On Beauty, Death, and Meaning
Are beautiful things meaningful? Could the experience of the beautiful be described in terms of an encounter with meaning? And how is the experience of beauty and the desire to be beautiful related to life and death? In order to examine these questions, and their interconnection, I start by looking at what may be considered as a ‘deathlike’ notion of beauty, a notion that figures prominently in the context of the so-called contemporary beauty industry: beauty is a fleeting moment of perfection to be frozen in time and preserved, removed from the process of the natural decay of the living. One implication of this notion is that the beauty of the artificial and the inanimate is superior to the beauty of the natural or animate. However, in contrast to this ‘deathlike’ beauty stands a conception of beauty as ‘lifelike’, which was developed within the Platonic tradition and especially by Plotinus. I shall be arguing that while a ‘deathlike’, purely formal conception of beauty renders it meaningless, the Plotinian understanding—as relevant to us to today, as it was to his contemporaries—elucidates the complex temporality of the experience of sensible beauty, which makes it meaningful. In this connection, the beauty that externally appears as a fleeting instant of perfection destined to be lost if not removed from time so that it will be possessed immediately and securely, becomes meaningful only in so far as it is internally experienced to expand the presently given through recollection of the past and anticipation of, or hope for, the future.
Panayiota Vassilopoulou is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests lie in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Feminist Pedagogy. She has published numerous papers in Neoplatonism and Aesthetics and has co-edited two volumes of essays: Thought: A Philosophical History (Routledge, 2021) and Late Antique Epistemology: Other Ways to Truth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She has a keen interest in practicing philosophy with non-academic communities, which she has developed as Philosopher-in-Residence with a range of cultural and health organisations in the UK and abroad.