JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


IF Egypt and India, Babylon and Chaldaea and Phoenicia, transmitted to the West the traditions of thought and progress, Greece remoulded the knowledge she received and brought it within the grasp of the Latin, the Keltic and the Germanic mind, and in educating Rome, became to a large extent the educator of the modern world. Her forms of expression are still our standards of excellence. The Homeric poems are our epic models even as they were the models of Vergil. We still attune our ears to the notes in which Alcaeus and Pindar, Sappho and Anacreon sang, just as Horace did in his day. Plautus and Terence learned from Aristophanes and Menander how to make us laugh. The great dramatic poets have left us compositions the appreciation of which in these days calls for high culture. Herodotus Thucydides and Xenophon initiated us into the great power of prose and taught us how to write history. Demosthenes showed us how perfect oratorical expression might be mastered, and how to throw into a single speech scorn and pathos and exhortation all fused in the glow of patriotic intensity. Thales and Pythagoras and Euclid and Archimedes laid for us the foundations of mathematical and physical science, In the Greek chorus did we find the basis of the Gregorian chant. From the symmetry and harmony of the Greek temples did we learn to apply the sense of grace and proportion in the building of our basilicas and cathedrals.{1} From Greek sculpture did we first learn how to embody in stone the sense of repose and correctness and physical beauty. In the Greek language -- in its prose and poetry alike -- do we find models of nicety of expression, in which the right word is always fitted to the right thought, the right style to the proper treatment of any subject, and the most delicate shades of meaning are hit off with precision and accuracy. From Greek philosophy have we borrowed the very terms in which our own philosophic thinking is moulded, nay, are we not still engaged upon the very same issues?

The philosophical problems that come up for solution at the present day are indeed very ancient. We find many of them debated in Plato, and in the light of modern issues his pages become instinct with life. Whether we sit in the agora with Socrates, and listen to him discussing with Theaetetus the limits of science and the relativity of knowledge; whether we recline with him under the lofty and wide-spreading plane-tree by the cool waters of the Ilissus, whilst he talks with Phaedrus of love, and art, and beauty, and the soul in its relations to these things; whether we laugh at the inimitable irony with which he brings Gorgias and his disciples to confusion, or note the seriousness with which he discusses the rewards and punishments of a future state of existence; or whether with bated breath we listen to his sublime discourse on immortality, delivered to his devoted followers in the prison in which he is about to drink the poisoned cup; be the occasion when and where it may, we meet with the same questionings that face us to-day. Then as now, it is the human intellect beating against the bars of its limitations and seeking to compass the unattainable. And though Plato has not given us the solution to many of the problems that arise, still, he has opened up new vistas of speculation; the very atmosphere of his thoughts is invigorating. Through that atmosphere was it that St. Augustine soared into such sublime heights of eloquence and philosophy.{2}

Turning to Aristotle we find ourselves still more dominated by his influence. He is the master of all educated men in modern Europe. He coined for us the very words in which we speak of the faculties of our soul and the virtues and vices that enter into our actions. He shaped for us the laws according to which we reason. He perfected that great dissolvent of error, the syllogism, and left it so complete that twenty-two centuries of investigation have been unable to modify or supersede it. He established the fundamental conception of being and the primary principles of thought. Plato in his own impulsive fashion, became impatient of the abuses of the drama and was for banishing all poets from the State. Aristotle coldly and calmly regarded the drama in its nature, irrespective of any abuses to which it may be brought, and investigated the laws of its existence, and laid down canons of criticism and construction that are as sound and as applicable to-day as when they were first enunciated.{3} In like manner, Plato regarded rhetorical rules as so much trickery and sophism for which he could not find censure too severe. Aristotle raised the subject out of this false groove, placed it upon a philosophic footing and established the laws and principles of esthetics, clearly, distinctly, and for all time.

Nor did Aristotle confine himself to intellectual laws. All departments of science fell within his scope. They were to him parts of one grand whole. In dealing with physical science and with natural history he insisted upon fact as the basis of knowledge as clearly as any modern physicist. The principle of classification that he laid down is the principle still pursued; namely, that the common properties of things should be considered before determining their specific differences.{4} Again, no modern biologist could be more earnest in impressing upon the student that he must not consider one part of an animal organism more vile or more noble than another, for they all proceed from the same source, are subject to the same laws, and have each its special functions assigned. "It were real childishness," he says, "to recoil before the meanest form of animal life; for in every work of nature there is always room for admiration, and we can apply to all without exception, the words attributed to Heraclitus, replying to strangers who had come to see and be entertained by him, when, on entering they found him warming himself at the kitchen fire, he said: Enter without fear, enter always, the gods are here as everywhere else. Even so in the study of animals, whatever they may be, we should never turn away from them in disdain, because in all, without exception, there is some trace of the power and beauty of nature. There is naught of chance in the works she presents us. These works have ever in view a certain end. But the end in view of which a thing subsists or is made, is precisely what constitutes for this thing its beauty and its perfection."{5}

We are still guided by Aristotle's rules and Aristotle's methods. Scientists who know not his name and who have never read a line of his works are daily using the implements of thought and classification which Aristotle placed within their reach.{6} Greece gave posterity her best. Her sophistry and fickleness of character she retained, and they were the ruin of her. But her magnificent epic, her lofty ode, her profound philosophy, her graceful architecture, her inimitable masterpieces in the plastic arts -- these we have, and by them we are still educated.

{1} All European architecture, bad and good, old and new is derived from Greece through Rome, and colored and perfected from the East. Understand this, once for all; if you hold fast this great connecting clue, you may string all the types of successive architectural invention upon it like so many beads. Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, vol. i., chap. i., § 17.

{2} De Civ. Dei, lib. viii. 4.

{3} It is to be remembered that the Poetics is only a fragment. On the recent controversy as to the meaning of katharsis -- purification -- in Aristotle's definition of tragedy, see J. H. Reinkens: Aristoteles über Kunst, Vienna, 1870, pp. 78-167.

{4} De Partibus Animalium, I, i. op., t. iii. p. 218.

{5} De Part. Animal. lib i. cap. v. § 5, 6.

{6} I have rapidly sketched the influence of Aristotle on mediaeval thought, and shown how far his teachings have heen supplemented by the Schoolmen in Aristotle and the Christian Church. London, Kegan Paul & Co, 1888; New York, W. H. Sadlier, 1889.

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