A Stoic Work of Art?
By Tim Iverson
The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins
Please enjoy this guest post by Tim Iverson. Tim is a middle school art and humanities educator in Minnesota. Based on his own experience with mindfulness, he began incorporating mindfulness into his own teaching many years ago. He now facilitates mindfulness lessons and is a former board member with the Mindfulness in Education Network. Tim is also an organizer for the Minnesota Stoics and the author of two books, Advice for Every Hour and Calm and Curious.
Shaping a clay pot.
Wandering through a museum on a rainy afternoon.
Slathering paint on an empty canvas.
All can be pleasant ways to pass the time.
But does any of this have to do with Stoicism—or philosophy? Can Stoics derive any benefit from the practice and study of art? Can we call any works of art “Stoic?” I would argue yes—to all of these.
Art and Stoicism
Most of the teachings we have from the ancient Stoics are from three Romans: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. As the Stoics were primarily concerned with the development of virtue, art (or aesthetics) was not as frequently addressed. Seneca does, however, describe art as the “imitation of nature” and also makes clear in his letters to Lucilius (88) that the liberal arts can have value in preparing our minds for the cultivation of character. In fact, he compares it to art: “For nature does not give a man virtue: the process of becoming a good man is an art.”
I taught young people for 30 years and saw the power of art to help them think deeply—both on their own, and with others. While we also practiced “art for art’s sake” (enjoying the visual and tactile aspects of art and artmaking), we also plumbed art history for lessons on human nature, ethics, and beauty. We practiced the power of looking closely, and I encouraged a variety of perspectives. Through disciplined looking and conversation, we were shaping minds for the future.
For this essay, we’ll look at a masterpiece of American painting, The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins, an image that I used frequently in my classroom. I’ll make some Stoic and philosophical connections—and maybe you’ll have some of your own!
Thomas Eakins, like his famous subject, Dr. Samuel Gross, was a native of Philadelphia. He received his art training in Europe with some of the great naturalist painters of his day. The Gross Clinic, an oil on canvas completed in 1875, depicts the famous surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross, pausing during one of his teaching lessons at the Jefferson Medical College. Gross was a popular surgeon and lecturer, known for his sense of humor and storytelling. He was also a prolific writer and published a manual on surgical techniques in 1859, A System of Surgery.
The first thing we might notice is the skill of the painter in rendering things realistically. But what makes this painting realistic is not just that it “looks real.” It also means that it is not embellished or idealized in any way. It is a simple transcription of what was there—or at least, the spirit of what was there. (In fact, it was felt to be so shocking at the time that it was not allowed to be shown in the main galleries of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Rather, it was hung in the US Army Post hospital.)
In this sense—the notion of an unflinching examination of what is—it could be argued that The Gross Clinic is a Stoic work. In the Meditations (6.13), Marcus Aurelius muses,
“Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust...”
In other words, seeing things as they are, in all their gritty presence.
Some might see The Gross Clinic as depressing (in style or subject matter); and yet when paying closer attention, one sees subtleties of beauty everywhere: in the light from the windows above; in the intricate details of the surgeon’s coat or hair; in the variety of grays, browns, and blacks; in the strength and nobility of the faces. A moment in time, frozen for us to see how it really was then. In Meditations (3.2), Marcus tells us to search out those ugly or overlooked parts of life:
“And anyone with a feeling for nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.”
In the image, Dr. Gross is shown operating on a young man’s infected femur (thigh bone), surrounded by medical students. Blood covers his hands. His assistants help keep the boy calm and the wound open. (Before modern surgery, patients would often be wide-awake while the surgeon did his work quickly. In this case, it appears that a sedative, maybe Chloroform, is being applied over the boy’s mouth.) You can see the patient lying on his side, his wool socks pointing toward the viewer. A woman, probably the mother, sits to the left, covering her face in horror.
Yet there is an intense beauty in this moment: the contrast of emotions, the intense concentration of the surgical team and assistants. The range of neutral colors. These details are what Marcus would have us take notice of. We can call this noticing the unnoticed. This power of careful seeing can be cultivated through training or just a strong intention and practice.
The Power of Observing
Do you see it? When I was training to paint portraits in the 1980s, the process was simple. A model was set up in front of our easels, and the teacher went from student to student, with one basic question: Do you see it? Over and over, night after night, it was the same. She would look at our canvas, compare it to the model, and ask if we saw this light, that shape, this color. Was the nose really that big, compared to something else? Did we see the subtle grays on her cheek? We were training to see nature.
Drawing of Samuel Gross by Tim Iverson
I wanted my own students to have a similar experience. When I showed an art image in my classes, we would take a few moments to just look at it: the details, a sense of the image as a whole, the colors, the storyline. I might ask a student to describe what they saw, to slow down and really look—before judgments or emotional reactions took hold. Sometimes students saw things that I had not noticed!
It was important at this stage to look objectively, without commentary—not as easy as it sounds! The writer George Orwell put it this way: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The founder of the Stoic school, Zeno, described this way of seeing as phantasia kataleptike, or viewing things objectively. Such an important skill for young people—for all of us—to learn. Gross, as a member of the scientific community, would have espoused similar ideas. And Epictetus, the Roman slave turned Stoic teacher, taught this same method of being able to look at an event without reflexively adding our judgments or perceptions to it. (Classroom teachers refer to this as separating fact from opinion.)
Sage and Veteran
Life can be confusing. Students of Stoicism are often urged to “find a Cato”—to pick a role model for their lives. This “sage” embodies Stoic virtues like wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Someone whose life lays out a roadmap for the prokopton—progressor or student—to follow. Seneca (Moral Letters, 11) gives the following advice on finding a role model:
“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler."
While some prefer classic role models like a Socrates, Buddha, or Lao Tzu, they can seem abstract, otherworldly. (Although stories and art about these figures can be inspiring.) We could choose a role model like Samuel Gross, a real human being who displayed immense courage and wisdom, built up through decades of work and overcoming challenges. Over the years I found inspiration in my colleagues who, like Gross, were fantastic teachers and role models for young kids. They were often funny, smart, and challenged the status quo when it needed challenging. They had to cope with an unending list of challenges. In many ways, they were my “Catos.”
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
A comparison. The composition of Eakins’s painting resembles the “Death of Socrates” done a century earlier by the French painter David. Both images show an older, revered teacher, dispensing wisdom in a tense, complex setting. They are each a focal point, with the light shining brightly on them. (One expert notes how the illumination on Dr. Gross’s head resembles a halo—usually reserved for the depiction of saints in earlier times). The calm and focus of both teachers stand in stark contrast with the darkness and fear around them.
Socrates was a veteran of the Peloponnesian war. Dr. Gross was a veteran of the operating room and working with human suffering. For those who persist in any endeavor, time bestows a sense of confidence and detachment from the “slings and arrows” of a job.
In his book, The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth makes a fascinating argument that Stoicism is a shortcut to the state of mind of the veteran, or someone with lots of time “in the arena.” As he says,
“… the Stoic tries to respond to events in a manner similar to what would be expected of anyone after long experience with them—the kind of response you might have after encountering the occasion for it a thousand times. The result is not an uncaring or unfeeling attitude, though it will probably not involve much emotion. It is the posture of the veteran.”
And in another place, he says,
“The Stoic responds to the suffering of others like a good doctor who has seen it all before: with activity and compassion, though probably without much emotion.”
Having spent years in a public-school classroom, I can attest to Farnsworth’s theory. At the beginning, I was thrown off by the disrespect and disruptions I encountered. How could they act this way? I fumed. I took things personally. I considered other careers. But in the end, I stuck it out, and was eventually able to take much of the same behavior in stride. I still cared about my students and the lessons I shared. It just didn’t shake me like it used to.
A Portrait of Relationships
It was central to the Stoics that humankind is one organic being—that all of us have a role to play in making this world—this being—thrive. As Marcus says in book 2 of the Meditations,
“We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
Eakins’ painting reveals a wealth of relationships: a surgeon caring for his patient; students scribbling notes, imbibing the wisdom of the master (impacting the health of future generations); a mother showing her love for her son on the table; men in the center assisting the doctor in keeping the incision open.
Other relationships are implied: surgical tools designed by others (some by Gross himself); carpenters and custodians who built and maintained the surgical theater; the parents and relatives who supported the medical students. Eakins himself had painting masters that helped him hone his artistic craft, enabling him to create his picture. This moment, which the artist has captured so brilliantly, could not have happened without a vast web or relationships.
Testing our Impressions
One more lens is worth considering, and of great historical interest. In the painting we see the surgeons’ hands covered in blood, wearing just his regular street clothes. No gloves, masks, or surgical smocks. Unheard of today. Doctors in Europe—notably Lister and Pasteur—were then just beginning to understand what we call “germ theory”—the notion that tiny, microscopic bacteria could cause infections in open wounds, leading to post-operative infections. Many physicians, including Gross, were skeptical of germ theory and may have contributed to infections and deaths as they moved from patient to patient without meticulously cleaning their hands or tools. (During the Civil War it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of soldiers’ deaths were caused by infection and disease, rather than from wounds sustained in battle.)
What does this have to do with Stoicism? The Stoics taught that we needed to constantly “test our impressions”: question the thoughts, information, and assumptions that we have. And while the Stoics were referring to individuals, it could be argued that whole institutions or cultures can be led astray by their current practices and beliefs. Fourteen years after the completion of “The Gross Clinic,” Eakins would go on to paint another surgical scene, The Agnew Clinic, which showed evidence of a heightened awareness of the need for cleanliness. Doctors all over the world would soon be adopting the enlightened approach to sterilization advocated by their European counterparts.
What “best practices” of your job or personal philosophy might be considered silly or plain wrong by future generations? It’s humbling to consider. Just as individuals can grow in rationality and wisdom, so can groups and institutions.
Of course, not everyone will see the beauty or attraction of a painting like The Gross Clinic. The Stoics recognized that, “Life is opinion” and nowhere is that more evident than in art. (Some people find an abstract painting beautiful: others scratch their heads.) As we noted, seeing the beauty in art—as well as in daily life—takes dedication and intention. But as a representation of the virtues of courage and wisdom—and of an unflinching realism—The Gross Clinic can definitely be called a Stoic work of art.