Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.11

James I. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience.   Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 607.  ISBN 9780521841801.  $145.00.  

Reviewed by Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, Stanford University (

For too long a time beauty was out of favor within Classical scholarship. Porter’s book heralds beauty’s return and newer ways of engaging with it. As the manner in which cultures perceive and discuss the beautiful (and allied concepts) is central to our understanding of their sensibilities, a renaissance of the aesthetic in Classics can lead to rich and vigorous debates. One, then, cannot but welcome this voluminous and thought-provoking piece of work, the importance of which lies both in the sustainability and the merits of its key-ideas and in its occasional rifts and fissures that provide room for further deliberation.

Porter’s main argument revolves around the ways in which pre- and post-Platonic and Aristotelian Greek aesthetic thought apprehended the sensuous and the material, the two major fourth-century BCE philosophers being the ones who established a formalist and idealist aesthetics that eventually silenced alternative aesthetic approaches. By “formalism” Porter means “any attention to the purity or ideality of form, structure, or design (principles which are thought to organize matter or material); and a kind of Platonism, which for present purposes may be defined as a repudiation of the senses.” (p. 2; see also pp. 70-71). “Matter,” on the other hand, largely refers to the concrete materials that artifacts consist of, such as pigments in painting or phonemes in verbal production. Reviving the neglected aspects of a Greek aesthetics of matter founded on sensuous apprehension is the major goal of the book.

The Introduction is followed by four parts, the first three of which are multi-sectional, while the last one consists of a brief epilogue. Part One is foundational as it discusses the author’s key theoretical assumptions. This includes his ideas about the controversial applicability to Greek antiquity of the concept of “art” as well as to the two opposed (according to him) aesthetic forces that permeate Greek aesthetic thought, formalism and materialism. Part Two expands on most of the above issues. It contains detailed discussions of fragments and testimonies referring mainly (but not exclusively) to fifth-century discourses about language and the arts, mostly verbal arts in their vocal and broadly musical aspects. Presocratic and, especially, Sophistic approaches have a central position here, while among the poets Pindar and especially Aristophanes are discussed in greater detail. The last section in this part, dedicated to visual experience, examines critical issues involving painted and sculpted artifacts with regard to tensions between aesthetic idealization and materiality. Part Three, briefer than the other two, focuses on explicit and implicit links connecting an aesthetic of matter, monumentalization, and the sublime, as these appear in poetic discourses, inscriptional practices, and in the critical heritage of Hellenistic debates. Modern approaches to literature, the arts, and the aesthetic as a whole punctuate Porter’s inquiry from the beginning to the end of the book.

Porter’s venture, his focus on matter and sensation as decisive constituents of Greek aesthetic thought, is insightful and impressively wide-ranging and far-reaching. It sheds light on some of the issues that much-needed new theories and histories of Greek aesthetics should seriously take into account. Several of his views stand out--for instance, his general statements regarding the existence and importance of earlier (largely pre-philosophical) Greek aesthetic thought, which I cannot applaud loudly enough; his overall engagement with Aristotle’s Poetics; and many of his approaches to visual artifacts, a particularly sensitive one being his reading of a Nolan amphora attributed to the Berlin painter, depicting a young cithara player, with its embedded tensions between tactility and visuality.

While the validity and the importance of Porter’s main argument are unquestionable, certain side effects of the fervor with which he defends it kept me skeptical several times. The question pending while reading the book is not whether materialist sensibilities put their mark on Greek aesthetics but whether they have been as “predominant” as the author emphatically claims (p. 15). This reluctance may increase in cases where one is faced with almost imperceptible transitions from the archaic and classical period to Hellenistic and later times. “Attaching itself to this experience here, beauty (or aesthetic value under some other name) becomes a concrete thing, non-transferable, non-generalizable, non-universal: it is truly idiosyncratic (an idion)” (p. 246). This is a very attractive formulation. Soon, though, this idiosyncratic aesthetic experience is explained as the kind of attentiveness to material detail that “ought to have lain behind the Democritean title On Euphonious and Harsh- Sounding Letters”. This is further identified as the principle that later compelled Dionysius of Halicarnassus to write about the aesthetic value of phonemes and to focus on the “material density of the elements” (p. 247). An introductory statement about the effect of such aesthetic conceptions refers to both pre- and post-Platonic aesthetics.

Two interrelated concerns may arise in such cases. First, I cannot recall many instances in Greek texts (from Homer to Philostratus, for instance) that represent at some length a non-parodic experience of art exhausting itself in or even highlighting the sensuous appreciation of matter while not also implicating a larger interpretive agenda. Such agendas, although sensitive to matter, are usually attached to broader notional and emotional parameters beyond matter itself and often present affinities with what Porter understands as formalism. Second, even if such attitudes became central to certain Alexandrian and post-Alexandrian sensibilities, one may be skeptical about their prevalence in earlier times, however valuable such tendencies might have been even then.

On the contrary, significant early evidence points either in the direction of flexible models of thought whereby materialist and other-than-materialist aesthetics, instead of opposing one another, morphed into one another; or it gestures toward the direction of vivid aesthetic concerns outside the realm of matter and sensation. For instance, the semantics of kosmos, a key term in early Greek aesthetics, were flexible enough to encompass both material objects, such as a wide variety of ornaments, and more abstract notions of order and structure, such as that of poetic narrative. And regardless of one’s interpretation of the much-contested lines in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, where the chorus of the Deliades is praised for their exquisite performance, the praise touches not on the sensuous but on the mental (both emotional and intellectual) apparatus by way of which performers and audience bond. Although such an achievement would have been the result of diligent labor involving the “material” of a chorus’ voices and bodies, this passage attests to aesthetic preoccupations outside the realm of matter, such as the relationships that connect structural coherence, mimesis, and the conceptualization of selfhood.

For a history of Greek aesthetic thought, then, “with an emphasis on Greece in its earlier phases” (p. 1), it is important to discuss the broader significance of such occurrences, which because of their considerable weight deserve more than just brief listing (p. 181). In fact, such instances may affect the way one explains the “derailing” (p. 10) moment of Plato in particular. For although Plato’s “unfriendliness” to the senses (e.g. p. 87) is a widely accepted fact, it is likely that his battle against other aesthetic discourses was hard precisely because it had to undo not just proclivities to matter and sensation but all-encompassing aesthetic modes of feeling, thinking and interpreting.

To move on to later literary critics, to whom Porter refers throughout his book, sonic matter was indeed analyzed by them as a thoroughly sensuous quality. Yet scrupulous analyses of this type may sometimes lead to “generalizations” that can damage a listener’s idiosyncratic delights. More importantly, whenever we do have full evidence from such traditions, it becomes clear that the critic’s sensuous indulgence is rarely pure, for it is usually embedded in a profoundly conceptual frame. Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ enviable close reading of Sisyphus’ labor in the Odyssey (Comp. 20), for instance, is founded on the principle that successful verbal art is primarily mimetic. This is apparent not only in his views on the relationship between mimesis and language, which are explicit in this case though latent elsewhere, but also in the philosophical genotype his vocabulary.

An eclectic aesthetic sensibility, appreciative of structures not only as sensuous but also as notional wholes, is verifiable in the work of another master of literary criticism, whose “empirical” stance Porter considers “typical of materialist aesthetics”: Longinus (p. 247). The Longinian sublime, Porter submits, is “never a matter of the whole.” Unlike the Aristotelian idea of “a (well)-composed plot,” the materialist constructs “synthetic unities” that are “themselves just further material wholes—a sound or a (collective) impact on the senses” (p. 248). Yet Longinus’ interpretation of Sappho’s masterpiece (31V) indicates that sensuousness may yield to notional apprehension (Subl.10). Even if one refuses to acknowledge an Aristotelian twist in Longinus’ emphasis on the combination of constituent elements (moria) in an organically unified whole (hen ti sôma --cf. Poet. 1459a20: zôon hen holon), one has to admit that the critic’s praise of Sappho for the way she picks the extreme symptoms of desire from real life (ek tês alêtheias) and binds them together (sundêsai) is founded not on his sensuous apparatus but on his mental conception.

This is not to deny the importance of Longinus’ interest in matter but to counter the impression that a reader of Porter’s book sometimes gets of an almost monolithic aesthetic materialism in antiquity. Enlightened critical approaches to visual or verbal artifacts in antiquity, both before and after Plato and Aristotle, seemed to possess a flexible aesthetic attitude hard to label as either “materialist” or “formalist” and not dissimilar to that of a perceptive theoretician of art nowadays. The latter would know that taking delight in Vermeer’s adept brushwork, when contemplating the miniscule surface of the famous pearl earring, can co-exist with one’s reflection upon the Dutch master’s almost mathematical struggle with the representation of the ideal.

Overall, there is no question that Porter’s emphasis on the material and the sensuous can bring excellent creative energies to the area of Greek aesthetics. But it will be to the benefit of both aesthetics and cultural studies if such energies push even further, toward untrodden paths. For if the aesthetic resides primarily in matter and sensation, as Porter insists, perhaps a student of ancient aesthetics should engage principally with representations of, and meditations upon, the materialist senses par excellence – smell, touch, and taste in Greek culture. This thorny issue, of course, brings out the theoretical circularity of modern preconceptions: if the domain of the aesthetic is “art” (within the perpetually questionable boundaries of which Porter largely confines himself, despite clear attempts to push beyond) then indeed smell, taste, and touch can only be the secondary synaesthetic components of the aural and visual, as the author – who is sensitive to this issue—knows. To allow for a substantial materialist aesthetics founded on these senses one has to conceive of the aesthetic as expanding beyond the realm of art. Such an understanding requires more than just annexing additional fields of aesthetic inquiry, for it is a driving principle that affects one’s whole system of thought. Nevertheless, even such an expansion would not be enough in this case. Kant, for instance, who himself touched very lightly upon art, would push out of the “beautiful” and toward the direction of the “agreeable” any condition that could challenge disinterested apprehension--which is precisely what these senses do.

In other words, if some of the newer approaches to Greek aesthetics are willing to shatter aesthetic norms for materiality’s sake, why not break the norms once and for all and allow the senses that have always been chased away from the aesthetic to come forth and revolutionize the field? This may entail a fuller reassessment of several theoretical assumptions or perhaps lead to a refreshing tumult.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 22:35:24, Sunday, 08 January 2012