1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Plato on Aesthetics

(Part 8)



Of the precise views of Plato on this subject, even if they were really formed, it is very difficult to gain a just conception from the Dialogues. In some of these, called by Mr. Grote the Dialogues of Research, as the Hippias Major, he ventures on no dogmatic theory of Beauty, and several definitions of the Beautiful proposed are rejected as inadequately by the Platonic Socrates. At the same time we may conclude that Plato’s mind leaned decidedly to a theory of an absolute Beauty, this, indeed, being but one side of this remarkable scheme of Ideas or self-existing Forms. In the Symposion he describes how love (Eros) produces aspiration towards the pure idea of beauty. It is only this absolute beauty, he tells us, which deserves the name of beauty; and this is beautiful is every manner, and the ground of beauty in all things. It is nothing discoverable as an attribute in another thing, whether living being, earth, or heaven; for these are only beautiful things, not the Beautiful itself. It is the eternal and perfect existence contrasted with the oscillations between existence and non-existence in the phenomenal world. In the Phaedrus, again, he treats the soul’s intuition of the self-beautiful as a reminiscence of its prae-natal existence, undefiled by union with the body. With respect to the precise forms in which the idea of beauty reveals itself, Plato is very undecided. Of course his theory of an absolute Beauty is incompatible with the notion of its ministering simply a variety of sensuous pleasure, to which he appears to lean in the Gorgias and even the Hippias Major. Further, his peculiar system of ideas naturally led him to confuse the self-beautiful with other general conceptions of the true and the good, and so arose the Platonic formula kalokagathia, expressive of the intimate union of the two principles. So far as his writings embody the notion of any distinguishing element in beautiful objects, it is proportion, harmony, or unity among the parts of an object. The superior beauty of proportion is taught in the Philebus, and in the Phaedon it is applied to virtue. As a closely-related view, we see him emphasizing unity in its simplest aspect of evenness and purity, the need of variety being overlooked. Thus in the Philebus he states his preference for regular and mathematical forms, as the straight line and the circle. So be selected among colours pure white, among tones the pure and equal, and among impressions of touch the smooth. At the same time the Dialogues evince many other tentative distinction in the Beautiful, as, for example, the recognition in the Politics of two opposed classes of beautiful things, those characterized by force and velocity, and those by a certain slowness and softness; which points to a contrast between the stimulative and the restful in sensation, since enlarged upon by English psychologists. Elsewhere he descants on the beauty of the mind, and seems to think, in the Republic, that the highest beauty of proportion is seen in the union of a beautiful mind with a beautiful body. In spite of his lofty theory of the origin and nature of beauty, Plato seems to have imperfectly appreciated the worth of art as an independent end in human, life and culture. He found the end of art in imitation (mimesis), but estimated the creative activity of art as a clever knack, little higher in intellectual value than the tricks of a juggler. He tended to regard the effects of art as devoid of all serious value, and as promoting indolence and the supremacy of the sensual elements of human nature. (See the Sophistes, Gorgias, and Republic.) Accordingly, in his scheme for an ideal republic, he provided for the most inexorable censorship on poets, &c., so as to make art as far as possible a mere instrument of moral and political training. As to particular arts, Plato appears to have allowed a certain ethical value to music, in combination with dance and song, if of a certain character, as expressing either the worthy and manly, or the quiet and orderly. With respect to poetry, his views, as expressed in the Republic and elsewhere, were very uncertain. Thus at times he condemns tragedy and comedy in toto; at other times he admits the claims of a lofty dramatic poetry. He seems not to have fully considered the aims and influences of painting and sculpture, which he constantly disparages.

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