JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter XI.
Characteristics of Ancient and Modern Literature.

THERE is a marked difference between ancient and modern literature. The words Pagan and Christian do not express this difference with sufficient discrimination; for Pagan authors have always had some gleams of primitive revelation and the common fund of natural truths to draw from, while Christians are under Pagan influence in letters on account of a nameless something -- a harmonious development -- that pervades Pagan writings, and which no amount of elaboration seems capable of attaining, Idiomatic differences will, in part, account for this difference of style. The ancient classics were living languages when written by Caesar and Cicero, Plato and Homer. These men wrote in the idioms they thought in. Hence that grace and naturalness that seem ever absent from a modern production in the same tongues. There is always something lost in translation; and that is a rapid process of translation by which we think in one language and write in another. Now, there is a compactness in ancient dialects which modern ones possess not, and seem to have lost in parting with the method of inflections in their grammatical structure. But though the ancients of Greece and some said their say well, moderns have equal facility in expressing themselves, and need leave nothing unsaid for want of a medium. Especially is our English speech equal to all shades of thought, from the tenderness of love to the highest abstractions of philosophy. Perhaps moderns ought to look higher, for a more spiritual and spiritualizing standard of excellence in literature, than that physical and natural beauty which characterizes Pagan masterpieces.

Another cause of this difference is to be found in the antagonistic natures of the Pagan and Christian religions. Christianity addresses itself to all classes, be they Aryan, Turanian, or Semitic; Paganism is national, and varies with the genius of each people. Christianity imposes a law that is opposed to, and curbs the inclinations of, corrupt human nature whereas Paganism drifted in harmony with men's passions -- consecrated them in their most enormous excesses -- and clashed not with the spirit of the times, which, as Tacitus profoundly remarks, "is to corrupt and be corrupted"{1} -- an expression by the way, tinged with Christianity. Therefore it is that Christian thinkers are out of harmony with their age, while the great men of antiquity are thoroughly imbued with the spirit of theirs. But there is an exception and it is noteworthy, for it is the rule of modern times. When Socrates rose above the level of Pagan greatness and Pagan thought, and attempted to teach his countrymen the great truths of which he was the depositary -- attempted, so to speak, to made headway against the stream of corruption in which Greece was drifting -- he was scouted as a fool and a perverter of youth. Modern times have had benefactors of humanity, who also endeavored to stem the tide of corruption -- men of God, saintly characters -- and they like Socrates, have been the butt of calumny and misrepresentation, but by men who would have been foremost in presenting the cup of hemlock to Socrates.

Thus Christianity introduced a social problem which was of easy solution for the Pagan world -- which the Middle Ages were approximating to -- but which, since the sixteenth century, seems almost impracticable. It is the reconciling of the secular and religious elements of society. There is at present an antagonism between these two spirits that is gathering into a death-struggle for predominancy. All the earnest thinkers of the world have this problem at heart, often without their knowing it, and each endeavors to solve it in his own way -- the Positivist for instance, by substituting the worship of humanity for that of God; the Illuminati, by replacing religion by learning and enlightenment of the understanding. The school-room is the battle-ground to-day. Let the child have a religious moulding, and, as a rule, religion will have a hold on him through life; bring him up indifferent to creeds, and, in all probability, he will turn out a disciple of naturalism.

While this struggle lasts, we cannot hope for a literature completely developed in all its relations. For that, there must be an all-absorbing idea -- as Rome was for the Roman, as the beautiful was for the Greek, as Jehovah was for the Hebrew, or as the illusory nature of the present life was for the ancient Hindu. Men's minds must live content in that idea, feed on it, feel secure in its truth and uncontrovertibility; and with the ease and calm thus induced -- an ease and calm unknown in this age of antagonism between conflicting doctrines -- they would produce a literary era to which, so far as regards harmony of parts and completeness of finish, the other golden eras of modern times only approximated. As has been seen, they were possessed of this sense of security, and hence their pre-eminence. Not till the millennium will all these conditions obtain.

In the master-pieces of the day a void is clearly perceived. They abound in strikingly beautiful passages, but, as a whole, they fall short of expectation. They are, in a manner, failures. They only reflect the discord of the age, its party spirit and its partial truths. Hence the subjectivism so prevalent in modern literature. Nearly all the poetry and fiction, and history even, of our days, is written, not to give the reader objective reality, but rather with an aim to promote some view or speculation of the author. Such is the spirit of Childe Harold, of the Excursion, of Sartor Resartus, of The Revolt of Islam, all of which are inspired by the desire of imparting personal impressions. Only in lyric poetry is it legitimate; for lyric poetry at all times, as Niebuhr remarks, is eminently subjective.{2} It is based on the false principle that things are necessarily as they are conceived to be; and accordingly, whatever the author touches upon, he colors with his individual moods. The spirit is an outgrowth of the rationalism of the sixteenth century.

But Christianity has imparted to modern literature, over that of antiquity, a pre-eminence that makes up for its other deficiencies. It has turned man's attention upon himself as man, and taught him to know himself. The light of its truth thrown upon his heart has revealed the innermost folds thereof, and drawn out its most secret aspirations. Hence that intimate knowledge of character -- that development of soul-study in the drama, and still more in the novel. Take, for instance, the two supreme efforts of ancient and modern tragedy -- the Hamlet of Shakespeare and the OEdipus Rex of Sophocles. They point the distinction exactly; for one is a soul-study, and the chief interest of the other lies in its intricacy of plot. One runs on the line of personal motive and personal responsibility; the other is based on the ethical doctrine of inherited guilt and its punishment in the clan or tribe -- a doctrine largely influencing nations at an early stage of their development. Indeed, it is a law of Christian influence upon literature, that with its growth it develops a more intense personality.

Another effect of Christianity, favorable to the diffusion of thought, is the breaking down of all distinction between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, and the uniting of peoples of all climes in a common bond of brotherhood; in consequence of which, ideas that in former times were confined within the limits of a very narrow circle, now gird the globe with the speed of the lightning flash, and interest the whole civilized world. They act, move, revolutionize; they even have their martyrs. The average intelligence of the majority is elevated; but what is gained in extension is lost in comprehension; for ideas so crowd upon us, that we take time to pursue very few to their ultimate conclusions. We have grown fast. And America is pre-eminent in this particular; for, if there be no people more credulous, and more easily imposed upon for a time, there is no people on earth who sooner perceive a sham. Thus, twenty years or more ago, when Coleridge and Carlyle were talking the English into the doctrines of German transcendentalism, America was fully initiated into its tenets, and has since outgrown them, having found them to be insubstantial nothing -- mere day-dreams -- while the same theories are still gaining ground in England and France.

In consequence of the advantages possessed by moderns, the many fare better. Society no longer consists of the opulent minority entrenched behind their civic rights, and the slave-bound majority who cater to their comfort and subsistence with fear and hatred, on account of the power of life and death that is held over them. In these days the poorest individual possesses inviolable rights, open disregard for which would bring the most powerful into odium. The distribution of industries renders the adept in every mechanic art necessary, enables him to treat with the rich on terms of equality, and procures for him conveniences of life that in antiquity the wealth of Croesus could not have purchased.{3}

Let us now examine the most important attempts of the day to reconcile the secular and religious elements of society, absorb them all into a united whole, and set upon them the seal of harmony. Four systems especially present themselves for our consideration, viz: Positivism, Evolutionism, Hegelism, and Pessimism. A few remarks on each in its relations with literature and intellectual development.

{1} "Corrumpere et corrumpi seculum vocatur." De Germ., xix.

{2} Ancient History, vol. i. p. 356.

{3} See Caesar Cantù, Histoire Universelle, t. xiv., pp. 10-15.

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