Stephen Kidd, Brown University

Paidia: The Concept of Play in Ancient Greece


Greek paidia is different from the English “play.” While English speakers tend to think of play as an activity that is engaged in for pleasure—as if by partaking in certain activities called “play,” for example, rolling dice or jumping rope, a player might trigger some sort of pleasure reward—paidia was conceived to be a feeling of pleasure that spills over into the physical manifestations of that pleasurable feeling. “Joy” and “delight” cause people to “dance” (a common denotation of paizō), “sing” (also a common denotation of paizō), and engage in other forms of play like balancing a stick, throwing a ball, and rolling dice. It is not that singing, dancing, and playing are results of “joy” and “delight,” but rather that they just are forms of “joy” and “delight.”

This slight distinction in meaning between the English “play” and Greek paidia has far-reaching consequences if we consider, for example, that Plato, in late works like the Sophist, Statesman, and Laws, turns to “play” as a category embracing all painting, sculpture, theater, music, and dance, or if we consider that Aristotle repeatedly feels a need to respond to these discussions, for example, in Nicomachean Ethics 10 and Politics 8. Paidia for these authors is not some colloquial term for mimesis—as is too often supposed—but a different concept altogether. As such, it offers a new set of theoretical challenges: if paidia is to be conceived as some pleasure mode, and art is to be conceived as a form of paidia, how can the wide variety of art objects, media and games be understood as emanating from that singular form of pleasure?


Stephen Kidd specializes in Greek literature of the classical period, especially comedy and philosophy. His first book Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy (Cambridge, 2014) asks why comedy, unlike other genres, gives rise to the perception that some part of it is not meaningful (“just silly,” “just funny”) despite the fact that new meanings continue to be discovered year after year. Now he is writing a book tentatively entitled Paidia: The Concept of Play in Ancient Greek Thought which asks the question how did play and aesthetics – a relationship often wrestled with by modern play theorists – become separated in the first place? The primary authors are Plato and Aristotle, but attention is also given to the nuts and bolts of games, toys, and ancient child psychology (which provides the pais of paizo). He has also written on the meanings of Greek words, dreams, science, and what Herodotus has to say about virtual worlds.