Onassis Lecture – Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea

NEW YORK – Dr. David Konstan, Professor of Classics at NYU, spoke about his book Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea, at the Morgan Library in Manhattan on February 18. Maria Sereti Director of Educational Affairs of the Onassis Foundation (USA) welcomed the guests to the presentation and discussion that followed was part of the Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture and Dr. Peter Meineck of NYU introduced Konstan, who thanked the Foundation for its support through the years.

One would think that nothing is more obvious than beauty. When a strikingly attractive woman enters a room and everybody’s head turns, they don’t need a philosopher to explain their reaction, but Konstan picked apart its complexities, including

fascinating exploration of the meanings of the distinct but linguistically related words  such as κα’λλος, καλο’ς  and to καλο. The latter, he said “has a wide range of meaning, and in the majority of cases it is better translated as fine, noble, virtuous.”

Konstan continued to explore the issue through the ideas of Scruton and other leading scholars, and the writing and artwork of the ancient Greeks.

 He began by noting one of the dilemmas concerning the nature of beauty: “On the one hand we naturally association beauty with erotic attraction…On the other hand, as a category in aesthetics beauty is taken to be a feature in the category of artworks and of natural phenomena, and it is not necessarily understood as exciting desire in the viewer,” he said, adding that since Kant’s Critique of Judgement, many critics have supposed the proper response to such beauty is disinterested contemplation.”

The crux of the book is to explore “what, if anything, do these two conceptions of beauty have in common? Can they even be reconciled, or is there a tension between them that obliges us to respond either in one way or the other?”

Konstan wonders, “what does one make of the kind of beauty that does arouse desire?” and quotes Scruton asking “does this mean there are two kinds of beauty, the beauty of people and the beauty of art?”

Konstan then addressed another dilemma by referring to religious art that displays physically attractive people who are known for their spiritual beauty, like the Theotokos and St. Marina

He explained that “this thought reaches back to Plato’s original idea that beauty is not just an invitation to desire, but also a call to renounce it,” or at least, transcend it, by and obtaining a vision of its pure heavenly form.

But Plato claimed, that “the soul is drawn to this higher realm of beauty precisely by eros – passionate love!” and sometimes said “human beauty was a kind of intimation of the Divine… and properly regarded, a first rung on the ladder toward a desire for a more spiritual beauty that characterizes the intellectual world,” Konstan said.

This Plato did not call for a renunciation of desire, he added, “but its redirection toward a higher object, without however negating its fundamentally erotic character.”

At the conclusion of the lecture, Konstan said “The connection between beauty and goodness is a conundrum that we cannot solve at one stroke, but I believe that a careful consideration of how the Greeks thought about beauty can help give us a deeper understanding of beauty, art, and I venture to say. Of goodness too.”



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