The Legacy of Ancient Greece

The Greek View of Life


Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |

STREPSIADES. Oh earth! what a sound, how august and profound! It

  fills me with wonder and awe.

SOCRATES. These, these then alone, for true Deities own, the rest

  are all God-ships of straw.

STREPS. Let Zeus be left out: He's a God beyond doubt; come, that

  you can scarcely deny.

SOCR. Zeus indeed! there's no Zeus: don't you be so obtuse.

STREPS. No Zeus up above in the sky?
Then you first must explain, who it is sends the rain; or I
really must think you are wrong.

SOCR. Well then, be it known, these send it alone: I can prove it

  by argument strong.
Was there ever a shower seen to fall in an hour when the sky
was all cloudless and blue?
Yet on a fine day, when the clouds are away, he might send
one, according to you.

STREPS. Well, it must be confessed, that chimes in with the rest:

  your words I am forced to believe.

Yet before I had dreamed that the rain-water streamed from

  Zeus and his chamber-pot sieve.
But whence then, my friend, does the thunder descend? that
does make us quake with affright!

SOCR. Why, 'tis they, I declare, as they roll through the air.

STREPS. What the clouds? did I hear you aright?

SOCR. Ay: for when to the brim filled with water they swim, by

  Necessity carried along,
They are hung up on high in the vault of the sky, and so by
Necessity strong
In the midst of their course, they clash with great force, and
  thunder away without end.

STREPS. But is it not He who compels this to be? does not Zeus this

  Necessity send?

SOCR. No Zeus have we there, but a vortex of air.

STREPS. What! Vortex? that's something I own.

I knew not before, that Zeus was no more, but Vortex was

  placed on his throne!
But I have not yet heard to what cause you referred the thunder's
majestical roar.

SOCR. Yes, 'tis they, when on high full of water they fly, and then,

  as I told you before,
By compression impelled, as they clash, are compelled a terrible
clatter to make.

STREPS. Come, how can that be? I really don't see.

SOCR. Yourself as my proof I will take.

Have you never then ate the broth puddings you get when the

  Panathenaea come round,
And felt with what might your bowels all night in turbulent tumult

STREPS. By Apollo, 'tis true, there's a mighty to do, and my belly

  keeps rumbling about;
And the puddings begin to clatter within and to kick up a wonderful

Quite gently at first, papapax, papapax, but soon papappappax away, Till at last, I'll be bound, I can thunder as loud

  papapappappappappax as they.

SOCR. Shalt thou then a sound so loud and profound from thy belly

  diminutive send,
And shall not the high and the infinite sky go thundering on
without end?
For both, you will find, on an impulse of wind and similar causes

STREPS. Well, but tell me from whom comes the bolt through the gloom,

  with its awful and terrible flashes;
And wherever it turns, some it singes and burns, and some it
reduces to ashes:
For this 'tis quite plain, let who will send the rain, that Zeus
against perjurers dashes

SOCR. And how, you old fool, of a dark-ages school, and an

antidiluvian wit,
If the perjured they strike, and not all men alike, have they
never Cleonymus hit?
Then of Simon again, and Theorus explain: known perjurers, yet
they escape.
But he smites his own shrine with these arrows divine, and
"Sunium, Attica's cape,"
And the ancient gnarled oaks: now what prompted those strokes?
They never forswore I should say.

STREPS. Can't say that they do: your words appear true. Whence comes

  then the thunderbolt, pray?

SOCR. When a wind that is dry, being lifted on high, is suddenly pent

  into these,
It swells up their skin, like a bladder, within, by Necessity's
  changeless decrees:
Till compressed very tight, it bursts them outright, and away
with an impulse so strong,
That at last by the force and the swing of the course, it takes
fire as it whizzes along.

STREPS. That's exactly the thing, that I suffered one spring, at the

great feast of Zeus, I admit:
I'd a paunch in the pot, but I wholly forgot about making the
safety-valve slit.
So it spluttered and swelled, while the saucepan I held, till at
last with a vengeance it flew:
Took me quite by surprise, dung-bespattered my eyes, and scalded
my face black and blue!
[Footnote: Aristoph. "Clouds" 358.--Translation by B. B.

Nothing could be more amusing than this passage as a burlesque of the physical theories of the time; and nothing could better illustrate the quarrel between science and religion, as it presents itself on the surface to the plain man. But there is more in the quarrel than appears at first sight. The real sting of the comedy from which we have quoted lies in the assumption, adopted throughout the play, that the atheist is also necessarily anti-social and immoral. The physicist, in the person of Socrates, is identified with the sophist; on the one hand he is represented as teaching the theory of material causation, on the other the art of lying and deceit. The object of Strepsiades in attending the school is to learn how not to pay his debts; the achievement of his son is to learn how to dishonour his father. The cult of reason is identified by the poet with the cult of self-interest; the man who does not believe in the gods cannot, he implies, believe in the family or the state.

Section 16. Metaphysical Reconstruction--Plato.

The argument is an old one into whose merits this is not the place to enter. But one thing is certain, that the sceptical spirit which was invading religion, was invading also politics and ethics; and that towards the close of the fifth century before Christ, Greece and in particular Athens was overrun by philosophers, who not only did not scruple to question the foundations of social and moral obligation, but in some cases explicitly taught that there were no foundations at all; that all law was a convention based on no objective truth; and that the only valid right was the natural right of the strong to rule. It was into this chaos of sceptical opinion that Plato was born; and it was the desire to meet and subdue it that was the motive of his philosophy. Like Aristophanes, he traced the root of the evil to the decay of religious belief; and though no one, as we have seen, was more trenchant than he in his criticism of the popular faith, no one, on the other hand, was more convinced of the necessity of some form of religion as a basis for any stable polity. The doctrine of the physicists, he asserts, that the world is the result of "nature and chance" has immediate and disastrous effects on the whole structure of social beliefs. The conclusion inevitably follows that human laws and institutions, like everything else, are accidental products; that they have no objective validity, no binding force on the will; and that the only right that has any intelligible meaning is the right which is identical with might. [Footnote: See e.g. Plato's "Laws". X. 887.] Against these conclusions the whole soul of Plato rose in revolt. To reconstruct religion, he was driven back upon metaphysics; and elaborated at last the system which from his day to our own has not ceased to perplex and fascinate the world, and whose rare and radiant combination of gifts, speculative, artistic, and religious, marks the highest reach of the genius of the Greeks, and perhaps of mankind. To attempt an analysis of that system would lead us far from our present task. All that concerns us here, is its religious significance; and of that, all we can note is that Plato, the deepest thinker of the Greeks, was also among the farthest removed from the popular faith. The principle from which he derives the World is the absolute Good, or God, of whose ideas the phenomena of sense are imperfect copies. To the divine intelligence man by virtue of his reason is akin. But the reason in him has fallen into bondage of the flesh; and it is the task of his life on earth, or rather of a series of lives (for Plato believed in successive re-incarnations), to deliver this diviner element of his soul, and set it free to re-unite with God.

To the description of the divine life thus prepared for the soul, from which she fell but to which she may return, Plato has devoted some of his finest passages; and if we are to indicate, as we are bound to do, the highest point to which the religious consciousness of the Greeks attained, we must not be deterred, by dread of the obscurity necessarily attaching to an extract, from a citation from the most impassioned of his dialogues. Speaking of that "divine madness," to which we have already had occasion to refer, he says that this is the madness which "is imputed to him who, when he sees the beauty of earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly away, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad. And I have shown this of all inspirations to be the noblest and highest and the off-spring of the highest to him who has or shares in it, and that he who loves the beautiful is called a lover because he partakes of it. For every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them; and they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what that rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no clear light of justice or temperance, or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls, in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when, with the rest of the happy band, they saw beauty shining in brightness--we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. Let me linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away." [Footnote: Plato, Phaedrus. 249d.--Jowett's translation.]

Section 17. Summary.

At this point, where religion passes into philosophy, the discussion which has occupied the present chapter must close. So far it was necessary to proceed, in order to show how wide was the range of the religious consciousness of the Greeks, and through how many points of view it passed in the course of its evolution. But its development was away from the Greek and towards the Christian; and it will therefore be desirable, in conclusion, to fix once more in our minds that central and primary phase of the Greek religion under the influence of which their civilisation was formed into a character definite and distinct in the history of the world. This phase will be the one which underlay and was reflected in the actual cult and institutions of Greece and must therefore be regarded not as a product of critical and self-conscious thought, but as an imaginative way of conceiving the world stamped as it were passively on the mind by the whole course of concrete experience. Of its character we have attempted to give some kind of account in the earlier part of this chapter, and we have now only to summarise what was there said.

The Greek religion, then, as we saw, in this its characteristic phase, involved a belief in a number of deities who on the one hand were personifications of the powers of nature and of the human soul, on the other the founders and sustainers of civil society. To the operations of these beings the whole of experience was referred, and that, not merely in an abstract and unintelligible way, as when we say that the world was created by God, but in a quite precise and definite sense, the action of the gods being conceived to be the same in kind as that of man, proceeding from similar motives, directed to similar ends, and accomplished very largely by similar, though much superior means. By virtue of this uncritical and unreflective mode of apprehension the Greeks, we said, were made at home in the world. Their religion suffused and transformed the facts both of nature and of society, interpreting what would otherwise have been unintelligible by the idea of an activity which they could understand because it was one which they were constantly exercising themselves. Being thus supplied with a general explanation of the world, they could put aside the question of its origin and end, and devote themselves freely and fully to the art of living, unhampered by scruples and doubts as to the nature of life. Consciousness similar to their own was the ultimate fact; and there was nothing therefore with which they might not form intelligible and harmonious relations.

And as on the side of metaphysics they were delivered from the perplexities of speculation, so on the side of ethics they were undisturbed by the perplexities of conscience. Their religion, it is true, had a bearing on their conduct, but a bearing, as we saw, external and mechanical. If they sinned they might be punished directly by physical evil; and from this evil religion might redeem them by the appropriate ceremonies of purgation. But on the other hand they were not conscious of a spiritual relation to God, of sin as an alienation from the divine power and repentance as the means of restoration to grace. The pangs of conscience, the fears and hopes, the triumph and despair of the soul which were the preoccupations of the Puritan, were phenomena unknown to the ancient Greek. He lived and acted undisturbed by scrupulous introspection; and the function of his religion was rather to quiet the conscience by ritual than to excite it by admonition and reproof.

From both these points of view, the metaphysical and the ethical, the Greeks were brought by their religion into harmony with the world. Neither the perplexities of the intellect nor the scruples of the conscience intervened to hamper their free activity. Their life was simple, straightforward and clear; and their consciousness directed outwards upon the world, not perplexedly absorbed in the contemplation of itself.

On the other hand, this harmony which was the essence of the Greek civilisation, was a temporary compromise, not a final solution. It depended on presumptions of the imagination, not on convictions of the intellect; and as we have seen, it destroyed itself by the process of its own development. The beauty, the singleness, and the freedom which attracts us in the consciousness of the Greek was the result of a poetical view of the world, which did but anticipate in imagination an ideal that was not realised in fact or in thought. It depended on the assumption of anthropomorphic gods, an assumption which could not stand before the criticism of reason, and either broke down into scepticism, or was developed into the conception of a single supreme and spiritual power.

And even apart from this internal evolution, from this subversion of its ideal basis, the harmony established by the Greek religion was at the best but partial and incomplete. It was a harmony for life, but not for death. The more completely the Greek felt himself to be at home in the world, the more happily and freely he abandoned himself to the exercise of his powers, the more intensely and vividly he lived in action and in passion, the more alien, bitter, and incomprehensible did he find the phenomena of age and death. On this problem, so far as we can judge, he received from his religion but little light, and still less consolation. The music of his brief life closed with a discord unresolved; and even before reason had brought her criticism to bear upon his creed, its deficiency was forced upon him by his feeling.

Thus the harmony which we have indicated as the characteristic result of the Greek religion contained none of the conditions of completeness or finality. For on the one hand there were elements which it was never able to include; and on the other, its hold even over those which it embraced was temporary and precarious. The eating of the tree of knowledge drove the Greeks from their paradise; but the vision of that Eden continues to haunt the mind of man, not in vain, if it prophesies in a type the end to which his history moves.

Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


History of Greece | | Site Map | Privacy

History of Greece Online

Exploring Ancient World Cultures