94. Nietzsche and the Homeric Contest

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch (1861-1942)

Many of us who have read the Greek mythological tales have been struck by their vividness and ability to capture and portray the unsanitized human condition with all of its unfettered emotions and brutality. When my high school literature teacher introduced these tales to us, I remember thinking that I had never encountered such drama before, even in the modern movies at the time.

Because of the richness of these stories, they have had a great influence on countless artists, writers, and philosophers. One of my favorite horror directors, Wes Craven, has stated how Greek mythology has been an inspiration for many of his movies. In discussing one of his early films, The Hills Have Eyes, he stated:

I was completely knocked out by the Greek and Roman mythological tales. They were very primal. They were full of blood and gore and betrayal. The reason those myths have stayed for so long is because they really nailed certain things about the human condition. They were carrying our cultures in a way that was elemental down to the barest bones of what we’re all about. And…if you can do that, it will be a very good horror film.1

-Wes Craven

This primal connection with the human condition was not lost on the enigmatic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As a Greek classicist himself, he saw these stories from a different angle altogether. He stated that the ancient Greek proclivity for violence, as portrayed in their mythology, is paradoxically responsible for our ability to be civilized at all.

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93. The Beauty of Liturgy, Part 1

The Middle Ages perceived beauty as the radiance of truth, “splendor veritatis.”1 For us in the post-Enlightenment era, truth is primarily a left-brain phenomenon; it is propositional and logical. Medieval people believed beauty in art, literature, and poetry served as a powerful tool to express truth. It was the intellect and emotions working in concert.

The medieval person believed the beauty of the Catholic Mass, the liturgy, to be the ultimate expression of all truth. It was here that heaven and earth met. God came to meet intimately with his people. Worship was like the hub of a wheel, from which all spokes radiated. The proper ordering of society hinges on a correct liturgy and an honoring God. The beauty expressed in liturgy would flow into every nook and cranny of society, creating fertile soil from which truth would work itself out through the beauty of art, literature, architecture, and poetry.

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92. Philosophy in the Age of Scientism

I see Western Civilization as two distinct ages, the of philosophy and age of empirical science. The age of philosophy, starting with the Greeks, spanned from the 6th century B.C. until the birth of Modernism in the 16th century. The age of Empiricism, spanning until the present, began in 1543 with the Copernican Revolution. The “bible” of the new Empiricism, written in 1620, was Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. As you can imagine, the period of the early 16th century was characterized by upheaval and transition. It’s rarely seen in the course of history. 

This is not to say that there was no willingness for scientific inquiry and advancement in the age of philosophy. In fact, the first philosophers, the Greek Ionians such as Thales, were highly interested in science. Because they formulated various theories on the nature of matter and the cosmos. The major problem with them and those who followed was that they needed more rudimentary instruments, such as microscopes. It would have enabled them to unlock the secrets of nature and the created order.

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91. Iconography – An Artform Beyond This World

Byzantine Icon of the Holy Family

In modern times, we often think of art as a means to describe the reality of life or, more narrowly, the reality of the inner life of the artist. Iconography is an artform that describes reality, but the reality that it points to is purely heavenly and not earthly. Least of all, does it reveal anything about the artist himself which we have become so accostomed to in modern times. Rather, the iconographer humbles himself completly to the heavenly reality that he is attempting to portray.

Iconography was the first and exclusive expression of Christian art that flourished from 6th century until the Romanesque period around 1200. Many people think iconography is mainly an Eastern Christian art form, but in reality, all early Christian art, East and West, was consistent with the iconography prototype. This includes Western Celtic, Ottonian, Carolingian, and Romanesque art styles. The Russians and Greeks in the East had their tradition, but both East and West had essential elements in common, particularly the theological meaning they were trying to convey.

But don’t be fooled. This art form didn’t die out. It has been alive and well since its inception and continues to flourish today. Iconography attracts young artists, especially those looking for a way out of the cul-de-sac of modernism.

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90. Plato’s Dialogue Laches, What is Bravery?, Part II

What is Bravery?

What is Bravery?

In an age of feckless leadership in the West, we need to go back to the 20th century to find examples of leaders, such as Winston Churchill, who exemplified courage to an almost unknown degree today. And where did Churchill turn for his inspiration? To none other than the ancient Greeks. One reason could be that modern man emphasizes pragmatism, while the ancient Greeks emphasize virtue.

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89. Plato’s Dialogue Laches, What is Bravery?, Part I

We usually reserve the term bravery for a selected group of people in our society, whether military, first responders, or an average citizen who intervenes extraordinarily to save somebody’s life. Imagine that Plato invites you for the gathering in home with several other guests, and in the course of dinner, Plato turns to you and asks you to define bravery. What would you say? Indeed, Plato would not be satisfied if you pointed to the above examples to answer the question. He would want something more.

This discussion is especially important in contemporary times. Since we saw that, during the Covid crisis, everything became inverted – cowardice became a virtue and courage, a vice. People were actually impugned for declaring that they were not going to let fear characterize their lives. At times like this, we must return the the sages of old to see what they can teach us.

This dialogue is known not only for its philosophy but also for its great drama. There has been debate among scholars who question whether Laches is more drama or philosophy.1 I resolve that debate by answering yes.

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88. Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity

Entrance to Cave where Jesus was Born in the Church of the Nativity

This is my fourth annual Christmas post. That is hard to believe. This year, I thought that I would do something different. Instead of taking a philosophical or theological approach to Christmas, I decided to take more of a historical and archaeological approach and discuss the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church not only has very important historical significance, but it also has very personal significance for me. Not only have I visited this church, but when my daughter came into the Catholic Church as a young adult, she celebrated Mass and took her First Communion there on Christmas Eve.

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87. Plato’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Arts, Part II

Ancient Greek Mosaic

Plato sowed the seeds of Western art theory. His brief discussions on the topic, spread throughout his dialogues, give us a glimpse into his ideas. On one hand, these ideas can seem incomplete, fragmented, or even confusing. On the other hand, they can be strikingly profound and thought provoking. Regardless, one thing that Plato’s art theory is not comprehensive about is something that later thinkers and artists over the span of millennia would develop.

With that in mind, it is important to realize that Plato’s ideas played a foundational role in raising poignant questions throughout his dialogues. These questions not only started the conversation on the nature of art but also pointed it in the right direction. As such, his insights are valuable for artists and patrons, especially in the modern age.

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86. Plato’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Arts, Part I

Plato by Paolo Veronese, c. 1560

One reason why Plato’s perspective on the arts and beauty is important is because it directly applies to modern life. As you know, modernity is often characterized by ugliness. Whether it’s in city planning such as strip malls, or in modern art, much of which can be confusing at best. Part of the journey to rediscover beauty, what I call Renaissance 2.0, involves understanding what ancient philosophers believed about aesthetics and learning how to apply these principles to modern life.

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85. Plato’s Dialogue ‘Ion’ -Inspiration in Poetry, Human, Divine, or Demonic?

A Rhapsode Reciting Homer

Musical artist Joni Mitchell once said, “Music comes from the muses, and not other musicians,” illustrating that the concept of the muse is alive and well in modern times. Many would say that she was speaking figuratively, but was she?

Music comes from the muses.

-Joni Mitchell

This leads us to the question: where do poets and musicians get their inspiration? In fact, we get the word “music” from the word “muse.” This is the operative question in Plato’s dialogue, Ion. Before dismissing the concept of the muse, we should read Ion.

Joni Mitchell

And what did Plato think about poets and artists in general? In his dialogues Laws, Republic, and Phaedrus, he discusses poets, but only incidentally in relation to other matters. What is fascinating about “Ion” is that it is the only one of Plato’s dialogues where he directly addresses the issue. Consequently, we gain deeper insight into his perspective on the matter.1 Ion is the world’s oldest surviving book on art theory, and it holds implications for how we view art and artists today.

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