96. Beauty: Desire-Generating or Desire-Killing?

In Plato’s Symposium we learn that love is the desire for the continued possession of the Good (206a-b) and that the Good is ultimately eternal Being that is timeless and always “the same in every way” (208b). Thus the goal of love is to move things to merge, as far as possible, with unchanging, perfect existence. As a result, all living things aim at some form of immortality which is the way mortals, although changing and bound to perish, participate in eternity in some way (207a). This seeking of immortality is revealed to be more than a process of desiring and needing something we don’t have; it is also becomes a process of creating or procreating insofar as we end up making something in our efforts to become immortal.

This is where beauty comes in, since all things seek beauty in order to be inspired to procreate “whether in body or in soul” (206b-c). Love does not want beauty itself (206e); it wants to make something by being inspired by beauty. Typically, this procreation entails giving rise to living offspring (207d), achieving honor (208c), or creating cultural works (209a-e): all changing forms of offspring that allow one to live on past death and have a form of immortality. Obviously all these efforts fall short of achieving individual immortality and the unification with eternal Being that we seek. But this procreation may also be of a very different and more mysterious kind (210a). The initiation into this more mysterious kind entails a gradual movement of the soul away from the changing, imperfect aspects of beauty to the unchanging, perfect Form of Beauty itself. Plato describes this Form as follows through his character Diotima and her teachings of love to Socrates:

“He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things” (210e-212b).

The process of approaching the Beautiful Itself is as follows: love is detached from individual people and we come to see beauty can be present in many bodies; then we come to value the beauty of the soul and the virtuous laws of the state which guide it; then we come to grasp the beauty of truths found in mathematics and science—truths which are eternal and thus transcend the moving aspects of the body, the soul, and the state (210a-e). Finally, we transcend even these intellectual truths and see, with the eye of the soul, the eternal Form of Beauty that grants beauty to all the previous imperfect imitations of it. This seeing comes suddenly upon the soul after many years of preparation and is wonderful (210e-211d). It enables a new form of procreation to take place—a spiritual or non-physical form. Rather than making something like children or works, the soul is able to give birth to itself as wise and therefore virtuous. The procreation is not an imperfect external image but an internal transformation of the soul that bypasses images completely; and this form of inner procreation has the capacity to bring forth a virtuous soul (212a-e). This transformed soul would have the wisdom capable of intelligently directing its desires. In doing so, it would be divine-like in its autonomy or self-governance.

This journey is what has become known as “the ladder of love” in Plato’s Symposium. It is a venerable, highly influential account that shows just how closely connected desire is to some Form of supersensible beauty that comes to us from another world. Indeed, without this perfect and eternal Form of the Beautiful Itself we wouldn’t have the powerful desires we have for imperfect and changing bodies and souls.

But what if beauty, rather than generating desire, threatened to kill it? Jean-Paul Sartre, in the closing passages from his 1940 book The Imaginary, claims that our ability to contemplate eternal beauty in the presence of a person would kill, rather than enhance, our desire. Consider these passages:

“It happens, however, that we can take the attitude of aesthetic contemplation in the face of real objects or events. In that case, everyone can observe in themselves a kind of standing back from the object contemplated, which itself slides into nothingness. Starting from this moment, the object is no longer perceived; it functions as an analogon of itself, which is to say that an irreal image of what it is becomes manifested for us through its current presence. This image could be purely and simply the object ‘itself’ neutralized, nihilated, as when I contemplate a beautiful woman or the death at a bullfight; it could also be the imperfect and muddled appearance of what it could be through what it is, as when the painter grasps the harmony of two more intense, more lively colours through the real spots encountered on a wall. In the same way, the object, given as behind itself, becomes untouchable, it is beyond our reach, and hence there arises a kind of painful disinterest in relation to it. It is in this sense that one can say: the extreme beauty of a woman kills the desire for her. In fact we cannot simultaneously place ourselves on the aesthetic plane with this irreal ‘herself’ that we admire and on the realizing plane of physical possession. In order to desire her it is necessary to forget that she is beautiful, since desire is a plunge into the heart of existence, into what is most contingent and absurd.” (translation by Jonathan Webber).

In the presence of a beautiful woman we may come to see her as an analogon: as a physical thing through which we come to focus on something beyond that thing. We come to perceive not her as a beautiful body but her as a means to perceiving, however imperfectly, the Beautiful Itself that, as non-existent in the physical world, is nothing. Just like the paint on a canvas points beyond itself to the imaginary image our consciousness beholds, so too does a beautiful woman’s body point beyond itself to an other-worldly, untouchable beauty. This chasm that opens between the analogon and its imaginary reference is, for Sartre, painful: we see we cannot grasp that to which the body points and thus we want to avoid the body. Our desire for the body is killed insofar as it is reminder that we can’t have the untouchable thing we want to touch. But if the body is not perceived to be an analogon of beauty then, well, we could comfortably seek to possess it because a painful sense of the untouchable doesn’t accompany it.

At first glance, it may appear that Sarte’s account contradicts Plato’s account. Plato says beauty enhances our desire and Sartre says beauty kills it. Must we choose between them?  Not necessarily. After all, Plato’s ladder of love shows us how the imperfect beauty of bodies points to their participation in the Beautiful Itself. And it is our awareness of this participation that makes us dissatisfied with bodies, no matter what their beauty, to the extent that we seek to move up the ladder from beautiful bodies to beautiful souls and so on. Perhaps it is precisely Sartre’s “painful disinterest” in the face of physical beauty that affords us the opportunity to pursue touching the untouchable through philosophy rather than plunging “into the heart of existence” with all its absurdity. Indeed, Plato explores this opportunity in his dialogue Phaedrus where we see that erotic madness, the kind of madness that befalls us as we witness the beauty of someone, can actually be an awe-inspiring and frightening experience of Form of The Beautiful Itself. This experience enables our soul to grow its wings again, that is, to recollect those Forms we beheld when in a disembodied state. Part of what makes this experience of eros so frightening is the recognition that we are not just animals in pursuit of bodily pleasure. Rather, we are embodied souls with a kinship to eternal Being. And this new found recognition makes us feel shame for wanting to act on our every desire for physical pleasure and disregard the soul of the person desired. Moreover, our recollection of the Form of beauty is accompanied by a recollection of the Form of Self-Control and this sacred vision of self-control is at odds with our uncontrolled appetite for sexual satisfaction. But this shame and experience of losing self-control, if we can struggle through it, can help us become lovers of wisdom with more virtuous souls. And this awakening of our connection with the divine is impossible unless we transcend physical beauty and see it, in Sartre’s terms, as an analogon for a transcendental form of beauty.

So analogons of beauty can be both desire-generating and desire-killing: they can kill our desire for imperfect mediums of eternal beauty even as they generate desires for more adequate mediums for that beauty and, of course, for that eternal Beauty Itself.

These views will certainly sound strange to those who think they are in touch with some form of transcendent beauty as they physically touch those they perceive as beautiful. Presumably many people do not experience the painful disinterest of which Sartre speaks, nor do they share Socrates’ vision that beautiful bodies, no matter how many we come to possess, are not enough to satiate the soul’s erotic longings. But what would allow for this experience of embodied beauty that doesn’t function as an analogon pointing beyond itself?  Is it the case that some people simply don’t recognize, for whatever reason, a transcendent beauty to which imperfect bodies point?  Or could it be that there simply is no perfect or objective beauty to point to?  Or could it be that there is an eternal, perfect form of beauty that can nonetheless exist in a temporal changing form in a way that doesn’t lead us beyond that form? Or perhaps people know of the eternal but willingly choose to stay among the analogons because they find the most happiness and love there? Or could it be that the whole notion that beauty implies contemplative distance is missing something?  Perhaps beauty is best grasped through some form of action or involvement with something as Sartre says, contingent and absurd? These are just some of the questions that might be asked here.

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