Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea
Oxford University Press, 2014
Later this week, a dozen strong men will bear a gorgeously ornamented sculpture of the grieving Virgin Mary aloft through the thronging streets of Seville. In the highly charged atmosphere of the traditional Good Friday procession, spontaneous voices will rise above the swarm, from the cobbles, from the windows and balconies and rooftops—”Guapa!” they’ll say—”Beautiful!”
But something gets lost in translation. Guapa doesn’t quite correspond to our expansively accommodating word “beautiful”; the Spanish word refers specifically to human beauty, not to works of art or picturesque landscapes. Here, it is clearly directed not at the seventeenth-century statue but at the figure it represents, and it carries rich overtones of desire that, in English, are far more diluted. David Konstan sees a similar thinning out at work in modern aesthetics, particularly those influenced by Kant: he seizes on a remark of Roger Scruton’s, that the Virgin’s beauty is “a symbol of purity, and for this very reason is held apart from the realm of sexual appetite.” Scruton locates this transcendence of appetite in Plato, for whom, he says, beauty was “not just an invitation to desire, but also a call to renounce it.” Konstan places Scruton’s interpretation side-by-side with that of Alexander Nehamas, who cites Plato as the antidote to the estrangement of beauty from desire: Plato, he insists, characterises beauty as “the quarry of erôs“.
As Konstan argues, Plato’s contested legacy betokens a wider modern tension between erotic and “disinterested” responses to beauty; he might have cited Keats’s famous Ode on a Grecian Urn, which wavers between a poignant admiration for the immutability of the love the urn depicts (“All breathing human passion far above”) and a vexed dissatisfaction with it (“Cold Pastoral!”) The question for Konstan is, what did the Greeks themselves make of these issues? What did they mean by beauty, and how did they respond to it? Answering these questions not only takes us closer to understanding Plato’s dialogues; it throws substantial light on our own aesthetic dilemmas.
In his History of Beauty, the Italian writer and critic Umberto Eco denied that the Greeks had any concept for beauty at all: “the very word kalón, which only improperly may be translated by the term ‘beautiful’,” he wrote, “ought to put us on our guard.” Yet Konstan argues they did indeed have such a concept, albeit one no less problematic than our own. In a work of extraordinary erudition, he offers a detailed and highly rewarding survey of the use of kalós in Greek literature, from the Homeric poems right through archaic, classical, and Hellenistic writing. But the most original aspect of Konstan’s study is the attention he pays to a slightly different word, kállos. He identifies a clear distinction between the use of this noun and that of its more common adjectival form. It’s a difference neatly summed up in a verse from Theocritus:
a boy’s beauty [kállos] is a fine [kalón] thing, but it endures a short while.
As Eco recognised, the adjective kalón is far more semantically rich than even our English word “beautiful”; mostly it makes more sense to translate it as “fine” or “excellent”, as when ancient writers apply it to clothes, shields, laws, or even moral qualities. The particular resonance beauty has for us in relation to art and nature (another two historically troublesome categories) was not familiar to the Greeks.
Kállos, on the other hand, had a more narrowly erotic charge than “beauty”. Athena bathes Odysseus in kállos, turning his hair dark as hyacinth so that he becomes irresistible to Nausicaa and Penelope, while in the Iliad, Zeus abducts Ganymede precisely for his youthful kállos. The characteristic response to this quality, then, is desire, motivated by a visual encounter. “No one has ever escaped or will escape love,” writes the second-century Greek novelist Longus, “as long as kállos exists and eyes can see.” Lucian, his contemporary, speaks startlingly of a boy’s kállos “splashing against the eyes”, and asserts that such a sight brings with it the longing to touch.
Applied to the human form, kalós could naturally mean something close to kállos (because one might expect excellence in the human body to correspond to the kind of beauty that arouses desire). But sometimes the two are sharply distinguished. As the archaic poet and statesman Solon gloomily points out, one who is kalós does not necessarily have a pleasing shape (morphên khariessan). In Euripides’ Hippolytus, Phaedra remonstrates with those who prefer pleasure to kalón, here configured as the very opposite of sensual allure.
Yet in Aristophanes’ Clouds, male beauty and moral virtue are closely identified. Personifications of morality and self-indulgence vie for the soul of young Phidippides, with the former offering the following compelling argument:
if you carry out these things I mention,
if you concentrate your mind on them,
you’ll always have a gleaming chest, bright skin,
broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks,
and a little prick.
This is the physical ideal we recognise in classical sculpture , an ideal which could be described as kaloí kai agathoi (beautiful and good, a fine physique representative of sound living) rather than associated with kállos. Indeed, kállos could be construed as positively vicious in the wrong context, the badge of prostitutes and pretty boys. In Euripides’ Andromache, the eponymous hero thunders that “it is not kállos, woman, but virtues that delight one’s bedmate”, while the warts-and-all sculpture of the Roman Republic goes one further by proclaiming that virtue needs no adornment.
As Konstan shows, kállos was increasingly employed to refer to things other than the human form. The fifth-century BC sculptor Polyclitus wrote an influential treatise on proportion which may have helped to speed up the application of beauty to objects other than the human body. The rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus regarded kállos as a formal feature of literary style, analogizing from the harmony and proportion of the body to that of rhythm and syntax. Meanwhile Plato, Aristotle, and the church fathers all spoke of the kállos of the soul. Konstan is keen to retain the note of sensual appeal in all these applications, but sometimes this is a strain. Evidently, the carpet on which Agamemnon fears to tread—which is described as possessing kállos—does not inspire erôs, but Konstan nonetheless ventures that “[it is] perceived, I think, as being desirable.” We can easily understand desire as a response to representational art, but we might more readily expect to encounter an expression of longing for a carpet in a Ronald Firbank novel than a Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was much given to metaphor, and perhaps there is a more metaphorical dimension to his choice of words here than Konstan would strictly prefer. But this takes nothing away from Konstan’s persuasive case that “there is no necessary rupture between beauty and desire.”
Having established as much, Konstan returns to Plato. Not without justification, then, he is more sympathetic towards Nehamas’s position than Scruton’s, writing that “for all its elevation to the level of a transcendent idea, beauty remains the object of erôs or desire and is the source of human aspiration to higher things.” If “of all things on earth, it is beauty—physical, bodily beauty […]—that is most capable of drawing us upward to the dimly recollected world of pure ideas”, it is clearly nonsensical to speak of a “rupture between beauty and desire”. Yet in the Symposium, Diotima informs us that physical beauty is merely a manifestation of a higher beauty , its purpose being to draw the soul upward in transcendence of purely physical attachments. Thus while Konstan insists that the “denaturing” of beauty begins with Christian fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, one might equally plausibly argue that the contradictions were in Plato from the beginning.
In any case Konstan’s touchstone is not Plato but a little-known oration of the fourth-century writer Themistius, the Erotikos, written in praise of the Roman emperor Gratian. In this extraordinary speech, delivered to the imperial senate, the orator tells of his days cruising the gymnasia and palaestrae in fruitless pursuit of a young lover who combined beauty of body and soul. Frustrated by his lack of success, he concludes that ideal beauty is “impossible to grasp with the senses” and seeks it out instead in the virtue of the great men of the imperial court; yet however noble they may have been, such men were simply too old to inspire erôs. It is the young emperor Gratian who, as Konstan puts it, “unites perceptible and moral beauty; neither is sacrificed to the other.” Themistius explicitly rejects his former denial of desire, and his extensive deployment of the word kállos, Konstan convincingly argues, should be read as nothing less than a sign of his sexual intentions.
In addition to his wide-ranging review of Greek literature, Konstan helpfully situates Greek beauty in relation to Latin and Hebrew practice. Intriguingly, the usage of the Hebrew words ṭôb and yapeh is not all that different from that of kalós and kállos. The authors of the Septuagint, who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, are even attuned to the metaphorical quality of certain uses of yapeh, boldly translating it as kállos.
The Latin pulcher had at least as wide a remit as kalós, but although there were other words for physical beauty (such as formosus), where pulcher modifies a human subject its meaning is clearly bound up with the evocation of amor. Konstan has short shrift for translators deaf to this nuance. Generally, where Latin writers apply pulcher to works of art, like Greek writers they seem to have in mind the subject represented, the quality of the work as a whole, or more commonly the pleasures of certain aspects of the work, rather than the kind of rapt experience Scruton describes. Cicero may denounce the rapacious magistrate Verres for his “erotic urge to possess works of art”, but his alternative is not a pristinely aesthetic response to beauty stripped of desire, but the decoration of public spaces that would confer reputation on the benefactor and glorify the state.
But there is a passage in Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics which seems to gesture in Scruton’s direction. Aristotle says that overindulgence in sex is intemperate, but that lingering over a beautiful statue is not, because the pleasure taken in the statue exists apart from desire:
If, in fact, someone who is contemplating a fine [kalós] statue or horse or human being, or is listening to someone singing, does not wish to eat or drink or have sex but rather to contemplate the fine things [ta kalá] or listen to the singers, he would not seem to be intemperate.
He goes on to say that what distinguishes human beings from animals is that the latter are “more or less insensitive to pleasures other than touch and taste, such as the pleasures of harmony or k√°llos, for they seem to feel nothing in the contemplation of fine things or in listening to what is harmonious.” Curiously, Aristotle here seems to describe a form of aesthetic contemplation much like that of Scruton, and of his intellectual forefather, Immanuel Kant.
Kant is inevitably the villain in Konstan’s narrative. In the last chapter, he is held responsible for severing the bond between beauty and desire Konstan has traced throughout Greek culture, and which survived in Leibniz only to be blown up by Kantian aesthetics. “Thanks to Kant,” Konstan writes, “beauty was deprived of the ability to inspire passion.” It is no surprise, then, that he is quick to assert that Aristotle’s comments are in fact “far removed from Kant’s concerns”. To support this view, he protests that Aristotle is not concerned to “[isolate] a response specific to art”, or even to visual beauty—but then, neither is Kant. Indeed, the examples Kant gives in the Critique of Judgement of what he calls “free beauty” (that is, those objects the appreciation of which is said to be entirely disinterested) include music, birds, and flowers. Konstan adduces Derrida, who parodies Kant’s soi-disant disinterested pleasure:
I take pleasure in what does not interest me, in something of which it is at least a matter of indifference whether I like it or not.
Parodies, but also travesties. As Kant writes, “a judgement upon an object of our delight may be wholly disinterested but withal very interesting.” T.S. Eliot makes the vital distinction in Little Gidding:
There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life.
As the philosopher Charles Taylor has eloquently remarked, “it would be a false psychology that should treat ‘contemplation’ as passive, in the sense of being inert”; on the contrary, it “takes all the energy” we are endowed with.
The twentieth-century reaction against beauty had many points of origin, but doubtless this mistaken association with a kind of quietism did not help. The horrors of World War One (and Two), and the accusation (substantially justified) that high culture was an ally, or even a weapon, of the bourgeoisie, combined with the entirely reasonable desire to widen the range of objects that could be described as having aesthetic value to cut beauty down to size.
It was a necessary operation. As Konstan shows, the appreciation of beauty was only one of many potential responses to art (moral, emotional, intellectual…) throughout most of history; only in the eighteenth century did it acquire anything like primacy. And we are more conscious than ever that art emerges from, and remains forever caught up in, a maelstrom of political, social, and economic conditions. But while art can never be abstracted from those conditions, neither is it exhausted by them. To wonder about beauty is thus not to long for some kind of Bourbon restoration of eighteenth-century aesthetics, but merely for a more inclusive—that is to say a more curious—critical culture. By drawing attention to the ancient connection between beauty and desire, Konstan rehabilitates the delight that will erupt in the streets of Seville this week, and that our Kantian consciences are inclined to suppress. But one hopes, too, that there is room for the patient, passionate attention Kant, and his Greek precursors, evoke, and that is all too breezily dismissed as the merest mystification. After all, to paraphrase Aristotle, beauty is experienced in many ways.
Fergus McGhee  is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.