Until I read the book The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece, I hadn’t thought much about the statues of the gods of Greece, except in passing while studying the history of the ancient Epicurean Gardens, when I read that our predecessors had a rule by which the statues of their deities were required to be shown smiling.
My initial reaction to this was to note the way in which the saints of the Catholic religion of my upbringing always had agony in their faces. The sculptures of the Virgin are always crying. Jesus is always a bleeding corpse, and the saints are always suffering. There is no saying “Yes!” to life in Catholic imagery. The Catholic doctrine that only out of suffering do people gain value, merit and dignity is constantly reinforced in sculpture. We could write an encyclopedic group of tomes on the innumerable ways in which this has had terrorizing effects in history and in the lives of the faithful. I would have a few anecdotes from my own family to add.
This “smile rule” from the ancient Epicurean Gardens reveals a long-neglected concern: there is an Epicurean philosophy of art and piety, a tradition according to which aesthetics must add to our pleasure. Concerned as Epicureans are with direct, immediate experience, how are we to imbibe, or participate in, sacred art?
Religious sculpture conveys and creates meaning in the lives of the pious. Greek Gods, unlike those of Egypt, are always magnified humans. They never adopt an animal or abstract form, and so they are the humanist pantheon par excellence, and they represent archetypes that dwell in human nature. The sweetness, softness, vulnerability, grace, beauty, and nakedness of Aphrodite is all Aphrodite. The piercing assertiveness and muscular hardness of Mars is all Mars. The same can be said of the winged, mobile nimbleness of Hermes.
Perhaps it’s good to contemplate statues that are blissful and smiling. But a case can be made for severity in the demeanor of a deity. Athena, the patroness of the arts and of philosophy, is a good case study. I believe Frances Wright imagined Leontion in her novel A Few Days in Athens in the image of Athena, as depicted in sculpture. In the novel, she is severe when exerting her powerful intellect, often deep in thought pondering important philosophical questions, eloquent, and yet at once also beautiful, elegant, refined, and dignified. She enjoyed the gifts of both Athena and Aphrodite. She had Hypatia’s power to pierce the nature of things in her investigations, but could also pour wine libations while laying down with Metrodorus to enjoy his company.
I’ve always admired the dignified way in which Athena is depicted. Maybe this is because I’m a philosopher, and have a natural affinity with this archetype. She is, after all, the patroness of all philosophers. Below is a copy of the votive statue of Kresilas in Athens. Does she really need a smile? I consider this bust to be magnificent to behold.
There are other ways in which we could explore Epicurean theories of art. One perspective can be gained from the Cyrenaic reasonings on connoisseurship and how “training or education in certain arts of enjoyment (in this case, art appreciation focused on sculpture) can serve to amplify our pleasure“. Another observation can be gained from my essay on religion as play:
… nature may be giving humans useful knowledge that is both natural and necessary via religious behavior just as lion cubs, when they play, learn important ambush, hunting and social skills; just as dogs and apes learn about their place in the hierarchy; just as baby chimps stretch and get their physical education, etc. Play behavior in general has a purpose: it’s not necessarily meant to be an idle waste of time. Crucial skills are frequently gained through it.
The central thesis in The Sculpted Word is that Epicurean busts sought to invite those inspired by the image to look into the philosophy. Sculptures were a passive method of recruitment. The book also includes a detailed evaluation of the different types of busts of Epicurus, Metrodorus, and other Scholarchs modeled after divine archetypes. There was an ancient bust of Leontion which did not survive, but I’d like to imagine she wasn’t far from the Athena model. We can imagine that the busts of the classical deities were also meant to draw in the pious. Ancients frequently imagined that Athena was by the side of their heroes. If you were headed into an intellectual or personal battle, would you not want to emulate Athena’s strength, confidence and demeanor right by your side? And would these sculptures not be a useful aid in that? If so, this is a way in which art has the potential to contribute to our moral development.