On Crispin Sartwell’s discussion of “kalos:” What does knowing have to do with nobility or beauty?

1. Encountered Crispin Sartwell’s “Six Names of Beauty” at the bookstore. Saw that he had a chapter on kalos, the ancient Greek word meaning “noble” or “beautiful.” Started to give his chapter a read, thinking it dissertation relevant, and encountered this:

The Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and beauty (to kalon) have moral as well as aesthetic force. They refer to “nobility” as well as what we would think of as direct visual beauty. But these terms also have an epistemic dimension; they are connected to the idea of knowledge. All of these meanings might be brought together in a notion of “illumination:” the kalos is above all, we might say, what is drenched in light. The noble soul is the clearly illuminated soul, and such a soul will be beautiful. (Sartwell 88)

I agree with Sartwell that yes, kalos has moral and aesthetic force. And yes, it is also “connected to the idea of knowledge.” Where I disagree strongly is with the noble soul being “clearly illuminated.” That implies the noble soul is knowable, and that’s a much stronger claim than kalos being “connected to the idea of knowledge.”

Sartwell continues his case by going to Plato and linking the erotic desire for simple, knowable, all-clarifying truth in the Symposium with ascending from the cave in the Republic. There are Forms which are pure knowledge; we lust after them and strive after them. That means truth, beauty and goodness are all wrapped up, and if it seems Plato is giving us something a bit too simplistic, he is purposely doing so. Kalos seems to refer to the quality of truth to be, in a way, simple. We need to be able to apprehend it and use it when not admiring its elegance.

2. The main problem I have with Sartwell’s discussion is that he has it exactly backward. When I encounter kalos, it’s more like “shining forth,” stupidly obvious. The noble comes from the beautiful – the link is direct. Forget Plato for a second, think Homer. Someone who is noble and beautiful might be descended from the gods and certainly will make claims to rule over the rest of us. Aren’t they a better class of human being, maybe truer to being human than the rest of us?

The questions I’m raising are the heart and soul of Greek philosophy, the reason for the elaborate metaphysics and metaphor in many thinkers. If you tie kalos to the Forms too quickly, you miss what the dialogues are addressing. Case in point: the Symposium is about moderating the other speakers and perhaps Alcibiades. You’ll note that Socrates introducing Diotima to the conversation is quite radical; the other speakers, including Aristophanes, are adamant in defending pederasty in one way or another. You’ll also note that the need for Alcibiades to be moderated is a recurrent theme in a number of other works that give us the history of the time. Similarly, the cave image in the Republic is not a strict ascent, if it is possible to ascend at all. That cave is everyday life for all of us – we all worship likenesses. The city is the cave and grounds “common sense” for us; remember what Socrates says about people coming back down into the cave after having seen the light? You know, that little bit about not being believed and maybe getting beat up?

So before any talk about the epistemic side of kalos, one has to acknowledge that it serves a unique purpose in Plato. Plato is well aware that kalos is about political claims, which include claims about the gods. A kalos kai agathos – a “noble and good” man, a gentleman – wouldn’t want to know more than is needed. So how, exactly, does the epistemic side reveal itself?

3. There are several ways, but they don’t lead to natural philosophy directly. A discussion about generosity, something most would consider noble, does not necessarily break down and turn into one about cosmology. What happens, I think, is that kalos gets transformed into the question of how one leads one’s life. This is what we consider philosophy, but remember: philosophy is something you can be put to death for in ancient Greece.

So again, this is strange and subtle and hard to track. Sometimes, the word’s meanings are intentionally split off from each other. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the sections I’m writing on use “kalos” almost exclusively as noble or fine. “Beauty” is strictly a secondary consideration, as Socrates is talking to military leaders and politicians about civic affairs. Only later does Socrates encounter a very beautiful woman, and kalos becomes beautiful, but at the loss of noble overtones. All of those chapters, I should say, are about how one leads one’s life.

In Plato, the discussion of kalos I can think of depends on a heck of a balancing act. I’m going to speculate and see what happens. One can start with the question of what “the beautiful” means for our trying to know. I’m thinking of something like Benardete’s Phaedrus commentary, which I know I’ll mangle. What I can get from it is that knowing is tied in with desire, but it isn’t as simple as “we lust after knowledge.” Most of us don’t; the parallel is more important for understanding how both work. What’s relevant for our present blogpost: when you fall in love, you want to explain to the beloved why you love them and have them agree. In other words: you want the beloved to fall in love with the image you have of them, and this unites you two in love. There are obviously a million catches here, not the least of which that you and the beloved both change not just during but because of this process. You put why you love in speech; your “first sight” changes and evolves. The beloved sees the speech or images you put forth and agrees or disagrees on his/her terms, however s/he is seeing. It looks like knowing each other is hopeless, but again, this isn’t about knowledge strictly. The problem of knowing parallels this.

Most people try to know things and also strive for things besides knowledge. Yeah, these are two vastly different things that sometimes correspond but can also diverge significantly. Think about how crazy overachievers are in high school, doing things like “science club” and “volleyball” back to back. It doesn’t add up at all except in the sense of going to a (noble and good) college. We need something to reconcile the knowing and striving: we do both and we somehow consider this sane behavior, when we should know better to start. The answer is “the beautiful.” Maybe: mind wants to see it, soul wants to be it, eros wants to apprehend it. But the beautiful isn’t the Forms necessarily. It’s more a construct created from the result of being a lover described above. It’s in flux and is anything but simple for a serious knower.


Benardete, Seth. “Socrates and Plato: The Dialectics of Eros” in The Archaeology of the Soul. St. Augustine’s Press, 2012

Sartwell, Crispin. Six Names of Beauty. Routledge, 2004.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.