Lear talks philosophy of beauty in Plato texts


The fourth speaker in the Annual Philosophy Speakers Series was Gabriel Richardson Lear, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and chair of the department, whose academic work focuses on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

Last Thursday, Nov. 3, Professor Lear gave a talk entitled “Plato on Beauty” in the Everest Lounge. The event attracted a mix of students and faculty members, who gathered to listen to her presentation about Plato’s aesthetics and beauty as an ethical concept.

In a number of dialogues, Plato writes Socrates discussing why it is important for the human eye to see beauty. Lear discussed Plato’s presentation of the appreciation of human beauty as a step in moral education and a number of his theories which he uses to substantiate this idea. In her work generally, she is interested in the fact that Plato makes the beauty of virtue and the sensitivity of the virtuous person central to his moral theory.

Professor Lear first cited the “Republic,” a dialogue by Plato in which he lays out a lengthy educational program geared toward making people lovers of beauty in order to help them develop morally. Her paper posed the question: “Why is it important to recognize beauty, but more, why is it important to recognize human beauty?”

She then referred briefly to the theory of forms, explaining Plato’s belief that if people have some kind of contact with the Form of the beautiful, “the sort of beautiful object responsible for the beauty in absolutely everything”, and contemplate it, then they will be better people somehow.

The journey to becoming virtuous and understanding the Form, to Plato, begins with the experience of beauty in another person.

Her discussion touched on the following topics: Plato’s accounts of love in the “Symposium” and “Phædrus,” “specifically about the idea of being sensitive to beauty,” Plato’s anthropology, “his theory of human nature such that we can be sensitive to beauty and be improved by it” and his account of beauty and love.

At the end, she postulates about why we benefit both by seeing beauty and being seen as beautiful by another person.

Lear first introduced Plato’s anthropology and his theory of soul. In the “Phædrus,” “Socrates says that in order to show love as a blessing, he has to explain the nature of soul.” To him, humans are immortal souls.

Lear described the image of a winged charioteer pulled by two horses that Socrates uses to describe the way the soul functions: “We souls gallop along, pushing around our bodies, heading more or less in the direction guided by the driver… more or less because one of our horses is disobedient and disruptive.”

This allegory tells us that our “souls are complex… one of the elements, the charioteer, is rational, capable of knowing and giving rational direction. The other two elements of our soul are non-rational. They never see the forms… but they are somehow motive elements.”

The white horse stands for a kind of orderly desire, motivated by a sense of shame. The dark horse represents disordered desire. The difference then between divine and human souls is that divine souls, the gods who exist in the immaterial realm of Forms, have always been guided by two white and obedient horses and therefore are in complete control. “According to the myth, we used to be that way and would be still if not for the disobedience of our dark horse dragging us off course.”

These are the consequences of the natural deformity of our souls caused by their placement in our physical bodies. According to Plato, souls “feed on the sight of Forms of justice, wisdom, beauty” in that the, “soul cannot perform its psychic task of moving bodies around the cosmos without active knowledge of virtue.”

Because the dark horse leads our soul chariot astray, it is sometimes impossible to catch sight of the Forms and, without that nourishment, the chariot loses its wings and we become embodied “like the oyster in a shell.”

Summing up Plato’s theory of soul, she said that “human beings are by nature deficiently god-like souls… but most of us have forgotten where we came from so while human’s souls are by their very nature inferior to divine souls, our present situation is likely to be far worse.”

So, Lear asked, why say that human beings are godlike? The answer she offered came from the “Phædrus” in which “there’s some evidence that Plato is thinking that humans are modeled on the gods.” He gives the anecdote of a lover seeing his younger soon-to-be-beloved for the first time.

In “a recent initiate, that is a soul that has recently fallen into a body… one of those who saw a lot [of the Forms] then, when it was disembodied… the lover sees a godlike face or physique that has imitated beauty well.” Socrates seems to be saying that the beloved is godlike in the sense of being modeled on a god.

The lover likens the beloved to an idol, a statue of a god in which it seems like the god is present to some extent but not fully. The idol participates, or has a share, in the god it represents, which is how the lover experiences the beloved.

Lear summed up the argument by saying “that in Plato’s view, human beings are by nature images of divine souls.” The response of the lover to the sight of his beloved is to start educating him. Love and education is an intense dance of imitating and counter imitating.

Plato’s anthropology and the logic of the image, Lear said, “allows for a really curious claim: moral training makes us more perfectly human… more perfectly what we already are.”

Human souls are inevitably deficient, even when we are disembodied, but especially when inhabiting bodies which prohibit us from attaining our soul’s nourishment, or having contact with the Forms.

According to Socrates’ poetic rendering, falling into a body causes us to forget our disembodied existence and the Forms. Lear summarized the human condition according to Plato as “godlike, but deficient, deformed, and oblivious to our plight: that is who we are when we are struck by love at the sight of human beauty.”

To Plato, beauty is essentially goodness. Lear said that Plato thinks that “when something is good it is well-proportioned… Being good at being something is a matter of being well-ordered, which is also an aesthetic property.”

If you translate this concept to the human case, then if we are well-ordered, and so good, then that’s also going to be a matter of being beautiful. Socrates emphasizes in the “Phædrus,” “when you say something is beautiful, what you are saying is that that orderliness or goodness is somehow appearing, flashing out and grabbing your attention.” Beauty is the form of intelligibility, in the broadest sense including perception, something we can see or think.

The good of love, to Socrates, is that “love and education is an intense dance of imitating and counter imitating… Imitation is both a response to seeing beauty and way of getting the beloved to show himself more clearly by giving him an image of himself, which he in turn will emulate.”

To Socrates, the effect of love is that you start imitating what you love. Lear explained that you start imitating what you love because it’s a way of knowing what’s good about what you’re seeing. So, in love, you are imitating, hoping you inspire imitation.

Lear concludes that Socrates thinks the look of love is so important and perhaps necessary for moral development in terms of his lover and beloved anecdote: the more the lover sees the beloved, the more he recollects his sight of Love. The lover sees the beloved’s beauty, seeing the psychic ideal, and having forgotten he was following ideal he is reminded by seeing his beloved.

The idea seems to be, according to Socrates, that seeing human beauty gives us self-knowledge.

The beloved’s “beauty is the blazing forth of his likeness to the god, and the lover is also just as much by his own nature just as much an image of the god” as the beloved, so in seeing the beloved’s beauty “the lover sees the specifically psychic ideal which constitutes his own nature as image.”

Lear concluded the benefit of the “look of love” is that it “lets us know that we are already something marvelous.”

She closed by saying that “if we adopt Plato’s anthropology or something like it, moral development is a matter of approximating ever more closely an ideal that in fact, perhaps inevitably, transcends us.

For this we need both outrageous aspiration and good cheer, and we get them out of seeing and being seen as beautiful.”



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