Monday, November 27, 2006

Understanding Ourselves: Through Study of the Ancient World

Ancient Greece has inspired artists, writers, painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, poets, play writes, philosophers, and even sociologist for centuries. Ancient Greek tragedy inspired Shakespeare in his own play writing. The Greek conception of democracy created the groundwork upon which our country rests. Greek art and thought is arguably, as Simon Goldhill makes the case in his book, Love, Sex, and Tragedy, the foundation of Western Culture. The author states in his brief introduction: “To speak of culture in the modern West is to speak of Greek (1).” A thesis Goldhill supports well throughout his relatively short book. The evidence he provides is almost overwhelming; mathematics, democracy, science, philosophy, sociology all have their roots in ancient Greece. What is the importance of such facts? What are the implications of this to the modern individual?

It is the idea that the assertion of the individual is based on a comprehensive understanding of the past, and it’s implication on the world as a whole. We are living in a time, Goldhill insists, that demands a comprehensive cultural understanding of identity, which he believes can be gained through conclusive study of early Western civilization; namely Greece. Citizens of the modern West can see Greek influence is not only present in science, ligature, politics, mathematics, and theater, but it is also in our everyday lives, most obviously in our architecture. Much in the same way our founding fathers built the constitution, and our country, around Greek ideals of democracy, so too did they constructed the very buildings, which house these ideals under principals of Greek design. You do not have to live in Washington however to see the pervasive influence of classical style upon our nation. You can see it in the pillars on a bank or courthouse, and most obviously in statuary, and relief work. These are just a few examples.

Neo-Classical art surrounds us every day, in sculpture, and in the visual arts, so much so we probable don’t even recognize it. If we were conscious of it, we would see its influence in advertising of all forms: magazines, books, television, billboards, movies, and on the web. Most importantly, we would see its influence on the way we view and evaluate the human form. Polykleitos's canon of proportions still defines much of the way we portray the ideal male form today. Our modern image of the strong, youthful, and athletic male has hardly changed in the last three thousand years, from the early Greek depictions of the Kouros. Why then is the depiction of Venus seen as so sensual and erotic to a society, which has abandoned the Greek representation of the female form for a skinnier, more muscular, arguably less effeminate model? More importantly, and more generally, why are the images that were created more then 2,000 years ago so powerful to the modern view?

Before reaching a conclusion on these questions, let us explore some other Greek contributions to Western culture, which may help to explain the impact of art Greek art on the modern individual, namely science and history. The Greek enlightenment – the birth of objective study and subsequently the d isciplines of mathematics, history, medicine, astrology, and other related disciplines. The enlightenment represented a historic shift away from superstition, and toward a factual understanding of the physical world. Simon Goldhill quotes one Greek scientist as saying:“What I offer is a true picture of the world scientifically observed and described. I tell you how the physical world works. Those who old stories about how things came into being are just myths (312).”

In the over three thousand since the discipline of scientific study emerged in Greece, science itself has made great technological advancements. Enhancing our understanding of the physical world around us, mans’ evolution and later development, as well as the universe outside our own solar system. Yet in the twenty-first century, we still cling to cultural and religious mythos, which contradict our understanding of science.

One of the most commonly seen examples of this is in Christianity, which clings to “literal interpretation of the Bible…as the word of God” while being perpetually disproved, again and again, by overwhelming scientific evidence. Martin Luther was once quoted as saying: “Reason is the greatest antagonist of faith.” It might well be argued today that myth and belief in the supernatural is the greatest antagonist to science.

What should be question is not the validity of these myths, but why, since prehistory, has man been spurred to create these fantastic narratives, and why in the twenty-first century, post Greek enlightenment, are we personally propelled and stirred by what are referred to as “just myths.” Why do we, as a people, return again and again to these so-called “myths” for personal guidance and a sense of cultural and religions identification? In the subconscious of the modern individual lingers the need for a grander, personal, more powerful explanation for existence, which is fulfilled by our culturally condoned mythos.

What is it that these myths fulfill in us? Why are we attracted to the supernatural over what we recognize to be scientific fact? I would argue that though the supernatural bares no resemblance to reality, or the natural world as we are aware of it, but rather depends on recognizable patterns in human behavior and characteristics found all over the world. The Greeks reconized this, and it’s potential for metaphor. Greek myth creates a world in which the Greek play writes could explore the many facetted characteristics of man in both an intellectual and visual sense. Centaurs are an excellent example of this. Half man, half beast, the centaur represented to the Greeks the duality of mans’ nature. To summarize the necessity for myth in the modern and ancient world, is to say that myth is mans’ exploration of the human experience through metaphor.

While a chronological history of the ancient world may help us understand the world around us, it furthers our understanding of the private interior world of the individual little. Greek theater and myth has gone a long way in furthering our modern understanding of sociology. When we speak of an individual as being narcissistic, we are drawing upon our cultural understanding of the Greek myth, much in the same way the later Western sociology and philosophy draws upon similar Greek archetypes. Sigmund Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in his study of sexuality, when he made the bold proclamation that all male children unconsciously desire to bed their mother. The German philosopher and classical scholar Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the human soul as being divided into two parts; the Dionysian and the Apollian, based upon the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysos. If Greek scientific study laid the groundwork for modern medicine, then I would argue that Greek tragedy became the foundation of modern psychology.

Perhaps it is the way in which Greek myths have come to represent the underlying faults, human foibles, tragic flaws, heroic aspirations, romantic love, subconscious desires, jealousy, and a myriad of other aspects and characteristics of the human being, that make Ancient Greek depictions of these myths so powerful today. It is the essential idea that is embodied by Greek art of the essential human experience. Greek art is at the core of our being, as citizens of the Western World. It defines so much of our understanding of our intellectually and materially weather we are aware of it or not, and makes the understanding and study of Greek art integral to our self-awareness.

Goldhill, Simon, Pro. Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives.
London: John Murray. 2004. p. 1. 312

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