A large portion of the history of ancient Greek aesthetics is focused on aesthetics in relation to the performing arts. This tradition starts with Pythagoras, who is said to have been a great musical theorist. His influence continued in the Classical period, and most notably with Aristotle. In the Hellenistic period, the most influential figure in this tradition is Aristoxenus. Aristoxenus’ Synopsis of music is a great source for the history of ancient Greek aesthetics in this period. Aristoxenus wrote his book in the second century AD, but it is believed to have been part of a vast and highly influential collection of texts that spread Neoplatonism far and wide.
Aristotle’s Poetics is a treatise that deals with the performing arts. It is organized in three books and is the most renowned work of ancient Greek aesthetics. Aristotle approaches aesthetics as a techne in the same sense as Plato. He contends that the arts and the sciences are closely related and that the human intellect is the most complete form of techne. He argues that the purpose of art is episteme, or knowledge. Moreover, he believes that because art is knowledge, it is poiesis in the same sense as philosophy, and, thus, does not require any qualification of beauty.
The theory of aesthetics that is most commonly associated with Plato can be reconstructed from his The Republic, where Plato systematically delineates the ideal city and the ideal state of nature. In his writings, Plato is keen to link beauty and virtue. He argues that the virtuous person experiences beautiful things as beautiful and ugly things as ugly. He believes that beauty is a necessary condition of virtue. Plato’s theory of beauty provides us with a detailed account of ideal beauty. He takes aesthetics to be a techne, a skill that allows one to accurately represent reality. Thus, Plato’s theory of beauty is a theory about the poiesis of beauty.
The philosophers from the various ancient Greek philosophical traditions had various attitudes towards the study of art and its relation to philosophy. Some of them focused their attention on visual art and studied the relation of art to philosophy more carefully than others. Plato was a notable exception in this regard. In the context of his theoretical work, he is more of a critic than a theorist. His position is that art is merely a tool to convey a message, and that the message can be more effectively conveyed through language. His position on art was, and still is, a significant contribution to aesthetics.
The first philosophical school to become prominent was the Epicureans, a group of atomistic and physicalistic philosophers that arose in the fourth century BC in Athens. Their philosophy was an attempt to combine the atomistic philosophy of Democritus and Leucippus with the doctrines of moral and political quietism defended by the Stoics. Epicureans held that pleasure was the supreme good and that the pursuit of knowledge was the way to gain pleasure. In terms of aesthetics, their views are best understood as a combination of three different theories: that of the origin of beauty from proportion, that of beauty as functional usefulness and that of beauty as mental harmony or phantasia. 827ec27edc