The Classical Period In Greek Art & Philosophy Adapted from Charles Van Doren’s A History of Knowledge and Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History
Thales and the Greek explosion
There is no evidence that Greek was a written language prior to the middle of the eighth century BC. Suddenly, with the importation of papyrus, Greek written materials began to be produced, and commercial records and treatises on technical subjects began to be distributed throughout the Greek world. The center of this activity was the city Miletus, in what is now Southwestern Turkey, which gained a reputation not only for a commercial power but also as a source of inventions and ideas.
Around 625 BC, a man was born in Miletus who was uniquely capable of taking advantage of the special opportunities afforded by his native city. Very little is known about Thales: he was revered, first by Greeks and then Romans; he was supposed to have discovered some of the theorems of the first book of Euclid’s Elements; and he was said to have predicted an eclipse of the sun in the year 585 and if so he may have been the first person to foresee this phenomenon. But according to ancient commentators, Thales was best known for being the first thinker to propose a single universal principle of the material universe, a unique substratum that, itself unchanging, underlay all change. Thales recognized that simply naming something doesn’t solve the philosophical problem of how that thing can retain a single identity even when its physical properties are altered far beyond the thing’s original state. Changes occur constantly. Is there one primordial thing that underlies all this change? And is there one thing that remains the same when everything else is different from one moment, or one eon, to the next? The commentators agree that Thales chose for his substratum, his unchanging property or first principle, water.
If one had to name one substance as a substratum, water is not a bad candidate (water is a universal solvent, and in its liquidness it is perpetually mutable, and when heated it becomes a gas and when frozen, a solid); but whether it is a good candidate or not, Thales was performing a significant mental feat by proposing that a single physical entity, or element, underlay all the different things in the world. His doing so showed that he had come to understand the world in a new way. Thales had done two remarkable things:
He had not resorted to animistic explanations for what happens in the world. That is, he had not explained the otherwise unexplainable by saying: “I do not know why this happens, and therefore I will assume that the gods made it happen.”
He had made the extraordinary assumption that the world—the cosmos—was a thing whose workings the human mind can understand.
The world that Thales attempted to understand and explain consisted of the material cosmos, the sensible universe, but it did not include the minds of other persons. Thus he was not only the first scientist; he was the first to become enmeshed in a serious problem of knowledge that has not been adequately solved to this day. We can remember, which is a kind of sensing, things that are not present to our senses at the moment; we can dream of them, we can even imagine things that never were, like unicorns or gryphons. But we cannot sense minds, other persons’ or our own. Minds are immaterial things. Nonetheless, as a result of his writings his new idea spread throughout Greece and beyond: that the world is basically intelligible and that there is a deep commensurability between the external world and the human mind even if the mind itself is not a part of the sensible world. Soon many Greeks were “thinking about the world in the Greek way.” All over Ionia, and in the lands that Greece influenced, people began to speculate about primary elements and propose other primary elements that might be what is unchanging, and therefore intelligible, in a changing world.
The Greeks accumulate knowledge and teach it to others
Before Thales, most knowledge had been practical, comprising pragmatic rules for success in enterprises from hunting to growing crops, from organizing households to governing cities, from creating art to waging war. The slow accumulation of such practical know-how, which persisted for thousands of years, did not cease because the Greeks began to philosophize. On the contrary, it accelerated, as the curious Greeks ranged far from their sea-locked peninsula. And so knowledge grew apace, knowledge of husbandry, viticulture, pottery making, commerce and salesmanship, finance, metals, weapons, and warfare. But the Greeks learned not just because they were curious and traveled to alien places. More important was their revolutionary discovery of how to learn systematically, which is to say, their invention of organized knowledge itself. Before Thales, knowledge, the possession of which has insured success and conferred happiness rather than misery, had been a monopoly of the ruling class, that is, of kings and priests. Thales and his followers changed knowledge from a “mystery” into a public thing. Anyone who could read might share in its benefits. Anyone who could understand its principles might add to it, for others’ benefit as well as his own.
Here as in so many other realms of knowledge Aristotle—about 200 years after Miletus—was the knower par excellence. He established different methods and different criteria of knowledge for a variety of subject matters. When approaching any subject, he always reviewed the contributions of his predecessors and contemporaries, criticizing what he believed to be wrong and adopting what he thought was valuable. Moreover, he created research teams to study particularly difficult subjects, like botany and current political theory. Most important, Aristotle wrote and published many books, and they were carried everywhere Greeks went. It was a stroke of fortune, too, that Alexander the Great had been his pupil. The conqueror enlisted himself as one of Aristotle’s researchers, sending back to his old teacher reports from his conquered lands as far east as India, together with zoological and botanical samples for the master to analyze and categorize.
In short, there was suddenly a new thing in the world, which the Greeks called episteme, and we call science: organized knowledge, public knowledge, based on principles that could be periodically reviewed and tested and questioned by all.
There were enormous consequences to this new practice concerning knowledge:
1) First, the idea grew that there was only one truth, not many truths, about anything: people might disagree, but if they did, then some must be right and others wrong. Furthermore, what was true now had always been true and always would be true. The understanding of truth could change and improve, but truth itself stood outside of man’s thinking, like a beacon guiding him home.
2) Second, the idea was born of a fundamental relationship between the knower and the thing known, the fit, as it might be called, between the exterior world and the interior mind. The world is essentially rational, and therefore since we possess reason, we can understand it.
3) Third, a new concept of education took hold. Parents had always taught their children their “art”; but there was no body of organized knowledge that all could be taught, or that all young people should be expected to learn. Suddenly there was another new thing, called paidea: a curriculum for everyone (though not women, slaves, and foreigners) to study, that they might become good men as well as good citizens.
4) Finally, there was the idea of science itself, and its young queen, mathematics. The eagerness with which the Greeks everywhere threw themselves into study of everything, and especially mathematics, the science of pure reasoning, is both beautiful and terrifying. Terrifying because the Greeks were essentially iconoclastic; they enjoyed questioning old beliefs and tipping over peoples’ sacred apple-carts. This was especially true of the Greek rulers settled upon the Egyptians by Alexander. They wanted to “modernize” Egypt, even though Egypt had worked so well for so many centuries. Iconoclasm can be frightening; it challenges the old, safe belief that you should leave well enough alone. The human race had survived for thousands of years with that philosophy, so the Greeks, bringing this gift of a new, questioning spirit, were not loved by all to whom they brought it.
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Three central tenets of classical Greek art
Over the brief span of 160 years—roughly spanning the lives Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—the Greeks would establish an ideal of beauty that, remarkably, has endured in the Western world to this day, from 480 BCE to 323 BCE (Socrates’s dates are 469-399, Plato’s 427-347, and Aristotle’s 384-322). This period of Greek art, known as the Classical, is framed by two major events, the defeat of the Persians in 479 BCE and the death of Alexander in 323 BCE. Art and literary historians today divide the period into three phases, based on the formal qualities of art:
--the Transitional, or Early, period (c. 480-450 BCE);
--the mature Fifth-Century Classical period (c. 450-400 BCE, formerly called the Golden Age or the High Classical period);
--and the late Fourth-Century Classical period (c. 400-323 BCE).
The first two of these periods, by the way, are also roughly contemporary with the three major Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, & Euripides. Aeschylus died in 456 B.C. and Sophocles and Euripides both died in 406 B.C. The speed of change in this short span is among the most extraordinary characteristics of Greek art.
Scholars have characterized Greek Classical art as being based on three general concepts: Humanism, Rationalism, and Idealism.
The ancient Greeks believed the maxims they had carved on the Temple of Apollo, and followed their injunctions in their art: “Man is the measure of all things,” that is, seek an ideal based on the human form; “Know thyself,” seek the inner significance of forms; and “Nothing in excess,” reproduce only essential forms. In their full embrace of humanism, the Greeks even imagined that their gods looked like perfect human beings. Apollo, for example, exemplified the Greek ideal: his body and mind in balance, an athlete and musician, healer and sun god, leader of the Muses.
Yet in their judgment of humanity, and as reflected in their art, the Greeks valued reason over emotion. Practicing the faith in rationality expressed by their philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and convinced that logic and reason underlie natural processes, the Greeks saw all aspects of life, including the arts, as having meaning and pattern; nothing happens by accident. (This belief in what might be called “rational naturalism” was to reach its apex in the philosophy of stoicism founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno, of the 3rd century BCE.) Rationalism provided an intellectual structure for the arts, as can be seen in the creation of the orders in architecture and the canon of proportions in sculpture. The great Greek artists and architects were not only practitioners but also theoreticians. In the fifth century BCE, the sculptor Polykleitos and the architect Iktinos both wrote books on the theory underlying their practice.
Unlike artists in Egypt and the ancient near East, Greek artists did not rely on memory images. And even more than the artists of Crete they grounded their art in close observation of nature. Only after meticulous study of the particular did they begin to generalize, searching within each form for its universal ideal: rather than portray their models in their actual, individual detail, they sought to distill their essence. In so generalizing, they developed a system of perfect mathematical proportions.
In this way, humanism and rationalism produced the idealism that characterizes Classical Greek art, an idealism that for them encompassed the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Greek artists of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE established a benchmark for art against which succeeding generations of artists and patrons in the Western world have since measured quality.