The secret history of beauty: How the Greeks invented Western civilization's biggest idea

People think of beauty as universal to the human experience. But the truth is actually much more complicated

Published January 3, 2015 10:00PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Xirurg</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Xirurg via iStock)

Excerpted from “Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea”

The English word beauty is semantically rich; that is, it has a wide range of meanings and connotations. In everyday speech, this is not a problem: we can apply the noun, or the corresponding adjective beautiful, to a great variety of objects that do not seem to have much, or indeed anything, in common, and yet we know perfectly well what is meant. For example, we can speak of a beautiful woman, a beautiful child, a beautiful painting, a beautiful mathematical proof, and a beautiful catch in baseball. The expression “that’s a beauty” can be said of almost anything at all. In some of the preceding examples, we might mean “attractive” or even “sexy,” as when we use the term to describe a model or actress; in others, we may mean something more like “well executed,” as in the case of a good play in athletic competitions. When ascribed to a work of art, the term may signify balance or proportion, or some other quality that we think of as aesthetic; in the case of mathematics, we perhaps mean that a proof is elegant because it is crisp and compact, or innovative in method. Very generally, beautiful is a term of approbation, and its precise sense depends on the context. However, it would seem to retain in most of its uses some connection with attractiveness, and its connotations do not overlap entirely or precisely with other expressions of approval such as good or fine. Upon reflection, one is naturally led to wonder whether all the different applications of beauty or beautiful really have a core quality in common, despite some outlying or marginal uses, or whether the term rather embraces a set of homonyms, in which the connection between the various senses is either thin or nonexistent, like pool when it bears the sense of a small body of water and then again when it refers to a game similar to billiards.

The nature of beauty became a central intellectual question with the emergence of the discipline known as aesthetics in the mid-eighteenth century, when the word was first coined. Aesthetics took beauty as its special province, above all in the domain of art. Why this interest should have arisen just then, and in Germany (or what is now Germany) in particular, is an intriguing issue in the history of philosophy, to which we shall return. From this point on, at any rate, serious thinking about beauty had to take account of well-developed theoretical positions and confront the paradoxes or difficulties that arose as a result of the umbrella character of the concept, which covered so great a variety of notions.

The present investigation is historical and looks to understand how our modern notions of beauty arose in relation to the prevailing ideas and accounts of beauty in classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks. From this perspective, perhaps the quandary that most immediately presents itself concerning the nature of beauty is the apparent variety of forms that it takes across different times and places. This is evident in relation to the human form, the ideals for which may vary even in a relatively short period of time: for several recent decades, glamour was associated with models so thin as to appear anorexic. They would have aroused a certain revulsion in periods accustomed to more fulsome figures. The current practice of piercing and tattooing the body is another variation in the criteria for beauty, as is long hair or totally shaved heads for men compared to the trim haircuts of fifty or sixty years ago (I am not sure that younger people even know what a “part” is, in relation to a hairstyle). The ancient Greeks also had their preferences, which doubtless varied over time and in different locales. The same would be true for the Romans and the vast empire they eventually ruled. Although I mention, when relevant, the traits (for example, height) that counted as contributing to beauty, whether male or female, in antiquity, they are not the primary subject of the present book.

Did the Ancient Greeks Recognize Art?

I propose rather to examine the kinds of things that were described as beautiful (Did the term cover the same wide range of objects that it does in modern English usage?) and what the typical response to beauty was understood to be (What did people feel or think of themselves as feeling, when they beheld something they called beautiful?). As I mentioned, one of the characteristic spheres in which the modern notion of beauty is applied is the aesthetic one, that is, as a response or relation to art. Yet some have claimed—with what validity we will examine in due course—that the ancient Greeks had no sense of art as a self-standing sphere of experience, any more than they had a word for “literature” in the way we understand it today. Indeed, this is the dominant view today. As Elizabeth Prettejohn observes in her book about the reception of ancient Greek art, “ancient society, according to a prevalent view, did not have a ‘conception of art comparable to ours.’ ” As a result, seeing ancient sculpture, for example, as part of a “chain of receptions is not just irrelevant to their contemporary context, but a positive falsification.” As Prettejohn says, to scholars today “this sounds like common sense” (Prettejohn 2012, 98). The view was given its most influential expression in a well-known paper by the eminent historian of the Renaissance Paul Oskar

Kristeller, who affirmed that “ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical functions or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation” (Kristeller 1951, 506). According to Kristeller, an understanding of art as an autonomous sphere arose only in the eighteenth century, coincident with the rise of the new discipline of aesthetics.

To be sure, there are also contrary voices. Perhaps the most incisive critic of the view associated with Kristeller is James Porter, who has turned the tables on Kristeller’s picture of the ancient conception by asking: “Is it even true as a description of the state of the arts and their classification in the eighteenth century?” But this still leaves the status of ancient art up in the air. Porter quotes a noted essay, in which Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne signal “a danger in using the general word ‘art’ ” in connection with painted images on classical pottery or friezes on temples, for example, insofar as “significant nuances of contextualization may be effaced.” Their basic thesis is, as Porter puts it, that “the term art risks misleading us into a false identification of the nature of ancient aesthetic production altogether.” If it is “really the case that the ancients had no conception of art comparable to ours,” then the question is, as Porter says: “Can we ever hope to approach their art on its own terms? Or worse still, in order to gain access to ancient culture, must we abandon all hope of approaching it through what we used to call its art?” The question has an immediate bearing on the ancient conception of beauty. For if the ancient Greeks had no notion of “art” as we understand it, we may well wonder whether it makes sense at all to ask whether they thought of beauty as a feature of art itself as opposed to the objects—human or otherwise—represented in a work of art.

The question of whether spheres of life that we consider autonomous were also regarded this way in other cultures and more specifically in classical antiquity is not limited to matters of art or culture. Some scholars have questioned, for example, whether it is right to speak of an ancient Greek or Roman “economy” in the sense of an independent and self-regulating social domain with its own laws and history. They have argued rather that trade and other economic transactions were embedded in social relations generally, and only with the rise of modern capitalism did the economy as such emerge, distinct and separate from the wider social context that included family, religious practices, political formations, and so forth. This view too has been challenged, and other scholars have seen in ancient banking and insurance practices ample evidence of strictly economic activity, in which people made investments with a view to profit and calculated gains and losses in relation to market values. Efforts have been made in recent years to move beyond the polarity of embedded versus autonomous economies by paying closer attention to local behaviors, which may have varied from one place to another or even within different occupations in a single community. The question continues to be disputed, but the debate itself is a salutary reminder of the need to avoid anachronism when we seek to understand ancient attitudes, values, and social categories.

Did the Ancient Greeks Recognize Beauty?

This book is concerned not with artistic beauty as such but with beauty more generally, which of course ranges well beyond the sphere of art. Even in the relatively narrow sense in which it is applied to visually attractive objects, beauty is perceived not only in paintings and sculptures but also in man-made items such as automobiles and furniture, which we would not necessarily classify as works of art. Still, it is hard to say just where the boundary is to be drawn between “art” and “design.” But above all—and in some ways most fundamentally—beauty is an attribute of the human form and of certain objects in the natural world. We do not typically classify these under the rubric of art, although here again our notions of what a beautiful woman or beautiful landscape looks like may well be influenced by artifice, via the cosmetics and fashion industries or images of cultivated gardens and country scenes. Thus Lessing wrote in his classic treatise on poetry and painting: “If beautiful men created beautiful statues, these statues in turn affected the men, and thus the state owed thanks also to beautiful statues for beautiful men.” Our question, then, is whether the ancient Greeks had a well-defined conception of beauty in general, even if they did not “use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together,” in the words of Kristeller. It may seem even less likely that the Greeks lacked the idea of beauty than that they somehow failed to single out the more abstract notions of art or economy, which after all depend on the development of certain social practices that may not be common to all cultures. We can understand, for example, that ritual masks we gaze at in museums may not have been produced with an aesthetic purpose in mind but were intended to serve a religious function, and it is conceivable that images in a classical temple or on the altarpiece in a church were imagined as inspiring something other than an aesthetic response—at least in the first instance. So too, while we may think of the exchange of goods as strictly financial, we can recognize other contexts in which such transactions were primarily intended to promote solidarity and may have been the dominant form of exchange.

But beauty would seem to be a fundamental experience of human beings in any society, ancient or modern. Can there be a culture that has no such concept, or no term to express it? This would seem even more unlikely in the case of ancient Greece, with its brilliant art that to this day has set the standard for what we imagine to be the ideal representation of the human form. As Michael Squire has observed, “Like it or not—and there have been many reasons for not liking it—antiquity has supplied the mould for all subsequent attempts to figure and figure out the human body” (Squire 2011, xi). He adds, “Because Graeco-Roman art bestowed us with our western concepts of ‘naturalistic’ representation . . . ancient images resemble not only our modern images, but also the ‘real’ world around us” (xiii). Can the Greeks really have lacked the very idea of beauty?

Surprising as it may sound, leading scholars have in fact questioned whether any word in classical Greek corresponded to the modern idea of beauty. The absence of a specific term does not, of course, necessarily mean that the concept itself was lacking: languages, including our own, do resort to paraphrase after all, and we may recognize and respond to classes of things for which we have no special name. The so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, according to which the vocabulary and structure of a given language not only influence but in fact strictly determine how its speakers perceive the world, is hardly tenable in its strictest form, which would deny that people can even conceive of a class of things that has no name in their own tongue. Edward T. Jeremiah has recently offered what he calls a “milder version” of the thesis that should “be uncontroversial.” He writes, “What a culture does not have a word for is not important for them as an object of inquiry or socio-cultural signifier” (Jeremiah 2012, 12). Still, it would be no less shocking, perhaps, to discover that beauty was insignificant for the ancient Greeks as a “socio-cultural signifier,” that is, a term charged with a specific meaning and value in their view of the world.

We shall take up in due course the question of whether there was a word for “beauty” or “beautiful” in classical Greek and Latin. For now, let me put the reader at ease and reveal that, despite the reservations entertained by serious scholars on this matter, I will argue that there was indeed a term for “beauty” in Greek and, what is more, that a proper appreciation of its meaning and use has something to tell us about our own ideas of the beautiful. The point requires argument, because if it were self-evident then it would not have been and indeed have remained controversial. But before tackling this debate directly, inevitably via an examination of the ancient Greek vocabulary, it is worth looking at some of the problems that beset the idea of beauty in its modern applications. For the idea of beauty, as we employ it, is not so simple or innocent a notion as it might seem. If beauty turns out to be a problematic concept for us, it may be less surprising to discover that some cultures may make do perfectly well without it or—if they do have such a notion (as I believe the ancient Greeks did)—may define and understand it in ways sufficiently different from ours to shed some light on our own difficulties and possibly on ways to resolve or circumvent them. Regarding the Greeks in particular, we may be able to see how the modern conception of beauty, with whatever baggage of contradictions and tensions it carries, emerged in the first place, since Greek works of art and Greek ideas about art had a massive influence on the Western tradition, even if they were sometimes misunderstood (not that this is necessarily a terrible thing: misunderstanding is one of the great sources of creativity).

Excerpted from “Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea” by David Konstan. Copyright © 2014 by David Konstan. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

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