“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Have you ever said to yourself: ‘damn, this really is a shitty day’? I have, even months or years can go about that way. So, what to do about it?
Let me introduce you to one of the greatest Spanish 19th-century painters, Francisco Goya. Goya was the royal painter of several kings and other members of the nobility at the time, as well as independent an artist. He painted “La Duquesa de Alba” on the left, said to be the most beautiful woman of all Spain, and a widow, but that’s another story. Today his paintings are humanity’s heritage, and if you are interested in his work, you can find it at “El Museo del Prado” in Madrid, Spain.
Like many artists from the time, Goya was greatly influenced by the enlightenment and its values of progress and liberalism. Goya is a particular and unusual artist, the evolution of his life-work shows what happens when these values are shunned by society and give way instead of ignorance and madness.
The work of Goya begins with “The Tapestries” which adorned the streets and the palaces of Spain, inspired in the Rococo style. A style that is light, playful and elegant such as the one on the left. The paintings show the daily lives of peasants and nobility.
He then became the painter of the court of Charles IV. A disappointing autocrat monarch in comparison to his father Charles III, who enacted reforms that brought secular and enlightened values to Spain.
In 1793, Goya contracted an unknown illness that left him deaf. Although he still accepted commissions from his royal clientele, the disease was a dark turning point for his career. His work started deviating into grimmer and darker paintings shockingly different from “The Tapestries” such as the “Yard with Lunatics” below.
Goya began to see the country around him with grim clarity. He saw the Spanish culture as tragic and comic at the same time. The whole country was backsliding from the road to modernity into superstition and ignorance. People were too stupid and ignorant to know what they need. Around this time he painted “Los Caprichos” (“The Caprices”).
His way of thinking was all summed up in the painting “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
In this picture, Goya shows what happens when you let ignorance and corruption lose Monsters start lurking in your head, you can no longer distinguish right from wrong, you are lurking in the dark.
During the following years, Napoleon conquered Spain and brutally massacred everyone that opposed him. Goya witnessed the bloodshed first-hand and it affected him deeply. The most impacting painting he did during the time was “The Third of May 1808”. The painting can be described as honest as it shows, in comparison to contemporary war paintings, that show war as composed and heroic, the horrors of war, the fear, the brutality.
It was going to be 5 years until Spain regained the throne from France. In the interim of the war, resistors from Spain developed the Constitution of 1812, which called for liberal reforms such as national sovereignty, freedom of the press and free enterprise. But the new king, whom Goya painted as well, Ferdinand VII, gained power and abolished the constitution and arrested those who made it, I know, hard not to love him.
Late in his life, Goya bought, ironically, “La Quinta del Sordo”(“The Villa of the Deaf.”) in which he withdrew, disheartened. The country which in his youth reached for principles of enlightenment and modernity, was being now swallowed again by autocracy. Scared by war, scared by illness and madness.
It was around this time when Goya began to paint his most famous artwork, “The Black Paintings.” He painted nightmarish paintings directly unto the walls of his house. One of the paintings, the most desolate and horrifying in my opinion is: “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
The black painting shows Saturn eating one of his sons in the most gruesome manner. You can see the despair in his face, it feels as if he knows that with what he is about to do, although being a god, is going to be exempt from any redemption and from ever forgiving himself. He is lost in the thirst for eternal power and madness and he knows that there is no turning back. If you could paint the abstract terms of despair, sadness, and loss, this painting does it all. Can you imagine having your morning coffee while this monster looks back at you?
You have to take into account that the black paintings were discovered long after Goya’s death. Goya didn’t paint them for anyone but himself. So the question naturally arises, why?
Maybe he was just trying to be honest about the dark side of human nature, at least what he saw at the time, maybe he wanted to exorcise his demons. But what’s terrifying about the paintings is that, we simply don’t know, the paintings are, truly, beyond interpretation.
So, I have to ask, how do you feel about your shitty day now? There are definitely degrees of shittiness, aren’t they?
OK, sorry for the grim picture I just gave you. But I wanted you to see what happens when all hope is abandoned and reality is just to terrible to bear.
Today, Goya’s paintings show how utterly terrible and horrifying is the loss of reason, and I might add the loss of virtue.
I greatly admire Goya for what he did. He went into places of the mind were no light shines anymore, places were there is just death and despair, and he painted them. By painting what he painted and by putting his discomfort and silent protest out there, today, we can look back upon his art to know what the sleep of reason really entails, especially in our times, were reason seems to be fading away to give way to numbing entertainment, putting us slowly back to sleep.
The sleep of reason produces monsters.
What Can You Learn About Goya?
But not everyone is a Cato and not doing so is damn hard many times, just ask Goya. One thing is to have a shitty day, another is to see your country falling back into superstition and ignorance, feeling the impotence of not being able to do anything.
I wanted to write about Goya to convey what a Stoic practice really implies. It’s easy to practice stoicism when everything is going good and life challenges are easy, but true stoic practice begins when it’s damn hard. That’s the time when life really puts you to the test. Illness, falling deaf, war, autocracy, all of these things weren’t under Goya’s control, all that was was his reaction towards it, and his reaction was to paint the grimmest paintings in art’s history that can hardly be compared to anything else. Goya achieved the goal of every artist: to express something in such a way that it’s impossible not to stop and reflect on what the artist wants to say and inspire action.
The practice of virtue and reason sets you free, but one thing is reading about it and feeling good about the possibility of freedom and an entirely different thing is to actually practice it.
Fortunately, very few of us have to withstand such dire circumstances on our lives but nevertheless, it’s essential to know what lies at the other end.
Lastly, I want to finish by showing you this painting by Jacques-Louis David: “The Death of Socrates.”
In this painting, Socrates, just like Seneca, bravely stands in the face of death, even after being given the option of exile, and willingly kills himself by drinking the venom to show that reason and virtue, triumphs over everything.
A great complement to this read: Separation of tasks
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