Stoic Concepts of Beauty

My thesis is dedicated to exploring Stoic concepts of beauty, and especially those found in the fragmentary works of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa. The Stoics are hardly the first philosophers that come to mind when discussing ancient theories of beauty. Their reputation for defending stringent moralistic claims, for instance, that everything but virtue is of indifferent value, seems to suggest that the Stoics would not be interested in aesthetics. Moreover, while such ancient works as Plato’s Symposium and Plotinus’ Enneads theorise about nature and epistemology of beauty in a very explicit manner, the extant Stoic fragments do not contain any comparable material.

(c) Flickr: jp extrabox
(c) Flickr: jp extrabox

This appearance, I argue, is deceptive. The Stoics extensively employed aesthetic vocabulary in various arguments, and they even had a definition of beauty. I am interested not only in how the Stoic definition of beauty as summetria of parts with each other and with a whole – of which Chrysippus might have been an author or at least a proponent – conceptualises aesthetic properties, but also how such a notion of aesthetic properties corresponds with other aesthetic theories in Classical and Hellenistic periods. I argue that formalist and functionalist features of this definition indicates high sophistication of Stoic aesthetic thought which made it very relevant and important contribution to philosophical debates on aesthetic properties at this time.

I also analyse the way in which Chrysippus employed aesthetic vocabulary in other arguments and what conceptual underpinnings this usage had. Arguments using aesthetic language are often of great importance to overall Stoic thought. For instance, beauty and orderliness of the heavenly bodies is used in the Stoic theological arguments as a proof that the world is generated not arbitrarily but in a rational manner. Similarly, the argument ‘that only the beautiful is the good’ shows that aesthetic notions were important for the Stoic definition of the good and ethics more generally. When interpreting these and similar cases, I question what motivated Chrysippus to employ aesthetic vocabulary in these arguments, what role aesthetic terms play and how these conceptualisations of beauty terms correspond to each other and the definition of beauty. I am interested in both the conceptual underpinnings of these usages of aesthetic vocabulary and how discovering these conceptual underpinnings lead to a more nuanced understanding of overall arguments.

Although I do not assume that Chrysippus had a single clearly-formulated theory of aesthetic properties, the outcome of my research shows that there were coherent attempts to theorise aesthetic properties in Chrysippus’ work. These attempts show not only sophistication of thought but also an engagement with existing aesthetic tradition, which makes the study of Chrysippean conceptualisations of aesthetic properties interesting both philosophically and historically.

Aiste Celkyte, PhD student, University of St. Andrews

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