Some Observations On Classic Greek Art, And Its Lessons For Today

I have spent the past two days in Athens seeking out some of the monuments of classic Greek art.  I have tried to see as many works of art and architecture as was reasonably possible, and thought I would here provide the impressions gained from these observations.

There is a clear difference between beauty and ugliness.  One would think this kind of statement would be unnecessary.  Alas, in today’s world, this is not so.  We are constantly bombarded with images of corruption, moral degeneracy, and ugliness; modern consumer culture is an assault on the senses, an offence to decency, a deliberate attempt to degrade the humanistic ethic.  Our mass media is engaged in a coordinated campaign to convince us that depravity and ugliness is “good”; that beauty is “relative” and therefore meaningless; and that every person can “make up his own rules” as he sees fit.  Images of ugliness and corruption are placed on magazines, and thrown in our face in films and television.  This is nothing less than an affront to decency, and an attack on truth.

This was not always so.  In art, the ancient Greek culture held out perfection of form and proportion as an ideal; beauty was worshipped, and this had the advantage of giving people something positive to aspire to.  As I see it, there is no clearer sign of our social decay than the media’s constant debasement of beauty and goodness, and its attempt to foist on us its own degenerate conception of humanity.  It is almost as if our culture wants to redefine what it means to be human.  But once you have laid eyes on true beauty and perfection of form, it is almost as if you become immunized to ugliness and corruption; you instinctively seek out that which is good, and reject with disgust that which is ugly.  This actually happens.  In every way, whenever possible, we must celebrate and restore an ethic that ennobles humanity, rather than drags it down. 

I am not saying that ancient Greek society was perfect, as no doubt a malicious interpretation of the above paragraphs will argue.  It had just as many evils, injustices, and flaws as our own.  They have been cataloged before, and need not be repeated here.  My point is confined to an artistic and educational ideal only.  Beauty is beauty, and ugly is ugly, and never the twain will meet.  My point is that man needs an ideal:  and it is far better for him to cast his eyes skyward, than down into the cesspool.  I am not saying every person needs to be a paragon of beauty; beauty is just as much about proportion and balance as it is about allure.  We can all, at least, acknowledge an ideal, and accept its truth, and aim for it as much as reasonably possible.

The more one walks through the corridors of the National Archaeological Museum, the more one becomes outraged at the modern media’s concerted efforts to denigrate and degrade beauty.  More than ever, I am convinced that the Western media’s attempts to normalize ugliness, evil, and corruption is fundamentally antisocial and destructive.  It should be swept away, and replaced with an entirely different ethic.

Education must address the mental and the physical.  Despite all the lip service paid to physical fitness and conditioning, our people sink further and further into a morass of obesity and inactivity.  No mental activity can be useful without an accompanying physical regimen.  It was significant, I think, that the only identifiable areas preserved at Aristotle’s Lyceum and at Plato’s Academy were the gymnasia.  Wrestling and other forms of physical activity were considered and essential part of a man’s education.  Can anything more be said?

Meanwhile, the modern “educated man” flounces around with no strength of limb or body, unable to will his frame to great things; physical weakness goes hand-in-hand with moral and mental weakness, and they cycle of decay continues.  I have known this for a long time, but my observations in Greece–especially seeing the Lyceum and the Academy–have reinforced this lesson powerfully.  Men of character and good judgment can never be created in a society that has embraced a flawed conception of education.  Today, discipline and behavior have degraded; every man sees himself as his own little emperor, and cares nothing about the common good.  Physical education, submission to authority, and iron discipline can cure these destructive conceits that plague us today.

I am not saying that every person needs to be an Olympic athlete.  What I am saying is that physical fitness and conditioning should be restored as a central part of the education of the youth.  We need far, far less obsessing over the “internet” and push-button convenience, and far more emphasis on getting ourselves into the sand of the palaestra, and grappling with an opponent.  Unless this happens, current and future generations will not be prepared to deal with the moral, physical, and military challenges that will certainly confront them.  They will collapse like a house of cards, as did all nations who neglected the health of the youth.

Greek art was much more sophisticated and subtle than I had previously appreciated.  When museum pieces are seen in foreign countries, divorced from their original locus, we don’t get the chance to appreciate all of their merits.  But seeing all the pieces housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has given me a better ability to place all these pieces in context.  The weapons of the Archaic period were far more  sophisticated than I had realized; the warriors of Homer’s day and earlier went into battle with spear points that were much more finely engineered than I had believed possible.  The metallurgical processes and the final execution of the designs were very impressive.

I was also struck by the tenderness and emotional quality of the funeral stele.  These, I think, are very underappreciated.  On these large grave markers are placed images showing the departed shaking hands and saying goodbye to their friends and family; we see scenes of anguish, hope, and grief that show us just how much family meant to the ancients.  Art was meant to enhance human life, to provide solace for the needy, and to provide an ideal to the aspirant.  It was not, as now, intended to be an outlet for someone’s socially destructive impulses, or his psychoses.


Read more in Stoic Paradoxes, which is available in print, Kindle, and audio book: