Quæ Sumus: A Brief History of Ideas

Preface III: Our Classical Heritage

A Brief, “Very Brief” History of Ideas



Greek city of Miletus, Town Plan, circa 470 BC, in the Hippodamian Mode   

Upon the western coast of Anatolia, near the mouth of the Meander River, within the archaic Greek City of Miletus, in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, there lived three philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, philosophers who, in an attempt to understand the beautiful, wonderful world around them, postulated that the Gods do not exist, that there exists one element by which all things come into and pass out of being, that this thing might be water, the invisible, essential air, or the change of the invisible essence into earth, fire, water, wind, clouds, et cetera.  In brief, the Milesians postulated that the universe is material substance untutored by the personified gods

History of Ideas
Acropolis of Athens, Periclean Period, 460-406 BC, Ictinus, Callicrates, et alia, architects, Phidias, et alia, sculptors

Soon, upon the Attic plain, beneath the Acropolis and her temple to the Maiden, there lived the philosopher Socrates, a man in appearance much alike the goat-god, Pappo-Silenus, a man exquisitely attuned to his “daemon”, that inner voice which, “when making itself heard, deters me from what I am about to do, and never urges me on”.  Remarkably, in the hours before his death, Socrates discussed with his friends, the nature of his “psyche“, that immaterial personality which is himself, his conscience, the divine exercise of his reason in pursuit of virtue, that essence of Socrates, that essence of all men which is immortal.  In brief, Socrates recognized the immortal, immaterial presence active within and without the material body.

Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy, groundbreaking, AD 1506, Michelangelo, et alia, architects

Moving quickly along: Pre-Pantheon Romans of the Republic recognized the “genius“, the generative, guardian-spirit active through the body into the world; later, Romans, from Empire to Saint Peter’s Renaissance, acknowledged in some persons an exceptionally active, divinely inspired “genius”, a will, a destiny in certain persons, Augustus being one-such, Michelangelo, another. 

Norse Longhouse, “Meadhaus reconstruction”

Here, let us pause to collect thoughts of the material, of the immaterial … let us retrace steps to the fire-warmed, Anglo-Saxon Hall, to our old English language, to the “breath” of the hero Beowulf, a breath described by the poet as “soul” (this first occasion of the English word “soul”), a soul portrayed by Thomas Aquinas as being the first instance of the living body, that knowing, learning, ineffable, immaterial thing which lives beyond the body’s matter into immortality.  And what has this to do with architecture and monuments?  

Polykleitos, the Elder, Doryphoros, “Spear-Bearer” (Roman copy), circa 440 BC, Naples National Archaeological Museum

Picture in your mind’s eye—that eye of the soul which knows not only everything beneath the sun, but everything beyond the sun (from eternities before time, into eternities past the ending of time)—a statue by Polykleitos, let us say, the Doryphoros: Notice the ideal resolution of parts, the acknowledgement of number in air, the invisible, perceived, spatial geometries.  See them?  Allow me to assist. 

James Earle Fraser, Authority of Law, 1935, Supreme Court of the United States Building

Within the mirror of your face, this face, notice how your head is five eyes wide—if less than an eye between the eyes, your eyes seem too close, if much wider, your eyes seem too wide; notice the triangle from outside-eye to outside-eye, to chin to outside eye which, if an isosceles, will cause your face to appear over-long or over-wide; notice that your height from top to toe is equal to your arms spread, fingertip to fingertip; notice that moving from hand down finger digits, each decreases by one-third part.  See this ideal resolution of geometries and mathematics in even the most superficial of parts.  See these geometries here and in the hand beyond your wrist. Allow me to lend to you this immaterial truth: One plus one will equal two everywhere in space and always throughout timeWe recognize universal symmetries, materially in bodies; and immaterially, in eternity.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1791 or 1792, United States Capitol Building

Building-makers, picture-makers, and especially, statue-makers, recognize the immaterial essence of things in materials; we, alike demigods, breath ideas into form, ideas which you recognize as natural personalities. In bronze or stone statues upon pedestals, niches and pediments, you recognize personalities living among us; yet, living within that higher, slower, eternal realm of being.  The typical, Periclian man-on-the-street, likely, a kalos kagathos, would have recognized in the statue of Olympian Zeus, the mirror of himself, the god-like essence of his person. I expect that within statues you recognize yourself, let us say, “in a statue of Alexander the Great, or of George Washington”. 

Here, parenthetically, I must add that the Kodak school of gesturing, gesticulating, bench reclining statues is a disservice to civic spaces, to the soul of man; these things are merely public, vulgar alike the colorfully twisted plop-art, those mirthful distractions in want of meaning, in want of purpose beyond satisfying the taxing authority.

Lysippos, Spearbearing Alexander “The Great”, Roman copy, original 330 BC, Istanbul Archeology Museum

Lately, in Adam Smith’s smoky London, there grew an idea that man descends through an initial, generative organism, a generation recognized in the selective breeding of livestock, a descent much influenced by the organizing principles of the “invisible hand” described in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a book which Darwin was reading while on Galapagos observing finches.  So, where are we going? Through Darwin’s Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life there grew-up a notion of the “survival of the fittest”, an inevitable, linear progress in nature, in society, and in political organization, a virulent notion which is named “progressivism”.
Here, for clarity, I should mention that, “the unseen hand of the unmoved mover is Aristotle’s description of the active God, universally recognized; that long before Darwin, we humans knew and practiced the craft of selective breeding in chickens, cows, people“.

John Russell Pope, National Gallery of Art, West Building, 1940
I. M. Pei, National Gallery of Art, East Building, 1978
William Thornton, Colonel John Tayloe III House, “The Octagon House”, 1799
(looming behind) American Institute of Architects, National Headquarters, The Architects Collaborative, architects, 1973

Progressive thought begins and ends in the physical, material thing itself, the cell, the atom, et cetera. Classive thought begins in the dual nature of the material body and the immaterial essence … of, let us say, “an immortal soul, that ineffable person who in kinship to divinity is improved by virtue”.  You will notice that the classive, in pictures, statues, and buildings, is synonymous with divine beauty.  You will notice that progressive painting, sculpture, and architecture is, most often, brutal and aggressive, most often synonymous with the ugly.  And then, you know this: The commodious classive is friendly to humanity; the progressive is unfriendly to humanity … in its crooked stairs, its threateningly tilted walls, its monstrous forms, its hard, dead, barren spaces, and in hulking government edifices.

Of “modern”, from the Latin, “modo”, “just now”.  I would like you to notice three phenomenon evidenced in the materialist Progressive and the dualistic Classive: both are ancient in lineage (the Progressive [Milesian] in denial of its antiquity, the Classive [Socratic] in celebration of its tradition); that both are modern, just now; that the truly Classive statue is friendly to humanity and universally loved, while, the Progressive doodad is mostly an unloved instrument of government in service to a constituency.

Smithmeyer and Pelz, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, 1897
Marcel Breuer, Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, 1968

You will not find statues, those divine representations of ourselves, in or around progressive architecture … we have in progressivism become squiggles, doodads without meaning.  Yes, the progressive is, if not anti-human, indifferent to you, to me, to the good, the beautiful, the true; and then, hos epi to polu, antithetical to these United States.


Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, 1768 – 1826, near Charlottesville, Virginia

Here, to assist in understanding the parameters of the progressive-classive conflict, you might like to become familiar with two words, arête and paideiaArête , “virtue” without which the eudaemonic life is not possible; and paideia, those humane disciplines which form in youth the potentiality of a eudaemonic life, a life lived well, the life intended by Jefferson in our generative Declaration, an intention contained within the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”, a happiness, a fulfillment, alike the wisdom which is realized in the achievement of virtue.  Then too, you will remember that Jefferson is of the sub-species, Classive, as is recognized in his works (Monticello, The Declaration of Independence, et cetera).

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, [Old] Federal Hall, demolished, 1788, New York, New York
Ellicott’s “L’Enfant” Plan of the City of Washington, 1791

There is much that can be said about Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  As all of you know, L’Enfant was Columbia’s civic planner, yet few know that L’Enfant was commissioned to redesign New York’s old city hall into Federal Hall, the nation’s first government building.  You will notice the adaptation in the metope of thirteen stars which represent the States.  As words (figures) are adaptable to language, so too, architectural forms (figures) are language adaptable in accent and in dialect, each adaptation a flowering, alike the Founder’s growth through the Classical into a fuller Classical which realized itself in America’s maturing of the Athenian democracy, in refining Roman republicanism. 

Robert Mills, Washington Monument, 1848 – 1884
Henry Bacon, Lincoln Memorial, 1932

This American accent of the Classical can be found in, well, most of Columbia’s classive buildings.  In the monumental core, you will see this adaptation everywhere. Notice the republican taste, the best of which is honest, direct, bold, with little of Europe’s mincing and flamboyance.  You will notice that American buildings are not merely a copy of the Greek, they are Greek, Roman, high Christian, Enlightened, because that is who, that is what we are.

Cass Gilbert, United States Supreme Court Building, 1935

Upon land granted by the Second Lord Baltimore, land in first settlement named, “New Troy”, grew up “Capitol Hill”, observed by L’Enfant as being “a pedestal waiting for a superstructure” and here are found the several Superstructure Temples dedicated to those essentials necessary, specific of classive civilization:    

Knowledge,            Conduct,      …… Governance;         

the Library of Congress, the United States Supreme Court Building, the United States Capitol Building

Here, the heart of the Nation’s body.  A thing alike the body, tripartite, a bottom, a middle, a top; alike a story, a beginning, a middle, an end; alike opinion, a middle and two sides that make of the middle one thing, or, another thing.  Classive or Progressive?


Daniel Chester French, Abraham Lincoln, 1922, “In this Temple, as in the Hears of the People, for Whom He saved the Union, the Memory of Abraham Lincoln is Enshrined, Forever”

continues in friendship to humanity, to all which is humane.  In architecture, homes commodious to our bodies, friendly to that which in us is divine.  In statuary, the human realized in the ideal, the honor to those who lead exemplary lives, to those who performed heroic deeds, and, tellingly, to that higher, divine essence materialized in the goddesses, Columbia, in Freedom and in Liberty, in that beauty, goodness, and truth which is our classical heritage in architecture and in monuments.

Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington, 1865, Rotunda, United States Capitol Building


For particulars concerning the character of The District of Columbia’s style, “Our Classical Heritage”, you might reference, The Classical Architecture and Monuments of Washington, D.C.: A History and Guide.
This from the book’s description: Classical design formed our nation’s capital. The soaring Washington Monument, the columns of the Lincoln Memorial and the spectacular dome of the Capitol Building speak to the founders’ comprehensive vision of our federal city. Learn about the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for Washington, D.C., and how those designs are reflected in two hundred years of monuments, museums and representative government. View the statues of our Founding Fathers with the eye of a sculptor and gain insight into the criticism and controversies of modern additions to Washington’s monumental structure. Author Michael Curtis guides this tour of the heart of the District of Columbia.