Monism and Inner Beauty

Correcting the misconception of a recent newspaper article...


Several weeks ago there was an article in a not-to-be-named newspaper in which I was mentioned in an embarrassing context, and a sentence of mine was inserted into a subject rather different from the one that had been the topic of my interview. What I had really been discussing (or tried to be discussing) was how philosophical monism can help us appreciate inner over outer beauty in people; it was meant to suggest one possible way of how something philosophical can be applied to everyday living. I reproduce more fully in this post the comments I had tried to make in that interview.

In Greece, athleticism was at the same time a celebration of the divine, that is, of the spiritual.

Philosophical monism, simply put, is the notion that there is only one level of existence. Combined with ontological materialism, to which I also subscribe, it means that all that exists is matter. This is opposed to dualism, which maintains that there are two levels of existence: the physical – matter – and the metaphysical – soul, immaterial forces (like God, for instance). (There is also a version of monism that is idealist or immaterialist – i.e. that only mind, not matter, exists – championed by George Berkeley and others, but as a fairly empiricist-minded person I consider it untenable and will not deal with it here.)

Dualism was essentially invented by Plato (and taken to even further heights by Descartes); before Plato, philosophers had been occupied mainly with the physical world, and even after him there were some attempts to revive the monist-materialist view of the world, especially by the early Greek stoics. The stoics, most prominently under Chrysippus, who was the third stoic scholarch, maintained that only matter exists, and that things like soul or God, whose existence he did not deny, are therefore material. This is not an absurd position, because we all know how the experiences of our consciousness can be psychosomatic. Further, it means that something like love does not exist separately, as Plato thought, but only insofar as people experience it, for example through certain physical sensations (blushing, palpitations of the heart, warmth, etc.). Love is therefore simply a word that, for convenience’s sake, we use as a rubric under which to gather those sensations. So love does exist, in a sense, but is in fact material. Plato’s mistake was to begin with the words – “love”, “justice”, and so on – and then to try to define what they are, whereas the truth is that the words came afterwards, as shorthand descriptions of a whole plethora of divergent phenomena in the physical world. We cannot describe satisfactorily or exhaustively what love is; “love”, rather, is the description.

I run into Chrysippus all over the place - here in London and Montpellier, though in the latter location the French authorities had mislabeled him Demosthenes.

I run into Chrysippus all over the place - here in London and Montpellier, though in the latter location the French authorities had mislabeled him Demosthenes.

With this in mind, we can say, with Chrysippus and the stoics, that the human being is one thing only, namely body, not body and metaphysical soul. By this means we are able to approach the pre-Platonist Greek attitude that ties the various facets of the human being together, instead of dividing it into parts, which may be mutually antagonistic. Once this has been achieved, any aspect of any one of a person’s “Platonist” part will immediately disseminate itself through the whole being, instead of being confined to that part alone. So an individual who has what one would traditionally call an “evil soul” or “bad personality” right away becomes ugly to the eye, too. And someone who engages in the discipline of physical exercise thereby trains what we traditionally call the soul or the personality. And, indeed, it is no coincidence that Aristotle – who in many ways was more typically “Greek” than the proto-Christian Plato – emphasizes in his Politics that the training of the body is a moral goal that must be concomitant with mental training for those who are to lead a state (1332b, 1334b, and 1338b). It is those who emphasize the body alone or those who only study while scoffing at anyone who would deign to exercise, that are more dualist in their general outlook (usually without realizing it).

The pre-Platonist attitude requires a deliberate choice. It does of course not follow as a necessary consequence of philosophical monism, but monism can, I think, make it easier for us to see the deeper underpinnings of that choice. It will no longer be possible to say that someone with a bad personality nonetheless has a beautiful appearance. Rather, that person will be ugly through and through. So once monism has been grasped and applied in this way onto the world, we are less likely to be seduced by the exterior trappings of persons and better able to see their true worth. And an individual will become less divided against him- or herself.