THE religion of Sparta represents Dorian tradition in a pure but somewhat intensified form, modified not from without, but by the special circumstances of the community. The position of the plain of Lacedaemon, encircled by hills, the paucity of harbours, and even of roadsteads, available for the shipping of a primitive age, conspired with the pride of a military race in isolating the community. The relation, of the true Spartan to the Lacedaemonian of the surrounding cities was that of an occupying army to a conquered population; while the Helots, who were mostly captives from Messenia, although kept in strict subjection, were not excluded from all warlike exercises. The peculiar constitution of Lacedaemon, in which the power of the kings was limited by the control of the Ephors and the privileges accorded to the senate, may have been partly due to the ingenuity of some great statesman, but the realisation of it must have been a gradual process. The Dorian conquest of the Peloponnese, though in some mythical accounts it is represented as a single act, was really the result of a long-continued struggle, and the same is true of the domination of Sparta over her neighbours and former allies. The conquerors, whose persistence was equal to their valour in war, seem to have used policy as well as strategy in completing their title to possession. The remodelling of the myth of Herakles, for this end, has been already touched upon. The recovery of the bones of Orestes, and the foundation of a temple in his honour on the site of his reputed tomb, which is said to have determined the last contest with Tegea, gave the sanction of the old Pelopidan ascendency to the de facto rule of Sparta. In pursuance of the same wise foresight, Spartan supremacy at an early period identified itself with the Olympic games and the worship of Apollo at Delphi.
The dominant note in all Laconian institutions is, that everything else is sacrificed to the unity and effectiveness of the state. Pericles speaks of Athenian public life as the education of Greece. The Spartans might be called the drill-sergeants of Hellas. The laws of marriage, of childbirth, of education, the regulations of conduct, were all laid down with a view to the perfecting of individual citizens as instruments for supporting Spartan rule, and to maintaining the number of free citizens at a constant figure. It is tolerably clear, however, that these features became intensified during the obscure contentions of the sixth century. The Dorians elsewhere, although strict in the observance of law and custom, and in the maintenance of ceremonial rites, do not present the same features of rigid militarism with the Spartans of history. Argos, at a time when she was already Dorian, was according to Herodotus conspicuous amongst Greek states for the cultivation of music. And it is impossible to believe that those who listened to the songs of Alcman, which the Lydian singer made for Laconian maidens who sported on Taygetus, can as yet have been drilled into the monotonous uniformity of life which contrasted so unfavourably with the liberal culture of the Athenians. The fragments of Alcman in fact reveal to us the complexion of a time when Laconian civilisation was full of grace and charm, and the stress of war had not yet hardened the city into a camp. And such an independent personality as that of the adventurous Dorieus, whose picturesque career is so familiar to readers of Herodotus, implies the existence of elements that were not easily subdued to the stiff framework of Spartan discipline. The celebration of the Hyacinthia which was common to all Dorian states remained to indicate the freër workings of a former time. The development of a rich civilisation, largely under Dorian laws, in Sicily and southern Italy affords further evidence upon this point. It is therefore, I think, an erroneous or at least questionable view which refers peculiarities of Spartan marriage customs to a survival from savage life, before the family had become a settled institution. The brilliant chapter on Sparta in the late Mr. Walter Pater's fascinating volume on ‘Plato and Platonism’ has familiarised us with a view of the subject based on Otfried Müller's learned work on the Dorians, according to which the Spartan ideal is clothed with a severe beauty of asceticism. It is a charming paradox, and very instructive, but if we could throw our minds back into the age before the second Messenian war, when Laconia and Argolis were still good neighbours, when internecine strife between them had not yet broken Argos or stiffened Sparta, and while the Helots were still a manageable quantity, the spectacle would be more really beautiful and more truly Hellenic. Or if we could transfer our observation to the island of Cos, we should perceive a combination of order and freedom under Dorian religion that was more essentially admirable. That Greek life, of which there are so many reminiscences in the odes of Pindar, was realised in the earlier centuries more perfectly than in the later times of which more is known. Sparta had not yet recourse to alien acts, or to the exclusion of foreigners, such as were Alcrnan and Tyrtaeus.
The equality amongst the Spartan élite, which is noticed by Thucydides in his preface, and was partly due to the importance of the armed infantry, indicates a period of free development as having existed before the final consolidation of the rigid organism. Moreover, the peculiar discipline of Sparta is apt to hide from us, what would be interesting if we knew more of it, the life of the Perioeci in Laconia. When not specially levied for warlike purposes, they must have lived under conditions more natural and more like the rest of Greece than the privileged few who were subject to continual restraint. It was amongst them that certain industries, such as the manufacture of iron, for which Laconia was famous, were brought to perfection; and some of the communities on the seaboard retained a large measure of independence, with their own peculiar modes of worship, hereditary customs, and manner of speaking. The military cordon, excluding fresh influences from the north, contributed to this result; and local worships in south Laconia long presented features in which Phoenician and Arcadian fancies had at an earlier time become inextricably blended.1
The Spartan ephebi, as we are told by Pausanias, each upon his coming of age performed an act of worship to the spirit of Achilles. Yet they were surely mistaken if they supposed that in their course of life they would be making him their pattern. Nothing could be less like an ideal Spartan than the Achilles of Homer. Both men are physically perfect and complete, both accomplished in spear-craft and all martial exercises. But Achilles has been led onward by his delight in action, and by his father's precept, according with his own ambition, ‘ever to be the noblest, and foremost amongst all’ The Spartan has never had a thought except to do what was required of him by the laws and customs of his ancestors. Achilles plays the lyre, and sings of the glories of heroes, for his own delectation or that of his friend Patroclus. The Spartan is not without his share in music, but he has acquired it through taking part in song and dance of a severe and simple kind, in which the youth were trained to engage together at festivals such as the Hyacinthia in honour of Apollo. Beyond this his chief exercise in music consisted in listening to the martial strains of Tyrtaeus. Both men have a keen sense of honour, but the Spartan's honour lies in obeying the state, and in commanding his subordinates effectively. Achilles, and indeed all the Homeric heroes, place the point of honour in claiming and receiving their due; Achilles is nothing if not independent. Every Spartan has learnt to be subject and to rule in turn. Diomedes comes nearer than Achilles to the Spartan ideal, which, like every development of Greek life, had its germ in the Achaean period; but it is none the less significant that the main interest of the Iliad centres in one whose will is his law, and with whom personal feeling outweighs every other consideration—the feeling in the first instance for his own honour, and then in a far deeper sense, on account of his friend. Lastly, the Spartan is a man of deeds not words, and abhors rhetoric; the speeches of Achilles in the first and ninth books of the Iliad, whether by the same author or not, are amongst the most splendid outbursts of human eloquence. When the Spartan spoke, it was sometimes to conceal his thought; Achilles acts out his hatred of the man who hides one thing in his breast and speaks another. We are warned, however, against imagining a mere dull uniformity in Spartan life by such examples as that of Brasidas or of the beautiful Callicrates, who died at Plataea, lamenting that he had not lived to do deeds worthy of him, or lift his hand against the foe.
What Thucydides says of architecture may to some extent be applied to literature. The nation which has left no striking literary remains is not therefore to be contemned as devoid of genius. The Spartans not only dominated Hellas more continuously than any other single race, but the respect in which they were held by the chief citizens elsewhere in Greece reacted on the mental life of other cities, and of Athens in particular. The Athenian who found his own institutions crumbling beneath him, and his own national life falling to decay, looked enviously at the stability and unshaken strength of Sparta. He would have found it intolerable to live under Spartan rule, but his ideal aspirations received a new direction from this cause.
The influence of the Spartan type on the later Greek imagination is almost incalculable. Even the nations that departed most widely from it from time to time reacted in its favour. The ideas of measure, of simplicity, of sobriety in word and deed, in short of discipline, in theory at least were amongst those most deeply rooted in the Greek mind; and discipline or ἄσκησις was the first and last word of Spartan virtue. Not personal ambition ‘to be the foremost,’ but obedience to law even to the death, is summed up in the supposed injunction of the Spartan mother to her son, referring to his shield: ‘either it, or on it’; and in the epitaph on those who fell at Thermopylae:
Go, stranger, tell the Spartans we obeyed
Their mandate, and are here together laid.
We can hardly be mistaken in tracing Spartan influence in the institution, which appeared strange to the Persian, of the crown of wild olive for which competition was so keen at Olympia. When this is compared with the treasures, tripods and cauldrons, & c. & c., which the horses of Agamemnon had won for him at various funeral games, it seems to mark the advance in the quality of Greek ambition which had taken place in the interval. The outstanding dominance of Sparta had, as above remarked, an indirect effect in perpetuating primitive rites in various parts of Laconia, by forming a bulwark against the spirit of change which from time to time was operative in other parts of Hellas. Within the territory of Lacedaemon, for instance, Amyclae is known to have preserved traditions reaching far beyond the Spartan occupation.
So far as the objects of worship were concerned, it cannot be said that Sparta differed greatly from the rest of Hellas; the worship of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and Athena was not less conspicuous here than elsewhere. Even in the divine honours paid to Herakles, although they claimed a peculiar relation with him, it cannot be said that they stood by any means alone. It is a remarkable coincidence, that at Marathon as well as at Thermopylae there was a temple to Herakles in close proximity to the scene of action; while at Tegea and elsewhere, in places under Dorian rule, as well as at Sparta itself, there stood important temples of Athena. It was only when the rivalry between Athens and Sparta had reached an acute phase that the Athenians made so much of Theseus, whose legend resembled that of Herakles; while those who sought to foster peace between the rival cities represented Herakles and Theseus as bosom friends.
Before passing again from central Hellas to witness the expansion of Greek life in other lands, it may be observed that at the stage which we have reached three ethical conceptions which are only dimly present in the Iliad are rising into clearness: the conception of personal excellence (ἀρετή), the conception of law (νόμος), and the idea of justice as the bond of states.
The excellence for which a man is honoured is still to a great extent physical, but already contains also the essential elements of courage, forethought, fortitude, and self-control. The conception of law makes no distinction as yet between what is written and unwritten; in both forms it is a tradition from former generations, embodying the will and wisdom of the state, to which an absolute obedience is invariably due. Law in this sense was contrasted with the commandment of an individual ruler. Such is the contrast drawn by Demaratus in his answer to Xerxes, who could not believe that men could be brave except under compulsion: ‘they have a master over them, namely the law of their land: a master whom they fear far more effectually than your subjects are in dread of you.’ In every change of the Athenian constitution, the newly constituted authority was bound to determine according to ancestral custom.
The idea of justice is more prominent in the verses of Solon than in any previous writing, and carries a sanction with it there entirely different from anything that is associated with the word in Homer. It is also to be observed that not only the notions of law and justice are modified but the system of jurisdiction has been placed on a new footing. From the state of things in which the giving of judgment was a source of wealth, or in which two talents were awarded to him whose judgment met with general approval, to that in which the magistrate was bound on oath to judge honestly in accordance with the law, a long process of development must have come in. The intervening struggles are exemplified by those described in Aristotle's ‘Constitution of Athens’ respecting changes in the tenure of the Archonship, which culminated in the attempts of Damasias and of Cylon.
The effect was lasting, although the chronic disease of faction was not cured even by the heroic remedy of Pisistratus. His work, however, was a necessary stage in progress and left permanent effects for good. Ambitious as he was, he seriously loved his country, and during his lifetime, while maintaining his own ascendency, did much towards strengthening as well as adorning Athens. It is probable that some improvements often attributed to Pericles owed their first inception to Pisistratus. When the tribute of the Delian confederacy was employed in beautifying Athens and providing a brilliant existence for the people of Pallas, the tyrant city only followed in this the example of the tyrant whom they had abjured, who spent the bulk of his revenues not in building for himself a lordly palace, or in emulating the grandeur of oriental kings, but in making splendid the house of Athena, in adorning the Panathenaic festival, in providing that Homer should be worthily recited, and that the infant drama should be well appointed, all for the people's behoof. The democracy, when they obtained wealth and glory, followed up what was so worthily begun; but it may be doubted whether even the Athenian Demos could have initiated these things.
The view of Hellenic life and culture is not completed when we have considered the mainland of Greece, the seaboard of Asia Minor, and the islands of the Aegean. Before the end of the seventh century B.C., Greek civilisation had attained to considerable development in Sicily, in southern Italy, and in the north of Africa. This came of a second flight of colonisation, proceeding partly from older colonies. Sicily had been chiefly colonised by Dorians from Rhodes and Corinth, no doubt with a certain following of Achaeans, and by Ionians from Chalcis and Euboea. Croton and Velia, the latter colonised from Phocaea, were the most important of Hellenic states in south Italy. While Dorian institutions exercised a powerful influence, and gave strength to the various cities, such influence was largely modified by circumstances, by mixture of race, and the forced amalgamation of different populations under despotic rulers. It may be said in passing that Crete and Cyprus were less affected by the changes of this period than other remote Hellenic settlements, and retained more of the customs and modes of worship which had characterised them in the preceding age.
The object of the Sicilian colonists had been conquest and merchandise. The shores of southern Italy were occupied by emigrants from central and western Greece, mainly Achaeans, who settled as agriculturists in the rich plains near the sea. These settlements also became important as commercial centres. Greek culture in Sicily and Magna Graecia flourished greatly in the times before the Persian war, and the history of those cities, if it could be fully known, would appear even more romantic than we find it in the pages of Mr. Freeman's history. Individual character and energy had more scope than at Sparta or even at Athens in that early time. The ascendency of successive dynasties did not crush out the social and intellectual impulses, which were scarcely less active thereabouts than in the islands or in Ionia. That each city had its own peculiar worship appears from coins of Syracuse, Naxos, & c., than which none are more characteristic or more beautiful. (The importance of coinage marking a stage of culture is a topic which can only be touched on here. Beginning on the Asiatic coast, it was introduced by Pheidon into Argolis probably in the seventh century. Its significance is shown by the tale that Darius put to death an Egyptian governor who had issued silver coins rivalling the Dareicos in purity.) The literary products of this rich civilisation unhappily only remain to us in fragments; but the names of Stesichorus, Ibycus, Epicharmus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedoeles, represent a fresh breaking forth of originality in the higher region of the mind, which had immense influence on the subsequent growth of religion, literature, and morality throughout Hellas.
Quite another centre, and one of great interest, is the Minyan colony of Cyrene. Its early history, as narrated in Book iv. of Herodotus, is one of bold adventure, of striking vicissitude, and perseverance in spite of crushing disasters. The mixture of races is in this case specially interesting. Discovered accidentally by Samian voyagers, this rich tract of territory, of which some distant rumour had found its way into the Odyssey, was originally colonised from the island of Thera; where a settlement of pre-Dorian Greeks had “blended with an earlier Phoenician population. There is therefore a dash of Semite blood in the race to begin with, which helps to explain the fact that after fresh contact with Egypt the women worshipped Isis and abstained from beef. From a quarrel in the royal house came the secession to Barca; then immigration from all parts of Greece—and apparently a blending of the Barcans with the Libyans; then a conflict between Barca and Cyrene in which thousands of the Greek settlers were destroyed. There ensued an uprising of the people against the monarchy, that was temporarily pacified by the legislator Demônax, invited from Mantinea; then the breach of the new constitution through the ambition of the queen-mother Pheretime, whose career is one of the most signal instances. ‘furens quid femina possit,’ ‘what wild work may come of a woman's rage’ in the way of ambition, cruelty, and revenge. Cyrene and Barca continued Greek for many ages, and formed the last bulwark of Hellenic civilisation on the side towards. Carthage. Some accidental resemblance of names and attributes between Athena and that of some Libyan deity led the Barcans into the belief that their country was the birthplace of Athena Tritogeneia. (This account of the matter is more probable than that Athena came originally from Libya.) At every crisis of their history they consulted, if they could, the oracle of Delphi, and the ambition of the royal family took the truly Hellenic line of competing in the chariot races at the great games. War chariots had long been the pride of north Africa. Arcesilaus III. and his ancestry are repeatedly celebrated by Pindar. In connection with the insurrection already mentioned, an extremely curious proof is still extant of the unpopularity of one of the kings. It is amongst the few vase-paintings that have a distinctly comic cast. The monarch appears in the act of weighing out bales of goods like a retail dealer,—the chief figure being a manifest caricature.
One more receptacle of Greek life should be specially mentioned because, although the subject is obscure, it can hardly fail to have been in some degree the channel for Egyptian influence on Greek art, and possibly on Greek religion. We know more of Greek life at Naucratis in northern Egypt in the sixth century than our fathers did, but our knowledge is still tantalisingly imperfect. To the commerce with Egypt and to the Greek colony at that emporium we may at least trace with confidence much of the mythology in which the Greeks expressed a consciousness of still earlier relations with the land of Nile. The fact mentioned by Herodotus of the existence of a class of half-breeds, part Egyptian and part Greek, is extremely important in this connection.
As commerce and navigation made progress, and the intercourse between distant parts was thus facilitated, the whole body of Greek religious culture became more complex in consequence of influences reacting on the mother-country from the remoter centres of Greek life, which are difficult to ascertain in detail, but are unquestionably real. The history of Herodotus presents a wide field, in which the result of all these influences is apparent, but except where he himself gives the information there is little ground to go upon, in assigning the various statements found in him to their several sources. He mentions by name Hecataeus of Miletus, and it is reasonable to suppose that there were other collectors of earlier tradition, on whose writings he relied. But the impression which he generally conveys is rather that of oral communication, as when he speaks of learned authorities amongst the Persians, or of the priests of Egypt. It has been suggested that the various states of Hellas had probably written archives, to which the historian may have found access; this may possibly have been the case to a large extent, but we know too little of the literary habits of the time, and of the degree of jealousy with which such documents, if they existed, would be guarded, to be assured of more than that in his insatiable thirst for information the historian would avail himself of any and every opportunity, whether in speech or writing. In regard to Egypt it is disappointing to find that he has so little to tell us about the Greek colony, no doubt assuming the facts to be well known, and being led on by his eagerness to consult the priests of Memphis, whose information was not always either seriously intended or rightly understood.
The whole question of the mixture of other races with the pure Hellenic, especially in the countries which formed the fringe of Hellenic influence, is one which deserves to be carefully weighed in any attempt to estimate the true nature of Greek religion. When some great Phoenician colony was conquered in its turn by Dorian or Achaean adventurers, analogy points to the probability, not of an entire supplanting of the one race and religion by the other, but to a partial fusion in which the persistence of old elements would be veiled under the language of the conquering people. Herodotus speaks expressly of Phoenicians who in his day not only lived side by side with the Hellenes in amicable intercourse, but, as a consequence of this, relinquished some of their own most cherished customs, such as circumcision. Is it not likely that en revanche they would communicate some of their traditional notions to the receptive minds of the eager population surrounding them? The importance of Thasos as an early Phoenician settlement is exemplified by the immense remains of the mining industry of that people which Herodotus himself had seen (Herodt. ii. 44, vi. 47). In the neighbouring island of Samothrace, although by some confusion he speaks of the Pelasgians as its occupants, yet the religion of the Cabiri, which he attributes to them, is unmistakably Phoenician. This subject has been already dwelt upon, but cannot be omitted here. It is difficult not to conceive that the legendary empire of Minos, the son of Europa, who put down piracy and had the Carians for feudatories, had something to do with Phoenician influence. And if we turn again to religious phenomena it becomes manifest on comparing such fragmentary records as we possess that either the origin or at least the development of some important features of Greek religion had a Phoenician source. Granting that Herakles, Aphrodite, Poseidon, and the Dioscuri were originally Hellenic deities, they have certainly taken on to a greater or a less extent some features from Phoenician worship. I do not name Dionysus here because, although he is often traced to a Cadmeian origin, the more authentic indications point to his having come into Greece, perhaps through the islands, from a Thracian source. Yet even in this case there may have been Phoenician elements which entered into the ultimate form of the legend.
While Athens was still struggling with the difficulties of her early history, important mental changes were at work in what, for the sake of convenience, we may describe as greater Hellas. These affected religious conceptions in two chief ways: (1) Innovations in mythology and ritual; (2) The birth of philosophy, tending to discard mythology altogether.
1. Stesichorus of Himera, in the north of Sicily, besides introducing novel forms of lyric poetry and improved modes for its production, set an example of boldness in the reconstruction of popular legends, and the invention of mythological incidents, that gave a strong stimulus to the religious imagination. Before reflection had had time to clothe itself in the language of abstraction, men had begun to be aware of discrepancies between much in the early mythology and the ethical feeling which had been cultivated in the life of civilised communities. Some of the unprecedented dramatic turns, which struck the hearers of Euripides as having the gloss of novelty, were really borrowed from Stesichorus. The best known instance of this is his reconstruction of the legend of Helen. He felt it to be impossible that the daughter of Zeus should have betrayed her husband, and been the cause of all that woe. It was a shadow for which the Achaeans fought, while fair Helen herself was kept safely in the shelter of Egypt. Another beautiful incident which Lord Tennyson borrowed from Euripides was taken by Euripides from Stesichorus. Menelaus, when about to revenge himself on Helen for her supposed perfidy, involuntarily drops his sword at the sight of all that beauty. A very similar thought had occurred independently to Ibycus of Rhegium. The latter poet's delight in flowers reminds us of the exuberant loveliness of the land of south Italy, in which he wrote.
As mind awakened, imagination could not remain stationary. The poets who succeeded to the sacred office of the epic minstrel were more familiar with the popular religion, but in handling it could not forbear from introducing refinements required by the growth of half-conscious thought, which their vivid fancy readily supplied. And although ritual had a fixity which contrasted with the ever-shifting cloud shapes of mythology, there were not wanting innovations in ritual too. These were mostly represented as revivals of some primeval worship. And it is curious to remark that, as scepticism advanced, an elaborate formality of ritual increased along with it. The religious mind protested the more earnestly against incipient unbelief as itself began to be overshadowed with a doubt.
2. In speaking of greater Hellas and the changes which began there and subsequently influenced the mind of central Greece, it is necessary to include in one survey the east and west together. For the western colonists not only looked back to their earlier seats on the shores of the Aegean (Stesichorus dwelt fora while at Samos), but were reinforced from time to time by emigrants who left their native states and sought a newer world. Such were Pythagoras, who brought his wisdom from Samos to Croton, and Xenophanes, who withdrew from Colophon and settled at Velia. These brought with them the seeds of a revolution in opinion which worked at first sporadically, but was destined ultimately to have a wide-spread influence. This was nothing less than the sudden uprising of philosophic thought, which occurred almost simultaneously in Ionia and in Italy and Sicily. ‘Athens, the eye of Greece,’ was not the cradle, but rather the stepmother of philosophy. The sixth century, perhaps of all periods the most pregnant with new ideas, gave birth to this new creation in the world of Hellas. Great generative thoughts came forth unbidden, like Athena from the head of Zeus. The spirit of enquiry was already in the air. In gnomic poetry, in the attempts at a rational cosmogony, continuing the work of Hesiod in the prose of Pherecydes, there were germs of speculation expressing themselves in somewhat ‘mangled forms.’ But the bold attempt to grasp the secret of the universe in one conception is of a wholly different order from any of these. When Aristotle says, ‘all men by nature long after knowledge,’ he expresses a truth which is applicable in a special sense to the Greek. The love of knowledge natural to men existed in Greek nature at a higher power. It had for some time been germinating, when it suddenly blossomed in Thales of Miletus. He was one of those men of the sixth century whom after generations counted as the seven wise men. The others were Bias of Priene, Pittacus of Lesbos, Solon of Athens, Chilon of Lacedaemon, Cleobulus of Lindus, and either Periander of Corinth or, as Plato says—for Periander is too odious a tyrant—Myson of Chêné. These represent what may be called the Gnomic movement in Greek thought, the culmination of that proverbial philosophy in which the ripening experience of mankind is provisionally summed up and recorded in pithy aphorisms. Each of these has a partial truth, which finds its proper place and worth only when the wisdom of life is harmonised by later reflection. Thales, however, while not relinquishing an interest in practical things, had a mind which soared far beyond his fellows. Doubtless there were antecedents for the great leap which he took, not into the dark, but into the region of light—‘Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot, which men call earth’: just as, if men ever learn to fly, it will be possible to distinguish some links of connection between that and other modes of locomotion. Perhaps it may be said that early cosmogony following upon the theogony of Hesiod formed such a link between mythology and philosophy. It was the first outcome of that spirit of wonder and insatiable curiosity which, as Plato and Aristotle both affirm, is the mother of philosophy.
The crude attempt to imagine some affiliation of divine powers had behind it the latent need of the human spirit to discover order in nature, to attain harmony, if not unity, in the conception of the world. It has been suggested, but the suggestion is at present purely speculative, that when Babylonian records have been explored, the beginnings of philosophy amongst Greek races on the shores of the Mediterranean may be rendered more intelligible. Certainly the jump from Pherecydes of Syros to Thales is a sudden one, and the combination of his speculative theory with his reported prediction of an eclipse does point to some antecedent origin. Whatever may have been the contact which set the spring in motion, the rise of this new spirit in several centres at once forms an extraordinary crisis, both in Greek thought, and in the history of the human mind. And the wonder is not lessened when we consider that almost simultaneously the north of Hindustan, the highlands of Persia, the shores of the Aegean, and the cities of Magna Graecia should have received independently the breathing of new spiritual influences, each destined to work for many centuries on large sections of mankind. The life of Gotama Buddha has been placed conjecturally in the seventh or sixth century B.C. Zoroaster ‘flourished’ about the same time; so did the great Hebrew prophets of the Captivity; while Pythagoras and Thales both appear before the middle of the sixth century.
Philosophy at its birth reacted vehemently against tradition and current opinion; and its creators were often isolated from their contemporaries. Even when, like Thales and Pythagoras, they were not without influence, they were as a matter of course misunderstood. Xenophanes and Heraclitus, above all, stood apart from the common life of their day, and it was only after many generations that their ideas, in part at least, became absorbed into the common stock of intellectual life. We shall have occasion at a later time therefore to develop the significance of these great thoughts, in connection with the philosophy of Plato. At present our chief interest is briefly to characterise each of these men, and to deal with their speculations in so far as they are symptomatic of a phase in the development of the Greek mind, and also as they reacted on the mental life surrounding them.
The religious world of polytheism did not see the danger to itself in the new strange thinking of such men, which in a generation or two would have rent the veil of mythology asunder. So long as they conformed in public, they were at first in little danger on this score. And the toleration extended to philosophy is in keeping with what was remarked above concerning the free scope allowed to individual impulse on the shores of the Aegean in the time of the earlier lyric poetry. At Athens shortly after this things were very different. Side by side with progress and speculative inquiry there was a growing spirit of reactionary fanaticism there, of which Anaxagoras, Pericles, Pheidias, and afterwards Socrates were victims. But in Ionia and Magna Graecia in the sixth century the fathers of philosophy were rather looked upon as harmlessly eccentric, though they might quarrel with their states on other grounds. Why Pythagoras and Xenophanes were exiles we do not know. Thales certainly was a good citizen and so esteemed; and after the fall of Ionia some remembered with regret that his statesmanlike advice to have one council chamber for all the Ionic cities had not been taken. Yet his countrymen derided him for the strangeness of his pursuits. His prediction of the eclipse is simply mentioned by Herodotus, who has evidently no conception of the process by which such a result was obtained. The historian also records some of his sayings. That Thales himself observed the stars is implied in the tale repeated by Plato, that in doing so he once tumbled into a pit and was jeered at by a Thracian handmaid, who said that he saw what was far off, but not what lay before his feet. The girl spoke ‘wiser than she was 'ware of,’ for in gazing at the stars Greek contemplation could not rest in facts observed, but, as Bacon says of the human intellect generally, presumed and encroached on what is beyond. It was amidst such contemplations that Thales began to meditate on the question, what is the one essence of which all things consist? His answer, ‘all is water,’ was the first word of Ionian physiology. It had been anticipated even in the Homeric cosmogony, which spoke of Ocean and Tethys as parents of the gods; but the new departure consists in saying not what things come from, but what things are, and in conceiving of the world as all. That in some sense this great utterance found an echo in contemporary minds may be reasonably inferred from Pindar's saying more than once, ‘water is the best thing in the world,’ a phrase which otherwise would seem unmeaning. But Pindar is too much tinctured with tradition and legend to have any clear conception of the philosopher's aims. Another saying of Thales is more on a level with Greek feeling, but also carries with it a meaning above the reach of ordinary Greek thought—namely, ‘all things are full of gods.’ If we take the two sayings together, they may be held to anticipate the fine expression of Hippocrates of Cos, that ‘all occurrences are equally natural and equally divine.’
While Thales was propounding his great thought in Ionia, or even earlier, for the date is uncertain, Pythagoras in Magna Graecia was founding something between a church and a philosophical school. Insatiable of knowledge, he had mastered all the rudiments of science that were available in the world of his age. He too reduced the universe to one idea, that which all the sciences appeared to have in common, number, i.e. measure, proportion, harmony. He is believed to have made the great discovery that the notes of the lyre were proportionate to the length of the strings, thus laying the foundation of musical science. Not content with this, he made a grand and serious attempt to reform human society upon a basis of order which was cognate to his central idea. The influence which he exercised on his immediate contemporaries must have been intense. A native of Samos—whence the interest which Herodotus takes in him, as he does in all things Samian—he left his native city, perhaps in despair, and after much travelling in quest of knowledge settled at Croton, where he succeeded in founding what may be best characterised as a religious association based on scientific thought. Perhaps such an attempt could only have been grafted upon Dorian institutions (in which the notion of a rule to be observed was so prominent). It is very difficult to separate the real from the legendary in what is told concerning him. But it is evident that he realised, as no Greek before him had done, the sacredness of human society; and that he succeeded in his followers together in a life of strict asceticism through which they sought at once for truth and virtue. He is said to have been the first to call himself ϕιλόσοϕος, a lover of wisdom or of truth, rather than σοϕός, wise. Herodotus distinctly asserts that he formulated the doctrine of immortality and that some Orphic practices, such as the abjuring of woollen garments, were really due to him. In his teaching immortality was associated with metempsychosis (transmigration), to which Xenophanes testifies in saying of him (not without a touch of satire) ‘Once when he heard the howling of a beaten hound he said to the man, Have done! for in that piteous crying I discern the voice of a friend.’ Hence came an almost Brahmanical estimate of the sacredness of animal life. The school of Pythagoras for a time obtained such power that the triumph of Croton over Sybaris was mainly due to it. But human nature rebelled against the strain of ascetic control, and the Pythagoreans were driven out and scattered. The seeds they carried with them were not lost, however; and in Sicily and southern Italy the fruits were manifest: above all, in two main products, the comedies of Epicharmus (of Syracuse, a Coan by birth), veiling in homely satire a strain of philosophic wisdom, and in the life and teaching of Empedocles, who more than any Greek combined in one the characters of prophet, enthusiastic sage, and theurgic hierophant.
Xenophanes like Thales was a native of the Asiatic seaboard, although like Pythagoras he left his native city (Colophon), and settled at Elea or Velia in Magna Graecia. It is a little difficult to reconcile the image of him presented by his few remains with the account which Aristotle gives. In his verses he appears as a genial though unconventional person, enjoying social life while gibing openly at the beliefs of his countrymen. His criticism of anthropomorphism is well known: ‘if lions had hands they would make gods like lions.’ He likewise anticipates Plato's strictures on the morality of Olympus: ‘Homer and Hesiod,’ he says, ‘attribute to the gods all that is most disreputable amongst mankind.’ As Alcibiades says of Socrates, this negative aspect may be taken for the Silenus mask of the man, and it is not really incompatible with the serious positive aspect of his contemplation of which Aristotle speaks: ‘He looked out upon the whole heaven, and affirmed that the one was God’; or with his own saying: ‘One God in heaven and earth is above all, not like to mortals either in form or mind. He is all sight, all thought, all hearing.’ That is a summit of abstraction beyond Thales, and one which had remarkable consequences in subsequent philosophy.
Heraclitus meanwhile, at Ephesus, following after Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, whose speculations do not at present interest us, rose to a corresponding height of idealism even more fruitful in results, in taking fire for his element, and energy, if he is aright interpreted, for his idea. This principle, when afterwards brought into contrast with the Eleatic unity, came to be regarded as a mere affirmation of motion against rest. But the fragments of the philosopher himself are suggestive of a more comprehensive view, not fully enucleated (a thing impossible at that stage of positive knowledge), but containing in germ many of the principles which modern science has most clearly established, and which modern philosophy most approves. This will fall to be considered afterwards, but two points cannot here be passed over: the character of Heraclitus and his attitude towards popular religion. Through all his utterances there breathes not only the loftiest pride but the bitterest contempt, especially for his fellow citizens. He is a fit prototype of the great soul which Plato describes, that is born within a narrow community, and despising public affairs turns to philosophy. Even more remarkable than Xenophanes' rejection of human gods is Heraclitus' derision of bloody sacrifice—inasmuch as ritual had a firmer hold on the Greek mind than mythological representation. Heraclitus' influence was so penetrating, although he spoke above the heads of his contemporaries, that he deserves even more attention than the rest. In resolving all things into change and motion, he summed up the ruling tendencies of contemporary thought. The first effect of reflection was some vague consciousness of flux and change. And this, as we shall find, is one of the keynotes in Herodotus, the serenity of whose narrative does not prevent a tone of sadness from pervading his whole work. It is natural to suppose that he caught this from previous tradition. We cannot credit him with having invented the whole story of Croesus and Solon, or the conversations between Xerxes and Artabanus. He wrote down what he had heard or read, and it is now impossible to say how much is original in him. It is enough to have observed the affinity of sadness which links him to the ‘weeping philosopher,’ and to the strain of ‘Ionian pessimism.’
The early philosophical schools acted and reacted on each other. It is a mistake to follow the ancients in separating them by hard and fast lines.
The problem had arisen in Ionia: ‘What is the substance whereof all are made? ‘Men answered in a word: ‘Water,’ ‘Air,’ ‘Infinity,’ & c. Pythagoras answered, ‘Number’; Xenophanes ‘One supreme whole’; Heraclitus ‘Fire, for which all things are exchanged, according to a universal law: the world is eternal change, a cycle of progress, energy in order.’ Parmenides cried, ‘No change! That is an appearance only. It is. One is, and all is one. Growth and decay are exiled to non-entity.’ By and by attempts were made to reconcile these jarring notes: number, measure, proportion, were stamped upon the infinite, form upon substance, mind upon the elements, creating order out of infinite confusion. But this intellectual movement attained to completeness only in the ripest growth of the philosophy of Plato.
The worship of Ammon may have come in from Libya at some very early time; how it found its way to Thebes or even to Elis, we cannot tell.