Plato and the dangerous pleasures of poikilia

Classical Quarterly 71 (1):152-169 (2021)
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A significant strand of the ethical psychology, aesthetics and politics of Plato's Republic revolves around the concept of poikilia, ‘fascinating variety’. Plato uses the concept to caution against harmful appetitive pleasures purveyed by democracy and such artistic or cultural practices as mimetic poetry. His aim, this article shows, is to contest a prominent conceptual connection between poikilia and beauty (kallos, to kalon). Exploiting tensions in the archaic and classical Greek concept, Plato associates poikilia with dangerous pleasures to redirect admiration toward a distinctly philosophical pursuit of the nature of beauty. This is to displace a prominent and problematic cultural sensibility—the aesthetics of poikilia—not to deny that fascinating variety, even in mimetic poetry, may be beautiful. Rather, Plato's cultural critique lays bare an epistemological problem in the ethical psychology of beauty: since they cannot be distinguished from what seems beautiful, how should one respond to fascinating yet dangerous attractions?

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Jonathan Fine
University of Hawai'i, Manoa


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