Dr. Giuseppe Girgenti talks about the cognitive “ladder” by which Plato believes we come to know Beauty
It is easy to believe that beauty is connected with matter. On the contrary, Plato sees beauty as precisely an idea or form informing matter. Thus, we see for example that the beauty of a clay statue derives primarily from its form, i.e. its shape, and not from the clay out of which it is made. In the Phaedrus, a dialog on beauty, Plato says that beauty is the window that reveals the intelligible world through the physical world. It is the only idea of the intelligible world that is visible to the eyes of the body, and not only to the “eyes” of the mind.
In the Symposium, Socrates says that this ascension to the first Beauty is possible through a ladder, a process of five steps whereby we come to understand increasingly finer levels of beauty. The first step is the beauty of the body; the second step is the beauty of the soul; the third step is the beauty that is achieved through human actions, including aesthetic and moral beauty; the fourth step is the beauty of ideas in themselves, the paradigmata of knowledge; and finally, the fifth step is the idea of Beauty in itself, which is the summit of the world of ideas mentioned above, and which is also identical to the idea of the Good, the divine first principle.
Giuseppe Girgenti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milan.