We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean and does it hold weight? Over the centuries, philosophers and sages have debated what beauty is about, why it is important, and where it originates.
About 600 years after Plato, the ancient philosopher Plotinus (A.D. 205–270) studied philosophy in the great city of Alexandria and interpreted Plato’s philosophy for a new era. Plotinus became the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy. He also talked about beauty.
Plotinus and the Source of Beauty
What does Plotinus think about beauty? He bluntly states: “This, then, is how the material thing becomes beautiful—by communicating in the thought that flows from the divine.”
In sum, Plotinus says that an object is not beautiful in and of itself, but it is beautiful insofar as it is transformed by an artist in such a way that it communicates divine things. In order to achieve this end, the artist must know, at least in part, the form or idea that flows from the divine, and that is accomplished only if the artist first is transformed to align with the divine.
Ironically, since the divine transcends the material world, the artist must turn away from the material world before he can beautify it. He must turn his gaze within and make himself, as Plotinus suggests, "morally excellent."
To understand what moral excellence is and what the soul’s beauty entails, Plotinus suggests that artists need go no further than our understanding of ugliness. The ugly soul, according to Plotinus, is "dissolute, unrighteous: teeming with all the lusts; torn by internal discord; beset by the fears of its cowardice and the envies of its pettiness."
Plotinus lets us know that the ugly soul is not natural; we are not naturally ugly. Ugliness—moral inferiority—is something that obscures our true nature, a nature that aligns with the form or idea that “flows from the divine.” To win back our grace, it must be our business to scour and purify ourselves back to our original nature.
In other words, turning our gaze within is not simply accepting ourselves as we currently are but is an active purification of ugliness in our souls so that our true and beautiful nature can shine forth. Plotinus says, “In the Soul’s becoming a good and beautiful thing is its becoming like to God.”
Only after the soul transforms itself into its original source of beauty—a divine beauty—can it then transform the material world into beauty: a beauty that flows forth from the divine.
And the purpose of art for Plotinus, according to Beardsley, is that "the soul takes joy in recognizing its own nature objectified, and in thus becoming conscious of its own participation in divinity."
Pygmalion’s Beautiful Sculpture
The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, at least in part, may reveal to us the connection between the morally excellent artist with the beautiful soul, the beautiful work of art, and the divine.
According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17 or 18), the myth of Pygmalion was a song sung by the semidivine Greek musician Orpheus after he summoned the gods to “be the start of [his] song.” Let us look at both Ovid and “A Book of Myths” by Jean Lang to retell the story of Pygmalion.
In the story, the daughters of Propoetus, also known as the Propoetides, denied the goddess of beauty, Venus. The Propoetides even dared to prostitute themselves in the temple of Venus, which angered the goddess.
The sculptor Pygmalion, disgusted by the vices of the Propoetides, decided that he would forgo the company of women altogether. Instead, he single-mindedly focused on creating beautiful art, and this passion for creating beautiful things motivated him.
His devotion to beauty eventually allowed him to create a stunning sculpture of a woman, “an image of perfect feminine beauty,” says Ovid. Lang adds, “How it came he knew not. Only he knew that in that great mass of pure white stone there seemed to be imprisoned the exquisite image of a woman, a woman that he must set free.”
Pygmalion was amazed at just how beautiful his creation was. It was almost as if this representation of feminine beauty was alive, so alive that he named it. He called it Galatea. Galatea's beauty caused him to adore his creation to the point of obsession. He bought gifts for it, dressed it, and kissed it.
At the festival of Venus, Pygmalion stood at the altar and requested that the gods grant him a woman like his sculpture. Venus was present at her festival and overheard Pygmalion’s prayer. Pleased with Pygmalion, she granted his wish.
Plotinus and Pygmalion
How might Plotinus’s exposition on beauty correlate with the myth of Pygmalion? To recapitulate: Plotinus suggests that true beauty flows from the divine and can be created here on earth only when the artist—having reached a level of moral excellence by purifying the ugliness of his soul—communicates divine beauty in an earthly creation.
In the myth of Pygmalion, Venus, being the goddess of beauty, is the divine source from which true beauty flows. The Propoetides disrespected Venus by prostituting themselves in the temple—a place for expressing gratitude for the divine source of beauty.
Thus, the Propoetides represent the ugliness that may infect the beauty of the soul: They denied the existence of a divine source of beauty—a beauty beyond the material world—and instead participated in monetary exchange for sexual pleasure, an act arguably inspired by both greed and lust.
Pygmalion, however, turns away from the Propoetides and the ugliness they represent, thus purifying his soul. Through turning away from earthly temptations, Pygmalion presumably reaches a higher level of moral excellence, thus producing a work of art so beautiful that it inspires great love and adoration in him.
Here, it would be easy to conclude that the myth of Pygmalion simply represents one man’s sexual desire for a woman he can control (since we can assume that he would be unable to control the Propoetides but would be able to control his creation). Another interpretation, however, suggests that this myth is arguably much more than this.
Pygmalion seems to control very little throughout the myth. He doesn’t know how he produced this beautiful work of art, admitting that its beauty is beyond his capability. He wants to bring Galatea to life but cannot without Venus's help. The only thing he proves to be in control of is himself when turns away from the lust and greed represented by the Propoetides. Everything else, such as the creation of Galatea, his adoration of Galatea, and Galatea’s coming to life all seem to happen by way of the divine.
Galatea is not a mere sculpture that turns into a woman. Instead, she represents the manifestation of divine beauty. Pygmalion’s love for Galatea represents our appreciation and love of divine things when we purify ourselves of the ugliness that may obscure the nature of our souls. It’s Galatea’s divine source that makes her special. Otherwise, Pygmalion would have this response to every sculpture he created. Their eventual marriage suggests our desire to be united with the “thought that flows from the divine.”