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EFORE proceeding to consider the achievements of the
great Greek poets, it is necessary to say something of
the Greek spirit, that particular national genius which enabled a small people in the fifth century before Christ to produce a literature of unparalleled grandeur and dignity, to rise to a splendid height of excellence in architecture and sculpture, and to lay the foundations of mathematics, physical science, and philosophy. It has been well said that “with the exception of Christianity, the Greeks were the beginners of nearly everything of which the modern world can boast.”
The Greeks had great limitations. They knew nothing about the past. At the best they only guessed. They knew no geography. They knew next to nothing about other peoples. On the other hand they had one great asset, a beautiful language, particularly fitted, in its power and precision, for the immortal expression of beautiful thoughts. The Greeks themselves were highly civilised, but they were only separated from barbarism by a very thin interval. They were our dawn, but a dawn that came, so far as we know, without preparation or warning. The Greeks were a young people living in the cold clear air of the early morning. There is a strong contrast between the Greeks and the Hebrews. To the Hebrew, the sorrow of the world was due to disobedience to the laws of the one all-powerful God. The Greeks had no idea of a single God, beneficent in intention, directing the affairs of men. They had many gods, constantly warring with each other, only intermittently concerned with human affairs, all of them actuated by human passions, and mainly concerned with their own adventures.
But behind the gods was Fate, determining the destiny alike of men and gods, and against Fate it was useless to contend. That is the prevailing note of Greek tragedy. It brought with it a great sense of dignity. Self-respect demanded that men should accept the decrees of Fate without protest, without pretence that things were other than they were, and without yearnings for the unattainable. Self-respect, too, compelled man to eschew evil and follow good without any thought of the gods of their desires.
The Greeks were never mystics, they were realists. It has been well said that to Homer a wave was “nothing else than salt water.” To the Greek death was death. What happened after he did not know and he did not trouble to guess. To the Greek mind man stood alone and unaided in the world, and because he so often triumphed over difficulties and accepted with splendid dignity the hardest decrees of Fate, the worship of humanity became the dominating feature of Greek life and Greek religion. This worship brought with it the love for everything that makes human life fine. The first of these things was beauty. The idols of India and Egypt are hideous and repulsive, signifying terror and power. But the Greeks could only worship beautiful gods. and their statues enshrine the dreams and ideals of the worshippers. With beauty the Greeks loved justice, freedom, and truth-all necessary for the happiness of man.
The Love of Justice, Freedom, and Truth
Perhaps because of the absence of traditions and established conventions, the Greeks were never sentimental. And because they were realists they loved the simple and the unadorned. Greek poetry never has the elaborate ornamentation to be found in such a poem as “Paradise Lost.” It is austere. In their litera