Lectures on Aesthetics
by G.W.F. Hegel
Of the Ideal of Classic Art
I. The Classic Ideal
1. The ideal as free creation of the imagination of the artist.- 2. The new gods of Classic Art.- 3. External character of the representation.
1. The ideal as free creation of the imagination of the artist
1. As the ideal of Classic Art comes to be realised only by the transformation of preceding elements, the first point to develop consists in making manifest that it is truly sprung from the creative activity of the spirit; that it has found its origin in the inmost and most personal thought of the poet and of the artist.
This seems contradicted by the fact that Greek mythology rests upon ancient traditions, and is related to the religious doctrines of the peoples of the Orient. If we admit all these foreign elements — Asiatic, Pelasgic, Dodonian, Indian, Egyptian, Orphic — how can we say that Hesiod and Homer gave to the Greek gods their names and their form? But these two things — tradition and poetic invention — may he very easily be reconciled. (Tradition furnishes the materials, but it does not bring with it the precise idea and the form which each god is to represent. This idea these great poets drew from their genius, and they also discovered the actual forms appropriate to it. Thus were they the creators of the mythology which we admire in Greek art. The Greek gods are for this reason neither poetic invention nor an artificial creation. They have their root in the spirit and the beliefs of the Greek people — in the very foundation of the national religion; these are the absolute forces and powers, whatever is most elevated in the Greek imagination, inspired in the poet by the muse herself.
With this faculty of free creation, the artist, we have already seen, takes a position altogether different from that which he had in the Orient. The Indian poets and sages have, also, for their point of departure the primitive data, consisting of the elements of nature — the sky, animals, the rivers or the abstract conception of Brahma; but their inspiration is the annihilation of personality. Their spirit loses itself in wishing to represent ideas so foreign to their inner nature, while the imagination, in the absence of rule and of measure, incapable of directing itself, allows itself to wander in the midst of conceptions which have neither the character of freedom nor that of beauty. It is like an architect obliged to accommodate himself to an unequal soil, upon which rise old debris, walls half destroyed, hillocks and rocks; forced, besides to subordinate his plans to particular ends. He can erect only irregular structures which must be wholly irrational and fantastic. Such is not the work of a free imagination, creating according to its own inspirations.
In classic Art the artists and poets are also prophets and teachers; but their inspiration is personal.
a. At first that which constitutes the essence of their gods is neither a nature foreign to spirit, nor the conception of a single god who admits of no sensuous representation and remains invisible. They borrow their ideas from the human heart, from human life. Thus man recognises himself in these creations, for what he produces outwardly is the most beautiful manifestation of himself.
b. They are on this account only the more truly poets. They fashion at their will the matter and the idea so as to draw from them figures free and original. All these heterogeneous or foreign elements they cast into the crucible of their imagination; but they do not form therein a bizarre mixture which suggests the cauldron of the magician. Everything that is confused, material, impure, gross, disordered, is consumed in the flame of the their genius. Whence springs a pure and beautiful creation wherein the materials of which it has. been formed are scarcely perceptible. In this respect their task consists in despoiling tradition of everything gross, symbolic, ugly, and deformed, and afterward bringing to light the precise idea which they wish to individualise and to represent under an appropriate form. This form is the human form, and it is not employed here as a simple personification of the acts and accidents of life; it appears as the sole reality which corresponds to the idea. True, the artist also finds his image in the real world; but he must remove whatever of accidental or inappropriate they present before they can express the spiritual element of human nature, which, seized in its essence should represent the everlasting might of the gods. Such is the free, though not arbitrary, manner in which the artist proceeds in the production of his works.
c. As the gods take an active part in human affairs, the task of the poet consists in acknowledging therein their presence and their activity, as well as in signalizing whatever is remarkable in natural events, in human deeds, and in fact in all in which the divine powers appear to be involved. Thus the poet fulfils in part the role of priest, as well as that of prophet. We moderns, with our prosaic reason, explain physical phenomena by universal laws and forces; human actions, by personal wills. The Greek poets, on the contrary, saw, above all these phenomena, their divine author. In representing human acts as divine acts, they showed the diverse aspects under which the gods reveal their power. Thus a great number of these divine manifestations are only human acts, when such or such divinity intervenes. If we open the poems of Homer, we find there scarcely any important event which may not be explained by the will or the direct influence of the gods. Such interpretations belong to the mode of seeing, to the faith born the imagination of the poet. Thus, Homer often expresses them in his own name, and places them only in part in the mouth of his personages, whether priests or heroes. Thus it is at the beginning of the Iliad, he has explained the pestilence by the wrath of Apollo; further on he will cause it to be he predicted by Calchas. It is the same with the recital of the story of the death of Achilles, in the last canto of the Odyssey. The shades of the loves conducted by Hermes to the meadows where blooms the asphodel, there encounter Achilles and other heroes who have battled on the Trojan plain. Agamemnon himself relates to them the death of the young hero: “The Greeks had fought all day; when Jupiter had separated the two armies, they bore the noble body upon vessels and embalmed it, shedding tears. Then they heard coming from above a divine sound, and the Achaians, alarmed, would have rushed to their ships had not an old man, in whom years had ripened experience, arrested them.” He explained to them the phenomenon, by saying: “It is the mother of the hero who comes from the depth of the ocean, with the immortal goddesses of the sea, to receive the body of her son.” At these words fear abandoned the sage Achaians. From that moment, indeed there was no longer anything in it strange to them. Something human, a mother, the sorrowful mother of the hero, came before them; Achilles is her son, she mingles her moans with theirs. Afterward Agamemnon, turning to Achilles, continues to describe the general grief: “About thee gathered the daughters of old ocean, uttering cries of grief. They spread over thee vestments, perfumed with ambrosia. The muses also, the nine sisters, caused to be heard, each in her turn, a beautiful’ song of mourning; and there was not then an Argive there who could restrain his tears, so greatly had the song of the muses melted all hearts.”
2. The new gods of Classic Art
Still, of what nature are the creations which Classic Art produces in following such a method? What are the characteristics of the new gods of Greek art?
a. The most general idea that we should form of them is that of a concentrated individuality, which, freed from the multiplicity of accidents, actions, and particular circumstances of human life, is collected upon itself at the focus of its simple unity. Indeed, what we must first remark is their spiritual and, at the same time, immutable and substantial individuality. Far removed from the world of change and illusion, where want and misery reign, far from the agitation and trouble which attach to the pursuit of human interests, retired within themselves they rest upon their own universality as upon an everlasting foundation where they find their repose and felicity. By this alone the gods appear as imperishable powers, of which the changeless majesty rises above particular existence. Disengaged from all contact with whatever is foreign or external, they manifest themselves uniquely in their immutable and absolute independence.
Yet, above all, these are not simple abstraction — mere spiritual generalities — they are genuine individuals. With this claim each appears as an ideal which possesses in itself reality, life; it has, like spirit, a clearly defined nature, a character. Without character there can be no true individuality. In this respect as we have seen above, the spiritual gods contain, as integrant part of themselves, a definite physical power, with which is established an equally definite moral principle, which assigns to each divinity a limited circle in which his outward activity must be displayed. The attributes, the specific qualities which result therefrom, constitute the distinctive character of each divinity.
Still, in the ideal proper, this definite character must not be limited to the point of exclusive being; it must maintain itself in a just medium, and must return to universality, which is the essence Of the divine nature. Thus each god, in so far as he is at once a particular individuality and a general existence, is also, at the same time, both part and whole. He floats in a just medium between pure generality and simple particularity. This is what gives to the true ideal of classic Art its security and infinite calm, together with a freedom relieved from every obstacle.
b. But, as constituting beauty in Classic Art, the special character of the gods is not purely spiritual; it is disclosed so much the more under an external and corporeal form which addresses itself to the eyes as well as to the spirit. This, we have seen, no longer admits the symbolic element, and should not even pretend to affect the Sublime. Classic beauty causes spiritual individuality to enter into the bosom of sensuous reality. It is born of a harmonious fusion of the outward form with the inward principle which animates. Whence, for this very reason, the physical form, as well as the spiritual principle, must appear enfranchised from all the accidents which belong to outer existence, from all dependence upon nature, from the miseries inseparable from the finite and transitory world. It must be so purified and ennobled that, between the qualities appropriate to the particular character of the god and the general forms of the human body, there shall be manifest a free accord, a perfect harmony. Every mark of weakness and of dependence has disappeared; all arbitrary particularity which could mar it is cancelled or effaced. In its unblemished purity it corresponds to the spiritual principle of which it should be the incarnation.
c. Notwithstanding their particular character the gods preserve also their universal and absolute character. Independence must be revealed, in their representation, under the appearance of calmness and of a changeless serenity. Thus we see, in the figures of the gods that nobility and that elevation which announces in them that, though clothed in a natural and sensuous form, they have nothing in common with the necessities of finite existence. Absolute existence, if it were pure, freed all particularity, would conduct to the sublime but, in the Classic ideal, spirit realises and manifests itself under a sensuous form which is its perfect image, and whatever of sublimnity it has shown to be grounded in its beauty, and as having passed wholly into itself. This is what renders necessary, for the representation of the gods, the classic expression of grandeur and beautiful sublimnity.
In their beauty they appear, then, elevated above their own corporeal existence; but there is manifest a disagreement between the happy grandeur which resides in their spirituality and their beauty, which is external and corporeal. Spirit appears to be entirely absorbed in the sensuous and yet at the same time, aside form this, to be merged in itself alone; it is, as it were, the moving presence of a deathless god in the midst of mortal men.
Thus, although this contradiction does not appear as a manifest opposition, the harmonious totality conceals in its individual unity a principle of destruction which is found there already expressed. This is that sigh of sadness in the midst of grandeur which men full of sagacity have felt in the presence of the images of the ancient gods, notwithstanding their perfect beauty and the charm shed around them. In their calmness and their serenity they cannot permit themselves to indulge in pleasure, in enjoyment nor in what we especially term satisfaction. The eternal calm must not even extend so far as to admit of a smile nor the pleasing contentment with itself. Satisfaction, properly speaking, is the sentiment which is born of the perfect accord of our soul with its present situation. Napoleon, for example, never expressed his satisfaction more profoundly than when he had attained to something with which all the world was dissatisfied; for true satisfaction is nothing else than the inner approbation which the individual gives himself because of his own acts and personal effort. Its last degree is that commonplace feeling (bourgeois sentiment, Philisterempfindung) of contentment which every man can experience. Now, this sentiment and this expression cannot be granted to the immortal gods of Classic Art.
It is this character of universality in the Greek gods which people have intended to indicate by characterising them as cold. Nevertheless, these figures are cold only in relation to the vivacity of modern sentiment; in themselves they have warmth and life. The divine peace which is reflected in the corporeal form comes from the fact that they are separated from the finite; it is born of their indifference to all that is mortal and transitory. It is an adieu without sadness and without effort, but an adieu to the earth and to this perishable world. In these divine existences the greater the degree in which seriousness and freedom are outwardly manifested, the more distinctly are we made to feel the contrast between their grandeur and their corporeal form. These happy divinities deprecate at once both their felicity and their physical existence. We read their lineaments the destiny which weighs upon their heads, and which, in the measure that its power increases (causing this contradiction between moral grandeur and sensuous reality to become more and more pronounced), draws Classic Art onto its ruin.
3. External character of the representation
If we ask what is the outer mode of manifestation suitable to Classic Art, it needs only to repeat what has already been said: In the Classic ideal, properly speaking, the spiritual individuality of the gods is represented, not in situations where they enter into relation one with another, and which might occasion strife and conflicts, but in their eternal repose, in their independence, freed as they are from all aspects of pain and suffering — in a word, in their divine calmness and peace. Their determinate character is not developed so as to excite in them very lively sentiments and violent passions, or to force them to pursue particular interests. Freed from all collision, they are delivered from all embarrassment, exempt from all care. This perfect calm (wherein appears nothing void, cold, inanimate, but which is full of life and sensibility), although unalterable, is to the gods of Classic Art the most appropriate form of representation. If, then, they take part in the attainment of particular ends, the acts in which they engage must not be of a nature to engender collisions. Free from offence on their own part, their felicity must not be troubled by these conflicts. Among the arts it is, therefore, Sculpture which more than the others represents the classic idea with that absolute independence wherein the divine nature preserves its universality united with the particular character. It is, above all, Ancient Sculpture, of a severer taste, which is strongly attached to this ideal side. Later it was allowed to be applied to the representation of situations and characters of a dramatic vitality. Poetry, which causes the gods to act, draws them into strife and conflicts. Otherwise, the calm of the plastic, when it remains in its true domain, is alone capable of expressing the contrast between the greatness of spirit and its finite existence with that seriousness of sadness to which we have already referred.