Phidias (part II)

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And here is an admirable thing! Even by the mouth of its comic poets who had, however, been formed by the great works and fed by the myths of the past, this race needed to proclaim its faith. Read in the "Peace" the moving, religious saying of Aristophanes: "The exiling of Phidias brought on the war. Pericles, who feared the same fate and who distrusted the bad character of the Athenians, cast away peace. . . By Apollo, I was unaware that Phidias was related to that goddess. . . Now I know why she is so beautiful." The whole of anthropomorphic idealism is in that speech. The Greek makes his gods in the image of man, and the god is beautiful, to the extent that man is lofty in mind.

On this simple soil, by this healthy race, religious naturalism was to reach its goal of deifying the natural and moral laws as men and women. The poet came, and his symbols gave resplendent visages to these deifications. What the Greek really adored when he was matured and liberated was the accord between his mind and the law. Whatever may have been said of it, anthropomorphism is the only religion that science has left intact, for science is the law deduced from the aspects of life by man, and only by him. Our conception of the world is the only proof we can offer of its existence and of our own.

The personified laws, the gods who have become real beings for the crowd, are not tyrants, not even the creators of men—they are other men, more accomplished in their virtue, more grandiose in their disorder. They have the faults and the impulses of men, they carry the latter's wisdom and beauty to the degree where these become fateful forces, they are the human ideal opposed by human passions, the laws which it is our business—against the resistance of egoism and of the elements of nature—to deduce from the world and to obey. Herakles combats the accident, the thing that retards and opposes our progress toward order. He enters the forests to beat the lions to death, he dries up swamps, he cuts the throats of evil men and overpowers bulls. His hairy arms, his knees, and his breast bleed from his struggle with the rocks. He protects the childhood of the organizing will against the adult brutality of things. At his side, Prometheus starts out for his conquest of the lightning—that is to say, of the mind. The Greek refuses to have anything to do with the god of terrible distances who kills the soul and the flesh through the hand of the priest. He tears the fire from him. The god nails him down with pain, but he cries out in revolt until Herakles comes to cut his bonds. By dint of willing it, man creates his own liberty.

Thus from the man to the god, from the real to the ideal, from acquired adaptions to desired adaptions, the hero threads his path. The human mind, in a splendid effort, rejoins the divine law. Polytheism organizes the primitive pantheism, and, with admirable audacity, brings out the spirit of it, little thinking that this flame, which Prometheus seized for a moment, will, when it tries to escape, consume the world. The sensation of spiritual infiniteness that Egyptian art gives, and of material infiniteness that Hindoo art gives, is not to be found in the art that expresses the Hellenic soul. We find in this art an accent of balanced harmony which it alone has, and which keeps within the limits of our intelligence. But the intelligence cannot grasp the beginning and the end of the melody with which it is cradled. All forms and all forces are bound together in a deep solidarity; one passes into law, passes into divinity. Doubtless, in the enormous universe of which the city is the definitive image, there are antagonisms, there are action and reaction, but all partial conflicts are effaced and melted in the intellectual order which man founds. Heraclitus has just affirmed, together with the eternal flow of things, the identity of contraries and their profound agreement in universal eurhythm.

It is this, above all, that the old pediments of Olympia came to teach us. Earthquakes have shaken them from their place, man has broken them and dispersed their pieces, the overflow of the Alpheus has washed away their violent polychromy. Even as they are, with terrible gaps, often without heads, without torsos, almost always without limbs, held by iron supports, they remain one, coherent and integral as when, at the foot of Kronion in Altis, they towered over the forests peopled with statues. Inflamed with passion, drunk with wine, the centaurs drag away the virgins. Fists and elbows strike; fingers twist and loosen the grasp of other hands; knives kill, and the great bodies sink under the ax, to the sound of the hammering hoofs, of sobs, and of imprecations. The brute dies, but the fever burns in his loins and his savage embrace tightens anew. Here everything is rude action, ardor of the new faith, violence of the old myths which retold the tale of the abductions of the primitive forests where all was menace, assault, and mysterious terror. Broad, animated modeling and surfaces cut with great strokes carry out the mood of struggle, of desire, of murder and death. And withal, a sovereign calm hovers over the scene. One might call it a surging, roaring sea which none the less forms an immense and tranquil harmony—because the wave is continuous, because the same forces hollow it out, lift it up, and make it fall forever, to arise forever.

Some Dorian Aeschylus sculptured this great thing at the hour when the fusion of the Apollonian soul and of Dionysian intoxication caused tragedy to well up from the breast of orgiastic music, when a prodigious equilibrium maintained the mystic agitation in the flame of the mind; and he felt within him the tremor of an instinct of harmony which did not end with the horizon seen by his eyes. In all the things he hears other things resound, distant echoes are born to swell progressively and to die away little by little—there is in nature not a single movement of which the germ and the repercussion cannot be traced in all movements which manifest nature. In the sculpture of Olympia there is an enchaining of causes and effects which has its perfect logic, but which is still intoxicated with the discovery of itself. The mind of the artist prolongs it unbroken so that he may gather up into himself its tumult and passion. One moment more and Phidias transforms it into spiritual harmonies which mark the expansion of the intelligence into the fullness of love.

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