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history of aesthetics

history of aesthetics

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^rtitoto^" I. If we approach the earlier Greekphilosophers,
or even Plato, the prophet of beauty, expecting

to find in them a simple reflex and appreciation of the plastic

and poetic fancy of their countrymen, we shall be seriously

disappointed. The thought of Hellas passed through all the

phases which were natural to profound and ardent intelligence

at first freely turned upon the world ; and the partial truths

which it successively attained were uttered with a definiteness
and audacity which conveys a first impression of something

like perversity.

When a modern reader finds that the fair humanities of old

religion aroused among the wisest of early philosophers either

unsparing condemnation or allegorical misconception, he is

forced to summon up all his historical sympathy if he would

not conclude that Heracleitus and Xenophanes and Plato, and

the allegorising interpreters of whom Plato tells us, were in-

capable of rational criticism. But in reality this moral and

metaphysical analysis, directed against the substance of a

poetic fancy which was thus beginning to be distinguished from

prosaic history, was the natural sequel of artistic creation, and

the natural forerunner of more appreciative theory.

Creation of the 2. The Creation of Hellenic poetry and forma-

worid of Beauty,

tjyg ^ff ^^j j^g regarded as an intermediate

stage between popular practical religion and critical or philoso-

phical reflection. The legendary content of this art was not

the work of the poet or the formative artist, but of the national
mind in its long development out of savagery. Its imagina-

tive form, on the other hand, was due indeed to the national

mind, but to this mind chiefly as it acted through the individu-

ality of poetic genius, investing the national thought and

emotion with progressive significance and refinement. For

although it may be doubted whether the word corresponding



to beauty or the beautiful was ever used in the whole range

of Hellenic antiquity in a meaning perfectly free from confu-

sion with truth or goodness, yet it is certain that art is more

than nature, and that the definite presentation of ideas in

beautiful shape cannot but prepare the way for an explicit

aesthetic judgment by developing a distinct type of sentiment

and enjoyment.

Thus in Hellenic art and poetry, as it existed in the middle
of the 5th century b.c., we find embodied a consciousness in

relation to beauty, which, if much less than theoretically ex-

plicit, is much more than practical and natural. There is a

naive apprehension of a profound truth in the familiar saying

of Herodotus,^ that Homer and Hesiod made the Hellenic

theogony, and determined the forms and attributes of the gods,

for Hellenic belief The full force of this reflection is mea-

sured by the interval between the early wooden image and

the Phidian statue, or between the superstition of a savage
and Antigone's conception of duty. It was in the world of

fine art that Hellenic genius had mainly recorded, and, in

recording, had created, this transformation.

Season for the 3" When therefore the first recognition of the
Attitude of existence and significance of art takes the shape of

e ec on.

hQgtjjjj-y jq (jjg anthropomorphic content which it

retains, we see not only that the reflective idea of beauty is.

still conspicuous by its absence, but that theory in advancing

beyond the popular faith fails to recognise the actual refine-
ment of that faith by which poetic fancy has paved the way~

for the speculative criticism which condemns it.
On the other hand, we must observe that the criteria now

actually applied—the wholly unsesthetic criteria of reality and

of morality—spring from a principle from which we shall only

in part escape within the limits of Hellenic antiquity.

This principle is, as we shall see, that an artistic representa- ;

tion cannot be treated as diflerent in kind or in aim from a


reality of ordinary life. To make distinction between them is.

always a hard lesson for immature reflection ; but for a Hellenic

thinker there were reasons which made it all but impossible.
The Greek world of ideas, before or outside the philosophic

schools, was wholly free from dualism. Its parts were homo-

geneous. The god, for example, was not conceived as an

1 Hdt. 2.


J 2


unseen being merely capable of an incarnation, such as could

not express or exhaust his full spiritual nature ; rather his real

shape was human, though to reveal it to mortal eye might be
a rare favour, and he lived in a particular hill or in a particu-

lar temple. The representation of a divine being was to

the Greek not a mere symbol, but a likeness ; not a symbol

which might faintly suggest Him who could be known only in

the spirit, but a likeness of one who dwelt on earth, and whose

nature was to be visible, and not to be invisible. Thus, in

speaking of a question about the supernatural in Homer,

Schelling has said that in Homer there is no supernatural,

because the Greek god is a part of nature. And therefore,

although a work of creative idealization unparalleled in the

history of the world had been performed by the plastic fancy

of Greece in the age that culminated with the highest art of

Athens, yet in the absence of any mystic sense of an invisible

order of realities the prevalent impression produced by this

world of beauty was rather that of imitative representation

than of interpretative origination.

Ne lected

4- Even the idea of imitation, indeed, contains

snggestiou In the germ of a fuller sesthetic truth than was ever


attained by Hellenic thought ; for the translation

of an object into a plastic medium involves a double and not
merely a single element,—not merely a consideration of the

object to be represented, but a consideration of the act of

imaginative production by which it is born again under the
new conditions imposed by another medium. Natural com-
mon sense expressed this truth in one of the earliest aesthetic
judgments that Western literature contains, when on the shield

of Achilles, the Homeric poet says,^ "

the earth looked dark

behind the plough, and like to ground that had been ploughed,

although it was made of gold; that was a marvellous piece of


The " marvel "

is that the mind can confer on a medium of

its own choosing the characteristic semblance of what it desires

to represent. But of all that dependsupon this side of imitation
—the spiritual second birth of beauty—we hear but little ex-
plicitly in Hellenic science, although, within defective formulae,

som^ glimpses of it forced themselves upon Aristotle. For

the reasons which have been indicated—the tendency of all



1 3,

immature reflection to judge by reality and utility, and the
absence of a belief in anything which could not be visibly

imitated—the poetic or creative side of artistic representation

did not wholly come to its rights in antiquity. Perhaps it
was even less regarded by the philosophers than it was, in the

consciousness of poetic inspiration, by the epic and lyric

poets, or by Plato himself outside his formal treatment of the

metaphysic of imitative art.


5. It is howevcr the case that the term imita-

tdon^in^i^ttion in ancient aesthetic theory is opposed rather


tQ industrial production than to artistic origina-

tion, and is compatible with a considerable variation and expan-

sion of import, which I shall endeavour to trace in a separate

chapter. It is natural that the earliest formula adopted by

reflection should be strained to breaking point before it is


Further Er-

^- I* ""^7 Still appear extraordinary to us, after

pianation how

all is said, that the art which we contrast with

Greek Art could








be called "imi- our owii as ma peculiar sense ideal, and as equally


remote from the vicious attempt at illusion, and
from the justifiable delight in detail, should have been charac-

terized by enlightened opinion in its own day as a mode of

imitation or mere representation.

If this is our feeling, we may profitably consider in two

respects the nature of the art which we are discussing.

Facility ofimi-

*• ^" the first place, just because the Hellenic

tatiTo Artmakes artist or poet was free from the overwhelming

' *^

sense of spiritual significance which is the

essence of mystic symbolism, he was able to delineate in

large and "

ideal " outlines the general impressions which he

gathered from life by a scrutiny not too microscopic. It is

not unnatural that the art which sets itself to portray what

attracts it in a complete and actual world should be more full

of repose and less tormented with the subtleties of expression

than an art to which every minutest human or natural feature
may be of unutterable symbolic significance.

Heuenic Art not ii. And if we thus see how an imitative art,

id^i^hS'f unburdened with a " mission "

or revelation, may

heen thought,

bg ideal simply because it is at ease; on the

other hand we must to some extent correct our traditional

conception of the degree in which Hellenic beauty was devoid

of strangeness, and humour, and animated expression. The



critics from whom we have derived our current notions of the


classical " and the "

antique " have of course performed a

necessary task, and have revealed a distinction as deep as

life between the ancient and the modern world. Yet, after

all, the ancient world also was alive, and possessed a range of

sympathetic expressiveness which was but inadequately ren-

dered in the first impression made upon modern theorists by

fragments of its monumental sculpture. The identification

of the ancient ideal with the general or abstract, which a due

regard to Greek literature might at once have proved to be a

very partial truth, has been further modified by the labour of
more than a century in piecing together the plastic surround-

ings of this ancient life, and appreciating the descriptions
which assist us to realize them. "

The task before me," ^

writes one whose work in this direction must be a revelation

to all who are not specialists in archaeology, "

The task before
me is touched with inevitable sadness. The record we have

to read is the record of what we have lost. That loss, but for

Pausanias, we should never have realized. He, and he only,

gives us the real live picture of what the art of ancient Athens

was. Even the well-furnished classical scholar pictures the

Acropolis as a stately hill approached by the Propylsea,
crowned by the austere beauty of the Parthenon, and adds to

his picture perhaps the remembrance of some manner of

Erechtheion, a vision of colourless marble, of awe, restraint,

severe selection. Only Pausanias tells him of the colour and

life, the realism, the quaintness, the forest of votive statues,

the gold, the ivory, the bronze, the paintings on the walls,

the golden lamps, the brazen palm-trees, the strange old
Hermes hidden in myrtle leaves, the ancient stone on which

Silenus sat, the smoke-grimed images of Athene, Diitrephes all

pierced with arrows, Kleoitas with his silver nails, the heroes

peeping from the Trojan horse, Anacreon singing in his cups ;

all these, if we would picture the truth and not our own

imagination, we must learn of, and learn of from Pausanias.

" But if the record of our loss is a sad one, it has its meed of

sober joy ; it is the record also of what—if it be ever so little
—in these latter days we have refound."
It is not a false opinion that harmony, severity, and repose

1 Mythology and Monuments of Anct. Athens, by Miss

J, E. Harrison, xi..




are fundamental characters of Hellenic craft and fancy ; th«

history of a single decorative form, such as the acanthus

foli^e, is enough to illustrate the profoundness of the contrast

thus indicated between the antique and the modern. But we
must master and adhere to the principle that although the
given boundaries of Greek aesthetic theory can be in some

degree justified by the comparative limitations of the art
which was its material, yet this justification is only relative,
and means not that Greek aesthetic was an adequate account

of Greek art, but only that it was a natural and obvious one.
Thus we shall find that true aesthetic analysis among the
Greeks extended only to the most formal element that enters

into Hellenic beauty ; while its passion and its human signifi-

cance and its touches of common things attracted the censure of
an unsesthetic criticism and supported the classification of the
whole range of artistic utterance under the superficial title of

imitation." Had the realism of the antique been less modest
and refined, it would have challenged an analysis which would
have replaced censure by explanation. But the time for this
was not yet ; and it will be seen that in spite of the protests
of the philosopher and the satirical comedian, theory was

forced in the long run to become more subtly appreciative as

art became less severely noble.

7. We have now arrived at the point where

Freparedior the Strictly philosophical consideration of aesthetic

^stheuc Theory,

phenomena may be expected to begin. A world

of beautiful shapes and fancies has been brought into being,
which must of necessity have trained the perception to re-

cognise beauty as displayed in the corresponding province

of nature, that is, mainly in the human form, and must have

developed some partly conscious sentiment of the beautiful

as distinguishable from the good and the true. This imaginary

world has been recognised as a new creation both negatively
by the claims of the metaphysician and the moralist, and

positively by the naive appreciation of the historian and the

allegorising construction of the mystic. The mystic is the

forerunner of a later age ; but the historian and the philo-

sopher agree, by their acquiescence and their censure respec-

tively, in treating it as claiming to pass for a simple reproduction

of natural reality. And thus the immense panorama depicted
by Hellenic imagination enters the range of philosophic vision
under the title of mimetic or representative art.

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