Wednesday, August 05, 2020


The Greeks

John Stuart Mill, "Early Grecian History and Legend," Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical, Vol. II (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1882), pp. 363-415 (at 363-365):
The interest of Grecian history is unexhausted and inexhaustible. As a mere story, hardly any other portion of authentic history can compete with it. Its characters, its situations, the very march of its incidents, are epic. It is a heroic poem, of which the personages are peoples. It is also, of all histories of which we know so much, the most abounding in consequences to us who now live. The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.

The Greeks are also the most remarkable people who have yet existed; not, indeed, if by this be meant those who have approached nearest (if such an expression may be used where all are at so immeasurable a distance) to the perfection of social arrangements or of human character. Their institutions, their way of life, even that which is their greatest distinction, the cast of their sentiments, and development of their faculties, were radically inferior to the best (we wish it could be said to the collective) products of modern civilization. It is not the results achieved, but the powers and efforts required to make the achievement, that measure their greatness as a people. They were the beginners of nearly every thing, Christianity excepted, of which the modern world makes its boast. If, in several things, they were but few removes from harbarism, they alone among nations, so far as is known to us, emerged from barbarism by their own efforts, not following in the track of any more advanced people. If with them, as in all antiquity, slavery existed as an institution, they were not the less the originators of political freedom, and the grand exemplars and sources of it to modern Europe. If their discords, jealousies, and wars between city and city, caused the ruin of their national independence, yet the arts of war and government evolved in those intestine contests made them the first who united great empires under civilized rule; the first who broke down those barriers of petty nationality, which had been so fatal to themselves; and, by making Greek ideas and language common to large regions of the earth, commenced that general fusion of races and nations, which, followed up by the Romans, prepared the way for the cosmopolitism of modern times.

They were the first people who had a historical literature; as perfect of its kind (though not the highest kind) as their oratory, their poetry, their sculpture, and their architecture. They were the founders of mathematics; of physics; of the inductive study of polities, so early exemplified in Aristotle; of the philosophy of human nature and life. In each they made the indispensable first steps, which are the foundation of all the rest,—steps such as could only have been made by minds intrinsically capable of every thing which has since been accomplished. With a religious creed eminently unfavorable to speculation, because affording a ready supernatural solution of all natural phenomena, they yet originated freedom of thought. They, the first, questioned nature and the universe by their rational faculties, and brought forth answers not suggested by any established system of priestcraft; and their free and bold spirit of speculation it was, which, surviving in its results, broke the yoke of another inthralling system of popular religion, sixteen hundred years after they had ceased to exist as a people. These things were effected in two centuries of national existence: twenty and upwards have since elapsed; and it is sad to think how little, comparatively, has been accomplished.

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