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- The Interdependence of Literature - 3/15 -
in the writing of his own drama.
Egypt shared with ancient Babylon and Assyria in the civilization of its primitive literature. It is from five of its Pyramids, opened in 1881, that valuable writings have been brought to light that carry us back one thousand years before the time of Moses.
Their famous "Book of the Dead,"of which many copies are found in our museums of antiquities, is one instance of their older civilization. These copies of the original, in the form of scrolls, are some of them over a hundred feet long, and are decorated with elaborate pictures and ornamentation. The book gives conclusive proof of the teaching of the Egyptians of a life beyond this. Their belief in the journey of the soul after death to the Underworld, before it is admitted to the Hall of Osiris, or the abode of light, is akin to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and Heaven. The Egyptian literature is painted or engraved on monuments, written on papyrus, and buried in tombs, or under the ruins of temples, hence, as has been said elsewhere, much of it remained hidden until nineteenth century research brought it to light. Even at the present time many inscriptions are still undeciphered.
Geometry originated with the Egyptians, and their knowledge of hydrostatics and mechanics (shown in the building of the Pyramids), and of astronomy and medicine, is of remotest antiquity. The Greeks borrowed largely from them, and then became in turn their teacher. The Egyptian priests, from the earliest age, must have preserved the annals of their country; but they were destroyed by Cambyses (500 B.C.), who burned the temples where they were stored.
In the fourth century B.C., Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, who left it under the rule of the Ptolemies. The next century after the Alexandrian age the philosophy and literature of Athens was transferred to Alexandria. The Alexandrian library, completed by Ptolemy Philadelphus, in the third century before Christ, was formed for the most part of Greek books and it also had Greek librarians; so that in the learning and philosophy of Alexandria at this time, the Eastern and Western systems were combined. During the first century of the Christian era Egypt passed from the control of the Greek Kings to that of the Roman Emperors, under whom it continued to flourish. In the seventh century the country was conquered by the Saracens, who burned the great Alexandrian library. Following them came the Arabian Princes, who protected literature, and revived the Alexandrian schools, establishing also other seats of learning. But in the thirteenth century the Turks conquered Egypt, and all its literary glory henceforth departed. It has had no further development, and no influence in shaping the literature of foreign nations. What it might have been if the literary treasures of Egypt had not been destroyed by Cambyses and the Saracens, we can only guess. Great literary monuments must have been lost, which would shed more light on the civilization of the ancient world.
A modern writer says of the Greeks:
"All that could beautify the meagre, harmonize the incongruous, enliven the dull, or convert the crude material of metaphysics into an elegant department of literature, belongs to the Greeks themselves, for they are preeminently the 'nation of beauty.' Endowed with profound sensibility and a lively imagination, surrounded by all the circumstances that could aid in perfecting the physical and intellectual powers, the Greeks early acquired that essential literary and artistic character which produced their art and literature."
Whatever the Greeks learned or borrowed from others, by the skill with which they improved, and the purposes to which they applied it, became henceforth altogether their own. If they were under any obligation to those who had lived before them for some few ideas and hints, the great whole of their intellectual refinement was undoubtedly the work of their own genius; for the Greeks are the only people who may be said in almost every instance to have given birth to their own literature. Their creations stand almost entirely detached from the previous culture of other nations. At the same time it is possible to trace a thread running back to remote antiquity, to show that their first hints of a literature came from Asia. Their oldest traditions and poems have many points of resemblance to the most ancient remains of the Asiatic nations. Some writers say that "this amounts to nothing more than a few scattered hints or mutilated recollections, and may all be referred to the common origin of mankind, and the necessary influence of that district of the world in which mental improvement of our species was first considered as an object of general concern." But this proves at least that there was an older civilization and literature than the Greeks, and that that civilization had its root in the East. According to their own testimony the Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians, and the first principles of architecture, mathematical science, detached ideas of philosophy, as well as many of the useful arts of life, they learned from the Egyptians, or from the earliest inhabitants of Asia.
The essential characteristic of the Greeks as a nation was the development of their own idea, their departure from whatever original tradition they may have had, and their far-reaching influence on all subsequent literature throughout the world. They differed in this from all other nations; for to quote again:
"the literature of India,with its great antiquity, its language, which is full of expression, sweetness of tone, and regularity of structure, and which rivals the most perfect of those western tongues to which it bears such a resemblance, with all its richness of imagery and its treasures of thought, has hitherto been void of any influence on the development of general literature. China contributed still less, Persia and Arabia were alike isolated until they were brought in contact with the European mind through the Crusaders, and the Moorish Empire in Spain."
This independence and originality of Greek literature is due in some measure to the freedom of their institutions from caste; but another and more powerful cause was that, unlike the Oriental nations, the Greeks for a long time kept no correct record of their transactions in war or peace. This absence of authentic history made their literature become what it is. By the purely imaginary character of its poetry, and the freedom it enjoyed from the trammels of particular truths, it acquired a quality which led Aristotle to consider poetry as more philosophical than history.
The Homeric poems are in a great measure the fountainhead from which the refinement of the Ancients was derived. The history of the Iliad and the Odyssey represent a state of society warlike it is true, but governed by intellectual, literary and artistic power. Philosophy was early cultivated by the Greeks, who first among all nations distinguished it from religion and mythology.
Socrates is the founder of the philosophy that is still recognized in the civilized world. He left no writings behind him; but by means of lectures, that included question and answer, his system, known as the dialectics, has come down to us.
Aesop, who lived 572 B.C., was the author of some fables which have been translated into nearly every language in the world, and have served as a model for all subsequent writings of the same kind. In 322 B.C., the centre of learning owing to the conquests of Alexander the Great, was moved to Egypt in the city that bears his name. Here the first three Ptolemies founded a magnificent library where the literary men of the age were supported by endowments. The second Ptolemy had the native annals of Egypt and Judea translated into Greek, and he procured from the Sanhedrim of Jerusalem the first part of the Sacred Scriptures, which was later completed and published in Greek for the use of the Jews at Alexandria. This translation was known as the Septuagint, or version of the Seventy; and is said to have exercised a more lasting influence on the civilized world than any book that has ever appeared in a new language. We are indebted to the Ptolemies for preserving to our times all the best specimens of Greek literature that have come down to us.
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE GREEK FATHERS.
The interdependence of Greek literature includes some reference to the Greek fathers and their writings.
Many of the books of the Old Testament, regarded as canonical by the Catholic Church; but known as the Apochrypha among non-Catholics, were written in Greek. A number of them are historical, and of great value as illustrating the spirit and thought of the age to which they refer. The other class of writers includes the work of Christian authors. Greek and Latin writings wholly different from Pagan literature, began to appear soon after the first century, and their purifying and ennobling influence was more and more felt as time passed. The primitive Christians held these writings of the Greek and Latin fathers in great esteem, and in the second and third centuries Christianity counted among its champions many distinguished scholars and philosophers, particularly among the Greeks. Their writings, biblical, controversial, doctrinal, historical and homiletical, covered the whole arena of literature.
Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and John Chrysostom are only a few of the brilliant names among Greek and Latin writers, who added a lasting glory to literature and the Church.
To the Roman belongs the second place in the classic literature of antiquity. The original tribes that inhabited Italy, the Etruscans, the Sabines, the Umbrians and the Vituli had no literature, and it was not until the conquest of Tarentum in 272 B.C. that the Greeks began to exercise a strong influence on the Roman mind and taste; but Rome had, properly speaking, no literature until the conclusion of the first Punic war in 241 B.C.
This tendency to imitate the Greek was somewhat modified by Roman national pride. We catch sight of this spirit in Virgil and
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