What is Beauty? Plato, Beauty, and Knowledge

Plato’s theory of knowledge – his epistemology – can best be understood through thinking about beauty. We are born with all knowledge, he says, but when our soul became trapped in our body at birth, we forgot this knowledge. Learning, then, is similar to remembering. And here on earth, beauty is the easiest way for us to first do that.

We can all recognize individual beautiful things… flowers, sunsets, music, people. Recognizing these things is the first rung on the ladder to the knowledge of Beauty, which for Plato is the Ideal Form of Beauty. Recognizing these individual beautiful things is the world we all live in most of the time, and staying here is like being trapped in a cave – not ever able to know true reality.

The question then, is whether there is something in common that makes all of these things beautiful?

The next step is recognizing what all beautiful things share in common. What they have in common is the Ideal Form of Beauty. The top rung of the ladder, true wisdom, is knowing Beauty itself.

What’s important here is that beautiful things can be observed by our senses – we can literally see something that is beautiful. This is located in and is part of the world. Knowledge of Beauty can only be known by the mind, by understanding. It doesn’t exist in the world as we understand it. But seeing an imitation of the true Form of Beauty can lead us to that understanding of Beauty.

Beauty is the easiest of these Forms we can come to understand, because it’s the easiest to observe in the world. But similarly we should strive to understand other concepts like Justice or Goodness.

Beauty, though, is the easiest place to start down this road toward Knowledge.

This image is beautiful to me on several levels. I used a cheap plastic lens to create a unique light flare. This scene represents tranquility to me, peace with nature, which is truly beautiful to me. It was also taken on a day when I was out exploring the world with some of the people I'm closest to.

The most important question is: what do all of these beautiful things have in common? To know that is to know Beauty.

Although I don’t share Plato’s metaphysical (dealing with the nature of reality) ideas about Ideal Forms really existing, I do think that the way he elevates beauty is important. For me, developing an appreciation of beauty is a way to think about how the world could be, to reflect on the good life, and to help inspire us. 

Let our first step on this path toward knowledge be beauty. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? Share a picture along with your explanation in the comments.

For Further Reading:

Plato: Complete Works

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