|T h e V i r t u e
o f A t h e n a
Virtue (center) crowns Athena (left) and
Triumphal Arch, Lisbon, Portugal, EU.
The Human Being
to which the Greeks believed the human being to be the module, or basic
unit of measure, is evident in the way they presented the human being in
their sculpture. The figure is strong and straight, with many vertical
lines to emphasize his strength, much like a column, the predominant element
in Greek temple architecture.
This association between the human being and the architectural
column indicates that the Greeks identified the human being with the characteristics
of the column: strong, orderly, proud, erect, beautiful. The column symbolized
the human being, while the human being symbolized life, the intellect and
the human spirit.
Thus, we think of the Greeks dedicating
their many-columned temples not only to the Gods, but also to the idea
of the human being. The human being was indeed the measure of all things,
even of his Gods. And just as each column contributed to the support of
the whole structure so each human contributed his support to the whole
To the ancient Greeks excellence
is a goal to be pursued in all aspects of life. The attainment of perfection,
of the complete realization of one's potential, is called arete (virtue).
The buildings of the Athenian Acropolis
are good examples of the achievement of arete (virtue) in architecture.
The plan of the basic Temple form actually changed little over the 800
year period of Greek civilization. The ancient Greeks were a traditional
people who avoided change for its own sake. They simply refined the basic
Temple form. They looked for the best proportions of the various elements
which together make up the Temple. Among the 300-odd Temples left to us
by 800 years of Greek civilization many were smaller than the Parthenon
and many were larger. But we have come to believe that the Parthenon
best represents the Greek ideal of arete (virtue).
To attain excellence,
the philosopher Aristotle said that the correct proportions of a building
were those which respected the scale of the human being, and reached a
mean between extremes. For example, the columns of some Temples seem massive
and crude compared with those of the Parthenon
while others seem tall and elegantly detailed. The Parthenon columns
reflect the so-called Aristotelian mean between such extremes. Hence, this
Temple represents the culmination of Greek architecture: the perfection
of balance, harmony, and proportion.
Because it was dedicated to the patron
Goddess of Athens, the Parthenon
is a religious monument. Its architects had no practical requirements
to consider, so they were free to make it symbolic of the Greek ideal.
And since Athena is the Goddess of Wisdom, she would best be served by
a Temple that incorporated logic and reason.
What could be more logical than geometry?
Hence, the Parthenon
was based on the famous geometrical formula known as the Golden Section.
It is derived by dividing any straight line AB into two equal parts. At
point B, a perpendicular BD, equal to CB and AC, is erected. Then the hypotenuse
is drawn, and DE is marked off, equal to BD, CB, and AC. This leaves segment
AE. On the original line, segment AF which equals AE is marked off. The
point F now divides the original line into two unequal parts: FB and AF.
The relation of FB to AF is the Golden Section.
The height and width of the Parthenon
are in the same relation as FB to AF. This vitalized the architecture
with a vivid rationality. It gives the Parthenon a look of majestic self-sufficiency.
The Goddess Virtue was called Virtus
(Courage) by the Romans. Sometimes she used to appear on the field
of battle escorting Mars to instill courage in the Romans.
Greek theories of virtue are based on the
term arete, which means "goodness," "excellence,"
and "virtue." The goodness
or virtue of a thing is that by which it performs its function well. Thus,
the function of a knife is to cut; a good, or "virtuous," knife cuts well.
Plato argues in The Republic that
when reason rules the soul, as is its function, the soul is virtuous; as
such, it possesses wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice.
For Aristotle, the ethically virtuous soul
habitually chooses its path of action according to a rational mean between
two vices. Thus, when faced with a fearful situation, it chooses the mean,
which is courage, rather than wallow in an excess of fear, which is a vice
called cowardice, or proceed heedlessly and fearlessly, which is rashness.
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©1998-1999 Roy George