The Notion of The Beautiful in Ancient Greek Thought and its Christian Patristic Transfiguration

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By J.A. McGuckin

In a significant essay on Platonic philosophy, R. J. O’Connell highlights one of the most interesting and problematic aspects of the identification of the good and the beautiful in the Greek philosophical tradition :

‘It is a truism to say that, for the Greek mind, the good and the beautiful

(Kalokagathon) are at one , just as the evil and the ugly are. Use these terms

in their moral sense, however, and the gigantic act of ‘belief’ implied in that

equivalence becomes more evident.’

The widespread and distinctive Greek idea that moral utility ( what was good by virtue of being beneficial ) would coincide with socially accepted senses of rightness of action , in more or less the same way as it could be commonly agreed that a ‘good’ vase or a ‘good’ horse meant simply one of these things that was at one and the same time an elegant as well as an efficient specimen, was an idea that sounded well, and sometimes worked, but was frequently doomed to failure as a standard of ethics in so far as it did not have the workaday capacity to make sense of those many situations of moral conflict that called for a good action that brought no benefit to its agent. Many can be the occasions when one is called upon to do the ‘right thing’, to do one’s duty, when the result is far from beneficial or advantageous. To the simple idea of utilitarian ‘goodness’ in early Greek thought Socrates brought a more refined and transcendent notion of aesthetics. To this Plato remained faithful.

In an important section of his Symposium and in other dialogues such as the Phaedrus, Plato’s sense of the moral beauty of an act which had to take precedence over any questions of its advantageousness advanced Greek thought into a new realm of moral awareness – one that had begun to take seriously the issue of moral beauty as such. For Plato the act of belief that the beautiful and the good would coincide, still remained an act of faith, but a faith that was now grounded on a more robust realism . When the two forces of utility and virtue did not apparently or immediately coincide, then the precedence was unquestioningly given to the moral beauty of an act. Knowing that this preference could only be sustained on the ground of an enduring fundamental trust that however difficult the resolution might be, nevertheless the good and the true must be ultimately one, Plato held that the perception of this ultimate unity was a call to an ascending purification of perception, one that was religiously inspired and indeed no less than the transcendental imperative. Such an idea was one of the great forward leaps in the history of human thought and, even for this insight alone, justified the sense entertained by several of the fathers ( and certainly some of the church’s iconographers who delighted in iconically depicting Plato on the church walls as a precursor of the Gospel ) that here was a tradition of thought and belief that , like the Jewish lawyer, was ‘not far from the Kingdom of God’.

Plato added more, he understood that such a purified perception, frequently running against the current of human needs and self-referent desires, needed a dynamic motivating force to realise it, and , accordingly, posited love as the supreme virtue , or force, that gave the moral aesthetic sense its transcendent dynamic. In his Symposium he attributes the key role of teacher of these mysteries to the ‘stranger of Mantinea’, the priestess Diotima. In and through her initiations Plato intimates the profoundly religious character of his insight that the person who habitually prefers beauty is thereby increasingly led to an ascent to the Supremely Beautiful :

‘He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to

see the beautiful in due order and succession , when he comes to the end will

suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty ……beauty absolute , separate ,

simple , and everlasting , which is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing

beauties of all other beautiful things , without itself suffering diminution , or

increase, or any change. He who , ascending from these earthly things under the

influence of true love , begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And

the true order of going , or being led by another , to the things of love, is to begin

from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty ,

using these as steps only, and from one going on to two , and from two to all fair

bodily forms , and from fair bodily forms to fair practices , and from fair practices

to fair sciences, until from fair sciences he arrives at the science of which I have

spoken , the science which has no other object than absolute beauty , and at last

knows that which is beautiful by itself alone. This, my dear Socrates,’ said the

stranger of Mantinea , ‘is that life above all others which man should live , in the

contemplation of beauty absolute….. But what if a man had eyes to see the true

beauty , – the divine beauty I mean , pure and clear and all unalloyed , not infected

with the pollutions of the flesh and all the colours and vanities of mortal life , –

thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine?

Remember how in that communion only , beholding beauty with that by which it can

be beheld , he will be enabled to bring forth not images of beauty , but realities

(for he has hold not of an image but of a reality ) and bringing forth and nourishing

true virtue will properly become the friend of God and be immortal , if mortal man


This passage was to have a profound effect on the Christian consciousness and formed a strong link between the philosophical and Christian patristic traditions in later centuries. In this justly famous speech of the ‘stranger of Mantinea’ Plato’s theory of the Ideal Forms takes on a status that is more than the merely ideational, and gives him the basis for a moral teleology. His progress towards this insight can be traced in the course of his writings.

In his Meno Plato begins his theory of Ideal Forms from the basis of a theory of knowledge : thus we do not approach truth by deductive processes based on sensory reality (aisqhsij) rather we intuitively recollect the truth in so far as we have already experienced it before birth in a purely Noetic form (noetikos, anaisthetos). This starting point of the theory of knowledge is important to keep in mind , but the Theory of Ideas extends its significance in other works of Plato into the metaphysical or cosmological domain. The theory of knowledge , if kept in tandem with the theory of Forms , preserves the character of the Platonic Cosmos as a moral teleology. In the Symposium where the Ideal Form of Beauty is most clearly argued , this teleology attains the character of an aesthetic which transfigures into ethic , and ultimately into mysticism. This triadic process , from its roots in Plato’s religious sense of the Beautiful , bears the character of an ascent ; an ascent which is articulated most fully in religious terms, as we have seen, in the speech of Diotima in the Symposium.

The significance of this dynamic of ascent, and its relationship with Christianity , has long been categorised as one of the results of the impact of NeoPlatonic ideas on the church , especially in the period after [Plotinus and] Augustine. But the tendency to centralise the philosophical Telos as the ascent of the soul to the Transcendent Absolute is already the major concern of the Middle Platonists. As such it is a dominant concern of one of the more famous of that school – Origen of Alexandria. Through him the Platonic notion of ascent is fundamentally moderated in its shape by the twin stimuli of Christian Logos-theology and biblical exegesis , and through him it comes into the Christian mystical tradition. This Origenian strand continues to emphasise the Platonic insight that the ecstatic perception of Beauty is the highest perception of truth afforded to creatures. His Commentary on the Song of Songs demonstrates the notion clearly, and had a marked impact on Christian spirituality in both East and West thereafter.

Origen’s legacy was most notably developed in the East by Gregory Nazianzen (The Theologian) , Gregory Nyssa , Evagrios Pontike , Dionysios the Pseudo-Areopagite , and Maximos The Confessor. All of them, in their own way, diffract and mediate his own style of theorising , in the process of articulating a fully-fledged and particularly Christian approach to the problem. After this it is no longer accurate to speak of Platonised Christianity , or Christianised Platonism , for neither reduction does justice to the unique synthesis which the patristic paradigm represents : something which Florovsky wished to designate (in antithesis to Harnack) as the ‘Christianisation of Hellenism’. It remains true, however, that the Origenian tradition, even when subjected to such a masterly synthesis as that offered by the Cappadocians, remains far stronger in articulating the ascent from flesh to spiritual perception than it is in describing the transfiguration of materiality which lay outside the ken of Plato, and was reserved as a mystery of the Incarnation.

The ascetical tradition of such as Makarios , and the typical praxis of asceticism of the other monastic teachers such as Pachomios , Shenoude, Euthymios, Saba , and John Climakos, played an important synethetic role in this regard, because all represented a strongly moderating influence on (even in fact a current against) such a theology of transcendentalist aesthetics in the Origenian aftermath.

The Church’s major Christological conflicts from the Fourth to the Fifth centuries also produced a significant body of thought , from such as Athanasios and Cyril , that added to the simpler monastic and moral tradition, and which also grounded its mystical endeavour in an Incarnational theology of Revelation and Theosis. This was a high conciliar approach that is partly indebted to Origen but in significant aspects wholly independent of him and more affirmative of the body and sacramental materiality than ever he would care to be. From Cyril of Alexandria onwards we can decidely recognise an authentic Christology of ‘transfigured materiality’ : a major divergence from Plato’s theology of the transcendence of materiality. His Christological images of the lily and its perfume to represent the union of divine and human in Christ, or the bond of soul and body to represent the manner of the incarnation of the divine in history, perfectly sum up this newly sharpened sense of ‘transfiguration theology’ .

This double aspect and character of the genuinely Christian theological concern – namely, the apprehension of God as the Absolute Beauty drawing the soul onward in ecstasy, and the approach to the divine encounter in Christ as the transfiguration of matter , ultimately finds both its polarities reconciled in the late Byzantine synthesis. Maximos already demonstrates this , as does Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. Their treatment of theological aesthetics marks them out as dependent on Plato’s insight, while simultaneously developing it in a thoroughly Christianised form into new dimensions : a ‘sea-change’ into something rich and strange. Maximos , in the following passage, demonstrates a masterly synethesis of Plato and the biblical tradition of the image and its relation to the divine archetype when he speaks of entering the Archetypal Beauty in terms of Noetic initiation :

‘When Moses pitches his tent outside the camp ( Ex.33.7 ) , that is when he establishes

his will and mind outside the world of visible things , then it is that he begins to

worship God.

Then , entering into the darkness ( Ex. 20.21 ) , that is into the formless and immaterial

realm of spiritual knowledge , he celebrates there the most sacred rites.

The darkness is that formless, immaterial , and bodiless state which embraces the

knowledge of the prototypes of all created things. He who like another Moses enters

into it, although mortal by nature, understands things that are immortal. Through this

knowledge he depicts in himself the beauty of divine excellence , as if painting a

picture which is a faithful copy of Archetypal Beauty. Then he comes down from the

mountain and offers himself as an example to those who wish to imitate that

excellence. In this way he manifests the love and generosity of the grace he has


Here, the highest mystical union does not abandon materiality, but descends, like Moses from Sinai, and ( though unstated the parallel is implied ) like the Logos from heaven. This is a descent which no longer in any sense can be understood as a decline. It is a Katabasij of mercy, a stooping down in the biblical sense, like the mother in tenderness to her child. It is a descent of the economy – a coming to save which is the economy of salvific revelation and which also prefigures the Parousia and which, in the interval, is given as a duty to the church whose own katabasis (con-descension) to the world, after it has encountered the mystery of its Lord, is the economy of its mission in the world – its fundamental and inalienable duty to witness the truth, to proclaim the Gospel. For Maximus, the descent does not dissipate the power of the vision rather it manifests it in love and mercy in an economy of the transfigured life. This is a recurring dynamic of katabasij and anabasij based on the pattern of the Logos’ own ascent and descent as described by the Evangelist John.

Maximos and Dionysios are the two Christian theorists who apply reflection on the Kalokagathon most explicitly . Maximos does so in another passage which demonstrates his careful reading of Plato, and yet Plato could never have written as this great Christian mystic does. It remains a mystery why so many commentators regard such a passage as evidence of a thoroughly ‘Platonised’ Christian consciousness (usually understood in a pejorative sense) when even the most diffident comparison of this with Diotima’s speech should reveal to anyone who has the eyes to see or the ears to hear, the profoundly different emphases that Maximos’ apprehension of the Gospel imperatives has brought to the fore. Here is Plato’s insight, certainly, but subordinated in a powerful Christian confession to the overriding providence of a personal power of Love that seeks to redeem its creatures even to the point of divine Kenosis :

[83]. ‘The Beautiful is identical with The Good , for all things seek the beautiful and the good at every opportunity , and there is no being that does not participate in them. They extend to all that is, being whatever is truly admirable , sought for , desired , pleasing , chosen and loved. Observe how the divine force of love – that power of Eros pre-existing in the Good – has given birth to the same blessed force within us , through which we long for the beautiful and the good in accordance with the words, ‘I became a lover of her beauty’ (WS 8.2. ) and , ‘Love her and she will sustain you ; fortify her and she will exalt you.’ (Prov. 4. 6, 8). [84].Theologians call the divine , sometimes an erotic force, sometimes love , sometimes that which is intensely longed-for and loved . Consequently , as an erotic force , and as love, the divine itself is subject to movement ; and as that which is intensely longed-for and loved , it moves towards itself everything that is receptive of this force and love. To express this more clearly : the divine itself is subject to movement since it produces an inward state of intense longing and love in those who are receptive to this , and it moves others since by its very nature it attracts the desire of those who are drawn towards it. In other words, it moves others and itself moves, since it thirsts to be thirsted for , longs to be longed-for , and loves to be loved.

[86]. One must also, in the name of truth, be bold enough to affirm that the Cause of All Things , through the beauty, goodness , and profusion of his intense love for everything , goes out of himself in his providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy , and spell-bound as it were by goodness , love, and longing , he relinquishes his utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within himself. Hence , those skilled in divine matters call him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of his blessed longing for all things , and because he rouses others to imitate his own intense desire , revealing himself as their exemplar.’

Maximos has not only baptised Plato in this Byzantine synthesis , he has also brought home the wild genius of his teacher Origen, and harmonised the latter’s visions of the truth and his clearsighted glimpse of the transcendent divine beauty, with the Church’s more developed theology of the sacramental nature of the divine incarnation. This , of course, was Maximos’ double intent from the outset.

These notes have hardly had time to sketch out even the main lines of one of the most important theological and philosophical developments in the life of the Early and Byzantine church. The theology of the Beautiful is a topic of perennial importance, but today , perhaps more than ever, the Church needs to look once more at its mystical and philosophical tradition in a world and an era where the two notions have suffered a fatal divorce in a so-called ‘post Christian’ context. Let me explain briefly why I believe this theological aesthetics to be one of the most important areas of contemporary theology, calling out for attention and development, even though it is largely relegated to the sidelines and often misunderstood as an exercise in ‘cosmetics’. It is my belief that here , in the theology of Beauty, is an agenda for twentieth century theology which will rescue the discipline from its tendency to concentrate increasingly on the peripheral and ephemeral in its growing anxiety that its voice is becoming less and less relevant to contemporary society. Patristic theology, which once dealt so well with the same problems of communicating a vision of truth that was somehow at once familiar and yet new to its contemporary world, has an important role to play in this process of intellectual brokering and hermeneutics. To play its rightful part, however, it must first cast off the shackles imposed upon it in so many limited conceptions of academic theology that try to keep it relegated to the domain of the merely historical or archival.

The Orthodox Church’s deep-rooted tradition of a mystical and sacramental understanding of God that is at one and the same time securely founded on a moral apprehension of self-sacrificing virtue as the Supremely Beautiful ( The religion of the Incarnate Lord) , is a powerful remedy, or Farmakeia, for western society which, where it has retained any religious sense, is becoming increasingly pietistic and ineffectual in its spiritual dynamic. Such a trend can be discerned even in some of the churches, but above all in the non-Christian phenomenon of New Age Religion – soft on rationality, soft on ethics , soft on justice, and soft on truth. And in those many places where society has not retained any vestige of its religious instinct, the entire social fabric is increasingly, and more and more obviously, distorted by the wholesale collapse of the sense of community, idealism, and charity – all the factors, in short, which would be able to work for a new transcendental which alone can raise up a human society beyond the mire of nationalisms, greed , and concomitant societal decay.

The one reconciliation possible for a society that is in danger of losing even the distant memories of its religious civilisation, at a time when its preferred religions have turned solipsistic, and its schools of political, philosophical, and artistic thought have elevated short-term self interest to new heights, is no less than the return to a renewed sense of the Beautiful. It is, in the Christian reinterpretation of the Greek notion of kalokagaqon, the ideal synthesis of a religious, mystical, and moral transcendental. It is, if the Church can still act decisively enough to be the intellectual midwife and interpreter, the one concept and experience that can still be remembered well enough by a generally ‘paganised’ society to serve as the basis for a new pro-paideusis of what civilisation and human aspirations to ascent are all about. If the Church can find the wit, and the voices in the present generation who will be up to the task as were the farseeing saints, founders and teachers in the past, ( who dealt with an equally ambiguous and decadent society ), then this pro-paideusis will be no less than a re-evangelisation of the western world which has already declined far from its once high standards of civilisation, and now urgently needs catechising about the very nature of the simplest truths – what constitutes Beauty ; and where lies the reconciliation of Aesthetics and Justice – central ideas constitutive to a civilisation that even a few decades ago might have been thought to be hardly capable of being forgotten in so short a time and so widespread a fashion.

In brief , the Theology of Beauty, one of the great jewels in the patristic and mystical tradition of Christianity, is far from being played out. It remains to have perhaps its greatest role ever in the history of the church – the reform of civilised standards in the attempt to return to the West its forgotten religious instincts. Perhaps the role of the small Orthodox diaspora in this process of evangelisation, is one of the mysteries reserved by God for the latter age : to witness vividly to Beauty, and by so doing demonstrate the self-evident authenticity and integrity of the Gospel it has been called to proclaim in a darkened and darkening world of increasing ugliness and squalor. Our humble church, dressed in the plain garments befitting a hierophant, will fulfil a great and historical missionary task if it continues with confidence and great humility to lead the confused and wandering from the obscurities to the illumined places where the mysteries are celebrated ‘with unveiled faces’.

The stranger of Mantinea was perfectly right, such a journey to the Beautiful can only be made if one who has seen leads by the hand, with care and love, the one who desires to see. For such a great and pressing destiny, those who do see and care must be ready, and must be engaged in all levels of the church’s interface with society, essentially with inspired strategies of paideia and dedicated perseverance in the ways the Spirit refashions self interest into the recognisable pattern of the Christ-life.

With special permission of author J. A. McGuckin (given to the editor of Official Internet site SOC)