1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Ancient Greek Writers on Aesthetics. Socrates.

(Part 7)


Ancient Greek Writers on Aesthetics. Socrates.

[Greek Speculations] – Ancient Greece supplies us with the first speculations on the Beautiful and the aims of the fine arts. Nor is it surprising that among a people so productive of noble artistic creations, and at the same time so speculative, numerous attempts to theorise on these subjects should have been made. We have in classic writings many allusions to works of an aesthetic character now lost, such as a series on poetry, harmony, and even paintings, by Democritus. It is to be gathered, too, from Plato’s Dialogues that the Sophists made the principles of beauty a special department in their teaching. The first Greek thinker, however, whose views on these subjects are at all known, is Socrates. Accepting Xenophon’s account of his views in the Memorabilia and the Symposion, we find that he regarded the Beautiful as coincident with the Good, and both of them as resolvable into the Useful. Every beautiful object is so called because it serves some rational end, whether the security or gratification of man. It looks as though Socrates rather disparaged the immediate gratification which a beautiful object affords to perception and contemplation, and emphasized rather its power of furthering the more necessary ends of life. Thus he said that pictures and other purposeless works of art, when used to adorn a house, hindered rather than furthered enjoyment, because of the space they took from useful objects. This mode of estimating the value of beauty is however, no necessary consequence of the theory that the whole nature of beauty is to minister pleasure. It arises from undue attention to mere material comfort as a condition of happiness. The really valuable point which Socrates distinctly brought to light is the relativity of beauty. Unlike his illustrious disciple, he recognized no self-beauty (auto to kalon, Gk.) existing absolutely and out of all relation to a percipient mind.

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