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)

It is important to note that this definition of beauty as the proper proportion and functioning of parts is meant to apply to both the human body and soul, where the soul in this sense of the term is understood as the locus of rationality. While physical beauty (otherwise known as a preferred indifferent) is desirable, for the Stoics, real beauty lies on the inside. Beauty isn’t something as shallow as a person’s looks, but can be acted out in everyday life.

How does one radiate beauty through their character? According to the Stoics, a well-rounded character consists of four cardinal virtues, including wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. While these virtues are not necessarily intrinsic to a person’s character, they can be developed overtime through a long chain of straightening.

For example, one way the Stoics sought to cultivate wisdom was to find beauty in everyday life. As children, we are born with a natural curiosity about the world and our place within it. Unfortunately, as we mature and develop a routine, our natural curiosity about the world wanes alongside our intellects. By seeking beauty in the small and mundane, the Stoics were able to deepen their knowledge about the world as well as better cope with whatever obstacles life threw their way.

That doesn’t mean the Stoics were necessarily optimists, however. A more accurate characterization would be realists. One way the Stoics sought to restore objectivity to their worldview was through a practice called contemptuous expressions. This exercise involves recognizing aspects of world for what they are rather than what we perceive them to be, or, as Marcus Aurelius noted, “strip away the legend that encrusts them.” For example, a juicy steak is nothing but a dead cow, state borders are invisible, arbitrary lines, and alcoholic beverages are simply ethanol coated in sugar.

Why would the Stoics do this? Because by over-glamorizing the material world, we increase our risk of becoming consumed by it. And if there is one lesson Western civilization could stand to benefit from Stoicism, it is that happiness is not to be found in the material world. Moreover, by practicing contemptuous expressions, the Stoics found they could keep their egos in check while making bad habits less appealing. This helped them break free from various vices and let their true beauty shine.

Another way the Stoics sought to develop a virtue like temperance was to limit or refrain from the consumption of alcohol. While the Stoics regarded a variety of pleasures as preferred indifferents, they did hold pleasures that compensate our capacity to reason with a certain level of contempt. As Epictetus states:

It is a mark of want of intellect to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be immoderate in exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These things should be done incidentally and our main strength be applied to our reason.

Reason is what breathes moral significance into our actions. Actions that lack reasons lack intentions and actions that lack intentions lack moral significance. There is a moral distinction between intentionally knocking over someone’s glass versus unintentionally knocking over someone’s glass. Since drinking impairs are capacity to reason, it should come as no surprise that the Stoics disdained getting drunk. With each sip of alcohol gained, our moral character is lost.

So take it from the Stoics: beauty is neither in the eye of the beholder nor a quality that mysteriously supervenes on certain objects or people. Instead, it is the end result of a person exuding the four cardinal virtues through a process of trial and error. Thus, the good and beautiful, far from being polar opposites, are two facets of the same life well-lived.