Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/May 1907/Sight and Seeing in Ancient Times

SIGHT AND SEEING IN ANCIENT TIMES
By Dr. CHARLES WILLIAM SUPER

ATHENS, O.

WHEN we pass along the streets of our cities and large towns and observe the number of persons between the ages of twenty and forty who wear spectacles; or again, if we inspect the eyesight of the children of our public schools and of the young people in our colleges, we find that a large proportion of the present generation is afflicted with visual organs more or less defective. More than this, there is hardly a person over fifty who does not use some sort of artificial aid to sight. In the German universities the situation is still worse. There, apparently, almost one half of the students wear eye-glasses. England furnishes a marked contrast; spectacles on the eyes of young men and young women are far less common. The chief reason doubtless is the fondness of both sexes for outdoor life. It is highly probable that our somewhat abnormal eyesight is chiefly due to the abnormal conditions under which we live. The epithet abnormal is of course to be understood in a relative sense; it is not strictly applicable to a highly developed stage of civilization. It can not properly be said that the conditions under which the Papuans or the Bushmen live are more natural than those of the residents of London or New York. Each generation is, in a sense, weaker but also wiser; what is lost in one direction is more than made up in another. Still, the injudicious use of the eyes in artificial light and a short range of vision seem to be inevitably imposed upon the dwellers in cities. It is a well-established fact in hygiene that any bodily organ is strengthened by the wise use of it. This being the case, it follows that persons who spend much of their time out-of-doors and in looking at objects afar off, or who use their eyes but little after nightfall, will retain their sight unimpaired much longer than do most people of the present day. On the other hand, failing vision is the natural concomitant of advancing age, so that the number of persons beyond sixty who see clearly with the naked eye is exceedingly small and probably was never very large.

Moreover, the human eye is said to be a rather ill-contrived piece of mechanism. A celebrated German physicist is reported to have remarked that if an artisan were to make for him a piece of apparatus so poorly adapted to its purpose he would not accept it. Biographers have, however, preserved the names of a considerable number of persons from the remote and more recent past whose mental faculties were unimpaired at fourscore and beyond, though it is not often that this could be affirmed of their sight. The last chapter of Deuteronomy informs us that Moses was 'an hundred 'and twenty years old; his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated.' There is nothing incredible in this record, for similar instances are not very rare. A colored woman died in Philadelphia in January, 1906, who seemed to have pretty clear recollections of Washington at Valley Forge. Her friends claimed for her the age of one hundred and thirty-five. A writer in a recent issue of the Monthly Review mentions a number of Kaffirs still living in 1885 who professed to have taken part in a battle in 1818. Burton made the acquaintance of a chief, whom he described in 1857 as a very old man; but eighteen years later Cameron found him still ruling his people and very little changed in appearance. While Humboldt was in Lima an Indian died there at the age of one hundred and forty-three. "Blindness overtook him at the age of one hundred and thirty, but till that misfortune he used to walk three or four leagues daily." He also declares that during his five years' residence in Mexico and South America he saw no person afflicted with bodily disease or even with squinting. Tschudi says that one hundred and thirty years 'with unimpaired faculties' is not at all uncommon in Peru. These references are doubtless to natives; and what is true of the so-called lower races does not necessarily hold good of the more advanced peoples. Among the more recent cases that are thoroughly authenticated are the Hon. David Work, of Fredericton, 1ST. B., who died in 1905, nearly one hundred and two years old. He was a man of mark in his community, and mentally and physically sound almost to the end. The celebrated French chemist, Chevreul, who died in Paris in 1889, was about a year older. John Wesley at eighty-five writes that he is "not quite so agile as he was in times past and his sight is a little decayed." Most persons, unless their observations have been very limited, have met individuals who lived close upon fivescore years or even beyond. Several Roman writers likewise give 120 years as the utmost limit of human life. Sight is preeminently the civilizing sense; upon it all progress depends, or, as Oken expresses it, "Sight is the light sense. Through it we become acquainted with universal relations, this being reason. Without the eye there would be no reason."The same thought is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: "The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is unclouded your whole body will be lighted up; but if your eye be diseased your whole body will be dark." Not only painting, sculpture and architecture are dependent upon sight, but language also as soon as it becomes the transmitter of experience, whether inner or outer, from age to age. Those peoples that never cultivate speech beyond the point where it is perceived by the ear alone, never advance farther than the primitive stage. But as soon as speech becomes cognizable by the sight, it can be employed to fix the experience and the accumulated knowledge of each generation. It is by means of our eyesight that we are able to learn the thoughts and, to some extent, the feelings of the people of the most distant ages and the most remote regions, almost as well as those of our intimate friends. Yet when we remember that man has left intelligible traces upon the earth, dating back at least seven thousand years, and compare their testimony with the world, say three hundred years ago, we are not conscious of a great advance either intellectually or socially. It is evident, therefore, that important as sight is to man, something more is needed to make him progressive. As soon as the mind becomes fossilized by tradition all advance ceases. If, on the other hand, we compare the world about A.D. 1600 with its condition at the present day, we are constrained to marvel at the advance that has been made. In fact it is not putting the case too strong to say that if by progress we mean man's power over matter, it has been greater during the last fifty years than during all the preceding time of his abode upon the earth. No more striking example of the stationary condition of mankind in certain relations exists than that furnished by artificial lighting. The situation in 1800 was virtually the same that had existed from the earliest times. Torches were used out-of-doors and lamps indoors. Many of the latter found in Grecian and Roman tombs served their purpose just as well as some of those used within the memory of men now living. Friction matches did not become general until about the middle of the last century. It is sometimes said in a tone of deprecation that as the realm of science increases that of poetry diminishes. Yet the fact is that the appreciation of the beauties of natural scenery has advanced with the careful study of nature. There may not be a realized connection, for poets are rarely scientists; albeit both have often been equally close observers, even if not found in each other's company or united in the same person. Few men have written more appreciatively or more sympathetically of the beauty and grandeur of natural scenery than geologists not a few; and geology is among the most modern of the sciences. The botanist who sees vegetation not only with his corporeal eye, but with his mind as well, derives a keener enjoyment from the beauties of vegetable life than does he who can not see beneath the surface; who has no conception of the forces that make plant life what it is.

To the ancients, especially to the Greeks, sea and stream, forest and field, mountain and moorland, were peopled with animate beings, it is true, and their imaginations seem to have sported in a region that is virtually closed to us moderns. On the other hand, while these beings were objects of interest they were also sources of terror; they were quite as often the doers of mischief as the bringers of blessings. Storms and lightning, floods and volcanic eruptions, are still natural phenomena to be feared, but they are no longer looked upon with superstitious dread as something to which man must submit with a blind and unreasoning fatalism. Their devastations can in some measure be guarded against and mitigated. Such lines as the following from Bryant could not have been written by a Greek poet since they express sentiments to which entire antiquity was a stranger:

Look on this beautiful world and read the truth
On her fair page; see, every season brings
New change to her, of everlasting youth;
Still the green soil with living joyous things
Swarms; the wide air is full of joyous wings,
And myriads still are happy in the sleep
Of oean's azure gulfs, and where he flings
The restless surge, eternal love doth keep,
In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.

The same affirmation may be made of Bryant's 'To a Cloud,' 'To a Waterfowl,' and other of his poems not a few; or of Shelley's 'Cloud' or the 'Skylark,' and many more. In Plato's Phædrus, one of the characters says: "Here is this lofty and spreading plane-tree, and the agnus castus high and clustering, and the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance; and the stream which flows beneath the plane-tree is deliriously cool to the feet. . . . How delightful is the breeze; and there is a sound in the air shrill and summer-like which makes answer to the cicadæ." Here we have, it is true, a flash of the love of nature. But some centuries later Plutarch refers to this passage as rather silly. While we are not sure that he is uttering his own sentiments, such seems to be the case.

In reading Greek authors we are perpetually confronted by the fact that they were acute thinkers and poor observers. They used their minds a great deal more than their senses. When they undertake to explain phenomena, they usually try to think out an explanation instead of first taking care that the phenomena in question have been correctly observed and registered. As for the Romans, not one of them ever had an original idea except on matters that could be turned to practical use.

Tacitus, for example, says that north of the Orkneys the waters are so sluggish, according to report, that they yield with difficulty to the oar and are not even raised by the wind. He then proceeds to assign as a probable reason that the extreme depth of the water makes it difficult to set in motion. Equally lucid is his explanation of the long days in the same region. Believing that night is produced by shadow, he tells us that owing to the flatness of the earth the darkness does not rise sufficiently high to reach the sky and the stars. He did not know that the nights are equally long. The Greek original from which our word eclipse is derived means a 'leaving' or 'departure.' So Herodotus, when speaking of an eclipse, says, the sun "Suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, hut the sky was clear and serene." This is quite equal to an argument I once heard upon the question whether the moon is inhabited. The rustic logician declared that such could not be the case because the people would have no place to go when it began to decrease. What an immense amount of speculation and calculation the Ptolemaic system made for the astronomers! The philosophers all agreed with Pliny that 'with the mind we see, with the mind we discriminate'; but unfortunately they too often forgot that the mind can not discriminate unless the senses have correctly furnished the facts. So far as sight is concerned, this is strikingly exemplified in all the work of the well-known mathematician, Euclid. As he knew nothing about refraction and had no rational theory of light, he had recourse to philosophy to provide him with a basis for his work on optics, but which is really a treatise on perspective. So far as is now known, the first man who made a study of refraction was Posidonius, who lived nearly two centuries after the father of geometry. He illustrated the principle by the familiar experiment of placing a coin on the bottom of an empty vessel in such a way that it was not visible because of the intervening rim, then bringing it into sight by filling the vessel with water.

The ancients were almost entirely without apparatus and had no instruments of precision; in fact, very few of them had any interest in the mechanic arts. Though Thales foretold an eclipse of the sun as early as B.C. 600, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had any way of measuring time that was even approximately accurate. Under the republic the normal Roman year contained only three hundred and fifty-five days. Julius Cæsar very nearly corrected the error, although in the time of Pope Gregory XIII., the year had become eleven days too long. It has ceased to be a matter of controversy whether the christian era is four years too short. There is hardly any doubt that the authors of the Homeric Poems had a very undeveloped color-sense. It is highly probable that two or three millenniums ago the countries about the Midland Sea, especially the Ægean, displayed to the appreciative beholder many glorious landscapes which the destruction of the forests and the drying up of the perennial streams have completely obliterated. Not a few streams that formerly flowed all the year round have become temporary torrents, more baneful than beneficent in their effects or beautiful to behold. Many hills that were once covered with natural vegetation now present a parched and barren appearance. In the Homeric Poems we find epithets not a few that felicitously describe natural objects, or at least characterize them, but they are the result of a happy instinct rather than a careful observation. In the long 'Hymn to Demeter,' not many lines are given to an enumeration of the flowers that spring so profusely from the bosom of the earth. The treatment of the subject is perfunctory and superficial. In the much shorter 'Hymn to the Earth, the Mother of All,' flowers are barely mentioned and not particularized. In the brilliant description of the gardens of Alkinous, the author of the 'Odyssey' tells us there "grow tall trees blooming, pear-trees, and pomegranates, and apple-trees with bright fruit, and sweet figs, and olives and their blossoms. Some of the fruit is always ripening, yet there is a constant bloom on the trees and much unripe fruit. There too, skirting the farthest line, are all manner of garden-beds, that are perpetually fresh."

We have here a sort of combination of orchard and vegetable garden, for plainly the writer had in mind utility rather than beauty. At any rate there is nothing in this quotation, in which the author had literally sent his imagination on its loftiest flights, to indicate that he knew cultivated flowers. The same may be said of 'Calypso's Isle.' The Greeks considered crowns of flowers or leaves of some kind indispensable at every banquet and revel. Anacreon, the prince of voluptuaries, frequently refers to this well-known custom. The material of which the wreath was made does not seem to have been regarded as of primary importance. The symbol only, not the substance, was essential. According to Xenophon, when some of the ten thousand in Armenia in the depth of winter were invited to a feast by one of the native chiefs, the revelers crowned themselves with hay. The will did duty for the deed. This story reminds one of the Arabs, who are punctilious in performing the stated ablutions enjoined by the Koran. But as water is sometimes too precious to be wasted in this way, they use sand, which, mixed with a liberal amount of credulity, is to the faithful equally efficacious. The extracts from Homer recall the socalled hanging gardens of Babylon constructed for Semiramis more than two thousand years before Christ. These constituted a park built on an artificial elevation, so that the epithet usually applied to them would be equally suitable to the grounds at Versailles or the Buttes Chaumont in Paris—all hung on the ground. The Persian monarchs and noblemen maintained extensive pleasure-grounds, in which great quantities of game were enclosed. It is from their designation of these parks that we get our word Paradise. It comes to us from the Greek, and is found in nearly all the modern European languages. The general opinion, however, is that the first parks, in the modern sense of the term, were the work of the Roman emperors.

Homer has no word for 'color' nor for any of the primary colors. In like manner the term usually translated 'black' is very indefinite. It is used of the bronzed complexion of Ulysses and of his henchman, Eurybates; of the ripe grape; of beans; of wine, and of the storm cloud. We moderns would say that it is strictly applicable in the last case only; certainly the difference between the hue of the storm cloud and the darkest complexion of a white man is very marked. Of Agamemnon it is said that he 'stood weeping like unto a fountain of dark water that from a beetling cliff poureth down its black stream.' In the 'Odyssey' it is said of Ulysses that 'Athena shed great beauty from his head downwards. . . and from his head caused deep curling locks to flow like the hyacinth flower.' This comparison, which is made twice, is absolutely incomprehensible to us, if it has reference to color. It is also noteworthy that the epithet which is variously translated 'golden,' 'fair,' 'blond' is so applied to most of the Greek heroes and to horses. Evidently the author of the Homeric poems believed that the Greek nobles did not have the usual dark complexion of the southern races. Be that as it may, we can not resist the conviction that in primitive times the various shades of color that made the same general impression on the sight were named alike. There was hardly any discrimination of the sensations. Homer's usual method of designation of colors is by comparison; hence such words as 'steel-blue,' 'saffron-colored,' 'blood-red,' 'vermilion-cheeked' are common. A table has 'dark-blue' feet; the same adjective is also applied to the prow of a ship, to hair, to a horse's mane and to the eye. Fear is said to be chloros (of a greenish yellow). Still, this is hardly more curious or more inexact than Shakspere's 'green-eyed monster,' and the current phrase 'to turn green with envy.' It is not easy to discover the underlying idea. The same epithet is translated 'blood-red' when applied to a serpent and 'tawny' when used of the color of jackals. Though the Homeric Greeks were in some respects a good deal more advanced than our Indians, in the appreciation of the beauties of nature, they were not very wide apart. Henry T. Finck, in his 'Primitive Love,' adduces plenty of evidence to prove that the "Indians have no conception of the romantic side of nature—of scenery for its own sake. To them a tree is simply a grouse-perch, or a source of firewood; a lake, a fish-pond; a mountain, the dreaded abode of evil spirits." He assures us that the real Indian and the Hiawatha Indian are just as much alike as fact and fancy. In Homer's circle there was no interest in flowers or blossoms and no mention is made of garlands, although they played so important a part in the social life of the later Greeks. When flowers are mentioned at all it is almost solely on account of their color, which serves as a basis of comparison. One exception that I recall is the passage where one of Priam's sons is smitten with an arrow so that: "Even as a garden poppy droopeth its head aside, being heavy with fruit and the showers of spring; so bowed he his head aside laden with his helm." The Homeric Poems are supremely important for the insight they afford into the early civilization of the people which they portray, but they contain a great deal that is repulsive to our far more refined sensibilities. Empedocles speaks of but four colors: white, black, red and pale green. It is hard to believe that the age in which this philosopher lived knew at most only two prismatic colors. It is more probable that he regarded green and blue, and perhaps some other colors, as derivatives from these and therefore not entitled to separate enumeration. According to Democritus, there are but four primitive colors, from which all others are formed by combination. He seems to have regarded blue and green as variants of black. Aristotle thought there were only two primitive colors: light or white and black or dark, and that all others were produced by a mixture of these. Wide as this is from the mark, it shows a tendency to simplify natural phenomena, though it would doubtless be going too far to suspect in this belief an inkling of the composition of light. In the Old Testament four prismatic colors are mentioned, three of them very often and yellow four times, three times in Leviticus and once in the Psalms. In the former, it is used of hair; in the latter, of gold. As the Hebrews were surrounded by nations that had made great advances in technical skill, it is probable likewise that all of them had made greater advances in the discrimination of colors than the Greeks.

The fact that the ancients habitually speak of only four colors is almost proof positive that they did not discriminate more. In addition to the evidence already cited, there is to be added that of painting. What is known of the art of Polygnotus, the earliest of the distinguished painters of antiquity and a contemporary of Pericles, leads to the conclusion that he used no greater number, according to the ideas of his time. Like all early painters he worked on terra-cotta vases and on walls, not on canvas. It seems highly probable that throughout antiquity no distinction was made between orange and yellow, nor between indigo and blue, nor between the darker colors that shade into black. Many of the lower races, both at home and abroad, share this defect. Both have also the same liking for what is gaudy and striking. It is probable that the fondness for 'loud' colors is a species of survival that may be studied in children and in persons that are color-blind. The latter defect is a species of arrested development, and being an organic defect can not be overcome. On the other hand, some primitive races are reported to exhibit a very acute color-sense. This mental condition has likewise its analogy among children, some of whom are indifferent to colors, while in others the color-sense shows itself very early. At any rate, modern analogies will not enable us to decide the question for or against any people of antiquity. Two theories have long been held to account for the poverty of terms to designate colors in remote times. The one most in harmony with the evolution hypothesis is that the color-sense has followed the general law of development; the other, that primitive races perceive colors as clearly as we do, but that their languages lack words to designate minor differences. Color-blindness has no connection with mental power in general. It is well known that the celebrated physicist, John Dalton, was not capable of distinguishing more than three colors. Many similar cases are on record. This defect has become known as daltonism or achromatopsia. A more correctly constructed compound would be chromatuphlosis. However, technical terms often lead the philologist to express the same opinion of them that the devil is said to have used of the Ten Commandments, "They are a queer lot." In the language of the Psalmist, "They are fearfully and wonderfully made." Generally speaking, animals make less use of sight than man; all those that have been domesticated select their food by the sense of smell and not by sight. The test may be readily made with blind horses, which are unfortunately not as rare as they ought to be. Birds, on the other hand, depend wholly on the sense of sight, which is remarkably acute.[1] In ancient accounts of battles, sieges and pestilence, those gruesome birds that live on corpses are never absent. It may be taken for granted that the problem, How do we see? exercised the ingenuity of the ancient thinkers a great deal. It need not surprise us that they were wide of the mark, seeing that there is as yet no universally accepted theory of vision. But the moderns have learned that color is subjective, whereas the ancients regarded it as objective. Lucretius, who follows the teachings of some of the Greek philosophers, probably of Empedocles, affirms that very thin films are detached from the visible object and impinge upon the eye to produce sight. Aristotle was convinced that there must be some medium between the organ of sight and the object seen by which the sight-process is mediated. Lucretius says that persons afflicted with jaundice see everything yellow because so many atoms of that color fill the orb of sight. He compares the casting away of films or effigies to the cicada that casts off its tunic, or the snake that sheds its glossy vesture and to fire that emits smoke. Much later Locke says: "Since the extension, figure, number and motion of bodies of an observable bigness may be perceived at a distance by the sight, it is evident that some singly imperceptible bodies must come from them to the eye." Lucretius seems to have observed natural phenomena with unusual care for a Soman, but it was rather their more violent aspects, such as thunder and lightning, earthquakes and waterspouts and floods. The phenomena of rain, hail and snow could of course not escape his attention. It has been shown above that the ancients, particularly the Greeks, had a very defective perception of colors and that they had very poor eyes for the beauties of nature as displayed in scenery. It may be interesting to trace briefly the growth of this last sentiment, since it is one of the latest phases of evolution. The Greeks were eminently a social people. They laid great stress upon that urbanity which is acquired only by long association of man with man. Greek pedagogy insists that education shall above all things make the gentleman. Greek thinkers were far more interested in their fellow men than in their irrational companions or in the silent creation. It is true Theocritus, and the much later Dio, praise country life, but they lived in an age that was preeminently one of books. They commend the simple and unsophisticated manners of those who keep aloof from the haunts of men more than they express delight in their rustic surroundings. They do not like nature so much as they dislike man. Among the Romans, Virgil and Horace follow the same course. They either never leave the city or they stay within easy reach of it. They do as did the usurer whom the latter portrays in his much-read and often-translated second Epode. After enumerating the delights of country life and the various vexations of those who have much to do with men, he ends just where he began—by staying in the city. This praise of rural life reads as if written by one who knew but little about it. We find much the same thing in Germany in Gessner's writings and in England in the age of Anne.

Pope declares:

Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound;
Content to breathe his native air
On his own ground.

Yet he never went farther from London than Virgil or Horace from Rome. We get curious glimpses into the vagaries of taste when we trace even in the barest outline the manifestations of what was supposed to be a love of nature. Virgil's Pastoral poems seem to have been the original inspiration. We can follow their influence in almost every country of Europe from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, and, to some extent, in the eighteenth. Even the horticultural art was made subservient to this fantastic taste of which Lenotre was the chief apostle. Trees and shrubbery were clipped and trained into artificial forms, and flowers were planted according to geometrical figures. The aristocracy professed a love for nature, but it was nature of a very unnatural sort. It is not until we come to Bloomfield and Crabbe, but especially to Wordsworth, that we find nature and the unsophisticated man receiving a genuine poetical treatment by persons who knew both at first hand and studied them with genuine sympathy. Walter Scott was likewise an ardent lover of nature and of natural scenery. Both his poetry and his prose are evidence. His novels contain many elaborate descriptions of scenery that bear the stamp of verisimilitude. They are the work of a constructive imagination of the highest order. If Xenophon had had an eye for the beauties of mountain and plain, of forest and stream, he would have left upon record his impressions of them rather than the numerous and long speeches he has handed down to posterity, made for the most part 'out of his own head.' If it be alleged in extenuation that the circumstances under which his notes were taken were ill suited to the careful study of external nature, it is to be said in reply that he observed and recorded what most interested him. His itinerary is so inaccurately, or at least so sparingly, marked that no modern explorer has been able to follow or trace it. In view of the fact that the ancients did not receive as much pleasure from the contemplation of scenery as we moderns, it is probable that they did not regard blindness or failing sight as a very serious misfortune. In Schiller's Tell we have a notable passage describing the frightful misfortune of blindness:

Oh! 'tis a noble gift of Heaven,
The gift of sight, each being lives on light,
And all creation feels its gladding power!
The plants themselves turn joyfull to the light:
To die—is nothing—nothing! but to live,
And not to see—is misery indeed!

The Greeks believed that the power of internal vision was enhanced by lack of bodily sight. This belief was in accordance with the law of compensation held by them. Fortune, good or ill, is always outweighed by its opposite. 'The blind old man of Scio's rocky isle' was supposed to have been blind because his intellectual insight was preternaturally acute and accurate. Tiresias, the most famous seer in Greek legend, is always spoken of as blind. We do not know whether this preternatural acumen was the result of his want of sight or whether the latter was a condition precedent to the former. One of the favorite characters of Greek mythology was Œdipus, spending the sunset of his life in dignified retirement near Athens under the care of his daughter Antigone. In early years he had blinded himself after discovering that he had unwittingly been guilty of incest. The Greeks did but little by artificial light. They were early risers and all reputable people were supposed to retire early. Plato, in his Laws, says the master and mistress of the household should be the first to rise in the morning in order to show a good example to the other members. He further says: "Magistrates who keep awake at night are terrible to the bad whether enemies or citizens and are honored and revered by the temperate, and are useful to themselves." Throughout the entire ancient, medieval and modern world, until within comparatively recent times, the badly lighted or totally dark streets made it a matter of prudence for honest people to go abroad as little as possible after nightfall, especially if they carried or were supposed to carry articles of value. The comparative sameness in the style of clothing gave the footpad the opportunity to replenish his wardrobe at the expense of his fellow without saying, 'By your leave.' We are not told that the man who went down to Jericho was attacked in the night, but we are informed that he was stripped. That the ancients placed a much higher value on worn garments than is done by the moderns is shown by the statement that the soldiers who kept guard over the body of Christ on the cross cast lots for his raiment. This was the custom at the execution of malefactors.

It is curious that the free Greeks were in the habit of rising early, for, owing to the abundance of slaves, most of them had little compulsory work to perform except when on military expeditions. A law of Solon prohibited teachers from opening school before sunrise or holding it after sunset. To the casual reader this may sound ridiculous. But to many of our older college graduates, it will occur that they were required to attend prayers so early in the morning that they had to be conducted by lamp or candle. An acquaintance of mine who lived near a certain college used to relate that he well remembered hearing young men pass his house in the dark of the morning who, while completing the process of dressing, interspersed the performance with occasional expressions not suitable for ears polite. The mood in which such persons reached their destination was evidently not well suited to the spirit of devotion which those early exercises were supposed to foster.

Many people believe, because they have read in books, that the sight of the Indians was extraordinarily keen, and that they were able to descry objects at a greater distance than was possible for white men. This is an error, if the assertion is to be taken without qualification. All savages have eyes trained to see those things that are necessary to their preservation—game and enemies. Their sight is not by nature more acute than that of the white man, but in some respects it was better trained. The whites who lived among the Indians and were compelled to defend themselves against their enemies saw just as far as their enemies. It may be affirmed as a general principle that there is nothing a civilized man can not do better than a savage. The latter uses his reason to aid his instinct; the former makes his instinct subservient to his reason. It is well known that sailors are able to discern objects at sea at a greater distance than landsmen, but we have to do here with a faculty that any one can acquire. The Indians did just what the whites who lived among them did who subsisted on game and were obliged to be on the constant lookout for enemies. Both had acquired not merely the power to discern objects, but also training in the interpretation of the signification of those objects that came within visible range. It is probable, for reasons given above, that not only the Indians as well as all tribes living on the same social level, but also the backwoodsmen, retained their sight to a more advanced age than is now generally the case; but that the eye of the former was naturally more powerful than that of the present generation or that of men in general is unsupported by trustworthy evidence. There is no doubt that a child born with normal eyes in one of our large cities can see objects just as far off and define them just as accurately with proper training as a person who never saw a dozen houses together. It is well known, too, that what are sometimes called the lower senses, touch, taste and smell, are often of extraordinary acuteness in civilized man as the result of training. If, therefore, any of the senses of our urban population is feebler than that of the dwellers in the rural districts, it is not due to an inherent weakness, but to improper or injudicious use.

Since it is evident that the ancients, particularly the Greeks, looked upon the external world with emotions very different from the moderns, let us next inquire what means they possessed, if any, for strengthening the sight or aiding defective vision. The problem has been a good deal discussed. Those who believe that some sort of apparatus corresponding to modern eye-glasses has been in use from almost time immemorial rely chiefly upon inference, since hardly any direct evidence is forthcoming. It is held by some investigators that the very large number of seal rings and seal cylinders, both intaglios and cameos, dating from the remotest times found in the Babylonian tombs, must be accepted as proof positive that the art of cutting the hardest precious and other stones was a regular business in that part of the world, and that this could not have been carried on without some kind of magnifying lenses. That work of this sort could be performed only by persons of exceptionally keen eyesight is beyond question: the inference drawn from modern experience is logical. Yet in the absence of objects which might reasonably be expected to be forthcoming, we are constrained to render the verdict 'not proven.' So far as we have direct testimony, it is all adverse, if the expression be admissible. It is generally held that the first mention of magnifying glasses is found in an Arab writer of the eleventh century. Roger Bacon speaks of glasses that correct refraction. The epitaph of a certain Salvinus Armatus in Florence names him as the inventor of spectacles, although it is also said of the monk Alexander of Spina, that he made use of eyeglasses. In the year 1488 makers of spectacles are mentioned in Nuremberg. There is a passage in Scott's 'Quentin Durward' that represents Lord Crawford with spectacles on his nose, and the remark is added that the invention was recent. That artificial aids to sight are modern is also rendered probable from the lack of a word inherited from antiquity to designate the apparatus. The English word 'spectacle' is still used in a sense that differs but little from its Latin parent: it is something to look at, a stage-play, then the theater itself. But the earliest English 'spectacle' is used for spy-glass. It is thence probable that our plural 'spectacles' originally meant a pair of spyglasses, a sort of anticipated binocular. The French spectacle still has its original Latin meaning, the form of the word being but slightly changed. On the other hand, in the German and Scandinavian languages, Spektakel is equivalent to what we call a 'rumpus.' But Brille (spectacles) is from beryllus, the Latin name of a transparent stone. The French besicles also point to beryl. Bericle is an earlier form of besicle for 'besiculum,' a little beryl. In some of the French dialects the first syllable ber- is still preserved, bnt the Parisian word for spectacles is besicles, in which the original r has been changed to s, according to a phonetic law traceable in other words also. The Spaniards, Italians and Russians have each a native word to designate this article of common use.

There is a passage in Pliny that is usually cited as evidence that something akin to spectacles must have been in use at least in his time. He relates that the Emperor Nero used a precious stone which he calls 'smaragdus,' generally translated 'emerald,' through which he was accustomed to gaze on the gladiatorial combats; or rather, this is what he seems to say. There is, however, little doubt that Dr. Magnus, the latest author to examine the passage critically, is right in holding that it means no more than that the emperor was in the habit of gazing upon an emerald which he used to carry with him for the purpose of resting his eyes when they became tired looking upon shows that were interesting to him. This view is rendered the more probable from the belief of antiquity that green has a restful effect upon the eyesight.

Contrivances for bringing the rays of the sun to a focus in order to produce combustion have been employed almost from time immemorial. A curious proposal bearing on this point is made by Aristophanes in his comedy of the 'Clouds.' Strepsiades, the hero of the play, is greatly harassed with debts and has not the wherewithal to pay. He therefore proposes to his master to get a stone at some chemist's shop of the kind with which they kindle fire, and when the clerk is entering the suit, to stand at some distance and melt it out. As the writing tablets then in use were probably thin boards covered with a still thinner coating of wax on which the writing was done with a pointed instrument, it would not require great heat to effect the purpose. Besides, if, as seems to have been the case and custom, burning-glasses were used to kindle fires, they must have been of considerable size even in a country like Greece where the sun shines very hot most of the year. Moreover, we are told, they were kept in the chemists' shops for this purpose. If by any mishap the sacred fire watched over by the Vestal Virgins in Rome went out, it was rekindled by means of a burning-glass. Polybius, when speaking of the siege of Syracuse by the Romans, B.C. 214, relates that they were unable to take it from the side of the sea because of the engines employed against them by Archimedes, unquestionably the greatest mechanician of the ancient world. Says he: "So true is it that one man and one intellect properly qualified for the particular undertaking is a host in himself and of wonderful efficacy." The Romans were confident that they could take the city 'if one old man could be got rid of.' He might have added with equal truth that when a man appears in a world wholly unprepared to comprehend him, not only are his thoughts neglected, hut his discoveries forgotten. The story that Archimedes set the ships of the Romans on fire by means of burning-glasses is not found in any author who lived near his time. Moreover, the captains of the vessels would hardly be so obliging as to hold their vessels stationary in order that the old philosopher might work his will on them. Yet the marvelous feats he accomplished on the same occasion and vouched for by credible witnesses are scarcely less incredible. It may be accepted as certain that Archimedes produced wonderful effects by means of his lenses, whether they were made of glass or of some other material. That the ancients as late as the age of Plutarch knew nothing of spectacles is clear from the negative testimony of this writer, whose works might be superscribed 'Concerning all Things and Some Others.' In one of his table talks he tries to explain why old people, when reading, hold the book at some distance from the eyes. He finds the reason to lie in Plato's theory of vision, which he also holds. This philosopher maintained, in common with almost all the thinkers of antiquity, that sight is produced by a sort of fluid substance passing from the visible object to the eye, somewhat in the shape of a cone, the eye being the apex. When the organ becomes weakened by age this attenuated substance is too intense to permit normal vision; so in order to weaken it the object must be held farther away. He finds a confirmation of this theory in the habits of those animals that seek their prey by night when their sight is most acute. The fluid emanating from the object is too strong to be properly commingled with the power of vision, as he expresses it, possessed by these animals, but is so weakened and diluted by the surrounding darkness as to enable them to see at their best. This may seem to us very puerile; it ceases to be so when we remember that to this day no one has been able to answer the question. How do we see?

Though the art of making glass of certain kinds is very old, spectacles had to wait on the discovery or invention of some method that would produce it perfectly transparent. Specimens of glass have been found in the Egyptian tombs that are more than four thousand years old, and glass bottles are represented on tombs at least fifteen hundred years earlier. In Mesopotamia the art of making glass has been traced for at least two thousand years B. C. But all the glass of antiquity was of inferior quality and was almost useless for purposes where the rays of light were to be transmitted unbroken and with undiminished energy. Mirrors were also made in Egypt thousands of years before the christian era. The materials used were obsidian, metal, zinc and silver. Glass mirrors are mentioned by Pliny, but as they were neither perfectly plane nor foliated they gave back a very imperfect image and were not much esteemed. The word translated 'glass' in King James's version is not as clear as in some of the later renderings. The passage in the First Epistle to the Corinthians if read: "As yet we see things dimly, reflected as in a mirror, but then face to face," makes the sense plain. As looking-glasses, to use this term by anticipation, were generally made of steel or some other metal, they readily became tarnished, even when of the best quality; hence the man who beheld his face 'in a glass' rarely got a distinct image, and thus would readily forget the lineaments of his countenance. That window glass, such as is now in common use, was slow to gain currency is shown by the little panes in many old buildings in Europe. They are usually round or nearly so, and so small that one of them can easily be held between the tips of the ringers and the thumb. That this form of window glass first came into vogue in Germany is evident from the name disk (Scheibe) by which a pane of glass is still designated, no matter what its shape.

That ancient customs are still practised by primitive tribes is interestingly shown by the two following incidents. In the Iliad we are told that when Asklepias 'saw the wound where the bitter arrow had lighted he sucked out the blood,' and so forth. In his recent work on the Australian aborigines, John Mathew informs the reader that the doctor or sacred man made a practise of sucking the part affected. He then proceeds: "There seems to be some efficacy in the sucking, for a friend of mine who was suffering severely from an inveterate, inflamed eye allowed a black 'doctor' to mouth the eyeball, and the result of the treatment was immediate relief and speedy cure." A further parallelism between the rise and practise of the healing art and the priestly class, although in Greece the connection was less close than elsewhere and did not long continue, is shown by this extract.

The reading habit is essentially modern and may be said to date from the rise of periodicals, comparatively few of which are more than half a century old. The invention of spectacles and that of printing were very nearly coeval. Until that date literary instruction was largely a matter of dictation, repetition and memorizing, as is still the case in many parts of the world. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans the memory was trained to a far greater extent than with us. In the literature of the former there is constantly evident a sort of distrust of the written page. It could not reflect the vivifying power of the living voice. It seems to have been a common thing for Greek youths to learn Homer by heart, huge as the task would be to us. Knowledge was to be elicited by discussion, by the dialectic method, by question and answer. Intellectual training was almost exclusively rhetorical. Taking into consideration, therefore, the fact that eyes were not needed for the manufacture and use of instruments of precision and that the printed page did not exist, we can easily understand that spectacles were not greatly missed.

  1. I recently came across the following—how much truth there is in it I do not know: "Red will annoy a turkey-cock as much as a bull, but a sparrow will not let it disturb its mind. But if one shakes a blue rag in front of a caged sparrow's eyes, he will go frantic with disgust. Sparrows, and linnets too, will refuse food offered to them on a piece of blue paper, and dislike the appearance of any one wearing a blue dress. Medium light blue affects them most, but blue serge they scarcely mind at all. Thrushes and blackbirds object to yellow, but will use red or blue dried grasses left about their haunts to build the outer layers of their nests. Yellow grasses they let alone."