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THE GREEK GENTLEMAN
E will begin our survey with the
civilization of Greece, which for
many reasons is the most important. It is the earliest in time and its art is the fountain and origin of all subsequent European art. It is, too, our standard, by which we measure the rest, and on the whole it may fairly make claim to be the greatest, although that is not the point of the present discussion.
But it will therefore demand the major portion of our time and the main appeal is the appeal to the excellence of the toute ensemble of that wonderful age. The survey of the other ages will merely serve, by comparison, to bring out the full significance of Greece, and the final question will be,- is that which makes the essence of Greek civilization to be desired in itself? If the answer be yes, then where the other ages are deficient we must look to Greece.
Turning then to Greece, and by Greece is practically meant Athens, let us seek to find
what is the relation of art and beauty to life as a whole, to the life of the Athenian people.
Perhaps as ready a way of arriving at the heart of the matter as we can adopt is to turn to one of those little phrases of ordinary life, constantly upon everyone's lips, that so frequently embody the very essence of a national philosophy. What was the phrase that would correspond to our phrase, "a true gentleman," what did the Athenian understand by "a gentleman"? Was a gentleman, for instance, to the Athenian mind a man of large property, of great wealth? By no means, the Athenian was not a man who set great store by wealth, indeed there was an instinctive dislike for wealth as such, for wealth in anyway regarded as an end in itself. The ordinary attitude of the Athenian toward money is put by Euripides into the mouth of the peasant in 'The Elektra,' when he makes
“ 'Tis in such shifts As these I care for riches, to make gifts To friends, or lead a sick man back to health With ease and plenty. Else small aid is wealth For daily gladness; once a man be done With hunger, rich and poor are both as one.”
Too much money was for the Greek mind at a form of excess, and excess was the thing he would not tolerate. To have too much money was to show à lack of decent restraint and was on a par with too much dinner or too much drink or any other vulgar exhibition of lack of self-control.
We may parallel the above quotation by remembering that on another occasion Euripides ventured in the “Danaë” to put a few words into the mouth of a character in praise of money :-only a character upon the stage, not necessarily representing more than the individual point of view of the particular part; but it was felt by the Greek mind to be an outrage upon humanity and the play was nearly hissed off the stage in consequence.*
Was it then a matter of blood? No it was not that either. The Athenian was by no means indifferent to ancestry, and, if a man's forebears had been men of noble character who had served the state well, they looked to him to inherit those qualities and continue the tradition. But if he did not come up to sample, so to speak, they would have no more of him.
* Senec. Epist. 115; Nauck, Trag. Gr. Frag. p. 457.
No, as Perikles shows us in his famous speech, there probably never was a people where a man was so nearly received at his own true worth. It is not that there were no snobs in Athens. No state has ever been entirely free from such things, but no state has ever been able so nearly to ignore adventitious aids or hindrances, riches or poverty, noble or obscure birth, and allow real worth its opportunity unhampered by restrictions and conventions. A man's own personal worth was the true determining factor and they summed it all up in the phrase that he was to be kalos k'ávalos (kalos k'agathos), both beautiful and good.
That before one could be considered a gentleman it should be necessary to be beautiful is to the modern mind a little astonishing, a little difficult to grasp; but such was the fact. We are partly surprised at the intimacy of connexion implied but more still by the immense stress that is laid upon the importance of beauty in life.
It is true that the Greek term had a wider significance than our word beautiful, but it does not very materially affect the point. Beauty even in our more restricted sense of the term was a sine qua non.