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Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Philosophy

Foreword


The ancient Greeks held a deep appreciation for beauty, which permeated every aspect of their culture. From art and literature to philosophy and religion, beauty played a central role in shaping their worldview and values. The aim of this series is to provide insights into the historical and cultural context that shaped ancient Greek ideals of beauty. Examining the ancient Greek perspective on beauty helps to gain a deeper understanding of its influence on Western civilization and its enduring impact on contemporary culture.


This series of articles delves into the concept of beauty in classical Greece, exploring how it was defined, valued, and represented in various domains of ancient Greek life. Drawing on both primary sources and academic secondary sources, it aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of beauty in Greek society and culture. Moving beyond the realm of arts, the series explores how beauty was perceived and valued in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It also examines the role of beauty in ancient Greek social life and religion, including the worship of gods and goddesses associated with beauty, such as Aphrodite and Apollo.


This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:


1. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Philosophy

2. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ideals of Physical Beauty

3. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Artistic Representation of Beauty

4. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Society

5. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Gender

6. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Mythology


Beauty and Philosophy in Ancient Greece


Exploration of beauty in ancient Greek philosophy provides a valuable lens through which to understand classical civilisation and its impact on modern thought. Through scrutinising the distinctions between ancient and modern approaches to aesthetics, a wealth of philosophical discourse on beauty, which shaped ancient Greek society, comes to the fore. This exploration not only deepens knowledge of the past but also encourages reflection on contemporary conceptions of beauty. The differences between ancient and modern approaches to philosophical exploration of beauty are in the centre of ongoing scholarly debates. One of the most influential ideas was presented by Paul Oskar Kristeller, a prominent scholar of Renaissance humanism and philosophy, who argued that the ancient Greeks' focus on the moral, religious, and practical aspects of artworks, coupled with their lack of categorising the fine arts as a unified discipline, precludes the existence of aesthetics as a philosophical pursuit in antiquity (Kristeller, 1951, p. 506). However, several counterarguments contesting Kristeller's stance have been presented, shedding light on key concepts employed by ancient philosophers. These arguments raise essential questions about the compatibility of ancient and modern methodologies and identify key concepts used by ancient philosophers, such as mimesis, the grouping of fine arts, and the effects produced by the beautiful properties of art (Halliwell, 2002; Porter, 2009). A balanced application of later methodologies and a study of primary sources, engaging with diverse perspectives and debates within the historical context, allows for a critical examination of prevailing aesthetic values. This approach appears to be key in gaining a broader understanding of the ancient Greek perception of beauty, transcending the limitations of modern concepts.


The ancient Greek understanding of beauty entails various essential concepts that necessitate elucidation, although a definitive consensus regarding their precise interpretation remains elusive. Among these fundamental principles, kalokagathia emerges as a prominent component within the ancient Greek worldview. Kalokagathia denotes the ideal fusion of beauty and moral excellence or goodness. Within ancient Greek philosophy, kalokagathia embodies the belief that genuine beauty encompasses not only physical attractiveness but also moral virtue (Plato, 1925, 88c). It postulates that an individual possessing physical beauty should also exhibit moral integrity and excellence of character. The pursuit of kalokagathia serves as an aspirational ideal, motivating individuals to strive for a balanced and virtuous life. However, exploration of ancient aesthetics encounters a significant methodological challenge concerning language, specifically the translation and conceptualisation of terms such as kalokagathia, derived from kalós kaì agathós, which can be loosely translated as "beautiful and good" (Liddell & Scott, 1889). The crux of the issue lies in determining when kalós assumes an aesthetic designation. The term to kalón frequently appears in philosophical texts, encompassing a range of meanings from "beautiful" to "being appropriate" . Traditionally, in ethical contexts, to kalón has been rendered as "fine" or similar equivalents. However, within Aristotle's works, its usage often assumes an aesthetic connotation, justifying its translation as "beautiful" (Celkyte, 2016).

Figure 1: Tondo of a kylix with "kalos" in the inscription (ca. 480–470 BCE)..

In ancient Greek thought, physical appearance was not considered an isolated or superficial attribute. Specifically, human beauty, both of the soul and the body, is viewed as a splendid manifestation of godliness. This holistic understanding of visual appeal is exemplified in Plato's Phaedrus, particularly through Socrates' palinode. Socrates discusses the senses and their respective powers, asserting that sight is the sharpest of the senses. According to him, sight grants a unique ability to perceive and discern the true nature of objects and their qualities. Sight, as Socrates explains, allows the soul to perceive physical objects and recognise their imperfect manifestations of the ideal Forms. Through visual perception of the physical world, the soul can gain glimpses of higher truths and realities that transcend the material realm. The experience of beauty serves as a reminder to the soul of something it once witnessed while journeying with the gods, before being embodied in the physical world. In this context, it acts as a trigger that evokes a deep longing within the soul, beckoning it to reconnect with its divine origins. In this way, attractiveness serves as a transformative force, encouraging the soul to aspire towards its true potential. The experience of beauty becomes a catalyst for moral and spiritual development, as the soul is inspired to align itself with the divine and strive towards virtue and godliness (Plato, 2011; Lear, 2020).


While the assertion that beauty is the primary source of love in another of Plato's dialogues, Symposium, remains a subject of debate among scholars (White, 1989), there is no denying the significant role that it plays in the text. In Symposium, various characters deliver speeches that explore the nature of love, and emphasise the profound connection between physical appearance and the experience of love. These speeches depict attractiveness as a captivating force that stirs the soul, igniting a passionate need to seek and attain the object of desire. Although different interpretations and perspectives are presented throughout the dialogue, the underlying theme of beauty's influence on the experience of love pervades the discussions. Whether physical appeal is deemed the ultimate source of love or seen as a catalyst that inspires longing for higher ideals, it remains a central element in Symposium's exploration of love's complexities. The enduring significance of beauty as a driving force in the pursuit of love underscores its vital role within Plato's philosophical discourse, encourages contemplation and gives rise to profound insights into the nature of human desires and aspirations (Plato, 1980).

Figure 2: "Diotima" (Simmler, 1855).

Plato's philosophy introduces the concept of the Good, also referred to as the Form of the Good, as a perfect, eternal, and changeless Form, existing outside material world and time. Within his dialogues, Plato outlines three distinct paths of ascent through which the mind can reach the Good in contemplation. The ascent through Beauty is expounded upon in Diotima's speech in Symposium. This approach suggests that one can employ the power of romantic or erotic attraction as a catalyst for transcendent contemplation of the divine. The process entails recognizing one's attraction to a person, but instead of succumbing to mere desire or lust, it involves remembering oneself as a divine being and embarking on a spiritual exercise. Through this exercise, one contemplates the shared underlying principle of all attractions, the perfect and immutable essence for which one yearns. This leads to the realisation that Platonic ideals hold greater beauty than their specific manifestations, and it is these ideals that are truly loved. Finally, after repeated practice of this exercise, one arrives at the notion that there must be a supremely lovable entity, encompassing all these ideals, which is identified as the Form of Goodness (Plato, 1980).


Another important concept in relation to the ancient Greek aesthetic worldview is the concept of mimesis that refers to the imitation or representation of reality in art and literature. Mimesis suggests that artists and poets create their works by imitating or mimicking the world around them, whether it be the natural world, human actions, or social phenomena. This imitation is not seen as a mere replication of external appearances but involves a deeper understanding and interpretation of reality. Through representation, artists strive to capture the essence and underlying truths of the world, presenting it in a way that engages and resonates with the audience. In the context of ancient Greek philosophy, mimesis was a significant concept explored by thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, albeit with different interpretations. Plato, in his dialogues, expressed concerns about its deceptive nature and potential negative influence on society. He believed that art imitated a mere shadow of reality and could distract individuals from pursuing knowledge of the higher Forms (Juan-Navarro, 2007). On the other hand, Aristotle viewed imitation as a fundamental aspect of art and literature, considering it a means of catharsis and a way to enhance understanding of and emotional connection with the human experience.

Figure 3: Greek tragedy theatre mask (4th c. BCE).

Mimesis serves two significant purposes in life. Firstly, it is considered a natural method of learning from childhood. Secondly, it provides delight to individuals. Aristotle supports the latter point by observing that while real-life encounters with objects associated with death may be distressing, humans take pleasure in artistic representations of them. This pleasure arises from the human inclination towards learning. When people view a picture, they derive delight from either recognising the depicted subject and extracting its meaning or, if unfamiliar, appreciating the skilful execution, use of colour, and other artistic qualities. Aristotle extends the principle of mimesis beyond visual arts, highlighting its presence in poetry. The inherent inclination towards it, coupled with a sense of harmony and rhythm, attracts humans to the poetic form (Celkyte, 2016). In Poetics, he explores the concept as it refers to the imitation of life, particularly in the form of poetry and drama. Aristotle's exploration of beauty in the act of replication highlights the significance of aesthetic elements, such as language, rhythm, and melody, and the harmonious integration of these components in creating a compelling and impactful work of art. According to Aristotle, tragedy aims to evoke pity and fear in the audience through a depiction of tragic events and suffering of the characters. Through this emotional experience, the audience undergoes a cathartic release of emotions, which leads to a sense of purification or cleansing. The beauty of tragedy lies not in the depiction of suffering itself but in the skilful arrangement of tragic elements and the profound emotional impact it has on the audience. The cathartic experience, characterised by the release and purging of emotions, is seen as a form of aesthetic pleasure and a key component of the beauty of tragedy (Aristotle, 1961).


Classical understanding holds that beauty encompasses a harmonious arrangement of integral components within a unified entirety, characterised by proportion, harmony, symmetry, and related concepts. Aristotle, in his Poetics, asserts that for a living being or any organised entity, including wholes composed of parts, to be deemed beautiful, it must exhibit a discernible order in the arrangement of its constituent elements (Aristotle, 1961, 1450b34). The notion that beauty in an object derives from the proportionality of its parts is a straightforward explanation for beauty. This theory is commonly referred to as summetria, which signifies not only bilateral symmetry but also the concept of good, suitable, or fitting proportionality. This concept specifically pertains to harmonious and quantifiable relationships among the constituent elements that define objects as classically beautiful. These proportions not only contribute to aesthetic appeal but also carry ethical significance. Plato's Timaeus associates the absence of summetria with the absence of beauty (Plato, 1925, 87d). However, it was in Stoic philosophy that it acquired a far more prominent and significant role.

Figure 4: The stoa of Attalos in Athens (Pigliucci, 2013).

The Stoa, or Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens in the early third century BCE, may not be the foremost philosophical school that springs to mind when considering ancient contributions to aesthetics, yet there is evidence to suggest that the Stoics had a significant theoretical interest in aesthetic properties. While their primary focus was on ethics and logic, multiple extant fragments reveal their engagement with aesthetics. Among these fragments, one of the most notable pieces of evidence is the Stoic definition of beauty as summetria of parts with each other and with the whole. The Stoics endeavoured to comprehend and define the nature of beauty, and their concept of summetria emphasised harmonious arrangement and proportionality of various elements within an object or artwork. This definition implies that beauty is not merely a superficial or subjective quality but is rooted in the inherent order and balance of its constituent parts. The Stoics acknowledged that the arrangement and relationship between these parts, as well as their coherence with the whole, played a pivotal role in creating aesthetic appeal. By underscoring the significance of summetria, the Stoics acknowledged the importance of proportion, balance, and harmony in perceiving beauty. They believed that these aesthetic qualities extended beyond the visual arts and could be found in diverse forms of artistic expression, such as literature, music, and architecture. The Stoics' interest in aesthetic properties demonstrates their recognition of the profound impact that beauty can have on human emotions and perceptions. Stoicism as a philosophy placed emphasis on cultivating virtue, self-control, and the acceptance of fate. Although their focus was not solely on aesthetics, the Stoics held the belief that contemplating beauty, both in nature and in art, could contribute to the development of moral character and attainment of inner tranquility. Appreciation of beauty was seen as a means of connecting with the divine order of the universe and finding solace in the face of life's challenges (Celkyte, 2017).


Polykleitos' Canon, a renowned sculpture and theoretical work, was closely tied to the concept of summetria and the idea of harmony. The Canon, also known as the Doryphoros or Spear Bearer, embodied the principles of ideal proportion and balance. Polykleitos, a Greek sculptor who worked in the fifth century BCE, aimed to create a harmonious representation of the human figure by establishing a set of mathematical and aesthetic guidelines for his sculpture. The Canon emphasised the importance of achieving perfect proportions between different parts of the body, creating a sense of equilibrium and unity. Polykleitos believed that by adhering to these principles, a sculpture would convey a sense of ideal beauty and physical excellence. Summetria, or the harmonious relationship between parts, played a central role in this pursuit of aesthetic perfection. The Canon presented a standardized ideal form, depicting a young male figure standing in a contrapposto pose with a subtle shift in weight distribution. Through meticulous attention to detail and mathematical precision, Polykleitos sought to create a sculpture that reflected the inherent order and harmony found in nature. The concept of summetria, as exemplified by Polykleitos' Canon, represented an understanding of the interconnectedness and balance of the human body and its relation to the surrounding world. The pursuit of summetria in art was not only a quest for visual harmony but also a reflection of belief in the unity of body, mind, and spirit. Polykleitos' Canon, therefore, served as a visual manifestation of the concept of summetria and the broader philosophical idea of harmony. It showcased the ancient Greek belief that achieving balance and proportion in artistic representations could lead to a deeper understanding of the natural order and the achievement of excellence in all aspects of life (Tobin, 1975).

Figure 5: "Doryphoros" (1st c. BCE Roman copy of the 5th c. BCE Greek original).

The pursuit of harmony in both ethical and aesthetic realms is intrinsically linked to the concept of eudaimonia, which denotes a state of flourishing or human well-being. This principle encompasses the notion of leading a virtuous and fulfilled life, characterised by excellence, happiness, and the actualisation of one's potential. Harmony assumes a foundational role within eudaimonia, as attaining a state of flourishing necessitates a balanced and integrated coexistence of various dimensions, including physical, mental, and social well-being. Analogous to the coordination and blending of different tones in music, it entails harmonious integration of diverse values, and activities. Virtue ethics, a philosophical approach associated with Aristotle, places considerable emphasis on nurturing positive qualities, such as justice, courage, and wisdom. These virtues are believed to foster harmonious and balanced character, guiding individuals on the path towards eudaimonia. According to Aristotle, human beings propel themselves towards objects of their desires through activities of the soul, specifically through virtuous acts. Aristotle's understanding of emotions incorporates their affective, cognitive, and behavioral dimensions, revealing that emotions possess psychological value and serve vital functions that act as survival instincts in individuals (Egbekpalu, 2021). These ideas connect the concept of eudaimonia to the realm of beauty by emphasising the search for harmony. They find resonance in Aristotelian theories regarding the profound impact of poetry and the role of art, as well as an understanding of beauty in general, on human beings, according to the philosopher. Aristotle recognised the power of art to evoke emotional responses and elicit catharsis, which can contribute to the well-being and flourishing of individuals. Through the creation and appreciation of beauty, whether in literature, visual arts, or other forms of artistic expression, humans can experience a sense of harmony and fulfilment.


Investigation into the concept of beauty within ancient Greek philosophy yields profound insights into classical civilisation. The ancient Greeks possessed a comprehensive understanding of beauty, encompassing both physical allure and moral excellence. Ideals such as kalokagathia, the fusion of beauty and goodness, held significant positions within their worldview. Beauty was regarded as a divine manifestation and served as a catalyst for personal transformation, inspiring individuals to strive for moral and spiritual growth. Ancient Greek philosophers engaged in extensive deliberations on aesthetics, exploring notions such as mimesis, the imitation of reality in artistic and literary expression. Plato expressed reservations regarding the deceptive nature of mimesis, while Aristotle viewed it as an essential element of art, capable of eliciting emotional connection and catharsis. However, both philosophers, consistent with prevailing Classical aesthetic perspectives, acknowledged the importance of proportion, harmony, and symmetry in the creation of beauty. The Stoics, philosophers of the later—Hellenistic—period, further contributed to the understanding of aesthetics by emphasising the concept of summetria, the harmonious arrangement of parts within an object or artwork. Simultaneously, the pursuit of beauty and harmony in ancient Greek philosophy remained intertwined with the notion of eudaimonia, the flourishing and well-being of individuals. Harmony served as a foundational element in attaining eudaimonia, as it necessitated balanced integration of various dimensions, including physical, mental, and social well-being. Analysing the interplay of these concepts from a modern perspective presents challenges, despite the enduring influence of ancient Greek philosophical thought on contemporary societies. This influence manifests itself in the duality between visual and ethical domains, while recognising the intrinsic unity of the two within the ancient Greek mindset appears to be paramount.


Bibliographical References

Aristotle. (1961). Aristotle's poetics. New York NY: Hill and Wang.


Celkyte, A. (2016). Ancient aesthetics. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://iep.utm.edu/ancient-aesthetics/#SH1a


Celkyte, A. (2017). The stoic definition of beauty as summetria. The Classical Quarterly, 67(1), 88-105. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009838817000386


Egbekpalu, P. E. (2021). Aristotelian concept of happiness (eudaimonia) and its conative role in human existence: A critical evaluation. Conatus - Journal of Philosophy, 6(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.12681/cjp.26924


Halliwell, S. (2002). The aesthetics of mimesis: ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt7rn67


Juan-Navarro, S. (2007). The power of mimesis and the mimesis of power: Plato's concept of imitation and his judgment on the value of poetry and the arts. Studium, 13, 97-108.


Kristeller, P. O. (1951). The modern system of the arts: A study in the history of aesthetics part I. Journal of the History of Ideas, 12(4), 496–527. https://doi.org/10.2307/2707484


Lear, G.R. (2020) Plato on why human beauty is good for the soul. V. Caston (Ed.), Oxford studies in ancient philosophy, Volume 57. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (online edn.). Oxford Academic. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198850847.003.0002


Liddell H. G. & Scott R. (1889). An intermediate Greek-English lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Plato. (1925). Timaeus (W. R. M. Lamb, Trans.). In Plato in twelve volumes (Vol. 9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Plato. (1980). Plato: Symposium (Cambridge Greek and Latin classics) (K. Dover, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9780511813009


Plato. (2011). Plato: Phaedrus (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics) (H. Yunis, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511977237


Porter, James I. (2009). Is art modern? Kristeller's ‘modern system of the arts’ reconsidered. British Journal of Aesthetics, 49(1), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayn054


Tobin, R. (1975). The canon of Polykleitos. American Journal of Archaeology, 79(4), 307–321. https://doi.org/10.2307/503064


White, F. (1989). Love and beauty in Plato's Symposium. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 109, 149-157. https://doi.org/10.2307/632038

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