THE GREEK VIEW OF LIFE
G. LOWES DICKINSON, M.A.
The following pages are intended to serve as a general introduction to Greek literature and thought, for those, primarily, who do not know Greek. Whatever opinions may be held as to the value of translations, it seems clear that it is only by their means that the majority of modern readers can attain to any knowledge of Greek culture; and as I believe that culture to be still, as it has been in the past, the most valuable element of a liberal education, I have hoped that such an attempt as the present to give, with the help of quotations from the original authors, some general idea of the Greek view of life, will not be regarded as labour thrown away.
It has been essential to my purpose to avoid, as far as may be, all controversial matter; and if any classical scholar who may come across this volume should be inclined to complain of omissions or evasions, I would beg him to remember the object of the book and to judge it according to its fitness for its own end.
"The Greek View of Life," no doubt, is a question-begging title, but I believe it to have a quite intelligible meaning; for varied and manifold as the phases may be that are presented by the Greek civilization, they do nevertheless group themselves about certain main ideas, to be distinguished with sufficient clearness from those which have dominated other nations. It is these ideas that I have endeavoured to bring into relief; and if I have failed, the blame, I submit, must be ascribed rather to myself than to the nature of the task I have undertaken.
From permission to make the extracts from translations here printed my best thanks are due to the following authors and publishers:—Professor Butcher, Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. E. D. A. Morshead, Mr. B. B. Rogers, Dr. Verrall, Mr. A. S. Way, Messrs. George Bell and Sons, the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, Oxford, Messrs. Macmillan and Co., Mr. John Murray, and Messrs. Sampson Low, Marston and Co.—I have also to thank the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford, for permission to quote at considerable length from the late Professor Jowett's translations of Plato and Thucydides.
Appended is a list of the translations from which I have quoted.
LIST OF TRANSLATIONS USED
AESCHYLUS (B.C. 525—456). "The House of Atreus" (I.E. the "Agamemnon," "Choephorae" and "Eumenides"), translated by E. D. A. MORSHEAD (Warren and Sons). The "Eumenides," translated by DR. VERRALL (Cambridge, 1885).
ARISTOPHANES (C. B.C. 444—380). "The Acharnians, the Knights, and the Birds," translated by JOHN HOOKHAM FRERE (Morley's Universal Library, Routledge). [Also the "Frogs" and the "Peace" in his Collected Works, (Pickering)]. The "Clouds," the "Lysistrata" ["Women in Revolt,"] the "Peace," and the "Wasps," translated by B. B. ROGERS
ARISTOTLE (B.C. 384—322). The "Ethics," the "Politics," and the "Rhetoric," translated by J. E. C. WELLDON (Macmillan & Co.).
DEMOSTHENES (B.C. 385—322). "Orations," translated by C. R. KENNEDY (Bell).
EURIPIDES (B.C. 480—406). "Tragedies," translated by A. S. WAY (Macmillan & Co.).
HERODOTUS (B.C. 484— ). "The History," translated by S. R. RAWLINSON (Murray).
HOMER. The "Iliad," translated by LANG, LEAF AND MYERS; the "Odyssey," translated by BUTCHER & LANG (Macmillan).
PINDAR (B.C. 522—442). "Odes," translated by E. MYERS (Macmillan & Co.).
PLATO (B.C. 430—347). The "Dialogues," translated by B. JOWETT (Clarendon Press). "The Republic," translated by DAVIES AND VAUGHAN (Macmillan & Co.).
PLUTARCH. "Lives," DRYDEN'S translation, edited by A. CLOUGH (Sampson Low, Marston & Co.).
SOPHOCLES (B.C. 496—406). Edited and Translated by DR. JEBB (Cambridge University Press).
THUCYDIDES (B.C. 471— ), edited and translated by B. JOWETT (Clarendon Press).
CHAPTER I.—THE GREEK VIEW OF RELIGION
2. Greek Religion an Interpretation of Nature
3. Greek Religion an Interpretation of the Human Passions
4. Greek Religion the Foundation of Society
5. Religious Festivals
6. The Greek Conception of the Relation of Man to the Gods
7. Divination, Omens, Oracles
8. Sacrifice and Atonement
9. Guilt and Punishment
11. The Greek View of Death and a Future Life
12. Critical and Sceptical Opinion in Greece
13. Ethical Criticism
14. Transition to Monotheism
15. Metaphysical Criticism
16. Metaphysical reconstruction—Plato
CHAPTER II.—THE GREEK VIEW OF THE STATE
1. The Greek State a "City"
2. The Relation of the State to the Citizen
3. The Greek View of Law
4. Artisans and Slaves
5. The Greek State primarily Military, not Industrial
6. Forms of Government in the Greek State
7. Faction and Anarchy
8. Property and the Communistic Ideal
11. Sceptical Criticism of the Basis of the State
CHAPTER III.—THE GREEK VIEW OF THE INDIVIDUAL
1. The Greek View of Manual Labour and Trade
2. Appreciation of External Goods
3. Appreciation of Physical Qualities
4. Greek Athletics
5. Greek Ethics—Identification of the Aesthetic and Ethical Points of View
6. The Greek View of Pleasure
7. Illustrations.—Ischomachus; Socrates
8. The Greek View of Woman
9. Protests against the Common View of Woman
CHAPTER IV.—THE GREEK VIEW OF ART
1. Greek Art an Expression of National Life
2. Identification of the Aesthetic and Ethical points of View
3. Sculpture and Painting
4. Music and the Dance
THE GREEK VIEW OF LIFE
THE GREEK VIEW OF RELIGION
Section 1. Introductory.
In approaching the subject of the religion of the Greeks it is necessary to dismiss at the outset many of the associations which we are naturally inclined to connect with that word. What we commonly have in our mind when we speak of religion is a definite set of doctrines, of a more or less metaphysical character, formulated in a creed and supported by an organisation distinct from the state. And the first thing we have to learn about the religion of the Greeks is that it included nothing of the kind. There was no church, there was no creed, there were no articles; there was no doctrine even, unless we are so to call a chaos of legends orally handed down and in continual process of transformation by the poets. Priests there were, but they were merely public officials, appointed to perform certain religious rites. The distinction between cleric and layman, as we know it, did not exist; the distinction between poetry and dogma did not exist; and whatever the religion of the Greeks may have been, one thing at any rate is clear, that it was something very different from all that we are in the habit of associating with the word.
What then was it? It is easy to reply that it was the worship of those gods—of Zeus, Apollo, Athene, and the rest—with whose names and histories every one is familiar. But the difficulty is to realise what was implied in the worship of these gods; to understand that the mythology which we regard merely as a collection of fables was to the Greeks actually true; or at least that to nine Greeks out of ten it would never occur that it might be false, might be, as we say, mere stories. So that though no doubt the histories of the gods were in part the inventions of the poets, yet the poets would conceive themselves to be merely putting into form what they and every one believed to be essentially true.
But such a belief implies a fundamental distinction between the conception, or rather, perhaps, the feeling of the Greeks about the world, and our own. And it is this feeling that we want to understand when we ask ourselves the question, what did a belief in the gods really mean to the ancient Greeks? To answer it fully and satisfactorily is perhaps impossible. But some attempt must be made; and it may help us in our quest if we endeavour to imagine the kind of questionings and doubts which the conception of the gods would set at rest.
Section 2. Greek Religion an Interpretation of Nature.
When we try to conceive the state of mind of primitive man the first thing that occurs to us is the bewilderment and terror he must have felt in the presence of the powers of nature. Naked, houseless, weaponless, he is at the mercy, every hour, of this immense and incalculable Something so alien and so hostile to himself. As fire it burns, as water it drowns, as tempest it harries and destroys; benignant it may be at times, in warm sunshine and calm, but the kindness is brief and treacherous. Anyhow, whatever its mood, it has to be met and dealt with. By its help, or, if not, in the teeth of its resistance, every step in advance must be won; every hour, every minute, it is there to be reckoned with. What is it then, this persistent, obscure, unnameable Thing? What is it? The question haunts the mind; it will not be put aside; and the Greek at last, like other men under similar conditions, only with a lucidity and precision peculiar to himself, makes the reply, "it is something like myself." Every power of nature he presumes to be a spiritual being, impersonating the sky as Zeus, the earth as Demeter, the sea as Poseidon; from generation to generation under his shaping hands, the figures multiply and define themselves; character and story crystallise about what at first were little more than names; till at last, from the womb of the dark enigma that haunted him in the beginning, there emerges into the charmed light of a world of ideal grace a pantheon of fair and concrete personalities. Nature has become a company of spirits; every cave and fountain is haunted by a nymph; in the ocean dwell the Nereids, in the mountain the Oread, the Dryad in the wood; and everywhere, in groves and marshes, on the pastures or the rocky heights, floating in the current of the streams or traversing untrodden snows, in the day at the chase and as evening closes in solitude fingering his flute, seen and heard by shepherds, alone or with his dancing train, is to be met the horned and goat-footed, the sunny- smiling Pan.
Thus conceived, the world has become less terrible because more familiar. All that was incomprehensible, all that was obscure and dark, has now been seized and bodied forth in form, so that everywhere man is confronted no longer with blind and unintelligible force, but with spiritual beings moved by like passions with himself. The gods, it is true, were capricious and often hostile to his good, but at least they had a nature akin to his; if they were angry, they might be propitiated; if they were jealous, they might be appeased; the enmity of one might be compensated by the friendship of another; dealings with them, after all, were not so unlike dealings with men, and at the worst there was always a chance for courage, patience and wit.
Man, in short, by his religion has been made at home in the world; and that is the first point to seize upon. To drive it home, let us take an illustration from the story of Odysseus. Odysseus, it will be remembered, after the sack of Troy, for ten years was a wanderer on the seas, by tempest, enchantment, and every kind of danger detained, as it seemed, beyond hope of return from the wife and home he had left in Ithaca. The situation is forlorn enough. Yet, somehow or other, beauty in the story predominates over terror. And this, in part at least, because the powers with which Odysseus has to do, are not mere forces of nature, blind and indifferent, but spiritual beings who take an interest, for or against, in his fate. The whole story becomes familiar, and, if one may say so, comfortable, by the fact that it is conducted under the control and direction of the gods. Listen, for example, to the Homeric account of the onset of a storm, and observe how it sets one at ease with the elements:
"Now the lord, the shaker of the earth, on his way from the Ethiopians, espied Odysseus afar off from the mountains of the Solymi: even thence he saw him as he sailed over the deep; and he was yet more angered in spirit, and wagging his head he communed with his own heart. 'Lo now, it must be that the gods at the last have changed their purpose concerning Odysseus, while I was away among the Ethiopians. And now he is nigh to the Phaeacian land, where it is so ordained that he escape the great issues of the woe which hath come upon him. But me-thinks, that even yet I will drive him far enough in the path of suffering.'
"With that he gathered the clouds and troubled the waters of the deep, grasping his trident in his hands; and he roused all storms of all manner of winds, and shrouded in clouds the land and sea: and down sped night from heaven. The East Wind and the South Wind clashed, and the stormy West, and the North, that is born in the bright air, rolling onward a great wave." [Footnote: Odyss. v. 282.—Translated by Butcher and Lang.]
The position of the hero is terrible, it is true, but not with the terror of despair; for as it is a god that wrecked him, it may also be a god that will save. If Poseidon is his enemy, Athene, he knows, is his friend; and all lies, after all, in the hands, or, as the Greeks said, "on the knees," not of a blind destiny, but of beings accessible to prayer.
Let us take another passage from Homer to illustrate the same point. It is the place where Achilles is endeavouring to light the funeral pyre of Patroclus, but because there is no wind the fire will not catch. What is he to do? What can he do? Nothing, say we, but wait till the wind comes. But to the Greek the winds are persons, not elements; Achilles has only to call and to promise, and they will listen to his voice. And so, we are told, "fleet-footed noble Achilles had a further thought: standing aside from the pyre he prayed to the two winds of North and West, and promised them fair offerings, and pouring large libations from a golden cup besought them to come, that the corpses might blaze up speedily in the fire, and the wood make haste to be enkindled. Then Iris, when she heard his prayer, went swiftly with the message to the Winds. They within the house of the gusty West Wind were feasting all together at meat, when Iris sped thither, and halted on the threshold of stone. And when they saw her with their eyes, they sprung up and called to her every one to sit by him. But she refused to sit, and spake her word: 'No seat for me; I must go back to the streams of Ocean, to the Ethiopians' land where they sacrifice hecatombs to the immortal gods, that I too may feast at their rites. But Achilles is praying the North Wind and the loud West to come, and promising them fair offerings, that ye may make the pyre be kindled whereon lieth Patroclos, for whom all the Achaians are making moan.'
"She having thus said departed, and they arose with a mighty sound, rolling the clouds before them. And swiftly they came blowing over the sea, and the wave rose beneath their shrill blast; and they came to deep-soiled Troy, and fell upon the pile, and loudly roared the mighty fire. So all night drave they the flame of the pyre together, blowing shrill; and all night fleet Achilles, holding a two-handled cup, drew wine from a golden bowl, and poured it forth and drenched the earth, calling upon the spirit of hapless Patroclos. As a father waileth when he burneth the bones of his son, new-married, whose death is woe to his hapless parents, so wailed Achilles as he burnt the bones of his comrade, going heavily round the burning pile, with many moans.
"But at the hour when the Morning Star goeth forth to herald light upon the earth, the star that saffron-mantled Dawn cometh after, and spreadeth over the salt sea, then grew the burning faint, and the flame died down. And the Winds went back again to betake them home over the Thracian main, and it roared with a violent swell. Then the son of Peleus turned away from the burning and lay down wearied, and sweet sleep leapt on him." [Footnote: Iliad xxiii. p. 193.—Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.]
The exquisite beauty of this passage, even in translation, will escape no lover of poetry. And it is a beauty which depends on the character of the Greek religion; on the fact that all that is unintelligible in the world, all that is alien to man, has been drawn, as it were, from its dark retreat, clothed in radiant form, and presented to the mind as a glorified image of itself. Every phenomenon of nature, night and "rosy- fingered" dawn, earth and sun, winds, rivers, and seas, sleep and death,—all have been transformed into divine and conscious agents, to be propitiated by prayer, interpreted by divination, and comprehended by passions and desires identical with those which stir and control mankind.
Section 3. Greek Religion an Interpretation of the Human Passions.
And as with the external world, so with the world within. The powers of nature were not the only ones felt by man to be different from and alien to himself; there were others, equally strange, dwelling in his own heart, which, though in a sense they were part of him, yet he felt to be not himself, which came upon him and possessed him without his choice and against his will. With these too he felt the need to make himself at home, and these too, to satisfy his need, he shaped into creatures like himself. To the whole range of his inner experience he gave definition and life, presenting it to himself in a series of spiritual forms. In Aphrodite, mother of Eros, he incarnated the passion of love, placing in her broidered girdle "love and desire of loving converse that steals the wits even of the wise"; in Ares he embodied the lust of war; in Athene, wisdom; in Apollo, music and the arts. The pangs of guilt took shape in the conception of avenging Furies; and the very prayers of the worshipper sped from him in human form, wrinkled and blear-eyed, with halting pace, in the rear of punishment. Thus the very self of man he set outside himself; the powers, so intimate, and yet so strange, that swayed him from within he made familiar by making them distinct; converted their shapeless terror into the beauty of visible form; and by merely presenting them thus to himself in a guise that was immediately understood, set aside, if he could not answer, the haunting question of their origin and end.
Here then is at least a partial reply to our question as to the effect of a belief in the gods on the feeling of the Greek. To repeat the phrase once more, it made him at home in the world. The mysterious powers that controlled him it converted into beings like himself; and so gave him heart and breathing-space, shut in, as it were, from the abyss by this shining host of fair and familiar forms, to turn to the interests and claims of the passing hour an attention undistracted by doubt and fear.
Section 4. Greek Religion the Foundation of Society.
But this relation to the world of nature is only one side of man's life; more prominent and more important, at a later stage of his development, is his relation to society; and here too in Greek civilization a great part was played by religion. For the Greek gods, we must remember, were not purely spiritual powers, to be known and approached only in the heart by prayer. They were beings in human form, like, though superior to ourselves, who passed a great part of their history on earth, intervened in the affairs of men, furthered or thwarted their undertakings, begat among them sons and daughters, and followed, from generation to generation, the fortunes of their children's children. Between them and mankind there was no impassable gulf; from Heracles the son of Zeus was descended the Dorian race; the Ionians from Ion, son of Apollo; every family, every tribe traced back its origin to a "hero", and these "heroes" were children of the gods, and deities themselves. Thus were the gods, in the most literal sense, the founders of society; from them was derived, even physically, the unit of the family and the race; and the whole social structure raised upon that natural basis was necessarily penetrated through and through by the spirit of religion.
We must not therefore be misled by the fact that there was no church in the Greek state to the idea that the state recognised no religion; on the contrary, religion was so essential to the state, so bound up with its whole structure, in general and in detail, that the very conception of a separation between the powers was impossible. If there was no separate church, in our sense of the term, as an independent organism within the state, it was because the state, in one of its aspects, was itself a church, and derived its sanction, both as a whole and in its parts, from the same gods who controlled the physical world. Not only the community as a whole but all its separate minor organs were under the protection of patron deities. The family centred in the hearth, where the father, in his capacity of priest, offered sacrifice and prayer to the ancestors of the house; the various corporations into which families were grouped, the local divisions for the purpose of taxation, elections, and the like, derived a spiritual unity from the worship of a common god; and finally the all-embracing totality of the state itself was explained and justified to all its members by the cult of the special protecting deity to whom its origin and prosperous continuance were due. The sailor who saw, on turning the point of Sunium, the tip of the spear of Athene glittering on the Acropolis, beheld in a type the spiritual form of the state; Athene and Athens were but two aspects of the same thing; and the statue of the goddess of wisdom dominating the city of the arts may serve to sum up for us the ideal of that marvellous corporate life where there was no ecclesiastical religion only because there was no secular state.
Regarded from this point of view, we may say that the religion of the Greeks was the spiritual side of their political life. And we must add that in one respect their religion pointed the way to a higher political achievement than they were ever able to realise in fact. One fatal defect of the Greek civilisation, as is familiar to students of their history, was the failure of the various independent city states to coalesce into a single harmonious whole. But the tendency of religion was to obviate this defect. We find, for example, that at one time or another federations of states were formed to support in common the cult of some god; and one cult in particular there was—that of the Delphian Apollo—whose influence on political no less than on religious life was felt as far as and even beyond the limits of the Greek race. No colony could be founded, no war hazarded, no peace confirmed, without the advice and approval of the god—whose cult was thus at once a religious centre for the whole of Greece, and a forecast of a political unity that should co-ordinate into a whole her chaos of conflicting states.
The religion of the Greeks being thus, as we have seen, the presupposition and bond of their political life, we find its sanction extended at every point to custom and law. The persons of heralds, for example, were held to be under divine protection; treaties between states and contracts between individuals were confirmed by oath; the vengeance of the gods was invoked upon infringers of the law; national assemblies and military expeditions were inaugurated by public prayers; the whole of corporate life, in short, social and political, was so embraced and bathed in an idealising element of ritual that the secular and religious aspects of the state must have been as inseparable to a Greek in idea as we know them to have been in constitution.
Section 5. Religious Festivals.
For it was in ritual and art, not in propositions, that the Greek religion expressed itself; and in this respect it was closer to the Roman Catholic than to the Protestant branch of the Christian faith. The plastic genius of the race, that passion to embody ideas in form, which was at the root, as we saw, of their whole religious outlook, drove them to enact for their own delight, in the most beautiful and telling forms, the whole conception they had framed of the world and of themselves. The changes of the seasons, with the toil they exact and the gifts they bring, the powers of generation and destruction, the bounty or the rigours of the earth; and on the other hand, the order and operations of social phenomena, the divisions of age and sex, of function and of rank in the state—all these took shape and came, as it were, to self- consciousness in a magnificent series of publicly ordered fetes. So numerous were these and so diverse in their character that it would be impossible, even if it were desirable in this place, to give any general account of them. Our purpose will be better served by a description of two, selected from the calendar of Athens, and typical, the one of the relations of man to nature, the other of his relation to the state. The festivals we have chosen are those known as the "Anthesteria" [Footnote: This interpretation of the meaning of the "Anthesteria" is not accepted by modern scholars. It is not, however, for typographical reasons, convenient to remove it from the text, and the error is of no importance for the purpose of this book.] and the "Panathenaea."
The Anthesteria was held at that season of the year when, as Pindar sings in an ode composed to be sung upon the occasion, "the chamber of the Hours is opened and the blossoms hear the voice of the fragrant spring; when violet clusters are flung on the lap of earth, and chaplets of roses braided in the hair; when the sound of the flute is heard and choirs chanting hymns to Semele." On the natural side the festival records the coming of spring and the fermenting of last year's wine; on the spiritual, its centre is Dionysus, who not only was the god of wine, but, according to another legend, symbolised in his fate the death of the year in winter and its rebirth at spring.
The ceremonies open with a scene of abandoned jollity; servants and slaves are invited to share in the universal revel; the school holidays begin; and all the place is alive with the bustle and fun of a great fair. Bargaining, peep-shows, conjuring, and the like fill up the hours of the day; and towards evening the holiday-makers assemble garlanded and crowned in preparation for the great procession. The procession takes place by torch-light; the statue of Dionysus leads the way, and the revellers follow and swarm about him, in carriages or on foot, costumed as Hours or Nymphs or Bacchae in the train of the god of wine. The destination is the temple of the god and there sacrifice is performed with the usual accompaniment of song and dance; the whole closing with a banquet and a drinking contest, similar to those in vogue among the German students. Aristophanes has described the scene for us—
"Couches, tables, Cushions and coverlets for mattresses, Dancing and singing-girls for mistresses, Plum cake and plain, comfits and caraways, Confectionery, fruits preserved and fresh, Relishes of all sorts, hot things and bitter, Savouries and sweets, broiled biscuits and what not; Flowers and perfumes, and garlands, everything." [Footnote: Aristoph. Ach. 1090.—Frere's translation.]
and in the midst of this the signal given by the trumpet, the simultaneous draught of wine, and the prize adjudged to the man who is the first to empty his cup.
Thus ends the first phase of the festival. So far all has been mirth and revelry; but now comes a sudden change of tone. Dionysus, god of wine though he be, has also his tragic aspect; of him too there is recorded a "descent into hell"; and to the glad celebration of the renewal of life in spring succeeds a feast in honour of the dead. The ghosts, it is supposed, come forth to the upper air; every door-post is smeared with pitch to keep off the wandering shades; and every family sacrifices to its own departed. Nor are the arts forgotten; a musical festival is held, and competing choirs sing and dance in honour of the god.
Such, so far as our brief and imperfect records enable us to trace it, was the ritual of a typical Greek festival. With the many questions that might be raised as to its origin and development we need not concern ourselves at present; what we have to note is the broad fact, characteristic of the genius of the Greeks, that they have taken the natural emotions excited by the birth of spring, and by connecting them with the worship of Dionysus have given them expression and form; so that what in its origin was a mere burst of primitive animal spirits is transmuted into a complex and beautiful work of art, the secret springs and fountains of physical life flowing into the forms of a spiritual symbol. It is this that is the real meaning of all ceremonial, and this that the Greeks better than any other people understood. Their religion, one may almost say, consisted in ritual; and to attempt to divide the inner from the outer would be to falsify from the beginning its distinctive character.
Let us pass to our second illustration, the great city-festival of Athens. In the Anthesteria it was a moment of nature that was seized and idealized; here, in the Panathenaea, it is the forms of social life, its distinctions within its embracing unity, that are set forth in their interdependence as functions of a spiritual life. In this great national fete, held every four years, all the higher activities of Athenian life were ideally displayed—contests of song, of lyre and of flute, foot and horse races, wrestling, boxing, and the like, military evolutions of infantry and horse, pyrrhic dances symbolic of attack and defence in war, mystic chants of women and choruses of youths—the whole concentring and discharging itself in that great processional act in which, as it were, the material forms of society became transparent, and the Whole moved on, illumined and visibly sustained by the spiritual soul of which it was the complete and harmonious embodiment. Of this procession we have still in the frieze of the Parthenon a marble transcript. There we may see the life of ancient Athens moving in stone, from the first mounting of their horses by isolated youths, like the slow and dropping prelude of a symphony, on to the thronged and trampling ranks of cavalry, past the antique chariots reminiscent of Homeric war, and the marching band of flutes and zithers, by lines of men and maidens bearing sacrificial urns, by the garlanded sheep and oxen destined for sacrifice, to where, on turning the corner that leads to the eastern front, we find ourselves in the presence of the Olympian gods themselves, enthroned to receive the offering of a people's life. And if to this marble representation we add the colour it lacks, the gold and silver of the vessels, the purple and saffron robes; if we set the music playing and bid the oxen low; if we gird our living picture with the blaze of an August noon and crown it with the Acropolis of Athens, we may form a conception, better perhaps than could otherwise be obtained, of what religion really meant to the citizen of a state whose activities were thus habitually symbolised in the cult of its patron deity. Religion to him, clearly, could hardly be a thing apart, dwelling in the internal region of the soul and leaving outside, untouched by the light of the ideal, the whole business and complexity of the material side of life; to him it was the vividly present and active soul of his corporate existence, representing in the symbolic forms of ritual the actual facts of his experience. What he re-enacted periodically, in ordered ceremony, was but the drama of his daily life; so that, as we said before, the state in one of its aspects was a church, and every layman from one point of view a priest.
The question, "What did a belief in the gods really mean to the Greek" has now received at least some sort of answer. It meant, to recur to our old phrase, that he was made at home in the world. In place of the unintelligible powers of nature, he was surrounded by a company of beings like himself; and these beings who controlled the physical world were also the creators of human society. From them were descended the Heroes who founded families and states; and under their guidance and protection cities prospered and throve. Their histories were recounted in innumerable myths, and these again were embodied in ritual. The whole life of man, in its relations both to nature and to society, was conceived as derived from and dependent upon his gods; and this dependence was expressed and brought vividly home to him in a series of religious festivals. Belief in the gods was not to him so much an intellectual conviction, as a spiritual atmosphere in which he moved; and to think it away would be to think away the whole structure of Greek civilisation.
Section 6. The Greek Conception of the Relation of Man to the Gods.
Admitting, however, that all this is true, admitting the place of religion in Greek life, do we not end, after all, in a greater puzzle than we began with? For this, it may be said, whatever it may be, is not what we mean by religion. This, after all, is merely a beautiful way of expressing facts; a translation, not an interpretation, of life. What we mean by religion is something very different to that, something which concerns the relation of the soul to God; the sense of sin, for example, and of repentance and grace. The religion of the Greeks, we may admit, did something for them which our religion does not do for us. It gave intelligible and beautiful form to those phenomena of nature which we can only describe as manifestations of energy; it expressed in a ritual of exquisite art those corporate relations which we can only enunciate in abstract terms; but did it perform what after all, it may be said, is the true function of religion? did it touch the conscience as well as the imagination and intellect?
To this question we may answer at once, broadly speaking, No! It was, we might say, a distinguishing characteristic of the Greek religion that it did not concern itself with the conscience at all; the conscience, in fact, did not yet exist, to enact that drama of the soul with God which is the main interest of the Christian, or at least of the Protestant faith. To bring this point home to us let us open the "Pilgrim's Progress", and present to ourselves, in its most vivid colours, the position of the English Puritan:
"Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, 'What shall I do to be saved?' I looked then, and saw a man named Evangelist coming to him, and asked, 'Wherefore dost thou cry?'
"He answered, 'Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand, that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.'
"Then said Evangelist, 'Why not willing to die, since this life is attended with so many evils?' The man answered, 'Because I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave, and I shall fall into Tophet. And, Sir, if I be not fit to go to prison, I am not fit to go to judgment, and from thence to execution; and the thoughts of these things makes me cry.'
"Then said Evangelist, 'If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?' He answered, 'Because I know not whither to go.' Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, 'Fly from the wrath to come.'"
The whole spirit of the passage transcribed, and of the book from which it is quoted, is as alien as can be to the spirit of the Greeks. To the Puritan, the inward relation of the soul to God is everything; to the average Greek, one may say broadly, it was nothing; it would have been at variance with his whole conception of the divine power. For the gods of Greece were beings essentially like man, superior to him not in spiritual nor even in moral attributes, but in outward gifts, such as strength, beauty, and immortality. And as a consequence of this his relations to them were not inward and spiritual, but external and mechanical. In the midst of a crowd of deities, capricious and conflicting in their wills, he had to find his way as best he could. There was no knowing precisely what a god might want; there was no knowing what he might be going to do. If a man fell into trouble, no doubt he had offended somebody, but it was not so easy to say whom or how; if he neglected the proper observances no doubt he would be punished, but it was not everyone who knew what the proper observances were. Altogether it was a difficult thing to ascertain or to move the will of the gods, and one must help oneself as best one could. The Greek, accordingly, helped himself by an elaborate system of sacrifice and prayer and divination, a system which had no connection with an internal spiritual life, but the object of which was simply to discover and if possible to affect the divine purposes. This is what we meant by saying that the Greek view of the relation of man to the gods was mechanical. The point will become clearer by illustration.
Section 7. Divination, Omens, Oracles.
Let us take first a question which much exercised the Greek mind—the difficulty of forecasting the future. Clearly, the notion that the world was controlled by a crowd of capricious deities, swayed by human passions and desires, was incompatible with the idea of fixed law; but on the other hand it made it possible to suppose that some intimation might be had from the gods, either directly or symbolically, of what their intentions and purposes really were. And on this hypothesis we find developed quite early in Greek history, a complex art of divining the future by signs. The flight of birds and other phenomena of the heavens, events encountered on the road, the speech of passers-by, or, most important of all, the appearance of the entrails of the victims sacrificed were supposed to indicate the probable course of events. And this art, already mature in the time of the Homeric poems, we find flourishing throughout the historic age. Nothing could better indicate its prevalence and its scope than the following passage from Aristophanes, where he ridicules the readiness of his contemporaries to see in everything an omen, or, as he puts it, punning on the Greek word, a "bird": "On us you depend," sings his chorus of Birds,
"On us you depend, and to us you repair For counsel and aid, when a marriage is made, A purchase, a bargain, a venture in trade; Unlucky or lucky, whatever has struck ye, An ox or an ass, that may happen to pass, A voice in the street, or a slave that you meet, A name or a word by chance overheard, You deem it an omen, and call it a Bird." [Footnote: Aristoph. "Birds" 717.—Frere's translation.]
Aristophanes, of course, is jesting; but how serious and important this art of divination must have appeared even to the most cultivated Athenians may be gathered from a passage of the tragedian Aeschylus, where he mentions it as one of the benefits conferred by Prometheus on mankind, and puts it on a level with the arts of building, metal-making, sailing, and the like, and the sciences of arithmetic and astronomy.
And if anyone were dissatisfied with this method of interpretation by signs, he had a directer means of approaching the gods. He could visit one of the oracles and consult the deity at first hand about his most trivial and personal family affairs. Some of the questions put to the oracle at Dodona have been preserved to us, [Footnote: See Percy Gardner, "New Chapters in Greek History."] and very curious they are. "Who stole my cushions and pillow?" asks one bereaved householder. Another wants to know whether it will pay him to buy a certain house and farm; another whether sheep-farming is a good investment. Clearly, the god was not above being consulted on the meanest affairs; and his easy accessibility must have been some compensation for his probable caprice.
Nor must it be supposed that this phase of the Greek religion was a superstition confined to individuals; on the contrary, it was fully recognised by the state. No important public act could be undertaken without a previous consultation of omens. More than once, in the clearest and most brilliant period of the Greek civilisation, we hear of military expeditions being abandoned because the sacrifices were unfavourable; and at the time of the Persian invasion, at the most critical moment of the history of Greece, the Lacedaemonians, we are told, came too late to be present at the battle of Marathon, because they thought it unlucky to start until the moon was full.
In all this we have a suggestion of the sort of relation in which the Greek conceived himself to stand to the gods. It is a relation, as we said, external and mechanical. The gods were superior beings who knew, it might be presumed, what was going to happen; man didn't know, but perhaps he could find out. How could he find out? that was the problem; and it was answered in the way we have seen. There was no question, clearly, of a spiritual relation; all is external; and a similar externality pervades, on the whole, the Greek view of sacrifice and of sin. Let us turn now to consider this point.
Section 8. Sacrifice and Atonement.
In Homer, we find that sacrifice is frankly conceived as a sort of present to the gods, for which they were in fairness bound to an equivalent return; and the nature of the bargain is fully recognised by the gods themselves.
"Hector," says Zeus to Hera, "was dearest to the gods of all mortals that are in Ilios. So was he to me at least, for nowise failed he in the gifts I loved. Never did my altar lack seemly feast, drink-offering and the steam of sacrifice, even the honour that falleth to our due." [Footnote: Iliad xxiv. 66.—Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.] And he concludes that he must intervene to secure the restoration of the body of Hector to his father.
The performance of sacrifice, then, ensures favour; and on the other hand its neglect entails punishment. When Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek fleet the most natural hypothesis to account for his conduct is that he has been stinted of his due meed of offerings; "perhaps," says Agamemnon, "the savour of lambs and unblemished goats may appease him." Or again, when the Greeks omit to sacrifice before building the wall around their fleet, they are punished by the capture of their position by the Trojans. The whole relation between man and the gods is of the nature of a contract. "If you do your part, I'll do mine; if not, not!" that is the tone of the language on either side. The conception is legal, not moral nor spiritual; it has nothing to do with what we call sin and conscience.
At a later period, it is true, we find a point of view prevailing which appears at first sight to come closer to that of the Christian. Certain acts we find, such as murder, for example, were supposed to infect as with a stain not only the original offender but his descendants from generation to generation. Yet even so, the stain, it appears, was conceived to be rather physical than moral, analogous to disease both in its character and in the methods of its cure. Aeschylus tells us of the earth breeding monsters as a result of the corruption infused by the shedding of blood; and similarly a purely physical infection tainted the man or the race that had been guilty of crime. And as was the evil, so was the remedy. External acts and observations might cleanse and purge away what was regarded as an external affection of the soul; and we know that in historic times there was a class of men, comparable to the mediaeval "pardoners", whose profession it was to effect such cures. Plato has described them for us in striking terms. "Mendicant prophets," he says, "go to rich men's doors and persuade them that they have a power committed to them of making an atonement for their sins or those of their fathers by sacrifices or charms with rejoicings and games; and they promise to harm an enemy whether just or unjust, at a small charge; with magic arts and incantations binding the will of heaven, as they say, to do their work.... And they produce a host of books written by Musaeus and Orpheus, who were children of the Moon and the Muses—that is what they say—according to which they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour." [Footnote: Plato's Republic, II. 364b.—Jowett's translation.]
How far is all this from the Puritan view of sin! How far from the Christian of the "Pilgrim's Progress" with the burden on his back! To measure the distance we have only to attend, with this passage in our mind, a meeting, say, of the "Salvation Army". We shall then perhaps understand better the distinction between the popular religion of the Greeks and our own; between the conception of sin as a physical contagion to be cured by external rites, and the conception of it as an affection of the conscience which only "grace" can expel. In the one case the fact that a man was under the taint of crime would be borne in upon him by actual misfortune from without—by sickness, or failure in business, or some other of the troubles of life; and he would ease his mind and recover the spring of hope by performing certain ceremonies and rites. In the other case, his trouble is all inward; he feels that he is guilty in the sight of God, and the only thing that can relieve him is the certainty that he has been forgiven, assured him somehow or other from within. The difference is fundamental, and important to bear in mind, if we would form a clear conception of the Greek view of life.
Section 9. Guilt and Punishment.
It must not be supposed, however, that the popular superstition described by Plato, however characteristic it may be of the point of view of the Greeks, represents the highest reach of their thought on the subject of guilt. No profounder utterances are to be found on this theme than those of the great poets and thinkers of Greece, who, without rejecting the common beliefs of their time, transformed them by the insight of their genius into a new and deeper significance. Specially striking in this connection is the poetry of the tragedian Aeschylus; and it will be well worth our while to pause for a moment and endeavour to realise his position.
Guilt and its punishment is the constant theme of the dramas of Aeschylus; and he has exhausted the resources of his genius in the attempt to depict the horror of the avenging powers, who under the name of the Erinyes, or Furies, persecute and torment the criminal. Their breath is foul with the blood on which they feed; from their rheumy eyes a horrible humour drops; daughters of night and clad in black they fly without wings; god and man and the very beasts shun them; their place is with punishment and torture, mutilation, stoning and breaking of necks. And into their mouth the poet has put words which seem to breathe the very spirit of the Jewish scriptures.
"Come now let us preach to the sons of men; yea, let us tell them of our vengeance; yea, let us all make mention of justice.
"Whoso showeth hands that are undefiled, lo, he shall suffer nought of us for ever, but shall go unharmed to his ending.
"But if he hath sinned, like unto this man, and covereth hands that are blood-stained: then is our witness true to the slain man.
"And we sue for the blood, sue and pursue for it, so that at the last there is payment.
Even so 'tis written: (Oh sentence sure!) "Upon all that wild in wickedness dip hand In the blood of their birth, in the fount of their flowing: So shall he pine until the grave receive him—to find no grace even in the grave! Sing then the spell, Sisters of hell; Chant him the charm Mighty to harm, Binding the blood, Madding the mood; Such the music that we make: Quail, ye sons of man, and quake, Bow the heart, and bend, and break!
This is our ministry marked for us from the beginning; This is our gift, and our portion apart, and our godhead, Ours, ours only for ever, Darkness, robes of darkness, a robe of terror for ever! Ruin is ours, ruin and wreck; When to the home Murder hath come, Making to cease Innocent peace; Then at his beck Follow we in, Follow the sin; And ah! we hold to the end when we begin!" [Footnote: Aeschyl. Eum. 297.—Translated by Dr. Verrall (Cambridge, 1885).]
There is no poetry more sublime than this; none more penetrated with the sense of moral law. But still it is wholly Greek in character. The theme is not really the conscience of the sinner but the objective consequence of his crime. "Blood calls for blood," is the poet's text; a man, he says, must pay for what he does. The tragedy is the punishment of the guilty, not his inward sense of sin. Orestes, in fact, who is the subject of the drama with which we are concerned, in a sense was not a sinner at all. He had killed his mother, it is true, but only to avenge his father whom she had murdered, and at the express bidding of Apollo. So far is he from feeling the pangs of conscience that he constantly justifies his act. He suffers, not because he has sinned but because he is involved in the curse of his race. For generations back the house of Atreus had been tainted with blood; murder had called for murder to avenge it; and Orestes, the last descendant, caught in the net of guilt, found that his only possibility of right action lay in a crime. He was bound to avenge his father, the god Apollo had enjoined it; and the avenging of his father meant the murder of his mother. What he commits, then, is a crime, but not a sin; and so it is regarded by the poet. The tragedy, as we have said, centres round an external objective law— "blood calls for blood." But that is all. Of the internal drama of the soul with God, the division of the man against himself, the remorse, the repentance, the new birth, the giving or withholding of grace—of all this, the essential content of Christian Protestantism, not a trace in the clear and concrete vision of the Greek. The profoundest of the poets of Hellas, dealing with the darkest problem of guilt, is true to the plastic genius of his race. The spirit throws outside itself the law of its own being; by objective external evidence it learns that doing involves suffering; and its moral conviction comes to it only when forced upon it from without by a direct experience of physical evil. Of Aeschylus, the most Hebraic of the Hellenes, it is as true as of the average Greek, that in the Puritan meaning of the phrase he had no sense of sin. And even in treating of him, we must still repeat what we said at the beginning, that the Greek conception of the relation of man to the gods is external and mechanical, not inward and spiritual.
Section 10. Mysticism.
But there is nothing so misleading as generalisation, specially on the subject of the Greeks. Again and again when we think we have laid hold of their characteristic view we are confronted with some new aspect of their life which we cannot fit into harmony with our scheme. There is no formula which will sum up that versatile and many-sided people. And so, in the case before us, we have no sooner made what appears to be the safe and comprehensive statement that the Greeks conceived the relation of man to the gods mechanically, than we are reminded of quite another phase of their religion, different from and even antithetic to that with which we have hitherto been concerned. Nothing, we might be inclined to say on the basis of what we have at present ascertained, nothing could be more opposed to the clear anthropomorphic vision of the Greek, than that conception of a mystic exaltation, so constantly occurring in the history of religion, whose aim is to transcend the limits of human personality and pass into direct communion with the divine life. Yet of some such conception, and of the ritual devised under its influence, we have undoubted though fragmentary indications in the civilization of the Greeks. It is mainly in connection with the two gods Apollo and Dionysus that the phenomena in question occur; gods whose cult was introduced comparatively late into Greece and who brought with them from the north something of its formless but pregnant mystery; as though at a point the chain of guardian deities was broken, and the terror and forces of the abyss pressed in upon the charmed circle of Hellas. For Apollo, who in one of his aspects is a figure so typically Hellenic, the ever-young and beautiful god of music and the arts, was also the Power of prophetic inspiration, of ecstasy or passing out of oneself. The priestess who delivered his oracle at Delphi was possessed and mastered by the god. Maddened by mephitic vapours streaming from a cleft in the rock, convulsed in every feature and every limb, she delivered in semi- articulate cries the burden of the divine message. Her own personality, for the time being, was annihilated; the wall that parts man from god was swept away; and the Divine rushed in upon the human vessel it shattered as it filled. This conception of inspiration as a higher form of madness, possessed of a truer insight than that of sanity, was fully recognised among the Greeks. "There is a madness," as Plato puts it, "which is the special gift of heaven, and the source of the chiefest blessings among men. For prophecy is a madness, and the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when out of their senses have conferred great benefits on Hellas, both in public and private life, but when in their senses few or none.... And in proportion as prophecy is higher and more perfect than divination both in name and reality, in the same proportion, as the ancients testify, is madness superior to a sane mind, for the one is only of human, but the other of divine origin." [Footnote: Plato, Phaedrus, 244.—Jowett's translation.]
Here then, in the oracle at Delphi, the centre of the religious life of the Greeks, we have an explicit affirmation of that element of mysticism which we might have supposed to be the most alien to their genius; and the same element re-appears, in a cruder and more barbaric form, in connection with the cult of Dionysus. He, the god of wine, was also the god of inspiration; and the ritual with which he was worshipped was a kind of apotheosis of intoxication. To suppress for a time the ordinary work-a-day consciousness, with its tedium, its checks, its balancing of pros and cons, to escape into the directness and simplicity of mere animal life, and yet to feel in this no degradation but rather a submission to the divine power, an actual identification with the deity-such, it would seem, was the intention of those extraordinary revels of which we have in the "Bacchae" of Euripides so vivid a description. And to this end no stimulus was omitted to excite and inspire the imagination and the sense. The influence of night and torches in solitary woods, intoxicating drinks, the din of flutes and cymbals on a bass of thunderous drums, dances convulsing every limb and dazzling eyes and brain, the harking-back, as it were, to the sympathies and forms of animal life in the dress of fawnskin, the horns, the snakes twined about the arm, and the impersonation of those strange half-human creatures who were supposed to attend upon the god, the satyrs, nymphs, and fauns who formed his train—all this points to an attempt to escape from the bounds of ordinary consciousness and pass into some condition conceived, however confusedly, as one of union with the divine power. And though the basis, clearly enough, is physical and even bestial, yet the whole ritual does undoubtedly express, and that with a plastic grace and beauty that redeems its frank sensuality, that passion to transcend the limitations of human existence which is at the bottom of the mystic element in all religions.
But this orgy of the senses was not the only form which the worship of Dionysus took in Greece. In connection with one of his legends, the myth of Dionysus Zagreus, we find traces of an esoteric doctrine, taught by what were known as the orphic sects, very curiously opposed, one would have said, to the general trend of Greek conceptions. According to the story, Zagreus was the son of Zeus and Persephone. Hera, in her jealousy, sent the Titans to destroy him; after a struggle, they managed to kill him, cut him up and devoured all but the heart, which was saved by Athene and carried to Zeus. Zeus swallowed it, and produced therefrom a second Dionysus. The Titans he destroyed by lightning, and from their ashes created Man. Man is thus composed of two elements, one bad, the Titanic, the other good, the Dionysiac; the latter being derived from the body of Dionysus, which the Titans had devoured. This fundamental dualism, according to the doctrine founded on the myth, is the perpetual tragedy of man's existence; and his perpetual struggle is to purify himself of the Titanic element. The process extends over many incarnations, but an ultimate deliverance is promised by the aid of the redeemer Dionysus Lysius.
The belief thus briefly described was not part of the popular religion of the Greeks, but it was a normal growth of their consciousness, and it is mentioned here as a further indication that even in what we call the classical age there were not wanting traces of the more mystic and spiritual side of religion. Here, in the tenets of these orphic sects, we have the doctrine of "original sin," the conception of life as a struggle between two opposing principles, and the promise of an ultimate redemption by the help of the divine power. And if this be taken in connection with the universal and popular belief in inspiration as possession by the god, we shall see that our original statement that the relation of man to the gods was mechanical and external in the Greek conception, must at least be so far modified that it must be taken only as an expression of the central or dominant point of view, not as excluding other and even contradictory standpoints.
Still, broadly speaking and admitting the limitations, the statement may stand. If the Greek popular religion be compared with that of the Christian world, the great distinction certainly emerges, that in the one the relation of God to man is conceived as mechanical and external, in the other as inward and spiritual. The point has been sufficiently illustrated, and we may turn to another division of our subject.
Section 11. The Greek View of Death and a Future Life.
Of all the problems on which we expect light to be thrown by religion none, to us, is more pressing than that of death. A fundamental, and as many believe, the most essential part of Christianity, is its doctrine of reward and punishment in the world beyond; and a religion which had nothing at all to say about this great enigma we should hardly feel to be a religion at all. And certainly on this head the Greeks, more than any people that ever lived, must have required a consolation and a hope. Just in proportion as their life was fuller and richer than that which has been lived by any other race, just in proportion as their capacity for enjoyment, in body and soul, was keener, as their senses were finer, their intellect broader, their passions more intense, must they have felt, with peculiar emphasis, the horror of decay and death. And such, in fact, is the characteristic note of their utterances on this theme. "Rather," says the ghost of Achilles to Odysseus in the world of shades, "rather would I live upon the soil as the hireling of another, with a landless man who had no great livelihood, than bear sway among all the dead that are no more." [Footnote: Od. xi 489.—Translated by Butcher and Lang.] Better, as Shakespeare has it,
"The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature,"
better that, on earth at least and in the sun, than the phantom kingdoms of the dead. The fear of age and death is the shadow of the love of life; and on no people has it fallen with more horror than on the Greeks. The tenderest of their songs of love close with a sob; and it is an autumn wind that rustles in their bowers of spring. Here, for example, is a poem by Mimnermus characteristic of this mood of the Greeks:
"O golden Love, what life, what joy but thine? Come death, when thou art gone, and make an end! When gifts and tokens are no longer mine, Nor the sweet intimacies of a friend. These are the flowers of youth. But painful age The bane of beauty, following swiftly on, Wearies the heart of man with sad presage And takes away his pleasure in the sun. Hateful is he to maiden and to boy And fashioned by the gods for our annoy." [Footnote: Mimnermus, El. I.]
Such being the general view of the Greeks on the subject of death, what has their religion to say by way of consolation? It taught, to begin with, that the spirit does survive after death. But this survival, as it is described in the Homeric poems, is merely that of a phantom and a shade, a bloodless and colourless duplicate of the man as he lived on earth. Listen to the account Odysseus gives of his meeting with his mother's ghost.
"So spake she, and I mused in my heart and would fain have embraced the spirit of my mother dead. Thrice I sprang towards her, and was minded to embrace her; thrice she flitted from my hands as a shadow or even as a dream, and sharper ever waxed the grief within me. And uttering my voice I spake to her winged words:
"'Mother mine, wherefore dost thou not tarry for me who am eager to seize thee, that even in Hades we twain may cast our arms each about the other, and satisfy us with chill lament? Is it but a phantom that the high goddess Persephone hath sent me, to the end that I may groan for more exceeding sorrow?'
"So spake I, and my lady mother answered me anon:
"'Ah me, my child, luckless above all men, nought doth Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, deceive thee, but even in this wise it is with mortals when they die. For the sinews no more bind together the flesh and the bones, but the force of burning fire abolishes them, so soon as the life hath left the white bones, and the spirit like a dream flies forth and hovers near.'"
From such a conception of the life after death little comfort could be drawn; nor does it appear that any was sought. So far as we can trace the habitual attitude of the Greek he seems to have occupied himself little with speculation, either for good or evil, as to what might await him on the other side of the tomb. He was told indeed in his legends of a happy place for the souls of heroes, and of torments reserved for great criminals; but these ideas do not seem to have haunted his imagination. He was never obsessed by that close and imminent vision of heaven and hell which overshadowed and dwarfed, for the mediaeval mind, the brief space of pilgrimage on earth. Rather he turned, by preference, from the thought of death back to life, and in the memory of honourable deeds in the past and the hope of fame for the future sought his compensation for the loss of youth and love. In the great funeral speech upon those who have fallen in war which Thucydides puts into the mouth of Pericles we have, we must suppose, a reflection, more accurate than is to be found elsewhere, of the position naturally adopted by the average Greek. And how simple are the topics, how broad and human, how rigorously confined to the limits of experience! There is no suggestion anywhere of a personal existence continued after death; the dead live only in their deeds; and only by memory are the survivors to be consoled.
"I do not now commiserate the parents of the dead who stand here; I would rather comfort them. You know that your life has been passed amid manifold vicissitudes; and that they may be deemed fortunate who have gained most honour, whether an honourable death like theirs, or an honourable sorrow like yours, and whose days have been so ordered that the term of their happiness is likewise the term of their life... Some of you are at an age at which they may hope to have other children, and they ought to bear their sorrow better; not only will the children who may hereafter be born make them forget their now lost ones, but the city will be doubly a gainer. She will not be left desolate, and she will be safer. For a man's counsels cannot be of equal weight or worth, when he alone has no children to risk in the general danger. To those of you who have passed their prime, I say: 'Congratulate yourselves that you have been happy during the greater part of your days; remember that your life of sorrow will not last long, and be comforted by the glory of those who are gone. For the love of honour alone is ever young, and not riches, as some say, but honour is the delight of men when they are old and useless.'" [Footnote: Thuc. II. 44.—Jowett's translation.]
The passage perhaps represents what we may call the typical attitude of the Greek. To seek consolation for death, if anywhere, then in life, and in life not as it might be imagined beyond the grave, but as it had been and would be lived on earth, appears to be consonant with all that we know of the clear and objective temper of the race. It is the spirit which was noted long ago by Goethe as inspiring the sepulchral monuments of Athens.
"The wind," he says, "which blows from the tombs of the ancients comes with gentle breath as over a mound of roses. The reliefs are touching and pathetic, and always represent life. There stand father and mother, their son between them, gazing at one another with unspeakable truth to nature. Here a pair clasp hands. Here a father seems to rest on his couch and wait to be entertained by his family. To me the presence of these scenes was very touching. Their art is of a late period, yet are they simple, natural, and of universal interest. Here there is no knight in harness on his knees awaiting a joyful resurrection. The artist has with more or less skill presented to us only the persons themselves, and so made their existence lasting and perpetual. They fold not their hands, gaze not into heaven; they are on earth, what they were and what they are. They stand side by side, take interest in one another; and that is what is in the stone, even though somewhat unskilfully, yet most pleasingly depicted." [Footnote: From Goethe's "Italienische Reise." I take this translation (by permission) from Percy Gardner's "New Chapters in Greek History", p. 319.]
As a further illustration of the same point an epitaph may be quoted equally striking for its simple human feeling and for its absence of any suggestion of a continuance of the life of the dead. "Farewell" is the first and last word; no hint of a "joyful resurrection."
"Farewell, tomb of Melite; the best of women lies here, who loved her loving husband, Onesimus; thou wert most excellent, wherefore he longs for thee after thy death, for thou wert the best of wives.—Farewell, thou too, dearest husband, only love my children."
But however characteristic this attitude of the Greeks may appear to be, especially by contrast with the Christian view, it would be a mistake to suppose that it was the only one with which they were acquainted, or that they had put aside altogether, as indifferent or insoluble, the whole problem of a future world. As we have seen, they did believe in the survival of the spirit, and in a world of shades ruled by Pluto and Persephone. They had legends of a place of bliss for the good and a place of torment for the wicked; and if this conception did not haunt their mind, as it haunted that of the mediaeval Christian, yet at times it was certainly present to them, with terror or with hope. That the Greek was not unacquainted with the fear of hell we know from the passage of Plato, part of which we have already quoted, where in speaking of the mendicant prophets who professed to make atonement for sin he says that their ministrations "are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us." And on the other hand we hear, as early as the date of the Odyssey, of the Elysian fields reserved for the souls of the favourites of the gods.
The Greeks, then, were not without hope and fear concerning the world to come, however little these feelings may have coloured their daily life; and there was one phase of their religion, which appears to have been specially occupied with this theme. In almost every Greek city we hear of "mysteries", the most celebrated being, of course, those of Eleusis in Attica. What exactly these "mysteries" were we are very imperfectly informed; but so much, at least, is clear that by means of a scenic symbolism, representing the myth of Demeter and Kore or of Dionysus Zagreus, hopes were held out to the initiated not only of a happy life on earth, but of a happy immortality beyond. "Blessed," says Pindar, "blessed is he who has seen these things before he goes under the hollow earth. He knows the end of life, and he knows its god-given origin." And it is presumably to the initiated that the same poet promises the joys of his thoroughly Greek heaven. "For them," he says, "shineth below the strength of the sun while in our world it is night, and the space of crimson-flowered meadows before their city is full of the shade of frankincense trees, and of fruits of gold. And some in horses, and in bodily feats, and some in dice, and some in harp-playing have delight; and among them thriveth all fair-flowering bliss; and fragrance streameth ever through the lovely land, as they mingle incense of every kind upon the altars of the gods." [Footnote: Pindar, Thren. I.— Translation by E. Myers.]
The Greeks, then, were not unfamiliar with the conception of heaven and hell: only, and that is the point to which we must return and on which we must insist, the conception did not dominate and obsess their mind. They may have had their spasms of terror, but these they could easily relieve by the performance of some atoning ceremony; they may have had their thrills of hope, but these they would only indulge at the crisis of some imposing ritual.
The general tenor of their life does not seem to have been affected by speculations about the world beyond. Of age indeed and of death they had a horror proportional to their acute and sensitive enjoyment of life; but their natural impulse was to turn for consolation to the interests and achievements of the world they knew, and to endeavour to soothe, by memories and hopes of deeds future and past, the inevitable pains of failure and decay.
Section 12. Critical and Sceptical Opinion in Greece.
And now let us turn to a point for which perhaps some readers have long been waiting, and with which they may have expected us to begin rather than to end. So far, in considering the part played by religion in Greek Life, we have assumed the position of orthodoxy. We have endeavoured to place ourselves at the standpoint of the man who did not criticise or reflect, but accepted simply, as a matter of course, the tradition handed down to him by his fathers. Only so, if at all, was it possible for us to detach ourselves from our habitual preconceptions, and to regard the pagan mythology not as a graceful invention of the poets, but as a serious and, at the time, a natural and inevitable way of looking at the world. Now, however, it is time to turn to the other side, and to consider the Greek religion as it appeared to contemporary critics. For critics there were, and sceptics, or rather, to put it more exactly, there was a critical age succeeding an age of faith. As we trace, however imperfectly, the development of the Greek mind, we can observe their intellect and their moral sense expanding beyond the limits of their creed. Either as sympathetic, though candid, friends, or as avowed enemies, they bring to light its contradictions and defects; and as a result of the process one of two things happens. Either the ancient conception of the gods is transformed in the direction of monotheism, or it is altogether swept away, and a new system of the world built up, on the basis of natural science or of philosophy. These tendencies of thought we must now endeavour to trace; for we should have formed but an imperfect idea of the scope of the religious consciousness of the Greeks if we confined ourselves to what we may call their orthodox faith. It is in their most critical thinkers, in Euripides and Plato, that the religious sense is most fully and keenly developed; and it is in the philosophy that supervened upon the popular creed, rather than in the popular creed itself, that we shall find the highest and most spiritual reaches of their thought.
Let us endeavour, then, in the first place to realise to ourselves how the Greek religion must have appeared to one who approached it not from the side of unthinking acquiescence, but with the idea of discovering for himself how far it really met the needs and claims of the intellect and the moral sense. Let us imagine him turning to his Homer, to those poems which were the Bible of the Greek, his ultimate appeal both in religion and in ethics; which were taught in the schools, quoted in the law-courts, recited in the streets; and from which the teacher drew his moral instances, the rhetorician his allusions, the artist his models, every man his conception of the gods. Let us imagine some candid and ingenuous youth, turning to his Homer and repeating, say, the following passage of the Iliad:—
"Among the other gods fell grievous bitter strife, and their hearts were carried diverse in their breasts. And they clashed together with a great noise, and the wide earth groaned, and the clarion of great Heaven rang around. Zeus heard as he sate upon Olympus, and his heart within him laughed pleasantly when he beheld that strife of the gods." [Footnote: Iliad xxi. 385.—Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.]
At this point, let us suppose, the reader pauses to reflect; and is struck, for the first time, with a shock of surprise by the fact that the gods should be not only many but opposed; and opposed on what issue? a purely human one! a war between Greeks and Trojans for the possession of a beautiful woman! Into such a contest the immortal gods descend, fight with human weapons, and dispute in human terms! Where is the single purpose that should mark the divine will? where the repose of the wisdom that foreordained and knows the end? Not, it is clear, in this motley array of capricious and passionate wills! Then, perhaps, in Zeus, Zeus, who is lord of all? He, at least, will impose upon this mob of recalcitrant deities the harmony which the pious soul demands. He, whose rod shakes the sky, will arise and assert the law. He, in his majesty, will speak the words—alas! what words! Let us take them straight from the lips of the King of gods and men:—
"Hearken to me, all gods and all ye goddesses, that I may tell you that my heart within my breast commandeth me. One thing let none essay, be it goddess or be it god, to wit, to thwart my saying; approve ye it all together, that with all speed I may accomplish these things. Whomsoever I shall perceive minded to go, apart from the gods, to succour Trojans or Danaans, chastened in no seemly wise shall he return to Olympus, or I will take and cast him into misty Tartaros, right far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth; there are the gate of iron and threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is high above the earth: then shall ye know how far I am mightiest of all gods. Go to now, ye gods, make trial that ye all may know. Fasten ye a rope of gold from heaven, and all ye gods lay hold thereof and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag from heaven to earth Zeus, counsellor supreme, not though ye toiled sore. But once I likewise were minded to draw with all my heart, then should I draw ye up with very earth and sea withal. Thereafter would I bind the rope about a pinnacle of Olympus, and so should all those things be hung in air. By so much am I beyond gods and beyond men." [Footnote: Iliad viii. 5.—Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.]
And is that all? In the divine tug of war Zeus is more than a match for all the other gods together! Is it on this that the lordship of heaven and earth depends? This that we are to worship as highest, we of the brain and heart and soul? And even so, even admitting the ground of supremacy, with what providence or consistency of purpose is it exercised? Why, Zeus himself is as capricious as the rest! Because Thetis comes whining to him about an insult put upon Achilles, he interferes to change the whole course of the war, and that too by means of a lying dream! Even his own direct decrees he can hardly be induced to observe. His son Sarpedon, for example, who is "fated," as he says himself, to die, he is yet at the last moment in half a mind to save alive! How is such division possible in the will of the supreme god? Or is the "fate" of which he speaks something outside himself? But if so, then above him! and if above him, what is he? Not, after all, the highest, not the supreme at all! What then are we to worship? What is this higher "fate?"
Such would be the kind of questions that would vex our candid youth when he approached his Homer from the side of theology. Nor would he fare any better if he took the ethical point of view. The gods, he would find, who should surely at least attain to the human standard, not only are capable of every phase of passion, anger, fear, jealousy and, above all, love, but indulge them all with a verve and an abandonment that might make the boldest libertine pause. Zeus himself, for example, expends upon the mere catalogue of his amours a good twelve lines of hexameter verse. No wonder that Hera is jealous, and that her lord is driven to put her down in terms better suited to the lips of mortal husbands:
"Lady, ever art thou imagining, nor can I escape thee; yet shalt thou in no wise have power to fulfil, but wilt be the further from my heart; that shall be even the worse for thee. Hide thou in silence and hearken to my bidding, lest all the gods that are in Olympus keep not off from thee my visitation, when I put forth my hands unapproachable against thee." [Footnote: Iliad i. 560.—Translated by Leaf, Lang and Myers.]
Section 13. Ethical Criticism.
The incongruity of all this with any adequate conception of deity is patent, if once the critical attitude be adopted; and it was adopted by some of the clearest and most religious minds of Greece. Nay, even orthodoxy itself did not refrain from a genial and sympathetic criticism. Aristophanes, for example, who, if there had been an established church, would certainly have been described as one of its main pillars, does not scruple to represent his Birds as issuing—
"A warning and notices, formally given, To Jove, and all others residing in heaven, Forbidding them ever to venture again To trespass on our atmospheric domain, With scandalous journeys, to visit a list Of Alcmenas and Semeles; if they persist, We warn them that means will be taken moreover To stop their gallanting and acting the lover," [Footnote: Aristophanes, "Birds" 556.—Translation by Frere.]
and Heracles the glutton, and Dionysus, the dandy and the coward, are familiar figures of his comic stage. The attitude of Aristophanes, it is true, is not really critical, but sympathetic; it was no more his intention to injure the popular creed by his fun than it is the intention of the cartoons of Punch to undermine the reputation of our leading statesmen. On the contrary, nothing popularises like genial ridicule; and of this Aristophanes was well aware. But the same characteristics of the god which suggested the friendly burlesque of the comedian were also those which provoked the indignation and the disgust of more serious minds. The poet Pindar, for example, after referring to the story of a battle, in which it was said gods had fought against gods, breaks out into protest against a legend so little creditable to the divine nature:—" O my mouth, fling this tale from thee, for to speak evil of gods is a hateful wisdom, and loud and unmeasured words strike a note that trembleth upon madness. Of such things talk thou not; leave war and all strife of immortals aside." [Footnote: Pind. Ol. IX 54.—Translation by E. Myers.] And the same note is taken up with emphasis, and reiterated in every quality of tone, by such writers as Euripides and Plato.
The attitude of Euripides towards the popular religion is so clearly and frankly critical that a recent writer has even gone so far as to maintain that his main object in the construction of his dramas was to discredit the myths he selected for his theme. However that may have been, it is beyond controversy true that the deep religious sense of this most modern of the Greeks was puzzled and repelled by the tales he was bound by tradition to dramatize; and that he put into the mouth of his characters reflexions upon the conduct of the gods which if they may not be taken as his own deliberate opinions, are at least expressions of one aspect of his thought. It was, in fact, impossible to reconcile with a profound and philosophic view of the divine nature the intrigues and amours, partialities, antipathies, actions and counter-actions of these anthropomorphic deities. Consider, for example, the most famous of all the myths, that of Orestes, to which we have already referred. Orestes, it will be remembered, was the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Agamemnon, on his return from Troy, was murdered by Clytemnestra. Orestes escapes; but returns later, at the instigation of Apollo, and kills his mother to avenge his father. Thereupon, in punishment for his crime, he is persecuted by the Furies. Now the point which Euripides seizes here is the conduct of Apollo. Either it was right for Orestes to kill his mother, or it was wrong. If wrong, why did Apollo command it? If right, why was Orestes punished? Or are there, as Aeschylus would have it, two "rights", one of Apollo, the other of the Furies? If so, what becomes of that unity of the divine law after which every religious nature seeks? "Phoebus," cries the Orestes of Euripides, "prophet though he be, deceived me. I gave him my all, I killed my mother in obedience to his command; and in return I am undone myself." [Footnote: Euripides, Iph. Taur. 711] The dilemma is patent; and Euripides makes no serious attempt to meet it.
Or again, to take another example, less familiar, but even more to the point—the tale of Ion and Creusa. Creusa has been seduced by Apollo and has borne him a child, the Ion of the story. This child she exposes, and it is conveyed by Hermes to Delphi, where at last it is found, and recognised by the mother, and a conventionally happy ending is patched up. But the point on which the poet has insisted throughout is, once more, the conduct of Apollo. What is to be made of a god who seduces and deserts a mortal woman; who suffers her to expose her child, and leaves her in ignorance of its fate? Does he not deserve the reproaches heaped upon him by his victim?—
"Child of Latona, I cry to the sun—I will publish thy shame! Thou with thy tresses a-shimmer with gold, through the flowers as I came Plucking the crocuses, heaping my veil with their gold- litten flame, Cam'st on me, caughtest the poor pallid wrists of mine hands, and didst hale Unto thy couch in the cave. 'Mother! mother!' I shrieked out my wail— Wroughtest the pleasure of Kypris; no shame made the god-lover quail. Wretched I bare thee a child, and I cast him with shuddering throe Forth on thy couch where thou forcedst thy victim, a bride-bed of woe. Lost—my poor baby and thine! for the eagles devoured him: and lo! Victory-songs to thy lyre dost thou chant!—Ho, I call to thee, son Born to Latona, Dispenser of boding, on gold-gleaming throne Midmost of earth who art sitting:—thine ears shall be pierced with my moan! Thy Delos doth hate thee, thy bay-boughs abhor thee, By the palm-tree of feathery frondage that rose Where in sacred travail Latona bore thee In Zeus's garden close." [Footnote: Euripid. Ion, 885.—Translated by A. S. Way.]
This is a typical example of the kind of criticism which Euripides conveys through the lips of his characters on the stage. And the points which he can only dramatically suggest, Plato expounds directly in his own person. The quarrel of the philosopher with the myths is not that they are not true, but that they are not edifying. They represent the son in rebellion against the father—Zeus against Kronos, Kronos against Uranos; they describe the gods as intriguing and fighting one against the other; they depict them as changing their form divine into the semblance of mortal men; lastly—culmination of horror!—they represent them as laughing, positively laughing!—Or again, to turn to a more metaphysical point, if God be good, it is argued by Plato, he cannot be the author of evil. What then, are we to make of the passage in Homer where he says, "two urns stand upon the floor of Zeus filled with his evil gifts, and one with blessings. To whomsoever Zeus whose joy is in the lightning dealeth a mingled lot, that man chanceth now upon ill and now again on good, but to whom he giveth but of the bad kind, him he bringeth to scorn, and evil famine chaseth him over the goodly earth, and he is a wanderer honoured of neither gods nor men." [Footnote: Il. xxiv. 527—Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.]
And again, if God be true, he cannot be the author of lies. How then could he have sent, as we are told he did, lying dreams to men?— Clearly, concludes the philosopher, our current legends need revision; in the interest of religion itself we must destroy the myths of the popular creed.
Section 14. Transition to Monotheism.
The myths, but not religion! The criticism certainly of Plato and probably of Euripides was prompted by the desire not to discredit altogether the belief in the gods, but to bring it into harmony with the requirements of a more fully developed consciousness. The philosopher and the poet came not to destroy, but to fulfil; not to annihilate but to transform the popular theology. Such an intention, strange as it may appear to us with our rigid creeds, we shall see to be natural enough to the Greek mind, when we remember that the material of their religion was not a set of propositions, but a more or less indeterminate body of traditions capable of being presented in the most various forms as the genius and taste of individual poets might direct. And we find, in fact, that the most religious poets of Greece, those even who were most innocent of any intention to innovate on popular beliefs, did nevertheless unconsciously tend to transform, in accordance with their own conceptions, the whole structure of the Homeric theology. Taking over the legends of gods and heroes, as narrated in poetry and tradition, the earlier tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, as they shaped and reshaped their material for the stage, were evolving for themselves, not in opposition to but as it were on the top of the polytheistic view, the idea of a single supreme and righteous God. The Zeus of Homer, whose superiority, as we saw, was based on physical force, grows, under the hands of Aeschylus, into something akin to the Jewish Jehovah. The inner experience of the poet drives him inevitably to this transformation. Born into the great age of Greece, coming to maturity at the crisis of her fate, he had witnessed with his own eyes, and assisted with his own hands the defeat of the Persian host at Marathon. The event struck home to him like a judgment from heaven. The Nemesis that attends upon human pride, the vengeance that follows crime, henceforth were the thoughts that haunted and possessed his brain; and under their influence he evolved for himself out of the popular idea of Zeus the conception of a God of justice who marks and avenges crime. Read for example the following passage from the "Agamemnon" and contrast it with the lines of Homer quoted on page 42. Nothing could illustrate more strikingly the transformation that could be effected, under the conditions of the Greek religion, in the whole conception of the divine power by one whose conscious intention, nevertheless, was not to innovate but to conserve.
"Zeus the high God! Whate'er be dim in doubt, This can our thought track out— The blow that fells the sinner is of God, And as he wills, the rod Of vengeance smiteth sore. One said of old 'The Gods list not to hold A reckoning with him whose feet oppress The grace of holiness'— An impious word! for whensoe'er the sire Breathed forth rebellious fire— What time his household overflows the measure Of bliss and health and treasure— His children's children read the reckoning plain, At last, in tears and pain. * * * * * Who spurns the shrine of Right, nor wealth nor power Shall be to him a tower, To guard him from the gulf: there lies his lot, Where all things are forgot. Lust drives him on—lust, desperate and wild Fate's sin-contriving child— And cure is none; beyond concealment clear Kindles sin's baleful glare. As an ill coin beneath the wearing touch Betrays by stain and smutch Its metal false—such is the sinful wight. Before, on pinions light, Fair pleasure flits, and lures him childlike on, While home and kin make moan Beneath the grinding burden of his crime; Till, in the end of time, Cast down of heaven, he pours forth fruitless prayer To powers that will not hear." [Footnote: Aesch. Agamem. 367.—Translated by E. D. A. Morshead ("The House of Atreus").]
And Sophocles follows in the same path. For him too Zeus is no longer the god of physical strength; he is the creator and sustainer of the moral law—of "those laws of range sublime, called into life throughout the high clear heaven, whose father is Olympus alone; their parent was no race of mortal men, no, nor shall oblivion ever lay them to sleep; a mighty god is in them, and he grows not old." [Footnote: Soph. O.T. 865.—Translated by Dr. Jebb.] Such words imply a complete transformation of the Homeric conception of Divinity; a transformation made indeed in the interests of religion, but involving nevertheless, and contrary, no doubt, to the intention of its authors, a complete subversion of the popular creed. Once grant the idea of God as an eternal and moral Power and the whole fabric of polytheism falls away. The religion of the Greeks, as interpreted by their best minds, annihilates itself. Zeus indeed is saved, but only at the cost of all Olympus.
Section 15. Metaphysical Criticism.
While thus, on the one hand, the Greek religion by its inner evolution, was tending to destroy itself, on the other hand it was threatened from without by the attack of what we should call the "scientific spirit." A system so frankly anthropomorphic was bound to be weak on the speculative side. Its appeal, as we have seen, was rather to the imagination than to the intellect, by the presentation of a series of beautiful images, whose contemplation might offer to the mind if not satisfaction, at least acquiescence and repose. A Greek who was not too inquisitive was thus enabled to move through the calendar of splendid festivals and fasts, charmed by the beauty of the ritual, inspired by the chorus and the dance, and drawing from the familiar legends the moral and aesthetic significance with which he had been accustomed from his boyhood to connect them, but without ever raising the question, Is all this true? Does it really account for the existence and nature of the world? Once, however, the spell was broken, once the intellect was aroused, the inadequacy of the popular faith, on the speculative side, became apparent; and the mind turned aside altogether from religion to work out its problems on its own lines. We find accordingly, from early times, physical philosophers in Greece free from all theological preconceptions, raising from the very beginning the question of the origin of the world, and offering solutions, various indeed but all alike in this, that they frankly accept a materialistic basis. One derives all things from water, another from air, another from fire; one insists upon unity, another on a plurality of elements; but all alike reject the supernatural, and proceed on the lines of physical causation.
The opposition, to use the modern phrase, between science and religion, was thus developed early in ancient Greece; and by the fifth century it is clear that it had become acute. The philosopher Anaxagoras was driven from Athens as an atheist; the same charge, absurdly enough, was one of the counts in the indictment of Socrates; and the physical speculations of the time are a favourite butt of that champion of orthodoxy, Aristophanes. To follow up these speculations in detail would be to wander too far from our present purpose; but it may be worth while to quote a passage from the great comedian, to illustrate not indeed the value of the theories ridiculed, but their generally materialistic character, and their antagonism to the popular faith. The passage selected is part of a dialogue between Socrates and Strepsiades, one of his pupils; and it is introduced by an address from the chorus of "Clouds", the new divinities of the physicist: