It is in one sense impossible to write a life of Euripides, for the simple reason that he lived too long ago. In his time people were only just beginning to write history at all; Herodotus, the "father of history," was his close contemporary. They had begun to record really great events; but it had not occurred to them that the life of any individual was worth all the trouble of tracing out and writing down. Biography of a sort began about two generations afterwards, when the disciples of Aristotle and Epicurus exerted themselves to find out and record the lives of their masters. But biography in our sense—the complete writing of a life year by year with dates and documents—was never practised at all in antiquity. Think of the Gospels, of the Acts, even of Tacitus's Life of Agricola. They are different one from another, but they are all unlike any modern biography in their resolute indifference to anything like completeness. Ancient "Lives" as a rule select a few great deeds, a few great sayings or discourses; they concentrate upon the last years of their subject and often especially upon his death.
The dates at which various eminent men of antiquity died are well known. The man was then famous and his death was a memorable event. But—except in a few aristocratic states, like Cos, which records the actual birthday of the great physician Hippocrates—no baby was eminent and not many young men. Very few dates of birth are known; and in the case of almost all the famous men of antiquity their early histories are forgotten and their early works lost. So it is with Euripides.
History in later antiquity was chiefly a branch of belles lettres and made no great effort after exactness. As a rule it contented itself with the date at which a man "flourished," a very rough conception, conventionally fixed either by the time when he did his most memorable work or the year when he reached the age of forty. The year commonly assigned to Euripides' birth is a good instance of ancient method in these things. The system of chronology was badly confused. In the first place there was no generally accepted era from which to date; and even if there had been, the numerical system, before the invention of Arabic ciphers, was as confused as English spelling is at the present day, and made it hard to do the simplest sums. So the ordinary educational plan was to group events together in some scheme that might not be quite exact but was calculated to have some symbolic interest and to stay in the memory. For instance, the three great tragedians were grouped together round the Battle of Salamis, the great triumph of the Persian Wars in 480 B.C. Aeschylus fought among the heavy-armed infantry, Sophocles danced in a choir of boys to celebrate the victory, and Euripides was born in Salamis on the day of the battle. We do not know the origin of this pleasant fable; but we have another date given in a very ancient chronicle called the Parian Marble, which was found in the island of Paros in the seventeenth century and was composed in the year 264 B.C. It puts the birth of Euripides in 484 B.C., and since we cannot find any reason why this year should be invented, and since the Marble is the oldest witness now extant, we shall probably do well provisionally to accept its statement.
In some of the MSS. which preserve Euripides' plays there are "scholia" or ancient traditional commentaries written round the margin. A few of the oldest notes in them come from Alexandrian scholars who lived in the second century B.C. Others date from Roman times, in the first few centuries of the Christian era; others from the eleventh century and even later. And among them there is a quite ancient document called Life and Race of Euripides.
It is anonymous and shapeless. Sentences may have been added or omitted by the various people who at different times have owned or copied the MSS. But we can see that it is derived from early sources, and notably from a "Life" which was written by one Satyrus, a writer of the Peripatetic or Aristotelian school, towards the end of the third century B.C. Fragments from the same source have been detected in the Latin authors Varro and Gellius; and it has influenced the biographical notice in the ancient Greek lexicon of Suidas (tenth century A.D.). Suidas used also another earlier and better source, the Attic Chronicle of Philochorus.
Philochorus was a careful and systematic annalist of the early third century B.C., who used official documents and verified his statements. His main work was to record all that affected Athens—history, myths, festivals, and customs, but he also wrote various special treatises, one of which was On Euripides. Satyrus wrote a series of Lives of Famous Men, which was very popular, and we are now—since 1911—in a position to judge how undeserved its popularity was. For fragments of his Life of Euripides have been unearthed in Egypt by Drs. Grenfell and Hunt and published in their Oxyrrhyncus Papyri, vol. ix. The life takes the form of a dialogue —apparently a dialogue with a lady. It is a mass of quotations, anecdotes, bits of literary criticism, all run together with an air of culture and pleasantness, a spice of gallantry and a surprising indifference to historical fact. Evidently anecdotes amused Satyrus and facts, as such, did not. He cared about literary style, but he neither cared nor knew about history. The following considerations will make this clear.
Euripides was, more than any other figure in ancient history, a constant butt for the attacks of comedy. And we find, oddly enough, that most of the anecdotes about Euripides in Satyrus are simply the jokes of comedy treated as historical fact. For instance, in Aristophanes' play, The Women at the Thesmophoria, the women, while alone at this private festival, agree to murder Euripides because, by his penetrating study of female character on the stage, he has made life too difficult for them. Euripides, hearing of the plot, persuades his elderly father-in-law to go in disguise to the forbidden celebration and defend him—which he does in a ruinously tactless way. Some scenes of brilliant farce are succeeded by a solemn truce between Euripides and the women of Athens. It shows what our tradition is worth when we find that both the "Life and Race," and Gellius and Satyrus himself, give as sober fact this story which we know—and if we did not know could surely see—to be comic invention. There is another class of fabulous anecdote which plays an even larger part in the Satyrus tradition. In Aristophanes' Frogs (1.1048), in a scene where Euripides is defending his plays against the attacks of Aeschylus, there occurs the chance suggestion that Euripides had learnt from his own experience all the varied villanies of his wicked heroines. The idea took root, and he is represented in the anecdotes as a deceived husband, like his own Theseus or Proetus, and uttering lines suitable to the occasion out of his own tragedies; as having two wives at once, like his own Neoptolemus—one of them named Choirile, or "Piggy," and each of course worse than the other; as torn to pieces by hounds, like his own Actaeon, or by wild women, like his own Pentheus.
Something of this sort is possibly the origin of a famous joke about Euripides' mother, which runs through Aristophanes and is repeated as a fact in all the Lives. We know from Philochorus that it was not true. The joke is to connect her with chervil—a grassy vegetable which grew wild and was only eaten in time of famine—or with wild greenstuff in general, or simply to call her a greengrocer. It was also a joke to say anything about beet-root. (Acharn. 894, Frogs 942), A man begs Euripides to bring
Or we hear that
"Wild wrongs he works on women,
Wild as the greens that waved about his cradle."
When some one is about to quote Euripides his friend cries:
Now a much-quoted line from Euripides' tragedy Melanippe the Wise runs: "It is not my word but my mother's word"; and we know that Melanippe, and still more her mother, was an authority on potent herbs and simples. Turn his heroine's mother into his own mother and the potent herbs into some absurd vegetable, and the fable is made.
Setting aside this fog of misunderstanding and reckless anecdote, let us try to make out the method on which our best authority, Philochorus, may have put together his account of Euripides. He had almost no written materials; he had no collection of letters and papers such as go to the making of a modern biography. He could, however, consult the public records of tragic performances as collected and edited by Aristotle and his pupils and thus fix the dates of Euripides' plays, especially his first and last performance, his first victory, and the like. He would also find a few public inscriptions in which the poet's name was mentioned, for the archives of that time were mostly engraved on stone and put up in public places. There was also a portrait bust, authentic though slightly idealized, taken in the poet's old age, and showing the worn and beautiful face, the thin hair, and the lips somewhat fallen in. These sources would give him a few skeleton facts; for anything more he would have to depend on the accidental memories that survived. If he wrote about 300–290 B.C. there was no one living who could remember a man who died in 406. But there might be men of seventy whose fathers had spoken to Euripides and whose grandfathers had known him well. Thus he might with luck have struck some vein of intimate and intelligent memory, which would have helped us to understand the great man. But he did not. The memories are all about the poet's old age, and they are all very external. We hear that he wore a long beard and had moles on his face. He lived very much alone, and hated visitors and parties. He had a quantity of books and could not bear women. He lived on the island of Salamis in a cave which had two openings and a beautiful view—a good cave was probably more comfortable than many a Greek house, so this may not have been a great eccentricity—and there you could see him "all day long, thinking to himself and writing, for he simply despised anything that was not great and high." It is like the memories of a child, rather a puzzled child, watching the great man from a distance.
Some few things come out clearly. He lived in his last years with a small knot of intimates. Mnesilochus, his wife's father—or, perhaps, another Mnesilochus of the same family—was a close friend. So was his servant or secretary, Cephisophon. We do not hear of Socrates as an intimate: the two owed a great debt to one another, and we hear that Socrates never went to the theatre except when Euripides had a play performing: to see a Euripides play he would even stir himself so far as to walk all the way to the Piraeus. But it is likely enough that both men were too vivid and original, perhaps too much accustomed to dominate their respective circles, to be quite comfortable in the same room. And we never find Euripides conversing with Socrates in Plato's dialogues.
Some of Euripides' older friends were by this time driven out from Athens. The great "Sophist," Protagoras, had read his famous book, On the Gods, in Euripides' own house. But he was now dead, drowned at sea, and the poet's master, Anaxagoras, had died long before. Some of the younger artists seem to have found a friend in Euripides. There was Timotheus, the young Ionian composer, who—like most musicians of any originality—was supposed to have corrupted the music of the day by his florid style and bold inventions. His first performance in Athens was a mortifying failure, and we are told that the passionate Ionian was on the point of killing himself when the old poet came and encouraged him. He had only to hold fast, and the people who now hissed would turn and applaud.
One fact is especially clear, the restless enmity of the comic writers. Of the eleven comedies of Aristophanes which have come down to us three are largely devoted to Euripides, and not one has managed altogether to avoid touching him. I know of no parallel to it in all the history of literature. Has there ever again been a tragic poet, or any poet, who so centred upon himself year after year till he was nearly eighty the mocking attention of all the popular wits? And how was it that the Athenian public never tired of this incessant poet-baiting, these incessant appeals to literary criticism in the midst of farce? The attacks are sometimes rough and vicious, sometimes acute and searching, often enough they hide a secret admiration. And the chief enemy, Aristophanes, must, to judge from his parodies, have known a large number of Euripides' ninety-two plays by heart, and been at least half fascinated by the object of his satire. However that may be, the hostility of the comic writers had evidently a general hostility behind it. Our tradition states this definitely and the persistency of the attacks proves it. You cannot go on constantly deriding on the stage a person whom your audience does not wish derided. And the unpopularity of Euripides, as we shall see later, is not hard to understand. The Satyrus tradition puts it down to his personal aloofness and austerity. He avoided society, and he "made no effort to please his audience." So that at least he did not soften by personal pleasantness the opposition they felt to his whole view of life. It was not only that he was utterly alienated from the War Party and the mob leaders: here he only agreed with Aristophanes. It was that he had pierced through to a deeper stratum of thought, in which most of the pursuits and ideals of the men about him stood condemned. Socrates reached the same plane, and they killed Socrates.
It is somewhat harder to understand the universal assumption of our authorities that Euripides was a notorious castigator of the female sex and that the women of Athens naturally hated him. To us he seems an aggressive champion of women; more aggressive, and certainly far more appreciative, than Plato. Songs and speeches from the Medea are recited to-day at suffragist meetings. His tragic heroines are famous and are almost always treated with greater interest and insight than his heroes. Yet not only the ancients, but all critics up to the last generation or so, have described him as a woman-hater. What does it mean? Is Aristophanes ironical, and are the scholiasts and grammarians merely stupid? Or is there some explanation for this extraordinary judgment?
I think the explanation is that the present age is the first, or almost the first, that has learned to treat its heroines in fiction as real human beings, with what are called "mixed characters." As lately as the time of Sir Walter Scott, perhaps as lately as Dickens, common convention demanded that a heroine, if sympathetic, should be so free from faults as to be almost without character. Ibsen's heroines, who were real human beings studied with sympathy but with profound sincerity, seemed to their generation shocking and even horrible. All through the ages the ideal of womanhood in conventional fiction has mostly been of the type praised by one great Athenian thinker: "the greatest glory for a woman is to be as little mentioned as possible among men." If that ideal was really predominant among the women of Athens, it is no wonder that they felt outraged by Euripides. They had not reached, and most of their husbands had not reached, the point of being interested in good study of character, much less the point of demanding a freer and more strenuous life. To the average stupid Athenian it was probably rather wicked for a woman to have any character, wicked for her to wish to take part in public life, wicked for her to acquire learning, or to doubt any part of the conventional religion, just as it was wicked for her to deceive her husband. Such women should not be spoken about; above all they should not be treated with understanding and sympathy. The understanding made it all infinitely worse. To people of this type the women of Euripides must have been simply shocking and the poet himself a cruel enemy of the sex. One only wonders that they could stand Sophocles' heroines, such as Antigone and Jocasta. To cleverer men, like Aristophanes, the case would, no doubt, seem rather more complicated. But Aristophanes, amid the many flashes of sympathy he shows for "advanced" women, was not the man to go against his solid conservative audience or to forgo such rich material for jokes.
In any case this is the kind of picture we have of Euripides in his last years; a figure solitary, austere, with a few close intimates, wrapped up in living for what he would call "the service of the Muses," in music, poetry and speculation; capable still of thrilling his audiences with an intensity of tragic emotion such as no other poet had ever reached; but bowed with age, somewhat friendless, and like other solitaries a little strange in his habits; uncomprehendingly admired and hated, and moving always through a mist of half-envious, half-derisive laughter. Calvus et calvinisia—one is reminded, amid many differences, of the quaint words in which William the Silent describes his own passage from youth to age, till the brilliant Catholic prince, leader of courts and tourneys, sate at last in his lonely council chamber "bald and a Calvinist." Let us try to trace the path of life which led him to this end.
He was the son of Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides—such names often have alternative forms—who is said to have been a merchant. His mother, Cleito, the supposed greengrocer, was, according to Philochorus, "of very high birth." He was born at Phlya, a village in the centre of Attica. The neighbourhood is celebrated still for its pleasant trees and streams in the midst of a sunburnt land. In Euripides' time it was more famous for its temples. It was the seat of Demeter Anesidora (Earth, Upsender of Gifts), of Dionysus of the Blossom, and the Dread Virgins, old-world and mysterious names, not like the prevailing gods of the Homeric mythology. Most famous of all, it possessed the mystery temple of Erôs, or Love. Owing to the researches of recent years, these mysteries can now be in their general nature understood. They are survivals of an old tribal society, in which all the boys as they reached maturity were made to pass through certain ordeals and initiations. They were connected both with vegetation and with re-birth after death, because they dated from a remote age in which the fruitfulness of the tribal fields was not differentiated from the fruitfulness of the flocks and the human families, and the new members born into the community were normally supposed to be the old ancestors returning to their homes. By Euripides' day such beliefs had faded into mystical doctrines, to be handled with speechless reverence, not to be questioned or understood, but they had their influence upon his mind. There were other temples too, belonging to the more aristocratic gods of heroic mythology, as embodied in Homer. Euripides was in his youth cup-bearer to a certain guild of Dancers—dancing in ancient times had always religious associations about it—who were chosen from the "first families in Athens" and danced round the altar of the Delian Apollo. He was also Fire-bearer to the Apollo of Cape Zôstêr; that is, it was his office to carry a torch in the procession which on a certain night of each year met the Delian Apollo at Cape Zôstêr, and escorted him on his mystic path from Delos to Athens.
When the child was four years old he had to be hurried away from his home and then from his country. The Persians were coming. The awful words lost none of their terror from the fact that in Greek the word "Persai," Persians, meant "to destroy." So later it added something to the dread inspired by Rome that her name, "Roma," meant "strength." The family must have crossed the narrow seas to Salamis or further, and seen the smoke of the Persian conflagrations rising daily from new towns and villages of Attica and at last from the Acropolis, or Citadel, itself. Then came the enormous desperate sea-battle; the incredible victory; the sight of the broken oriental fleet beating sullenly away for Asia and safety, and the solemn exclamation of the Athenian general, Themistocles, "It is not we who have done this!" The next year the Athenians could return to Attica and begin to build up their ruined farms. Then came the final defeat of the Persian land army at Plataea, and the whole atmosphere lifted. Athens felt that she had acted like a hero and was reaping a hero's reward. She had borne the full brunt of the war; she had voluntarily put herself under the orders of Sparta rather than risk a split in the Greek forces; and now she had come out as the undisputed mistress of the sea, the obvious champion round whom the eastern Greeks must rally. Sparta, not interested in matters outside her own borders, and not capable of any constructive policy, dropped sulkily out, and left her to carry on the offensive war for the liberation of the Greeks in Asia. The current of things was with her.
But this great result was not merely the triumph of a particular city; it was the triumph of an ideal and a way of life. Freedom had defeated despotism, democracy had defeated kings, hardy poverty had defeated all the gold of the East. The men who fought of their free will for home and country had proved more lasting fighters than the conscripts who were kept in the lines by fear of tortures and beheadings and impalements. Above all "virtue," as the Greeks called it, or "virtue" and "wisdom" together, had shown their power. The words raise a smile in us; indeed, our words do not properly correspond with the Greek, because we can not get our ideas simple enough. "Virtue" is what makes a man, or anything else, good; it is the quality of a good soldier, a good general, a good citizen, a good bootmaker, a good horse or almost a good sword. And "wisdom" is that by which a man knows how to do things—to use a spear, or a tool, to think and speak and write, to do figures and history and geometry, to advise and convince his fellow-citizens. All these great forces moved, or so it seemed at the time, in the same direction; and probably it was hardly felt as a dangerous difference when many people preferred to say that it was "piety" that had won in the war against "impiety," and that the Persians had been destroyed because, being monotheists, they had denied the Gods. No doubt "piety," properly understood, was a kind of "wisdom." Let us take a few passages from the old Ionian historian, Herodotus, to illustrate what the feeling for Athens was in Euripides' youth.
Athens represented Hellenism. (Hdt. I. 60.) "The Greek race was distinguished of old from the barbarian as more intelligent and more emancipated from silly nonsense (or 'savagery') . . . And of all the Greeks the Athenians were counted first in Wisdom." Athens, as the old epigram put it, was "The Hellas of Hellas."
And this superior wisdom went with freedom and democracy. "So Athens grew. It is clear wherever you test it, what a good thing is equality among men. Athens under the tyrants was no better than her neighbours, even in war; when freed from the tyrants she was far the first of all." (V. 78.)
And what did this freedom and democracy mean? A speaker in Herodotus tells us (III. 80): "A tyrant disturbs ancient laws, violates women, kills men without trial. But a people ruling—first the very name of it is beautiful, and secondly a people does none of these things."
And the freedom is not mere licence. When Xerxes heard the small numbers of the Greeks who were opposed to him he asked why they did not all run away, "especially as you say they are free and there is no one to stop them?" And the Spartan answered: "They are free, O King, but not free to do everything. For there is a master over them named Law, whom they fear more than thy servants fear thee." (VII. 104. This refers specially to the Spartans, but the same tale is told by Aeschylus of the Athenians. It applies to any free Greeks as against the enslaved barbarian.)
The free Athenian must also have aretê, "virtue." He must be a better man in all senses than the common herd. As Themistocles put it; at every turn of life there is a choice between a higher and a lower, and they must choose the higher always. Especially there is one sense in which Athens must profess aretê; the sense of generosity or chivalry. When the various Greek states were contending for the leadership before the battle of Artemisium, the Athenians, though contributing much the largest fleet, "thought that the great thing was that Greece should be saved, and gave up their claims." (Hdt. VIII. 3.) In the similar dispute for the post of honour and danger, before the battle of Plataea, the Athenians did plead their cause and won it. But they pleaded promising to abide loyally by Sparta's decision if their claims were rejected, and their arguments show what ideal they had formed of themselves. They claim that in recent years they alone have met the Persians single-handed on behalf of all Greece; that in old times it was they who gave refuge to the children of Heracles when hunted through Greece by the tyrant Eurystheus; it was they who, at the cost of war, prevented the conquering Thebans from leaving their dead enemies to rot unburied and thus offending against the laws of Greece and humanity.
This is the light in which Athens conceived herself; the ideal up to which, amid much confused, hot-headed and self-deceiving patriotism, she strove to live. She was to be the Saviour of Hellas.
Euripides was about eight when the ruined walls of Athens were rebuilt and the city, no longer defenceless against her neighbours, could begin to rebuild the "House of Athena" on the Acropolis and restore the Temples and the Festivals throughout Attica. He can hardly have been present when the general Themistocles, then at the height of his fame, provided the Chorus for the earliest of the great tragedians, Phrynichus, in 476 B.C. But he must have watched the new paintings being put up by the same Themistocles in the temples at Phlya, with scenes from the Persian War. And through his early teens he must have watched the far more famous series of pictures with which Polygnôtus, the first of the great Greek painters, was adorning the Acropolis; pictures that canonized scenes from the Siege of Troy and other legendary history. When he was ten he may probably have seen a curious procession which brought back from the island of Skyros the bones of Theseus, the mythical king of Athens and the accepted symbol, king though he was, of Athenian enlightenment and democracy. Athens was now too great and too self-conscious to allow Theseus to lie on foreign soil. When he was twelve he may have seen Aeschylus' Persae, "the one great play dealing with an historical event that exists in literature." When he was seventeen he pretty certainly saw the Seven against Thebes and was much influenced by it; but the Choregus this time was a new statesman, Pericles. Themistocles was in banishment; and the other great heroes of the Persian time, Aristides and Miltiades, dead.
Next year, 466 B.C. Euripides became officially an "Ephêbus," or "Youth." He was provided with a shield and spear, and set to garrison and police duty in the frontier forts of Attica. Full military service was to follow in two years. Meantime the current of his thoughts must have received a shock. For, while his shield and spear were still fresh, news came of one of the most stunning military disasters in Athenian history. A large colony which had been established on the river Strymon in Thrace had been lured into dangerous country by the Thracian tribes, then set upon by overwhelming numbers and massacred to the number of ten thousand. No wonder that one of Euripides' earliest plays, when he took to writing, was the story of Rhesus, the Thracian, and his rushing hordes of wild tribesmen.
But meantime Euripides had not found his work in life. We hear that he was a good athlete; there were records of his prize-winning in Athens and in Eleusis. Probably every ambitious boy in Greece did a good deal of running and boxing. More serious was his attempt at painting. Polygnotus was at work in Athens, and the whole art advancing by leaps and bounds. He tried to find his true work there, and paintings by his hand were discovered by antiquarians of later times—or so they believed—in the town of Megara. His writings show a certain interest in painting here and there, and it is perhaps the painter in him that worked out in the construction of his dramas such fine and varied effects of grouping.
But there was more in the air than painting and sculpture. The youth of Euripides fell in an age which saw perhaps the most extraordinary intellectual awakening known to human history. It had been preparing for about a century in certain cities of Ionian Greece, on the coast of Asia Minor, rich and cultivated states, subject for the most part to Lydian or Persian governors. The revolt of these cities and its suppression by Persia had sent numbers of Ionian "wise men," philosophers, poets, artists, historians, men of science, to seek for refuge in Greece, and especially in Athens. Athens was held to be the mother-city of all the Ionian colonies, and had been their only champion in the revolt. She became now, as one of these Ionian exiles put it, "the hearth on which the fire of Hellas burned." It is difficult to describe this great movement in a few pages, but one can, perhaps, get some idea of it by an imaginary comparison. Imagine first the sort of life that was led in remote parts of Yorkshire or Somerset towards the end of the eighteenth century, a stagnant rustic life with no moving ideas, and unquestioning in its obedience to authority, in which hardly any one could read except the parson, and the parson's reading was not of a kind to stir a man's pulse. And next imagine the intellectual ferment which was then in progress in London or Paris; the philosophers, painters, historians and men of science, the voices proclaiming that all men were equal, that the laws of England were unjust to the poor, that slavery was a crime, and that monarchy was a false form of government, or that no action was morally wrong except what tended to produce human misery. Imagine then what would occur in the mind of a clever and high-thinking boy who was brought suddenly from the one society into the heart of the second, and made to realise that the battles and duties and prizes of life were tenfold more thrilling and important than he had ever dreamed. That is the kind of awakening that must have occurred in the minds of a large part of the Greek people in the early fifth century.
A thoroughly backward peasant in a Greek village—even an Attic village like Phlya—had probably as few ideas as other uneducated peasants. In Athens some fifty years later we hear that it was impossible, with the best will in the world, to find any one who could not read or write. (Ar. Knights 188 ff.) But the difference in time and place is cardinal. The countryman who voted for the banishment of Aristides the Just had to ask some one else to write the name for him. Such a man did not read nor yet think. He more or less hated the next village and regarded its misfortunes as his own advantage. He was sunk in superstition. His customs were rigid and not understood. He might worship a goddess with a horse's head or a hero with a snake's tail. He would perform for the welfare of his fields traditional sacrifices that were often filthy and sometimes cruel. On certain holy days he would tear small beasts to pieces or drive them into a fire; in very great extremities he would probably think no medicine so good as human blood. His rules of agriculture would be a mixture of rough common sense and stupid taboos: he would not reap till the Pleiades were rising, and he would carefully avoid sitting on a fixed stone. When he sought for learning, he would get it in old traditional books like Hesiod, which taught him how Ouranos had been mutilated by his son Cronos, and Cronos bound with chains by his son Zeus; how Zeus was king of gods and men, but had been cheated by Prometheus into accepting bones instead of meat in a sacrifice. He would believe that Tantalus had given the gods his son Pelops to eat, to see if they would know the difference, and some of them had eaten bits of him. He would perhaps be ready, with great hesitation, to tolerate certain timid attempts to expurgate the story, like Pindar's, for instance, which results, according to our judgment, in making it rather worse. And this man, rooted in his customs, his superstitions, his narrow-minded cruelties, will of course regard every departure from his own way of life as so much pure wickedness. In every contest that goes on between Intelligence and Stupidity, between Enlightenment and Obscurantism, the powers of the dark have this immense advantage: they never understand their opponents, and consequently represent them as always wrong, always wicked, whereas the intelligent party generally makes an effort to understand the stupid and to sympathize with anything that is good or fine in their attitude. Many of our Greek Histories still speak as if the great spiritual effort which created fifth century Hellenism was a mass of foolish chatter and intellectual trickery and personal self-indulgence.
It was not that, nor anything like that. Across the mind of our stupid peasant the great national struggle against Persia brought first the idea that perhaps really it was better to die than to be a slave; that it was well to face death not merely for his own home but actually—incredible as it seemed—for other people's homes, for the homes of those wretched people in the next village. Our own special customs and taboos, he would reflect with a shiver, do not really matter when they are brought into conflict with a common Hellenism or a common humanity. There are greater things about us than we knew. There are also greater men. These men who are in everybody's mouth: Themistocles above all, who has defeated the Persian and saved Greece: but crowds of others besides, Aristides the Just and Miltiades, the hero of Marathon; Demokêdes, the learned physician, who was sought out by people in need of help from Italy to Susa; Hecataeus, who had made a picture of the whole earth, showing all the countries and cities and rivers and how far each is from the next, and who could have saved the Ionians if they had only listened to him; Pythagoras, who had discovered all about numbers and knew the wickedness of the world and had founded a society, bound by strict rules, to combat it. What is it about these men that has made them so different from you and me and the other farmers who meet in the agora on market-day? It is sophia, wisdom; it is aretê, virtue. They are not a bit stronger in the arm, not bigger, not richer, or more high-born: they are just wiser, and thus better men. Cannot we be made wise? We know we are stupid, we are very ignorant, but we can learn.
The word Sophistes means either "one who makes wise," or, possibly, as some scholars think, "one who deals in wisdom." The difference is slight. In any case it was in answer to this call for sophia that the Sophists arose. Doubtless they were of all kinds; great men and small, honest and dishonest; teachers of real wisdom and of pretence. Our tradition is rather bitter against them, because it dates from the bitter time of reaction and disappointment, when the hopes of the fifth century and the men who guided it seemed to have led Athens only to her fall. Plato in particular is against them as he is against Athens herself. In the main the judgment of the afterworld upon them will depend on the side we take in a never-ending battle: they fought for light and knowledge and freedom and the development of all man's powers. If we prefer blinkers and custom, subordination and the rod, we shall think them dangerous and shallow creatures. But, to see what the sophists were like, let us consider two of them who are recorded as having specially been the teachers of Euripides.
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, in Ionia, was about fifteen years older than Euripides, and spent some thirty years of his life in Athens. He discovered for the first time that the moon shines by the reflection of the sun's light; and he explained, in the main correctly, the cause of eclipses. The sun was not a god: it was a white-hot mass of stone or earth, in size perfectly enormous. In describing its probable size, language failed him; he only got as far as saying—what must have seemed almost a mad exaggeration—that it was many times larger than the Peloponnese. He held, if he did not invent, a particular form of the atomic theory which has played such a great rôle in the history of modern science. He was emphatic on the indestructibility of matter. Things could be broken up into their elements and could grow together again, but nothing could be created or destroyed. There was order in the world and purpose, and this was the work of a conscious power which he called "Nous," or Mind. "All things were together in a mass, till Mind came and put order into them." Mind is outside things, not mixed with them, and some authorities say that Anaxagoras called it "God." Meantime, he showed by experiment the reality and substance of air, and disproved the common notion of "empty space." It will be seen that these ideas, if often crudely expressed, are essentially the same ideas which gave new life to modern science after the sleep of the Middle Ages. Almost every one of them is the subject of active dispute at the present day.
Apart from physical science, we learn that Anaxagoras was a close friend and adviser of the great Athenian statesman, Pericles; and we have by chance an account of a long discussion between the two men about the theory of punishment—whether the object of it is to do "justice" upon a wrong-doer apart from any result that may accrue, or simply to deter others from doing the same and thus make society better. The question is the subject of a vigorous correspondence in the Times while these words are writing. We can understand what an effect such a teacher as this would have on the eager young man from Phlya. One great word of liberation was already in the air and belongs to no one sophist or philosopher. This was the distinction between Nature on the one hand and Custom or Convention on the other. The historian Herodotus, who was no sophist but loved a good story, tells how the Persian king, Darius, called some Greeks and some Indian tribesmen together into his presence. He then asked the Greeks what payment would induce them to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. "Nothing in the world," they cried in indignation. "They would reverently burn them." He proceeded to ask the Indians what they would take to burn their fathers' bodies, and they repelled the bare thought with horror; they would do nothing but eat them with every mark of love and respect. "Fire burns in the same way both here and in Persia," the saying was, "but men's notions of right and wrong are not at all the same." The one is Nature; the other is man's Custom or Convention. This antithesis between "Phusis" and "Nomos" ran vividly through the whole of Greek philosophy, and awoke with renewed vigour in Rousseau and the radical writers of the eighteenth century. It is an antithesis against which conformist dialecticians have always turned their sharpest weapons. It has again and again been dissected and refuted and shown to be philosophically untenable: but it still lives and has still something of the old power to shatter and to set free. All the thinkers of Greece at the time we are treating were testing the laws and maxims of their day, and trying to find out what really rested on Nature and what was the mere embroidery of man. It is always a dangerous and exciting inquiry; especially because the most irrational conventions are apt also to be the most sacrosanct.
This whole spirit was specially incarnate in another of Euripides' teachers. We hear of Protagoras in his old age from that enemy of the sophists, Plato. But for this sophist even Plato's satire is kindly and almost reverent. Protagoras worked not at physical science, but at language and philosophy. He taught men to think and speak; he began the study of grammar by dividing sentences into four kinds, Optative, Interrogative, Indicative, Imperative. He taught rhetoric; he formulated the first theory of democracy. But it was as a sceptic that he struck men's imaginations most. "About the Gods, I have no means of knowing either that they are or are not. For the hindrances to knowledge are many, the darkness of the subject and the shortness of man's life." Numbers of people, no doubt, went as far as this, and without suffering for it as Protagoras did; but his scepticism cut deeper and raised questions still debated in modern thought. "Man is the measure of things"; there is no truth to be had beyond the impression made on a man's mind. When this given object seems one thing to A and another thing to B, it is to each one exactly what it seems; just as honey not only seems sweet but is sweet to a healthy man, and not only seems bitter but is bitter to a man with jaundice. Then you can not say, we may ask, that one or other impression is false, and will prove false on further inquiry? No: he answers; each impression is equally true. The only difference is that each state of mind is not equally good. You cannot prove to the jaundiced man that his honey is sweet, for it is not: or to the drunkard that he does not desire his drink, for he does: what you can do is to alter the men's state of mind, to cure the jaundice or the drunkenness. Our cognition flows and changes. It is the result of an active impact upon a passive percipient. And, resulting from this change, there are in practice always two things to be said, a pro and a con. about every possible proposition. There is no general statement that cannot be contradicted.
Other teachers also are represented as having influenced Euripides; Archelaus, who tried to conceive Anaxagoras's "Mind" in some material form, as air or spirit—for spiritus, of course, means "breath"; Prodicus, who, besides his discoveries in grammar, is the author of a popular and edifying fable which has served in many schoolrooms for many centuries. It tells how Heracles once came to some cross roads, one road open, broad, and smooth and leading a little downhill, the other narrow and uphill and rough: and on the first you gradually became a worse and worse man, on the second a better one. There was Diogenes of Apollonia, whose theories about air seem to have had some effect on Euripides' writings; and of course there was, among the younger men, Socrates. Socrates is too great and too enigmatic a teacher to be summed up in a few sentences, and though a verse of ancient comedy has come down to us, saying, "Socrates piles the faggots for Euripides' fire," his influence on his older friend is not very conspicuous. Euripides must have caught something from his scepticism, his indifference to worldly standards, his strong purpose, and something also from his resolute rejection of all philosophy except that which was concerned with the doings and feelings of men. "The fields and trees will not talk to me; it is only the human beings in the city that will." That saying of Socrates might be the motto of many a dramatist.
The greatness of these philosophers or sophists of the fifth century does not, of course, lie in the correctness of their scientific results. The dullest and most unilluminated text-book produced at the present day is far more correct than Anaxagoras. Their greatness lies partly in the pioneer quality of their work. They first struck out the roads by which later workers could advance further. Partly in the daring and felicity with which they hit upon great and fruitful ideas, ideas which have brought light and freedom with them whenever they have recurred to men's minds, and which, as we have seen, are to a great extent still, after more than two thousand years, living issues in philosophic thought. Partly it lies in the mere freedom of spirit with which they set to work, unhampered by fears and taboos, to seek the truth, to create beauty, and to improve human life. The difference of atmosphere between the sophists of the Periclean circle and the ordinary backward Attic farmer must have been visible to every observer. If more evidence of the great gulf was needed, it was supplied emphatically enough in the experience of Euripides. He was himself prosecuted by Cleon, the demagogue, for "impiety." The same charge had been levelled even against his far less destructive predecessor, Aeschylus. Of these three special friends whom we have mentioned, Euripides did not live to see Socrates condemned to death and executed. But he saw Anaxagoras, in spite of the protection of Pericles, accused of "impiety" and compelled to fly for his life. He saw Protagoras, for the book which he had read aloud in Euripides' own house, prosecuted and condemned. The book was publicly burned; the author escaped, it is said, only to be drowned at sea, a signal mark in the eyes of the orthodox of how the gods regarded such philosophy.
Thought was no doubt freer in ancient Athens than in any other city within two thousand years of it. Those who suffered for religious advance are exceedingly few. But it was not in human nature, especially in such early times, for individuals to do such great service to their fellow men and not occasionally be punished for it. They induced men for a time to set reason and high ideals above the instincts of the herd: and sooner or later the herd must turn and trample them.
One of the ancient lives says that it was this sense of the antagonism between Anaxagoras and the conservative masses that turned Euripides away from philosophy. One need scarcely believe that. The way he took was not the way to escape from danger or unpopularity. And when a man shows extraordinary genius for poetry one need not search for the reasons which induced him not to write prose. He followed in the wake not of Anaxagoras but of Aeschylus.