Plotinus's Problem with Beauty

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University of Dallas Braniff Graduate School, Classics Department

In Book XIII of the Confessions, Augustine admits to a sin when he is moved by the beauty of songs in church. Yes, the Christian recognizes that the truths found in the Psalms are more valuable than the beauty of singing, but this reaction seems strange for the Platonic Augustine. After all, Plato, particularly in the Phaedrus, praises Beauty and its role in the philosophical life. It is easier to see why Augustine reacts the way he does not by looking to Plato, but to Plotinus, who is reluctant to refer to his first hypostasis as “the Beautiful.” For Plotinus, beauty was subordinate to good, not equal to it. A cursory reading of the Symposium and its various encomia of Eros (and eventually of the Beautiful) would leave one with the impression that Plato valued beauty just as much as good, but careful reading of Diotima’s lesson to Socrates reveals that Plotinus’s (and Augustine’s) caution of beauty is not so much a departure from Plato’s philosophy, but natural progression of it. This paper explores how Plato’s idea of the forms results from his departure from Heraclitean thought and how Plotinus sought to solve a problem in the Platonic ontological system.

Augustine, beauty, Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus