Aristotle Research Report #16: The Sources of Beauty

by Peter Saint-Andre


Aristotle uses the word καλός in both an aesthetic sense and an ethical sense. This has caused confusion among translators and commenters alike. Should the word be translated as "beautiful" when talking about art but as "right" or "fine" or "noble" when talking about character, intention, and action? Did Aristotle think that works of art were inextricably tied up with morality or that traits of character were aesthetic in some way? Let's look into the matter.

As to the best translation for the term, I prefer the phrase "beautifully right". Just as an action that is wonderfully appropriate to the situation can be not merely the right thing to do but a beautiful thing to do, so a musical phrase (for instance) can be not merely beautiful but fit just right in the artistic situation.

What are the real sources of such beautifully right action or production, whether ethical or artistic? Aristotle's insights on the topic are spread around several of his works.

In Book 13, Chapter 3 of the book that has come down to us as the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that the greatest ways of being beautifully right are τάξις, συμμετρία, and τὸ ὡρισμένον. These terms themselves aren't necessarily straightforward to understand. τάξις refers to the arrangement of the parts of a thing, such as the various parts of an army, of an animal, or of a work of art or craft; we could use the word coherence to translate it. συμμετρία is the origin of our word symmetry, but I think it is better translated as proportion. τὸ ὡρισμένον is sometimes rendered as finitude or determinateness, but the underlying sense is more like order as opposed to chaos, especially the kind of order that derives from fitness for a purpose (in Book 9, Chapter 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that living is among the things that are good and pleasant in themselves, since they are determinate and what is determinate is of the nature of the good - he goes on to say that a corrupt life or a life of pain is unordered, chaotic, or indeterminate).

In Chapter 7 of the Poetics, Aristotle says that in addition to τάξις a fourth source of beauty is μέγεθος, typically translated as size or magnitude; the example he uses is an animal, which can't be beautiful if it's too tiny to be seen (Aristotle lived 2000 years before the invention of the microsope) or if it is so large that it can't be taken in at a glance (e.g., if it is as long as ten thousand athletic fields, as he says). We can think of this as a matter of stature; my favorite artistic example is the Ecossaises of Beethoven: trifling little pieces 30 seconds long or so, which are cute but perhaps lack the requisite stature to be beautiful.

Also in the Poetics (Chapter 8), Aristotle discusses the importance of unity (τὸ ὅλος): "that which makes no noticeable difference when it is there or not there is no part of the whole". Although this is similar to the coherence of τάξις it seems to be slightly different, so we can consider it a fifth factor.

Finally there is the aspect of seriousness of purpose or significance of subject matter. For instance, Aristotle argues that a tragic play needs to portray actions that are σπουδαῖος (serious, significant, worthy of attention).

So: coherence, proportion, order, stature, unity, and significance. In future posts I'll make use of these concepts to analyze what is beautifully right in both ethics and aesthetics.


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