How Hercules and PLATO Taught Me To Draw

My father was an eye doctor, and at least while I was a young boy, he softly urged me to become a physician too, perhaps specializing in the same field of medicine. At age 7 or 8, he took me inside the operating room of the Agramonte Clinic in our city of Camagüey, to witness first-hand a throat surgery for the removal of a patient's tonsils.

I remember the pungent smell of anesthesia inside the operating room practically made me faint, and the impression of the several doctors (including, of course, my dad) and the nurses all decked out in surgical gowns, head covers, and gowns, not to mention the cart trays of silver scalpels and tweezers that framed the patient's surgical bed, illuminated by the blinding reflectors) -- all this was overwhelming to me. Eventually I began to decline my father's offers to view other such anatomy lessons, and so I made it quite clear that my career path was in a different direction. 


I  like to think, though, that I fulfilled my dad's wishes in my own small way, for one of the things I do most when I set out to draw or paint something, is aspire to understand better the ACT of vision and to use my eye-to-hand coordination skills as a draughtsman to not only produce fair forms but hopefully the kind whose proportions and lines and, most of all, subject matter, will be good for the "eyes" of the person viewing them. But in order to attain this power to transform someone's way of seeing through an image, I had to first agree to be transformed myself, and then, with the years, reflecting on these changes within me, formulate some of the thoughts that I shall venture to lay out briefly in this essay.


This is why I entitled this page, "How Hercules and Plato Taught Me To Draw," because as I understand it, the way we hold the pencil or trace the first lines on a page is an act of thinking and of making visible how we think, in the tradition of Greek thinkers like Socrates or Plato, or politicians like Julius Caesar or Octavian who literally illustrated their ideas about justice and freedom of choice by commissioning statues or paintings or the design of temples or public spaces -- especially commercial ones -- in order to make the citizen and the cities more like those eternal lines or figures present in their souls.

Although in my undergraduate education in St. John's College (Annapolis, Maryland) and its Great Books Program I was amply introduced and reintroduced over and over to the question  of how it  is that we think and that we make decisions about right or wrong, for me it was mostly from the class discussions inspired by reading Plato's Dialogues that I began to realize that certain passages in these texts held very important keys.


One of these texts was Plato's dialogue MENO, which records how his teacher Socrates, when he taught Athenians like himself how to think by asking questions, used a series of very basic questions about lines and squares to show that a Slave Boy who had never gone to school was somehow perfectly cognisant of the Pythagorean Theorem!  As  XIX-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emersondid not leave a single bit of writing in his lifetime, yet he had a huge impact on the way young people in his generation began to think and ask questions: in this scene with the Slave Boy, the lines traced by Socrates in the sand in order to walk the young man inside his innate knowledge about triangles and squares effectively illustrates that anyone of us- regardless of our education or social standing-- is naturally able to recall and bring out innate an inner sense of right angles and relationships that lie at the core of intelligence. 


The two diagram illustrations above come from my college edition (Bollingen Series, 1961) of Plato's Complete Dialogues, and they show precisely what Socrates drew in the sand as he talked to the young Slave Boy, in order to impress on his student Meno an even more important idea: that the soul inside each human being is inmortal and it can be helped to remember certain eternal ideas seen in our souls' previous lives. Education, in essence, being for Socrates and Plato a recollection and a travelling back to inner eternal ideas, inside our souls.

The Slave Boy effectively proves that the square on the long diagonal line bisecting from one corner to another a given square and thus producing two triangles inside, has an area equal to the sum of the two small squares on the two outer sides of that square thus bisected. (Nowadays, using algebraic shorthand notation to replace the drawing and even the thinking about squares and triangles we would say,

A²  +  B²  =  C²   

But in Socrates' day, algebraic formulas and shorthand were not used to replace geometric truths as this one of Pythagoras. In fact, at St. John's College, in our Math classes (or tutorials), we learned that before the invention and wide use of algebraic shorthand, there was an awareness that such shorthand, separating thinking from geometric figures was ethically negative for thinking, and that in this sense algebra was immoral or bad for the soul and for the city.


When I started piecing together the puzzle of these and other ideas gleaned from my St. John's education with my study of art and architecture history, I was ready to explore Rome.


I did  this exploration first, of course, through books and by way of reading about Italian artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Massaccio, to mention but a few artists whose design principles in their paintings laid out the square and the golden rectangle abundanly as inner grids for their visual subjects.  But with the good fortune of the opportunity to work as a Drawing Instructor at the University of Miami, the Roman Plot thickened for me, and I soon found myself talking the Roman talk of such design principles in my U of Miami drawing classes, like my colleagues there did, and I began to look for an opportunity to come to Rome itself, to see with my own eyes how the city was literally built using the square, the circle, and the triangle -- or variations thereof.


The two Republican-era temples of Rome's Foro Boario area,  called the Temple of Hercules and that of Portunus, soon became a favorite Roman site where I could explore how much the classical geometries --- before algebra! -- were used to lay out the places of commerce and of worship that made this area by the Tiber River so important to the city.  In fact, the round Temple of Hercules on that site was dedicated to Hercules to honor this hero's arrival in the area before the Trojan War in the XII-century B.C.  Before I knew it, there I was with a group of graduate architecture students from the University of Miami, not only sketching real-time, real-space pictorial drawings of the Temple of Hercules, but exploring how the 20 columns that circle around the II-century B.C. temple , being multiples of 5, might be seen as geometric designs using the pentagram in order to ground the building in the sort of "inner" geometries dear to the very Greeks and Romans who built Athens and Rome, and who wrote down the mythological stories of Hercules's travels criss-crossing the Mediterranean Sea as he executed his famous Twelve Labours.  To close, this is where Plato and Hercules came together for me, and where I had my "AHA!" Moment about drawing, thinking, and heroic, exemplary acts like those of Hercules -- and how all this can build a city.


The sketchbook page ABOVE shows some of my geometric "questions" and explorations of the Foro Boario/Temple of Hercules area of Rome.


By contrast, BELOW,  the second of the pen&ink drawings on this page came from my narrative imagination, and my use of the round, tholos type temple design to illustrate how the arrival of the Father of Rome, AENEAS, on the shores of the Tiber River, shortly after the Trojan War,  might include some early form of the temple of Hercules, who had passed by this site sometime prior to the War of Troy.  My pen&ink drawing shows a very dramatic Aeneas carrying (the corpse!) of his father Anchises up to the Star-shaped temple; the boy Anchises is next to them, but he is still in a small rowboat, holding a religious image on his lap, obeying instructions to him and his father that they carry out of Troy and bring to the new land where they would settle after the war the "LARES" or images of their family heritage, the remembrance of ancestors in images. 

Now, the Star symbol on the drape hanging from the round "tholos" temple that greets Aeneas and his father and Although this scene is fictional and it is my own interpretation of Aeneas's landing from Virgil's AENEID, it happened that my own sketching sessions of the round Temple of Hercules and the site of the Foro Boario or Cattle Market, where Hercules was said to have walked and acted, according to ancient myths and traditions. My drawings  gained a structure and a grounding that they did not have when I first drew the place.  The drawing process was a sequence of links, one to another, and the drawing page with my lines and notes took a more inward aspect, even as it showed the actual buildings and spaces that one sees there today.   By trusting the implications of the Hercules myths and the beauties of the geometrical shapes in the architectural design of the various temples there  I had learned to see in the present archaeological appearance a world that WAS, but which was a still somehow there! 

Epilogue: Follow the Star ... and other geometries

Now, It interests me greatly to consider that the decadence of contemporary drawing and painting comes from a disillusionment with history and from a sense that what our physical eye sees is merely an impression of lifeless shapes left on our retina and optic nerves. In the XX century, Marcel Duchamp with his "DADA" readymades (such as his FOUNTAIN, or urinal, which he entered in the New York Armory Show of 1913, championed this idea and declared as a manifesto statement that art should beware of the trap of our physical eye's physiology, and that artists should go to a world non-occular to the CONCEPT.

The way I understand the drawing process is not diametriaclly opposed to the information of the shapes and colors that are received by the retina. But those shapes and colors are, like the lines and shapes drawn by Socrates for the Slave Boy to used as guides to larger truths (the Star, the Cube, the Sphere, or the myths of Hercules, being images of these truths).

PLEASE CLICK  STAR            to read more about how the myth of Hercules and his heroics has to do with COMMERCE and with the everyday activities of exchange.

The Temple of Hercules in the Middle Ages was thought to have been dedicated to Cybele, the Great Mother, or even to the Sun as source of life, and thus its "radiating" shape. This engraving by PIRANESI shows what the temple looked like in his day in the 1750s, in Rome.

The inscribed figure of Hercules or of an Ideal Man comes from geometrical and astrological theories and practices of the Middle Ages, dating back to ideas in Pythagoras (VII century B.C.) and VITRUVIUS (I century A.D.)

This sketch is from my journals, and it is a study of a large Hercules in bronze on exhibiit in Rome's Capitoline Museums since it was excavated at the Foro Boario near the round tholos Hercules temple. The hero holds in his right hand the proverbial club and in his left hand the Golden Apples --- symbols of his various heroic labours, His nudity is the so-called heroic nudity, which by tradition was used to exhibit the justice and balance and courage of not only Hercules but countless public figures in Greece and Rome. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, understanding the implications of such representation, commissioned from Antonio Canova and other sculptors of the early XIX century A.D., such statues of himself.