Aesthetics: Plotinus and immoral art

Plotinus (c. 200-270 BCE) was a neo-Platonist that developed the first real metaphysic of beauty. As you might expect, his ideas about beauty are wrapped up in Platonic ideals. The true beauty is found in the Ideal, and the concrete object gives us a reflection of the true source of the beauty. Of course, this theory has run into some problems along the way, but it is a profound influence in the history of aesthetic philosophy.

One of the more interesting passages from his Ennead has been wrestling with me for a few days. He says “that the beauty is not in the concrete object is manifest from the beauty there is in matters of study, in conduct and custom; briefly, in soul or mind.” He continues suggesting that we can perceive the beauty of “wisdom” in a man who is outwardly unattractive. Presumably, this is a Socrates reference. What interests me here the way he equates personal virtue with aesthetic beauty. At one time, this was a common idea, but it sounds strange to our jaded modern ears. To wit: If something is beautiful it is morally good.

The thought has even persisted into the 20th century. I am particularly fond of a Russian philosopher named Berdyaev. Here is his reiteration of the concept. “Beauty is the Christianized cosmos in which chaos is overcome; that is why the Church may be defined as the true beauty of existence. Every achievement of beauty in the world is in the deepest sense a process of Christianization. Beauty is the goal of all life; it is the deification of the world. Beauty, as Dostoievsky has said, will save the world. An integral conception of the Church is one in which it is envisaged as the Christianized cosmos, as beauty. Only a differential conception can transform it into an institution.”

“Beauty will save the Universe.” Bold words from Dostoyevsky. This certainly takes us down some dangerous theological paths. I am pretty sure, however, that ugliness won’t save the Universe. I am very sure that creating beauty in the world is a morally good thing to do. The tricky part is the implication. When someone makes an ugly art work (and I don’t mean that in a narrow sense), am I willing to take a stand and say that it is immoral? That’s a difficult thing. Certainly, I can see some items of propaganda fitting into this category, but actual art objects are harder. I have a profound philosophical disagreement with works like Cage’s 4’33’’, but I value the work. I probably do think it is immoral in the sense that its aim is the destruction of personality. There is so much to learn from it – sometimes precisely by disagreeing – that I find it too valuable not to teach.