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- The Greek View of Life - 6/35 -

soul with God, the division of the man against himself, the remorse, the repentance, the new birth, the giving or withholding of grace--of all this, the essential content of Christian Protestantism, not a trace in the clear and concrete vision of the Greek. The profoundest of the poets of Hellas, dealing with the darkest problem of guilt, is true to the plastic genius of his race. The spirit throws outside itself the law of its own being; by objective external evidence it learns that doing involves suffering; and its moral conviction comes to it only when forced upon it from without by a direct experience of physical evil. Of Aeschylus, the most Hebraic of the Hellenes, it is as true as of the average Greek, that in the Puritan meaning of the phrase he had no sense of sin. And even in treating of him, we must still repeat what we said at the beginning, that the Greek conception of the relation of man to the gods is external and mechanical, not inward and spiritual.

Section 10. Mysticism.

But there is nothing so misleading as generalisation, specially on the subject of the Greeks. Again and again when we think we have laid hold of their characteristic view we are confronted with some new aspect of their life which we cannot fit into harmony with our scheme. There is no formula which will sum up that versatile and many-sided people. And so, in the case before us, we have no sooner made what appears to be the safe and comprehensive statement that the Greeks conceived the relation of man to the gods mechanically, than we are reminded of quite another phase of their religion, different from and even antithetic to that with which we have hitherto been concerned. Nothing, we might be inclined to say on the basis of what we have at present ascertained, nothing could be more opposed to the clear anthropomorphic vision of the Greek, than that conception of a mystic exaltation, so constantly occurring in the history of religion, whose aim is to transcend the limits of human personality and pass into direct communion with the divine life. Yet of some such conception, and of the ritual devised under its influence, we have undoubted though fragmentary indications in the civilization of the Greeks. It is mainly in connection with the two gods Apollo and Dionysus that the phenomena in question occur; gods whose cult was introduced comparatively late into Greece and who brought with them from the north something of its formless but pregnant mystery; as though at a point the chain of guardian deities was broken, and the terror and forces of the abyss pressed in upon the charmed circle of Hellas. For Apollo, who in one of his aspects is a figure so typically Hellenic, the ever-young and beautiful god of music and the arts, was also the Power of prophetic inspiration, of ecstasy or passing out of oneself. The priestess who delivered his oracle at Delphi was possessed and mastered by the god. Maddened by mephitic vapours streaming from a cleft in the rock, convulsed in every feature and every limb, she delivered in semi- articulate cries the burden of the divine message. Her own personality, for the time being, was annihilated; the wall that parts man from god was swept away; and the Divine rushed in upon the human vessel it shattered as it filled. This conception of inspiration as a higher form of madness, possessed of a truer insight than that of sanity, was fully recognised among the Greeks. "There is a madness," as Plato puts it, "which is the special gift of heaven, and the source of the chiefest blessings among men. For prophecy is a madness, and the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when out of their senses have conferred great benefits on Hellas, both in public and private life, but when in their senses few or none.... And in proportion as prophecy is higher and more perfect than divination both in name and reality, in the same proportion, as the ancients testify, is madness superior to a sane mind, for the one is only of human, but the other of divine origin." [Footnote: Plato, Phaedrus, 244.--Jowett's translation.]

Here then, in the oracle at Delphi, the centre of the religious life of the Greeks, we have an explicit affirmation of that element of mysticism which we might have supposed to be the most alien to their genius; and the same element re-appears, in a cruder and more barbaric form, in connection with the cult of Dionysus. He, the god of wine, was also the god of inspiration; and the ritual with which he was worshipped was a kind of apotheosis of intoxication. To suppress for a time the ordinary work-a-day consciousness, with its tedium, its checks, its balancing of pros and cons, to escape into the directness and simplicity of mere animal life, and yet to feel in this no degradation but rather a submission to the divine power, an actual identification with the deity-such, it would seem, was the intention of those extraordinary revels of which we have in the "Bacchae" of Euripides so vivid a description. And to this end no stimulus was omitted to excite and inspire the imagination and the sense. The influence of night and torches in solitary woods, intoxicating drinks, the din of flutes and cymbals on a bass of thunderous drums, dances convulsing every limb and dazzling eyes and brain, the harking-back, as it were, to the sympathies and forms of animal life in the dress of fawnskin, the horns, the snakes twined about the arm, and the impersonation of those strange half-human creatures who were supposed to attend upon the god, the satyrs, nymphs, and fauns who formed his train--all this points to an attempt to escape from the bounds of ordinary consciousness and pass into some condition conceived, however confusedly, as one of union with the divine power. And though the basis, clearly enough, is physical and even bestial, yet the whole ritual does undoubtedly express, and that with a plastic grace and beauty that redeems its frank sensuality, that passion to transcend the limitations of human existence which is at the bottom of the mystic element in all religions.

But this orgy of the senses was not the only form which the worship of Dionysus took in Greece. In connection with one of his legends, the myth of Dionysus Zagreus, we find traces of an esoteric doctrine, taught by what were known as the orphic sects, very curiously opposed, one would have said, to the general trend of Greek conceptions. According to the story, Zagreus was the son of Zeus and Persephone. Hera, in her jealousy, sent the Titans to destroy him; after a struggle, they managed to kill him, cut him up and devoured all but the heart, which was saved by Athene and carried to Zeus. Zeus swallowed it, and produced therefrom a second Dionysus. The Titans he destroyed by lightning, and from their ashes created Man. Man is thus composed of two elements, one bad, the Titanic, the other good, the Dionysiac; the latter being derived from the body of Dionysus, which the Titans had devoured. This fundamental dualism, according to the doctrine founded on the myth, is the perpetual tragedy of man's existence; and his perpetual struggle is to purify himself of the Titanic element. The process extends over many incarnations, but an ultimate deliverance is promised by the aid of the redeemer Dionysus Lysius.

The belief thus briefly described was not part of the popular religion of the Greeks, but it was a normal growth of their consciousness, and it is mentioned here as a further indication that even in what we call the classical age there were not wanting traces of the more mystic and spiritual side of religion. Here, in the tenets of these orphic sects, we have the doctrine of "original sin," the conception of life as a struggle between two opposing principles, and the promise of an ultimate redemption by the help of the divine power. And if this be taken in connection with the universal and popular belief in inspiration as possession by the god, we shall see that our original statement that the relation of man to the gods was mechanical and external in the Greek conception, must at least be so far modified that it must be taken only as an expression of the central or dominant point of view, not as excluding other and even contradictory standpoints.

Still, broadly speaking and admitting the limitations, the statement may stand. If the Greek popular religion be compared with that of the Christian world, the great distinction certainly emerges, that in the one the relation of God to man is conceived as mechanical and external, in the other as inward and spiritual. The point has been sufficiently illustrated, and we may turn to another division of our subject.

Section 11. The Greek View of Death and a Future Life.

Of all the problems on which we expect light to be thrown by religion none, to us, is more pressing than that of death. A fundamental, and as many believe, the most essential part of Christianity, is its doctrine of reward and punishment in the world beyond; and a religion which had nothing at all to say about this great enigma we should hardly feel to be a religion at all. And certainly on this head the Greeks, more than any people that ever lived, must have required a consolation and a hope. Just in proportion as their life was fuller and richer than that which has been lived by any other race, just in proportion as their capacity for enjoyment, in body and soul, was keener, as their senses were finer, their intellect broader, their passions more intense, must they have felt, with peculiar emphasis, the horror of decay and death. And such, in fact, is the characteristic note of their utterances on this theme. "Rather," says the ghost of Achilles to Odysseus in the world of shades, "rather would I live upon the soil as the hireling of another, with a landless man who had no great livelihood, than bear sway among all the dead that are no more." [Footnote: Od. xi 489.--Translated by Butcher and Lang.] Better, as Shakespeare has it,

"The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature,"

better that, on earth at least and in the sun, than the phantom kingdoms of the dead. The fear of age and death is the shadow of the love of life; and on no people has it fallen with more horror than on the Greeks. The tenderest of their songs of love close with a sob; and it is an autumn wind that rustles in their bowers of spring. Here, for example, is a poem by Mimnermus characteristic of this mood of the Greeks:

"O golden Love, what life, what joy but thine? Come death, when thou art gone, and make an end! When gifts and tokens are no longer mine, Nor the sweet intimacies of a friend. These are the flowers of youth. But painful age The bane of beauty, following swiftly on, Wearies the heart of man with sad presage And takes away his pleasure in the sun. Hateful is he to maiden and to boy And fashioned by the gods for our annoy." [Footnote: Mimnermus, El. I.]

Such being the general view of the Greeks on the subject of death, what has their religion to say by way of consolation? It taught, to begin with, that the spirit does survive after death. But this survival, as it is described in the Homeric poems, is merely that of a phantom and a shade, a bloodless and colourless duplicate of the man as he lived on earth. Listen to the account Odysseus gives of his meeting with his mother's ghost.

"So spake she, and I mused in my heart and would fain have embraced the spirit of my mother dead. Thrice I sprang towards her, and was minded to embrace her; thrice she flitted from my hands as a shadow or even as a dream, and sharper ever waxed the grief within me. And uttering my voice I spake to her winged words:

"'Mother mine, wherefore dost thou not tarry for me who am eager to seize thee, that even in Hades we twain may cast our arms each about the other, and satisfy us with chill lament? Is it but a phantom that the high goddess Persephone hath sent me, to the end that I may groan for more exceeding sorrow?'

The Greek View of Life - 6/35

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