Sunday, July 5, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Stefan Büttner, Antike Ästhetik. Eine Einführung in die Prinzipien des Schönen. München: C.H. Beck, 2006. Pp. 211; 14 ills. ISBN 3-406-54092-9. €12.90.
Reviewed by Martin S. Harbsmeier, Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany


Ever since Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten first coined the term and founded the philosophical study of aesthetics in 1750, a perennial problem of this discipline has been to define its subject-matter. Some contend it to be the study of beauty, others the study of art, and still others the study of beautiful art.

In his introduction to ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics, Stefan Büttner acknowledges that Baumgarten's own concept of aesthetics as the science of perceptual beauty was unknown in antiquity.1 Yet by arguing that our ancient sources feature theories of beauty as well as theories of perception, Büttner (hereafter B.) argues that one might speak of a "double ancient aesthetics" (9) and he thus decides to keep the term "aesthetics" in his study of ancient theories of beauty and art. Using this somewhat problematic terminological approach of combining different ancient fields of study into one equivalent to modern aesthetics, B. at first glance appears to be establishing an artificial similarity between ancient and modern thinking on aesthetics. But as it turns out, despite the somewhat anachronistic terminology and the strongly generalizing subtitle of the book ("Introduction to the Principles of Beauty"), B.'s aim is not so much to search for ancient counterparts to modern aesthetics in a conceptional sense, but more specifically to examine ancient theories of the nature of beauty and of (beautiful) art in their own right. This clearly stated scope of his book notwithstanding, the ancient theories in these fields may, as B. concludes in his brief introduction, indeed contribute to clarify or enrich our own thinking and theorizing about art, beauty and aesthetics. That this ought, in fact, to be the case, seems evident, when one considers that, despite major differences especially concerning the status of the arts, a great deal of our thinking about aesthetics ultimately derives from Greek and Roman reflections on these matters.2 The book's focus on theories of art and beauty also means, as the author states in the introduction, that one should not expect to find discussions of, e.g. Homeric poetics except in those cases where such topics are touched upon by ancient thinkers. Aimed at a general readership, B.'s introduction can be studied without prior knowledge in Classical or Aesthetic Studies, but the advanced student of either field may certainly profit from reading it.

Following the introduction, the book's first section aims to reconstruct "Plato's aesthetics" with a main focus on the Republic, the Symposium and the Sophist. The second section on Aristotle is primarily concerned with the Poetics, and the third section comprises three individual chapters dealing with the aesthetics of the Hellenistic philosophical schools (Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), Vitruvius' De architectura, and various rhetorical and poetological treatises of the Roman imperial period (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Quintilian, Ps.-Longinus' De sublimitate, and Horace's Ars poetica). The book's last section deals with aesthetics in the thought of Plotinus, and a short general reflection on the importance of ancient aesthetics concludes the volume.

The layout of B.'s introduction thus mirrors several of his predecessors.3 All chapters contain brief historical presentations of the authors treated in them, and the volume's brief bibliography includes essential editions, commentaries, and (mainly German and English) translations of the relevant Greek and Latin texts. It also lists some selected works on the authors and schools treated in the book as well as several, primarily German, monographs on ancient aesthetics. Finally, the volume features a short index of persons and of some central aesthetic concepts. Being designed as an introduction to the general reader, the book contains no footnotes and no references to modern works and only occasionally engages in explicit scholarly discussion. References to ancient sources are given somewhat randomly, which makes it rather difficult for the reader and especially for the student who is not already familiar with the relevant texts to trace the specific sources of individual statements and positions that B. discusses.

Some of the chapters (such as those on Quintilian, Vitruvius, Horace, and -- in part -- Aristotle) consist primarily of summaries of the relevant texts. These chapters will be of some value as basic introductions to the non-specialist; the advanced student, however, will find them less rewarding as they contain few or no controversial interpretations. Moreover, one might ask, as B. himself admits, whether authors such as Quintilian or Dionysius of Halicarnassus can be said to contribute significantly to a survey of ancient theories of beauty and art.

To this reviewer, the book's prime merit consists in B.'s attempt to contextualize the concepts of beauty and art that we find in the texts of the various ancient philosophical schools. This approach is especially fruitful in the chapter on "Plato's aesthetics", which together with the chapter on Aristotle comprises half of the book. B.'s wide-ranging and detailed account does not permit an in-depth engagement within the scope of a review. I shall therefore focus on a few aspects that seem particularly important to the author.

In order to assess the role of art and beauty in the Platonic dialogues, B. begins this chapter with a discussion of psychology and epistemology in Plato. Most interpreters, B. states, have diagnosed in Plato's dialogues a contradiction between a rigorous condemnation of the arts and a genuinely positive attitude towards them. This contradiction, however, B. argues, is caused by an anachronistic imposing of modern psychological concepts on Plato's thought. Only if we realize, he claims, that the modern dichotomy of psychic processes between pre-conscious, perceptual, and emotional experiences on the one hand and "cold", conscious, rational reflexion on the other does not apply to Plato, will we be able to grasp what he says about art.4 Contrary to the modern Cartesian tradition, B. stresses, consciousness plays no role at all in the Platonic conception of cognition. To Plato (and other ancient thinkers), every process of perception is a cognitive process. Plato, thus, does not differentiate between conscious and non-conscious processes, but between different modes and levels of cognition according to the qualities being perceived and discerned. Basic visual perception, for instance, is not an immediate, non-rational process, but rather an act of distinguishing various forms and colors from one another. Visual perception alone, however, is not capable of identifying a given set of colors and forms as a specific item, because this identification requires cognition of something one cannot see, namely the item's function, which is what lends it its specific identity. To identify, e.g., something white and rectangular as a door (B.'s example), thus requires a combination of seeing and thinking. Most importantly though, this implies that the function or "idea" of a particular item does not depend on visual input, a consequence that -- in the present example -- becomes evident, when the same white rectangular item is placed upon four legs, thus becoming a table instead of a door.

Epistemological considerations such as these, B. contends, are crucial to understanding what Plato says about art. To mention but one of the consequences that follow from the cognitive model just outlined, meaning and content in art do not come into being on the basis of sense perception but exclusively through thinking. What lends structure and meaning to every set of sensible particulars are not the particulars themselves, but the ideas. The same holds true of beauty, which, likewise, is not an inherent quality of the world's particulars but is bestowed upon these by the idea of beauty. The quality of an artwork, thus, is determined by the cognitive level of the artist's knowledge about the subjects he is treating. What Plato, then, is condemning, is not art in general, but only those works of art which do not comply with his own philosophical standards.

Stimulating as his arguments are, B.'s treatment of Plato contains some methodologically problematic features. Given the author's laudable intent of contextualizing what is said about beauty and art in the Platonic dialogues within a larger framework of psychology and epistemology, one might have expected a similar ambition to contextualize the relevant statements as well as the framework itself within the dialogues from which they are extracted. Yet B. makes no such attempt. When introducing Aristotle, B. draws attention to the fact that, due to the dialogue form, we can never be sure about what Plato really thought. This retrospectively voiced insight, however, has no consequences for the treatment of the Platonic texts in the relevant chapter. On the contrary, Plato's dialogues are here treated as if they were Aristotelian treatises and their content traditionally compiled into Platonic theories. Thus, when B. sets out by stating that the relevant utterances in Plato's dialogues contain statements which seem to contradict each other, there is no hint at the possibility that this might also have something to do with the fact that Plato's texts are not direct statements of the author's views let alone of a coherent theory of art, but semi-fictional dialogues in which different characters are discussing a wide variety of subjects.

Apart from these methodological scruples, B.'s rendering of the views expressed in the dialogues does not always seem convincing. To give one example: B., like numerous interpreters before him,5 claims that Plato "defines" all art as mimêsis (35), but it is, at least, debatable whether such a claim is, in fact, made in the dialogues. The passage that comes closest to such a definition is Republic 600e4-6 where Socrates concludes that "from Homer on, all the poets are imitators (mimêtai) of images of excellence" (cf. also 599b9-c2). Yet, one might ask whether this conclusion in fact amounts to defining art tout court as mimêsis or whether Socrates is just summing up his preceding critique of Homer and the tragedians (= "all the poets") as lacking true knowledge. It is true that in Book 10 of the Republic Socrates speaks of what appears to be a "quarrel" between philosophy and poetry in general (607b5), but he begins the discussion of mimetic poetry with an explicit description of the subject as "so much of poetry that is mimetic" (595a5 o(/sh [sc. au)th=s] mimhtikh/), and, moreover, after the alleged universal definition in 600e4-6 he continues to talk specifically about epic and tragedy, whichseems to militate against an interpretation of 600e4-6 as a general definition of all poetry as being mimêsis. A further obstacle to this interpretation is that Plato in the Republic does not provide a direct answer to the question in which way all poetry is supposed to be subsumed under the category of mimêsis.6 In order to answer this question, B. picks up the Sophist's universal concept of mimêsis as the making of any kind of image, i.e. of a product that is made to be similar to something else (240a, 265b). With reference to the reconstruction of Plato's epistemology mentioned above, he then argues that Plato in Book 10 of the Republic condemns only those mimetic products which fail to be based on knowledge of that which they are modeled upon. A drawback of this solution, however, is that there is no mention of such a subdivision of mimêsis into qualified and unqualified imitation in Republic 10. On the contrary, mimetic poetry seems to be condemned qua mimetic (see, e.g., 595b6-7: "I think that all such [sc. mimetic] things impair the mind of those who hear them"). Moreover, the possibility of a mimêtês having any true knowledge is explicitly ruled out in Socrates' argument on the nature of "mimêsis in general" (595c7, 597e10-98b5). As to the exact scope of Plato's discussion of mimetic poetry in Republic 10, then, B.'s treatment raises some important questions yet to be answered.

The chapter on Aristotle's aesthetics touches on a lot of interesting topics, especially concerning questions about the interpretation of single passages of the Poetics, to which, as the author notes, no universally accepted answers have been given. The most prominent example is probably the question about how to interpret the notorious passage in ch. 6 of the Poetics on the emotional purging, katharsis, which a good tragedy according to Aristotle is supposed to induce in its spectators (or readers). B. discusses different solutions and pleads for the objective reading of the genitive clause (1449b27-28 tw=n toiou/twn paqhma/twn ka/qarsin) taking it to mean that the spectator's suffering with the characters on stage will contribute to a positive forming of the spectator's emotional habitus. Given the book's aim of being an introduction to the general reader, many of B.'s interpretations of the Poetics are, of course, not new. The chapter on Aristotle, however, in combination with the reconstruction of Plato's aesthetics forms an informative and illuminating background to later aesthetic thought as detailed in the subsequent chapters on Hellenistic and Neoplatonist philosophy.

The widespread early modern idea of good art being an exact copy of reality, to pick out one of the more interesting (and not uncontroversial) claims in the chapter on Hellenistic philosophy, ultimately derives from Stoic physics. The Stoic contention of a purely material world, B. argues, precludes the Platonic and Aristotelian idea of something immaterial being the cause of beauty, which, therefore, has to be "in nature". In order to find and subsequently represent beauty, one thus needs to contemplate "nature" or "reality" as thoroughly as possible. Yet, as becomes clear in B.'s treatment of the later Stoics, though Stoic materialism may in a certain sense be said to form the foundation of the early modern concept of beautiful art as the copy of perceptible beauty, this is not the conclusion the Stoics arrived at themselves. In accordance with their idea of the kosmos as a whole ordered by logos, physical beauty is described as the congruity of all particulars with one another and with the whole; beauty of the soul, correspondingly, is defined as a harmony between the virtues of a person as well as a kind of concord and consistency of that person's opinions and judgments combined with a certain general psychic strength. These ideas of harmony and symmetry are to some extent related to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, whence they ultimately derive. The Stoics, however, as B. points out, differ significantly from these predecessors as well as from their alleged early modern heirs in that they are neither interested in beauty as a purely intelligible quality nor in a theoretical derivation of perceptible beauty. What matters to them is the manifestation of beauty in the above defined sense in a beautiful, that is morally good life.

The book's final chapter on Plotinus, not surprisingly, focuses on this Neoplatonist's relationship to his ancient master. In Book 6 of Plato's Republic, Socrates illustrates his own philosophical enterprise of sketching an imaginative ideal city by looking towards the ideas of justice, beauty, etc. with that of a painter painting "the most beautiful picture" (500b-501c; cf. 472b-473b). This is the artistic ideal, B. contends, which Plotinus picks up when claiming that the ideas, not the sensible world, ought to be the paradigm of true art. Using Phidias to illustrate his point, Plotinus emphasizes that the Athenian sculptor certainly did not create his famous statue of Zeus in Olympia on the basis of empirical data, but rather by discerning what the god might be thought to be like (oi(=os a)\n ge/noito), should he appear before our eyes.7 Plotinus, thus, according to B., does not represent a new aesthetic paradigm, as many interpreters have claimed, but shows himself to be a true follower of Plato, just as he purported to be.

Though one might not always agree with B.'s treatment of the relevant ancient sources, this does not detract from the fact that this slim and well-written volume with its numerous straightforward examples and occasional humorous anecdotes is a stimulating and enjoyable book on a vast and fascinating topic.

The reviewer detected only a few misprints (pp. 56, 77, 129, and 207) and one invalid reference (p. 43: reference to Pl. Rep. 500b).


1. Cf. Glen W. Most, Art. "Schöne (das)", in: J. Ritter et al. (edd.), Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. VIII, Basel 1992, 1343-51.

2. See e.g. Ernesto Grassi, Die Theorie des Schönen in der Antike, Cologne 1962.

3. See e.g. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, London - New York 2005 (Polish original 1962-67).

4. For this comparative approach to Platonic epistemology and psychology, cf. Arbogast Schmitt, Die Moderne und Platon, 2nd rev. ed., Stuttgart 2008. For a full treatment of the poetological views expressed in Plato's dialogues in the light of Platonic epistemology and psychology, see B.'s own Die Literaturtheorie bei Platon und ihre anthropologische Begründung, Tübingen 2000.

5. See e.g. Penelope Murray (ed.), Plato on Poetry. Ion, Republic 376e-398b, Republic 595-608b, Cambridge 1996, 207.

6. For further discussion of these matters, see Christopher Janaway, Images of Excellence, Oxford 1995, 126-132.

7. Enn. 5.8.31. A similar phrasing, as B. notes in his section on Aristotle's aesthetics, recurs in ch. 9 of the Poetics but with quite a different meaning.

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