There is nothing our minds are more scrutinizing of, or more attuned to than the human figure. Through our physical appearance and expressions, we receive volumes of information about a person in one glance. The dissemination of that information and interpretation of it is almost as automatic as breathing for us.
When we see the human figure portrayed in a certain way, either in life, in advertising, or in images as we are growing up, it shapes our views about humanity in a subconscious way. These pathways in our minds become cemented.
In Ancient Greece, the human body (soma) had been viewed as a vessel to house the soul (psyche). The body and mind were viewed as being inextricably linked. The internal world of a person, the spirit within, was revealed by their external body. Likewise, the external body had an effect on a person’s spirit.
The ancient Greeks strove for an external perfection in their arts to better consecrate internal perfection. They focused heavily on perfectly portraying the human figure in their statues and art. During the Classical era (500 – 300 B.C.), their arts portrayed the human figure with poised and dignified expressions. The intent being to promote emotional restraint and offer a sense of calm which in turn would elevate the spirit.
During the Hellenic era following directly after, artists and sculptors began twisting and contorting their figures aggressively, focusing on unrestrained emotions and wild depictions of the human figure. The intent being to shock the viewer. Greek civilization thereafter emphasized delving into passions. As a result, its political and cultural landscape had become corrupted.
With the above examples, we see two distinct eras and what they viewed as the purpose of human life. The Classical era portrayed in their figures a happiness they pursued defined as eudaimonic. Eudaimonic happiness is defined as contentment that comes through assimilating to the three principles or characteristics that make up the cosmos, truth, beauty, and goodness. It encompasses the refinement of one’s character to better oneself and society at large. If one did not conduct oneself well, it would wound others and create a hostile environment. In their arts, they took this philosophy seriously and made sure everything reflected goodness.
During the Hellenic era which started directly after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and the splintering of Greek society and culture, hedonic happiness was pursued and portrayed as the meaning of human life. Hedonic happiness means indulging in carnal pursuits or seeing life as a means to rise and reach fulfillment through wealth, fame, power, and gratification through indulging in emotions and passions.
The arts and stories of this era clearly displayed their pursuit of hedonic happiness. This led to distrust, greed, and self-centeredness pervading society. If more of society puts its emphasis on hedonic pursuits, the less one would be able to, or feel they could confide in others, the less they would feel others would be trustworthy. Society would break down.
In an artist’s portrayal of the human figure, they inevitably reveal their inner world. Though when one takes their civic responsibilities seriously and considers the effect their art may have on the world, they can elevate both their own spirit and society at large if they portray the human figure in a dignified and morally responsible way.