Scholars' Association News
Issue 34
May 2015


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Beauty: The fortunes of an ancient Greek idea
A David Konstan lecture at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York
edited and translated by Leda Bouzali

The nature of beauty is attached to a dilemma. On the one hand, we naturally associate beauty with erotic attraction; on the other hand, as a category in aesthetics, beauty is taken to be a feature in artworks and also of natural phenomena and it’s not necessarily understood as exciting desire in the viewer. So, what, if anything, do these two conceptions of beauty have in common?

Roger Scruton in his recent book called Beauty, poses the question neatly: “… are there two kinds of beauty -the beauty of people and the beauty of art?”. Scruton rejects this idea and I am inclined to agree with him, but the problem nevertheless remains: what is there about the kind of beauty that holds us at a reverential distance when we view a work of art and the kind that inspires an erotic response?

The theme of the Christian who is persecuted not only because of his or her refusal to acknowledge pagan gods, or the divinity of the emperor, but also -especially in the case of women- because she refuses to submit to the sexual demands of powerful agents who are drawn to her beauty, this theme is a popular one in antiquity and afterward.

Marina was the daughter of a pagan priest named Edesius, who was the first to persecute her after she adopted the Christian faith. Subsequently, her beauty attracted the attention of Olymbrius, the local governor. When she rejected the offer Olymbrius subjected her to terrible tortures, which miraculously failed to mar her beauty, before he finally put her to death by the sword. The double role that is assigned to Marina’s beauty is evident. On the one hand, it is just this trait that arouses the desire of the Roman prefect Olymbrius, so it’s clearly a carnal kind of beauty. On the other hand, her beauty is evidently supposed to be spiritual in nature, not “an invitation to desire” but rather “a call to renounce it”. I

Another example is Polyxena, a beautiful young Christian woman, who adopts the appearance of a man so that her beauty may not attract unwanted attentions. She is thrown to the lions, but the lioness that is released against her merely licks her feet, upon which the prefect and the whole population are moved to adopt the new faith.

Neither in the classical novels nor in this Christian story of Polyxena is the beauty of the protagonist ever treated as a symbol of virtue or spiritual purity. In fact, physical beauty is sometimes seen as the very opposite pole to virtue; physical beauty gets you in trouble and it can actually be a sign of the reverse, as in the case of Helen of Troy.

The strong association between beauty and sexual attraction in these texts is no surprise, given the prevailing conception of beauty in the Classical Period. However, the classical attitude toward beauty has been obscured by a certain confusion relating to the vocabulary of ancient Greek. The Greek word that is most commonly taken to mean “beautiful”, is “kalós”. The neuter form, “the kalón”, is often rendered as “the beautiful”, or more simply as “beauty”. The difficulty with this equation is that “kalós”, “beautiful”, has a wide range of meanings and though it sometimes does mean “beautiful”, in a majority of cases it is better translated as “fine”, or “noble”, or “virtuous”. So, the term is applied to such things as armor and manufactured articles where we might think they are being well made, as well as to such abstract notions as human character and laws. The phrase “the kalón” has an equally wide application and is defined in the standard Greek-English Lexicon as “beauty”, but also as “virtue” and “honor”.

The classical journal Classical Philology, edited at the University of Chicago, devoted a whole issue was to the topic “Beauty, Harmony and the Good”. In the lead-off paper, a distinguished student of ancient philosophy named Aryeh Kosman says that as far as Aristotle’s uses of this term “kalós” are concerned, they will cause com-perplexity, “only to the degree that we render “kalón” as “beautiful” and “the kalón” as “beauty”, or “the beautiful”. And he gives this example: when Aristotle writes that a courageous person endures an act on the battlefield for the sake of “the kalón”, he doesn’t mean for the sake of “the beautiful”, he means for the sake of what is noble. So, Kosman concludes that the ambiguities associated with this term “leave me with the urge, an urge that I will of course resist, an urge to say that the Greeks had no concept of beauty”.

And Umberto Echo in a book called The History of Beauty, published in 2004, written in connection with a catalogue to an exhibit on Art and Beauty, states categorically: “In fact beauty had no autonomous stature in Ancient Greece”, it had no self-subsisting meaning. “The very word “kalón”, he says, “which only improperly may be translated by the term “beautiful” ought to put us on our guard”.

The absence of a specific term for beauty is not evidence that the Greeks lacked the idea, but it does make it more difficult to isolate just what they thought beauty was. The core of my book Beauty, the fortunes of an ancient greek idea, (Oxford University Press
Volume No. 5, the Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture) is to state that there was in fact an ancient Greek word that comes much closer to the modern notion of beauty: it is the word “kállos”. It is clearly etymologically related to the adjective, but it has a much narrower range of meanings

In the Iliad, the gods are said to have granted Bellerophon “kállos” and desirable manhood. Paris possesses beauty and he seduces Helen. Achilles describes a woman's consummate beauty as rivaling that of Aphrodite, who is of course the epitome of beauty. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite falls in love with Anchises, the father of Aeneas, who had his beauty from the gods. Ganymedes, a little beautiful boy, was carried up to Mount Olympus on an eagle by Zeus, so that he would serve as his cup bearer, because of his beauty. The contrast between the noun and the adjective emerges clearly in a poem by the poet Theocritus, where he states the notion that “a boy’s beauty, (kállos) is a fine thing (kalón), but it endures for a short while.

So, as the above survey suggests, beauty is closely associated with sexual attractiveness and desire. The term is applied most often to women or to young men who are conceived of as objects of sexual interest; when applied to mature men, it often bears a negative connotation. Adult males were supposed to be the subject, not the object of erotic passion. One wouldn’t expect Hercules or Theseus to be described as pretty, except perhaps when they were young. So too with women; although Aphrodite is frequently described as possessing “kállos” or beauty, it’s rarely attributed to Artemis or Athena, who were virgin goddesses, not connected to sexual desire, but acknowledged for their.sense of power and authority. So, “kállos” as beauty doesn’t exist as a separate concept, but when you look close at it, it turns out to be very closely associated with sexual attractiveness or erotic attractiveness.

When the Greeks came to speculate on the properties that make the human body beautiful, why are humans beautiful, they seem to have selected first and foremost proportion and symmetry. Toward the end of the fifth century B.C., the sculptor Polyclitus emphasized symmetry and harmony among the parts of the body as the fundamental bases of beauty, and illustrated his principles, mathematically precise, in a famous statue called The Spearbearer, also known as the Canon (or the Measure). A marble copy is kept in Naples Museum.

But if beauty resides in proportion, then some none human objects such as animals, landscapes even, whole cities could be understood to possess “kállos”, because they were proportional. Even literately style could achieve a certain prettiness if the composition of words was harmonious and balanced, but nothing in what we have seen so far in the uses of the term “kállos” bears a suggestion of virtue or purity. Quite the contrary, “kállos” is primarily associated with a kind of sexiness in humans and of prettiness in relation to non-human creatures and things. But “kállos”, beauty, did come to be associated with non physical objects, and the chief responsibility for this development lies with Plato.

When Plato describes the ideal forms, the immaterial universals, as beautiful, he ascribes beauty to them, but it was a beauty only visible, not obviously to the physical beauty, but to the mind’s eye. What’s more, he claimed that the soul is drawn to this higher realm of beauty precisely by Eros, the word from which we get ‘erotic’, that is passionate love. By comparison with these super sensory entities, objects in this real world are inferior in beauty, being a mere imitation of the ideal, and works of art, which are copies of copies, occupy a still lower position.

The details of Plato’s rather mystical conception are not easy to work out, but though physical beauty is a manifestation in this world of beauty as such, there is no indication in Plato that beauty resides by preference in those whose souls are more virtuous or refined. I may be attracted by beauty and through that beauty led to a higher world, but Plato never says that the person who possesses that beauty is more virtuous; and what’s more, the desire it induces is in the first instance sexual attraction. So, Plato does not offer a solution to Scruton’s dilemma.

Plotinus, a Neoplatonist, in his very first treatise, On Beauty, tells us that beauty is principally in sight, resides in the visual, although it can be extended to other things as well, including literature and music, because they can be fine by virtue of their proportions and their symmetries and their harmonies. He goes on to explain that even virtues can have a kind of beauty and he asks whether the beauty of virtue is the same as the beauty of a human form, the same question that Scruton asks. It really cannot be, he says, because ideas are simple, they have no parts, and something that has no parts cannot have proportion, and so beauty must reside in something other than proportion.

But I want to cite what Plotinus says when he contemplates what it would be like when we do behold that beauty in the heavens, that beauty that is purely intellectual. He writes: “Any person who will know this vision with what passion of love shall he not be seized, with what pang of desire, with what longing to be molten into this one, with what wondering delight; he loves with a veritable love, with sharp desire; all other loves than this he must despise and disdain all the once seemed fair”. We see here the persisting connection between the beauty of the ideal and erotic attraction.

Does Platonism provide a satisfactory answer to the dilemma posed by Roger Scruton, and more radically in my view by the narrative and iconic representation of the life of Saint Marina? Are we to see in the beauty of the Virgin, or that of Marina a kind of emanation of beauty itself and be seized by a passion of love, a pang of desire, and a longing to be molten into one with that beauty as Plotinus describes it? Is that what we see when we see spiritual beauty, or shall we say that the attempt to combine beauty as physical attractiveness with beauty as a sign of divine purity runs into trouble precisely with stories such as that of Saint Marina, where it’s impossible to see her simultaneously as sexually desirable -yet, she must have been to have attracted the attention of the Roman governor- and as a symbol of purity precisely by virtue of her beauty?

Another example is the story of the decapitation of Holofernes by Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, who entered Holofernes's camp as he was preparing to force the Jews to worship Nebuchadnezzar, seduced the general and beheaded him while he was drunk, with a result that the Hebrews defeated the enemy army. This tale, like that of Marina, makes no sense unless we assume that Judith’s beauty is more than simply spiritual, because she had to seduce Holofernes.

Whether a work of art has a beauty of its own which can be appreciated even though the figures in it are unattractive continues to be debated among students of aesthetics to this day, though I am not sure that this distinction was ever made in Classical Antiquity.

I am going to illustrate the dilemma with a famous painting by Matisse entitled the Blue Nude, dating to 1907, a few months before Picasso painted the Desmoiselles d’ Avignon. Picasso actually saw it and hated it, but then he meditated and did his own painting. Alexander Nehamas, a brilliant scholar of Classics, in his recent book the Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, insists that this is a beautiful work of art, whereas the distinguished art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto of the Columbia University, in his book The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, published in 2003, says that the Blue Nude accord him, “is a good, even a great painting, but someone who claims it is beautiful is talking through his or her hat”. My own sense is that the tension between the beauty of Marina, that arouses the sexual desire of the Roman governor, and the aspiration to higher things, that is reflected in the serene and maybe beautiful expression of the martyr as she undergoes her ordeal, is irreducible; we can’t get over that problem as long as we insist on applying beauty to such diverse categories.

We cannot legislate the uses of English; ‘beauty’ in all its multiple senses is in our vocabulary and we can make the best of it, but we can make distinctions. Perhaps we would do best to reserve a notion of beauty for things that are attractive or alluring, in accord with the primary meaning of “kállos” in Ancient Greek, and not attempt to appropriate that same idea to represent what Javier Moscoso, in his book A Cultural History of Pain calls, “the spiritual beauty of the young woman by way of her body”, or to suppose that it is her beauty that in some sense turns her body into a witness of the truth and a tabernacle of salvation.

Alexander Nehamas writes: “Plato and the ancients were not afraid of the risky language of passion, because they thought that beauty, even the beauty of lowly objects, can gradually inspire a longing for goodness and truth…Unlike Plato, I don’t believe that the pursuit of beauty leads necessarily to virtue and happiness”. But like Plato, Nehamas says: “I am convinced that beauty is a spur to creation and sometimes results in its creators becoming beautiful themselves”. And sometimes, I would add, it results in the reverse.

The connection between beauty and goodness is a conundrum that we cannot solve at one stroke, but I think that a careful consideration of how the Greeks thought about beauty can help give us a deeper understanding of beauty, art and -I venture to say- of goodness too.

(David Konstan is a Professor of Classics at New York University)

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