognise it in art: to attempt it the other way round creates danger for the individual. Too many people, immature in their awareness of what is at stake morally, will sometimes be seduced by a deceptive veil of beauty covering the art work under consideration; and, once locked in by its spell, will be perpetually blinded to true Beauty.

There emerges another important problem when considering Plotinus' philosophy of art, one that so haunted Robert Pirsig for a large part of his life, namely that if Beauty/Quality/Ultimate Form imbues matter, how can a rational or empirical analysis of the matter account for the highest metaphysical entity the One/Beauty/Quality? In other words how can a lower principle create the higher, Ultimate Principle.

Pirsig argued that when the dissecting knife of reason is applied to Quality, it caused a clean split into classic and romantic, the former representing the rational, analytical mind, the latter, the intuitive. Pirsig felt that those in either camp knew of Quality, 'the romantic left it alone and appreciated it for what it was and the classic tried to turn it into a set of intellectual building blocks for other purposes'.[7] Pirsig went on to examine whether Quality is objective or subjective, concluding that it is neither: it neither resides in the material world nor in the mind.[8] This gave rise to his core statement that Quality was a 'third entity, independent of the two'. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of Quality'.[9]

Plotinus' philosophy of art suggests that Beauty is quality. His whole metaphysical drama of aesthetics relies on our acknowledgement of the One, a non perceptual spiritual entity pregnant with non perceptual beauty, or 'beauty above beauty', and like Pirsig, believed it to be an active, create force, one that defies definition, but which sets in motion all aesthetic experiences, all experiences. This, as well as Plotinus' argument for the intuitive apprehension of the One/Beauty, appears to connect with Pirsig's ideas.

Pirsig faltered, however, when he questioned whether Quality was metaphysical or mystic. In attempting to explain his own philosophical definition of Quality he had given it metaphysical status, but as he had refused to define it, Quality had to be mystical, too. For Pirsig it is in paradoxical language that the greatest precision in communicating the One is achieved.[10] As Chesterton has said, 'the one created thing that we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by its own victorious invisibility'[11]. The 'victorious invisibility' of Ultimate reality/Beauty, requires us to discover what Pirsig himself found in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, namely that Quality can be 'looked at but cannot be seen'[12]. What ultimately links Plotinus with Plato is that by knowing that they cannot define Ultimate Beauty, they must appeal to the 'eye of the mind' (Symposium 211e), or close our eyes and 'call instead upon another vision' which is to be 'waked within' us (Ennead 1.6.9).


Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza, Philosophies of Art and Beauty Introducing Aesthetics, Edinburgh, 2000.

Umberto Eco, Ed., On Beauty, London, 2004.

Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: The Enneads, London, 1956.

Dominic J. O'Meara, Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads, Oxford, 1995.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, London, 1999.


1. Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza, Philosophies of Art and Beauty Introducing Aesthetics, Edinburgh, 2000, p.48.

2. Dominic J. O'Meara, Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads, Oxford, 1995, p.91.

3. Bredin/Santoro-Brienza, 2000, p.46.

4. Umberto Eco, Ed., On Beauty, London, 2004, p.102.

5. Bredin/Santoro-Brienza, 2000, pp.50-51.

6. Constantine Cavarnos, Plato's Theory of Fine Art, Athens, 1973, pp.14-16.

7. Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance An Inquiry into Values, London, 1999, p.222.

8. Pirsig, 1999, p.237.

9. Pirsig, 1999, p.239.

10. Pirsig, 1999, pp.252-254.

11. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, London, 1996, p.32.

12. Cited in Pirsig, 1999, p.253.