BMCR 2020.08.11

Play and aesthetics in ancient Greece

, Play and aesthetics in ancient Greece. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xiii, 234 p.. ISBN 9781108492072. $80.00.


Play in the ancient world is making an interesting breakthrough, as demonstrated by fresh publications, a European Research Council funded project based in Fribourg (Locus Ludi), and several exhibitions on ancient toys and plays which have toured in Europe.[1] In this context, Stephen E. Kidd’s Play and Aesthetics in ancient Greece is a welcome contribution to a timely topic, made from the perspective of Greek philosophy and aesthetics. With this volume, Kidd pursues his exploration of playfulness as a follow-up to his former investigation of “nonsense.”[2]

Although not an ancient philosophy specialist, I was drawn to this monograph out of an interest for play and playing in ancient drama and performance. How can a fresh account of the theory of play in ancient Greece enrich our understanding of drama? As Kidd rightly points out, paizô (“to play”) covers singing and dancing in Greek, and paignia can be said of theatrical performances (9, n. 38). His book is not theatrically centered but explores a variety of theatrical themes (such as the “tragic paradox”, the engagement of spectators in a performance, or a synkrisis between tragedy and comedy). My review therefore takes up Kidd’s invitation to multidisciplinary dialogue (6). After an overview of each chapter, I focus on two points of discussion: Kidd’s emphasis on replacing mimesis by play as an overriding feature that connects all forms of art and his propositions on theatrical spectatorship.

The main conceptual challenge offered in this book is to envision play in ancient Greece as an emotional state of pleasure preceding the activities of “play.” In contrast with our modern way of construing “play” as the origin of joy and amusement, the Greeks, Kidd argues, had it the other way round: “play” (paidia) is a feeling of joy and delight that causes people to “dance” (paizô), “sing” (paizô), and engage in many other forms of play, like balancing a stick, throwing a ball, or rolling dice (5). He then aims to explore how this new definition of play interrelates with traditional questions of aesthetics.

Chapter 1 investigates the fragmentary, yet fascinating, psychophysiology of the child (pais) and its connection with play (paizô) from the archaic to the classical period. Kidd confronts us with a cultural challenge. Children are nowadays constantly valorized as super-smart miniature human beings. In stark contrast, the Greeks saw children as intoxicated adults because of their “senselessness” (aphrosynè). In medical writings from the classical period, as well as in Plato and Aristotle, physiological explanations (like an excess of heat or moisture) undergirded the common belief that children had limited cognitive abilities. Yet Kidd shows that this conception of children’s intellectual inferiority also had a positive side: children were thought to be in a constant state of heightened pleasure.

Chapters 2 and 3 turn to Plato’s dialogues, with the aim of proving the centrality of play in his aesthetics. Kidd admits that he relies on sparse “glimpses” of the idea of play offered by Plato in “a few late dialogues that are chiefly concerned with other topics” (74), i.e., The Sophist, Statesman, and Laws. In these texts, he argues, “play” (paidia), understood as being “for pleasure alone” (56) is established as a new overarching category set above all forms of art (music, poetry, theater, sculpture, painting, etc.). Addressing the complex relationship between play and mimesis, he proposes that the two terms must not be conflated: Plato sets “play” as a category above mimetic art, which in fact embraces mimetic and non-mimetic artistic activities. The pleasure drawn from mimetic art (cf. Rep. 605d), he goes on, must then be construed as the pleasures of “play.” In various forms of art, spectators desire neither the artistic objects in themselves nor the learning qua mimesis, but to “play” with such objects.

Having laid out this thesis, Kidd raises in chapter 3 the question of the “tragic paradox.” Why do we enjoy watching characters suffering on the tragic stage, while we would be severely pained to see the same suffering occurring in real life? Why is an “imitation” (mimêma) of pain pleasurable? Kidd’s reading of the Philebus, and particularly his interpretation of the “paidikos phthonos” (playful phthonos), aims to provide a response. In the theater, spectators enjoy the spectacle of suffering not because it is inherently pleasurable, but because they are “playing along with the actors” (80) and with the emotions aroused during a show (whether grief, anger, or others) and drawing pleasure from this distanced playing. It is an appealing suggestion, which interestingly emphasizes spectators’ active engagement in the theatrical performance. However, Kidd’s insistence on making the ancient Greek theatrical audience still and silent, and even “paralysed,” (77, 94) is puzzling. More on this later.

Chapter 4, “What Do Pleasure-Objects Do? An Inquiry Into Toys,” attests to Kidd’s willingness to deploy a variety of approaches to play. The inclusion of a material perspective is most welcome when it comes to a topic where hands and bodies are necessarily involved—and this is in itself an interesting feedback loop on the ways in which text-based scholarship opens itself to materiality in Classics. What is a toy? Kidd locates a conceptual conundrum in the fact that any object in the world can become a toy in the hands of a child (97): if this is so, what is the intrinsic property of a plaything? The reflection here questions mimesis again. Critiquing Walton’s 1990 influential essay, Mimesis as make-believe, Kidd wants to prove that play is not essentially mimetic: playthings, he defends, are not defined by their “mimetic or haptic qualities but the immediacy of their pleasure” (100). I am not sure this is entirely convincing. It is not so easy to dislodge the “as-if” dimension of children playing. Counter-examples easily come to mind (in Consolatio ad uxorem, 608e, 3, Plutarch fondly remembering his daughter asking for her nanny to breastfeed her doll along with herself, is a nice one).

Chapters 5 and 6 move to the other big philosophical chunk of this volume: play or, rather, the absence of play, from Aristotle’s definition of the good life and his aesthetic thought. Aristotle is indeed not so interested in “play” which he relegates to the low status of “relaxation” (anesis); although he maintains the pleasures of play as inherent and self-emanating, he dismisses them as exterior to any matter of real importance. The issue is then that the notion of “play” does not intervene in Aristotle’s aesthetics, so this theory must provide another explanation for the specificity of arts’ pleasures. In a polemical way, Kidd considers Aristotle’s theory of art ineffective and an unsuccessful candidate for being a sustainable “alternative to Plato’s play” (144).

In chapter 6, it is indeed argued that mimetic “learning” is not a satisfying solution to the tragic paradox (i.e., the idea that spectators would find pleasure in learning from a mimetic performance). Kidd also blames Aristotle for not addressing the difference between an artistic mimesis (e.g., a painting, or a sculpture) and a non-artistic one (e.g., a map, a medical model, 144). In this debate, catharsis is relegated to a footnote (160, n. 46). In a book that defines “play” as an emotion and elaborates upon the pleasure felt in the theater, a discussion of catharsis, but also of the range of different meanings that mimesis in fact covers in Aristotle’s Poetics, would have been helpful.

The last two chapters, 7 and 8, are devoted to the dialectical opposition between play and the serious (spoudaios). Greek authors liked to mix playfulness and seriousness: how to understand the oxymoronic serious play or playful seriousness? Kidd’s take on this is to construe serious playing as “goal-oriented play,” that is, a pleasurable play in which one focuses seriously on the goals and rules of the game. Chapter 8, “The Value of Serious Things before and after Death,” wraps up the volume with a reflection on the importance given to play in the afterlife. Literary and archaeological evidence depicts the postmortem world as an everlasting playground. How is this possible when play is generally belittled in life (a life of playing is considered futile and meaningless by Plato and Aristotle)? Investment in serious activities (e.g., valued ones or those taken seriously), Kidd argues, only makes sense at the scale of a human life turned towards the future and long-term achievements. The different timescale of the afterlife renders it null and void (196). Kidd also ultimately delves into the ambiguity of “play” as a term that is both descriptive (it characterizes the mood or mode of artists) and (d)evaluative. When something (a conversation, a work of art) is “just play” (a paignion) it is treated as a trifle, a light thing without importance. This helps to explain, he suggests, play’s reduced role in ancient theories of aesthetics. If “play” is to be maintained as a central aesthetic notion, in one’s engagement with art, the act of play must not be evaluated with the criteria of the spoudaios from the world beyond play.

This book undeniably makes an important contribution to the burgeoning “play studies.” Yet, some of its main claims leave me rather skeptical. If this “lost chapter of ancient aesthetics” (19) deserved to resurface, the fact that play could be an overarching principle of aesthetics does not end all problems. It does not help me to grasp the difference between playing with, say, a sculpture, a piece of literature or a theater performance. The criticism Kidd addresses to Aristotle (the vagueness of mimesis, which does not separate non-artistic representations from the artistic ones, 144) could be turned against his own propositions.

Similarly, while his idea of spectators’ playing is a stimulating one, Kidd’s narrow focus on a specific passage from Plato’s Laws is surprising (2, 657d). He writes on drama as a purely theoretical form of art, as if we could not read ancient plays and knew nothing about their performance. When one reads that spectators are “characterized by their stillness and silence” (77) that they were even “bodiless” (96) and engaging in a “form of paralysis,” (94) one is struck by the distance from historical reality. We have plenty of evidence (including from Plato’s dialogues) about Greek theatrical audiences being noisy and boisterous,  as well as wielding great influence on the competition judges with their vocal and physical responses to the shows.[3] The idea that “aesthetics begin when the motion of the body ends,” (94) is challenged by embodied spectatorship (Peponi 2013, Prauscello 2014, Folch 2015)[4] and embodied aesthetics (Gaifman, Platt, Squire 2018).[5]

The chapter on the materiality of playthings shows the same limits in effectively engaging with other disciplinary perspectives. Despite his interest in the realia, Kidd gives the impression of having had a hard time basing his thought about play on them. The philosopher does not really integrate the recent archaeological scholarship on toys, exploring such important issues as the physical, cultural, sociological or gender-related dimensions of playing.

To conclude, this book is not exactly multidisciplinary per se, but can be a good starting point for further comparative and interdisciplinary work.


[1] See the useful Bibliographic Database of the ERC Locus Ludi: The Cultural Fabric of Play and Games, led by Véronique Dasen (Friburg University):

[2] Kidd, S. E. (2014). Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy. Cambridge University Press.

[3] e.g. Dem. 18.265; 19.33; 21.226; Pl. Euth. 276d, 303b; Resp. 492a; Leg. 659a.

[4] Peponi, A. E. (ed.) (2013). Performance and culture in Plato’s Laws. CUP; Prauscello, L. (2014). Performing Citizenship in Plato’s Laws. CUP; Folch, M. (2015). The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato’s Laws. OUP.

[5] Gaifman M., Platt V., Squire M., The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity. Art History. Oxford; Boston: Association for Art History, 2018.