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Impoverished Aesthetics: An Introductory Discussion with Matt Ludwig and George Boys-Stones

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Ty Heemskerk, Audio Engineering

Impoverished Aesthetics Promotional Podcast Transcript

Matt Ludwig:

Hello listeners, thank you for tuning into this promotional podcast for a conference coming to the University of Toronto on October 21st and 22nd entitled Impoverished Aesthetics: New Approaches to Marginality in Latin Literature. My name is Matt Ludwig and I am a PhD Candidate at UofT’s Department of Classics Literature Stream. I am joined today by renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, Prof. George Boys-Stones. Welcome to the podcast George!

George Boys-Stones:

Hello Matt.


Good to have you here! Together George and I hope, in the next 20, 30 minutes or so, to stoke some enthusiasm for this conference by using our combined interests in philosophy and literature to contextualize exactly what “impoverished aesthetics” means, at least as far as we can in this short chunk of time. So, before I turn over to George for his insights, I’ll just briefly give our listeners the lay of the land here. In an advertisement for this conference from the UofT Classics department website we read the following:

“Scholars ancient and modern have relied on the category of the "sublime", or the aesthetic state generated by the perception of beauty and grandeur, to assess the value of Latin texts.”

But then we’re told, in this write-up about the conference, that contributors are aiming to push back on this focus to instead center experiences that come about through perceptions of the opposite kind. So, the conference speakers will be exploring literary evocations of ugliness, meanness, inferiority and the like – conditions we can collectively describe as marginal when considered against this assumption that valuable ancient art is that which generates experiences of ‘the beautiful’ or ‘the grand’. So, our goal today in this podcast episode is to help unpack the sort of tensions in the study of Greek and Roman aesthetics which prompt a conference like this. So, using our collective impressions about the philosophical and literary traditions of Greece and Rome, we will briefly explore three questions which will hopefully help clarify the context of this conference for anyone who is intrigued by the title but maybe a little unsure what it means. So, the three questions I’d like to explore with George today are as follows:

1) The first one is about this notion that the experience of hearing or reading a certain Latin text might be considered impoverished in beauty. That notion implies that there is a strong tradition in place regarding what qualifies as beautiful, and that the texts that this conference will be looking at don’t necessarily match up to this. So, in the first place I’ll be asking George what did the Classical philosophers—our earliest explicit theorists about art and the perceptions it generates—what did they consider to be traits of ‘the beautiful’?

2) And then secondly, we’ll look at why do our ancient artists would ever avoid such traits in their creations. Why do the arts not stack up towards this idea of ‘the beautiful’? What sorts of things might artists, particularly poets, be after besides ‘the beautiful’?

3) And then finally, we’ll conclude by discussing what other uses philosophers envision for aesthetic experience beyond capturing ‘the beautiful’?

So, without further ado, we’ll move onto the questions. George, I’ll start you off with a nice easy one: what did our classical philosophers think about beauty?


Great question Matt. I think the starting point might be to go to Plato who has a lot to say about beauty, but who starts exactly from the point that it’s something very confusing. Everyone has a sense of it, everyone responds to it, everyone kind of knows what it is, but no one agrees where to find it. It’s perplexing. It’s a spur to philosophy even, in Plato’s thought. So, he puts a great deal of thought into exactly that question of how you find something in common between these various things and people and circumstances that we respond to as beautiful. And he sort of comes to the conclusion that it has something to do with symmetry and the notion of orderliness. He assimilates this very much with notions of virtue and order and completion, wherever you find it. And so, it becomes for him an extremely important metaphysical principle, cosmological principle, theological principle! He seems to think that ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the good’, for example, are very similar notions or convergent notions, and unity is very important in that.

So, there are notions of fit and order. If you think about the word kosmos—Plato makes quite a bit out of this at some point—how we talk about the universe as the kosmos. This is a Greek word, of course, meaning ‘order’ or ‘beauty’ and Plato, when he’s talking about cosmology, makes that point very strongly: that we can enjoy doing the philosophy of nature because we’re studying something that is supremely beautiful. So, in a sense, I suppose, the kosmos itself becomes the reference point for everything else’s beauty. If it forms a coherent, contributive part of the kosmos, then it itself is beautiful.


Ok, great! So, in order to segue from this idea of the symmetry, order and completion of the kosmos as the philosophical basis for an idea of beauty, I’d just like to make the additional observation that these same principles of order, even suitability, fit, or proportion are also mentioned time and time again by the Greek and Latin poets themselves as goals for their own art. So, for instance we see words—you mentioned kosmos—but we also see words like prepon, metron, kairos—words about appropriateness, measure, timeliness. These come up over and over again in the Archaic and Classical Greek poets. So, Xenophanes’ first elegy, for instance, comes to mind where Xenophanes encourages symposiastic singers to match their songs to the cleanliness, orderliness, and austerity of his vision of the respectable drinking party, which in some ways is a vision of the orderly kosmos. So, he says ‘no stories about Titans and Giants here, but rather hymns to the gods’; there’s something that specifically fits in artistically with certain circumstances.

Furthermore, I’d also like to point listeners, if they haven’t already read this, to Andrew Ford’s book The Origins of Criticism. And he talks about how the poets in the Archaic and Classical periods originally strove to attain these qualities with their songs for religious and social reasons, but then eventually these developed into more abstract, objective, metaphysical notions of artistic quality. So that’s where the artistic tradition and the philosophical tradition start to merge.

However, whenever, of course, we are discussing people trying to pin down rules for beauty, there are always going to be other artists and philosophers who will be challenging these so-called rules. So, I will be a little bit cheeky with my segue here into the next question and I will quote another archaic lyric poem whose meaning I think we can take both literally and metaphorically as a commentary on poetry. So, here’s Andrew Miller’s translation of Archilochus frag. 60:

“I have no love for a commander who’s tall or stands astraddle, who’s proud of his curling locks or wears a beard neatly trimmed. Instead, I’ll take a man who’s short and crooked to look at about the shanks, firmly planted on his feet, full of heart.”

So sometimes, in both war and art, conventional beauty—the symmetrical, the useful, the proportional—is not what we’re after. So then, as a follow up George: in what ways do ancient artists not aim at this definition of beauty? What else are they interested in?


Well again, good observation. If you go all the way back to Homer and the Iliad, we’re looking there, we’re invited there, to enjoy looking at scenes of bloodshed, often very viscerally described of course. So yes, there’s a question that arises then about why we like sometimes looking at things, why we even somehow experience aesthetic attraction towards things which are themselves ugly. Aristotle, quite famously, uses the example of a picture of an ugly picture and he says we might not enjoy looking at the ugly person, but we can enjoy looking at the picture of it. And his view is that that’s because we get a sense, at a fairly low level in this case, that we’re learning something about the world through artistic representations of it and we enjoy learning. So, we’re presented with some sort of perspective on the world, even when what we’re being presented with is a representation of something that in itself is ugly. So, there’s this engagement now with the idea of the understanding, the interpretative, the use of the intellect in ‘the aesthetic’. So, we might want to say that ‘the aesthetic’ experience adds something to the experience just of beauty—namely, that it adds that dimension of thoughtfulness and reflection and learning. So, we’re not saying that we find this picture ‘beautiful’, but that we find it ‘aesthetic’. And I think that gives you a much richer way of thinking about how even very traditional poetry like certain, long stretches actually, of Homer are aesthetically very engaging!


Right, so we have a much more complex picture of what aesthetic experience actually is, rather than just capturing ‘the beautiful’ or trying to articulate ‘the beautiful’.


Right, and then Aristotle really runs with that in the Poetics when he’s talking about tragedy which, for him, is canonically about fear and pity. So, this is not supposed to be attractive or easy on the eyes, as it were. And tragedy is full of horrors: Oedipus putting out his eyes, murder, incest, all the rest of it. But it’s the richest, most engaging intellectual experience you can have in an artistic context.


Absolutely! So yeah, in connection with this idea of states or experiences, when we’re watching a play or reading a poem or hearing a poem, that don’t necessarily strike us as ‘the beautiful’ but actually are important processes in helping us clarify things cognitively, I’d also like to draw people’s attention to a pretty recent book by Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi from 2012 called Frontiers of Pleasure, which talks a lot more pointedly about psychosomatic aesthetic experiences that Archaic and Classical Greek poets were after. They really valued these sorts of artistic confrontations which could generate these sorts of experiences that we might not readily think of as useful, pleasurable, or instructive but actual can be.

So, one great example she fleshes out is from the Odyssey. She points to three different passages

in the Odyssey in which an epic poetic performance induces mournful weeping in the audience. So, we have Phemius in Book 1, Menelaus in Book 4, and Demodocus in Book 8. So, the art generates an audience confrontation with something terrible and unpleasurable. But then Peponi looks closely at the progression of these episodes and she argues that they reveal a kind of early aesthetic theory of weeping responses. So, in Book 1, when Phemius delivers his poem and it induces crying from Penelope, there is not enough aesthetic distance between the listeners and the sad story that they’re being told, so all the pleasure is lost and the aesthetic confrontation has to stop. In Book 4, when Menelaus is telling a story to Telemachus, the same issue occurs, so the auditors try to create artificial distance between themselves and the story to no real avail: Helen brings them drugs to help them fall asleep and forget their issues. But then in Book 8, as this kind of culminating example, Odysseus hears his own woes sung to him by Demodocus and, despite the lack of aesthetic distance and the weeping that results, he actually manages to generate that pain into something pleasurable and transformative. This is kind of a pivot point in the poem. So, Peponi argues that this is because of the particular way in which Demodocus moulds the story. So, in her words, he ‘others’ Odysseus’ experience in such a way that the emotionality of the artistic confrontation actually prompts deeper, objective critical reflection rather than hinders it.

So, as you were saying, this idea very much anticipates what Aristotle will argue about the cognitive benefits of tragedy spectatorship. And Peponi herself also sees in this a kernel of Plato’s later discussion in the Philebus of ‘mixed pleasure’. So, without getting too into the weeds about all the specifics of these philosophical arguments, I’d like to segue from poetry and the arts back to the philosophers and ask you, George: how might our sense of the philosophers’ interest in art also be limited when we restrict ourselves to their theories of beauty? So, you already touched on this a little bit, but what other philosophical uses do philosophers envision for aesthetic experience?


So, you’re right to introduce the notion of emotion, of course, which I hadn’t mentioned yet. But, one of the things that comes out of that combination of the reflective intellectual and the experience of beauty is an opportunity to explore your emotions. So, one of the things that happens, I think, through later philosophy—through the Hellenistic period and the Roman period in philosophy—is that people become very interested in the way in which your relationship with art can help to shape, in one way or another, your intellectual understanding but also your emotional relationship with the world. I think that’s right! And that works in several different ways. So, for example you can have art that is not simply bland and beautiful and unchallenging, but the way in which you respond to more challenging forms of art might tell you something yourself about your own moral state. And it might tell you something you like and it might tell you something you don’t like. So, it might be that you find yourself having emotional responses that you’re even slightly ashamed of or, conversely, that you’re proud of. And this helps you to mould yourself as a human being. So, the aesthetic experience, even the negative, can be part of the learning experience as a philosopher, as a human being, and can act as a kind of test on that.

I think there are also ways in which the representation of difficult cases in art—we increasingly, later as we go on, get philosophers who are engaged in art quite directly; so, Seneca, the first century Roman philosopher writes tragedies himself—I think there’s an exploration there of the limits of the order that there is in the kosmos. One thing that always concerns philosophers of course is how—having said that the kosmos is this beautiful and orderly artifact—how it is that there’s so much ugliness and evil and unhappiness in the world itself! Art of this sort becomes a sort of test case for thinking about how we can explain dark experiences in life, the limited beauty of life itself, in a way. So, the problem of evil, really, becomes thematized through some of these works.

So, for example Lucan, who of course writes a very challenging epic, is himself trained as a Stoic and I think is partly there trying to help us understand how even the experience of evil is necessary, but can help us to see the bigger picture of the diversity and beauty of the kosmos as a whole.


Yeah, could you speak perhaps a little bit more generally about how—since we’re talking about Latin literature, and Stoicism and Epicureanism both lurk very large in the background, and sometimes even in the foreground, of the literature that will be discussed at the conference—could you speak maybe generally about how Stoic philosophers might approach art as either conducive for philosophical reflection or a barrier to it, versus how Epicureans might view the same thing?


Yeah, it’s an interesting question because Epicurus himself apparently was rather against art and thought it a trivial distraction from the serious job of trying to understand the world. I mean, that isn’t something that his followers really were able to stick with.

But the Stoics in particular, I think, are really quite attracted to this exactly as a way of trying to explore some of these more difficult areas, and trying to express the way in which you can have a more mature, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional relationship with the kosmos without focussing on things out of context and using them as evidence that there is no god, for example, there is no order, or everything is chaos. In fact, even moments of unhappiness and chaos and emotional disturbance can be part of a patterned whole which leads you to a more mature understanding of the world.

I think maybe this sort of reflects what I was saying at the beginning: that we make this transition from a naïve reaction to ‘the beautiful’ to a more intellectually informed appreciation of ‘the aesthetic’ and a more emotionally mature relationship with the complex. And I think that’s what’s going on with these more challenging bits of literature. They’re inviting a more mature, complex, multi-faceted engagement with the kosmos as the ultimate artifact.


Yeah, that’s great! And I think we’ve found our way to this notion of Plato’s ‘ancient quarrel’ which, of course, is lurking in the background—how art and moral philosophy, they have this very complex relationship with each other where, at certain points arts seems to threatens the aims of moral philosophy and, when looked at a different way, it can seem to be very helpful to the aims of moral philosophy, depending on the thinker and the tradition. But it’s this very question I think, about the relationship between the two, that underpins this whole conference and is, in my opinion, a bottomless well from which to draw really interesting research questions.

Unfortunately, that is all the time we have to devote to this very interesting ‘tho complex topic. But we hope we have intrigued some of you listening at least to attend the conference to hear more! If any of this piqued your interest, please come join us. The main take-away I’d like listeners to consider is this: it is sometimes assumed, particularly in popular impressions of Greek and Roman art, that these ancient artists aimed to evoke some uniform philosophical category of ‘the beautiful’. But this is misguided. The actual picture is much more complex; there was interest in the ancient world, just as there is now, in how art could generate many, many different types of experience, each with a particular value of its own.

So, thanks again for listening. This has been Matt Ludwig and Prof. George Boys-Stones. And we’ll see you on Oct. 21st!



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