What is beautiful II – Plato and Hippias

My wife Mónica is beautiful !

As my last post reads, I recently hired four astounding professors from various universities to work on the following question: “What is beautiful”? Their answers will be soon available in the form of short presentations on Vimeo.  The enthusiastic Alain Létourneau from the Université de Sherbrooke described Plato’s beautiful text entitled Hippias Major. I always recommend it to my students because it is among the very first texts written on beauty, a concept which is indeed very complex.  It is a dialogue between Socrates and Hippias, a well-read sophist.  The objective of the conversation is to grasp the notion of beauty, to set out a definition of what exactly we mean by… “beautiful”.

What is beautiful and what makes something beautiful?  I invite all of you to read Wikipedia’s page on Hippias Major for a first basic approach.  “A pretty girl” is beautiful, as well a functional cauldron, a lira, a beautiful horse says Hippias. Shall we compare a beautiful girl with a cauldron? Gold is also beautiful… as well as being rich, powerful, strong, and respected and having beautiful funerals.

Socrates refutes these statements by arguing that beauty is that which is appropriate; that beauty is that which is useful; that beauty is that which is favourable and…finally, that beauty is the pleasure that comes from seeing and hearing.

After lots of debate and frustration, the conclusion falls into dualism (belief that the world is composed of two different kinds of substances), in our case, beauty being something apart from the object…  And into substantialism (belief in substantial reality), in our case, beauty being an inherent part of the object.

At the end, no exact definitions of the beautiful were set, no agreement was reached.  As we can see, beauty is in fact a very complex notion to grasp.  This is a great discussion topic to tackle during the mid crit of our upcoming painting workshop in Tuscany while taking our aperitif.

Painting workshops in Tuscany
Jockey of Artemisio, National Archaeological Museum, Athens


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