Introduction to the Greek Portable
by W.H. AUDEN
Once upon a time there was a little boy. Before he could read, his father told him stories about the War between the Greeks and the Trojans. Hector and Achilles were as familiar to him as his brothers, and when the Olympians quarreled he thought of his uncles and aunts. At seven he went to a boarding school and most of the next seven years were spent in translating Greek and Latin into English and vice versa. Then he went on to another boarding school which had a Classical Side and a Modern Side.
The latter was regarded by boys and masters alike in much the same way as; in a militarist country, civilians are regarded by officers, and with the same kind of degrees of inferiority: history and mathematics were, like professional men, possible; the natural sciences, comprehensively labeled Stinks, like tradesman were not. The Classical Side, too, had its nice distinctions: Greek, like the Navy, was the senior, the aristocratic service.
It is hard to believe now that this story is not a fairy tale but a historical account of middle-class education in England thirty-five years ago.
For anyone brought up in this way, Greece and Rome are so mixed up with his personal memories of childhood and classroom that it is extremely difficult to look at these civilizations objectively. This is particularly so, perhaps, in the case of Greece. Until near the end of the eighteenth century. Europe though of itself less as Europe than as Western Christendom, the heir to the Roman Empire, and its education system was based on the study of Latin. The rise of Hellenic studies to an equal and then a superior position was a nineteenth century phenomenon and coincided with the development of European nations and nationalist feeling.
It is significant, surely, that when, today, an after-dinner speaker refers to the sources of our civilization, he always names Jerusalem and Athens, but rarely Rome, for the last is the symbol of a religious and political unity which has ceased to exist and and the revival of which few believe in or desire. The historical discontinuity between Greek culture and our own, the disappearance for so many centuries of any direct influence, made it all the easier, when it was rediscovered, for each nation to fashion a classical Greece in its own image. There is a German Greece, a French Greece, an English Greece — there may even be an American Greece — all quite different. Had Holderlin met Jowett, for instance, one suspects that neither would have understood a word the other said, and their parting would have been cold.
Even within a single country different Greeces coexist. For instance here are two English caricatures:
Professor X. Reade Chair of Moral Philosophy. 59. Married. Three daughters. Religion: C of E (Broad). Politics: Conservative. Lives in a small suburban house stuffed with Victorian knickknacks. Does not entertain. Smokes a pipe. Does not notice what he eats. Hobbies: gardening and long solitary walks. Dislikes: foreigners, Roman Catholicism, modern literature, noise. Current worry: his wife's health.
Mr. Y. Classical tutor. 41. Unmarried. Religion: none. Politics: none. Lives in college. Has private means and gives wonderful lunch parties for favorite undergraduates. Hobbies: travel and collecting old glass. Dislikes: Christianity, girls, the poor, English cooking. Current worry: his figure.
To X, the word suggest Reason, the Golden Mean, emotional control, freedom from inhibitions.
Of course, being good scholars, both know that their respective views are partial; X cannot deny that many Greeks were attracted to mystery cults and addicted to habits upon which "the common moral sense of civilized mankind has pronounced a judgement which requires no justification as it allows of no appeal"; Y is equally aware that the Plato of the Laws is as puritanical, as any Scotch Presbyter; but the emotional tie to the Greece of their dreams, formed in childhood and strengthened by years of study and affection, is stronger than their knowledge.
There could be no stronger proof of the riches and depth or depth of Greek culture than its powers of appeal to every kind of personality. It has been said that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian; but it seems to me that there are more contrasted and significant divisions than this, between, for instance, the lovers of Ionia and the lovers of Sparta, between those who are devoted to both Plato and Aristotle and those who prefer Hippocrates and Thucydides to either.
The days when classical studies were the core of higher learning have now passed and are not likely, in any future we can envisage, to return. We have to accept as an accomplished fact that the educated man of today and tomorrow can read neither Latin or Greek. This means, I think, that, if the classics are to continue to exert any educational effect at all, a change must be made in the emphasis and direction of Roman and Hellenic studies.
If Greek literature has to be read in translation, then the approach can no longer be an aesthetic one. The aesthetic loss in translation from one language into another is always immense; in the case of languages and cultures as far apart as Greek and English, it becomes practically fatal; one can almost say that the better a translation is as English poetry, the less like Greek poetry it is (e.g. Pope's Iliad) and vice versa.
To begin with there is the prosodic difficulty; quantitative unrhymed verse and qualitative rhymed verse have nothing in common except that they are both rhythmical patterns. An English poet can have much fun attempting, as a technical exercise or an act of piety, to write quantitatively: With these words Hermes sped away for lofty Olympos: and Priam all fearlessly from off his chariot alighted, Ordering Idaeus to remain i' the entry to keep watch Over the beats: th'old king meanwhile strode doughtily onward, - Robert Bridges, Iliad, xxiv, 468-471)
But no one can read this except as a qualitative meter of an eccentric kind, and eccentricity is a very unhomeristic characteristic.
Then there are the problems of word-order and diction; Greek is an inflected language where the sense does not depend on the position of words in the sentence as it does English; Greek is rich in compound epithets, English is not.
Lastly and most important of all, the poetic sensibility of the two literatures is radically different. Compared with English poetry Greek poetry is primitive, i.e. the emotions and subjects it treats are simpler and more direct than ours while, on the other hand, the manner of language tends to be more involved and complex. Primitive poetry says simple things in a roundabout way where modern poetry tries to say complicated things straightforwardly. The continuous efforts of English poets in every generation to rediscover "a language really used by men" would have been incomprehensible to a Greek.
In his introduction to Greek Plays in Modern Translation, Dudley Fitts quotes a translation of a bit of stichomythy from Medea.
MEDEA: Why didst thou fare to earth's prophetic navel?
AEGEUS: To ask how seed of children might be mine.
MEDEA: 'Fore Heaven! - aye childless is thy life till now?
AEGEUS: Childless I am, by chance of some god's will.
MEDEA: This with a wife, or knowing not the couch?
AEGEUS: Nay, not unyoked to wedlock's bed am I.
This is, as he says, comically absurd, but what is the poor translator to do? If, for instance, he translates the last two lines into modern idiom, he must write:
MEDEA: Are you married or single?
This is no longer funny, but it has completely lost an essential element of the original style, the poetic ornamentation of simple questions and answers by casting them in the form of riddles.
It is significant that, in spite of the familiarity with and enormous admiration for Greek poetry of many English poets in the past, very few indeed show any signs of having been influenced by it in their style of writing — Milton and possibly Browning by the tragedians, Hopkins by Pindar, are the only names I can think of.
The attempt to translate the poetry of one language into another is an invaluable training for a poet, and it is to be hoped that new versions of Homer, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sappho, etc, will continue to be made in every generation, but their public importance is likely to be small.
Even when he is reading the epics or the plays, the average modern reader is going to find that a historical and anthropological approach is more fruitful than an aesthetic one.
Instead of asking, "How good a tragedy is Oedipus?" or "Is such and such an argument of Plato's true or false?" he will try to see all aspects of Greek activity, their drama, their science, their philosophy, their politics as interrelated parts of one complete and unique culture.
Accordingly, in selecting the material for this anthology, I have tried to make it an introduction to Greek culture rather than Greek literature. In a literary anthology it would be absurd to represent Greek tragedy by Aeschylus alone, omitting Sophocles and Euripides, but if one wishes to understand the form and idea of Greek tragedy, it is better to give a trilogy like The Oresteia than three separate plays by three authors; so too with all the other poetic selections which have been chosen for their representative character as literary forms rather than for their individual poetic excellences.
Again, in the extracts from the philosophers the intention has been not to give a comprehensive picture of Plato or Aristotle, but to show how Greek thinkers dealt with certain kinds of problems, for instance the problem of cosmology.
Lastly, Greek medicine and Greek mathematics are so essential parts of their culture, that they cannot be ignored even by a beginner.
The exigencies of space in a volume of this size exclude much important material, but I have only consciously excluded one author, for reasons of personal distaste. I believe, however, that I am not alone in finding Lucian, one of the most popular of Greek writers, too "enlightened" for a generation as haunted by devils as our own.
There is no single Greek literary work of art as great as The Divine Comedy; there is no extant series of works by a single Greek literary artist as impressive as the complete plays of Shakespeare; as a period of sustained activity in one medium, the seventy-five-odd years of Athenian drama, between the first tragedies of Aeschylus and the last comedy of Aristophanes, are surpassed by the hundred and twenty-five years, between Gluck's Orpheus and Verdi's Othello, which comprise the golden age of European opera: nevertheless, the bewildered comment of any fifth century Athenian upon our society from Dante's time till our own, and with increasing sharpness every decade, would surely be: "Yes, I can see all the works of a great civilization; but why I cannot meet any civilized person? I only encounter specialists, artists who known nothing of science, scientists who know nothing of art, philosophers who have no interest in God, priests who are unconcerned with politics, politicians who only know other politicians."
Civilization is a precarious balance between what Professor Whitehead has called barbaric vagueness and trivial order. Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilization is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain of the maximum number of distinct activities.
It is impossible to say, for example, of a harvest dance of a primitive tribe whether it is an aesthetic play, undertaken for the pleasure it gives the participants in performing it well, or religious ritual, an outward expression of an inward piety towards the powers who control the harvest, or a scientific technique for securing the practical effect of a better harvest: it is indeed foolish to think in such terms at all, since the dancers have not learned to make such distinctions and cannot understand what they mean.
In a society like our own, on the other hand, when a man goes to the ballet, he goes simply to enjoy himself and all he demands is that choreography and performance shall be aesthetically satisfying; when he goes to Mass, he knows that it is irrelevant whether the Mass be well or badly sung, for what matters is the attitude of his will towards God and his neighbor; when he plows a field, he knows that whether the tractor is beautiful or ugly or whether he be a repentant or a defiant sinner is irrelevant to his success or failure. His problem is quite different than that of the savage; the danger for him is that, instead of being a complete person at every moment, he will be split into three unrelated fragments which are always competing for dominance: the aesthetic fragment which goes to the ballet, the religious which goes to Mass, and the practical which earns its living.
If a civilization be judged by this double standard, the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained, then it is hardly too much to say that the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. were the most civilized people who have so far existed. The fact that nearly all the words we use to define activities and branches of knowledge, e.g. chemistry, physics, economics, politics, ethics, aesthetics, theology, tragedy, comedy, etc. are of Greek origin is proof of their powers of conscious differentiation; their literature and their history are evidence of their ability to maintain a sense of common interrelation, a sense which we have in great measure lost as they themselves lost it in a comparatively short time.
...as their forefathers were they, those old seapirates, who with roving robbery built up their island lordships on the ruin of Crete, when the unforbearing rivalry of their free cities wrec'd their confederacy within the sevenscore years 'twixt Marathon and Issus, until from the pride of routing Xerxes and his fabulous host, they fell to make that most memorable of all invasions less memorable in the glory of Alexander, under whose alien kingship they conspired to outreach their own ambition, winning dominions too wide for domination, and were, with their virtue, dispersed and molten into the great stiffening alloy of Rome.
— Robert Bridges, Testament of Beauty
The geography of Greece, where barren mountains separate small fertile localities from each other, encouraged diversity, migration to new colonies, and an economy of exchange rather than production for use.
In consequence, the Greek, who, when they first invaded the Aegean were not so very different from any other patriarchal military tribe — the kind of life described in the Iliad is much the same as described in Beowulf — rapidly developed within a comparatively small area a great variety of forms of social organization, tyrannies and constitutional city-states in Ionia, feudal oligarchy in Boeotia, a militarist police state in Sparta, democracy in Athens, almost every possible kind, in fact, but one, the extended centralized state typical of major river-basin areas like Egypt or Babylonia. The initial stimulus, therefore, to comprehension, inquiry, speculation, and experiment was present; but this explains neither the extraordinary talent the Greeks displayed in these activities nor their capacity to absorb influences and make them their own: unlike the Romans, the Greeks never give the impression of being eclectics; everything they do and say is stamped with their distinctive character.
Greek culture, as a glance at the chronological table at the end of this will show, had successively three centers, the Ionian seaboard, Athens, and Alexandria. Sparta remained outside the general cultural development in a fossilized state of primitivism, exciting in her neighbors a mixture of fear, repulsion, and admiration. Nevertheless, she made, indirectly through Plato, a contribution which for good or ill, has influenced the world as much as any other element in Greek culture, namely, the idea of consciously planned education of its citizens by the state; indeed the very concept of the state as something distinct from the ruling class, from the individual, and from the community might be said to be derived from Sparta.
At the beginning of Greek literature stands Homer. If the Iliad and the Odyssey are better than the epics of other nations, this is not due to their content but to their more sophisticated imagination - as if the original material had been worked over into its present form under much more civilized conditions than existed among, say, the Teutonic peoples until their heroic age was too far behind them to seem real. It is difficult, however, to make objective comparisons, since the Teutonic epics had little further history. Homer became, through the Romans, one of the basic inspirations of European literature, without which there would be neither an Aeneid, a Divine Comedy, a Paradise Lost, nor the comic epics of Ariosto or Pope or Byron.
The next development after Homer took place largely in Ionia and for the most part in and around the courts of tyrants who were, of course, more like the Medicis than like a modem dictator.
The Ionian scientist and the Ionian lyric poets had one thing in common, a hostility to polytheistic myth. The former saw Nature in terms of law rather than arbitrary volition; the latter saw their feelings as their own, as belonging to a single personality, rather than as visitations from without.
Thales' guess that all things are made of water was wrong, but the insight behind it, namely that however many different realms of Nature there may be they all must be related was a basic presupposition without which science as we know it would be impossible. Equally influential was the assertion of Pythagoras, as a result of his work in acoustics, that all things are number, i.e. that the "nature" of things, that by virtue of which they are what they are and behave as they do, is not a question of what they are made of but of their structure, which can be described in mathematical terms.
The great difference between the Greek conception of Nature and later one is that the Greeks thought of the universe as analogous to a city-state, so that for them natural laws, like human laws, were not laws of things, descriptions of how in fact they behave, but laws for things. When we speak of a falling body "obeying" the law of gravitation, we are unconsciously echoing Greek thought; for obedience implies the possibility of disobedience. To the Greeks this was no dead metaphor; consequently, their problem was not the relation of Mind to Matter, but of Substance to Form, how matter became "educated" enough, so to speak, to conform to law.
The lyric poets were equally important in their own sphere, for it was through them that Western civilization has learned to distinguish poetry from history, pedagogy, and religion.
The most famous phase of Greek civilization is, of course, that associated with Athens. If he knows nothing else about them, every man in the street has heard the names of Homer, Aeschuylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and, if he is a little better informed, of Pericles, Demosthenes, and Thucydides. All but Homer are Athenian.
The Athenian period divides into two: the first is preceded by the political and economic establishment of the Athenian state as a mercantile democracy by Solon and Cleisthenes, and the demonstration of its strength through its victory over the Persian Invasion; the second is the product of political defeat, first by Sparta, then by Macedonia. The typical expression of the first period is drama, of the second philosophy.
In comparison with the preceding Ionian culture, Athenian drama is marked by revulsion from luxury and frivolity towards austerity and simplicity, and by a return to myth. Above all, for the first and last time in history, an art, drama, became the dominant religious expression of a whole people, the dramatist the most important figure in their spiritual life. Compared with the Greek tragedians, Homer and Pindar seem secular writers, of education value certainly for a ruling minority, but still primarily entertainers, subordinate in importance to the priest and the oracle. Like modern drama, which grew out of religious festivals such as Easter and Corpus Christi, Athenian drama was associated with the festivals of the Wine Press and of the Greater Dionysus.
But, whereas modern drama was at first subordinate to the religious rituals and then developed a secular life of its own, leaving the festivals to themselves, Athenian drama, while being definitely works of art, whose value can be judged by vote, became the dominant religious exercise, of greater importance than sacrifices or prayers. In the nineteenth century, and in our own the individual artistic genius has sometimes claimed a supreme importance and even persuaded a minority of aesthetes to agree with him; but only in Athens was this a universal social fact, so that the genius was not a lonely figure claiming exceptional rights for himself but acclaimed spiritual leader of society.
The nearest modern equivalent is not any work of the theater, but a ball game or a bull fight.
Greek tragedy returned to myth, but it was no longer the Homeric mythology; the Ionian cosmologists had done their work. The gods are no longer essentially strong and accidentally righteous; their strength is now secondary, the means by which they enforce the laws which they themselves keep and represent. In consequence, the mythology is subjected to strain; for, the more monotheistic it becomes, the greater the importance of Zeus, the less individual, the more allegorical, became the other gods. Furthermore, behind Zeus himself appears the quite unmythological concept of Fate. Now either the personal Zeus and the impersonal Fate must coalesce as the Creator God of the Jews, a step which the Greek religious imagination never took, or, in the end, Zeus becomes a Demiurge, an allegorical figure for the order in nature, and Fate becomes the true God, either as Fortune or as an impersonal Idea or First Cause, in which case drama ceases to be the natural vehicle for teaching about the nature of God and is replaced by the science of Theology.
It is partly for such reasons, perhaps, that the development from the piety of Aeschylus to the skepticism of Euripides is so rapid, and the period of Greek tragedy so short. As Werner Jaeger has pointed out, Sophocles stands a little apart from the other two in that, while their interests are basically the same, his concern was more with human character than with religious or social problems. For Greek tragedy to have developed further, it would have had to go on from Sophocles, abandon its relation to myth and festival, and become a frankly secular art, perhaps its very triumphs tied it too firmly to myth and festival to allow it to make the break which the Elizabethan drama, for instance, made. Thus, greatly as the Greek tragedians have been admired by later writers, they cannot be said to have exerted much direct literary influence. The influence of the philosophers is in striking contrast to this, for Plato and Aristotle between them established the basic premises of an intellectual life, the unity and diversity of truth; moreover, they are responsible for the particular kinds of divisions to which we are accustomed. If, for example, one tries to read Indian philosophy, the great obstacle to understanding what it means is that the joints of man and nature, so to speak, are carved differently. Our cuts, our carving are Greek; and we find it hard for us to believe that there can be any others.
The final period of Greek culture, the Hellenist, or Alexandrian, returns to Ionian hedonism and materialism but without its relation to political and social life. The important achievements are technological. The literature, as typified by the Greek Anthology, is highly polished, pretty, but on the whole boring, at least to the present age, because of its immense influence on minor poetry since the Renaissance. To it we owe all the worst "classical" properties, the little rogue of a Cupid, the catalogue of flowers, Celia's bosom, etc, etc.
Christendom was a product of Jewish historical religious experience and Gentile speculation upon and organization of that experience. The Greek mind is the typically Gentile mind, and it is at odds with the Jewish consciousness. As a Greek the Christian is tempted to a seesaw between worldly frivolity and a falsely spiritual other worldliness, both of them, au fond, pessimistic; as a Jew he is tempted to the wrong kind of seriousness, to an intolerance which persecutes dissenters as wicked rather than stupid. The Inquisition was a product of a Gentile interest in rationality and a Jewish passion for truth.
The clearest historical example is the Crucifixion. In their book Talking of Dick Whittington Hesketh Pearson and Hugh Kingsmill report an interview with Hilaire Belloc in which he says of the Jews:
Poor darlings, it must be terrible to be born with the knowledge that you belong to the enemies of the human race... because of the Crucifixion.
I cannot believe that Mr. Belloc is an altogether stupid man. Nevertheless, his statement is on a part with Adam's "The woman beguiled me and I did eat." He can hardly be unaware that the Crucifixion was actually performed by the Romans, or, to make it contemporary, by the French (the English said "Oh dear!" and consented; the Americans said, "How undemocratic!" and sent photographers) for the frivolous reason that Jesus was a political nuisance. The Jews who demanded it did so for the serious reason that, in their opinion, Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, i.e. of falsely claiming to be the Messiah. Every Christian is, of course, both Pilate and Caiaphas.
If there is any reaction to the Greeks which may be called typical of our age as compared with preceding times, it is, I think, a feeling that they were a very odd people indeed, so much so that when we come across something they wrote which seems similar to our own way of thinking, we immediately suspect that we have misunderstood the passage. It is the unlikeness of the Greeks to ourselves, the gulf between the kind of assumptions they made, the kind of questions they asked and our own that strikes us more than anything else.
Take, for instance, the following passage from the Timaeus:
Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies. And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the Universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.
Surely this kind of thinking is as extraordinary to us as any habits of an African tribe.
Even those of us whose mathematical equipment is of the most meager, have so imbibed the modern conception of number as an instrument for explaining nature, that we can no more think of ourselves back into a state of mind where numbers were regarded as physical or metaphysical or metaphysical entities so that one number was "better" than another than we can return to a belief in a sympathetic magic. Nor is the Platonic assumption about the moral nature of any godhead any less peculiar to us than his shape. We may or may not believe that a god exists, but the only kind of god in which we can think of believing is the god who suffers, either involuntarily like the Pantheist god because he is emergent, or voluntarily like the Christian god because he loves his creatures and suffers with them; the kind of god who is both self-sufficient and content to remain so could not interest us enough to raise the question of his existence.
It is impudent of me to trespass at all inside a field where so many great and and good men have spent their lifetimes. I can only try to limit the offense by confining my remarks to one aspect of Greek thought of which I am less ignorant than I am of others, namely to a comparison of the various Greek conceptions of the hero with our own, as an illustration of the distance between our culture and theirs.
The Homeric Hero: The Homeric hero has the military virtues of courage, resourcefulness, magnanimity in victor and dignity in defeat to an exceptional degree. His heroism is manifested in exceptional deeds which can be judged by other who are forced to admit "He achieved what we could not have achieved." his motive is to win admiration and glory from his equals whether they are on his side or the enemy's. The code by which he lives is a code of honor which is not a universal requirement like law but an individual one, that which I require of myself and that which in view of my achievements I have a right to demand of others.
He is not a tragic figure, i.e. he does not suffer more than others, but his death has exceptional pathos — the great warrior comes to the same end as the lowest churl. He exists only in the present moment when he comes into collision with another heroic individual, his future forms the past traditions of others. The closest modern equivalent to the Homeric hero is the ace fighter pilot. Because he is so often engaged in single combat, he gets to recognize individual pilots on the side of the enemy and war becomes a matter of personal rivalry rather than any political issues; in fact he has a closer relation to the enemy ace than he has to the infantry on his own side. His life is so full of risks and hairbreadth escapes, so almost certain to end in death, and the effects of good luck and bad luck, of a sudden engine failure or an unforeseen change in the weather, are so serious that chance takes on all the aspects of a personal intervening power. The sense of having good days when he is protected and bad days when he is being worked against and the conviction that he will die when Fate decrees but not before become almost necessary attitudes to life.
There is still however an essential difference between the fighter pilot and the Homeric hero, to make the analogy close one would have to imagine that all the countries of the world has been continuously at war for centuries and that being a fighter pilot had become a hereditary profession. For the assumption of the Iliad, as of all early epics, which is so strange to us, is that war is the normal condition of mankind and peace an accidental breathing space. In the foreground are men locked in battle, killing or being killed, farther off their wives, children, and servants waiting anxiously for the outcome, overhead, watching the spectacle with interest and at times interfering, the gods who know neither sorrow nor death, and around them all indifferent and unchanging, the natural world of sky and sea and earth. That is how things are; that is how they have always been and always will be.
Consequently, there can be no moral or historical significance about the result of any conflict; it brings joy to the victor and sorrow to the vanquished but neither could imagine raising the question of justice. If one compares the Iliad with, for example, Shakespeare's Henry IV or Tolstoy's War and Peace, one sees that the modern writers are deeply concerned first with historical questions: "How did Henry IV or Napoleon come to power?" "What were the causes of civil or international war?" and secondly with general moral questions: "What is the moral effect of war on human beings?" "What virtues and vices does it encourage as contrasted with those encouraged by peace?" "Irrespective of the individuals on both sides, did the defeat of Hotspur and Napoleon promote or retard the establishment of a Just Society?" These are questions which to Homer would seem meaningless. He does, it is true, give a cause for the Trojan war, the Apple of Discord; but this is both a divine cause, i.e. outside human control, and a frivolous cause, i.e. Homer does not take it seriously but uses it as a literary device for beginning his tale.
He does make moral judgments about his heroes. Achilles should not have refused for so long to aid the Greeks because of his quarrel with Agamemnon nor should he have treated the body of Hector as he did, but these are minor blemishes which neither affect the outcome of the war nor the final proof of his heroism, namely that he vanquishes Hector.
The pathos of Hector's death is simple: the nobler character is defeated; the pathos of Hotspur's death is ironic; he is a much more sympathetic individual than Prince Hal, but he dies defending the wrong cause.
Further, in the Homeric world where war is the norm, there can be no criticism of the military hero as such. The wrath of Achilles could never be the tragic flaw in his character in the way that the wrath of Shakespeare's Coriolanus is in his. Homer might well have described Achilles taking a bath but it would have been simply a description of a hero taking a bath not, as in Tolstoy's description of Napoleon being bathed, a revelation that the military hero is an ordinary mortal just as week as any of the thousands for whose death is responsible."
Though it would be unfair to describe the Homeric hero as a mere puppet because of the gods, his area of free choice and responsibility is pretty circumscribed. In the first place, he is born, not made (often he is the son of an immortal father) so that though he does brave deeds, he cannot be called brave in our sense of the word because he never feels fear; in the second the situations in which he displays his heroism are given him; he can, on occasion, choose to fight or not to fight, this or that opponent, but he cannot choose his profession or his side.
The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment; one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. Joy and suffering are simply what one feels at that moment; they have no meaning beyond that; they pass away as they came; they point in no direction; they change nothing. It is a tragic world but a world without guilt for its tragic flaw is not a flaw in human nature, still less a flaw in an individual character, but a flaw in the nature of existence.
The Tragic Hero: The warrior-hero of the Homeric epics (and his civilian counterpart, the athlete of the Pindaric odes) is an aristocratic ideal. He is what every member of the ruling class should try to imitate, what every member of the subject class should admire without envy and obey without resentment, the closest approximation to a god — the divine being conceived as the ideally strong — possible to man.
The Tragic Hero, on the other hand, is not an ideal but a warming, and the warning is addressed not to an aristocratic audience, i.e. other potentially heroic individuals, but to the demos, i.e. the collective chorus. At the beginning of the play he appears in glory and good fortune, a man of pedigree and achievement who has already demonstrated arete in the Homeric sense. By the end he has been plunged into exceptional suffering, i.e. he suffers more than the chorus, who are average citizens who have achieved nothing remarkable. He suffers because he has come into collision, not with other individuals, but with the universal law of righteousness. As a rule, however, the actual violation of which he is guilty is not his own conscious choice in the sense that he could have avoided it. The typical Greek tragic situation is one in which whatever the hero does must be wrong — Agamemnon must kill kill his daughter or betray his duty to the army, Orestes must either disobey the order of Apollo or be guilty of matricide, Oedipus must either persist in asking question or let Thebes be destroyed by plague, Antigone must violate her duty either to her dead brother or to her city, etc. But the fact that he finds himself in a tragic situation where he has sinned unwittingly or must sin against his will is a sign that he is guilty of another sin for which the gods hold him responsible, namely the sin of hybris, an overweening self-confidence which makes him believe that he, with all his arete, is a god who cannot be made to suffer. Sometimes but not always he manifests this hybris in acts — Agamemnon walks on the purple carpet, Darius tries to bridge the Hellespont — but even if he does not, he must be assumed to be guilty of hybris, otherwise he would not be punished by being made guilty of other sins. Through witnessing the fall of the tragic hero from happiness to misery, the chorus learns that the Homeric hero is not the ideal man they should try to imitate or admire. On the contrary, a strong man is tempted by his strength into becoming the impious man whom the gods punish, for the gods are not gods because they are ideally strong but because they are ideally just. Their strength is only the instrument by which they enforce their justice.
The ideal man whom every member of the democracy should try to become is not the aristocratic heroic individual but the moderate law-abiding citizen who does not want to be stronger and more glorious than everybody else.
Here again, as in Homer, we find ourselves in a world which is quite alien to us. We are so habituated to the belief that a man's actions are a mixed product of his own free choices for which he is responsible and circumstances for which he is not that we cannot understand a world in which a situation by itself makes a man guilty. Take the story of Oedipus, for instance. Here a man who hears a prophecy that he is to kill a father and marry his mother, tries to prevent it coming true, but in vain. How would a modern playwright treat this? He would reason that the only way for Oedipus to make certain of escaping what is foretold is for him to never kill anybody and never to marry anybody. He would therefore begin by showing Oedipus leaving Thebes and making these two resolutions. He would then proceed to involve him in two situations, firstly, one in which he is done a mortal injury by a man, secondly one in which he falls passionately in love with a woman who returns his love, situations, that is, of temptation, in which he is torn between doing what he wants and breaking his resolve.
He yields to both temptations, he kills the man and marries the woman, excusing himself as he does so with a lie of self-deception, that is, instead of saying to himself, "There is a possibility, however slight that they are my father and mother; therefore I must not risk it," he says, "It is quite impossible that they should be my father and mother, therefore I may break my resolve." Unfortunately, of course, the slight possibility turns out to be the actual fact.
In Sophocles nothing like this happens. Oedipus meets an old man on the road, they have a trivial quarrel, and he kills the old man. He comes to Thebes, solves the riddle of the Sphinx, and makes a political match. About these two deeds he feels no guilt nor is he expected to feel guilty. It is only when in fact they turn out to be his father and his mother that he becomes guilty. At no time has been conscious of being tempted to do what he knows he should not do, so that at no time is it possible to say, "That was where he made his fatal mistake."
The original sin of the Greek tragic hero is hybris, believing that one is godlike. Nobody can be tempted into hybris except one who is exceptionally fortunate. Sometimes he can manifest his hybris directly, but it does not change his character in any way, only he is punished for it by being made by the gods to sit unwittingly or involuntarily.
The original sin of the modern tragic hero is pride, the refusal to accept the limitations and weaknesses which he knows he has, the determination to become the god he is not. A man, there fore, does not have to be fortunate to be tempted into pride; a misfortune like Richard of Gloucester's hunchback will do just as well. Pride can never be manifested directly because it is a purely subjective sin. Self-examination can reveal to me that I am lustful or envious but it can never reveal to me that I am proud because my pride, if it exists, is in the "I" which is doing the examining; I can, however, infer that I am proud because the lust and envy which I can observe in myself are caused by it and it alone.
The secondary sins of which our kind of tragic hero is guilty and which cause his fall are not, therefore, a divine punishment for his initial sin, but its effects and he is as responsible for them as he is for it. He is not an unwitting sinner but a self-deceiving one, who refuses his guilty conscience. When Orestes slays Clytemnestra he does not anticipate the arrival of the Furies; when the Macbeths plan their murders they try to persuade themselves that they will not suffer the torments of guilt which they really know in their hearts they are going to.
In Greek tragedy suffering is a visitation from Heaven, a punishment imposed upon the hero from without. Through enduring it he expiates his sins and ends reconciled to the law, thought it is for the gods not him to decide when his expiation is complete. In modern tragedy, on the other hand, this exterior kind of suffering which humbles the great and erring and leads them to repent is not tragic. The truly tragic kind of suffering is the kind produced and defiantly insisted upon by the hero himself so that, instead of making him better, it makes him worse and when he dies he is not reconciled to the law but defiant, that is, damned. Lear is not a tragic hero, Othello is.
These two differences between Greek and modern tragedy in their conceptions, first of the relation of the hero's original subjective sin of hybris or of pride in his secondary sinful acts, and secondly of the nature and function of suffering, produce different attitudes towards time.
Unity of time is not only possible but right and proper in Greek tragedy because the characters do not change, only their situation so that the dramatic time required is simply the time required for the situation to change. In modern tragedy, unity of time is possible as a technical tour-de-force but rarely desirable, since one of the dramatist's principal tasks is to show how his characters not only are changed by changes of situation but also play active parts in creating these situations, and it is almost impossible to show this in a single uninterrupted passage of time.
The Erotic Hero: About three-quarters of modern literature is concerned with one subject, the love between a man and a woman, and assumes that falling in love is the most important and valuable experience that can happen to human beings. We are so conditioned to attitude that it does not go back beyond the twelfth century. It does not exist, for instance, in Greek literature. There we find two attitudes. There are plenty of lyrics of the serenade type - the "In delay there lies no plenty, then come kiss me sweet-and-twenty" kind of thing, expressing a simple, good-tempered, and unserious sensuality. There are also, as in the poems of Sappho or the story of Jason and Medea, descriptions of serious and violent sexual passion, but this is not regarded as something to be proud of but as a disaster, the work of the merciless Aphrodite, a dreadful madness which makes one lose one's dignity and betray one's friends and from which any sane man or woman will pray to be spared. Our romantic conception, that sexual love can transform the lover's character and turn him into a hero, was unknown.
It is not until we come to Plato that we find descriptions of something like what we mean by romantic love spoken of with approval, yet the differences are still greater than the resemblances. In the first place it is assumed that this kind of love is only possible in a homosexual relation; and in the second, it is only approved of as the necessary first stage in the growth of the soul. The ultimate good is the love of the impersonal as a universal good; the best that could happen to a man would be that he should fall in with the Good immediately, but owing to the fact that his soul is entangled in matter and time, he can only get there by degrees; first he falls in love with a beautiful individual, then he can progress to love of beauty in general, then to love of justice, and so on. If erotic passion can or ought to be transformed in this way, then it was sound psychological insight on Plato's part and not simply the cultural pattern of erotic life in Greece that made him exclude the heterosexual relation, for the latter leads beyond itself, not to the universal, but to more individuals, namely the love and responsibility for a family, whereas in the homosexual case, since the relation of itself leads nowhere, the love which it has aroused is free to develop in any direction the lovers choose, and that direction should be towards wisdom which, once acquired, will enable them to teach human beings procreated int he normal way how to become a good society. For love is to be judged by its social and political value. Marriage provides the raw material, the masculine eros the desire and knowledge to mold that material into its proper form.
The two great modern erotic myths, which have no parallels in Greek literature, are the myth of Tristan and Isolde, or the World Well Lost for Love, and the countermyth of Don Juan, the seducer.
The Tristan-Isolde situation is this: both possess heroic arete in the epic sense; he is the bravest warrior, she the most beautiful woman; both are of noble birth. They cannot marry each other because she is already the wife of his king and friend, nevertheless they fall in love. In some versions they actually drink a love potion but the effect of this is not really to make them fall in love but rather to make them realize that they already have and to accept the fact as predestined and irrevocable.
Their relation is not "platonic" in the conventional sense, but the barriers of marriage and circumstances give them few opportunities for going to bed together, and on each occasion they can never be certain that it will not be the last. The love they feel for each other is religiously absolute, i.e. each is the other's ultimate good so that not only is sexual infidelity inconceivable, but all other relations to other people and the world cease to have any significance. Yet, thought their relation is the only value that exists for them, it is a torment, because their sexual desire is only the symbolic expression of their real passion, which is the yearning of two souls to merge and become one, a consummation which is impossible as long as they have bodies, so that their ultimate goal is to die in each other's arms.
Don Juan, on the other hand, is not an epic hero; ideally, his external appearance is that of the man who nobody notices is there because he is so utterly commonplace, for it is important to the myth that he, the man of heroic will and achievement, should look to the outward eye like a member of the chorus.
If Don Juan is either handsome or ugly, then the woman will have feelings about him before he sets to work, and the seduction will not be absolute, i.e. a pure triumph of his will. For that, it is essential that his victim should have no feelings of her own towards him, until he chooses to arouse them. Vice versa, what is essential for him about her is not her appearance but simply her membership in the class Woman: the ugly and the old are as good as the beautiful and the young. The Tristan-Isolde myth is unGreek because no Greek could conceive of attributing absolute value to another individual, he could only think in comparative terms, this one is more beautiful than that one, this one has done greater deeds than that one, etc. The Don Juan myth is unGreek, as Kierkegaard has pointed out, not because he sleeps with a number of women, but because he keeps a list of them.
A Greek could understand seducing a girl because one found her attractive and then deserting her because one met a more attractive girl and forgot the first one; but he could not have understood doing so for an arithmetical reason, because one had resolved to be the first lover of every woman in the world, and she happened to be the next integer in this infinite series.
Tristan and Isolde are tormented because they are compelled to count up to two when they long to be able only to count up to one; Don Juan is in torment because, however great the number of his seductions, it remains a finite number and he cannot rest until he has counted up to infinity.
The great enemy of both is time: Tristan and Isolde dread it because it threatens change, and they wish the moment of intense feeling to remain unchanged forever, hence the love potion and the irremovable obstacle in the situation which serve as defense against change; Don Juan dreads it because it threatens repetition and he wishes each moment to be absolutely novel, hence his insistence that for each of his victims it must be her first sexual experience and that he only sleep with her once.
Both myths are dependent upon Christianity, i.e. they could only have been invented by a society which has been taught to believe a) that every individual is of unique and eternal value to God irrespective of his or her social importance in the world, b) that dedication of the self to God is an act of free choice, an absolute commitment irrespective of feeling, made with infinite passion, and c) that one must neither allow oneself to be ruled by the temporal moment nor attempt to transcend it but make oneself responsible for it, turning time into history.
Both myths are diseases of the Christian imagination and while they have inspired a great body of beautiful literature, their influence upon human conduct, particularly in their frivolous watered-down modern versions, which gloss over the fact that both the romantic couple and the solitary seducer are intensely unhappy, has been almost wholly bad. Whenever a married couple divorce because having ceased to be a divine image to each other, they cannot endure the thought of having to love a real person no better than themselves, they are acting under the spell of the Tristan myth. Whenever a man says to himself, "I must be getting old. I haven't had sex for a week. What would my friends say if they knew," he is re-enacting the myth of Don Juan. It is significant also — it might interest Plato though it would probably not surprise him — that the instances in real life which conform most closely to the original pattern of both myths are not, in either case, heterosexual; the Tristan and Isolde one actually meets meet are a Lesbian couple, the Don Juan a pederast.
The Contemplative Hero: The Ideal Man of Greek Epic is the strong individual; the Ideal Man of Greek Tragedy is the modest citizen with a reverence for the law of justice; the Ideal Man of Creek Philosophy has something in common with both: Like the latter he is one who keeps the Law but, like the former, he is an exceptional individual, not a member of the chorus, for to learn how to keep the Law has become a heroic task which is beyond the power of the average man. To the question "What is the cause of evil and suffering?" Homer can only answer, "I don't know. The caprice of the gods perhaps"; Tragedy answers, "The violation of the laws of righteousness and justice by arrogant strong men"; Philosophy answers, "Ignorance of what the Law is which leaves the minds of men at the mercy of their bodily passions."
The Homeric hero hopes by brave deeds to win glory before he dies; the tragic chorus hopes by living modestly to escape misfortune as long as they live; the contemplative hero hopes for ultimate happiness of the soul when he has succeeded in learning to know the true and eternal good, and so delivering his soul from the entanglements of his body and the temporal flux; and beyond this he must teach society how to attain the same freedom from injustice.
In theory, the possibility of doing this should be open to all alike but in practice it is limited to those souls whom the heavenly eros has inspired with a passion for knowledge, and whom temporal circumstances allow them to devote their lifetime to the search for wisdom; the stupid who cannot, the frivolous who will not, and the poor who have no time to understand are debarred. They may have valuable social functions to perform but it is not for them to say what the laws of society should be. That is the duty of the philosopher.
This ideal is stranger to us than it looks at first sight. We are familiar with two kinds of contemplative men:
First with the religious contemplative as representative by the various orders of monks and nuns or by the individual mystic. His aim is to know the hidden God, the reality behind all phenomena, but he thinks of this God as a person, i.e. what he means by knowledge is not objective knowledge about something which is the same for all minds and once perceived can be passed on to other by teaching, like the truths of mathematics, but a subjective relationship which is unique for every individual. A relationship can never be taught, it has to be voluntarily entered into, and the only possible method of persuading another to do it is personal example. If B is a friend of A and C is not, B cannot make C a friend of A by describing A, but if B, as the result of his friendship with A has become the kind of person C would like to be and is not, C may decide to try and make A's acquaintance, too.
Objective knowledge is the field of another kind of contemplative, the intellectual, the scientist, the artist, etc., and the knowledge he seeks is not about any transcendent reality but about phenomena. The intellectual, like the religious contemplative, requires individual passion but in his case it is confined to the search for knowledge; towards the object of his search, the facts, he must be passionless.
What is puzzling to us about the Greek conception of the contemplative hero is that these two kinds of activity are inextricably mixed, sometimes he seems to talk of a transcendent God as if He were a passive object, at other times of observable phenomena, like the movements of planets, as if they were persons for which one could feel personal passion. Nothing is more bewildering to us about Plato, for instance, than the way in which, in the middle of a piece of dialectic, he will introduce what he himself admits to be a myth but without any feeling on his part that it is a peculiar thing to do.
It is hard to say whether one should call the Greeks more anthropomorphic in their thinking than we or less. On one hand, in Greek cosmology everything in nature is thought of as being alive; the laws of nature are not descriptions of how things actually behave, laws of, but, like human laws, laws for, laws which they ought to obey and can fail to obey properly. On the other, in Greek political theory, human beings are thought of as if they were merely the matter of which through his techne the craftsman-politician fashions the good society as a potter makes a vase out of clay.
To the Greeks the essential difference between man and nature was that the former can reason if he wants to, whereas for us the essential difference is that man has a self, i.e. that he and, so far as we know, apart from God, he alone is conscious of existing, and this consciousness is his whether he wants it or not, whether he is intelligent or not. The Greeks therefore had no real conception of the will as distinct from desire, so that, though they had, of course, observed the psychological fact of temptation, that one can desire what one knows is wrong, they were at a loss as to how to explain it. The weakest point in Greek ethics is its analysis of Choice. This is all the more serious because politics is not peripheral but central to Greek Philosophy; the formation of the Good Society comes first, the quest for personal salvation or for scientific truths about matter or imaginative truths about the human heart, second. Through identifying the active source of the Good with Reason not with Will, they doomed themselves to the hopeless task of finding the ideal form of society which, like the truths of reason, would be valid everywhere and for everyone, irrespective of their individual character or their historical circumstances.
A concept is either true or false. A mind which entertains a false concept may be brought through steps of argument to entertain the true one, but this does not mean that a false concept has grown into the true; there is always a point in the dialectic, like the moment of recognition in tragedy, when the revolutionary change happens and the false concept is abandoned with the realization that it always was false. The dialectic process may take time, but the truth it discovers has no history.
To think of the political problem as a problem of finding the true form of organization leads either to political despair, if one knows one has failed to find it, or, if one thinks one has successful, to a defense of tyranny for, if it presupposed that people living in the wrong kind of order cannot have a good will and people living in the right kind cannot have a bad one, then not only will coercion be necessary to establish that order but also its application will be the ruler's moral duty.
The Republic, the Laws, even the Politics, should be read in conjunction with Thucydides; only a political situation as desperate as that which the historian describes could have produced in the philosophers who were looking for cure at once a radical which would break completely with the past to build up society again ab initio and a pathological horror of disunity and change. Living as we do in an age of similar stasis on a worldwide scale, we have witnessed a recurrence on both the Right and the Left, at both the economic and psychiatric epicenters, of similar symptoms.
Further, we have seen with our own eyes the theory of creative politics put into practice, and the spectacle is anything but Utopian. This experience by forcing us to take Plato's political dialogues seriously not as playful exercises in logic, has altered our attitude, I think, to the other dialogues. If there is an essential not an accidental relation between his metaphysics and his politics, and the latter seem to us disastrously mistaken, then there must be a crucial error in the former as well, which it is of the utmost importance that we detect, if we are to offer a positive substitute for the Platonic kind of solution to the political crisis.
The Comic Hero: "Comedy," Aristotle says, "is an imitation of men worse than the average, worse, however, not as regards any and every kind of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others."
The most primitive form of comedy seems to have been tales in which, firstly, Gods, and, secondly, heroes and rulers behave in an undignified and ridiculous manner, that is to say, not better than the average man who lacks their arete, but indeed, rather worse. Such primitive comedy is associated with holidays of license, during which the resentments of the small and weak against the great and strong may be freely expressed, in order that on the morrow when the habits of respect are re-established, the air shall be clear.
When, as in Athens, a growing rationalism comes to think of the Gods as keeping their own laws, and political power comes to be concentrated in the hands of a few, comedy finds new victims and new themes.
It is no longer the rulers as a class, but particular public figures who are made butts of; it is not authority as such that is the subject but topical political issues. The laughter of the audience is not the compensatory outburst of the weak against those who are above the law, but the confident laughter of people who know their strength, that is, either the scorn of the normal majority for the eccentric or arrogant individual whose behavior is not so much above the law as outside it, or the polemical passion of one political party directed against its rival.
The target of such comedy is the man who violates the ethical norm because he does not believe it is binding; he has, that is, no social conscience. As a result he comes into collision, not with the law itself - it would be beneath the dignity of the law to concern itself with those who do not recognize it - but with others as outside the law as himself. He suffers, but the audience do not because they do not identify themselves with him. His suffering, too, is educational; through it he is cured of the individualistic mania and learns to conform to the law, out of prudence, if not from conscience.
The second type of comedy was invented by the Greeks and developed in Europe into the comedy of humor, as in the plays of Ben Jonson, and the comedy of manners and problem plays. If one disregards their lack of genuine poetry, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are the closest approximation in English to the Aristophanic type of comedy.
There is, however, a third type which the Greeks did not possess — the greatest example is Don Quixote — in which the comic figure is at the same time the hero; the audience admire the very man they laugh at. Such a kind of comedy is based on a sense that the relations of the individual and society to each other and of both to the true good contain insoluble contradictions which are not so much comic as ironic. The comic hero is comic because he is different from his neighbors; either, like Don Quixote, because he refuses to accept their values, or, like Falstaff, because he refuses to pretend, as they do, to obey one set of values while really living by another: at the same time he is a hero because he is an individual, and not be an individual, to think and behave in a certain way simply because everyone else does, is equally a comic madness.
The tragic hero suffers, and the audience, because they identify themselves with him through admiration, suffers too; the comic butt suffers but the audience, since they feel superior, do not. The relations of the comic hero and the audience to suffering, on the other hand, are ironic; the audience see the hero thwarted and defeated, experiences which they would regard as suffering, but the whole point is that to the hero himself these experiences are nothing of the sort; on the contrary, he glories in them, either because he has no shame or because he regards them as proof of his being right.
The nearest approach to such a figure among the Greeks is, of course, Socrates. In his person he exhibits the contradiction, so disliked by Nietzsche, between his subjective arete or soul, and his manifest lack of objective arete; he, the best man, is the ugliest man. Further, he suffers death at the hands of society and does not regard his fate as a tragic one. To the Greeks, however, he is either, as he is to Aristophanes, a comic butt who is justly punished, or as he is to Plato, a tragic martyr who suffers because the wrong party was in power, the individual who represents the Right Society. The notion that any individual claim to be the exception is guilty of pride and that all societies and parties, good and bad, are in the wrong simply because they are collectives would have been incomprehensible to them, as would have been the Christian insistence that Jesus was either the Incarnate God or not a good man and that his condemnation was by due process of Roman law.
I have stressed the differences between Greek civilization and our own, firstly, because it seems to me one possible approach to an inexhaustible subject and one cannot take them all, and, secondly, because I can think of no better way of indicating what we owe to Greece than drawing distinctions, for, of all intellectuals acts, that is, perhaps, the most characteristically Greek.
It is they who have taught us, not to think — that all human beings have always done - but to think about our thinking, to ask such questions as "What do I think?" "What do this and that other person or people think?" "On what do we agree and disagree. Why?" And not only did they learn to ask questions about thinking, but they also discovered how, instead of giving immediate answers, to suppose something to be the case and then see what would follow if it were.
To be able to perform either of these mental operations, a human being must first be capable of a tremendous feat of moral courage and discipline for he must have learned how to resist the immediate demands of feeling and bodily needs, and to disregard his natural anxiety about his future so that he can look at his self and his world as if they were not his but a stranger's.
If some of the Greek questions turned out to have been incorrectly put, if some of their answers have proved wrong, that is a trivial matter. Had Greek civilization never existed, we might fear God and deal justly with our neighbors, we might practice arts and even have learned how to devise fairly simple machines, but we would never have become fully conscious, which is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully human.
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