Слике страница
PDF
ePub

great deal of barbarism and of ferocity. But the barbarism consisted chiefly in a disregard of the feelings and rights of the lower and unprivileged classes, who were at the time so degraded, that they not only tolerated, but, even in some measure acknowledged, the lofty claim of the nobles to the right of violating law and justice. And somehow this very license towards inferiors and their humble homage, seem to create a feeling of mutual respect and delicacy among the members of such aristocracies, which develops itself in refinement of manners, and great politeness of address. They, as it were, atone for their injustice and violence to inferiors, by sentiment in the society of equals. The mistress of a chief receives respect and homage, while the head of a villain household is spurned with contempt.

When civilization progresses, and the rights of the lower classes become recognised-when the lord is compelled to obey the same law as the labourer, (if indeed he ever does so,) the decay of aristocratic exclusiveness seems to bring with it a decay of courtliness and of sentiment. It is, perhaps, natural that when all classes come into social contact, their standard of refinement cannot be so high as that of a small and exclusive nobility. The increase in the means of obtaining wealth and knowledge, the greater hurry and bustle of life, the growth of diligence and of sober thinking-all these things leave less time for the pomp of ceremony and the circumstance of etiquette ; and these latter are even despised, on principle, by men of democratic and utilitarian views. Truth, justice, and common sense, are the point of view from which men now regard actions, instead of being satisfied with mere sentiment. No doubt, this change implies a great advance in civilization. But yet the gain is not without its alloy. That the injured husband, for example, should be satisfied, not with the doubtful issue of a duel, but with the certain transfer of a round sum of money to his pocket, may indeed be a real advance in civilization, but is surely a great retrograde step in the law of sentiment and of honour.

I introduce these general reflections, as affording a suitable transition to the second part of my subjectthe consideration of the Euripidean age, in which we shall discuss the development and decay of the same ideas of honour, of delicacy, and of humanity, which have already occupied us in the Homeric times.

It was the most brilliant epoch in Greek History, from an intellectual, from an artistic, from a political point of view, but inferior to ruder ages in many social characteristics. Yet let us understand clearly what we mean by the advanced civilization of the Athenians in the days of Euripides. Most of us have seen or heard of their architecture, their sculpture, and their poetry; and in these respects, we know the Athenians, in particular, to have been highly civilized; but it does not occur to us to think, that in their social arrangements and laws, they at all approached the refinement or the humanity of modern days. Our charities and hospitals—our care even of the feelings and rights of criminals-in fact, the benevolence of our legislation ;—these are points in which most men think that even the most polished nations of antiquity were as barbarians, when compared with ourselves. Of course, all these humane feelings have obtained a great development since the influence of Christianity was brought to bear on European society. And yet, even from the remaining fragments of the literature of imperial Athens, we can show that these very feelings of humanity, properly so called, existed and had their influence in the minds of Athenian lawgivers. I feel confident, that two or three of the more delicate evidences will be amply sufficient in this place.

Surely, then, one of the most advanced features of our civilization is the extreme jealousy of the law in the case of violence done to persons. The law protects us, of course, against actual injury, but even to lay hands upon a man, to touch him discourteously in a quarrel, constitutes an assault, and is visited with heavy penalties. And the conflict here is not merely between civilization and rude barbarism, but between civilization and that chivalrous law of honour, which prompts a man to resent immediately, and in person, any insult he has received. But at last, after many centuries of improving legislation, we are agreed that personal conflicts must be absolutely prevented; and perhaps, future ages will honourably distinguish our generation and our country, as that which first thoroughly subjected the code of honour to the dictates of the law. The calm persuasions of reason have at length really conquered the fiery dictates of passion,

for a duel has become not only illegal, but ridiculous.* Well, all this development was complete in the epoch of Athenian history of which I speak. No doubt, the turbulence of the young nobles, who could not brook the political equality of the lower classes, made such precautions highly necessary; but still, the constant allusions in the orators to this great jealousy of the law, as regards the sanctity of person, show a state of civilization unintelligible to any but the most advanced peoples even of our day.

Take another boast of modern culture—a boast which Christianity has often arrogated as peculiar to itself—the care of the health of the poor in a community. We are told that the old Greeks had neither hospitals nor charities, merely because the scanty remains of the contemporary literature do not allude to them. The silence of authors upon points not within their immediate scope, is, of course, of no weight, and is in this case additionally refuted by at least one mention of an hospital,t and by the fact, that charities must have been the private concern of the Athenian clans. But even were the literature of the day completely preserved to us, there might be no further mention of common daily charities, than there is in Shakespeare of hospitals. And even were our solitary evidence about hospitals lost, there remains evidence of an organized dispensary system, under which the ablest physicians of the day received state salaries, to heal the poor gratuitously. There was even a technical term for these public practitioners.*

* Even now the Germans and the French have not yet reached this point.

+ Crates, dýpice, frag. 2.

| Disabled soldiers, indeed, had been provided for by a law of Peisistratus, at a much earlier date.

But I can give you even a higher and more delicate symptom of civilization than all this. Perhaps in the whole of our present culture, the most advanced feature is our regard for the rights and the feelings of criminals. We have at last opened our eyes to the idea, that the sentence of the law should not inflict unnecessary cruelty. All accessory penalties, arising from the carelessness or the brutality of the minions of the law, are regarded, not as well deserved concomitants, but as unjust aggravations of the sentence. Even the wretch condemned to death has his rights, and is now treated with the consideration due to his awful position. But no, I have not stated the truth ; our boasted modern civilization has not yet attained this noble position. For do we not still tolerate those vile public executions, when the low, the depraved, and the ignorant among us—when those who most need lessons of decency and of refinement, are invited to profane, with unhallowed gaze, the awful mystery of the dissolution of soul and body, and to interrupt, with impious oath and with ribald jest, the solemn voice of the passing-bell, or the still more solemn silence, in which the amazed sinner would fain prepare for his strange and fearful exile. +

* dmuovisósu. See also the Schol. in Aristoph., Ach. 964

† Shortly after I had spoken these words the newspapers announced the last public execution, (26th May, 1868.)

« ПретходнаНастави »