Page images

mask over the features of the Past, however hideous, and clothes her decrepid form in the garments of an angel of light. Thus we may ex. plain the strange anomaly, that while the “law of progress” has been written by the finger of God upon the course of time, so plainly that he who runs may read, yet with moralist, historian, and poet, “the degeneracy of the present age” has still become a threadbare theme. “ The way the fathers trod" is deemed by their descendants the beaten path of knowledge and of virtue ; and though, perchance, it may lead at right angles with truth and duty, it requires the giant powers of a Luther or a Bacon to convince mankind, once led astray, of their follies, their errors, and their ignorance.

But while Antiquity thus casts its shadow over the minds and hearts of all, upon the scholar it exerts a peculiar power. While with other men this reverence for the past is but a habit, with him it becomes a passion. Accustomed to view the civilization of the ancients through the deceptive medium of their intellectual life, he beholds in it nought but the beautiful and the good ; and is apt to forget that their social life, like the colorless drops of the rainbow, presents these gorgeous hues only when seen in the sunlight of the Ideal. Educated in the schools of ihe Classics, he has been initiated into all that is splendid in their literature, grand and sublime in their philosophy, noble and heroic in their history ; and all unconsciously he treads upon enchanted ground, where with every step that he advances, his senses are lulled to a less and still less keen perception of the glaring defects and deformities in the civil and social organizations of Antiquity. Having once partaken of the Lotus fruit of her literature, he loses all desire to return to the stern realities and unwelcome truths of her actual life. He therefore needs some kind Ulysses to force him away from this fairy land, to compel him to feel and to acknowledge the fundamental errors of the Ancients in Moral and Political science. As it is the duty of the faithful historian, however, not always to dwell upon noble deeds and heroic virtues, but to describe their opposite vices, -as he must tell us in the same breath of “the Father of his country” and the traitor Catiline,-as he must present, side by side, a Titus and a Domitian, a Vitellius and Vespasian : so he who would give a correct view of Antiquity, while he does all honor to the beauty and power of its intellectual life, to its unequaled excellence in art, and to the freedom of its popular governments ; must not forget to notice the visionary character of its philosophy, its utter contempt for the Useful and the Practical, and that outrageous tyranny which made the State a despot, and every citizen a slave. We may apply to Ancient civilization those beautiful lines in which the noblest of Roman poets has described the fabled Scylla :

“ Prima hominis facies, et pulchro pectore virgo

Pube tenùs: postrema immani corpore pristis,
Delphinûm caudas utero commissa luporum.”

And while the superficial observer and the enthusiastic Scholar perceive in it all the beauty and grace of the feminine form; he who

looks deeper than the surface of the Ideal, is startled by the yells of barking monsters, and beholds the most hideous and heterogeneous deformities, united to form a political society, perhaps as unnatural and monstrous as ever existed. We propose to consider one only of its more prominent characteristics, and to notice a few of those radical defects, which mar the beauty of this otherwise faultless work of art.

Ancient and Modern civilization differ as widely in their essential features, as Heathenism and Christianity-as the religious systems under which they sprang into being, which have regulated their growth, given tone to their character, and decided their destiny. That which was born under the influence of the wild and beautiful fictions of Ancient Mythology, moved in an ideal world, breathed an ideal life; while the very genius of Christian civilization is devotion to the practical, the useful, the real. The Ancient, groping amid the darkness of reason, peopled the gloom with shapes and shadows from an ideal world ; and then vainly imagined himself to have escaped the restraints of his inferior nature, to live and act in a higher state of being. The Modern, although, directed by the light of inspiration, he may catch some glimpses of a higher existence, seeks not to attain that nobler life, by forgetting the sphere of realities in which his Maker has placed him ; but to create around him on earth the atmosphere of Heaven, and to realize Eternity in the foreshadowings of Time. The Christian has sought to elevate the real into the ideal; the Heathen to raise himself from the level of actual life into an ideal existence. The latter has sought to forget the world without, in that within him ; the former to spiritualize the outer world, and to subject the external to the cravings of the inner life. The one has striven to idealize; the other to spiritualize material existences. The Christian is taught by inspiration to behold the operations of Deity in his most microscopic works, and in the minutest events of his providence : while many a Heathen philosopher, alas ! has seen in God himself only the Soul of the uni. verse, the animating principle of matter, and has degraded the glories of the Divine Being to the level of the laws of nature. In one word, the guiding star of Ancient civilization was the Imaginative faculty; of Modern civilization, the Reason and Intellect. The aim of the former has been Symmetry ; of the latter, Truth. The former has pursued the Beautiful; the latter, the Useful.

This broad distinction runs through every department of their literature, and extends itself through every ramification of their social life. Whithersoever we turn, we meet it on every hand. View them in what light we will, the autographs of Ancient and Modern civilization can never be mistaken for each other. But nowhere is this diversity more clearly seen, than in the distinctive features of their philosophy. The Ancient philosopher, looking with contempt on experiment and observation, as suited only to the vulgar mind, sought to solve the problems presented to his notice by the material world, and to penetrate the arcana of nature-not by subjecting her elements to the torture of the crucible and the furnace, but by contemplating their essences, or species, as he termed them, within the depths of his own

soul; and by striving, in the laboratory of his own mind, to deduce those eleinents from their compounds, which might bring order out of Chaos, and reduce all the multiform operations of nature to definite laws. If we may so speak, he first bound himself hand and foot, and then proceeded to grapple with giant truths. He disdained to investigate the phenomena of the sensible world through the medium of the senses ; but vainly conceited that he had discovered a mode of communication with the material universe, less circuitous than that which his Creator had given him through the organs of perception ; and in the pride of human intellect, he presumed to solve the great problems, of the existence of matter the manner and form of its existence,-its First Cause, its duration,-its elements,—its coexistence with, or creation by, the Deity,-by means of the abstract conceptions of reason; by excluding all individuals or objects of sense, and in the language of the Schoolmen, “by rising in his contemplations from beings particular to beings universal, and which, from their own nature, were eternal and definite.” The philosophers of Antiquity, to use the words of Dugald Stewart, “ conceived universals to be the real existences, or (as they expressed it) to be the essences of individuals ; and flattered themselves with the belief, that by directing the attention to these essences in the first instance, they might be enabled to penetrate the secrets of the universe without submitting to the study of nature in detail.” The scientific inquirer, having lost sight of the individual in the species and the genera, though he may range uncontrolled throughout the empire of hypothesis, can never arrive at a single important practical truth. Instead of conforming theory to acknowledged fact, he must distort fact to fit the Procrustean bed of theory. And though the fabric of his conceptions may possess all the Ionic grandeur and beauty of the temple of the Ephesian Diana, like that famous structure it will still have no better foundation than a morass* or a quicksand. Having thrown away the key of experiment which was able to unlock all the secrets of nature, he gave himself up to meta physical abstractions, having reference, not to the sensible properties, but to the nature and origin of matter. Perhaps, however, in these strictures upon the Ancient Philosophy, we should make an exception in favor of Aristotle ; although if we may receive as correct the opinions, as some think erroneous, of Reid and Stewart, even he has not altogether escaped the infection of that miasma, which so thoroughly pervaded the atmosphere of Ancient thought.

But it is not merely in the philosophical systems of the Greeks and Romans, that we may observe the visionary character which has been alluded to. The same disposition to theorize is glaringly apparent throughout the whole domain of their literature. It is peculiarly manifest, we think, in Plutarch, and a kindred class of historians, who have formed ideal characters, to exhibit ideal virtues in an ideal world. But it is not confined to them alone. The most superficial observer cannot fail to perceive its presence throughout the entire range of An

* The temple of Diana, at Ephesus, is said to have been built upon a marsh.

cient history. The author evidently never forgets that he is composing a work of art, as well as a chronicle of events. He never loses the Ideal in the actual. He always writes to make an impression ; and seldom so far forgets himself as to sacrifice effect to truth. A striking example of this is presented in the first Book of Livy, who has evidently exhibited quite as much invention as historic accuracy.

Nay, if it may not seem too paradoxical, the workings of the same . spirit may be detected, as we think, in a province where we should least expect it,- we mean the writings of the Greek geometricians. Euclid had never discovered the great law of gravitation ; nor had Newton equalled the matchless simplicity and beauty of the “ Elements of Geometry." Kepler had never discussed the properties of " the three Conic sections" in the style of Apollonius; nor had the latter attained the proud title of “the Legislator of the skies.” In theory, the Ancients distanced competition ; in practice, the Moderns have greatly exceeded them.

Would that this spirit of Idealism, when it had thus subjected to its sway every province of the world of literature among the Ancients, and had made itself the sun and centre around which revolved all their intellectual life, had gone no farther. But, alas! it essayed a mightier, a deadlier work. It laid its presumptuous hand upon the sublime mysteries of religion. It dared to climb unto the throne of the Eternal and Infinite One, and to supplant Him by the fables of a fanciful and often puerile Mythology. It made religion itself a work of art, and caused the fables of one generation to become the faith of the next. It seized the keys of Death and of Hell, and with more than “ Giant" daring it scaled Heaven itself. It tore from the grasp of Deity the unrevealed invisible and eternal, and filled their unknown depths with beings of its own imagining, with sights and sounds and shapes, produced in the laboratory of its own impure Alchemy. It dared to tamper with the most momentous interests of man, and with the things pertaining to his endless life. It made the sublinie truths of religion, and man's immortality, a plaything for the sport of artists and poets ; until it may be said to have constituted them the arbiters of his destiny, and to have placed in their hands the keys of the invisible world. It proceeded in its fatal work, until it had buried the primitive idea and worship of “the one only and true God," a hundred fathom deep under the accumulated accretions of ages ; until it had degraded religion from its high mission to bless and save, to win the heart to virtue, holiness, and Heaven; and made it fit only to pander to the basest passions of our nature, and to afford amusement to the gaping crowd. Such was its fearful progress among the Greeks, that at last it prostituted the name of religion to give sanction to bacchanalian orgies, and made the very Gods of their mythology useful only for the machinery of the theatre, and the “ dramatis persone" of the tragedy. These superstitions at last became so absurd and monstrous, that men discarded all practical faith in them. The Greeks and Romans, of the age immediately preceding the coming of our Saviour, reposed in religion a belief, somewhat like that which children have in ghosts and spirits, but which the man throws aside when he puts away childish things. The philosopher regarded the popular religion with ill-concealed contempt. The private citizen looked upon it but as the plaything of his summer hours.

It was this passion for the Ideal, so inordinately cultivated, which gave to the Ancients their unequaled excellence in art. And it is for this reason, we think, that Modern Europe has not as yet attained to that perfection in the fine arts, which has won for Grecian genius the admira-'. tion of the world. Not that the Modern European has less of imagination or less of true genius ; but that in the states of Greece the whole force of the national mind was turned to the Ideal. It was made, not the recreation, but the business of life-not its diversion, but its highest duty. The real and the practical were thought to soil the hands, and to make sordid the mind of the freeborn citizen ; and if attended to at all, were usually left to the eye service, and to the unwilling hands of slaves. The painting, the statue, and the temple met the Greek at every turn. He felt that he trod on Classic ground : he breathed the atmosphere of art. But in the present age, the case is reversed. The tendency of Christianity is to divert the minds of the great mass of men to the practical arts of life. The whole current of its teachings and its influence, sets strongly towards the more serious and momentous interests of this brief existence. Of course it must have, though innocently, an indirect influence to discourage those arts which have their foundation solely in the Ideal. The influence of the command, “ to do with thy might what thy hands find to do," is to absorb the merely beautiful in the truly useful, or to say no more, at least to reduce the Ideal to its proper dimensions, and its appropriate sphere. What Christian civilization has added to the comforts of the masses in eighteen centuries, it has subtracted from the pleasures of the imagination. The English operative cannot now look upon a great work of art, with the same enthusiasm with which the Athenian beheld the Parthenon, or the Elian gazed upon the noblest work of Phidias. It speaks not to his soul. He feels that it is not for him,—that it is intended for a higher class of minds, and he looks upon it with no more interest than upon his tools or his workbench. But the proud citizen of one of the Ancient republics had regarded it with far different feelings. Was he poor? So had been many of the most illustrious of his country's dead, Aristides, Phocion, Epaminondas. He felt himself a man and a freeman. He was eligible to office, and could sit in judgment. The difficulty of multiplying copies of his works, compelled the author to publish them at the great festivals ; and thus the literary privileges of the poorest, were nearly on a footing with those of the richest citizen. He attended in the theatre, and saw acted the sublime tragedies of Æschylus and Sophocles. He listened to the Rhapsodist, as he recited the verses of Homer, or to the lyrics of Pindar, as they were chanted by the sacred choir. He heard the historian pronounce his works at the Olympic games. He might daily walk in the groves of the Lyceum or the Academy, and listen to the cogent reasoning of Aristotle, or to the Divine eloquence of Plato. He lived surrounded by the noblest works of art,

« PreviousContinue »