BMCR 2021.07.44

The Stoic theory of beauty

, The Stoic theory of beauty. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781474461610 $105.00.

Were the Stoics concerned about beauty? Since they classified beauty as a preferred indifferent, we might think it played no important role for them. But in this original contribution to scholarship on Stoicism and aesthetics, Čelkytė argues that “the Stoics employed beauty terms to denote attributions of value and to construct logical inferences” (3–4). A concise introductory chapter presents the place of the Stoics in ancient aesthetics and identifies the questions of the nature of beauty in value theory and the metaphysics of beauty to be addressed. On the one hand, Čelkytė finds a tension between some fundamental Stoic ethical doctrines and the significant role that beauty plays in certain Stoic arguments. On the other, the presence of aesthetic terms in a wide range of contexts leads her to question the unity of the underlying Stoic theory of beauty. Her goal is to explore both the historical and philosophical contexts of the Stoics’ aesthetic terms focusing on the concept of beauty in metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical arguments attributed to Chrysippus.

In Chapter 2 she makes the (needlessly belabored) argument that, although the Stoics categorized beauty as an indifferent, this does not mean that they had no interest in theorizing about it. She shows that the Stoic theory of value and Stoic aesthetics were not mutually exclusive areas of study (16).

The relationship between τὸ καλόν (the beautiful) and τὸ ἀγαθόν (the good) is examined in Chapter 3. Čelkytė analyzes the Stoic argument that ‘only the beautiful is the good.’ She interprets this argument to mean that beauty distinguishes the true good, virtue, from merely apparent goods. Her treatment of the relationship between the honestum and the Stoic good is muddled. She asserts that “The actual, the Stoic, good . . . is a subset of honestum,” but also that Seneca says that “the honestum is in the sphere of the good” (66). This seems to indicate that the honestum is both necessary and sufficient for having the (Stoic) good. If so, then this means that honestum and the Stoic good are co-extensive. Yet she also states that the Stoics distinguish the good and the honestum, recognizing only the honestum as the actual good. Greater untangling of this conceptual knot is needed.

Chapter 4 analyzes the Stoic paradox that only the sage is beautiful. As Čelkytė interprets it, this view is not an arbitrary redefinition of an aesthetic term. Rather, the Stoics defended the idea that an object’s aesthetic value is determined in reference to the kind of object it is. The perfection of rationality is wisdom, they argue, and wisdom grounds all other goods. Consequently, only the person who has perfected rationality is free because only the sage has the power to live as he wishes, without regret or compulsion. Similarly, only the sage is wealthy and happy. Only the sage can be a lover of music and literature. Only the wise are priests, for only they study and engage in all things relevant to religion. Only the sage is a king because only he has the knowledge of good and evil necessary to rule. Consequently, only the wise are fit to be magistrates, judges, and orators. So, when the Stoics argue that only the wise are beautiful, they do not deny that people conventionally regarded as attractive are physically attractive. Rather, they are arguing that physical attractiveness pales in comparison to beauty of the soul. To claim that only the sage is beautiful means that the sage alone “has the type of beauty which is important and appropriate for human beings” (89). Bodily beauty concerns merely the proportion of limbs, whereas wisdom of the soul, Čelkytė remarks, concerns the rationality which is the very foundation of what it is to be human. Here she seems to miss an important aspect of the analogy, namely that beauty of the soul is the right proportion of tensions in the pneuma that physically constitutes the soul. She says that beauty is conceived of as a property that arises when a person (or object) fulfils her (or its) role perfectly. When a young man shows by his bearing an inclination to learning and virtue, this elicits love in the wise man for the youth. Since human beings are peculiarly rational, what we find beautiful is manifestations of that rationality.

Chapter 5 treats beauty in Stoic theological arguments. In contrast to Plotinus’ view of beauty as immediately perceived, aconceptual, inscrutable, and ineffable, Chrysippus’ concept of beauty strikes Čelkytė as prosaic (126). This is because for him beauty can be unpacked logically as a sign. Cicero preserves Chrysippus’ theological argument according to which the beauty of the cosmos is a sign that it is structured, and so rationally generated. Consequently, the Stoics reasoned that the Epicureans were wrong to believe that random atomic motion generated this beautiful world. Chrysippus’ concept is deflationist, Čelkytė judges, because the property of being beautiful plays no more special an epistemic role than any other property (131). Rather, certain formal and functional properties underlie aesthetic phenomena. Rationality manifests as order, which manifests as proportion, which produces the formal property of beauty, which results from skillful design.

A small stumble occurs when Zeno’s definition of techne is compared with those of Cleanthes and Chrysippus. Čelkytė argues that the definitions of techne as “a tenor which achieves everything methodically” (115) in Cleanthes and Chrysippus correct an oversight in Zeno’s definition. Zeno, she says, failed to distinguish sufficiently between the expert, who achieves consistent success in her products, from the amateur. Yet in judging the definitions of Cleanthes and Chrysippus to be superior to that of Zeno, Čelkytė overlooks a key part of Zeno’s definition: “τέχνη is a systematic collection of cognitions unified by practice for some goal advantageous in life” (114). When Zeno states that the systematic collection of cognitions are unified by practice, this could very well capture the kind of reliable, practical expertise amateurs lack.

A more worrisome confusion crops up in discussion of the Stoic concept of god. Čelkytė inconsistently refers to the Stoic god as a “him” and an “it” (116) while also reporting that Diogenes Laertius records that “the Stoic god is not anthropomorphic” (138 n. 58). For the Stoics to compare god to the world soul and a sculptor at the same time serves only to deepen this confusion. The obscurity about which characteristics of the Stoic god are anthropomorphic (male in gender, possessed of the techne of a sculptor, rational) and which are non-anthropomorphic (eternal, indestructible) is left untidied by Čelkytė.

Chapter 6 effectively explicates the Stoic definition of beauty as summetria. This term does not mean bilateral symmetry but rather a property of being well proportioned (144). Galen attributes to Chrysippus the definition that beauty is summetria of parts relative to each other and relative to the whole (145). Čelkytė thinks it likely that this definition was meant to account for the beauty of objects, the beauty of the human body, and the beauty of the human soul. The idea is that beauty is a property that supervenes on the proportionality which enables an object to perform its function well (154). The Stoics elucidated aesthetic functionality with the notion of τὸ πρέπον (decorum in Latin) attributed to Panaetius. People delight in τὸ πρέπον just as they delight in proportionally arranged limbs of the body. The beauty of the soul, when described as τὸ πρέπον, derives from fulfilling our τέλος of living in accordance with our nature as rational, virtuous agents (157). Murkiness returns when Čelkytė notes that in On Duties Cicero says that τὸ πρέπον and honestum are distinct, while also stating that what is τὸ πρέπον is honestum and what is honestum is τὸ πρέπον. She concludes that, though these two terms are conceptually distinguishable, they remain necessary and sufficient conditions of one another (158). But are we to conceive of the two as definitions of one another or as synonyms? This remains unclear.

The Stoics’ concept of καθήκοντα—mistranslated as ‘proper functions’ instead of ‘proper actions’—also figures into their theory of beauty. Chrysippus understood the summetria of parts with one another to be an internal relationship between parts within an object whereas he thought of the summetria of parts with the whole to involve both the object’s functional role and how well the composition of its parts contributes to its playing that role (161). Plotinus raised the criticism that nothing seems to prevent vices from fitting together harmoniously, and thus being beautiful, according to the Stoics. The Stoics responded that vices, as unstable πάθη, are by their very nature too chaotic and uncontrollable to be harmonious, and so could not possibly be beautiful. Moreover, vices conflict with our human τέλος instead of contributing to it. Thus, vices do not supervene on the harmonious, functional structure of human beings as virtues do. Čelkytė does a good job of showing that Chrysippus’ theory of beauty involves “broad aesthetic supervenience” which takes into account not only the intrinsic properties of an object but also its contextual and relational properties (163-4).

The final chapter briefly surveys the role of Stoic ideas in ancient aesthetics. Čelkytė argues that the Stoic theory differed in several ways from that of the sculptor Polycleitus who, according to Galen, appealed to summetriai of ratios in composing statues of the human body. We learn that the sixth-century-BCE sculptor Pythagoras of Rhegium is said by Diogenes Laertius to have been the first to attend to rhythm and summetria (172). The idea of summetria is also significant in Vitruvius’ theory of architecture. Čelkytė notes that numbers and mathematical calculations constitute the theory of summetriai used by ancient artists. Mathematics, she suggests, plays a role in both the Polycleitian summetria theory and the Pythagorean Philolaus of Croton’s theory that beauty originates from the harmonia binding together parts. She observes that this idea that beauty is explained in terms of numbers is a persistent refrain, in various forms, in ancient Greek aesthetics.

Plato’s aesthetic views are taken from (only) the Philebus and the Hippias Major. Čelkytė reads Philebus 64d-65a to indicate that Plato believes that beauty is not reducible to summetria. The arguments in the Hippias Major criticize the artistic theory of summetria and call for positing the existence of the Forms. For Plato, to say that beautiful objects are summetroi is merely to identify one property of those bodies, whereas the Form of Beauty must be adduced to explain what makes beautiful things beautiful (177). I was disappointed by the absence of any discussion of Plato’s Symposium. Čelkytė reports that Aristotle holds that the existence of beauty requires both good proportion (summetria) and magnitude. For him, beautiful objects cannot be too small. In contrast, the Stoics theorize that beauty is fully explained by the presence of summetria.

The final chapter ends with a brief account of the influence of the Stoic theory of beauty, concluding that it proved much more popular than rival accounts outside philosophy. Stoic aesthetics is evident in the second-century rhetoricians (e.g. Hermogenes of Tarsus) and is ubiquitous in third-century physicians. Galen remarks that Chrysippus’ definition of beauty as summetria is adopted by all physicians (182). Čelkytė plausibly suggests that “the Stoic conceptualization of beauty was made convincing for Galen once it was incorporated into a medical context and reinterpreted within the Hippocratic exegetical tradition” (185).

Overall, Čelkytė succeeds in showing strong connections between the ways in which beauty is conceptualized both in Chrysippus’ fragments and in the broader Stoic corpus. I found no serious errors in the book’s printing. Whether or not the Stoics considered themselves to have formulated a theory of beauty, their insights and arguments on beauty constitute what Čelkytė ably reconstructs into a coherent, tenable theory. She can be commended for showing that aesthetics has a place within Stoicism just as Stoic ideas have an extensive legacy in aesthetics.