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The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece online

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The white-haired mother (maturity of wisdom) then takes the word, and
answers Eteocles out of his own mouth {Plioen., 528) : —

" My son ! " she says, " not everything is evil that appertaineth to old
age ; for experience hath that to say which is wiser than the thoughts of
youth. Why yield thyself to Philotimia (ambition), this worst of deities?
Flee her, my son ! the goddess is unjust. To many a home, to prosperous
states, hath she come, and gone — destroying those who worshipped her. And
for her thou ravest! 'Twere nobler, son, didst thou show honour to the
common right. Fair dealing — that bindeth ever friend to friend, state
unto state, ally to ally. Equality of rights is Nature's law for man. He
who keeps more (than his fair share) hath ever in the weaker an adversary,
keen to begin the day of enmity. Equality it is that sets in order for
mankind measure and weight, the balance and the rule — equality that number
set apart from number. ^

" Yea, the dark eyelid of the night, the sun's bright light, perform their
yearly course with equal step, and neither is jealous of the other's victory.
If, then, day and night alike serve mortals, and thou wilt not content thyself
with thine own portion, and give him his — where is justice ?

"Why honourest thou thus to such excess the tyranny — this sweet in-
justice — and deem'st it something grand to be gazed on by the multitude ?
Empty vanity !

" Or seekest thou to heap up many goods, and therewith many sorrows ?
What is the more ? Only a name. Enough sufficeth for the wise.

" Of our own selves," concludes the mother, "we mortals can own nothing.
We do but have the care of what the gods bestow, and when they will, they
take it back again."

The beautiful thoughts of Jocaste require but little comment. They may
briefly be paraphrased thus : —

(i) Equality of rights is Nature's Urgesetz for man. Only where fairness
is observed can there be lasting union between friend and friend, state and
state, ally and ally.

(2) But, community in rights = community in service. Day and night
share time equally between them ; but far from desiring to lord it over mortals,
each takes office only to serve. Each in turn serves mortals {douleui hrotois
= is slave to mortals). Equality in privilege = equality in bearing the burden.

The concluding words prove how very closely Euripides' ideal of equality
is allied to the grand Hellenic instinct (if we may so call it) of moderation.
Only when all hold fast the golden mean will there be true equality.

(3) What is the more ? asks the philosopher — that " more " which, accord-
ing to Eteocles, it were sheer cowardice to give up. An idle name — since no
one can really use or enjoy more than enough. This sufficeth for the wise.

(4) After all, concludes the poet, why quarrel over nothing ? We mortals
really possess nothing — what we seem to possess we only hold as stewards for
the gods, and when they will, they claim their own again.

Have we not in the whole chain of reasoning the germs of much that
ripened later in Greek thought, and found fullest fruition in the philosophy
of our Lord and His apostle, Paul of Tarsus ? Never were mutual rights and
mutual service fully understood until set forth in the doctrine of the Christian
brotherhood, the true social compact.

2. Compassion. — Strange as it may appear, the next ideal of our poet is
very closely connected with the last. Given the conviction that all men are
1 The principle, i.e. that all have equal rights, or that all are entitled to a fair share, first
led to equal division of land or goods by measure, weight, and number.


intended by Providence to have equal rights and an equal share of a modest
happiness, the evidence that the rights of the weak are often flagrantly dis-
regarded by the strong — that happiness is often wrecked through no fault of
the individual — cannot but create in a thinking mind a profound sense of
compassion. The greater the inequality, and the deeper the misery endured,
the more intense is the pity inspired in the heart of the one who " knows-
with," and feels with, the sufferer.

The description which Euripides gives of the Hellenes — that in them
dwelt " pity {oiktos) and a great soul " — is applicable beyond all others to
himself. Euripides alone of all the thinkers of antiquity, seems to have
caught the living spark of pity, and kept it burning in the world until the
advent of the Divine Compassion Himself.

In his fellow-feeling for the outcasts of society — the slave, the " barbarian,"
the captive, the sick, the erring, Euripides is the greatest forerunner of the
Christ. The philosophers of Greece, strange to say, lag (in this respect) far
behind the poet whom some of them affected to despise. Their very philosophy
had a tendency to detach them from philanthropy, and it is in this connection
that Euripides utters one of his most pregnant warnings : " Pity," he says in
the Eledra (294), " dwelleth never with the fool, but in the breast of the wise
among men ; and," he adds, " there is a danger in being overwise," i.e. in that
so-called wisdom which bade men steel their hearts against all tender feeling,
and become, as far as possible, passionless.

The contrast between Euripides and such thinkers as, even, Plato and
Aristotle, is best seen in the attitude which they assume, respectively, towards
slavery. To the philosophers named, the slave is little better than a machine,
a " tool with a soul," or a troublesome animal to be kept in order by the whip,
if need be. (See further under the articles Plato, Aristotle.) To our poet the
slave is a man, with all the attributes of man, to be treated as a reasonable,
thinking being. His " slavery," in Euripides' eyes, is his misfortune, not his
fault — it has not unmanned him, nor put him beyond the bounds of human
society. To the slave Euripides says virtually, like St. Paul, " Art thou a
slave ? Care not for it ! Thou art still a man " (one of those whom the Creator
severed and set apart from the brutes by giving to them understanding. — See
ante, p. 84). " One thing alone," he says in the Ion (854), " brings shame
upon a slave — the name. In all else he is no whit inferior to the free man,
if he be good." And it is by the mouth of a slave that he draws the noble
distinction between slavery of the body and slavery of the soul, a distinction
with which we afterwards become so familiar in Plato. " If I have not the
name of free man," says the old slave of Menelaus in the Helena {'j ^o), "at
least my mind is free, and better is this than to be subject to two evils — to
have at once a bad mind " (to be slave to one's self), " and to be slave to one's

Certainly Euripides is not blind to the faults which slavery inevitably
engenders in its victims — witness the remark in the Electra (632), that it is
*' characteristic of slaves to go over to the winning side."

Nevertheless, the examples among his dramatis personoe of slaves who
pursue the opposite course, and are ready to die for their master's house, show
how deeply he felt that nobility of soul was not incompatible with the lot of
the slave. There is a beautiful touch of this sort, doubtless taken from life,
in the Children of Heracles (678), where the penestes (or serf) of Hyllus, who
has been sent to inform Alcmene of the arrival of her grandson, declares that
he must hasten back — the battle is about to begin, and he would'not have his


lord face the foe alone {eremos, deserted by him). One is glad that in the
end the noble fellow obtains his freedom.

Then, as to the captive — who, before Euripides, ever thought out so
earnestly the hard and bitter consequences of war, the horrors which it brings
in its train? — Who ever felt so deeply the misery of the rude awakening,
when free men and free women found themselves suddenly reduced to that
position which was worse than death — the place of a chattel, absolutely at the
disposal of an irresponsible master ? — The feelings surging in the breast of the
unfortunates on whom the day of captivity has dawned, are pathetically
expressed in the Trojan Women (146, 176 et seq.). Old Hecabe leads the
lament of the high-born prisoners (assembled in the tent of Agamemnon),
" like a bird in fear for her young." All is darkness and despair — no one
knows what is before her, or what her fate will be.

" When do the ships of the Achseans sail, and bear us far hence? " — " Am
I to die?"— ''Of whom shall I be slave ?"—" Shall I draw water from the
spring ? " — and other questions of a like nature burst involuntarily from the
lips of the anxious terror-stricken group. But Hecabe can give no answer —
to her, too, the future is a blank : " Shall I stand portress at the palace-
gates?" she wonders, "or nurse the children of my lord? — I, who, once, as
Troja's queen, was honoured ! "

Then finally comes the hurrying of the captives on board the Greek ships,
whilst the cry of the children, separated from their mothers, goes up piteously :
''0 mother, mother! they are carrying me away — away in the black ship! —
far from thine eyes ! "

The hard lot of the captives, again, in a foreign land, is pitifully described
in the Andromache — where the gentle heroine comes before us as the slave-wife
of the son of Hector's murderer — and above all, in the Hecabe (807), where the
aged queen, on whom blow after blow has fallen, appears as Woe personified :
" Look on me, as a painter looks," she says to Agamemnon, " and behold what
I suffer."

" What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?"
asks Hamlet. In the ancient world the sorrows of Hecuba, as set forth by
Euripides, meant a great deal. The story goes that, after the disastrous
collapse of the Sicilian Expedition, such of the Athenian prisoners confined in
the quarries of Syracuse as could repeat the verses of Euripides, were set at
liberty. Who can tell to how many unfortunate captives of the sword in later
times the tragedies of the master, with their depth of pathos, brought at least
a softening of their lot, some mitigation of their hardships?

Nor, in estimating the influence of Euripides over his countrymen, must
it be forgotten that some of those for whom he sought to enlist his hearers'
sympathies were foreigners — " barbarians " — and as such, outside the pale of
ordinary Greek compassion. True, we find in Euripides the sentiment that
barbarians " cannot become friendly with Hellenes " ; but this is put into the
mouth of a "barbarian," Hecabe herself {Hec.^ 1 199), and means that the
speaker is quite aware of the existing prejudice against barbarians, quite
aware also of the futility of any attempt to bridge over the gulf that lay
between the two — between the free aspirations of the Greek on the one hand,
and the habitual tendencies of those reared under despotic rule on the other .1
Some courage, therefore, was necessary on the part of the poet to come before
an Athenian and prejudiced audience with tragedies in which "barbarians"
played the leading part, and were represented (as in the case of a Polyxena

^ "Among barbarians all are slaves but One," says Helen in the drama that bears her
name {Hel., 276).


and an Andromache) as possessing all the charts of body and soul that apper-
tained to the highest Hellenic type of woman. Here, however, Euripides only
follows the lead of Homer. Both poets were far removed from that patriotism
falsely so-called, which is only another name for the pettiness of race animosity
and jealousy.

We have already spoken of the tenderness which Euripides displays towards
children (p. 436). This is nowhere more conspicuous than in the stand which
he makes against an atrocious practice which prevailed even in historic times —
that, namely, of slaying the infant sons of a vanquished and dead enemy.
This was customary as a measure of precaution against the dangers of the
blood-feud — the assumption that the sons, if allowed to grow to manhood,
would seek to avenge their father's death. Instances of the practice meet
us both in the HeracleidcB and in the Madness of Heracles. In the Trojan
Women (740), the tragic episode of the death of Hector's only son, the little
Astyanax, at the hand of the Greeks, is described with deep pathos. Nothing
more beautiful than the lament of Andromache for her babe has ever been
penned. The little " king " (by the advice of Odysseus) is torn from its
mother's arms, where it lies nestling like a chick under the wings of the
mother-hen, and dashed from the battlements of the ill-fated "city" over
which it was born to rule.^ Its shattered remains are brought back, as a
special act of grace, to the grandmother, Hecabe, for burial. As she lays the
little body ready for the grave upon its father's shield, which is to serve for
coffin, the old queen turns to the Greek herald, and asks with withering
emphasis {Tro., 11 89): "What will ye write upon his tomb? — 'The Argives
slew this child through fear ' ? — Truly, an epitaph of shame for Hellas ! " — an
epitaph, undoubtedly, that must have brought the unwonted flush to many a
rough Greek amongst the poet's audience.

Turning now from the calamities of war to the ordinary troubles of daily
life — sickness and poverty — we find that Euripides has an observant eye and a
corner in his wide heart for these also. The great use of money, he tells us, is
the power which it brings with it of helping others. This beautiful expression
of pre-Christian thought is uttered by our poet's " noble soul," the husbandman
who acts as guardian of Electra. When, in the course of the story, Orestes and
his inseparable comrade, Pylades, appear, the good man — receiving them as
strangers, and without knowing who they are — invites them to partake of a
repast in his humble cottage. Electra thereupon, cumbered, after the fashion
of women, with her notions of the much serving due to strangers evidently of
high rank — reproaches him with his want of thought in offering hospitality to
those greater than himself.

"Why not?" he replies, with truer refinement, "if they are really noble,
as they seem to be, they will be content with little, as with much."

After Electra has retired to prepare the meal, however, the recollection of
his poverty oppresses the worthy man, and he sighs, and says {EL, 426) : —

" When I weigh the matter with myself, it is on occasions such as this that
I see what great power lies in money — to enable one to give to friends and to
bring back the sick to health. For daily needs one wants but little, and if a
man's hunger be appeased, 'tis all the same whether he be rich or poor."

Here again is the doctrine of the mean — with an addition. " Enough
sufficeth for the wise," says our poet in the Phoenissce : " The more is only
a name."

" Yes," he adds in the passage before us, " enough sufficeth for oneself, but

1 As the name denotes {astu-anax, city king).


— the more enableth one to give to others — to distribute to the stranger and
the sick " — the Hellenic equivalent of the Hebrew " sick and needy."

Finally, we must note another form of compassion to which Euripides was
no stranger — compassion for the erring. This is mirrored in that most beauti-
ful of Attic words, syngnome = knowled(je-witU (the offender, i.e. that all mortals
are alike subject to frailty) — hence fellow-feeling., alloioancefor,foi-giveness, the
attitude which best befits one mortal to assume towards another. ^

A characteristic example of the way in which syngnome is put forward by
our poet as a plea for compassion occurs in the Suppliants. When the Argive
king, Adrastus, and the mothers of the heroes who had fallen before Thebes,
solicit the help of Athens in the task of recovering the bodies of the dead,
Theseus does not immediately grant their request. On the contrary, he puts
Adrastus through a lengthy catechism as to the causes of the war, and then
preaches to him a homily, pointing out the sins and follies which had led to
the catastrophe (p. 452). All that Theseus says is severely true; but such a
reproof, addressed by a younger and a happier man to one bowed down by
years and adversity, is the final drop that makes Adrastus' cup of bitterness
run over. He cannot contain his indignation, and retorts haughtily that he
had not chosen Theseus to sit in judgment on his troubles — no ! he had
come to him as to a physician, that he might profit by his hel'p — not his

The chorus, however, chooses the wiser course of gentle remonstrance, and
reminds Theseus of two facts which he is apparently overlooking : —

(i) "They sinned, these young men who have fallen," plead the mothers
{hemarton = they missed the mark and failed) — " but this is natural to man, and
for it there must be syngnomen = BWowsmce made, excuse, forgiveness. [For
thou, king, art but a man, and, as such, prone to err, to fall under stress of

(2) The second fact is based on the same great principle: "What wilt
thou do?" continue the mothers, pressing home the question. "Wilt thou
betray the suppliants, and thrust us from the land ? — Nay ! for the wild beast
hath a hiding-place amongst the rocks, the slave a refuge in the altars of the
gods — and city flees to city when storms arise — for," they add emphatically,
" nothing amongst mortals continues prosperous to the end."

The mutability of fortune, then, the old Solonian warning, is pressed into
the service, and Theseus is bidden know-ivith those in trouble, because his own
day of adversity will surely come.

Needless to say, Theseus, the poet's second self, has long since learned the
force of both arguments. The object of his lecture, ill-timed as it appears to
Adrastus, is to prove to all concerned that, if he now goes up to Thebes, it is
not as the ally of those who have defied the gods, but as the physician sent by
them to remedy the wrong. That object effected, Theseus has nothing but
syngnbmen for the mourners, compassion for the dead.

This compassion he shows not only by risking his own life in the effort to
recover the bodies, but by that right royal act, the washing of the wounds of
the dead with his own kingly hand — a deed which excites the amazement and
astonishment of Adrastus.

"Hadst thou been there," says the messenger, who tells the story, and
emphasises the fact that the duty had been committed to no slavish hands,
" thou wouldst have seen how he loved them."

"^e washed — himself — the wounds of these unfortunates?" repeats
Adrastus, as though unable to credit the tale,

^ " Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us."


" Yea, and spread out the bier, and veiled thereon the bodies of the

" A fearful task for him, and — a disgi'ace,^^ is the comment of Adrastus, the

" Disgrace ! " echoes the messenger with fine disdain, " lohat disgrace can
come to men through human suffering ? "

What, indeed ? The picture of the hero-king, preparing with his own hand
the bodies of his brethren for their last resting-place, will ever linger in the
memory as a symbol and type of a yet more significant washing — that which
took place in the upper room at Jerusalem by the Royal Hand of One who had
emptied Himself of His glory, and taken upon Him the form of a slave — the
realisation and embodiment of the poet's own belief {EL, 1329).

'' Among the heavenly ones there is compassion for heavy-laden mortals."

(3) Self-sacrifice. — Needless to say, the highest ideal of our poet is,
simply, compassion in its purest, most generous form — compassion so forgetful
of self that it identifies its own personality with that of the sufferer — takes
his place — becomes itself the burthen-bearer. Instances of this noblest
development of the human spirit — that which we call self-abnegation, self-
devotion, SELF-SACRIFICE — abound in the writings of Euripides. His own mind
seems to have been, consciously and unconsciously, in closest affinity with it,
so that he returns to the theme, as it were, instinctively. "Out of the
abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

Our readers will remember the passage in which Euripides expresses his
own belief in the prevailing power of goodness, in its beneficent rule over the
world (ante, p, 450, Suppl, 195): "Oft have I contended with others," he
says, " who strove to prove that evil among men was greater than the good.
I hold the contrary opinion. There's more of blessing given to mortals than
of ill. If it were not so, we should no longer see the light."

And yet there have been times in all periods of the world's history, times
within the personal knowledge of each individual, when this " opinion " appears
altogether optimistic. The very reverse seems to hold good. Does our poet at
such times go back from the judgment formed in happier days? By no means,
for he knows there is in existence a remedy — a something that can retrieve the
position, make good the loss, set right the balance.

"When evil is stronger than the good," he says (Phoen., 889), "there is
ONE means of safety, and none other." Bitter it is for him on whom the duty
falls of providing this one sovereign remedy — this pharmakon — but it brings
healing to others, safety to the State.

Needless to say, this remedy is — the sacrifice of self. Wherever evil is
beginning to triumph amongst men — the ills of life to overcloud the good —
this never-failing remedy is at hand — for him who has the courage to make
use of it. Let but the one be found, the One with no thought of self, the
One strong to labour, to lead, to endure even unto death — and straightway
the powers of evil are worsted — the good resumes its sway upon the earth.

Who cannot verify from his own experience the truth of this grand
doctrine? Who does not acknowledge that seZ/-sacrifice — bitter medicine to
the one who offers it — is the salt that keeps the moral world from decay?
What great religious truth can we name, what great scientific fact, what great
idea, what hope of struggling humanity, that has not had its martyr — one who
has sacrificed himself — before the doctrine, the fact, the idea, became part of
the universal heritage, or the hope passed into realisation ?

That a people like the Hellenes realised intuitively the force of that
universal law : " The one must suffer for the many,^^ is manifest. Their early


sagas and traditions are full of it, and it is upon these that Euripides draws for
his examples.

These belong to all the great branches of the Greek race — they are not
confined to one. Thessaly is represented by Alcestis, by Achilles and Peleus ;
Argos by Macaria and lolaus, by Evadne, by Iphigenia, Orestes, and Pylades ;
Thebes by Menoekeus ; Athens by Theseus and his sons ; Troezene by Hippo-
lytus. Of these types, six are martyrs in will and intent, if not in deed : old
Peleus risks his own life to save Andromache and her child; Achilles will
withstand the whole united force of Hellas, that he may rescue Iphigenia ;
Theseus and his sons take up arms in defence of the great unwritten laws
and on behalf of strangers of another nationality ; Orestes and Pylades vie
with one another for the honour of death, each seeking to lay down his life
for the other ; lolaus, finally, the type of that rarest of friendships, friendship
for the dead, spends and is spent for the children of Heracles.

The remainder prove their devotion by their death. One is a martyr to
an idea — Hippolytus to the sacredness of the oath ; Alcestis lays down her- life
for her husband — Macaria for her brothers — Menoekeus for the fatherland —
Iphigenia for " great Hellas." The self-devotion in one and all is the same :
" They loved not their lives unto the end ; " but the object of the self -oblation
broadens and widens out until it embraces the furthest bound to which a Greek
owed fealty. Beginning with the nearest tie — the devotion of wife to husband
— it finally includes within its scope all who (to use the old formula) " are of
like blood, have like manners and customs, and worship the same gods." The
enthusiasm of humanity in ancient times could no further go.

It is not at all probable that our poet planned his dramas with the
deliberate intention of illustrating the doctrine in this way. Not so ! these
old sagas were of exceeding interest to him as exemplifying what he held
to be noblest in human character, and he simply used them to suit his own

Online LibraryE. E G.The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece → online text (page 79 of 112)