A Stoic Response to Beauty


A Stoic Response to Beauty “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” — William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ The Stoics aren’t exactly famous for their ideas about beauty, and it is easy to understand why. Being champions of reason (all hail), the Stoics would seem to have little interest in a discipline as subjective and emotionally charged as aesthetics. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Stoics did hold well-formed ideas about beauty, even going so far as to regard everything that is good as beautiful. While the bulk of Stoic material about beauty has been lost to the dustbin of history, much of it can be inferred through their writings about ethics. In several Stoic-inspired texts, aesthetic language is often deployed to make a point, particularly in the heat of a moral argument. To kalon, for example, frequently crops up in the writings of Aristotle and Cicero, a Greek term which roughly translates to beautiful, honorable and noble. Nevertheless, the most explicit Stoic definition of beauty comes from the fragmentary works of Chrysippus, the third school of the Stoa, who defined it as “a summetria of parts with each other and with a whole.” As Galen, a physician to Marcus Aurelius, records: “Chrysippus… holds beauty does not consist in the elements of the body (in themselves) but in the harmonious proportion of the parts. The proportion of one finger to another, of all fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the whole arm, and in short, everything to everything else.” (De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, V.448)

A Stoic Response to Beauty