I have loved the sculpture of the ancient Greeks since I first saw it in a book, at the age of 12. That’s when I read the Greek myths and knew I had found my religion. The worship of Man.
On Friday, June 30, 2018 with delightful friends in tow, I made a pilgrimage to the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia de Reggio Calabria to see the Riace Bronzes.
Not Polykleito’s Spear-Bearer, not Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo, not the Discobolus of Myron nor Michelangelo’s David—not any of these magnificent depictions of human beauty and greatness convey the same power as the Riaces.
Nor can any photos capture their full breathtaking beauty and glory. These are not the gods: these are men as gods.
Unlike the later classical period, they are not a severe, generalized ideal, calmly reposed.
Even the Discobolus has a quietness in his stance and expression in comparison to these warriors. These are men with an energy radiating from their bodies, an energy and form embodying human excellence. And there is no taint of that humility which touches many of the greatest statues of the Renaissance. These have beautiful, but not simply idealized faces; they are individuals, which I adore because they are the embodiment of individual excellence as an ideal for us all.
Ironically, they are known only as Statue A and Statue B. There are many questions surrounding them: these rare bronzes were found off the Calabrian coast of Italy, near Riace. No sunken ship was found near them, and they were in a location that once could have been land, so there is much doubt as to how they arrived in the sea.
And what a find! We have almost no bronze statues of the Greeks, but mostly Roman copies in marble, perhaps to insure they, too, wouldn’t be melted down for other uses. The bronze shows details of hair, veins, skin, eyes, mouth, lashes and expression which I have not seen before.
Phidias, or his student Alcamenes, or Myron, or Polykleitos are the artist-candidates. Statue A was probably created during the early years of classical Greek sculpture, between the years 460 and 450 BC, and Statue B between 430 and 420 BC. I haven’t been able to discover how the historians figured that out.
Statue A: this is a man who doesn’t hesitate to assert himself. Who doesn’t question whether his achievements might be that of a god. His shield held firmly in his left arm, his shoulders gracefully erect, he is tensed for action. His hand’s position indicates a javelin was held lightly in the right. His calcite eyes are on his target in the distance, almost fierce, with his mouth open slightly, not in a snarl, but ready for battle.
The other, Statue B, is slightly slimmer, more relaxed. He gazes a bit more softly and dreamily. Only one of the original eyes is still intact. His stance is firm, but not as energetic as A. I think A looks in his early ‘30’s, B in his twenties, but experts think their ages are reversed. B is as handsome as A, with high cheek bones, well-set eyes, full mouth and luxurious hair and beard – although not quite as full, curly, and long as A. B is equally beautiful in body, but somewhat slimmer, with less callipygian form.
I wondered if A were Agamemnon or Odysseus, and B Paris. Wikipedia entries argue they are warriors from the Aeschylus story, Seven Against Thebes. No matter, they are clearly Heroic age and they convey the confidence, the assuredness of Man’s rightful place on earth which the Homeric works convey.
In Homer and in their legends and plays, the Greeks warned of hubris, they told of misfortune, they dramatized the tragedy of fate, even for the greatest. But their sculpture captured their deepest belief in the power and achievement possible to human beings.
Today, men and women, implementing the genius of Greek philosophy and its child, science, have created the most remarkable technological and politico-economic progress ever – to reach the stars, the ocean bottom, the tops of mountains; to make the blind see again and the maimed walk; to lift millions out of poverty and enable the most peace and trade humankind has ever seen.
The Renaissance that triggered these achievements began with the art and the heroic vision of the ancients. But today, what do we have in art? Stories, not of tragedy, but utter dissoluteness. Not just sculptures of deformed or alienated humans but things called “sculpture” which are of complete meaninglessness.
The place you see heroic figures most frequently today are super hero movies and in video games. No wonder young men love them.
How I long for a Renaissance of real heroes, a dramatization of real men and women achieving great feats. Don’t the astounding achievements of our high-tech civilization deserve inspiring depictions of what humans have achieved? Wouldn’t you like to see movies and sculpture, novels and paintings celebrating that spirit? How magnificent it would be to have such art lining our streets, like our monumental architecture.
For a Renaissance of the human spirit, we need more than videogames: we need the unabashed and highest artistic renderings of a grand heroic vision to inspire us and remind us of what’s possible in the spirit and the body together. In our day and age, that should be the lionizing of the great scientists, inventors, and producers rather than just the warriors, athletes, and actors.
But to get that we need to reject the skepticism, dogmatism, and nihilism which created the current artistic culture. We need a resurgence of individualism and a recognition of the moral greatness in individual freedom, embodied in the capitalism which deserve awe. And to get
that, we need a renaissance of heroic philosophy which validates the power of the human mind to comprehend, create, and produce. A philosophy that validates rather than cast aspersions on human reasoning power, human ability and courage, and the great works made possible by these qualities.
Let’s recover that unabashed assertiveness of our ancient forebears. Not a false arrogance, tainted by unearned doubt, but a clear-minded knowledge that truth and right are hard to achieve, but we can do it and then great feats are possible.
Marsha Enright is head of The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute. It sponsors The Great Connections Seminars and Leap Year Program, which radically increases reasoning power, knowledge, self- confidence, and independence. She’s also the founder of Council Oak Montessori School, for ages 3 to 15.
Orignally published in Real Clear Markets