Steven Barbone: Plato on the Beautiful

Plato on the Beautiful

Steven Barbone

Plato writes, “[A] fellow must be a perfect fool, [who] know[s] nothing about things of beauty” (HMJ 289e).[1] That the Beautiful, or Beauty itself, (to avoid confusion, when the words ‘beautiful’ or ‘beauty’ refer to beauty itself, they will be capitalized; otherwise, they will normally refer to beautiful objects) should even be a philosophical question might seem strange and puzzling to many. After all, when one eyes a beautiful youth (over 17 of course), sniffs a beautiful flower, hears beautiful music, or even comprehends a beautiful mathematical proof, anyone would agree to know what the sense of Beautiful is in each of these cases. The claim is complicated, however, by the reference to Beauty in such ways as a beautiful black eye (“What a beaut!”), a perfectly beautiful murder, a state's enactment of beautiful laws, or a beautiful case of chicken pox. The Beautiful, clearly then, is not recognizable by all people in each of its occurrences, nor do all people agree as to what is Beauty. It is not easily defined, and to say that Beauty is that which makes anything beautiful, though it tells how something is beautiful, still does not say what Beauty really is. What, then, is Beauty, and more specifically, what is Beauty for Plato?

That Beauty is a form is certain (PHO 100d), but knowing this does little to add to our understanding of what the Beautiful is. I do not believe that Plato would be willing to answer the question, “What is Beauty?” by responding, “The form which makes things beautiful.” Rather, I think that Plato would explain what the Beautiful is by underlining three necessary components of such an account: (1) the Beautiful as a form; (2) the signs which suggest Beauty's presence; and (3) the criterion of the Beautiful.

The Beautiful as a Form

I do not believe that we of the 20th century can easily accept Plato's account of Beauty without at least relating it to our own. Before examining Plato, therefore, a typography of contemporary theories of Beauty is justified.[2] There are three dominant accounts of Beauty today. The first of these is the “Beauty Theory,” and I will argue later that Plato's account of the Beautiful is clearly aligned with it. The other two theories are the “Psychological Theory” and the “Instrumental Theory.”

The Beauty Theory holds that the Beautiful is an objective quality which is more or less intensified in and exemplified by beautiful or less beautiful objects respectively.[3] Beauty itself is of value, and though it may be subjected to personal evaluation, its inheres or not in an object regardless of opinion. It exists independently of the object's relationship to a perceiver or of its being a means to some end.[4] The Beautiful is an external form which supervenes upon the object and therefore may be less perceived by the senses than by intuition.[5] The Beautiful, then, regardless of what it is, exists as a thing in itself, separate from and supreme in relation to the beautiful objects which are beautiful by somehow sharing in its being.[6]

The Psychological Theory, on the other hand, maintains that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty is created by a subjective judgment in which each person determines at the moment whether something is beautiful or not. Whether something is beautiful or not is determined only for the person who makes the assessment and only at the time of that assessment. Beauty comes not from the object itself or from some external form, but is dependent upon perception itself, and as such, lacks for the definition which could make it a proper object for science.[7]

According to the Instrumental Theory, an object is beautiful if it has some capacity to produce an aesthetic experience of some magnitude which has a specific utility.[8] The Beautiful fulfills a function which contributes utility to an object or activity regardless of the object's created purpose.[9] One who ascribes to the Instrumental Theory would not hold “Art for art's sake,” but rather that Beauty is characterized uniquely as that which gives external value to the beautiful object by the object's usefulness in this or that particular case. Beauty is analogous to the value of a coin, which is not a property the coin possesses in itself, but is conferred on the coin by its utility as a medium of exchange.[10] The Beautiful, in this sense, may not be intrinsic, in the sense that it could clearly be defined, but it is usually communicable insofar as its value can be defined in terms of some given standard(s) of utility.[11]

In an instrumental theory, just as utility may change with circumstance, so too will Beauty cease or come to be without any change in object said to be beautiful. A similar point could likewise be made regarding the psychological theory, for with this account, too, an object could cease or come to be beautiful without undergoing any change. Rather, instead of there being any change in the object which is said to be beautiful, there is a change in the aesthetic attitude of the perceiver.

These three theories are probably best thought of as families or “theory-types.” Even in contemporary aesthetics, however, there is some question regarding their precise differentiation. Nevertheless, they clearly represent distinct attitudes toward the nature of the Beautiful, and they provide a useful starting point for examining Plato's ideas on Beauty. His dialogues are full of references not only to examples of beautiful things, but more to the point, “absolute beauty,” (PHO 75c, 100c) “the self beautiful,” (REP 6. 507b) “the form of beauty,” (PAR 130b) “true beauty,” (PHS 248d) “the beautiful in itself,” (REP 5. 476b) or even just “the beautiful.” (SYM 211a) Plato clearly ascribes to some kind of beauty theory, but enumerating references is not enough to characterize his ideas, so a closer examination is warranted.

Perhaps the most interesting description of the Beautiful, for my purposes, is given by Diotima through Socrates in Symposium (210e-211b). Beauty is an unchanging, eternal, unmistakable entity by which all other things are also beautiful. There is no mistaking that Plato does adhere to a beauty theory and that he dismisses the others—the Beautiful is not subjective, “ . . . as if [it were] beautiful in some people's eyes, but not in others [sic].”[12] (SYM 211a) (Here he dismisses the psychological theory.) Neither is Beauty like a value to be conferred on beautiful objects because Beauty “ . . . exists for all time, by itself and with itself, [and is] unique.” (SYM 211b) (Here he dismisses the instrumental theory.) The Beautiful, then, is an external form in which all beautiful things are beautiful solely for their participation in its form.

The form of Beauty is simply that by which other objects are beautiful (PHO 100d, e). While it seems necessary that for any object to be beautiful, it must participate in the form of Beauty, it is still not clear what it means for something to be beautiful. It is not that someone may think that the object is beautiful, but that the object does indeed have a share in the Beautiful. It is also not that Beauty is somehow conferred on the beautiful object by some other standard (e.g., usefulness), but that that object is beautiful because it partakes of Beauty. We know that something is beautiful because of the form of the Beautiful, but we still do not know what it means for something to so partake, and thus be beautiful.

The Quest for Signs

One necessary condition for being beautiful, then, has been shown to be an external form, but knowing that Beauty is some form in which objects may or may not participate, does very little to answer the question, “What is Beauty?” Plato hints at the answer throughout many of his dialogues. In Hippias Major he tries, through the characters of Hippias and Socrates, to answer this very question by noting the signs of Beauty and by giving many examples of what Beauty is not.

The first example Plato uses is that of a physically beautiful object, which in this case is a beautiful virgin, for according to Hippias, “ . . . the beautiful is, . . . if I must speak the truth, a beautiful maiden” (HMJ 287e).[13] Because Hippias asserts that Beauty is a physically beautiful thing, Socrates quickly draws the conclusion that absolute Beauty must also be a beautiful horse (HMJ 288b), a beautiful lyre (HMJ 288c), and even a beautiful pot (HMJ 288c)! No. Beauty itself cannot be the same as a physically beautiful object, because Plato insists that Beauty is a form which, of course, is no physical object, nor is it necessarily beautiful in itself (PHO 100c). Furthermore, if it were granted that a beautiful maid were Beauty itself, then absolute Beauty would not exist at all once the maid, even if she were the most beautiful girl in the world, were compared to the most ugly of goddesses, for she would cease to be beautiful in comparison, and then Beauty itself would cease to be (HMJ 289b-d).

It seems to me that Plato is correct to point out that the Beautiful is not identical with an object or person that is physically beautiful. After all, “beauty is not skin deep;” Theaetetus is physically just “not beautiful,”[14] (THE 143e) yet Socrates later describes him as beautiful (THE 210d) so there is the sense that being beautiful is something other than being physically beautiful. Beauty cannot be a physically beautiful object for it appears in non-beautiful objects. Besides, if it were a beautiful thing, then only one thing could be truly Beautiful, and this is not the case.

If the Beautiful is not a physically beautiful object, neither is it something which makes objects beautiful by its addition. Hippias suggests to Socrates that “ . . . beauty is nothing else than gold,” (HMJ 289e.) and by this he means that, since gold is the same as the Beautiful, the addition of gold to any object will make that object beautiful. Socrates rightly is not satisfied with this definition of the Beautiful, for even though it is fitting to the notion of absolute Beauty (since gold is an entity which is separate and external to the objects which would be beautiful by its addition), it itself is not necessary nor even sufficient for objects to be beautiful. For example, Plato has Socrates and Hippias agree that objects of ivory and certain stones (HMJ 290c) and even lowly figwood (HMJ 291c) can also be beautiful.

The gold example can be considered like the play on words found in Euthydemus. If gold were the Beautiful, then things would be beautiful if they had gold with them. In the same way, if Socrates were with an ox, he would be an ox, or at least ox-like (EUD 300e-301a). That the Beautiful may be some substance like gold which can be added to or taken from any object may suit a puffed up sophist, but it is altogether unacceptable to Plato.

Hippias' next attempt to identify the Beautiful is an instrumentalist definition, and it is no less a failure; he describes the Beautiful as being “ . . . rich and healthy, and honored by the Greeks, to reach old age, and after providing a beautiful funeral for his deceased parents, to be beautifully and splendidly buried by his own offspring.”[15] (HMJ 291d-e) Socrates easily counters this definition by pointing out that many people who are thought to be beautiful, Heracles or Achilles, for example, would never fit this description (HMJ 293a, 292e). (Heracles, in a sense, was not dead and could not die, and Achilles died in battle long before his parents). To be beautiful, according to this definition, has several necessary conditions—one of which is to be dead, but how could the dead be anything unless perhaps there were beautiful gods, but then these gods could not be beautiful since the gods never would have died![16] Several counter-examples of beautiful things easily come to mind, and none of them are dead Greeks; this definition just seems foolish, and Plato is right to dismiss it.

Plato next has his readers consider the appropriate or the “fitting,” and this seems as if it might be closer to an adequate definition of the Beautiful. The appropriate could be either that which causes things to appear beautiful, actually be beautiful, or both (HMJ 294a). Socrates and Hippias declare that Beauty must always somehow announce itself so that it should always be noticeable, but if this were the case, there could never be any disagreement over what was beautiful, since it would be obvious to any who noticed. This is an example of the psychological account of Beauty. Socrates argues against it persuasively by noting that ignorance of the Beautiful is the cause of all contention and fighting (HMJ 294d).

It seems that Plato has almost grasped the notion of Beauty, but that he purposely lets it get away. He himself is aware of this, for Socrates says, “Oh my! The beautiful has fled from us, Hippias, and goes away, (so that) we do not know what on earth it is.”[17] (HMJ 294e) The immediate reason, though, why the beautiful has fled is because Socrates and Hippias have just agreed that if Beauty were the appropriate, it would be so only in the sense of that which causes things to appear beautiful. It seems that the two interlocutors have forgotten that they earlier had spoken of beautiful objects made of gold, ivory, and figwood, and that these objects were beautiful precisely because of an innate propriety in their functions and materials. The same could be said of the beautiful pot. If Plato had pursued the appropriate in the sense of that which makes things beautiful—not that which makes things appear beautiful—I believe he would have been closer to answering the question of the Beautiful.

Plato's next illustration of what Beauty is not consists of the examples of the useful and good: “ . . . are we not right in saying that the useful rather than everything else is beautiful?”[18] (HMJ 295e) In this way, almost anything could be beautiful if it were useful—any animal, any tool, utensil, or apparatus, any of the arts or sciences, any laws, practices, or customs are all Beautiful if they are in any way useful (HMJ 295d). Plato again rejects an instrumental account of Beauty, for Socrates objects to identifying the Beautiful with the useful when he asserts that it is possible for something which is useful to be useful for some evil purpose and that this could not be an example of the Beautiful (HMJ 296c). In an attempt to save this account of what Beauty is, Hippias suggests that the Beautiful is the useful provided that it is for the good (HMJ 296d). Socrates notes that if the Beautiful were that which makes something good, (as he assumes that beautiful things are better than non-beautiful things), then how could it be that the good is that which makes something beautiful? Because “ . . . the cause is not the cause of the cause, ” (HMJ 297a)the Beautiful cannot be the good, nor the good the Beautiful.

There remains one final attempt to define Beauty by showing what it is not. Socrates and Hippias agree that “ . . . the beautiful is that which is pleasing through hearing and sight.”[19] (HMJ 298a, see also GOR 474d-e) One problem which arises from this definition, however, is that if Beauty is known through sight, it could not be known through hearing, and vice-versa, but that if the Beautiful were really just one thing, how could it be that it is sometimes known through one pleasure, but is imperceptible by the other? If Beauty were visual and aural pleasures, it must always be recognized by both senses simultaneously (HMJ 300a-b), but Socrates is only too quick to note that this is not the case: after all, a pleasant, beautiful sight is not noticed through hearing, nor can pleasing, beautiful sounds be known through vision.

I do not believe that Plato has given a satisfactory account of Beauty in Hippias Major. In his frustratingly peculiar way, he has once again not answered the question he raises in a dialogue written to address that particular issue, and he leaves his readers with the challenge of ferretting out from other dialogues signs of an answer to a question which he himself has raised. It is necessary, then, that we turn to other dialogues to find some positive signs of the Beautiful.

That the Beautiful is simply not just that which can readily be perceived as beautiful is further argued, for example, in The Republic. One may delight in beautiful objects, but would not have even the slightest sense of the Beautiful (REP 5.476b); one could mistake Beauty with ugliness (REP 5.479a); and most ordinary folk can never grasp what is Beauty for the sheer number and difference of beautiful things (REP 6.494e). The books of The Republic reinforce what was gleaned in Hippias Major, but we must still look elsewhere for signs to get an account of Beauty.

Philebus is a rich starting point. What is beautiful is characterized by the signs of measure and proportion (PHL 64e). Another sign of Beauty is that measure is conjoined with truth and proportion so as to make it the good (PHL 65a), and this idea is repeated in The Seventh Letter, wherein Beauty and good are linked with justice (EPI 7.342d). Finally, Socrates links signs of the Beautiful with wisdom (PHL 65e, HMJ 281a). The signs of Beauty are personified in the Great King on whose account everything is beautiful (EPI 2.312e) and who is also most beautiful (SOP 230e).[20] None of signs by itself is sufficient to account for Beauty, but perhaps given the right criterion, a truer picture of Beauty may emerge.

The Criterion

There is, then, from the other dialogues, a sense of what Beauty may be: the signs of measure and proportion signal its presence and it is linked with goodness and justice. A criterion is still lacking which would somehow unite and make sense of these signs. When Socrates and Hippias discuss the appropriate, the idea of Beauty slips away from them because they together erroneously maintain that the appropriate must not only make that which is beautiful to be beautiful, but it also must make it to appear beautiful (HMJ 294e). It has already been noted that if it had not been for Hippias' requirement for satisfying appearance, the appropriate might have answered the question “What is Beauty?” inasmuch as pots, gold, ivory, figwood, and the like were admitted to be beautiful.

There is, furthermore, something very curious at this point in the dialogue: the Beautiful apparently was present or somehow potentially knowable to both Socrates and Hippias, but it suddenly vanishes. No one suggests that the two men may have had any direct experience of the form of Beauty, but rather that perhaps they were very close to actually grasping what is the Beautiful. Consider the characters of Hippias and Socrates in this dialogue: Hippias is boastful, arrogant, and entirely overreaching, while Socrates himself is not always presented in the best light. He is sometimes vulgar (HMJ 288c), irreverent (HMJ 292e), and self-effacing (HMJ 286d, 304c). At the point when Socrates mentions that he thinks the Beautiful was just with them, however, both Socrates and Hippias temporarily have given up their pretensions and are examining the question in earnest. Here they not only discuss the appropriate, but they are acting appropriately in their acting together to answer a question. Beauty flees not only with the dismissal of the notion of the appropriate, but in the dramatic structure of the dialogue, its exit is marked by another boast from Hippias and more self-effacement from Socrates (HMJ 295a).

The question now remaining is that of the nature of the appropriate, specifically how it might bind together the qualities which have been noted to signal the presence of the Beautiful. The answer, I believe, is found in Charmides and lies in the untranslatable ‘sophrosyne’. Many have translated it as ‘temperance’, but it certainly means more than that. One commentator notes that it is a sort of excellence for human nature which gives the person inner proportion and harmony.[21] I suggest that while it is indeed that criterion which generate inner harmony and excellence, it is also a necessary component of anything's being beautiful.

In this dialogue, we find Socrates asking if there were any “ . . . remarkable for wisdom or beauty, or both,” (CHA 153d) and he is quickly introduced to Charmides who is “most beautiful” and “absolutely perfect.” (CHA 154d) Charmides is so breathtakingly beautiful, in fact, that Socrates is speechless, and only with effort can he reply to Charmides' question (CHA 156d-e). It is not like Socrates to be flabbergasted by a handsome young man, for a quite good looking would-be lover complains that Socrates really has only contempt for physical beauty (SYM 216d), and Socrates himself notes that if one is to be truly and irresistibly beautiful, he must also possess a noble soul (CHA 154d).[22] Is it this nobility of soul that Socrates senses in Charmides which is what makes him such a paradigm of Beauty?

It is undeniable that the subject of Charmides is sophrosyne, and that sophrosyne is embodied in Charmides himself (CHA 157d, 158c-e, 175d). Sophrosyne, rendered as ‘temperance’ by many translators, is described here in terms of the qualities of quiet orderliness (CHA 159b), nobleness and goodness and modesty (CHA 160e), appropriateness (CHA 161b), being well-ordered (CHA 161a), doing the good (CHA 163e), self knowledge which entails humility (CHA 164d-e), or wisdom (CHA 175d-e); nevertheless, sophrosyne is “the noblest thing in the world.”[23] (CHA 175b) It is this quality which makes Charmides irresistible.

Beauty, too, is irresistible, and it is impossible for anyone not to be overwhelmed by it (PHS 254). Likewise, just as Socrates was taken aback by the presence of Charmides, a person who encounters Beauty will be overcome with awe (PHS 251a). Beauty is not only linked with sophrosyne by reactions to it, but also in its pure form as it and sophrosyne are together enthroned (PHS 254b).[24] The Beautiful and sophrosyne may not be identical, but they are inseparable, and it is sophrosyne's well-ordering of the signs (e.g., nobility, goodness, humility, modesty) which indicate Beauty's presence that is a necessary criterion for a person's being beautiful. It is thus that a person qua person is appropriate, and if one might avoid all pretension and falsity, Beauty would alight and dwell with him/her just as it did with Socrates and Hippias in that brief moment in Hippias Major (HMJ 294e) or, indeed, as it does with Socrates himself, who though not physically beautiful[25] (THE 143e), is “extraordinarily beautiful,” (SYM 218e) even when compared to those who do possess physical beauty (SYM 217a, ALC 104a), because he so manifests sophrosyne[26] (SYM 216d). It is sophrosyne, then, which makes the person whole, as it were, and brings together all the signs of Beauty in a well-ordered or appropriate unity.

One possible objection to seeking the criterion for Beauty in sophrosyne would be that this concept itself, insofar as it refers to the performance of one's “proper function,” is inherently instrumentalist in nature. This may be true for us in this century, for at least in a nominalistic sense, “function” may be viewed as that which an object may fulfill in terms of contingent relations to its environment (or even of shifting human expectations). But the Platonic notion clearly refers to “function” (ergon) as an intrinsic rather than purely instrumental or extrinsic set of relations. Seen in this light, Plato's account of the Beautiful is not a version of the instrumental theory as characterized earlier.

Sophrosyne, though, is a human quality, and consequently does not give an account of what is the Beautiful for the nonhuman. Just as sophrosyne cannot be translated directly into English, I suggest that there may be some other idea for which we have no word that would be to nonhuman objects in the same way as sophrosyne is predicated of persons. Objects would then be beautiful or not based on their “sophrosyne-ness.” In this way, horses, pots, mathematical proofs, and artworks all could be beautiful. Any physical object or action, indeed anything that can be described, will be beautiful not only if it takes on the necessary form of Beauty; and not only if possesses the signs of the Beautiful such as goodness, usefulness, etc.; but only if these signs are linked together appropriately by sophrosyne. Sophrosyne, thus, is a necessary component of the Beautiful.

Concluding Notes

There is something innate and yet external to a beautiful object. Its beauty is really there independently of a perceiver, and its being beautiful or not does not depend upon personal evaluations. Neither is its beauty found in any externally posited function, utility, or pleasure in or from the object. The Beauty Theory holds; the psychological and instrumental theories are discarded. This is the view that Plato urges, and I concur.

Plato correctly accepts a beauty theory in which the Beautiful is an external form, and it is from this form, that beautiful things can be beautiful. Though there are many signs of the Beautiful, none of them by themselves singularly or merely together can account for the Beautiful in itself. The signs which indicate Beauty's presence are not sufficient for an object to be beautiful except that they are appropriately well-ordered. This propriety, I have shown, can be likened to the idea of sophrosyne which is an innate quality of the person allowing for his or her functioning appropriately qua person. I maintain, therefore, that the question of how something is beautiful is not answered in Hippias Major, but in Charmides. Sophrosyne for people, and something like it for the nonhuman, is the uniting factor and a necessary criterion of the Beautiful.

Overall, Plato has done well in his account of the Beautiful. He has shown that his account can provide an objective standard, and that Beauty is neither “in the eye of the beholder” nor just “skin deep.” The Beautiful is not beautiful because of any externally posited function it has, whether beneficial, pleasant, or useful. The Beautiful is such that it possesses a special characteristic which combines well in it many good qualities (the signs of the Beautiful) in an appropriate manner. Plato's theory of the Beautiful is incomplete, though, because he never accounts for what sophrosyne-like quality is necessary for nonhuman objects to be beautiful. Except for the fact that he never describes or gives an account of this quality for horses, pots, and other nonhuman objects, I think Plato presents an accurate picture of what it is to be beautiful.



Marquette University

Milwaukee, WI


[1] Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns, various trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). References to Plato’s works are made using Burnet’s numbers. The abbreviations that will be used throughout the text for the individual dialogues: ALC...Alcibiades I , CHA...Charmides , CRA...Cratylus , EPI...Letters , EUD...Euthydemus , GOR...Gorgias , HMJ...Hippias Major , PAR...Parmenides , PHO...Phaedo , PHS...Phaedrus , PHL...Philebus , REP...Republic , SOP...Sophist , SYM...Symposium , THE...Theaetetus .


[2] I must thank Drs. M. Wreen and L. Rice for their suggestions on aesthetics, and especially Dr. Rice for his help with the method and critical remarks.


[3] Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics , 2nd ed (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), p. 505.


[4] Ibid., pp. 506, 510.


[5] Ibid., p. 507.


[6] E. F. Carritt, The Theory of Beauty , 6th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1962), p. 4.


[7] Ibid., p. 14.


[8] Beardsley, Aesthetics , p. 523.


[9] Ibid., p. 525.


[10] Carritt, The Theory of Beauty , p. 13.


[11] Ibid., p. 13.


[12] Plato, Symposium , trans. Tom Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).


[13] Plato, Hippias Major , Vol. VI in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1953).


[14] Seth Bernardete, The Being of the Beautiful , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).


[15] Plato, Hippias Major , Vol. VI in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1953).


[16] Bernardete, The Being of the Beautiful , p. xxxii.


[17] Bernardete, The Being of the Beautiful.


[18] Plato, Hippias Major , Vol. VI in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1953).


[19] Plato, Hippias Major , Vol. VI in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1953).


[20] Bernardete, The Being of the Beautiful.


[21] Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato , p. 99.


[22] Plato, Alcibiades I and Charmides , Vol. VIII in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1927).


[23] Plato, Alcibiades I and Charmides ,Vol. VIII in Loeb Library (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1927).


[24] Plato. Phaedrus, in Platonis Opera , ed. J. Burnet, vol. II. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901).


[25] Bernardete, The Being of the Beautiful.


[26] Plato, Symposium , trans. Tom Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).