Love, Art, & the Everlasting Beauty of the Parthenon

What Can Art Teach Us about Love?: The Parthenon

By Nancy Huntting

Acropolis, Athens, Greece. Image by © René Mattes/Hemis/Corbis
Acropolis, Athens, Greece. Image by © René Mattes/Hemis/Corbis

Art answers the questions of our lives. What an idea! I first heard it in 1973, when I began to study Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the American poet and critic Eli Siegel.  And I have seen—it is true. Art can teach women, for instance, what they most need to know about love. I’ll describe what I’ve learned, using architecture that has moved people for over two centuries, the Parthenon.

“The world, art, and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites”

—stated Eli Siegel, a groundbreaking basic principle of Aesthetic Realism. The Parthenon is a oneness of matter and space, heaviness and lightness, straight line and curve. These are opposites a woman wants to put together in love, in herself, in her life.

And, a poem that brings love in ancient Greece alive, a poem I love, is “The Dark that Was Is Here” by Mr. Siegel. It begins:

A girl, in ancient Greece,
Be sure, had no more peace
Than one in Idaho.
To feel and yet to know
Was hard in Athens, too.
I’m sure confusion grew
In Nika’s mind as she,
While wanting to be free,
Hoped deeply to adore
Someone; and so no more
Be wretched and alone.

Every woman has the trouble in love described here: “To feel and yet to know / Was hard in Athens, too.”  I’ve learned that true feeling about a man arises from knowing, and in order to know and like a particular man, we have to know and hope to like the world. However, there have been centuries of pain because love has been used to get away from the world: to contemptuously manage and dismiss it.

Matter and Space: Mind and Body

When I visited Greece in my early twenties, the light and air affected me tremendously, as it does everyone. Helen Gardner writes of it in Art Through the Ages: “The unusually crystalline atmosphere is softened by a haze. Both sky and sea are brilliant in color.”

It is against this sky that the marble columns of the Parthenon are first seen. In A Concise History of Western Architecture, R. Furneaux Jordan explains: “The Parthenon, an example of clear-cut sculptural precision, was itself so placed that it could never be seen except against the sky.”

My colleague, Aesthetic Realism consultant Karen Van Outryve told me that she once asked Eli Siegel in an Aesthetic Realism class why she was so affected seeing the edge of a building against the sky. He said it was because it solved the mind-body problem!: “Do you think every building has matter and space and also the human body does?” “All art,” he continued, “has to do with matter and space and how they become each other.”

We are matter and space, and women have felt divided, very much, about the two. The body has desires: we can want to be embraced and kissed passionately by a man. And the mind has seemingly some different desires: we want to know and be known and respected. Mr. Siegel was talking about these desires in a lesson of two young women attending college, in which he said:

The place of meaning in sex is what we are talking about. If, offhand, a person has sex desire, and it is satisfied, desire is satisfied. The question is, does desire which seems like sex, when satisfied, remind one that there is another desire? So the question is whether this meaning is an ornament or whether it is, as they say, of the essence.

In this lesson Mr. Siegel explained how meaning puts together body and mind, the touchable and untouchable:

Form is that which gives substance meaning. When Cezanne looked at a fruit,…in giving it form, he gave more meaning. Meaning is the beautiful relation of something to the world, and the beautiful way it contains the world. The artist goes looking for that.


The architects of the Parthenon were Ictinus and Callicrates, and the great sculptor Phidias oversaw the design and did the sculptures and friezes on and within it.

The 20th century architect Le Corbusier, writing about what these men achieved and expressing some of the large emotion people have had over the centuries, described the Parthenon’s beautiful relation to the world, and the beautiful way it contains the world:

There has been nothing like it anywhere or at any period….We are riveted by our senses; we are ravished in our minds; we touch the axis of harmony…. For two thousand years, those who have seen the Parthenon have felt that here was a decisive moment in architecture….The forms used…are so deeply thought out in regard to light and materials, that they seem, as it were, linked to earth and sky, as if by nature.

When Le Corbusier says “we are ravished in our minds,” he is talking about the oneness of mind and body a woman is hoping for. A question my colleagues and I have asked in Aesthetic Realism consultations is: “Do you think your desire to know a man is as passionate as your desire to have his arms around you?”

Meaning is of the essence of the Parthenon, and that meaning was expressed through the white marble of the mountain Pentelicus, north of Athens. How much meaning do we want to see in a man? How much meaning do we want a man to see in us? What we want to see are the opposites: they are how we contain the world and are related to it.

Heaviness and Lightness

In a class of 1977, Eli Siegel explained:

The big problem in architecture is lightness and heaviness, or space and matter. Anything you might meet has these, a matchbook has them. The idea is to have heaviness and lightness work well together.

Once, heaviness and lightness were in me in an agonizing way, and I was representative of many women. Mr. Siegel said to me in a class, about a man I had been living with, whom I’ll call Gene Rowland:

Eli Siegel: You have a problem of being taken too seriously and too lightly. Was there a shrine for both of you? Did he make you too heavy?

Yes, the word “shrine” described the far-better-than-anything-else feeling I had about the two of us. I came to see that this attempted “mutual worship” has with it inevitable disappointment, doubt, and anger. Love is being used to get away from accurate thought and a person is profoundly unsure of themselves and what they’ve created. Mr. Siegel continued:

Eli Siegel: Do you think you can be yourself with him?
Nancy Huntting: I haven’t felt I was myself.
Eli Siegel: I think the problem of Mr. Rowland should be dealt with in a brighter light. A woman has felt cleverly that when yielding to a man, it was not wholly her. Whatever a person does should be done by all of him or her.

Mr. Siegel was bringing that brighter light, like the Aegean light on the Parthenon, where the meaning of a thing is seen clearly. Mr. Rowland and I were trying to make a shrine for ourselves of flattery and comfort in a world we didn’t like.

The Parthenon was a shrine, but its purpose was to honor something its builders saw as much larger than themselves, the goddess Athena, who stood for wisdom and beauty. Its form honored the possibilities of the world and required knowledge, thought, skill.

Our shrine was an escape from thought, and to do this, I was dividing myself, wanting to give and get pleasure by yielding my body, without wanting to use my mind critically to know a man and have him know me. This purpose, to make a world of easy glory without a sensible, solid foundation, couldn’t succeed, and I felt both physically heavy, tired, and also too light or empty. Mr. Rowland’s attentions made me feel important, and I expected them all the time, often feeling disregarded. Aesthetic Realism taught me that unless a man and woman see each other as a means of knowing and liking the world, they will be both too heavy and too light about each other, make too much of each other and then dismiss each other.

Strength and Grace

Art shows that being accurate about the world, honoring the facts, makes for a oneness of heaviness and lightness, and arising from this, of strength and grace.

Photo by Steve Swayne

The Parthenon is evidence for this. The art historian Solomon Reinach, in his book Apollo, writes:

The most admirable feature of the Parthenon is, perhaps, its perfection of proportion. The relation between the height of the pediments, and the dimensions of the temple was determined with such unerring judgment that the whole is neither too light nor too heavy, that the lines harmonize in such a manner as to give the impression at once of strength and grace.

This is what women are looking for in a man.  Eli Siegel describes this magnificently in an essay called, “Husbands and Poems.” First he explains the problem about strength and grace:

I do not believe that women have too high an opinion of men, and a big reason for this insufficiency of interior praise is this: when men are energetic, assertive, forceful (or worse), they lack sensibility, fine understanding, rich sympathy; when they are gentle, sentimental, soft, they no longer seem to have strength, energy, momentum…

What women are looking for in men, Mr. Siegel says, is what is in art: “what we can hear in Mozart, see in Watteau, watch in Markova, find in some aspects of Georgian architecture: grace and firmness.”

To be a friend to a man, a critic with good will, we need to hope he be both strong and graceful at once. Seeing a man this way is seeing him aesthetically, which is also seeing him truly and kindly. Mr. Siegel described the way I saw Mr. Rowland as “going from the ideal to the bestial….Does your anger give him no qualities at all?,” he asked. The answer was yes.

We can be glad that the architects of the Parthenon hoped to make it both strong enough to last and graceful, and they strove until they found a oneness of the two, and has it lasted, and is it graceful!

A Beautiful Relationship

Doric evolution

It is the relation of different elements in the Parthenon that gives it beauty—for instance, the columns and their relation to the entablature above them. The evolution of proportion in the Doric, which is the simplest of the three orders of Greek columns, is shown in a diagram [shown to the right] in Art Through the Ages. The column and entablature at the far right is that of the Parthenon, which Helen Gardner writes,”appears to have attained the subtlest relationship of parts.”

Solomon Reinach calls this structure, composed entirely of marble, 228 feet long and 101 feet wide, “one of the most exquisite things in the world.” One way this sense of the “exquisite” is achieved is in the way vertical meets horizontal. Helen Gardner explains:

The general impression is…of a very sensitive balance between the supporting members and the weight to be supported, between the vertical line and and the horizontal line, both largely unbroken….The purpose of a capital is to form the transition….A successful capital will not make this transition too abruptly.

And she tells how this graceful transition in the capital was achieved:

We get the first suggestion of the horizontal in the necking; yet the vertical flutings, instead of ending at this point, play up into the capital to the point at which we feel more insistently the horizontal….The simple vigorous curve of the echinus then carries the line up….The beautiful strength of this curve, rising so vigorously and then turning inward so gracefully was not worked out by the Greek in a short time but only after a long series of experiments dealing with the angle and the proportions.

The surprising but logical question this brings up about love is: what does a woman feel as she goes from the vertical to the horizontal with a man? Women have not felt the self standing up and walking went well with the self in bed with a man—a woman can feel she has lessened herself even as she’s had a victory. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the reason I felt this way was that I had a purpose I was ashamed of— to use a man to put aside the world and have special glory for me alone.

When a woman’s purpose is akin to the purpose that makes the Parthenon so successful—knowledge of and respect for the materials and possibilities of the world—she will be critical, kind, and interested in the world both when she is vertical and horizontal with a man. She will want to be sure that this transition will have both the man and herself stronger, not weaker.

Straight Line and Curve

There is a hope in a woman that through someone different from herself, a man, she can be more complete, greater than she is alone. As I’ve been showing, the Parthenon is mighty evidence that different aspects of reality which are seemingly opposed to each other, in fact complete each other, making for something greater than each alone.

This classical rectangle, it was discovered, has curves which are so subtle that their purpose has not been entirely explained. There is entasis: the shaft of each column, while appearing straight, actually bows out ever so gently, that is, bulges slightly in the middle.

And perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the slab which is the base of the entire Parthenon, the stylobate, has a slight and carefully planned curve. In fact, Helen Gardner writes, “there is not a straight line in the building.”

The art historian, Elie Faure, in his History of Art—Ancient Art, writes passionately about the Parthenon:

…[A]s soon as we really know it…our whole humanity trembles in it…. The straight line is there, as solid as reason, the spacious curved line also, reposeful as the dream. The architect secures the stability of the edifice by its rectangular forms, he gives it movement by its hidden curves…. All these imperceptible divergences, with the fluting of the columns—a shell which breaks the light, a stream of shadow and of fire—animate the temple, give to it something like the beating of a heart.

Through the relation of straight line, “solid as reason” and the “spacious curve,” Elie Faure sees our whole humanity trembling. He’s describing something many people have felt about this building—but why? The explanation is in the principle: All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

Aesthetic Realism Consultations

Poseidon, from the Eastern frieze of the Parthenon
Poseidon, from the Eastern frieze of the Parthenon

Margaret Rider* is a photographer in her early 30s who is studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations. Shortly after returning from a trip to Greece, she described in a consultation some of what affected her as she photographed the Acropolis and the Parthenon:

Margaret Rider: There was the immensity of the Acropolis and the light and dark that was reflected on the textures. I saw so much texture and intertwining of the line between the rocks, creating its own forms, while on a cloudy day you just saw the mass.

Consultants: Were you interested in how things were put together?

Rider: Yes, I was looking in between as well as at the whole structure. The columns were beautiful, because instead of just being directly round, they have these curves within them—you saw so many dark places within each little curve going around. The light and shadow were beautiful.

People have not felt that knowing another person was as thrilling and rewarding as knowing a work of art, like the Parthenon, so we asked Ms. Rider about Mr. Martin, a man she was troubled about:

Consultants:  Do you think as you looked at the Parthenon, you had sense of the known and unknown through light and dark?

M. Rider: Yes, I tried to discover the unknown in looking at it.

Consultants:  Do you think the unknown was more friendly than you can feel in social life? Have you ever felt that what you didn’t know about your friend, Richard Martin—or couldn’t get at—was annoying and troubling, and not so beautiful?

M. Rider: Yes, I have felt that.

Consultants:  But in the Parthenon, you can feel the unknown will be pleasing? If we can see the unknown as friendly in art, and that art shows the structure of the world truly, the unknown can look friendlier everywhere, including in a man.

The Parthenon, photo by Dale Laurin, 2012.
Photo by Dale Laurin

A person, Aesthetic Realism explains, is aesthetics in process. We had the great experience of learning this from Eli Siegel, whose desire to know a person was the same as his desire to know art, and his method the same. I am grateful that I can learn as I teach other women in consultations!

*The name of the woman having consultations has been changed for public presentation.