Ancient Aesthetics

views updated


In antiquity, aesthetics did not form a distinct branch of philosophy. Ancient philosophers discussed literature, music, and the visual arts and reflected on the nature of beauty in a variety of contexts. Since the Greek word for "beautiful" or "fine," kalos, is a very general value term that can also be used to describe what is morally admirable, ancient discussion of beauty is often embedded in wider-ranging discussion of values. Literature, music, and the visual arts are frequently considered in an educational and political context; at the same time, most ancient philosophers' views about the arts are strongly influenced by other aspects of their philosophy, in particular their metaphysics.

The earliest Greek philosophy does include some suggestive remarks on aesthetic topics, notably some comments by Gorgias in his Encomium of Helen, written in the fifth century BCE, about the power of speech. However, in aesthetics as elsewhere, it was Plato and Aristotle who set the philosophical agenda for all subsequent discussion. We shall therefore begin with Plato and Aristotle and shall trace the development of what we now call aesthetics through the Hellenistic and Roman periods into late antiquity.


Plato raises questions about the arts, and about beauty, in a number of different dialogues. Poetry is the art to which he devotes the most discussion, but this entry will also discuss his attitude to rhetoric, his use of the visual arts to illustrate his arguments about both poetry and rhetoric, his comments on music, and finally his view of beauty.

Plato alludes to "an old quarrel" between philosophy and poetry (Republic 10.607B). He saw dangers in the widespread use of Homer in classical Greek education and in the role played by tragic drama in classical Athens, a role comparable to that of the mass media in modern society. He therefore argues in the Ion and in Republic 10 that poets, unlike philosophers, do not have knowledge, and in Republic 2 and 3 he places strict limits on the amount of Homer that the future guardians of his ideal state may read and on the type of dramatic performance in which they may take part. In Republic 3 he describes drama as imitation (mimesis in Greek) and regards both acting and viewing drama as dangerous, both because playing a variety of different roles can destabilize the personality and because imitation of evil characters may likewise make us evil. Since poets lack knowledge, their poetry, according to Plato, appeals not to reason but to the emotions. This point recurs in the Ion, in Republic 2 and 3, and in Republic 10, where it is made using the theory of three parts of the soul first set out in Republic 4.

Traditionally Greek poets claimed to be inspired by the Muses. Plato too regards poets as inspired, in the Ion and elsewhere, but since such inspiration is contrasted with knowledge, it may not be worth much. However, he does suggest at Phaedrus 245A that inspired poetry is more valuable than poetry produced by technical skill alone.

In Republic 10, Plato puts forward perhaps his most famous and influential argument to distinguish poetry from philosophy, using the metaphysics developed in the central books of the Republic. According to that metaphysics, the physical world is only an imitation (mimesis, again) of a world of transcendent Forms. In Republic 10, Plato suggests that painters simply copy objects in the physical world and are thus at two removes from the true reality of the world of Forms. The point is then immediately applied to poets, who are regarded as low-grade copyists of the same kind. The scope of mimesis is now much wider than in Republic 3, where it applied only to drama; here Plato treats virtually all poetry as mimetic and so banishes it from his ideal state.

Plato is as harshly critical of rhetoric as he is of poetry, and for similar reasons. In classical Athens, teachers of rhetoric were popular and rhetorical skill was widely seen as the passport to a successful political career. Many of the Sophists, such as Gorgias and Thrasymachus, taught rhetoric. Plato regularly sets up an opposition between the Sophists, as false teachers, and his own mentor, Socrates; in dialogues such as the Gorgias, he contrasts the persuasive power of rhetoric, aimed only at pleasing the audience, with philosophy, which aims for knowledge of the truth. Similarly, in the Sophist, at 235Bff., Plato defines the Sophist as a maker of images, comparing his techniques to those used by sculptors and painters. In the Phaedrus, however, although Socrates criticizes severely a speech said to be by the orator Lysias, he also raises the possibility that there could be an ideal kind of rhetoric, based on knowledge.

Plato makes occasional remarks about music and in Republic 3.398Cff. proposes to regulate the music to which the future guardians of the ideal state may listen, just as he regulates the poetry that they may study. He assumes that music, like poetry, affects the emotions, and he distinguishes between musical modes such as the Dorian and the Lydian on ethical grounds: the future guardians should listen to music that will make them brave and warlike, not to music that will encourage excessive indulgence in unmanly emotions such as grief.

When Plato discusses poetry, rhetoric, and music, sometimes using the visual arts to illustrate and support his argument, he says little or nothing about beauty. He considers beauty in a quite different context in Symposium 210ff. where Socrates, speaking in praise of Love (Erōs in Greek), reports what he says he was told by a wise woman, Diotima. This passage describes, in lyrical, poetic language, a progression from the love of physical beauty to the love of moral and intellectual beauty and finally to the Form of Beauty itself. Plato here makes no direct reference to the arts, but it is worth noting that in the Phaedrus too he recognizes love as a powerful but nonrational motive force in the human soul. The Phaedrus also contains a mythical account of how the human soul, before it entered the body, was able to see the Forms, including the Form of Beauty. As we have seen, the Phaedrus includes some favorable comments on inspired poetry and the suggestion that an ideal rhetoric, based on knowledge, could be devised. It is therefore tempting to suggest that the right kind of poetry and rhetoric could find a place among the moral and intellectual beauties mentioned in the Symposium. Yet we should note that even if this is correct, such beauties will still be left behind by the soul that ascends to the Forms, the ultimate object of philosophical inquiry.


Whereas Plato always discusses poetry and the other arts within a broader context, Aristotle devotes the Poetics solely to an examination of poetry. In fact the scope of the Poetics as we have it is narrower still: after some introductory remarks about the nature of poetry in general, Aristotle concentrates on tragedy and epic; a lost second book was devoted to comedy. Although the Poetics is the main source for Aristotle's aesthetic thought, there is a brief but important discussion of music in the Politics that supplements the single allusion in the Poetics to katharsis, and his views on rhetoric, expounded in the Rhetoric, are also of interest.

Like Plato, Aristotle regards poetry as a form of mimesis, or "imitation," but since Aristotle's metaphysics differs radically from Plato's, his understanding of mimesis is also radically different. For Aristotle forms are immanent in matter, not transcendent. Poetry imitates the world around us, and Aristotle is happy to accept both that we enjoy recognizing such imitation and that we can learn from it. Tragedy, for Aristotle, is an imitation of an action, and Aristotle focuses not on the characters represented but on the plot. Although he does discuss what kind of tragic hero is best, for example, his concern is primarily with what makes a good play. For that reason he has often, with some justice, been regarded as the first formalist in literary theory. He stresses the importance of a unified plot, arguing, for instance, in 1459a that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are superior to other epics such as the Cypria or the Little Iliad in being less episodic. He illustrates his argument with many examples from classical Greek plays, particularly Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, which he admires as a supreme example of a well-constructed tragedy.

Yet Aristotle's approach to poetry is not purely formal. He regards the action and the characters of a tragedy as morally significant and believes that poetry can convey universal truths, claiming, at 1451b, that it is closer to philosophy than to history in that respect. Like Plato he recognizes that poetry has a powerful effect on the emotions and like Plato he holds that tragedy arouses both pity and fear. However, whereas Plato, in Republic 10 and elsewhere, argues that tragedy and other forms of poetry overstimulate these emotions, Aristotle has a more complex view. When he gives a definition of tragedy in Poetics 1449b, he describes it as bringing about a katharsis of pity and fear and in Politics 8. 1341bff., in a discussion of music, he mentions a similar katharsis effected by the healing use of music in certain religious rites. There has been much scholarly discussion of just what Aristotle means by katharsis. Arguably it is best understood in the light of Aristotle's ethics: Aristotle holds that in order to act virtuously we need to feel the right emotions at the right time, in the right way and toward the right objects; in some way that is not fully explained, our feeling pity and fear as we watch a good tragedy brings about the result that, when we leave the theater, we feel not too much pity and fear, as Plato supposed, but just the right amount that we need for ethical action.

The rest of Aristotle's discussion of music in Politics 8 assumes, as Plato did in the Republic, that music has a powerful effect on the emotions. He criticizes some details of Plato's argument in Republic 3.398Cff., and by introducing the notion of katharsis, Aristotle opens up the possibility that music can be used for therapeutic purposes.

A similar interest in the effect of art on the emotions can be seen in Aristotle's Rhetoric. Aristotle devotes much of Rhetoric 2 to a discussion of the emotions because the orator will need to understand his audience's emotional responses in order to persuade them effectively. The Rhetoric also contains important discussions of rhetorical reasoning and of prose style. Just as the Poetics is not a handbook for poets but a philosophical treatise on poetry based on close study of tragedy and epic, so the Rhetoric is not a handbook for orators but a philosophical treatise based on close study of rhetorical practice.

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

After the death of Aristotle, Greek philosophy became increasingly diverse. While the Platonist and Aristotelian schools continued, the Epicureans and the Stoics developed new approaches to many issues. Aristotle's pupil, Theophrastus, was interested in the therapeutic powers of music and claimed that music could even cure bodily afflictions such as sciatica. Another pupil of Aristotle, Aristoxenus, studied music from an empirical point of view, opposing the mathematical approach that had been taken by the Pythagoreans.

The Stoics regarded both the order of the universe and moral virtue as beautiful, and their interest in the philosophy of language led them to discuss poetry and rhetoric. They thought poetry could express truth, as we can see from Cleanthes' choice of verse to convey his philosophy in the Hymn to Zeus and from the way in which critics such as Heraclitus and Cornutus used allegorical interpretation of poetry and mythology. By contrast, Epicurus appears to have rejected the idea that poetry could have any value as a means of instruction, although he was prepared to accept that it could be a source of pleasure.

In the first century BCE, Philodemus, an Epicurean, wrote his important works On Poems and On Music, which survive only in fragmentary form in papyrus scrolls found at Herculaneum. Much of Philodemus's work took the form of attacks on other critics and theorists. His own view was that poetry, and music, do not give pleasure by their sound alone. Music at this time was normally an accompaniment to poetry, and Philodemus holds that the value of music comes from the poetry that is performed with it, and the value of that poetry comes from the thought that it expresses; he also holds that form and content go closely together and that a poem cannot be good in thought but bad in composition.

Although Philodemus influenced the Roman poets Virgil and Horace, Epicurean views remained outside the mainstream of thinking about the arts in the first century BCE and the first century CE. Many educated writers of this period combine together ideas from more than one philosophical school. In both Cicero (Orator 8) and Seneca (Letters 58 and 65) we find an important new idea about the metaphysical status of works of art. Both these writers suggest that rather than merely imitating objects in the physical world, which are themselves copies of transcendent Forms, the artist looks to ideas in his own mind, which are themselves reflections of the Platonic Forms, understood by the Platonists of this period as the thoughts of God. The Greek sculptor Phidias, famous for his statue of the supreme god, Zeus, is used as an example of an artist who worked in this way.

Throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods there continued to be great interest in the moral effect of the arts and the role of the arts in education. Plutarch (c. 45c. 120 CE) discusses poetry from a moral point of view in his De audiendis poetis, in a way that reflects the continuing influence of Plato's views. He is familiar with the idea that music can be used as psychological therapy and associates this with Pythagoreanism in De Iside 384A.

The Pythagoreans, as we saw earlier, were also credited with a mathematical approach to music. Ptolemy's Harmonics, written in the second century CE, contrasts Pythagorean and Aristoxenian views of music. Ptolemy agrees with the Pythagoreans that musical structures must be analyzed in mathematical terms but criticizes them for neglecting empirical, perceptual evidence.

Literary criticism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods was closely intertwined with the theory and practice of rhetoric. Writers such as Cicero and Quintilian discuss literary and aesthetic matters in the context of rhetorical education. The work On the Sublime attributed to Longinus, which probably dates from the first century CE, blends ideas drawn from the rhetorical tradition of literary criticism with ideas drawn from philosophy, particularly from Platonism. The work is unusual among surviving ancient works of literary criticism both because the author develops the view that the best works of literature have an essential quality of sublimity that explains their enduring appeal and because he illustrates his view with detailed discussion of examples in a way that combines technical analysis with judgment of literary value.

Late Antiquity

Plotinus, writing in the third century CE, regarded himself as a Platonist but is now labeled rather a "Neoplatonist" because he elaborated a more complex metaphysics than previous Platonists, postulating a transcendent One beyond the realm of the Platonic Forms. In aesthetics, Plotinus combined the suggestion that the artist uses ideas in his own mind that directly reflect the Forms, already found in Cicero and Seneca, with the account of the ascent to the Form of Beauty offered in Plato's Symposium. Ennead 1.6 begins by rejecting a Stoic account of beauty as symmetry of parts, arguing that incomposite things can also be beautiful and that they derive their beauty from a higher source. Plotinus then draws on Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus to describe an ascent from physical beauty through moral and intellectual beauty to the Form itself, and ultimately to the One beyond the Form of Beauty. Ennead 1.6 has often been regarded as presenting an aesthetic theory, but we must recognize, first, that Plotinus is not talking just about "beauty" in the modern sense and, second, that his theory implies that beauty in the physical world is to be valued only insofar as it leads us to a higher realm. As noted at the beginning of this entry, the Greek word kalos, standardly translated as "beautiful," is a very general value term. It would be a mistake to say that Plotinus is aestheticizing morality when, like the Stoics and Plato before him, he describes moral virtue as kalos ; it would be more correct to say that, like most ancient thinkers, he makes no distinction between aesthetic and moral value. It is also important to recognize that for Plotinus our ultimate goal is union with the One; intellectual contemplation is the next best thing, and appreciation of beauty is only a means to achieving these goals, not something valued for its own sake.

Plotinus says little or nothing about art in Ennead 1.6, but in Ennead 5.8.1 he combines the view of beauty found in 1.6 with the suggestion that the artist can imitate the Forms directly, using principles in his own mind that derive from the Forms. He uses the standard example of Phidias's statue of Zeus and suggests, very politely, that Plato's argument in Republic 10 is mistaken in representing works of art as imitating only objects in nature. According to Plotinus's argument, art itself is superior to its products, and he moves on in the rest of 5.8 to discuss the intellectual beauty of the world of Forms.

Although Plotinus himself shows only limited interest in the arts, his view of beauty led to important developments in poetic and musical theory. His views were applied to poetry by the later Neoplatonist Proclus, in the fifth century CE. In his Commentary on the Republic, Proclus argues that much of Homer's poetry is not after all vulnerable to Plato's criticisms, since it is not mimetic but inspired. Just as Phidias's Zeus, for both Plotinus and Proclus, portrays the god, capturing something of divine beauty in the statue we see, so Homeric poetry conveys truths about the divine world of Neoplatonic metaphysics. In order to maintain this view of Homer, Proclus resorts to allegorical interpretation of episodes criticized by Plato, drawing on a long tradition of such interpretation by Stoics and others.

Proclus and other later Neoplatonists also devoted attention to music. On the one hand, they integrated traditional views about the effect of music on the emotions into their philosophical system. On the other, they regarded music as one of the mathematical sciences, following a Pythagorean rather than an Aristoxenian approach. They perceived the same mathematical patterns in music as in the physical universe, believing that the beauty of such perceptible order derived from the ordered structure of the intelligible world. The Institutio musica of Boethius (c. 480c. 524 CE), written in Latin, draws heavily on these ideas.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aristotle; Boethius; Anicius Manlius Severinus; Gorgias of Leontini; Kalon; Katharsis; Mimesis; Neoplatonism; Philodemus; Plato; Plotinus; Proclus.


texts and translations

Aristotle. Ars rhetorica. Edited by Rudolf Kassel. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1976.

Aristotle. De arte poetica (Oxford Classical Text). Edited by Rudolf Kassel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin, 1996.

Aristotle. Politica (Oxford Classical Text). Edited by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Barker, Andrew D. Greek Musical Writings. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1989.

Boethius. De institutione arithmetica; De institutione musica. Edited by Gottfried Friedlein. Leipzig: Teubner, 1867.

Boethius. Fundamentals of Music. Translated by Calvin M. Bower. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.

Longinus. On the Sublime. Edited by Donald A. Russell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Philodemus. On Poems Book One. Edited by Richard Janko. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Plato. Complete Works (in English translation). Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1997.

Plato. Opera (Oxford Classical Text). Edited by John Burnet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19021906.

Plato. Opera, vol. 1 (Oxford Classical Text). Edited by E. A. Duke and others. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Plato. Republic (Oxford Classical Text). Edited by Simon R. Slings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Plotinus. Enneads (Loeb Classical Library). Edited by A. Hilary Armstrong. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press and Heinemann, 19661988.

Russell, Donald A., and Michael Winterbottom. Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.


Chadwick, Henry. Boethius. The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Halliwell, Stephen. Aristotle's Poetics. London: Duckworth, 1986.

Janaway, Christopher. Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Janko, Richard. Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II. London: Duckworth, 1984.

Kennedy, George A., ed. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 1. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Moravcsik, Julius, and Philip Temko, eds. Plato on Beauty, Wisdom and the Arts. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Obbink, Dirk, ed. Philodemus and Poetry: Poetic Theory and Practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Russell, Donald A. Criticism in Antiquity. London: Duckworth, 1981.

Anne Sheppard (2005)

About this article

Ancient Aesthetics

Updated About content Print Article