| 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
SOCR. Zeus indeed! there's no Zeus: don't you be so obtuse.
||No Zeus up above in the sky?
||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
|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
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
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
|And shall not
||the high and the infinite sky go thundering on
|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;
||wherever it turns, some it singes and burns, and some it
reduces to ashes:
||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
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
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
|It swells up their skin, like a bladder, within, by Necessity's
||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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
| Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |