Richard Armitage and the Quest for Arete: Hubris or Sophrosyne?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Armitage lately…I know, shocking revelation right?!  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about him in the context of several ideas that were first articulated to me in the spring of 1988, though they were active long before that in my life.  I was completing my sophomore year in college and was being inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society chapter at my university.  I don’t remember a lot of the events – I do remember that I was  proud to be one of the youngest students being inducted (thanks to high school classes in Latin and English which had been accepted for university credit.)  I’m a lifelong academic nerd – what can I say?   I wouldn’t be able to identify the keynote  speaker if my life depended on it, with the exception of recalling that she was a she, but I have never forgotten the gist of her message.  She talked to us about the ancient Greek concepts of Areté  (ἀρετή) and Hubris (ὕβρις).   Her premise was that the quest for areté, defined as excellence, or being the best that you can be, was central not only to the Greeks, but was still at play in the contemporary world.  We should all strive to do the best we can at whatever task is in front of us…excellence is often it’s own reward, she argued.  The problem is, she went on, that the downside to those who achieve areté is a potential for hubris, excessive pride or arrogance.  In English idiom, hubris is perhaps best captured in the warning, “pride goeth before a fall.”   Although I seriously doubt my 19 year old brain put it together at the time, she was clearly congratulating us for our achievement, encouraging us to continue striving for areté, but at the same time,  cautioning us against the dangers of hubris.

This balancing act between the quest for areté and the avoidance of hubris was a defining ideal for the ancient Greeks on a day to day basis.  Numerous Greek authors mention a concept known as the Golden Mean, but I think my favorite discussion of this idea appears in the Niomachaean Ethics by Aristotle where he talks about the need to achieve balance in all things.  Aristotle argues that either too much or too little of anything is bad.  For instance, too little bravery leads to  cowardice, too much bravery to recklessness.  The best place to be is at a balance between the extremes.  To the Greeks, this balance was summed up in the word σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne – so-fro-soo-nee in English).

Greek myth is littered with cautionary tales of humans whose hubris was so great that it offended the gods.  I told you the story of Niobe’s hubris last week, but she was certainly not alone in myth.   Characters like Actaeon, Pasiphae, Daedalus and Icarus and Phaethon also suffered for their hubris.   On a daily basis though,  hubris was a human failing that affected not the gods, but other humans.  I doubt that I am alone in occasionally wishing comeuppance on some particularly arrogant person who crosses my path.  As it happens, the Greeks had a goddess for that!  The job of the goddess Nemesis was to deliver divine retribution, literally, “to deliver what was due” to humans.  Those who practiced sophrosyne had nothing to fear from Nemesis, but there was no escaping her if one was hubristic.

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is clear to me that Richard Armitage is constantly striving for areté.  From the remarks that he has made himself, to the comments made by his past and current colleagues, his commitment to achieving excellence in his craft is notable.  It is something that has drawn and held the attention of many a fan over the years.  Hubris?   I don’t think Richard Armitage has much to fear from Nemesis on this score.  He seems to embrace the concept of sophrosyne –temperance, moderation – in his approach to the accolades that have come his way….if anything, he may lean to the modesty side a bit too  much sometimes.

Source:  the-hobbit.tumblr.com

Source: the-hobbit.tumblr.com

I mean seriously, who could accuse this guy of hubris?!

ὅ παῖς καλός – Armitage and Ascroft

I’ve been talking a lot about the Greeks, but the ancient Romans also made enormous contributions to the classical tRAdition.  A new photo of Richard Armitage that emerged over the weekend put me in mind of the Roman tradition of portrait sculpture.  The classical Greeks were skilled and prolific sculptors – arguably far surpassing the later Romans in virtually all areas…except one:  portraits.  It wasn’t that the Greeks couldn’t generate realistic portraits, it was that they just weren’t interested.  I think that it has to do with a vast divide in ideologies between the Greeks and Romans.  To boil it down, the Greeks saw much of life as a quest to achieve ἀρετή (arête or excellence in English).  I’ll have more to say about Richard Armitage and ἀρετή at a later date, but suffice it to say now, that viewed through this lens, realism gave way to idealism for the Greeks in many artistic genres.

The Romans, in contrast, have been defined by many as centering themselves around the concepts of pietas (piety) and gravitas (gravity or severity)  If the Greeks were the great “out of the box” thinkers of the classical world, the Romans were the pragmatic doers. In its original role, portrait sculpture served as a visual means of keeping the pious Romans connected to the spirits of their departed ancestors, an important part of traditional Roman religion.  The earliest Roman portrait busts are thought to have been sculpted from wax “death masks” molded from the recently deceased’s features.  Not surprisingly, the results are realistic down to the wrinkle…a “warts and all” sculptural tradition.

"Veristic" Bust of an Old Man - Vatican Museum

“Veristic” Bust of an Old Man – Vatican Museum

As the Romans expanded out of Italy, into the wider Mediterranean world, amassing a huge territorial empire, the function of portrait sculpture also expanded to include realistic portraits of important public figures like the one of Julius Caesar below.  It is meant to be a realistic portrait, but also to show the power and importance of this individual.  This portrait represents Caesar in the mid 1st century BC (BCE) at about the age of 50…not a young man, but not old either.

caesar bust

Julius Caesar – Vienna, Austria

By the 2nd century AD (CE) we can see a very different style of portrait sculpture emerging.   After several hundred years of exposure to the Greek artistic aesthetic, some of it has clearly rubbed off on the Romans in this “portrait” of Antinous, the favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian.  To be fair, Hadrian was a massive Hellenophile, Greece’s 2nd century sugar daddy, so the Greek influence is extremely pronounced here.  But Roman portraits from this period forward reflect a blending of the Romans desire for realistic portraiture with the Greek preference for an idealized look.

Antinous_Mondragone_Louvre_Ma1205

“Portrait” of Antinous – Louvre
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

So how does the latest Robert Ascroft portrait of Richard Armitage (below) fit in here?  The Romans would have loved modern photography for its ability to realistically portray the human face down to the last wrinkle, blemish and gray hair.  The Greeks would have loved Photoshop for its ability to make that all disappear and produce an idealized view.

Photo by Robert Ashcroft 2012 - Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Photo by Robert Ascroft 2012 – Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

I can’t tell you if this image has been retouched – although I doubt that many professional images are released without some adjustments.  We see a mature man, not an idealized youth here, and for me, at least, the impact is a stunning blend of the realistic and ideal.  ὅ παῖς καλός indeed!