The beginning of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way is an argument for Greek exceptionalism. Greek civilization achieved a level of unparalleled proficiency in philosophy, art, and architecture because it was entirely different from all societies that came before it and everything that would follow. Hamilton proposes that, for the first time in human history, people discarded the mental shackles of spiritual superstition and instead viewed the world through a predominately rational lens. The mind overcame the spirit and observation superseded meditation. Rather than trying to comprehend supreme truth within oneself, the Golden-Age Athenian attempted to derive truth from the external, observable world.
The East (i.e., all civilizations predating Greece c. 500 B.C.E) is characterized as dominated by despots and priests. A focus on death and a hierarchical interpretation of truth resulted in a subjugated majority controlled by the whims of a minority. Hamilton argues that the uncertainty caused by a combination of this power structure and a wretched existence precluded consideration for reality because focusing on the unreal, an existence beyond this world, was more therapeutic. Hamilton observes that a newfound rule of law allowed the Greeks a certain level of stability, which freed up energy to expend on observing the world around them.
In her third chapter, The Way of the East and the West in Art, Hamilton examines the implications of the differences between these two modes of perceiving truth. Hamilton claims that the sprit, divorced from observation, can only understand reality in an unintelligible fashion; however, the mind is not intrinsically intelligible because “when the mind withdraws into itself and dispenses with facts it makes only chaos.” To elucidate this point Hamilton relates a story from the Restoration of scientists debating why a dead fish, when placed in a bucket, replaces water and a live one does not. The scientists were confounded when both were measured to replace the same amount of water. This folly indicated the necessity of focusing on observable facts rather than self-contained reasoning. Furthermore, the mind can be corrupted by the spirit as in the Middle Ages when determining “how many angels could stand on a needle’s point” was a legitimate intellectual pursuit.
The Pyramids of Egypt are representative of an unobserving creator. The Pyramids, being tombs, were of extreme spiritual importance and were an expression of the Egyptians obsession with death and their desire to transcend the reality of the senses. Although these gargantuan monuments perfectly coincide with the nature they inhabit, Hamilton notes that this naturalism, while laudable, results from an intuited connection to the physical world rather than keen observation. More interesting than this critique, however, is the realization that progress in Egypt was arrested as expressed by Plato, “No painter or artist is allowed to innovate. […] Their works of art are painted or molded in the same forms which they had 10,000 years ago.” Not only did dogmatic institutions prevent artists from attempting anything new but also the artists’ own understanding of the truth prevented them from wanting to innovate.
The individual’s ability to discern truth for oneself resulted in Greek innovation in art. The realism found in Athenian creations, from sculptures to prose, is a manifestation of the worldview of the Greeks, whom Hamilton characterizes as “spiritual materialists.” The Greeks valued reality above all else, found supreme beauty in the actual human form, and experienced the transcendental in the mundane. These artists applied the same awe to the observable world as previous civilizations’ artists had done to a stylized, mystical form.
Hamilton contrasts the creation processes of a generic Buddhist artist and of Polygnotus, a Greek painter, in order to demonstrate the difference between the East and West’s values when expressing truth. The Buddhist artist recedes into himself, quiets his own mind, and then calls upon a god. The image of this god would appear to the entirely spiritual artist in a form independent from the perceivable world. Polygnotus, however, wanted to paint Helen of Troy so he sought out the women of Crotona, a Greek city famed for its beautiful women. Upon examining several people, Polygnotus created an amalgamation of their attributes. While Polygnotus is still not perfectly recreating reality, he is arguing that the observable and tangible human is ideal beauty.
The Greek way of art, unfortunately, did not overcome the way of the East. During the rule of the Roman Empire art became decreasingly concerned with exemplifying the real and became, as Hamilton puts it, purely decorative. This regression persisted until the Renaissance when learned people again started to create art. Artists utilized the laws of perspective in order to more accurately render the experience of observing reality. Hamilton blames this on the West’s “turning more and more to the way of the spirit” and that, “in proportion as the spirit predominates, the real shapes and looks of things become unimportant and when the spirit is supreme, they are of no importance at all.”
This generalization falls a bit flat when considering the works of the modernists. While shapes are hyper-important, considerations for their reality are rejected entirely in modernism. In 1925 (five years before the publication of The Greek Way) José Ortega y Gasset published an article titled The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas about the Novel, in which he defends nonrepresentative art. Ortega y Gasset exhorts the value in creating and appreciating art for its form rather than its content. Hamilton claims that by rejecting facts and observations the mind can only create chaos. Ortega y Gasset, however, defends anti-observational art as an extremely rational, intellectual pursuit. These works of art are impossible to comprehend without a large body of cultural references and other esoteric information. The spirit has no place in this expression of truth but neither do “the real shapes and looks of things.” The two are not directly proportional. Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a profound impact on modernism, said, “Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest.” Perhaps the mind could not create non-superstitious, non-spiritual art without passing through a purely observational phase; however, it is a mistake to claim art devoid of the reality of shapes lacks the mind’s impact.
The approximation of reality found in Greek art, and later during the Renaissance, was a transformative period for art. The Greek artistic process allowed the observational world to affect emotions to the same extreme as the spiritual. This invocation of the awe-inspiriting nature of reality is imperative to the transcendental pursuit of knowledge. The progress humanity has made would be impossible without the supremacy of observation inherited from Athens.