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Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

The terms in which you pose the question are not alien to Plato's dialogues, but in the dialogues his character rarely describe things in such abstract systematic terms. Socrates, for one, is always moving back and forth between the abstractions about what is beautiful and good and specific objects (a fine horse, a golden spoon).

If anything it is the neoplatonic tradition that uses the terms found in your question. And although philosophers like Plotinus have brought great insights both to the study of Plato and to our understanding of the world, they are far from the last word on what the dialogues say. So I begin by cautioning you away from these ways of summarizing Plato.

The dialogue Hippias Major is the first place to look for what you are discussing, both because Socrates tries to understand "to kalon" (what is beautiful, fair, fine), and because he asks how it might be related to the good. Diotima's speech in Plato's Symposium, and the long speech Socrates makes in the middle of the Phaedrus, also contain essentials of the Platonic account of beauty.

If you want to know more about how I understand Plato on beauty, I refer you to my entry on ancient theories of beauty in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, which also contains suggestions for further reading; or you can go to my entry "Plato's aesthetics" in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (I'm referring you to my own writings not because I think they're better than everyone else's but because any summary I give you here will be a summary of what I say in those entries.)

But let's go back to your question, despite what I said at the beginning about the difficulty of answering in those terms. I suppose I dispute one assumption at the heart of what you attribute to Plato. To say that beauty is "nothing but" the truthfulness and goodness of a thing is to describe what Kant will call "dependent beauty," which is to say a beauty that follows from the goodness or intelligible coherence of the thing. If beauty is dependent beauty then, as it were, we need to know why a thing is good in order to perceive it as beautiful.

In fact however Plato's dialogues seem to move in the opposite direction. As I understand him, the beauty he speaks of is what Kant calls free beauty. We see a thing as beautiful and are motivated to understand more about that peculiar property beauty, and our effort to approach beauty leads us to philosophize about what is good. Beauty is the only intelligible property that stimulates our perceptions; that's why it plays such an important role in bringing people to philosophy.

The Sophists have nothing to do with this. You are quite right that they talk about poetry a lot. It doesn't follow that they're talking about beauty. Indeed, from the point of view of modern thinkers for whom aesthetics somehow combines beauty and art, the most striking thing about Plato's discussion of beauty is that it has very little to do with art. Plato speaks as negatively about the arts as any major philosopher has; but as enthusiastically about beauty as any philosopher could. The two don't mix much.