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The Athenians of the age of Euripides were far too careful of the education of their lower classes, to tolerate such public encouragements of brutality and profanity. The pathetic narrative of the execution of Sokrates, shows us how gentle and civilized were the arrangements for carrying out the extreme sentence of the law. We are informed that poisoning by hemlock was adopted as the easiest and most painless death.* The criminal was allowed to have his family and friends about him, and was not insulted by the interference of prison officials. The gaoler, (for no executioner was necessary,) brought in the poison, and directed him to take it before a certain hour. He then retired, and left him to the care of his friends. Surely, the people who framed such laws were civilized in no ordinary degree.
But though highly civilized, they were a thorough democracy, and a democracy in which radical principles obtained an unusual development; it was a small democracy, in which every man of power was trying to lead—full of jealousies and factions and wranglings. This feverish condition acted as a most powerful stimulus on the education of the Athenian people ; but it educated them intellectually, not morally—perhaps I might even say, immorally ; for while the curious spirits of the day sharpened their intellects by discussing and dissecting all the ideas and associations which had found respect and favour in a simpler age, but one thing resisted their scepticism, and remained a tangible object to their ambition
* Xenophon, Apol. Soc. $ 7.
political power; and such power in a civilized age can only be obtained by political means, by persuasion, and by intellectual influence. Eloquence, then, as a means both of attack and defence, and power as an end—these were their objects; and the great historian of the day describes with terrible severity the growing disregard of the higher, purer, simpler objects of life. Deceit and treachery were openly applauded as cleverness; honour and good faith either disappeared, or were ridiculed as stupid and old-fashioned ; almost all the leading men were corrupt. The laws were indeed, as I have said, highly civilized. There was a great appreciation of physical, literary, and artistic beauty; but moral excellence, and the delicacy of manners which it alone can produce, were coldly admired, but rarely practised. The characters of most of the great men of the day strike us as wanting in amiability, and the whole temper of the literature as hard and selfish. I do not, of course, include the great father of history, Herodotus, who was educated in a very different atmosphere, or the gentle Sophokles; but Euripides, perhaps the most perfect exponent of the ideas of the day-Perikles, Thukydides, Alkibiades, Antiphon-all leave an unpleasant impression on the mind.
I am not able, then, to cite to you instances of delicate sensibility and of honour in this day, as I could from the old Epic poetry. Even the ideal tragedy of the day was unable to comprehend these beauties in Homer, and travestied the characters it borrowed from his pages. Helen became a common
profligate, Ulysses a low and cowardly knave, Menelaus a foolish simpleton. The Homeric heroes were above even the ideal characters of the day. I am rather compelled to show you how all the weaker elements in society were despised and neglected. Women, slaves, even the older men found little consideration from the feverish ambition which absorbed the whole energy of the Euripidean age. The civilization of that day was far wider than that of the Homeric age, in that it included all classes of society—the law now protected the poor as well as the rich ; but it was still narrow and imperfect, in that it did not embrace the elements which had no political importance, and the radical and utilitarian tone of society discarded those graceful hypocrisies, by which the weaker sex and the aged are prevented from feeling too sharply their real insignificance.
The continual complaints of the miseries of old age, common, indeed, in all periods of Greek history, but exceptionally frequent in the literature of the day, afford a painful proof of this temper in Athenian society. Nowhere did the radical spirit of their civilization show itself more distinctly than in want of respect for the hoary head. It had, indeed, been formerly in fashion to honour old age, and the Areopagus had once been regarded as the fountain of wisdom in the state. But in those feverish times men's views changed so rapidly on all the great questions of the day—upon religion, upon education, upon morals, upon philosophy—that the rising generation found themselves separated by a century of thought from their parents. The old simple devices of politics were sneered at as transparent; the old training which made men soldiers, and not diplomatists, was despised as uncultivated. The older men were of no service in the business of the new generation; and when they tried to join in the favourite recreation of the day-philosophical discussion—they were equally out of place. For men would no longer listen to prosy discourses from any one. Was not Sokrates daily insisting on the necessity of rapid question and answer in all conversation ? And so the old man felt himself thrust aside as an object of neglect, if not of contempt. He was useless, and as such received little consideration from the young Athens of the day. “To me,” exclaims Euripides, (and that too in a passage where he breaks away from the subject of his play to utter his own deepest convictions) “to me youth is sweet, but old age weighs upon the mind with a load greater than the cliffs of Ætna, and veils the eyes with a gloomy shroud. Give me not the riches of Asiatic royalty, nor mine house full of gold, in exchange for youth, which is dearest of all in wealth, dearest of all in poverty. But bitter and envious old age I hate, would it had never come to the abodes and dwellings of men."* And to the same effect we can quote even the amiable and popular Sophokles, whose sons were so impatient of his prolonged years, that they essayed to wrest from him his property, by proving him imbecile. In his
last great work, the Lear of ancient tragedy, where the poet reflects upon the miseries of the old and outcast king, he enumerates, indeed, all the ills of every age, and complains that it were better not to be ; but, as the climax to the sorrows of human life, he reproaches old age—"feeble, unsociable, friendless, the perpetual object of reproach, when all the woes of woes are the partners of our habitation."* No doubt, as on the part of youth respect for age was rare, so among the old that gentleness of temper, which is the result of an acknowledged position and of reverence for others must also have been rare; and we are quite prepared for the melancholy but pointed utterance of a later poet—“Age is like wine; leave but a little over in your vessel, and it turns to vinegar.”+
But still sadder than the condition of the aged was that of women at this remarkable period. The days of the noble and high principled Penelope, of the refined and intellectual Helen, of the innocent and spirited Nausikaa, of the gentle and patient Andromache, had passed away. Men no longer sought and respected the society of the gentler sex. Would that Euripides had even been familiar, as Homer was, with the sound of women brawling in the streets ! For in these days they were confined to Asiatic silence and seclusion, while the whole life of the men, both in business and recreation, was essentially public. Just as the feverish excitement
* Edipus Col. 1220, sqq.