“The perception of Beauty and the awe and the stirring of passion towards it are for those already in some degree knowing and awakened: but the Good, as possessed long since setting up a natural tendency, is inherently present to even those asleep and brings them no wonder when some day they see it, since it is no occasional reminiscence but is always with them though in their drowse they are not aware of it: the love of Beauty on the contrary sets up pain when it appears, for those that have seen it must pursue. This love of Beauty then is later than the love of Good and comes with a more sophisticated understanding; hence we know that beauty is a secondary: the more primal aperition, not patent to sense, our movement towards our good, gives witness that the Good is earlier, the prior.
“All that have possessed themselves of the Good feel it sufficient: they have attained the end: but Beauty not all have known and thaose that have judge it to exist for itself and not for them, as in the charm of this world the beauty belongs only to its possessor.
“The source of this error is that while both the Good and the Beautiful participate in the common source, the One precedes both.” ~Plotinus
When it comes to physical beauty, what is considered beautiful changes. We find over the last century or two that what most considered a beautiful woman has gone from abundant curves to rail-thin and back again. And what women consider an attractive man changes also. Even at the same time, we find different ideas of beauty in different countries and social structures. The pampered male model of New York City would not be considered a thing of beauty among primitive people or country folk who would find his spoiled dandy look and pasty pale skin sickly.
But Plotinus is complicating the concept of beauty even more by adding in that to a good person beauty is different than it is for others. He goes so far as to indicate that only the good can even have a concept of beauty. That, I think, is nonsense. Everyone can have a concept of beauty, but it differs depending on whether or not they are what Plotinus calls good.
Beauty of the Good
What Plotinus is saying, I believe, is that the good see beauty in a way that differs from how others see it. That is not at all surprising. But he goes a little beyond that and says that the good beauty is the only true beauty. While he has a point, I’m not sure we can say that it is entirely true. But to understand it better, let’s look at the beauty of people who are not “good”, which really means those who are not spiritually awakened.
One way of looking at what is beautiful among a particular group is to look at their art. When we look at the art of today, even if we ignore abstract art and art that is intentionally ugly to make a point, we see art that often ignores such things as divine proportion and divine harmony. It is like the hard-rock of painting or sculpture. Many find it beautiful, but not because they feel peace and harmony when they look at it, but because it grapes them with discord and uniqueness. Many think that the more unique the art is, the more beautiful it is. But art can be unique without violating the rules of divine proportion and harmony.
Good Beauty is Spiritual Beauty
It is fairly clear that those people who Plotinus calls Good are those who are spiritually awakened to some degree. They are people who put spiritual values above materialistic ones. So such people will see art different than most. They will notice divine proportion and harmony and value it. They will notice are that invokes positive thoughts and images like peace, love, and joy. They will generally not care for art that depicts the horrors of material life such as war, murder, and disease. They know that despite what the artist may think he is doing, such art will normalize the horrible making it more acceptable. The spiritual person wants to stop the horrors. They see good beauty in art that depicts the best of nature. They see good beauty in people who give off an aura of goodness and sacredness. Good beauty is something they value. Art that exists simply to make money is of no value to them at all.
So Plotinus says we must be good before we can know good beauty. While there is some truth to that, there is another way to look at it. We can train ourselves to love the art that is truly beautiful, that is spiritually beautiful. We can promote good beauty and surround ourselves with it. That can aid us in our spiritual growth so we can become good spiritual people. Then we become part of the Good Beauty in the world.