Essays and Addresses/The Influence of the Greek Mind on Modern Life

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The Influence of the Greek Mind on Modern Life  (1893) 
by Richard Claverhouse Jebb
From Essays and Addresses. Address to the Students of the London Branch of the University Extension Movement, delivered in the Egyptian Hall at the Mansion House, by permission and under the presidency of the Lord Mayor: March, 1893.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE GREEK MIND ON MODERN LIFE[1].

The Faculties of the Greek Race.

The very name of this noble Hall, in which your Lordship's courtesy permits us to meet to-day, recalls a part of that prehistoric background against which the Greek genius first shone forth. The immemorial civilisation on the banks of the Nile had gradually passed under the bondage of stereotyped formulas, as despotism of another kind overshadowed the lands of the Tigris and the Euphrates, when the Greek spirit, in the first glow of a youth which has proved immortal was beginning to clear the path of mankind to political liberty, to the recognition of natural beauty, and to the fearless pursuit of knowledge. If, again, we look back from a modern standing-point on the various parts played in human progress by various members of the Indo-European family, how singular do the faculties of the Greek race appear, alike in compass and in harmony! This might be illustrated from the history of modern art, when some felicity of invention or achievement is explained by the fact that several strains of lineage, several branches of the Indo-European stock, have contributed to a result which no one of them could have produced alone. Thus, the most signal achievement of the French genius in art has been the creation of Gothic architecture; and, as the President of the Royal Academy reminded its Students some years ago, the cradle of that architecture was the Royal Domain of central France, a region in which the Celtic blood of the Cymri was mingled with the Latin element derived from the Romans, and with the Teutonic element furnished by the Franks; giving birth to that Gothic style which blends freedom with self-restraint, audacity with prudence, and science with emotion. No similar analysis can be applied to the masterpieces of the Greek architect and the Greek sculptor. Imperfect though our knowledge is, does it not warrant the belief that no people has yet appeared upon the earth whose faculty for art, in the largest sense of the term, was at once so fine and so comprehensive?

But it is through the classical literature of Greece that the mind of the race is most fully known to us. There is a passage in one of Macaulay's earliest writings—a review of Mitford in Knight's Quarterly Magazine—from which I will quote a few sentences, because they put the claim of Greek Literature in the boldest form; one which many readers, probably, would deem extravagant, or even paradoxical. "If we consider," he says, "the subtlety of disquisition, the force of imagination, the perfect energy and elegance of expression, which characterise the great works of Athenian genius, we must pronounce them intrinsically most valuable; but what shall we say when we reflect that from hence have sprung, directly or indirectly, all the noblest creations of the human intellect; that from hence were the vast accomplishments and the brilliant fancy of Cicero; the withering fire of Juvenal; the plastic imagination of Dantgu. the humour of Cervantes; the comprehension of Bacon; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shakespeare?" The claim which Macaulay here makes for Greek literature would be extravagant indeed if it meant that Cicero was brilliant because he had profited by Demosthenes, that Juvenal's satire was inspired by Aristophanes, that Dante was vivid and sublime because Virgil had given him glimpses of Homer, that the humour of Cervantes and the wit of Butler flowed from an Attic source, that Bacon's grasp was due to study of Aristotle, or that Shakespeare, who had small Latin and less Greek, was the prince of dramatists by grace of the Dionysiac Theatre. In what sense, then, if in any, is the claim a just one? In this—that the Greeks were the people with whom the very conception of artistic literature began; that, in all the principal branches of poetry and of prose, the Greek mind achieved work so abounding with intellectual life, and so excellent in form, as to remain for after-ages an inspiration and a standard.

The Transmitted Greek Influence.

The vital power of the Greek spirit was indeed not fully disclosed until, after suffering a partial eclipse in the Macedonian age, it emerged in a new quality, as a source of illumination to the Italian masters of the world. Under the plastic touch of conquered Greece, the Latin language was gradually moulded into an apter instrument of literature, while the Roman intellect itself acquired, in some measure, a flexibility not native to it. Through Rome, the Greek influence was transmitted to mediæval Europe in a form which obscured much of its charm, yet also served to extend its empire. In the earlier period of the Renaissance, the scholars of Italy, where the revival had its chief seat, were engrossed with Latin literature; they regarded it as their Italian heritage, restored to them after long deprivation. Greek studies, though ardently pursued by a few, remained, on the whole, in the background. And it may be said that the general spirit of the classical revival continued to be Latin rather than Greek down to the latter part of the last century. Even where the Greek language was most cultivated there was comparatively little sense of what is characteristic and distinctive in the best Greek literature. This sense was developed, in the second half of the 18th century, chiefly through two agencies. One was the study of Greek art, as advanced by such men as Winckelmann and Lessing,—bringing with it the perception that those qualities which characterise the best Greek art are also present in the best Greek literature. The other agency was a reaction against that conventional classicism, wearing a Latin garb, which had so long been dominant. Minds insurgent against that tyranny turned with joyous relief to the elastic freedom of the Greek intellect, to the living charm of Greek poetry and art. Goethe and Schiller are representatives of the new impulse. The great gain of the movement which thus began was that, for the first time since the Revival of Letters, the Greek originals stood out distinct from the Latin copies. Men acquired a truer sense of the Hellenic genius, and the current of Hellenic influence upon modern life began to flow in a clear channel of its own, no longer confused with the somewhat turbid stream of Renaissance classicism.

Meanwhile, however, modern literature and art had experienced the influence of other forces, acting in very different ways: and with these forces the Hellenic influence had to reckon. One of these was the product of mediæval Catholicism, which had given art a new genius. A new world of beauty had arisen, even more different from the pagan world than the Empire of the twelfth century was different from that of the first. Greek art had sprung from a free, cheerful life, open to all the bright impressions of external nature, a life warmed by frank human sympathies, and lit up with fancy controlled by reason. The lawgivers of mediæval art were men withdrawn from communion with the outward world by the rapture of a devotion at once half mystic and intensely real; instead of flexible intelligence they had religious passion; instead of the Greek's clear outlook upon the facts of humanity they had a faith which transfigured the actual world. The Greek artist, even in portraying passion, was mindful of balance, and placed certain limits upon the expression of individual character. The mediæval artist strove before all things to express the intensity of the individual soul. In poetry Dante is the great exponent of this spirit. And mediæval Catholicism deeply coloured the sentiment of all the literature known by the general name of Romantic. In Goethe's younger days the conflict between the Classical and the Romantic schools raged fiercely. The interlude of Helena, which forms the third act in the second part of Faust, was the work of his old age. Faust's nature is to be elevated and purified by developing in him the sense of beauty; Helena represents the classical, but especially the Greek, element in art and literature; and when Faust at last wins her, their union typifies the reconciliation of the Romantic with the Classical. Goethe himself dated a new life, a mental regeneration, from the time when he first seized the true spirit of the ancient masters. These are his own words, speaking of Greek art and literature:—"Clearness of vision, cheerfulness of acceptance, easy grace of expression, are the qualities which delight us; and now, when we affirm that we find all these in the genuine Grecian works, achieved in the noblest material, the best-proportioned form, with certainty and completeness of execution, we shall be understood if we always refer to them as a basis and a standard. Let each one be a Grecian in his own way, but let him be one." In that allegorical strain which pervades the Helena, Goethe has not failed to mark that, while the Hellenic idea of beauty is supreme, the Romantic element has also enriched modern life. The gifts are not all from one side. The symmetry, the clear outlines, the cheerful repose of Classical art, are wedded to the sentiment, passion, and variety of the Romantic. The great German poet felt, and has expressed with wonderful subtlety, the truth that no modern can absolutely dissociate the Hellenic influence from the others which have contributed to shape our modern life; no one can now be a pure Hellene, nor, if he could, would it be desirable; but everyone should recognise the special elements with which the Hellenic ideal can ennoble and chasten the modern spirit, and these he should by all means cultivate. To do so successfully, is to educate one's sense of beauty; and to do that aright, is so far to improve one's whole nature. This lesson, taught half-mystically in the second part of Faust, has sometimes been obscured by what Mr Matthew Arnold called the Hebraising tendency. We remember his definition, in Culture and Anarchy, of Hebraism as contrasted with Hellenism. The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism is strictness of conscience; both seek, in the Hebrew Apostle's words, to make us partakers of the divine nature; but Hellenism seeks to do this through the reason, by making us see things as they are; Hebraism insists rather upon conduct and obedience. In our own country, the intellectual influence of the Renaissance was crossed, and for a time checked, by the Hebraising tendency. But, though there is a profound difference, there is no necessary antagonism, between the ideal broadly described as Hebraic, and the permanent, the essential parts of Hellenism. The Greek influence has acted upon modern life and literature even more widely as a pervading and quickening spirit than as an exemplar of form; and it has shown itself capable of co-operating, in this subtle manner, with various alien forces, so as neither to lose its own distinction, nor to infringe upon theirs. Milton illustrates this. By temperament no less than creed he is a Puritan of the higher type. Steeped though he was in classical literature, the pervading spirit of his work is at any rate not Greek; it is more akin to the Hebraic, or, when not that, to the Roman. The Lycidas, for instance, is a pastoral elegy on an Alexandrian Greek model; but how strangely the temper of the Hellenic original is changed when the English poet's wrath blazes forth against the corruptions of the time. He shows his own consciousness of this in reverting to his theme:

          "Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past
          That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse!"

The Samson Agonistes has the form of a Greek drama; but its inspiration, like its subject, is far more Hebraic than Hellenic. Yet no one acquainted with the best Greek poetry can read Milton without feeling what its influence has contributed to his genius; it has helped to give him his lofty self-restraint and his serenity.

But the deepest and largest influence of Greece is not to be sought in the modern literature which treats Greek subjects or imitates Greek form; that influence works more characteristically when, having been received into the modern mind, it acts by suggestion and inspiration, breathing a grace and a power of its own into material and form of a different origin. This influence has been all-pervading in the modern world. Yet those who most appreciate the true value of Hellenism will never claim for it that, by itself, it can suffice for the needs of humanity. In the intellectual province its value is not only permanent but unique. It has furnished models of excellence which can never be superseded; by its spirit, it supplies a medicine for diseases of the modern mind, a corrective for aberrations of modern taste, a discipline, no less than a delight, for the modern imagination; since that obedience to reason which it exacts is also a return to the most gracious activities of life and nature. Of such a power, we may truly say—

                                                "it will never
          Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
          A bower of quiet for us, and a sleep
          Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."

But in the province of religion and morals Hellenism alone is not sufficient. Greek polytheism, even as ennobled by the great poets, was incapable of generating religious conceptions which could satisfy the mind and heart, or of furnishing an adequate rule for the conduct of life. These must be sought from another source. Yet there is no inherent conflict between true Hellenism and spiritualised Hebraism, such as is contained in Christianity. The distinctive quality of the best Greek literature and art, that by which it has lived and will live, is the faculty of rising from the earth into a clearer air. "The divine," says Plato in the Phaedrus, "is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil, it wastes and falls away." The Greek spirit, in its noblest form, is indeed, to borrow Plato's beautiful phrase, "the power of the wing" for the human soul. The visions to which it can soar are such as that described in the Phaedrus, where Beauty is beheld dwelling with Modesty, in a holy place. The best Greek work in every kind is essentially pure; to conceive it as necessarily entangled with the baser elements of paganism is to confound the accidents with the essence; the accidents have passed away; the essence is imperishable.

A further claim which may be made for the best Greek work is that it is capable of acting as an intellectual tonic, and of bracing us for the battle of life. "To pass from the study of Homer to the business of the world," says Mr Gladstone, "is to step out of a palace of enchantment into the cold grey light of a polar day. But the spells in which this enchanter deals have no affinity with that drug from Egypt which drowns the spirit in effeminate indifference; rather they are like the φάρμακον ἐσθλόν, the remedial specific, which, freshening the understanding by contact with the truth and strength of nature, should both improve its vigilance against deceit and danger, and increase its vigour and resolution for the discharge of duty." The tribute here rendered to Homer might be paid, with not less justice, to the classical Greek poetry as a whole. True to Aristotle's principle for art, this poetry deals with the universal,—with those elements of human character and life which are not transient or abnormal, but of interest for every age and every land.

On the high places, the templa serena, of Greek literature and art, those who are worn with the troubles or disturbed by the mental maladies of modern civilisation can breathe an atmosphere which, like that of Greece itself, has the freshness of the mountains and the sea. But the loneliness of Oeta or Cithaeron is not there; we have around us, on those summits, also the cheerful sympathies of human life, the pleasant greetings of the kindly human voice. The great thinkers and artists of ancient Hellas recall the words in which Aeschylus described those kinsmen of Niobe who worshipped their ancestral deity on the mountain-heights of Mysia—

                                         "the seed of gods,
          Men near to Zeus; for whom on Ida burns,
          High in clear air, the altar of their sire,
          Nor hath their race yet lost the blood divine."

Humanity cannot afford to lose out of its inheritance any part of the best work which has been done for it in the past. All that is most beautiful and most instructive in Greek achievement is our permanent possession; one which can be enjoyed without detriment to those other studies which modern life demands; one which no lapse of time can make obsolete, and which no multiplication of interests can make superfluous. Each successive generation must learn from ancient Greece that which can be taught by her alone.

Through what channels, in what modes, has her teaching been most largely operative upon the world? History shows how, from the Roman age to our own, Greece has everywhere helped to educate gifted minds, from which her light has radiated in ever widening circles. It has been her privilege to elicit a sense of kinship in the finer spirits of every race, and to enter as a vitalising essence into the most varied forms of modern thought, bringing to every such alliance some distinction which no other element could have conferred. But the peculiar characteristic of this influence among us in recent years is the vast increase in the number of those who receive it, not indirectly merely, but directly, through their own study of Greek literature and art. As regards the literature, this has been largely due to the appearance of really good translations. Through these a reader may learn to appreciate some qualities, at least, of the best Greek writers. In regard to art again, anyone whose eye has been trained to recognise the distinction of the best Greek work has learned much.

The Greek Language.

But the qualities of the Greek language are such that the difference made by a knowledge of it to one's appreciation of the literature is greater than in the case, for instance, of Latin, or German, or even of French. In these languages, of course, as in all others, very much is lost by translation; yet not so much as in Greek. The comprehension of Greek art, again, is distinctly aided by a knowledge of the Greek language, as the best archæologists would, I think, agree; and these facts follow from that general character of Greek which I must now attempt, however briefly, to describe. Compare classical Greek with its elder sister, the literary language of ancient India, and the difference is striking. Sanskrit has been the more faithful guardian of old Indo-European sounds and forms: the transparency of its structure gives it an unequalled value for students in relation to that whole family of languages. Greek attracts by a different charm. The thought which it suggests is rather,—how wonderfully this language has achieved the purposes inherent in its own particular genius! Itis an instrument which responds with happy elasticity to every demand of the Greek intellect. The forms which it has retained are light, graceful, flexible. It can express the most delicate shades of meaning with an elegant simplicity. This power is due, not only to its organic structure, but also to the tact with which words expressing the same general idea have been discriminated in its rich vocabulary. The Greek language is the earliest work of art created by the spontaneous working of the Greek mind, and it is the greatest work of Greek art which has survived. If those fragments of Greek architecture and sculpture which we so prize had come down to us without any credentials of their origin, simply as relics of an otherwise unknown race, it would not have been fantastic to conjecture that, of all the peoples recorded in history, the only one presumably capable of producing such monuments in marble was the same people whose thoughts had moulded, and whose spirit had chastened, the most perfect among the forms of human speech. The characteristic qualities of the Greek language are nowhere seen to greater advantage than in the Homeric poems, although the Homeric language has not yet fully developed certain special traits which the Attic dialect shows in perfection. We perceive in Homer how vividly this language bears the stamp of the imagination which has shaped it. The Greek saw the object of his thought directly and clearly. His first aim in speaking was to make the expression fit the thought. When an imagination of this kind, unclouded by any haze of literary reminiscence, and free from conscious striving after effect, soars into the region of the marvellous or the ideal, it still commands the obedience of the language which it has disciplined in the field of natural observation. Consider, for instance, the preternatural elements in the Odyssey. The oriental art which embodied an abstract conception or a mystic dogma in some hybrid or monstrous animal shape, was merely making an effort of symbolism. The spectator may comprehend the meaning or accept the doctrine, but he does not believe in the monster. The reader of the Odyssey, on the other hand, who feels the persons to be real, is not robbed of his illusion when Circe changes the hero's companions into swine; or when the flesh of the Sun-god's oxen bellows on the spits; or when Poseidon petrifies the Phaeacian ship. The human verisimilitude of the whole disguises the impossibility of the details; we scarcely feel at the moment that they are impossible. But how has this effect been attained? By an imagination which, through habitual contact "with what is living and real, has learned to animate fiction also with the breath of life; and which is served here also by a language so faithfully and finely moulded upon nature that, when it clothes a narrative of the miraculous, the very outlines of the garment disarm suspicion as to the form which they invest. Such is the general character of the Greek language—a perfect organ of expression, showing essentially the same qualities which appear in the best Greek art.

A Popular Study of Greek.

We ought all to rejoice, then, in the remarkable success of a new experiment in teaching that language, which has arisen out of the work of this Society. Classes have lately been formed for the study of Greek, and students who had enjoyed no previous advantages of instruction in the language, but whose interest in it had been quickened by lectures on the literature, have shown a zeal and made a progress of which their teachers have reason to be proud. I would venture to commend this new enterprise to the sympathies of all who are interested in classical studies, or indeed in literary studies of any kind. To my thinking, it is a movement of great importance, which is very likely to mark the beginning of a time when a first-hand knowledge of Greek shall be more widely diffused. It would be a notable and fruitful result if, as these new classes seem to promise, the interest felt in the Greek language should grow into anything that could fairly be described as a popular interest,—so that considerable numbers of students, outside of our great schools and Universities, should set themselves to acquire the power of reading the Greek literature in the original. I do not think that such a hope is chimerical, in view of what has already been accomplished by the enthusiasm of teachers and students. Of course one cannot expect that the time should soon come when the students at these classes, in any large numbers at least, will be able to read the more difficult parts of Greek literature; though I have no doubt that some students, when once started, will advance rapidly. But we may expect, I think, that such a knowledge of Greek as enables one to read Xenophon's Anabasis, for instance, will be found such a pleasant and profitable acquisition that, even if the student should not see his way to going much further, he will think that his time has been well spent, and that his labour has been well rewarded. I rest this belief on the peculiar charm of the Greek language, and on the peculiar way in which this charm affects learners, almost from the beginning—as I know from my own experience. A simple illustration may help to make this plainer. There are many children to whom no toy is more delightful than a printing-press, and its fascination consists chiefly in the leaden types. The letter A, for instance, so clear-cut, so faultless, as it stands forth from its neat stem,—what a contrast it is to the same letter as scrawled by pen or pencil; it is a little work of art in itself, which appeals to the fancy of an intelligent child. And such as types are to him, such are the words of the Greek language to a sympathetic learner. The Greek words are, in themselves, so clear-cut, so beautifully moulded, that they begin to please one's artistic sense even before one has made much progress with the language. This pleasure becomes keen so soon as one proceeds to put Greek words together—even three or four at a time—in the simplest sentences; it is like the child's pleasure in type-setting, only more varied. Therefore, for the beginner in Greek, we may always prescribe a little easy composition, it does not matter how little or how easy, if only it calls this feeling into play. For this feeling is not an illusion, which will fade in the presence of better knowledge. It is the germ of that delight in Greek which ripens with study, when the pleasure given at first by shapely words is enhanced by a perception of that symmetry and harmony, that unfailing adequacy to the lucid utterance of thought, which distinguishes the language as wielded by all its great masters, alike in verse and in prose.

I have firm faith, then, in the power of Greek to retain the interest which it has once awakened, not only for the sake of the treasures which it unlocks, but for its own sake also. And I believe that anything which tends to make the study of this language popular will be valuable in a further way. High specialisation has long ago become inevitable in every branch of knowledge. Classical philology is no exception to the rule. If a student is to know the best that has been done in even a small part of the field, he must concentrate himself thereon. But in the case of classical studies such completeness at a particular point may be purchased too dearly. These studies used to be called the "Humanities." This name expressed what is, after all, the greatest and best gift which they have to bestow. Their highest office is to influence the character, to chasten the judgment, to illumine the understanding, and, in a word, to render their disciples more truly humane. But, in order that they should produce these effects, it is necessary that they should be approached in a spirit more comprehensive than that of the specialist who confines himself to one small part of them, and comparatively ignores the rest. It is better—for most minds at any rate—to renounce the hope of an exhaustive acquaintance with any one corner of the field, than to miss the largest benefits which the entire discipline can confer. This is what, under the conditions of modern scholarship, we are perhaps too apt to forget. But, if the study of the Greek language were to be spread over a wider area, and if a more popular interest in the classics were to spring from it, the academic tendency towards excessive specialising would be gradually tempered by more popular instincts; the classics would be, so far, recalled to their paramount function as "Humanities"; in this sense, and to this extent, the intellectual pleasures tasted by the scholars of the Renaissance would be enjoyed anew by large numbers among us, to whom the charm of Greek literature, inseparable as it is from that of the Greek language, would come with all the joy of a discovery.

But even this is not the largest issue involved. That eager acceptance of stimulating lectures on the classics which has been manifested at several great centres of population is only one symptom, though a most remarkable one, of a growing desire to know the best literature at first hand. There is an eagerness abroad in the land to participate in those highest benefits of civilisation which are within the common rights of all mankind,—those gifts of education which may enable everyone to live a worthier life a life of higher activities and higher enjoyments, a life in which the duties of loyal citizenship can be discharged with greater efficiency and intelligence. The strength of the University Extension movement resides in the fact that it has responded to this desire—indeed, has done much to evoke it where it was latent, and to define it where it was vague. The Universities, as representing the higher education of the country, have gone out to the people, clearly seeing that the popular desire is not for the second-best, but for the best,—only presented in forms which can be understood. All thinking persons will perceive the immense importance of such a movement to the public welfare, not merely in an educational sense, but in regard to social stability and national security. Nothing could contribute more powerfully to preserve the best things which we have inherited from our ancestors, or to warrant a confidence that the new generation will be qualified to deal in a wise and enlightened manner with the conditions and problems of their time. University Extension has created a new profession, which demands special gifts and a special training. The distinguished men in its ranks have much hard work to do, sometimes much drudgery; and they have often to encounter difficulties which only perseverance can surmount. But they will be encouraged by the thought that they are rendering their country a great service—that they are helping to maintain the continuity of its best traditions, and to ensure that a people whose self-respect has its root in centuries of ordered freedom shall be knitted together by ties even stronger and nobler than those which united their fathers.

In conclusion, allow me to thank you for the kind patience with which you have listened to these remarks. I earnestly hope, and fully believe, that this great Society, which has already accomplished so much, will go on prospering more and more. In the field at which we have been looking to-day, it is doing a great work by enlarging the basis of those studies which are of primary importance for all literature and history. This is really to work in the Athenian spirit; and it will bring fresh honour to London—in words which a living poet applies to Athens,—

          "While this city's name on earth shall be for earth her mightiest name."

Notes[edit]

  1. Address to the Students of the London Branch of the University Extension Movement, delivered in the Egyptian Hall at the Mansion House, by permission and under the presidency of the Lord Mayor: March, 1893.