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- The Greek View of Life - 30/35 -


flourished in the temple and the sacred grove, naturally became the exponent of the ideal aspect of the state. It was thus, for example, that the Parthenon at Athens was at once the centre of the worship of Athene, and a symbol of the corporate life over which she presided; the statue of the goddess having as its appropriate complement the frieze over which the spirit of the city moved in stone. And thus, too, the statues of the victors at the Olympian games were dedicated in the sacred precinct, as a memorial of what was not only an athletic meeting, but also at once a centre of Hellenic unity and the most consummate expression of that aspect of their culture which contributed at least as much to their aesthetic as to their physical perfection.

Sculpture, in fact, throughout, was subordinated to religion, and through religion to national life; and it was from this that it derived its ideal and intellectual character. And, so far as our authorities enable us to judge, the same is true of painting. The great pictures of which we have descriptions were painted to adorn temples and public buildings, and represented either mythological or national themes. Such, for example, was the great work of Polygnotus at Delphi, in which was depicted on the one hand the sack of Troy, on the other the descent of Odysseus into Hades; and such his representation of the battle of Marathon, in the painted porch that led to the Acropolis of Athens. And even the vase paintings of which we have innumerable examples, and which are mere decorations of common domestic utensils, have often enough some story of gods and heroes for their theme, whereby over and above their purely aesthetic value they made their appeal to the general religious consciousness of Greece. Painting, like sculpture, had its end, in a sense, outside itself; and from this very fact derived its peculiar dignity, simplicity, and power.

From this account of the plastic art of the Greeks it follows as a simple corollary, that their aim was not merely to reproduce but to transcend nature. For their subject was gods and heroes, and heroes and gods were superior to men. Of this idealising tendency we have in sculpture evidence enough in the many examples which have been preserved to us; and with regard to painting there is curious literary testimony to the same effect. Aristotle, for example, remarks that "even if it is impossible that men should be such as Zeuxis painted them, yet it is better that he should paint them so; for the example ought to excel that for which it is an example." [Footnote: Artist, Poet, xxv.--1461. 6. 12.]

And in an imaginary conversation recorded between Socrates and Parrhasius the artist admits without any hesitation that more pleasure is to be derived from pictures of men who are morally good than from those of men who are morally bad. In the Greek view, in fact, as we saw, physical and moral excellence went together, and it was excellence they sought to depict in their art; not merely aesthetic beauty, though that was a necessary presupposition, but on the top of that, ideal types of character representative of their conception of the hero and the god. Art, in a word, was subordinate to the ethical ideal; or rather the ethical and aesthetic ideals were not yet dissociated; and the greatest artists the world has ever known worked deliberately under the direction and inspiration of the ideas that controlled and determined the life of their time.

Section 4. Music and the Dance.

Turning now from the plastic arts to that other group which the Greeks classed together under the name of "Music"--namely music, in the narrower sense, dancing and poetry--we find still more clearly emphasised and more elaborately worked out the subordination of aesthetic to ethical and religious ends. "Music," in fact, as they used the term, was the centre of Greek education, and its moral character thus became a matter of primary importance. By it were formed, it was supposed, the mind and temper of the citizens, and so the whole constitution of the state. "The introduction of a new kind of music," says Plato, "must be shunned as imperilling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions." "The new style," he goes on, "gradually gaining a lodgment, quietly insinuates itself into manners and customs; and from these it issues in greater force, and makes its way into mutual compacts: and from compacts it goes on to attack laws and constitutions, displaying the utmost impudence, until it ends by overturning everything, both in public and in private." [Footnote: Plato, Rep. IV. 4240.--Translated by Davies and Vaughan.] And as in his Republic he had defined the character of the poetry that should be admitted into his ideal state, so in the "Laws" he specially defines the character of the melodies and dances, regarding them as the most important factor in determining and preserving the manners and institutions of the citizens.

Nothing, at first sight, to a modern mind, could, be stranger than this point of view. That poetry has a bearing on conduct we can indeed understand, though we do not make poetry the centre of our system of education; but that moral effects should be attributed to music and to dancing and that these should be regarded as of such importance as to influence profoundly the whole constitution of a state, will appear to the majority of modern men an unintelligible paradox.

Yet no opinion of the Greeks is more profoundly characteristic than this of their whole way of regarding life, and none would better repay a careful study. That moral character should be attributed to the influence of music is only one and perhaps the most striking illustration of that general identification by the Greeks of the ethical and the aesthetic standards on which we have so frequently had occasion to insist. Virtue, in their conception, was not a hard conformity to a law felt as alien to the natural character; it was the free expression of a beautiful and harmonious soul. And this very metaphor "harmonious," which they so constantly employ, involves the idea of a close connection between music and morals. Character, in the Greek view, is a certain proportion of the various elements of the soul, and the right character is the right proportion. But the relation in which these elements stand to one another could be directly affected, it was found, by means of music; not only could the different emotions be excited or assuaged in various degrees, but the whole relation of the emotional to the rational element could be regulated and controlled by the appropriate melody and measure. That this connection between music and morals really does exist is recognised, in a rough and general way, by most people who have any musical sense. There are rhythms and tunes, for example, that are felt to be vulgar and base, and others that are felt to be ennobling; some music, Wagner's, for instance, is frequently called immoral; Gounod is described as enervating, Beethoven as bracing, and the like; and however absurd such comments may often appear to be in detail, underlying them is the undoubtedly well-grounded sense that various kinds of music have various ethical qualities. But it is just this side of music, which has been neglected in modern times, that was the one on which the Greeks laid most stress. Infinitely inferior to the moderns in the mechanical resources of the art, they had made, it appears, a far finer and closer analysis of its relation to emotional states; with the result that even in music, which we describe as the purest of the arts, congratulating ourselves on its absolute dissociation from all definite intellectual conceptions,--even here the standard of the Greeks was as much ethical as aesthetic, and the style of music was distinguished and its value appraised, not only by the pleasure to be derived from it, but also by the effect it tended to produce on character.

Of this position we have a clear and definite statement in Aristotle. Virtue, he says, consists in loving and hating in the proper way, and implies, therefore, a delight in the proper emotions; but emotions of any kind are produced by melody and rhythm; therefore by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions. Music has thus the power to form character; and the various kinds of music, based on the various modes, may be distinguished by their effects on character--one, for example, working in the direction of melancholy, another of effeminacy; one encouraging abandonment, another self-control, another enthusiasm, and so on through the series. It follows that music may be judged not merely by the pleasure it gives, but by the character of its moral influence; pleasure, indeed, is essential or there would be no art; but the different kinds of pleasure given by different kinds of music are to be distinguished not merely by quantity, but by quality. One will produce a right pleasure of which the good man will approve, and which will have a good effect on character; another will be in exactly the opposite case. Or, as Plato puts it, "the excellence of music is to be measured by pleasure. But the pleasure must not be that of chance persons; the fairest music is that which delights the best and best-educated, and especially that which delights the one man who is pre-eminent in virtue and education." [Footnote: Plato Laws. II. 6586.-- Translated by Jowett.]

We see then that even pure music, to the Greeks, had a distinct and definite ethical bearing. But this ethical influence was further emphasised by the fact that it was not their custom to enjoy their music pure. What they called "music," as has been already pointed out, was an intimate union of melody, verse and dance, so that the particular emotional meaning of the rhythm and tune employed was brought out into perfect lucidity by the accompanying words and gestures. Thus we find, for example, that Plato characterises a tendency in his own time to the separation of melody and verse as a sign of a want of true artistic taste; for, he says, it is very hard, in the absence of words, to distinguish the exact character of the mood which the rhythm and tune is supposed to represent. In this connection it may be interesting to refer to the use of the "_leit-motiv_" in modern music. Here too a particular idea, if not a particular set of words, is associated with a particular musical phrase; the intention of the practice being clearly the same as that which is indicated in the passage just quoted, namely to add precision and definiteness to the vague emotional content of pure music.

And this determining effect of words was further enhanced, in the music of the Greeks, by the additional accompaniment of the dance. The emotional character conveyed to the mind by the words and to the ear by the tune, was further explained to the eye by gesture, pose, and beat of foot; the combination of the three modes of expression forming thus in the Greek sense a single "imitative" art. The dance as well as the melody came thus to have a definite ethical significance; "it imitates," says Aristotle, "character, emotion, and action." And Plato in his ideal republic would regulate by law the dances no less than the melodies to be employed, distinguishing them too as morally good or morally bad, and encouraging the one while he forbids the other.

The general Greek view of music which has thus been briefly expounded, the union of melody and rhythm with poetry and the dance in view of a definite and consciously intended ethical character, may be illustrated by the following passage of Plutarch, in which he describes the music in vogue at Sparta. The whole system, it will be observed, is designed with a view to that military courage which was the virtue most prized in the Spartan state, and the one about which all their institutions centred. Music at Sparta actually was, what Plato would have had it in his ideal republic, a public and state-regulated function; and even that vigorous race which of all the Greeks came nearest to being Philistines of virtue, thought fit to lay a foundation purely aesthetic for their severe and soldierly ideal.

"Their instruction in music and verse," says Plutarch, "was not less carefully attended to than their habits of grace and good-breeding in conversation. And their very songs had a life and spirit in them that inflamed and possessed men's minds with an enthusiasm and ardour for action; the style of them was plain and without affectation; the subject always serious and moral; most usually, it was in praise of such men as


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