Greek Sculpture And Philosophy

SCULPTURE and philosophy would hardly be considered together in any usual study of the various forms of expression in national life; but, with the ancient Greeks, the relation between their art and philosophy must be clearly recognized. For the aim of each was the same, the expression of spiritual freedom. To this end were the noblest sculpture of Pheidias and Praxiteles, and the philosophy of Socrates and Plato. The highest achievements in architecture and the lofty dramas of AEschylus and Sophocles were also compact of the teachings of the philosophers. The fundamental contrast between Greek art and Romantic art is clearly pointed out by Dr. William Torrey Harris, who notes that while the former expresses freedom in the body, the latter represents freedom from the body; or, at least, an intense striving after such freedom.

“The martyr saints painted by Fra Angelico, and the dead Christs of Volterra, Michaelangelo, and Rubens, all show an expression of re-lief or divine repose, having in view the final liberation from the body,” says Dr. Harris. “Religion,” he continues, “is a higher form of spiritual activity than art. But Christian art is not so high a form as Greek art, because it represents freedom only negatively as separation from the body, rather than positively as full incarnation in the body, like the Olympian Zeus or the Apollo Belvidere.

“Inasmuch as art is the consecration of what is sensuous and physical to the purposes of spiritual freedom, it forever invites the soul to ascend out of the stage of sense-perception into reflection and free thought. To solve the mystery of self-determination in the depths of pure thinking is to grasp the substance, of which highest art is only the shadow. Thus the glorious career of Greek philosophy from Thales, through Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Anaxoras to its consummation in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, is the process by which inner reflection attains the same completeness and perfection that art had attained under Pheidias and Praxiteles.”

Art has, moreover, a connection with philosophy that is revealed in the drama as well as in the sculpture of the Greeks. The dramas of AEschylus and Sophocles grapple with the problems of Greek life, the relation of fate to freedom, the limits of human responsibility, and the motives of Divine Providence. Any adequate comprehension of Greek life must give full emphasis to their noble theory that the true conditions of being are in the soul’s occupation with that which is exalted and beautiful in literature and in art. Socrates regarded the divine element in man as the standard of departure in all measurement of human achievement. The universal divine element is seen as the measure of all. “This was the greatest discovery ever made by any human being,” says Professor Thomas Davidson, “and the one that renders possible moral life, whether individual, social, or political. But there still remained the question: How shall this discovery be made the principle of social life? To the task of answering this, first Plato and then Aristotle addressed themselves.”

The ideals of Greek civilization were those spiritual ideals which philosophy aims to teach. They conceived of the soul as truly occupied with the contemplation of all that was noblest in beauty and in aspiration.

The Greeks saw gods in their blocks of marble; and sculpture was simply the art of liberation. This fact is the key and the clue to their marvelous, monumental art; to the sublime forms that are as instinct with vitality today as they were in the Golden Age. Greek sculpture cannot be regarded as merely in the line of interesting curios, as far removed from any connection with modern art and life as is a mummy in its decorated sarcophagus. For this sculpture was not only the vast volume of inspiration made visible; it is the treasure-store of the very spirit and principles of plastic art. Even the study of Greek sculpture from the statues in the Palazzo Vaticano in Rome suggests to the student this single and luminous truth: that the Greek artist evolved his figure from a memory impression. If one will himself experiment on this simple thing of looking at an object, and then, turning away, recall all that remains as a picture on his mind, and again compare this picture with the original, he will discover how curiously the mind eliminates certain details, and registers a mental picture which cannot be strictly relegated to either the ideal or the real, but which may yet be accepted as the true ideal unencumbered by the non-essential. There are few writers, whether of the great or of quite the reverse, who do not yet feel called upon, in using the oft-misinterpreted terms of “real” and “ideal,” to present their own particular under-standing and intention in the terms employed. In this attempt at any excursion into a discussion of Greek sculpture, the term “ideal” is especially held as aloof from the mere unreal and the fantastic, as the real would alike be held aloof from the merely visible and tangible detail. One does not see a work of art by the aid of a tape-line. He apprehends it by spiritual insight. This spiritual insight was the vision of the Greek sculptors. It was the impression made by the subject, or by their idea of the subject, which they immortalized in marble. The first impulse was to do honor to their gods. Take, for instance, the figure of the Apollo Citharoedus in the Palazzo Vaticano in Rome, clad in his long robe, standing on an altar, the entire figure breathing the very atmosphere of poetic rapture and ecstasy, as a typical illustration. The appeal of Greek sculpture is invariably to the spiritual vision. The statue of Pallas Athene owes its peculiar distinction to the fact that in so unanalyzable a manner it combines the Homeric ideal of all woman-hood. The statue of Sophocles found in the Museo Laterano in Rome is another of these creations of the spiritual image of life. It is totally free from detail of the non-essential.

It stands as an embodiment of the intellectual ideal of the man. Ruskin applied unreservedly his rule that the art of sculpture can deal only with animate, and not with inanimate nature. “You must carve nothing but has life,” he asserts. “It is the Greeks who say it,” he added; “I would not assert it on my own authority; but whatever they say of sculpture, be assured, is true!” But the Greek sculptor did not so much eliminate the inanimate realm, — how could he, indeed? — as to modify and blend, in his conventionalized treatment. In this adaptation he found the way to completeness of representation. The Nike on the frieze of the Parthenon and the colossal Zeus in Olympia suggest the felicity of their resources in all semblance of reality. The Hermes of Praxiteles reveals with what extraordinary necromancy of art the utmost delicacy of modeling is yet dominated by the penetration of the sculptor who sees beyond.

To study the monumental art of Greece in the country today, in the richness of the statues, or remains of statues at local shrines, is to realize how the Greece of the past must have been one vast museum. It is said that the great centers of worship — Olympus, Delhi, and the Acropolis — alone possessed “such a vast population of statues as would stack all the museums in Europe today.” When it is realized that these were immortal masterpieces, the loss by wars and depredations can be partly realized. The Persian wars were destructive; but still more fatal was the manner in which all Hellas was searched and ransacked, after the siege and fall of Corinth in 146 B.C., by the Roman emperors, and other grasping hands eager to seize great works to set up in Rome. Later, when Constantinople was founded, Greece and Rome alike were plundered by invaders. Many of the noblest works extant today owe their preservation (like that of the Venus of Milos) to the fact of their being hidden for ages.

Greek sculpture holds its supreme place in all art from its more perfect embodiment of the ideals and the aspirations of the people, and the fact that it was rooted in their religious consciousness. The significance of life was the keynote to their faith, and this conviction of the spiritual significance of existence is revealed in the speech of all the heroes of Homer, as well as in the statues of Pheidias and the philosophy of Plato. This realization of the true worth of life was instilled into the youth of the country by every means of education. “The great literary works of the nation were placed in the hands of the young, and the thoughts and ideals which had shaped the institutions of the state were made familiar to their thoughts and imaginations.” There is a suggestion in this fact that might well be imported into the educational system of to-day.

Greek philosophers have their definite chronology; but philosophy herself cannot be thus presented. No definite dates can ever be as-signed for the appearance of great ideas. The spiritual achievements of humanity are attained by imperceptible degrees, and through series and combinations of influence that defy exact analysis. But it may be seen that Greek philosophy crystallized with Socrates and attained its highest spiritual expression with Plato. Yet before Socrates was Pythagoras, the founder of the loftiest system of education that which holds harmony as its ideal to be reached through temporal discipline, sustained and guided by divine revelation. Emerson insists that the name of Plato is synonymous with philosophy. “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato.” For his genius absorbed and restamped that of all others, — of Timaeus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and even of his master, Socrates; and besides these, he is “clothed with the powers of a poet.”

Pericles, of the Golden Age, died about 430 B.C., and Plato was born not far from that time; he was a youth of twenty when he first met Socrates, and for the next decade he was the devoted pupil of this great master. Plato was a traveled man for those days; he visited Italy, Sicily, and Egypt, where he is said to have stayed from twelve to fifteen years. Returning to Athens, he established the Academy. This must have brought the beginning of his regular instructions nearly to the year 480 B.C. when he would have been fifty years of age. He lived to be more than eighty. But the special interest of the present inquiry is as to the relation of Plato to the Greek life of the twentieth century. What has the philosophy and the sculpture of the Golden Age done for the Greeks of to-day? “Philosophy,” says Emerson, “is the account which the human mind gives to itself of the constitution of the world.” This account is to some degree modified with every succeeding century. Each generation makes to it some contribution. But Plato initiated to mankind (if he did not lead to its final conclusion) that gospel of spiritual freedom which is at the foundation of all worthy effort and effective achievement. In the words of Matthew Arnold on Emerson : “He was the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit.” These words may be fittingly applied to Plato, and it is in this sense that he is a living voice in the Athens of today, as well as in the entire civilized world. For in this life of the spirit is the basis and the guidance of the moral life of man.

The literature of Greek sculpture brings be-fore us the statues of their gods and heroes. And the aim in these was not mere decoration, but to embody an ideal. Sculpture and religion were thus in the closest association. The Parthenon was consecrated by the worship of Athene, and the statue of the goddess symbolized all those virtues by which man should live and build up the state. Professor G. Lowes Dickinson, of King’s College, Cambridge (England), writing on the Greek view of life says, regarding their sculpture :

“Let us take, for example, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the most famous of the works of Pheidias. This colossal figure of ivory and gold was doubtless, according to all the testimony we possess, from a merely aesthetic point of view, among the most consummate creations of human genius. But what was the main aim of the artist who made it? what the main effect on the spectator? The artist had designed and the spectator seemed to behold a concrete image of that Homeric Zeus who was the center of his religious consciousness — the Zeus who `nodded his dark brow, and the ambrosial locks waved from the King’s immortal head, and he made great Olympus quake. ‘Those who approach the temple,’ says Lucian, `do not conceive that they see ivory from the Indies or gold from the mines of Thrace; no, but the very son of Kronos and Rhea, transported by Pheidias to earth and set to watch over the lonely plain of Pisa.’ `He was,’ says Dion Chrysostom, `the type of that unattained ideal, Hellas come to unity with herself ; in expression at once mild and awful, as befits the giver of life and all good gifts, the common father, saviour and guardian of men; dignified as a king, tender as a father, awful as giver of laws, kind as protector of suppliants and friends, simple and great as giver of in-crease and wealth; revealing, in a word, in form and countenance, the whole array of gifts and qualities proper to his supreme divinity.’

In all the immortal sculptures that have come down to our own day, this significance of placing before man the ideal of living is invariably recognized. Such majestic creations as the Theseus, and the Three Fates from the pediment of the Parthenon: the Hermes of Praxiteles, which was excavated as late as 1877, at Olympia; the Victory of Samothrace; the Venus of Melos, — all these and other marvelous works convey as definite a message to humanity as that contained in any tragedy of AEschylus or Sophocles; or in any interpretation of the teachings of the philosophers, whose insights into the nature and meaning of life are the inheritance of the centuries. “Greek art,” says John Warrack, “is the worship of the wholeness of life;” and Aristotle has declared that even if it is impossible for men to be as Zeuxis painted them, “yet it is better that he should paint them so; for the example ought to excel that for which it is an example.” It is most impressive to contemplate the truth that no student of Greek Art and philosophy can evade, — that instead of their ideas being of the nature that decline, as time goes on, they are, instead, of the nature of living seeds which germinate and grow, and are even now, in many respects, coming to fullness of life. As far back in the remote past as Hesiod we find the conception presented of a spiritual order peopling the realm of the unseen, who see and sympathize with mortals yet on earth, and influence them. Those who have lived worthy lives on earth become fitting guardians to mortals less developed; Heraelitus asserts that “all things are full of souls and spirits;” Thales and Plato teach in various places a similar theory; and Plato expresses a clear belief that they who are in the invisible can read the thoughts of men on earth, and find many ways of making their presence and influence felt. Pythagoras, too, teaches the same doctrine in similar terms, believing in the absolute communion of spirit to spirit under favorable conditions. The Greek art and philosophy teach that there is no limit to be placed on the advance of man in boundless knowledge; there are no limits to his possibilities of achievement, and that all the vicissitudes of his training and experiences are to enable him to “turn the eye of his soul upward and look at the very good itself, which is the universal source of light.”

It is less as knowledge, in the sense of intellectual acquirement, than as suggestion and energy that may be transmuted into new power in life, that the study of Greek art and philosophy commends itself. Such study creates for one who gives himself to it a new and more lofty sphere of thought; it introduces him to a greater breadth of intellectual interests; it inspires all life and endeavor with new and loftier significance, and thus he may

“Take, for a worthier stage the soul itself; Its shifting fancies, and celestial lights.”