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We perceive a precisely similar change of tone on comparing the two great historians who have respectively recorded the struggle of Greece against Persia, and the struggle of imperial Athens against Sparta and her allies. Though born within fifteen years of one another, Herodotus and Thucydides are virtually separated by an interval of two generations, for while the latter represents the most advanced thought of his time, the former lived among traditions inherited from the age preceding his own. Now, Herodotus is not more remarkable for the earnest piety than for the clear sense of justice which runs through his entire work. He draws no distinction between public and private morality. Whoever makes war on his neighbours without provocation, or rules without the consent of the governed, is, according to him, in the wrong, although he is well aware that such wrongs are constantly committed. Thucydides knows nothing74 of supernatural interference in human affairs. After relating the tragical end of Nicias, he observes, not without a sceptical tendency, that of all the Greeks then living, this unfortunate general least deserved such a fate, so far as piety and respectability of character went. If there are gods they hold their position by superior strength. That the strong should enslave the weak is a universal and necessary law of Nature. The Spartans, who among themselves are most scrupulous in observing traditional obligations, in their dealings with others most openly identify gain with honour, and expediency with right. Even if the historian himself did not share these opinions, it is evident that they were widely entertained by his contemporaries, and he expressly informs us that Greek political morality had deteriorated to a frightful extent in consequence of the civil discords fomented by the conflict between Athens and Sparta; while, in Athens at least, a similar corruption of private morality had begun with the great plague of 430, its chief symptom being a mad desire to extract the utmost possible enjoyment from life, for which purpose every means was considered legitimate. On this point Thucydides is confirmed and supplemented by the evidence of another contemporary authority. According to Aristophanes, the ancient discipline had in his time become very much relaxed. The rich were idle and extravagant; the poor mutinous; young men were growing more and more insolent to their elders; religion was derided; all classes were animated by a common desire to make money and to spend it on sensual enjoyment. Only, instead of tracing back this profound demoralisation to a change in the social environment, Aristophanes attributes it to demagogues, harassing informers, and popular poets, but above all to the new culture then coming into vogue. Physical science had brought in atheism; dialectic training had destroyed the sanctity of ethical restraints. When, however, the religious and virtuous Socrates is put forward as a type of both tend75encies, our confidence in the comic poet’s accuracy, if not in his good faith, becomes seriously shaken; and his whole tone so vividly recalls the analogous invectives now hurled from press and pulpit against every philosophic theory, every scientific discovery, every social reform at variance with traditional beliefs or threatening the sinister interests which have gathered round iniquitous institutions, that at first we feel tempted to follow Grote in rejecting his testimony altogether. So far, however, as the actual phenomena themselves are concerned, and apart from their generating antecedents, Aristophanes does but bring into more picturesque prominence what graver observers are content to indicate, and what Plato, writing a generation later, treats as an unquestionable reality. Nor is the fact of a lowered moral tone going along with accelerated mental activity either incredible or unparalleled. Modern history knows of at least two periods remarkable for such a conjunction, the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, the former stained with every imaginable crime, the latter impure throughout, and lapsing into blood-thirsty violence at its close. Moral progress, like every other mode of motion, has its appropriate rhythm—its epochs of severe restraint followed by epochs of rebellious license. And when, as an aggravation of the reaction from which they periodically suffer, ethical principles have become associated with a mythology whose decay, at first retarded, is finally hastened by their activity, it is still easier to understand how they may share in its discredit, and only regain their ascendency by allying themselves with a purified form of the old religion, until they can be disentangled from the compromising support of all unverified theories whatever. We have every reason to believe that Greek life and thought did pass through such a crisis during the second half of the fifth century B.C., and we have now to deal with the speculative aspects of that crisis, so far as they are represented by the Sophists.Epicureanism was essentially a practical philosophy. The physical, theological, and logical portions of the system were reasoned out with exclusive reference to its ethical end, and their absolute subordination to it was never allowed to be forgotten. It is therefore with the moral theory of Epicurus that we must begin.
In addition to its other great lessons, the Symposium has afforded Plato an opportunity for contrasting his own method of philosophising with pre-Socratic modes of thought. For it consists of a series of discourses in praise of love, so arranged as to typify the manner in which Greek speculation, after beginning with mythology, subsequently advanced to physical theories of phenomena, then passed from the historical to the contemporary method, asking, not whence did things come, but what are they in themselves; and finally arrived at the logical standpoint of analysis, classification, and induction.The enemies of hedonism had taken a malicious satisfaction in identifying it with voluptuous indulgence, and had scornfully asked if that could be the supreme good and proper object of virtuous endeavour, the enjoyment of which was habitually associated with secresy and shame. It was, perhaps, to screen his system from such reproaches that Epicurus went a long way towards the extreme limit of asceticism, and hinted at the advisability of complete abstinence from that which, although natural, is not necessary to self68-preservation, and involves a serious drain on the vital energies.134 In this respect, he was not followed by Lucretius, who has no objection to the satisfaction of animal instinct, so long as it is not accompanied by personal passion.135 Neither the Greek moralist nor the Roman poet could foresee what a great part in the history of civilisation chivalrous devotion to a beloved object was destined to play, although the uses of idealised desire had already revealed themselves to Plato’s penetrating gaze.
409The Greek love of balanced antithesis and circumscribing form triumphed over the infinite in both fields. While the two great masters of idealism imprisoned the formless and turbulent terrestrial elements within a uniform and eternal sphere of crystal, they imposed a similar restraint on the desires and emotions, confining them within a barrier of reason which, when once erected, could never be broken through. And although the ground won in physics was lost again for a time through a revival of old theories, this was because true Hellenism found its only congenial sphere in399 ethics, and there the philosophy of the finite continued to reign supreme. If the successors of Aristotle fell back on cosmologies of ampler scope than his, they retained his limiting method in their speculations on man.
50Lucretius dwells much on the dread of death as a source of vice and crime. He tells us that men plunge into all sorts of mad distractions or unscrupulous schemes of avarice and ambition in their anxiety to escape either from its haunting presence, or from the poverty and disrepute which they have learned to associate with it.181 Critics are disposed to think that the poet, in his anxiety to make a point, is putting a wrong interpretation on the facts. Yet it should be remembered that Lucretius was a profound observer, and that his teaching, in this respect, may be heard repeated from London pulpits at the present day. The truth seems to be, not that he went too far, but that he did not go far enough. What he decries as a spur to vicious energy is, in reality, a spur to all energy. Every passion, good or bad, is compressed and intensified by the contracting limits of mortality; and the thought of death impels men either to wring the last drop of enjoyment from their lives, or to take refuge from their perishing individualities in the relative endurance of collective enterprises and impersonal aims.
It was from the Epicureans, of whom we are told that there were a considerable number in these parts, that the most serious opposition to the impostor proceeded; but he contrived to silence their criticisms by denouncing them to the fanatical multitude as ‘atheists and Christians.’ Towards Epicurus himself Alexander nourished an undying hatred; and when the oracle was consulted with regard to that226 philosopher’s fate, it made answer that he was ‘bound in leaden chains and seated in a morass.’ The κ?ριαι δ?ξαι, or summary of the Epicurean creed, he publicly burned and threw its ashes into the sea; and one unfortunate town which contained a large school of Epicureans he punished by refusing its inhabitants access to the oracle. On the other hand, according to Lucian, he was on the best of terms with the disciples of Plato, Chrysippus, and Pythagoras.345Such a character would, in any case, be remarkable; it becomes of extraordinary, or rather of unique, interest when we consider that Socrates could be and do so much, not in spite of being a philosopher, but because he was a philosopher, the chief though not the sole originator of a vast intellectual revolution; one who, as a teacher, constituted the supremacy110 of reason, and as an individual made reason his sole guide in life. He at once discovered new principles, popularised them for the benefit of others, and exemplified them in his own conduct; but he did not accomplish these results separately; they were only different aspects of the same systematising process which is identical with philosophy itself. Yet the very success of Socrates in harmonising life and thought makes it the more difficult for us to construct a complete picture of his personality. Different observers have selected from the complex combination that which best suited their own mental predisposition, pushing out of sight the other elements which, with him, served to correct and complete it. The very popularity that has attached itself to his name is a proof of this; for the multitude can seldom appreciate more than one excellence at a time, nor is that usually of the highest order. Hegel complains that Socrates has been made the patron-saint of moral twaddle.81 We are fifty years further removed than Hegel from the golden age of platitude; the twaddle of our own time is half cynical, half aesthetic, and wholly unmoral; yet there are no signs of diminution in the popular favour with which Socrates has always been regarded. The man of the world, the wit, the viveur, the enthusiastic admirer of youthful beauty, the scornful critic of democracy is welcome to many who have no taste for ethical discourses and fine-spun arguments.In one of the provinces of Germany there died, about ten years ago, a certain count, who had been rich and powerful, and, what is astonishing for one of that class, he was, according to the judgment of man, pure in faith and innocent in his life. Some time after his death, a holy man descended in spirit to hell, and beheld the count standing on the topmost rung of a ladder. He tells us that this ladder stood unconsumed amid the crackling flames around; and that it had been placed there to receive the family of the aforesaid count. There was, moreover, the black and frightful abyss out of which rose the fatal ladder. It was so ordered that the last comer took his stand at the top of the ladder, and when the rest of the family arrived he went down one step, and all below him did likewise.
What! to see thee no more, and to feel thee no more,
In Germany, Neo-Aristotelianism has already lived out the appointed term of all such movements; having, we believe, been brought into fashion by Trendelenburg about forty years ago. Since then, the Aristotelian system in all its branches has been studied with such profound scholarship that any illusions respecting its value for our present needs must, by this time, have been completely dissipated; while the Hegelian dialectic, which it was originally intended to combat, no longer requires a counterbalance, having been entirely driven from German university teaching. Moreover, Lange’s famous History of Materialism has dealt a staggering blow to the reputation of Aristotle, not merely in itself, but relatively to the services of early Greek thought; although280 Lange goes too far into the opposite extreme when exalting Democritus at his expense.170 We have to complain, however, that Zeller and other historians of Greek philosophy start with an invariable prejudice in favour of the later speculators as against the earlier, and especially in favour of Aristotle as against all his predecessors, even Plato included, which leads them to slur over his weak points, and to bring out his excellencies into disproportionate relief.171Another wide-spread superstition was the belief in prophetic or premonitory dreams. This was shared by some even among those who rejected supernatural religion,—a phenomenon not unparalleled at the present day. Thus the228 elder Pliny tells us how a soldier of the Praetorian Guard in Rome was cured of hydrophobia by a remedy revealed in a dream to his mother in Spain, and communicated by her to him. The letter describing it was written without any knowledge of his mishap, and arrived just in time to save his life.348 And Pliny was himself induced by a dream to undertake the history of the Roman campaigns in Germany.349 Religious believers naturally put at least equal confidence in what they imagined to be revelations of the divine will. Galen, the great physician, often allowed himself to be guided by dreams in the treatment of his patients, and had every reason to congratulate himself on the result. The younger Pliny, Suetonius, Dion Cassius, and the emperors Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, were all influenced in a similar manner; and among these Dion, who stands last in point of time, shows by his repeated allusions to the subject that superstition, so far from diminishing, was continually on the increase.350