‘It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.’
Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata, 1889
Students sometimes express unease about the ambivalence of the Greek adjective καλός, which can signify any of:
- beautiful in outward form
- of fine quality
- noble, virtuous or honourable
The word cannot be translated into English; nor into Latin, as Cicero discovered, and the preoccupation of ancient Greeks with people’s physical appearance seems to have been something that many Romans found distasteful.
Arguably the equation, or confusion of thought, that the word καλός reveals is something misleading, and indeed gives permission for ‘beauty’ of the person to become a public obsession.
‘It is well known that the concept of to kalon in ancient Greek occurs in a wide variety of contexts. It applies to physical beauty, but it is also common in ethical contexts, where ‘honourable’ or ‘noble’ are often appropriate English translations, and where Cicero regularly Latinizes it as honestum. Nor does this exhaust the possible applications of the concept, to judge from the range of objects that receive the label kalon in Plato’s dialogue devoted to the topic, the Hippias Major; not only gods and beautiful young women, but also horses, lyres, cooking pots, and soup ladles are described as kala, apparently without controversy… No doubt this multiplicity of possible applications is one reason why Socrates and Hippias fail to find a satisfactory definition of to kalon, and why their various attempted definitions are so extremely different from one another. Although it is a recurring contention of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues that each word must have a unitary sense in all of its various occurrences, the example of the term to kalon, as illustrated by the Hippias Major, seems to put that contention into question.’ —Andrea Nightingale & David Sedley ed., Ancient Models of Mind: Studies in Human and Divine Rationality, CUP 2010
The implication seems that Plato himself was confused by this word.
Greek words appropriating to the idea of ‘beauty’:
τὸ καλόν or κάλλος
Latin has more:
Next post: Pagan mentality.