Mahaffy's Greek Literature

OF Mr. Mahaffy’s two volumes,1 the first is devoted to the poets, and the second to the prose writers. In spite of the title which he has chosen, the author in his preface seems to disclaim any intention of writing a History of Greek Literature ; this “ has become almost too great a task for any single man to accomplish adequately.” The book is a “ conspectus of Greek literature as a whole ” for younger students. This being so, it is surprising that Mr. Mahaffy should take for granted in his readers a sufficient knowledge of the “ character and genius of the race,” and of “ the peculiar features of the language,” to dispense with a chapter on these matters. To begin with generalities, he says, is “ unpractical; ” because, to understand generalities, “ the reader should he intimate with the details, which are postponed to a later part of the book.” He therefore “ will not attempt any broad survey of the subject in a work devoted to the discussion of details, except in immediate connection with these details.” But sufficient knowledge of details is possessed by “ younger students,” who have read their Greek authors “in accidental and irregular order,” to make a general sketch of the Greek language and its dialects in their relation to the progress of the literature quite intelligible; and yet this is nowhere given. Furthermore, no clear and connected statement of the general plan of the book is anywhere made. Even the table of contents gives no clew, for the titles to the chapters most frequently suggest detached magazine articles, for instance. The Rise of Personal Poetry among the Greeks, The Public Lyric Poetry of the Greeks. Pates are very sparingly given, almost always in Olympiads, and no table of authors, arranged according to chronological sequence, is inserted. In all these particulars this book is far inferior to the much less pretentious work by Mr. Jebb, which has been published under the title of a Primer of Greek Literature.

Turning to the volume on the poets, we find in the chapters on Homer that only the controversy as to the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey is treated in detail. Put this subject is well treated, and the summary is a very good statement of the positive results of this endless controversy. Still the whole question is so involved and confused that we turn from it with a lurking sympathy for the undergraduate who, when questioned about the authorship of the poems, answered: “ The poems commonly attributed to Homer were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name.” Of the Iliad and the Odyssey as literature Mr. Mahaffy has little or nothing to say; sixteen lines and a reference to his own Social Life in Greece are given to the Iliad, and this is his excuse: “It would he idle to rehearse again the centuries of praise which this immortal poem has received from all lovers of real poetry.” Surely there are many literary characteristics to be pointed out in the Iliad which no historian of Greek literature can fairly leave unnoticed. Of the Odyssey more is said, but the criticism covers only a page, whereas the controversy about the authorship occupies more than thirty-two pages.

The absence of any extended examination of the merits of the Homeric poems as literature might lead the reader to expect a similar neglect of the literary side of the great tragedians. But such fears are groundless, since Mr. Mahaffy has much that is new to say about the comparative merits of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and gives a detailed criticism of each of their plays. Perhaps it will be most interesting to begin by examining the general theory of the nature of tragedy, which leads our critic to think Sophocles unworthy of the praise which almost all critics have bestowed upon him : “ In Aeschylus’ conception— the deepest conception — of a tragedy, the actors were, so to speak, subordinated to the progress of a great catastrophe, which carried them along in its fatal course. . . . In the tragedy of Sophocles . . . the power of human will is the predominant feature, and the real conflict of moral and social forces is thrown into the background.” According to this view, the Oedipus Tyrannus ought to be commended, and it is disappointing to find that Mr. Mahaffy says of the hero of that play, “ After all, Oedipus is but the plaything of an awful destiny ; he suffers without adequate evil desert; and the lesson in the play is not that of confidence in the final result of a great moral struggle, but rather of awe and despair at the possible cruelties of an arbitrary and irresponsible fate.” But in another place the author, remembering his theory, says that Antigone, “ as she consciously faces death for an idea, may rather be enrolled among the noble army of martyrs, who suffer in the daylight of clear conviction, than among the far nobler few who, in doubt and darkness, have striven to feel out a great mystery, and in their very failure have purified the terror and the pity ’ of awe-struck humanity. . . . The Antigone is therefore not a very great tragedy, though it is a most brilliant and beautiful dramatic poem.”

According to Mr. Mahaffy, then, Aeschylus is deeper than Sophocles, because his (Aeschylus’) characters are “ carried along in the fatal course of a catastrophe,” and yet Sophocles’ Oedipus is “ but the plaything of an awful destiny ”! And why is not Antigone to Mr. Mahaffy’s taste ? Because “ she faces death for an idea;” and “the fatal effects of the ancestral curse on the house of Oedipus, though often alluded to, are no moving force in the drama ” ! It is plain that Sophocles would find it hard to please this critic, who complains that Oedipus is not portrayed as Antigone is, and yet insists that the Antigone is no tragedy, because it has not the defects of the Oedipus. After this it is no surprise to learn that Mr. Mahaffy thinks the lost works of Sophocles bad. In fact, the great point of superiority which he possesses over all other writers upon Greek literature is a familiarity with the lost plays both of Sophocles and of Euripides. Of the seven plays by Sophocles which all know he speaks lightly as “ scanty remains,” and yet declares that they are the best. For Sophocles’ most grievous offenses we are referred to the plays by him which no longer exist, while for those admirable qualities of Euripides, which have left no traces in the seventeen plays which have been preserved, we are referred to works which have perished. But when it comes to specifying instances, our thirst for this hidden knowledge is not quenched, and we are put off with such statements as this : “ It may fairly be doubted whether Sophocles’ Polyxena was superior or even equal to Euripides’ heroine,”— Polyxena in the Hecuba. And again, after saying that “ Euripides seems to have disliked, or to have been unable, to draw strong or splendid male characters,” Mr. Mahaffy adds, “ This may be the misfortune of our extant selection of plays, for the Odysseus of his Philoctetes seems to have been an ideal Periclean Greek.”

It would be unjust, after pointing out these contradictions and absurdities, not to add that in the detailed criticism of the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus Mr. Mahaffy is often very suggestive. This is especially true of his criticism of the Medea of Euripides, though he goe3 too far in preferring the Medea of Legouve. In dealing with comedy, the thesis which is maintained is that Middle and New Comedy did not grow out of the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and his contemporaries, for Old Comedy was “ a temporary outburst of political writing in the feverish climax of Athenian democracy,” and Middle Comedy “ was no new development, but a survival of the older and more general type, which came again into the foreground when no longer obscured by a brilliant innovation.” Here again Mr. Mahaffy is beyond criticism, for he is conversant with a school of comedy at Athens which, though it is new to other students of Greek literature, he assures us is older than Old Comedy itself. No doubt it is right to say of “ the grammarians, and the modern historians who follow' them,” that “ they have drawn their lines too sharply ” in distinguishing between Old, Middle, and New Comedy. But by no means all of the modem historians have followed the grammarians here. Sehlegel’s view is that the Middle Comedy is no distinct type, but merely a transition stage from the Old to the New Comedy. This theory is far more reasonable than Mr. Mahaffy’s. For after reminding us that “ Aristophanes, towards the close of his life, produced works of a complexion approaching what is called by the grammarians the Middle and New Comedy,” he refers back to his former statement that Middle Comedy was a revival of the oldest comedy, and no development from Old Comedy.

It is plain that in his treatment of the Greek poets Mr. Mahaffy has signally failed to show the impartiality and the broadness of view winch alone could have justified him in publishing a book for the guidance of young students. Has he done better in the second volume, where he treats of Greek prose authors ? Certainly he has not. His treatment of Thucydides and Herodotus is the best proof of this. Just as he cannot admire Euripides without constantly attacking Sophocles, so he is not content to praise and to dwell upon the beauties of Herodotus, but he must sacrifice Thucydides to his favorite. “ Had Herodotus,” our author exclaims, “been a cold and skeptical critic, a despiser of all the domestic and personal features in great men or in dominant nationalities, a Periclean Athenian, whose exclusiveness raised the pettiest Greek quarrel above the largest revolutions among barbarians, he might no doubt have sifted such [his ?] materials with greater acumen ; but he certainly would have had neither the desire to possess them nor the temper and the patience to collect them.” But, for all that, the “ cold Periclean ” does find some grace in the eyes of our critic, who writes, “ In acuteness of observation, in intellectual force and breadth, in calmness of judgment, in dignity of language, there has never been a historian greater than Thucydides.” With what is said in detail of the merits of Herodotus there is no reason to quarrel, but much of the fault-finding in the criticism of Thucydides is as groundless as are the strictures upon Sophocles in the first volume. One flagrant instance of tins must be noticed. The great point which Mr. Mahaffy is never tired of insisting upon, in attacking the trustworthiness of Thucydides, is that his early Sicilian history is “ copied from Dionysius of Syracuse, a λογοποιός of the stamp of the forerunners of Herodotus. . . . Hence,” the author argues, “ the whole tradition requires careful reconsideration. But this would lead us too far from our subject.” Here we are referred to Appendix B in the first volume. On opening this appendix we read, “ I hope to show more fully in Hermathena that Dionysius probably (sic) composed his history for the purpose of glorifying his native Syracuse.” And the next page (524), “ Starting, I believe, from this a ‘priori determination, Antiochus seems (sic) to have reversed the natural history of Greek colonization in the West, for the sake of glorifying Syracuse.” No reason, except that the original historian was a native of Syracuse, is given for Mr. Mahaffy’s extraordinary belief ; and we are left in hopeless confusion of mind, for the Dionysius twice mentioned has suddenly turned into Antiochus. Does Mr. Mahaffy mean Antiochus or Dionysius of Syracuse ? Antiochus of Syracuse he must mean, since, fortunately for our peace of mind, no λογοποιός called Dionysius of Syracuse ever was heard of. Even the promised article in Hermathena can hardly he expected to induce the thoughtful readers of these volumes to trust Thucydides’ estimate of Antiochus of Syracuse less than Mr. Mahaffy’s, or to reject Thucydides’ account of the colonization of Sicily in order to make room for this ridiculous substitute. “ Other legends tell of Archias helping the founder of Corcyra; they tell of his helping, on his way to Sicily, the Greek settlers in Southern Italy. Surely this indicates what really happened. Greek settlers first occupied Corcyra, then they pushed on to Italy. . . . Thence they found their way to Sicily. I do not believe that this latter island was colonized till after 700 B. c., and that [?] the whole Sicilian chronology found in all our Greek histories rests on the imaginary basis laid down by Antiochus.” At last we have Mr. Mahaffy’s reasons, and they are more than enough to make even a “ cold Periclean ” warm with indignation. Turning to the orators, we notice that Antiphon is happily characterized as “ a sort of Athenian Baron Stockmar, who made excursions from education, or perhaps still more a Ifichard Wagner, who made excursions from art into politics.” Here assiduous readers of Mr. Mahaffy’s works cannot fail to recollect that in one of his books he has characterized the Homeric Pallas Athene as “ Antiphon in petticoats.” Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other, and we are confronted by Richard Wagner and Baron Stockmar in petticoats making excursions,— but this is a digression.

The account of Plato is exceptionally good, and the influence of the drama upon Athenian prose writing in general is most clearly brought out; but to Aristotle the author is by no means just, and can only confuse any one who goes to his chapters for information.

Not far from the end of the volume is found Mr. Mahaffy’s brief summary of the character of Hypereides : “ In character Hypereides is said to have been much under the influence of women, and fond of luxuries, especially of fish, but otherwise both respectable and very talented.” The careless and hasty manner of writing which produced such a grotesque combination as this last not infrequently leads Mr. Mahaffy into bad English. Here are a few of his slips: “ fuller materials to those extant ” (vol. ii. p. 302) ; “ Hypereides . . . characterizes him to be not inferior” (vol. ii. p. 367) ; and “ narrates ... in a very splendid narrative ” (vol. i. p. 254). Mr. Mahaffy has nowhere, like his illustrious compatriot, smelt a rat, and proposed to nip it in the bud, but he does say that Demosthenes “ stood forth to speak the mighty epitaph on the tomb of departed liberty ” (vol. ii. p. 349). Again, our author seems to have invented the word Hellenedom, which he uses six times at least. In three places (vol. ii. pp. 349 and 226, and i. page 147) it has the meaning of Hellas ; but in the other three places (vol. ii. pp. 420, 297, and 218) it is equivalent to Hellenism. Surely if we are to adopt this word it ought to be used as strictly as its prototype “ Christendom,” which is never confused in sense with l' Christianity.” But there is no demand for such a cumbrous polysyllable as Hellenedom. Finally, without some explanation of his terms this sentence is extremely vague : “ We know certainly that Aristotle’s Hellenism . . . was distinctly opposed to the Hellenicism of the great king.”

Little has here been said in praise of this book, and yet there is often a stimulating influence in Mr. Mahaffy’s aggressive and bold way of stating his views. This has been praised in his Rambles and Studies in Greece and in his Social Life in Greece. But the countless contradictions in this book, and the carelessness and haste with which it certainly was compiled, make it most dangerous in the hands of those younger students for whom it was intended. Indeed, only those whose knowledge of the subject is sufficient to defend them from the evil effects of reckless statements, made without a shadow of proof, on all possible subjects connected with Greek literature, can enjoy with impunity the freshness and boldness with which Mr. Mahaffy defends Ins paradoxes.

  1. A History of Greek Literature. By the REV. J. P, MAHAFFY, M. A., Fellow and Professor of Ancient History, Trinity College, Dublin , author of Social Life in Greece, Prolegomena to Ancient History, etc. In two volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.