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.

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.

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 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 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).

Monday, 6 March 2017

Plato’s Ion

Image of a rhapsode from a Greek vase,
c.480 BCE. Source: British Museum.
Ion is the only dialogue by Plato that exclusively addresses the arts, namely criticism and poetry (which in the Greek context includes drama). Written in about 380 BCE, it takes the form of a short conversation between Socrates, a philosopher and Plato’s real-life mentor, and Ion, a ‘rhapsode’ or professional reciter and critic of poetry. Plato’s authorship and the relatively early date are mostly accepted, though some scholars dispute both assertions. It is not of great substance either among Plato’s works or philosophy in general: one commentator described it as a ‘slight dialogue’ about which ‘little need be said’1. However, it is probably the oldest surviving book of art theory in the world, and cannot be ignored by aestheticians.

You can read Ion online in an English translation by the 19th century scholar Benjamin Jowett via Internet Classics Archive (the version I use here, also available as an audiobook), or in the 1925 translation by W.R.M. Lamb via Perseus Digital Library

The main question posed by Ion is: do critics know what they are talking about?

The dialogue

In ancient Greece, poetry was more recited in public than read in private. The poet composes the text, and the rhapsode interprets it, in both senses: deducing and teaching its meaning, and performing it for an audience. There is no precise equivalent for a rhapsode in our culture, but note they are reciters of verses, not actors, and perform for money. Ion ought to be worth talking to, as he is good at what he does: he has just won first prize at the festival of Asclepius in Epidaurus, and is puffed up with his success. After opening with a bit of flattery (530b), Socrates interrogates the rhapsode on the nature of interpretation, poetry and knowledge. The dialogue runs roughly like this:

  • What knowledge does Ion have of the art of literary criticism?
  • Is the poet or the rhapsode divinely inspired? 
  • If so, is Ion out of his mind when he performs?
  • Is the rhapsode-critic qualified to judge Homer’s subject matter?

The dialogue is sometimes misunderstood. Socrates is not interested in discussing Ion’s ability in recitation, nor primarily in the nature of poetry as such. His interest lies in Ion as what we would call a literary critic – someone who lectures on the poet’s meaning. This focus is explicit in his introductory speech:

Socrates: To understand [Homer], and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.

Ion. Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many. (530c-d)

The subject here is not how well Ion recites Homer, but how well he ‘speaks about’ Homer. When Ion offers to recite for him, Socrates brushes the opportunity off, for his skill in performance is not the matter in hand.

Socrates learns that Ion’s literary commentaries are limited to Homer, whom he considers ‘better’ than other poets, and takes him to task. All poets deal with similar subject matter, the philosopher argues, therefore to know whether a poet is better than others, Ion must be able to judge how well all poets speak. Comically, Ion responds that talk of other poets sends him to sleep. Socrates concludes:

No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. (532c)

He argues that when one has knowledge of an art, one can comment on what is good and what is bad, and challenges Ion to identify any painter, sculptor or musician who could only judge a single fellow artist. Ion cannot, and Socrates offers an explanation. If Ion’s literary criticism were an art (or craft, or skill) and he had mastered it, he would have knowledge of it as a whole. He does not, therefore criticism is not a form of knowledge: not a generally applicable science.

Socrates contends that the rhapsode-critic does not have expertise in the way a physician or arithmetician does. Ion’s lectures on Homer come from somewhere else, outside himself, namely divine inspiration. The philosopher illustrates his idea with a simple, effective metaphor, which he uses to explain the whole creative process:

The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet... This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. (533d-e)

The Muse, or goddess of the arts, inspires the poet, then the afflatus continues into the rhapsode and on into the audience, like magnetism through iron rings.

Socrates’ metaphor of divine inspiration.

Plato asserts, through Socrates, that ‘all good poets... compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed’ (533e). Remove the magnet, and the chain of iron rings would fall apart. Here Plato is discussing more than criticism. He is putting forward a theory of poetic creation itself. Again:

Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only. (534b-c)

This explains why Ion is able to win prizes for reciting Homer despite being unable to perform other poets. He and Homer alike have no ‘art or knowledge’; they don’t need any. Everything comes from the Muse through ‘divine inspiration’. Good poems (as opposed to bad ones) come from the gods, and the poet is merely their interpreter. Ion seems flattered by the association of the poets and the gods, which was a familiar idea in Greece, and nods to everything Socrates says, only to be accused of having even less knowledge than the poet. Criticism has no scientific value: the rhapsodes are merely ‘interpreters of interpreters’, a lower link in the chain of possession.

Socrates is denying Ion any art or agency in his ‘speaking about Homer’. But there is worse to come. Socrates turns his attention to Ion’s role as a reciter, and argues that when Ion is reciting he is not in his right mind.

Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem? (535b-c)

When he is reciting, Ion plays on the emotions of his audience, driving them to pity and wonder. But Socrates severely criticises second-hand feelings of this sort. He has already compared poets to Corybants: priests who worshipped the goddess Cybele with music and ecstatic dancing. In Socrates’ view, if you feel roused to tears or exultation by some event that isn’t really happening, you are not in your right mind.

There is no invention in [the poet] until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him. (534b)

This is surely a damning verdict coming from a philosopher – a lover of wisdom and rational thought. Disdainfully Socrates demands:

What are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him; – is he in his right mind or is he not? (535d)

Ion agrees that such a man is not in his right mind. His excuse for inciting emotion in his audience is cynical:

If I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives. (535e)

If the audience cries during his dramatic recitals he will be paid for a job well done; if they laugh, he will not.

Now Socrates changes tack to address a broader issue: does the critic have knowledge? The issue again is not about poetry as such, or Ion’s recitals, but whether Ion is qualified to be a critic of Homer’s poetry:

On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part... Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge? (536e)

Socrates challenges Ion on a range of ‘arts’ portrayed by Homer and argues that each ‘art’ is a distinct body of knowledge best known by the experts in that field. We consult a physician about medicine, a charioteer about chariot-racing, a prophet about divination, a spinner about spinning wool. In each case, Ion concedes that the relevant expert, not the rhapsode-critic, is best qualified to judge Homer’s lines about that art.

The one area in which Ion is qualified is in rhapsody, so Socrates homes in on this point:

Do you, who know Homer so much better than I do, Ion, select for me passages which relate to the rhapsode and the rhapsode’s art, and which the rhapsode ought to examine and judge of better than other men. (539e)

There are none, so the struggling Ion provides a few examples of other arts the rhapsode should know about:

He will know what a man and what a woman ought to say, and what a freeman and what a slave ought to say, and what a ruler and what a subject. (540b)

Socrates argues these away. It seems there must always be someone who knows better than the critic – forcing the conclusion that Ion has no worthwhile knowledge of his own. Finally he tries to buck Socrates’ onslaught by claiming that thanks to reading Homer he does at least know how to be a great general. But then he has to explain why he does not serve as one: he says it’s because his fellow Ephesians are vassals of the Athenian empire and have no need of one, and the Athenians and Spartans have enough generals of their own. Socrates has no trouble exposing this weak argument. He concludes:

After all your professions of knowing many glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. [541e-542a]

Plato thinks people can only do one thing well (see for example the discussion in Book III of The Republic where in the ideal city ‘each does his own work, and that only’), hence his disapproval of Ion who has to touch on many different areas of knowledge. Ion’s skills, like the creativity of the poet, actually come from the gods via Homer, not his own resources.

Having dismissed literary criticism, Socrates wraps up by taunting Ion with a choice:

If, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired? [542a]

Ion would much prefer to be thought inspired. Socrates allows him this, and the dialogue ends.


Plato’s usual approach in his dialogues is to portray Socrates, the seeker of wisdom, questioning someone about their knowledge of a particular area and exposing the shortcomings of what they think they know. This cross-examination, known as an elenchus, often ends with the participants feeling wiser but able to assert anything, a stalemate known as an aporia.

Ion however draws some definite conclusions about criticism and poetry. The dialogue explores a theme we see elsewhere in Plato and wider philosophy: the theme of knowledge. The Greeks made a distinction between episteme, meaning theoretical knowledge, and techne, meaning practical know-how or craftsmanship. They are the origins of our words epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge) and technology (knowledge of techniques for doing things). The Greek word τέχναι or techne is usually translated as ‘art’, but in the sense of a craft or skill. There is a techne of medicine, a techne of charioteering, a techne of prophecy.2

Socrates assumes that knowledge of the world is divided into distinct arts/sciences/disciplines in which a person may be expert and may therefore ‘speak well’, i.e. speak authoritatively. Not only is the expert able to apply the rules of their art, they are aware of those rules and can explain them, and can thus serve as a judge of whether others also have knowledge or instead are being deceitful or incompetent.

Plato questions what this means for critics and for poets. Poets write about a wide range of things. Given that each discipline is distinct, who knows best about, say, chariot-racing? Do you ask the critic, who offers an interpretation of a passage in Homer on chariot-racing, or do you ask a charioteer? Plato is trying to argue that the rhapsode-critic cannot be relied upon to ‘speak well’ about poems, and extends this criticism to poetic creation, too. Poets and rhapsodes alike do not have expertise in a field of knowledge and must therefore be relying upon something outside of them, namely divine inspiration. All they are qualified to do is to entertain by arousing emotion, and even this expertise is attacked by Plato. People ought to seek knowledge in a calm, rational way whereas poets and rhapsodes encourage the opposite. For Plato, this is irrational and even dangerous.

Given Homer’s high status in ancient Greece, Plato is going heavily against the cultural grain. The ancient Greeks looked to Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus and other classic poets for insights into love, war, virtue, the nature of the world, and so on. They thought the poets had a broad range of knowledge, a certain wisdom that you could learn from. Socrates himself praises Homer at the beginning as ‘the best and most divine’ of good poets; but he goes on to undermine him during the discussion. Plato’s Ion presents us with possibly our earliest theory of art, and already it is controversial. He is presenting us with, in context, a new way of thinking about poetry.

However his main purpose in the dialogue is to ask whether there are any firm principles of literary criticism, and on this question, his answer is ‘no’. The critic has no distinct knowledge. His inspiration comes through the poet, and has no ‘scientific’ basis. Socrates concludes that Ion ‘speaks of Homer’ without any ‘art or knowledge’: with neither techne nor episteme. Similarly there is no techne of poetry. Critics and poets passively channel the work of the gods.

There are several problems with Plato’s arguments.

Firstly, he fails to appreciate the nature of poetry. His character Socrates assumes every art or discipline works the same way, and that poetry must be an area of knowledge in the same way that medicine or fishing are areas of knowledge. This is simplistic. Poetry may embrace all sorts of subject matter while staying true to its own particular laws. Whether or not Homer has accurately conveyed information about how to ride a chariot is of little importance when we judge his poem as a work of art; we are much more concerned with qualities such as mood, rhythm and characterisation. This is why we have the term ‘artistic licence’: works of art follow their own rules, and it has always been acceptable for a poet or artist to adjust reality for creative effect. For example, one may have various criticisms of the Star Wars movies, but only a pedant would dismiss them on the basis that it is impossible for starships to make a noise in outer space. Aristotle would later acknowledge this in the Poetics:

There are not the same standards of correctness in poetry as in political theory or any other art. (1460b)3

Plato wants to judge poems as catalogues of endorsed facts, and loses poetry in the process.

Moreover, we actually have no reason to doubt that Homer wrote accurately about chariot-racing, ancient combat, and so on. He was held in high esteem by a culture that knew these activities intimately. He could have based his accounts upon the observation or testimony of experts, but Plato does not raise this as a possibility, let alone explain why it would not be acceptable.

As for Ion, there is no need for him to have personal expertise in every subject raised in Homer’s poetry, as Socrates demands. Being an expert charioteer, physician etc has nothing to do with his craft as a critic, which lies in interpreting the supplied text. His field of knowledge would be the craft of composing poetry, but Socrates does not acknowledge that such a field exists. Perhaps this is because he dismisses poetry as the production of divine inspiration rather than the skill of the poet him- or herself. But he makes a distinction between good poets, who are inspired, and bad poets, who are not, citing the case of Tynnichus the Chalcidian who appears to have written plenty of bad poetry and is only remembered for one good, ‘inspired’ poem. Even if we accept the claim that Tynnichus had little involvement in writing that poem, he presumably applied rules of poetic composition when creating his forgotten work, seeing as the gods were not doing it for him, i.e. rules must exist. It is a poor inquiry that makes no effort to study them. It’s true that Socrates says earlier, ‘there is an art of poetry, I take it, as a whole, is there not?’ (532c), which Ion affirms. But the context suggests he is talking about Ion’s techne of criticising poetry rather than the poet’s techne of composing it, and the later section of the dialogue shows that Socrates is sceptical about whether either techne exists.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres:
Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry,
The idea of artists receiving divine inspiration, though leading Plato to be dismissive about them in Ion, has actually proved attractive over the centuries. If we are religious, it seems to answer questions about where creativity comes from, and why artists themselves can’t always put their creative process into words. If creativity doesn’t come from the artist him- or herself, that might explain why it can sometimes be unreliable. As for the common idea that artists uncover truths about the world that the rest of us don’t necessarily notice, and thus help us to see the world in a new way, perhaps divine intervention could explain this, too.

In fact, ascribing poetry and criticism to the gods creates a problem for Plato: Socrates suggests the poets bring us poems like honey from the glades of the Muses (534b), a positive image in whose context he calls the poet a ‘holy thing’. Divine art or knowledge must be better than any human art or knowledge. If the poets and critics are divinely favoured, they deserve admiration, perhaps even reverence, but Socrates shows Ion little respect. His attribution of good poetry to afflatus robs poets of any credit for their work. (He does not consider the possibility that divine inspiration and human skill might go hand-in-hand.) 

Furthermore, Socrates dismisses Ion and his enthused audience during recitals as ‘not in their right mind’, but emotion is an essential part of how we respond to poetry. Socrates mentions the examples of ‘the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognised by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam’ (535b). If we cannot respond emotionally to these characters, there is little point in poetry or theatre at all. Only good art can bring a story alive in the most affecting way – therefore, arousing our emotions is a merit, not a problem. Again, Plato is rejecting the whole point of both rhapsody and poetry.

After all this, it is unsurprising that, as Socrates himself observes in another work, the Apology, the poets are against him.4

A different criticism of the dialogue is that Plato makes life easy for himself in a couple of ways. If Ion could critique any poet, instead of only Homer, Socrates would fail in his initial argument. Socrates himself refers to painters, sculptors, and musicians who are not guilty of Ion’s shortcoming of being fixated on one artist, and takes it for granted that they, not Ion, represent the norm. For example:

Socrates: And did you ever know any [painter] who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticising other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and had no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?

Ion: No indeed, I have never known such a person. (532e-553a)

Yet Plato makes his character Ion ‘such a person’. We know he thinks critics are different from painters, sculptors, and musicians in not having a techne, but it does not follow that the one-trick Ion is representative of all critics.

It also helps Socrates that Ion, despite being a prize-winning rhapsode and presumably a first-rate artist, is not a worthy adversary in philosophy. (Goethe referred to Ion’s ‘unglaubliche Dummheit’ or ‘unbelieveable stupidity’5.) His only challenge to Socrates is his feeble claim about being a good general, forced upon him by the attack on the value of Homer’s knowledge, but easily refuted by the veteran debater. Although Plato has some fun at the rhapsode’s expense, the dialogue is not really about whether Ion is a good or bad rhapsode or whether rhapsodes are foolish, so Plato could have allowed Socrates a sharper opponent who could discuss how he interprets poetry. My suspicion is that the characterisation of Ion simply reflects Plato’s poor opinion of artists, who are after all, as The Republic tells us, mere interpreters of interpreters, imitators of imitators.

In sum, Ion offers little insight into either poetry or the art of criticism.

Rather than concluding that Plato has simply written a poor piece of philosophy, we should consider the possibility that he does not intend his arguments to be water-tight. The dialogue may be intended as a kind of conversation or discussion piece to stir Plato’s students into thinking about these problems for themselves.

It may also be that the dialogue is not entirely serious. After all, the poets themselves say they are inspired by gods: the muse is evoked by Homer at the opening of the Iliad (‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles’), by Hesiod in his Theogeny (‘From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing’), and by Archilochus in one of his surviving fragments (‘I am the servant of Lord Enyalios, / and skilled in the lovely gift of the Muses’). Socrates is taking the poets’ own claims of divine inspiration and turning it on them and the rhapsodes to demonstrate they know nothing. The ancient Greek audience would have known that, and been amused to see Socrates taking a fool down a peg or two.

Well, perhaps. But at the time poets and rhapsodes may have been more popular than the ‘gadfly’ of Athens. And Plato is dismissive of poets elsewhere in his work. In the Apology, which portrays Socrates’ self-defence when on trial in 399 BCE for corrupting the young, Socrates says:

When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.6 (22a-c)

This echoes Socrates’ views in Ion. And Plato’s savaging of Ion for being merely an interpreter of an interpreter foreshadows his famous arguments in The Republic, where he accuses artists of having no knowledge because they represent the world at two removes. If Plato is merely being mischievous, why does he assert this position again and again?

Ion’s fatal weakness is its reliance upon superstition. Socrates concurs with the belief asserted by the poets themselves: their gift comes from divine inspiration. Homer’s evocation of the Muse in the Iliad (c.800-725 BCE) is nearly three thousand years old, which makes the theory of divine inspiration the oldest known theory of creativity. The obvious problem, however, is that despite thousands of years of trying, theology has never been able to prove that gods exist, either the Olympian variety or any other. From a contemporary materalist perspective, no credible theory of art can be built on superstition: remove the gods, and Plato’s explanation of literary criticism and poetic creativity falls apart, leaving nothing in its place. Even if we give Plato the benefit of the doubt, claiming that poetry comes from the gods does not tell us very much. It is like trying to sidestep our ignorance of why matter exists by stating that God created it: the answer just raises other unanswerable questions, such as why God exists, what existed before, what he created matter from, and so on. The process is left vague and mysterious, and Plato doesn’t try to explore the curious mechanism of divine inspiration any further in his work. This is an anachronistic criticism, as most ancient Greeks would have assumed the gods to be real, but there is no escaping it from our perspective. The reality is that art and criticism are the products of human beings’ own resources. They can’t be anything else. How those resources work is by no means easy to analyse, but substituting a deus ex machina solves nothing.

In addition, divine inspiration removes the critic or poet’s agency, and thus introduces a contradiction into Plato’s work: it makes no sense to try and recruit poets to state service, as he does for a minority of cases in The Republic, if poets have no moral responsibility for their work. According to the theory of divine inspiration, to criticise poets who write work Plato considers immoral is to criticise the gods, which for Plato is itself immoral. Thus Plato gets tied in knots by the inadequacy of his thesis.7

In conclusion, the dialogue Ion is fascinating as a historical document, but has little value as a theory, as it fails to tell us anything useful about criticism, poetry or art as a means of knowledge.


The line notation system used for Plato is known as Stephanus referencing, after the definitive 1587 edition of his complete works. This is why the referencing for Ion starts, oddly, at 530a.

1. A.E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (1928).
2. Plato assigns a techne to individual arts such as music, sculpture and painting, but nowhere in his work does he share any conception of ‘the arts’ as a distinct entity. 
3. Aristotle, Poetics, Chapter 25, 1460b. Translation by T.S. Dorsch.
4. Plato, Apology. At Socrates’ trial, one of his accusers is ‘Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets’.
5. Goethe, Plato, als Mitgenosse einer christlichen Offenbarung (1796).
6. ibid. 
7. We must be cautious of seeing Plato’s works as a cohesive whole. However these problems may explain Plato’s shift in The Republic to the alternative theory of mimesis, which results in him once again being dismissive of poets, albeit on different grounds.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Ancient aesthetics

Paleolithic handprint from
Pech Merle cave
Presumably, human beings have reflected on their creativity from the beginning. Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and the first signs of ‘aesthetic’ activity known to archaeology follow around 125-100,000 years ago in the form of notched bones, use of red ochre (a soft stone), and ritual burials. Gradually we began to produce unambiguous art objects, beginning with the incised red ochre blocks and shell necklaces found at sites like Blombos Cave in South Africa, and eventually flowering into the sculpture, musical instruments and rock art of the Upper Paleolithic (i.e. the last phase of the Old Stone Age). By at least 40,000 years ago, artists were discovering basic forms still familiar today: painting, textiles, music, ceramics, engraving, jewellery, architecture and sculpture.

These prehistoric people, though non-literate, were not knuckle-dragging ‘cavemen’ but intelligent and anatomically modern humans, like us. We can only speculate about what ideas they may have had on creativity, art objects and aesthetic experience. It is unlikely they had a theoretical conception of ‘art’ as such, as this distinction emerged much later. But in ways now forgotten our ancestors must have observed their own practices such as painting, dancing, singing, weaving and sculpting, and wondered what they were, and why they did them.

Early civilisation

Around 11,000 years ago the Old Stone Age was succeeded by the New, known as the Neolithic – a revolutionary change signalled by the rise of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The Neolithic world sowed the seeds of many early civilisations, the first of which – the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians in north Africa – lay in the ‘Fertile Crescent’, an immense green arc stretching from the Middle East to the Nile. The invention of writing in those regions launched the age of history.

The Bronze Age social surplus grew big enough to fund, beside the more everyday art like pottery, the creation of monumental buildings, ceremonies and artworks.

Strictly speaking, these creations are a waste of resources. When we leave aside the cultural or religious claims we make for them, a pyramid is just a heap of stones in a field; a sculpture of a god is just a piece of rock bashed into a form; a burial ritual, however elaborate and expensive, has no significance for the person being buried, who is after all dead. Why spend so much time and energy on these strange practices? And why do only human beings do it? Thoughtful people in this age, too, must have puzzled over such things, just as early astronomers and priests puzzled over the stars in the sky, or the nature of sun and moon, day and night, life and death.

However, we have inherited no philosophy of art from the early civilisations. The Egyptians did not even have a word for ‘art’ as we understand it. They had words for various forms – ‘stela’, ‘statue’ and so on – but their conception was much broader, and nearer to what we call ‘craft’. The Egyptians seem to have judged their cultural products in terms of durability, quality of craftsmanship and splendour rather than as ‘art objects’ as such. As Monroe C. Beardsley observes in his history of aesthetics:

In tens of thousands of inscriptions in which these masters are praised, by themselves or others, it is never the beauty of their works, but only strength and everlastingness or richness and lavishness of metal that are cited.1

The lack of theory is not because of intellectual poverty. The succession of Mesopotamian empires and Egyptian dynasties sustained, for thousands of years, a magnificent culture of literature, architecture, theology, mathematics, astronomy and often spectacular art.

The Greeks, normally lauded as the first philosophers, are said to have learnt a great deal from the sages of Egypt. There is various evidence of this from ancient writers. In the 1st century BCE the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote a grand history known in Latin as the Bibliotheca historica (Library of History), much of which survives. In its first book he reports that Greeks “who have won fame for their wisdom and learning” visited Egypt for education. Such eminent figures as the poet Homer, the statesman Solon of Athens, the mathematician Pythagoras, and the philosophers Plato and Democritus were among the visitors. The priests of Egypt argued that “the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were transferred from Egypt” (Book I, 96). Diodorus is not necessarily reliable, and perhaps those priests aren’t either, but there is other evidence that Egypt was regarded as a highly respected centre of learning by the Greeks. For example, in the 3rd century CE Diogenes Laertius recorded in his Lives of the Philosophers that Thales of Miletus, regarded as the first Greek philosopher, “learnt geometry from the Egyptians” (Book I, Chapter 1). Whatever the facts about precisely who travelled there and when, the Greeks seem to have been comfortable acknowledging a cultural debt to their north African mentors.

Not only could the Egyptians boast an advanced intellectual tradition, their artistic work is second to none. Think of the rich colours, the bustling wooden models of peasants at work, the stunning birds from the tomb of Nebamun, the grandiose architecture of Karnak, or the serenity of Thutmose’s perfectly modelled Nefertiti.

Why then did the ancient Egyptians leave us no evidence of a philosophy of art or beauty? Whereas Greece produced Pythagoras’s study of music, Polykleitos’s treatise on proportion, Plato’s Ion, Republic and Symposium, and Aristotle’s Poetics, the Egyptians seem to have taken no interest in aesthetic questions. This may in part be a misfortune of archaeology, but the absence of an aesthetics amongst their vast cultural inheritance is striking.

The answer I think is two-fold. Firstly, the historical context was not ripe for philosophical thought as we understand it today. I’ll come back to that at the end. The other answer is that they did in fact leave an aesthetics, spoken to us through the art objects themselves.

Take an example of their two-dimensional visual art. The painting below is from the tomb of an official named Nakht. Ancient Egypt’s art was functional, often serving, as in this case, funerary or religious purposes. The function of this work is to win a prosperous existence for the family in death, as they had enjoyed in life.

Painting from the Tomb of Nakht, c.1400 BCE. Nakht and his wife Tawy (left) are shown enjoying the products of the fields. At the top right we see the family on a hunt. Source:

The artist shows little interest in perspective, preferring flat colours and shapes. The action is arranged into bands or ‘registers’ divided by straight lines, making a very schematic composition. Within this scheme, the portrayal of people and events follows strict rules. Here are a few:

1. Men were painted red, women yellow; gods were sometimes painted in symbolic colours like black and green.
2. The figures are stylised to capture each element from the angle at which its appearance is most typical. The eye is seen as if from the front, even though the head is normally shown in profile. Similarly, the chest is frontal but the limbs are shown from the side, where their articulation is most clear. The shape of a foot is much clearer in a side view, too.
3. The relative size of the figures obeys a scale where the more important a person was, the larger they were. Compare the size of Nakht and Tawy with the peasants bearing goods.
4. When drawing the figure, the Egyptians developed a canon of proportions based upon a grid system about 19 squares high. One of these grids, from the Tomb of Ramose, has survived because the tomb was left unfinished, giving us a rare insight into how the artists worked. In the illustration below, I’ve applied a grid to one of the peasants from TT52:

The figure had to fit into this scheme, however unnatural it looked.

In short, the art is functional, schematic, and highly conventional. The rules are not immune to variation, and artists found ways to avoid monotony. But the same canon of style, developed during the Old Kingdom, continued to be used almost without interruption until the gradual breakdown of the traditional culture following the invasions of Alexander and the Romans. It is an approach to art that is different to ours. The historian of aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, observed:

To judge by the surviving examples, they did not attach great importance to the representation of reality, to the expression of feelings or to giving pleasure to spectators. They linked their art to religion and the next world rather than with the world about them. They sought to embody in their works the essence of things rather than their appearance.2

Why was this?

The Egyptians were not incapable of realism: if you have doubts, see their portrait busts, or their exquisite paintings of animals. No, they worked this way because they had an aesthetic. What ancient Egyptian art speaks of is a desire for strict order. Someone’s place in the social hierarchy is always explicit, and the mode of representation remains roughly the same across the culture, regardless of time and place, creating a extraordinary sense of continuity, necessity, and eternity.

Think of the changes wrought by the Neolithic Revolution. The earliest human societies were small bands of hunters and gatherers, roaming the landscape in search of food and owning only what they could carry. Living hand to mouth, they would have shared their resources more or less equally. Settled Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers with crops and animals, on the other hand, depended upon stability from politics and predictability from nature. In a mythopoeic age, weather, disease and other dangers were believed to be arbitrated by gods, and people looked to organised religion to keep them on good terms with the divine. The new wealth of the agricultural revolution was swallowed by the priesthood and aristocracy as a reward for providing stability – they were the ones who sponsored major artworks, and in them they affirmed their class structure and system of belief.

Civilisation also encouraged new kinds of thought. The socialisation of labour and the development of regional markets of exchange required standardised measurements and more complex mathematics; as families permanently settled land they needed new concepts of property and law. The practical needs of a changing society demanded a turn towards systematisation and abstraction.

These, in brief, are persuasive reasons why the art of the early civilisations tended to be schematic and monumental. The Egyptians had no philosophy of art, but, just like us, they had a way of thinking that heavily influenced how they represented the world in the objects they made. Although their art is sometimes considered too stiff and static for modern taste, these were precisely the qualities that best communicated their preoccupation with order and eternity. Fulfilling that role was more important than questions about beauty – which is why they were ready to spend great labour and resources on superb work only to bury it in subterranean darkness where it would never be seen.

This brings us back to the question of philosophical thought. The early civilisations laid the foundation stone for the emergence of philosophy, including aesthetics. New needs give birth to new thoughts and new forms, which build upon the existing corpus of ideas but transform it. However splendid a culture’s art, a sophisticated body of theory does not necessarily follow: there is no Aristotle or Aquinas of the Renaissance. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians seem to have had no use for philosophical reflection as we know it, let alone aesthetic theories, therefore they did not conceive of that kind of thought. Just as it was not possible to create bronze statues until innovations in metallurgy enabled ancient cultures to extract tin and copper ores and combine them into an alloy, it was not possible to devise philosophy as we now understand it until ancient thought received an adrenaline shot from the individualism fostered by Greek democracy.

Once the Greeks had ‘discovered’ the concept of reflecting upon art and beauty, the cat was out of the bag, but someone had to do it first. It wasn’t because the Greeks were cleverer than their neighbours. It was simply that in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the conditions for this specific step were not yet ripe. The lack of a conscious theory of art, however, in no way impaired their ability as artists. As usual, the artists lead and the theorists follow.


1. Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: From the Classical World to the Present (1966). Beardsley notes the Egyptians’ lack of a philosophy of art and moves quickly on to the Greeks, but in my view there is more to say.
2. Władysław Tatarkiewicz, History of aesthetics, Volume 1 (1970).

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Timeline of ancient aesthetics

Rider, Attic red-figured cup,
middle of 5th century BC.
A few notes on significant developments in aesthetics and theory of art from the earliest times to the late Classical period (c. 3rd century). I will add further entries as they occur to me. Please note this is a timeline of Western theory, as I cannot do justice to other traditions.


The reflections of Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures on beauty and the production of art, if any, are unknown, beyond what little we can deduce from the objects themselves and their contexts.

Early civilisations: Mesopotamia, Egypt

No philosophy of art or of beauty has survived from the ancient civilisations. Cultural products are praised in terms of their magnificence of materials and quality of workmanship, not in terms of an autonomous notion of ‘beauty’ as we understand it today.

Artistic representation in ancient Egyptian art usually conformed to highly stylised principles that flowed from a belief in an unchanging social and cosmic order. Despite their apparent lack of a philosophy of art, the Egyptians belong in any history of Western aesthetics, as many thinkers from ancient Greece travelled to north Africa to learn mathematics and other wisdom from this venerable and deeply respected civilisation.

The Greeks

Western aesthetics usually, and correctly, sees the ancient Greek philosophers as the first to reflect upon (what we would call) aesthetic questions. The Greeks thought beauty was objective: objects were beautiful in and of themselves. Art is a kind of technē, i.e. a craft or skill, especially the knowledge (‘know-how’) associated with making things.

8th century BCE

Homer: The Iliad
  • Originally an oral composition. 8th century BCE is the rough date for the written version.
  • Opens with an appeal to the Muse. This is the first known theory of artistic creation: a god speaks through the poet.
  • In History of Aesthetic (1892) Bernard Bosanquet points to the famous passage describing the shield of Achilles where Homer remarks ‘that was a marvellous piece of work!’ Bosanquet calls this ‘one of the earliest aesthetic judgements that Western literature contains’ (p12).

8th–7th century BCE

Hesiod: Theogeny
  • Again gods speak through the poet. In the opening lines Hesiod claims to commune with the Muses on Mount Helicon, and they breathe his poetry into him: ‘And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song.’
  • The Muses comment: ‘we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’ This is an interesting critical judgement on the nature of poetry.

6th century BCE

Pythagoras and his school

Pythagoras (or at least his school) devised a theory of music based on mathematics and exerted a strong influence on Plato. Everything in the world, including beauty, could be explained in terms of numbers and the relationships between them.

Early theorists

Beardsley: ‘In the latter part of the 6th century, and increasingly in the 5th century, the more self-consciously theoretical masters of various crafts and arts began to think about the principles on which they worked, and to write them down.’ These were probably works of criticism on particular art forms, such as poetry and music, rather than of aesthetics.

5th century BCE

Xenophanes and Heraclitus

Their scattered surviving comments, such as Xenophanes’ criticism of Homer and Hesiod’s portrayal of the gods, are arguably our earliest examples of literary criticism.


Comic playwright whose plays sometimes contain criticism, e.g. of Euripides’ plays.


Sculptor who wrote Canon, the most renowned ancient treatise on art, now sadly lost. Polykleitos made an accompanying statue, also called Canon, to exemplify his theory in practice – this probably closely resembled the Doryphoros or Spear-bearer, of which copies survive. The treatise discussed ideal mathematical proportions for the parts of the human body, and argued that statues of the human figure should achieve beauty and the good by striking a balance between the relaxed and tensed body parts and the directions in which the parts move.

c.380 BCE


Plato addresses aesthetic and art-theoretical issues in several of his dialogues. Here are three of particular interest.

The Republic
  • Discusses what role poets should have in the ideal state: especially Books III and X.
  • Coins the image of “holding a mirror to nature.”
  • Art has a powerful emotional impact; is thus dangerous.
  • Poets create mere imitations of imitations – copies of a world that is itself already a poor copy of ideal Forms – and therefore have no real knowledge or authority. 
  • Poets should (mostly) be banned from the ideal Republic. But Plato issues a challenge at the end, inviting defences of the poets to justify letting them back in.

  • Do critics have knowledge of their craft, or are they inspired by the gods, i.e. have no agency? Plato concludes the latter. There is no techne of criticism.
  • Extends theory of divine inspiration to (good) poetry.

The Symposium
  • c.385-370 BCE. Through the character Diotima of Mantinea, Plato offers a theory of absolute beauty that may be revealed to the pederast who makes a series of steps towards knowledge of the true, good and beautiful Forms.
  • The object of Love is to bring forth works in beauty: wisdom, virtue, laws, but also art, e.g. the poetry of Homer and Hesiod.

Plato thought beautiful objects incorporated proportion, harmony and unity among their parts. He formulated the theory of mimesis or imitation. As art is twice removed from the Forms, Plato is sceptical of art’s epistemological and cognitive value: artists don’t know the truth and merely make copies of copies. There is no techne of criticism or of poetry: good instances of either come through divine inspiration.

c.350 BCE

Aristotle: Poetics

This is Aristotle’s only surviving work on art, though he wrote others.
  • Defends poetry against Plato.
  • More positive about mimesis and art’s cognitive value. Our love of imitation flows from a desire for knowledge and harmony.
  • Formulated the ‘three unities’ and contributed to later theories of ‘decorum’.
  • Aristotle asks, why do we enjoy the fearful emotions of tragedy? Because evoking pity and fear purges the emotions. This notion (katharsis) is not entirely clear and has been much-debated since.

Ancient Greek philosophers were the first to define some of the most important concepts in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. They are thus effectively the founders of aesthetics, though the discipline was not formally established until much later. Their notions, such as divine inspiration, mimesis, absolute beauty and catharsis have played a role in aesthetics ever since.


The Romans had a fascination with Greek art and culture, although their own intellectual contribution is less significant.

c.15 BCE

Horace: Ars Poetica

  • The poet Horace’s advice on how to write great poetry, written in verse. The poem lays down a number of rules for ‘decorum’ – what is suitable in good poetry – which later become the foundation of Neoclassical art theory. 
  • Introduces a number of famous critical and literary terms, such as ‘in media res’ = ‘in the middle of things’ and the ‘purple patch’.
  • These included ut pictura poesis, a Latin phrase meaning ‘as is painting so is poetry.’ Horace simply meant that imaginative writing deserved the same critical respect as painting in Roman culture. Later theorists have taken up the phrase in various ways. 

Late Classical

1st century CE

Longinus: On the Sublime

An important late Classical contribution. ‘Longinus’, whose identity is uncertain, asks what makes for greatness in writing? He studies the nature of the sublime (greatness, excellence) and how to achieve it, and the role of the writer, as well as criticising some contemporary literature.
  • Poetry is the highest kind of philosophy.
  • He laments the literary standards of his own Roman age.
  • Longinus’ work made no impact until the 17th and 18th centuries, whereupon he influences the theories of sublime of Burke and then Kant.

Paul of Tarsus

Paul, or St Paul, wrote much of the New Testament. His contribution to art theory is his literary critical way of reading the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible contains no explicit references to Jesus, so Paul was keen to try and reconcile it with the Christian New Testament by claiming foreshadowings of Jesus in a method known as typology. In this view, many of the people, events and symbols of the Old Testament were significant not only in themselves, but as types or figures of things to be revealed later.

4th-3rd centuries CE

The end phase of the Classical era saw the flourishing of the Neoplatonist school (key figures Proclus, Plotinus), which was highly influential on Western medieval philosophy. The Neoplatonists sought to uphold the philosophical tradition of Plato and explore its questions more deeply. Theirs was an idealist philosophy: consciousness is prior to the physical realm that most of us think of as reality.


Plotinus: On Beauty (from 1st Ennead

Plotinus advanced Plato’s view (cf. The Symposium) that the origin of beauty was a perfect Form of beauty, and added his own contributions. For Plotinus, beauty is formal unity. He departs from Plato by granting the arts more respect. The arts ‘do not simply imitate what is seen by the eye but refer back to the principles of nature... Arts produce many things not by means of copying, but from themselves. In order to create a perfect whole, they add what is lacking, because arts contain beauty themselves’ (IEP). 

Main sources

Bernard Bosanquet, History of Aesthetic (1892)
Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History (1966)
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Friday, 24 February 2017

What is aesthetics?

Illustration by Jeff Searle
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature of art, taste and beauty. It is closely related to the philosophy of art. We may draw a distinction between the two, arguing that aesthetics is the study of beauty rather than art alone: after all, we can experience beauty in non-art, such as the natural world. But the questions raised by aesthetics and by the philosophy of art are in practice inseparable, and the latter is usually considered a branch of aesthetics. It is valid to recognise a distinction between aesthetic and artistic judgements, but it’s difficult to assess the beauty of an artwork without addressing broader questions of why we experience beauty at all, or how beauty in works of art relates to beauty in non-art such as the natural world... or of course whether such a thing as ‘beauty’ even exists.

Similarly, aesthetics and the philosophy of art are distinct from, yet related to, other overlapping disciplines such as art criticism and art history. 

The word ‘aesthetics’ was first given its modern sense in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten1, a German philosopher little known outside of aesthetics. Baumgarten wrote in Latin, academia’s common language at the time, but the term’s origins lie in the Greek verb αισθάνομαι or aisthanomai, which means ‘to perceive’, with either the understanding or the bodily senses. (The noun is aisthesis. Its opposite form, ‘anaesthetic’, refers to the numbing of sensation.) This reflects Baumgarten’s interest in the arts as a means of acquiring empirical knowledge through the senses: he later defined his word aestheticae as the ‘science of sensitive perception’. Across the years the meaning of this word has, like the meaning of all words, shifted according to the standpoint of the user.

However it’s fair to say that aesthetics tries to answer questions about aesthetic objects, whether natural or human-made, aesthetic experience, i.e. our sensing of and response to those objects, and aesthetic judgement, i.e. the ways we evaluate those objects and experiences. It studies the creation and interpretation of works of art, the attitudes and sensibilities of the human beholder, and wider issues such as how the creation and treatment of art is mediated by history, or by cultural structures such as the art market, or museums and galleries.

There is no ‘official’ way to define how branches of philosophy relate to one another, and aesthetics can be tricky to place. Thanks to its interest in evaluation, it is sometimes considered to fall under a larger branch of philosophy concerned with values and value judgements (known as axiology).

Others might disagree and put aesthetics as one of the main branches of philosophy. It doesn’t really matter. There are many overlaps between different branches of thought, and for aesthetics more than most, as I’ll look at shortly.

The questions of aesthetics

The problems of art and beauty raise an enormous number of questions.

The nature of beauty is one of the main concerns of aesthetics. Assuming we agree that it exists, what sort of experience is it? Are our judgements of beauty objective or subjective, or both? Why do we tend to find some things beautiful and not others? Why do we find beauty in human-made objects like artworks as well as in non-human-made objects found in Nature? What do they have in common?

Then there is what we might think of as the epistemology of art, i.e. art as a means of learning, of acquiring knowledge about the world. Can art tell us the truth about the world? What is the relationship between an artist, a work of art, and the world it portrays?

Take the work of art itself. What is art? How is a work of art different from other objects? What makes some works of art ‘better’ or more successful than others?

Or there is the artist him- or herself. Does our creativity come from gods or from ourselves? Must an artist be an ‘inspired genius’ or can artistic skill be learned? If both, what is the balance between them and how do they relate?

There is also the role of art within society. Is it useful? Is it glorified entertainment? Is it appropriate to enlist it for politics, or as a means of instruction? Is it moral – does it make us better people? Do works of art have an embedded, eternal meaning or are they historical objects? Do their meanings change? How do social forces define what art is, and our attitudes to it? How does society present art to us, e.g. through institutions such as galleries or aesthetics courses?

There are plenty more questions we might list. What emerges is that aesthetics is more than a pretty, intellectual past-time. It touches on some of the most profound questions about human beings and our relationship with the world. Our aesthetic ideas flow naturally from our (often-unconscious) assumptions about religion, nature and ourselves.

Traditionally, aesthetics has not been taken quite as seriously as certain other branches of philosophy, such as logic or ethics. But this attitude is short-sighted. To understand ‘art, taste and beauty’, we must study archaeology and paleoanthropology, psychology and sociology, economics and politics; we have to understand the origins and nature of our consciousness and neurobiology; of our relationship to the external world and how reliably we can know it through our senses; of our use of symbols and language. We have to study how art has changed over time and across cultures and try to understand how historical forces shape the production of art and the role of artists. Only by grasping the totality of our human experience and action in the world can we form the best possible theory of art and beauty.

Origins and development

Aesthetic thought has a venerable history, going back approximately 2500 years. We have inherited no literature of art appreciation or philosophy of art from the early civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is usual and reasonable to say that it begins, in the Western tradition, with the ancient Greeks. At roughly the same time, China was developing its own tradition, especially in the writings of Confucius.

It was with the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece in the 6th-4th centuries BCE that the West, at least, began to ask and debate questions we would recognise as aesthetic. Sticklers like to reserve the term ‘aesthetics’ for theories from the last two or three centuries when the discipline was formally identified. But the Greek philosopher Plato was effectively the founder of aesthetics, defining some of its most basic questions – imitation, beauty, the role of the artist – in terms that were influential for centuries. He was highly critical of the value of the arts, and in his dialogue The Republic (c.380 BCE) famously recommended that (most) poets should be excluded from his ideal state. However, as a fine literary artist himself, he closed the work with an appeal to his successors: to make a case for why the poets deserved to be reinstated. The subsequent history of aesthetics could be seen as a response to this challenge. His own pupil Aristotle was the first to respond, countering his teacher’s disapproval with a more positive view of the arts. There would be many more defenders.

Plato’s ideas were seeds that flowered again and again in the Western imagination. Neo-Platonism, most notably in the writings of Plotinus, kept classical ideas alive. The early Church fathers adapted Neo-Platonism to Christianity, and it thus retained its influence throughout the Middle Ages. Even during the European Renaissance, Neo-Platonism continued to define how philosophers and artists conceived of creativity; when Michelangelo carved a body emerging from stone, he had in mind a sense of pre-existing forms whose lineage went back to Plato.

The Renaissance, however, signalled new forms of society and thought. The nascent bourgeoisie began to challenge feudal social structures and ideas, and by the 17th century Enlightenment thinkers, influenced by materialism and individualism, began to wrestle with aesthetic questions in new ways. Theories of beauty, for example in the work of Hume and Kant, shifted from objective (beauty lies in the object) to subjective (beauty is experienced by the beholder). This is when the foundations of modern aesthetics were laid – above all by Kant – and Baumgarten’s new term entered the language. Aesthetics has been constantly rethought ever since. The latest innovation has been the mixing of aesthetics with cognitive science to give us neuroaesthetics: relating art and beauty to the study of the brain.

Clearly, the way we think about art and beauty is heavily conditioned by history. Every culture lives, as Arthur Danto has observed2, in an atmosphere of ideas that conditions how we make and theorise art. The earliest writers, such as Homer and Hesiod, explicitly appeal to a Muse, a god, through whom their creativity flows. In the Middle Ages, beauty was often linked to goodness and emanated from God. From the Renaissance and into the 18th century, capitalism shifted the focus from the spiritual heavens to the material Earth, from an objective God to the subjective individual. This does not mean that thinkers from earlier eras got everything wrong or that every insight is by nature unreliable and relativistic; it means that every phase of aesthetics has approached the problem from different perspectives. Some will have lasting value, others little or none. The study of human beings’ aesthetic and artistic action is maddening and elusive, partly because subjectivity plays so large a part, and partly because it touches on so many aspects of our being: our biology, our societies, our consciousness, our beliefs. The relentless unfurling of history, by revealing multiple ways of being human and being creative, has given us an abundance of insights into what is going on. If we draw the most plausible of those insights together, perhaps we can build a robust theory of art.

Don’t be intimidated

Studying aesthetics with any seriousness means reading some difficult texts. Whether you like it or not, you will have to engage with works like Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, and Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art. Texts like these, at first encounter, may appear to have descended from another planet. Some texts are difficult simply because they deal with difficult subject matter. Others are difficult because of self-indulgence. (Postmodernists are notorious for this.) You might get angry at the apparent arrogance of writers who cannot or will not write their ideas in a more concise and clear way. You may even wonder, after reading professional aestheticians who seem to understand philosophical issues that you find perplexing, if you are smart enough to keep up.

Start with this instead.
There is no need to be intimidated. A lot of aesthetic and art critical writings – such as Hume’s Of The Standard of Taste, Danto’s The Artworld, or Berger’s Ways of Seeing – are readable and enjoyable.

As for academics, no one slips from the womb brilliantly quoting Kant. If experts have an enviable command of their subject, it follows from being immersed in the texts for many years and studying them for a living. Just remember Thomas Edison’s famous advice about one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. How much time you invest depends on where exactly you want to go with aesthetics: not everyone with an interest in art and/or beauty expects to end up teaching at Cambridge or Yale. If you have a clear direction and goal, and put in the time and effort, you can learn any new skill to the extent that suits you. People who understand a philosopher like Deleuze – assuming they really do, which isn’t a given – aren’t all geniuses, they have just put in the time. The good thing about aesthetics is that you can enjoy some wonderful art on the way.

It is surely worth the effort. Art is something no other species bothers with; beauty is, as far as we can tell, something that no other species experiences. Studying aesthetics is about more than taking an interest in art – it is to explore humanity itself. 


2. Arthur Danto, The Artworld (1964).