By Noah Schmutz
Nowadays, beauty has become extremely centred on physicality. We can find good examples of this simply by looking in dictionaries – the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance. The first entry for “beauty” is “[t]hat quality of a person (esp. a woman) which is highly pleasing to the sight; perceived physical perfection”, which shows the emphasis put on the physical character of beauty. On the other hand, what we could call “the interior beauty” (that is, intellect, personality), tends to be set aside and taken over by the looks, to the point that one’s body often becomes the main parameter through which people judge others’ personality. The looks become then a stigmatising standard that takes over any trait of character of the person.
But has it always been like that? When turning to the ancient Greeks’ philosophy, and particularly Plato’s, we realise that the Greek philosopher’s concept of beauty was the complete opposite of ours – ours being our occidental contemporary society’s. In the Symposium, Plato exposes his vision of beauty through Socrates recalling a dialogue about love and beauty he had with a priestess called Diotima. According to her, to access the true Beautiful, one needs to follow an initiatory path that gradually brings the apprentice to detach himself of the materiality of his body, which allows him to contemplate the highest level of beauty, that is, the “Beautiful in itself”, an immaterial entity that is the source of all beauty in the world (The Symposium, 210e-212a). An implicit characteristic of this theory is that our body is what makes us ugly (based on the idea that the Beautiful in itself is “not full of human flesh and colors” (211e), which is what makes it beautiful), by contrast with the soul (that is, our mind), which is stained by the materiality of our body. Thus, the process of breaking away from the materiality of our body to contemplate the Beautiful in itself becomes a way for us to become beautiful as well, through the purification of our soul of all materiality. What needs to be emphasised here is that everything in this dialogue between Diotima and Socrates points to the fact that true Beauty cannot be found in materiality.
Can we make sense of such a definition of beauty in a contemporary context? Can this definition be of actual relevance to our way of thinking? If we get rid of some the irrelevant metaphysics omnipresent in the text, what remains is that beauty appears in a purified mind, that is, a mind detached from its body. Plato seems then to offer a definition of beauty free of all the stigmatising features that our contemporary understanding of beauty implies: to become beautiful, one needs to detach himself from his or her body. More than that, everyone can become beautiful, because following the path proposed in the Symposium is accessible to everyone. Thus, Plato’s ideas challenge well-imprinted standards of beauty in a way that should be taken more often as an example, and shows that, sometimes, it might be interesting to bring old ideas back to life.