Greek and Roman Aesthetics

Oleg V. Bychkov

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
Greek and Roman Aesthetics

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Aesthetics is a modern discipline founded in the 18th century, turned into a robust branch of philosophy by Kant, and developed in the 19th century in German philosophical circles. Yet some of its problems and themes are by no means new, and many modern aestheticians have been inspired by ancient thought, in particular Platonic and Neoplatonic. Speaking of “ancient aesthetics,” then, is legitimate in terms of tracing certain problems, areas, and themes in ancient thought that either have influenced modern aesthetics or resemble modern aesthetic concerns. The ancient themes and problems that have been traditionally considered “aesthetic” are as follows: the sense of beauty and awe before certain natural and artistic forms, which lacks any rational explanation and yet is a source of great pleasure and seems to point to values and truths that transcend the human mind; the whole area of sensory experience that brings us the feelings of beauty and awe; the area of human production that we call the “fine arts” or the production of aesthetic objects; a number of themes and issues associated specifically with the human artistic activity, such as imitation; various literary and rhetorical techniques; and principles of tone, contrast, harmony, and composition in painting and music. Several features of ancient aesthetics are salient: first, a tight link between aesthetic and ethical concerns (due to ethical connotations of the key aesthetic terms to kalon/honestum and to prepon/decorum); second, a persistent discussion about the value of the fine arts for human society; and third, a strong connection between the aesthetic and the religious sentiment, which becomes more prominent in late antiquity with the arrival of Christianity. The discussion of the visual arts in surviving Greek and Roman texts is less frequent and often occurs in the context of discussions of poetry or literature. However, there is evidence that many technical treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture existed. Most frequently, chapters or observations on the visual arts in antiquity occur in general studies of ancient aesthetics, studies of particular authors, or studies on poetry and literature, with occasional studies specifically on the visual arts. There were two types of writings on music in antiquity. Most surviving texts treat music as a type of mathematics and present abstract philosophical explanations of its meaning; this type has little to do with aesthetics. The second type of texts, of which only some examples survive, were highly technical texts on the way music is experienced internally; this type occasionally does contain aesthetic observations. Most commonly, music was associated with creating specific moods and was considered relevant to moral education. Relevant observations on music are discussed in general studies of ancient aesthetics, studies of individual authors, or studies of poetry, where comparisons with music abound. Recently, there have been some specific studies on ancient music that are relevant to aesthetics. An important concern for a scholar of ancient aesthetics is the availability of Greek and Roman texts in good translations, especially those that come with valuable commentaries.

Article.  10395 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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