Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2019
Meredith C. Drees
Eros and Experiences of Beauty in Plato’s Theory of Moral Progress
Plato speaks of aesthetic experience in different works and in different enough ways that we are led to wonder how or even whether these can all be fit together consistently. In the Republic, Plato maintains that aesthetic education is required for justice in a city and in a person’s soul, and that proper exposure to beautiful art can teach a person to “become fine and good.” However, in the Symposium and Phaedrus, he discusses the relationship between beauty and morality by specifically focusing on erotic experiences of beautiful people. Thus, we are led to wonder: Are there two different kinds of experiences of beauty? If so, what distinguishes them from one another? How are they related to Plato’s general theory of moral progress? These questions, surprisingly underappreciated in Plato scholarship, are the focus of this essay.
Ultimately, I argue that beauty plays two roles in Plato’s general theory of moral progress: (1) The experience of beauty via art, as described in the Republic, has the capacity to influence a person’s character and, hence, it can be used in moral training, and (2) The erotic experience of a beautiful person invokes an emotional response that has the capacity to facilitate moral growth, as is described in the Symposium and Phaedrus.