In one of his lectures delivered in the winter of 1958–59, recently reissued by Polity Press, the German thinker Theodor Adorno, one of the Founding Fathers of the Frankfurt School, discusses Plato’s theory of beauty in his dialogue Phaedrus. With his lifelong preoccupation with the nature and place of culture in Western societies, Adorno repeatedly denounced and deplored the systematic misuse and depreciation of art, reduced to a mere commodity instead of being perceived and experienced as an instrument of personal enrichment and social liberation. Plato’s concept of beauty enables the critical theorist to highlight the otherworldly nature of the beautiful while underlining its eventual redemptive quality. Very few works of art are, in his view, able to transcend any attempt at degrading them to a base level of popular simplification. Just as the experience of the Sun of the Good by the escaped cave prisoner heralds for him a revitalised philosophical life, the confrontation with beauty signifies a point of no return to the mediocre false reality of everyday life. The task of the artist is to capture and channel the energy of beauty and bring the ethereal sublime into the realm of the mundane in the way the Philosopher Guardian adapts his knowledge of the Good to the needs of the polis and its inhabitants. However, like the philosopher mocked by the crew of the ship who call him a ‘star-gazer’, the lover of beauty is first deemed a ‘madman’, such is his state of wonderment and rapture.
Adorno feigns to ignore the actual theme of the Phaedrus, which is, after all, Love and not Beauty. However, the overwhelmed beholder of a beautiful person or object is in the same absorbed state as the captive lover, awed by his or her passion for the loved one. For Plato, all Pure Forms or Ideas partake of the Form of the Good which constitutes their DNA and is therefore recognisable in every one of them. Once touched and inspired by an earthly manifestation of the beautiful, the beholder witnesses the revelation of truth itself. There is a quasi-mystical dimension to such encounters as the term ‘enthusiasmos’, literally ‘possessed by divine essence’, is used by Plato. Art strikes the beholder randomly and unconditionally, lifting him above the realm of physical reality. Adorno rightly compares Kant’s ‘disinterested aesthetic pleasure’ with Plato’s surrender to this all powerful force. He also emphasises the aspect of ‘pain as a fundamental component in any experience of beauty’ as we are suddenly made aware of our mortal fallibility and incompleteness. Plato’s belief in mankind’s original androgynous nature reflects the philosopher’s quest for perfection, be it through the search for eternal Ideas or our elusive, complementary self.
No absolute or definite definition of Beauty (or Love, for that matter) is to be found in the Phaedrus, an open dialogue on its effects on the human spirit. Adorno comments that ‘beauty itself, by its own nature, presents itself as mediated, inherently as something like a tension between subjective and objective objects.’ Despite his ideological distance from Hegel’s conception of beauty, Adorno refers to the very Hegelian term ‘sublimation’ in his concluding remarks. Yes, the experience of beauty is charged with sensuous emotions but above all, it is ‘an inalienable and constantly self-renewing process of sublimation’.
Surprisingly, Adorno offers a final note of caution about what he regards as the fragile and limited power of beauty to transform reality, for good. True to his disillusioned view of modern culture, the German critical thinker considers ‘the potential collapse as inherent in the idea of beauty itself’ as if its promise of endless regeneration could easily fall prey to the beholder’s ultimate failure to perceive its true message or his too human inability to harness its enthralling appeal.