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- The Greek View of Life - 5/35 -
mankind, and puts it on a level with the arts of building, metal-making, sailing, and the like, and the sciences of arithmetic and astronomy.
And if anyone were dissatisfied with this method of interpretation by signs, he had a directer means of approaching the gods. He could visit one of the oracles and consult the deity at first hand about his most trivial and personal family affairs. Some of the questions put to the oracle at Dodona have been preserved to us, [Footnote: See Percy Gardner, "New Chapters in Greek History."] and very curious they are. "Who stole my cushions and pillow?" asks one bereaved householder. Another wants to know whether it will pay him to buy a certain house and farm; another whether sheep-farming is a good investment. Clearly, the god was not above being consulted on the meanest affairs; and his easy accessibility must have been some compensation for his probable caprice.
Nor must it be supposed that this phase of the Greek religion was a superstition confined to individuals; on the contrary, it was fully recognised by the state. No important public act could be undertaken without a previous consultation of omens. More than once, in the clearest and most brilliant period of the Greek civilisation, we hear of military expeditions being abandoned because the sacrifices were unfavourable; and at the time of the Persian invasion, at the most critical moment of the history of Greece, the Lacedaemonians, we are told, came too late to be present at the battle of Marathon, because they thought it unlucky to start until the moon was full.
In all this we have a suggestion of the sort of relation in which the Greek conceived himself to stand to the gods. It is a relation, as we said, external and mechanical. The gods were superior beings who knew, it might be presumed, what was going to happen; man didn't know, but perhaps he could find out. How could he find out? that was the problem; and it was answered in the way we have seen. There was no question, clearly, of a spiritual relation; all is external; and a similar externality pervades, on the whole, the Greek view of sacrifice and of sin. Let us turn now to consider this point.
Section 8. Sacrifice and Atonement.
In Homer, we find that sacrifice is frankly conceived as a sort of present to the gods, for which they were in fairness bound to an equivalent return; and the nature of the bargain is fully recognised by the gods themselves.
"Hector," says Zeus to Hera, "was dearest to the gods of all mortals that are in Ilios. So was he to me at least, for nowise failed he in the gifts I loved. Never did my altar lack seemly feast, drink-offering and the steam of sacrifice, even the honour that falleth to our due." [Footnote: Iliad xxiv. 66.--Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.] And he concludes that he must intervene to secure the restoration of the body of Hector to his father.
The performance of sacrifice, then, ensures favour; and on the other hand its neglect entails punishment. When Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek fleet the most natural hypothesis to account for his conduct is that he has been stinted of his due meed of offerings; "perhaps," says Agamemnon, "the savour of lambs and unblemished goats may appease him." Or again, when the Greeks omit to sacrifice before building the wall around their fleet, they are punished by the capture of their position by the Trojans. The whole relation between man and the gods is of the nature of a contract. "If you do your part, I'll do mine; if not, not!" that is the tone of the language on either side. The conception is legal, not moral nor spiritual; it has nothing to do with what we call sin and conscience.
At a later period, it is true, we find a point of view prevailing which appears at first sight to come closer to that of the Christian. Certain acts we find, such as murder, for example, were supposed to infect as with a stain not only the original offender but his descendants from generation to generation. Yet even so, the stain, it appears, was conceived to be rather physical than moral, analogous to disease both in its character and in the methods of its cure. Aeschylus tells us of the earth breeding monsters as a result of the corruption infused by the shedding of blood; and similarly a purely physical infection tainted the man or the race that had been guilty of crime. And as was the evil, so was the remedy. External acts and observations might cleanse and purge away what was regarded as an external affection of the soul; and we know that in historic times there was a class of men, comparable to the mediaeval "pardoners", whose profession it was to effect such cures. Plato has described them for us in striking terms. "Mendicant prophets," he says, "go to rich men's doors and persuade them that they have a power committed to them of making an atonement for their sins or those of their fathers by sacrifices or charms with rejoicings and games; and they promise to harm an enemy whether just or unjust, at a small charge; with magic arts and incantations binding the will of heaven, as they say, to do their work.... And they produce a host of books written by Musaeus and Orpheus, who were children of the Moon and the Muses--that is what they say--according to which they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour." [Footnote: Plato's Republic, II. 364b.--Jowett's translation.]
How far is all this from the Puritan view of sin! How far from the Christian of the "Pilgrim's Progress" with the burden on his back! To measure the distance we have only to attend, with this passage in our mind, a meeting, say, of the "Salvation Army". We shall then perhaps understand better the distinction between the popular religion of the Greeks and our own; between the conception of sin as a physical contagion to be cured by external rites, and the conception of it as an affection of the conscience which only "grace" can expel. In the one case the fact that a man was under the taint of crime would be borne in upon him by actual misfortune from without--by sickness, or failure in business, or some other of the troubles of life; and he would ease his mind and recover the spring of hope by performing certain ceremonies and rites. In the other case, his trouble is all inward; he feels that he is guilty in the sight of God, and the only thing that can relieve him is the certainty that he has been forgiven, assured him somehow or other from within. The difference is fundamental, and important to bear in mind, if we would form a clear conception of the Greek view of life.
Section 9. Guilt and Punishment.
It must not be supposed, however, that the popular superstition described by Plato, however characteristic it may be of the point of view of the Greeks, represents the highest reach of their thought on the subject of guilt. No profounder utterances are to be found on this theme than those of the great poets and thinkers of Greece, who, without rejecting the common beliefs of their time, transformed them by the insight of their genius into a new and deeper significance. Specially striking in this connection is the poetry of the tragedian Aeschylus; and it will be well worth our while to pause for a moment and endeavour to realise his position.
Guilt and its punishment is the constant theme of the dramas of Aeschylus; and he has exhausted the resources of his genius in the attempt to depict the horror of the avenging powers, who under the name of the Erinyes, or Furies, persecute and torment the criminal. Their breath is foul with the blood on which they feed; from their rheumy eyes a horrible humour drops; daughters of night and clad in black they fly without wings; god and man and the very beasts shun them; their place is with punishment and torture, mutilation, stoning and breaking of necks. And into their mouth the poet has put words which seem to breathe the very spirit of the Jewish scriptures.
"Come now let us preach to the sons of men; yea, let us tell them of our vengeance; yea, let us all make mention of justice.
"Whoso showeth hands that are undefiled, lo, he shall suffer nought of us for ever, but shall go unharmed to his ending.
"But if he hath sinned, like unto this man, and covereth hands that are blood-stained: then is our witness true to the slain man.
"And we sue for the blood, sue and pursue for it, so that at the last there is payment.
Even so 'tis written: (Oh sentence sure!) "Upon all that wild in wickedness dip hand In the blood of their birth, in the fount of their flowing: So shall he pine until the grave receive him--to find no grace even in the grave! Sing then the spell, Sisters of hell; Chant him the charm Mighty to harm, Binding the blood, Madding the mood; Such the music that we make: Quail, ye sons of man, and quake, Bow the heart, and bend, and break!
This is our ministry marked for us from the beginning; This is our gift, and our portion apart, and our godhead, Ours, ours only for ever, Darkness, robes of darkness, a robe of terror for ever! Ruin is ours, ruin and wreck; When to the home Murder hath come, Making to cease Innocent peace; Then at his beck Follow we in, Follow the sin; And ah! we hold to the end when we begin!" [Footnote: Aeschyl. Eum. 297.--Translated by Dr. Verrall (Cambridge, 1885).]
There is no poetry more sublime than this; none more penetrated with the sense of moral law. But still it is wholly Greek in character. The theme is not really the conscience of the sinner but the objective consequence of his crime. "Blood calls for blood," is the poet's text; a man, he says, must pay for what he does. The tragedy is the punishment of the guilty, not his inward sense of sin. Orestes, in fact, who is the subject of the drama with which we are concerned, in a sense was not a sinner at all. He had killed his mother, it is true, but only to avenge his father whom she had murdered, and at the express bidding of Apollo. So far is he from feeling the pangs of conscience that he constantly justifies his act. He suffers, not because he has sinned but because he is involved in the curse of his race. For generations back the house of Atreus had been tainted with blood; murder had called for murder to avenge it; and Orestes, the last descendant, caught in the net of guilt, found that his only possibility of right action lay in a crime. He was bound to avenge his father, the god Apollo had enjoined it; and the avenging of his father meant the murder of his mother. What he commits, then, is a crime, but not a sin; and so it is regarded by the poet. The tragedy, as we have said, centres round an external objective law-- "blood calls for blood." But that is all. Of the internal drama of the
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