Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.55

Pierre Destrée, Penelope Murray (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley Blackwell, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 533.  ISBN 9781444337648.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher C. Raymond, Vassar College (


In the decades after Paul Oskar Kristeller’s landmark essay, “The Modern System of the Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics” (1951–52), it was common to regard aesthetics as an Enlightenment invention, marked by the appearance of systematic philosophical works such as the Abbé Batteux’s Les Beaux Arts réduits à un même principe (1746) and Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750/58), which gave the new discipline its name.1 Recently, however, that view has been challenged,2 and the publication of Blackwell’s Companion to Ancient Aesthetics—“the first [volume] of its kind” (5)—signals a departure from Kristellerian orthodoxy. The editors conceive of “ancient aesthetics” broadly, as encompassing “the multifarious ways in which the arts were experienced and conceptualized in the ancient world” (p. 1). The thirty-three chapters that make up the volume are similarly wide-ranging in focus and disciplinary approach, while the insights afforded by their interconnections show the value of treating ancient aesthetics as a unified field of inquiry. Most of the essays would serve as excellent starting points for research on their topics, and several make important new contributions to scholarship. This book is now the most comprehensive resource available for helping us understand how the Greeks and Romans thought about art.

Destrée and Murray begin their Introduction by defending “ancient aesthetics” against the charge of anachronism. Kristeller’s view is well captured by the following passage (quoted three times in the volume): “[A]ncient 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 and practical function or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation” (Kristeller 1980, 174). For Kristeller, aesthetic appreciation depends on the distinctively modern concepts of Fine Art—the proper domain of aesthetics—and of Beauty—the standard by which artworks are judged. Another way to put Kristeller’s point is to say that the ancients did not recognize the autonomy of the aesthetic, its self-contained independence from other forms of experience and judgment. But as Destrée and Murray argue, the lack of precise correspondence between modern aesthetic terms and Greek and Roman vocabulary should not prevent us from pursuing comparisons—no more than in the case of economics or religion (pp. 1–2). 3 After all, the formative debates of Enlightenment aesthetics often took their impetus from ancient writers (p. 3). If aesthetic autonomy, moreover, requires that the experience of art somehow be purified of its social context and any relation to practical interests, then it is probably a fantasy. A more promising conception of autonomy—the one the editors seem to endorse—needs only the recognition of artistic values (such as craftsmanship, grace, and proportion) that are irreducible to other kinds of value. Here are Destrée and Murray: “[W]e can see from the way sculpture, painting, and music were enjoyed, even before the ‘invention’ of collections, and later on, ‘museums,’ that the Greeks were able, even—pace Kristeller—‘eager,’ to respond to the aesthetic qualities of such objects, whatever the contexts in which they were embedded. A religious or social function does not preclude an aesthetic dimension” (p. 4). Just as it would be a mistake merely to assimilate ancient phenomena to modern categories, we should be careful not to exaggerate discontinuities and thus exoticize the past.4

The editors provide a thorough guide to all the contributions, so I will not repeat that task here. Instead, I will give a broader view of each of the three main parts, highlighting several chapters that bear on the issues raised by the Introduction.

Part I (“Art in Context”) situates the creation and perception of art within changing political structures and systems of patronage. In the opening chapter, Richard P. Martin argues that the prominence of musico-poetic contests in Greek religious festivals, from the Archaic period on, shows that ritual practice and aesthetic enjoyment were by no means at odds. While the evidence is slight—festival judges did not record the reasons for their verdicts—it seems that “sweetness of voice” (p. 18) and verbal ingenuity (e.g. in verse-capping and rhapsodic improvisation) were as important as communal spirit or pious sentiment. Even if, as Martin writes, “the purely disinterested evaluation of aesthetic effect was not always uppermost for the ancient judge” (p. 18), the dominant ethos of the mousikoi agones was fairness and impartiality. Competitions were designed to be held on “a level playing field for all” (p. 22), with judges chosen by lot (at least at the Athenian Dionysia) to account for personal bias and prevent bribes. In their focus on the workings of justice, Martin suggests, both the form and the content of festival performance reflected larger civic concerns (p. 23). According to Graham Zanker (Ch. 3), however, the breakdown of the polis as the basic political unit in the post-Classical period leads to a dissociation of aesthetic experience from civic life. This is apparent above all in the shift towards “universality and inclusiveness” (p. 47), as poets write their works to be read and performed throughout the Greek-speaking world. Ritual worship gives way to passive spectatorship as the primary mode of engagement, the dramatic festivals “turning from participatory religious experiences into objects of aesthetic delight” (63). Poets, painters, and sculptors strive for novel effects of realism and immediacy, to appeal to the common experience of a more variegated audience. Zanker identifies the unifying principle of Hellenistic aesthetics as psychagôgia, a kind of “soul-leading” that aims at pure entertainment. Where art once served to reinforce the ideals of a community, it was now free simply to dazzle and impress. Eleonora Rocconi (Ch. 5) likewise notes a shift in the function of music during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, from the expression of ethical values to the provision of amusement (pp. 89–90). Even so, as Martin’s analysis of the Archaic context shows, pleasure appears to have always been an aim of art. With respect to Hellenistic statuary, moreover, Rosemary Barrow (Ch. 6) suggests that the emancipation of the aesthetic from the religious dimension was never complete (p. 105). One lesson of this section is that we should guard against drawing sharp divisions between periods.

Part II (“Reflecting on Art”) turns from contextual matters to Greek and Roman reflections art and aesthetic experience, with most of the chapters focusing on a single art form or literary genre. Despite the breadth of coverage, some important topics are neglected: there is no essay devoted to the aesthetics of theatrical production (nor any mention in the index of scene painting, costumes, or masks), while the everyday aesthetics of dining, dress, and household objects (apart from vases) is largely absent from view. The volume’s emphasis on the traditional “fine arts” of poetry, painting, sculpture, music, and dance, along with architecture, shows the enduring influence of Kristeller on the way aesthetics is framed.

Andrew Ford’s programmatic essay, “Literary Criticism and the Poet’s Autonomy” (Ch. 9), which opens Part II, is unique in taking the issue of aesthetic autonomy head on. Ford claims that with the establishment of poetry as a technê by the late fifth century, poets (like doctors and orators) came to enjoy a certain immunity from moral and political criticism. A key text for his argument is Poetics 25, where Aristotle distinguishes between mistakes that are internal to the craft of poetry and others that are strictly incidental to it (such as failing to depict the natural world with perfect accuracy, or having characters speak falsely about the gods). What makes all the difference is whether the supposed error contributes to the telos of poetry, which is to produce a particular emotional effect (cf. ekplêktikôteron, 1460b25). And so even the portrayal of gratuitous evil, Ford observes, “is objectionable not because it is evil but because it is gratuitous” (p. 150)—that is, because it fails to contribute to (or detracts from) the poem’s proper end. This shows that Aristotle recognizes a substantial degree of autonomy for poetry, even if the poet’s art—no less than other technai—is ultimately subordinate to the art of politics, which aims at “the good for man” (p. 151; cf. NE 1.2). There is reason to think that Aristotle’s position was not uncommon, since it is already adumbrated in Aristophanes’ Frogs (pp. 152–55). In his conclusion, Ford suggests that recovering the ancient view of poetic autonomy can provide a check on the tendency now, at least among academic critics, to regard aesthetics as a “mystified concept whose only use is to lay claim to a privileged social position” (p. 155). The main upshot of Aristotle’s argument, according to Ford, is that “political critiques of poetry are talking about something else than poetry.”

The rest of the chapters in Part II tend to follow Ford’s lead, treating aesthetic values as worthy of discussion in their own right. Armand D’Angour (Ch. 12), for example, explains the centrality of rhythm to the perception of ancient music, while Hariclia Brecoulaki’s chapter on painting (Ch. 14) brings out the expressive possibilities of the four-color palette. In “The Beauties of Architecture” (Ch. 18), Edmund Thomas analyzes concepts like firmitas and eurythmia to uncover “the very real grounds” (p. 275) imperial Roman writers had for calling their buildings beautiful. Thomas brackets consideration of any ideological role such values might play and instead takes his authors at their word. As his survey shows, ancient critics did not simply declare certain buildings superior to others; they drew distinctions between types of architectural beauty (e.g. pulchritudo vs. venustas), debated their respective merits, and described the designs and materials that contributed to each effect. This all suggests that aesthetic evaluation did more than merely advance the interests of well-positioned elites: it engaged the desire to understand, appreciate, and shape the visible character of one’s built environment. An exception to the dominant mode of analysis in this section is Nancy Worman’s “Stylistic Landscapes” (Ch. 19). Drawing on sources ranging from Pindar to Plato’s Phaedrus to Dionysius of Halicarnassus to Proust, Worman aims to reveal how the “imposition of artistic order on natural topographies achieves a type of cultural domination that underpins and is underpinned by political and ideological ambitions to shape values and dominate territory” (292). From this vantage, the very refinement of an aesthetic vocabulary might be grounds for suspicion, betraying its role in supporting “hierarchies of taste and inclination” (304). But it would be a mistake, in my view, to see Worman’s essay and (for example) Thomas’ chapter as somehow in competition. They are really engaged in two different explanatory tasks. Thomas’ goal is to show what architectural beauty meant to the ancient Romans, from the first-person point of view; Worman, by contrast, seeks to explain the political function of claims about beautiful landscapes, where the exclusionary aims of the discourse are opaque to those who practice it. But one can agree with Michael Squire (Ch. 20) that “knowing the right critical language was—and is—a way of flaunting social and cultural distinction” (319) without concluding that this is all that aesthetic judgment is for.

Part III (“Aesthetic Issues”) takes up familiar problems from the philosophical and literary-critical traditions, with a few chapters summarizing the arguments of recent monographs.5 The editors have opted for a thematic approach over surveys of individual schools and figures; this allows us to trace how various thinkers approached a single issue, e.g. mimêsis or pleasure, sometimes responding to each other’s views. We are also treated to focused studies of relatively neglected topics, including fine essays by Adeline Grand-Clément on “Poikilia” (Ch. 27) and Christine Hunzinger on “Wonder” (Ch. 28). While Plato and Aristotle naturally loom large in this section, there is scant attention to Stoics, Epicureans, and Neoplatonists, who receive about ten total pages of analysis (Augustine is mentioned a few times in passing). Malcolm Heath provides the only extended treatment of Plotinus (390–91, omitted from the index) in a superb chapter on “Unity, Wholeness, and Proportion” (Ch. 25); his discussion of Aristotle is essential reading for students of the Poetics. In Part III as elsewhere there is a lack of communication between essays with overlapping subjects. Christof Rapp (Ch. 29) and Elizabeth Asmis (Ch. 32) each devote several pages to Aristotelian katharsis, but their accounts of the interpretive landscape differ and their preferred readings are subtly at odds. Likewise, several chapters in the first two parts refer to poikilia without pointing forward to Grand-Clément’s analysis. Students who are given excerpted chapters may be unaware of alternative viewpoints or fuller discussions within the same book.6

Some final remarks on presentation. I noted around 200 typos, nearly all of them minor (e.g. spelling errors, missing circumflexes, inconsistencies in citation), but distracting and displeasing nonetheless. The subject index is informative and mostly reliable (omitting a reference to poikilia on p. 84, along with the Plotinus references noted above); there is also an index locorum (not listed in the contents). The volume includes twenty-six black-and-white illustrations; Greek is transliterated throughout, with exceptions at p. 44, n. 22 and pp. 195–97 (in a discussion of meter).


1.   Paul O. Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics,” in Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 163–227. Originally published in Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 496–527 and 13 (1952): 17–46. Baumgarten first coined the term “aesthetics” in his 1735 Halle master’s thesis; see Paul Guyer, “18th Century German Aesthetics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
2.   See e.g. Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 6–14; James I. Porter, “Is Art Modern? Kristeller’s ‘Modern System of the Arts’ Reconsidered,” British Journal of Aesthetics 49.1 (2009): 1–24; James O. Young, “The Ancient and Modern System of the Arts,” British Journal of Aesthetics 55.1: 1–17.
3.   Compare Halliwell’s programmatic remarks in his chapter on “Fiction” (Ch. 22), 341–42.
4.   See also Michael Squire’s illuminating discussion of these issues in “Conceptualizing the Visual ‘Arts’” (Ch. 20), esp. 308–12.
5.   Imagination” (Ch. 23) abbreviates the opening chapter of Anne Sheppard, The Poetics of Phantasia: Imagination in Ancient Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); “Beauty” (Ch. 24) culls from several chapters in David Konstan, Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); “The Sublime” (Ch. 26) distills the argument of James I. Porter, The Sublime in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
6.   I am grateful to Curtis Dozier and Christopher Moore for their feedback on a previous draft of this review, and to the BMCR editors for their patience.

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