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Ancient Aesthetics

Lecturer: Valery Vinogradovs

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2019

When we talk about aesthetics, we tend to refer to a vast philosophical discipline usually traced back to a number of key 18th century thinkers, such as Baumgarten, Hume, Diderot, and Kant. However, it would be careless to assume that prior to the establishment of aesthetics as an independent branch philosophers had not considered topics that can be attributed to aesthetics. In fact, it is argued that we can even find aesthetics in the philosophical doctrines of the dead and yet deeply impressive civilisation of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. This course offers an insight into the aesthetics of our direct intellectual ancestors. The primary material used to put this course together belongs to Alexey Losev, perhaps the most significant philosopher of a life-long Soviet era. Aesthetics, Losev posits, is not so much the study of the beautiful, but rather the study of expressive forms of being, and of the various degrees of excellence of such expressivity. As Losev puts it, ‘the synthesis of an entity’s inner life and the various ways to subjectively express it – is aesthetics’ (HoAA, VII 2, 105). An ancient myth, a philosophical system, a fight, Socrates or Nietzsche – they all have their own expressivity, whether it is ugly or beautiful, dull or witty, humble or monstrous. Losev argues that the older, more tested and developed an entity is, the more it is expressive – or aesthetic. Losev began to write a work of his lifetime, an extensive investigation titled A History of Ancient Aesthetics (HoAA), as early as in the 1930’s. However, due to the humiliations of the totalitarian regime, the devastations of the war and its aftermath, the first volume of Losev’s magnum opus was published only in 1963, when the author was seventy years old. Before Losev’s death in 1988, another six volumes had been published, with the final one (comprised of two books, like volume 7) printed in 1994, after the fall of the regime. Losev's HoAA is by far the world’s most comprehensive study of ancient aesthetics (cf. Tatarkiewicz’s Ancient Aesthetics, Büttner’s Antike Ästhetic, Carchia’s L’estetica Antica, and Mason’s recent Ancient Aesthetics). The ten-book masterpiece has not yet been translated into any other languages.

One of the main tasks of our course will be to entertain a detailed portrait of the Ancient culture, an original character developed throughout more than one thousand years. The course will emphasise the interconnectedness within the epoch. We can say with some certainty that the Ancients, despite the stark differences in their philosophies, pursued excellence in expressivity: in a dialogue, an amphitheatre, a mathematical reflection, a youthful body, a stanza, an old age, in superiority and, above all, in action. Paying a particular attention to transitions, allusions, links, juxtapositions, and conflicts, we shall attempt to re-imagine the integrity of an Ancient way of thinking, and its essential aesthetic component.

Course Schedule

1. The Early Classics I: Homer and Pythagoras

  • Vivante, P (1965). ‘Homer and the Aesthetic Moment’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 4 (3), 415-438.
  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘Pythagorean Aesthetics’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 80-88.

2. The Early Classics II: Democritus and Sophists

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of Democritus’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 89-94.
  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of the Sophists and of Socrates’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 95-110.

3. The Classics I: Socrates and Plato

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of the Sophists and of Socrates’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 95-110.
  • Sider, D (1977). ‘Plato’s Early Aesthetics: The Hippias Major’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 35 (4), 465-471.
  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of Plato‘, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 112-137.

4. The Classics II: Plato

  • Mason, A (2016). ‘Plato: Art, Beauty, Philosophy’, in Ancient Aesthetics, London: Routledge, 61-70.
  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of Plato‘, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 112-137.

5. The Classics III: Aristotle’s Metaphysical System

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of Aristotle’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 138-165.

6. The Classics IV: Aristotle’s Poetics

  • Berczeller, E (1967). ‘The “Aesthetic Feeling” and Aristotle’s Catharsis Theory’, The Journal of Psychology, vol. 65 (2), 261-271.
  • Mason, A (2016). ‘Aristotle: Introduction to the Poetics’, in Ancient Aesthetics, London: Routledge, 71-86.
  • Mason, A (2016). ‘Aristotle: The Shape of Tragedy’, in Ancient Aesthetics, London: Routledge 101-114.

7. The Early Hellenism I: The Stoics

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of the Stoics’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 185-199.
  • Celkyte, A (2017). ‘The Stoic Definition of Beauty as Summetria’, Classical Quarterly, vol. 67 (1), 88-105

8. The Early Hellenism II: The Epicureans and the Sceptics

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of the Epicureans’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 174-179.
  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of the Sceptics’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 180-184.

9. The Late Hellenism: Plotinus

  • Tatarkiewicz, W et al. (1970). ‘The Aesthetics of Plotinus’, in Ancient Aesthetics, Berlin: De Gruyter, 318-330.
  • Mason, A (2016). ‘Plotinus’, in Ancient Aesthetics, London: Routledge, 141-151.

10. The Last Ages: Iamblichus and Proclus

  • Iamblichus (2002), De Anima, London: Brill.
  • Cleary, J (2013). ‘Proclus Elaborate Defence of Platonic Ideas’, in Studies on Plato, Aristotle, and Proclus : Collected Essays on Ancient Philosophy of John Cleary, London: Brill, 515-524.

11. Into the Christian World: Augustine and Emperor Julian

  • Jeffrey, DL(2014). ‘The Beauty of the Cross in Augustine’s Aesthetics’, Nova et Vetera, vol. (3), 769-789.
  • Hilton, J (2017). ‘Myth and narrative Fiction in the Works of the Roman Emperor Julian’, Listy Filologicke, vol. 140 (1-2), 39-70.

12. Conclusions: Losev’s and Ours

All lectures will be delivered with a minimal use of technology. As always, each week sensitive cultural examples as well as real and hypothetical scenarios will be used to demonstrate the relevance of the considered ideas.