The Legacy of Ancient Greece

The Greek View of Life


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Now that we have examined in some detail the most important phases of the Greek view of life, it may be as well to endeavour briefly to recapitulate and bring to a point the various considerations that have been advanced.

But, first, one preliminary remark must be made. Throughout the preceding pages we have made no attempt to distinguish the Greek "view" from the Greek "ideal"; we have interpreted their customs and institutions, political, social, or religious, by the conceptions and ideals of philosophers and poets, and have thus, it may be objected, made the mistake of identifying the blind work of popular instinct with the theories and aspirations of conscious thought.

Such a procedure, no doubt, would be illegitimate if it were supposed to imply that Greek institutions were the result of a deliberate intention consciously adopted and approved by the average man. Like other social products they grew and were not made; and it was only the few who realised fully all that they implied. But on the other hand it is a distinguishing characteristic of the Greek age that the ideal formulated by thought was the direct outcome of the facts. That absolute separation of what ought to be from what is which continues to haunt and vitiate modern life had not yet been made in ancient Greece. Plato, idealist though he be, is yet rooted in the facts of his age; his perfect republic he bases on the institutions of Sparta and Crete; his perfect man he shapes on the lines of the Greek citizen. That dislocation of the spirit which opposed the body to the soul, heaven to earth, the church to the state, the man of the world to the priest, was altogether alien to the consciousness of the Greeks. To them the world of fact was also the world of the ideal; the conceptions which inspired their highest aims were already embodied in their institutions and reflected in their life; and the realisation of what ought to be involved not the destruction of what was, but merely its perfecting on its own lines.

While then, on the one hand, it would be ridiculous so to idealise the civilisation of the Greeks as to imply that they had eliminated discord and confusion, yet, on the other, it is legitimate to say that they had built on the plan of the ideal, and that their life both in public and private was, by the very law of its existence, an effort to realise explicitly that type of Good which was already implicitly embodied in its structure.

The ideal, in a word, in ancient Greece, was organically related to the real; and that is why it is possible to identify the Greek view with the Greek ideal.

Bearing this in mind we may now proceed to recapitulate our conclusions as to what that view was. And, first, let us take the side of speculation. Here we are concerned not with the formal systems of Greek thought, but with that half-unconscious working of imagination as much as of mind whose expression was their popular religion. Of this religion, as we saw, the essential feature was that belief in anthropomorphic gods, by virtue of which a reconciliation was effected between man and the powers whether of nature or of his own soul. Behind phenomena, physical or psychic, beings were conceived of like nature with man, beings, therefore, whose actions he could interpret and whose motives he could comprehend. For his imagination, if not for his intellect, a harmony was thus induced between himself and the world that was not he. A harmony! and in this word we have the key to the dominant idea of the Greek civilisation.

For, turning now to the practical side, we find the same impulse to reconcile divergent elements. That antithesis of soul and body which was emphasised in the mediaeval view of life and dominates still our current ethical conceptions, does not appear in the normal consciousness of the Greeks. Their ideal for the individual life included the perfection of the body; beauty no less than goodness was the object of their quest, and they believed that the one implied the other. But since the perfection of the body required the co-operation of external aids, they made these also essential to their ideal. Not merely virtue of the soul, not merely health and beauty of the body, but noble birth, sufficient wealth and a good name among men, were included in their conception of the desirable life. Harmony, in a word, was the end they pursued, harmony of the soul with the body and of the body with its environment; and it is this that distinguishes their ethical ideal from that which in later times has insisted on the fundamental antagonism of the inner to the outer life, and made the perfection of the spirit depend on the mortification of the flesh.

The same ideal of harmony dominates the Greek view of the relation of the individual to the state. This relation, it is true, is often described as one in which the parts were subordinated to the whole; but more accurately it may be said that they were conceived as finding in the whole their realisation. The perfect individual was the individual in the state; the faculties essential to his excellence had there only their opportunity of development; the qualities defined as virtues had there only their significance; and it was only in so far as he was a citizen that a man was properly a man at all. Thus that opposition between the individual and the state which perplexes our own society had hardly begun to define itself in Greece. If on the one hand the state made larger claims on the liberty of the individual, on the other, the liberty of the individual consisted in a response to the claims. So that in this department also harmony was maintained by the Greeks between elements which have developed in modern times their latent antagonism.

Thus, both in speculation and in practice, in his relation to nature and in his relation to the state, both internally, between the divergent elements of which his own being was composed, and externally between himself and the world that was not he, it was the aim, conscious or unconscious, and, in part at least, the achievement of the Greeks, to create and maintain an essential harmony. The antitheses of which we in our own time are so painfully and increasingly aware, between Man as a moral being and Nature as an indifferent law, between the flesh and the spirit, between the individual and the state, do not appear as factors in that dominant consciousness of the Greeks under whose influence their religion, their institutions and their customary ideals had been formed. And so regarded, in general, under what may fairly be called its most essential aspect, the Greek civilisation is rightly described as that of harmony.

But, on the other hand, and this is the point to which we must now turn our attention, this harmony which was the dominant feature in the consciousness of the Greeks and the distinguishing characteristic of their epoch in the history of the world, was nevertheless, after all, but a transitory and imperfect attempt to reconcile elements whose antagonism was too strong for the solution thus proposed. The factors of disruption were present from the beginning in the Greek ideal; and it was as much by the development of its own internal contradictions as by the invasion of forces from without that that fabric of magical beauty was destined to fall. These contradictions have already been indicated at various points in the text, and it only remains to bring them together in a concluding summary.

On the side of speculation, the religion of the Greeks was open, as we saw, to a double criticism. On the one hand, the ethical conceptions embodied in those legends of the gods which were the product of an earlier and more barbarous age, had become to the contemporaries of Plato revolting or ridiculous. On the other hand, to metaphysical speculation, not only was the existence of the gods unproved, but their mutually conflicting activities, their passions and their caprice, were incompatible with that conception of universal law which the developing reason evolved as the form of truth. The reconciliation of man with nature which had been effected by the medium of anthropomorphic gods was a harmony only to the imagination, not to the mind. Under the action of the intellect the unstable combination was dissolved and the elements that had been thus imperfectly joined fell back into their original opposition. The religion of the Greeks was destroyed by the internal evolution of their own consciousness.

And in the sphere of practice we are met with a similar dissolution. The Greek conception of excellence included, as we saw, not only bodily health and strength, but such a share at least of external goods as would give a man scope for his own self-perfection. And since these conditions were not attainable by all, the sacrifice of the majority to the minority was frankly accepted and the pursuit of the ideal confined to a privileged class.

Such a conception, however, was involved in internal contradictions. For in the first place, even for the privileged few, an excellence which depended on external aids was, at the best, uncertain and problematical. Misfortune and disease were possibilities that could not be ignored; old age and death were imperative certainties; and no care, no art, no organisation of society, could obviate the inherent incompatibility of individual perfection with the course of nature. Harmony between the individual and his environment was perhaps more nearly achieved by and for the aristocracy of ancient Greece than by any society of any other age. But such a harmony, even at the best, is fleeting and precarious; and no perfection of life delivers from death.

And, in the second place, to secure even this imperfect realisation, it was necessary to restrict the universal application of the ideal. Excellence, in Greece, was made the end for some, not for all. But this limitation was felt, in the development of consciousness, to be self- contradictory; and the next great system of ethics that succeeded to that of Aristotle, postulated an end of action that should be at once independent of the aids of fortune and open alike to all classes of mankind. The ethics of a privileged class were thus expanded into the ethics of humanity; but this expansion was fatal to its essence, which had depended on the very limitations by which it was destroyed.

With the Greek civilisation beauty perished from the world. Never again has it been possible for man to believe that harmony is in fact the truth of all existence. The intellect and the moral sense have developed imperative claims which can be satisfied by no experience known to man. And as a consequence of this the goal of desire which the Greeks could place in the present, has been transferred, for us, to a future infinitely remote, which nevertheless is conceived as attainable. Dissatisfaction with the world in which we live and determination to realise one that shall be better, are the prevailing characteristics of the modern spirit. The development is one into whose meaning and end this is not the place to enter. It is enough that we feel it to be inevitable; that the harmony of the Greeks contained in itself the factors of its own destruction; and that in spite of the fascination which constantly fixes our gaze on that fairest and happiest halting- place in the secular march of man, it was not there, any more than here, that he was destined to find the repose of that ultimate reconciliation which was but imperfectly anticipated by the Greeks.

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