Epicurus and Aesthetic Disinterestedness

Mare Nostrum 7:56-74 (2017)
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ABSTRACT: Aesthetic disinterestedness is one of the central concepts in aesthetics, and Jerome Stolnitz, the most prominent theorist of disinterestedness in the 20th century, has claimed that (i) ancient thinkers engagement with this notion was cursory and undeveloped, and consequently, (ii) the emergence of disinterestedness in the 18th century marks the birth of aesthetics as a discipline. In this paper, I use the extant works of Epicurus to show that the ancient philosopher not only had similar concepts, but also motivated them in careful and complex ways. I argue that, in the Epicurean theoretical framework, arts belong to the category of ‘merely natural’ desires, and this classification, combined with what we know of Epicurus’ rejection of art criticism, shows he had carefully worked out reasons supporting the idea that art ought to be approached terminally, rather than instrumentally. Finally, I compare the notion of aesthetic disinterestedness with Epicurus’ views on arts and argue that in many ways the latter are not inferior to the former, and therefore ought to belong to the history of aesthetics.
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