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Friday, April 13, 2012

An Essay on the Beautiful

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An Essay on the Beautiful
by Plotinus

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The early twentieth century translators of the ancient Greek philosophers were determined to stay faithful to the lofty style of the original, and while that may be commendable from one point of view, it creates difficulties in others. The paradox here is that this essay attempts to grapple with this very problem of words and their relationship to truth and beauty in a style which comes dangerously close to obscuring what it tries to explain.

So let me make it simple. Words are what we use to explain things, but they can't do it perfectly. They merely point to a higher truth, or perfection, which ultimately is the ideal of beauty. Keats and others in the Romantic tradition passionately echoed these sentiments in the nineteenth century:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 [Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats]
It is something that's a theme in philosophical discussions on my personal blog. Words are good servants but bad masters, but in the western tradition, they are what entrap and enslave us.

The translator thought there was no other choice. Eastern philosophies do not agree, but this discussion by Plotinus represents the best attack on the dilemma that I know in western conceptualisation of the paradox.

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It may seem wonderful that language, which is the only method of conveying our conceptions, should, at the same time, be an hindrance to our advancement in philosophy; but the wonder ceases when we consider that it is seldom studied as the vehicle of truth, but is too frequently esteemed for its own sake, independent of its connection with things.

This observation is remarkably verified in the Greek language; which, as it is the only repository of ancient wisdom, has, unfortunately for us, been the means of concealing, in shameful obscurity, the most profound researches and the sublimest truths.

That words, indeed, are not otherwise valuable than as subservient to things, must surely be acknowledged by every liberal mind, and will alone be disputed by him who has spent the prime of his life, and consumed the vigour of his understanding, in verbal criticisms and grammatical trifles. And, if this is the case, every lover of truth will only study a language for the purpose of procuring the wisdom it contains; and will doubtless wish to make his native language the vehicle of it to others. For, since all truth is eternal, its nature can never be altered by transposition, though by this means its dress may be varied, and become less elegant and refined.

Perhaps even this inconvenience may be remedied by sedulous cultivation; at least, the particular inability of some, ought not to discourage the well-meant endeavours of others. Whoever reads the lives of the ancient Heroes of Philosophy, must be convinced that they studied things more than words, and that Truth alone was the ultimate object of their search; and he who wishes to emulate their glory and participate their wisdom, will study their doctrines more than their language, and value the depth of their understandings far beyond the elegance of their composition.

The native charms of Truth will ever be sufficient to allure the truly philosophic mind; and he who has once discovered her retreats will surely endeavour to fix a mark by which they may be detected by others.
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