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- The Greek View of Life - 20/35 -

speculation and passion of the freer and more individual life of the man.



Section 1. The Greek View of Manual Labour and Trade.

In our discussion of the Greek view of the State we noticed the tendency both of the theory and the practice of the Greeks to separate the citizens proper from the rest of the community as a distinct and aristocratic class. And this tendency, we had occasion to observe, was partly to be attributed to the high conception which the Greeks had formed of the proper excellence of man, an excellence which it was the function of the citizen to realise in his own person, at the cost, if need be, of the other members of the State. This Greek conception of the proper excellence of man it is now our purpose to examine more closely. The chief point that strikes us about the Greek ideal is its comprehensiveness. Our own word "virtue" is applied only to moral qualities; but the Greek word which we so translate should properly be rendered "excellence," and includes a reference to the body as well as to the soul. A beautiful soul, housed in a beautiful body, and supplied with all the external advantages necessary to produce and perpetuate such a combination--that is the Greek conception of well-being; and it is because labour with the hands or at the desk distorts or impairs the body, and the petty cares of a calling pursued for bread pervert the soul, that so strong a contempt was felt by the Greeks for manual labour and trade. "The arts that are called mechanical," says Xenophon, "are also, and naturally enough, held in bad repute in our cities. For they spoil the bodies of workers and superintendents alike, compelling them to live sedentary indoor lives, and in some cases even to pass their days by the fire. And as their bodies become effeminate, so do their souls also grow less robust. Besides this, in such trades one has no leisure to devote to the care of one's friends or of one's city. So that those who engage in them are thought to be bad backers of their friends and bad defenders of their country." [Footnote: Xen. Oec. iv. 3.]

In a similar spirit Plato asserts that a life of drudgery disfigures the body and mars and enervates the soul; [Footnote: Plato, Rep. 495.] while Aristotle defines a mechanical trade as one which "renders the body and soul or intellect of free persons unfit for the exercise and practice of virtue;" [Footnote: Arist. Pol. V. 1337 b 8.--Translated by Welldon.] and denies to the artisan not merely the proper excellence of man, but any excellence of any kind, on the plea that his occupation and status is unnatural, and that he misses even that reflex of human virtue which a slave derives from his intimate connection with his master. [Footnote: Ibid. i. 1260 a 34.]

If then the artisan was excluded from the citizenship in some of the Greek states, and even in the most democratic of them never altogether threw off the stigma of inferiority attaching to his trade, the reason was that the life he was compelled to lead was incompatible with the Greek conception of excellence. That conception we will now proceed to examine a little more in detail.

Section 2. Appreciation of External Goods.

In the first place, the Greek ideal required for its realisation a solid basis of external Goods. It recognised frankly the dependence of man upon the world of sense, and the contribution to his happiness of elements over which he had at best but a partial control. Not that it placed his Good outside himself, in riches, power, and other such appendages; but that it postulated certain gifts of fortune as necessary means to his self-development. Of these the chief were, a competence, to secure him against sordid cares, health, to ensure his physical excellence, and children, to support and protect him in old age. Aristotle's definition of the happy man is "one whose activity accords with perfect virtue and who is adequately furnished with external goods, not for a casual period of time but for a complete or perfect life- time;" [Footnote: Arist. Ethics. I. ii. 1101 a 14.--Translated by Welldon.] and he remarks, somewhat caustically, that those who say that a man on the rack would be happy if only he were good, intentionally or unintentionally are talking nonsense. That here, as elsewhere, Aristotle represents the common Greek view we have abundant testimony from other sources. Even Plato, in whom there runs so clear a vein of asceticism, follows the popular judgment in reckoning high among goods, first, health, then beauty, then skill and strength in physical exercises, and lastly wealth, if it be not blind but illumined by the eye of reason. To these Goods must be added, to complete the scale, success and reputation, topics which are the constant theme of the poets' eulogy. "Two things alone there are," says Pindar, "that cherish life's bloom to its utmost sweetness amidst the fair flowers of wealth--to have good success and to win therefore fair fame;" [Footnote: Pind. Isth. iv. 14.-- Translated by E. Myers.] and the passage represents his habitual attitude. That the gifts of fortune, both personal and external, are an essential condition of excellence, is an axiom of the point of view of the Greeks. But on the other hand we never find them misled into the conception that such gifts are an end in themselves, apart from the personal qualities they are meant to support or adorn. The oriental ideal of unlimited wealth and power, enjoyed merely for its own sake, never appealed to their fine and lucid judgment. Nothing could better illustrate this point than the anecdote related by Herodotus of the interview between Solon and Croesus, King of Lydia. Croesus, proud of his boundless wealth, asks the Greek stranger who is the happiest man on earth? expecting to hear in reply his own name. Solon, however, answers with the name of Tellus, the Athenian, giving his reasons in the following speech:

"First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours."

Later on in the discussion Solon defines the happy man as he who "Is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon," and who also ends his life well. [Footnote: Herodotus, i. 30. 32.--Translated by Rawlinson]

Section 3. Appreciation of Physical Qualities.

While, however, the gifts of a happy fortune are an essential condition of the Greek ideal, they are not to be mistaken for the ideal itself. "A beautiful soul in a beautiful body," to recur to our former phrase, is the real end and aim of their endeavour. "Beautiful and good" is their habitual way of describing what we should call a gentleman; and no expression could better represent what they admired. With ourselves, in spite of our addiction to athletics, the body takes a secondary place; after a certain age, at least, there are few men who make its systematic cultivation an important factor of their life; and in our estimate of merit physical qualities are accorded either none or the very smallest weight. It was otherwise with the Greeks; to them a good body was the necessary correlative of a good soul. Balance was what they aimed at, balance and harmony; and they could scarcely believe in the beauty of the spirit, unless it were reflected in the beauty of the flesh. The point is well put by Plato, the most spiritually minded of the Greeks, and the least apt to underprize the qualities of the soul.

"Surely then," he says, "to him who has an eye to see, there can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of moral beauty in his soul with outward beauty of form, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both.

"There can be none so fair.

"And you will grant that what is fairest is loveliest?

"Undoubtedly it is.

"Then the truly musical person will love those who combine most perfectly moral and physical beauty, but will not love any one in whom there is dissonance.

"No, not if there be any defect in the soul, but if it is only a bodily blemish, he may so bear with it as to be willing to regard it with complacency.

"I understand that you have now, or have had, a favourite of this kind; so I give way." [Footnote: Plato, Rep. 402.--Translated by Davies and Vaughan.]

The reluctance of the admission that a physical defect may possibly be overlooked is as significant as the rest of the passage. Body and soul, it is clear, are regarded as aspects of a single whole, so that a blemish in the one indicates and involves a blemish in the other. The training of the body is thus, in a sense, the training of the soul, and gymnastic and music, as Plato puts it, serve the same end, the production of a harmonious temperament.

Section 4. Greek Athletics.

It is this conception which gives, or appears at least in the retrospect to give, a character so gracious and fine to Greek athletics. In fact, if we look more closely into the character of the public games in Greece we see that they were so surrounded and transfused by an atmosphere of imagination that their appeal must have been as much to the aesthetic as to the physical sense. For in the first place those great gymnastic contests in which all Hellas took part, and which gave the tone to their whole athletic life, were primarily religious festivals. The Olympic and Nemean Games were held in honour of Zeus, the Pythian, of Apollo, the Isthmean, of Poseidon. In the enclosures in which they took place stood temples of the gods; and sacrifice, prayer, and choral hymn were the back-ground against which they were set. And since in Greece religion implied art, in the wake of the athlete followed the sculptor and the poet. The colossal Zeus of Pheidias, the wonder of the ancient world, flashed from the precincts of Olympia its glory of ivory and gold; temples and statues broke the brilliant light into colour and form; and under that vibrating heaven of beauty, the loveliest nature crowned with the finest art, shifted and shone what was in itself a perfect type of both, the grace of harmonious motion in naked youths and men. For in Greek athletics, by virtue of the practice of contending nude, the contest itself became a work of art; and not only did sculptors draw from it an inspiration such as has been felt by no later age, but to the combatants themselves, and the spectators, the plastic beauty of the human form grew to be more than its prowess or its strength, and gymnastic became a training in aesthetics as much as, or more than, in physical excellence.

The Greek View of Life - 20/35

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