Who were the Greeks (Hellenes) and what is Hellenism? How does Hellenism serve as the source of Western art and culture? We know that people have spoken Greek, a language which has changed far less than other ancient languages and is still spoken today, since at least 1600 BC – since the Mycenaean Palatial age – but was there a Greek or Hellenic consciousness binding them? Where they the Greeks we recognise as the Hellenes who gave us the political ideas of Democracy and Aristocracy; the philosophical paradigms of Scepticism, Platonism, and Epicureanism, or the naturalistic bronze sculptures of boxers and satyrs?
Of the early ancient historians, Thucydides marks that at the time of Homer (c. 8th c BC) – the poet of the Greek Dark Ages between the collapse of Mycenaean Palatial Greece and the Archaic Period – as the dawn of a common Greek ethnos, a group of people bound by common culture and identity. Note that ethnos does not mean ethnicity or race: it is a very ambiguous term which can refer to groups bound by different things such as being potters, men, women, citizens of Argos, or Hellenes. It would be more truthful to recognise “Hellenic” as an ethnonym which refers to a common sense of belonging derived from a literary, artistic, cultural, linguistic, moral and philosophical inheritance from the Greek world world from the 8th century BCE, through to the Early Roman Period. There was certainly a sense of a common Hellenic belonging among the disparate and plural Poleis of the ancient Greek landscape prior to the encroachment of Persian Imperialism in the 5th c BC, bound together by common Hellenic culture, but the threat of Persia brought the often waring Greek Poleis closer together to consolidate a common “Greekness.”
It is thus a challenge to define Hellenism what with its own myriad internal complexity and with Greek intellectuals, philosophers and poets in the Hellenic world actually doing more to subvert a sense of cohesive Hellenic identity. What we do see, however, when we dive in to the moral and spiritual life of the Hellenes through their visual culture, is that while it is plural and allusive, Hellenism’s prismatic sublimations of its cultural genealogy can be conceptualised into a coherent whole; as a font of ideas and tropes emerging from the unique landscape of Ancient Greece.
The Anthropocentric conception of life
Throughout the presentation we saw that the representations of the figure which consider how we see the figure in action. The visual impressions of the human form which make up how we see the form – whether standing stationary, throwing an object, or battling a serpent – serve as the basis of Hellenic anthropocentric naturalism. As I understand it, there are two main components of this principle: (a) the manner in which the human mind reads and configures the visual impressions of the form, and (b) the physical structure and proportion of the human form itself in nature as a schema for representation. This means that the way that we see the figure in the mind which is the basis of how a representation evokes our excitement or empathy at first glance is what matters to these artists and determines how they represent it. Then there is the naturalistic manner of depicting the form which is underpinned by an intuitive understanding of the prior observation and by the physical proportions and linear qualities which comprise the infinite possible representations of the form and its actions. The human form is the communicative device in an anthropocentric visual culture and in Hellenic art the human form us used to express human experience and ideas while connecting them often to the highest ideals and values. Anthropocentric art reflects and manifests the human experience of life and we see the Hellenic art exploring an aristocratic vision of self, pathos, humour, the sexual and even the most mundane.
What we call contrapposto was a stylistic development idiosyncratic to Hellenic art which originates in the 5th c. BC around the time of one of the greatest sculptors of antiquity: Polykleitos. It is a mode of naturalistic expression of the human form which is generally asymmetric and shows the figure in a manner which is recognisable as a way a real, natural and living human might be.
The anthropocentric nature of Hellenic art also means that the highest spiritual ideal, god, or moral concept can be explored and expressed visually as a viable aspect of the natural order, expresses as a quality attainable of a living, mortal, human being.
Homer: memory, belief and the word
Homer is the most important literary figure in the entire history of Western Culture. It is through his two texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, that we have a glimpse of the beginnings of a shared Greek memory and conception of shared genealogy from an epic and heroic, aristocratic past. It is also through Homer that we have insight into the spiritual and metaphysical beliefs of the Hellenic mind which is characterised by polytheism and an ongoing interaction between the physical and the divine, the mortal and the immortal.
One vital thing which marks Hellenism apart from other cultures and also from the Christian West, is that foundational texts which embed and preserve ideas and memory is not, in the Hellenic conception, treated as absolute truth. Homer is a source of ideas and an authority on certain genealogies, but not something that one must not refute or contradict. In Greek Antiquity, we have no evidence of uniformity of practice across Hellas (the Greek world), nor continuity of religious belief. What we have is a plurality of beliefs which are regional and malleable rather than orthodox and fixed. This is why Greek philosophy is so diverse and always remained independent as a means to seek truth rather than as a means to fix beliefs about the origin of the world and the correct way to conceive of the self. There is no sense that the work of Homer comes from a diving source as preternaturally distinct from the word of human authorship. This is what distinguished Hellenism from Bibliolatrous religious cultures which place a degree of primacy on a selected text, or texts, which canonises it to a status of itself being diving and therefore wrong to question.
Ancient Greeks did not workshop the written world. While being an immensely erudite, literary, and advanced society, the idea of the written word having the capacity to reflect a diving authorship was unimaginable. The Greeks, moreover, had a regionally plural and polytheistic conception of the divine and this did not lend itself to a Pan-Hellenic dogma. Even after Alexander.
The ancient Hellenic world is the source of the schools of philosophy which have some, and often a significant connection with every subsequent intellectual development of the Western Mind. These are Pre-Socratic philosophy, Scepticism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Epicureanism. Our ongoing connection to this source of ideas is what defines us as Western.