Слике страница
PDF
ePub

armies. With the two exceptions of Diomede and Ulysses — which can be accounted for on special grounds, all Homer's heroes are represented as running away on various occasions, and as running away too under the influence of panic. Still worse, the noblest heroes are said by Ulysses to have been weeping and lamenting with fright when they were about to be concealed within the celebrated horse, just before the capture of Troy; and Achilles is highly delighted, and stalks in great strides down the meadow of Asphodel when he hears that his son was the solitary exception, and showed no signs of terror and of despair. Of course, the gods are usually called in to account for such panics by the courtly poet, whose songs were recited to the descendants of these chiefs. But still the facts are there; and the same thing occurs constantly throughout all Greek history, except in the case of the highly-disciplined Spartans.

No doubt, many important circumstances can be urged in palliation of this defect in the Homeric chiefs. There was, of course, want of discipline and of the support of masses. There was also a great sensitiveness in Greek human nature, which causes men to picture to themselves vividly the pains of death, and to shrink from them, while the dulness of coarser natures protects them from such anticipations. But, above all, the Homeric Greek had nothing to hope for after this life had passed away. He believed, indeed, in a future state, and the poet has not omitted to give us a picture of that state. But profoundly interesting as is this pictureone of our earliest evidences of the belief in immortality—there is no more melancholy passage in all the story ; for while the heroes retain all their intellect and their capacities, their powers of joy and of suffering, of love and of hate, they have no new aims nor employments, nor even hopes; and while their strength and their beauty are but dim reflections of their former selves, and their voices fainter than the husky tones of decrepid old age, their only pleasure is to live over again in memory the glory of their life on earth, and to catch with breathless interest the stray echoes that reach them from the upper world. We cannot, then, expect from them the courage of the Christian warrior.

And perhaps it is to some extent a consequence of this, that they were not a very honest nation; for the two defects are likely to be connected in the same character. I do not mean to say merely that in this age of imperfect civilization the rights of property were not fully recognized : this would have been a defect of the Homeric age, and not of the people. We find in Homer piracy alluded to as quite a respectable occupation; and, indeed, the national fancy for this profession has never since disappeared, for it existed even during the most civilized period of Greek history, under the designation of maritime enterprise and love of adventure. But quite apart from the defects of the age, we must notice an inherent imperfection in the Greek national character-an imperfection which developed itself terribly in later Greek

history, and was, doubtless, the main cause of the decay of the nation : I mean the overrating of intellectual, as compared with moral, qualities. We shall find this defect so magnified at a later epoch, that cleverness is openly preferred to honesty.

In the Homeric age, it seems as if the analysis of mental qualities into intellectual and moral had hardly been felt or stated. There is no hero singled out for moral qualities only—there is not even a Homeric expression for a morally good man, as such. King Menelaus, who is, perhaps, the most honourable and chivalrous of all the chiefs in sentiment, is only a second-rate character, because he has not the physical power of Achilles or the intellect of Ulysses; and this latter, Homer's greatest human hero, is above his fellows “in stratagem and in the use of the oath.” The words used to be translated—plausibly enough, too“in knavery and perjury,” and this must have been the rendering in the minds even of the Attic tragedians. But Homer seems to have meant that he not only knew the best means of taking advantage of his enemies, but also of guarding against treacherous retaliation, by compelling or inducing them to bind themselves by an oath ; for, as might be expected, the honour of that day had a purely religious foundation. The gods hated deceit and treachery, when it was obtruded upon their notice ; but within certain limits, and in purely human transactions, where the wrath of the gods was not apprehended, deceit was lawful, and even praiseworthy; for I do not think that the Homeric Greek considered a dishonourable

action as an injury done to the dignity of his nature in his own eyes. This very subtle, but now common, notion of our own personal dignity, and our duties towards it, had, I think, no place in the minds of these primitive men ; perhaps, indeed, its existence, or at least its prevalence amongst us, may be due wholly to Germanic sentiment, deepened and ennobled by Christianity. The Homeric chief would not commit acts of cowardice or perjury, because he was ashamed of his family and friends, or because the gods would punish him ; but the social and religious basis of the feeling of honour was, so to speak, an external or foreign basis, and not founded upon the dignity with which a man feels bound to treat his own nature.

Nor were the claims of others upon him the claims of human nature as such, but the personal claims of special persons. His honour, his compassion, his respect, were all individual ties, which bound him to individual men, and which were, in almost all cases, secured by an oath ; even the helpless suppliant is afraid to venture into a stranger's house, without flying to the hearth, and so obtaining a sacred claim upon the protection of his host.

After all these limitations and restrictions, you will, perhaps, not be prepared to hear that the sense of honour was highly developed among the Homeric Greeks; yet it was so, at least among that limited class brought before us in the old epic poems—the military and social aristocracy of the day. The instances of this feeling are many and striking. The whole plot of the Iliad, for example, turns upon the satisfaction of the wounded honour of Achilles. He has been publicly treated with indignity by Agamemnon, and he is determined not only to exact a public apology and satisfaction for it, but also to make his opponent suffer bitterly. Yet this is not the highest, nor even a high, conception of honour, though it actuated so great a hero ; for there is something insensate in making a whole army suffer for the blunders of its chief. There are far nobler and purer. examples of honour in other parts of the poems. When Ulysses returns to his home disguised as a beggar, and finds the suitors of his wife wasting his goods and persecuting his family, he is first recognised, accidentally, by his faithful old nurse Euryclea, who forthwith offers to act as informer against the unfaithful members of his household : there is evidence of the highest and most gentlemanly feeling in the way in which Ulysses rejects her offer, and says that he will find out these things for himself.*

Time forbids my quoting and illustrating the subject with anecdotes as I should wish, but there is one remarkable passage which I must not omit, as it illustrates the feeling of honour and fair play in games and sports—a peculiarity which is now a distinctive mark of the English people. There is a chariot race described at length in the 23rd book of the Iliad, in which we are concerned with four competitors, whom I mention in the order of the betting

* Odyssey, xix. 500.
† Iliad, xxiii. 333, sqq. (Lord Derby's Trans.)

« ПретходнаНастави »