Monday, 3 March 2014

ATHENS, OR INTELLECT WITHOUT RELIGION.

The inaugural lecture in connection with the newly-formed Young Men's Societies' Union was given by the Lord Bishop of Adelaide.

In the desire of contributing what little support he could to the objects sketched out he had chosen the subject of Athens and its intellectual greatness, intending to illustrate the products of its genius still extant and more especially the fruits of its various schools of philosophy— the failure of intellect when destitute of religious truth to produce either moral excellence or social happiness. He had assumed that the mutual improvement contemplated by the members of the Union was closely allied with evangelical principles and Christian life. If so, it would be auxiliary to the pulpit and promotive of virtue. This would be no arena like the market-place of Athens, where the Epicurean or the disputer of this world would strive to encounter the discipline of the Cross.
 From the time of Anaxagoras— the contemporary and friend of Pericles— Athens became gradually the University of the Pagan world. Ceasing, after the exhausting struggle of the Peleponnesian war, to be of leading political importance in Greece, Athens became the theatre in which its great intellects employed themselves in forensic oratory and philosophic enquiry. Demosthenes for a time indeed thundered in the Assembly against the encroachments of Philip of Macedon, but those philippics were effectually silenced in the rout of Chaeronea, when the orator himself was amongst the earliest fugitives. Less suited by its situation than its neighbour Corinth for the transactions of commerce, Athens, nevertheless, made itself the intellectual emporium of the world by the beauty of its monuments, the glory of its history. Its literary treasuries, its schools of philosophy, its historians, poets, orators, philosophers, unrivalled in their several spheres, attracted foreigners to sojourn among its groves and temples. From the day when the princely Pisistratus caused the Homeric poems to be collected, and would now be said edited, down to the fourth century of the Christian era, literature, philosophy, poetry, taste, wit, the fine arts took up their abode, and were as much the peculiar possession of that limited section of the Greek race as Divine truth, sacred poetry, and prophetic wisdom were the inheritance of the Hebrew nation. Lacedæmon. Arcadia, Archaia Bœotia, Thessaly, and Macedonia were rustic and uneducated compared with the polished Athens.
Thither, too, in after time flocked the Roman youth to complete their education before entering upon public life in the Imperial City. Cicero, in his "Treatise on Moral Duties," dedicated to his son Marcus, informs us that the latter had there completed a year of study under Cratippus, at that time the most celebrated Professor of Platonic Philosophy, and he bore this striking testimony to the truth which he (the lecturer) proposed to illustrate— "Who," he exclaimed, "can presume to call himself a philosopher that does not inculcate precepts of moral duty? Yet there are some schools of philosophy which, by the views they propound of good and evil, effectually root up all idea of duty. He who so defines man's chief good as make it wholly unconnected with virtue, measuring good solely by the standard of advantage and not worthiness, if consistent, he himself cannot cultivate friendship, or justice, or liberality. One who holds pain to be the greatest evil, or pleasure the supreme good, how can he be either brave or temperate?" Such was the witness borne by the great Roman orator and statesman against the doctrine of Epicurus, whose schools, together with its rival philosophies— the Stoic, the Peripatetic, and Academic— attracted to Athens students from all cities of the Roman Empire.
In this sanctuary, then, of the Muses there was no lack of metaphysical enquiry, no absence of moral philosophy, no stint of intellectual activity. But this very prodigality of intellectual wealth, compared with the general character of the Athenian people, strikingly illustrated the proposition he had set before them, namely, the absence of spiritual truth, which was, the reflex of the mind of God. No intellect how ever vast, no genius however subtle, could discover and promulgate a moral law decisive on the great questions of human life capable of perfecting individual character or securing social happiness.
When the maritime power of Athens and its colonial empire succumbed to the combined forces of Continental Greece and of the colonies she had alienated, the Athenian mind, in the absence of political excitement partook itself to new channels— Philosophy and Forensic Oratory, Socrates being the founder of one, Isocrates of the other. From the memoirs of Xenophon and some dialogues of Plato, together with the defences composed by each of those writers to vindicate the fair fame of their beloved master, they were enabled to form a distinct idea of that great and good Gentile moralist.
To have formed the mind of Plato and the character of Xenophon— the general, statesman, and historian —was no small praise. But still nobler must have been the mind and character which gave birth to the Academic Peripatetic and Stoical Philosophies. On the other hand, Alcibiades as well as Critias, both representatives of Greek talent without principle, were the pupils of the most licentious, skilful, and unscrupulous of Democrats; the other, the greatest and most cruel of Oligarchs. It would be hard, indeed, to make teachers responsible for the conduct of their pupils as Xenophon justly argued, and the latter plainly showed that the tenor of Socrates' discussions with both those pupils was to restrain and improve them. He would have deterred Alcibiades from that reckless unprincipled ambition which proved his ruin, and Critias from those sensual propensities which hardened and brutalized the heart. The personal beauty of Alcibiades, however, early led him into the pursuits of vice; his high birth and connections, his talents and wealth, his popularity with the young aristocracy, estranging him from Socrates. He eventually became that ambitious and unscrupulous statesmen, whose career might well point a moral as well as adorn a tale. Critias, during the tyranny of the Thirty at Athens, established a reign of terror not exceeded in the French Revolution.
There was lacking, however, in the mind of Socrates that simple earnestness which gave authority to moral teaching, and an overweening integrity which led him to treat with affected indifference the issue of his trial, and his judges with supercilious disdain. Professing, in fact, to be instructed and guided by a familiar spirit he was amenable to the law while arrogating to himself a divinely-inspired intelligence, of which he could afford no palpable evidence. His pretensions, therefore, to this supernatural gift, together with the transcendental character of his disquisitions and ironical logic failed to leave a strong impression of his moral truthfulness on the Athenian mind. Its old republican earnestness had passed away. To hear some new thing rather than know and do the truth became the Attic taste.
That compound of cleverness and rascality of the Greek adventurer was the final result of political disorganization, decaying liberty, demoralized society, and highly cultivated intelligence, whether at Rome under the Emperors, or yet later in Constantinople under the Empire; the finest gifts of mental power granted to any race of men passed into the service of political corruption, or spent itself on the subtleties of heretical speculation. The annals of history told them that the Athenian people in the short space of little more than a century— from 450 to 330 B.C.— and numbering scarcely more than 30,000 citizens, became the greatest poets, historians, orators, philosophers, mathematicians, statesmen, generals, sculptors, painters, and architects which the world had seen, as if it had the purpose of Divine Providence to show to what a height the intellect of man might reach ; and at the same time pointed the moral that spiritual wisdom could nowhere else be found, save in the fear of the living God, and among those only to whom He would reveal Himself.
The peculiar subtlety of the Greek intellect was still revelling in the Attic schools of philosophy, when Paul of Tarsus, one of the hated race and unknown phraseology, entered alone and friendless in the intellectual capital of the world. But what a moral wilderness— a spiritual desert did he find there! The masses were wholly given up to idolatry, the idle sojourners intent upon nothing but gossip and the last new thing; the more educated minds floating upon a sea of uncertainty, finding no haven of truth, dogmatic and authoritative on the rival and antagonistic schools of Stoic or Epicurean philosophy, the groves of the Academy, or the pedestrian lectures of the Stagyrite ; glimpses of truth shining out of the polished diction of Plato, or practical precepts delivered by the didactic Aristotle, or the unreal dogmatism of the Stoic abstraction, which served to amuse the mind rather than influence the heart and conduct. But where no firm grasp of truth could be taken, no one could take hold of spiritual life.
Philosophy was powerless to arrest the progress of national corruption and social decay, and the last age of Athenian intelligence was seen in the utterly vitiated Greek being of the age of Juvenal, who in his Third Satire thus described the Greek who pushed his fortunes in Rome:—

" Of fluent tongue and never-blushing face.
A Protean tribe, one knows not what to call.
That shifts to every form, and shines in all :
Grammarian, painter, augur, rhetorician,
Geometer, cook, conjuror, and physician.
All arts his own, the hungry Greekling counts.
And bid him mount the skies, the skies he mounts.
You smile. Was't a barbarian then that flew ?
No; 'twas a Greek, 'twas an Athenian too!
Bear with their state who will, but I disdain
All converse with the proud, the upstart train—
Wretches who, stowed in some dark lighter's womb
With rotten figs, were lately borne to Rome,
Yet now above me sit before me sign—
Their friendship and their faith preferred to mine.
But no! the Greek applauds, with winning grace,
His patron's folly and his Gorgon face ;
Admires his voice, that grates upon the ear
Like the shrill scream of wanton chanticleer.
We, too, can flutter, but they alone
Gain credit they who make all parts their own.
No longer now the favourites of the stage
Boast their exclusive power to charm the age.
The happy art with them a nation shares,
Greece is a theatre where all are players,
For, lo ! their patron smiles—they burst with mirth;
He weeps—they droop, the saddest souls on earth."

It was impossible to contrast without a sigh the manly patriots who fought at Marathon and Salamis, or the robust virtuous Aristides, with the degenerate race who to the Roman satirists seemed great only in every species of villainy. If they went back still further in the social history of the Greek nation, what a contrast did the chaste Penelope offer to the Aspasia of Pericles, or Thais of Alexander! Nothing indeed was more striking in the national life of Athens than the rapid growth of intellectual genius, and the no less rapid decay of private and public morals. One century sufficed to perfect the one and to complete the other; yet during that same century philosophy —turning itself from the investigation of nature to the study of morals— produced the varied schools which made goodness the great ends of human existence. From the moral teaching of Socrates emanated the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic systems, culminating in the Academy, with the spiritualism of Plato.
Epicurus, on the other hand, basing his philosophy on atomic materialism, and making pleasurable sensation of soul and body the happiness of man, necessarily gravitated towards a low morality, ending in "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." At Athens corruption kept pace with mental cultivation.
 Was England to dread a like decline in moral virtue? Athens was without religion, and England is the shrine of Evangelical Christianity—the land of the Bible, of freedom. The salt then lost its savour; Athens enjoyed no antiseptic. The contrast would be more evident if they took Socrates as the moral teacher of Athens, and Paul as the informing spirit of English religion.
In conclusion he offered a high tribute of respect for the unimpeachable character of Socrates through life, and his fortitude in death when hastened by the self-administered cup of hemlock. He contrasted his career and the nature of his teachings with those of St. Paul, and referred to the effect produced in them by the difference in the belief which influenced them.

South Australian Register 8 October 1869, 

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