The Experience of Beauty
Guided by Plato’s Symposium
June 5, 2015
In Symposium, Plato successfully wrestles with the slippery nature of Beauty. Through the dialogue between Socrates and Agathon, Plato identifies that the experience of beauty in the particular is powered by desire to possess the form of Beauty in the abstract**. In the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima, he outlines an educational framework of understanding, The Ladder of Love. By combining this abstract framework with a concrete phenomenological understanding of beauty one can enrich his own experience of beauty.
**In this essay, lower case “b” beauty refers to the experience of beauty, the temporal, changing, relative, material, phenomenological feeling. Capital “B” Beauty refers to its absolute, unitary, eternal, unchanging, immaterial form.
Beauty as a Function of Desire
Socrates, in his dialogue with Agathon, defines the beautiful object as the promise of Beauty. With possessing Beauty, one achieves happiness. Love and desire are the vehicles that connect the promise with the reward. Here, “love” and “desire” are rather synonymous, personified as Eros, the god of love. One desires beautiful things because they possess something he does not have. For example, in Greek culture, the perfect bodily form of the teenage boy was highly desired, revered almost. As Agathon says, “The god of love shuns the very sight of senility and clings to youth.” Youth is beautiful because it is inherently fleeting. As time marches forward, one grows farther and farther away from possessing it, wanting it all the more. To surround oneself with beautiful people and objects is to try to grasp and hold onto their fleeting nature. Beauty is not intrinsically contained in those beautiful things but rather in what they promise, whether it be youth, wealth, or wisdom. Thus Love and Desire are the magnetic forces that draw us, to use Agathon’s analogy, towards the buds about to bloom, not to the dying flowers.
The more aware an individual is of what is worth wanting, the more richly he can experience beauty. Socrates personifies Eros, desire, as the child of two parents: the mother poor and the father rich. Thus, Eros is always yearning: his father’s immense resources have made him aware of what is possible while his mother’s immense poverty has stunted his starting point. Without his father to inspire his goals, Eros would be limited in what he desired. Since we previously found that beautiful things promise what one lacks, one cannot find beauty in things unless he is aware of what he lacks.
From story about Eros, Socrates concludes that the human experience is fundamentally between ignorance (not knowing that you do not know) and wisdom (to possess the form of Beauty through total understanding). Between animals and gods, philosophic humans continually strive towards Beauty, refining their direction of striving as they learn more about its form through their experiences of it. Being utterly satisfied, like a pig with a laden trough, is to not desire, which is to not experience beauty, which is to not possess any Beauty, which is to not possess any Good. Thus, satisfaction in this sense is not just a missed opportunity for happiness but also ethically evil.
The Phenomenon and the Form
To experience beauty is to touch the ideal form of Beauty. Socrates, later in his dialogue with Diotima, defines the three transcendentals of Beauty, Good, and Truth as equivalent. Indeed, phenomenologically speaking, the actual feeling of pleasure and happiness we derive from a beautiful thing is rather identical to that derived from acting ethically or from discovering a truth. In Republic, Plato describes how the forms are connected with reality with an analogy where the Sun is the form of the Good, replaced here as the form of Beauty:
The experience of beauty is a collaboration between self and reality, where the form of Beauty facilitates the interaction. To describe it from personal experience:
My aesthetic “eye” is struck by the beautiful thing because it exhibits qualities that my aesthetic capacity has learned to recognise as beautiful. Its beautiful qualities are visible only because they are illuminated by the form of Beauty.
As I notice the beautiful thing, I’m taken out of my self and my attention falls towards the thing, which is out in the world
As I contemplate it through thinking, writing, and discussion, I see which of its qualities are beautiful or not
Those aspects of beauty are incorporated into my understanding of Beauty
Since my understanding of Beauty improves, I possess a little more of its form, which means I possess a little more of The Good, which improves my ethical character and brings me happiness
Such an experience can happen in the span of a moment, without any attention, or in the span of a lifetime, with conscious attention. One often feels beauty nearly instantly and automatically, such as walking into a park and feeling happy without any conscious attention to how beautiful the birdsong is. One also feels subtle amounts of beauty as he visits that park every Sunday, accumulating an awareness of how its ecology shifts with the seasons. It is the awareness that this is a beautiful experience that enables the recipient of the experience to improve his future experiences.
Improving the Experience of Beauty
In his dialogue with Diotima, Socrates describes a framework for improving one’s understanding of Beauty through broadening one’s aesthetic capacity: The Ladder of Love. This educational framework is a virtuous cycle: a broadened aesthetic capacity enables the individual to recognise more objects as beautiful and to find already beautiful objects more beautiful, thus further improving his understanding of Beauty, which in turn improves his aesthetic capacity, ad infinitum:
As a philosopher graduates up this ladder, his experience of life moves from one of fragmented chaos to one of unified harmony. At the beginning, he sees only particulars, unconnected from any greater whole: that beautiful tree, that beautiful girl. As he learns through contemplation, he realises that it is not that particular tree that is beautiful, but that it has aspects of beautiful tree-ness. Such a realisation would allow him to delight in this tree’s connection to other trees. Continued contemplation opens up delight in the ecological systems that surround it and the biological systems that power it, which opens up a capacity to enjoy Ecology and Biology, which opens up the capacity to understand the form of Beauty and see it in all things.
Plato, rough-handed in his overly-linear depiction of this ladder, deserves some clarification: one does not fully graduate from a world of particular objects to live entirely in a world of abstract forms. Just as the ethical man does not cease performing good actions, the aesthetic man does not cease finding that particular object beautiful but instead derives more happiness from it. Each rung on the ladder conceptually "points to” Beauty and happiness is derived from Beauty. Thus the more rungs that one is aware of, the more that the form of Beauty is “pointed toward” by the same singular experience of one particular tree. Because he sees the its other pointers to Beauty, the philosopher is able to derive more happiness from the physical form of a body more than the ignoramus who sees only its physical form.
The Experience of Beauty as Good
Plato, through the dialogue of Diotima and Socrates, elaborates an exquisitely useful framework by which to live. One must open himself to desire in order to find things beautiful. Through experiencing beautiful things, one improves his awareness of Beauty. Through an improved understanding of the forms, one better educates his desires. Eros connects the self with the world through the medium of desire: “he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love.” The self, the world, and Eros are all collaborators in this process of becoming like god, which Socrates defines as philosophy. The form of Beauty, along with the Truth and the Good, brushes off on a philosophic individual with every beautiful experience. Thus, to experience beauty is to become more beautiful, truer, and ethically good.