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Socrates and Freedom of Discourse

Occasionally history gifts us an individual compelled by the type of genius that influences our civilization for centuries to come. Socrates, who lived in Athens, Greece approximately 2,500 years ago, was one such individual. What we know about Socrates mostly comes from Plato, one of his students.

Socrates was a controversial figure. Many who talked to Socrates personally could not resist loving and respecting him, but he would come to be hated politically and was eventually condemned to death. Who was Socrates, and how might his life offer us wisdom today?

Socrates, the Wisest

After defeating Persia, Athens became the most powerful city-state in Greece. Led by Pericles, Athens began to excel militarily, politically, and culturally. In a very short period, Athens would create a culture that would be remembered for millennia.

One of the most important features of Athens during this time was the free flow of ideas, encouraged by Pericles, and Athens pursued and embodied an ideal of free speech. Socrates, after serving in the Athenian army, would benefit from this freedom of speech as he would dialogue with some of the greatest thinkers of his time, and would question many Athenian citizens in pursuit of wisdom.

For Socrates, the only thing that mattered was ethical virtue. He believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that questions concerning ethical virtue—not preconceived and absolute notions—are the beginning of human wisdom. Socrates presumed that he knew nothing, and this presumption led the Oracle of Delphi to confirm that Socrates was the wisest person in Athens. The Oracle’s declaration prompted Socrates to begin a life of philosophy.

Socrates also credited any wisdom he had in part to his “daimonion”—what Cicero would translate into a “divine something”—who accompanied Socrates since he was a child. Socrates describes his daimonion in Plato’s “Apology” as “a sort of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing, but never urges me forward.” The daimonion served as an ethical guide for Socrates, and always prevented him from acting in ways that might cause harm.

Socrates walked the streets of Athens and engaged its citizens in ethical dialogues featuring questions such as: “What is Freedom?” “What is Justice?” “What is Courage?” Many of these dialogues would end with the interlocutors opposite Socrates having to change their preconceived answers because of Socrates’s line of questioning, which often exposed their lack of wisdom.

Socrates Corrupts the Youth

Many who possessed the leisure to engage with Socrates were young, wealthy men. Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles, was a promising young man; he was handsome, rich, politically ambitious, and was elected as one of the generals of Athens. Socrates learned of his political ambitions and sought to dialogue with him; Socrates wanted to show Alcibiades that he was not ready to fulfill his ambitions until he deeply considered and reflected upon the essence of justice.

In 1776, French artist François-André Vincent painted Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates. On the right side of the composition, Vincent depicts a middle-aged Socrates accompanied by his daimonion, who waits to prevent Socrates from saying or doing anything harmful. Socrates speaks to Alcibiades, positioned on the left side of the painting. Dressed in an elegant general’s attire, Alcibiades appears to listen to Socrates—he stares directly at Socrates—but his body turns away.

Alcibiades’s shield is hanging on the wall in the background, and his left hand appears to conceal his sword from Socrates. Does Alcibiades move to conceal his sword to indicate his promise to consider justice in achieving his ambitions? Or is his attempt to conceal his sword indicative of his political ambitions absent justice?

Alcibiades did indeed pursue his political ambitions without the deep consideration of justice that Socrates asked of him. He planned to conquer Sicily, but religious statues were mutilated before he set sail, which was considered by the masses to be a bad omen. Alcibiades’s political opponents linked him to these acts of blasphemy and demanded that he stand trial. To avoid this fate, he decided to not return to Athens and instead sided with Sparta, which incurred tremendous damage to Athens.

It wasn’t long before Alcibiades was condemned by the Spartans for having an affair with the Spartan queen. He eventually fled to Persia, and aided them as an enemy of Greece. Before being assassinated in Persia, Alcibiades had fought on three sides of the same war. Alcibiades seemed less concerned about justice and more concerned about what was politically expedient.

Is this why the painting depicts his body turning away from Socrates? Does this body language suggest a lack of full attention from Alcibiades? Socrates would later be blamed for impiety toward the gods of Athens and for corruption of the youth. One of these corrupted youths, though never mentioned by name, was presumed to be Alcibiades. Socrates would be tried and condemned to death for these offenses.

The Trial of Socrates

The Athenians had pride in their ideal of free speech. The abilities to freely express and exchange ideas were paramount to Athenian culture and success. After the small Spartan army defeated Athens, however, many Athenians began to admire the dominant and militant power structure of Sparta.

Socrates was called to trial shortly after the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused of failing to acknowledge the gods of Athens, introducing new divinities, and, of course, corrupting the youth. His accusers brought up his daimonion, which wasn’t one of the acknowledged gods of Athens, and pointed out that many of the people that attacked Athenian democracy were, at least at one time or another, youths associated with Socrates.

Socrates defended himself, stating that these accusations were untrue. Why did so many Athenians believe them to be true, then? Why did so many Athenians hate him? Socrates made the case that the reason Athenians came to despise him despite his best efforts to serve them was because of the media. The play “Clouds” by Aristophanes, for instance, depicted Socrates as an impious buffoon who corrupted the youth and was not to be taken seriously.

Socrates admitted that he pursued wisdom through inquiry with those who would listen—mostly young, wealthy men who would practice a similar line of inquiry with him in pursuit of wisdom. He argued that this was not corrupting but benefiting the democracy of Athens.

As a democracy, the ruling majority forces its vices as well as virtues upon the citizens. It takes a dedicated few, not the many, to pursue ethical virtue and pass it to the next generation. This, of course, requires questioning the very vices the majority believes to be absolute truth.

Socrates also argued that he was not impious; he had devoted his life in obedience to the god at Delphi and to his daimonion, who ethically guided him throughout his life as he attempted to serve the Athenian public. He wanted others, as well as himself, to come to an ever-deeper understanding of virtue so that Athens could reach its full potential and thrive.

The trial of Socrates was an instance in which an Athenian was prosecuted for the alleged harm indirectly caused by the exchange of ideas—for freely speaking. The people of Athens, who once valued the ideal of free speech, required him to denounce his beliefs or die by way of poison. Socrates chose poison.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates was painted in 1787 by the neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). It depicts the moment in which Socrates, surrounded by his followers and family, is handed a chalice of hemlock to drink—which he willingly accepted since his daimonion did not try to stop him from doing so. Socrates not only accepts the chalice of hemlock, but points to the heavens and discourses on the immortality of the soul before he drinks. He is shown in a white robe and with the musculature of an ideal youth, which suggest his strong and pure character. Of all the figures depicted, he is illuminated most by the light emanating from the top of the composition.

Socrates discussed ideal forms that existed behind the surface forms we see in everyday life. He suggested that there was a greater truth that illuminated all other things, and that this truth was only accessible to those—the “philosopher kings”—who lived their lives in accordance with higher truths.

In the famous “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates suggests that reality for us is like being chained in a cave and being made to watch a wall on which shadows are cast by a flame behind us. We all mistake the shadows for the truth of reality, not realizing that the actual truth begins with the flame behind us, and that there is another, truer world beyond this one.

The “philosopher king” becomes the one who frees themselves from the cave and sees the flame as the source of the shadows, and the reality of the world beyond the confines of the prison. The question remains: How many of the previous prison inmates could accept the truth of the cave while still being shackled within?

In the painting, David has depicted Socrates as the philosopher king who escaped the shackles that kept him confined to the shadows of the cave wall; we can see the shackles on the ground. Socrates saw the truth, tried to communicate that truth, and was punished with poison.

In the upper left corner of the composition, there is an oil lamp that has almost run its course; an extinguished oil lamp is often used in art as a symbol of the ephemerality of life and imminent death. David depicted the oil lamp as the only object that casts a shadow upon the wall—which aligns with Socrates’s final discourse, in which he states that the soul is immortal and death is an illusion.

There is also a lyre on the bed next to Socrates, who was often thought of as an exemplar of logic and reason, but he had a recurring dream that encouraged him to make music. He thought the dream was referring to the music of philosophy, and it was only after the trial that he considered that the dream was referring to actual music, and he attempted to learn a melody as he waited to die.

There’s speculation that Socrates’s turn to music at the end of his life suggests that logic and reason are not absolute and can only take us so far in understanding what it means to be human. The complete human experience requires both science and art as well as freedom of discourse in search of the true essence of both.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

 

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Fine Arts Arts Featured Mind & Body Relationships

Birds of Fortune

In traditional Chinese culture, the following idioms are often used to describe a perfect marriage: lute and zither playing in harmony, flowers blooming under the full moon, dragons soaring and phoenixes prancing, mandarin ducks playing in water, and swallows and nightingales flying in pairs.

These metaphors are inspired by objects in nature, among which bird-related analogies are the most common.

Such admiration of the creatures dates back millennia, as birds were believed to herald good luck. Bird-and-flower paintings (hua niao hua) are one of the three major genres of Chinese painting, and chirping birds are typically used to convey the painter’s earnest wishes.

Noble Blessings From a Sacred Bird

The phoenix (fenghuang), a sacred bird from the ancient days regarded as the king of birds, is considered the noblest emblem for grand weddings. Married couples sharing in the ebb and flow of each other’s lives are compared to male and female phoenixes flying in blessed harmony.

In Shuowen Jiezi, an ancient Chinese dictionary from the Han dynasty, the phoenix is said to appear only in places blessed with utmost peace, auspiciousness, and fortune. According to the dictionary, the phoenix also has the breast of a goose, the back of a tiger, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish, the grain of a dragon, the face of a swallow, and the beak of a rooster. Its body contains the five fundamental colors: white, black, red, green, and yellow.

According to the Writings of Huainan, Yu Jia is the name of the ancestor of all birds. Dragons were said to have given birth to phoenixes, and the phoenix (fenghuang) was used to symbolize both husband and wife, as male phoenixes were originally called feng and the females huang.

The luan is another mythological bird similar to the phoenix—red, flamboyant, and rooster-shaped. Both the phoenix and luan are totems of auspiciousness and are often seen in royal rituals, paintings, and accessories. No ordinary bird could compare with the appearances of phoenix and luan—their superiority is everlasting. Many believe that the image of the luan is derived from golden pheasants. Therefore, paintings with a pair of pheasants can also convey wedding wishes.

Till Death Do Us Part

Mandarin ducks (yuanyang) represent the unwavering faithfulness and commitment of married couples. Male ducks are called yuan, and the females yang—so together, they’re often used as a metaphor for wedded bliss. Mandarin ducks often swim and inhabit in pairs. Luo Yuan, a literati from the Song Dynasty, famously depicted that yuanyang would never leave one another, and upon being torn apart, they would die of grief.

The yuanyang was used by the literati as a symbol of inseparable couples, and it was widely used in many contexts—sadness, happiness, separations, and reunions. For instance, Lu Zhaolin, a poet in the Tang Dynasty, wrote in “Changan: Poem Written in an Antiquated Form,” that: “I would die without regret if we were flatfish swimming together, I wish to be mandarin ducks with you more so than immortals.” The poem expresses a man’s earnest wish to be with his love.

The “Book of Odes and Hymns” (“Shi Jing”) shows the auspiciousness of yuanyang in this way: “They flit in pairs and the net captures them. May men be blessed with luck and fortune! They swam in pairs gathered aside by stakes, and folded their left wings. May men be blessed with auspiciousness!”

In the past, people would also catch and gift Mandarin ducks. Poems demonstrate that though the birds were met with danger in these instances, they would suffer together rather than abandon one another. As such, the birds are widely acknowledged as conveying blessings for the newly wedded—no matter what hardships the couple faces, they will get through them together. The unwavering character of yuanyang is frequently interpreted by poets, and its symbolic meanings have become irreplaceable.

Harbingers of Joy and Love

There are birds more commonly seen in our everyday lives, such as the swallows who often build nests under traditional roofs.

Swallows are small and often have a black back and a white throat, giving them the nickname “black cape” in Chinese. In traditional Chinese culture, swallows symbolize a home of joy and comfort. They can also be used to describe a loving and inseparable couple. In “Swallows Leaving in Pairs,” the poet Li Bai wrote about how people admired swallows for always flying in pairs, forever by their lover’s side. However, after their nest was burnt down, one female swallow was left alone without her partner. It was a heartbreaking sight, seeing the swallow now flying alone. This tragedy shows the swallows’ fidelity and commitment.

Magpies are another significant cultural symbol in China. In ancient times, grumpy magpies were actually considered auspicious—their chirping can bring good luck and fortune. This is why magpies are called “happy magpies” in China. Magpies are also seen as fairies. In the Song Dynasty, a man named Yuan Bowen dreamed about a fairy and asked her to stay during the night. The fairy replied to him: “I shall make a bridge for Zhinu during the day, staying would bring disgrace to my duty.” When Yuan woke up, the sun had risen and he saw a flock of magpies flying eastward, among which one flew away from his window.

Zhinu is the youngest daughter of the Jade Emperor, and magpies are also associated with the folktale of the weaver girl Zhinu and cowherd Niulang. When Zhinu came down to Earth, she fell in love with Niulang, a mortal cowherd, and the two got married. However, their love wasn’t allowed, and the Queen Mother of the West banished them to opposite sides of the Heavenly River (Milky Way). On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge, connecting the two lovers and allowing them to briefly reunite. Thus, magpies are seen as a type of Cupid that brings lovers together and are often used to signify marital bliss.

The symbols embodied by birds have been imagined and reimagined by literatus, inviting us to explore the previous cultural heritage hidden behind the chirping birds.

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Arts Fine Arts Paintings

Landscapes of the Sublime

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher. —William Wordsworth

In times when “progress” charts a potentially perilous course for humanity, it’s the role of art to remind us of our connection to life, both inside and outside ourselves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the industrial revolution transformed the human experience in the Western world, artists had serious concerns about its impact on both nature and the human soul. When governments and industries lead humanity forward unconsciously, it’s the individual’s thoughts and connection to the divine that act as a light in the darkness.

The scientific rationalism and reductionism of the “Enlightenment” period persuaded a large chunk of humanity that the profound mystery of life could eventually be categorized, explained, mechanized, and reduced in service of man. The pride of man’s intellect, invention, and progress promised dominion over nature and prosperity for all. Artists, writers, and philosophers of the Romantic period were greatly at odds with this way of thinking. For Romanticists, the natural world was a source of sublimely transcendental beauty and meaning. Its mystery and miraculous complexity were perennial contemplative food for the soul. Their works sought to illustrate this belief and restore man’s connection to the divine, inside and out.

Divine Relationship With Nature

Artists of the Romantic period in Europe were witnessing a disturbing transformation firsthand. As urban centers grew, severe economic impacts, due to the paradigm shift in production, displaced farmers who could no longer afford the way of life they had always known. Artists such as John Constable, the wealthy son of a rural landowner, painted scenes from agrarian life in an attempt to elevate it in the hearts and minds of people who were seeing it become more endangered. To Constable, “painting is but another word for feeling,” and he clearly shared the Romanticist’s feeling that people needed to be reminded of their intrinsic connection to nature.

“The Hay Wain,” by John Constable, circa 1821. Oil on canvas. Presented by Henry Vaughan, 1886. National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

Paintings like “The Haywain” were a celebration of pastoral life. Figures were not the central focus of his landscapes, but rather part of a larger synergistic whole. People are portrayed as beings interacting within the larger being of the landscape. Great distances and impressive clouds feature prominently as though to invoke a sense of this larger being as the figures go about their work. Light filters from the sky through the leaves and across the surface of the water. Life is imbued throughout Romantic paintings without need for a definitive figurative focus. It was the unity of man with nature that artists like Constable aimed to religiously depict. In their pantheistic view, when nature was abandoned or trampled, the human spirit would also be in turmoil.

In Germany, Caspar David Friedrich painted scenes with similar Romantic reformational themes. Among the first northern European transcendental landscape artists, Friedrich passionately stated, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but what he sees within him.” This spiritual and philosophical imperative was indicative of the Romantic commitment to achieving individual states of consciousness that revealed the divine presence in nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote at the time that “deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling, and all truth is a species of revelation.”

“Wanderer above the sea of fog,” by Caspar David Friedrich, circa 1817. Oil on canvas. Kunsthalle Hamburg. (Public Domain)

Friedrich’s most renowned work, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” from 1818, invites viewers on a quest for revelation through solitary union with nature. The anonymous central figure has his back turned, allowing the viewer to engage him as an archetypal explorer looking out into a mountainous landscape enshrouded in clouds. This solitary figure stands perched above the clouds, looking as though he were ready to step into a higher dimension of existence—to disappear into eternity and union with God. Friedrich’s painting strives to fulfill the Transcendentalist words of author Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote,

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Romanticism Spreads Westward

America held the promise of a new world full of undisturbed natural beauty and a vast potential for expansion. Proponents of Manifest Destiny held that it was God-given destiny that the new inhabitants of America’s east coast spread westward. A group of Romanticist painters on the east coast, known as the Hudson River School, questioned the morality of America’s direction while also striving to depict the holiness they perceived in America’s breathtaking landscapes.

Thomas Cole, regarded as the leader of the Hudson School, emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. Known best for his allegorical landscapes in both series “The Course of Empire” and “The Voyage of Life,” Cole painted natural scenes deeply imbued with philosophical and spiritual meaning. One of his most famous landscapes is known as “The Oxbow,” and depicts a popular view from Mount Holyoke in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1836.

“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow,” by Thomas Cole, circa 1836. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

In his “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole stated, “The imagination can scarcely conceive Arcadian vales more lovely or more peaceful than the valley of the Connecticut—its villages are rural places where trees overspread every dwelling, and the fields upon its margin have the richest verdure.” This sentiment is captured on the right side of his split composition “The Oxbow.” On the left, a dark storm with lightning enshrouds a wild area of untamed beauty. It seems to be a divine warning that humanity dare not take more than what it needs from the natural world. A small self-portrait of the painter can be found somewhat hidden on the mountain, looking back at the viewer ambivalently as if to pose the question, “Can humanity limit its destructive tendencies?”

Cole further expresses his respect for undisturbed nature by saying, “There are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation, the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep-toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations of God the creator—they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.”

According to Associationist doctrine at the time, God was present in the landscape, and this presence could be experienced in America particularly because it was “untamed.” This belief elevated the landscape to a divine being in the minds of the Romanticists, and they endeavored to paint it as such. Nature to them was sublime, which philosopher Edmund Burke defined as “awe mixed with terror.” Foreboding weather and dramatic chiaroscuro enhanced this sense of awe and terror in paintings of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt. The force of nature commands the respect and humility of humanity while simultaneously providing us abundant sustenance and astonishing beauty. It’s difficult to look at paintings like these and not see the hand of the divine.

Portraying the profound beauty of lands west of the Rocky Mountains, Albert Bierstadt gave Americans increased impetus to travel westward. The sublime, almost otherworldly scenes he painted are works that capture the transcendental magnificence of the natural wonders from which he gained inspiration. One can only imagine the revelry these images would have inspired in people who had never seen such sights. In our modern times, where every computer comes with Yosemite desktop background options, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming feeling paintings like “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” would impress on viewers. For those that experienced the divine through nature, it must have been akin to religious worship.

Like temples of worship, these natural wonders were to be revered and not tarnished. Westward expansion enabled artists to see such sights while also making them apprehensive about humanity’s growing impact on the untamed world. The railway system of trains that spread across America’s landscape was called “a winged horse or fiery dragon” by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The train tore through landscapes in a powerful, loud, and efficient new way. The reality of the conquest of Native Americans must not have sat well in the conscience of many Americans, including Bierstadt, who respectfully painted them at peace amidst the landscape in several of his great works. Nevertheless, “progress” plowed forward, and those captains of industry leading the charge were ironically also the most eager and able to purchase Bierstadt’s paintings.

Protecting Parts of Paradise

Works and words from Romanticist and Transcendentalist artists and writers must have provided some of the momentum toward the beginning of the national park system in the United States. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an ever-increasing need and desire to preserve America’s natural wonders. In 1832, artist George Catlin wrote that these areas needed to be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government … in a magnificent park, a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of nature’s beauty!” It was the fruition of this idea that created protected places where millions of people continue to pilgrimage every year as though to commune with the divine in nature.

“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” by Frederic Edwin Church, circa 1866. Oil on canvas. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Public Domain)

Frederic Edwin Church ventured abroad in search of the sublime with voyages that took him to the tropics, South America, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, Newfoundland, and other places. He brought back wild scenes that were enhanced in sublimity by his Transcendentalist imagination. “Rainy Season in the Tropics” is a masterful tribute to the creative beauty of nature heightened for dramatic effect. A double rainbow and a dreamlike, light-filled landscape give the viewer the sense of a land of Edenic beauty.

Church was also highly regarded for American scenes such as “A Country Home,” depicting an area on the edge of the Hudson River. In true Romantic form, small figures are painted as details in a grand, harmonious environment. Small children are seen fishing with their mother waiting on shore for them to come to dinner, and a colorful sunset embraces everything approvingly in its warm glow. Cows graze in open grass, and the natural world is enhanced and largely undisturbed by the presence of the people therein.

“A Country Home,” by Frederic Edwin Church, circa 1854. Oil on canvas. Seattle Art Museum. (Public Domain)

Transcendentalists felt humans were at their best in a state of self-reliance and freedom. They believed that society corrupts individuals and removes them from a natural way of life; an ongoing source of contemplation and struggle. Perhaps for this reason, these paintings continue to call out to the human spirit in a time when a significant number of people are exiting large cities in search of a more agrarian lifestyle.

“Society has parted man from man, neglectful of the universal heart.” —William Wordsworth

Romantic and Transcendentalist paintings hold a timeless significance for humanity. They remind us that the human experience is so much more than staring at screens. For them, a larger being not only created the world, but is the source of life within it. As humanity enters a “fourth industrial revolution,” an “internet of things” composed of radiation-based technologies further threatens the natural world; birds, bees, trees, humans, and all. It would serve us well to consider the cumulative impacts of our actions, and our addictions, on the world and on ourselves, both seen and unseen. A more beautiful world awaits our humbled participation.

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at WholySelf.com

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Arts Fine Arts Paintings

Leonardo’s Saint Anne

The interview with Vincent Delieuvin below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This subject, this composition, is really very symbolic. Leonardo spent nearly 20 years conceiving this composition. From 1500 to his death in 1519, he never stopped perfecting every detail, and transforming his ideas. For him, every part of the painting was fundamental, because he really wanted to portray something very particular—the very moment when the Virgin agreed to let Jesus go to his destiny. It is something very subtle that reveals it: A movement, one could say, between the moment Christ returns to the arms of the Virgin, and the moment when she lets him toward his destiny.

What is fundamental, for Leonardo da Vinci, is the expression of feelings, and especially a perfect correspondence between the movement of the body and the movement of the mind. Here, the three protagonists, Saint Anne, the Virgin, and the child unfold differently. We see that Jesus takes hold of a lamb; the symbol of his approaching death, the sacrificed animal. He turns, and with a bit of mischief, he smiles. It looks like they are playing with the animal but in fact, he looks back at his mother and grandmother to see if they understood the true meaning of this gesture, this game that was the announcement of his death. Then he smiles, too, in a way, to reassure them.

There are two different reactions to this moment. Saint Anne, the grandmother, already knows. She knows that this death is essential for the redemption of humanity and therefore she decides not to intervene. She looks passive but bares a broad smile that shows that she knows it was destiny, certainly tragic, but at the same time wonderful.

“The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci.

On the other hand, the most ambiguous expression, the most subtle—the most moving too—is that of the Virgin who is presented in a physical and spiritual moment of conflict with herself. And this is what Leonardo da Vinci places at the center of his composition. She is in a particular moment—between wanting to hold her son, to separate him from the lamb and therefore keep him alive and yet there is a smile on her face in which we guess is a little melancholy and it expresses her acceptance. She is accepting this destiny and she is going to let him go to his future death. So it’s something very subtle, and that is what makes “Saint Anne” the great masterpiece in the expression of human feelings and also in the expression of movement.

Here is a world that includes everything—sweetness, joy, melancholy, and movements partly contradictory but that are nevertheless resolved in a rather joyful atmosphere at the end.

And the landscape is a character in and of itself. It’s a wonderful and scientific representation of nature,  but there are also elements in this landscape that are both extremely calm, reassuring, and distant—a great sense of perspective that invites us to see things from a perspective with a long view. And when we approach the painting, we see this great cascade of water, absolutely extraordinary, which shows that this journey will also be strewn with pitfalls, in particular by the death of Christ.

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Arts Fine Arts Paintings

Catharsis: Aristotle’s Response to Plato

The Eye of the Beholder: Reflecting On the Purpose of Beauty and Art

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean and does it hold weight? In this series, we will take a casual look at the philosophical debates concerning our experiences with beauty and art. Through questions and reflection, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of beauty and art and their place in our lives.

Raphael’s School of Athens
In the early 16th century, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, the Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, painted one of the greatest frescoes of our known history, “The School of Athens.”

According to the artist and art historian, Giorgio Vasari, the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology…” and Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).

The fresco depicts over fifty figures, but we will only look at the two central figures who represent Plato and Aristotle.

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Raphael depicts Plato and Aristotle standing shoulder to shoulder. Plato is to the left and is thought to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci, one of Raphael’s contemporaries. Plato holds his book “Timaeus” under his left arm and points up to the sky with his right hand. He wears red and grey which may represent the intangible elements of fire and air.

Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, is to the right of Plato. He carries his book “Nicomachean Ethics” in his left hand and points his right hand forward with his palm facing the ground. He wears blue and green which may represent the tangible elements of water and earth.

What does all of this mean for aesthetics, our understanding of beauty, and how we experience the world?

Plato
In the “Republic,” Plato suggests that the world we experience with our five senses is but a shadow of a truer world, the world of forms. Plato describes this truer world in “Timaeus” as created by a divine craftsman who mathematically ordered and structured the universe.

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

If we look at the top of the composition where Plato points, we see geometrical forms that hover over all of the figures below. We can interpret that these geometric forms represent the order and harmony of the universe’s structure.

Interestingly enough, Leonardo, the very artist that Raphael uses as a model for Plato, illustrated Platonic solids for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions” in 1509. These mathematical models were thought to correspond with the divine order of existence.

“Truncated Icosahedron,” in 1509 by Leonardo da Vinci. Illustrations for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions.” (Public Domain)

Depicted below the geometric forms, but still above the human figures, are two marble statues of the gods Apollo and Athena.

Apollo, on the left, is the god of beauty, mathematics, and order. He is depicted with a stringed instrument in his left hand, which would make its sound beautiful according to the length — that is, the measurement — of its strings. The traditional musical scale of the west is mathematically ordered.

Athena, on the right, is the goddess of strategy and wisdom. On her platform, she balances the aegis, a shield possessing the head of Medusa. Anyone who would look into the eyes of Medusa would turn to stone, becoming both hard and unfeeling; Plato’s philosophy requires the abandonment of emotion for the pursuit of absolute, stone cold Truth.

Thus, Plato suggests that true beauty lies with the divine craftsman. True beauty is guided by the mathematically logical forms of our intellect absent any emotion. Artists who merely imitate nature are liars because they are unable to communicate these Truths that exist beyond mere appearances.

As liars, these artists risk leading people away from Truth with their works of art, and artists should be censored for this reason.

Aristotle’s Response to Plato

Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Aristotle points his hand out toward the scene in front of us. Some of the greatest thinkers in known history are talking about, sharing, and debating ideas and experiences. Many are separated into small groups in which they work toward a common goal. Others work or think in isolation.

Just as the area above the figures represents aspects of Plato’s philosophy, the figures below represent Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle’s ethics concerned examining the causes and effects within nature to determine what actually worked to make life better.

In other words, we don’t have to go beyond nature to find Truth, because there are truths right here and right now that we must come to understand. One of those truths deals with our relationship with the world around us. For instance, we can often determine what is ethical action based on whether the effect of the said action produces a natural pleasure within us.

We imitate when we learn, and knowledge produces this experience of pleasure. We also gain pleasure from seeing something successfully imitated. Raphael’s ability to imitate the appearance of human beings in “School of Athens” gives us a certain sense of pleasure.

Thus, in contrast to Plato, Aristotle believes there is a place for imitation because imitation can produce pleasure within us, and therefore it must be ethical. One of these pleasurable experiences can occur by way of the work of art, and Aristotle calls it catharsis.

Catharsis is the experience in which we are overwhelmed with the emotions of pity and fear in such a way that they purify us. It’s like seeing a good movie in which we both fear for the safety and pity the plight of the protagonist. In a way, this emotional response — a type of compassion — gives us an experience that purifies us as human beings, and we become better because of it.

Thus, the arts can provide us with the emotional education on how to best live amongst our fellow human beings; it can show us how to think about, share, and debate our ideas and experiences as human beings in an ethical way. In other words, art can emotionally connect us with each others’ lived experiences. We can see this in Raphael’s fresco: he has placed people from different locations and time periods in the same painting, sharing their ideas and experiences with each other and with us, five hundred years into the future.

What do you think? Does Plato have a point: are the arts dangerous in what they represent, and should they be censored to only relay the intellectual and emotionless intentions of the divine craftsman? Or is Aristotle right: the arts educate us in our emotions and connect us with the human experience?

Or maybe these two aesthetic arguments do not contradict each other as much as we may initially think?

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

GK EDIT:

The Eye of the Beholder: Reflecting on the Purpose of Beauty and Art

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what does this mean, and does it hold weight? In this series, we will take a casual look at the philosophical debates concerning our experiences with beauty and art. Through questions and reflection, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of beauty and art, and their place in our lives.

Raphael’s School of Athens
In the early 16th century, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio da Urbino painted one of the greatest frescoes in history, “The School of Athens.”

According to the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology,” and that Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).

The fresco depicts over 50 figures, but we will only look at the two central figures, who represent Plato and Aristotle.

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Raphael depicts Plato and Aristotle standing shoulder to shoulder. Plato is to the left and is thought to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci, one of Raphael’s contemporaries. Plato holds his book “Timaeus” under his left arm and points up to the sky with his right hand. He wears red and gray, which may represent the intangible elements of fire and air.

Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, is to the right of Plato. He carries his book “Nicomachean Ethics” in his left hand and points his right hand forward, with his palm facing the ground. He wears blue and green, which may represent the tangible elements of water and earth.

What does all of this mean for aesthetics, our understanding of beauty, and how we experience the world?

Plato

In the “Republic,” Plato suggests that the world we experience with our five senses is but a shadow of a truer world, the world of forms. Plato describes this truer world in “Timaeus” as created by a divine craftsman who mathematically ordered and structured the universe.

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

If we look at the top of the composition, where Plato points, we see geometrical forms that hover over all of the figures below. We can interpret that these geometric forms represent the order and harmony of the universe’s structure.

Interestingly, Leonardo, the very artist that Raphael uses as a model for Plato, illustrated Platonic solids for Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions” in 1509. These mathematical models were thought to correspond with the divine order of existence.

[Caption]“Truncated Icosahedron,” 1509, by Leonardo da Vinci. Illustrations from Luca Pacioli’s book “The Divine Proportions.” (Public Domain)

Depicted below the geometric forms, but still above the human figures, are marble statues of the gods Apollo and Athena.

Apollo, on the left, is the god of beauty, mathematics, and order. He is depicted with a stringed instrument in his left hand, which would make its beautiful sound according to the length of its strings; the harmonic series of pitches is mathematically ordered.

Athena, on the right, is the goddess of strategy and wisdom. On her platform, she balances the aegis, a shield possessing the head of Medusa. Anyone who would look into the eyes of Medusa would turn to stone, becoming both hard and unfeeling; Plato’s philosophy requires the abandonment of emotion for the pursuit of absolute, stone-cold truth.

Thus, Plato suggests that true beauty lies with the Divine Craftsman, that true beauty is guided by the mathematically logical forms of our intellect absent any emotion, and that artists who merely imitate nature are liars because they are unable to communicate these truths that exist beyond mere appearances.

Aristotle’s Response to Plato

[Caption]Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509–1511, by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft. by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)

Aristotle points his hand toward the scene in front of us; some of the greatest thinkers in known history are talking about, sharing, and debating ideas and experiences. Many are separated into small groups in which they work toward a common goal. Others work or think in isolation.

Just as the area above the figures represents aspects of Plato’s philosophy, the figures below represent Aristotle’s ethics, which concerned examining causes and effects within nature to determine what actually worked to make life better.

In other words, we don’t have to go beyond nature to find truth, because there are truths right here and right now that we must come to understand. One of those truths deals with our relationship with the world around us. For instance, we can often determine which action is ethical based on whether the effect of the action produces a natural pleasure within us.

We imitate when we learn, and knowledge helps produce this experience of pleasure. We also gain pleasure from seeing something successfully imitated. Raphael’s ability to uncannily imitate the appearance of human beings in “School of Athens” gives us a certain sense of pleasure.

Thus, in contrast to Plato, Aristotle believes there is a place for imitation because imitation can produce pleasure within us, and therefore it must be ethical. One of these pleasurable experiences can occur through experiencing works of art, and Aristotle called it catharsis.

Catharsis can be the experience of being overwhelmed with the emotions of pity and fear in such a way that they purify us. It’s like seeing a good movie in which we both fear for the safety and pity the plight of the protagonist. In a way, this complex emotional response—a type of compassion—gives us an experience that purifies us as human beings, and we become better because of it.

Thus, the arts can help provide us with the emotional education on how to best live among our fellow human beings, and it can show us how to think about, share, and debate our ideas and experiences in an ethical way. In other words, art can emotionally connect us with others’ lived experiences. We can see this in Raphael’s fresco; he has placed people from different locations and time periods in the same painting—sharing their ideas and experiences with each other and with us, 500 years into the future.

What do you think? Does Plato have a point: Should the arts only attempt to relay the intellectual and emotionless intentions of the Divine Craftsman? Or is Aristotle right in stating that the arts educate us in our emotions and connect us with the human experience?

Or maybe these two aesthetic arguments do not contradict each other as much as we may initially think?

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).