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Latin language, which, being scanty and unmusical, requires more
redundancy than the Greek. The simplicity of the Attic writers would
make Latin composition bold and tame. To be perspicuous, the Latin must
be full. Thus Arnold thinks that what Tacitus gained in energy he lost
in elegance and perspicuity. But Cicero, dealing with a barren and
unphilosophical language, enriched it with circumlocutions and
metaphors, while he formed it of harsh and uncouth expressions, and thus
became the greatest master of composition the world has seen. He was a
great artist, making use of his scanty materials to the best effect; and
since he could not attain the elegance of the Greeks, he sought to excel
them in vigor. He had absolute control over the resources of his
vernacular tongue, and not only unrivaled skill in composition, but tact
and judgment. Thus he was generally successful, in spite of the venality
and corruption of the times. The courts of justice were the scene of his
earliest triumphs; nor did he speak from the rostra until he was praetor
on mere political questions, as in reference to the Manilian and
Agrarian laws. It is in his political discourses that he rises to the
highest ranks. In his speeches against Verres, Catiline, and Antony, he
kindles in his countrymen lofty feelings for the honor of his country,
and abhorrence of tyranny and corruption. Indeed, he hated bloodshed,
injustice, and strife, and beheld the downfall of liberty with
indescribable sorrow.

Cicero held a very exalted position as a philosophical writer and
critic; but we defer what we have to say on this point until we speak of
the philosophy of the ancients. Upon eloquence his main efforts were,
however, directed, and eloquence was the most perfect fruit of his
talents. Nor can we here speak of Cicero as a man. He has his admirers
and detractors. He had great faults and weaknesses as well as virtues.
He was egotistical, vain, and vacillating. But he was industrious,
amiable, witty, and public spirited. In his official position he was
incorruptible. He was no soldier, but he had a greater than a warrior's
excellence. In spite of his faults, his name is one of the brightest of
the ancients. His integrity was never impeached, even in an age of
unparalleled corruption, and he was pure in morals. He was free from
rancor and jealousy, was true in his friendships, and indulgent to his
dependents. [Footnote: Professor Ramsay, of Glasgow, has written a most
admirable article on Cicero in Smith's _Dictionary_. It is very
full and impartial. Cicero's own writings are the best commentary on his
life. Plutarch has afforded much anecdote. Forsythe is the last work of
erudition. The critics sneer at Middleton's _Life of Cicero_; but
it has lasted one hundred years. It is, perhaps, too eulogistic. Drumann
is said to have most completely exhausted his subject in his
_Geschichte Roms_.]

Thus in oratory, as in history, the ancients can boast of most
illustrious examples, never even equaled. Still, we cannot tell the
comparative merits of the great classical orators of antiquity, with the
more distinguished of our times. Only Mirabeau, Pitt, Fox, Burke,
Brougham, Webster, and Clay, can even be compared with them. In power of
moving the people, some of our modern reformers and agitators may be
mentioned favorably; but their harangues are comparatively tame when

[Sidenote: Varro.]

In philosophy, the Greeks and Romans distinguished themselves more than
even in poetry, or history, or eloquence. Their speculations pertained
to the loftiest subjects which ever tasked the intellect of man. But
this great department deserves a separate chapter. There were
respectable writers, too, in various other departments of literature,
but no very great names whose writings have descended to us.
Contemporaries had an exalted opinion of Varro, who was considered the
most learned of the Romans, as well as their most voluminous author. He
was born ten years before Cicero, and he is highly commended by
Augustine. [Footnote: Born B.C. 116; _Civ. Dei_., vi. 2.] He was
entirely devoted to literature, took no interest in passing events, and
lived to a good old age. St. Augustine says of him, "that he wrote so
much that one wonders how he had time to read; and that he read so much,
we are astonished how he found time to write." He composed four hundred
and ninety books. Of these only one has descended to us entire - "De Re
Rustica" - written at the age of eighty; but it is the best treatise
which has come down from antiquity on ancient agriculture. We have parts
of his other books, and we know of books which have entirely perished
which, for their information, would be invaluable; especially his
"Divine Antiquities," in sixteen books - his great work, from which St.
Augustine drew his materials for his "City of God." He wrote treatises
on language, on the poets, on philosophy, on geography, and various
other subjects. He wrote satire and criticism. But although his writings
were learned, his style was so bad that the ages have failed to preserve
him. It is singular that the truly immortal books are most valued for
their artistic excellences. No man, however great his genius, can afford
to be dull. Style is to written composition, what delivery is to a
public speaker. John Foster, one of the finest intellects of the last
generation, preached to a "handful" of hearers, while "Satan" Montgomery
drew ecstatic crowds. Nobody goes to hear the man of thoughts, every
body to hear the man of words, being repelled or attracted by

[Sidenote: Seneca.]

Seneca was another great writer among the Romans, but he belongs to the
domain of philosophy, although it is his ethical works which have given
him immortality, as may be truly said of Socrates and Epictetus,
although they are usually classed among the philosophers. He was a
Spaniard, and was born a few years before the Christian era, was a
lawyer and a rhetorician, a teacher and minister of Nero. It was his
misfortune to know one of the most detestable princes that ever
scandalized humanity, and it is not to his credit to have accumulated,
in four years, one of the largest fortunes in Rome, while serving such a
master. But since he lived to experience his ingratitude, he is more
commonly regarded as a martyr. Had he lived in the republican period, he
would have been a great orator. He wrote voluminously on many subjects,
and was devoted to a literary life. He rejected the superstitions of his
country, and looked upon the ritualism of religion as a mere fashion;
but his religion was a mere deism, and he dishonored his own virtues by
a compliance with the vices of others. He saw much of life, and died at
fifty-three. What is remarkable in his writings, which are clear but
labored, is, that under pagan influences and imperial tyranny, he should
have presented such lofty moral truth; and it is a mark of almost
transcendent talent that he should, unaided by Christianity, have soared
so high in the realm of ethical inquiry. Nor is it easy to find any
modern author who has treated great questions in so attractive a way.

[Sidenote: Quintilian.]

Quintilian is a Latin classic, and belonged to the class of
rhetoricians, and should have been mentioned among the orators, like
Lysias the Greek, a teacher, however, of eloquence, rather than an
orator. He was born A.D. 40, and taught the younger Pliny, also two
nephews of Domitian, receiving a regular salary from the imperial
treasury. His great work is a complete system of rhetoric.
"_Institutiones Oratoriae_" is one of the clearest and fullest of
all rhetorical manuals ever written in any language, although, as a
literary production, inferior to the "_De Oratore_" of Cicero. It
is very practical and sensible, and a complete compendium of every topic
likely to be useful in the education of an aspirant for the honors of
eloquence. In systematic arrangement, it falls short of a similar work
by Aristotle; but it is celebrated for its sound judgment and keen
discrimination, showing great reading and reflection. He should be
viewed as a critic rather than as a rhetorician, since he entered into
the merits and defects of the great masters of Greek and Roman
literature. In his peculiar province he has had no superior. Like
Cicero, or Demosthenes, or Plato, or Thucydides, or Tacitus, he would be
a great man if he lived in our times, and could proudly challenge the
modern world to produce a better teacher than he in the art of public

[Sidenote: Lucian.]

There are other writers of immense fame, who do not represent any
particular class in the field of literature, which can be compared with
the modern. But I can only draw attention to Lucian, a witty and
voluminous Greek author, who lived in the reign of Commodus, wrote
rhetorical, critical, and biographical works, and even romances which
have given hints to modern authors. But his fame rests on his
"Dialogues," intended to ridicule the heathen philosophy and religion,
and which show him to have been one of the great masters of ancient
satire and mockery. His style of dialogue - a combination of Plato and
Aristophanes - is not much used by modern writers, and his peculiar kind
of ridicule is reserved now for the stage. Yet he cannot be called a
writer of comedy, like MoliEre. He resembles Rabelais and Swift more
than any other modern writers, and has their indignant wit, indecent
jokes, and pungent sarcasms. He paints, like Juvenal, the vices and
follies of his time, and exposes the hypocrisy that reigns in the high
places of fashion and power. His dialogues have been imitated by
Fontanelle and Lord Lyttleton, but they do not possess his humor or
pungency. Lucian does not grapple with great truths, but contents
himself in ridiculing those who have proclaimed them; and, in his cold
cynicism, depreciates human knowledge, and all the great moral teachers
of mankind. He is even shallow and flippant upon Socrates. But he was
well read in human nature, and superficially acquainted with all the
learning of antiquity. In wit and sarcasm, he may be compared with
Voltaire, and his end was the same, to demolish and pull down, without
substituting any thing in its stead. His skepticism was universal, and
extended to religion, to philosophy, and to every thing venerated and
ancient. His purity of style was admired by Erasmus, and he has been
translated into most European languages. The best English version is
rendered by Dr. Franklin, London, 2 vols. 4to. In strong contrast to the
"Dialogues" is the "City of God," by Saint Augustine, in which he
demolishes with keener ridicule all the gods of antiquity, but
substitutes instead the knowledge of the true God.

Thus the Romans, as well as Greeks, produced works in all departments of
literature which will bear comparison with the masterpieces of modern
times. And where would have been the literature of the early Church, or
of modern nations, had not the great original writers of Athens and Rome
been our schoolmasters? And when we further remember that their glorious
literature was created by native genius, without the aid of
Christianity, we are filled with amazement, and may almost be excused if
we deify the reason of man. At least we are assured that literature as
well as art may flourish under pagan influences, and that Christianity
has a higher mission than the culture of the mind. Religious skepticism
cannot be disarmed if we appeal to Christianity as the test of
intellectual culture. The realm of reason has no fairer fields than
those which are adorned by pagan art. Nor have greater triumphs of
intellect been witnessed in these, our Christian times, than among that
class which is the least influenced by Christian ideas. Some of the
proudest trophies of genius have been won by infidels, or by men
stigmatized as such. Witness Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Hegel, Fichte,
Gibbon, Hume, Buckle. And then how many great works are written without
the inspiration or the spirit of a living Christianity! How little
Bulwer, or Byron, or Dumas, or Goethe owe, apparently, to Christian
teachings! Is Emerson superior to Epictetus, in an ethical point of
view? Was Franklin a great philosopher, or Jefferson a great statesman,
because they were surrounded by Christian examples? May there not be the
greatest practical infidelity, with the most artistic beauty and native
reach of thought? Milton justly ascribes the most sublime intelligence
to Satan and his angels on the point of rebellion against the majesty of
Heaven. A great genius may be kindled by the fires of discontent and
ambition, which will quicken the intellectual faculties, even while they
consume the soul, and spread their devastating influence on the homes
and hopes of man.

* * * * *

RERERENCES. - There are no better authorities than the classical authors
themselves, and their works must be studied in order to comprehend the
spirit of ancient literature. Modern historians of Roman literature are
merely critics, like Drumann, Schlegel, Niebuhr, Muller, Mommsen, Mure,
Arnold, Dunlap, and Thompson. Nor do I know of an exhaustive history of
Roman literature in the English language. Yet nearly every great writer
has occasional criticisms, entitled to respect. The Germans, in this
department, have no equals. As critics and commentators they are



Whatever may be said of the inferiority of the ancients to the moderns
in natural and mechanical science, which no one is disposed to question,
or even in the realm of literature, which can be questioned, there was
one department which they carried to absolute perfection, and to which
we have added nothing of consequence. In the realm of art they were our
equals, and probably our superiors; in philosophy they carried logical
deductions to their utmost limit. They created the science. They
advanced, from a few crude speculations on material phenomena, to an
analysis of all the powers of the mind, and finally to the establishment
of ethical principles which even Christianity did not overturn. The
progress of the science, from Thales to Plato, is the most stupendous
triumph of the human understanding. The reason of man soared to the
loftiest flights that it has ever attained. It cast its searching eye
into the most abstruse inquiries which ever tasked the famous intellects
of the world. It exhausted all the subjects which dialectical subtlety
ever raised. It originated and it carried out the boldest speculations
respecting the nature of the soul and its future existence. It
established most important psychological truths. It created a method for
the solution of the most abstruse questions. It went on, from point to
point, until all the faculties of the mind were severely analyzed, and
all its operations were subjected to a rigid method. The Romans never
added a single principle to the philosophy which the Greeks elaborated;
the ingenious scholastics of the Middle Ages merely reproduced their
ideas; and even the profound and patient Germans have gone round in the
same circles that Plato and Aristotle marked out more than two thousand
years ago. It was Greek philosophy in which noble Roman youth were
educated, and hence, as it was expounded by a Cicero, a Marcus Aurelius,
and an Epictetus, it was as much the inheritance of the Romans as it was
of the Greeks themselves, after their political liberties were swept
away, and the Grecian cities formed a part of the Roman empire. The
Romans learned, or might have learned, what the Greeks created and
taught, and philosophy became, as well as art, identified with the
civilization which extended from the Rhine and the Po to the Nile and
the Tigris. Grecian philosophy was one of the distinctive features of
ancient civilization long after the Greeks had ceased to speculate on
the laws of mind, or the nature of the soul, or the existence of God, or
future rewards and punishments. Although it was purely Grecian in its
origin and development, it cannot be left out of the survey of the
triumphs of the human mind when the Romans were masters of the world,
and monopolized the fruits of all the arts and sciences. It became one
of the grand ornaments of the Roman schools, one of the priceless
possessions of the Roman conquerors. The Romans did not originate
medicine, but Galen was one of its greatest lights; they did not invent
the hexameter verse, but Virgil sung to its measure; they did not create
Ionic capitals, but their cities were ornamented with marble temples on
the same principles as those which called out the admiration of
Pericles. So, if they did not originate philosophy, and generally had
but little taste for it, still its truths were systematized and
explained by Cicero, and formed no small accession to the treasures with
which cultivated intellects sought everywhere to be enriched. It formed
an essential part of the intellectual wealth of the civilized world,
when civilization could not prevent the world from falling into decay
and ruin. And as it was the noblest triumph which the human mind, under
pagan influences, ever achieved, so it was followed by the most
degrading imbecility into which man, in civilized countries, was ever
allowed to fall. Philosophy, like art, like literature, like science,
arose, shined, grew dim, and passed away, and left the world in night.
Why was so bright a glory followed by so dismal a shame? What a comment
is this on the greatness and littleness of man!

[Sidenote: Commencement of Grecian speculations.]

The development of Greek philosophy is doubtless one commence-of the
most interesting and instructive subjects Grecian in the whole history
of mind. In all probability it originated with the Ionian Sophoi, though
many suppose it was derived from the East. It is questionable whether
the oriental nations had any philosophy distinct from religion. The
Germans are fond of tracing resemblances in the early speculations of
the Greeks to the systems which prevailed in Asia from a very remote
antiquity. Gladish sees in the Pythagorean system an adoption of Chinese
doctrines; in the Heraclitic system, the influence of Persia; in the
Empedoclean, Egyptian speculations; and in the Anaxagorean, the Jewish
creeds. [Footnote: Lewes, _Biog. Hist. of Philos_., Introd.] But
the Orientals had theogonies, not philosophies. The Indian speculations
aim to an exposition of ancient revelation. They profess to liberate the
soul from the evils of mortal life - to arrive at eternal beatitudes. But
the state of perfectibility could only be reached by religious
ceremonial observances and devout contemplation. The Indian systems do
not disdain logical discussions, or a search after the principles of
which the universe is composed; and hence we find great refinements in
sophistry, and a wonderful subtlety of logical discussion; but these are
directed to unattainable ends, - to the connection of good with evil, and
the union of the supreme with nature. Nothing came out of these
speculations but an occasional elevation of mind among the learned, and
a profound conviction of the misery of man and the obstacles to his
perfection. [Footnote: See Archer Butler's fine lecture on the Indian
Philosophies.] The Greeks, starting from physical phenomena, went on in
successive series of inquiries, until they elevated themselves above
matter, above experience, even to the loftiest abstractions, and until
they classified the laws of thought. It is curious how speculation led
to demonstration, and how inquiries into the world of matter prepared
the way for the solution of intellectual phenomena. Philosophy kept pace
with geometry, and those who observed nature also gloried in abstruse
calculations. Philosophy and mathematics seem to have been allied with
the worship of art among the same men, and it is difficult to say which
more distinguished them, aesthetic culture or power of abstruse

[Sidenote: Thales.]

[Sidenote: Water the vital principle of Nature.]

We do not read of any remarkable philosophical inquirer until Thales
arose, the first of the Ionian school. He was born at Miletus, a Greek
colony in Asia Minor, about the year B.C. 636, when Ancus Martius was
king of Rome, and Josiah reigned at Jerusalem. He has left no writings
behind him, but he was numbered as one of the seven wise men of Greece.
He was numbered with the wise men on account of his political sagacity
and wisdom in public affairs. [Footnote: Miller, Hist, of Grec. Lit., ch.

"And he, 't is said, did first compute the stars
Which beam in Charles' wain, and guide the bark
Of the Phoenician sailor o'er the sea."

He was the first who attempted a logical solution of material phenomena,
without resorting to mythical representations. Thales felt that there
was a grand question to be answered relative to the _beginning of
things_. "Philosophy," it has been well said, "may be a history of
_errors_, but not of _follies_" It was not a folly, in a rude
age, to speculate on the first or fundamental principle of things. He
looked around him upon Nature, upon the sea and earth and sky, and
concluded that water or moisture was the vital principle. He felt it in
the air, he saw it in the clouds above, and in the ground beneath his
feet. He saw that plants were sustained by rain and by the dew, that
neither animal nor man could live without water, and that to fishes it
was the native element. What more important or vital than water? It was
the _prima materia_, the [Greek: archae], the beginning of all things - the
origin of the world. [Footnote: Aristotle, _Metaph._, 1. c. 3;
Diog. Laertius, _Thales_.] I do not here speak of his astronomical
and geometrical labors - as the first to have divided the year into three
hundred and sixty-five days. He is celebrated also for practical wisdom.
"Know thyself," is one of his remarkable sayings. But the foundation
principle of his philosophy was that water is the first cause of all
things - the explanation, of the origin of the universe. How so crude a
speculation could have been maintained by so wise a man it is difficult
to conjecture. It is not, however, the _reason_ which he assigns
for the beginning of things which is noteworthy, so much as the
_fact_ that his mind was directed to the solution of questions
pertaining to the origin of the universe. It was these questions which
marked the Ionian philosophers. It was these which showed the inquiring
nature of their minds. What is the great first cause of all things?
Thales saw it in one of the four elements of nature, as the ancients
divided them. And it is the earliest recorded theory among the Greeks of
the origin of the world. It is an induction from the phenomena of
animated nature - the nutrition and production of a seed. [Footnote:
Bitter, b. iii. c. 3; Lewes, ch. 1.] He regarded the entire world in the
light of a living being gradually maturing and forming itself from an
imperfect seed state, which was of a moist nature. This moisture endues
the universe with vitality. The world, he thought, was full of gods, but
they had their origin in water. He had no conception of God as
_Intelligence_, or as a _creative_ power. He had a great and
inquiring mind, but he was a pagan, with no knowledge of a spiritual and
controlling and personal deity.

[Sidenote: Anaximenes. Air the _animus mundi_.]

Anaximenes, his disciple, pursued his inquiries, and adopted his method.
He also was born in Miletus, but at what time is unknown, probably B.C.
529. Like Thales, he held to the eternity of matter. Like him, he
disbelieved in the existence of any thing immaterial, for even a human
soul is formed out of matter. He, too, speculated on the origin of the
universe, but thought that _air_, not water, was the primal cause.
[Footnote: Cicero, _De Nat. D_., i. 10.] This seemed to be
universal. We breathe it; all things are sustained by it. It is Life -
that is pregnant with vital energy, and capable of infinite
transmutations. All things are produced by it; all is again resolved
into it; it supports all things; it surrounds the world; it has
infinitude; it has eternal motion. Thus did this philosopher reason,
comparing the world with our own living existence, - which he took to be
air, - an imperishable principle of life. He thus advanced a step on
Thales, since he regarded the world not after the analogy of an
imperfect seed-state, but that of the highest condition of life, - the
human soul. [Footnote: Ritter, b. iii. c. 3.] And he attempted to refer
to one general law all the transformations of the first simple substance

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 25 of 50)