Monday, March 14, 2011


Oleg V. Bychkov, Anne Sheppard (ed.), Greek and Roman Aesthetics. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xlii, 249. ISBN 9780521547925. $30.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Skidmore College (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume collects passages from ancient and medieval texts (approximately Gorgias through Proclus) pertinent to the experience of beauty and the arts. A teacher would most appropriately assign it at the beginning of a completist history of aesthetics seminar. A classicist might read it in her spare time for a synoptic perspective on a thousand years of thought about the fine and the beautiful. All the (mostly new) translations read lucidly, in a handsome edition.1 A scholar buying the book for its handy access to the less-canonical texts should tolerate its taciturn editorial voice. Otherwise there is too little guidance for the volume's intended audience (advanced students). This holds true especially in the Introduction, the admittedly wide-ranging and polyglot Further Reading, and the Glossary. The footnotes stick strictly to citing allusions and cross-references. Discussion of Greek and Latin is kept to an absolute minimum. Many texts get lengthy reproduction—e.g., all of Poetics but chapters 20, 22, 25; Republic 376e-402a, 595a-608b; and On Sublimity 1-2, 6-10, 13-15, 33-36—but a few end too soon. This volume has a somewhat narrow usefulness, but with some readerly ingenuity, presumably some structured activities that use it as a corpus of evidence, it can be quite rewarding.

I will say more about the volume's editorial austerity below. One consequence of its modesty, however, is a slight lack of clarity about the point of its inclusion in the "Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy" series. In the four hodge-podgy pages of general introduction, the editors identify two goals: to collect works that "directly influence what is now called aesthetic thought," and to include alongside them works that, irrespective of historical import, raised early on issues that "we regard as aesthetic issues." At the end of the next ten pages—giving context and brief summary of the thirty-eight selections2—they identify a third goal: "to reflect the range and variety of Greek and Roman aesthetic thought over its long period of development."

This volume does accomplish these three straightforward goals. The editors don't articulate, however, what else a sourcebook like this could do, what this one is not trying to do, and what range of things it in fact does do.

What it doesn't do is easiest to state. It does not systematize views about kallos or honestas, and so provides no analytic structure for appreciating the provocative positions on beauty we see adumbrated in, for example, Plato, the Stoics according to Cicero, Plotinus, or Augustine. It advances no historical theses to explain what argumentative, intellectual, socio-cultural, or theological pressures influenced the diversity and change in aesthetic views over the target millennium. It neither collates primary sources nor offers editorial direction to explain the relationship between the collected authors' metaphysical, psychological, and ethical philosophy and their aesthetic suggestions or proclamations. In general it avoids arguing or speculating why the excerpted authors wrote what they wrote.

A telling contrast is with the others aesthetics collection from the same Cambridge series, Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics. Its Introduction begins: "Almost from the moment that modern aesthetics took on a distinctive shape in the middle of the eighteenth century there arose claims that sought to privilege aesthetic reason or experience. In the writings collected in this volume we are offered the possibility of tracing the emergence and fate of this privilege." Its editor has it that modern aesthetics has had the burden of showing how art (as opposed to scientific inquiry or moral cognition) might redeem modernity from its problems, including the disenchantment of nature and the loss of faith in a specifically human freedom. The editor dedicates thirty pages to vindicating his thesis, showing how it can explain the work of the half-dozen-or-so writers—e.g., Lessing, Schiller, Hölderlin, etc.—reproduced there.

Bychkov and Sheppard don't address whether pre-modern aesthetics responded to any crises, or to elite-mass tensions, or to trends in literacy, or to imperialism or its dissolution. Indeed they don't say that their texts argue about or in response to problems in that way.

What the editors do say is that much ancient aesthetic outlined a "theory of art as imitation or expression," sought out "objective criteria of beauty and objective principles of art," and discussed "the emotional effect of art." In the discussion of individual works, the editors also point out recurrent attention to the possibilities of "moral education," the role of "divine inspiration," the overlap between "moral [and] aesthetic beauty," the way "the beauty of the physical world is recognized as essentially attractive, drawing us to the revelation of something beyond it," the idea that "the aesthetic experience of sensible beauty leads directly to the beauty of speech and thought [of the viewer]," the separability or unity of "form and content," the relationship between "'excellence' and 'the fitting,'" whether humans "have an innate capacity to perceive metrical patterns… in music and proportions in the visual arts," whence an artist's archetype—in the world or "in his own mind," the ability of painters to "portray character and emotion [i.e., aspects of soul]," the preference for "representational" art or art that is "symbolic of higher realities," and the possibility that "the 'transcendental' nature of aesthetic experience… [can] demonstrat[e] the existence of the divine."

The texts, read all at once, confirm the editors' observation about this recurrent attention. The thorough Index (5pp of small font) helps trace it. Because of the texts' brevity, and, in some instances, because of technical Stoic or neo-Platonist assumptions, Plato's baffling rhetorical maneuvers, Aristotle's compression, or the fragmentary state of Philodemus' polemics, attention to important issues does not always entail satisfying argumentative sequences, taxonomic clarity, definitional completeness, or the advancement of understanding. But this volume, in part by exhibiting the persistence of certain problems, reminds us that they are worth thinking about.

The inclusion of brief, less-canonical texts has a further function. They illuminate the canonical, more-thoroughly-elaborated texts. They do so by helping us judge the relative originality, conventionality, or fine-tunedness of certain views, that vision and hearing, for example, are the most rational senses, or that beauty points uniquely beyond its particular instantiation, or that life is the thing that our aesthetic sense registers.

Philodemus' work on music and on poems is most fascinating in this respect, revealing shadows of an articulated Stoic aesthetics and, in doing so, implying a fairly developed field of theoretical inquiry into art and music by the third century. Philodemus' fragmentary remains does not provide many good reasons for his claims, for instance that music is no more imitative than cookery is, or that music doesn't move people to action so much as it mixes pleasure into otherwise laborious actions. But he does provide, besides an enjoyable tartness and hard-headed imagination, witness to an enticing background of then-contemporary aesthetic theory.

Treating the slighter works compiled in Greek and Roman Aesthetics as more than semi-effective autonomous philosophical texts, namely as strange glimpses at an at least partially-reconstructable plenum of aesthetic discovery and controversy, presents them in an exciting new light. The excerpt from Gorgias' "Helen," for example, seems at first a bag of unqualified claims scheduling puzzles he doesn't solve. But in light of the totality of the collection, we can see its density of features testifying to an advanced state of aesthetic reflection. Gorgias gives a prompt definition of poetry; he speaks of the soul's "personal" experience of poetry; he observes poetry's startling emotional power; he indicates the ubiquity of art; he explains aesthetic effect by appeal remarkably to memory; and in saying that persuasion "shapes the soul as it wishes" he raises the ideas of art as simultaneously educative and as manipulative. Presumably by the late fifth century—before the Republic, before Aristotle—each of these were topics of research.

All this said, this volume is useful not only for intellectual history. Some texts are relatively self-sufficient and continuous, such as Aristides Quintilianus' twelve-page argument that "we should educate the young through music," or Plotinus' long proof that "the soul's becoming something good and beautiful is becoming like God." The best point to make is that this collection serves especially well as a record that there were channels and pools of arguments about beauty, emotion, and grace that we can hardly any longer see, and that our time might be well spent reconstructing, guessing at, and trying to make sense of them.

In light of this view of the collection, it is perhaps only laziness that would cause disappointment in not seeing, in particular, a table classifying our authors' various criteria of beauty and an expert discussion of how they differ. But other editorial features would still be desirable.

Overall concern for space demanded that specifically rhetorical works be excluded. This is acceptable. The selections from Cicero give some sense anyway for the way rhetoric and aesthetics overlap; On Sublimity contains a brief argument for the distinction between the two. But the editors did not adequately justify the exclusion of other works. The editors write that they excluded certain cited passages of Philebus and Laws, but do not say why. More frustrating is the unexplained elision of the last argument of the Hippias Major. This argument, that "the fine" is what causes pleasure for seeing and hearing, is the longest and final argument of the dialogue; the twinning of seeing and hearing shows up through aesthetics history (as in Augustine On Order 2.11.32); and Socrates' refutation of it seems to depend on a logical, suspiciously extra-aesthetic consideration. Accordingly it should have been included, not just summarized in a sentence. Slightly irritating is the frequent elision of passages elsewhere with hardly a footnote about what's being skipped over. Because this volume is shorter than comparable volumes of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy,3 space-limitations don't seem the only factor.

The glossary of nine words feels perfunctory. The editors remark that kalon is translated in some texts consistently as "fine," in others as "beautiful," but don't explain why. Their claim that it is "a very general term of commendation" does not adequately distinguish it from the good, suggest why there would be controversy about the existence of a distinction, or identify the importance of a specially external quality to the kalon. This latter feature is, after all, what allows fineness to be relevant to aesthetics—the study of things that are perceived as valuable—and causes the theoretical confusion in announcing that there may also be a "moral" beauty or fineness. The terseness of the editors' gloss of mimêsis—that they follow Griffith's "imitation"—belies the difficulty of the term. The Augustinian numerosus, translated as "having a numeric nature," will be opaque to those unfamiliar with Augustine's thought: the excerpted passages probably provide inadequate contextual evidence.

The Further Reading favors general studies over articles dedicated to individual texts.


1.   The only type-setting problem is irregular italicization of Philodemus references.
2.   Gorgias: Hel. 8-14

Plato: Ion 533-6; Hi. Ma. 287-98; Smp. 206-12; R. 376-402,595-608; Phdr. 244, 249-50, 264a; Ti. 28; Sph. 235-6 Xenophon: Mem. 3.10.1-8

Aristotle: Po. 1-19, 21, 23-4, 26; Pol. 1341b20-1342a20

Philodemus: two pages from Po. 5; four pages from Mus. 4

Cicero: Inv. rhet. 2.1.1-3; De or. 3.25.96-26.101, 3.45.178-46.181, 3.50.195-51.198; Orat. 2.7-3.10, 21.70-22.74, 51.173, 53.177-8, 55.183-4; Fin. 2.14.45, 2.14.47; Nat. D. 2.5.15, 2.6.17, 2.7.18-19, 2.34.87, 2.57.145-58.146; Tusc. 4.13.28-31; Off. 1.4.14-15, 1.27.93-9, 1.35.126-36.130, 1.40.145-41.146

Seneca: Ep. 65.2-10; Ben. 4.22.2, 4.23.1-24.1

Longinus: On Sublimity, 1-2, 6-10, 13-15, 33-36

Philostratus: V A 2.22, 6.19; Imag. pref.

Philostratus the Younger: Imag. pref. 3-7

Aristides Quintilianus: On Music I.1-3, II.1-6.

Plotinus: Enn. 1.6.1-9, 5.8.1-2,, 6.7.31-33

Augustine: On Order 2.11.32-34, 39, 14.41-15.42, 19.50-51; On Music 6, 2.3-13.38; On True Religion 29.52-31.60, 39.72, 40.76-41.77; On Free Choice of the Will 2.11.31, 12.34, 16.41-43; Confessions 3.2.2, 7.17.23; On the Trinity 9.6.11

Proclus: Commentary on the Timaeus 1, 265.18-26; Commentary on the Republic 1, 177.7-179.32, 2, 107.14-108.16

Anonymous: Prolegomena to the Philosophy of Plato 14.11-15.51
3.   This text: 291pp; Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics: 356pp; Medieval Jewish Philosophical Writings: 302pp; Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues: 344pp.

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