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Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present
A Short History
By Monroe C. Beardsley
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1966 Monroe C. Beardsley
All rights reserved.
Though we cannot say when men first began to reflect philosophically on the arts, we can get some glimpses of the stages that must have preceded the appearance of aesthetics in the full sense. For one thing, works of art, or the activities that produce them, would have to be distinguished, however vaguely, from other things. The generic concept of art might come later, but stories, or songs, or dances, for example, would have to be recognized as belonging to special classes, in virtue of their peculiar properties or a noteworthy sort of value. And this means that, at least on occasion, art objects would have to be spoken of — described and judged — in certain ways. Then the philosophically reflective mind, turning about for interesting objects of concern, could find a range of phenomena to be puzzled about in a fundamental way — and could begin to frame propositions (both about the works themselves and about other propositions about them) that, on account of their generality and penetration, might claim to be truly philosophical.
Before aesthetics could emerge in a particular culture, it would not, of course, be necessary that certain objects be set aside by that culture as specialized aesthetic objects — as connected with that interest alone. But at least something like an aesthetic interest, appropriately directed to some objects and not to others, would have to exist. And the philosophy of art would no doubt involve quite early an attempt to puzzle out and clarify the nature of this interest: asking what makes some objects and not others valuable in this peculiar way.
We may doubt whether the ancient Egyptians achieved this consciousness of the aesthetic as such, at least to that degree of explicitness which would make philosophical reflection possible. This is, indeed, strongly doubted by one leading authority, E. Baldwin Smith, who finds it "difficult to imagine" that the Egyptians "had an aesthetic attitude towards art" — "all the evidence indicates that the Egyptians had very little interest in the aesthetic appeal of their artistic creations." We, who can be so moved by the abstract hieratic qualities of their sculpture and wall reliefs, may find it difficult to imagine that they did not respond to them as we do, but Professor Smith has offered some interesting arguments. Though the Egyptians appreciated fine craftsmanship and flowers, their sculpture and painting were seldom located for the benefit of a spectator, and most of it was hidden away in the darkness of tombs. They elevated the profession of the architect to a high level, but in tens of thousands of inscriptions in which these masters are praised, by themselves or others, it is never the beauty of their works, but only strength and everlastingness or richness and lavishness of metal that are cited. Their massive columns, covered with delicate bas-reliefs, suggest an indifference to the aesthetic difficulty of combining these features, but reveal an overriding interest in mass and size as guarantees of durability — in making permanent records of royal possessions and divine connections.
"When they do employ the word nefer," says Smith, "or other words such as 'n as an adjective, and it is translated 'good,' 'fine' or 'beautiful,' we have to be sure in what sense the Egyptians meant a thing was beautiful. ... Usually when applied to architecture, it has the significance of 'fine' as applied to the quality of material and the thoroughness of the execution." "Usually" is properly cautious, but the general bent of the civilization seems evident enough. The Egyptians do not seem to have distinguished their response to art as such from their religious and political attitudes, or, consequently, to have become aware of art as presenting special problems. Apparently they were not a very philosophical people, in any case. Philosophy did not pull away from religious domination, and so we find very little that can be called philosophy of religion — even as late as the inscription called the "Memphite Theology," ca. 700 B.C. — and nothing that can be called philosophy of art.
The Greeks, on the other hand, achieved this distinction, though not as clearly as it was made in modern times. We cannot say exactly when they became able to think of art as raising philosophical problems, but we can guess at some of the first steps. Bosanquet, in his History of Aesthetic, quotes a passage from Homer as "one of the earliest aesthetic judgments that Western literature contains." On the shield of Achilles, made by Hephaestus, says the Homeric speaker, "the earth looked dark behind the plough, and like to ground that had been ploughed, although it was made of gold; that was a marvellous piece of work!" Modern aestheticians could provoke an interesting discussion as to whether this is really an aesthetic judgment: whether we should take it as simple admiration of representational accuracy, an imitative tour de force — or whether it is a genuinely aesthetic response to the plastic embodiment and intensification of the richness of the dark loam, setting off the golden ploughs, with all that might mean to an Achaean warrior long distant from his native soil. But the Homeric exclamation — "that was a marvellous piece of work!" — certainly is a remark that can give rise to aesthetic questions, as soon as the first authentic and unmistakable thrusts of philosophical speculation begin to be felt in the Western world.
For one thing, it raises profound questions about appearance and reality, about the relation between the image and that which it represents. For a picture is somehow like those other images — dreams and illusory perceptions — that present philosophical problems about the legitimacy of our claim to sensory knowledge. We cannot trace exactly the extent to which puzzles about pictorial representation were connected, by the fifth-century thinkers, with puzzles about knowledge, but reflection about the nature of imitation seems to have been part of a larger growth in awareness of the problems presented by the distinction between appearance and reality. The term "mimesis," and its cognates, which were to have such an important history, appeared in the fifth century, and were applied to musical imitation of other sounds, imitation of people's voices and actions in drama, and (in Herodotus) to the Egyptian wooden statues of the dead. "Eikon" (likeness) was also not used before the fifth century, though the existence of an earlier synonym has been inferred from the fact that sixth-century inscriptions on sculpture bore the genitive form ("of Ajax"), suggesting an ellipsis. There is a fragment of an early satyr play by Aeschylus, in which the chorus approaches a temple of Poseidon, carrying pictures of themselves, and exclaiming in wonder at the sheer verisimilitude. In the famous fragment of Democritus (born about 460 B.C.), "One ought to be good, or pretend to be," the word is "mimeisthai." Democritus was the first philosopher to work out a full theory of the relativity and subjectivity of secondary qualities as contrasted with the properties of the atoms — though before him Parmenides (about 500 B.C.) had titled the two halves of his great poem "On Truth" and "On Seeming" (or Opinion).
A second development in Greek culture helped prepare the way for the full-fledged aesthetic inquiry first undertaken by Plato. Homer and Hesiod were held in the greatest respect and awe for a long time after their deaths. The functions of poet and seer, or prophet, were already distinguished in Homer, but there was a standing temptation to unite them again. For both the poet and the seer, like the oracle, spoke in heightened language, in words that moved and dazzled, with an inexplicable magic power. And the works of the two ancient bards were accepted wholeheartedly on more than one level, at first no doubt not clearly distinguished. They were history, or what came as close to history as the pre-Periclean Greeks wanted and needed. On a second level, they provided images of moral and religious virtues, of courage and piety, and in this respect they were regarded as fit vehicles for instruction in conduct. With the rise of natural philosophy in the seventh and sixth centuries, a third method of interpretation developed — one that lasted long after Plato. It was claimed that the ancient poets had expressed profound hidden truths through symbol and allegory. The most notorious of these allegorizers was Metrodorus of Lampsacus, who proposed physical meanings for the characters in the Iliad — Agamemnon representing aither, Achilles the sun, Helen the earth, Demeter the liver, etc. What was behind all this is not wholly clear — but, for one thing, the natural philosophers may have wanted to borrow the acknowledged authority of the bards in support of their naturalistic speculations about the physical world.
The effect of all these developments was to stamp Homer and Hesiod as wise men and teachers, and to link poetic greatness with epistemic value. The counterdevelopment, which was to bear so much fruit later, in a clearer conception of what literature is and does, began with scathing remarks by Xenophanes and Heraclitus, a few of which survive and have been cited as the first Western examples of literary criticism. "Homer and Hesiod," says Xenophanes, "attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other." This was one important line of thought, which gained adherents — Homer's account of the battle of the gods in Book XX of the Iliad was especially objected to. Heraclitus' criticism is based on his own metaphysics, and suggests that the deeper truths are not to be found in mere poets: "Teacher of most men is Hesiod: they are sure that he knows very many things, who continually failed to recognize day and night: for they are one."
Some early thinking must have been done also about a third problem that was to flower in the fourth century: the nature and source of the artist's creative power. Interest in the origin of the world and of the world-order appeared in Homer and Hesiod, and it grew with the reformations in Greek religion, for example Orphism; and while it was too early, no doubt, for any very elaborate analogy between the artist as creator and the divine creator (world-genesis was thought of on the analogy of procreation), the notion that painting and poetry involve something supernatural goes back a long way. Greek theology taught that poetry and music had been invented by the gods for their own delectation, then taught to men by such chosen spirits as Orpheus, Linus, and Musaeus. Democritus, in the fifth century, may have been speaking somewhat metaphorically when he said (if he did): "Having a divine nature, Homer carpentered a world of varied stories." But the oldest poets themselves were not unaware of the problem posed by their own productions. When Hesiod and Homer invoked the aid of the Muses, they were not just making a formal bow. Indeed, each of them took pains to explain (Homer in the Odyssey, Book VIII; Hesiod in his Theogony, 22 ff) that, when the poet speaks, in some sense a god is speaking through him — though it is interesting that Hesiod's Muses tell him that "We know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things" (26 ff; trans. White). Parmenides opened his poem with the confession that his philosophy had been revealed to him by a goddess. And Pindar apparently gave a good deal of thought to his theory that the poet's own art and skill can be immediately responsible for his work, though his talent and inspiration are ultimately a gift of the gods.
Though intensive study of the arts was not to be undertaken until the general humanistic movement of the fifth century, which we observe in Socrates and the Sophists, an important contribution to that study was made by the earlier developments in natural philosophy. Interest in the observable order of nature — the cyclical processes of growth and seasonal change, the regularity of behavior in physical things — and an urge to discover greater underlying order that will explain what we observe, were the first stirrings of what we recognize as natural science. And it is fortunate that Pythagoras and his followers came quite early (Pythagoras established his Order about 532 B.C.) to conceive of the design in nature, its underlying intelligibility, in mathematical terms. By means of an important empirical discovery, some bold physical and astronomical speculations, and an interest in applied psychology and ethics, the Pythagoreans came closer than anyone before Plato and Socrates to sketching an aesthetic theory about one of the arts, namely music.
The empirical discovery, there does not seem any reason to doubt, was made by Pythagoras himself: it was the discovery of the relation between the lengths of stretched strings and the pitch of their vibration, or, in other words, between the ratios of lengths and the corresponding intervals — thus, 1:2, the octave; 2:3, the fifth; 3:4, the fourth. The idea that qualitative differences might depend on, might be ultimately controlled by, mathematical ratio was a profound revelation to the Pythagoreans, and the interval of the octave (the Greek name for which was "harmonia") appeared to be particularly fundamental: for it involved the opposition of Odd and Even, Unity and Duality, but "harmonized" them completely. The Pythagoreans extended this thinking into a general theory that the elements of the material world either are, or are imitations of, numbers. And they worked out an elaborate astronomical scheme in which the heavenly bodies emit constant tones, corresponding to their distances from the earth, though this music of the spheres is not heard, or not ordinarily heard, by men — perhaps because they lack the refined sensitivity to respond, or perhaps because it falls below the threshold of awareness by its very constancy, as the waves are no longer noticed by those who live on the shore. From these general views about the importance of mathematics in music as well as in nature, the Pythagoreans turned with a very strong ethical interest to the problem of strengthening, and when necessary restoring, the "harmony" of the individual soul, and according to Aristoxenus they used music in this therapeutic fashion, to purge and purify the soul, as medicine is applied to the body.
It will become apparent shortly that some of these ideas had in them the seeds of important developments; the influence of the Pythagoreans upon the thinking of Plato was undoubtedly very considerable. But the maturing of Plato's aesthetics required, as a point of departure, more than the rather vague and tenuous early reflections that we have been reviewing. In the latter part of the sixth century, and increasingly in the fifth century, the more self-consciously theoretical masters of various crafts and arts began to think about the principles on which they worked, and to write them down. Thus, for example, Damon of Athens (fifth century) apparently wrote a kind of Pythagorean treatise on music, in which he said that certain melodies and rhythms are capable of imitating certain types of character (ethos) and modes of life. And there was another treatise on music by Laius of Hermione (born about 548). Sophocles wrote his famous book On the Chorus, of which only a few remarks survive. Aristophanes put a good deal of literary criticism into his plays — for instance (in the Frogs and elsewhere) his condemnation of Euripides' objectionable plots and characters, the music accompanying his odes, and his unfortunate influence upon the citizenry. Polyclitus wrote on proportions in sculpture, Parrhasius on painting, Agatharchus on scene painting, Anaxagoras on perspective. And if we may trust Diogenes Laertius' copy of a catalogue made by Thrasylus, Democritus, interested as usual in everything under the sun, wrote books On Rhythm and Harmony, On Poetry, On Beauty of Verses, Of Painting, Of Song, and a book with the long title: Concerning Homer, or On Correct Epic Diction, and On Glosses. These works were probably on the level of critical theory — theory of literature, of music, of fine arts — rather than aesthetics. But the most fruitful work in philosophical aesthetics would have to await the completion of some of this research, safely to bridge the gap between philosophic generality and particular works of art.
Excerpted from Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present by Monroe C. Beardsley. Copyright © 1966 Monroe C. Beardsley. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
I. First Thoughts,
IV. The Later Classical Philosophers,
V. The Middle Ages,
VI. The Renaissance,
VII. The Enlightenment: Cartesian Rationalism,
VIII. The Enlightenment: Empiricism,
IX. German Idealism,
XI. The Artist and Society,
XII. Contemporary Developments,