Classical Aesthetics

(500 B.C.E. – 400 C.E.)

Aesthetics is a modern term.  It entered the philosophical vocabulary in the eighteenth century. Art and its effects attracted attention of thinkers virtually from the beginning of Western thought. Art is so closely associated with the central cultural and religious forms of life in the classical world that it was inevitably the subject of speculation and comment as soon as philosophers began to write. Moreover, “beauty” was a central philosophical term in a way that we have to recover if we are to understand classical philosophy. In the classical world , art was seldom mere entertainment in our contemporary, escapist sense. works of art were not valued “for themselves” in the way that our museum-culture promotes. Drama, even in its comic and satiric modes, was a part of cultural and religious festivals. Sculpture and painting provided memorials for the dead and images for the gods. The undoubted and widespread forms of decoration that we know in classical houses and utilitarian objects served to link everyday life to the fabric of myth. Even art that was merely to be looked at served a function; it commemorated events and brought honor and prestige to its owners and patrons. Therefore, art and beauty naturally attracted the comment of philosophers who sought to understand central cultural forms. 

Beauty was even more important than art to classical philosophers. Different standards and ideals of beauty prevail in different cultures. The particular natural and artistic forms that are pleasing to me and the way that I describe them need not be the same as they were to the citizens of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E.  Some emotional responses seem to be very widespread. The pleasure that I take in a sunset or a landscape provides a shared link across cultural boundaries and temporal distance. We are not so different that we do not understand and respond in similar ways. The greatest difference is in the concepts we use to describe our responses. In classical thought, beauty is not understood simply as emotion. It is a value closely linked with truth and the good. Beauty is understood as a property of the highest forms of being in the world itself. It is associated with harmony and order. When classical writers sought to understand the order of the world, they included beauty in their investigations. They believed that beauty informed the intellect as well as the senses. Beauty must be a topic for consideration for anyone who seeks to understand the place of human beings in the cosmos. 

Classical writers lacked a systematic approach to what we call aesthetic phenomena in their own right. Aesthetics was incorporated into discussions of politics, knowledge, religion, and morality. The integration of the aesthetics into larger discussions has the virtue of showing the relevance of art to life. Only rarely was classical aesthetics the province of a small class of “aesthetes” devoted only to the enjoyment of sensation. Consequently, we must look for discussions of aesthetic topics in the context of other issues. Context is always important. 

One additional source for classical aesthetics should be considered. The word “art” implies not only the kind of things that we classify as works of art; but also implies craft–knowledge of how to do or make something, Many of the interesting comments on art by classical writers are from the practical standpoint of how to make something that works the way it is supposed to work. This perspective is particularly true of rhetorical works. The art of speaking was a preeminent professional skill in a world without printing. The law, temple, court, and tradition all depended on oral performance and rhetorical persuasion. Classical writers studied and employed a detailed array of technical devices. The link between persuasion and aesthetics is often close.  

Tradition says that Plato was a poet before turning to philosophy. Discussions of art, poetry, criticism, and rhetoric are scattered throughout the Platonic dialogues. The sustained attention to poetry and the function of the poet in the Republic has been the most central and influential in the history of philosophy. Aristotle devoted a whole treatise to rhetoric, but his compact discussion of tragedy in the Poetics is even more central to aesthetics. It is at once a rhetoric of drama and an analysis of what makes up a poetic imitation. The followers of Plotinus formed the school of neo-Platonism. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, neo-Platonism provided the framework for a chain of being that was thought to link all elements of the universe into an organic whole. Beauty is taken by neo-Platonists to be a central property of that organism. The discussion of beauty by Plotinus provides the most effective answer in the classical world to Plato’s challenge to the arts in the Republic

The Classical selections are from Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. 


Plato explored two fundamental aspects of imitation in Book X of the Republic. The first topic concerns the nature of imitation itself. Plato approached this point analytically and logically. 

Bust of Plato, Naples

The analysis of imitation as a concept results in a threefold distinction in reality. The singular form is original, so whatever follows from it is imitation. But “imitation” itself requires a distinction. Given the existence of anything, an observer can discern both its unity or commonality as a type or kind of thing, and its diversity as a multiple instance of that thing. Each bed and tree is at least numerically distinct. Yet all beds are identifiable as beds and are different from trees. Logically, Plato argues, there must be a single ideal form that accounts for the unity. Try to imagine two such forms. This argument assigns priority to the single form, which must come first logically.

The bed that can be slept in differs from the bed made by holding up a mirror. So if the actual beds are imitations, then images and pictures in turn imitate them. Images and pictures are only imitations of imitations. But the concept of imitation that has emerged is dialectical. “Dialectical” means that we know something in relation to something else; the term designates the relation. The chair in which I sit is at once an imitation in relation to its form and an original in relation to a picture. When the term “imitation” is applied to some thing, it establishes a hierarchy of forms. Within that concrete world, a secondary class of objects depends on already existing things and thus forms a class of imitations of imitations.

Plato distinguished in a fundamental way between appearance and reality. The reality that he is exploring at this point is between the first- and second-order imitations. Second-order imitations appear to be like first-order imitations and may even be taken for them. Classical literature is full of stories of paintings so like their subjects that they deceive animals and even other painters. Such effects are obviously only one mode of painting, but they illustrate in the strongest way the inherent deception involved in making one thing in an imitative relation with another. Once a fundamental hierarchy is established, the more levels of imitation that intervene, the farther the last imitation is from the original.

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