Good, Evil, and Art - The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini - Part 1

The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the greatest sculpture ever made. There is the great technical skill in how he made the marble come to life. It even looks soft. But more important than that, he was able to capture the pivotal moral struggle from a mythical story in a single frozen moment of time. And he did it in 1622 when he was 23 years old, which is astounding.


Here's a quick overview of the story. I'm going to use the Greek version of the names instead of the Latin.

Hades is king of the Underworld. He doesn't have a wife, but he wants one. There are various deals and intrigues cut with the other gods, which we will skip. Persephone is abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld where she becomes his queen. Another series of intrigues happens so that she only spends part of the year there, and that's what gives us our seasons.

Bernini's sculpture is the specific moment that Hades grabs Persephone and drags her away to the Underworld. What's evil about this?

The obvious answer is that Hades is evil because he abducts and kidnaps Persephone, and that answer is correct. But that's only one part. There are four pieces that I think are important here. Here's the short list, then we'll pull them back together.

One - Outer Strength

Hades is capable of physically overpowering Persephone. This, in itself, is not evil, but good!

Two - Inner Weakness

Hades is not capable of being morally strong and is unable to resist his compulsive craving. This, in itself, is evil. Or better, allows for evil.

Three - Outer Weakness

Persephone is physically weak and not capable of successfully fighting Hades. This, in itself, is evil. Or better, allows for evil.

Four - Inner Strength

Persephone is morally strong. She is willing to fight against Hades, and does. This, in itself, is good. And I personally have a special affection for the defiant nature of the human spirit.


Now, we can see that what we end up with are two good things and two evil things. Being physically and morally strong are both good, while being physically and morally weak are both evil, or allow for evil.

It's the combination of a righteous will with ability that is the ultimate good. Solon of Athens talks about this in a poem that Aristotle quotes in "The Athenian Constitution", when Solon is talking about freeing slaves.

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By fitting close together right and might I made these things prevail, and accomplished them even as I said I would.

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There can be evil in strength, when that strength is used to do bad things. But there is also evil in the weakness that allows for bad things to happen.

And weakness is never a virtue. That's a common mistake to make. The psychologist Jordan Peterson talks about how many people consider themselves good because they haven't done something bad. But, if you haven't done something bad because you're weak, then that isn't being moral, that's just being weak. Morality requires the capability to do evil, but then to not do it. That's the key, that it requires both.

There are many things that can be explored here, but I'm just going to hit on two major ones.

Ideally we are looking to weld right and might together for righteous victory. The practical world, however, is no ideal. And, we cannot know the future. At times we will be heading into a situation where it does not seem that we have the strength to win. So, is all morality lost? Does everything just mean nothing? No, not at all.

Some things are more important than others. Some things are conveniences, some things are sacred. Every reasonable person has things they would risk their lives for, and all respectable people have things they would die for. That's because life without those things would lose its meaning, so they are willing to stand strong in the face of fate, and stand defiant until the end. That's why there can be great deaths, tragic, but also glorious. When Socrates decides to drink the poison rather than compromise on justice and his intellectual integrity, he may have lost externally, but his inner moral strength remained strong. And the moral and spiritual values are the greater values.

This applies to individuals and to civilizations. In a War Cabinet meeting on the 28th of May, 1940, Winston Churchill reminds us of that.

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Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.

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The body may die, but the spirit must never be extinguished willingly.

Finally, let's finish with redemption. We can always be working on growing stronger. Both our outer and inner strength fluctuates and varies, and is tested by the vicissitudes of life. Redemption requires time and work. The time and work to right previous wrongs, and the time and work to prepare for the future. To grow stronger so as not to be a victim either to another, or to a corruption of the self. Then, upon the next trial, our redemption may be revealed.

Strength, both inner and outer, is a virtue, a good. And weakness, both inner and outer, is a sin, an evil. Bernini is able to reveal all of this to us in a single image. I did not come up with this theory and then apply it to the statue. I looked at the statue and drew the emergent lessons of morality from it. That is the extraordinary power of art.

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To read more from Jeff go to JeffThinks.com or JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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