If any topic within the category of ancient philosophy is particularly pertinent to the cultural trends of today, it must be aesthetics. Not only do philosophers and artists engage with the concepts of aestheticism in our age, but over the course of the pandemic, the concept of the “aesthetic” has become somewhat of a cultural zeitgeist. Popular discussions surrounding romanticization, the ineffability of beauty, and the categorization of desired aesthetic experiences flood every social media platform. Beyond just the word “aesthetic”, the philosophy of art and questions surrounding the experience of beauty have undergone a new scrutiny in recent years.
The field of aesthetics in philosophical thought emerged in the 18th century, in relation to the study of arts in particular. Aesthetics encompasses many topics but is broadly defined by Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray as “responses to, and reflections on, the arts." The word “aesthetics” itself points to the act of experiencing arts, as it derives from the Greek aisthanomai, meaning “I perceive”. This presents the immediate problem of applying these modern models, in themselves varying and nebulous in their definitions, to antiquity. The concepts of “art” or “aesthetics” as we have them today cannot be exactly mapped onto Greek or Latin literature, but this does not mean that ancient authors did not consider categories of beauty, experience, and modes of thinking. The words which generally translate to “art” in Greek and Latin, tēchne and ars respectively, do not denote only what we consider the Fine Arts, but could extend to any skill that might be learned, including practical trades and crafts. Nonetheless, the visual arts, music, dance, and poetry do appear to be aligned in philosophical discourse in a distinct grouping, despite the terms for “art” encompassing broader systems of knowledge. These are often considered to be the mimetic arts. That is, the arts which possess an imitative quality, either in content, form, or feeling. The notion of imitation often extends to include some kinds of interpretation, such as musical interpretation of an emotional experience. Some scholars argue that mimesis does not sufficiently serve as a unifying quality of the ancient fine arts, since Plato did distinguish mimetic arts from expository ones. That art and beauty share a privileged relationship does not seem to be an ancient notion, so that the study of aesthetics in antiquity may extend to philosophy, natural sciences, and beyond.
It is beyond the scope of this discussion to talk comprehensively about ancient aesthetics, but I will be touching on some of the main concepts and authors. I will focus on Greek and Latin literature because of the constraints of this article. Of course, this is an arbitrary and artificial delineation, since there are authors who discuss the arts in many other languages in the ancient world. This problem is reflected more broadly in the field of ancient aesthetics. Plato and Aristotle reflect so extensively on the forms and experiences of the arts, so that much scholarship has been based in the works of these authors. Because of the authority of these authors, they, and Greek literature more broadly, is often overrepresented in the study of ancient aesthetics. This is, of course, perhaps a symptom of the limits of the number of extant ancient texts, as well as the difficulty of reconstructing a field as loosely defined as aesthetics in the Greek and Roman world.
1. Objective Beauty in Art
In discussing visuality, it is essential to understand the ways in which objective beauty and experience of art are differentiated and intertwined. We will start our exploration with the interpretations of objective beauty in Greek and Roman literature and material culture.
Much discourse has revolved around the concept of to kalon, meaning “the fine,” “the honourable,” “beauty,” or even “what is fitting,” particularly within the works of Aristotle. The meaning of the phrase is flexible and possibly changes within single works, but Richard Kraut argues that kalon generally denotes an aesthetic quality in Aristotle’s treatises. The concept of to kalon appears in discourse surrounding various types of art, so that its repeated appearance may illuminate our understanding of ancient appreciation of the arts in general. In Plato, to kalon is a manifest objective value in excellent visual art; visual beauty can be recognized through perception, regardless of the mental or emotional capacity of the viewer.
Plato’s theory of the Forms represents a metaphysical conceptualization of objective ideals of beauty. Artists, while never achieving the true Form of a composition, should attempt to imitate the Form as closely as possible. In Symposium, Plato argues that the form of Beauty is uniquely connected to the Good, as the appreciation of beauty leads to the understanding of beauty in all other facets of life, such as morality and lawfulness (210A–211D). Neoplatonists, such as third century CE author Plotinus, likewise stress the origin of beauty in the Forms. Plotinus further argues that artists, in creating art, gain a grasp of the intellectual principles of the Forms. Thus, art can be an embodied imitation of the form of Beauty. These principles may help us understand the emergence of “canons” regarding the fine arts in Greece. Canons from Greek and Latin authors detail the precise methods for the correct production of an artistic composition. These guidebooks are useful windows into ancient perspectives on art of varying media. In particular, they convey the sense that there is a correct way of making art. In Greek, kanōn is literally a “rod,” or “beam,” but takes on a plurality of meanings related to physical measurement. From there, the word takes on metaphorical senses, denoting “rule,” and “example.” The metaphor of the canon preserves an innately mathematical association to it. Poetry and music are closely intertwined in the Greek and Roman worlds, united by rhythm, pitch, and metre. The boundaries between them often become blurred, so that much of what we study under the category of poetry would have been musically accompanied.
Aristotle, in Poetics and Rhetoric, lays out the foundational principles for the creation of good style. There are certain criteria of correctness which ensures perfection as a product in itself. He prioritizes clarity and correctness in addition to adornment of the composition with literary devices in moderation. The principles of the genre of tragedy within Poetics continue to be taught to high school students studying plays. The first century BCE Rhetoric to Herennius proposes an extensive array of tropes and stylistic types, as well as three levels of style: grand, middle, and simple. Cicero’s On Invention similarly establishes stylistic rules for rhetoric. These categorizations of literary style originate in the Hellenistic period, many of the concepts devised by Theophrastus. Horace combines Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean principles in his Art of Poetry which became an extremely influential manual of poetics. In the late fourth to early fifth century, Augustine discusses three types of style and the appropriate use of each one in Christian scripture (On Christian Doctrine 4). Authors apply rules of style to rhetoric, poetry, scripture, and other oral or written compositions, so that we can glean the importance of the aesthetic quality of literary arts.
We see the emergence of the concept of leptotēs in the Hellenistic period, most famously encapsulated by the epigrams of Callimachus. In the proem to his Aetia, Callimachus commands to “keep the Muse slender” (1.24). He similarly makes the well-known quip in favour of concision in fragment 465, “big book, big evil.” The scholar-poets of the Hellenistic period such as Callimachus brought new meaning to style and mannered poetry, through their processes of poetic refinement.
In sculpture, one of the most famous canons is the lost Canon of Polykleitos, in which the illustrious sculptor laid out the ideal mathematical proportions of statues. Each part of the body ought to individually adhere to the correct dimensions in order to attain artistic perfection. Through these principles, Polykleitos revolutionized the style of freestanding Greek sculpture. His innovations included the mastery of contrapposto and symmetria. Any imposition of mathematical principles of beauty to sculpture necessarily implicates perspectives on physical beauty of the human body: a hint at beauty standards of the time. The ideal sculptural bodies foster a sense of awe in the viewers gazing at visual perfection. The Pythagoreans posited that harmony and beauty is owed to its numerical proportion and thus the numerical proportion of the universe as a whole. Galen states that the Greek Stoic philosophers likewise placed the origin of beauty in symmetria (On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato 5.3.17). This continued into Roman Stoicism, as Cicero emphasizes the proper shapes and harmony of several composite parts in a whole (Tusculan Disputations).
Monumental architecture, such as temples, likewise adhered to strict mathematical rules of dimension and shape in order to inspire a sense of awe at viewing the structure. The Parthenon of the Acropolis in Athens is a marvel of the manipulation of mathematics for the purpose of producing a desired effect. The dimensions of the temple adhere to careful ideal ratios. There is entasis of the columns which lean inwards, the stylobate of the temple is curved in order to visually lighten the heavy weight of the Pentelic marble and lend the appearance of precise straightness. The 1st century BCE Roman architect Vitruvius in On Architecture wrote a treatise which likewise emphasizes the importance of ideal ratios and proportions for constructing emotionally sound and visually pleasing buildings. He also applies these principles to visual arts such as painting and sculpting (Vitruvius, On Architecture 3). Adherence to these mathematical principles bestows venustas; that is, a quality of gracefulness, beauty, and attraction. Vitruvius also stresses the utility (utilitas) of a structure, which he claims is not antithetical to, but goes hand-in-hand with, venustas (1.2.2). Cicero in De Oratore (3.180) and Pliny the Younger (Epistulae 10.41.1) likewise connect utility and value of appearance.
Authors of the Greek and Roman world comment upon the correct styles and forms of a variety of genres of art. A conceptualization of objective, correct beauty emerges within poetry, rhetoric, sculpture, painting, architecture, and beyond. Beauty exists in art in itself, and it can be created by skilled craftspersons. Beauty, according to these authors, lies not in the eye of the beholder, but in the composition itself. This does not preclude the ability for beauty to possess value and power beyond the fact of its existence, and it is the topic of that personal response to art that we will next explore.
2. Subjective Responses to Art
Art has the capacity to elicit emotions, to make a person feel joy, fear, pity, sadness. It can make a person change their opinion, experience desire, or act in a different way. Art extends its aesthetic value beyond being beautiful per se, affecting viewers and listeners in a myriad of different ways. Plato calls this power of art psychagōgia (Phaedrus 261a). In rhetoric, this “soul-guidance” represents the purely aesthetic power of speech distinct from, and not less important than, the logical meaning of its words.
Aristotle corroborates the emotional power which speech may possess in Rhetoric. He states that one style of speech, based in emotion, may move the listener to feel the same way, regardless of the speech’s content (3.7.4–5). The objective beauty of a speech may not be merely recognized by listeners but may also affect the listeners’ mental state. In this way, beauty has the power to persuade. We need only think of the implications of such a principle, and the controversies in Greek and Roman history concerning those whose power of speech had its basis in style rather than morality or logic. Aristotle also references the phenomenon of catharsis throughout his works, which loosely refers to the purging of emotions which an audience experiences when witnessing a tragic play. Such feelings which music and tragedy may induce and then release has an educational value. Just as the tragic characters approach greater understanding by the end of the play, so too does the audience come away with greater understanding of the self and of morality.
The Hellenistic Period brought pathos to the foreground in regard to poetry and visual art to an unprecedented degree. The art of the period reflects a fascination with marginal, grotesque, imperfect, emotional subjects. Sculptors played with the notion of viewership in ways which had not yet been explored in Greek art; the onlooker became an active source of narrative within the art through emotional reaction and the act of seeing. Sculpture with an emphasis on crisis and pathos is often referred to as Hellenistic Baroque. Based on extant copies, Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos would have shown shock and shame as she is spotted taking her bath. The viewer becomes a voyeur, as art and life come together on the same plane. Affected by witnessing the eternal death of the Dying Gaul, preserved through Roman copies, the viewer reflects and reinforces the emotion shown by the sculpture.
The art of the Hellenistic Period also brings with it a new focus on realism. As we have seen with the sculpture of the period, which often depicts the mundane and marginal, New Comedy depicts every-day scenarios in all their charming and ugly relatability. Zanker reflects on the popularity of scenes Menander’s plays in mosaics and wall paintings, which points to the personal identification of viewers with the comic themes. Of course, the realism of Hellenistic Art heavily informs the verism in the art of Republican Rome and the themes of Roman comedy.
Despite Epicurus’ own rejection of the traditional educational curriculum and the cultural importance of poetry, Lucretius, in the first book of On the Nature of Things, compares his poetry to medicinal wormwood in a cup with honey along the rim (1.931-950). The epic verse of the poetry disguises with its beauty the hard-to-swallow Epicurean moral content. The aesthetic value facilitates the ease of reading which then serves a greater purpose of education. Beauty provides pleasure and attracts; it draws in readers who would not read the material if it were unadorned. The beauty of the verse also lends the content a new power. Through the elaborate imagery, the power of poetry illustrates the Epicurean moral points more effectively.
Ironically mirroring the Epicurean Lucretius’ rationale of his poetic medium, the Stoic geographer Strabo argues that poetry – Homer in particular – has the ability to both affect the soul (he identifies this property as psychagōgia) and provide educational merit (Geography 1.2). There is no single Stoic position regarding the power and value of art, but it is clear that there is a recurring belief in the attraction and power of beauty.
A sub-topic which has gained its own status of importance within aesthetics is the sublime. Edmund Burke coined the term as the feeling – delightful and horrifying – of insignificance in the face of a greater, often dangerous, force. The concept itself encompasses a vast myriad of disparate experiences in response to a variety of stimuli. The sublime is always changing and elusive, which has contributed to the difficulty of the topic in ancient literature. Scholarship on ancient perceptions of this experience have focused in particular around the rhetorical manual, On the Sublime (Περì Ὕψους), attributed to Longinus. James Porter notes that the sublime is “provoked” by moments of “extremes, contrasts, intensities, and incommensurabilities, of transgressed limits, excesses, collisions, and structures on the edge of collapse or ruin.” Yet, considerations of the experience of what we call the sublime do not originate with, and are not limited to, Longinus, as Porter argues. In the same way, discourse surrounding aesthetics must not be limited to exploration of the sublime, but must allow for a variety of modes of experience. In exploring aesthetics and the sublime in ancient literature, the challenge lies in moving beyond the limitations of nomenclature such as sublimis and hypsos for denoting ancient engagement with aesthetics.
While beauty may not emerge only from the perspective of the viewer, reader, or listener, ancient authors acknowledge the power that art possesses to affect emotional and mental states. We see a trend from the Hellenistic Period onwards towards an increased role of the receiver of art in the process of meaning-making. We see the emergence of a new centrality of emotional experience itself within the discussions of art and beauty. Phenomena such as catharsis and the sublime become areas of philosophical inquiry in their own right. The implications that art can shape minds and move souls hints at the infinite ways in which it was interwoven with so many facets of ancient life.
It is a challenge for scholars to reconstruct the philosophy of art in the ancient world. No clear concept of “aesthetics” is ever defined by ancient Mediterranean philosophers which neatly maps onto the 18th century definitions. Yet, authors, sculptors, painters, musicians, and architects demonstrate that questions surrounding art pervade every aspect of Greek and Roman life. The origins and effects of beauty and art on people interacting with it are significant areas of inquiry throughout our extant literature and material culture. Ancient authors were certainly aware of their own fascination with the topics of aesthetics, so that self-conscious play with metatextuality and intertextuality make for extremely rich sources of artistic exploration. While such a brief overview necessarily simplifies this topic and the relevant texts, ancient thought within a genre, period, or medium must not be considered homogenous. In grouping certain authors or groups, I have meant to draw out trends across time and place, in spite of the disparate nature of the thinkers. Not every school of thought or author has received due treatment, but I hope this article provides a foundation for further reading and exploration.
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For full in-text citations, see link here.