Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Life of Greece
By Cornelius Conway Felton (18071862)
[Born in Newbury, Mass., 1807. Died at Chester, Penn., 1862. Greece, Ancient and Modern. 1867.]
THE LIFE of Greece was a life of a thousand years. A nation, like an individual, comes upon the stage in the freshness and vigor of youth, passes to its maturity, begins to decay, and finally yields its place to others. It has been recently said that this analogy has no basis in necessary truth; that it is the creation of fancy; that national life is not, like individual life, made up of perishable elements, and has no inherent principle of decay. Perhaps this is theoretically correct, or at least plausible; but the sources of a nations character and the means of a nations growth are changeable and exhaustible. The faith and enthusiasm which belong to the period of its youththe period of construction and developmentdo not endure forever. Heu prisca fides, was the natural exclamation of the Roman poet, when Rome meant the world; but the ancient Roman spirit was felt to be dying out. The physical resources of a country do not last always; and the crowded population of one epoch dwindles away, leaving another age to wonder how it could ever have been. Forests are cut down; the soil is exhausted; the fertilizing rivers shrink to streamlets, or entirely desert their ancient beds. Perhaps art might resist the gradual exhaustion of nature; but the attractions of new regions draw off the adventurous spirits, and the world is never full. The lines of commercial intercourse change. The great land-roads are deserted for the more expeditious and less expensive passage by sea. New and more convenient centres are found; and imperceptibly the splendors of the ancient seats become dim, and grass grows up through the crevices in the pavements. Power flies to other strongholds, and empires that once ruled the world fall into inward and outward decline. Where are Babylon, Persia, Syria, Egypt? It was not vice alone that destroyed them. It was a combination of causes, physical, moral, and mental. It was the ever-shifting relations of the world. The process goes on around us; but we do not heed it. Old communities are decreasing; young communities are increasing; change, fluctuation, death, are written on all human things; development and dissolution are the law to which men and nations are alike subjected. Some have a longer, others a shorter, term of existence; but the longest is a mere span, nor has any medicine yet been found to arrest or conquer death in either. The oldest nations now on the European stage have not reached the age of Greece and Rome. Farther east, the existence of nations has been artificially protracted; but it is only a life in death. We are less than a century old; and we can hardly infer an endless existence from the unexampled rapidity of our childhoods growth. Rather let us fear the seeds of a premature decay, unless we guard our national constitution by a wise temperance, justice, moderation, integrity, morality, religion,the laws of national health.
The life of Greece, as I have said, may be considered as lasting, effectively, a thousand years. How long was the period which preceded its actual appearance on the stage,how many ages were consumed in combining the elements of its being and character, and preparing it for its great career,it is impossible to say. That this period was neither short nor unimportant, the length, variety, and brilliancy of its historical existence afford us trustworthy proof.
The country, as we have seen, was admirably fitted for an energetic development of intellectual power. The face of nature was young and fresh; its features diversified and beautiful. Mountain, hill, and vale; woodland and meadow; rivers, lakes, harbors; fertile plains alternating with hard and uneven soil; a climate of unsurpassed healthfulness and loveliness, and of every variety; the whole surrounded by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, along whose shores were clustered the noblest seats of ancient culture,these were the framework within which Hellenic life unfolded its fairest and most fragrant flowers. Here was laid the only true foundation of civil society, in the family relation, extending the range of its influence to the remotest branches of kindred. Here were formed political societies, in which constitutions were modelled, embracing every principle of social and political science. Here poetry unfolded itself under the most inspiring circumstances and the most favoring auspices. Here eloquence was applied to its highest and noblest ends, with a consummate mastery of the resources of speech, logic, and intellectual force. Here belief in the existence of the gods gave to every form of nature and every affection of the human heart its relation to the divine nature, and clothed itself in the glories of plastic art. Here sprang up the exact sciences, geometry, astronomy; the intellectual science of the philosophy of the human mind; the moral or ethical science of duty towards God and man. Here a noble system of education, the germs of which were planted in Greece long before history was able to record them, developed the faculties of the mind and the powers of the body in harmonious proportion. Here history, an art closely allied to political liberty, not only began its career, but reached its highest perfection. These are the springs, the momenta of the life of Greece. For the life of a nation grows out of the family affections; it is strengthened by the patriotic spirit, which sees the welfare of the individual bound up in the welfare of the state; the chastisement of suffering and disaster nerves it to brave endurance; the sunshine of national prosperity expands it into luxuriant growth; the teachings of nature give it coloring; the splendors of creative genius exalt and refine it; letters and art remove it from rudeness; poetry kindles its fervor; eloquence heartens it to the great contests which it may have to breast before its day has risen to the height of heaven; philosophy shows its intellectual relations; religion opens its view into the other world; on the breast of Mother Earth the soul and character of a nation lovingly repose; underneath the sky, its teeming energies are wakened into thrills of ecstasy; action tasks its strength, by putting the ideal to the test of reality; and so by unnumbered influences, some too subtile to be expressed in human speech, is evolved by slow degrees that wonderful phenomenon of creative power and goodness, a nations life.