« AnteriorContinuar »
the proverbs of the Agora, and the coarse jokes of the Ecclesia and Helisea were therefore diligently collected, and showered from a full cornucopia, in all their native richness and strength upon an audience who perhaps found in them a charm of which we are not susceptible. The Italians, who in the particular cast of their vivacity, approach very nearly to the Athenians, are enthusiastically attached to the low Florentine; and many of their critics to this day think nothing written with purity, which is not formed upon the language of the lower orders of Florence of the fourteenth century. Perhaps it added to their value, in the eyes of democratical pride and vanity, that it was a man of rank and property* (for Aristophanes was both) who condescended to amuse them according to their own notions of pleasantry and humour.
Till the fatal exhibition therefore of the Clouds, the dramatic career of Aristophanes had been short, but eminently successful. His first play, (the Daetaleis,) which was brought out before the author had reached the age established by law, we know to have been received with the most flattering attention: his ' Babylonians' could boast the triumph of having at once excited and defeated the vengeance of that pestilent demagogue, who seems, as the historian expresses it, to have been as much born for the depression of Athens, as Miltiades, Themistocles, Cymon and Pericles for its elevation; while the prize of victory had been awarded to his comedies of the Acharnians and the Knights. Diffidence had thus been removed; exertion was stimulated; and gratitude, success, emulation and hope, all urged the writer to press forward in a career, which had commenced under such favourable auspices.
The first of the dramatic pieces of Aristophanes seems to have been directed against the state of private manners in Athens; in his Acharnians he had endeavoured to moderate the insolence of national success, and to infuse juster notions respecting a great public measure, which was putting the existence of the Athenians as a people at stake; while in the Knights, or as we should prefer calling it, the Demagogues, a mirror was held up to his fellow-citizens, where the ruler and the ruled saw themselves reflected with equal fidelity, and by which posterity has gained a complete knowledge of the greatest historical phenomenon that ever appeared, the Athenian Demus. It now remained for the author to strike at the root of all these evils, private and public, domestic and political,—a mischievous and most pernicious system of education. This was undoubtedly the origin and object of the Clouds; and a brief outline of the progress of knowledge among the Greeks, and more particularly of that branch of it, which was comprehended under the name of ' Philosophy,' will at once tend to explain the aim of the author, and throw some light upon the comedy itself.
* Mit. Hist, of Greece, v. iii. p. 327. Arist. in Achar. v. 653, 4.
The proper epoch of Grecian literature begins with Solon. Before his time, says Frederic Schlegel, the Greeks possessed no more than commonly falls to the share of every people, who are blessed with a favourable organisation, while they are animated with the fresh impulses of a youthful society—traditions which hold the place of histories, and songs and poems which are repeated and remembered so as to serve instead of books. Such songs, calculated to arouse national feelings, to give animation in the hour of battle, or to be sung at the festivals of their religion, the Greeks possessed, in the utmost variety, from the earliest period of their existence as a nation. They possessed also in abundance those still more valuable songs of narrative, which express not the feelings that seize and overpower an individual poet, but embody the recollection and the feelings of the people,—the faint memory of a fabulous antiquity,—the achievements of heroes and of gods, —the origin of a nation, and the creation of the world. Among these stood, highly pre-eminent, the Homeric poems, the still astonishing works of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In committing these poems to memory, many of them perhaps to be learned only by oral communication; in understanding critically their beauties and defects, and in attaining, through them, a perfect knowledge of that wonderful language, which, formed amid migrations and revolutions of every kind, yet attained to such perfection, as to make all subsequent languages appear nearly barbarous, consisted too great a part of Athenian education. It cultivated the imagination, almost exclusively at the expense of the understanding, and thus laid the foundation for that extravagance and enthusiasm, which so strongly marked the Athenian character. Instead of those plain treatises on morality, which teach us how to live, the grammarian (ypa/xjaanriis), whose business it was to.conduct the opening years of education, invariably put into his pupils' hands the works of Homer. The whole of these were, like other poems, frequently committed to memory; and the mischiefs which resulted from thus reading in infancy, what ought to have been the study of the ripest years, were so many, that Plato, notwithstanding his own evident predilection for the great father of poetry, does not hesitate to banish him wholly from the imaginary state, which his fancy dressed up as a model of perfection. From the criticisms, commentaries, explanations and interpolations of Homer by the grammarians, the pupil was committed to the teacher of music, or more properly to the master of the instrument called the cithara (xiSapiS-tjf). A knowledge of music was indispensably necessary
s 4 for for the younger people of both sexes, that they might be able to bear a part in the chorusses and hymns, which accompanied their religious solemnities; and it was required of men, who held the higher offices of the state, to enable them to give their suffrages with propriety at those warm and animated contests, which were perpetually submitted to their decision at the theatres and musicrooms. The principal development of the faculties was now left to be effected by the two opposite engines, at once producing and evincing that love of contrast, which obtained so much among the Athenians, and which forms (as we may perhaps have another opportunity of shewing) the great key to ascertaining their character, —music and gymnastic exercises. What the music itself of the ancients was, we have now, as a very competent* observer remarks, little means of judging, as none of it has been transmitted intelligible to us; but that the Grecian music, even from the earliest times, had extraordinary merit, we have Plato'sf testimony in very remarkable words; and Aristotle,;}; generally enough disposed to differ from his master, upon this subject coincides with him. It appears indeed a solecism, as the same writer observes, to suppose that those elegant perceptions and nice organs which gave form to the most harmonious language ever spoken among men, and guided invention to the structure of that verse which, even under the gross disguise of modern pronunciation, is still universally charming, could have produced or tolerated a vicious or inelegant style of music. As instruments of education, Plato delights to dwell upon these two powerful engines: he paints, in the most earnest language, their ill effects, when pursued separately and immoderately; their admirable influence, when conjointly and temperately. Naturally mystic and fanciful, it is not likely that this philosopher should be always clear or plain, when subjects, which offered so much temptation to both his ruling propensities, as harmony and the exercises of the palaestra, were under his consideration; what share they had in producing that physical perfection at least—that union of strength and elegance in the body, and that capacity in the organs for receiving impressions from works of art and beauty,— which has generally been conceded to the Greeks,—we may gather from the observations which he has left us,§ most unsparingly, upon the subject. From the earliest periods, education among the greater part of the Athenians seems to have embraced little more than the circle here described: and till the age of Pericles, the three great
* Mitford's Hist, of Greece, vol. i. p. 151.
§ See more particularly the Republic, LI. 3. 4. De Legibus, lib. 2. also In Protagor&, 199. In Lachete, p. 249.
preceptors preceptors of Athenian youth remained as before;—the grammarian, the teacher of music, and the master of the gymnasium.
But there were some minds of a higher cast and more restless energies than to be satisfied with this narrow range of instruction; and the same shore which had given birth to the great father of Grecian poetry had, in the person of the Milesian Thales, provided a preceptor, who was at once calculated to excite and, to a certain extent, to gratify that love of research and curious speculation which seems to have been at least as inherent in the Grecian character as a love of poetry and the fine arts. How congenial these pursuits were with their national temperament may be inferred from the single remark, that the fire which Thales lighted up has never since been extinguished. His own school* was followed in quick succession by the Italian, and Eleatic,^ where physical and metaphy-j sical knowledge were followed with equal success; and the dialogues of Plato furnish the most ample testimony of the zeal and fervour with which they were pursued in Athens, as soon as a respite from revolution and wars gave leisure for their introduction into that inquisitive town. The struggle which the Greek philosophy maintained with the doctrines of Christianity, forms one of the great partitions between the old world and the new; and if the Greeks paved the way to the final destruction of their country, by disputing instead of fighting, this has not prevented them from soothing the disgrace of political degradation by the subtle inquiries and neverending debates of polemical divinity. Can we be altogether surprized at it in a nation, which, with organs the most acute and perceptive, possessed a language that could express every sensation; a language, as the historian enthusiastically expresses it, so musical and prolific, that it could give a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of metaphysics?—Those lofty but dangerous speculations, therefore, in which the strongest minds sometimes become entangled, and in which the weak are sure to suffer shipwreck, became very soon the favourite studies of such among the Greeks, as were possessed of leisure and had a curiosity to satisfy; and God, the Universe andMAN at once divided and engrossed the whole of their attention. Their facts were few, but their disputes were long; if they could not convince, they could at least reason: one absurdity led them to another; but every absurdity furnished a disputation of words; and words, even without
* The great leaders in the Ionian school (and it is clear from the writings of Diogenes Laertius that the successions were very accurately observed) were, from the time of its foundation by Thales, to the time of Socrates, the period to which we have confined our remarks, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, and Archelaiis; the latter was the preceptor of Socrates, and not Anaxagoras, as Madame Dacier, inadvertently maintained.
T The Eleatic, properly speaking, was a branch of the Italian or Pythagorean school.
ideas, were as the breath of life to the loquacious Athenians. What is God? the philosophers therefore first asked. He is the most ancient of all things, for he is without beginning, said Thales. He is air, said Anaximenes. He is a pure mind, said Anaxagoras. He is air and mind, said Archelaus. He is mind in a spherical form, said Deinocritus. He is a monad and the principle of good, said Pythagoras. He is an eternal circular fire, said Heracleitus. He is the finite and immoveable principle in a spherical form, said Parmenides; he is one and every thing, said Melissus and Zenon,— the only eternal and infinite. These were subjects in which the profoundest mind might have discovered the most ample exercise for itself; but to the Greek, a vacuity was still left: Necessity, Fate and Fortune or Accident filled it up.
The Universe furnished another set of disputations. What is, has ever been, and the world is eternal, said one party. The world is not eternal, but the matter is eternal, argued another party. Was this matter susceptible of forms; of one or many? was it water, or air, or fire? was it an assemblage of atoms, or an infinite number of incorruptible elements? Had this matter subsisted without movement in chaos, or had it an irregular movement? Did the world appear by Intelligence communicating its action to it, or did God ordain it by penetrating it with a part of his essence? Did these atoms move in the void, and was the universe the result of their fortuitous union? Are there but two elements in nature, earth and fire, and by these are all things formed and produced; or are there four elements, whose parts are united by Love and separated by Hatred? Causes and essences, bodies, forms and colours, production and dissolution, the great phenomena of visible nature; the magnitudes, figures, eclipses and phases of the two heavenly luminaries; the nature and division of the sky; the magnitude and situation of the earth; the sea with its ebbs and flows; the causes of thunder, lightning, winds and earthquakes—all these furnished disquisitions, which were pursued with an eagerness of research and an intenseness of application, peculiar to the Greeks. Man, a compound of matter and of mind,—having relations to the universe by the former, and to the Eternal Being by the latter,— presented phaenomena and contradictions, as puzzling to the old philosophers, as the universe of which he was the abridgement. While all allowed him a soul and an intelligence, all differed widely in their definition of this soul or intelligence. It is always in motion and it moves by itself, said one party—it is a number in motion—it is the harmony of the four elements—it is air, it is water, it is fire, it is blood—it is a fiery mixture of things perceptible by the intellect, which have globose shapes and the force of fire—it is a flame which emanates from the sun—it is an assemblage