Kalos Kai Agathos

Last month I broached the subject of cultivated leisure, and how it is fiercely hated by an influential band of the ideological spectrum. This hatred is reflexive, and in varying degrees characterizes much of what we used to call the intelligentsia of the West. It is a polluting residue of Marxism, and it will be a long time before it is finally extirpated.

Let’s now discuss cultivated leisure itself, and how it is the mainstay of all the fine arts. For this we need to have recourse to the Greeks, who were the fons et origo of our Western civilization.

There is an extremely important Greek phrase that is the key to this matter. It is kalos kai agathos (appearing more frequently in the apocopated form kalos kagathos), and one has a certain latitude in translating it. In a strict sense kalos kai agathos just means “beautiful and good,” but a better rendering would be “fine and noble,” or “superior and excellent,” or even “the best that a man can be.” The phrase was used to refer to an ideal of life and behavior that every Greek cherished for himself, even if he could not embody it totally. The more elements of the ideal were realized in an individual, the more fully human that person was. If he had few or none of the elements, his life was essentially subhuman and not worth living.

What did it mean to be kalos kai agathos? Well, it’s fairly detailed. When I teach the Greek Civilization class I give my students a checklist as a kind of road map to the ideal. No one can be fully kalos kai agathos, but if you were to enflesh the concept in every respect the following things would have to be true about you:

You are Greek. You are free. You are a non-worker (you don’t labor with your hands). You are affluent (you have enough money to be comfortably well off). You are healthy. You come from a respectable family. You are good-looking, well groomed, and clean. You are intelligent and sensible. You can take part in an intellectual discussion. You are not a coward (you fight bravely in battle). You are a city-dweller. You have leisure time. You stick to the Golden Mean (you never take an extreme position, or act wildly). You honor the gods. You avoid hubris. You act honorably. You are a good citizen of your polis. You appreciate beautiful things. You are in the prime hebdomad (you are between the age of 21 and 28).

You would have to be something of a demigod to possess all of these qualities. A few of them are only possible for a brief time in anyone’s life (e.g. being in the prime hebdomad of 21 to 28), and others are culturally exclusive, like the stipulation that one be Greek (after all, who would dream of being anything other than a Hellene?) Some of the others demand moral virtue and self-knowledge, while others call for energy and courage. But notice especially the requirements that one be free, affluent, and a non-worker.

The Greeks believed that if you were compelled to work for a living, either by economic necessity or by the fact of enslavement, you were never going to be fully human in the way that persons not subject to that compulsion were human. You would never have the time, the leisure, the ease, and above all the peace of mind that allow for a real enjoyment of life. Having to work was a curse that cut you off from many of the delights that were available to persons with free time and a generous measure of discretionary income. And before you get morally outraged, recall that our own Bible says that after the fall part of Adam’s curse was to “work in the sweat of his brow.” Only Marxists think that laboring with your hands is a badge of honor. Everyone else knows that it isn’t.

By the way, this is why Hephaistos, the only Greek god who is a manual laborer, is pictured as ugly, deformed, and dirty. His own wife, the goddess Aphrodite, refuses to sleep with him. Because Hephaistos sweats at a forge, toiling with hammer and anvil, he has nowhere near the level of respect and status that the other Olympian divinities enjoy.

How do the qualities of being free, affluent, and a non-worker relate to the humanities? The answer is easy. Leisure and freedom make the humanities possible. That is why the humanities are called the liberal arts. The word “liberal” in this context has no political connotations whatsoever. It derives from the Latin liber, which means free. The liberal arts are for free individuals who have the opportunity to devote themselves to something without any consideration of profit or loss, or economic necessity, or the need to please someone else. When you have that kind of independence you can study the fine arts and enjoy them fully, unhampered by the gnawing worry that the rent is due next week.

Most Americans don’t understand this, because they have been nurtured in a culture deformed by New England Puritanism. The Protestant work ethic is so embedded in the American psyche that even our multimillionaires get up at six and go to a job. For Americans, the idea of someone sitting back and enjoying his wealth without lifting a finger in productive labor is offensive. But for the Greeks it was different. In their view, the only possible purpose of work was to allow you to have subsequent leisure, and the fine things that only leisure gives you scope to enjoy.

Leisure is the goal of civilized life, and the fine arts serve leisure by making it more than just loafing. But that leisure has to be cultivated. By this I mean that one must be trained from an early age to enjoy and appreciate the humanities. The wealthy ex-slave Trimalchio in Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon is laughable because all his wealth and free time can’t make up for the fact that he is an ill-educated and tasteless fool. He cannot enjoy the humanities because he has no idea what they are about.

Now when I use the word “enjoy,” some people will misunderstand and think that I’m saying the arts are all upbeat and cheerful and hyped with positive feeling. That’s not the case at all. One can enjoy profoundly sad works like Hamlet and La Bohème and The Metamorphosis. In such works one experiences the perception of aesthetic perfection, imaginative force, verisimilitude, excitement, and what Aristotle called catharsis, or the evocation and release of intense feeling. That’s a higher form of enjoyment than just laughing.

OK, now we can come full circle. When poets turn their poetry into a flood of whining and complaining about their personal unhappiness or their dissatisfaction with the state of the world, they are missing the whole point about the humanities. The liberal arts (of which poetry is one piece) are for the pleasure of the free. They aren’t an open mike for the complaints of the slaves. The arts allow a leisured elite that has been schooled in the appreciation of various manifestations of beauty to contemplate the icons that embody those manifestations. That’s a somewhat scholastic formulation, so let me simplify it: The arts are for those who have been trained to value them.

Quite sensibly, the modern world has tried to expand this narrow elite of connoisseurs to take in many persons who were previously excluded. And the attempt is fine—everyone should have the chance to appreciate the fine arts, even if only in an untutored and naïve way. But that doesn’t mean that the humanities have ceased to be rooted in the ideal of cultivated leisure and freedom from economic pressure. These things still provide the hothouse atmosphere in which the liberal arts are meant to thrive and be appreciated.

Therefore, when someone uses poetry to register actual (as opposed to aesthetic) complaints about his personal life or the world at large, it only shows that he lacks the emotional distance that comes with leisure and freedom. He is, from a Hellenic point of view, acting slavishly. Rather than creating an artifact that is an icon of life (whether happy, sad, or indifferent), he uses art as a vehicle for something extraneous to itself. Instead of making a work of art, he makes a “statement.” And that is how he becomes a part of what I have facetiously called the Great Whine-Fest.

At this point some people usually object that there is a well-established stereotype of le poète maudit: the “cursed poet,” living a life of torment and bad luck as he creates his masterpieces. They point to the examples of Villon, Chatterton, Poe, Clare, Keats, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Dowson. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that some producers of fine art do so out of the depths of their misery. Most don’t, but some do. Well, so what? In the last analysis, the art is still there to be enjoyed by leisured connoisseurs. It doesn’t matter what ocular pain Michelangelo endured to paint the Sistine Chapel, or how hungry William Blake was when he engraved his prophetic books. The products that they have left us still serve cultivated leisure.

As a matter of fact, the entire notion of le poète maudit, like Rousseau’s “noble savage,” is more of a Romantic-era hobgoblin than an observable reality. Most producers of the fine arts are not brooding geniuses who starve in garrets. They are ordinary, sensible, industrious folk who crank out their stuff on a regular basis. Arguing that the arts are produced by misfits and losers is actually part of a surreptitious countercultural agenda. It’s an oblique way of implying that inherited cultural norms are corrupt, and that “real” artists ought to take an adversarial stance towards them. It fits in perfectly with a Marxist worldview—or, as is more likely today, with a cultural Marxist perspective. Attacking cultivated leisure and the arts that serve it is a way to push a revolutionary game plan while pretending to be a part of the world of letters. It’s just another example of how Western culture has been corrupted from within by parasites and poseurs.

Cultural Marxists hate any art work that is non-adversarial, or that celebrates the glory of inherited cultural traditions. They want an art that is (to use some their favorite words) challenging, daring, transgressive, alternative, or problematic. Cultivated leisure, on the other hand, encourages a totally different kind of art. The arts of civilization are characterized by amplitude, symmetry, and orderliness. This means, for example, the perfectly metrical line, the well-made play, the orchestral symphony, the meticulously detailed painting, the architecturally handsome building, the fully choreographed ballet. Everything in such art is done exactly as it should be, and is fully worked out. All the little ornaments and curlicues are there. Nothing is omitted, or mutilated, or perverted. Modernism, with its programmatic restrictions, its ellipticality, its rejection of closure, its cult of the ugly, and its enforced silences, is the genetic enemy to this sort of joyful creativity. Compare a godlike genius such as Mozart with a toad like Schönberg, and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s time for us to resurrect the Greek ideal of kalos kai agathos—not as a pattern for human behavior, but as a talisman for the arts. We need a rebirth of the perception that art’s purpose is to please the sensibilities of cultivated persons, and that art is a realm distinct and separate from base concerns. We must insist once more that the artist is beholden to no political, ideological, or social requirements, other than the requirement that he create beauty.

It won’t be easy. The hatred of cultivated leisure and the traditional arts is reflexive and deeply rooted in our intelligentsia, which has been sclerotically avant-garde and modernist for nearly a century now. Even among poets who claim to be formalists one finds an insistent urge to “break the rules” or “vary the pattern” or “resist the facile structure,” and such fake formalists justify this attitude by claiming that they are merely being modern and up-to-date. Someone should tell them that, if they were judged by the Greeks, they’d be called slaves.


About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.