Ideas About Ideals in Classical Greek and Roman Art and Philosophy

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Art conveys ideas. Although art utilizes different means of conveying ideas from the verbal methods of literature or philosophy, art nonetheless may engage in a dialogue with philosophy. The Doryphoros of Polykleitos is a refutation of the idealist philosophy of Plato; the Column of Trajan is an affirmation of some aspects of Stoic philosophy and a rejection of certain other aspects.

According to Plato, the divine, the ideal and the real are identical, although Platonic ideals exist in a transcendent realm and can be perceived by the mind only. The phenomena of the visible world are mere reflections of their corresponding ideals. Only ideals are eternal and unchanging. In Plato's view, all art is two steps removed from the ideal: art is an imitation of the phenomenal world and the phenomenal world is an imitation of the world of ideals.

Plato's philosophy is known as idealism, and idealism is one of the major strands of Classical Greek thought. Humanism is another significant strand of Classical Greek thought. The point of view of humanism is expressed by Sophocles "Many the wonders but nothing walks stranger than man." ("Stranger" is used here in the sense of marvelous rather than peculiar.) According to the humanist perspective, the Greek gods and goddesses were idealized humans; the Greek deities are depicted as the immortal acme of human physical development, yet subject to all human foibles and passions. For a humanist, humans are the model for the divine.

The Doryphoros is a representation of an idealized human athlete. No single individual was the model for the Doryphoros, but, rather, Polykleitos combined the best features of several models; thus the sculpture is an abstraction of the human figure not based on any particular person. Nevertheless, the Doryphoros is indubitably life-like: the subject of the sculpture seems to have briefly paused and it seems he will resume movement in a moment.

In spite of its realistic appearance, the Doryphoros is a very carefully planned work of art. One aspect of this planning is the juxtaposition of contrasts in order to reconcile opposites: the straight, weight-bearing right leg versus the bent, weight-bearing left arm; the relaxed, straight right arm versus the tensed, straight right leg; the upwards tilt of the shoulders versus the downwards tilt of the hips. In addition, Polykleitos developed a system of numerical proportions which determined the relationship of each part of the human figure to every other part. He described this system in a work known as The Canon, which is the Greek word for rules. The Doryphoros was intended as an illustration of The Canon, and Polykleitos referred to the sculpture itself as "The Canon".

The Doryphoros is an idealized human figure, but unlike Plato's ideals, Polykleitos' ideal can be seen and touched as well as be appreciated by the mind. The Doryphoros is not a second-hand representation of an ideal, but itself as used as an ideal model y Lysippus and subsequent sculptors. The Doryphoros exalts the human figure, and by extension, humanity, to the level of the divine. It depicts am ideal which is perhaps beyond the reach of an individual, but the Doryphoros nevertheless represents an ideal worth striving for and points to a goal for the direction of one's potential.

In contrast, the Column of Trajan presents an ideal for emulation which actually had been achieved, and therefore was within the grasp of others. The Column of Trajan describes in pictorial format the campaigns of Trajan into Dacia to pacify barbarians threatening the security of Rome. In a continuous narrative of some 150 scenes, the activities associated with the campaigns are depicted: Roman legions crossing the Danube over a pontoon bridge, construction of fortifications, Trajan exhorting his troops, Trajan performing religious rituals, the conduct of councils of war. Of course battle scenes also are depicted, but such scenes comprise only about a quarter of the column's frieze, and Trajan is never shown actively participating in battle. Instead, the positive, constructive aspects of war are emphasized.

According to Stoic philosophy, one of the highest goals to be pursued by an individual was to bring humans into accord with each other. Depending upon the scope of one's power, one should seek to harmonize one's family and community. In Stoic ethical thought, an emperor, with his significantly greater authority, would be expected to harmonize an entire empire. This harmonizing function is emphasized on the Column of Trajan; Trajan not only unifies his troops by speaking to them, but he also pacifies, civilizes, and harmonizes the Dacians.

Obviously, Stoic ethical thought did not expect everyone to conquer a barbarian nation as a demonstration of virtue. The emperor, as First Citizen of the Empire, was merely the most visible citizen. He sets an example as an inspiration for all others. Stoic thought also maintains the importance of each individual fulfilling his nature and reaching his potential. The Column of Trajan not only shows Trajan fulfilling his nature, but each soldier as well. Each citizen of the Empire could pursue the same ideal. The Column is not so much a glorification of the emperor as it is a paean to the accomplishments and potential of the Roman Empire.

One aspect of Stoicism stressed by Marcus Aurelius is the constantly changing nature of the world. Marcus Aurelius repeatedly notes that death is inevitable. He focuses instead on the here and now. He sees the desire for lasing fame as foolish and futile. Such a perspective is incompatible with monumental sculpture. Yet, while the buildings which were constructed at the same time as the Column of Trajan have been destroyed, the Column itself remains in remarkably good condition. Trajan's deeds, and the example he set, are still studied and commemorated nearly two thousand years later.

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Written for Art and Ideas at University of Washington, January 1990. Grade: 4.0.

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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