Since its coinage in the mid-18th cent., ‘aesthetics’ has come gradually to embrace philosophies of both art and beauty (whether natural or created). Antiquity lacked any explicit tradition of thought which directly matched such categories. But it would be tendentious, for at least two reasons, to conclude that there was no ancient aesthetics. First, aesthetics has scarcely established a theoretical self-sufficiency for itself; its issues cut across the domains of psychology, ethics, and politics, and can be elucidated by thinkers who do not overtly acknowledge a sui generis aesthetic realm. Secondly, the modern development of aesthetics has repeatedly addressed texts and ideas deriving from Greek and Roman culture. An illuminating history of aesthetics would have much to say about ancient roots and influences.
Materials for aesthetics can be traced in at least four kinds of writing: philosophy, literary criticism, art criticism (on painting, sculpture, architecture), and rhetoric. While the separate ramifications of these traditions are complex, they combine to demarcate a particular group of activities (poetry, music, dance, the visual arts) as sharing a mimetic/representational status, and to explore questions—often posed by inter-artistic comparisons—concerning the creation, content, form, style, and effects of the products of these arts. Though this demarcation is not identical to the modern category of ‘(fine) art’, the disparity should not be exaggerated; modern conceptions have grown from 18th-cent. theories, especially Batteux's, which attempted to remodel classical principles of mimesis. Nor have subsequent challenges to these principles, or shifts towards expressionism in definitions of art, broken the threads linking modern aesthetics to antiquity. Whether understood as a process engaged in by artists, or as a facet of what is communicated by their works, expression is certainly perceived by ancient thinkers: it is evinced, for example, by applications of mimeticist language to music, to the ‘speaking’ qualities of visual artefacts, and to the translation of mental/imaginative ideas into artistic form (e.g. Cic. Orat. 8–10; Plotinus, Enn. 5. 8. 1).
As this suggests, mimesis provides a supple concept of representation. It has scope to cover a large range of modes of depiction and symbolism, to cater for variations running from detailed realism to imaginative idealism (the latter being a recurrent strain in ancient mimeticism), and to encompass different accounts—circling around polarities of nature and craft, inspiration and technique—of artists' relationships to their works. Ancient attitudes to mimetic art correspondingly contain many distinctive configurations of emphasis: the psychologically and politically grounded moralism of Plato (1), which denies aesthetic autonomy yet recognizes the potently heightened experiences made possible by artistic resources; the carefully poised arguments of Aristotle's Poetics, with their attention to genre and structure, but also their guiding concern for mimetic significance and its emotional implications; the richly metaphorical stylistic terms of a long tradition of art criticism, now chiefly to be glimpsed in the summaries of Pliny (1)HN bks. 34–6, as well as in the rhetorical descriptions of works of art in the Philostrati and Callistratus (5); the earnest reflections of ‘Longinus’, On the Sublime, where categories of rhetorical analysis are simultaneously employed and yet transcended by an emphasis on the capacity of language to transmit the emotional, intellectual, and imaginative insight of creative minds; and the metaphysical theses of Plotinus, who adjusts Platonic categories so as to grant to (some) artistic images the power to convey intimations of transcendent truth, and who constructs a unitary, spiritual concept of ‘beauty’ which discards conventional notions of order/symmetry, and traces manifestations of the beautiful back to the ultimate source of being and goodness.
This compressed selection of references spans matters stretching from the sensory features to the social and religious significance of works of art. Yet the list merely hints at some of the points at which aesthetics, qua general views of the nature of the arts and of beauty, emerges from the currents of ancient thought. The fertility, and capacity for further development, of these views is attested by historical influence: Pliny's critical vocabulary provided a paradigm for 15th-cent. Italian art criticism; Aristotle's Poetics became canonical for literary theory from the 16th to the 18th century, and continued thereafter to provide a contested model for philosophizing about art; ps.-Longinus stimulated the 18th cent.'s meditations on sublimity, which were in turn a precursor of Romanticism; Plato and Plotinus, separately and in synthesis, informed versions of aesthetic idealism in the Renaissance, among the Romantics, and for 19th-cent. philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Hegel.
It would be wrong to pretend that ancient thinkers had discovered all the concerns of modern aestheticians; but equally mistaken to suppose that there is a chasm between the two. Proponents of aesthetic autonomy are sometimes dismissive of the strong ancient tendency to connect both art and beauty to more general accounts of human needs and values. But it is part of the importance of this tendency that, notwithstanding its many internal modulations, it marks out a vital alternative to doctrines of aesthetic self-sufficiency: an alternative which rests on the conviction that a historically sensitive aesthetics should engage with the intricate network of factors—psychological, ethical, religious, political—underlying the practices and categories of human culture. See art: ancient attitudes to.