The Greek philosophy and art

The appearance of Greek thought comes to us from the time of the first of philosophers - Thales of Miletus and his followers (ca 600-550 BC). At first the philosophy was physical and asked what was the final and irreducible constituent of things. This line of thought reached its highest level by the materialism of Democritus (460-360 BC), whose atomic theory was revived about 2200 years later by Dalton, and has been proved experimentally around the 20th century. Quite early emerges the sage figure of Pythagoras (580-520 BC) who surmised that there were some numerical relations which governed the development of the world. Now we can express it as an attempt to find the mathematical laws or equations describing the universe.(As the equations of Einstein). The respect and devotion of the ancient Greeks to mathematics which starts from Pythagoras and is manifested in the philosophy of Plato was a confirmation of their preference of thought towards the manual activities mostly done by slaves: the preference of ideas to the real objects. The early acquaintance with the Greek art starts from a much older source, namely the ancient Crete-Minoan civilization, which suggest early contacts with Egypt and their mutual influence. From the excavations in Gnosis some beautiful specimens of Crete's art appear, such as colored relief of "Priest-King", the exquisite "Ladies in Blue", the famous "Parisienne" all of them betraying an extraordinary artistic taste. There exists even a view that the sophistication of Crete art reflects a certain degree of decadence. The geometrical style in Greece reaches it highest level in the eight and the beginning of the seventh century BC. The drawings done with the dark brown, shining lacquer laid on the monotone background creates an expression of clearness and unusual vividness. In Greece during the time period from ca 600 BC and on the geometrical, and conditional art motives on the vases as well as the somewhat stiff archaic statues, betraying the Egyptian influence, are starting to change into the classical objects. Simultaneously the Greek architecture reaches aesthetic perfection in temple building by the great temples of Paestum, Selinunte, Segesta and Agrigento. Already in about one hundred, one hundred fifty years we are encountered with the perfect classical samples of Greek sculpture and the magnificently symmetric and aesthetically attractive Greek Parthenon. The new artifacts of art reflect both the knowledge of and the love to geometry. The Greek artists of that time have a perfect knowledge of human anatomy expressed in their sculptures and a surprising ability to erect the gorgeous temples in places where their artistic perfection is amplified by the surrounding area, often on hills dominating the terrain and visible from far away. "The feeling for form and rhythm, for precision and clarity, for proportion and order, is the central fact in Greek culture; it enters into the shape and ornament of every bowl and vase, of every statue and painting, of every temple and tomb, of every poem or drama, of all Greek work in science and philosophy. Greek art is reason made manifest: Greek painting is logic of line, Greek sculptures is a worship of symmetry, Greek architecture is marble geometry", writes Will Durant. The Greek art of the 5th and the 4th century and faithful Roman copies are called Classical art, which aspires to a state of emotional and physical equilibrium, and which is rationally rather than intuitively constructed. The impact of the most of Greek cities on the Greek culture was uneven and quite modest with the exception of Athens. The zenith of the Greek art and philosophy takes place between 400 and 300 BC in Athens- a city state which together with the Attica had a population of about 300,000 persons. One should take into consideration that the city had just about thirty thousand full right citizens, the rest were women, artisans from other cities and slaves. The philosophers starting from Socrates followed by Plato turn to ethical and political matters away from physics. The main topics and ideas of philosophy which would form the body of this subject are formulated and developed by Plato. This dear delight, philosophy, according to Plato, means two things chiefly : to think clearly, which is metaphysics; and to rule wisely, which is politics. First of all one must learn to think clearly. In this respect one of his grand thoughts is the doctrine of Ideas. In shorthand it means that the existing world and all the objects in it are just an imperfect copies of an ideal world and ideal objects. Man is more permanent than any individual, the drawn circle is imperfect but the conception of circle goes on forever. Without these ideas the world would be to us a mass of unclassified and unmeaning particularities of sensation. Plato's ideas meant what Pythagoras meant by the "number". His taste and preferences and his devotion to geometry have influenced many generations of philosophers. According to Plato "God always geometrizes", or as Spinosa puts the same thought, God and the universal laws of structure and operation are one and the same reality. The Greeks of the classical period excelled in painting, sculpture and architecture. Although there are no painting specimens left from this period it is known that Apollodorus of Athens won the name sciagraphos, or shadow painter, because he made pictures in chiaroscuro- i.e., in light and shade; hence Pliny spoke of him as "the first to paint objects as they really appeared". He gave away many of his masterpieces on the ground that no price could do them justice; and cities and kings were happy to receive them. Highly priced were also the pictures of Polygnotus which embellished the Athens agora, namely The battle at Marathon and The fall of Troy. As for sculptures, Polycleitus made himself popular in Argos by designing for its temple of Hera, about 422 BC a gold and ivory statue of the matron goddess, which the age ranked second only to the chryselphantine ( i.e.overlaid with gold and ivory) immensity of Phedias. Regularity was the fetish of Polycleitus, it was his life aim to find and establish a canon or rule for the correct proportion of every part of statue; "he was the Pythagoras of sculpture, seeking a divine mathematics of symmetry and form", says W. Durant; the Naples Museum has a Roman copy of his Spear Bearer. He influenced even Phedias, and ruled till Praxiteles overthrew it with that rival canon of tall, slim elegance which survived through Rome into statuary of Christian Europe, the Roman copy of his Hermes with Dyonisus is an example of his mastery. We can still enjoy Miron's Discus Thrower because of a marble copy by a Roman artist. Another name of a great artist is Scopas born at Pharos, whose sculptures are full of emotion and dynamics; the Roman copy of a maenad is one of few remains of his works. The Apoxiomenos of Lissippus scrapes the oil and dust from his arm with a bronze strigil, and achieves a great slenderness and grace. The sixty feet high (10 m) seated Zeus of Pheidias was listed among the Seven Wonders of the World. The finest architecture of Pericles' builders was reserved for the Acropolis namely for the buildings of Parthenon, Erechtheum and the Theseum. "Greek art was the greatest of Greek products; for though its masterpieces have yielded one by one to the voracity of time, their form and spirit still survive sufficiently to be a guide and stimulus to many arts, many generations, and many lands" says W. Durant. Among the great treasures left by the ancient Greece are, without an doubt, the poetry and drama. Greek drama sprung from the rites of Dionysus cult and is based mainly upon Greek mythology. During the 6th and 5th century Greeks had been blessed by three great tragic poets of the period: Aeshylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Aeshylus who wrote about 90 plays, while just seven survived; of 100 plays by Sophocles only seven tragedies survived. His power of language was so elaborate that his works are as effective in production to day as they were 2400 years ago. Euripides was more interested in character and the personal predicament, than his famous colleagues. His works are less bound by archaic rules of the ancient drama. Of his total production of about 90 plays, 17 tragedies remain. His subjects were passion, politics and war. Euripides tragedy Bacchae is generally considered as his finest play. The interplay of ideology and art in the development of the Greek thought is very good described by Durant: "Art, literature and philosophy first strengthened the influence of religion and then weakened it. Pindar, Aeshylus, Sophocles poured their own insight into Olympian Creed. Pheidias ennobled the gods with beauty and majesty; Pythagoras and Plato associated philosophy with religion. Protagoras doubted it. Socrates ignored it. Democritus denied, and Euripides ridiculed the gods, and in the end the Greek philosophy destroyed the religion that has molded the moral life of Greece". The achievements of Athens, this tiny by the modern standards city, in a period of mere one hundred years, especially taking into consideration the time and efforts to thwart the Persian invasion, and the internecine struggle of the Greek cities, is absolutely astonishing. This achievement was never repeated in human history, might be it has been emulated in some degree by the cultural flight of Florence 1700 years later. Simultaneously, as a reaction against state influence a philosophic movements of Cynicism appeared and advocated a life of simplicity, morality and nonviolence, it was something like the movement of the hippies in sixties and green parties in our days. However this tide of thought, which was not so widespread, has not inspired the appearance of any known art objects. Moreover it was in opposition to the conceptions of the ruling elite of this period. The exploits of Alexander the Great created both a huge Hellenistic empire and reduced the Greek city states to provincial areas. The Hellenistic empire absorbed a lot of Greek culture and dissipated it within the vast boundaries of the new unstable empire. The initial period of Hellenism had still kept alive the impetus of the classic period as it can be seen from the some specimens of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, as the Zeus altar in Pergamum, the Laoco÷n sculpture by the Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. Its discovery stirred Renaissance Italy and profoundly impressed Michelangelo; the other discoveries are Aphrodite of Melos and last but not least Nice of Samothrace. A period of intense cultural achievements is as a rule followed by a period when no new ideas appear and the imitators (epigones) of the creators start to dominate. The decline of democracy and the appearance of monarchies created a sense of resignation; this was reflected in the Stoic philosophy, a pessimistic movement which rejected pleasures of physical life in belief that spirit will control reason. "It is a voice of resignation of people who can not manifest themselves against a strong and oppressive state and who are searching relief in an inward quiet life and discipline" says W. Durant. The small and mutually struggling Greek city - states were destined to be conquered by the new superpower - the Roman Empire, however the Greek culture, philosophy and art conquered the conquerors. It is a rather a common Phenomena, so the Mongols who conquered China have finally been defeated by the Chinese culture and civilization. The period of the Roman domination was culturally dependent on the Greek influence, both in art and philosophy. It has not precluded the Romans from creation of their own literature, however the sculpture and the architecture were still under a strong Greek influence. They produced a lot of copies of the sculpture of ancient Greece of a good quality, might be the masters were also Greeks. In the many provinces of the Roman Empire, especially where the Hellenistic culture put its roots, for instance in Egypt, an exclusively expressive and psychological portrait art was developed. Despite that the Roman art and their independent creative genius has never reached the highs of the classic period their inheritance is of a great importance. Because of it we can still enjoy some exquisite copies of the old Greek masters, while the originals have completely disappeared. The decline of the Roman empire is reflected in the decline of art.

Greek art

Kore with almond-shaped eyes.

The young woman is clad in a chiton and short himation, which buttons on the left shoulder.
Dated to 500 B.C.

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