Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.26

Ineke Sluiter, Ralph M. Rosen (ed.), Aesthetic Value in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 350.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. viii, 486.  ISBN 9789004231672.  $221.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University (


After decades of disregard and downright hostility, aesthetics has reemerged as a live topic in philosophical and literary studies. This development poses, however, a particular challenge to classicists who may wish to join in. Students of ancient literature confront first of all philosophical objections that the concept is vacuous and then resistance from literary theory, which has, since the political turn of the 1980s, regarded assertions of aesthetic value with suspicion and devoted itself to exposing, endlessly, the politics of literary form. On top of this, classicists are faced with historical arguments that aesthetics is an eighteenth-century construct, tied to the institutions and ideologies of that time and not to be transposed onto the ancient world. As Paul Oscar Kristeller put it in an influential study: “We have to admit the conclusion…that ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious or practical function or content.”1

Despite these obstacles, a revival of interest in ancient aesthetics and the aesthetics of ancient art is well under way.2 The present volume makes a scattershot contribution to the process, being a collection of essays from a series of colloquia shared between Penn and Leiden. The contributors include tyros as well as old hands, and the essays vary widely in topic, approach and in their conception of the aesthetic.

The editors’ Introduction attempts to establish common ground. Bypassing problems with defining the aesthetic and its enlightenment history/origins, they propose that when ancient Greeks and Romans walked out of a theater they must have had views about the performance and have been prepared to argue with those of a different opinion. No matter what Kristeller says, ancient consumers of works of art surely had “aesthetic values” in the sense of criteria by which they “conceptualized and enunciated their experience.” To get at these values Sluiter and Rosen root their conception of aesthetics in the “sensation” at the heart of the word: they seek out “historicized, embodied, and…culturally specific reactions to and evaluations of how the outside world impinged on the senses of ancient Greeks and Romans” (pp. 1-2).

This is reasonable, and yet a theoretical objection arises when they go on to limit their inquiry: “We are not interested,” they write, “in the experience of just any kind of sensory input,” but only “those reactions provoked by material things regarded as artifacts by the observer… including reactions to song, dance, performance and poetry” (p. 2, original italics). It is not clear how one can cordon off these forms of “sensory input” without assuming the modern notion of aesthetics. (Wind chill, for example, must qualify as an “historicized, embodied, and culturally specific reaction” to sensory input.) To limit one’s attention to objects that were regarded as artifacts only displaces the problem onto the ancients, inviting once again Kristeller’s challenge. No one said doing ancient aesthetics was going to be easy.

Setting aside the intractable problem of definition (an eighteenth-century problem, I think), we are given 16 additional chapters ranging from Homer to Longus. Such a mass of material permits only a cursory outline of the principal arguments, which I group ad lib.

The first two essays address the nature of aesthetics. Stephen Halliwell (Ch. 2) rejects the idea that the ancients had some “conceptual deficit” in “aesthetic” thought (scare quotes his, p. 16) and suggests that ancient discussions can be enriching precisely because they do not depend on a “single, neatly circumscribed sphere of aesthetic experience.” As an example he considers amousia, “living without the Muses,” in Euripides, Aristophanes and Plato, arguing that the concept recognizes, negatively, that engaging with the arts is a valuable dimension of human experience.

James Porter (Ch. 3) asks “Is the Sublime an Aesthetic Value?” and answers “No.” Distinguishing between a broad conception of aesthetics as “awareness that is grounded in perception and sensation” and a narrow one, “of the sort that is grounded in art,” he would seem to concede to Kristeller that “a purely art-centered source of values is impossible to locate in antiquity” (p. 67). But Porter is less interested in neat labels than in “intensities” that bleed from one category to another, as between the religious and the aesthetic or the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic. In this perspective, [Longinus’] sublime is found to stand outside aesthetics, as the gods stand outside time; it is a “cross-over of categories between aesthetics and religion at a mutual point of failure and ecstasy” (p. 66).

The politics of form comes up with Alexandra Pappas’ study (Ch. 4) of nonsense inscriptions on sympotic ware. She argues that such pieces, like sympotic riddles, provoked exchange and meaning-making in the group and so “demonstrate how aesthetic value is connected to social class and political ideology” (p. 107). At the same time, a sensation-based definition of aesthetics lets her claim that making sense of the nonsense is “fundamentally a matter of sensory perception…and therefore at its core an aesthetic act” (107).

Four chapters focus on Plato and Aristotle, beginning with two on the Laws. Eleonora Ronconi (Ch. 5) searches for an “aesthetic value of music” in Platonic thought, despite the philosopher’s general view of musical performance as useful for training the soul toward virtue by rehearsing, literally, religious and social tradition. When Plato “tr[ies] to theorize the emotional response” to music in Laws, Ronconi finds glimmers of aesthetics in his recommendations that form harmonize with content, that pleasure be used in luring the soul toward virtue, and that variety be encouraged lest the appetite for singing flag (666c, p. 129). Well observed, but of course all this remains in the service of the state.

Myrthe Bartels (Ch. 6) argues unconvincingly that the chorus of elders in Laws has “an objective aesthetics,” that is, their pleasure is based on the laws’ objective goodness (translating spoudaiotês?). She has good remarks on the difference between kharis and hêdonê, but confuses paideia and aretê. Her interpretation goes off the rails in claiming that 653a-c “identifies correct paideia with virtue” (p. 138, see n. 12) and in identifying musical paideia with our innate capacity to take pleasure in music (p. 142), whereas the latter is merely the precondition for the former.

Elizabeth Jones (Ch. 7) on Aristotle’s Politics offers a preliminary (p. 181) analysis of Aristotle’s recommendation that music lessons include hands-on performance to produce citizens capable of judging music. She recognizes that “moral concerns certainly trump purely aesthetic ones” in this work, but finds in this judging an implicit “musical aesthetic” that “values moral and ethical traits as they are represented through the medium of mousikê” (p. 181). The pleasure of these educated judges seems less purely aesthetic when we reflect that acting virtuously is inherently pleasurable for Aristotle. And his peculiar conception of musical ethos does not suggest that souls “recognize” the ethical structure of music (p. 166) but rather resonate with it.

Elsa Bouchard (Ch. 8) tilts at the stubborn contradiction between Chapters 13 and 14 of Poetics on the best tragic plot, arguing that the unhappy end (e.g. of the Oedipus Tyrannus) is praised in 13 in terms of the poetic art while the happy outcome of, e.g., Iphigenia in Aulis is most powerful (kratiston) in audience appeal. The former is the “beautiful,” aesthetic success, the latter is “good” in the sense of popularly “successful” (p. 185). A plausible account, but Aristotle’s use of these terms is too fluid to make an open-and-shut case.

Some essays provide interesting sidebars to the big themes. Craig Hardiman (Ch. 11) surveys recent approaches to recovering popular art history from textual and material evidence. Disentangling personal “art appreciation” from “professional criticism,” he finds that popular judgments emphasized qualities like realism, costliness of the materials deployed and “miraculous” effects and downplayed interest in form and technique.

Jeremy McInerney (Ch. 10) introduces us to the travel writings of the dilettantish Heraclides Criticus (FGrH 369a). These do not delve much into aesthetic issues but do afford vivid glances into what we might call, after Arthur Danto, the “artworld” of Athens in the third-century BC. McInerney suggests that Heraclides is an example of “middlebrow” aesthetic judgment, which ascends when a culture turns its ethnographic gaze upon itself and devotes more energy to the consumption of art than its production.

Irene Peirano puts Echtheitskritik on the table (Ch. 9), adding an important dimension to the kind of things that were valued in canonical texts. Case studies argue that authenticity was tied to a nexus of values assumed for good authors (e.g. consistency, truthfulness) and at the same time strengthened the bonds that made readers of similar taste a community.

The turn to Rome begins with Joseph Farrell (12) meditating on Aeneas’s response to works of art. He finds a sort of development as Aeneas reacts to Juno’s and Apollo’s temples, his own shield and finally Pallas’s baldric. Farrell charts how the hero’s emotional responses rise from grief to detachment to elation, while his cognitive powers dim from recollection to a sort of unthinkingness in which the object functions, unaesthetically, as a spur to action. The variety of responses encourages us not to detach the aesthetic from the political but to acknowledge the poem’s disquieting implications for both.

In a piece that goes well with Hardiman’s, Bettina Reitz (13) uses various kinds of evidence to divine how Romans viewed imperial architecture. Combining Vitruvius and Statius on monuments with inscriptions and images that refer to the buildings they adorn (notably the Haterii relief showing a tomb under construction complete with crane and workmen), she argues that the ancients esteemed buildings not only for formal properties such as beauty or proportion but for the entire operation of their coming to be, from the rareness of the materials to the coordinated industry of the builders and the status of patrons. The “made-ness” of such objects deserves recognition as an aesthetic value in itself (p. 341).

Curtis Dozier (14) explicates Quintilian on the pleasures of poetry to seek a middle ground between the political and aesthetic approaches of Thomas Habinek and Charles Martindale. Although Quintilian’s remark that poetry aims exclusively at pleasure (10.1.28) may suggest an aesthetic attitude, the Institutio Oratoria of course thoroughly socializes the use of poetry and ties it to hierarchized notions of decorum. For Dozier, however, the disruptive pleasure of poetry (on which I would have liked more) saves it from being straightforwardly supportive of hegemonic values and invites subversion or negotiation. One may ponder whether his conclusion that “the aesthetic is an essential part of the construction of elite identity even as it simultaneously undermines it” (p. 360) is in the middle ground or remains under the sway of the political.

Jennifer Ferriss-Hill (15) asks about the status of the many literary judgments in Roman satire and in the Greek old comedy that inspired it: is it possible to detach literary critical principles from satire’s attacks on poets’ moral and physical qualities? Because of the widespread belief that “the poem is the man” (Seneca: talis oratio qualis vita), boundaries between aesthetic critique and personal invective are fluid, and the satirists (Juvenal is a case apart) follow comedy in undertaking literary criticism not for its own sake but as part of the genre’s self-imposed mission of truth- telling.

Carrie Mowbray (16) might ask those who blithely deny ancient conceptions of aesthetics what the difference is between a Senecan tragedy and a gladiatorial spectacle. Combining a number of critical concepts having to do with spectatorship and “fictional assent,” she outlines the aesthetic compact that underlies Seneca’s dramatizations of the unspeakable (nefas). The argument analyzes metatragic scenes in which embedded audiences witness, with differing degrees of fascination and revulsion, repellent violence. The “captive audiences” in Thyestes, Medea and Troades challenge Seneca’s audiences to consider their own response to such representations, which invite them to relinquish their moral autonomy and yield to the compulsion of the vividly visualized in hopes of an aesthetic benefit of the sort that captivated Plato’s Leontius.

For one last time aesthetics means little more than sensory appeal in Caitlin Gillespie’s (17) argument that, over the course of Daphnis and Chloe, Chloe undergoes “an education in eros through aesthetics.” Touching on most of the major critical issues raised by the novel—mimesis, the mise en abyme, gender, education, eros and nature — Gillespie holds that Daphnis and Chloe learn about beauty “naturally” but need teachers like Philetas and Daphnis “to make the connection between aesthetics and eros” (p. 421).


1.   P. O. Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics” JHI 12 (1951) 506. (Reprinted in idem, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays [Princeton 1980] 174).
2.   Recent monographs: Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought (Oxford 2012); James I. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience (Cambridge 2010); Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton 2008). An important argument for literary aesthetics, rigorously Kantian in approach, was Charles Martindale’s Latin Poetry and the Judgment of Taste. An Essay in Aesthetics (Oxford 2005). The role of aesthetics in reception studies is the subject of a symposium in the June 2013 issue of the Classical Receptions Journal 5.2 reflecting on Martindale’s Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge 1993).

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