Style and "Substance"

Doryphoros and the Presocratics

Vernant noticed the enormous paradigm shift which Anaximander’s novel ontology implied. Because the earth is at the center of the cosmos’ circumference, it stays motionless of its own accord. There is no more a reason for it to move up than down, left than right. The earth, in Anaximander’s view, is subordinate to nothing, unlike the cosmologies of his predecessors and even his disciples (like Anaximenes, who thought the earth was dominated by the air). “Monarchia was replaced, in nature as in the city, by a rule of isonomia,” as Vernant says. In simpler terms, the earth—with the advent of the presocratics—is finally conceived of as causa sui. What is, is no longer perceived as a dominant force to which all substances adhere but the indefiniteness of the world itself, one which never fails to stay ordered through the perpetual rescinding of its own indeterminacy.

This schema dominated Presocratic thought in all spheres. In medicine, for instance, Alcmeon theorized that the healthy body was an isonomic balancing of hot and cold, wet and dry, and so on; whereas poor health was a monarchical ruling of one element over the rest. Or consider the medium of writing composition itself: Anaximander had to turn away from the poetic medium because prose was “a new literary genre suited to historia peri physeos.” With all these spheres being inhabited by Presocratic thought, it is no surprise that art would do the same. In Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, the contrapposto is a telltale sign of pre-socratic influence. What the contrapposto clearly indicates is a past movement, and potentially a future one. This was not the case in archaic art: rather, human bodies were modified (to literally supra-anatomical proportions) to create the image of stasis and movement at once. Also, the size of the Doryphoros is much closer to a human than the many ten-foot archaic art works. Moreover, this reduction is able to occur without the body losing any of its muscle mass. We could call this “naturalism,” as is often done, but instead we might connect this work to that of the presocratics and thereby see that alongside the world being conceived as causa sui for the first time, so too did the individual become the source of his own movement—a movement which is unambiguously implied by his posture.

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