Portrait Head of Socrates

George Scharoun

Approaching a marble figure in the cool, quiet halls of the MFA’s ancient Greek and Roman galleries is an uncanny, potentially dizzying experience. With each step you close the distance between yourself, existing in the present, and another human body (or piece of one), rendered in stone and trapped far in the past. Standing face-to-face with the Museum’s portrait head of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, is like standing at the edge of a gulf that spans millennia. Across that awesome distance, the ornery philosopher’s rugged face is always and immediately there, staring out into you, and me, and the future. In this moment I wonder, what does he think of what he sees?

There is a word from Socrates that comes to mind, one that contemporary philosophy writers are trying to revive: amathia. According to Massimo Pigliucci in his essay “One Crucial Word,” it’s like ignorance—from the Greek agnoia, “not knowing”—but literally means “not learning.” Whereas ignorance can be attributed to a lack of information, amathia is a more dangerous trait, found, at times, in all of us, including the highly intelligent and those who have access to good information but choose to ignore it.

Today, when “unlimited data” is literally handheld yet citizens disseminate misinformation, miring us all in irreconcilable views on pandemics, politics, and mounting climate crises, is there any word more applicable to our human condition? (Okay, not including four-letter words.)

In the 5th century BCE, Socrates was so deeply concerned about amathia that he dedicated his life to rooting it out through reason and persistent questioning of assumptions. As thanks for his insights, a jury of hundreds of Athenian men voted to convict him of “corrupting the youth” among other charges and sentenced him to death by poisoning. (Incidentally, he believed a democracy could only function if its voters were well informed on the issues.)

Greek philosopher Socrates stands in the center, having just dropped a cup of poison, while other figures conspire in a corner.
Wilhelm Oswald Ufer (after Theodor Kaufmann), Socrates (Le Développment de l'Idée de Dieu), undated. Engraving and etching. Gift of Sylvester Rosa Koehler.

Thousands of years later, the MFA’s Roman portrait of Socrates is a bit worse for wear: scuffed, broken, and bleached by time. His missing nose makes his homely appearance all the more unsettling and recalls those ancient Egyptian sculptures with noses intentionally chipped off to defuse their supernatural powers, severing the link between the sculpted materials and the spirits they represented.

Marble bust of a man with a receding hairline, thick beard, and missing nose.
Unidentified artist, portrait head of Socrates, Roman, Imperial period, about 170–195 CE. Marble from Mt. Pentelikon near Athens. Frederick Brown Fund.

Is Socrates’s spirit lost as well? Judging by modern society’s collective turn away from shared concepts of reason and reality, it seems to be at least painfully diminished. What about the spirits embodied in other artworks throughout museums? What could they teach us, and is there any way to make them whole again?

In my work at the MFA, I’m interested in using technology and multimedia to convey the humanity and wholeness of moments in the past. Working with a cross-departmental team, I’ve installed videos that offer new perspectives on familiar subjects and digital interactives that encourage visitors to slow down and spend more time with art. When the Museum’s ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine galleries reopen later this year, we’re going to try some new approaches to give people a window into the past. Through strategic use of video, 3D modeling, projection, and sound, we’ll hint at a history that’s full color, full motion, and even full throated, giving visitors a more personal connection to the people of the past. If we do our job well, we’ll be helping ward off amnesia (not remembering) for another generation, but the real aim is to spark curiosity, because only through our collective attention do these artworks and the spirits they embody have a chance to be fully revived.

Glass display case full of ancient Greek vessels, plates, and sculpture.
The portrait head of Socrates on display in the MFA’s “Dionysos and the Symposium” gallery.

George Scharoun is manager of exhibition and gallery media.