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date: 28 November 2022



  • S. Halliwell


Since its coinage in the mid-18th cent., ‘aesthetics’ has come gradually to embrace philosophies of both art and beauty (whether natural or created). Antiquity lacked any explicit tradition of thought which directly matched such categories. But it would be tendentious, for at least two reasons, to conclude that there was no ancient aesthetics. First, aesthetics has scarcely established a theoretical self-sufficiency for itself; its issues cut across the domains of psychology, ethics, and politics, and can be elucidated by thinkers who do not overtly acknowledge a sui generis aesthetic realm. Secondly, the modern development of aesthetics has repeatedly addressed texts and ideas deriving from Greek and Roman culture. An illuminating history of aesthetics would have much to say about ancient roots and influences.Materials for aesthetics can be traced in at least four kinds of writing: philosophy, literary criticism, art criticism (on painting, sculpture, architecture), and rhetoric. While the separate ramifications of these traditions are complex, they combine to demarcate a particular group of activities (poetry, music, dance, the visual arts) as sharing a mimetic/representational status, and to explore questions—often posed by inter-artistic comparisons—concerning the creation, content, form, style, and effects of the products of these arts. Though this demarcation is not identical to the modern category of ‘(fine) art’, the disparity should not be exaggerated; modern conceptions have grown from 18th-cent. theories, especially Batteux's, which attempted to remodel classical principles of mimesis. Nor have subsequent challenges to these principles, or shifts towards expressionism in definitions of art, broken the threads linking modern aesthetics to antiquity. Whether understood as a process engaged in by artists, or as a facet of what is communicated by their works, expression is certainly perceived by ancient thinkers: it is evinced, for example, by applications of mimeticist language to music, to the ‘speaking’ qualities of visual artefacts, and to the translation of mental/imaginative ideas into artistic form (e.g. Cic. Orat.


  • Philosophy

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