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Aesthetics in Antiquity

In its broadest definition, aesthetics is concerned with sensory perceptions, the essence and perception of beauty, emotions and judgments related to perceptions, as well as art in all its forms (music, painting, gastronomy, etc.) and all its aspects (work, creativity, etc.). Fundamental and sometimes opposing aspects can be particularly noticeable. Aesthetics can be a theory of beauty, which claims to be normative science, alongside logic (concept of truth) and morality (concept of good). It is therefore a theory of a certain type of value judgments that enunciates the general norms of beauty. Aesthetics can also be a metaphysics of truth, which strives to unveil the original source of all sensible beauty: for example, the reflection of the intelligible in matter (Plato), the manifestation of the idea (Hegel ), of the will (Schopenhauer), of the being (Heidegger).

The metaphysical character of the beautiful is gradually replaced by a philosophy of art (Hegel), which takes as its object the works made by men instead of a priori constructions of what is beautiful. As a result, the aesthetic appears as a reflection on the techniques or on the social conditions that make “artistic” a certain type of action, which also reflects on the legitimacy of the concept of art.

The aesthetic, understood in its traditional (Kantian) sense as the philosophical study of perceptions, emotions, beauty and art, covers a field of research as old as philosophy itself, but the discipline is modern, for the Greeks did not distinguish anything such as aesthetics in philosophy. It is thus retrospectively that we can speak of an ancient aesthetics as a science of the beautiful or science of the sensible. The history of aesthetics develops in parallel with the history of rationalism. We must date the “invention” of the aesthetics of the mid-eighteenth century and if we consider the philosophy of art we must wait until the nineteenth century (Hegel).

In ancient Greece, the question of beauty is a central question, but it is not necessarily related to the question of art. It is also a question that touches on morality and politics in Plato. The key period of aesthetics extends mainly to the fifth and fourth centuries BC, at the time of the democracy of the Greek cities, although notions and aesthetic designations were stated in older times.

Homer (towards the end of the 8th century) speaks in particular of “beauty”, “harmony”, etc., however without setting them theoretically. By artistic work he understood the production of manual labor, through which a deity acted. Heraclitus of Ephesus explains the beautiful as the material quality of the true. Art would then be the manifestation of an agreement opposed by an imitation of nature. Democritus sees the nature of beauty in the sensible order of symmetry and harmony of parts, towards a whole. In the cosmological and aesthetic representations of the Pythagoreans, numeric and proportional principles play a great role for Harmony and Beauty.



For Socrates, beauty and good are mixed together. Representative art consists mainly of representing a beautiful person of body and spirit. Plato does not conceive the beautiful as something only sensible, but as an idea: beauty has an unnatural character, it is something intelligible, which is addressed to thought. It belongs to a sphere which is superior to that of the senses and the understanding. Things are only reflections of ideas, and art only copies these reflections. And he evaluates particularly negatively the art, as an unfaithful copy, since carried out imperfectly by the man. He differentiates between two techniques of imitation: the “copy” (eikastike) such as painting or poetry, and “illusion” (phantastike) such as monumental architectural works. If Plato is favorable to the beautiful, he remains hostile to art and particularly to poetry and painting. His work nevertheless remains as the first ideological and political codification of art.




Aristotle treated neither beauty nor art in general. His poetics is a fragment on dramatic art and includes only the rules of tragedy. His point of view is more experimental than theoretical. He deduces rules from the masterpieces of the Greek theater. He nevertheless develops a general theory of imitation that can be applied to different arts: “The epic, the tragic poetry, the comedy, the dithyrambic poetry, the play of the flute, the play of the zither, are all, in general, imitations “(chapter 1). For Aristotle, the arts are differentiated by the objects they imitate and by the artistic means used to achieve this imitation. Art imitates nature or completes things that nature is unable to achieve. The thought of Aristotle thus becomes a basis for later “theories of art” (in the modern sense), through its dialectic of knowledge and its evaluation of the role of nature and appearance in artistic beauty. He puts into place the concepts of imitation (mimesis introduced by Plato), emotion, the pleasure of the spectator (katharsis), the figures of style or the role of the work of art. These theories will be used for classical aesthetics by Boileau (17th century) as well as in Marxist aesthetics.



In late antiquity, the theory of the beautiful is particularly systematized around the Neoplatonic concepts of Plotinus (204-270). In the Enneads, this one takes up and goes beyond the distinctions of Plato. The essence of the Beautiful lies in the intelligible and more precisely in the idea. Then beauty is identified with “Unity”, on which all beings depend. The beautiful is thus of spiritual nature (connected to the soul) and its contemplation is a guide to approach the Intelligible. In the same way the beauty resides in the form of the work, and not in its matter. Thus for Plotinus, true art does not simply copy nature, but rather seeks to rise. Plotin thus founded the aesthetics of symbolist and unrealistic works, examples of which are the Byzantine icons or the paintings and sculptures of Romanesque art. The Roman aesthetic takes up the concepts of Greece, as reflections on the relationship between nature and beauty, for example in the Poetic art of Horace, or the theories of Seneca on the beautiful.

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