Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/The Environment of Grecian Culture
THE more closely we study the works of the ancient Greeks, and penetrate the secret of the thought which they loved to conceal under the veil of symbol and myth, the more plainly we recognize that their wise men half-saw by a kind of rapid divination many of the truths which have been demonstrated to modern philosophy only by series of methodically connected observations and experiments. There are few among the present theories of Nature, its forces and laws, of which some hint does not appear to have occurred, for a moment at least, to some of the philosophers of Ionia, Sicily, or continental Greece. In the study of man as living in society, or as what Aristotle calls the political animal, they pushed the rigor and subtilty of their analysis very far. How precisely Thucydides described the chronic or acute maladies of the moral sense and the changes it underwent, as at Corcyra amid revolutions that confused all established notions, and at Athens, when a fatal epidemic, offering the prospect of inevitable and immediate death to every one, impelled it to break from all constraint, and excited a thirst for pleasures to which there could be no immediate satisfaction!
The Greeks should also be credited with having outlined the doctrine that now holds the highest place in what we call the philosophy of history, of the influence exercised by the medium upon a race and a people. That theory, usually ascribed to Montesquieu, was foreseen by Aristotle, who accounted for the superiority of his countrymen by the intermediate position which Greece occupied between the cold regions of northern Europe and the warm countries of Asia; whereby, he said, the Greeks combined the energy of the northern barbarians with the mental vivacity of the Asiatics. The same doctrine was in fact presented a century earlier by Hippocrates, in his treatise on Air, Water, and Places, in which the last twelve chapters are occupied with it. Summarizing the results of a comparison between Europe, or Greece, and Asia, and accounting for the differences he has determined, he says: "You will find as a rule that the form of the body and the disposition of the mind correspond to the nature of the country. . . . All that the earth produces is conformed to the earth itself," understanding the term earth in its most comprehensive sense, and regarding in its definition less the configuration and qualities of the surface than those of the climates that prevail and modify the fauna and flora. "If Asiatics," he affirms, "are of a more gentle and less warlike nature than Europeans, the cause lies chiefly in the equability of their seasons." And further, "A perpetual uniformity fosters indolence; a variable climate gives activity to the body and the soul."
We shall therefore only be following the counsel and the example of the great minds of Greece if we seek, in studying its history, to ascertain how and how far the character of its people has been affected by the action of "the air, the water, and the place." In our inquiry into the character of the medium in which the tribes called Hellenes in the eighth century before the Christian era were developed, we have enjoyed the advantage of a long residence in Greece, during which we have observed the people in their struggles with a Nature which gives nothing without being paid down, in labor of mind and muscle.
The peoples who figured in history before the Greeks, occupied territories clearly defined by Nature. Egypt was the lower part of the valley of the Nile, and did not extend materially beyond it. Chaldeo-Assyrian civilization was developed in the spacious basin of the Euphrates and Tigris; a much larger field, but still one that had definite boundaries—in the Taurus Mountains on the north, the rampart of the Zagros on the east, the Persian Gulf on the south, and the Arabian and Syrian Deserts on the west. The Phœnicians, indeed, had more than one capital, and carried their trade through all the then known world, but their capitals succeeding one another, each received its knowledge and art from the one that preceded it, and gave them to the one that followed it, and their intercourse with the world was animated by the commercial spirit only. Their industry never drew its inspiration from an intense and vigorous living art; and all that was essential in them was the product of the narrow strip of land between the sea and Mount Lebanon. All Hebrew art was restricted to a still narrower area in the circuit of Jerusalem and the little kingdom that depended upon it. There were other peoples in western Asia and Asia Minor who made their influence felt abroad: but within themselves each formed a compact mass, inhabiting a concrete portion of the continent, and it is within that limited territory that we have to look for evidences of their genius and work.
Greece, on the contrary, was multiple and diverse in space and in time. The name is more particularly applied to the eastern-most of the peninsulas that the European continent projects into the Mediterranean toward Africa, in which the Grecian race, while it spread itself widely abroad, was most compactly settled; in which its cities of greatest influence and most immortal fame were built; and where were celebrated the Olympian, Isthmian, and Nemean games, to which all the scattered members of the Hellenic family periodically resorted. But, besides the peninsula of Hellas, as it was called, there were other Grecian lands, less eminently conspicuous, perhaps, which also performed their part, and that not an unimportant one, in the general movement of the race. There was Asiatic Greece, which by virtue of its brilliant and supple genius was more precocious than European Greece; which engaged first in the flights of poetry and art, and in general and distant voyages. There was a Greece in Africa, at Naucratis and the other cities among the mouths of the Nile, and in Cyrenaica cities, protected by the desert against invasion, and with its caravan-roads radiating in every direction into the interior, made it as a door opening toward the mysteries of the Southern continent. Thence a curiosity constantly on the alert brought data by means of which the limits of the known world were pushed further back, and the idea of the variety of men and climates was fostered.
On the opposite shores were the Grecian colonies fringing the gulfs and promontories of southern Italy, with their advanced posts pushed to the coasts of Gaul and Spain. They had the honor of being the earliest educators of Rome; and the monuments of architecture and sculpture which they have left are no less beautiful than those which originated on the soil of the mother-country. Between these Grecian lands, forming four well-defined groups on the mainland, each of which had its distinct existence, there was an insular Greece in the sea, including Sicily, the islands of the Adriatic, the islands south and east of Hellas—Cythera, Crete, the Cyclades and Sporades, Rhodes, Cyprus, Chios, Lesbos, the islands near Thrace, and many others, large and small. Men and merchandise, raw materials and manufactured goods, sacred images with the ideas and feelings they represented, the products of industry, and plastic types, were circulated and exchanged among these colonies with extraordinary facility; and happy meetings and fruitful contacts occurred in these hospitable archipelagoes, between Greeks and barbarians, and between Greeks of different stocks.
The race that was developed in this fortunate situation, favored by circumstances and by the medium in which it grew up, was perhaps the best endowed one that has participated in the work of civilization. The Greeks had in the highest degree the genius for invention in letters and the arts. The other great peoples of their time reached a certain point and stopped there, afterward only repeating the types which they had created during their earlier period; or else were content to "borrow and adapt; and, finishing their useful work before they lost their independence, continued to exist long after they had ceased to live and bring forth.
But Greece has always been progressive, or at least moving. Even when subjugated by the Romans, and when its series of original creations seemed to have been exhausted, it still cultivated science and history; attempted criticism; extended and sounded more deeply the ancient systems of philosophy; and took a part in the elaboration of the dogmas of Christianity.
In art, while its master sculptors and painters were extinct, its architects still produced great works without copying Ictinus and Mnesicles. The basilicas of Ravenna and the noble structure of St. Sophia are comparable in merit with the highest classical forms.
No organic development in the history of the human mind has been better known, or has been richer and at the same time more simple, than that of the Grecian genius. Notwithstanding the extent to which the Hellenic population was scattered, and the distances which separated the various groups, the evolution, taken as a whole, was governed by the same laws and exhibited the same phases in like order and under like conditions, in all the lands in which the Greek language was spoken. The different stocks were like trees of the same species, destined to produce the same fruits, the color and taste of which were liable, it is true, to be modified by local influences, but the variations were kept within narrow bounds. So these peoples were kept from greatly diverging by their constant communication with each other, which was aided by the forms and relations of their lands—promontories jutting out toward one another, and frequent islands; so that the sailor between distant ports was hardly ever out of sight of some Grecian headland. Nowhere else does the Mediterranean offer such a disposition; and there was in this geographical feature a direct provocative of the spirit of adventure.
The Hellenic peninsula is divided into two masses of nearly equal size—central Greece and the Peloponnesus—each of which is in turn divided into secondary peninsulas that have curiously irregular contours; while the islands are often so near to one another that one can pass between them or to the mainland with a few strokes of the oars. The waters in the sinuosities of the straits are always smooth; the deep bays lying in the recesses of the hilly shore; the narrow creeks concealed in the serratures of the rocky coasts; the beaches on which vessels can be run to rest on the sands; landlocked harbors like that of the Piræus, capable of accommodating hundreds of ships—make Greece a country where the sea is so mingled with the land, insinuates itself into it and penetrates it in so many ways, that the inhabitants could not fail to trust themselves upon it as soon as they could hollow out a pirogue, familiarize themselves with the sea, and make it their highway. When the Greeks first appeared to view—in their epic poems—they were already bold sailors, fond of telling of the arduous voyages they had made and of the distant countries they had visited. They still keep their compact with the sea and excel as sailors; and their marine is an important element of Mediterranean commerce.
The roughness of their land made the Greeks all the more ready to accept the invitation offered them by the sea. The whole country is a single mountain mass of complicated construction and irregular expanse, the different summits of which have their several names; furrowed and carved by innumerable ravines and split by deep chasms, which often present precipitous walls. It has no high, broad, table-lands or large valleys; what are called plains there, except in Thessaly, where they are larger, being only narrow spaces nearly hemmed in by the mountains around, and notched by their intruding spurs. Where one must be always climbing, and descending to go up again, and is stopped at every few steps by some formidable obstacle, communication by land is not easy. It was therefore of great advantage and assistance to have the sea at hand to take one wherever he might wish to go, and, in order to enjoy it to the fullest, the Grecian colonists established themselves in such situations that each group should have at least one seaport. Only one considerable community, the Arcadians, had a wholly inland home, and they were regarded as generally behind the others in enterprise, learning, and civilization. Without the sea and the outlets it offered, the peoples who occupied the Hellenic peninsula would probably have continued in a condition of barbarism and anarchy, like that with which their relatives, the Albanians, are still struggling; without it they must have been doomed to that indefinite state of division in which the clan rules. The passage by land from one district to another was always arduous and often impossible. The local groups seemed doomed to live in perpetual isolation, with no room for a truly large and fruitful national development. That their influence became more prominent than might have been anticipated was because of a special feature that modified the effects of the general configuration of the land. Nearly all the mountain-walled districts of Greece had one side open to the sea, and that gave passage to everything—persons, goods, and ideas. Storms could close this road only a few days at a time, while through all other seasons the ships could sail freely, promoting an incessant exchange of visits and mutual favors among districts between which Nature had within placed the restrictions of numerous and high barriers.
The attachment of the Greeks to the sea was confirmed by the regularity and mildness of the winds. This sea and these winds favored the moral unity of Greece, which it enjoyed till the time of the Roman conquest without ever having political and administrative unity. Until the capture of Corinth by Mummius it was divided into a number of cantons separated from one another by Nature, which were as many independent states. This universal presence of the sea furnishes a means of accounting for the superiority of the part which Greece has played in the world. The country, while it was free, had no roads, and did not need them. It was easier and more convenient to spread sail, in order to go from one place to another, than to climb the mountains and coast along the precipices. It would have been hard to find, even outside of the very numerous class of professional sailors, a Greek who had not, once at least in his life, left his native village or city for purposes of war, commerce, pleasure, or piety. The last two motives were confounded in practice. The desire to consult a renowned oracle, or to attend the festivals celebrated in honor of the great national deities, caused the movement, every year, of thousands of Greeks, many of whom came from a great distance—from remote parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa. These festivals held a place in the lives of the Greeks of which we, subject to the tyranny of professional duty and the cares of business, can hardly form a conception. We can imagine that the attendants upon them, during the few hours they passed together, would have much to tell one another and to learn, and would improve the opportunity. Can anything be fancied better than these removals and meetings to awaken the mind and keep it on the alert, and thus to forestall the estrangement with which the race was threatened by reason of the dispersion and wide separation of its branches? The Greeks of Hellas could refresh and increase their knowledge by conversation with those of their brethren who, like Ulysses, had "seen cities and learned the thoughts of many men." The citizens of the most remote colonies, those who lived in small groups among barbarians or in the oases of the desert, having taken part in the periodical solemnities at Athens, Delphi, or Olympia, could return more Greek in feeling and thought, manners and language. Like the giant of one of their fables, they had recruited their strength by touching the mother's bosom of the country of which they were children.
Greece was thus at once central and scattered; central in Hellas, scattered and multiplied in the periphery. The great body had its interior circulation; its blood was sent out to the extremities, and from the limbs returned to the heart to be purified there and charged anew with the nutritious elements that kept up the life and originality of the race, and gave it its superior energy. It had the mobility of the waves, which, after they had sown the Grecian colonies all along the shores of the Mediterranean, were incessantly bringing them back to their native country. The sea, when they were still an infant and savage race, brought them the germs of civilization from the East. Through it they received the figures and the rites of divinities, the worship of which was destined to bring men together and make them social-writing, metals, and the processes and implements of the principal arts. The sea placed the Greeks in relations of the most favorable character with foreign nations; in such relations as are suggestive and not oppressive. It permitted frequent intercourse and prolonged visits, but did not lend itself readily to attempts at invasion. The peril from this source was the less in the early days of Greece, because the chief military powers of those times had no navies on the Mediterranean; and when Persia was ready to send armed fleets to achieve its conquest, Greece had become mature and had capable commanders and well-managed fleets.
Greece was further protected in the days of its development, on the continental side, by the formidable chain of Hæmus or the Balkan Mountains, behind which it was enabled to work out its destiny unobserved and unmolested by the barbarian peoples who were moving and marching beyond them in the valley of the Danube. South of these rise in succession the mountains that envelop Thessaly with their ramifications westward, and the Cambunian Mountains, both crossed only by narrow and difficult passes. When these were forced, and the enemy was in Thessaly, he had to scale other barriers no less difficult in order to reach the plains of Bœotia; and then, to get from each small state to the next, he had to surmount the other considerable chains that severally separate them, where he was constantly liable to be exposed to the eyes and arrows of the native population. Even if, after overcoming all these obstacles, a conqueror succeeded in penetrating to the end of the last redoubt, a slight accident might any day turn his triumph into a disaster. All the doors which he had opened might be closed upon him in an instant. "Greece," says M. Michelet, "is made like a trap with three bottoms: you find yourself caught in Thessaly, then between Thermopylæ and the isthmus, and at last in the Peloponnesus." It is a great advantage to a people to feel that it is secure in the country it lives in.
This peculiar disposition of their territory further enabled the Greeks to try the experiment of municipal government, and to demonstrate the excellent results it can give to a happily endowed people. This government is that in which the idea of the city and that of the state are merged; in which each city is a living body, all the members of which take a more or less direct part in the administration of public affairs.
It is not without some surprise that we learn from history how at once intense and scattered was life in the whole Hellenic world, from the eighth to the third century b. c., and what organic potency, what intestinal activity, and what expansive force were possessed by each of the little states which the vigor of Grecian genius had scattered over all the Mediterranean shores. This municipal life was endowed with a mobility and variety that were not exhibited elsewhere. The minds of the people, easily receptive to the beautiful and the true, were stimulated to reflection by letters, philosophy, and science, and matured rapidly. Rhetoric, placed at the service of private and public interests, bred an eloquence which was fed by broad ideas that raised the dignity of party strifes. On all the theatres of action, before which the attention of the audience was never relaxed, the politician, artist, poet, writer, or orator—the man always in sight and in action—never ceased to display his passionate energy; while the lively emulation of these cities, at once rivals and sisters, none of which would submit willingly to be less than the others, or let them achieve a glory in which it could not have a part, augmented the ardor of the universal effort. Thus we find in the creation of the city the source of the high, originality of Greece, and the stimulant to its real work—the building up of ancient civilization.
The relief of the land in the Hellenic peninsula and its dependencies gave rise to the city. The nature of the country and the climate had a salutary influence on the development of what Alfieri calls "the human plant." The land co-operated with the sea in promoting the supple and robust development of the body and the alert action of the mind. The life of the sailor inures the limbs and adapts them to all kinds of motion; with its constantly imminent perils, it exacts coolness and watchfulness and makes the mind quick to perceive and precise in observation. There were few Greeks who had not lived more or less on the sea and received some education of this kind.
Even those Greeks whose occupations kept them habitually ashore were subjected to somewhat similar influences. The land is one of sharp contrasts. One can pass in a few hours' walk from the vicinity of almost eternal snows, through forests of beech and fir, to plains where the palm-tops wave. Marked contrasts appear in the distribution of water. Gravelly ravines, in which ribbons of verdure, of laurels and tamarisk, are the only sign of the existence of a stream beneath the surface, are a predominant type; on the western slopes of Hellas are limpid streams, flowing in little cascades like the Neda, or full to the banks like the Ladon; rivers like the Alpheus and Achelous, which can not be forded even in the dry season; with Lake Phenæa, in the Peloponnesus, resembling the lakes of Switzerland. Yet water is rare and inestimably precious; and that explains the worship that was given to the nymphs of fountains, and the care that was taken in art to give them forms of beauty corresponding to the honors which popular piety rendered to them.
The climates are as various as the physiological characteristics of the landscape. On the shores of the bays and on the islands the difference is slight between the mean temperatures of the cold and the warm seasons; but in the interior, in the closed valleys, the winters are severe and the summers hot. With such varieties of land with its hundred faces, and the sky with its hundred caprices, body and mind are kept under perpetual strain to adapt themselves to the complex and mobile conditions of media that are modified with a rapidity that discounts all forecasts. Within a very narrow space are men of the same race and language leading very different lives accordingly as they dwell on the mountains, the high pastures, the cultivated slopes, or the shore. One who removes from one of these zones to another is obliged to modify his habits, to add or take off something of his clothing or his food, and perhaps to learn and exercise a new occupation. This tends to stimulate the organs and give elasticity to the mind, which is constrained by the force of circumstances to improvise the methods of action which the conditions demand. Thus everything concurred to develop personal energy among the Grecian people, and to fortify and build up the race by virtue of the law of the survival of the fittest. While infant mortality has always been very high, in consequence of the abrupt contrasts, those constitutions which succeeded in adapting themselves to them acquired a singular elasticity.
The marvelously clear atmosphere and bright skies of Greece give the vision a delicacy which the sense can not attain where all the contours are enveloped in vapors. There is thus developed in it the habit of studying, comparing, and measuring forms from a distance; and it acquires in that practice those qualities of a just perception and a quick feeling of the exact relations of the different parts of a whole which, in the age when they were applied to the interpretation and reproduction of the living form, contributed to make the Greeks the first artists in the world.
Artistic excellence was further favored by the very composition and nature of the rocks of Greece. The rocks of some districts, when disintegrated, furnish an excellent plastic material, equally suitable for bricks or tiles, and for modeling under the fingers of the potter and sculptor; and when they retain their consistency and hardness, although of unequal quality, they readily adapt themselves, with a little care, to the purposes of the artist. Certain shell tufas were convenient for use as a stucco, to cover deficiencies of material and give it color. A solid stone, such as is found at the Piræus, was adapted for precise cutting and exact joining, to a rhythmical arrangement of the blocks and a firm accentuation of the moldings. More careful pains was encouraged when marble of a finer grain was used. It was a material that inspired the workman with a kind of involuntary regard, for it assured him that none of his intention, no delicate stroke of the chisel would be lost; and this gave that wonderfully accurate execution so much admired in the sculptures. There were, further, marbles of different colors, which could be combined and arranged for the best effects. The adaptability of these materials to the sculptor's work was hardly a less potent factor in the development of Grecian art than were the natural genius of the race and the conditions of its environment.
On the other hand, Greece was poor in metals, the lead and silver mines of Laurium being the only mines on the peninsula that have been worked with profit. The fact brought its advantages. The people could not do without metals; they needed them for domestic luxury and ornament. The metallic treasures found at Mycenae and other evidences are in proof of the power of their taste for gold, and they shrank from no danger to get it. Both it and the humbler metals had to be got from abroad; and the necessity must have contributed to the development of business and enterprise. It would dispose the people to welcome the foreigner bringing them the commodities they desired, and then to go in search of them in the countries where they occurred or were brought in by trade. All dependence, including dependence in trade, is a bond; and it is important that it shall not operate to reduce one of the two parties brought into association by it into vassalage to the other. That danger was not to be apprehended in Greece. The situation and configuration of the country were calculated to foster individuality and independence in all things, and to protect the beginnings and favor the development of the nation which should first establish and hold itself there as in an impregnable fortress.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.