To understand the reconciliation or meshing of ideas of philosophy and attitudes in the period when Greek art emerged from idealism to naturalism, one need only focus on the years 500 – 400 BCE. During this period Greece experienced a dramatic and vibrant change, not only in the arts, philosophy and politics but also in the everyday effect on people from all walks of life. It is the sculptors of this period that we can look back on now who documented quite distinctly the changes and development of the attitudes of the people. Whether the sculptures reflected the mood and understanding of the people or visa versa one can only surmise. But we do know that the ancient Greeks were the first people to have an understanding in the worth of the individual man.
When the known earth was mostly dominated by absolute monarchies, the Greeks developed the belief that man was not a slave of a despot or a deity, but an individual. They sought to be themselves under the Delphic principle, “Know Thyself”. The reason why this short period of one hundred years had such a huge effect on the dawn of mankind’s thinking we must look at the disparate islands and harsh mainland that encouraged individual growth away from the vast plains of grain in Asia Minor.
The Calf Bearer’s face differs from those of earlier Greek and Egyptian sculptures in that he is smiling. From this time onwards the Archaic Greek sculptures always wore a smile, possibly to show a human element in their existence. Even though the Calf Bearer comes from 560 BCE there is certain Classicism in parts of the sculpture in its simplicity and beauty of line. Here lies a marriage of the Archaic and Classical periods.
By examining in detail the sculptures of the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia 500-490BCE and the Dying Warrior of the same time, we see a rigidness and firmness in the form of the sculpture, not unlike the works of latter Egypt. This idealized work, in most cases, was to represent the gods of different eras. Then in a development which happened at an amazing rate the form of the sculpture changed. It was no longer stiff, rigid and formidable but now the form of the sculpture had started to loosen and roll with emotion and softness. One sees this in the contrast of the two Dying Warriors, west pediment 500-490BCE and east pediment 490-480BCE and also in Athena, Herakles and Atlas with the apples of Hesperides from the same temple 470-456BCE. These latter sculptures have a naturalistic form which clearly shows that realism had taken hold. Whilst our marble warriors were dying in 480BCE, the Persian Wars had given Greece the victory it needed to leap forward culturally. Up to this point the Greeks had praised the gods for their achievements. Now, following their victory over the Persians, they had more faith in man and man’s ability than ever before. Their confidence was stronger than ever. “The world is full of wonders,” sang Sophocles, “but nothing is more wonderful than man.”
Now the mood in Greece was moving from idealism to naturalism, even more so as their faith in the power of the gods was waning and realism was appearing at the edge of the sculptor’s hand. The stiff ‘kouros’ pose of the Archaic period was rejected and the ideals that were to characterize Classical Greece in the fifth century were imbued. Another form to differentiate from the ‘kouros’ pose is typified in the “Kritios Boy” from the Athenian Acropolis of 480BCE. He is still a standing frontal youth but now his weight has shifted onto one leg in the pose we now call ‘contrapposto’. To the sculptor the body was now one of flesh and bones rather than the stiff puppet of earlier periods. On the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia 470-456BCE there is a lifelike expression in every single face. The people are now individuals. An example is the “the Seer” in which the artist renders old age and different figures show their different social status. The Archaic tradition is still seen, but naturalistic and idealistic trends are breaking through.
By the middle of the fifth century Athens had become a cauldron for thinkers and artists. Pericles, the politician was surrounded by great minds such as Phidias the sculptor, Anaxagoras the philosopher/physicist and the architect Ictinus. With the completion of the Parthenon 447-432BCE, Greek culture erupted with music, dance, theatre, painting, pottery, sculpture, architecture, philosophy and the sciences all blossoming. Idealism and a fascination with rational inquiry pervaded. Philosophers such as Pythagoras searched for evidence of a divine and rational plan for the cosmos. The Greeks attitude towards their gods waned but their desire for idealism still grew. Phidias carved the pediments of the Parthenon with the stories of the old gods, although now they appeared in naturalistic form celebrating the works of man. Naturalistic science was maturing with skeptical rationalism. The natural was evolving from the supernatural. These gods of Phideas’ were real men and women, human and individual. The idealized mortal is near-divine, self-sufficient and above ordinary passions.
But this period of positive, creative idealized energy did not last long as the philosophers began to unravel the rug from under the peoples’ feet, which left them negative and insecure. The Sophists eventually took the intellectual lead, Protagoras stating, “Man is the measure of all things.” Then Critias suggested that the gods were invented to instill fear into those who would otherwise act in an evil manner. The Sophists spread in Athens a radical skepticism which ate away at Athenian positivism and bred cynicism. The more conservative sensibilities of the foundation of the traditional Hellenic values were being dangerously eroded while reason and skill had less than an impeccable reputation. The Sophists took naturalism to a dangerous extreme and, as they created a financial guild for themselves, there was no longer truth in their argument. Rather, it was the skill to convince the audience they were right by their style and not by the matter of fact.
Thus entered Socrates 469-399BCE. In Socrates’ autumn years of his life he established himself on the streets of Athens as an orator, questioning any member of the public who cared to partake in a debate on seeking truth. Socrates would gather large audiences during his exercise of questioning although, unlike the Sophists, he requested no fee for his effort. His only motivation was in the seeking of truth. Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, went to Delphi and asked the priestess who was the wisest of men and she answered that there was none more than Socrates. Socrates took the oracle’s statement to mean that he or any other man was not wise at all but only the gods were wise. After an argument with a politician the man walked off, leaving Socrates to state to his audience:
Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that
neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks he knows
something that he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious
of my ignorance. At any rate it seems I am the wiser to this small
extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.
Socrates philosophy was the reconciliation of idealism and naturalism; a balance of rationalism and tradition. He felt that man believing himself to be like the gods had overreached himself in his arrogance, bringing years of disastrous war with Sparta. When, finally, he had antagonized the authorities by his encouragement of critical skepticism, he was considered a dangerous influence to youth and sentenced to death in 399BCE. Fortunately for western civilization it was Plato 429-347BCE who documented and extended the teachings of Socrates.
Within these one hundred years between 500-400BCe the reconciliation of idealism and naturalism had turned the full circle. The next century was to increasingly see the naturalistic, realistic sculpture of the Hellenistic Period such as the “Cnidian Aphrodite” 340BCE by Praxiteles and the abstract idealism of Plato combined with the naturalistic philosophy and science of Aristotle, who said: “We must be immortal as far as we can.”
Art Through The Ages- Twelfth Edition: Fred S. Kleiner Christian J.Mamiya
Chapter 3 Ancient Greece: The Classical Spirit
Classical Greece- C.M. Bowra 1975: Time Inc.
Greek Art- John Boardman 1964: Thames and Hudson
A Greek World View- Richard Tarnas : Reader Notes
Plato- The Last Days Of Socrates: Penguin Classics