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´╗┐Title: An Essay on the Beautiful - From the Greek of Plotinus
Author: Plotinus, 205?-270
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Essay on the Beautiful - From the Greek of Plotinus" ***

_(From the Greek of Plotinus)_

Translated by
Thomas Taylor

John M. Watkins
21 Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road


It may seem wonderful that language, which is the only method of
conveying our conceptions, should, at the same time, be an
hindrance to our advancement in philosophy; but the wonder ceases
when we consider, that it is seldom studied as the vehicle of truth,
but is too frequently esteemed for its own sake, independent of its
connection with things. This observation is remarkably verified in
the Greek language; which, as it is the only repository of ancient
wisdom, has, unfortunately for us, been the means of concealing, in
shameful obscurity, the most profound researches and the sublimest
truths. That words, indeed, are not otherwise valuable than as
subservient to things, must surely be acknowledged by every liberal
mind, and will alone be disputed by him who has spent the prime of
his life, and consumed the vigour of his understanding, in verbal
criticisms and grammatical trifles. And, if this is the case, every
lover of truth will only study a language for the purpose of
procuring the wisdom it contains; and will doubtless wish to make
his native language the vehicle of it to others. For, since all truth is
eternal, its nature can never be altered by transposition, though by
this means its dress may be varied, and become less elegant and
refined. Perhaps even this inconvenience may be remedied by
sedulous cultivation; at least, the particular inability of some, ought
not to discourage the well-meant endeavours of others. Whoever
reads the lives of the ancient Heroes of Philosophy, must be
convinced that they studied things more than words, and that Truth
alone was the ultimate object of their search; and he who wishes to
emulate their glory and participate their wisdom, will study their
doctrines more than their language, and value the depth of their
understandings far beyond the elegance of their composition. The
native charms of Truth will ever be sufficient to allure the truly
philosophic mind; and he who has once discovered her retreats will
surely endeavour to fix a mark by which they may be detected by

But, though the mischief arising from the study of words is
prodigious, we must not consider it as the only cause of darkening
the splendours of Truth, and obstructing the free diffusion of her
light. Different manners and philosophies have equally contributed
to banish the goddess from our realms, and to render our eyes
offended with her celestial light. Hence we must not wonder that,
being indignant at the change, and perceiving the empire of
ignorance rising to unbounded dominion, she has retired from the
spreading darkness, and concealed herself in the tranquil and
divinely lucid regions of mind. For we need but barely survey
modern pursuits to be convinced how little they are connected with
wisdom. Since, to describe the nature of some particular place, the
form, situation and magnitude of a certain city; to trace the windings
of a river to its source, or delineate the aspect of a pleasant mountain;
to calculate the fineness of the silkworm's threads, and arrange the
gaudy colours of butterflies; in short, to pursue matter through its
infinite divisions, and wander in its dark labyrinths, is the
employment of the philosophy in vogue. But surely the energies of
intellect are more worthy our concern than the operations of sense;
and the science of universals, permanent and fixed, must be superior
to the knowledge of particulars, fleeting and frail. Where is a
sensible object to be found, which abides for a moment the same;
which is not either rising to perfection, or verging to decay; which is
not mixed and confused with its contrary; whose flowing nature no
resistance can stop, nor any art confine? Where is the chemist who,
by the most accurate analyzation can arrive at the principles of
bodies; or who, though he might be so lucky in his search as to
detect the atoms of Democritus, could by this means give respite to
mental investigation? For every atom, since endued with figure,
must consist of parts, though indissolubly cemented together; and
the immediate cause of this cement must be something incorporeal
or knowledge can have no stability and enquiry no end. Where, says
Mr Harris, is the microscope which can discern what is smallest in
nature? Where the telescope which can see at what point in the
universe wisdom first began? Since, then, there is no portion of
matter which may not be the subject of experiments without end, let
us betake ourselves to the regions of mind, where all things are
bounded in intellectual measure; where everything is permanent and
beautiful, eternal and divine. Let us quit the study of particulars, for
that which is general and comprehensive, and through this, learn to
see and recognize whatever exists.

With a view to this desirable end, I have presented the reader with a
specimen of that sublime wisdom which first arose in the colleges of
the Egyptian priests, and flourished afterwards in Greece; which was
there cultivated by Pythagoras, under the mysterious veil of numbers;
by Plato, in the graceful dress of poetry; and was systematized by
Aristotle, as far as it could be reduced into scientific order; which,
after becoming in a manner extinct, shone again with its pristine
splendour among the philosophers of the Alexandrian school; was
learnedly illustrated with Asiatic luxuriancy of style by Proclus; was
divinely explained by Iamblichus: and profoundly delivered in the
writings of Plotinus. Indeed, the works of this last philosopher are
particularly valuable to all who desire to penetrate into the depths of
this divine wisdom. From the exalted nature of his genius, he was
called Intellect by his contemporaries, and is said to have composed
his books under the influence of divine illumination. Porphyry
relates, in his life, that he was four times united by an ineffable
energy with the divinity; which, however such an account may be
ridiculed in the present age, will be credited by everyone who has
properly explored the profundity of his mind. The facility and
vehemence of his composition was such, that when he had once
conceived a subject, he wrote as from an internal pattern, without
paying much attention to the orthography, or reviewing what he had
written; for the celestial vigour of his intellect rendered him
incapable of trifling concerns, and in this respect, inferior to
common understandings, as the eagle, which in its bold flight
pierces the clouds, skims the surface of the earth with less rapidity
than the swallow. Indeed a minute attention to trifles is inconsistent
with great genius of every kind, and it is on this account that
retirement is so absolutely necessary to the discovery of truths of the
first dignity and importance; for how is it possible to mix much with
the world, without imbibing the false and puerile conceptions of the
multitude; and without losing that true elevation of soul which
comparatively despises every mortal concern? Plotinus, therefore,
conscious of the incorrectness of his writings arising from the
rapidity, exuberance and daring sublimity of his thoughts,
committed their revision to his disciple Porphyry; who, though
inferior in depth of thought to his master, was, on account of his
extraordinary abilities, called by way of eminence the Philosopher.

The design of the following discourse is to bring us to the perception
of the beautiful itself, even while connected with a corporeal nature,
which must be the great end of all true philosophy and which
Plotinus happily obtained. To a genius, indeed, truly modern, with
whom the crucible and the air-pump are alone the standards of Truth,
such an attempt must appear ridiculous in the extreme. With these,
nothing is real but what the hand can grasp or the corporeal eye
perceives, and nothing useful but what pampers the appetite or fills
the purse; but unfortunately, their perceptions, like Homer's frail
dreams, pass through the ivory gate; and are consequently empty
and fallacious, and contain nothing belonging to the vigilant soul.
To such as these a treatise on the beautiful cannot be addressed;
since its object is too exalted to be approached by those engaged in
the impurities of sense, and too bright to be seen by the eye
accustomed to the obscurity of corporeal vision. But it is alone
proper to him who is sensible that his soul is strongly marked with
ruin by its union with body; who considers himself in the language
of Empedocles, as

     "Heaven's exile, straying from the orb of light";

and who so ardently longs for a return to his true country, that to
him, as to Ulysses when fighting for Ithaca,

     "Slow seems the fun to move, the hours to roll;
     His native home deep-imag'd in his soul".[1]

But here it is requisite to observe that our ascent to this region of
Beauty must be made by gradual advances, for, from our association
with matter, it is impossible to pass directly, and without a medium,
to such transcendent perfection; but we must proceed in a manner
similar to those who pass from darkness to the brightest light, by
advancing from places moderately enlightened, to such as are the
most luminous of all. It is necessary therefore, that we should
become very familiar with the most abstract contemplations; and
that our intellectual eye should be strongly irradiated with the light
of ideas which precedes the splendours of the beautiful itself, like
the brightness which is seen on the summit of mountains previous to
the rising of the sun. Nor ought it to seem strange, if it should be
some time before even the liberal soul can recognize the beautiful
progeny of intellect as its kindred and allies; for, from its union with
body, it has drunk deep of the cup of oblivion, and all its energetic
powers are stupefied by the intoxicating draught; so that the
intelligible world, on its first appearance, is utterly unknown by us,
and our recollection of its inhabitants entirely lost; and we become
familiar to Ulysses on his first entrance into Ithaca, of whom Homer

     "Yet had his mind, thro' tedious absence lost
     The dear remembrance of his native coast".[2]


     "Now all the land another prospect bore,
     Another port appeared, another shore,
     And long-continued ways, and winding floods
     And unknown mountains crowned with unknown woods":

until the goddess of wisdom purges our eyes from the mists of sense
and says to each of us, as she did to Ulysses,

     "Now lift thy longing eyes, while I restore
     The pleasing prospect of thy native shore."

For then will

          " . . . . the prospect clear,
     The mists disperse, and all the coast appear."

Let us then, humbly supplicate the irradiations of wisdom, and
follow Plotinus as our divine guide to the beatific vision of the
Beautiful itself; for in this alone can we find perfect repose, and
repair those destructive clefts and chinks of the soul which its
departure from the light of good, and its lapse into a corporeal nature,
have introduced.

But before I conclude, I think it necessary to caution the reader not
to mix any modern enthusiastic opinions with the doctrines
contained in the following discourse; for there is not a greater
difference between substance and shade than between ancient and
modern enthusiasm. The object of the former was the highest good
and supreme beauty; but that of the latter is nothing more than a
phantom raised by bewildered imaginations, floating on the unstable
ocean of opinion, the sport of the waves of prejudice and blown
about by the breath of factious party. Like substance and shade,
indeed they possess a similitude in outward appearance, but in
reality they are perfect contraries; for the one fills the mind with
solid and durable good, but the other with empty delusions; which
like the ever-running waters of the Danaides, glide away as fast as
they enter, and leave nothing behind but the ruinous passages
through which they flowed.

I only add, that the ensuing treatise is designed as a specimen
(if it should meet with encouragement) of my intended mode of
publishing all the works of Plotinus. The undertaking is, I am
sensible, arduous in the extreme; and the disciples of wisdom are
unfortunately few; but, as I desire no other reward of my labour,
than to have the expense of printing defrayed, and to see Truth
propagated in my native tongue; I hope those few will enable me to
obtain the completion of my desires. For then, to adopt the words of

     "That view vouchsaf'd, let instant death surprise
     With ever-during shade these happy eyes!"[3]


Beauty[4] for the most part, consists in objects of sight; but it is also
received through the ears, by the skilful composition of words, and
the consonant proportion of sounds; for in every species of harmony,
beauty is to be found. And if we rise from sense into the regions of
soul, we shall there perceive studies and offices, actions and habits,
sciences and virtues, invested with a much larger portion of beauty.
But whether there is above these, a still higher beauty, will appear as
we advance in its investigation. What is it then, which causes bodies
to appear fair to the sight, sounds beautiful to the ear, and science
and virtue lovely to the mind? May we not enquire after what
manner they all partake of beauty? Whether beauty is one and the
same in all? Or, whether the beauty of bodies is of one kind, and the
beauty of souls of another? And again, what these are, if they are
two? Or, what beauty is, if perfectly simple, and one? For some
things, as bodies, are doubtless beautiful, not from the natures of the
subjects in which they reside, but rather by some kind of
participation; but others again appear to be essentially beautiful, or
beauties themselves; and such is the nature of virtue. For, with
respect, to the same bodies, they appear beautiful to one person, and
the reverse of beauty to another; as if the essence of body were a
thing different from the essence of beauty. In the first place then,
what is that, which, by its presence, causes the beauty of bodies? Let
us reflect, what most powerfully attracts the eyes of beholders, and
seizes the spectator with rapturous delight; for if we can find what
this is, we may perhaps use it as a ladder, enabling us to ascend into
the region of beauty, and survey its immeasurable extent.

It is the general opinion that a certain commensuration of parts to
each other, and to the whole, with the addition, of colour, generates
that beauty which is the object of sight; and that in the
commensurate and the moderate alone the beauty of everything
consists. But from such an opinion the compound only, and not the
simple, can be beautiful, the single parts will have no peculiar
beauty; and will only merit that appellation by conferring to the
beauty of the whole. But it is surely necessary that a lovely whole
should consist of beautiful parts, for the fair can never rise out of the
deformed. But from such a definition, it follows, that beautiful
colours and the light of the sun, since they are simple and do not
receive their beauty from commensuration, must be excluded the
regions of beauty. Besides, how, from such an hypothesis can gold
be beautiful? Or the glittering of night and the glorious spectacle of
the stars? In like manner, the most simple musical sounds will be
foreign from beauty, though in a song wholly beautiful every note
must be beautiful, as necessary to the being of the whole. Again,
since the same proportion remaining, the same face is to one person
beautiful and to another the reverse, is it not necessary to call
the beauty of the commensurate one kind of beauty and the
commensuration another kind, and that the commensurate is fair by
means of something else? But if transferring themselves to beautiful
studies and fair discourses, they shall assign as the cause of beauty
in these the proportion of measure, what is that which in beautiful
sciences, laws or disciplines, is called commensurate proportion? Or
in what manner can speculations themselves be called mutually
commensurate? If it be said because of the inherent concord, we
reply that there is a certain concord and consent in evil souls, a
conformity of sentiment, in believing (as it is said) that temperance
is folly and justice generous ignorance. It appears, therefore, that the
beauty of the soul is every virtue, and this species of the beautiful
possesses far greater reality than any of the superior we have
mentioned. But after what manner in this is commensuration to be
found? For it is neither like the symmetry in magnitude nor in
numbers. And since the parts of the soul are many, in what
proportion and synthesis, in what temperament of parts or concord
of speculations, does beauty consist? Lastly, of what kind is the
beauty of intellect itself, abstracted from every corporeal concern,
and intimately conversing with itself alone?

We still, therefore, repeat the question, What is the beauty of bodies?
It is something which at first view presents itself to sense, and which
the soul familiarly apprehends and eagerly embraces, as if it were
allied to itself. But when it meets with the deformed, it hastily starts
from the view and retires abhorrent from its discordant nature. For
since the soul in its proper state ranks according to the most
excellent essence in the order of things, when it perceives any object
related to itself, or the mere vestige of a relation, it congratulates
itself on the pleasing event, and astonished with the striking
resemblance[5] enters deep into its essence, and, by rousing its
dormant powers, at length perfectly recollects its kindred and allies.
What is the similitude then between the beauties of sense and that
beauty which is divine? For if there be any similitude the respective
objects must be similar. But after what manner are the two beautiful?
For it is by participation of species that we call every sensible object
beautiful. Thus, since everything void of form is by nature fitted for
its reception, as far as it is destitute of reason and form it is base and
separate from the divine reason, the great fountain of forms; and
whatever is entirely remote from this immortal source is perfectly
base and deformed.[6] And such is matter, which my its nature is
ever averse from the supervening irradiations of form. Whenever,
therefore, form accedes, it conciliates in amicable unity the parts
which are about to compose a whole; for being itself one it is not
wonderful that the subject of its power should tend to unity, as far as
the nature of a compound will admit. Hence beauty is established in
multitude when the many is reduced into one, and in this case it
communicates itself both to the parts and to the whole. But when a
particular one, composed from similar parts, is received it gives
itself to the whole, without departing from the sameness and
integrity of its nature. Thus at one and the same time it
communicates itself to the whole building and its several parts; and
at another time confines itself to a single stone, and then the first
participation arises from the operations of art, but the second from
the formation of nature. And hence body becomes beautiful through
the communion supernally proceeding from divinity.

But the soul, by her innate power, than which nothing more
powerful, in judging its proper concerns, when another soul concurs
in the decision, acknowledges the beauty of forms. And, perhaps, its
knowledge in this case arises from its accommodating its internal
ray of beauty to form, and trusting to this in its judgment; in the
same manner as a rule is employed in the decision of what is straight.
But how can that which is inherent in body, accord with that which
is above body? Let us reply by asking how the architect pronounces
the building beautiful by accommodating the external structure the
fabric of his soul? Perhaps, because the outward building, when
entirely deprived of the stones, is no other than the intrinsic form,
divided by the external mass of matter, but indivisibly existing,
though appearing in the many. When, therefore, sense beholds the
form in bodies, at strife with matter, binding and vanquishing its
contrary nature, and sees form gracefully shining forth in other
forms, it collects together the scattered whole, and introduces it to
itself, and to the indivisible form within; and renders it consonant,
congruous and friendly to its own intimate form. Thus, to the good
man, virtue shining forth in youth is lovely because consonant to the
true virtue which lies deep in the soul. But the simple beauty of
colour arises, when light, which is something incorporeal, and
reason and form entering the obscure involutions of matter,
irradiates and forms its dark and formless nature. It is on this
account that fire surpasses other bodies in beauty, because,
compared with the other elements, it obtains the order of form; for it
is more eminent than the rest, and is the most subtle of all, bordering,
as it were, on an incorporeal nature. And too, that though
impervious itself it is intimately received by others, for it imparts
heat, but admits no cold. Hence it is the first nature which is
ornamented with colour, and is the source of it to others; and on this
account it beams forth exalted like some immaterial form. But when
it cannot vanquish its subject, as participating but a slender light, it
is no longer beautiful, because it does not receive the whole form of
colour. Again, the music of the voice rouses the harmony latent in
the soul, and opens her eye to the perception of beauty, existing in
many the same. But it is the property of the harmony perceived by
sense, to be measured by numbers, yet not in every proportion of
number or voice; but in that alone which is obedient to the
production, and conquest of its species. And this much for the
beauties of sense, which, like images and shadows flowing into
matter, adorn with spectacles of beauty its formless being, and strike
the respective senses with wonder and delight.

But it is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to
contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a
beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the
brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However,
since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to
express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the
state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of
offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of
their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of
virtue's brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair
countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that
neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright.
But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by
which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary
that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with
much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any
corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and
substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true
beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love
and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in
this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the
strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about
corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms,
yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.

But it may be allowable to interrogate those, who rise above sense,
concerning the effects of love in this manner; of such we enquire,
what do you suffer respecting fair studies, and beautiful manners,
virtuous works, affections, and habits, and the beauty of souls? What
do you experience on perceiving yourselves lovely within? After
what manner are you roused as it were to a Bacchalian fury; striving
to converse with yourselves, and collecting yourselves separate from
the impediments of body? For thus are true lovers enraptured. But
what is the cause of these wonderful effects. It is neither figure, nor
colour, nor magnitude; but soul herself, fair through temperance,
and not with the false gloss of colour, and bright with the splendours
of virtue herself. And this you experience as often as you turn your
eye inwards; or contemplate the amplitude of another soul; the just
manners, the pure temperance; fortitude venerable by her noble
countenance; and modesty and honesty walking with an intrepid step,
and a tranquil and steady aspect; and what crowns the beauty of
them all, constantly receiving the irradiations of a divine intellect.

In what respect then, shall we call these beautiful? For they are such
as they appear, nor did ever anyone behold them, and not pronounce
them realities. But as yet reason desires to know how they cause the
loveliness of the soul; and what that grace is in every virtue which
beams forth to view like light? Are you then willing we should
assume the contrary part, and consider what in the soul appears
deformed? for perhaps it will facilitate our search, if we can thus
find what is base in the soul, and from whence it derives its original.

Let us suppose a soul deformed, to be one intemperate and unjust,
filled with a multitude of desires, a prey to foolish hopes and vexed
with idle fears; through its diminutive and avaricious nature the
subject of envy; employed solely in thought of what is immoral and
low, bound in the fetters of impure delights, living the life, whatever
it may be, peculiar to the passion of body; and so totally merged in
sensuality as to esteem the base pleasant, and the deformed beautiful
and fair. But may we not say, that this baseness approaches the soul
as an adventitious evil, under the pretext of adventitious beauty;
which, with great detriment, renders it impure, and pollutes it with
much depravity; so that it neither possesses true life, nor true sense,
but is endued with a slender life through its mixture of evil, and this
worn out by the continual depredations of death; no longer
perceiving the objects of mental vision, nor permitted any more to
dwell with itself, because ever hurried away to things obscure,
external and low? Hence, becoming impure, and being on all sides
snatched in the unceasing whirl of sensible forms, it is covered with
corporeal stains, and wholly given to matter, contracts deeply its
nature, loses all its original splendour, and almost changes its own
species into that of another; just as the pristine beauty of the most
lovely form would be destroyed by its total immersion in mire and
clay. But the deformity of the first arises from inward filth, of its
own contracting; of the second, from the accession of some foreign
nature. If such a one then desires to recover his former beauty, it is
necessary to cleanse the infected parts, and thus by a thorough
purgation to resume his original form. Hence, then if we assert that
the soul, by her mixture, confusion and commerce with body and
matter, becomes thus base, our assertion will, I think, be right. For
the baseness of the soul consists in not being pure and sincere. And
as the gold is deformed by the adherence of earthly clods, which are
no sooner removed than on a sudden the gold shines forth with its
native purity; and then becomes beautiful when separated from
natures foreign from its own, and when it is content with its own
purity for the possession of beauty; so the soul, when separated from
the sordid desires engendered by its too great immersion in body,
and liberated from the dominion of every perturbation, can thus and
thus only, blot out the base stains imbibed from its union with body;
and thus becoming alone, will doubtless expel all the turpitude
contracted from a nature so opposite to its own.

Indeed, as the ancient oracle declares, temperance and fortitude,
prudence and every virtue, are certain purgatives of the soul; and
hence the sacred mysteries prophesy obscurely, yet with truth, that
the soul not purified lies in Tartarus, immersed in filth. Since the
impure is, from his depravity, the friend of filth, as swine, from their
sordid body, delight in mire alone.

For what else is true temperance than not to indulge in corporeal
delights, but to fly from their connection, as things which are neither
pure, nor the offspring of purity? And true fortitude is not to fear
death; for death is nothing more than a certain separation of soul
from body, and this he will not fear, who desires to be alone. Again,
magnanimity is the contempt of every mortal concern; it is the wing
by which we fly into the regions of intellect. And lastly, prudence is
no other than intelligence, declining subordinate objects; and
directing the eye of the soul to that which is immortal and divine.
The soul, thus defined, becomes form and reason, is altogether
incorporeal and intellectual, and wholly participates of that divine
nature, which is the fountain of loveliness, and of whatever is allied
to the beautiful and fair. Hence the soul reduced to intellect becomes
astonishingly beautiful; for as the lambent flame which appears
detached from the burning wood, enlightens its dark and smoky
parts, so intellect irradiates and adorns the inferior powers of the
soul, which, without its aid, would be buried in the gloom of
formless matter. But intellect, and whatever emanates from intellect,
is not the foreign, but the proper ornament of the soul, for the being
of the soul, when absorbed in intellect, is then alone real and true. It
is, therefore, rightly said, that the beauty and good of the soul
consists in her similitude to the Deity_;_ for from hence flows all
her beauty, and her allotment of a better being. But the beautiful
itself is that which is called beings; and turpitude is of a different
nature and participates more of non-entity than being.

But, perhaps, the good and the beautiful are the same, and must be
investigated by one and the same process; and in like manner the
base and the evil. And in the first rank we must place the beautiful,
and consider it as the same with the good; from which immediately
emanates intellect as beautiful. Next to this, we must consider the
soul receiving its beauty from intellect, and every inferior beauty
deriving its origin from the forming power of the soul, whether
conversant in fair actions and offices, or sciences and arts. Lastly,
bodies themselves participate of beauty from the soul, which, as
something divine, and a portion of the beautiful itself, renders
whatever it supervenes and subdues, beautiful as far as its natural
capacity will admit.

Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul
desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone
shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then
know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed,
whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends.
But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and
so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed
vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their
descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred
mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their
garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed
everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the
solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from
which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the
eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of
being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong
desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while
vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For
this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires
him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his
beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence,
such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with
the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior
loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is
the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or
daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What,
then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful

In itself perfectly pure[7], not confined by any corporeal bond,
neither existing in the heavens, nor in the earth, nor to be imaged by
the most lovely form imagination can conceive; since these are all
adventitious and mixed, and mere secondary beauties, proceeding
from the beautiful itself. If, then, anyone should ever behold that
which is the source of munificence to others, remaining in itself,
while it communicates to all, and receiving nothing, because
possessing an inexhaustible fulness; and should so abide in the
intuition, as to become similar to his nature, what more of beauty
can such a one desire? For such beauty, since it is supreme in
dignity and excellence, cannot fail of rendering its votaries lovely
and fair. Add too, that since the object of contest to souls is the
highest beauty, we should strive for its acquisition with unabated
ardour, lest we should be deserted of that blissful contemplation,
which, whoever pursues in the right way, becomes blessed from the
happy vision; and which he who does not obtain is unavoidably
unhappy. For the miserable man is not he who neglects to pursue
fair colours, and beautiful corporeal forms; who is deprived of
power, and falls from dominion and empire but he alone who is
destitute of this divine possession, for which the ample dominion of
the earth and sea and the still more extended empire of the heavens,
must be relinquished and forgot, if, despising and leaving these far
behind, we ever intend to arrive at substantial felicity, by beholding
the beautiful itself.

What measures, then, shall we adopt? What machine employ, or
what reason consult by means of which we may contemplate this
ineffable beauty; a beauty abiding in the most divine sanctuary
without ever proceeding from its sacred retreats lest it should be
beheld by the profane and vulgar eye? We must enter deep into
ourselves, and, leaving behind the objects of corporeal sight, no
longer look back after any of the accustomed spectacles of sense.
For, it is necessary that whoever beholds this beauty, should
withdraw his view from the fairest corporeal forms; and, convinced
that these are nothing more than images, vestiges and shadows of
beauty, should eagerly soar to the fair original from which they are
derived. For he who rushes to these lower beauties, as if grasping
realities, when they are only like beautiful images appearing in
water, will, doubtless, like him in the fable, by stretching after the
shadow, sink into the lake and disappear. For, by thus embracing
and adhering to corporeal forms, he is precipitated, not so much in
his body as in his soul, into profound and horrid darkness; and thus
blind, like those in the infernal regions, converses only with
phantoms, deprived of the perception of what is real and true. It is
here, then, we may more truly exclaim, "Let us depart from hence,
and fly to our father's delightful land".[8] But, by what leading stars
shall we direct our flight, and by what means avoid the magic power
of Circe, and the detaining charms of Calypso?[9] For thus the fable
of Ulysses obscurely signifies, which feigns him abiding an
unwilling exile, though pleasant spectacles were continually
presented to his sight; and everything was promised to invite his stay
which can delight the senses, and captivate the heart. But our true
country, like that of Ulysses, is from whence we came, and where
our father lives. But where is the ship to be found by which we can
accomplish our flight? For our feet are unequal to the task since they
only take us from one part of the earth to another. May we not each
of us say,

     "What ships have I, what sailors to convey,
     What oars to cut the long laborious way".[10]

But it is in vain that we prepare horses to draw our ships to transport
us to our native land. On the contrary, neglecting all these, as
unequal to the task, and excluding them entirely from our view,
having now closed the corporeal eye,[11] we must stir up and
assume a purer eye within, which all men possess, but which is
alone used by a few. What is it, then, this inward eye beholds?
Indeed, suddenly raised to intellectual vision, it cannot perceive an
object exceeding bright. The soul must therefore be first accustomed
to contemplate fair studies and then beautiful works, not such as
arise from the operations of art, but such as are the offspring of
worthy men; and next to this it is necessary to view the soul, which
is the parent of this lovely race. But you will ask, after what manner
is this beauty of a worthy soul to be perceived? It is thus. Recall
your thoughts inward, and if while contemplating yourself, you do
not perceive yourself beautiful, imitate the statuary; who when he
desires a beautiful statue cuts away what is superfluous, smooths
and polishes what is rough, and never desists until he has given it all
the beauty his art is able to effect. In this manner must you proceed,
by lopping what is luxuriant, directing what is oblique, and, by
purgation, illustrating what is obscure, and thus continue to polish
and beautify your statue until the divine splendour of Virtue shines
upon you, and Temperance seated in pure and holy majesty rises to
your view. If you become thus purified residing in yourself, and
having nothing any longer to impede this unity of mind, and no
farther mixture to be found within, but perceiving your whole self to
be a true light, and light alone; a light which though immense is not
measured by any magnitude, nor limited by any circumscribing
figure, but is everywhere immeasurable, as being greater than every
measure, and more excellent than every quantity; if, perceiving
yourself thus improved, and trusting solely to yourself, as no longer
requiring a guide, fix now steadfastly your mental view, for with the
intellectual eye alone can such immense beauty be perceived. But if
your eye is yet infected with any sordid concern, and not thoroughly
refined, while it is on the stretch to behold this most shining
spectacle, it will be immediately darkened and incapable of intuition,
though someone should declare the spectacle present, which it might
be otherwise able to discern. For, it is here necessary that the
perceiver and the thing perceived should be similar to each other
before true vision can exist. Thus the sensitive eye can never be able
to survey, the orb of the sun, unless strongly endued with solar fire,
and participating largely off the vivid ray. Everyone therefore must
become divine, and of godlike beauty, before he can gaze upon a
god and the beautiful itself. Thus proceeding in the right way of
beauty he will first ascend into the region of intellect, contemplating
every fair species, the beauty of which he will perceive to be no
other than ideas themselves; for all things are beautiful by the
supervening irradiations of these, because they are the offspring and
essence of intellect. But that which is superior to these is no other
than the fountain of good, everywhere widely diffusing around the
streams of beauty, and hence in discourse called the beautiful itself
because beauty is its immediate offspring. But if you accurately
distinguish the intelligible objects you will call the beautiful the
receptacle of ideas; but the good itself, which is superior, the
fountain and principle of the beautiful; or, you may place the first
beautiful and the good in the same principle, independent of the
beauty which there subsists.[12]


1  Pope's Homer's _Odyssey,_ Book xiii., ver. 37.

2  _Odyssey,_ Book xiii., ver. 223.

3  _Odyssey,_ Book vii., ver. 303.

4  It is necessary to inform the Platonical reader, that the Beautiful,
in the present discourse, is considered according to its most general
acceptation, as the same with the Good: though, according to a more
accurate distinction, as Plotinus himself informs us, the Good is
considered as the fountain and principle of the Beautiful. I think it
likewise proper to observe, that as I have endeavoured, by my
paraphrase, to render as much as possible the obscure parts evident,
and to expand those sentences which are so very much contracted in
the original, I shall be sparing of notes; for my design is not to
accommodate the sublimest truths to the meanest understandings (as
this would be a contemptible and useless prostitution), but to render
them perspicuous to truly liberal and philosophic minds. My reasons
for adopting this mode of paraphrase, may be seen in the preface to
my translation of _Orpheus's Hymns._

5  "Enters deep into its essence," etc. The Platonic Philosophy insists
much on the necessity of retiring into ourselves in order to the
discovery of truth; and on this account Socrates, in the first
_Alcibiades,_ says that the soul entering into herself will
contemplate whatever exists and the divinity himself. Upon which
Proclus thus comments, with his usual elegance and depth (in
_Theol. Plat,_ p. 7): "For the soul," says he, "contracting herself
wholly into a union with herself, and into the centre of universal life,
and removing the multitude and variety of all-various powers,
ascends into the highest place of speculation, from whence she will
survey the nature of beings. For if she looks back upon things
posterior to her essence, she will perceive nothing but the shadows
and resemblances of beings; but if she returns into herself she will
evolve her own essence, and the reasons she contains. And at first
indeed she will, as it were, only behold herself; but when by her
knowledge she penetrates more profoundly in her investigations she
will find intellect seated in her essence and the universal orders of
beings; but when she advances into the more interior recesses of
herself, and as it were into the sanctuary of the soul, she will be
enabled to contemplate, with her eyes closed to corporeal vision, the
genus of the gods and the unities of beings. For all things reside in
us, after a manner correspondent to the nature of the soul; and on
this account we are naturally enabled to know all things, by exciting
our inherent powers and images of whatever exists."

6  "And such is matter," etc. There is nothing affords more
wonderful speculation than matter, which ranks as the last among
the universality of things, and has the same relation to being as
shade to substance. For, as in an ascending series of causes it is
necessary to arrive at something, which is the first cause of all, and
to which no perfection is wanting; so in a descending series of
subjects, it is equally necessary we should stop at some general
subject, the lowest in the order of things, and to which every
perfection of being is denied. But let us hear the profound and
admirable description which Plotinus gives us of matter (lib. vi.,
Ennead 3), and of which the following is a paraphrase: "Since
matter," says he, "is neither soul, nor intellect, nor life, nor form, nor
reason, nor bound, but a certain indefiniteness; nor yet capacity, for
what can it produce? Since it is foreign from all these, it cannot
merit the appellation of being, but is deservedly called non-entity.
Nor yet is it non-entity in the manner as motion or station; but it is
true non-entity, the mere shadow and imagination of bulk and the
desire of subsistence; abiding without station, of itself invisible, and
avoiding the desire of him who wishes to perceive its nature. Hence,
when no one perceives it, it is then in a manner present, but cannot
be viewed by him who strives intently to behold it. Again, in itself
contraries always appear, the small and the great, the less and the
more, deficience and excess. So that it is a phantom, neither abiding
nor yet able to fly away; capable of no one denomination and
possessing no power from intellect, but constituted in the defect and
shade, as it were, of all real being. Hence, too, in each of its
vanishing appellations it eludes our search; for if we think of it as
something great, it is in the meantime small; if as something more, it
becomes less; and the apparent being which we meet with in its
image is non-being, and as it were a flying mockery. So that the
forms which appear in matter are merely ludicrous, shadows falling
upon shadow, as in a mirror, where the position of a thing is
different from its real situation; and which, though apparently full of
forms, possesses nothing real and true--but imitations of being and
semblances flowing about a formless semblance. They appear,
indeed, to affect something in the subject matter, but in reality
produce nothing; from their debile and flowing nature being endued
with no solidity and no rebounding power. And since matter,
likewise, has no solidity they penetrate it without division, like
images in water, or as if anyone should fill a vacuum with forms."

7  "In itself perfectly pure." This is analogous to the description of
the beautiful in the latter part of Diotima's Speech in the _Banquet_;
a speech which is surely unequalled, both for elegance of
composition and sublimity of sentiment. Indeed, all the disciples of
Plato are remarkable for nothing so much as their profound and
exalted conceptions of the Deity; and he who can read the works of
Plotinus and Proclus in particular, and afterwards pity the weakness
and erroneousness of their opinions on this subject, may be fairly
presumed to be himself equally an object of pity and contempt.

8  "Let us depart," etc., _vide_ Hom., _Iliad,_ lib. ii., 140, et lib. ix.,

9  Porphyry informs us in his excellent treatise, _De Antro Nymph,_
that it was the opinion of Numenius, the Pythagorean (to which he
also assents), that the person of Ulysses in the _Odyssey,_
represents to us a man, who passes in a regular manner, over the
dark and stormy sea of generation; and thus, at length, arrives at that
region where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation

     "Ne'er knew salt, or heard the billows roar."

Indeed, he who is conscious of the delusions of the present life and
the enchantments of this material house, in which his soul is
detained like Ulysses in the irriguous cavern of Calypso, will like
him continually bewail his captivity, and inly pine for a return to his
native country. Of such a one it may be said as of Ulysses (in the
excellent and pathetic translation of Mr Pope):

     "But sad Ulysses by himself apart
     Pour'd the big sorrows of his swelling heart,
     All on the lonely shore he sate to weep
     And roll'd his eyes around the restless deep
     Tow'rd the lov'd coast he roll'd his eyes in vain
     Till, dimmed with rising grief, they stream'd again."
          _Odyssey,_ book v., 103.

Such a one too, like Ulysses, will not always wish in vain for a
passage over the dark ocean of a corporeal life, but by the assistance
of Mercury, who may be considered as the emblem of reason, he
will at length be enabled to quit the magic embraces of Calypso, the
Goddess of Imagination, and to return again into the arms of
Penelope, or Philosophy, the long lost and proper object of his love.

10  See Pope's Homer's _Odyssey,_ book v., 182.

11  "We must stir up and assume a purer eye within." This inward
eye is no other than intellect, which contains in its most inward
recesses a certain ray of light, participated from the sun of Beauty
and Good, by which the soul is enabled to behold and become united
with her divinely solitary original. This divine ray, or, as Proclus
calls it, mark or impression, is thus beautifully described by that
philosopher _(Theol. Plat,_ p. 105): "The Author of the Universe,"
says he, "has planted in all beings impressions of his own perfect
excellence, and through these he has placed all beings about himself,
and is present with them in an ineffable manner, exempt from the
universality of things. Hence, every being entering into the ineffable
sanctuary of its own nature finds there a symbol of the Father of all.
And by this mystical impression which corresponds to his nature
they become united with their original, divesting themselves of their
own essence and hastening to become his impression alone; and,
through a desire of his unknown nature and of the fountain of good,
to participate in him alone. And when they have ascended as far as
to this cause they enjoy perfect tranquillity and are conversant in the
perception of his divine progeny and of the love which all things
naturally possess, and goodness, unknown, ineffable, without
participation and transcendently full."

12  But before I take my leave of Plotinus, I cannot refrain from
addressing a few words to the Platonical part of my readers. If such
then is the wisdom contained in the works of this philosopher, as we
may conclude from the present specimen, is it fit so divine a treasure
should be concealed in shameful oblivion? With respect to true
philosophy you must be sensible that all modern sects are in a state
of barbarous ignorance; for Materialism and its attendant Sensuality
have darkened the eyes of the _many_ with the mists of error, and
are continually strengthening their corporeal tie. And can anything
more effectually dissipate this increasing gloom than discourses
composed by so sublime a genius, pregnant with the most profound
conceptions, and everywhere full of intellectual light? Can anything
so thoroughly destroy the phantom of false enthusiasm as
establishing the real object of the true? Let us then boldly enlist
ourselves under the banners of Plotinus, and, by his assistance,
vigorously repel the encroachments of error, plunge her dominions
into the abyss of forgetfulness, and disperse the darkness of her
baneful night. For indeed there never was a period which required so
much philosophic exertion, or such vehement contention from the
lovers of Truth. On all sides nothing of philosophy remains but the
name, and this is become the subject of the vilest prostitution; since
it is not only engrossed by the naturalist, chemist, and anatomist, but
is usurped by the mechanic in every trifling invention, and made
subservient to the lucre of traffic and merchandise. There cannot
surely be a greater proof of the degeneracy of the times than so
unparalleled a degradation and so barbarous a perversion of terms.
For the word philosophy, which implies the love of wisdom, is now
become the ornament of folly. In the times of its inventor, and for
many succeeding ages, it was expressive of modesty and worth; in
our days it is the badge of impudence and vain pretensions. It was
formerly the symbol of the profound contemplative genius, it is now
the mark of the superficial and unthinking practitioner. It was once
reverenced by kings and clothed in the robes of nobility; it is now
(according to its true acceptation) abandoned and despised and
ridiculed by the vilest plebeian. Permit me, then, my friends, to
address you in the words of Achilles to Hector:

     "Rouse, then, your forces this important hour,
     Collect your strength and call forth all your pow'r."

Since, to adopt the animated language of Neptune to the Greeks,

          " . . . On dastards, dead to fame,
     I waste no anger, for they feel no shame,
     But you, the pride, the flower of all our host,
     My heart weeps blood, to see your glory lost."

Nor deem the exhortation impertinent, and the danger groundless:

     "For lo! the fated time, th' appointed shore,
     Hark, the gates burst, the brazen barriers roar."

Impetuous ignorance is thundering at the bulwarks of philosophy
and her sacred retreats are in danger of being demolished, through
our feeble resistance. Rise then, my friends, and the victory will be
ours. The foe is indeed numerous, but at the same time feeble; and
the weapons of truth in the hands of vigorous union, descend with
irresistible force, and are fatal wherever they fall.


[Transcriber's notes:  I have made minor changes to the punctuation
and the format of the notes. I have also made the following spelling

     "powerfully attacts" to "powerfully attracts"

     "converses only with plantoms" to "converses only with phantoms"]

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Essay on the Beautiful - From the Greek of Plotinus" ***

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