By Tim Gebhart 9:21 pm PST
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In ancient Greek legend, it was Promethius who molded humankind out of clay. After he gave humanity the gift of life, he bestowed upon them fire, from fire he gave them the arts. In ancient Greek civilization up to the classical era (500 – 323 B.C.), the main purpose of a person’s life was to align themselves with what they saw as cosmic law and the transcendental principles of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness their Gods possessed and bestowed upon them at the outset of humankind’s creation. These principles made up life and all things. They were virtues and actions one would try to manifest to achieve a perfect harmony, what the ancient Greeks called arete, which means to fulfill one’s highest potential, to reach physical and moral perfection, manifesting a divine state as the Gods that made them.

 In ancient Greece, we see unlike any other civilization at the time, the perfect sculpting and portrayal of the human body. It was through this body we have that perfection could be achieved. It was this reason that the human body had been so carefully and accurately depicted, to showcase their ideals and ultimate pursuits in life. Like their architecture which sought to pull the divine into the human realm, the Greeks wanted to transcend back into divinity. The sculpture of ancient Greece and its arts were not crafted or used specifically to portray Greek identity, it was a symptom of their beliefs, rather than a cause.

“From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate.”
~ Socrates

Many Greek sculptures in the classical era highlighted and displayed and manifested what they called Sophrosyne. The ideal of Sophrosyne is an ancient Greek concept of an ideal of virtuosity of character and soundness of mind which leads to the development of temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, and self-control. A person on this path would become balanced in temperament, walking the “golden mean” as Aristotle put it, to not go to excess in any way, lest virtue then become a vice. A person was to control and temper their passions and emotions. 

In Greek legend, philosophies, beliefs, and how to live and view life were passed down onto them by the Gods through their sages or by inspiration. Gods during the classical era were portrayed as progenitors of wisdom to humanity with a sense of calm and compassion. 

Parmenides, the founder of Western metaphysics relayed the wisdom that had been shown to him by a goddess in his one surviving poem On Nature. In his poem, Parmenides relayed that thought and being are one and the same. If a person likewise is overcome with emotion, they become what they are feeling at that moment. It is not separate from who they are. 

In classical sculpture, we see the careful and deliberate exclusion of intense emotion and passions, but rather the restraint of them. In an example, the Statue of a young athlete, (The Westmacott Athlete) thought to have been carved by Polykleitos, one of Greece’s most renowned sculptors, we see the young man after a victory not soaking in adoration from the crowd, but showing humility and modesty by looking away and down. His expression shows no sign of basking in the glory of the moment, but of being calm, centered, and in control of his emotions. When we are in the presence of sculptures embodying these principles of moral restraint, it invites the viewer to do the same.

During the Hellenistic era in Greece (323 – 146 B.C.) which began directly after the death of Alexander the Great, we see a dramatic shift. The sculptures of this period such as the “Laocoön and His Sons,“ the “Ludovisi Gaul and His Wife,” and many others crafted at the time were drenched in rage, fear, greed, lust, and jealousy. The figures in the Hellenic era were molded with contorted and exaggerated bodies. This shocking 180 degree shift in aesthetic values had to do with not so much a shift in taste at first, but a shift in how the ancient Greeks viewed themselves and emotion as a whole. The impact from this shift in Greek society, though seemingly subtle, had a major ripple effect through all of Greek society, leading from its golden age during the classical era, to its downfall in the Hellenic era. 

Ludovisi Gaul and his wife. Roman copy after an Hellenistic original from a monument built by Attalus I of Pergamon after his victory over Gauls, ca. 220 BC.

In the Hellenic era, Greek society as a whole steered away from developing and focusing on internal development and more towards worldly pursuits. Their Gods and spirituality became an afterthought to a new system of beliefs and ideals. Knowledge for power replaced wisdom for attuning to divinity. Emotion was no longer to be tempered, but indulged. 

 “The easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.”
~ Socrates

Instead of viewing emotions as something to mitigate and control, during the Hellenic era the Greeks sought to indulge in emotion. The Greeks’ stories went from Aesop’s Fables and the moral teachings of Socrates during the Classical era, to later the popular plays of Io, Zeus, and Eros with the Gods being depicted as involving themselves with temperaments worse than humans.

Through the over 3,000 years of Greek civilization, from its height in the Classical era and subsequent decline during the Hellenic period immediately following, we can see a marked difference in how the ancient Greeks in these distinct epochs viewed life and what they valued. The whole of Greek society rose with temperance and started its decline as the earlier wisdom and moral restraint had been abandoned. This in turn affected their arts and sculpture that manifested and displayed their values and beliefs. 

Ancient Greek Classical Era Statues (500 – 323 B.C.)

Marble funerary statues of a maiden and a little girl
ca. 320 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Kore with the almond-shaped eyes (Acropolis Museum)

Ancient Greek Hellenic Era Statues (323 – 31 B.C.)

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, 200 B.C.
The Dying Gaul, 230 and 220 BC.