BMCR 2015.03.38

The Poetics of Phantasia. Imagination in Ancient Aesthetics

, The Poetics of Phantasia. Imagination in Ancient Aesthetics. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. xiv, 122. ISBN 9781472507655. $112.00.


The scholarly debate on ancient aesthetic notions has been flourishing in recent years, with special regard to issues like the rhetoric of enargeia and the value of mimesis in art. Anne Sheppard is one of those intellectuals who have devoted a significant amount of effort to studying the role of phantasia in the ancient thought. She has already discussed the conceptualizations of phantasia within the Neoplatonic school in several previous papers, and this volume represents a systematic recapitulation of the ideas developed over years of study.

The title may perhaps mislead the reader, insofar as it evokes a much broader horizon of investigation than the one actually embraced by the book. In particular, the risk of misinterpreting the target of the volume may be caused by two terms in the title: the substantives ‘poetics’ and ‘aesthetics’ may suggest that ancient rhetorical manuals, scholia and commentaries on major poetic works, as well as ancient critical and didactic texts on style and aesthetic perception, are the main sources discussed in the book. This would be a false impression. On the other hand, some useful keywords which would have better defined the focus of Sheppard’s work are missing. A reference to the Neoplatonists and to the ancient philosophical account of imagination and its manifold functions among the activities of the human soul (not just the artistic ones) would have provided the prospective reader with helpful clues to get a better sense of the actual subject-matter of the book.

That said, this work is highly commendable. It accompanies the reader through an intricate web of sometimes difficult or ambiguous philosophical formulations. It successfully engages with the polysemy of the key terms examined, constantly recapitulating the essential notions to be kept in mind before moving on to the next argument, in simple language and a straightforward style. All in all, this is a very enjoyable account of the Neoplatonic reception, and conflation, of Platonic and Aristotelian statements about the place of imagination in metaphysics.

Sheppard’s volume is arranged in three chapters, each devoted to one of the dimensions in which ancient thinkers understood phantasia and its place among human faculties. The chapters are preceded by an introduction (pp. 1-17), in which the author discusses Neoplatonic thought in light of the issue of imagination, thereby providing the reader with the necessary conceptual tools to tackle the rest of the book. A paragraph reviewing the meanings and contexts of use of the term phantasia is devoted to each of the philosophical systems that most influenced the Neoplatonists, namely those of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans.

The first chapter is most focussed on aesthetics, and brings in sources that are not primarily philosophical. It discusses the best documented facet of phantasia in the ancient critics, namely its association with the rhetorical device of enargeia. An entire vocabulary of vividness developed in antiquity, and high literary value ascribed to the ability to set out a subject vividly. This quality consists in inspiring the feelings and impressions of the thing or event described as if these had actually been experienced. Phantasia plays a role in this framework since it is conceived as the faculty which makes this empathy possible, by ‘projecting’ the image of the thing or event in front of ones’ eyes (πρὸ ὀμμάτων ποιεῖν) and getting one thereby to feel and perceive as if one had personally seen/heard/touched/smelled etc. (ὥς τέ που ἢ αὐτὸς παρεὼν ἢ ἄλλου ἀκούσας, Hom. Od. 8.491). The mimetic potential of imagination, which contributes to the realism of a literary piece, is attested from Homer onwards and is widely talked about in both rhetorical and philosophical texts.

With regard to Chapter 1, I wish to make a couple of remarks. Sheppard always translates the phrase πρὸ ὀμμάτων as ‘before the mind’s eyes’, which is the most usual translation. In this way, the original formulation undergoes a process of ‘modernization’, but acquires a nuance foreign to the ancients. A more faithful translation would be ‘before the eyes’ – which need not be taken metaphorically, as if it were not the physical eyes which were meant. Expressions like ὑπ᾽ὄψιν ἄγειν and πρὸ ὀμμάτων ποιεῖν actually seem to convey the idea that the faculty of imagination needs the physical organ of sight to realise its images, and that such images are in no way different from those coming from the outside world.

More relevant is the question of when the processes of visualization and immersion apply to the author and when to their audience. Sheppard treats both perspectives within a unitary framework, although in none of the passages quoted in Chapter 1 are the two perspectives handled together. On the contrary, the process of visualization is always referred either to the sender or to the receiver in the ancient sources. And indeed the two imaginative experiences are not equivalent: while visualization and immersion are the sources of a successful mimetic piece of art in the view of its makers, when it comes to the audience the roles are inverted: the imaginative projection is provoked by the artistic work. It may thus not be accidental that the two mental operations are never explicitly assimilated in the ancient sources. In my opinion, the issue is worth more careful consideration.

Finally, one would have expected some reference to Mireille Armisen’s comparative essays on phantasia in ancient philosophy and rhetoric, which are missing from Sheppard’s bibliography.1

With Chapter 2, Sheppard enters her real field of expertise (pp. 47-70). Since the mimetic character of imagination, treated in Chapter 1, was generally disdained in philosophical texts of Platonic inspiration – because of the ontological distance from the metaphysical world, caused by the mimetic process – this and the following chapter explore those realms in which imagination is viewed in a positive light by the Neoplatonists. These are mathematics and divine inspiration. In both contexts, the imaginative projection of phantasia moves in a downward direction, i.e. from the intelligible world to the human mind, allowing men to visualize and understand eternal principles. The mutual relationship of εἰκών and παράδειγμα is reversed in comparison to situations in which imagination is used to reproduce models from the material world.

In ordinary mathematical and geometrical reasoning, Proclus tells us, phantasia enables men to visualize abstract figures like circles, which do not exist in the realm of experience, by assigning them physical qualities like extension and shape. In this way, the human mind can grasp higher ideal entities. Although these mathematical projections do not correspond to innate principles, they are still located at a higher level of the ontological scale than the perceptible world.

Allegorical interpretation is a means through which the Neoplatonists ‘rehabilitated’ the arts in philosophical discourse, recovering them as possible sources of higher knowledge. Sheppard prepares the reader to face the ancient debate over the relationship between ἐνθουσιασμός (supra-rational inspiration) and symbolism with an introductory paragraph on Kant and his treatment of the notion of the sublime (pp. 71-4). The core of Chapter 3 explores the forms in which the mystic revelation of metaphysical truth is conveyed in art, namely symbolism and allegory (pp. 74-99). These represent eternal principles disguised in concrete appearances (e.g. Zeus standing for divinity). The function of phantasia in this context is highly controversial. On the one hand, the idea of the divinely inspired vision, suddenly dropping down from the unattainable godly spheres into a human’s mind, whose intellectual faculty is temporarily ‘switched off’, seems to exclude any involvement of imagination. On the other hand, some passages, in particular by Iamblichus, apparently assign phantasia a role as dynamic receptor of the divine visions. The lack of systematic agreement among the Neoplatonists emerges clearly from Sheppard’s review of the most relevant claims by prominent figures of the school. The variations in the formulations of these philosophers demonstrate their often idiosyncratic effort at merging Platonic with Aristotelian elements in the debate on art.

The volume is completed by a short conclusion that synthesizes the content of each chapter (pp. 101-4). I have one general and final remark on Sheppard’s choice of quoting all ancient texts only in translation. At times this may arouse some frustration in the reader, especially when one encounters peculiar formulations pertinent to the key issues under discussion, and one instinctively wonders how the original wording sounds. In the context of rather fine-grained philosophical disputations I do not find this a negligible detail. However, I wish to conclude by stressing the quality of this book as clear and synthetic account of how the Neoplatonic school viewed the limits and powers of the imaginative faculty of the human soul.


1. Mireille Armisen, “La notion d’imagination chez les Anciens: I – Les philosophes”, Pallas 26 (1979): 11-51; “La notion d’imagination chez les Anciens: II – La rhétorique”, Pallas 27 (1980): 3-37.