The Stoic Theory of Beauty

Aistė Čelkytė, The Stoic Theory of Beauty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020). 9781474461610; 9781474461634.

Reviewed by Michael McOsker, Institut für Altertumskunde, Universität zu Köln,

What is good about peacock tail feathers? And what do they have in common with the sage, who is the only truly beautiful person?

This book by Aistė Čelkytė, a revision of her PhD thesis (“Chrysippus on the Beautiful: Studies in a Stoic Conception of Aesthetic Properties,” Univ. of Edinburgh), attempts, with some success, to answer these (perhaps bizarre) questions and others like them.1 She focuses on Chrysippus, which has advantages and disadvantages. Focusing on one Stoic means that the reconstruction is not a mishmash of different philosophers’ views.2 But Čelkytė acknowledges that she must leave aside Stoics like Cleanthes (author of a Hymn to Zeus) and Seneca (tragedian as well as philosopher), not to mention Diogenes of Babylon (an important thinker about music). In practice, other Stoics pop up regularly, both as evidence for Chrysippus and as comparanda. On the basis of a number of ancient reports, she argues that beauty for the Stoics is at its base symmetria, proportionality. It arises from a functionally good arrangement of parts, both among themselves and in relation to the whole. It is a quality that supervenes on wholes, and it is co-occurring with or somehow indicative of the Good. That is, what matters is how well the arrangement of parts allows the whole to perform its proper function. Depending on one’s reading of the evidence, beauty might also require variety of color (ποικιλία), and the beauty of mental objects might have been described. Beauty itself, as Diogenes Laërtius 7.102 tells us, is a preferred indifferent, but its close association with the Good makes it particularly interesting and raises a number of questions. Further, the Stoic account potentially has some interesting things to say to modern students of aesthetics, and investigation of its role within Stoicism is broadly illuminating.

The introduction (Chapter One) lays out the background of the problem in the history of aesthetics with a focus on modern positions (some ancient views are treated in Chapter Seven). Most interesting is Tatarkiewicz who, in his History of Aesthetics, lays out three theories of beauty: the “standard” view, according to which only aesthetic experiences can be beautiful, the “Greek” view, according to which not only those experiences but also customs and thoughts can be beautiful, and the “Stoic” view, according to which only visually perceptible objects can be beautiful.3 It is interesting that Tatarkiewicz correctly identified a distinct Stoic view against the generic “Greek” background, even if he was completely wrong about what constituted it. Čelkytė summarizes other modern views, and, following Destree and Murray, holds that ancient aesthetics can be studied meaningfully in their own right, despite their differences from Renaissance and later aesthetics (a matter of some discussion among specialists).4

Chapter Two discusses the Stoic theory of value, the famous view that only virtue is good, only vice bad, and everything else, including beauty, is an indifferent (though beauty is a “preferred” one). This did not prevent it from being philosophically interesting for the Stoics, and the question was not subsumed under ethics, either. Čelkytė establishes that for the Stoics beauty is an appropriate object of our impulses, though its possession will not make us happy. Much of the material in this chapter will be familiar to those who have had some exposure to Stoic thought.

Chapter Three is the most difficult in the book and handles the question of what makes things—especially the virtues—attractive. The answer is their formal features: virtue is structured and structures human actions. These formal features make it a proper object of aesthetic analysis (see Chapter Five for more along these lines). Most of this chapter is taken up with a discussion of the “KA argument,” that μόνον τὸ καλὸν ἀγαθὸν εἶναι (“only the kalon is good”). I’m not sure that her discussion of the argument is correct on every point,5 but Čelkytė is right that Seneca’s understanding should be preferred to Diogenes’: the terms are not meant to be synonyms, but to describe different attributes that have a basis “in one thing” (ex uno, as Seneca puts it), that is, in the goodness or correctness or proper functioning of the object in question. Accordingly, beauty serves as a sign that points to the true good (more on this topic in Chapter Five).

Chapter Four investigates the paradoxon (“surprising claim”) that the Stoic sage is the only beautiful person. Plutarch objects that the Stoics are just arbitrarily redefining “beauty” and “love,” so Čelkytė defends the Stoics by making their redefinitions plausible: because the sage is virtuous, she is beautiful, and love is the appropriate reaction to something (or someone) beautiful. Beauty has to do with the kind of thing under analysis, not just visible properties or the like. For humans, what truly matters is the soul and its dispositions and constitution, which, being physical for the Stoics, are thus susceptible to this kind of aesthetic analysis. Cicero’s discussions of the problem make clear that there is an aesthetic component lurking in all this talk of virtue.

Chapter Five treats beauty in Stoic theology against a particularly wide-ranging background, including their accounts of mixtures and technē. The Stoics had a sort of watchmaker argument, probably directed against the Epicureans: just as when we see a beautiful house (domus pulchra, Cic. N.D. 3.26), we assume that its masters (domini) built it, so we should infer that a dominus built this world. Plato’s Timaeus is in the background, but because the Stoics rejected the forms, they had to locate the source of the world’s beauty in the creator god/Zeus/Nature/the creative fire itself. Chrysippus used peacock feathers as an example: for the sake of the feathers’ beauty, peacocks were created, and peahens were created for the sake of the peacocks (and to continue the species). Apparently useless or even bad beautiful things thus have a role to play in the larger system. Instances of beauty like this are not particularly cosmologically important (as Čelkytė recognizes), but act as signs which allow us to infer that a creator exists

Chapter 6 treats the Stoic definition of beauty: the meaning of symmetria is made clear (“proportionality” rather than “symmetry”). Čelkytė argues that color should be added to the definition from reports in Cicero and Plotinus, as well as the appearance of ποικιλία (“variety of color”) in Stoic theological arguments. Most of the chapter is spent responding to Plotinus’s criticism of the Stoic view: (1) How can a whole be beautiful if the parts aren’t? (2a) How are immaterial things, like virtues, beautiful? and (2b) What allows the Stoics to say that virtues are beautiful but vices aren’t, if their answer to (2a) is that symmetros (“proportionate”) means “harmonious”? Čelkytė’s responses are that (1) Beauty is a property that supervenes on an arrangement, so the parts separately need not be beautiful (a beautiful person’s toe might not be beautiful in isolation), and that (2) Beauty supervenes only on things that function properly, and vices and wrong opinions are malfunctions, as it were, so they cannot be beautiful. (Functional beauty has an interesting history in ancient thought, from Plato’s Hippias Major through Xenophon’s Memorabilia to Aristotle’s biology.)

Chapter Seven briefly situates Stoic aesthetics within the history of ancient thought: certain artists, like Polyclitus, and the Pythagoreans found explanations of beauty in mathematics. Plato used the forms, Aristotle revises the artists’ account. The Stoics’ position apparently became free-floating and was picked up by Hermogenes of Tarsus and Galen, who says (Plac. 5.3.17 = 5.449 Kühn) that it is correct “according to all the doctors.” Indeed, it is easy to see how doctors would be attracted to a definition that emphasizes the proper functioning of complex systems.

From this summary a few things emerge. The book is dedicated to aesthetics, specifically the question “What is beauty?,” rather than the philosophy of art. The Stoic positions on poetry, music, painting, etc. are not discussed here, though future work on those topics must take her results into account.6 The main question is, “How does beauty fit into Stoic philosophy?”

The book’s goal is to establish what the Stoics were talking about when they talked about beauty, which is closely allied, somehow, with goodness. Because the Stoics conceived of their philosophy as entirely interconnected, the argument sometimes gives the impression that beauty is, as it were, the spider at the center of the Stoic web, pulling all the strings. This picture is only a little misleading: goodness is really at the center, and beauty is merely a co-occurring property, but very many parts of Stoic philosophy must be brought into the discussion. Some topics, like political theory and most emotions, are not treated, and others, like love, in not much detail, so there is much room for further work along Čelkytė’s lines.

I have a worry about the Greek vocabulary of the Stoic theory: in the three Greek definitions of beauty on pp. 145–47, κάλλος is used (and pulchritudo is in the Latin one), but τὸ καλόν (and honestum) appears in the discussions of the KA argument. Is τὸ κάλλος really the same as τὸ καλόν? κάλλος means “beauty” fairly narrowly, but the meaning of καλός extends broadly into the practical (“of good quality, useful”) and moral (“noble, honorable”) spheres.7 That is, τὸ κάλλος and τὸ καλόν are not prima facie interchangeable, and treating them as such requires an argument.8 When the Stoics say things like τὸ καλόν draws soldiers to fight on behalf of their countries, and that every καλόν thing is good and vice versa, it is far from clear that we should consider the moral meaning that καλόν has as secondary. Another concern is that, while κάλλος is an indifferent, the καλόν is very closely associated with the Good via the KA argument. A solution might be found if beauty and goodness are co-occurring attributes, so that beauty, despite co-occurring with goodness, is not goodness. But this causes problems with the example of the peacock tail feathers: if these are beautiful (n.b. τὸ κάλλος is used in this discussion), they ought also to be good. Is “serving as a sign of the underlying intentional design of the universe” enough to qualify them as “good”? In what way is the beauty of the feathers an example of proper proportions fulfilling their proper function in a moral way? It seems to me that Chrysippus is talking about physical beauty as a preferred indifferent here and as something other than moral beauty. Possible ways out are to recognize technical and untechnical/quotidian uses of “beauty” (i.e., to claim the synonymity of κάλλος and καλόν as technical terms, but allow another use) and to allow more daylight between τὸ κάλλος and τὸ καλόν by translating them as, e.g., “(physical/perceptible) beauty” and “moral beauty/morally beautiful” or “moral attractiveness/morally attractive” (i.e., to deny their synonymity, but perhaps gain in explanatory ability).

Even if I cannot agree with it entirely, Čelkytė’s book brings attention to an understudied field, establishes some important mile markers in the wilderness, and suggests plausible solutions to various problems. Establishing clearly and working out the aesthetic implications of τὸ καλόν (which I admit exist, despite my hesitancy about the equation κάλλος = καλόν) is important. The book will be useful to anyone working on Stoicism and ancient aesthetics, and, with a little guidance, ought to be suitable for newcomers to those fields. Background material, e.g., on mixtures and indifferents, is explained fully, and the modern philosophical positions are well summarized in the introduction. Chapters Six and Seven are especially clear and probably of the greatest general interest (in fact, one might choose to read Chapter Six first to have a better idea of where all the arguments in chapters 2–5 are heading). As it turns out, the beauty of peacock feathers and the beauty of the sage both reside in the fact that the parts of these rather disparate things are arranged and proportioned so as to allow the peacock feather and sage to do what they are meant to do best. For the sage, this is acting virtuously. For the peacock feather, it’s serving as an indication to all of us fools that there’s something bigger out there we should be paying attention to.

A bibliography, index locorum, and subject index (including, at its start, the most important Greek and Latin terms) close the volume. Notes are printed at the end of each chapter. The copyediting was good.9 The book is free as a PDF, or £20 for a paperback and £80 for a hardback. The PDF was easy to use (and searchable for both English and Greek).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements (vi)
Note to the Reader (vii)
1. Beauty and Its Problems: Introduction (1–25)
2. The Problem of Indifferents (26–46)
3. The Beautiful and the Good (47–77)
4. ‘The wise man is no true Scotsman’: The Stoics on Human Beauty (78–100)
5. Beauty in Stoic Theological Arguments (101–43)
6. The Stoic Definition of Beauty as Summetria (144–70)
7. Aesthetics in Stoicism and Stoicism in Aesthetics (171–91)
Bibliography (192–207)
Index Locorum (208–13)
General Index (214–16)


[1] Chapter Six previously appeared as “The Stoic Definition of Beauty” in Classical Quarterly 67 (2017): 88–105.

[2] As far as I noticed, every attribution of a fragment to Chrysippus was supported, so Čelkytė avoided the pitfall of treating all the material under Chrysippus’s name in SVF as actually Chrysippean.

[3] Władysław Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, 3 vols. (The Hague: Mouton, 1970–1974), as well as “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31 (1972): 165–80.

[4] Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray, A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), in their introduction, in response to Paul Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Fine Arts,” Journal for the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 496–527 (and reprinted).

[5] Seneca’s report, repeated in both passages discussed in this chapter, may show that the statements in Cicero and Plutarch are not the normal syllogistic ones which only distribute A to B in “All As are B” phrasings : nihil est bonum nisi quod honestum est; quod honestum, est utique bonum (“nothing is good except what is honestum; what is honestum is certainly good”). Honestum and bonum refer to the same set. Čelkytė’s conclusion that the good falls into the area of the beautiful, that they are a set and subset, seems difficult to me in this light. Additionally, the title of the argument “Only the καλόν is good” implies that all good things are καλόν, which supports this understanding of Seneca’s statement. καλόν and ἀγαθόν are co-occurring properties: there are no καλόν things that are not good, and there are no good things that are not καλόν. But this leads to problems as well: for instance, it makes Čelkytė’s deflationary account of the beauty of ordinary objects (132) difficult to accept: if beautiful (καλόν), it should also be good, not just indicative of it. And see further below on τὸ κάλλος and τὸ καλόν.

[6] Michael McOsker, The Good Poem According to Philodemus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 110–20, briefly discusses Stoic approaches to poetry and music. For the Epicureans, not treated in this book, see also Čelkytė’s “Epicurus and Aesthetic Disinterestedness,” Mare Nostrum 7 (2017): 56–74.

[7] The translation of καλός is, as ever, difficult. Čelkytė defends translating καλός as “beautiful” (50–55) as a procedure that puts “an emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of the term” to serve “as a useful tool for illuminating and clarifying the conceptual commitments of the argument as a whole” (50), and she claims that the word still has an ethical meaning (53–54). She calls the translation “fine” a “fair option” (54) but argues against it on the grounds that it does not solve any problems. Perhaps so, but I worry that “beautiful” introduces a new problem by eliminating the moral dimension that καλός undoubtably has. Incidentally, Čelkytė does not defend the equation honestus = beautiful, but the case is as good as the one for καλός = beautiful. It regularly meant “beautiful” (especially in earlier Latin) and is actually a very apt translation for καλός. But it’s difficult to see why well-informed readers like Cicero and Seneca chose it if the aesthetic quality of καλός was more important than the moral quality.

[8] David Konstan, Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) draws a very sharp distinction between κάλλος and καλός in Chapter Two.

[9] Note the following corrigenda:
p. 33, near bottom: For patendum, read petendum.
p. 79: ἐπὶ τὴν μάχην (strong enough “for fighting”) is not translated.
pp. 83–84: The punctuation of the Latin and English does not correspond.
pp. 92–93: ὀξύτης καὶ κατοκωχὴ τῶν ὀρθῶς εἰρημένων (“sharp senses and firm possession of what has been rightly said”) are not grammatically connected to the context and so are printed in brackets and not translated, but Čelkytė uses them to support a minor point on the next page.
p. 122: Autocorrupt has struck and changed providentia into providential in the second line of the Latin.
p. 146: In the passage from Arius Didymus, two deviations from Pomeroy’s text should be noted: in the second line of the Greek, αὐτὸ πρὸς for αὐτῷ πρὸς, and in the last line, αὐτοῦ for αὐτῆς. In the seventh line of text up from the bottom of the page, for “On Emotions. The” read “On Emotions, the”
p. 153: τιυάς is printed for τινάς in third line of the Greek, and εἶυαι for εἶναι in the sixth line; the eagle-eyed will also spot some stigmas instead of final sigmas in this passage.


1. How did you choose this project? What attracted you to the topic?

Probably the main inspiration for choosing this project was Stephen Halliwell’s article The Importance of Plato and Aristotle for Aesthetics (1991). I came across it while browsing library shelves as an undergraduate and found the central point not only convincing but also fascinating. In this article, Halliwell shows that the texts of Plato and Aristotle contain complex and refined reflections on art that have generally received little attention. I was left with an impression that ancient aesthetics is a rich and underexplored area of study, and I was keen on studying this material myself. At that time, I had mostly studied Hellenistic philosophy and I was especially familiar with Stoicism. It seemed quite natural to ask what the Stoics may have contributed to these debates and what innovations they may have made, given their distinctive commitments in metaphysics and ethics. Apart from being an underexplored area of research, ancient aesthetics was an attractive topic to me, because I had been reading about aesthetics as a hobby since I was a teenager, so ancient aesthetics struck me as a confluence of two exciting topics: ancient philosophical texts and discussions of aesthetic properties.

2. Since the book was finished, (how) have you continued to think about the Stoic beauty? Do you have plans to expand on this book or work on related topics?

After finishing the manuscript, I took a break from this topic by focusing on a monograph about Galen of Pergamum. For a couple of years, I was not thinking about the Stoic theory of beauty at all! Having some distance from this topic has been really helpful and allowed me to appreciate some possible new questions in this area. I am currently especially interested in the question of whether and how the Stoic theory of beauty was applied, either to art or to natural objects. This work is also partly inspired by a panel on Hellenistic Aesthetics at the most recent SCS conference, where I had a chance to discuss with literary scholars the ways in which Hellenistic poetry was influenced by philosophy.

3. How do you see Stoic beauty relating to Stoic theory of art?

This is a very interesting but difficult question, and I am not sure I have a definitive answer to it. As my contribution to the SCS panel mentioned above, I have written a paper on whether the Stoic theory of music reflects their theory of beauty. I argue that it does, and there seems to be an interesting overlap between this theory and the early Stoic approaches to art. I would hesitate, however, to draw any general conclusions on the basis of this argument because the Stoic tradition is not monolithic and there might be exceptions or significant variations when we look at the Stoic corpus as a whole. This is definitely a promising area of research, and I hope the scholarly interest in it will only grow!

Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to reading the paper on Stoic music!

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