‘Laocoön and His Sons’: Suffering Unabated, Frozen and Forever

Reaching within: What traditional art offers the heart
August 19, 2019 Updated: August 19, 2019

According to the ancients, our actions have consequences. The whole of the world expresses itself by way of cause and effect. Sometimes, however, actions that we think are good, or at least harmless, turn out to be neither. This brings up a difficult question for us: Is it better to do as little as possible to avoid doing wrong, or should we stand firm and act according to our convictions despite their consequences as long as we consider these convictions good?

Laocoön (pronounced lay-oh-co-won) had a similar question to answer. There are two versions of his story. The first story goes as follows: Laocoön, a Trojan priest, attempts to warn the Trojans not to accept the Trojan Horse from the Greeks. 

As you remember, during the Trojan War, the Greeks sent a huge wooden horse as a gift to the Trojans. Of course, the gift is a ruse; the Greeks want to trick the Trojans into taking the horse inside their city walls as Greek soldiers wait patiently inside the horse and plan their attack. 

Virgil describes the event in Book II of the “Aeneid”:

Then Laocoön rushes down eagerly from the heights
of the citadel, to confront them all, a large crowd with him,
and shouts from far off: “O unhappy citizens, what madness?
Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think
any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?
Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,
or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,
or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,
or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.
Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.

In payment for his loyalty to his own people, Laocoön is punished by the gods for his attempt to prevent the sack of Troy. The goddess Athena shakes the ground around his feet and blinds him, and Poseidon sends sea serpents to strangle him and his sons. 

The Trojans take Laocoön’s suffering as a sign that the horse is sacred, and they accept it into the city.

In the second version of this story, Laocoön is a priest of Apollo and fornicates with his wife in front of Apollo’s divine image. Apollo takes this act as desecration and sends the serpents to strangle Laocoön and his sons. 

Many artists have attempted to communicate the suffering of Laocoön. In the “Aeneid,” Virgil describes it as follows:

At the same time he stretched forth to tear the knots with his hands
his fillets soaked with saliva and black venom
at the same time he lifted to heaven horrendous cries:
like the bellowing when a wounded bull has fled from the altar
and has shaken the ill-aimed axe from its neck.

But it is Laocoön and His Sons” that really depicts the pain and suffering of Laocoöntrapped forever in stone. The sculpture depicts Laocoön’s body writhing in pain. As his body twists and turns, he reaches up to the heavens and attempts to let out a cry that seems to fail to escape his mouth. The serpents weave in and out of Laocoön and his sons, biting them and pinning them to the earth from which the sufferers came.

This sculpture was discovered in 1506 and is believed to be the piece described by Pliny the Elder as the Greeks’ standard of excellence for sculpture. 

“Laocoön and His Sons,” 40–30 B.C., attributed by Pliny the Elder to Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus. Marble, 6 feet 10 inches high by 5 feet 4 inches wide by 3 feet 8 inches deep. Vatican Museum, Italy. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

The discovery of this sculpture began a debate about what the Greeks considered beautiful. 

What was the aesthetic ideal of the Greeks? Two 18th-century authors in particular, Johann Winckelmann and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, each reacted to this sculpture, and taken together can give us insight into a divide that later morphed into Neoclassicism and Romanticism respectively.

In brief, Winckelmann believed that the aesthetic ideal of the Greeks was a stoic truth depicted by way of an ideal beauty, a quiet simplicity that can stir our souls. Winckelmann’s ideas align with the pursuit of Neoclassicism and the depiction of beautiful, stoic images that pursue a truth that can only be relayed by way of art. For instance, in the “History of the Art of Antiquity,” Winckelmann states: 

Expression is an imitation of the active of suffering states of our minds and our bodies and of passions as well as deeds … Stillness is the state most proper to beauty, as it is to the sea, and experience shows that the most beautiful things are of a still and well-mannered nature … Laocoön is a being in the greatest pain, fashioned in the likeness of a man seeking to gather the conscious strength of his mind and spirit against it … Beneath the brow, the battle between pain and resistance, as if concentrated in this one place, is composed with great wisdom … Thus, where the greatest pain is expressed, the greatest beauty is also to be found.

For Winckelmann, beauty comes in the ability to imitate the attempt to quiet the mind during suffering, to stoically use the mind to overcome what causes the pain. Winckelmann sees not only pain in Laocoön’s face but wisdom as well.

Lessing, however, suggested that poetry, which he describes as the narration of time, is the more important element in art. In his text “Laocoön,” Lessing suggests:

It is evident that the single moment and the point from which it is viewed cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which gives free play to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.

For Winckelmann, imitation and representation of a stoic and beautiful truth is the height of art. For Lessing, imitation and representation are important, but the more important thing is the excitement and stimulation that comes from having an engaged imagination. Winckelmann steers toward the intellectual content of “Laocoön,” whereas Lessing is more interested in its emotional content. Lessing’s ideas align more with Romanticism in that poetry, pain, and the struggles of life are the height of art. 

“Laocoön and His Sons” incorporate both aesthetics: It possesses both beautiful form and painful content. Quite often, beautiful forms are the most fruitful way to express complicated truths, and complicated truths often deal with human suffering. “Laocoön and His Sons” communicates to us a deeper truth that is well-communicated by way of art. 

The Consequences of Our Actions

Our actions have consequences despite what we believe to be right and wrong. Laocoön wants to save Troy. He hopes to convince his fellow citizens to deny entry of this so-called gift. 

But not only do his actions lead to his own destruction, they even aid the enemy because the citizens of Troy interpret his death as confirmation that the Trojan Horse is sacred. His actions have the opposite of the intended effect. 

In the second version of the story, it is Laocoön’s denial of the divine, of the spiritual, and indulgence in physical pleasure that causes his destruction. In both cases, it is not just he who is destroyed, but his family as well. 

This one sculpture compels me to ask: How do we respond to our own sufferings? Does attempting to resist suffering at every turn prevent it or exacerbate it? 

Is indulging in physical pleasure a form of freedom and free expression, or is it harmful to ourselves and others? What does the propagation of indulgence and victimhood do to our families, our children? 

Hopefully, we can prevent the fate of Laocoön and his sons for ourselves if we readily endure our sufferings, restrain ourselves, and consider the effects our actions may have on ourselves and others, beyond the alignment with our own preconceptions of right and wrong.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I will explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).