11 Ancient Aesthetics

Matthew Sharpe

If one were being pedantic, one would say that there was no “ancient aesthetics,” certainly in the ways that aesthetics emerged as one part of philosophy in the 18th century (Mason 2016, 3). Later moderns’ exclusive focus on aesthêsis, on how art and beauty “makes us feel,” is foreign to the Greeks and Romans. Beauty for them was firstly what we would call an objective thing. If one were being more liberal-minded, we could say that all of Greek existence was meaningfully “aesthetic,” characterised by an overarching sense of the beautiful, to kalon. The arts were bound up from their inception with religious ritual and worship, and the classical Greeks could think of no better designation for the ethically excellent man than to call him kalos k’agathos, the beautiful and good man. Indeed, the very term kalon, designating beauty, could be used to describe nobility of action or character, as well as physical beauty (Mason 2016, 64).

This is not to say that the Greeks and Romans did not produce arts in great abundance. In the renaissance and enlightenment, their architecture, painting, sculpture and literature would be held up as timeless standards by artists and theoreticians of the arts. From the classical period (5th–4th century BCE), Greek artists joined the philosophers in theorising concerning beauty and the arts, and in the attempt to lay down “canons” for the production of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, rhetoric, and poetics (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 24–25, 49–63).

To give an opening generalisation, we can say that four different areas of concern emerge within “ancient aesthetics,” if we take the latter term to describe ancient authors’ attempts to theoretically comprehend beauty and the arts:

  1. The attempt to understand beauty (to kalon) as an “objective” quality in the world that characterises some objects, people, and nature;
  2. The attempt to understand what we would call the “subjective” dimension involved in human responsiveness to beauty and the arts: the way that beautiful things please or move us, and the way that their effect upon us can be edifying, purifying us from negative beliefs or emotions (katharsis), or morally elevating us to be better citizens or human beings (in paideia);
  3. Attempts to understand how artistic objects, from poems to sculptures, are produced, whether through madness or inspiration, or by following codifiable technical norms, and with what ends;
  4. As it were in between (i) and (ii), attempts to theorise the ethical and political significance of the arts, given their capacities to powerfully affect and transform individuals or groups. So, in both Plato and Aristotle, the arts are addressed very largely in their political dialogues, like Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, in ways we would not today associate with political theory.[1]

With these four concerns in view as a preliminary rubric, we will proceed in what follows in a more or less chronological fashion. We begin with the aesthetic practices and reflections of the preclassical artists and poets, and end with the Stoic philosophers’ views on art and beauty. As we will see, in different authors and periods, different considerations become predominant and pass out of focus. This again reflects the absence of a codified (sub)discipline of philosophical thought of aesthetics, like our own, in the classical world.

The prephilosophical aesthetics of the Greeks

As Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz has underscored, we must be careful before assuming that the prephilosophical Greeks’ experiences and assumptions concerning the arts and beauty are identical to our own (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 25–30, 166–167). Firstly, the extensions of key terms, like mousikê, poeisis, and to kalon, differ from those of our own seeming equivalents—“music,” “poetry,” and “beauty” (Mason 2016, 64). Moreover, what the Greeks deemed worthy of expressing or producing in the arts, the nature, number, and classification of those arts, and their understandings of what an artist was engaged in when they created an artwork all differ greatly from modern views.

One framing consideration to approach ancient aesthetics must be that each of the arts, from architecture and sculpture to music, poetry, and drama, emerged from the ancients’ polytheistic cults and worship. Homer and Hesiod each sang pre-eminently of the gods and semi-divine heroes. The preeminent achievements in archaic Greek architecture were temples; early sculptors carved gods, mythological reliefs, and documented religious events on the pediments of temples, or else shaped archetypal male and female nudes (koroi, korai) without distinguishing individuality (Durant 1939, 221–226). In music, an art associated mythologically with the lyre-playing god Orpheus, the paean was developed as a medium to praise Apollo, the dithyramb to hymn Dionysus, and prosodies as accompaniments for religious processions (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 18; Durant 1939, 228–230). Dance, too, emerged from religious ceremony, as did poetry, which was from the beginning closely associated with musical performance. The Greek word choreuein, from which the word for the “chorus” of tragedies would come, originally meant group dancing and singing. Flute (aulus) music was closely associated with the Dionysean cult, and lyre-playing with sacrificial and other sacred rituals (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 18–19). Consensus has now been established that Greek tragedies emerged from Dionysean rituals surrounding goat sacrifice, with the heroes’ diegetic destruction coming to stand in for the sacrificial victim (Burkert 1970). Comedies, Aristotle tells us, hailed from the kômos, religious processions in which a company of males sang and danced around the likeness of a ceremonial phallus (Poetics 1449a, cf. 1448a;[2] Durant 1939, 230–233).

Again, unlike today, artists were not valued highly as a specific cultural type. Sculptors and architects would leave no individuating marks on their works. Whilst Terpander of Lesbos and Thaletas the Cretan are known to us for establishing “norms” in music (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 19), the actors in Greek theatres wore stylised masks. When the great tragedian Aeschylus died, it was as someone who had fought at Marathon that he wished to be remembered in his epitaph (Mason 2016, 7). There are several converging reasons behind these (for us) strange phenomena. The first is that the arts in general were considered species of technê or craft; they were not therefore essentially distant from the servile pursuits of cobblers, tanners, smiths, and the like. To the extent that the creation of art required knowledge, it was considered noble; to the extent to which it required manual work, for instance in shaping the stone, it was considered unfree (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 29).

The second consideration here is that the Greeks and Romans did not place any great value on novelty, creativity, or the imagination, three of the key features of the postromantic ideology of “genius” (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 24, 29). Over time, giants of proverbial stature emerged in architecture, like Iktinos, or sculpture, like Phidias or Praxiteles, or painting, like Apelles or Zeuxis (Mason 2016, 13–14). But their greatness was not exactly a matter of individual innovation. For the Greeks and Romans all art’s greatness could only come from its beauty. But all beauty could only come from its approximation to, or idealisation of, the larger order that the artistic object expressed or represented. The closest approximation to the modern understandings comes in the ancient sense that poets, unlike other artists, were divinely inspired: they were more like soothsayers or diviners than craftspeople, a position most famously expressed in Plato’s Phaedrus (244e–245a).

Music and dance were conceived by the Greeks as pre-eminently expressive arts, and poetry was only slowly differentiated from the former (Mason 2016, 14; Tatarkiewicz 1970, 18–19). Music, as the Pythagoreans would develop, was held to be able to reproduce or express the inner harmonies of the soul (Mason 2016, 3, 14). The very term mimêsis, which we usually translate as “imitation,” was first used to describe the expression of dancers’ inner feelings in dance, before being developed to encompass the representation of things in words, objects, and images (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 16–17, cf. 81–82). Alongside these expressive arts came the constructive arts of architecture and sculpture, although it is notable that neither of these arts had one of the nine mythological muses associated with it (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 28). Our category of fine arts also has no exact ancient equivalent, although the Greeks and Romans always divided the arts requiring manual work from other, “free” arts.

In all ancient arts, what stands out is the sense that what is beautiful and pleasing for human beings—for what is beautiful always pleases—is above all what has inner order, harmonia or symmetria: between the sounds, between the lengths of lines or columns, between shapes and colours, between the parts of a body (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 25–26; Mason 2016, 3, 66–67, 125). In Pythagorean philosophy, music was accorded the highest significance, insofar as the Pythagoreans were the first to discover the connection between mathematical ratios and musical intervals, like thirds, fifths, and octaves (Anderson 1983; Mason 2016, 14, 66–67; Tatarkiewicz 1970, 81–82). In the Greek temples, every part was crafted according to mathematical ratios, based on calculations building upon a unit module, usually half the width of the base of a column. Thus, the Athenian Temple of Hephaestus is a six-column temple with 27 modules. The relation of the column to the middle aisles is 5:8, and the triglyphs are each one module wide, with their widths relative to the metopes’ again forming a ratio of 5:8 (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 51).

An open temple building consisting of numerous Doric colonnades supporting a massive roof structure.
The Hephaestum in Athens, from the South-East, via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain (CC0).

Similar mathematical ratios were determined by Greek sculptors between the different parts of the human body, and even the three parts of the human face: forehead, nose, and lips to chin (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 57–59).

A greyed-white marble statue of Hermes as a young, naked man in posture, holding the baby Dionysus in his left hand. The right arm of the sculpture is missing from the biceps downwards.
Hermes and the infant Dionysus, by Praxiteles, photo by Dwaisman, via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

It is this sense of the mathematical ordering of reality, so that natural forms have their own intrinsic, governing rationality that underlies the emergence of “canons”: works codifying the principles of beautiful architecture, sculpture, music, even vase pottery (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 24–25, 49–63). It is also the sense that underlies the Greeks’ deep association of beauty per se with the natural human form, so evident in the great proliferation of sculptures of anthropomorphic Olympian deities, athletes, and later, of other human figures and busts (Durant 1939, 217–218). As the great Russian aesthetician, Alexei Losev comments,

the beautiful in the antiquity presents itself in those circumstances when physical elements harmonise with each other in a perfect human body, when the principle of the unified bodily life, which the Greeks called “soul,” fully subsumes all bodily elements. A body formed in accordance with this principle is the ideal in question. The phenomenon of beauty transpires as the ideal manifests itself in physical elements. (Losev [1963] 2000, I, 87; cf. Grube 1927, 629)

Let us close this section by nevertheless remarking that the beauty of non-human nature was not wholly lost on the Greeks or Romans (P. Hadot 2010a). Indeed, a sense of cosmic order and beauty is present within all of the ancient philosophies, perhaps excluding only the Sceptics, but including even the followers of Epicurus (341–271 BCE), who conceived of the world as the product of atoms, void, and motion. At different periods throughout antiquity, we find poets and philosophers raising paeans to the beauty of the natural world, and the surpassing excellence of rustic life close to nature. Many Greek temples are located in the most sublime natural locations, like the Temple of Apollo the Healer at Bassae and the Temple to Poseidon on Cape Sounion (P. Hadot 2010b).

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo, situated on a mountaintop, surrounded by trees.
The temple of Apollo the Healer at Bassae by Carole Roddato via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Many of the Roman residences unearthed in Herculaneum and Pompei in the 18th century are covered with delicately stylised landscape paintings (P. Hadot 2010a). If anything, an increasing sense of the beauty of the natural world can be traced as antiquity proceeds, as we will duly see.

From Pythagoreanism to Plato

Pythagoras (c. 570–490 BCE) is said to have coined the term “philosophy.” And it is in his school that the first developed set of theoretical reflections on “aesthetic” phenomena emerged. The qualification implied in the inverted commas is needed. As we have indicated, the Greeks owed to the Pythagoreans the developed sense that the principles of mathematics “were the principles of all things,” based pre-eminently on their researches in acoustics (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 80–81; Mason 2016, 3, 14, 30, 66–67). But for the Pythagoreans, it was above all the cosmos itself, a perfect sphere containing all things, which was superlatively beautiful. Excepting music, they showed little interest in the other arts. The objective beauty at issue here (i) was characterised by harmonia, “a Unity of many elements and an agreement between disagreeing elements,” like a musical harmony (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 80; Mason 2016, 30). Ultimately, it was held to characterise the orderly, spherical circuits of the planets, creating a harmony of the spheres which we cannot hear, since it is sounding all the time.

A Renaissance Italian engraving displaying Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios. A banner at the top reads "Mentis apollineae vis has movet undique musas."
Shown in this engraving from Renaissance Italy are Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios. Music of the Spheres (1496) by Guillaume Le Signerre via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

There is, however, a second decisive contribution the Pythagoreans made to ancient aesthetics. It concerns the subjective dimension of our experience of art (ii). Musical harmonies, the Pythagoreans maintained, had the power to both evoke and express feelings, due to their mimesis (imitation, reproduction) of the inner constitution of the psyche (psychology or mind; Anderson 1983). So different types of music, even different musical scales, could be used to affect audiences’ souls in different ways. Music, that is, could be used as a means of psychagogia, the guidance or direction of souls, leading hearers towards “good” or “bad” forms of ethos or character. Indeed, adapting Orphic beliefs, the Pythagoreans believed that music could be used therapeutically, in order to purify people of negative affects: the process of katharsis. As Aristoxenus tells us, “the Pythagoreans employed medicine to purge the body, and music to purge the soul” (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 82). According to the fifth century Pythagorean, Damon of Athens, the singing and playing of music can form the young to courage, moderation, justice, and spiritual order or eunomia (Lord 1978). All of these Pythagorean claims were to abidingly affect classical aesthetics, including Plato’s and Aristotle’s political reflections on art (iv).

On the subject of beauty and the arts, as on many subjects, Plato (428/7–348/7 BCE) says different things in different places. Modern commentators have hence divided as to how we should read his corpus: some dividing earlier “Socratic” from “later” dialogues, others arguing that Plato aims to address different levels of readers in different texts (Strauss 1964), others again returning to the ancient idea that the dialogues are to be read in a single pedagogical order, tied to a project of shaping the ideal student (Altman 2013). Beauty and the arts are addressed in the Ion, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Republic, Phaedrus, Symposium, Philebus, Statesman, Laws, and Timaeus.

In both the Gorgias and Hippias Major, Plato’s Socrates entertains and queries common Greek opinions on beauty, including views that the Xenophontic Socrates variously entertains in the Memorabilia (Grube 1927, 271–273; Sider 2012; Tatarkiewicz 1970, 100–102). To kalon would name here the “appropriate” or “fitting” (to prepon); whatever thing (from the sublime to the mundane) is well shaped to particular human ends and circumstances. Or else beauty is whatever gives pleasure. Or it is simply what is useful (Hippias Major 293e, 295c–296e).

Socrates expresses hesitation as to whether whatever pleases will be beautiful. For this seems to make aesthetic phenomena wholly subjectively relative, as we say. As for whether the beautiful is just whatever is fitting or useful, Socrates notes that many fitting and useful things can serve bad ends, like a beautiful sword in the hands of a murderer. Yet the beautiful is for him axiomatically always also good. Moreover, there are many things which the Greeks admire as kalon which are not simply useful. These include phenomena as different as ornamental statues or acts of self-sacrificing bravery (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 115–116).

In other dialogues, Plato has Socrates presenting different views, closer in orientation to the objective Pythagorean view (i). So, in the Philebus (64e) we are told that “measure (metriotes) and proportion (symmetria) are … beauty and virtue”; or again, in the Timaeus, we read that “all that is good is beautiful, and what is good cannot lack proportion” (87c). Plato’s great innovation, here as elsewhere, turns upon how he develops this Pythagorean orientation into a fully-fledged metaphysical conception of Beauty as what he terms an “Idea” or “Form” (eidos).

Depicted are the five elements Fire, Air, Earth, Water, Aether, represented via geometric forms.
The five Platonic solids and elements out of which the world is shaped by the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus. The Platonic solids as classical elements by Edward Cresy via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

In Hippias Major, the relative beauty of particular women was measured against that of the goddesses (289a). Just so, in the Republic, Philebus, and Symposium, Plato will have his Socrates argue that all of the particular things we find beautiful in the physical world are all only relatively beautiful. And if we ask “relative to what?”, the answer comes: to the very Idea of Beauty Itself (Philebus 51b–c). As the climactic passage in the famous “ladder of love” in Diotima’s speech in the Symposium makes clear (210d–211e), this Idea alone is absolutely Beautiful, neither coming into being nor passing away, not beautiful in some parts but ugly in others, neither beautiful for some only, not for others, but existing alone, the very measure by which all other beauties are adjudged. Indeed, all these other beauties are only beautiful at all to the extent that they “participate” in the Idea.

It is easy for moderns, in the wake of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, to think that nothing could be more “life-denying” and abstract than such a metaphysical vision of Beauty. The sometimes-overlooked subjective side to Plato’s doctrine (ii), very much carried forward into later Neoplatonists like Plotinus, responds to the sense that the Idea is what is most, eternally Real, the very source of order and life (cf. Mason 2016, 142–145). Indeed, the Symposium introduces a desiderative component into the ancient aesthetic, tying to kalon very closely to human Eros or desire (cf. Plotinus, Enneads VI, 7, 22). Beauty is what moves human beings to desire, Plato’s Diotima argues in the Symposium, in a thought to which Socrates’ palinode in the Phaedrus will give mythicopoetic form. Indeed, she tells us, “to love is to desire to give birth in beauty (en tô kalô)” (Symposium 206e): whether to other human beings through sexual union with a beautiful other, or to elevated speeches through the intellectual love of the Idea of Beauty characterising the true philosopher (210d–211e). Beauty intimates immortality to we hapless mortals, on Plato’s view. It awakens the “wings of desire” of our souls, which have not wholly forgotten their other-worldly origins (so Plato seemingly believes), and still long to gaze directly on the generative, other-worldly Ideas (Phaedrus 248c–251c).

An ancient vase, painted in black, with ornaments and paintings of Eros as a winged man approaching a woman in a white tunic.
A winged Eros: for Plato’s Socrates, Eros is a daimon between human and divine beings. Red-Figure Squat Lekythos (Oil Vessel): Eros and Woman via the Cleveland Museum of Art. License: CC0.

One might well imagine that such an elevated conception of the metaphysical place of Beauty would have led Plato into the deepest appreciation of the arts. Famously, however, in his political writings (iv), Plato delivers a very qualified assessment of poetry, positioning the poets as involved in an “ancient quarrel” with the philosophers (Republic 607b). One ground of this view, which we see in the Ion (533e) and Phaedrus (244d–245a), is the claim that poets “do not know what they do,” but must be moved by divine madness to produce great verse. The philosopher, by contrast, desires knowledge above all things, and that knowledge should shape human speech and action. Another ground, evident in books II–IV of the Republic, is Plato’s deep appreciation of the power of poetic representations of gods and men, as well as different forms of music, to move the young to emulation (Republic 377a–d, 397d; cf. Mason 2016, 31; Tatarkiewicz 1970, 126). “Homer and Hesiod, and the rest of the poets” were “the great myth-makers (mythopoious)” of the Greeks, Plato sees (Republic 377b). It is surely not stretching the interpretive bow too far to surmise that Plato wished for philosophy to take on this august culture-forming place, and that this was the real stake of his “ancient quarrel” (Republic 607b). Indeed, the Stranger in the Laws declares as much to the poets:

Best of strangers, we will say to them, we also according to our ability are tragic poets, and our tragedy is the best and noblest; for our whole polis is an imitation of the best and noblest life, which we affirm to be indeed the very truth of tragedy. You are poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strains; rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas, which true law can alone perfect. (Laws 817a–b)

Plato in the political texts approaches a deeply moralising, censorious approach to the arts. This would have them wholly serve the needs of government and education. His Socrates even famously proposes to expel the poets from the ideal city (Republic 607a–b). Republic X adds to this political dimension a criticism of the representative or mimetic (as against expressive) arts, principally painting (Republic 596b–598a; Mason 2016, 30, 34–36). Although he elsewhere recognises that artists aim exactly to produce idealised images of people, actions and things—eikónes (images) seemingly close therefore to his own Ideas—Socrates argues here that what “mimetic” artists produce are mere copies of the physical objects we see. These are as such “at three removes (tritou)” from the metaphysical Ideas that shape physical reality (Republic 597e; Phaedrus 248e; Mason 2016, 35–36). Small wonder that in the Statesman, we can be told that all imitative arts none of them is practised for any serious purpose, but all of them merely for play” (Statesman 288c).

Aristotle on art, beauty and poetics

Outside of his Poetics, a treatise devoted to considering how a certain art is shaped and produced (iii), Aristotle (384–322 BCE) also gives most space to art in his political writings (iv). Here as elsewhere, however, he challenges his great teacher, Plato. The highest goal of government, Aristotle maintains, is to enable citizens to achieve “the actualisation and complete practice of virtue” (Politics 1332a9). Healthy peoples make war for the sake of peace. Yet the goal of all peaceable activities, including work and politics, will be the cultivation and enjoyment of activities which are their own ends in themselves. The goal of education in turn should accordingly be to teach citizens “to be capable of being at leisure (scholazein) in a kalos fashion” (Politics 1337b30–32; cf. 1329a1–2; 1334a36–39). Such leisure is not mere idleness, passing the time. Rather, it should be filled with the arts, whose pleasurable forms have misled many people (and perhaps Plato is intended) into considering them as mere games. Citing Homer, Aristotle protests that “Odysseus says that this is the best pastime, when human beings are enjoying good cheer and ‘the banqueters seated in order throughout the hall listen to the singer’” (Politics 1338a27–29).

In Aristotle’s more liberal purview, the arts “should be practised not for the sake of a single benefit but for the sake of several” (Politics 1341b35–37). Likewise, contra his teacher, they can be judged according to at least five different concerns, including the plausibility, consistency, and reasonableness of their subjects, their (non)adherence to specifically artistic norms, as well as moral considerations (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 149). A key part of the goal of political life in “pastime and phronêsis (practical wisdom),” the arts led by music also stand as a principal means to educate citizens towards a kalos leisure: “It is rather to be supposed that music contributes something to virtue, the assumption being that, just as gymnastics makes the body of a certain quality, so also is music capable of making the character of a certain quality by habituating it to be capable of enjoying in the correct fashion” (Politics 1339a21–25).

Significantly, it is in the context of reflecting in a Pythagorean vein upon the ability of music, and the different scales (Lydian, mixed Lydian, Phrygian, etc.) to shape character that Aristotle’s longest passage on the famous thesis concerning art and katharsis (ii), also central to the Poetics, is found (Mason 2016, 89–94). Implicitly contesting Plato’s Socrates’ and his friends’ exiling of certain musical modes from the best city in the Republic (398d–399a), Aristotle comments,

It is evident that all the harmonies are to be used, but that all are not to be used in the same manner, but with a view to paideia [education, training, cultivation] those most relating to character. … For there are certain persons who are possessed by the passion of enthusiasm, but as a result of the sacred tunes … we see them calming down as if obtaining a cure and catharsis. This same thing, then, must necessarily be experienced also by the pitying and fearful as well as the generally passionate, and by others insofar as each individual has a share in these things, and there must occur for all a certain purification and a feeling of relief accompanied by pleasure. (Politics 1342a2–14)

Notably, when Aristotle considers beauty (i), he does so under the heading of theoretical philosophy, treating it accordingly in the fifth book of his Metaphysics (Marshall 1953, 228–229). Given his famous criticisms of Plato’s post-Pythagorean idealism, it is also notable that one main thrust of his claims here is nevertheless to assert the mathematical dimensions of to kalon (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 151):

Now since the good and the beautiful are different (for the former always implies conduct as its subject, while the beautiful is found also in motionless things), those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing of the beautiful or the good are in error. For these sciences say and prove a very great deal about them. … The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1078a, 32 ff.)

In the Topics, we are told that the beautiful is to prepon (102a, 6; Marshall 1953, 229). Nevertheless, there is no sense in which the beautiful in Aristotle would be reducible to what well fits human ends. Nature herself, for Aristotle, is the master craftsman of order and symmetry (cf. Marshall 1953, 229–230). His criticisms of Plato’s Ideas aside, Aristotle thus affords a very high place in his aesthetic regard to the perfect, orderly movements of the heavenly bodies. It is an order and perfection to which we sublunar creatures can scarcely aspire, and of which we have no direct experience on earth. Above even the encircling heavens, however, comes the God of the philosopher, “who in might is most powerful, in beauty most fair, in life immortal, in virtue supreme; for, though he is invisible to all mortal nature, yet he is seen in his very works. For all that happens in the air, on the earth, and in the water, may truly be said to be the work of God” (Aristotle, De Mundi 399a 19–21).

Aristotle’s most famous contribution to aesthetics is, however, his Poetics, which has survived in part, and contains an extensive discussion of the literary form of tragedy, and how it might be produced (iii). Tragedy, Aristotle famously declares, is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (Poetics 1449b).

A painting of a woman (Antigone) leading a blind man (Oedipus) through a Greek city. Bystanders are depicted as shying away from the two main characters.
Oedipus and Antigone in The Plague of Thebes by Charles Jalabert via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Poetry is generally afforded a much higher place, once again, in Aristotle’s thought than in Plato’s, reflecting his more favourably conception of mimesis. Poetry is more philosophical than history as Aristotle proverbially says (Poetics 1451a; Mason 2016, 84). For it deals with individuals who are also representative of entire types (heroes, villains, kings, priests, etc.), rather than being bound to report on actual events and people. What the poet “mimes,” then, when he imitates reality is not historical fact. It is some idealised (or demonised) figure and action, like the fall of an iconic hero like Oedipus or a tragic heroine like Antigone. The tragedian should render people and actions “as they were or are … as they are said or thought to be or … as they ought to be” (Poetics 1460b). Aristotle hence praises Sophocles for rendering his characters as ideals, and Zeuxis for painting men as more beautiful than they were: “The ideal type must surpass the reality” (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 142).

How then does tragedy’s idealised presentation of noble, fallen characters’ actions and reversals purge audiences of pity and fear, and what does Aristotle contribute to the Pythagorean conception of art as a means of katharsis (ii)? The aim of art’s idealisations, Aristotle says, is exactly to provoke emotions: “to make things more moving” (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 147). Through what we call identification with the tragic protagonist, as his fate unfolds, pity for his plight is awakened in us, as well as fear that something like this could happen to us:

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)

The emotions of fear and pity, Aristotle maintains, can become debilitating, or even politically troublesome. However, through witnessing the virtual reality of what transpires on stage, audiences are able to experience and “let them out” in a controlled environment, without direct threat or consequence to themselves or the polis (Mason 2016, 91–94). Katharsis for Aristotle is thus akin to purging in Greek medicine (Jones 1962, 39–40; Tatarkiewicz 1970, 146; Mason 2016, 72–80). However, as we have seen, the thought clearly looks back to Pythagorean musical theory and beyond it, to Orphic ritual (see the first section of this chapter, above).

The Hellenistic and Roman periods

An ancient Greek statue depicting a half-naked woman in posture. The statue is missing both arms, one from the shoulder downwards, the other from the upper arm downwards.
The Venus de Milo by Rodney via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.

The classical period of the Greek “golden age” is generally assigned no more than two centuries preceding Alexander’s conquest of Greece in 338 BCE. The Hellenistic period, until the Roman conquest (146 BCE), and then the Roman epoch (generally dated until 476 CE) spans eight hundred years. A 19th century convention which is still widespread sees the Hellenistic period as one of decline, even as Grecian and Greek-inspired thought and arts were gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean world, conquering Rome culturally at the same time as Greece lost its political independence. It is the arts of this period that inspired the classicism and philhellenism of Winckelmann, Lessing, and Goethe. And even if we see the Hellenistic arts as in decline, despite great works like the Lacoön and his Sons or the Venus de Milo, the Hellenistic and Roman periods have bequeathed us invaluable theoretical works advancing the study of painting and sculpture (by Pliny), music (by Theophrastus, Aristoxenus), architecture (by Vitruvius), and literary theory (pre-eminently On the Sublime, long attributed to Cassius Longinus, and Horace’s Ars Poetica) (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 173, 216–224, 235–237). Hellenistic and then Roman sculpture, turning ever-farther away from the austere, near-Platonic stylisation of the classical period, began more and more to model human actions and distinct individuals (Durant 1939, 616–626). The rise of Rome saw golden and silver ages of Latin literature, led by giants such as Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, and Juvenal, and the mastery of new genres, led by satire. The Roman textbooks in rhetoric, such as the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero’s De Oratore, continue to shape rhetorical studies and reward rereading. The Romans made literally monumental advances in architecture, enabled by their mastery of brick, concrete, and the arch, and achieving engineering and aesthetic wonders like the dome of the Pantheon (Durant 1944, 357–362).

The period is also not without innovations in philosophical considerations of art and beauty, albeit reframed in the terms of the larger Hellenistic interest in philosophical ethics and self-transformation through practicing regimens of spiritual exercises (P. Hadot 1995; 1998; I. Hadot 2014). The lasting classical designations of beauty as characterised by order, symmetry, harmony of parts in relation to the whole, and appropriateness remain canonical. Despite Epicurus’ advice that his students should flee paideia and the liberal arts, the greatest extant Epicurean work is the great Latin poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, in which the hard truths of Epicurean philosophy are sweetened with the “wormwood” of vigorous verse (Book 4, Proem). Despite the Sceptics’ attacks on music, musical, and literary theory (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 181–185), the eclectic Platonist Cicero (106–43 BCE) introduces the notion of an innate, distinctly human aesthetic sense: “And it is no mean manifestation of Nature and Reason that man is the only creature that has a feeling for order, for decorum, for moderation in word and deed” (De Officiis I, 4, 14). In his Orator, we find the first sketch of an adaption of Plato’s conception of the metaphysical Ideas to explain the creative vision of the artist:

For example, in the case of the statues of Phidias, the most perfect of their kind that we have ever seen, and in the case of the paintings I have mentioned, we can, in spite of their beauty, imagine something more beautiful. Surely, that great sculptor, while making the image of Jupiter or Minerva, did not look at any person whom he was using as a model, but in his own mind there dwelt a surpassing image of beauty; at this he gazed and, all intent on this, he guided his artist’s hand to produce the likeness of a god. (Orator 2, 8; cf. Plato, Timaeus 28a)

In Cicero, too, as in the Stoics, we find in the wonderful vision of human nature of Laws I the specification that humans have been uniquely formed to contemplate the beauties of the heavens: “while [nature] has debased the forms of other animals, who live to eat rather than eat to live, she has bestowed on man an erect stature, and an open countenance, and thus prompted him to the contemplation of heaven, the ancient home of his kindred immortals” (Cicero, Laws I, 26–27).

Amongst the Stoics themselves, the arts tend to be assessed pre-eminently in an ethical, if not political purview (iv). They are aids or hindrances for shaping people to the virtues. Like Plato (Republic 606b), some Stoics worry that the tragic poets’ staging of extreme passions and suffering is a potential source of ethical corruption. The physical beauty of men and women so adored by wider ancient culture they deem as something “indifferent,” being capable of harming as well as helping their possessors, if not guided by wisdom (Tatarkiewicz 1970, 187–188).

Nevertheless, the Stoics’ larger conception of the kosmos depicted the world as the product and embodiment of the “poetic” fire of the form-giving Logos immanent in all things. The kosmos for the Stoics was hence the supremely beautiful thing, as for the Pythagoreans. As the middle Stoic Posidonius wrote, “the world is beautiful. This is clear from its shape, colour, and rich array of stars” (at Tatarkiewicz 1970, 188). So, in Seneca (De Otio 5) as in Epictetus (c. 50–135 CE), there are passages assigning to the contemplation of the world and living things a much higher place than the enjoyment of human-made objects, even the most beautiful:

God has introduced man, as a spectator of Himself and of his works; and not only as a spectator, but an interpreter of them … [people should] end where nature itself has fixed our end; and that is, in contemplation and understanding, and in a scheme of life conformable to nature. Take care, then, not to die without the contemplation of these things. You take a journey to Olympia to behold the work of Phidias, and each of you thinks it a misfortune to die without a knowledge of such things; and will you have no inclination to see and understand those works for which there is no need to take a journey, but which are ready and at hand even to those who bestow no pains! Will you never perceive what you are, or for what you were born, or for what purpose you are admitted to behold this spectacle? (Epictetus, Discourses I, 8)

For the Stoics, since the Logos shapes all things, the fully enlightened “sage” will indeed be able to see the value and beauty in even the smallest things, in their relation to the whole, as in this striking passage from Marcus Aurelius’ (121–180 CE) Meditations:

We must also observe closely points of this kind, that even the secondary effects of Nature’s processes possess a sort of grace and attraction. To take one instance, bread when it is being baked breaks open at some places; now even these cracks, which in one way contradict the promise of the baker’s art, somehow catch the eye and stimulate in a special way our appetite for the food. … Ears of corn too when they bend downwards, the lion’s wrinkled brow, the foam flowing from the boar’s mouth, and many other characteristics that are far from beautiful if we look at them in isolation, do nevertheless because they follow from Nature’s processes lend those a further ornament and a fascination. (Meditations III, 2; P. Hadot 1998, 168–69).

In order to achieve such a vision, however, the philosopher must retrain his vision (ii) to “a thorough knowledge of the workings of the universe” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations III, 2). This will involve cultivating the ability to see natural things as existing independently of and indifferent to the habitual purposes with which human hopes and fears usually clothe them (P. Hadot 1972). For such reasons as these, the philologist-philosopher Pierre Hadot has intriguingly argued that, if we were to seek the closest analogy to the modern concept of aesthetic perception, we should look at it in ancient philosophical discourses concerning the figure of the sage (1995, 251–263). Only a figure who has fully conquered their fears, prejudices, and desires could fully “see” and savour the world, and every one of their experiences within it, in the ways most of us only experience in moments of absorption in beautiful works of art (cf. Sharpe 2018). The question of whether such a figure, one with deep parallels in near and far Eastern conceptions of the wise person, is possible today is a question worth deep reflection.

Concluding remarks

We can only hope here to have introduced readers to some of the key features, figures, ideas, and debates in the vast field of the ancients’ reflections on art and to kalon. We have seen their overarching sense of beauty as order, symmetry, and harmony (i). We have approached the ways that this was at once shaped by as it shaped their understandings of music, architecture, sculpture, and human beauty. We have considered how, whilst the Greeks did not pre-eminently focus on the subjective experience of art and beauty, they nevertheless understood how the arts such as music and drama can powerfully affect us (ii). The Pythagoreans and Aristotle developed theories of art’s psychagogic and psychotherapeutic, cathartic capacities. Plato and the Platonists stressed beauty’s power to animate our desire. In Cicero and the Stoics, the notion of an innate human sense of beauty are spelled out (Mason 2016, 124–126). Throughout antiquity, artistic canons were produced codifying technical standards of beauty and excellence in the arts, a tradition in which Aristotle’s Poetics may be placed (iii).

Plato and Aristotle, in these lights, centrally considered the arts in their political writings, each of them moved by a sense of the centrality which art either does, regrettably, or should, ideally, play in the education of good citizens and human beings (iv). Plato and the Stoics, in particular, were anxious that the powers of art could be used for evil as well as good ends. We saw that Aristotle nevertheless thinks that the leisured cultivation and enjoyment of the arts should be the key part of the goal or excellence of the ideal city. We closed by seeing how in the Stoics in particular—but examples from other philosophies could be given—there is also a sense that the fully enlightened person or sage would perceive the world with the same absorbed but impartial, captivated but contemplative mode of perception that modern theorists have assigned to aesthetic experience.

The classical achievements in the plastic, constructive, and literary arts, as well as in poetics and reflections upon art, continue to exert a determinative effect on Western and now global cultures. Their larger sense of order and beauty will attract admirers and may even be surmised to be something the modern world urgently needs to rediscover as great, destabilising ecological and political crises again beckon. As Albert Camus (1913–1960), a great 20th century philhellene, wrote in 1948,

the Mediterranean has a solar tragedy that has nothing to do with mists. There are evenings, at the foot of mountains by the sea, when night falls on the perfect curve of a little bay and an anguished fullness rises from the silent waters. Such moments make one realize that if the Greeks knew despair, they experienced it always through beauty and its oppressive quality. In this golden sadness, tragedy reaches its highest point. But the despair of our world—quite the opposite—has fed on ugliness and upheavals. That is why Europe would be ignoble if suffering ever could be. We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took arms for it. A basic difference—but one that has a long history. (Camus 1970, 148)


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Burkert, Walter. 1966. “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual.” GRBS 7: 87–121.

Camus, Albert. 1970. “Helen’s Exile.” In Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, edited by Phillip Thody, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, 148–153. New York: Vintage.

Durant, Will. 1939. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Durant, Will. 1944. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Grube, G. M. 1927. “Plato’s Theory of Beauty.” The Monist 37, no. 2 (April): 269–288.

Hadot, Ilsetraut. 2014. Sénèque: Direction spirituelle et pratique de la philosophie. Paris: Vrin.

Hadot, Pierre. 1972. “La physique comme exercise spirituel ou pessimisme et optimisme chez Marc Aurèle.” Revue de théologie et de philosophie 22: 225–239.

Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Trans. Michael Chase. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hadot, Pierre. 1998. The Inner Citadel : The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Trans. Michael Chase. Harvard: Belknap Press.

Hadot, Pierre. 2010a. “L’Homme antique et la nature.” In Études de philosophie ancienne, 307–318. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Hadot, Pierre. 2010b. “La Génie du lieu dans la Grèce antique.” In Études de philosophie ancienne, 319-326. Paris: Belles Lettres.

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Translations of Classical Texts

Aristotle. 1984. De Mundi. In The Complete Works of Aristotle; The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 1, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Aristotle. 1980. Metaphysics. Translated by H. Treddenick. Loeb Classical Library 271. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Aristotle. 1902. Poetics. Edited and translated by S.H. Butcher. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan & Co.

Aristotle. 1944. Politics. Translated by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 264. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Aurelius, Marcus. 1944. Meditations. Translated by A.S.L Farquharson. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1913. De Officiis. Translated by Walter Miller. London: William Heinemann.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1842. Laws. In The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Francis Barham. London: Edmond Spettigue.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1939. Orator. Translated by G.L. Hendrickson and H.M. Hubbell. Loeb Classical Library 342. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Epictetus. 1890. Discourses. In The Works of Epictetus: Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments, translated by Thomas Wentworth Higgenson. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Plato. 1892. Laws. In The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. V. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Macmillan & Co.

Plato. 1925. Philebus. In Statesman, Philebus, Ion, translated by H.N. Fowler and W.R.M. Lamb, 202-399. Loeb Classical Library 164. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato. 1969. Republic. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato. 1925. Statesman. In Statesman, Philebus, Ion, translated by H.N. Fowler and W.R.M. Lamb, 4-195. Loeb Classical Library 164. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato. 1925. Symposium. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato. 1925. Timaeus. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9. Translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  1. In what follows, (i), (ii), (iii), and (iv) in brackets will refer back to this rubric.
  2. References to classical texts are given by the author, title, and locators that are consistent across editions and translations. Where quotations from English translations are given in the chapter, see “Translations of classical texts” at the end of the chapter for the specific English translations used or adapted by the author.


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Ancient Aesthetics by Matthew Sharpe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.