Friday, 11 August 2017

David Hume: Of the Standard of Taste

The philosopher David Hume’s most important contribution to aesthetics was the essay Of the Standard of Taste, originally published in 1757 as one of his Four Dissertations. The essay was written in haste to bulk up the page-count of the book – but it proved a milestone in the literature on criticism, influencing Kant and provoking debate even in the present day.

It was in the 18th century that the question of taste became a recognised central theme in aesthetics. Hume studies the relativity of taste in art, and tries to identify a standard of taste that can allow us to resolve aesthetic disagreements.

You can read Hume’s essay for free online, for example here. The most visually attractive version is this one from – you’ll need to use the drop-down menu on the right to navigate to the last essay in the collection. Both of those links number the paragraphs for easy reference, and I’ll use those numbers below.

This is just a synopsis with some commentary. Please note that Hume uses gendered language which I will avoid in my own remarks.


Hume’s writing style is clear and his argument comparatively easy to follow, but making a synopsis is a helpful way to get to know the text. The essay may be broken up into four sections.

  • Paragraphs §§1-8: Hume defines the issue, namely that taste is highly variable and subjective, and explores aspects of the problem. 
  • Paragraphs §§9-16: Hume makes an empirical case for the rules of a standard of taste. By what standard may we decide one opinion is better than another?
  • Paragraphs §§17-27: Hume outlines some of the qualities of a good critic:
    1) Strong sense 2) delicacy of imagination 3) practice 4) comparison 5) absence of prejudice. 
  • Paragraphs §§28-36: Hume considers two caveats that will affect every critic:
    1) natural variations in people and 2) cultural conditioning.

Paragraphs §§1-8

§1: Hume opens with a statement of the problem: people have a great variety of taste in art, even people with similar backgrounds. Hume, as the scholar Jonathan Bennett has pointed out, does not mean ‘taste’ in a narrow or shallow sense, but to mean ‘every kind of aesthetic reaction to works of art’.1 He doesn’t mention specifically art until a bit later.

The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government, and have early imbibed the same prejudices. But those, who can enlarge their view to contemplate distant nations and remote ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety.

Hume does not express any doubt about the existence of beauty, nor is he interested in defining it. His interest in this essay is the Standard of Taste.

§2: This variety of taste is ‘still greater in reality than in appearance.’ Everyone can agree to praise certain qualities (‘elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit’) and to lament others (‘fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy’), but Hume observes a mismatch between general and particular.

When critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes.

We can agree about good and bad artistic qualities in the abstract, but as soon as we address specific examples, we resort to subjective taste. To take a contemporary example, two people may both prefer realist fiction, but fiercely disagree about whether Zadie Smith or James Kelman is the better novelist. Hume contrasts this with scientific debates, which are the opposite: the particulars (empirical data) are agreed upon, but the broader interpretation can be very different.

§3: Hume makes an analogy with ethics. Although he coyly writes about ‘those who...’, this position is his own. He claims that morality is like taste: it too is based upon sentiment (emotions) not reason. We agree on general moral qualities we consider good:

Writers of all nations and all ages concur in applauding justice, humanity, magnanimity, prudence, veracity; and in blaming the opposite qualities. Even poets and other authors, whose compositions are chiefly calculated to please the imagination, are yet found, from HOMER down to FENELON, to inculcate the same moral precepts, and to bestow their applause and blame on the same virtues and vices. 

Everyone can agree that ‘virtue’ is good and ‘vice’ is bad – not to do so would mean perverting language. However, we surrender to subjective taste as soon as we discuss particular moral cases. Hume compares the ancient Greek poet Homer and the French writer Fénelon, author of the 1699 novel Les Aventures de Télémaque. Homer’s Achilles and Ulysses are heroes, yet both have less admirable qualities too, whereas Fénelon’s hero Telemachus is perfectly virtuous. The two writers have different opinions of what behaviour is appropriate in a heroic character.

§4: Hume then makes a similar point with reference to the Qu’ran. Its followers insist upon its ‘excellent moral precepts’ and it uses the same positive language of justice, charity etc in Arabic that English does, yet it bestows praise on behaviour that would be unacceptable in ‘civilised society’. (I would add that the Bible is just as bad, though Hume may, as a religious sceptic, have had the Bible quietly in mind.) Again, people agree about generalities and quarrel about particulars.

Moral and aesthetic greement, then, is often based on a linguistic illusion: we agree on certain evaluative terms but not on what they mean.

§5: He says there is therefore little point in making generalisations about ethics. By extension, there is perhaps little point in making them about aesthetics either.

§6: To resolve such difficulties, Hume concludes:

It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.

The goal of Hume’s essay is to establish a ‘rule’ for how we may settle disputes over taste by judging who is right and who is wrong. The sceptical, relativist position laid out in the opening paragraphs (including §7) is pessimistic about this possibility, but Hume does not agree with that position – as we go on, we find he agrees with some aspects of it, e.g. that beauty is subjective, but nonetheless thinks it is possible to establish a standard.

§7: This paragraph is important. Hume further explains the relativist case, drawing a distinction between judgement and sentiment (emotion).

All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard. 

Reason (‘understanding’) expects that something can be proved correct or incorrect by appeal to objective fact. By contrast, a sentiment cannot be judged correct or incorrect.

Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it. On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. 

If you feel something, the feeling is real, and no one can accuse you of being ‘wrong’ for feeling it. Following these observations, Hume argues that if taste is based upon feeling rather than objective reason, beauty must be subjective:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. 

On this view, morality and aesthetics are based upon feeling and are therefore subjective. You cannot pronounce any opinion about beauty correct or incorrect because all such opinions are sentiments. A Standard of Taste on this view is impossible.

Each of us may be confident in our opinion yet may make no claim to ‘regulate those of others’. The same object may be thought to taste both sweet and bitter, and it is pointless to claim that one experience is more right than the other – we may extend this bodily example to our sentiments as well. Hume evokes (without actually naming it) the proverb de gustibus non est disputandum: ‘there is no disputing over taste’. This is a rare case, he says, of ‘common sense’ agreeing with philosophy.

§8: But Hume immediately counters this with a contrary ‘common sense’ position. We behave as if there are objective standards.

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.

We take it for granted that Milton is a better writer than John Ogilby, a Scottish poet now only remembered for being namedropped in Hume’s famous essay. There are always people who think otherwise, but we are comfortable dismissing such opinions as ‘absurd and ridiculous’. We respect a plurality of taste when its objects seem broadly comparable, but when one work seems obviously better than another, the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum quickly breaks down.

Things don’t in themselves have good and bad, beauty and ugliness. These values come from people. But people can be right or wrong about at least some of them. This ‘common sense’ position that we may judge people’s opinions is at least as valid as the other ‘common sense’ position that we can’t.

Paragraphs §§9-16

Having established this background for the argument, Hume proceeds to defend the former common sense position against the latter by seeking grounds for a Standard of Taste.

§9: Hume has already (§6) called the Standard of Taste a ‘rule’. Here he refers to the ‘rules of composition’, by which he seems to mean the rules followed by artists when creating their works. Thus we have two sets of rules: those of taste or criticism, and those of composition, but Hume does not make a distinction between them. Presumably, the artist applies the rules of composition to their work, then the critic judges, with reference to those same rules, how well it has been done.

The rules will be based upon ‘a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind’ (§7), or what Hume later calls ‘the relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment’ (§10).

Hume’s approach to the rules of composition is characteristically empiricist:

It is evident that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience.

The rules cannot be worked out a priori, that is, from reasoning alone, independent of sensory experience. Reason must be accompanied by facts, which in art is supplied by experience of what works: ‘what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages’.

Hume rightly observes that poetry does not depend for its effects on strict empirical fact:

Many of the beauties of poetry and even of eloquence are founded on falsehood and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meaning. To check the sallies of the imagination, and to reduce every expression to geometrical truth and exactness, would be the most contrary to the laws of criticism; because it would produce a work, which, by universal experience, has been found the most insipid and disagreeable.

But though poetry does not have to accord with scientific fact, it ‘must be confined by rules of art’. These rules are

general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages... discovered to the author either by genius or observation.

Living in the Neoclassical age, Hume has no problem with looking back to older cultural authorities, and admires Homer as a model for all ages. Here in §9 he holds up the Italian Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, author of the vast epic poem Orlando Furioso (first version 1516), as an example of a second-rate writer whom we still enjoy reading. He wants to make the point that if weaker writers please us, it is because they have other merits that conform to the rules and lead us to forgive the flaws.

If we take pleasure from features that criticism considers flaws, then criticism needs to change. ‘If they are found to please, they cannot be faults.’ Thus Hume asserts that the rules of composition are based upon what pleases the audience, i.e. upon subjective feelings.

§10: Hume concludes that

all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature. 

But he notes that this reference point of common human experience and feelings is unstable, because, as we established earlier, feelings are variable. They don’t always behave according to their own general principles and can be thrown out of kilter. To get the best and most representative judgement of taste, therefore,

we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.

High standards of critical judgement depend upon concentrating upon the object, in the right state of mind.

The rules, we have seen, are based upon ‘the relation which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment.’ We find its influence

from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion.

It is from proven masterworks that we may find the rule of the Standard of Taste.

§11: We are still no closer to what the rules actually are. Given that we need to iron out the flux of human feelings, Hume thinks the best way to identify them is to examine works that have been tried and tested over a long period of time. He points out:

The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.

The passage of time reveals which are the exemplary works of art:

Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with. 

The immediate pressures of envy, personal acquaintance and so on can cloud our judgement, but once these are removed and the work is judged only on its own merits, we can observe ‘the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments,’ and these have long-standing authority.

§§12-13: This appeal to ‘beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments’ implies the rules are in fact not subjective but objective. Otherwise, where do they get their long-standing authority? Hume explains:

It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease.

Note the ‘principles of approbation or blame’ are not in the object but in the operation of the mind in its response to the object. Hume seems to be saying that yes, all taste is subjective, but there are tendencies in the human organism or constitution that make us more likely to value some beauties/rules over others. There are ‘some particular forms or qualities’ in the object that give us pleasure or displeasure.

Hume clearly considers these properties reliable: they will please us. If they do not, the blame lies in some defect in the human organism.

In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment.

Just as a person with the flu can’t be expected to judge the flavours in a meal because his or her sense of taste will be impaired, a person whose faculties are defective can’t respond to art with the most appropriate pleasure and thus can’t make the best judgements of it. In a community of healthy faculties Hume thinks that we may find our Standard of Taste:

If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in daylight, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

Hume’s analogy with colour is illuminating. The healthy organism perceives a ‘true and real’ colour even though colour is accepted as being a sensation created by the organism itself. By analogy, the healthy organism perceives a ‘true and real’ beauty even though we all agree beauty and taste are subjective. The beauty is ‘true and real’ because it is predicated upon a ‘structure of the mind’ (§13) that is broadly common to all human beings. However the general principles are affected by variations in 1) the structure of the mind and 2) the contexts in which objects are experienced, hence the variation in the pleasure felt.

Hume seems to be overlooking something here. He is saying that some objects or properties are naturally calculated to please via the structure of the mind.2 To return to colour: our experience or sensation of colour is created for us by the brain, but it is an interpretation based upon actual data, i.e. different colours represent different wavelengths of light that may be scientifically measured; similarly, beauty may be a subjective feeling but that feeling has a causal relationship with specific objective properties. This is important and needs more discussion, but the essay does not address this complication.

§§14-16: An example of the variability across individuals is ‘delicacy of imagination’. It is valued by all but exercised by fewer. To define what he means by ‘delicacy’, Hume takes an illustration from Don Quixote. The Don’s squire Sancho Panza relates a story in which two of his relatives detected a taste of leather and iron in a glass of wine. They were ridiculed for this until a key and thong were discovered in the wine cask, revealing that his relatives’ judgement was in fact acute. Sancho takes this as evidence that his own judgement of wine will also be acute, i.e. he assumes that the faculty runs in the family.

This story is not the best example for what Hume is discussing, as Sancho’s claim to good judgement in wine is based simply upon genetic inheritance, whereas Hume will later argue that good judgement comes through five criteria including things like practice (§23). But he wants to make a particular point. He goes on:

Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. 

Certain qualities in objects are ‘fitted by nature’ to produce sentiments of beauty because of that ‘structure of the mind’ we have already discussed. Beauty is subjective but is prompted by objective properties towards which the human organism is biased. Again, there is a contradiction here that needs further explanation. How can beauty belong ‘entirely’ to sentiment when those sentiments are produced by fitting qualities in objects?

Of course the experience varies across individuals.

Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste...

In making their delicate judgements of taste, the critic draws upon

the general rules of beauty... being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases.

Here comes Hume’s real point with the Sancho Panza story: he likens finding the rules of composition to finding the key at the bottom of the wine cask. Until the key was found, it was impossible to prove the quality of Sancho’s relatives’ judgement over that of their less delicate critics, but the key existed nonetheless.

Once we have identified an ‘avowed principle of art’ – once we have produced that key from the cask – we can justify our judgement and prove to our opponent that they lack delicacy of imagination:

When we prove, that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence: He must conclude, upon the whole, that the fault lies in himself.

Thus we can use the Standard of Taste to settle disputes about taste. This is quite a naive claim. Hume seems to take it for granted that the delicate person can convince the other person by force of reason.

Note that Hume refers in §16 to ‘sentiment, internal or external’. External sentiments are our sensations; internal sentiments are our feelings.

Paragraphs §§17-27

In the next few paragraphs Hume discusses what it takes to become a true critic. He has already given us delicacy of imagination.

§§17-19: Hume makes a case for improving our critical faculties through practice. Delicate taste is desireable and everyone approves of it. The perfection of that faculty is

to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation... the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united.

Natural ability varies, but

nothing tends further to encrease and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.

For an unpracticed person, the sentiments accompanying objects are ‘obscure and confused’ and our reason struggles to identify their merits and flaws. The best we can hope for is a general verdict.

But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact and nice: He not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame.

Given that practice is so important, we should withhold judgement until we have experienced the object more than once, in different lights, each time giving it our undivided attention. To recall §9, this sharpening of the faculties applies both to criticism and composition:

The same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means, in the judging of it.

§20: Hume continues by stressing the importance of comparison.

It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other. A man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him. By comparison alone we fix the epithets of praise or blame, and learn how to assign the due degree of each.

Inferior works often have their attractions, but it takes someone ‘familiarized to superior beauties’ to see past them and make a mature, well-informed judgement with reference to the greatest works of human culture.

One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.

§21: Attaining this breadth of reference requires the critic to free his mind of prejudice. Hume shows he is aware of the importance of cultural context: he notes that works of art often need to be experienced in a particular way, and the critic must try to put himself in the shoes of its intended audience. He uses the example of an orator who tailors his speech to a specific, even hostile, audience, but might not be properly understood by someone who reads the text within a different culture or era. Critics must try to forget their ‘individual being and peculiar circumstances’.

A critic who allows their judgement to be distorted by prejudice suffers the consequences:

By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment. So far his taste evidently departs from the true standard; and of consequence loses all credit and authority.

§22: Prejudice is ‘destructive of sound judgment’ and ‘it belongs to good sense to check its influence.’

Hume helpfully describes some of the properties of ‘the nobler productions of genius’. We can detect the influence of Aristotle’s Poetics on his list:

  1. A mutual relation and correspondence of parts.
  2. A certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated.
  3. A chain of propositions and reasonings.
  4. The characters must be represented as reasoning, and thinking, and concluding, and acting, suitably to their character and circumstances.
  5. The purpose of poetry is to please by means of the passions and the imagination.

This is as specific as Hume gets about any actual rules. But he is not trying here to describe the rules – he is describing some of the things that can be judged by good sense. The able critic must be aware of such considerations and be sufficiently ‘capacious of thought’ to judge how well they have been used.

It seldom, or never happens, that a man of sense, who has experience in any art, cannot judge of its beauty.

Good sense is important for fighting prejudice but also for judging an artwork’s structure, unity, purpose, and so on.

§23: Hume believes that a critic capable of all these gifts – what he calls a ‘true judge’, or what we would today prefer to call a ‘true critic’ – is a rare character.

Though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.

The natural faculties might be defective, or the critic lacks the range of necessary qualities. In a key sentence, Hume summarises the five criteria that he thinks characterise the true judge:

Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

Let’s underline those five criteria:
1. Strong sense
2. Delicate sentiment
3. Practice
4. Comparison
5. Lack of prejudice

That ‘joint verdict of true judges’ is, for Hume, the answer to the puzzle of how we decide which subjective opinions are valuable. It is ‘the true standard of taste and beauty’, confirmed by the ‘common sentiments of human nature’ (§10). The true critic is someone who can best perceive the ‘beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments’ because the various defects that impede our perception of those beauties are, in the true critic, absent or minimal.

§24: This seems clear enough, but it presents Hume with a new problem. Who is to say whether a particular person is a true critic or not? This seems to return us to the problem of relativism with which we started.

§25: Hume’s response is to deny that identifying true judges is subjective. Taste is subjective, but whether one is a true critic or not is objective, a matter of fact. He believes he has proved

that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.

Whether someone is a true critic or not will be a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees that such a person is valuable. Where the disputes occur, people must simply put forward their best arguments:

they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard.

Hume seems to be suggesting that to decide who is a true critic, we make an appeal to empirical evidence. It is again a bit naive of him to assume this is a straightforward process.

§26: To defend his position, Hume returns to the ‘test of time’ argument.

But in reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented.

He claims that establishing truth in science is harder than in literature. Theories of philosophy and science come and go, but the appeal of great works like those of Terence and Virgil persists. This is a repeat of the argument in §11. 

§27: Hume retreads it because he thinks it can help us to identify ‘men of delicate taste’. The ‘ascendant’ or prominence such persons acquire thanks to the quality of their judgements makes their opinion dominant and gives them lasting influence. He claims that it is easy to tell a true person of taste:

Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind.

People with superior faculties will produce superior judgements, which we may confirm by comparing them to tried and tested principles of art, and they rise to prominence on merit. These are the critics whose opinions we should consult to resolve disputes over taste. Disagreement about them must yield in the long run to ‘the force of nature and just sentiment.’

Hume wraps up by saying a civilised nation rarely fails to identify its favourite epic or tragic author, i.e. he is talking about artists as well as true critics.

Paragraphs §§28-36

In the final section, Hume identifies two causes of prejudice even for true critics.

§§28-30: Despite our attempts at establishing the Standard of Taste, there are two unavoidable influences that will affect our judgements:

1. ‘The different humours of particular men.’
2. ‘The particular manners and opinions of our age and country.’

Where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable.

In these cases ‘we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments’, i.e. Hume admits that sometimes the Standard of Taste will fail.

First he addresses point #1. There will always be some diversity of opinion even among true artists and critics, thanks to the variability of human nature and culture. A young person tends to be more amorous, an older person more philosophical and moderate. We also tend to favour different artists at different ages. Broadly we naturally incline more towards artists who resemble ourselves in personality, national customs, etc. This is a defect in a critic, but

it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard, by which they can be decided.

In such cases, contending works and judgements are just different and cannot be pronounced right or wrong.

Note the phrase: ‘the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature’ (§28). Under ideal conditions, everyone responds to art in broadly the same way – with a bit of variation, as he is currently describing. 

§31: Hume now turns to point #2. We tend to prefer ‘pictures and characters’ that resemble our own customs and culture. Unlike a ‘common audience’, a true critic or artist makes allowances for such variations.

§32: However, he then alludes to the so-called ‘quarrel between the ancients and moderns’ that was a running debate in the 18th century: had the modern era achieved superior learning to the ancients? We need not reject artists of previous ages because of their different customs:

Must we throw aside the pictures of our ancestors, because of their ruffs and fardingales?

Hume has already made this point about throwing off prejudice towards other cultures (§21). But he makes an unexpected move. Instead of taking his own advice and putting himself into the shoes of the ancient Greeks and Romans, he condemns ancient poets who depict ‘vicious manners’ without disapproval (he offers no specific examples).

The want of humanity and of decency, so conspicuous in the characters drawn by several of the ancient poets, even sometimes by HOMER and the GREEK tragedians, diminishes considerably the merit of their noble performances, and gives modern authors an advantage over them.

Hume wants a stronger, more explicit morality than he finds in the ancient writers. When he says modern authors have an ‘advantage’ over ancient ones, he seems to be saying, on my reading, that modern morality is better than ancient morality, or at least that the morality of modern authors is better than the morality of ancient authors. The modern critic, it seems, need not forgive gross violations of our higher moral standards even in works from very different cultures. We moderns are better than that.

Hume does not say we cannot excuse the ancient poet (he thus holds true to the criterion of prejudice), but he does say that moral flaws damage our aesthetic enjoyment.

However I may excuse the poet, on account of the manners in his age, I never can relish the composition.

Our moral displeasure makes it harder for us to enjoy the work:

Whatever indulgence we may give to the writer on account of his prejudices, we cannot prevail on ourselves to enter into his sentiments, or bear an affection to characters, which we plainly discover to be blamable.

Hume therefore makes an exception of morality when it comes to ‘making allowances’ about customs. He is asserting that moral values are relevant to the aesthetic value of a work of art (a position known as moderate moralism). A moral blemish is an aesthetic blemish.

§33: Hume finishes his essay with a discussion of religion. He makes a distinction between moral principles on the one hand and ‘speculative opinions’ (ideologies, including religion) on the other. Unlike moral principles, speculative opinions are in ‘continual flux and revolution’, and mistakes in these matters are not serious blemishes on works of art.

Whatever speculative errors may be found in the polite writings of any age or country, they detract but little from the value of those compositions. 

Adjusting ourselves to different morals however requires ‘a very violent effort’, and someone who is confident in the ‘rectitude’ of their moral standards will not make allowances.

Hume does not explain why moral principles, which are based upon sentiment and vary across cultures, are not also in ‘flux and revolution’ – see §3. 

§34: Writers may be excused for speculative errors on religious matters, as ‘the same good sense, that directs men in the ordinary occurrences of life, is not harkened to in religious matters,’ which lie outside human reason. Critics who wish to form good judgements of ancient literature must not be prejudiced by the writers’ religion, which Hume calls ‘the absurdities of the pagan system of theology’. You cannot expect good sense on such things, whether in life or in works of art.

Religious principles are only a problem when they are so strong as to become bigotry or superstition:

Where that happens, they confound the sentiments of morality, and alter the natural boundaries of vice and virtue. They are therefore eternal blemishes, according to the principle above mentioned; nor are the prejudices and false opinions of the age sufficient to justify them.

Just as we are right to condemn the worst violations of our moral standards, we are right to condemn the worst violations of our religious standards.

In the final two paragraphs he address bigotry and superstition in turn.

§35: On this basis he has a dig at Roman Catholicism, which by its nature inspires ‘violent hatred of every other worship’, and gives the examples of two plays – Corneille’s Polyeucte (1642) and Racine’s Athalia (1691) – that he thinks have been blemished by this sort of ‘bigotry’. Hume describes a scene from Athalia where the Jewish priest Joad accuses a priest of Baal of ‘poisoning the air’ with his ‘horrid presence’, earning the applause of the Paris audience. This illustrates an ‘intemperate zeal for particular modes of worship’.

§36: Hume also thinks:

RELIGIOUS principles are also a blemish in any polite composition, when they rise up to superstition, and intrude themselves into every sentiment, however remote from any connection with religion.

Local customs are no excuse for the poet, and Hume cites two examples from Petrarch and Boccaccio. He therefore contends that certain violations of morality and religion are serious enough to overrule the critic’s duty to approach other cultures without prejudice, and they ought to be condemned.

And thus the essay comes abruptly to an end.


OK, here is the shorter version.

In his essay, Hume seeks to solve a puzzle: taste in art is highly variable and subjective. If we are arguing over painter X and painter Y, our preferences will be based on how much pleasure we derive from each painter’s work. There is no basis for saying that someone’s subjective feelings are wrong. Yet we routinely assert that some artists and works are better than others.

Hume wants to find the rule by which we pronounce one opinion right and another wrong: a Standard of Taste. When we reject some people’s preferences as mistaken or even absurd, we must be going by some kind of non-relativist principle. We may find the rules of composition by studying the works that have survived the test of time and working out what pleases everybody, everywhere.

The beauties of art depend upon a relationship by which certain properties in objects please our common human structure of mind. These beauties will please us unless defects in our human organism impede them.

A small number of people are particularly good at discerning the principles of aesthetic value, and by their natural gifts and by practice can minimise the impediments to beauty. To deliver the best judgement, critics should concentrate upon the works in the calmest state of mind. They require delicacy of imagination, good sense, practice, comparison, and freedom from prejudice towards other eras and cultures. The joint verdict of such true critics may decide the Standard of Taste. The solution therefore to the disputes that arise from subjective tastes is to locate a reliable standard in the verdicts of those best equipped to judge art.

Sometimes the standard will fail thanks to variations in personal characteristics and cultural conditioning. In these cases the works are not better or worse, just different. But we moderns reserve the right to condemn the worst violations of our own moral and religious standards, regardless of the culture of the artist.


1. Jonathan Bennett, Four Essays,
2. Incidentally, we may take issue with the phrase ‘naturally calculated to give pleasure’ (§13). ‘Calculation’ implies an agency that forms Nature so as to meet the goal of giving pleasure to human beings, and such an agency could only be a religious delusion. But this is just pedantry on my part.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Aristotle’s Poetics

Man with wax tablet. Vase painting
by Douris, c.500 BCE.
Aristotle (his actual name was Aristoteles) rivals his tutor Plato as one of the most important philosophers of antiquity. After studying with Plato at the Academy in Athens for twenty years, he spent a few years teaching the young Alexander the Great, then returned to Athens where he founded the Lyceum. His many surviving works cover a vast range of knowledge, from zoology to rhetoric, and include a major contribution to the theory of beauty and of art which can be found in his Politics, Rhetoric, and above all the Poetics.

The Poetics, thought to be a later work written perhaps between 350-330 BCE, is the first proper work of Western literary criticism. Criticism pre-Aristotle, such as the remarks by Xenophon and Heraclitus on Homer, survives only in scraps. Literary judgements appear in the comic playwrights, especially the satire of Aristophanes, and Plato makes a number of important statements on art and artists in his dialogues. However none of these are a consistent critical analysis.

Although it never mentions him by name, the Poetics is often interpreted as Aristotle’s response to Plato, and with good reason. Aristotle knew he was diverging from his teacher’s views when he said poetry could have cognitive value, and that its provocation of emotion could be good for the soul. However the Poetics is more than that. Aristotle spent his career trying to understand the world by systematically breaking it down into categories and systems. In literary criticism, as in so many other areas of knowledge, he effectively created an entire discipline and vocabulary, to the benefit of all who came after him.

The Poetics is very short – about fifty pages – and its sketchiness has led many scholars to think the text is not a polished treatise but a set of lecture notes, either Aristotle’s own or a student’s. There is evidence that the original work contained more material and included a companion volume on comedy. For example, there are a few references by later writers to things absent from the surviving text. Aristotle himself says in the Poetics, chapter 6, ‘I shall speak later... about comedy’ but no discussion follows; and he refers in the Rhetoric to a discussion of the ridiculous, and in the Politics to a discussion of catharsis, that don’t exist in our version1. The ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, amongst others, mentioned a Poetics in two volumes. Our last reference is from the middle of the 6th century – at some point after that, the second volume disappears.2 In 1839 a medieval manuscript was discovered, known as the Tractatus Coislinianus, which seems to be a summary of the Poetics based on a more complete text than our own, and including an analysis of humour.3

Ancient texts were not written according to modern norms of publication and scholarship, and their messy history suffers many uncertainties: the circumstances of their writing, what interpolations or edits were made later, who copied the manuscript and how accurately, precisely what editions or parts of editions were known to later scholars and how they were catalogued, and so on.

Despite its fragmented history, the Poetics is a hugely important contribution to literary theory and lays out a fairly complete analysis. Aristotle gave us some of our basic concepts of poetics and story-making, such as the beginning, middle and end; reversals, recognitions and denouements; advising against the deus ex machina4; and that plot events should lead inevitably into one another. He also unwittingly founded a couple of concepts that have been misrepresented by later commentators: the ‘three unities’ and the ‘fatal flaw’.

I am referring to the 1965 English translation of T.S. Dorsch, available in Penguin Classics. Translations available free online include S.H. Butcher’s at the Internet Classics Archive, or W.H. Fyfe’s at Perseus Digital Library. I can’t comment on the merits of translations but the latter has the advantage of line references and explanatory footnotes.

My goal below is simply to outline the contents of the Poetics, with just a few comments. In my next post I will take a more detailed look at some of the issues it raises and at Aristotle’s aesthetics in general.


The Poetics is normally divided into 26 chapters. The references are to Bekker numbers, the standard method of citation for the works of Aristotle. Sometimes words are translated differently so I’ve tried to indicate variants when it seems important.

Introduction and Chapters 1-3: Poetic imitation

  • Poetry and music ‘can be all be described in general terms as forms of imitation or representation.’
  • They differ from one another in three ways: 1) different media 2) representing different things 3) representing things in different ways. These are often discussed as medium, object and mode.
    1. Medium. Each art has its own medium of imitation. ‘Some artists, whether by theoretical knowledge or by long practice, can represent things by imitating their shapes and colours, and others do so by the use of the voice... imitation is produced by means of rhythm, language, and music, these being used either separately or in combination.’
    2. Object. Artists represent people in action who are of good or bad character: they will be 1) better than us, 2) the same, or 3) worse than us. Thence the distinction between comedy (portrays people as worse) and tragedy (portrays people as better).
    3. Mode. Subjects can be presented in various ways within the same medium. E.g. using narration, the first person, the third person, or a mixture.

Aristotle seems to think poetry must take human actions as its subject (as opposed to Nature, for example). Poetry, as a human production, has to appeal on some level to human experience.

Chapters 4-5: The origins of poetry

  • Poetry has two causes, both rooted in human nature. 1) The instinct for imitation 2) The enjoyment of imitation.
    1. The instinct for imitation is inherent, uniquely human, and we learn our earliest lessons through it.
    2. Enjoyment: ‘we enjoy looking at the most accurate representations of things which in themselves we find painful to see’ e.g. low animals and corpses. ‘The reason for this is that learning is a very great pleasure... [People] enjoy seeing likenesses because in doing so they acquire information (they reason out what each represents, and discover, for instance, that “this is a picture of so and so”.’
  • Starting from these natural aptitudes – also music and rhythm and therefore metre – people improvised on them, until by gradual improvement they created poetry. 
  • Poetry soon branched into two, based upon the poets’ temperaments.
    1. The serious-minded represented noble persons and actions (hymns and panegyrics, heroic verse). This later emerged as tragedy.
    2. The more trivial wrote about meaner/inferior people (invectives, lampoons). This later emerged as tragedy.
  • The two branches went through their own process of development until acquiring their present form.

Chapter 5: Comedy, tragedy and epic

  • Comedy represents ‘the worse types of men’ but in the sense that they are ridiculous rather than evil, and cause no pain.
  • The distinction between epic poetry and tragedy: both are ‘a representation, in dignified verse, of serious actions.’ They share parts: ‘Anyone who can discriminate between what is good and what is bad in tragedy can do the same with epic.’ But whereas all the elements of epic are in tragedy, not all elements of tragedy are in epic. And:
    1. Epic keeps to one metre and narrative form and has no time contraints. 
    2. Tragedy ‘tries as far as possible to keep within a single revolution of the sun, or only slightly to exceed it’. 

Note that when Aristotle talks of ‘tragedy’ he means tragic plays, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus The King. He gives no justification for why a tragedy should keep within one day.

Chapter 6: What is tragedy?

  • Tragedy is ‘a representation of an action that is worth serious attention, complete in itself, and of some amplitude; in language enriched by a variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the play; presented in the form of action, not narration; by means of pity and fear bringing about the purgation of such emotions.’ Aristotle assumes the inclusion of music and song.
  • ‘The representation is carried out by men performing the actions.’
  • Essential parts of tragedy: 1) spectacle 2) the medium of representation: song and diction.
  • Tragedy imitates action. Action is done by agents with certain qualities of character and thought. Thought and character therefore are two causes of actions; ‘it is on them that all men depend for success or failure’. 
    • The action gives us the plot: ‘the ordered arrangement of incidents’.
    • Character is the participants, whose thought comes out in what they say.
  • Every tragedy has six parts. All playwrights use these elements. Two of these (diction and song) represent the medium, one (spectacle) involves manner of representation, three (plot, character, thought) represent the object. In order of importance:
    1. Plot. This is the most important, tragedy’s ‘life-blood’. Tragedy is ‘a representation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness.’ Our character makes us what we are, but it is our actions that make us happy or unhappy. Plot includes important devices like ‘reversals’ and ‘recognitions’.
    2. Character. Persons are involved for the sake of the action, but character takes second place to plot. Character is revealed by a person’s choices.
    3. Thought. ‘The ability to say what is possible and appropriate in any given circumstances’. Revealed when something is being discussed or an opinion is expressed.
    4. Diction. The expressive use of words. Has the same force in both prose and verse. 
    5. Song. A pleasurable addition to the play.
    6. Spectacle. An attraction, but of least importance to craft of tragedy.

As a non-Greek speaker I’m not sure if the gender-specific ‘men’ is Aristotle’s word-choice or the translator’s. But in Greek theatre only men were allowed to perform, even in the female roles.

Chapters 7-11: Plot (mythos)

  • Tragedy is ‘the representation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain amplitude.’
  • ‘A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end.’ A well-constructed plot will fit this logic. 
  • A beautiful thing, made of various parts, must have its parts properly ordered and of appropriate size. Aristotle likens plot to ‘living creatures and organisms’. 
    • Plots must be of reasonable length, so ‘they may be easily held in the memory’. The proper time limit is ‘a length which, as a matter either of probability or of necessity, allows of a change of misery to happiness’ or vice versa. 
  • Basing a plot on one person does not necessarily give it unity. It should not relate every incident that happens in their life but a single action, presented as a unified whole. The incidents must be arranged so that if any are taken away, the whole suffers. If removing an incident makes no difference, it should not be there. 
  • The difference between poetry and history:
    • History tells of what has happened.
    • Poetry tells of what might happen (because probable or necessary).
    • ‘For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts.’
    • Universal truths: ‘the kinds of thing a certain type of person will probably or necessarily say or do in a given situation.’
    • However, poets may write about things that have happened, since they are possible and probable.
  • Comic poets do not write about real people. Tragedians keep to the names of real people as ‘what is possible is credible’, but need not keep to the traditional stories. 
  • The poet is a poet ‘by virtue of his representation, and what he represents is actions.’
  • Plots should not be a series of episodes that are neither probable or necessary. However ‘tragedy is the representation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents that awake fear and pity, and effects of this kind are heightened when things happen unexpectedly as well as logically, for then they will be more remarkable than if they seem merely mechanical or accidental.’
  • Plots are simple or complex by virtue of their content. 
    • Simple = single and continuous, in which a change of fortune comes about. 
    • Complex = one in which the change is accompanied by a discovery or reversal or both. 
    • Both kinds of plot should develop inevitably/probably from what has come before. ‘There is a big difference between what happens as a result of something else [propter hoc, because of it] and what merely happens after it [post hoc, after it].’
  • Three components of a complex plot: reversal (peripeteia), discovery/recognition (anagnorisis) and calamity/pathos (pathos).
    • Reversal. ‘A change from one state of affairs to its opposite’, unexpected but conforming to probability or necessity. E.g. a person’s identity is revealed to another.
    • Discovery/Recognition. ‘A change from ignorance to knowledge... it leads directly to love or to hatred between persons destined for good or for ill-fortune.’ Most famously when Oedipus discovers he has murdered his father and slept with his mother. Should be related to the plot. In combination with a reversal, creates pity and fear – as befits tragedy.
    • Calamity/pathos. ‘An action of a destructive or painful nature, such as death openly represented, excessively suffering, wounding and the like.’

Observations like ‘a plot needs a beginning, middle and end’ may seem obvious to us today, but sometimes things aren’t obvious until someone points them out – Aristotle was the first to do so.

When he asserts that comic poets don’t write about actual people, Aristotle is not referring to older writers like Aristophanes, who did include real people like Socrates and Euripides in his plays, but to newer comic writers.

The ‘three-act structure’ popular with screenwriters is sometimes attributed to Aristotle, but he says only that a plot should have a beginning, a middle and an end, which is not the same thing. Later in chapter 18 the division into ‘complication’ and ‘denouement’ makes two parts, not three (though this still does not approximate to an act structure).

Chapter 12: The parts of tragedy

  • Aristotle lists six constituent parts of tragedy particular to Greek theatre.

Chapters 13-14: Pity and fear

  • At its best, tragedy should be complex, not simple, and represent actions that awake fear and pity. How to do this?
    • Good men passing from prosperity to misery, or evil men passing from misery to prosperity, do not awaken fear and pity but disgust. These plots do not ‘appeal to our humanity’.
    • A worthless man falling from prosperity into misery might ‘play on our human feelings’ but also awakens no pity or fear.
    • Pity is awakened by ‘undeserved misfortune’; fear by recognising that the same thing could happen to ourselves. 
  • Tragedy should look between these extremes for a character we can identify with: a man who is not purely virtuous but whose fall is not thanks to depravity but to a terrible error (hamartia).
  • The well-conceived plot must have:
    1. a single interest
    2. a change in fortune from prosperity to misery
    3. caused in a man of prosperity and high reputation not by depravity but by a great error.
  • Tragedy should end in misfortune. Aristotle defends Euripides on these grounds. 
  • The next best kind of plot has a double interest, ending in opposite ways for the good and bad characters. Audiences like this but it belongs to comedy not tragedy. 
  • The best way to awaken pity and fear is through the action. Aristotle is dismissive of mere spectacle. The most effective incidents are injuries inflicted on those who are near and dear. Aristotle considers four possibilities:
    1. The character inflicts an injury in full knowledge of what they are doing (e.g. the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes).
    2. The character inflicts an injury without knowing what they are doing (e.g. Oedipus).
    3. The character is about to inflict an injury in ignorance but discovers the truth before doing it.
    4. The character is about to knowingly inflict an injury but fails to do so. This option is not tragic, since no suffering results.
  • If the deed is done, it works better if the character only finds out what they have done afterwards. This outrages our feelings and gives us a surprise. However option #4 is the best. 
  • Poets like to keep to a few families (e.g. the house of Oedipus) that are famous for their suffering.

Chapter 15: Characters

  • There are four goals in characterisation.
    1. Characters should be morally good. Goodness comes out in people’s actions. The social attitudes of Aristotle’s time show in his remark on women and slaves.
    2. The portrayal should be appropriate to the sort of person, according to rank, sex, etc
    3. The characters should be lifelike.
    4. They should be consistent. Even if a person behaves inconsistently, they should be consistent in their inconsistency.
  • As in the plot, it should be necessary and probable that a character speaks and acts in a certain way. 
  • The unravelling/denouement of the plot should arise naturally. A deus ex machina should be avoided except in a few acceptable instances. 
  • The poet should heighten the characters’ personality defects but still show them to be good people.

The deus ex machina is a Latin phrase derived directly from the Greek, meaning ‘god from the machine’. It refers to a stage crane that would literally allow a god to descend from the top of the stage and sort out the drama’s problems.

Chapter 16: Kinds of discovery/recognition

  • Aristotle discusses five kinds of discovery/recognition (see chapter 11). 
    1. The least artistic kind is discovery by visible signs or tokens: congenital marks, necklaces etc.
    2. Another inartistic kind is contrived discoveries, such as when a character is made to simply say something instead of it being revealed by the plot. 
    3. Memory. An experience reawakens a character’s memory, e.g. when a minstrel’s harp reminds Odysseus of the past.
    4. Reasoning. The second-best kind of discovery. A character works out a plot point, such as someone’s identity, by logical reasoning. ‘Someone who is like me has come; no one is like me except Orestes; therefore it is Orestes who has come’. Of course, the character’s reasoning might be false.
    5. The best kind is discovery brought about the plot: ‘when the startling disclosure results from events that are probable’.

Chapters 17-18: Some advice for the tragic poet

  • To avoid inconsistencies, poets should as far as possible try to visualise the scenes they are writing, as if witnessing the events themselves.
  • They should also imitate their characters’ gestures and speech to better imitate how they will behave. 
  • Poets should plan their story in outline first and then work out the individual incidents, making sure they are appropriate.
  • The length of a work is determined by the working out of its episodes – plays tend to be shorter than epic poetry. Even a rich plot like The Odyssey can be summarised in a few sentences. 
  • Every tragedy has a complication and denouement. 
    • The complication: from the beginning to just before the change of fortune (peripeteia and/or anagnorisis).
    • The denouement: from the change of fortune to the end.
  • There are four kinds of tragedy. The poet should try to include all four.
    • Complex tragedy: depends on reversal and discovery.
    • Tragedy of suffering. Plots of calamity or pathos.
    • Tragedy of character.
    • Tragedy of spectacle. 
  • A tragedy should not have many stories, like an epic, as it does not have the space.
  • In a note specific to Greek theatre, Aristotle says the chorus should be part of a whole, like an actor in its own right, not just be tacked on haphazardly.

Chapter 19: Thought and diction

  • Aristotle refers readers to his Rhetoric. ‘Thought’ means the effects wrought by language, subject to probability, and without being explained by the characters. He lists: 
    • proof and refutation
    • awakening emotions (pity, fear, anger, etc)
    • exaggeration and depreciation.
  • Diction refers to the art of expressive language. Poets are not judged by their grasp of the art of elocution.

Chapters 20-22: Parts of speech

  • Aristotle describes various parts of speech: what is a noun, and so on. Many scholars think some of this has been added to the Poetics by someone else. 
  • Diction should be clear but not commonplace. Unfamiliar words – loan-words, metaphors, ornamental terms and so on – give dignity and raise the poet’s language above the commonplace, but too much can cause confusion. Good diction mixes common words with unfamiliar ones. 
  • Moderation is advised. Tricks should not be over-used. 
  • The most important trope is use of metaphor. This cannot be learnt, and is a mark of natural talent.

Chapter 23-24: Epic poetry

  • In narrative verse plots should be constructed like in tragedies.
    • Centre on single, whole, complete action, with a beginning, middle and end, like a single organism.
    • Not a string of episodes like in histories. Homer rightly did not try to include every aspect of the Trojan War in the Iliad.
  • Epic poetry shares the same parts as tragedy except for song and spectacle.
  • Epic poetry can be much longer, showing many episodes, even simultaneous events. The metre should keep to heroic hexameter.
  • Again, Homer is the model. The poet should speak not in his/her own voice but through the characters. 
  • Homer knows how to tell lies: when Odysseus runs aground and is lifted to shore without ever waking, we accept the improbable incident because Homer charms us with his talent. Stories should prefer ‘probable impossibilities’ to ‘improbable possibilities’. There should be no irrational incidents/inexplicable details.

Chapter 25: Literary criticism

  • Aristotle offers advice on the criticism of poetry. The poet aims at the representation of reality:
    • Either things as they were or are, or as they are said to be or seem to be.
    • His medium is language, mixed with unfamiliar terms and ornaments.
  • Important: ‘There are not the same standards of correctness in poetry as in the political theory or any other art’ (1460b).
  • Faults in poetry are of two kinds. 
    1. Essential: the poet tries to represent something but fails through lack of skill.
    2. Incidental: an error of fact but not of artistic skill (e.g. not knowing a female deer has no antlers).
  • Faults are forgiveable if they help the work achieve its goal. Aristotle outlines five grounds for objection but calls for caution:
    1. Impossibility. Poets should try to keep to what is possible, but may break this rule if it 1) helps the work achieve its goals 2) tries to improve on reality 3) fits accepted tradition.
    2. Irrationality. Objectionable when it adds nothing. But improbable things do happen.
    3. Immorality. We should not judge a speech or act as good or bad without considering the whole: ‘the persons by whom and to whom it was said or done, the occasion, the means and the reason.’
    4. Contradiction/inconsistency. Critics should take care that they have read the poet’s intentions correctly before leaping to judgement.
    5. Poor technique. Again, take care that alleged mistakes in language are not metaphors, intentionally ambiguous etc, i.e. that you aren’t misinterpreting the poet.

Aristotle wants to establish a fair framework for criticism. He wants to seek out mistakes and shortcomings, while allowing poets licence to bend the rules for their artistic purposes. Poetry should not be held to the same standard of factual correctness as other disciplines.

At the end of the chapter, Aristotle mentions ‘twelve criteria’ of criticism which may not be immediately obvious. A footnote in the Perseus edition ennumerates them thus:

Any expression that is criticised should be considered with reference to (1) things as they were; (2) things as they are; (3) things as they are said to be; (4) things as they seem to be; (5) things as they ought to be. Further, we should consider whether (6) a rare word or (7) a metaphor is used; what is the right (8) accent and (9) punctuation; also where there may be (10) ambiguity and what is (11) the habitual use of the phrase; also we may refer to (12) the proper standard of correctness in poetry as distinct from other arts.

Chapter 26: Epic and tragedy compared

  • Which is better, epic poetry or tragedy? Epic is said to be better because cultivated readers don’t need spectacle; tragedy is spoilt by the vulgar behaviour of the performers. 
  • Aristotle disagrees:
    • That is a criticism of acting, not of poetry. Reciters of epic may also exaggerate their gestures.
    • We should not object to all performance per se, only that of meaner/inferior types of people. 
    • We may discern the quality of a tragedy without actors by reading it instead. So it does not necessarily have to appeal to meaner/inferior minds.
  • On the contrary, tragedy is better:
    • It has everything that epic has.
    • It has scenic effects and music, a source of pleasure.
    • It creates its effects over a shorter time span. 
    • It is more single and has greater unity. Epic has lots of episodes (enough for several tragedies). Aristotle excludes the Iliad and Odyssey as they are so well-made and show a single action.
  • Therefore tragedy is the superior art form. It gives pleasure, Aristotle seems to say, not through a long, diverting series of episodes as in epic, but through ‘the kinds I have described’, i.e. when a representation in art creates pity and fear leading to catharsis.

The fate and impact of the Poetics

For the first few hundred years after it was written, there is little evidence that the Poetics had much influence: there are hardly any references to it in surviving ancient texts, even in significant critical works like Horace’s Ars Poetica and Longinus’ On the Sublime. In the 8th century it was translated into Syriac, and from that into Arabic. The Spanish Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, wrote a commentary on the Poetics in the 12th century that stressed the political use of language.

Aristotle’s treatise did not really arrive on the European intellectual scene until 1498, when the first Latin translation appeared. It had an immediate influence. Renaissance humanist scholars, interested in the revival of ancient culture, started a process of debate that led to the Poetics becoming the most influential work in Western critical theory. For example, when in 1595 Philip Sydney published his splendid Apology for Poetry (or Defence of Poetry), Aristotle, along with Horace and Cicero, was one of his main references, and he borrows his ideas freely. The Apology then exerted its own influence, on the Neo-Classicists and beyond.

The Renaissance commentators were as keen to turn the Poetics to their own ends as to understand what Aristotle wanted to say. Another important stage in the book’s history was Lodovico Castelvetro’s treatise The Poetics of Aristotle in the Vulgar Language (1570). Castelvetro claims to be faithful to Aristotle, but in fact used the Poetics as a vehicle for developing his own views on drama. Perhaps his most notable contribution was to formulate the so-called ‘three unities’, which don’t really appear in Aristotle as such, but match Castelvetro’s own idiosyncratic theories. This interpretation become influential in criticism and drama. In 17th century France, the playwrights Racine and Corneille took ideas like the three unities very seriously – the concept didn’t lose its eminence until the 19th century – and in turn spread Neoclassical dramatic theory throughout Enlightenment Europe.

Today the Poetics continues to be of more than academic interest. Many of its insights into drama are as relevant today as ever, and the work regularly features in screenwriting courses. Critical theory has come a long way since Aristotle, and the Poetics has not survived the test of time in many respects, but there is no denying its stature as the first major work of literary criticism in the Western tradition.


There is a discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

1. For example Rhetoric, 1371b: ‘The ridiculous has been discussed separately in the Poetics.’ In fact, Chapter 5 of the Poetics offers only a definition: ‘The ridiculous consists in some form of error or ugliness that is not painful or injurious’ (1449a), which falls short of a ‘discussion’. The reference in the Politics is: the term purgation we use for the present without explanation, but we will return to discuss the meaning that we give to it more explicitly in our treatise on poetry’ (1341b). Again, the Poetics mentions the purging of pity and fear in passing but contains no discussion.
2. There is a summary of this evidence in the introduction to Walter Watson’s The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics (2012).
3. The manuscript is controversial. The possible contents of a second volume of the Poetics have been discussed by Walter Watson (ibid.) and by Richard Janko in Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (1984).
4. Aristotle wrote, of course, in ancient Greek, but because his work was for extant for centuries in Latin translation we often use the Latin versions of his terminology.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Beauty in Plato’s Symposium

Symposium scene from Paestum, c.475 BCE
Plato’s dialogue The Symposium – a far more substantial work than Ion – was probably written in around 385-370 BCE. A symposium was a drinking party at which privileged, educated Athenians would recline on couches, dine, and engage in conversation, to the accompaniment of flute-music and wine. This symposium features a philosophical debate, at the house of the tragedian Agathon, between male friends who are eminent figures in ancient Athens. All of them are historical figures, though the views ascribed to them may be fictional.1

The dialogue is a rich and elegant piece of literature as well as of philosophy, painting a vivid picture of a typical ancient Greek social occasion. Its main subject is love, but it touches on other questions such as panegyric, and includes a famous discourse on beauty. In this article I shall focus on the latter, the part most relevant to aesthetics and theory of art. Plato discusses beauty in several other dialogues, e.g. the Hippias Major which attempts to define it, but here I will try to limit myself to The Symposium

This famous text is no dry philosophy tract but a finely-constructed narrative with distinctive characters and wit, and it is a pleasure to read. I am using the 1951 Penguin translation by W. Hamilton, though of course there are others available. Several English translations are free online, such as Benjamin Jowett’s at the Internet Classics Archive, or Harold N. Fowler’s on Perseus Digital Library. If you can, try more than one translation: the differences between them can be disconcerting.


Plato frames the guests’ conversation at a couple of removes: it is recounted to an unidentified companion by the narrator Apollodorus, who heard of it from someone who was there, namely Aristodemus, an admirer of Socrates. As such it is more a narration at third-hand than a true dialogue, although there are dialogues within it.

The symposium is given in honour of Agathon, who has just won a prize for his first tragedy, and the guests are already worn out by a night of heavy celebratory drinking. After the guests have eaten, Eryximachus proposes they entertain themselves with conversation, and that each man make a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love. The Symposium employs a richer vocabulary of ‘love’ than is available to our English translations. The main noun eros has a range of meanings: it may refer to strong desire in a broad sense (e.g. wanting something), to passionate love, or to the god Eros himself. Unlike the dispassionate philia, which implies friendship, affection, loyalty etc, eros is mostly sexual. As we shall see, Plato takes it on a journey that leads beyond physical attraction to seek spiritual truth.

There follow a series of speeches, each more or less building upon the last.

Going first, the handsome young Phaedrus says that Love is one of the most ancient gods, implying it is worthy of great respect. Love brings out the best in us, as we don’t like to look bad to those we love, and it encourages self-sacrifice: for this reason the best army would be one packed with male couples.

The next speaker is Pausanias, the lover of Agathon, who argues that Love does not have a single nature. He makes a distinction between Common (or ‘popular’ or ‘vulgar’) Love, which is physical rather than spiritual, and Heavenly Love, which is between males. The only honourable form of the latter is when a youth in search of wisdom gratifies an older man’s sexual needs in return for a moral and social education. Heavenly Love is ‘valuable for both states and individuals because it entails upon both lover and beloved self-discipline for the attainment of excellence’ (185b-c).

This pairing of an older male lover (erastes) with a passive adolescent (eromenos) in a homoerotic relationship was well-established in ancient Greece, though it had its detractors. We must be cautious about labelling it as homosexual in the modern normative sense: it was more an initiation of boys into the norms of the male world.

The doctor Eryximachus follows, arguing that Love, like medicine, encourages moderation and harmony, and by extension plays its part not only in human relationships but in music and ‘practically all existing things’. He extends Pausanius’ concept of two loves: Heavenly Love is conducive to good health and harmony, whereas Common Love can bring illness and disorder.

The next speaker is Aristophanes, the comic poet and playwright, who relates an eccentric myth about how the original human beings were spherical with two heads and eight limbs. In punishment for challenging the gods, they were bisected by Zeus, and now spend their lives seeking their other half so they might become whole again.

The host Agathon then makes a very different, rhetorically high-flown speech. Bringing the conversation back on topic, he praises the god Love as young, good, beautiful and wise. Love encourages creation, both reproductive and artistic, and confers greatness and fame. ‘Supreme in beauty and goodness’ (197c), it bestows those qualities on us, too.

Finally it is Socrates’ turn. He says he is simply interested in the truth, and tears into Agathon, arguing that Love must desire something, and that one desires what one lacks; once one has it, one desires to keep it. He recalls Agathon’s remark that ‘the troubles among the gods were composed by love of beauty, for there could not be such a thing as love of ugliness’ (201a). If Love desires goodness or beauty, then Love itself could not be good or beautiful as Agathon claims.

He goes on to share with the symposiasts what he learned from a wise woman of Mantinea called Diotima, who taught him about the philosophy of love. In this way she effectively gets a speech at the symposium – a dialogue within a dialogue – and hers is the most important by far. Diotima says that Love is the desire for goodness, wisdom and beauty. Love’s object is ‘to procreate and bring forth in beauty’, either in the bodily sense or in the world of ideas. A man’s highest goal should be to seek wisdom by contemplating the abstract, absolute Form from which all objects’ beauty derives.

As Socrates finishes talking, the colourful politician Alcibiades burst in drunk with some companions. He praises Socrates, whom he has tried, but failed, to seduce, and the party breaks down into uproar and drunkenness.

Diotima’s speech

Given the deliberately unreliable nature of The Symposium – speeches by drunken guests, recalled by another drunken guest, then related to a further person Apollodorus, who then tries to recall everything for a companion – we must be cautious in judging precisely what is Plato’s belief and what is merely the belief of a character. However, it is reasonable to take Diotima’s speech (201d-212c), which is the intellectual climax of the work, as representative of Plato’s own views. Each speaker contributes a little more insight into the topic of Love, helping the discussion gradually draw closer, in a process known as the Socratic dialectic, to what Plato considers the truth. In her contribution as reported by Socrates, Diotima touches upon themes introduced by earlier speakers, but explores them more cohesively and profoundly.

Given the intense sexism of ancient Greece, it is curious that Plato uses a female character, albeit through the voice of a male, in such a prominent philosophical role: the teacher of Socrates. (The only other female present is an unnamed flute-girl, who is dismissed early on lest she distract the men from their talk.) One reason may be that Plato considers a female, looked upon as a vessel of reproduction, better-suited to report the language of ‘pregnancy’.

Let’s walk through Diotima’s speech. She begins with the arguments Socrates just used to crushed Agathon, to prove that Love is neither beautiful nor good. But she goes on:

Do not suppose that because, on your own admission, Love is not good or beautiful, he must on that account be ugly and bad, but rather that he is something between the two. (202b)

Love, who desires goodness and beauty and must therefore lack both, cannot be a god.

He is a great spirit [daimon], Socrates; everything that is of the nature of a spirit is half-god and half-man... Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. (202e)

It is not a thing, but a relationship between things. This mediator serves to bring us closer to the things we lack and desire: it takes us from mere opinion to possessing wisdom. Who seeks wisdom? Not the gods, who are already wise; not the ignorant, who are satisfied with themselves. The seekers of wisdom are

the intermediate class, of which Love among others is a member. Wisdom is one of the most beautiful of things, and Love is love of beauty, so it follows that Love must be a lover of wisdom, and consequently in a state half-way between wisdom and ignorance. (204b)

Love of beauty is equated with love of good, whose obvious purpose is to make us happy. This desire is common, Socrates argues, to all people. Diotima points out that we misleadingly don’t describe everyone who loves as being in love.

This desire expresses itself in many ways, and those with whom it takes the form of love of money or of physical prowess or of wisdom are not said to be in love or called lovers, whereas those whose passion runs in one particular channel usurp the name of lover, which belongs to them all... (205d)

She now asks, what is the nature of this love? It is desire for the good, that we may possess it for ourselves, in perpetuity. Diotima goes on to explain by what action it is expressed:

The function is that of procreation in what is beautiful, and such procreation can be either physical or spiritual... All men, Socrates, are in a state of pregnancy, both spiritual and physical, and they come to maturity they feel a natural desire to bring forth, but they can do so only in beauty and never in ugliness. There is something divine about the whole matter; in pregnancy and bringing to birth the mortal creature is endowed with a touch of immortality. But the process cannot take place in disharmony, and ugliness is out of harmony with everything divine, whereas beauty is in harmony with it. (206b-d)

Contact with beauty makes us happy and delivers us from our burdens, whereas ugliness makes us sour. What we all want as human beings is to be happy. To achieve happiness, we need to be creative: to bring forth works of some kind.

The object of love, Socrates, is not, as you think, beauty... Its object is to procreate and bring forth in beauty. (206e)

Diotima speaks of pregnancy in broad sense: it can mean bearing children, but also means creativity in making and in ideas. Procreation is love’s object because it is the nearest we can come to immortality. Here again we have the perpetual possession of the good. This is true in the physical sense – as with animals, sex ensures our natures are passed on to further generations by making offspring. Here Diotima argues that we live in a constant process of change: as we get older, our bodies and minds go through ‘loss and reparation’, and to offset this we seek to replace the old with the new. This cycle of reproduction offers us a kind of immortality, different of course to that of the gods, but craved by all living things after their own manner. This craving explains acts like Achilles’ in the Iliad when he avenges Patroclus: he is motivated by the longing for immortality through the songs that are sung of him.

People may reproduce in two ways, one heterosexual and physical, the other homoerotic and spiritual:

Those whose creative instinct is physical have recourse to women, and show their love in this way, believing that by begetting children they can secure for themselves an immortal and blessed memory hereafter for ever; but there are some whose creative desire is of the soul, and who conceive spiritually, not physically, the progeny which it is the nature of the soul to conceive and bring forth. (208e-209a)

This progeny is wisdom and virtue, it is the laws of Lycurgus and Solon, it is the poetry of Homer and Hesiod. These are humankind’s spiritual children, a higher form of creativity than mere physical reproduction. Diotima is speaking of creativity in a broad sense, but there is a theory of artistic creation embedded here: the begetting of spiritual progeny in the beautiful is what gives us works of art and the achievements of civilisation.

Diotima then goes on to describe, in a famous passage (210a-212a), how a man might aspire to spiritual production. It is a quest for beauty that ascends through several stages.

  1. He begins by contemplating physical beauty, and falls in love with a beautiful boy, and they conceive noble sentiments together.
  2. Later he realises that physical beauty is similar in everybody, and takes an interest in all beautiful bodies, since investing his passion in one individual is ‘of small account’.
  3. He realises that beauty of soul is more valuable than beauty of body, and can move on from loving physical beauty to loving beauty in general. 
  4. He starts to see beauty in other things, such as activities and institutions (alternatively, ‘observances and laws’). 
  5. Freed from fixation on a beautiful individual, he now gazes upon a ‘vast ocean of beauty’ and can conceive the noblest ideas, until he finds one special knowledge, whose object is absolute beauty. 
  6. There is now revealed to him a marvellous beauty, the final goal: a beauty that resides in no single body or idea but is absolute.

My diagram of Diotima’s ladder. (Click to enlarge)
This process of initiation is sometimes known as ‘Diotima’s ladder’ or the ‘ladder of Love’ (for writers of Latin, the scala amoris). Humans desire happiness; our means of achieving happiness is the ladder of Love, if we are willing and able to ascend it. By reading the Symposium the reader, too, is taken through a similar dialectic, an ascension towards the truth.

Diotima concludes with a fine and rather moving passage describing what is revealed to the wise man.

This beauty is first of all eternal; it neither comes into being nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes; next, it is not beautiful in part and ugly in part, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in this relation and ugly in that, nor beautiful here and ugly there, as varying according to its beholders; nor again will this beauty appear to him like the beauty of a face or hands or anything else corporeal, or like the beauty of a thought or a science, or like beauty which has its seat in something other than itself, be it a living thing or the earth or the sky or anything else whatever; he will see it as absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and all other beautiful things as partaking of it, yet in such a manner that, while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase or diminution nor suffers any change. (210e-211b)

Although she does not refer to it as such, Diotima is describing the Form of Beauty: an abstract, absolute ‘beauty in its essence’ of which all physical things – boys, rich clothes, etc – are mere flickering shadows, a ‘mass of perishable rubbish’ (211e). From the first step of being physically attracted to a good-looking boy, we may gradually learn how the world truly is, and spend our life contemplating a beauty that is good, and wise, and eternal.

Do you think it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself. (212a)

Diotima argues that contemplating this beauty is the best life we can lead. Someone who has ascended the ladder brings forth not mere images or reflections of goodness, but true goodness. The greatest lover is the philosopher, the lover of wisdom.

Schooled in Diotima’s teachings, this is why Socrates honours Love. And when Alcibiades knocks on Agathon’s door, his is no mere drunken interruption. For in his eulogy of Socrates, he describes a living example of someone who has climbed the ladder of Diotima. Despite Alcibiades’ attempts at seduction, Socrates always exercises self-control, as his ambition is ‘to come as near perfection as possible’. He has learnt to dismiss mere physical pleasures, and Alcibiades, too, can see in Socrates a beauty of mind that far outweighs his satyr-like appearance. Alcibiades’ praise puts an individual human face to Diotima’s rather abstract and impersonal account.

In summary, Plato contends that:
  1. Love is the desire for the good and beautiful, which will make us happy. 
  2. We desire to possess it eternally. Thus we yearn for immortality as much as for good.
  3. The way to achieve the object of Love is through Love’s function: to bring forth works, whether physical (children) or spiritual (ideas, philosophy). For mortals this creative production is the only path to immortality and happiness.
  4. To bring forth works we must ascend a ladder of enlightenment from the physical to the spiritual, and contemplate the absolute Form of beauty.
From modest beginnings, the discussion in The Symposium gradually unveils a profound theory. It is a clever, beautifully constructed, stirring vision that had a huge influence upon subsequent phases of civilisation. It has more to do with morals and mysticism than with aesthetics, but has some relevance to it, and as the theory of beauty of one of the greatest philosophers, aestheticians cannot ignore it.

Plato’s attitude to art and beauty

Plato regards art and beauty differently to modern theorists. Recall the etymology of ‘aesthetics’ – aisthanomai, to perceive or sense. There is a tension between the concrete, sensuous process of making art and Plato’s idealism, which makes him suspicious of the senses and the physical world. In consequence he is mostly, though not entirely, hostile towards the arts, a hostility best expressed in The Republic. He draws a distinction between the poet, who has no true knowledge and only creates second-hand imitations, and the philosopher, who has true knowledge and therefore brings into the world something good and beautiful.

I would not deny the philosopher the ability to create beautiful works. And aesthetics is itself a branch of philosophy. But in aesthetics the theoretical focus tends more heavily – and reasonably – towards the relationship between beauty and the artist.


Diotima’s account, glorious though it is, raises several problems. I’m not attempting an exhaustive exegesis here, but I discuss some of them below. Note that although I am focusing on Diotima here for brevity, the way to read the Symposium is not to extract her section and hurry on, discarding the rest. It is a superb piece of literature whose several parts contribute to the whole, and you should read all of it with close attention.

1. Conceptual weaknesses

It is impossible for people who do not believe in supernatural things, or at least in ancient Greek supernatural things, to accept the idea of Love as a ‘spirit’. We cannot even interpret this ‘spirit’ as a metaphor for human desire, because it explicitly stands between gods and humans as an intermediary.

In addition, there are weaknesses in Diotima’s reasoning. For example, desiring something does not mean we lack it. We can easily think of examples of people desiring something they do not lack, such as the billionaires who continue to relentlessly increase their capital despite already having more money than they could ever spend. It is not a strict either/or. On that evidence, Love does not necessarily lack goodness or beauty. This undermines the first steps of her argument.

In her theory of ‘pregnancy’, Diotima claims that people yearn to be creative (206c). This is correct: human beings owe our very existence as Homo sapiens to our ancestors making things, and cannot help being creative. That said, it is a mistake to present sexual reproduction and creativity as two sides of the same coin, with the former lower status than the latter. Childbirth is a biological process that has no connection with the creation of ideas, artworks and so on. They are both things that humans do, and that is as far as it goes. Of course they may be connected symbolically as creative acts – but Diotima seems to mean more than that.

But there are more profound difficulties than this.

2. The strangeness and impersonality of Platonic love

Plato takes the topic of Love into strange territory. Love, we learn, ultimately isn’t about such things as having sexual partners or the joy of embracing our pets and children. It is not a human emotion, as most of us assume, but a spirit intermediary. This is a strange conception. Also, the dismissal of physical Love as we ascend the ladder, illustrated by Socrates’ rebuffal of Alcibiades, implies that Plato favours non-consummation. But what is wrong with consummation? Sex is a common and delightful part of being human. Plato’s peculiar conception of Love alienates many of us from his theory.

Plato goes on to claim that Love’s goal is the contemplation of an abstract concept of beauty. This has the unhappy consequence of depersonalising Love. Plato seems to regard it as a means to something abstract and absolute that doesn’t involve beloved persons. The scholar Gregory Vlastos took Plato to task for this in an influential essay, ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’2, summarising him thus:

What we are to love in persons is the image of the ‘idea’ in them.

Individuals only appear on the lower rungs and disappear as we climb higher. Plato seems to see other people instrumentally – a means to absolute beauty, rather than worthwhile in their own right.

This criticism assumes that as we ascend the ladder, we metaphorically kick away each previous rung. In fairness, Diotima does not say this. The passion for one individual person becomes ‘of small account’, and physical beauty ‘a poor thing’ in comparison with higher levels of beauty, but they are not of no account. And they may arguably be superceded by a more spiritual Love that still embraces the individual but without the pre-occupation with physicality. We may debate this as we please. But Diotima says:

Having his eyes fixed upon beauty in the widest sense, he may no longer be the slave of a base and mean-spirited devotion to an individual example of beauty, whether the object of his love be a boy or a man or an activity...

Perhaps she means to exclude only the ‘base and mean-spirited devotion’ to a beloved rather than to exclude the beloved entirely. But that is not what is implied, and to rescue the beloved individual we must clutch at fine distinctions and at things left unsaid. Diotima makes no mention at all of a beloved individual in her climactic vision, which concerns only the Lover and his goal, the Form of beauty.

It is difficult, therefore, to reconcile Plato’s account with our actual, lived experience of Love, which does normally centre upon other individuals. And a theory that does not explain reality is not of much use to anyone.

Another problem is that the Love that can lead men (not women) to the highest intellectual achievements and knowledge of beauty is exclusively homoerotic; heterosexual relations in the Symposium are good for producing children and little else. The claim that true beauty may be known only to men who have relationships with adolescent boys may have seemed feasible in Plato’s culture, but for us it is clearly preposterous. Beauty is experienced by, and accessible to, everyone: man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, etc. Plato however thinks that high-level creativity is beyond the capability of the female half of humanity, and of the males who do not practice pederasty.

3. Do Forms exist?

The most fundamental problem lies at the core of Plato’s philosophy.

Plato is an idealist philosopher: he believes that ideas are more real than the objects in which those ideas are manifested.3 They exist outside of time and space, and are the true objects of knowledge. This is known as his theory of Forms. The Symposium does not explicitly discuss that, but readers familiar with other works such as the Phaedo or The Republic will recognise it in Diotima’s account of beauty.

Plato believes there are two kinds of reality: a sensable world of everyday things and an intelligible world of Forms. For everything that exists, whether concrete objects like shoes or abstract notions like democracy, there is a perfect, unchanging and eternal Form or Idea in which it partakes. Every shoe partakes in the universal Form of a shoe; every election in the universal Form of democracy.

For example, during our lives we will see a multitude of tea-cups, all of them different. They will be made of different materials, be decorated in different ways, have different sizes, and so on. However, they have something in common which, despite this great variety, makes all of them tea-cups. Plato would argue that there exists, in another realm to which we normally have no access, a perfect Form of a tea-cup which defines the character of all actually existing tea-cups. It is a kind of master copy, the formal condition that makes every individual tea-cup possible. It is a universal principle that makes things exist the way they do. When we perceive a beautiful object, its beauty comes from its participation in the Form.

Plato therefore thinks that beauty is an objective property. Its Form exists as a thing in itself, independent of any human onlooker or the objects that partake of it. The instances of beauty we see around us are shadowy and corruptible approximations of a perfect original.

In The Symposium, Plato brings us to the Forms via Love: Diotima describes begetting in beauty as the object of Love. By ascending the ladder towards knowledge of the Forms, we gradually realise that beautiful particulars are merely instances of a greater, universal beauty from which they take their being. This search for wisdom takes us from the changeable physical realm to the realm of ideas and spirit. Human beings live amongst the rough and tumble of everyday things, and we cannot sense the Forms with our eyes or other organs, only with our souls. To know the Forms is the true object of knowledge, and to know them demands a long and rigorous philosophical struggle. It is not accidental that Diotima’s voice is the most distant in the dialogue, reported at several removes: Us > Plato > Apollodorus > Aristodemus > Socrates > Diotima. It is as if Plato is trying to emphasise the difficulty of penetrating the veils of obscurity behind which absolute beauty lies. Even his ideal philosopher, Socrates, never claims to have knowledge of the Forms, and most of us only ever seek wisdom without attaining it. As W. Hamilton points out in the Introduction to his translation:

If man possessed [wisdom] he would no longer be man; if he had no yearning for it he would be merely animal.

At first glance, Plato’s theory has some justification. There must indeed be something that thousands of diverse tea-cups have in common that makes them tea-cups rather than beer-glasses or vacuum cleaners, and this something must be an abstraction that is not physically to hand or expressible in a single object. Physical objects are constantly changing, seen in different kinds of light, suffering wear and tear, put to improbable uses, etc. They are unreliable and ephemeral, and we may struggle to find a common reference point for their succession of states. How reassuring, then, is the stability of perfect, unchanging Forms, like great anchors securing a ship to shore. They are a solution to the problem of universals.

In the dialogue Parmenides, Plato has the old philosopher Parmenides grill a young Socrates on a series of difficulties with the theory of Forms. What things have a Form: objects, concepts, human-made things? What about nasty, undignified things like mud? How do instances partake of them? If Forms and instances are from different realms, how do they relate to each other? The inexperienced Socrates struggles to defend himself,  yet despite this self-criticism Plato does not abandon his theory. He thinks there must be answers, and the Parmenides simply lays out the challenges for later Platonists to wrestle with.

But the criticisms are powerful. To be anachronistic, are there perfect eternal Forms of custard creams, iPhones or coat-hangers? How could there be an eternal Form of anything that is human-made, given that, as we now know, human beings evolved relatively recently? Has there been a Form of custard creams, existing for all eternity, just waiting for us to evolve so we might finally make individual custard creams? Who made that Form? Presumably it was not ‘made’ at all, because that would mean there must have been a time before it was made, and the Form would thus not be eternal. The issue of eternity is also thorny: we know that the world around us is constantly changing, becoming and passing away. Evolution is a good example of this. How are we to understand a dynamic, sensuous reality through Forms that last forever and never change?

Biased towards intellect and philosophy over the world of the senses, Plato made the mistake of abstracting the universal qualities of objects and declaring these abstractions more real than the objects themselves. There is no good reason to do this. Abstraction is a useful function of consciousness, no more, and consciousness arises from matter, not the other way around. The fact is, we have collected vast evidence for the reality of the physical world; we have none whatsoever for the existence of ideal Forms. We may build a coherent argument for their existence, but we can never prove it. This is powerful grounds for favouring the primacy of matter over the primacy of ideas.

Accordingly, idealism is rare in modern philosophy.

If there is no good reason to believe in Forms, then there is no good reason to believe in a Form of beauty; and without the Form of beauty, the argument of The Symposium breaks down. The ladder has nowhere to take us, and we are dumped back among the dirt, the bodies, the perishable stuff of the reality we can see and measure and sense directly, forced to think again.


In The Symposium Plato never defines what beauty is, only some properties of its Form. But we know from other works that there is a hierarchy to the Forms, with the Form of Good the most powerful. The close connection of beauty and goodness was to prove popular with Neoplatonists (e.g. Proclus, Plotinus) and Christians (e.g. St Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius). Plato’s idealism, if problematic today, posed no difficulty for religious philosophy. The ladder of Love was taken up by the early Church Fathers, who recast it in Christian terms. In the Renaissance, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino revived Platonism through translations and treatises. His commentary on The Symposium, De Amore, Christianised its ideas and invented our modern notion of ‘Platonic love’ as a sexless, spiritual relationship. More recently, we can see The Symposium’s influence on such diverse thinkers as Shelley, Hölderlin, Tolstoy, Freud and Lacan4.

Plato’s Symposium is of the greatest historical and cultural interest. However, it has limited usefulness for the modern aesthetician who is trying to understand what happens when we make and experience art and beauty.


The BBC released a nice video illustrating (in very quick, incomplete way) Diotima’s ladder:

1. How accurately Plato’s character Socrates represents the method and views of the historical Socrates is a debate in itself. There is no evidence that Diotima, the real star of the dialogue though not present at the party, was a real person.
2. Gregory Vlastos, ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’, in Platonic Studies (1973).
3. Some philosophers argue that since the Forms or Ideas really exist for Plato, and are more real than than the world we can see, strictly they are not abstractions (we might call them ‘paradigms’ instead) and that Plato is therefore technically not an idealist. I would call him idealist because he thinks true reality can only be approached through thought. But ultimately it is just a label.
4. For a survey of The Symposium’s influence see chapter 4 of Thomas Cooksey, Plato’s Symposium: A Reader’s Guide (2010).