The Death of Stoicism and the Birth of Aesthetics

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Returning to a topic I addressed on 3rd July, ‘Racine, Hume and the Death of Tragedy’, I’ve been considering the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the 18th Century in relation to ethical changes of the time. I refer to the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the 18th Century, partly because that is when ‘aesthetic’ began to be used as a term for philosophy of beauty and art. There was such a philosophy in Plato and Aristotle, but in the 18th Century we get questions not asked before: what is taste and why does it change? What can we learn about history through poetry? How can aesthetics harmonise nature and human history?

These aesthetic questions arise from uncertainty about the movements of humans consciousness, the feeling that the passions moves beyond the control of reason and not in a sense that can be resolved by focusing on rationality. It is Hume who says that reason can only be, and only should be, the slave of the passions. What Hume meant by the passions is more expansive than our sense of inner intensity. In Hume it refers to a much more general sense of ideas in the mind and the way they combine and bring about actions and thoughts. The important point here is that the mind can never be completely rational, and should not be completely rational, though rationality is a state we should pursue.

The idea of an ethics of reason controlling the passions, would have been something Hume associated with Stoicism. He also associated it with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but in his time Stoicism was much more at the forefront of what people thought had been bequeathed by the Ancient world. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were seen through a Stoic understanding. Hume sometimes refers Cicero, who had a dominant position in republican political thought and as an ethical thinker, which has disappeared since the 19th Century, though has been recently revived. Cicero was maybe not a pure Stoic, but is understood to have been sympathetic to Stoic ethics.

Very briefly and crudely, I am defining Stoicism as rationality over the emotions in a balanced self, which fully understands itself. We can see the force of this ‘Stoicism’ in Montaigne and Descartes, but also the strain placed on it by a philosophical interest in self-reflection. That strain is made clear by Pascal. Jumping back to Hume, whatever relationship he did or did not have with Montaigne or Descartes (who he certainly took very seriously) or Pascal, he belongs to a moment in which ‘Stoicism’ is collapsing though Hume hangs on to a mitigated interest in it. But because Hume, himself, undermines the ‘Stoic’ self through his scepticism about causality, personal identity, and free will, he starts to think of taste for beauty as something variable and subjective, in a way which would have seemed highly peculiar to Plato and Aristotle. Hume needs to think of ways in which human sociability allows common standards of taste to emerge.

The ‘aesthetic’ in Hume emerges from the disintegration of the ‘Stoic’ and this is the background to the ‘aesthetic’ (taste, poetics, the sublime and the beautiful) in Hutcheson, Burke, Vico and Kant.

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