Ethics & Aesthetics

 Ethics and Aesthetics –  Stoicism – Building according with Nature  – Rustic Simplicity – Harmony – Natural – Functional – Rational –  Restrained –  Austere colours – Clarity – Modern applications in Architecture and design.


“The hidden harmony is more potent than the visible.” Heraclitus

We tend to think that ethics and aesthetics are two separate things, and many people believe that they should never mix. In this post I would like to argue that they are interwoven.

The term ethics derives from the Ancient Greek word ethikos, which is derived from the word ethos, habit, custom, conduct. The word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek “aisthetikos”, meaning “of sense perception”.  Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty and good taste.

Aesthetics in Stoicism

Although Stoicism is best known for its Ethics and very little is known about their Aesthetics, (since most of their writings are lost), both branches are related and we can try to reconstruct their aesthetic ideas through their ethics. Stoicism happens to be the only philosophical school that bears the name of an artistic element, the Stoa or colonnade.


The Doric order is the opposite of the baroque and embellished Corinthian

In 301 BC Zeno of Citium began teaching under the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile a painted porch or colonnade. It was a building of Doric order decorated with paintings depicting great Athenian deeds. Such style was named after the Dorians, the tribe to which Spartans belonged, who were noted for their austerity. That choice of location was probably casual, but if there is an artistic style that expresses Stoic ideas, that is the Doric. Whether in music the Dorian mode, architecture the Doric order, and or fashion the chlamys and the chiton dress, the Doric was a very well-defined style, unsophisticated and natural.

Zeno’s maxim was “Live according to nature.” To live a virtuous life was to fulfill one’s potential as a human; in other words, human rationality should be in harmony with the reasons of Nature. Beauty, to the Stoics, begun as harmony of the soul. Aesthetics was something that had to come first from putting their inner being in harmony with nature.

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.” (Zeno, 4th Century B.C.)

Stoics used a series of Paradoxes, used to explain their philosophy in a way that seemed counterintuitive. The first of the paradoxes was: “That only what is beautiful is good” (Oti monon to kalon agathon) There are many things that are beautiful, but don’t necessarily have to be good. We don’t see anything good in, for example, a weapon, although it can be aesthetically beautiful. The key is in the word Kalon which meant both beautiful and noble. If we apply the paradox to , for instance, architecture, we would not call beautiful/noble a gigantic skyscraper erected in a small natural island, that destroys the harmony of the landscape, the environment, and bankrupts the local community, even if the building as an isolated object is aesthetically outstanding. A Beautiful/Noble edifice would be one that is build according to Nature, reasonable, useful, in harmony with the landscape and respectful with the local culture.

The early greek temple represents the soul of a certain people expressed in stone. There is nothing unnecessary in these buildings, nothing, at least, of which we do not see, the purpose (Telos). The astonishing thing in these early temples, is the combination of beauty, simplicity and harmony of the whole. Form and function are one, joined in a spiritual union. The same can be said about the open-air theater, resembling seashells or waves, simple, harmonious, functional, and totally integrated with the greek landscape. Greek temples had a purpose, a temenos a meeting place for humans and gods, for the impermanent and mundane with the eternal and sacred.

Stoic terms that apply to aesthetics.

LOGOS. Meaning, Reason. An artistic fire, the Cosmic active principle that creates as it expands pervading inert matter, the passive principle, and defining existence as an evolving, dynamic process.

EUPATHEIA: good feeling (as contrasted with pathos)

HARMONY: Stoics drew their physics from Heraclitus, who said: “That which is in opposition is in concert, from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony.” “They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.”


PATHOS: passion or emotion, often excessive and based on false judgements.

PROPORTION: According to Galen, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus wrote: “beauty does not consist in the elements of the body (in themselves) but in the harmonious proportion of the parts. The proportion of one finger to another, of all fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the whole arm, and in short, everything to everything else.”

SYMPATHEIA: Sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence.

TELOS: goal or objective, purpose.

TONOS: tension, a principle in Stoic physics causing attraction and repulsion. An internal tension in a body, simultaneously moving to the surface and back again, that creates the cohesive state.

Tension is an interesting quality – and architecture must have it. There should be elements of the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the poetic in something that is perfectly rational. 

Annabelle Selldorf

TECHNÉ: craft, art. The practical application of knowledge.

Vitruvius, the Roman theorist of art and design (before design was recognized as such) operated within the Stoic tradition. Vitruvius asserts “I have never been eager to take money by my art, but have gone on the principle that slender means and good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute”. This apparent disregard for riches is consistent with the Stoic view that the wise person must bear up without. In keeping with the Stoic enthusiasm for the interconnection of all things, the architect is to be educated in drawing, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and astronomy. The unity of Nature is to provide the model for the unity of architecture. As the parts of the human body are proportionate with the regard to the whole frame, the parts of buildings are to be harmoniously ordered. (Further reading: Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture. Indra Kagis McEwen)

Building according to nature

Functional, Spiritual, Serene, Organic, Humanistic.

 The way we build and create objects is a result of our needs, culture, economy, technology but also a reflection of our values and interests. Design and architecture serve as bridges between nature, culture and people, and our consumer habits have serious effects on the environment on our lives and on other people’s lives.

Everything we create has four fundamental functions: Practical, Aesthetic, Symbolic, and Ethical. A vehicle, for example, has the practical function of taking us from one place to another, it has an aesthetic value, such as color and shape, it can symbolize social status, power or personality, and it can be ethical or unethical if, for instance, concerns with security or environmental issues have been taken. The four categories can be applied to almost everything, from city planning to fashion.

905965_10207847890419393_2679531540408553009_o.jpgThe look of modern cities is the result of our values and believes; we believe in money and material gain as symbols of success and happiness. That value judgment fuels the use of cheap materials and creates economic bubbles. The fact that the tallest and most impressive buildings in big capitals around the world are banks is not casual; they are new temples of a culture that worships money and wealth.

The environmental and humanitarian problems created by our system of values is more visible everyday, but not advertised along with the products we consume.

Concrete house by Olson Kundig Architects cuts into a rocky outcrop_2.jpg

Concrete house by Olson Kundig architects cuts into a rocky outcrop.

If there is a contemporary architectural movement that inherits the sober ideas of and would be approved by the ancient Stoics is Organic architecture. It is a philosophy of architecture which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches so sympathetic and well-integrated with a site that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition. An ethical building should be:

  • Inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
  • unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
  • exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
  • follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
  • satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
  • “grow out of the site” and be unique.
  • celebrate the spirit of youth, play and surprise.
  • express the rhythm of music and the power of dance.”

Eric Corey Freed takes a more seminal approach in making his description:

“Using Nature as our basis for design, a building or design must grow, as Nature grows, from the inside out. Most architects design their buildings as a shell and force their way inside. Nature grows from the idea of a seed and reaches out to its surroundings. A building thus, is akin to an organism and mirrors the beauty and complexity of Nature.”

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Traditional Cycladic architecture
Restoration of a traditional residence in Nisyros by ADarchitects – The Greek Foundationrestoration-traditional-residence-nisyros-adarchitects-4-1000x670.jpgrestoration-traditional-residence-nisyros-adarchitects-500x750.jpg

Clean lines, solid materials and a sense of permanence surround this partly-subterranean house on the Aegean Sea.

69dd831f513440f365b0fc7b9bca6d2f.jpgShaded patio with contemporary wooden furniture


A Stoic interior home should show simplicity, use few colours, be functional and serene.







Archaic comes form the word Arché, origin, source. Greek art was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian art and architecture, but at around the 6th century B.C. a revolution started. Instead of imitating the hieratic style of the Egyptians, they begun to observe Nature directly. By doing so their works achieved wonderful simplicity, beauty and harmony. It is a process that parallels the development of greek philosophy.


Igor Mitoraj

Igor Mitoraj was a Polish artist best known for his fragmented sculptures of the human body. Often created for large-scale public installations, his monumental works referenced the struggle and suffering of 20th-century Europe.

Mitoraj’s sculptural style is rooted in the classical tradition, his sculptures express a rare combination of fragility and endurance, with truncated limbs, emphasizing the damage sustained by most genuine classical sculptures. The absence of limbs and parts of the face tell a story that we have to complete.






Once their naturalistic revolution had begun, there was no stopping it. The sculptors in their workshops tried out new ideas and new ways of representing the human figure, naturalism, dynamism and faithful attention to detail became more and more dominant.

The affinities between modern art and archaic art are too obvious to need proof.





Marino Marini


De Chirico

Fashion and ethics

Simplicity, few colours, functional, linen, clean lines.

In fashion and clothing we tend put the aesthetic value first, then the symbolic (status, trendy), then the practical (warm, comfortable), and last, the ethical (fare trade, environmental concern). A better choice I think would be; 1st Practical, 2nd ethical, 3rd aesthetic 4th, symbolic.

Ethical clothing should not be cheap, but durable and affordable in the long-term, not  to be disregarded every season, it should use less colour, since the inks used to dye the fabrics pollute rivers and create diseases in local populations.

Dorian Style

The chlamys was made from a seamless rectangle of woolen material about the size of a blanket, usually bordered. It was normally pinned with a fibula at the right shoulder. Originally it was wrapped around the waist like a loincloth, but by the end of the 5th century BC it was worn over the elbows.






Hermes wearing the Chlamys or Dorian dress, used by Cynic and Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius






Doric Chiton, wore both by men and women.




2 thoughts on “Ethics & Aesthetics

  1. Hello Alejandro,

    I greatly enjoyed this article, thank you for writing on this oft-neglected topic. As a student of architecture and self-described Stoic practitioner, it’s refreshing to see these two worlds brought together. I’m actually working on writing a thesis for my Master of Architecture at the moment, which has to do with Stoicism as a framework through which one might program architectural interventions in the city, with the goal of facilitating philosophical reflections on mortality in one’s day to day life. If you happen to know of any interested sources, or resources that were useful to you in writing this article, I would greatly appreciate the assistance!


    1. Hi Karl! I am very glad you found the post interesting. I have researched mostly in philosophy books, and fragments by ancient stoics (since they wrote about those topics, unlike Seneca and Epictetus) I found a book in spanish called ‘los Estoicos Antiguos’ (the Ancient Stoics) that has some information about what they thought and wrote (could not find it in English but sure there are books on that topic). There’s also a modern book called ‘Vitruvius, Writing the Body of Architecture’ by Indra Kagis McEwen. She writes a chapter about Vitruvius’ philosophical influences, Stoicism in particular. I found an article by Jennifer A. McMahon called ‘Beauty as harmony of these Soul, the aesthetics of the Stoics’ with interesting information. I hope you find it useful.Cheers!


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