Essays and Addresses/Ancient Organs of Public Opinion

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Ancient Organs of Public Opinion  (1884) 
by Richard Claverhouse Jebb
From Essays and Addresses.

ANCIENT ORGANS OF PUBLIC OPINION[1].

During several weeks in the early part of this year, the attention of the English public was fixed with intense anxiety on the fortunes of one man, who had undertaken a perilous mission in the service of his country. When the Egyptian difficulty was at its worst, General Gordon had started for Khartoum, to aid the Government, by his personal influence, in the policy of rescuing the garrisons and retiring from the Soudan. The journey, while it reflected fresh honour on him, necessarily imposed a grave responsibility on those who had sanctioned it. Any moment might bring the news of his death. If such news came, it was generally thought and said, the Ministry would fall. In a country with the temperament of England, the mere existence of such a belief set one thinking. A year ago, Gordon's name, though familiar to the well-informed classes, would not have acted like a spell on the nation. But a popular biography of him which had appeared had given occasion for much writing in the newspapers. A short time had sufficed to make the broad facts of his career known throughout the length and breadth of the land. People knew that he had welded a loose Chinese rabble into an army which saved the reigning dynasty of China; that, alone of Christians, he is named in the prayers of Mecca; that he does not care for personal rewards; that he is fearless of death; and that he trusts in God. To impress these facts on the popular imagination had been the work of a few weeks ; to concentrate the force of popular opinion, if he had been sacrificed, would have been the work of a few hours. Seldom, perhaps, has anything illustrated more vividly that great and distinctive condition of modern existence in free countries,—the double power wielded by the newspaper press, at once as the ubiquitous instructor and as the rapid interpreter of a national mind. It was natural at such a time, for one whose pursuits suggested the comparison, to look from the modern to the ancient world, and to attempt some estimate of the interval which separates them in this striking and important respect. In the ancient civilisations, were there any agencies which exercised a power analogous in kind, though not comparable in degree, to that of the modern press? To begin with, we feel at once that the despotic monarchies of the ancient East will not detain us long. For them, national opinion normally meant the opinion of the king. We know the general manner of record which is found graven on stone in connection with the images or symbols of those monarchs. As doctors seem still to differ a good deal about the precise translation of so many of those texts, it might be rash to quote any, but this is the sort of style which seems to prevail among the royal authors: "He came up with the chariots. He said that he was my first cousin. He lied. I impaled him. I am Artakhshatrá. I flayed his uncles, his brothers, and his cousins. I am the king, the son of Daryavush. I crucified two thousand of the principal inhabitants. I am the shining one, the great and the good." From the monarchical East we turn with more curiosity to Greece and Rome. There, at least, there was a life of public opinion. Apart from institutions, which are crystallised opinion, were there any living, non-official voices in which this public opinion could be heard?

The Homeric poems are not only the oldest monuments of Greek literature, but also the earliest documents of the Greek race. Out of the twilight of the prehistoric past, a new people, a new type of mind, are suddenly disclosed in a medium of pellucid clearness. Like Athene springing adult and full-armed from the head of Zeus, this new race, when Homer reveals it, has already attained to a mature consciousness of itself, and is already equipped with the aptitudes which are to distinguish it throughout its later history. The genius of the Homeric Greek has essentially the same traits which recur in the ripest age of the Greek republics,—even as Achilles and Ulysses are personal ideals which never lost their hold on the nation. This very fact points the contrast between two aspects of Homeric life—the political and the social. In Homeric politics, public opinion has no proper place. The king, with his council of nobles and elders, can alone originate or discuss measures. The popular assembly has no active existence. But the framework of Homeric monarchy contains a social life in which public opinion is constantly alert. Its activity, indeed, could scarcely be greater under the freest form of government. And we see that this activity has its spring in distinctive and permanent attributes of the Hellenic race. It arises from quickness of perception and readiness of speech. The Homeric Greek feels keenly, observes shrewdly, and hastens to communicate his thoughts. An undertone of popular comment pervades the Homeric poems, and is rendered more impressive by the dramatic form in which it is usually couched. The average man, who represents public feeling, is expressed by the Greek indefinite pronoun, τις. "Thus would a man speak, with a glance at his neighbour," is the regular Homeric formula. We hear opinion in the making. This spokesman of popular sentiment is constantly introduced at critical moments: for the sake of brevity we may call him by his Greek name Tis. When the fight is raging over the corpse of Patroclus, Tis remarks to his friends that they will be disgraced for ever if they allow the Trojans to carry off the body;—better die on the spot. Hector, in proposing a truce to Ajax, suggests that they should exchange gifts, and imagines what Tis will say: Tis will approve of it as a graceful courtesy between chivalrous opponents. Menelaus considers that another hero, Antilochus, has beaten him in a chariot race by unfair means; but thinks it necessary to take precautions against Tis imagining that he has brought this complaint in the hope of prevailing by the influence of his rank. This is perhaps one of the most remarkable Homeric compliments to the penetration and to the influence of Tis. When the sounds of music and dancing, as at a marriage feast, are heard in the house of Odysseus in Ithaca, Tis is listening outside; and he blamed Penelope for her fancied hardness of heart, "because she had not had the courage to keep the great house of her gentle lord steadfastly till he should come home." Tis is not always the mouthpiece of such elevated sentiments. With a frank truth to life and nature, Homer depicts Tis as indulging an ignoble joy by stabbing the corpse of his once-dreaded foe. Hector, and remarking that he is safer to handle now than when he was burning the ships. In the Odyssey, when the maiden Nausicaa is conducting Odysseus to the city of her father Alcinous, we catch glimpses of a Tis who nearly approaches the character of Mrs Grundy, with an element of spiteful gossip added. The fidelity with which Tis reflects public opinion is further seen in the circumstance that his solicitude for the rights of man is not strong enough to counteract his natural disposition to exult over the fallen. Thersites was a commoner who presumed to speak his mind among his betters,—when one of them, Odysseus, dealt him a smart blow on the back, and caused him to resume his seat in tears. Tis laughed for joy, saying in effect that it served Thersites right, and that he probably would not do it again. The Tory sentiment of this passage makes it appropriate to quote the version of it by the late Lord Derby:—

          "The Greeks, despite their anger, laughed aloud,
          And one to other said, 'Good faith, of all
          The many works Ulysses well hath done,
          Wise in the council, foremost in the fight,
          He ne'er hath done a better, than when now
          He makes this scurril babbler hold his peace.
          Methinks his headstrong spirit will not soon
          Lead him again to vilify the kings.'"

Here it might be said that Tis figures as the earliest authentic example of a being whose existence has sometimes been doubted by British anthropologists, the Conservative working-man. But, if we would be just to Tis in his larger Homeric aspects, we must allow that his sympathies are usually generous, and his utterances often edifying. As to the feeling with which Tis was regarded, Homer has a word for it which is hard to translate: he calls it aidos. This aidos—the sense of reverence or shame—is always relative to a standard of public opinion, i.e. to the opinion formed by the collective sayings of Tis; as, on the other hand, the listening to an inner voice, the obedience to what we call a moral sense, is Homerically called nemesis. And just as Tis is sometimes merely the voice of smug respectability, so aidos is sometimes conventional in a low way. When Diomedes is going by night to spy out the Trojan camp, several heroes offer to go with him, but only one can be chosen. Agamemnon tells him that he must not yield to aidos, and take the man of highest station rather than the man of highest merit: where aidos appears as in direct conflict with nemesis. But more often these two principles are found acting in harmony,—recommending the same course of conduct from two different points of view. There is a signal example of this in the Odyssey, which is also noteworthy on another ground, viz., as the only episode in the Homeric poems which involves a direct and formal appeal from established right of might to the corrective agency of public opinion. The suitors of Penelope have intruded themselves into the house of her absent lord, and are wasting his substance by riotous living. Her son Telemachus convenes the men of Ithaca in public assembly, and calls on them to stop this cruel wrong. He appeals to nemesis, to aidos, and to fear of the gods. "Resent it in your own hearts; and have regard to others, neighbouring folk who dwell around,—and tremble ye at the wrath of the gods." The appeal fails. The public opinion exists, but it has not the power, or the courage, to act. After the age which gave birth to the great epics, an interval elapses before we again catch the distinct echoes of a popular voice. Our Homeric friend Tis is silent. Or, rather, to be more exact, Tis ceases to speak in his old character, as the nameless representative of the multitude, and begins to speak in a new quality. The individual mind now commences to express itself in forms of poetry which are essentially personal, interpreting the belief and feelings of the poet himself. Tis emerges from the dim crowd, and appears as Tyrtaeus, summoning the Spartans, in stirring elegy, to hear his counsels; or as Sappho, uttering her passion in immortal lyrics; or as Pindar, weaving his thoughts into those magnificent odes which glorify the heroes and the athletes of Greece. It is a capital distinction of classical Greek literature that, when its history is viewed as a whole, we do not find it falling into a series of artificial chapters, determined by imitation of models which were in fashion at this or that epoch. Greek literature is original, not derivative; we trace in it the course of a natural growth; we hear in it the spontaneous utterance of Greek life from generation to generation. The place of Pindar in this development has one aspect of peculiar interest. There is a sense in which he may be said to stand midway between Homeric epos and Athenian drama[2]. His poetical activity belongs to the years which immediately preceded and followed the invasions of Greece by the hosts of Persia. A great danger had drawn the members of the Hellenic family closer together; a signal deliverance had left them animated by the memory of deeds which seemed to attest the legends of Agamemnon and Achilles; warmed by a more vivid faith in those gods who had been present with them through the time of trial; comforted by a new stability of freedom; cheered by a sense of Hellenic energies which could expand securely from the Danube to the Nile, from the Euxine to the Atlantic; exalted in thought and fancy by the desire to embody their joy and hope in the most beautiful forms which language and music, marble, ivory, and gold could furnish for the honour of the gods, and for the delight of men who, through the heroes, claimed a divine descent. The Greek mind, stirred to its centre by the victorious efforts which had repelled the barbarian, could no longer be satisfied by epic narratives of the past. It longed to see the heroes moving; to hear them speaking; to throw back upon their world the vivifying light of contemporary reflection. In a word, the spirit of drama had descended upon Hellas; and already it breathes in Pindar, the poet of the games. Olympia, with its temples, its statues, and its living athletes, corresponded to the essence of Greek drama—action idealised by art and consecrated by religion. Pindar, the last of the great lyric poets, is the lyric exponent of an impulse which received mature expression from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The community which Athenian drama addressed was precisely in the mood which best enables a dramatist to exert political and moral force. There was much in its temper that might remind us of Elizabethan England; but I would venture to illustrate it here by words borrowed from the England of a later time. The greatest plea in the English language for the liberty of the press—or perhaps we should rather say, for the freedom of the mind—belongs to the close of that year which saw the hopes of the Parliamentarians, in their struggle with the Royalists, raised to an assurance of final success by the crushing defeat of Rupert. An enthusiastic confidence in the large destinies opening before the English people already fired the mind of the poet who was to end his days, like Samson,

Then, in 1644, Milton, thinking of the victory of Marston Moor, was rather like Aeschylus raising his dramatic paean for the victory of Salamis; and the glowing language in which he describes the new alertness of his country's spirit might fitly be applied to the Athens for which the great dramatists wrote. "As in a body, when the blood is fresh, the spirits pure and vigorous not only to vital but to rationall faculties and those in the acutest and the pertest operations of wit and suttlety, it argues in what good plight and constitution the body is, so when the cherfulnesse of the people is so sprightly up, as that it has not only wherewith to guard well its own freedom and safety but to spare, and to bestow upon the solidest and sublimest points of controversie and new invention, it betok'ns us not degenerated, nor drooping to a fatall decay, but casting off the old and wrincl'd skin of corruption to outlive these pangs and wax young again, entring the glorious waies of Truth and prosperous vertue destin'd to become great and honourable in these latter ages. Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an Eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazl'd eyes at the full midday beam, purging and unsealing her long abused sight at the fountain it self of heav'nly radiance."

In estimating the influence of Athenian drama on public opinion, we must, first of all, remember the fact which makes the essential difference between the position of the dramatist—viewed in this light—and that of the epic poet. The epic poet gave expression to a mass of popular belief and feeling in an age when they had as yet no direct organ of utterance. But in the Athens of the dramatists the popular assembly was the constitutional organ of public opinion. Every Athenian citizen was, as such, a member of that assembly. The influence of the Athenian dramatist was thus so far analogous to that of the modern journalist, that it was brought to bear on men capable of giving practical effect to their sentiments. A newspaper publishes an article intended to influence the voters in a parliamentary division, or the constituents whom they represent. An Athenian dramatist had for his hearers, in the theatre of Dionysus, many thousands of the men who, the next day, might be called upon to decide a question of policy in the assembly, or to try, in a law-court, one of those cases in which the properly legal issues were often involved with considerations of a social or moral kind. Even Tragedy, in its loftiest and severest form, might be the instrument, in a skilful hand, of inculcating views or tendencies which the poet advocated—nay, even of urging or opposing a particular measure. Thus, in his Furies, Aeschylus finds occasion to encourage his fellow-citizens in their claim to a disputed possession in the Troad, and utters a powerful protest against the proposal to curtail the powers of the Areopagus. He becomes, for the moment, the mouthpiece of a party opposed to such reform. In verses like the following, every one can recognise a ring as directly political as that of any leading article or pamphlet. "In this place"—says the Athene of Aeschylus—that is, on the hill of Ares, the seat of the Court menaced with reform—

          "Awe kin to dread shall stay the citizens
          From sinning in the darkness or the light,
          While their own voices do not change the laws...
          Between unruliness and rule by one
          I bid my people reverence a mean,
          Not banish all things fearful from the State.
          For, with no fear before him, who is just?
          In such a righteous dread, in such an awe,
          Ye shall possess a bulwark of the land,

          A safeguard of the city, not possess'd
          By Scythia or the places of the south.
          This court, majestic, incorruptible,
          Instant in anger, over those who sleep
          The sleepless watcher of my land, I set."

Again, there are at least two tragedies of Euripides—the Heracleidae and the Supplices—in which the strain of allusion to the politics of the Peloponnesian War in unmistakable. It is needless to dwell on the larger sense in which Euripides everywhere makes drama the vehicle of teachings—political, social, moral—which could nowhere have received such effective publicity as in the theatre. Nowadays, they would have been found in the pages of a newspaper or a magazine accepted as the organ of a party or a school. In the days of Voltaire, journalism, as free countries now understand it, had no more existence than in the days of Euripides; and, as a recent historian of French literature remarks, it has been thought that the tragedies of Voltaire owed their popularity chiefly to the adroit manner in which the author made them opportunities for insinuating the popular opinions of the time[3]. We must not forget that peculiar feature of Greek drama, the Chorus, who may be regarded as a lineal descendant of the Homeric Tis. The interest of the Chorus, in this connection, does not depend so much on the maxims that it uttered as on the fact that it constituted a visible link between the audience and the drama, bringing the average spectator into easier sympathy with the action, and thereby predisposing him to seize any significance which it might have for the life of the day. I have so far dwelt on this aspect of Athenian Tragedy, because we might be rather apt to regard it as a form of art altogether detached from contemporary interests, and to overlook the powerful influence—not the less powerful because usually indirect—which it must undoubtedly have exercised in expressing and moulding public sentiment.

But we must now turn to that other form of Athenian drama in which the resemblance to the power of the modern press is much more direct and striking—that which is known as the Old Comedy of Athens. Mr Browning, in his Apology of Aristophanes, makes the great comic poet indicate the narrow limits to the influence of Tragedy on opinion. The passage is witty; and though, as I venture to think, it considerably underrates the effect of Tragedy in this direction, at least it well marks the contrast between the modes in which the two forms of drama wrought. When we think of the analogy between Aristophanes and the modern political journalist, one of the first things that strikes us is the high and earnest view Aristophanes took of his own calling. He had gone through every stage of a laborious training before he presumed to come before the Athenian public. He had seen his predecessors fail, or fall from favour. So in the Peace, he claims that he has banished the old vulgar tomfoolery from the stage, and raised his art "like an edifice stately and grand." He saw clearly the enormous force which this literary engine, Comedy, might wield. He resolved that, in his hands, it should be directed to more elevated and more important aims. Instead of merely continuing the traditions of scurrilous buffoonery, in which virulent personality was often the only point, he would bring his wit to bear on larger aspects of politics and society.

But, while his wit and his style have the stamp of bold originality, Aristophanes is not the champion of original ideas. Rather his position depends essentially on the fact that he represents a large body of commonplace public opinion. He represents the great "stupid party," to use a name which the English Tories have borne not without pride, and glories to represent it; the stupid party, who are not wiser than their forefathers; who fail to understand how the tongue can swear, and the soul remain unsworn; who sigh for the old days when the plain seafaring citizen knew only to ask for his barley-cake, and to cry "pull away"; who believe in the old-fashioned virtues, and worship the ancient gods. He describes himself as the champion of the people, doing battle for them, like a second Hercules, against superhuman monsters. The demagogues, whom he lashes, try to represent him as slandering the country to foreigners; but he is the country's best friend. Athenians are hasty, fickle, and vain. He has taught them not to be gulled by flattery. He has taught them to respect the rights and redress the wrongs of their subjects. The envoys who bring the tribute from the islands long to see him. The King of Persia, he says, asked two questions about the combatants in the Peloponnesian War. Which side had the strongest navy? and which side had Aristophanes? Thirlwall, in his History of Greece, denies that Aristophanic Comedy produced any serious effect. "We have no reason," he says, "to believe that it ever turned the course of public affairs, or determined the bias of the public mind, or even that it considerably affected the credit and fortunes of an obnoxious individual." Grote's opinion is much the same, except that he is disposed to credit Comedy with a greater influence on the reputations of particular men. The question is much of the same nature as might be raised concerning the precise effect of political writing in newspapers, or of literary reviews. The effect is one which it is impossible to measure accurately, but which may nevertheless be both wide and deep.

In the first place, we must dismiss the notion that Comedy could make no serious impression because the occasion was a sportive festival. The feelings of Athenians at Comedy were not merely those of a modern audience at a burlesque or a pantomime. Comedy, like Tragedy, was still the worship of Dionysus. Precisely in those comedies which most daringly ridicule the gods—such as the Birds and the Frogs—we find also serious expressions of a religious sense, illustrating what might be called the principle of compensatory reverence. Again, the power of the Old Athenian Comedy is not to be gauged by any influence which it exercised, or sought, over special situations or definite projects. Indeed, it rarely attempted this. Almost the only extant instance occurs in the Frogs of Aristophanes, where he urges that a general amnesty should be granted to all citizens who had been implicated in the Revolution of the Four Hundred. In such a sense, it may be granted. Comedy might do little; but its real power operated in a totally different way. When a large body of people has common opinions or feelings, these are intensified in each individual by the demonstration that so many others share them. A public meeting tends in itself to quicken enthusiasm for a party or a cause, be the oratory never so flat and the sentiments never so trite. Aristophanes gave the most brilliant expression to a whole range of thought and feeling with which thousands of minds were in general sympathy. Can it be doubted that he contributed powerfully to strengthen the prejudice against everything that he regarded as dangerous innovation? Or, again, can it be doubted that he did much to give his fellow-citizens a more vivid insight into the arts of unscrupulous demagogues? The cajolers of the people, as depicted in the comedy of the Knights, are drawn in strong colours, but with fine strokes also: while the character of Demus, the People—their supposed dupe—is drawn with a tact which no satirist or political journalist has ever surpassed. If I had to stake the political power of Aristophanes on the evidence of one short passage, it should be that dialogue in which the Knights deplore the dotage of Demus, and Demus tells them that, while he seems to doze, he always has one eye open (vv. 1111–1150).

When a change of Ministry occurs in England, no one would undertake to say exactly what share in that result is attributable to journalistic repetition and suggestion—to the cumulative impression wrought on the public mind, through weeks, months, and years, by the Conservative or the Liberal press. And he would be a bold man who presumed to say how little or how much the Old Comedy may have to do with the phenomena of oligarchic reaction in the latter part of the Peloponnesian War, or with the stimulation of all those sentiments which have their record in the death of Socrates. The confused travesty of Socrates in the Clouds corresponds, in its general features, with the confused prepossessions of which he was afterwards the victim. In this case, as in others. Comedy was not the origin, but the organ, of a popular opinion. It did not create the prepossessions; but it strengthened them by the simple process of reflecting them in an exaggerated form. Briefly, Aristophanic Comedy had many of the characteristics of vehement party journalism, but was directed either against persons, on the one hand, or against general principles and tendencies, on the other—not against measures. Its most obvious strength lay in brilliant originality of form; but its political and social effect depended essentially on its representative value. It was the great ancient analogue of journalism which seems to lead opinion by skilfully mirroring it—unsparing in attack, masterly in all the sources of style, but careful, where positive propositions are concerned, to keep within the limits of safe and accepted generalities.

Just as the Old Comedy was losing its freedom of utterance, a new agency began to appear, which invites comparison with journalism of a calmer and more thoughtful type. Rhetoric, of which we already feel the presence in Athenian drama, had now become a developed art. Skill analogous to that of the modern journalist was often required, for purposes of speaking, by the citizen of a Greek republic[4]. He might desire to urge his views in a public assembly where the standard of speaking was high and the audience critical. He might be compelled to defend his fortunes, or even his life, before a popular jury of many hundreds, when the result would depend in no small measure on oratorical dexterity. Already a class of men existed who composed speeches for private persons to deliver in law-courts. The new art was naturally enlisted in the service of party politics. A skilful writer now felt that there was a way of producing an effect which would be less transient than that of a speech in the assembly. From the end of the fifth century B.C. we begin to meet with a species of composition which may best be described as a political pamphlet.

The paper on the Athenian polity, which has come down under Xenophon's name, is an aristocratic manifesto against the democracy, which might have appeared in an ancient Quarterly Review. The paper on the Revenues of Athens, belonging to the middle of the fourth century B.C., is a similar article in favour of peace and the commercial interests. Many of the extant pieces of the orator Isocrates, in the fourth century B.C., though couched in the form of speeches, were meant to be read, not spoken, and are in reality highly finished political pamphlets. More, perhaps, than any writer of antiquity, Isocrates resembles a journalist who is deeply impressed with the dignity and responsibility of his calling; who spares no pains to make his work really good; and who has constantly before his mind the feeling that his audience is wider, and his power greater, than if he was actually addressing a public assembly on the same theme. His articles—as we may fitly call them—are usually intended to have a definite effect at a particular moment. He wishes to make Athens and Sparta combine at once in an expedition to Asia. He wishes to strike in with a telling argument for peace at the moment when negotiations are pending between Athens and her allies. He desires to strengthen the hands of the party, at Athens and at Sparta, who refuse to recognise the restoration of Messene by the power of Thebes. In this last case, we know that a pamphlet on the other side was written by the rhetorician Alcidamas. Here then is an example of literary controversy on contemporary public affairs.

Nor is it merely in regard to the political questions of the day that Isocrates performs the part of a journalist. He deals also with the social life of Athens. He expresses the feeling with which men of the old school observed a deterioration ot manners connected, in their views, with the decay of Conservative elements in the democracy. He shows us the throngs of needy citizens, eagerly casting lots outside the law-courts for the privilege of employment as paid jurymen—while at the same time they are hiring mercenary, troops to fight their battles abroad. He pictures the lavish display which characterized the festivals of the improvident city—where the amusement of the public had now become a primary art of statesmanship—when men might be seen blazing in gold-spangled robes, who had been shivering through the winter in rags. He brings before us the young men of a degenerate Athens—no longer engaged in vigorous exercises of mind and body, in hunting or athletics; no longer crossing the market-place with downcast eyes, or showing marks of deference to their elders—but passing their hours in the society of gamesters and flute-players, or lazily cooling their wine in the fountain by the llissus. He is, in brief, a voice of public opinion on all the chief matters which come within the province of the publicist. In order that such a writer should have an influence similar to that of a newspaper, it was enough that copies of his writings should be sufficiently multiplied to leaven the conversation of the market-place and of private society. Every possessor of a copy was a centre from which the ideas would reach the members of his own circle. And there is good evidence that, in the fourth century B.C., the circulation of popular writings throughout the Hellenic world was both wide and rapid. The copying-industry, in the Greece of that age, doubtless fell far short of the dimensions to which the labour of cultivated slaves (the literati) afterwards raised it at Rome—where we hear of Augustus, for instance, confiscating no fewer than two thousand copies of a single work—the pseudo-Sibylline books. But it was still amply sufficient to warrant a general comparison, in the sense just defined, between the influence of such a writer as Isocrates, and that of a modern journalist.

We have hitherto spoken only of the written rhetoric, in which the form of a speech was merely a literary fiction, like that adopted—in imitation of Isocrates—by Milton, when he chose to couch his Areopagitica in the form of a speech addressed to the Lords and Commons of England. But in passing, we should note that the actually spoken rhetoric of antiquity—especially of Greece—bore a certain analogy to the more elaborate efforts of journalism. This depends on the fact that ancient usage fully recognised, and generally expected, careful premeditation; while the speaker, conscious of the demand for excellence of form, usually aimed at investing his speech with permanent literary value. Demosthenes and Cicero are both witnesses to this: Cicero, doubtless, piqued himself on a faculty of extemporising at need, but probably trusted little to it on great occasions; while with Demosthenes it was the rule, we are told, never to speak without preparation. Take the oration delivered by Lysias at the Olympian festival, where he is exhorting the assembled Greeks to unite against the common foes of Hellas in Sicily and in Persia. Here the orator is essentially an organ of patriotic opinion, and his highly-wrought address is a finished leading-article, for which the author sought the largest publicity.

In turning from Greece to Rome, we are prepared to find literature holding a different relation towards public opinion. The Greek temperament, with its quick play of thought and fancy, had an instinctive craving to make the sympathy of thoughts continually felt in words, and to accompany action with a running comment of speech. The Roman, as we find him during Rome's earlier career of conquest, was usually content to feel that his action was in conformity with some principle which he had expressed once for all in an institution or a statute. His respect for authority, and his moral earnestness—in a word, his political and social gravity—rendered him independent of the solace which the lively Greek derived from a demonstrated community of feeling. Rome, strong in arms, severe, persistent, offering to people after people the choice of submission or subjugation; Rome, the head of the Latin name, the capital of Italy, the queen of the Mediterranean, the empress of a pacified, because disarmed, world; Rome, who never deemed a war done until conquest had been riveted by law which should be the iron bond of peace,—this idea was the true inspiration of the Roman; and, as the literature was matured, it was this which added order to strength, and majesty to order, in the genius of the Roman tongue. It is especially curious to observe the fate which Comedy experienced when it first appeared at Rome, and endeavoured to assume something of the political significance which its parent, Greek Comedy, had possessed at Athens. The poet Naevius appeared just after the first Punic War. He was a champion of popular liberties against the domination of the Senate; and, in his plays, he treated some of the Senatorian chiefs with satire of a quality which, to judge from the extant specimens, was exceedingly mild. "Who had so quickly ruined the commonwealth?" was a query put in one of his comedies; and the reply was, "New speakers came forward—foolish young men." In another piece, he alluded to the applauses bestowed on him as proving that he was a true interpreter of the public mind, and deprecated any great man interfering with him. A very slave in one of his comedies, he added, was better off than a Roman citizen nowadays. Contrast these remarks with the indescribable insults which Aristophanes had boldly heaped on the Athenian demagogues. Mild as Naevius was, however, he was not mild enough for the "foolish young men." Having ventured to observe that the accession of certain nobles to high office was due to a decree of fate, he was promptly imprisoned; he was afterwards banished; and he died in exile. This seems to have been the first and last attempt of Roman Comedy to serve as an organ of popular opinion. The Roman reverence for authority was outraged by the idea of a public man being presented in a comic light on the boards of a theatre. On the other hand, Roman feeling allowed a public man to be attacked, in speaking or in writing, with almost any degree of personal violence, provided that the purpose was seriously moral. Hence the personal criticism of statesmen, which at Athens had belonged to Comedy, passed at Rome into another kind of composition. It became an element of Satire.

The name of Satire comes, as is well known, from the lanx satura, the platter filled with first-fruits of various sorts, which was an annual thank-offering to Ceres and Bacchus. "Satire" meant a medley, or miscellany, and the first characteristic of Roman satire was that the author wrote in an easy, familiar way about any and every subject that was of interest to himself and his readers. As Juvenal says,—

     "Men's hopes, men's fear—their fond, their fretful dream—
     Their joys, their fuss—that medley is my theme."

Politics, literature, philosophy, society—every topic of public or private concern—belonged to the Satura, so long as the treatment was popular. Among all the forms of Roman literature. Satire stands out with a twofold distinction. First, it is genuinely national. Next, it is the only one which has a continuous development, extending from the vigorous age of the Commonwealth into the second century of the Empire. Satire is pre-eminently the Roman literary organ of public opinion. The tone of the Roman satirist is always that of an ordinary Roman citizen who is frankly speaking his mind to his fellow-citizens. An easy, confidential manner in literature—as of one friend unbosoming himself to another—seems to have been peculiarly congenial to the ancient Italian taste. We may remember how the poet Ennius introduced into his epic a picture of the intimate converse between himself and the Roman general Servilius Geminus—a picture not unworthy of a special war-correspondent attached to head-quarters. Then Satire profited by the Italian gift for shrewd portraiture of manners. Take, for instance, the picture of a coquette, drawn some twenty centuries ago by Naevius:—

"Like one playing at ball in a ring, she tosses about from one to another, and is at home with all. To one she nods, to another she winks; she makes love to one, clings to another To one she gives a ring to look at, to another blows a kiss; with one she sings, with another corresponds by signs[5]

The man who first established Satire as an outspoken review of Roman life was essentially a slashing journalist. This was Lucilius, who lived in the latter years of the second century B.C. He attacked the high-born statesmen who, as he put it, "thought that they could blunder with impunity, and keep criticism at a distance by their rank." On the other hand, he did not spare plebeian offenders. As one of his successors says, "he bit deep into the town of his day, and broke his jaw-tooth on them." Literature and society also came under his censures. He lashes the new affectation of Greek manners and speech, the passion for quibbling rhetoric, the extravagance of the gluttons and the avarice of the misers. Even the Roman ladies of the time do not wholly escape. He criticises the variations of their toilettes. "When she is with you, anything is good enough; when visitors are expected, all the resources of the wardrobe are taxed." The writings of this trenchant publicist formed the great standing example of free speech for later Roman times. Horace eschews politics; indeed, when he wrote, political criticism had become as futile as it was perilous; but he is evidently anxious to impress on the Roman public that he is true to the old tradition of satire by fearlessly lashing folly and vice. Persius, who died at the age of twenty-eight in the reign of Nero, made Roman Satire a voice of public opinion in a brave and pure sense. Horace had been an accomplished Epicurean, who found his public among easy-going, cultivated men of the world. Persius spoke chiefly to minds of a graver cast: he summoned Roman citizens to possess themselves of a moral and intellectual freedom which no Cæsar could crush, the freedom given by the Stoic philosophy,—that philosophy which had moulded the jurisprudence of the Republic, and was now the refuge of thoughtful minds under the despotism of the Empire. Then we have once more a slashing publicist in Juvenal, who is national and popular in a broader sense than Horace or Persius. His fierce indignation is turned against the alien intruders, the scum of Greece and Asia, who are making Rome a foreign city, and robbing Roman citizens of their bread. He denounces the imported vices which are effacing the old Roman character. He is the last of the Roman satirists, and in much he resembles the first.

It may be noted that each of the three satirists of the Empire—Horace, Persius, Juvenal—gives us a dialogue between himself and an imaginary friend, who remonstrates with him for his rashness in imitating Lucilius, the outspoken satirist of the Republic. Horace replies, in effect, "Never mind, I'm not afraid—Augustus will stand by me as Scipio and Laelius stood by Lucilius"; but, in fact, Horace never strikes like Lucilius; he keeps us smiling while he probes our faults; "he gains his entrance, and plays about the heart"; his censures, even when keen, show cautious tact. Persius replies: "You need not read me if you do not like: but the joke is too good; I must tell some one that Midas has the ears of an ass." When Juvenal is warned, we catch quite a different tone in the answer. After painting the Rome of his day, he says (I venture to give a version of my own):—

     "Nought worse remains: the men of coming times
     Can but renew our lusts, repeat our crimes.

     Vice holds the dizzy summit: spread thy sail,
     Indignant Muse, and drive before the gale!
     But who shall find, or whence—I hear thee ask—
     An inspiration level with the task?
     Whence that frank courage of an elder Rome,
     When Satire, fearless, sent the arrow home?
     'Whom am I bound,' she then could cry, 'to spare?
     If high-placed guilt forgive not, do I care?'
     Paint now the prompter of a Nero's rage—
     The torments of a Christian were thy wage,—
     Pinned to the stake, in blazing pitch to stand,
     Or, on the hook that dragg'd thee, plough the sand...
      * * * * * *
     No danger will attend thee if thou tell
     How to Aeneas warlike Turnus fell;
     No spite resents Achilles' fateful day.
     Or Hylas, with his urn, the Naiads' prey:
     But when Lucilius, all his soul afire,
     Bared his good sword and wreak'd his generous ire,
     Flush'd cheeks bewrayed the secrets lock'd within.
     And chill hearts shivered with their conscious sin.
     Hence wrath and tears. Ere trumpets sound, debate:
     Warriors, once armed, repent of war too late.
     'Then shall plain speech be tried on those whose clay
     Rests by the Latin or Flaminian Way.' "

He did indeed try the plainest of speech, not only on dead tyrants and their ministers, but on the society of his own time. The elder Disraeli remarks that Richard Steele meant the Tatler to deal with three provinces—manners, letters, and politics; and that, as to politics, "it remained for the chaster genius of Addison to banish this disagreeable topic from his elegant pages." Horace was in this respect the Addison of Satire under the Empire. In Juvenal the Italian medley once more exhibits, though with necessary modifications, the larger and more vigorous spirit of its early prime. The poetical epistle, which in Horace is so near to Satire, usually differed from it in having less of the chatty miscellaneous character, and in being rather applied to continuous didactic exposition. The prose epistle, which was often meant for publication even when formally private, also contributed not only to express, but to mould, public opinion. Epigrams and lampoons might happen to be vehicles of a general feeling; but they differ from the forms of literature here considered in being essentially personal, like the satirical poetry of early Greece.

There is yet another agency, common to Greece and Rome, at which we must glance—the Oracles. Often, of course, they had a most important part in directing public opinion at critical moments; but this was not all. There were occasions on which an oracle became, in a strict sense, the organ of a political party. Thus the noble Athenian family of the Alcmaeonidae bribed the Delphian priests to make the oracle an organ of public opinion in favour of freeing Athens from Peisistratus. Accordingly, whenever Spartans came to consult the god on any subject whatever, this topic was always worked into the response. Apollo, in short, kept up a series of most urgent leading-articles; and at last the Spartans were roused to action. Then, when Cleomenes, one of the two Spartan kings, wished to have his colleague Demaratus deposed, he made friends with an influential man at Delphi; the influential man bribed the priestess; and the oracle declared that Demaratus was not of the royal blood. In this case, the fraud was found out; the priestess was deposed; and when Cleomenes died mad, men said that this was the hand of Apollo. When the Persians were about to invade Greece, the Delphic oracle took the line of advising the Greeks to submit. The Athenians sent to ask what they should do, and the oracle said, "Fly to the ends of the earth." The Athenians protested that they would not leave the temple until they got a more comfortable answer. Hereupon an influential Delphian advised them to assume the garb of suppliants; and this time Apollo told them to trust to their wooden walls. Herodotus mentions between seventy and eighty oracles (I believe) of one sort or another, and less than half of these contain predictions. The predictions usually belong to one of two classes; first, those obviously founded on secret information or on a shrewd guess; and, secondly, those in which the oracle had absolutely no ideas on the subject, and took refuge in vagueness.

Any one who reads the column of Answers to Correspondents in a prudently conducted journal will recognise the principal types of oracle. In truth, the Delphic oracle bore a strong resemblance to a serious newspaper managed by a cautious editorial committee with no principles in particular. In editing an oracle, it was then, as it still is, of primary importance not to make bad mistakes. The Delphian editors were not infallible; but, when a blunder had been made, they often showed considerable resource. Thus, when Croesus had been utterly ruined, he begged his conqueror to grant him one luxury—to allow him to send to Delphi, and ask Apollo whether it was his usual practice to treat his benefactors in this way. Apollo replied that, in point of fact, he had done everything he could; he had personally requested the Fates to put off the affair for a generation; but they would only grant a delay of three years. Instead of showing annoyance, Croesus ought to be grateful for having been ruined three years later than he ought to have been. There are Irish landlords who would see a parable in these things. Sometimes we can see that Apollo himself is slightly irritated, as an editor might be by a wrong-headed or impertinent querist. Some African colonists had been pestering Apollo about their local troubles and his own former predictions; and the response from Delphi begins with the sarcastic remark, "I admire your wisdom if you know Africa better than I do." The normal tendency of the Delphic oracle was to discourage rash enterprise, and to inculcate maxims of orthodox piety and moderation. The people of Cnidos wanted to make their peninsula an island by digging a canal, but found it very hard work; and the oracle told them that if Zeus had meant the peninsula to be an island, he would have made it an island—which reminds one of some of the arguments against the Channel Tunnel. In one special direction, however, Delphi gave a real impulse to Hellenic progress. It was a powerful promoter of colonization: for instance, the first Greek settlements in Corsica and on the coast of Africa were directly due to Delphic oracles. We even find the oracle designating individuals for work abroad; as when it nominated a man of Mantinea to reform the constitution of Cyrene. In Scotland we are wont to take a keen interest in everything that bears on colonial careers for young men; and one day a Greek class had been reading about the Delphic oracle telling some Thracians to choose as their king the first man who should ask them to dinner. Miltiades had this privilege, and forthwith got the Thracian appointment. "Do you think," a thoughtful student asked, "that there could have been any collusion?"

A brief mention is due to those Roman publications which, in form, came nearest to our newspapers—the official gazettes. Julius Caesar, when consul in 59 B.C., first caused the transactions of the Senate (Acta Senatus) to be regularly published: before his time, there had been only an occasional publication of its decrees. Augustus stopped the issue of this Senatorial Gazette, though the minutes continued to be regularly kept, at first by senators of the Emperor's choice, afterwards by a secretary specially appointed. Further, Julius Caesar instituted a regular official gazette of general news, the Acta diurna, which continued under the Empire. There was an official editor; the gazette was exhibited daily in public, and copied by scribes, who sold it to their customers; the original copy was afterwards laid up in the public archives, where it could be consulted. This gazette contained announcements or decrees by the Government, notices relating to the magistrature and the law-courts, and other matters of public interest; also a register of births, marriages, and deaths, and occasionally other advertisements concerning private families. This gazette had a wide circulation. Tacitus, for example, says that a certain event could not be hidden from the army, because the legionaries throughout the provinces had read it in the gazette. But it was simply a bald record of facts; there was no comment. Cicero, writing from Asia, complains that a private correspondent at Rome has sent him only such news as appears in a gazette—about matches of gladiators and adjournment of courts—and has given him no political intelligence.

The Gentleman's Magazine for 1740 contains a short and quaint paper by Dr Johnson, in which he transcribes some supposed fragments of a Roman gazette for the year 168 B.C. These were first published in 1615, and in 1692 were defended by Dodwell, but are now recognised as fifteenth-century forgeries. We have no genuine fragments of the Roman gazettes. None the less, Johnson's comparison of them with the English newspapers of 1740 may well suggest a reflection. The Roman gazette under the Empire did not give the transactions of the Senate, any more than it admitted political comment. In the newspapers of Johnson's time, the parliamentary reports were still very irregular and imperfect; while criticism of public men was fain to take the disguise, however thin, of allegory. Thus the Gentleman's Magazine regaled its readers, from month to month, with "Proceedings and Debates in the Senate of Lilliput." It was when the House of Commons had ceased to represent the public opinion of the country, that this opinion became resolved to have an outlet in the press. Parliament having ceased to discharge its proper function, the press became the popular court of appeal. The battle for a free press, in the full modern sense, was fought out between 1764 and 1771—beginning in 1764 with the persecution of Wilkes for attacking Bute in the North Briton, and ending with the successful resistance, in 1771, to the proclamation by which the Commons had forbidden the publication of their debates. Six printers, who had infringed it, were summoned to the bar of the House; five obeyed; and the messenger of the House was sent to arrest the sixth. The Lord Mayor of London sent the messenger to prison. The House of Commons sent the Lord Mayor to the Tower. But he was followed by cheering crowds. He was released at the next prorogation; and the day on which he left the Tower marked the end of the last attempt to silence the press. The next few years saw the beginning of the first English journals which exercised a great political and social power. The Times dates from 1788. Thus a period memorable for Americans has something of analogous significance for their kinsmen in England. For the English people, also, those years contained a Declaration of Independence; they brought us a title-deed of freedom greater, perhaps, than the barons of the thirteenth century extorted from John—the charter of a complete freedom in the daily utterance of public opinion.

The attempt here has been to indicate some of the partial equivalents for such an utterance which may be traced in classical literature. A student of antiquity must always, in one sense, resemble the wistful Florentine who, with Virgil for his guide, explored the threefold realm beyond the grave. His converse is with the few, the spirits signal for good or for evil in their time; the shades of the great soldiers pass before him,—he can scan them closely, and imagine how each bore himself in the hour of defeat or victory on earth; he can know the counsels of statesmen, and even share the meditations of their leisure; the poets and the philosophers are present: but around and beyond these are the nameless nations of the dead, the multitudes who passed through the ancient world and left no memorial. With these dim populations he can hold no direct communion; it is much if at times the great movements which agitated them are descried by him as the surging of a shadowy crowd, or if the accents of their anguish or triumph are borne from afar as the sound of many waters. So much the more, those few clear voices which still come from the past are never more significant than when they interpret the popular mind of their generation. The modern development of representative institutions has invested the collective sentiment of communities with power of a kind to which antiquity can furnish no proper parallel. But this fact cannot dispense the student of history from listening for the echoes of the market-place. And such attention cannot fail to quicken our sense of the inestimable gain which has accrued to modern life through journalism. It is easy to forget the magnitude of a benefit when its operation has become regular and familiar. The influence of the press may sometimes be abused; its tone may sometimes be objectionable. But take these three things—quickness in seeking and supplying information,—continual vigilance of comment,—electric sympathy of social feeling: where in the ancient world do we find these things as national characteristics, except in so far as they were gifts of nature to the small community of ancient Athens—gifts to which her best literature owes so much of its incomparable freshness and of its imperishable charm? It is mainly due to the agency of the press that these things are now found throughout the world,—these, which, in all lands where man has risen above barbarism, are the surest safeguards of civilisation and the ultimate pledges of constitutional freedom.

Notes[edit]

  1. The writer of these pages had the honour of delivering the annual Oration in the Sanders Theatre of Harvard University, under the auspices of the Φ. Β. Κ. Society, on June 26, 1884. The following paper is the substance of the address then spoken, with such modifications as appeared appropriate to the present form of publication. (Fortnightly Review, 1884.)
  2. In an essay on "Pindar" in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (vol. iii.), from which some points are repeated in this paragraph, I have worked this out more in detail.—See above, p. 41.
  3. Saintsbury's Short History of French Literature, p. 405.
  4. In the Attic Orators, vol. ii. p. 42, I pointed out this analogy.
  5. Professor Sellar's rendering, Roman Poets of the Republic, p. 55.