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Old 3rd February 2006   #1
HSG
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Default Encomium of Helen


In our recent discussions of historic assessments of feminine beauty, we noted how early Christian poets such as Prudentius recast the virtues of the Classical love-goddess, Venus (i.e., seductive self-indulgence, indolence, and luxuriousness) as vices; while in the Renaissance, writers such as Firenzuola revived the Classical appreciation of beauty, and reconciled it with Christian theology by presenting it as the means by which humanity could be awakened to transcendent themes.

But what of Classical Antiquity itself? What importance did the original Greeks assign to feminine beauty, since their culture was the ultimate source of this timeless ideal (and indeed, of Western civilization itself)?

This question is vividly answered in an oration composed by the great Attic rhetorician and educator Isocrates (436-338 BC), titled Encomium of Helen (c.370 BC).

As the title of the work implies, this is a formal speech of praise written in honour of Helen of Troy, whose significance to Antique culture was so great that "every generation in ancient Greek culture might be evaluated in terms of its understanding of Helen" (Mirhady, p. 20). She was the muse of the entire Classical world, and Isocrates's oration explains why.

Illustrating these passages with images of today's most beautiful plus-size goddesses seems highly appropriate, since these models perfectly embody the ideal of Venus-made-flesh that inspired Isocrates and his contemporaries to create masterpieces that have survived millennia of human history, and will surely endure until the ending of the world.

Isocrates writes:

I, for my part, am justified in employing extravagant language in speaking of Helen; for she had the most beauty, which is the most venerated, most honored, and most divine quality in the world.

Shannon Marie, in an editorial page from ''Mode'' magazine

It is easy to understand its power: many things that lack courage or wisdom or a sense of justice may appear more honored than any of these qualities alone, but we will not find anything loved that has been stripped of beauty; everything is despised unless it has gained a share of this aspect, and virtue is especially esteemed because it is the most beautiful of qualities.

Barbara Brickner modelling for Eddie Bauer, Spring 2006

One may also understand how much beauty excels over other things in the world from our attitudes toward each of them. We wish to obtain other things only if we need them, but spiritually we experience no further concern over them. A longing for beautiful things, however, is innate in us, and it has a strength greater than our other wishes, just as its object is stronger.

Shannon Marie, in an editorial page from ''Mode'' magazine

We distrust those who are foremost in intelligence or anything else, unless they win us over by treating us well every day and compelling us to like them. But we have goodwill toward beautiful people as soon as we see them, and we serve only them without fail, as if they were gods.

Christina Schmidt modelling for Torrid

We enslave ourselves to such people with more pleasure than we rule others, and we have more gratitude to them, even when they impose many tasks on us, than to those who demand nothing.

Charlotte Coyle modelling for Torrid

We criticize those who come under any other power and denounce them as flatterers, but we think that those who serve beauty are idealistic and industrious.

We feel such reverence and concern for this sort of quality that we disenfranchise those with beauty who have prostituted it and abused their own youth more than those who wrong the bodies of others. Those who guard their youth undefiled by base men, as if it were a temple, we honor for the rest of time as if they had done something good for the entire city. . . .

Shannon Marie, in a Fashion Bug advertisement from ''Mode'' magazine

The greatest evidence of what I have been saying is that we would find that more mortals have become immortal because of their beauty than because of all other qualities. Helen achieved more than other mortals just as she excelled over them in appearance. Not only did she win immortality, but she also gained power equal to the gods . . .

Valerie Lefkowitz modelling for Nordstrom

Some of the Homeridae claim that she stood over Homer at night and directed him to write about those who had campaigned against Troy. She wanted to make their death more enviable than the life of others. They claim that Homer's poem has become so alluring and renowned among all in part because of his skill, but most of all because of her . . .

Shannon Marie modelling for Fashion Bug

Apart from the arts and philosophic studies and all the other benefits which one might attribute to her and to the Trojan War, we should be justified in considering that it is owing to Helen that we are not the slaves of the barbarians. For we shall find that it was because of her that the Greeks became united in harmonious accord and organized a common expedition against the barbarians, and that it was then for the first time that Europe set up a trophy of victory over Asia;

Lindsey Garbelman modelling for Aurora Formals, Spring 2006

and in consequence, we experienced a change so great that, although in former times any barbarians who were in misfortune presumed to be rulers over the Greek cities . . . yet after that war our race expanded so greatly that it took from the barbarians great cities and much territory.

Charlotte Coyle modelling for Torrid

If, therefore, any orators wish to dilate upon these matters and dwell upon them, they will not be at a loss for material apart from what I have said, wherewith to praise Helen; on the contrary, they will discover many new arguments that relate to her.

Shannon Marie, in an editorial page from ''Mode'' magazine

* * *

Note how Isocrates intermingles the effect of beauty on individuals with the effect of beauty on culture in general.

He describes how beauty inspires feelings of reverence, and thus, a receptiveness to the divine; how it creates powerful sensations of longing, and consequently, of loyalty. He establishes that the preservation of virtue among the beautiful ennobles society itself.

Isocrates then posits beauty's power to win its possessors immortality through their renown; and how this renown stirs artists to preserve such loveliness in the greatest works of art. By casting Helen as the muse of Homer himself, he positions these two figures as the progenitors of all Western culture--the foremost muse of beauty inspiring the foremost national poet.

Isocrates establishes Helen's importance to all of civilization, noting that her supernal beauty was, for the Greeks, a uniting force, something that defined their common identity, and set them apart from the "barbarians" (the chaotic forces that threatened to undo their cultural achievements).

In defending the honour of Helen, then, Isocrates suggests the Greeks were simultaneously fighting for the ideal that she personified, an ideal that differentiated them from their enemies, and defined their culture.

Today, it is precisely this lack of a common ideal--an ideal of beauty--that has led our culture to the brink of its own destruction. Without this ideal, Western art has torn itself apart, wanting both form and purpose.

But Isocrates's words also offer hope, for they hold out the possibility that the recovery of this ideal will herald the restoration of a reinvigorated Western civilization.

Let us trust that this restoration is dawning even today, in the form of the living goddesses who are beginning to catch the public's eye, and to stir its collective heart.

................

References:

Isocrates, Isocrates I. Trans. David Mirhady & Yun Lee Too. Austin: U of Texas Press, 2000.

Isocrates. Isocrates I. Trans. George Norlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.


Last edited by HSG : 22nd December 2009 at 03:00.
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Old 5th February 2006   #2
Emily
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Default Re: Encomium of Helen

Quote:
Originally Posted by HSG
He describes how beauty inspires feelings of reverence, and thus, a receptiveness to the divine; how it creates powerful sensations of longing, and consequently, of loyalty.

This was a fascinating text. Even though themes of "longing and...loyalty" in art/literature are more commonly associated with the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages than with Greek civilization, this text reveals how the ground was prepared for them by the classical focus on beauty.

And Isocrates' link between the effect of beauty on individuals, and on society as a whole, is really persuasive. Just as the respect for beauty inspired chivalric themes in art, it also inspired chivalric modes of behavior in "real life," such as a gentlemen's respect for a beautiful lady. It's no coincidence that society has became increasingly coarse ever since the beauty ideal was renounced.

It's so wonderful to see these images of Shannon Marie again! I've always pictured the historical Helen of Troy as resembling her in every detail (thanks to this website). And these illustrations remind me that the industry finally has a number of plus-size models who rival Shannon and Barbara in classical beauty, like Christina and Kelsey and Charlotte (and Valerie, when she was fuller figured). But I still think Shannon has a magic that is uniquely her own. It would be such a sensation if she ever returned...
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Old 6th February 2006   #3
Kaitlynn
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Default Re: Encomium of Helen

Quote:
Originally Posted by Emily
It's so wonderful to see these images of Shannon Marie again! I've always pictured the historical Helen of Troy as resembling her in every detail (thanks to this website). I still think Shannon has a magic that is uniquely her own. It would be such a sensation if she ever returned...

I was just thinking the same thing, looking at these pictures. She has every attribute that I've ever read associated with timeless beauty- the soft, babylike roundness in her facial features (but with high elegant cheekbones), the flowing blonde hair, peaches and cream skin, what Firenzuola called the "slight rise" in her chin towards her throat, those luscious lips, and of course a truly curvaceous figure, very soft and natural. Every detail is so lovely that looking at her pictures really is like looking at a famous painting, no matter what clothing she had to promote. I also thought that her green/hazel eyes made her distinctive, and different from any other fair-haired model.
The other pictures in this thread are beautiful too, and in some cases the models actually resemble Shannon Marie a little. I can readily understand why she remains such an ideal.
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