The Differentiation of Art in Plato's Aesthetics

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Department of the Classics, Harvard University

    The Differentiation of Art in Plato's AestheticsAuthor(s): Joseph P. MaguireSource: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 68 (1964), pp. 389-410Published by: Department of the Classics, Harvard UniversityStable URL: .Accessed: 21/12/2014 08:19

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact


    Department of the Classics, Harvard University is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extendaccess to Harvard Studies in Classical Philology.

    This content downloaded from on Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:19:31 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




    EVEN if one sets out to write an aesthetics, he will have trouble in defining, and his readers will have trouble in apprehending, its

    object. For, what is aesthetics about ? Beauty, or art, or both ? If beauty, is beauty an objective property, or a subjective state, or a composite of both? And, in any of these cases, what kind of property, or what kind of state, or what kind of composite? Or is "beautiful" simply a

    general term of approbation, with no determinate reference - roughly synonymous with "excellent," "admirable," or "desirable ?" 1 But, even if so, why do we apply it more readily in some "approval" situa- tions than in others, and what differentiates these "approval" situa- tions ?

    If aesthetics is about art rather than beauty, how does one determine the limits of art? If we distinguish, how do we distinguish between a work of art and an artifact ? Indeed, what is the "work" we are talking about? The mental act of the artist, or the sensible externalization of that act, or the response of the individual percipient, or the sensible object plus the sum of its historical interpretations? 2 And, once again, what kind of act of the artist, and what kind of response by the percipi- ent?

    Finally, if aesthetics is about both beauty and art, on the assumption that "beautiful" is a descriptive term, what is the relationship between it and art? Is beauty coextensive with art," or only with "agreeable" art,4 or with both art and nature? Or, does it extend also to the non- sensible realm of ideas and logical systems ? If the last, what, if any, is the difference between the beauty of art on the one hand and that of nature and mental constructs on the other? And so forth.

    A professed aesthetician will, of course, provide answers to certain of these, and of many similar questions that could be asked. Both his selection of questions to be answered and the answers he provides will depend on his general philosophic principles,5 and may well be satis- factory within the limits of his own system. But whether there will be wide agreement beyond these limits that his answers are clear and

    This content downloaded from on Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:19:31 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • 390 Joseph P. Maguire

    coherent, and at the same time just to the extreme variety of things men regard, or have regarded, as art or beauty, is quite another matter. It is not without reason that after all the centuries of thought devoted to it, aesthetics can still be called the "nightmare science," and that its readers are still afflicted with its "dreariness." 6

    If this is the situation for the professed aesthetician and his readers, it is infinitely worse for Plato and his: Plato, who, initially at any rate, strives not for differentiation but for synoptic generalizations drawn from

    apparently diverse particulars; who tends to identify an extreme in- stance of a species with that species, and if it is bad, to condemn the

    species, and if good, to reject or ignore all its other instances; and who, in any case, never sets out to write an aesthetics at all.

    The root of the difficulty here, as elsewhere in Plato, is that he "icarves the joints of reality " differently from us. He "''combines " what we "divide," and "divides" what we "combine." Thus he has no aesthetics at all in the sense of a study which tries to isolate art or beauty, and investigate it for its own sake. It would never occur to him that the term " beauty " could somehow be reserved to denote the property of an

    art-object, or the imaginative act of an artist, or one or more of the various

    psychological states produced in the percipient by the object. No more would it occur to him that "fine " art could be studied by and for itself, independent of "art" on the one hand and of ethics, politics, ontology, and epistemology on the other. The beauty of which he speaks is not limited even to sensuous experience in general, much less to the percep- tion and enjoyment of "fine" art. The art of which he speaks is hardly differentiated from science, craft, and "insight" on the one side, and from various types of "imitation " on the other. In final analysis, indeed, the only true artist, for him, is the philosophic statesman.7

    We can, of course, try to elicit from the Dialogues an implicit theory of aesthetics - what Plato would, perhaps, have said, did he agree that art and the beauty of art could be studied in isolation from other things. There are, however, two converse difficulties in the way of doing even this much. The first is that these implicit theories are themselves

    "synoptic," as viewed from our perspective. If, for example, we examine the twenty definitions of beauty which Ogden, Richards, and Wood have distingished in the history of aesthetics, we see that at least eleven of them can be elicited from the Dialogues, if not as definitions of

    beauty, at least as predicates of art, or of some art.8 The converse difficulty is that Plato "divides" what we "combine."

    So, for example, though he has much to say of beauty and of art separ- ately, unlike us he rarely associates the two.9 He has vivid descriptions

    This content downloaded from on Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:19:31 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Art in Plato's Aesthetics 391

    of the aesthetic experience (which is one possible meaning of " beauty ") in Symposium, Phaedrus and Republic VI-VII; and he makes frequent reference to the pleasure produced by art (which is another possible meaning of "beauty") in a number of Dialogues, from Gorgias or Hippias Maior to Laws. But the aesthetic experience he describes is felt before intelligible Ideas, not objects of art; and he explicitly contrasts the pleasure and the beauty of art in his most detailed and careful dis- cussion of the subject.'1 It is surely noteworthy, in this connection, that his not infrequent formal lists of beautiful things usually do not even include works of art as such." The most striking fact of all, perhaps, is that on the rare occasions that Plato does relate art and beauty, especi- ally in his solemn assertions that the love of beauty is the aim of art,12 the beauty he mentions seems to be a moral, not an aesthetic, value.13

    Under these conditions the best that the most intrepid investigator can hope for is to reconcile some of the inconsistencies which seem to be inherent in Plato's statements about art and beauty; to recognize where the data are insufficient for any theory, however implicit; per- haps to guess, on the basis of his over-all philosophic theory, and especially of his philosophic practice, the direction toward which Plato's aesthetic thinking seems to point; and, above all, to remove some prob- lems of our own making.

    The chief problem of our own making is due to our failure, often, to distinguish levels of art in Plato's statements. The result is that we tend to refer what he says about trivial or pernicious art to art generally; or, conversely, to convert every attack on art in the Dialogues into an indirect praise.14 Plato, it must be admitted, does little to oppose these tendencies. If he were writing as an aesthetician, and studying art as an autonomous form of expression or communication, and if, especially, he regarded "art" as an "honorific" term, he would presumably do as other aestheticians do: refuse to include under "art" what failed to satisfy his aesthetic criteria. But, as it is, when he is speaking about art he is usually concerned not with art but with its ethical influence; he feels no proprietary interest in the term, "art" (indeed, he has no such term, and the descriptive phrase he does have, is derogatory in its connotation); and he is not only willing to --he must --measure against his ethical criteria every man-made product with ethical in- fluence, good or bad. This means: every man-made product which is not an artifact. Every such object will be a work of art, and if the object under discussion is morally useful, "art" will appear valuable; if the object is morally harmful, " art " will appear so too. But if we are to find even an implicit aesthetic in Plato, we must try to find other, however

    This content downloaded from on Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:19:31 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • 392 Joseph P. Maguire

    subordinate, criteria of art, and use them both to grade the works of art he discusses in relation to one another and to distinguish them all from artifacts and natural objects.

    The possible means Plato gives us for such differentiations are: his classifications of art; and four conceptions relating to the model, the artist, the percipient, and the art-object, respectively: imitation to the model, inspiration to the artist, pleasure to the percipient, and beauty to the art-object.15 All four are generalizing categories, applicable to

    many spheres and objects, and hence not, as such, differentiae of art. But the mode, if not the fact, of its imitativeness, and the kinds of beauty it manifests, at least, do partially differentiate the work of art from natural object and artifact; while the nature of the model and the kind of pleasure felt by the percipient distinguish good art from bad, if not art from craft; and the inspiration and technical competence of the artist

    perhaps differentiate both art from craft and nature, and good art from bad.

    Plato's classifications of art, for all their inconsistencies, point to imitation as the differentia of what we would call " fine " art from other kinds of "making." His normal division of the genus art is threefold: into imitative, demiurgic, or constructionist, and therapeutic, art;16 and he normally includes under "imitative" what we would include under art or fine art; viz., sculpture, painting, architecture, music (both purely instrumental and accompanied by words), dance, and literature

    (all normative verse and prose, including philosophical treatises, rhetor- ical discourses, and myths 17). It is true that sometimes "imitative" is used as a derogatory designation of one subspecies of imitative art;18 and that oftentimes music and the plastic arts are classed with demi-

    urgic, not imitative, arts.19 But this does not change the general picture. From one point of view, impersonation by an actor, or an observer's self-identification with the person represented in imitative art (which are what are meant in Republic III and Sophist), is peculiarly "imitative." And from one point of view too - that of their technique - sculp- ture, painting, music, and other imitative arts are demiurgic, since they "make" in the same way and by the same technical standards as, for

    example, carpentry.20 Apparently, then, by Plato's own classifications, "fine" art is

    "imitative" art. The trouble with that as a differentia, however, is that for Plato everything, natural and artificial, except the Ideas,21 is an imitation. In particular, fine art as a whole is no more an imitation than

    statesmanship as a whole, or than craft as a whole.22 Nor is it true that

    This content downloaded from on Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:19:31 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Art in Plato's Aesthetics 393

    the imitation which is fine art is distinguished from that which is craft or statesmanship by a generic difference in the nature of the objects imitated, despite the notorious statement to the contrary in Republic X.23 According to that passage the craftsman imitates Ideas, while the best the painter can do is imitate the fragmentary (smikron ti hekastou ephaptetai, 598B) and superficial aspects of sensible models (phaino- mena, 596E, 598A).

    Is it, however, the best he can do? The distinction in Sophist 235D- 236B between "eikastic" and "phantastic" imitation, suggests that there is a better way than this of imitating even sensible models; and a comparison of the distinction in Sophist with the parallel discussion in Laws II 667D-668E on imitative " correctness," suggests that the model need not be sensible at all. According to Sophist, "eikastic" imitation produces copies (eik6nes) by preserving the true proportions (symmetrias) of the model, and by assigning the " due" (prosikonta) color to each part (235D-E); and "phantastic" produces "phantasms" and eiddla by constructing, not the true proportions (235E 7, 236A 5), but those which merely appear beautiful, by being seen "from an unbeautiful vantage" (236B 4). And according to Laws, "imitative correctness" (orthotis) is a duplication, in the copy, of the "numbers" of the model; the number, nature, and "due" (prosekousan) order of its parts; and its colors and attitudes (schimata, 668E).

    Now, on the face of it, the passage in the Sophist refers to two actual schools of plastic art: the "eikastic" being archaizers who aimed at a stylized and probably "canonic" correspondence with a logical con- struct of the human body; and the "phantastic" being modern "im- pressionists" who aimed at fidelity to the visual facts.24 And it is the latter "phantastic," school which seems to be referred to in Republic X and identified with art simply. If so, by that fact alone the general condemnation of art there must be severely qualified. But the necessary qualifications go further than that: the reference in "eikastic" and "ph...


View more >