225. Plato and Holst on Beauty

Venus is the Roman name for the Greek Aphrodite, the Goddess of beauty. For Plato, the Beautiful Itself is transcendent, not itself in the physical world, and yet can be detected in the world. Our capacity to detect it reminds our soul of its kinship with the divine and can channel the power of erotic love to pursue wisdom rather than being preoccupied with desires for physical pleasure and social recognition. This transformation can lead to virtue and the fulfillment of our rational nature. One of the ways beauty reminds us of the divine is by filling the soul with an experience of unity which is the Good (for more details on these ideas go to my post here).

One piece of music which I think captures this interpretation of beauty is Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) Venus, the Bringer of Peace. It is part of The Planets (1914-1917) which is a seven-movement orchestral suite that represents the astrological qualities of the seven planets known at the time. The piece opens with a French horn calling from the transcendent realm, followed by ethereal flutes which imitate a descending movement: Venus is coming down to us. The sounds are soothing and kind, if otherworldly and strange.

David Bowie as the alien Mr. Newton who, despite his pressing temporal concerns, contemplates the heavens to the tune of Holst’s Venus in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth

As the music unfolds, we hear various instruments play individual lines which are then echoed and spread through the orchestra. This, to me, symbolizes the unity of the Good that beauty facilitates. Instead of lone voices we have responses that establish integration and fellowship. By the end of the piece there is a strong sense of well-being and wholeness expressed by a gentle pulse which radiates peace through the orchestra and to us. The descent of the Beautiful is finally met with an ascent of the soul as the last shimmering notes drift off into the stars.

This interpretation might help you see the piece as a masterful and moving analogue of transcendence rather than just a pleasing piece of music. By listening to the piece in this way we just might become more unified and beautiful ourselves. Listen here.

See my many posts on beauty here.

See my posts on Plato here.

For my essay on The Man Who Fell to Earth go here.

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