The new show at the British Museum, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, is tremendous. To see such a collection of sculpture and artifact, idol and vase under one roof is an opportunity not to be missed. But, to my mind, there’s something the exhibition doesn’t quite nail.
The blurbs stress the take-home message: the ancient Greeks made our sense of beauty; we still think of the body beautiful according to the categories they developed two and a half millennia ago. What struggles to be heard, though, is that at the same time, the Greeks embedded a powerful, crucial critique of the notion they ostensibly celebrated in glazed clay and polished marble.
Just what’s missing in the exhibition struck me when reference was made to Charmides. He was a vibrant, thrusting and astonishingly beautiful Greek man. As Plato puts it in the dialogue named after him, when Charmides entered the room, everyone fell in love with him, and were astonished and confused by his entrance.
I’ve experienced the effect the statuesque have on others when I once spent a day with a woman who was a model. As we walked down the street, the crowd parted before us: we passed through the midst with the ease of the Israelites through the Red Sea. We sat in a bar: it was as if the entire place lent towards her, like iron filings to a magnet.
In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates is also bewitched by Charmides. But he nonetheless has the presence of mind to raise a question. Charmides seems perfect, indeed, an example of the Greek virtue of kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. But, asks Socrates, does he have a well-formed soul?
The first readers of the dialogue would immediate spot that this is the crucial issue, not his looks. Charmides had everything going for him in his youth: beauty, family, education. And yet, at the time Plato was writing, Charmides had grown up to become a notorious dictator. He was one of the Thirty Tyrants, the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after the Peloponnesian War that crushed the Athenian democratic experiment.
Sure enough, Charmides’ predilection for force emerges under questioning from Socrates. The message is clear: don’t be fooled by the bright surface. It can hide the monstrous.
The danger is almost spelt out with Aphrodite, another figure who carried the ancient consciousness of beauty’s allure and risk. Several of the sculptures depict her nude at her bath, inviting you to sneak a glimpse of her most intimate parts, only to be met by the back of her hand. And remember, the hand is of a god. It will strike you down. Beauty can do that. But on the whole, the curators don’t seem to have taken the lesson on board. They broadcast the dazzle, perhaps because dazzle sells, and so can’t quite focus on the danger. Various commentators on the exhibits don’t appear to have thought much beyond beauty’s surface either.
For example, the neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who pioneered the so-called science of neuroaesthetics, offers an explanation of why we share the same appreciation of beauty as the ancient Greeks. Roughly, it’s because our brains are wired to seek symmetry, and symmetry is what makes for beauty. And yet, the most symmetrical faces in the exhibition, such as those of the kouroi, aren’t beautiful but rather appear as eerie pastiches of beauty. They are unsettling rather than attractive. The ancient Greeks knew that true beauty is not a question of symmetry but rather of balance, a reflexive notion that can’t be hardwired because it’s responsive rather than programmed.
These ideas are also discussed by Plato. In the Symposium, he explicitly warns against becoming fixated on the beauty of the body. Instead, he argues that the energy released by the sight of the gorgeous figure needs to be channeled to a desire for a deeper beauty – that of the soul, of the good, of the divine.
Moreover, an ugly surface may transmit this deeper goal more safely, as was the case with Socrates. Three images of the philosopher are shown in the exhibition. They are typical, emphasizing his pug nose, pot belly and dangling moobs. Again, though, what is missed is that his iconography stands in ironic judgment on those who don’t give him a second glance and so miss a true incarnation of the beautiful and good.
The demon that possessed Charmides, whose power seems undiminished in 21st century Bloomsbury, must be chuckling at how little humankind has learnt in two and a half thousand years.
Mark Vernon’s course on psychology and psychotherapy at The Idler Academy begins on Monday 20th April.