Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.
Beauty was a philosophical subject which the Greek philosopher Plato contemplated which was applicable to art. Love was an ideal of beauty which Plato applied to the pederasty as reflected in Homer’s Iliad.
Beauty was expressed from the soul, only being able to be interpreted through intellect, and the soul’s harmony with the body. Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds by Sosias contested Plato’s theory of beauty, however some elements supported this, such as the use of symmetry.
The subject matter of the artwork depicted an imperfect idea of love which complicated the idea of whether the artwork fit Plato’s definition of beauty. Ultimately, while Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds was aesthetically pleasing by modern standards, Plato’s theory of beauty created a mixed perspective on how beauty was presented in art.
Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher who was taught by Socrates, was the teacher of Aristotle, and founded the Academy. He was concerned with the rational treatment of forms, ethics, and moral psychology.
He believed a good life consisted of harmony between the three parts of the soul: reason, spirit, and appetite (Meinwald 2020). He made statements on beauty and the concept of love regarding the pederasty. The Greek pederasty was the relationship between the erastes (an older male, usually in his mid- to late-20s) and an eromenos (a male no older than 18).
The erastes remained in control while teaching the eromenos to become a good citizen when entering society (Holmen 2010). Such a relationship was depicted in the Iliad in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (Homer 1955). Achilles and Patroclus were heroes who fought for the Greeks in the Trojan war which was triggered by Helen being taken from her husband Menelaus.
Beauty within Plato’s theory concerned matters of intellect, love and the harmony between the body and soul. He believed beauty was immaterial, as it was not defined by science or reasoning, and would not appear to the beholder as any part of the body (G. M. A. Grube 1927).
Beauty was inaccessible to the senses and rather resided within the soul (Gaut, Berys; Lopes, Dominic 2013). Instead, beauty could only be acquired and perceived through intellect through different means such as logos, recollection of ideas and method (Chen, Ludwig C. H. 1983). Love was considered an ideal form of beauty and through Plato’s ladder of love, love of a beautiful male youth began the journey of one acquiring beauty (Plato 1993).
This would lead to the love of all beautiful bodies, the soul, laws, institutions, sciences then eventually pure Beauty. However, when it came to the body, the composition of the human body was mixed together with the soul, in which he believed disharmony with the body was considered impure and contaminated by evil (Chen, Ludwig C. H. 1983). This is since illness was considered a virtue of wickedness due to discord between the soul and the body, which does not allow beauty to be presented (G. M. A. Grube 1927).
As a result, this theory would not constitute Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds as beautiful. For instance, the artwork itself presented Achilles tending to Patroclus’ wounds in the form of red figures against a dark background. Relief lines defined the details of the artwork while the bandage itself was the focal point through the stark use of white which contrasts against the other colours.
The depiction of Patroclus being injured along with the accentuation of this through the bandage clashed with Plato’s perception of beauty. Personally, Plato sought the censorship of Homer as he believed heroes should not be presented as flawed (Gaut, Berys; Lopes, Dominic 2013).
Therefore, in the confines of Plato’s theory on beauty it was clear Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds was not considered beautiful.
The way Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds presented itself as an artwork did not automatically qualify the work as beautiful. The act of creating art conflicted with the idea of intellect needed for beauty as Plato believed no knowledge was needed to create this false copy such as understanding ethics.
Using Homer as an example, he believed poets such as him held no grasp of the truth (Gaut, Berys; Lopes, Dominic 2013). However, while art itself was not considered beautiful in Plato’s theory of beauty, there were aspects of this artwork which would have been considered beautiful. Plato declared "the maintenance of measure and proportion is always beautiful" (Tatarkiewicz 1972). The use of symmetry began with the form of the artwork itself which was the kylix vase.
Symmetry was further found in the patterns used in the armour, Achilles’ helmet, and the floral patterns in the foreground. For this reason, the symmetrical aspects of the artwork were considered beautiful by Platonian standards.
Accordingly, while he believed artworks were merely copies of reality removed from the truth, the use of symmetry in form and technique demonstrated adhered to the Platonian perception of beauty.
While the form of the artwork itself would not be considered beautiful by Platonian standards, the subject matter presented applied to Plato’s theory of beauty in matters of love. It was within Plato’s Symposium it was believed “Beauty is the ultimate object of love” (F. C. White 1989).
Plato believed pederastic relationships were considered high-minded, where beauty enters the eyes of the beloved, filling the soul of the loved with love (Halperin 1986). Achilles and Patroclus were in a pederastic relationship, however, historians debated if it was romantic. An example in the Iliad supporting the debate their relationship was homoerotic was Achilles’ longing for the deceased Patroclus, considering sleepiness was a symptom of love in the literary tradition.
This perspective was shared by Plato, Aeschines, Zeodotus, Theocritus, Meleager, Pseudo-Lucian and Plutarch (Laguna-Mariscal, Gabriel; Sanz-Morales, Manuel 2005). For this reason, the relationship between the heroes would be considered as beautiful as a tenderness was displayed between the figure placements in the artwork itself. This is seen in how Patroclus looks bashful, Achilles is smiling and tending to his wound, they are quite close in proximity while Patroclus is in an open vulnerable position. However, this does not perfectly fit into Plato’s perception of love in pederastic relationships since their relationship was not considered ideal. The heroes were around the same age, creating conflict between which was the erastes and which was the eromenos (Holmen 2010).
This is important due to Plato’s emphasis of the lover’s journey to attaining beauty which was attained by the erastes (Halperin 1986). It was also stated the labour of love would be undertaken by the erastes to earn each other’s loves which was not presented in the Iliad (F. C. White 1989). Hence, while love displayed between the heroes would qualify the artwork as beautiful in subject matter, this would be challenged with its unconventional nature.
Plato On The Forms
The artwork’s subject matter and form created conflicting notions of whether Plato’s theory of beauty applied to the work. Ideas of living a harmonious life with beauty and love were one of Plato’s concerns, which applied to different aspects of Greek society such as the pederasty.
Plato believed beauty was expressed through intellect and one in disharmony with their body could not be considered beautiful. Artworks were considered false copies of reality devoid of knowledge and ethics but could contain aspects of beauty as shown through Sosias’ use of symmetry.
While controversial, aspects of love in Achilles and Patroclus in their pederastic relationship could be considered beautiful in Platonian terms. Ultimately, with the ever-changing landscape of history, ideas of beauty will continue to shapeshift with society.
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G. M. A. Grube. 1927. “Plat’s Theory of Beauty.” Oxford Press 37 (2): 269-288. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27901113.
Gaut, Berys; Lopes, Dominic. 2013. The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 3 ed. Uk. Routledge.
Halperin, David M. 1986. “Plato and Erotic Reciprocity.” Classical Antiquity 5 (1): 60-80. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25010839.
Holmen, Nicole. 2010. “Examining Greek Pederastic Relationships.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 2 (02): 1. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=175.
Homer. 1955. Iliad. London. Dent.
Laguna-Mariscal, Gabriel; Sanz-Morales, Manuel. 2005. “Was the Relationship between Achilles and Patroclus Homoerotic? The View of Apollonius Rhodius.” Hermes 133 (120-123). 10.2307/4477639.
Meinwald, Constance C. 2020. “Plato.” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Plato.
Plato. 1993. The Symposium and The Phaedrus: Plato's Erotic Dialogues. Albany. State University of New York Press.
Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. 1972. “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31 (2): 165-180. https://www.jstor.org/stable/429278.