ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS AND THE MODERN INTELLECTUAL
An engraving made in Paris at the time of the French Revolution shows a little man on a distant mountain observing through a telescope the activities of mankind. There could scarcely be a better image to represent the role and position of the modern intellectual as they differ from those of his counterparts in classical antiquity. He has no secure home, no well-defined purpose. His main occupation is observing and commenting on others. In contrast, ancient intellectuals were firmly integrated in their society, whether it be the poet performing in cults and festivals, the philosopher teaching in the gymnasium and agora, or the politician in the popular assembly. Their place in society was in the city, and this was true well into late antiquity. Even the countercultural way of life of a Diogenes is unthinkable without the public arena.
We have come to know the poets and philosophers of antiquity as people who felt sure of themselves, and of their role and purpose in society. Of all the extant faces, there is not one that betrays even the faintest hint of a melancholy type suffering beneath the weight of his own intellectual gifts. There is no ancient equivalent, say, of the famous photograph of Gisèle Freund, with Walter Benjamin looking out at the viewer, his head propped on his hand, his face filled with loneliness and weltschmerz.
There have been few societies that celebrated their poets and thinkers as did the Greeks. Yet the votive and honorific statues of the Classical period celebrate them not as great intellects, but as exemplary citizens. Homer appears as the distinguished elderly man, Anacreon as the properly behaved symposiast, Sophocles as the decorous public speaker. Aeschylus' gravestone recorded only that he had fought the Persians at Marathon: not a word of his success as a writer. No matter how great a man's reputation for intellectual achievement, in democratic Athens at least, this was no reason to set him apart from the conventional appearance of his fellow citizens. But in contrast to the Classical statues of the model citizen, if we take the Weimar poets as an instance, their very gestures recall their individual characters as both poets and people. The encounter takes place not in public, but in some ideal "private" space. Goethe and Schiller are depicted as great minds with enviable human qualities, but not as model citizens with whom any of their fellows could identify. Once again there is no direct ancient parallel.
The first genuine intellectual portrait in antiquity is the likeness of Socrates with the ugly face of Silenus. This affront to the aesthetic and ethical norms of kalokagathia was designed to provoke the statue's contemporaries and, in so doing, began a long tradition that continued in the "dog's life" of Diogenes, the dessicated old bodies of Hellenistic philosopher statues, all the way to Apuleius' filthy hair. In the figure of Socrates, the Silenus mask becomes an archetype of the philosopher who questions social convention and faulty thinking, claiming for himself the role of educator in how best to think and to live one's life.
It was only about a century later, as the unifying structure of the polis was coming undone, that the Greek philosopher first acquired an image distinct from that of the average citizen and became a public figure with an authority of his own. From the early third century B.C. on, the philosopher defined himself as "the other." Interestingly, this consisted at first simply in adhering to the traditional citizen image. While their contemporaries quickly adopted the clean-shaven look initiated by Alexander the Great, the philosophers continued to let their beards grow. And while others favored more elaborate (and warmer) clothing, they clung to the simple citizen's cloak. In this sense the philosopher's image had from the start a "conservative" element. His criticism of the new mores invoked ancestral ways, that is, the age of the free and democratic polis.
But the ascetic quality is only one aspect of the philosopher's rejection of the undergarment. Exposing the naked bodies of these old philosophers gave the sculptors an opportunity to portray the aging process with ruthless honesty. The "revelation" of the aging male body took on an even more dramatic quality following on the tradition of flawless physiques in Classical statuary. Like the mask of Socrates, this too was a calculated violation of the standards of kalokagathia that still dominated the Greek citizen's self-image. In both cases the provocative statement contains a particular message: death is the fate of every individual, but the philosopher alone can teach us how, in the face of death, to live a life "in accordance with nature."
Greek religion had no codified dogma, no set of moral teachings like the catechism, no established clergy who could minister to the pastoral needs of the faithful. Starting with Socrates, it was the philosophers who came increasingly to fill this role. Thus the philosopher's mantle designated the counselor and the in-house philosopher, who were expected by society to lead demonstrative and exemplary lives. The Christian priest and the monk are the true successors of the ancient philosopher, and it is no coincidence that they early on assumed both the beard and the cloak.
The statue of Voltaire in old age is also characterized by physical frailty and spiritual passion. But Houdon was not trying to convey an exemplar of the philosophical way of life. Rather, by placing Voltaire on a throne, he broadcast the intellectuals' claim (here in the name of the philosophes) to a share in the running of the state. The statue embodies the excitement of the Enlightenment set in the political situation shortly before the French Revolution. No Greek philosopher ever sat on a throne, at most an academic "chair." Even Epicurus' "throne" turns out to be rather a seat of honor, used by his pupils to convey the unique intellectual and moral authority of their master. As much as Houdon may have relied on the antique for his vision of Voltaire, his is a kind of philosopher who never existed in antiquity.
Unlike the ancient philosopher, most modern intellectuals since the Enlightenment have been committed to the notion of progress, or at least of an improvement in social and political conditions. They may appear, however, as the spokesmen for a whole variety of forces and groups, ideologies and movements. They analyze, shape, and propagate the interests of the particular group, shaping the entire zeitgeist, or perhaps only a momentary circumstance. But the crucial difference is, they have no "teaching" and no specifically moral authority, except perhaps in the case of those who happen to have suffered under a recently discredited political system. But even in such instances, the aura of moral authority does not last for long, as we can observe in the fate of dissidents in the former Socialist states of Eastern Europe.
The real reason for this failure is the modern intellectual's lack of practical knowledge, as soon as a situation calls for some basic and generally applicable advice. Wherever he becomes involved, the specialists are better informed. In principle, of course, the intellectual is a specialist too, at least to the extent of his personal experience and his own field. Even freelance writers and critics move in a little literary world of their own. The ancient philosopher was rather a "generalist" and attempted both to understand and systematically to explain the world and human existence. Whatever school he may have belonged to, his ethical imperatives and the way of life implicit in them at least claimed to be rooted in all-embracing theoretical principles of physics and perception, mathematics and metaphysics.
Having said this, we need not wonder that the modern intellectual in the West has never developed a single coherent image. His functions in society are too varied, his identity too contradictory. Certain attributes, like the beret or rimless glasses, might enjoy a brief vogue but are nothing more than fashion accessories. The only somewhat consistent phenomenon that might recall the ancient philosophers is the ongoing attempt, in the form of more or less deliberate flouting of conventions of dress and manners, to set onself apart from the "proper" behavior of officialdom and the bourgeoisie. But in the present climate such attempts are usually doomed to failure, since anything that attracts attention for its "otherness" is quickly co-opted by the market into a trendy new look. The only category of intellectual that has attempted in modern times, at least on certain ceremonial occasions, to project a specific corporate image is the professoriate. Interestingly, when the traditions of this group were invented in the last century, it was by reaching back to the dress of Late Medieval clerics and guildsmen, in order to define the academics as a kind of secular order, the guardians and dispensers of knowledge and wisdom. But the student unrest of the late 1960s demonstrated just how insecure was the identity implied in this image. This leaves only the phenomenon of judicial robes, but these are not a symbol of any particular intellectual capacity. Rather, they are a relic of an absolute authority transcending the individual, something still indispensable to the modern secularized state.
One conclusion of this study has been that the philosopher turns out to be the only category of intellectual in antiquity that defined itself as such by means of a consistent and unmistakable image. At first the philosophers were clearly differentiated according to schools of thought and life-styles, but later the sharp contours were lost as they ceased to correspond to reality. This did not, however, imply a loss in the philosopher's prestige. Rather, over the course of centuries the philosopher's image steadily took on an added authority and mystique. It was for this reason that under the Empire, intellectuals in other fields assumed the philosopher's cloak and let their beards grow. This is particularly true of teachers of all kinds as well as doctors, who, in the Imperial period, saw themselves as physicians of the soul, not just the body. They realized that the "care of the self" involves body and soul in equal measure.
It was only with the poets that we have been able to detect indications of a self-contained iconographic tradition. But the sorry state of our evidence forbids any sweeping generalizations. In striking contrast to the philosophers, Menander [figure?] and Poseidippus in the Early Hellenistic age were visualized dressed in the latest fashions and enjoying an enviably comfortable, even luxurious style of life. We can readily understand why these comic poets felt themselves to be champions of the world of the private individual, since it was they who brought that world onto the stage. But does this apply to other writers as well? Certainly not to the official poets of Augustan Rome, who were naturally envisaged in their togas. Yet there are still some indications that the notion of poetic inspiration, in contrast to philosophical thought, as something associated with a pleasantly "soft" way of life survived well into late antiquity.
The Roman aristocrat who immersed himself in Greek literature while at his villa is related to this figure of the Hellenistic poet, not so much because he often dabbled in writing verse himself as because he experienced the life of the private intellectual, if only from time to time. During the Late Empire, this idea of withdrawal from public life to the pleasures of reading amid a bucolic setting takes on a deeper meaning. It comes to symbolize a happy existence freed from all external pressures. Yet even in these later images, the intellectual life of the villa is still linked with the notion of material comforts and enjoyments.
Starting with Aristotle, philosophers were always in addition scholars, historians, and philologists. In this guise they interpreted the texts of earlier poets and thinkers, mastered and transmitted the ancient wisdom. In the Hellenistic world, classical culture became for the first time an object of reverence, at times even in a religious sense. In this setting there arose a new kind of retrospective "literary" portrait that sought to render the great minds of the past as unique individuals on the basis of their works or their lives. In the context of hero cults, these literary portraits honoring the poets could take on the aspect of genuine cult images. For the Greek cities, whose world had been utterly changed by the coming of Rome, the preoccupation with paying homage to the intellectual heroes of the past became a way of reaffirming their own spiritual identity and solidarity as Greeks.
The incorporation of these new heroes into well-established rituals and cult practices is the fundamental element lacking in the sculptural monuments of the late nineteenth century that celebrate the apotheosis of the intellectual hero. Rodin's statue of Victor Hugo and Max Klinger's Beethoven are entirely individual visions of the artist, divorced from society. As such they serve as much to glorify the sculptor, who dreams of his own apotheosis, as to honor the subject. Such creations are monuments that have no true place of their own, no certain function in the real world. We perceive them only as works of art, even when they stand in parks or gardens instead of in museums. Unlike the Hellenistic monuments that they may seem to evoke, and despite all their mighty pathos, they carry no weight as cultural artifacts and do not express any values with which the society around them could identify. The culture of learning in the High Empire, with its particular kind of retrospective rituals, belongs in the tradition of the cities and courts of the Hellenistic world that had likewise nourished their cultural heritage, and yet there is a fundamental difference. While the earlier period perceived an unbroken continuity and sought only to reactivate, embellish, and broadcast its cultural legacy, the Romans had to invent a tradition that in fact never existed in Classical Greece. The forging of a national identity that would help unify the imperium Romanum would not have been possible without an acknowledged set of shared values and life-styles. The cult of imperial power and its attendant myths were not sufficient to fill this need. The Romans needed a common language, a shared vocabulary of visual imagery.
What began in Hadrianic Athens as a game of taking on Classical costumes and faces grew into a personal statement, a kind of religion of high culture whose rituals aimed at appropriating the classical tradition and turning it into a palpable entity throughout the Empire. The manifold range of activities and forms of participation in this cult—costumed performances, formal orations, learned dinner-table conversation, pictorial imagery—add up to an extraordinary collective effort to bring the past into the present. In essence these activities were nothing more than a selective restructuring of what had been standard cultural practice in the cities of Classical and Hellenistic Greece. But by a process of separating these off, multiplying them, and stressing certain elements, there arose a pure and depoliticized "classical" tradition that outdid the authentic Greek culture now long past. This and the imperial cult were the two forces that together laid the foundations for that sense of belonging and shared identity that united all the inhabitants of the Empire.
In this context the mask of Socrates, along with the other intellectual giants of old, once again takes on great importance. The initiates in this cult of learning recreated themselves as likenesses or versions of the classical icons. The "care of the self" transformed the amateur philosopher and initiate into a new kind of artist. Not only in his beard, hair, and expression did he model himself after the ancients, but in his entire self.
If Socrates' provocative Silenus mask stands at the beginning of our story, then we reach the end with the face of the enlightened Charismatic. The beard was no longer by itself sufficient to mark the otherness of these "divine men" and miracle workers. The spirituality and "holiness" of the Late Antique mystics required a mask of their own that would separate them from traditional images of the philosopher. Thus the shoulder-length hair becomes the defining element in this last intellectual portrait type of antiquity, an image that in many ways recalls a modern guru more than a classical thinker. When this final mask was adapted for likenesses of the bearded Christ, the Hellenistic image of the mighty thinker and dialectician had long been abandoned. The dogma of official teaching had taken the place of philosophical dialogue, and a strict hierarchy had established itself within intellectual circles. It seems to me, finally, not without significance that the portrait types and narrative images of Hellenistic origin have had little influence on the art of more recent times, while the mask of the Charismatics lives on, in the imagery of Christ, to the present day.