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date: 06 February 2023



  • Stephen Halliwell


The nature and scope of aesthetics have been a subject of debate ever since the 18th-century coinage of the term. The application of aesthetics as a theoretical or experiential category to the study of earlier periods therefore needs to be dialectical and pluralistic. But the contribution made by Greco-Roman antiquity to the evolution of ideas such as beauty, creative inspiration, and sublimity is indisputable. It reaches back to issues and values already salient in the pre-philosophical culture of archaic Greece, many of them associated with the uniquely Greek symbolism of the Muses. The early Greek association between song, music, and dance was consolidated and expanded, first by intermedial comparisons and subsequently by the concept of mimesis, into a standard grouping of the “mimetic arts,” which bracketed musico-poetic forms together with visual forms of artistic representation and expression. It was this cluster of activities that provided a frame of reference for philosophical theorizing. In Plato, representational and figurative art forms are seen as carrying great cultural and psychological power, but consequently as in need of educational and political control in an ideal society. Aristotle moves nearer to a recognition of a qualified degree of aesthetic autonomy, while stressing the cognitive and emotional aspects of responses to mimetic art. In Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism regarded the whole cosmos as imbued with divinely sustained and quasi-moral beauty, while Epicureanism’s simplified standards of pleasure narrowed the valuation of mimetic art. [Longinus], On the Sublime is a prime instance of the way that new thinking could emerge from modifications of older ideas; its own model of creativity entails rivalrous emulation between present and past writers. Plotinus’s Enneads offers a revaluation of mimetic art through an intellectualized conception of beauty whose influence can be seen at work in Renaissance aesthetics and beyond.


  • Philosophy

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