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John Pentland Mahaffy



[JOHN PENTLAND MAHAFFY, born in Switzerland of Irish parentage, February 26, 1839, is one of the most brilliant of recent scholars and writers on classical Greek subjects; especially the literature, habits, and morals of the Hellenic or Hellenized peoples down to the time of Christ. He is professor of ancient history in Trinity College, Dublin. He has written only one formal history of events, "The Empire of the Ptolemies" (1896); though much valuable incidental historic and biographic matter is contained in his other works, the chief of which are "Social Life in Greece," "Greek Life and Thought" (a continuation of the former), "Greece under Roman Sway," "Problems in Greek History," "History of Greek Classical Literature," etc.]

I ESTIMATE the society and the morals of the Iliad and Odyssey quite differently from those writers who have compared them with primitive conditions in other nations. Of course primitive features remained, as they do in every nation; but they were combined with vices which betray the decadence of culture, and with virtues rather springing from mature reflection and long experience than from the spontaneous impulse of a generous instinct.

Mr. Grote, Mr. Gladstone, and others have made the Homeric age more familiar than any other phase of Greek life to English readers. They have accepted the descriptions of the rhapsodists as a literal account of a real contemporaneous society; they have moreover deduced, with exceeding subtlety, all the inferences which can be extracted from the poems in favor of Homeric honor and purity. Every casual utterance is weighted with the deepest possible meaning; every ordinary piece of good nature attributed to profound and self-denying benevolence. We are told that morals in historic Greece had decayed; that a social state of real refinement and purity had passed away, to make way for cold calculation and selfish aggrandizement. How far this picture is real we shall see.


The medieval knights, with whom it is fashionable to compare the princes of the Iliad and Odyssey, were wont to sum up the moral perfection which they esteemed under one complex term a term for which there is no equivalent in Greek -the term HONOR. It may be easily and sufficiently analyzed into four component ideas, those of courage, truth, compassion, and loyalty. No man could approach the ideal of chivalry, or rank himself among gentlemen and men of honor, who was not


ready to contend, when occasion arose, against any odds, and thus to encounter death rather than yield one inch from his post. He must feel himself absolutely free from the stain of a single lie, or even of an equivocation. He must be ever ready to help the weak and the distressed, whether they be so by nature, as in the case of women and children, or by circumstances, as in the case of men overpowered by numbers. He must with his heart, and not with mere eyeservice, obey God and the king, or even such other authority as he voluntarily pledged himself to obey. A knight who violated any of these conditions, even if he escaped detection at the hands of his fellows, felt himself degraded, and untrue to the oath taken before God, and the obligation which he had bound himself to fulfill. This, I conceive, was the ideal of knighthood.

Let us now turn to the Homeric poems to obtain information on these four points, remembering that, as the real knight may have fallen short of the ideal we have just sketched, so doubtless the real Homeric Greeks were considerably worse than the ideal characters depicted by the rhapsodists.

I believe I shall run counter to an old-established belief when I say that the courage of the Homeric chiefs-in this types of their historical descendants-was of a second-rate order. It was like the courage of the modern French, dependent upon excitement, and vanishing quickly before depression and delay. No doubt the Greeks were a warlike nation, like the French, fond of glory, and reveling in excitement; but they did not possess that stubborn valor which was the duty of the medieval knight, and which is the physical characteristic of the English and German soldier. With the exception of Achilles and of Diomede, all the chiefs in the Iliad are subject to panics, and fly before the enemy. Of course, the flattering bard ascribes these disgraceful scenes to the special interference of the gods, but as he equally attributes special feats of valor to a like interference, we may discount the marvelous element, and regard these men, as we do a French army, to be capable of splendid acts of daring and of courage, but liable to sudden relapse into dismay and craven flight. Even Achilles flies in fear from the pursuit of the river Scamander, but this is rather the dread of an ignoble death, as he himself says, than proper cowardice. Ajax, who approaches nearest of the ordinary men in the poem to our notions of a stubborn soldier - even he is surprised by panic, and makes for the ships.

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