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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Pentland Mahaffy (1839–1919)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
JOHN PENTLAND MAHAFFY is conspicuous among contemporary Greek scholars and historians for devoting himself less to the study of the golden age of the Greek intellect than to the post-Alexandrian period, when the union of Greece with the Orient produced the Hellenistic world. It is in this highly colored, essentially modern world of decadent Greek energy that Professor Mahaffy is most at home, and in which he finds the greatest number of parallels to the civilization of his own day. He is disposed indeed to link England and Ireland, through their political life, to the Athens and Sparta of the third century before Christ, and to find precedents in the Grecian republics for democratic conditions in the United States. In the opening chapter of his ‘Greek Life and Thought,’ after dwelling upon the hostile attitude of Sparta and Athens towards the Macedonian government, he adds, “But we are quite accustomed in our own day to this Home-Rule and Separatist spirit.”  1
  It is this intimate manner of approaching a far-off theme that gives to Professor Mahaffy’s work much of its interest. He is continually translating ancient history into the terms of modern life. “Let us save ancient history,” he writes, “from its dreary fate in the hands of the dry antiquarian, the narrow scholar; and while we utilize all his research and all his learning, let us make the acts and lives of older men speak across the chasm of centuries and claim kindred with the men and motives of to-day. For this and this only is to write history in the full and real sense.”  2
  Whatever the merits of his scholarship, Professor Mahaffy has adhered closely to his ideal of a historian. He has a thorough grasp upon the spirit of that period for which he has the keenest appreciation, and which he is able to present to his readers with the greatest clearness and vividness of color and outline. It is true, doubtless, as he says, that the exclusive attention paid by modern scholars to the age of spotless Atticism has overshadowed that Oriental-Hellenistic world which rose after Alexander sank. The majority of persons know little of that rich life of decaying arts and flourishing philosophies, and strangely modern political and social conditions, which had its centers in Alexandria and Antioch. It is of this that Professor Mahaffy writes familiarly in his ‘Greek Life and Thought,’ and in his ‘Greek World under Roman Sway.’ He succeeds in throwing a great deal of light upon this period of history; less perhaps through sheer force of scholarship than through his happy faculty of finding a family relationship in the poets, philosophers, statesmen, and kings of a long-dead world. What he may lose as a “pure scholar” he thus gains as a historian.  3
  In his classical researches, he has profited greatly by his acquaintance with German investigations in this field. Although of Irish parentage, he was born in Switzerland in 1839, and the roots of his education were fixed in the soil of German scholarship. His subsequent residence at Trinity College, Dublin, as professor of ancient history, has by no means weaned him from his earlier educational influences. He attaches the utmost importance to the thorough-going spirit of the German Grecians. He makes constant use of their discoveries. Nevertheless Professor Mahaffy is more of a sympathetic Irish historian or historical essayist than a strict Greek scholar after the German pattern. He is at his best when he is writing of the social side of Hellenistic life. His ‘Greek Life and Thought,’ his ‘Greek World under Roman Sway,’ his ‘Survey of Greek Civilization,’ his ‘Social Life in Greece,’ show keen insight into the conditions which governed the surface appearances of a world whose colors have not yet faded. This world of Oriental sensuousness wedded to Greek intelligence, this world which began with Demosthenes and Alexander and ended with Nero and St. John, seems to Professor Mahaffy a more perfect prototype of the modern world than the purer Attic civilization which preceded it, or the civilization of Imperial Rome which followed it.  4
  Like the majority of modern Greek scholars, Professor Mahaffy has engaged in antiquarian research upon the soil of Greece itself. His ‘Rambles and Studies in Greece,’ a work of conversational charm, shows not a little poetical feeling for the memories that haunt the living sepulchre of a great dead race.  5
  Other works of Professor Mahaffy include ‘Problems in Greek History,’ ‘Prolegomena to Ancient History,’ ‘Lectures on Primitive Civilization,’ ‘The Story of Alexander’s Empire,’ ‘Old Greek Life,’ and the ‘History of Classical Greek Literature.’ His value as a historian and student of Greek life lies mainly in his power of suggestion, and in his original and fearless treatment of subjects usually approached with the dreary deference of self-conscious scholarship. His revelation of the same human nature linking the world of two thousand years ago to the world of the present day, has earned for his Greek studies deserved popularity.  6

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