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6 Refinement and Tuning

The Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus was very important for Michelangelo. In just a sampling of Plotinus’ writings we can imagine the extent of his influence on Michelangelo‘s sculptural ideas and approach:

“ ... a progressive stripping off of everything that is

alien to the purest nature of the soul”


“a gradual hierarchy of existence and value”


“the whole world which we know arose and took its  shape”


Ellora Caves, India Seed by Peter Randall-Page at Eden Project, England


For Plotinus matter was pure potentiality. It could be refined toward a kind of goodness, and he hinted that there was a moral obligation to do so. Reductive processes — specifically revelation and purification — settle comfortably with ideas such as those espoused by Plotinus. 

The double prongs of revelation and purification may be yet another thing that goes back to Aristotle’s distinction between accidents and essentials. Accidents, remember, are qualities that can be shed without changing something’s essential nature.  A carving appears as something distinct by being separated from what is not needed, as the accidents and impurities fall away. When Michelangelo discards the accidents, the core is purified.  

Because this process of purification it is always exposing hidden stone, it is also a movement toward light. In carving all formative activity happens where light meets darkness. Goethe recognised the edge of light and darkness as a place of generation; in carving this is where things get more precise. The concern of the subtractive process is making an approximation more precise. That play at the edge of approximation and precision may have an aesthetic component. In fact it may hold the secret to one specific charm of French women:  there is a tradition that after dressing for the evening, just before going out, they will look in the mirror and take just one thing off. A single removal intensifies and focuses what is left.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” 

This is equally true in meditation when un-bidden thoughts are put aside to gently fall back into the world. Everything manipulated drops away and what is left is something untouched.

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