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The Greatness of Athens.

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Western Nations: Greece.
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One of the greatest of modern literary artists, a man who well knew his subject, has declared that "there seems to be every reason to believe that, in general intelligence, the Athenian populace far surpassed the lower orders of any community that has ever existed. To be a citizen in Athens was to be a legislator, a soldier, a judge, one upon whose voice might depend the fate of the wealthiest tributary state, of the most eminent public man. The lowest offices, both of agriculture and of trade, were performed by slaves. The commonwealth supplied its meanest members with the support of life, the opportunity of leisure, and the means of amusement. Books were indeed few, but they were excellent and they were accurately known.... Books, however, were the least part of the education of an Athenian citizen. In a vivid picture, he then puts before us the admirable mental training at the disposal of all men in the glorious city where men, as they walked the streets in its best days, might see Phidias, with a delighted crowd around him, putting up the frieze on the entablature of a portico; might hear a rhapsodist, or professional reciter, surrounded by a throng of men, women, and children - the tears running down their cheeks, their eyes fixed, their very breath still - telling from Homer's lines how Priam fell at the feet of Achilles and kissed those hands - the terrible, the murderous - which had slain so many of his sons; might listen while Socrates, pitted in argument against some famous atheist from Ionia, brought him to a stand by catching him in a contradiction in terms; might be a hearer of Pericles in the Ecclesia four or five times every month; and attend the theatre for the performance of dramas and comedies of almost the highest excellence in their class. Such an education was eminently fitted, not, indeed, to form exact or profound thinkers, but to give quickness to the perceptions, delicacy to the taste, fluency to the expression, and politeness to the manners. The freedom of the Athenian's daily life, the happiness arising from the unfettered exercise of the mind in pursuits congenial to it, combined with native ability, produced the almost ideal excellence belonging to Athenian models of poetry, philosophical writing, oratory, and the arts. In private life, the people were distinguished by their courtesy and their amiable demeanour. Their levity was, at least, better than Spartan sullenness, and their impertinence than Spartan insolence. Without submitting to the hardships of a Spartan education, they rivalled all the achievements of Spartan valour, failing in the field, from time to time, from lack of practice, and being long unrivalled on the sea.

Politically dead, and destined to be in after ages the prey, for a season, of the least cultured and the most fanatically savage of modern oppressors, Athens began, in the days of her dissolution as an independent state, to live for evermore. She became the university-town for young Romans and other youths of rank, for all who sought the highest attainable mental culture, the chief college of the whole civilised world. To Athens the most promising. youths flocked to hear the discussion of high themes, the discourses of philosophers, in the four great "schools." The Academic school, founded by Plato, who flourished from about 400 to 350 b.c., derived its name from the gardens and gymnasium near Athens, called Academeia, because the land which they occupied was consecrated to Academus, a mythical hero. In these groves of olives and plane-trees Plato discoursed of the one eternal Deity, of perfect goodness and wisdom. There he taught that the spirit of man has had a former state of existence, seeing perfect, ideal forms of things, the dim remembrance of which in this life is the only knowledge we can attain to of what is truly good and wise.

To strive here after excellence is the means, according to this great philosopher, of being again placed, aftermath, in communion with those "eternal essences." The same man was, m his philosophical writing, the finest of artists in the handling of dialogue, using poetic prose of marvellous ease and beauty worthy in wit, eloquence, and fancy of the substance of the teaching which is the highest product of all pagan intellect, This eminent philosopher believed, we see, in the immortality of the soul like Hs illustrious master Socrates, whose life, extending from 469 to 309 b.c., covered much of the period styled "the Age of Pericles," and the whole time of the Peloponnesian war. This admirable man, so well known to us, not from any writings of his own, but from those of his illustrious pupil Plato and of his admirer Xenophon, was ugly and grotesque in visage as a satyr, of almost divine eloquence in speech, of unsurpassed greatness of soul, a true hero in his life and his death. It was his work as a philosopher, not to frame a mental or ethical system, but to teach men how to attain moral and intellectual truth in ridding themselves of self-delusion and self-conceit, and finding a sure basis of real knowledge by the extirpation of all ill-grounded notions. His principle,-applicable as it was to all inquirers and all subjects of investigation, led the way to the discovery of truth in all subsequent ages of the world. His fearless exposure of false pretences aroused foes who, on charges of neglecting the gods of the state and introducing new divinities, and also of corrupting the morals of the young, caused his condemnation to death by a very small majority among about 500 jurors. Refusing to escape from his prison through means made ready by his friends, and dwelling, in his last utterances, on his belief, sublime and superhuman in that age, in the immortality of the spiritual part of man, he cheerfully drank the official poison, hemlock, and slowly died amidst the tears of his disciples.

The Epicurean school was founded at Athens, about the end of the 4th century b.c., by the philosopher Epicurus, a man who has been grievously maligned by the modern misunderstanding which has made an "epicure " synonymous with one who delights in indulging freely the sensual appetites. His temperate and simple life was in accordance with his great ethical doctrine - "Pleasure is the chief good" - meaning, the pleasure of having the body free from pain and the soul from fear, and of loving and practising justice and friendliness in social relations. His physical philosophy of atoms is contained in the work of the great Latin poet Lucretius, and needs no remark here. The Stoic school, founded at Athens about 320 b.c. by Zeno, a Greek of Cyprus, had its name from the place of his teaching, the Stoa Poikile already mentioned in connection with the battle of Marathon. The name of "stoic" has become proverbial for the spirit which despises the external conditions of man's life, unseduced by pleasure, unsubdued by pain. The system is best known to modern times through the writings of three philosophers of the "Empire" period of Roman history - Seneca, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Virtue consisted in "living according to nature" - that is, according to the divine reason bestowed upon man; favourite phrases of the Stoic teachers dwelt on the ideal "wise man," on "apathy" or equanimity of soul, on the power of the "will," the worship of "duty," and constant "advance" in virtue. Stoicism held the government of the universe by one wise and benevolent Deity, and the absorption of the soul, after death, into the divine essence. Modern ethics have been, with advantage to mankind, largely influenced by a system which taught contentment, defiance of ill-fortune, limitation of wants, and the subjection of self to the general welfare. The Peripatetic school, founded at Athens, in 335 b.c., by the famous Aristotle of Stageira, a Greek colony in Macedonia, was so called either from the covered walks (peripatoi) of the suburban gymnasium styled Lyceum, where he taught, or from the deliverance of discourses whilst he was walking about, (peripatetikos meaning "fond of strolling") instead of in a seated position. The intellect of this great man embraced all the learning of his time, and his writings, largely extant, included almost all subjects which could interest the intellectual portion of mankind as the world was in his day - rhetoric, politics, ethics, natural history, poetry, and other matters. Aristotle, whose works have more directly and largely wrought on modern thought than those of any other ancient writer, was the greatest pupil of Plato and, as we have seen, the tutor of Alexander of Macedon.

The literature of Ancient Greece is the greatest treasure, apart from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, bequeathed to us from ancient times. The very names of writers are enough for fairly educated readers - so universal is the renown of these models for originality, richness, beauty, and force. The Greek writers were the first who gave themselves to the work of systematic thinking, and in the departments of history, logic, and ethics they laid what is still the foundation for modern treatment. Homer and the great writers of tragedy have been already named. An immense and irreparable loss to literature came in the almost utter extinction, through lack of copies prior to the invention of printing, of the lyric poetry of old Greece. We have only such fragments of Sappho, Alcaeus, and others as to cause us to lament our want of all specimens, save in Pindar's Odes, of one of the chief glories of her literary art. Thucydides, the greatest of all historians in acuteness, accuracy, depth of philosophy, vigour and energy of style; Herodotus, a complete contrast, in his liveliness and grace; and Xenophon, a charming and perspicuous narrator, are all familiar names. The oratory of Demosthenes, as it survives in some of his chief, carefully composed speeches, has never been surpassed m any of the highest of that style. We resort again to the words of the renowned writer already quoted, himself thoroughly conversant with the splendid and incomparable literature from which have sprung so much of the strength and the wisdom, the freedom and the glory, of the western world a literature distinguished alike by imaginative power, subtlety of thought, and perfect energy and elegance of expression. Hence have come, directly or indirectly, all the noblest creations of the human intellect - the vast accomplishments and the brilliant fancy of Cicero; the withering fire of Juvenal; the plastic imagination of Dante; the humour of Cervantes; the comprehension of Bacon; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shakspeare. All the triumphs of truth and genius over prejudice and power, in every country and in every age, have been the triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few great minds have made a stand against violence and fraud, in the cause of liberty and reason, there has been her spirit in the midst of them - inspiring, encouraging, consoling: - by the lonely lamp of Erasmus; by the restless bed of Pascal; in the tribune of Mirabeau; in the cell of Galileo; on the scaffold of Sidney. But who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many thousands have been made wiser, happier, and better, by those pursuits in which she has taught mankind to engage; to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty, liberty in bondage, health in sickness, society in solitude? Her power is indeed manifested at the bar, in the senate, on the field of battle, in the schools of philosophy. But these are not her glory. Wherever literature consoles sorrow, or assuages pain; wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep, - there is exhibited, in its noblest form, the immortal influence of Athens." Above all, the Athenians were the pioneers for mankind in the path which leads to the noblest acquisition of the race - freedom of spirit. This is the liberty of soul which has delivered man from the trammels of superstition and the tyranny of priestcraft; which has enabled him to bring all matters, from the highest to the lowest, from the foundations of religious faith to the minutest regulations of police, to the bar of that reason which is God's greatest gift to those whom Recreated in His own image. The day was to come, nearly 20 centuries after the most glorious time of Athens, in the pride of her material power among the states of Greece, when the men of modern Europe, at the revival of learning, would draw new inspiration from that eternal spiritual spring, and would face boldly, with keen investigation, the claims put forward by those who stood between man and his Maker. The glorious result, one in which the highest interests of the race were concerned, was the removal for ever, from the necks of those who were wise enough to accept deliverance, of the yoke imposed by human authority which asserted itself to be divine. This, and not less, is the debt of mankind to that glorious republic of ancient days.

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