The World's Debt to Hellas
Professor Joseph McCabe is a distinguished English scholar, historian and philosopher. He has toured the United States on several occasions, delivering brilliant lectures on subjects of social progress.
I run over the pages of a Chicago daily paper with the eye of an historian and student of languages, and the dead print tells me again the wonderful story of the making of civilization, the rise of man. It is, in one sense, like opening a quarry in the crust of the earth. Words of far-off ages, and dead centuries, are buried in the language of modern America. The word "Algebra" takes me back to the brilliant Moors of Medieval Spain, the Greeks of a later date. Scores of words send my mind back to the days when the Romans conquered and civilized half of Europe. But it is Hellas that is most richly represented in the language.
Theater and opera, politics and democracy, museum and philosophy, drama and tragedy and comedy, athletics and gymnastics, even architecture and ethics and poetry, carry the mind back to the city of two thousand years ago. not as large and not nearly as rich as Milwaukee, which has made the world its debtor forever. For these things are no fossils. They are not new words coined by the learned in their great international tongue, Greek -- though that practice itself for making Greek the international language of the scientific world is no mean tribute — nor are they dead expressions of dead and superseded ideas. They stand for great permanent realities of life which were made and named once for all by one of the smallest civilizations that ever existed -- Hellas.
A single new hotel in Chicago costs as much as Athens had in the League Treasury 2,300 years ago when it set out to teach the world how to raise beautiful buildings: the Parthenon and Propylaea, the superb relics of the glorious cluster of buildings it raised with the million dollars, will be fresh in the eye and mind of the race when every towering structure of Chicago has crumbled into dust. There are scores of men in America who are individually richer than the whole of Hellas ever was collectively; but, when they want to put up a building of real beauty, their architects go back to the Doric or Ionic or Corinthian model. There is a fortune for the successful dramatist of today; but the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides will be known to men forever, while there is not a playwright living whose works will be remembered
in the year 2000.
A great authority on ancient Greece -- not a modern pagan, either, for he was a Christian clergyman -- Professor Mahaffy,says, incidentally, that if you could bring an ancient Athenian back to life and teach him your language, and introduce him to one of your debating societies he would understand every question at once. He was discussing these very issues two thousand three hundred years ago in the abode of the narrow streets at the foot of the Acropolis (just as I saw him three years ago, sheltering from the sun in the dark shops and cafes) or in the beautiful colonnades around the Agora. I have been more than once in a Chicago forum and have entered into its controversies. Are there gods? What is the moral law? Are women justly treated? Have we a true democracy? Is wealth rightly distributed? Are politicians honest? Can we avoid war? And so on. Athens set the fashion for free public discussion of these things two millennia ago. No democracy in the world had ever before discussed them. There had never been a democracy before. That bare field near the Acropolis, with its simple stone platform (I do not believe that the Vema was an altar -- I would rather not believe it), was a new and tremendous thing in the history of the world. The democracies of the modem world ought to make pilgrimages to it. The Capitol in Washington is founded on it. The French Revolution was, ultimately, inspired by it.
My friend W. H. G. Wells made many mistakes in his splendidly unified conception of history (The Outline of History), but he made none so serious and unpardonable as his misrepresentation of the ancient Athenians. There were just a few gifted people, he says, living amidst a mob of ignorant and fanatical men who were indifferent or hostile to their art and culture. He does not even appreciate the fact that in one century of Hellas there was more genius in a small people than in the whole of America; more men – tragedians and comedians, sculptors and architects, philosophers and materialists -- than the world will ever again see in the same narrow limits of time and space. Where there are a score of geniuses to a million people the general level cannot be so low.
But it is an obvious error to suppose that the mass of the people of Athens were indifferent to the great things done for them. Who listened to the tragedies of the great poets in the theater on the slopes of the Acropolis. or at Epidauros or at Olympia? Certainly not a mere handful of highbrows. We know, of course, that the satirical play and the comedies of Aristophanes were more popular. That is natural. But certainly tens of thousands of men witnessed the enacting of the great tragic masterpieces and the more sober comedies of Menander.
Moreover, who supplied the funds for the building of the Propylaea and the Parthenon and the Erechtheum and the noble civil buildings and colonnades around the Agora? Who sanctioned the use of the Treasury of the League? Athens was a more perfect democracy than s modern America. The complaint of some modern writers that it was an imperfect democracy is mere ignorance. A man was not represented, or misrepresented, by a delegate a thousand miles away; Every great decision about Athens was taken on the spot by the Athenians. The cobbler laid down his awl and ran off to the Pnyx and gave his opinion. The very facts which are more justly quoted against the people of Athens -- the banishment of Anaxagoras, for instance, or the death of Socrates show -- that nothing could be done without their approval. And in regard to the death of Socrates my friend Professor Dury, the most distinguished historian in England, one of the highest authorities on the Latin-Greek world, has recently shown that it was due to political rather than fanatical reasons.
Yes, others say, a wonderful people in art and culture and politics and athletics -- and a score of other things – but very immoral. Apparently, they think that the world is more indebted to a set of supposed moral fanatics like the early American Puritans (I say "supposed," because Rupert Hughes has recently shown the truth about their morals), with all their artistic and intellectual dreariness, than to a magnificent total contribution to civilization like that of Athens! That is fanaticism with a vengeance.
But the whole charge is a malicious libel. Who invented ethics? The Greeks. Who gave the world the nearest approach to an austere ethical code without fanaticism? The Stoics of Athens. Who gave the world the sanest conception of the moral law? Epicurus of Athens; the real Epicurus, not the travesty of him in Christian literature. Who were the highest moralists in the western world in the pre-Christian period (if not of all time)? Plato, Socrates. Zeno. Strange that a corrupt little civilization was so concerned about the science of ethics and produced so many of the world's greatest moralists!
The truth is that all these popular and pulpit gibes are the outcome of ignorance, which modern scholarship has corrected. St. Augustine in his later years, when the world was already growing darker, spoke of "that fool Plato." The shadow of the Middle Ages was creeping then over Europe. But St. Augustine in his finest years had called Greek philosophy "the introduction to the gospels."
However, modern Hellenist scholarship has shown that even the main body of the Greek people were just as moral as we are. Professor Mahaffy -- the Rev. Prof. Mahaffy – insists on this. The fragments of the comedies of Menander, he points out, are much truer to the real daily life of the Athenians than the better known comedies of Aristophanes, and they show us a family life based on precisely the same sentiments that we have today. The hetairai of Athens were not necessarily prostitutes -- as if, by the way, a modem American city had no loose women -- but entertainers of a high order. There were, of course, loose women, especially at Corinth; but I could take these modem moralists to a part of a modern Catholic city like Vienna or Cologne where he will find more of them than we have any reason to suppose existed in Athens. They could not fill a postcard with positive evidence that ancient Athens was more immoral than modern Chicago. They could not give a line of evidence. As to unnatural vice, there is far more of it round the Catholic bay of Naples today than we can find, in positive evidence, in the whole of ancient Greece. W. Edward Carpenter has shown, in his beautiful anthology lolaus, that Greek literature has been misunderstood and misrepresented on this point.
I should like to point out a little parallel, to warn people against the charges; and I am going to do it at the expense of the ancient Greeks! Herodotus told the world that in ancient Babylon vice was thought so little of that every' woman had to prostitute herself in the temples. The whole world believed this for two thousand years. Now we know that there was no truth in it. The law of Babylon was death for adultery or rape or incest. No temple in Babylon had such practices. We even have the marriage contracts of the women, and it is expressly stated that the bride is a virgin.
But to return to Hellas and its wonderful contribution to civilization. Every polity of the old world added its share to the foundation of modern civilization. The common idea that the dead empires and republics did nothing great except build a few noble temples and palaces is a gross error. The growth of man is a continuous stream. Every civilization that perished has contributed. But unquestionably the contribution of Hellas was far greater than any, in spite of the smallness and comparative poverty of the Greeks. Ask any architect, any sculptor, any literary man. any philosopher, any real expert on political development, ethical development or even physical development.
We moderns pride ourselves. and very justly, on our science. It is the one thing in which we really surpass the most brilliant of the older civilizations. But even here we have to think of the Greeks. Our scientific papers are full just now of atoms and evolution. It was in the very dawn of Hellenic civilization, not (as with us) in the thousandth year of civilization, that the Greeks divined these things. I know how crude their treaties were. They had had almost no predecessors. No body of ascertained facts to guide them. But with the penetration of genius they at once saw, dimly, the broad truth about the universe and the nature of matter and the origin of men and animals. If the mind of the race had continued on the line traced by the Ionic School, civilization would now be a thousand years older than it is. As it was, Epicurus based upon the elementary science of his predecessors the sanest philosophy of life ever given to the world. He was the Lester F. Ward of ancient times. But once more the world deserted the lead of Hellas, or we should lie li\ ing in a far nobler age today.
When I recall the early Greek science, I am reminded that recent research has thrown some light on the wonder of ancient Hellas. Three years ago I made the pilgrimage to Athens which is the great dream of every lover of beauty and progress, and I went on to see the newly discovered civilization of ancient Crete. For two thousand years Greek literature had told us that once there had been a wonderful civilization in Crete, and no historian in the world believed it. Now we know that the Greek tradition was even less than the truth. Crete bore a civilization as old as that of Egypt or Babylonia, and in some respects more advanced than either.
We see now that the Greeks must have learned much from the Cretans. How much no man can tell, because we cannot yet read the Cretan language. But most of the great names in Greek literature and learning in its earlier phase belongs to the cities of Asia Minor or the islands off the coast. There it was that the Cretans took refuge when their palaces and towns were destroyed; and there the early arrivals from Greece met and mingled with them. In that world Homer, or the Homeric poets, and Sappho lived. In that region the first great Greek School of ancients taught. Athens was relatively not far away, and must have been in early and close communication.
Yes it is true and it helps us: but only up to a point. It is a little better than the explanations that used to lie given by writers on Greece; the fine climate, the blue sea. the brilliant sun. the lucid air. These things are the same today. It better than the jargon of some modem scientists who talk of a wonderful germ-plasm in the Athenian stock. We want to know why all these things -- the beautiful environment, the teachings of Crete and Persia, the supposed remarkable germ-plasm of the Athenians -- had no very marked effect until the fourth century, and then there was a development which forever will astonish the world.
Speaking as an historian.
I should say that no man has yet explained the brilliance of the Periclean Age and the years that followed it. The course of Greek history -- the struggle with Persia, the unified spirit, the history, the inspiring work of reconstruction -- no doubt helps us; but there is still something to be explained. Athens in those days was a miracle of achievement. The rest of Hellas must now be forgotten, as historians remind us, but Athens was the center of the miracle. The modem city that flatters itself that it has reached the highest heights of civilization can find no prouder title to give itself than that it is "the modern Athens." Edinburgh, in Britain, did this for years; and what a comedy it was to any man who knows both cities! I have visited half the capital cities of the world, but it would be ludicrous to compare the finest parts of any one of them with the marble heart of ancient Athens.
"In all the great things we do in modem times we are stretching our hands back across the abyss of the Middle Age and grasping the hand of the ancient Athenians." So wrote an idealist writer and fine scholar of England, W. G. Lowes Dickinson. I am writing four thousand miles away from my books, but I remember the gist, at least, of W. Dickinson’s just words. The Greeks will stand out forever in the human chronicle. May their sons, now that they are free, struggle back to the great height. Centuries of oppression and spoliation have impoverished them, but the man who talks of degeneration does not know them. The soul of Hellas is not dead.
© Order of AHEPA