March 24, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Ars et Arma: Art in the Occident, Part II
WE LOOK FIRST to our Western antiquity: what do we find? What is art to antiquity?
But already we discover that the case is complicated. It is complicated first by the fact that the noble arrogance of the ancients in the face of all manuality led them to an undue contempt of most of the arts, as sculpture, painting, and music. The physical origin of these works could never be forgotten by the high spirituality of the Greeks, nor even the Romans. They thus possessed no sense of art, as little as any other people on Earth prior to the Renaissance. As all the peoples of all the world, they had musicians, painters, writers, sculptors: artists, they had not. The word “art” itself derives from a different tradition; it comes to us from the Latin ars, meaning a work, the product of practical ability. It is perhaps most similar to our word “craft,” both in the high and in the more colloquial acceptations of that word; originally it could be infused almost with scorn, precisely the same kind of scorn as when a person today might comment that a certain “piece of art” has a “craftsy” feel to it. And most intriguingly and most fruitfully, the Latin word is perhaps etymologically related to the Latin arma, as in arms, weapons.
Art, as it was understood in the pre-Christian period, was thus a concept much different from that which we celebrate today. Indeed, without the intercession of the disembodied, bloodless Christian era, I much doubt that the modern idea of art—art as redemption of the low in the high, art as spiritualization of the material, art as resurrection of the body in the soul—would ever have been possible. In Antiquity we look in vain for any concept of the “artist”: the “artist” was born for the first time in the early Renaissance, and for the artist, the Renaissance was in truth a Nascence. That is a fact most pregnant with destiny for our West—a fact which today brings us, if we but follow it truly, to the great trouble of our time.
But we will come to that yet.
The artist did not exist to the Ancients, save in a prototypical form: not the artist, but the poet. The dispute which activated much of the culture of the Greeks was publicly that between philosophy and politics, between the life dedicated to truth and the life dedicated to virtue, between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa; but more profoundly it was a dispute between the philosopher and the poet, between the life dedicated to truth and the life dedicated to life. Socrates against Aristophanes; Plato against Homer; that is much of the heart of Antiquity, and thus much of the core of the West itself.
Now, the poet was the maker; his name derives from the Greek poiein, to form, to give form. Not the creation with which one charges the artist today, but rather, the recreation of reality was his right domain. The poet was tasked with truth-reflecting. But the tragic poets were chroniclers of the nobility of the political figures of their day; they were recorders of the great deeds of magnanimous men. They were therefore the higher representatives of the political life, the finest flowering of the vita activa. It was in truth the comic poets who competed with the philosophers for the highest laurels; for the comic poets, because they were comic, hold this advantage eternally over the philosopher: they may speak the truth without concealment and without adornment. This means as well the truth about philosophers and about comic poets: because they make laugh, they are immune to the consequences of their laughter. Let it never be forgot that Socrates was sent to his hemlock in part for what Aristophanes wrote of him: so far as the public contest is concerned, the poet shall win out every time.
But the comic poet must also please, just as the tragic; he is constrained to work within the special expectations and requirements of the public arena. The philosopher has but to make himself unobtrusive and seemingly innocuous, and can be well satisfied when he is ignored; but the poet must make himself loved. Thus the poet is open to the critique which Socrates leveled at Callicles: it is the love of the people which stands ever and always against the love of the truth; the poet, as poet, must be a liar, and worse yet, a flatterer of the demos.
Enter thence the grand style in art. He who knew more of it than perhaps any human being living or dead, said, of it:
The highest feeling of power and assuredness is expressed in anything which has the grand style. Power which no longer needs to prove itself; which disdains to please; which feels no witness around it; which lives oblivious of the fact that there is opposition to it; which reposes in itself, fatalistically, a law among laws; this is what speaks of itself in the grand style.
Neither the tragic nor the comic poets compose in the grand style; they are both of them bound to the taste and the pleasures of the times. But there exists a poetry which is not so bound, a poetry which stands above the loves and desires of the majority and the day, a poetry which does not pander to the masses nor to any patron, because it soars so far above them that it does not even longer perceive them. A star is to these earth-bound eyes still a star; but what are all the masses of all the world to it? The original form of this kind of poetry was known classically as epic poetry, and it contains in its noblest ranks such men as Homer, Virgil, and Dante.
The true seed of the Occident as Occident is Homer; the deepest dispute, that between the three greatest souls the West has yet produced: the Poet in Homer, the Philosopher in Plato, and that latecomer who sought to meld the two in one and the same being.
The birth of poetry comes with Homer, in the penning first of the Iliad and subsequently of the Odyssey. These poems are neither tragic nor comic, though to be sure one can reasonably trace the genealogy of tragedy in the West to the Iliad, and of comedy to the Odyssey. But as art, as epic poetry, they transcend these categories which were born well after them and because of them.
Now, a curious thing happened after Homer—something which happens again and again in the history of Occidental art with all the regularity of the seasons, as for instance in such cases as those of Beethoven, Cervantes, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare: Homer was of such authority and such poetic might that those who came after him necessarily lived all of their lives within his shadow—and could not bear it. Consider Virgil, the greatest of Homer’s poetic rivals in classic antiquity, who attempted to burn the Aeneid for its inadequacies—one can imagine by what standard! Consider Aristophanes, who faced Homer by making merciless fun of everything he had taken as sacred. Consider Plato, who confounded Homer only by moving to higher ground, and seeking to look down on the great Poet from an even greater height. Those who followed Homer, when they did not simply worship his greatness, invented the most fantastic ways of surpassing him.
This last fact must well occupy us. It appears to us perfectly normal, because we are all of us in this respect “Greeks”; the agon and the agonistic character of the Greeks, particularly as it splices with the warrior ethic of more Northerly European peoples, enters into the very central root of what it means to be Occidental. And this characteristic itself was given its most excellent and most classic representation in none other than Homer himself, and in the works of Homer. He was a great thrower of constellations; even those men of true superiority who have escaped orbit with his system, have ever done so in response to him in some way or other.
Take one of the most celebrated examples. We have said that Homer was not a tragic poet. We give the title “The Father of Tragedy” to Aeschylus, who, though he claimed that he was but feasting of Homer’s banquet, is right recipient of this title. Tragedy was Aeschylus’ very response to Homer. It was to Aeschylus that Dionysus, who is anything but a Homeric god, came in a dream, as he contemplated the growing grapes. Aeschylus was accordingly the first of the great triumvirate of the classic age in tragic poetry: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. What happened with these men is most worth our consideration, for the way in which it encapsulates, in not even three generations, the artistic process which Homer single-handedly birthed into the Western world.
The Athenians passed the following judgement on their three great children: Aeschylus founded the tragic art; Sophocles perfected it; and Euripides corrupted it. The father established the way and the standard, the son molded it to a pitch of excellence, and the grandson, faced with the alternative between imitation and innovation, opted for the latter. But this choice on the part of Euripides is most striking. Just what happened here? It was anything but fated: no other society in all the world produced such a moment as this. This Euripides, who remains controversial to this very day—what was he? He could easily have mimicked Sophocles, obeying the archetype; he could even have attempted to perfect Aeschylus more completely than Sophocles had, thereby exceeding his latest rival in a noble tradition. He would have been better loved, he would have won more than the pathetic five awards that fell to his hands over the course of his life in the poetic contests; he might have gained renown for the perfection and excellence of his poesy, for it is clear enough he was not without talent. Indeed, the contrary: it was not the skill that was lacking, it was the humility. The soul of Euripides, a Greek soul through and through, who had learned well enough from Homer, longed for mastery, and rebelled before the idea of enslaving itself to anyone at all. He had to follow his own tyrannical way, and to make himself felt in this world as something entirely his own. He could not dwell in Sophocles’ shadow, nor in Aeschylus’, even were that a mighty space to fill: he must stand in the very sunlight.
This is, to say it again, exceptionally Greek—the desire, the unslakeable thirst, for preeminence. It was Homer’s lust, and it was inherited by all the poets to follow him. Seen from this perspective, the path of Euripides was fated, fated by his very heritage, fated by what he owed to his oldest antecedents. And we note as a fact most to be studied, for those who have followed these discourses well, that Euripides was the only of these three poets to despise politics, and to keep aloof from it in his life.
This agonistic aspect of the Greek spirit, this troubled and finally troubling aspect, which launched the Occident to its destined course, is perhaps the defining characteristic feature of Renaissance art: in the very idea of art, it found its truest vehicle. To be sure, it occurred here and there in other field and other endeavors, especially in war and in politics. In our day, it appears more than anything in economics and our greedy wealth-getting. But insofar as the West has been the West, its peculiar quality has shown predominately in its art. This is true, notwithstanding the fact that the Western tradition is perhaps associated more with philosophy and science than with art. For there is something about philosophy and science which stand quite apart from the Western (or any other) tradition, quite aloof to it, quite distinct from it. But art is part and parcel of the Western soul.
To understand this, one must return again to the beginning.
As we have said, the premier contestant against art has always been philosophy, that other monumental and fatalistic and absolutely distinctive product of Greece. In philosophy, as opposed to art, there was no rivalry, no agonism. This great urge of the ancient Greeks was, in the enigmatic soul of the philosopher, subliminated into the love of the truth. Anyone who doubts this has but to look to the entire history of philosophy until modern times; one will find the most incredible and sublime and unquestioning submission of all the philosophers to the philosophical triumvirate of antiquity: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This is not to say that these three men, nor any who later followed them, agreed in all matters, for they did not; it is neither to say that those who followed took those who preceded on authority alone. But the disagreements between the philosophers are in all cases the result of reason, and not of personality. The philosophers never contested one another; they had disputes, in which passion was coldly denied all entry. In them, the will to victory was replaced by that most mysterious and riddled and perilous will to truth. The philosopher, as opposed to the poets, are without personality: the precondition for philosophy, as we learn in the Phaedo, the philosophical-pedagogical work par excellence, is that one dies to oneself.
The artist is not dead to himself; the artist is of all human beings the one most perfectly and totally alive to himself—himself as an historical, a unique, a contingent being. The philosopher lusts after eternity, and so seeks what is eternal in himself and what is eternal in the world; he therefore sloughs off his contingent humanity as a snake its skin, and cultivates a divine contempt of all that is merely human. The artist seeks to render himself immortal, that which is mortal in himself immortal, seeks to make his humanity divine, and himself into a god—from out of the same lust. The artist would seem then to be doomed to tragedy, for he, as Apollo himself, lashes his chariot to a dying star. Is art then tragic?
Art has made occasional defenses of itself against philosophy—most notably, in Aristophanes and Dante—but once and only once has it done so with philosophical depth, and that is in the case of Nietzsche. In the labyrinth of Nietzsche, the artist and the philosopher are for the first and hitherto for the last time united. Nietzsche is the culmination of modern philosophy and the first indication of something beyond modernity, and with the unique exception of Heidegger, he is the only true philosopher of the contemporary period. We see through him one of the fundamental changes which was effected in modernity—namely, that in modernity, beginning in the Renaissance with Machiavelli, the philosopher rejuvenated in his own spirit that love of victory which he had originally shunned. That has been the most fatal transformation to come of the modern age, and it is one that can certainly not be addressed in the course of a single essay. But its echo plays through art, for art and philosophy are bound together in these latter days as they never were in the classic period, and their twin destiny proves now to be the destiny of the Occident itself.
Return to Ars et Arma, Part I
Continue to Ars et Arma, Part III