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Index by Period

Classical Greek Literature

A modern writer says of the Greeks:

"All that could beautify the meagre, harmonize the incongruous, enliven the dull, or convert the crude material of metaphysics into an elegant department of literature, belongs to the Greeks themselves, for they are preeminently the 'nation of beauty.' Endowed with profound sensibility and a lively imagination, surrounded by all the circumstances that could aid in perfecting the physical and intellectual powers, the Greeks early acquired that essential literary and artistic character which produced their art and literature."

Whatever the Greeks learned or borrowed from others, by the skill with which they improved, and the purposes to which they applied it, became henceforth altogether their own. If they were under any obligation to those who had lived before them for some few ideas and hints, the great whole of their intellectual refinement was undoubtedly the work of their own genius; for the Greeks are the only people who may be said in almost every instance to have given birth to their own literature. Their creations stand almost entirely detached from the previous culture of other nations. At the same time it is possible to trace a thread running back to remote antiquity, to show that their first hints of a literature came from Asia. Their oldest traditions and poems have many points of resemblance to the most ancient remains of the Asiatic nations. Some writers say that "this amounts to nothing more than a few scattered hints or mutilated recollections, and may all be referred to the common origin of mankind, and the necessary influence of that district of the world in which mental improvement of our species was first considered as an object of general concern." But this proves at least that there was an older civilization and literature than the Greeks, and that that civilization had its root in the East. According to their own testimony the Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians, and the first principles of architecture, mathematical science, detached ideas of philosophy, as well as many of the useful arts of life, they learned from the Egyptians, or from the earliest inhabitants of Asia.

The essential characteristic of the Greeks as a nation was the development of their own idea, their departure from whatever original tradition they may have had, and their far-reaching influence on all subsequent literature throughout the world. They differed in this from all other nations; for to quote again:

"the literature of India,with its great antiquity, its language, which is full of expression, sweetness of tone, and regularity of structure, and which rivals the most perfect of those western tongues to which it bears such a resemblance, with all its richness of imagery and its treasures of thought, has hitherto been void of any influence on the development of general literature. China contributed still less, Persia and Arabia were alike isolated until they were brought in contact with the European mind through the Crusaders, and the Moorish Empire in Spain."

This independence and originality of Greek literature is due in some measure to the freedom of their institutions from caste; but another and more powerful cause was that, unlike the Oriental nations, the Greeks for a long time kept no correct record of their transactions in war or peace. This absence of authentic history made their literature become what it is. By the purely imaginary character of its poetry, and the freedom it enjoyed from the trammels of particular truths, it acquired a quality which led Aristotle to consider poetry as more philosophical than history.

The Homeric poems are in a great measure the fountainhead from which the refinement of the Ancients was derived. The history of the Iliad and the Odyssey represent a state of society warlike it is true, but governed by intellectual, literary and artistic power. Philosophy was early cultivated by the Greeks, who first among all nations distinguished it from religion and mythology.

Socrates is the founder of the philosophy that is still recognized in the civilized world. He left no writings behind him; but by means of lectures, that included question and answer, his system, known as the dialectics, has come down to us.

Aesop, who lived 572 B.C., was the author of some fables which have been translated into nearly every language in the world, and have served as a model for all subsequent writings of the same kind. In 322 B.C., the centre of learning owing to the conquests of Alexander the Great, was moved to Egypt in the city that bears his name. Here the first three Ptolemies founded a magnificent library where the literary men of the age were supported by endowments. The second Ptolemy had the native annals of Egypt and Judea translated into Greek, and he procured from the Sanhedrim of Jerusalem the first part of the Sacred Scriptures, which was later completed and published in Greek for the use of the Jews at Alexandria. This translation was known as the Septuagint, or version of the Seventy; and is said to have exercised a more lasting influence on the civilized world than any book that has ever appeared in a new language. We are indebted to the Ptolemies for preserving to our times all the best specimens of Greek literature that have come down to us.

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