Saturday, January 30, 2016


Greek Pleasures

Ernest Renan (1823-1892), Saint Paul, tr. Ingersoll Lockwood (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1869), pp. 140-141 (footnote omitted):
If, as it may be sustained, anticipation of death is the most important feature of Christianity, and of the modern religious sentiment, then the Greek race is the least religious of races. It is a superficial race, looking upon life as a thing without aught of supernatural or after-plan. Such a simplicity of conception results in a great measure from the climate, from the purity of the air, from the wonderful joy that one breathes in, but still more from the instincts of the Hellenic race, adorably idealistic. A nothing, a tree, a flower, a lizard, a tortoise, giving rise to the recollection of a thousand metamorphoses sung by the poets; a thread of water; a little hollow in the rock, which they term a nymph's cave; a well with a cup on the curb-stone; a strait of the sea, so narrow that the butterflies cross it and still navigable for the largest vessels, as at Poros; orange-trees, cypresses, of which the shade extends upon the sea; a little forest of pines in the midst of rocks;—are sufficient in Greece to produce the contentment awakened by beauty. Walking in the gardens at night, listening to the locusts, sitting in the moonlight while playing the flute, going to the mountain for water and taking with them a little roll of bread, a fish, and a cyathus of wine, which is drunk while singing; in family festivities, hanging a crown of leaves over their door, or going with flowers in their hats; on public fête days, carrying the thyrsus ornamented with leaves; passing whole days in dancing, playing with tame goats,—such are Greek pleasures, the pleasures of a race, poor, economical, eternally young, inhabiting a beautiful country, finding their fortune in themselves and in the gifts which the gods have made them. The pastoral, after the manner of Theocritus, was a reality in Hellenic countries. Greece always took pleasure in this little species of fine and pleasing poetry, one of the most characteristic of her literature, the mirror of her own life; almost everywhere else, foolish and fictitious. Good-humor, joy at living, are things preeminently Greek. This race is always twenty years old. For them, indulgere genio is not the dull intoxication of the Englishman, the gross diversion of the Frenchman. It is simply thinking that nature is good, and that one can and should yield to it. In fact, nature, for the Greek, is a counsellor in matters of elegance, a mistress teaching rectitude and virtue. "Concupiscence," that idea that nature leads us to do wrong, is nonsense to him.

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