What makes something beautiful? What is love (Baby don’t hurt me)? These are questions that we ask in our lives because we experience them both every day. They make up a large part of our experience, and without them, we know not what life would be like, nor whether it would be worth living. For this reason, these questions have been asked by philosophers, who, thinking about æsthetics, the philosophy of beauty and art, have also questioned these fundamental aspects of reality and the human condition. One of the most enduring contributions is from Plato. In today’s misguided world, many people, without having even read Plato’s principle work The Symposium, talk about “Platonic love,” throwing it about in conversations with friends and family, thinking, mistakenly, that it refers exclusively to a non-sexual relationship between two people. People like to claim that they and their coworker have a “Platonic relationship” without knowing what they are really saying, or without bothering to see what the great Greek philosopher himself had to say regarding love; for while the non-sexual aspect is important, this understanding is commonly used, but it does not capture the whole picture. Little do they know Plato originally referred to pederasty—relationships between older men and young boys, a common practice in Ancient Greece! A spiritual interpreter of Plato, Roman philosopher Plotinus continued Plato’s work in his Enneads. Together, Plato and Plotinus represent the ancient views on both beauty and love in their transcendental nature, whose ideas have shaped our understanding for ages to come.
The Symposium is one of the more fun dialogues by Plato. In it, Plato, Socrates, and Aristophanes—a famous comic playwright—join a symposium, or drinking party, in which they go around the table sharing speeches, engaging in intellectual discussion on the subject of love, each of them drunk. Pausanias’ turn comes up, and he begins his speech by identifying two types of love. According to him, the other speakers had been mistaken in not defining what kind of love they were praising. So Pausanias corrects them by asserting that there actually two kinds, aligning with the two goddesses representative of them: The Common Aphrodite and the Heavenly Aphrodite. Beginning with the Common Aphrodite, Pausanias says that this kind of love, which is purely erotic—that is to say, inspired by Eros (Έρως)—is a shallow kind of love, insofar as it is a love of the body. Of the two kinds, this is the “wrong” love. Common love is temporary; because it is of the body, and because the body is temporal, subject to change with time, impermanent, it means the love, too, will be temporary. This Common love is very common these days; we see it all the time when we hear people saying, “This person is so hot” or “They are so beautiful.” This is not to say that it is wrong to call someone beautiful; rather, the problem lies in the intent. Are you attracted to this person purely for their looks, or is that an added benefit? There is nothing wrong with saying someone is beautiful—in fact, if you think that, then you should tell them. However, the problem with loving someone for their looks, Pausanias argues, is that their body will inevitably age and deteriorate. Interestingly, in the Buddhist tradition, if you are infatuated with someone, then you are instructed to meditate upon their decaying body as a reminder that their body is not permanent, but will wither with time, turning your mind off of their physical beauty, and onto their spiritual beauty, which is permanent. This same line of reasoning will be used by Pausanias. So what happens when someone, loving another for their looks, years later, does not look at this person the same, but decides they love them no more since they have changed? Well, because their love was attached to something temporary, their love is temporary, and so, Pausanias continues, the lover will flee. They were just in it for the beauty, yet when the beauty is gone, so are they. Similarly, he warns against loving someone for their possessions, namely their status or wealth. As with beauty, one’s reputation and financial situation are not always going to remain the same. If you love someone, and they lose all their money one day by chance because money is unreliable and everything can change in a moment, then you will love them no longer; the attachment was to a temporary thing. One’s money is not a part of them; it is external to them. Likewise, the regards of many are fickle. Who knows if someone will retain their reputation? Love must be directed toward the right object. Such material objects are just that, and they lack significant value. A Common lover is immature. He is not emotionally prepared for a committed relationship. He is full of energy, but empty in compassion. He wants passionate, sexual love. But once he wants it no more, he will leave. He is interested in one-night stands, not a devoted romantic relationship. Common love is short-lived.
Next, he explicates Heavenly love. This kind of love, as opposed to the Common, is of the soul and, therefore, righteous. Unlike Common love, Heavenly love is not shallow, but deep, in that it is spiritual and mutual: It is spiritual because it is literally of the spirit, the breath, the soul, and it is mutual because it is reciprocated—both lovers are in it for the sake of the other. It is also mutual in the sense Aristotle thought it mutual, namely that the lovers, in entering a romantic pact, agree thenceforth to help perfect each other; that is, they serve both themselves and the other, each aiding the other. Say one lover is trying to form a habit, the other to break a habit. In this situation, the lovers will love each other while at the same time mutually helping and perfecting themselves. It is two-way. Heavenly love is between two lovers, two subjects, not a lover and a beloved, a subject and an object. Heavenly love is profound, and reaches to the lowest depths. Temporary and lowly is Common love; permanent and transcendent is Heavenly love. The latter is permanent because it is not of the body, but of character. One’s looks can change very easily, and while one’s character is not exempt from changes, it is much slower and intentional than the body. Psychologists (and even Socrates will eventually say the same thing) argue that character is not a permanent thing, changing with age much as looks do. For the most part, however, character is a pretty stable, consistent thing, and it takes a lot to change it dramatically. Is it really worth loving someone who is physically attractive if they have a combative, unfriendly personality? In 40 years, will they still look the same as when you first loved them? No. In 40 years, will they still be combative and unfriendly? Yes. As such, a person’s body is not righteous, whereas character, one’s soul, is. Heavenly love is also transcendent. It is transcendent because it steps over the appearance of a person, the outer boundaries, the external face, the artificial construction, and it pierces through them, gives insight, sees not outer beauty, but inner beauty. Transcendental love loves a person for who they are inside, not outside. It is a love of their essence. And in contrast to the immature Common lover, the Heavenly lover is mature, prepared, and ready. This is a devoted, long-term relationship.
To evaluate Pausanias’ position, let us look at whether his views make sense. Just as he distinguishes between two kinds of love, one short and exciting, one long and content, so psychologist Elaine Hatfield distinguishes between two types of romantic love: Passionate and companionate. The first, passionate, is sexual and full of intense energy, although it only lasts for a short time. This is the kind of love teens have, when they are full of idealism and optimism, expecting great things from a partner; they are excited and will jump too quickly into things in the heat of the moment. This is embodied by Common Aphrodite. The second, companionate, is calm and full of compassion. Think not of teens in love, but a couple who has been married for 20 years. Here, you will see two people deeply in love with each other, neither of whom would leave the other at the drop of the hat, but who are, at their core, devoted to each other, devoted to perfecting each other. They have arguments, but they resolve them. They love, and will continue to love, each other. This is embodied by Heavenly Aphrodite. It seems Pausanias was spot on! Most often, this is the paradigm that is titled “Platonic love.” Plato gets a lot of backlash for his views these days. To “love someone for their personality” has become a universal joke. This is often said facetiously, with a smile on one’s face, meant to be ironic or sarcastic. And regarding those who actually mean it—they are met with derision. Consequently, almost nobody really means it when they say it. Yet then again, this is only a fraction of what “Platonic love” truly is.
The next speaker, Aristophanes, is the favorite of many, for his speech is the most remembered, the most entertaining, and, perhaps, the most influential even today. His is the speech on soulmates. Back in the day, relates Aristophanes, man and woman walked alongside a third sex, which was a combination of the two: A half-man, half-woman. It was a single organism, with two of every body part, seeing as it was two people put together, in a perfect, rolling circle, a symbol of perfection and completion, as Nussbaum points out . These humans, composed of two people, were thus twice as powerful, and twice as ambitious. They decided, like the Giants, to attack the gods, which was a bad idea; Zeus promptly split up these dual humanoids. As a result, the two halves went about looking for their other half desperately, hoping to be reunited. Filled with longing and Eros, they wandered sadly, bereaved, dejected, almost to the point of depression. The halves could not function on their own; they needed each other. Since they spent all their time moping, busying themselves with finding their other halves, they were unable to make sacrifices for the gods. Zeus took pity on them and moved their sexual organs to the front to make mating easier. When two soulmates find each other, they immediately embrace, pressing their bodies together in an attempt to become one again, to press themselves into each other. They hug and kiss, holding themselves close, wrapping their arms around the other, then pulling tightly. Yet no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they embrace each other, they cannot put themselves together again.
It is such reunions as these that impel [lovers] to spend their lives together, although they may be hard put to it to say what they really want with one another, and indeed, the purely sexual pleasures of their friendship could hardly account for the huge delight they take in one another’s company. The fact is that both their souls are longing for a something else—a something to which they can neither of them put a name, and which they can only give an inkling of in cryptic sayings and prophetic riddles (The Symposium, 192c-d).
So what is love? As Aristophanes reports, when lovers are asked this very question, they cannot answer. If you were to ask a teacher what teaching is, then you would expect them to know—it is their business. By nature, then, should not lovers, who are held tightly in the grip of love, know in what state they are? Surely, they should. On the contrary, love is such a powerful, binding force, such an irresistible pull, such an enigmatic drive—who could possibly define it while in its throes? Well, to answer the question of that at which love aims, Aristophanes proposes the following: Say Hephæstus were to ask the two halves if they wanted to be welded together so as to be inseparable for the rest of their lives, not even “until death do they part” (as they would remain together in the Underworld), a single entity forever. No one would refuse such an offer, for they want, deep down, to be “merged … into an utter oneness with the beloved” (The Symposium, 192e). The idea of soulmates is still popular till this day. Many of us believe we are just walking through life without an aim, a sinking feeling of incompleteness pervading our being, as though there is something more to life, something, someone, out there waiting for us, our other half, who is perfect, who is everything we want them to be, who will make us happy, who will be the missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle we call life, the summum bonum, the most absolutely beautiful person—and it is just a matter of finding them; but until then, we remain incomplete and, therefore, unhappy. This mythological story is at once humorous and enchanting. I really like the idea of hugging as an attempt to bring the other person to oneself, to make oneself complete; it is a creative, thoughtful moral that is poetic in its presentation, and I think it is very powerful. Whether or not this story is true, many of us still believe it, and it is yet another part of “Platonic love.”
Then comes Socrates’ turn. It is his speech which is left out of the everyday conception of “Platonic love,” despite Socrates’ being Plato’s mentor. In the dialogue, Socrates speaks on behalf of Diotima, a woman he met who taught him about the nature of love. What is love, exactly? Love is a desire, and a desire is for something, and if one already has what one desires, then it is not a desire any longer; therefore, love is a longing for something one does not have. What is this something? Is it Aristophanes’ other half? No. Love, says Socrates, is a desire for the Good, with a capital “G,” meaning the highest good, the ultimate good, that from which good things derive their goodness. Hence, what is beautiful is what is good and noble. Everyone wants goodness to an extent. This requires qualification. First, all objects of our desire, be it a living thing or a goal, are good. For example, if I want to write a blog, if my desire is to write a blog, then I am aiming at something which, if I investigate further, is essentially good since it is of benefit to me. Second, everyone, regardless of their disposition, wants the good, whether they know it or not. A doctor and a murderer both seek the good, although we say the latter is errant in his ways, or is ignorant thereof. In other words, even if we do not have an idea of what the Good is, we still want it anyway. It is natural. It is human. Nobody intentionally desires what is bad for them. But what separates desiring from loving is immortality, states Diotima. Whereas if my goal is to exercise more often, then I am seeking the Good, if I love someone, then I am seeking the Good in them, and, from what I gain therefrom: Longevity. It is a strange idea to read. However, what Socrates is saying is that we want the Good forever. We always want to have in our possession the Good—not today, not tomorrow, but for time immemorial. When we love someone, we tend to analyze them, parse them into traits, which we then classify as positive or negative. We look at people’s pro’s and con’s. As is our nature, we like good traits and dislike bad traits in people. I like a person for her altruism but dislike her for her stubbornness. So when I say I like “her,” I really mean: I like the Good in her. This is similar to something Pascal wrote 2,000 years after Plato, that we love people not for themselves, but for their qualities. The reason we like good qualities in people is that they are reminiscent of the Good, and what is Good is good for us; a person’s good personality helps us to flourish. Using the previous instance, the altruism of a girl will help me, but her stubbornness will not. Furthermore, because we are mortal and fated die, and because we are terrified of death, we try to find ways to achieve immortality, at least artificially. We do this by creating something by which we will be remembered. We want a lasting name for ourselves. Some people do this by two means: Having children, so as to carry on the line, to bear one’s name, and creating art (art, here, is to be interpreted broadly as any kind of creation), so as to have a creation which manifests one’s ideas. Before continuing we can summarize Love in three points: First, love is of the Good and Beautiful (the two are synonymous); second, love is the same object for every desire and goal; third, love is for creation, be it through children or art, with the goal of longevity.
If the Beautiful is behind all things, and if we desire it so much, then how do we encounter it? What is the true purpose of love? Diotima introduces Socrates to a ladder, or ascent, of love, which leads up to Beauty. The ladder starts at the bottom and ends at the top, rising from particulars to universals, concrete to abstract. Starting with a single, individual body we consider beautiful, we meditate upon it, find everything there is that is beautiful in it. In modern terms, we look at someone we love and find desirable traits, traits valued by our culture, traits that make someone beautiful. Having done this, we can then realize that the body of one person is just as beautiful as the body of another. There is a good message here: Everyone is beautiful in their own way. Each has their own unique beauty. While this person is beautiful for x reasons, this person is beautiful for y reasons, although they are both beautiful in the end. Once we grow accustomed to this, we can grasp that the mind and soul are more noble than the body. We move away from Commonly love and toward Heavenly love. Beauty is seen as permanent and virtuous. Next, we ascend to ideas, laws, customs, institutions. We learn to see knowledge as beautiful. Finally, once we have seen the Beautiful in all earthly and intellectual things, we can perceive Beauty as such, Beauty itself. The journey upward can be summarized thus:
And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (The Symposium, 211c-d).
In the ascent, in other words, we abandon the individual for the absolute. Love is no longer person-centered but idea-centered. The intellect takes over for the eye. Senses are devalued to thought. Instead of the material and lower, we see the Beautiful in the higher and spiritual. Once we have loved the Good, Beauty as such, we can find Beauty in all things. In short, there is no more favoritism. What this means is: No longer do I see beautiful and ugly people, but I only see the Beauty in them. There is no one more beautiful than another, since we all share in the same Beauty. A true lover of Beauty does not discriminate, but rather sees Beauty everywhere, from people to animals to nature. Beauty is no longer temporary but permanent. The lover need not depend on a specific person or artwork to see Beauty, for it is everywhere. Suppose I derive a great pleasure in van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but in no other piece. This is an undeveloped love. However, after I have attained a vision of the Good, I soon find that every artwork is beautiful, not just “Starry Night”; for this reason, I am not dependent on a single beautiful thing to know Beauty. Universal love can be found anywhere once envisioned. And unlike the body, subject to change, Universal Beauty is changeless. Love is the guide up the ladder; it draws us toward the Beautiful through Eros, the daimon of Love. Plato compared “the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true” to “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy” (The Phædrus, 249a). The philosopher, or lover of wisdom, is the same in purity as the lover of Beauty; for in wisdom, there is Beauty. What is the beautiful like? In this quote, Plato describes what the famous Realm of Forms is like: “There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul” (The Phædrus, 247c). From this we can gather that the Form of the Good or Beautiful is permanent and unchanging. It remains the same eternally. The Beautiful is absolute, not relative. Things are not “more beautiful” but are either beautiful or not-beautiful. Beauty, lastly, is the same to all things. A statue has as much beauty as does a shoe. It achieves this through instantiation: The partaking of instances. Explained in another way, beauty instantiates itself, by which it is meant that, a particular instance of beauty, for example Michelangelo’s “David,” is beautiful precisely because Beauty is inside of it. Love is a form of madness, Plato famously wrote. In a very poetic (and long) passage, Plato illustrates what it is like to be in love:
But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration; for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing from shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wing begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul—for once the whole was winged. During this process the whole soul is all in a state of ebullition and effervescence,—which may be compared to the irritation and uneasiness in the gums at the time of cutting teeth,—bubbles up, and has a feeling of uneasiness and tickling; but when in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and then she ceases from her pain with joy. But when she is parted from her beloved and her moisture fails, then the orifices of the passage out of which the wing shoots dry up and close, and intercept the germ of the wing; which, being shut up with the emotion, throbbing as with the pulsations of an artery, pricks the aperture which is nearest, until at length the entire soul is pierced and maddened and pained, and at the recollection of beauty is again delighted. And from both of them together the soul is oppressed at the strangeness of her condition, and is in a great strait and excitement, and in her madness can neither sleep by night nor abide in her place by day. And wherever she thinks that she will behold the beautiful one, thither in her desire she runs. And when she has seen him, and bathed herself in the waters of beauty, her constraint is loosened, and she is refreshed, and has no more pangs and pains; and this is the sweetest of all pleasures at the time, and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all (The Phædrus, 251-2)
Anyone who has ever been in love—in other words, all of us—can appreciate the beauty with which Plato speaks here. “If … man’s life is ever worth living,” Diotima confides to Socrates, “it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty” (The Symposium, 211d).
What are we to make, then, of Platonic love? Despite all its transcendent glory, the ideal of Platonic love has its flaws. A professor of the Classics, Martha Nussbaum criticizes Plato’s account of love on three grounds: Compassion, reciprocity, and individuality.
- Compassion: According to Nussbaum, Platonic love lacks compassion. The practices for which he calls require that one look down upon “worldly” things as beneath oneself. Bodies, for example, are to be dismissed as gross presentations, renounced instead for mental pleasure. This kind of attitude instills an egotistical superiority. One thinks oneself superior to others, who are reduced to objects of desire; and these people are then devalued. The lover takes precedence. Also, suffering, which is a temporary condition, is frowned upon, demanding that the lover take on a Stoical indifference to pain, which is unnecessary. Homeless people, for example, are objectified as suffering for no reason, instead of contemplating the Forms.
- Reciprocity: Platonic love is one-sided. To engage in this kind of love is to be egocentric. Only the self exists, and the opinions and emotions of others are not gauged, but ignored. It does not matter how the other person feels, as long as the lover, gets what they want: The Good. It is not like you love someone, and they love you back; rather, it is just you loving someone. In this sense, the beloved is not an end-in-themselves, but a means-to-an-end. You love someone not for their sake, but in order to reach the Good. The agency and autonomy of the beloved are ignored. They cannot act for themselves.
- Individuality: Lastly, in pursuing Platonic love, the individual, the beloved, is dropped. When we say we love someone, do we ever consciously think, “I love x because in them is instantiated the Good”? No. We say we love them for who they are. The person with whom we are in love is considered unimportant in the long run, used as a stepping stone to the Good, a step ladder that will be discarded, cast away once it has been climbed. By treating the beloved as a sacrifice to reach the Good, we are, in effect, denying their faults, the things that make them different; i.e., we are denying their uniqueness, their individuality. As Nussbaum jokingly puts it, “‘I’ll love you only to the extent that you exemplify properties that I otherwise cherish.’”
In short, Nussbaum argues that Platonic love is just far too objective, idealistic, and detached to be applicable. This is just one side, though. Others, like Paul Friedländer, cite that Platonic love actually does incorporate the individual beloved, and awards them a higher place. From personal experience, I agree that Platonic love tends to dismiss the beloved; but I do think the idea of Beauty manifest in individuals is quite real. Tell me your experiences in the comments, and whether or not you agree with Plato!
From hence we move to Plotinus, the Egyptian-Roman founder of Neoplatonism, whose spiritual ideas were based on Plato’s theories, and who influenced a nascent Christianity. Although we have covered the argument that Plato’s conception of love is idealistic, looking at Plotinus’ views makes Plato sound like a common-sense realist. Plotinus is even more spiritual than Plato, and even more contemptuous of the physical world, which he viewed as a hindrance. It is recorded that Plotinus constantly remarked that his body was ugly and that he looked forward to being released from it. In one anecdote, his student Porphyry wrote that an artist came to Plotinus’ school because he wanted to make a portrait of Plotinus; but Plotinus turned him away, ashamed to be seen in his body—how ghastly it would be to have a representation of such a hideous thing! Love for Plotinus is a unio mystica, a mystical union, drawing upon similar imagery to that of Aristophanes, but with God, whom he calls “the One.” Beauty lies in symmetry, in wholeness. When it comes to a certain instance of beauty, the whole is both greater than and equal to the sum of its parts—but this does not make a whole lot of sense. The whole is greater because it partakes in the Beautiful. It is equal because it must be constituted by only what is Beautiful. His reasoning is that all parts must be beautiful in order to be Beautiful. Beauty + beauty = Beauty, but beauty + ugly ≠ Beautiful. Therefore, a Beautiful thing must be greater than its parts, but must also be composed of all-Beautiful parts. Put together, they all form a harmony in union. Evidently, Plotinus borrows Plato’s theory of instantiation: “[T]he material thing becomes beautiful—by communicating in the thought (Reason, Logos) that flows from the Divine” (The Enneads, I.VI.2). Put another way, a beautiful thing is beautiful because Beauty is in it. If there is no Beauty in it, then it is not beautiful. The things which make up the art are not beautiful in themselves; it depends on their symmetry in an arrangement. The Idea of Beauty is thus imposed on Matter itself. Imagine a blank canvas. It is not beautiful. Then, a bucket of different colors of paint is thrown onto the canvas. In this image, the canvas is matter, and the paint is Beauty. It is only when the canvas is so arranged that the paint can make it beautiful that it becomes Beautiful. Plotinus also references Plato’s ascent up the ladder, with a little change:
It [the Realm of Ideas] is to be reached by those who, born with the nature of the lover, are also authentically philosophic by inherent temper; in pain of love towards beauty but not held by material loveliness, taking refuge from that in things whose beauty is of the soul- such things as virtue, knowledge, institutions, law and custom- and thence, rising still a step, reach to the source of this loveliness of the Soul, thence to whatever be above that again, until the uttermost is reached. The First, the Principle whose beauty is self-springing: this attained, there is an end to the pain inassuageable before (The Enneads, V.IX.2).
Just like Plato, Plotinus believes the philosopher is most inclined toward love of the Beautiful. Also, the two agree that love ascends from the soul to virtue to knowledge to customs to Beauty itself. The difference lies in the starting point. For Plato, the lover begins with a person with whom they are in love; for Plotinus, the lover begins by shunning the person, by turning away from all things physical and material, jumping straight to the soul. Why does one jump immediately to the soul? Because the soul, Plotinus claims, is itself beautiful. There is a metaphor of “falling” in Plato and Plotinus, which mirrors that of Adam and Eve’s fall in The Bible, in which the immortal souls of men lived in the Realm of Forms, only to succumb to temptation, thereby causing it to fall into the material world of change and impermanence. This means that, just as Adam and Eve received Wisdom right before the Fall and retained some of it, so the souls of men received a vision of the Beautiful right before the Fall and retained some of it. By falling into the physical world, the soul became impure, ugly. As Plotinus puts it, “[A] soul becomes ugly … by a fall, a descent into the body, into Matter” (The Enneads, I.VI.5). The religious metaphors here are obvious. The soul thus becomes “ugly,” associated with grime and dirt. In my blog about Orphism and its influence on Pythagoreanism, we see the same kind of thinking: The body (σωμα) as a tomb (σημα), the pure trapped in the impure, seeking release, yearning for reunion with the World-soul, or, in this case, the One. Despite being a radical purist, Plotinus is a very wise guy with a lot of good things to say, and we should heed him. The following is a much-celebrated excerpt of Plotinus, one read and admired by many who find in it a beautiful and inspiring message, written with much the same elegance as Plato, considered the best of his writing. In it, he tells us all to look inside ourselves and realize that, deep down, beneath our appearances, we all have an inner beauty. Sometimes, we just need some self-love, and Plotinus reminds us to give ourselves this much-needed assurance. Read it for yourself:
Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, his other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine (The Enneads, I.VI.9).
What have we learned today? Well, what we have not learned for certain is what love and beauty are. Despite the brilliance of these thinkers, they are no closer to the truth than we are. As to what love and beauty are—my guess is as good as yours, and that is not a bad thing; I think it is rather a good thing, really, and perhaps it should stay that way. We should all ask ourselves what love and beauty are, because they are essential to a well-lived life. To ask what love and beauty are, and to experience them fully and intimately—this is a part of the examined life. Plato and Plotinus’ ideas have survived for ages and shall continue to influence us in the future. Yet their wisdom is not perfect, and their theories are not flawless either. It has been shown that their views, debatably, are impractical. From soulmates to the Ancient Christians with their agape to the modern philosophers like Pascal to contemporary man seeking love in an unloving world, we are all asking the same question as Haddaway: What is love? A most mysterious emotion it is, one we barely beginning to understand. What is life without love? Without beauty? As soon as we start asking these questions, we are on the way to wisdom. To actively pursue the answers to these questions requires that we all be philosophers. If we want to know beauty and love, we must be lovers of wisdom, philo-sophers.
 Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, p. 483
 Id., p. 499
For further reading: The Greek Thinkers Vol. 2 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum (2001)
Plato: An Introduction by Paul Friedländer (1958)
On Plotinus by C. Wayne Mayhall (2004)
The Enneads by Plotinus (1991)
The Symposium by Plato (1973)
The Phædrus by Plato (1973)