A mural of Plato's Academy

A Meditation on Beauty

The Greater Mystery

(from Plato's Symposium)

Norman D. Livergood

     Socrates was initiated into the Greater Mystery of Love (Eros) by Diotima, "a wise woman" or sage. This Greater Mystery was essentially a procedure for ascending to the mystical height where we experience "everlasting possession of the good" and "hold converse with other pure souls and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, the light of Truth."

"The true procedure of spiritual advance is to envision beautiful things of this world as steps along which one mounts upwards to that Higher Beauty."

Plato, Symposium

"In the ascent there are four stages. The love which is fixed upon the beauty of a single person must first be detached from its object and from physical beauty. The individual object is lost to sight in the perception that all physical beauty is one.

"Next the soul learns to value, above bodily beauty, beauty of the mind, and to perceive the unity and kinship of all that is morally lovely, honourable, and of good report--a sense which the Greek word for beautiful never lost.

"In the third stage we pass to intellectual beauty, such as pervades the whole structure of mathematical knowledge--that unearthly beauty of ordered truth and divine necessity, which a living mathematician [Bertrand Russell] has called supreme--'a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show'.

"At last by the strength gathered in these regions of contemplation, the soul becomes capable of a revelation that comes, if it comes at all, 'suddenly'. Plato here borrows from the Eleusinian mysteries the language of the Sacred Marriage and of the final revelation, when the ancient symbols of divinity were disclosed to the purified initiate in a sudden blaze of light. The soul is united with the divine Beauty, and itself becomes immortal and divine."

F. M. Cornford, Principium Sapietiae

"The manifestation of beauty in objects varies with the gift of the observer. Thus the common folk do not see other than the appearance of physical beauty while the chosen have unveiled before them the picture of abstract beauty in which is manifested the splendour of His name, the Exalted, that is resplendent in all creation through various phenomena."

al-Shadhili (died 1477 CE), Articles of the Maxims of Illumination

The Greater Mystery of Beauty

     The initial step for the initiate in this mystical procedure is "to turn to beautiful forms."

      First he should "love one such form only."

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

Shakespeare, Sonnet XIX

     From his focusing on one such beautiful form only, "he should create fair thoughts."

     "Soon he would himself perceive that the beauty of one form is truly related to the beauty of another."

     "And then if beauty in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! . . And he will become a lover of all beautiful forms."

     "This will lead him on to consider that the beauty of the mind is more honorable than the beauty of the outward form."

Frontpiece to the Encyclopedia

Then he will "contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and understand that all is of one kindred, and . . . on to the sciences, . . . and drawing towards the sea of beauty, and creating and beholding many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom."

     "Until at length he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of wondrous beauty everywhere."

"In that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities; for he has hold not of an image but of a reality, and bringing forth and educating true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may."