For Plotinus (Ennead I.6, On Beauty, MacKenna translation) the beauty of the sensuous realm is hardly the most important kind of beauty. Yet he has something valuable to say about it. He begins his discussion of beauty by noting that there is both beauty of sight and of hearing (which includes music) in the sensuous world, as also a beauty of the realm above sense, including the beauty of human virtues. He will quickly turn to focus on this non-bodily realm. Still, he at least asks what makes material forms and certain sounds beautiful. His larger issue is whether there is One Principle for both kinds of beauty, the embodied and the bodiless, only the later being beautiful in itself. Since not all bodies are beautiful, he asks, what is it that "attracts the eyes" in a beautiful object, giving us joy at the sight of it? Most previous thinkers identified this with symmetry of parts, along with "a certain charm of color." We find this idea for example in the Pythagoreans, in Aristotle, and also in the Stoics. On this view, "only a compound can be beautiful," and the parts only have beauty "as working together to give a comely total." Yet, he argues, "beauty in an aggregate demands beauty in details." A beautiful whole cannot be made out of ugly parts. Moreover, there are things that are beautiful, for example, individual colors, the light of the sun, gold, lightning by night, and the stars, whose beauty cannot be understood in terms of symmetry. Similarly in a beautiful musical composition the individual tones are delicious in themselves. Moreover, things that are symmetrical are only sometimes beautiful. So it follows that symmetry "owes its beauty to a remoter principle." We also find that beautiful things perceived by the intellect, like noble conduct, excellent laws and abstract ideas also cannot be explained in terms of symmetry. Note that, by attacking symmetry as that which defines beauty, Plotinus is attacking the notion that beauty can be objective in a science-like way. The "golden mean" would similarly be rejected as the source of beauty, on his account. Instead, he focuses on something more mysterious, a certain aura, one might say, that is exemplified by such things as the light of the sun, the shimmering quality of beautiful colors, and so forth. (I discuss and update this concept in my book.)
What then is the Principle that makes material things beautiful? Plotinus sees this Principle as something which the soul can perceive immediately, name, recognize, welcome, and, most importantly, enter "into unison with it." The opposite of this happens when the soul falls "in with the Ugly" and denies and even resents the Principle. The point is best made in this quote: "the soul - by the very truth of its nature, by its affiliation to the noblest Existents in the hierarchy of Being," when it sees anything like such Existents (the Forms), "thrills with an immediate delight" because it senses its own nature as having this affinity. To the question, "what is there common between beauty in this world and beauty in the bodiless world?" the answer is: "all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form." Ugly things, by contrast, have not "been entirely mastered by pattern, that is, by Reason." Beauty happens when Matter yields "in all respects to Ideal-Form." Further, the Ideal-Form enters by grouping and coordinating "what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity," and thus yields a "harmonious coherence." Here, "Beauty enthrones itself, giving itself to the parts as to the sum," as for example, when an architect confers beauty on "a house with all its parts," those parts including single stones which also may be given their beauty by "some natural quality." (One thinks of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water.) The concluding idea of this chapter of his book is that the "material thing becomes beautiful...by communicating in the thought that flows from the Divine." But in more practical contemporary (and atheistic) terms we might interpret this to mean that the beauty of a house is a function not just of the ordering of the parts but of the way that a non-mathematics-based aura can be found not only in the whole but in each of the parts, as if there were a divine presence giving these things their unity.
Architecture is a leading idea in Plotinus's account of beauty. and thus in Chapter 3 he asks, "On what principle does the architect, when he finds the house standing before him correspondent with his inner ideal of a house, pronounce it beautiful? Is it not that the house before him, the stones apart, is the inner idea stamped upon the mass of exterior matter, the indivisible exhibited in diversity." This passage is an interesting combination of Plato, Aristotle and something else harder to describe. The description of the architect is just like Plato's description of a carpenter in relation to a bed in Book X of the Republic, where the carpenter look to the ideal bed in the world of Forms to create his own bed. Aristotle would insist that creation of an artifact involves both a material cause and the formal cause, the form being imposed on the matter. The notion "the indivisible" exhibited or expressed in diversity is unique to Plotinus at this stage (although in the eighteenth century we have the idea of beauty as unity in diversity in Hogarth, for example). The phrase "the stones apart" seems, however, to contradict what he has previously said about stones. Instead, one would think that the beauty of the individual stones contribute to the beauty of the whole, they being what he refers to as the diversity that is expressive of an imposed unity.
Perhaps the most interested passage is the following: "
So with the perceptive faculty: discerning in certain objects the Ideal-Form which has bound and controlled the shapeless matter, opposed in nature to Idea, seeing further stamped upon the common shapes some shape excellent above the common, it gathers into unity what still remains fragmentary, catches it up and carries it within, no longer a thing of parts, and presents it to the Ideal-Principle as something concordant and congenial, a natural friend: the joy here is like that of a good man who discerns in a youth the early signs of a virtue consonant with the achieved perfection within his own soul."
Consider "the perceptive faculty" to be what is later called the faculty of taste. What this faculty does is mapped out in a sequence of stages: (1) find a Platonic Form exemplified or expressed in the object (for example, Architecture within a building), (2) gather what remains fragmentary into a unity (by a kind of mental synthesis in perception), (3) internalize that unity within the mind, thus (4) erasing the division of the objects into parts (all parts are now seen as integrated aspects of an organic whole), and (5) posit the unity as congenial to the relevant Form, e.g. Architecture, from which (6) arises a joy in the soul of the critic (i.e. that part of the critic with greatest affinity with the world of Forms).
The next passage is also quite extraordinary. We had already learned that, on his anti-symmetry view, individual colors can be beautiful. We now will see that this beauty is a function of the presence of the Form within the object perceived as beautiful and as a diversity unified: "The beauty of color is also the outcome of a unification: it derives from shape, from the conquest of darkness inherent in Matter by the pouring-in of light, the unembodied, which is a Rational-Principle of an Ideal-Form." (Color is not here a matter of mere charm is previously suggested or as found in Kant, but more like color as found in its use in stained glass windows in Gothic churches.) The description of light as pouring in from the world of the Forms is reminiscent of Plato's explication of the metaphor of light as truth in the Allegory of the Cave. However, here we see that this beauty, which is not, again, based on symmetry, is a function of the overcoming of darkness and of the equivalent notion of unformed matter, where the presence of the Ideal-Form is not found in the mere Platonic relation of imitation (as when a drawn circle imitates the Form Circle) but rather in a suffusion of light/color. Fire is stressed in the next paragraph as being the body closest to the unembodied, as having "color primally," other bodies taking the Form of color from it, thus giving its light a particular splendour, "the splendour that belongs to the Idea."
This might on the face of it seem to be the end of the discussion of everyday aesthetics and Plotinus, as Plotinus in Chapter 4, leaves the realm of sense and images, the world in which beauty enters into matter to "ravish us." Instead, he focuses on "loftier beauties" of the soul unrelated to the sense organs, these beauties including noble conduct and learning, as well as the Forms of Justice and Moral Wisdom, themselves more beautiful than a beautiful sunset or dawn (something admired by Plotinus for its non-symmetry-based beauty based on light and its attendant color.) Yet, from a modern secular perspective, the beauties of personal virtue are also beauties of everyday life (and not completely divorced from what the senses can perceive if we include within this the way that perception can be infused with meaning to the extent that we can see, for example, the nobility in a person we know to be noble). Thus Plotinus asks: "What do you feel in presence of the grace you discern in actions, in manners, in sound morality, in all the works and fruits of virtue, in the beauty of souls [and the beauty of yourselves within]?" Isn't this too a matter of everyday aesthetics, perhaps a necessary feature of it? Is there not also a moral dimension to our perception of beauty in the people and people-produced artifacts and events around us? Here, too, there is a kind of aura, or as Plotinus puts it in his overly-metaphysical way: "shining down upon all [these moral virtues and their manifestations], the light of god-like Intellection." For Plotinus, it is that these things have reality of Being that makes them "really beautiful." Again, the metaphor of light is invoked here as within the realm of physical beauty: "this grace, this splendour as of Light, resting upon all the virtues." I am not going to discuss Plotinus's Puritan-like fulminations against ugliness in the realm of bodily sensation: this clearly opposed to one aspect of the aesthetics of everyday life, the aspect that includes the the very "pleasures of the body" that Plotinus despises. Suffice it to say that in Chapter 6 Plotinus adds one point about the everyday: "The beauty in things of a lower order - actions and pursuits for instance - comes by operation of the shaping Soul which is also the author of the beauty found in the world of sense. For the Soul, a divine thing, a fragment as it were of the Primal Beauty, makes beautiful to the fulness of their capacity all things whatsoever that it grasps and moulds." As with Plato, Plotinus has the soul conclude its upward path by rejecting beauties of this world: it "can never again feel the old delight in the comeliness of material forms." Moreover, he calls on the spiritual adept to "withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once mad his joy." Too bad for him, I say.
One final comment may be made about Plotinus's vision of an aesthetics of personal self-improvement. This can be read in a Pragmatist vein (for example in line with the writings of Richard Shusterman) which in fact would subvert his Plotinus' overall purpose. We are able to see the virtuous soul and its loveliness by looking within: "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, this other purer, until a lovely fact 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, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine."