Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.08

Andrew S. Mason, Ancient Aesthetics.   London, New York:  Routledge, 2016.  Pp. ix, 154.  ISBN 9781138902428.  $49.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Tim Flanagan, Murdoch University (


Reflecting on a performance of Euripides he had once seen in London starring Sybil Thorndike, T. S. Eliot recalled in a short piece several years later how although “the performance was certainly a success”, this had little to do with Gilbert Murray’s rendering of the original into English. Indeed, in Eliot’s assessment, “Miss Thorndike, in order to succeed as well as she did, was really engaged in a struggle against the translator’s verse”, since “Professor Murray has simply interposed between Euripides and ourselves a barrier more impenetrable than the Greek language”. In sum, while on that night “the audience was large, it was attentive, and its applause was long…The question remains whether the production was a ‘work of art’”. 1

That Murray’s Greek was by no means deficient and yet ultimately, somehow, insufficient speaks of course to the gnomic and much-vexed task of translation that has always attended encounters between languages. What makes Eliot’s misgivings about the performance notable, however, is that they consider not only in what sense particular accrued instruments of scholarship and masterful erudition might be mis- or over-applied, but so too how the very procedures these undertake to achieve may be fundamentally misguided. Of course it could well be said more generally that, etymologically speaking, any ‘analysis’ poses a risk insofar as the phenomena being examined become ‘severed’ and a knowledge of parts is taken for an understanding of the whole. However, such a method of dissection faces particular difficulties with regard to our encounter with ancient works of art since these specimens have already been cut and dried by the passing of time (and by earlier or ‘canonical’ judgements).

Andrew Mason’s Ancient Aesthetics begins with a recognition of such concerns when, on the opening page, he explains how “the ancients had no term corresponding to our ‘aesthetics’ or to our ‘art’. Can we therefore think of them as discussing the same subject as us, or is there too great a gap between ancient and modern thought for this to be possible?” (1). The inquiry Mason undertakes is able for the most part to avoid the pitfalls that attend the analysis such an inquiry involves. For while Ancient Aesthetics is a relatively concise work, 2 its method of division not only identifies the finer sinews by which “the arts, especially poetry” as well as “visual art and music” (1) were held together, but also sketches their actual role in the lives of classical Greeks and Romans. In this way, it is as if the butcher from the Phaedrus has been replaced by an anatomist, or perhaps even a physiologist, as the requisite (or at least expected) classifications that are to be ‘carved out’ in a standard introduction to the topic are here animated through nuanced observations which organise our reading. 3

For example, following a brief overview in chapter two of how epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, prose literature, rhetoric , visual art, and music provide ‘the artistic background’, Mason makes a number of subtle points in his broader account of ‘Plato: the arts and education’ (chapter three). These are important since they help both to dispel caricatures we may have of the ancients and to pause before arriving at a more considered view of their positions. For instance, Mason explains, despite the supposed ‘otherworldliness’ of Plato’s philosophical outlook, “he does not literally believe in another world, but he does believe that there is more to reality than is revealed by the senses, and that what is not perceived is the most important aspect of it” (17). Similarly, it is undeniable that “Socrates often speaks of ‘god’ in the singular, but he does not mean the supreme God, but divine nature generally… translations which capitalise ‘God’ are therefore deceptive” (19). And just as we should refrain from seeing connections that are not there, we should be attentive to those that are, Mason shows, such as are to be found in the punning passage in the Laws where aspects of life are described “both as ‘play’ (paidia) and ‘education’ ( paideia )” (26).

Philological insights such as these are again afforded in chapter four on ‘mimesis’, and their value there is especially significant given the way that this notion has generated so much thinking about philosophy’s relation to art. Before surveying what he describes as the “rather puzzling argument” (38) on knowledge and true belief in the Republic (601b–602b), Mason stresses the shortfalls of a term such as ‘imitate’ which may ordinarily invite the interpretation of a neat, or trickle-down, economy comprising “actual particulars” represented by means of a “precise reproduction” (35, emphases in original). The reader is further disabused of any hackneyed sense of ‘copies’—eikastikē in the Laws and Sophist (45)—when the very meaning of mimesis is shown to vary, even within book 10 of the Republic, in light of the key distinction between appearance and reality that distinguishes Platonic thought and inaugurates metaphysics (43–45).

Further stereotypes encountered in undergraduate classes (but often extending beyond them) are laid to rest when, in the his initial consideration of tragedy in chapter seven (75–76), Mason explains how modern tragedy’s standard truck with “painful and terrible events, of death, injury or loss” departs from the richer notion of something “admirable” or “serious” (spoudaia) to be found, for instance, in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Tauris or Alcestis which, rather than having an exclusive focus on “death and destruction”, witness decidedly restorative themes such as reunification and resurrection. This important point is reinforced further throughout chapter nine where, in a fuller treatment of tragedy, Mason explains how just as the tragic change of fortune arises from the error (hamartia) of decent (epiekēs) characters, rather than wicked characters succumbing to a misfortune (103), neither are “the problems of a play…caused by simple villainy, but by basically admirable people, brought into conflict by circumstances” (109).

A similar reckoning with all-too-Freudian interpretations of ‘catharsis as emotional release’ is surveyed in chapter eight where the reader is acquainted with the recent objections to Jacob Bernays’ reading set out by Stephen Halliwell, Jonathan Lear, and Malcolm Heath (89–92). Here, as elsewhere such as the earlier consideration of Julia Annas and Christopher Janaway in the section on ‘The banishment of poetry’, Mason’s arrests popular misconceptions through a patient and authoritative recourse to recent interpretations and thereby both invites and provides for further reading.

While an introductory work on Ancient Aesthetics would be incomplete without a survey of key features such as Platonic mimesis and Aristotelian catharsis, Mason’s work does well to extend its consideration into the later Greek and Roman world, not least since these provide an opportunity to reflect on some of the broader questions on the relationship of truth and language, madness and inspiration, which oriented the earlier Greek outlooks on the arts taken up in previous chapters.

For instance, chapter ten notes how Lucretius’ Epicureanism makes use of “the distinctive possibilities of philosophical poetry” (118) while for Philodemus, Mason explains, quoting an intriguing fragment, “‘we all think of poems not as humming and twanging, but as forms of language which signify thought by being put together in a certain way’” (120). Horace, Longinus, and Plutarch are similarly followed in chapter eleven, with Mason once again clarifying familiar preconceptions in his explanation that the former’s ut pictura poesis “is not a general comparison, but a specific point, that in both cases there are some works which are immediately striking, and others which repay closer study” (131). The final chapter on Plotinus notes how with the treatise On Beauty “an aesthetic concept comes once more into the centre of philosophy” (142); so too, the complex Form of Beauty’s own relation to the Good is surveyed in the context of emanation and the role of mimesis is once again taken up when Mason notes the way in which artists, according to Plotinus “do not just imitate natural things; they ‘run back to the principles from which nature derives’” (147). In a little over 150 pages Ancient Aesthetics provides a thorough yet accessible introduction to a topic which at once informs and is informed by so much of the history of philosophy. Along the way a great many faux amis are exposed such that we might yet, and with a more critical eye, consider the possibility of ‘our’ making sense of certain experiences inherited from ‘their’ antiquity.

Certainly since Kant, we have come to recognize that such a project requires not only empirical and philological research, but also a uniquely ‘intuitive’ mode of inquiry which has come to be known as aesthetics. If at times, Mason’s positions draw a little stridently on epistemological resources in charting the structure of particular arguments about art—whether in recovering a position in the ancients, or assessing their modern reception—this can be forgiven (similar criticisms have been made of Kant’s focus on conditions, at the expense of the real). Moreover, as Anne Sheppard has shown 4, there is as much an ancient approach to metaphysics as there is an ancient approach to imagination; we should not think that either corresponds to ours, or provides for a universal ‘aesthetic’. And so while some of the argumentative points Mason makes become a little arid, or crowded with inventories of examples, this is a function of an introductory book that briefly but adroitly touches on so very much.

This is acknowledged during Mason’s discussion of the Forms, which he points out “would require a book of its own” (34). Thankfully, he has provided at least a chapter to this end in his Plato 5 and so we can be sure that here we are being lead expertly through difficult material, confident that even if T.S. Eliot’s question cannot be answered, at least it has been heard, and that we might yet (or once again) learn to ask it for ourselves.


1.   ‘Euripides and Professor Murray’, in Selected Essays (Faber & Faber, 1972).
2.   A comprehensive account (over 500 pages) was published the same year, Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2015).
3.   Twelve chapters announce familiar themes. The ‘Introduction’ is complemented by a further overview which establishes the periods’ ‘artistic background’. Four chapters on Plato address ‘the arts and education’, ‘mimesis’, poetry and inspiration’, and ‘art beauty and philosophy’, while three on Aristotle cover an ‘introduction to the Poetics, ‘catharsis’, and the ‘shape of tragedy’. The study ends with chapters on ‘The Hellenistic age’, ‘Aesthetics in the Roman Empire’, and a closing engagement with ‘Plotinus’.
4.   Anne Sheppard. The Poetics of Phantasia (Bloomsbury, 2014).
5.   Andrew S. Mason. Plato (Duckworth, 2010).

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