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Essay on the Literature, The Arts, and the Manners of the Athenians


The period which intervened between the birth of Pericles and the
death of Aristotle, is undoubtedly, whether considered in itself,
or with reference to the effects which it has produced upon
the subsequent destinies of civilized man, the most memorable in
the history of the world. What was the combination of moral and
political circumstances which produced so unparalleled a progress
during that period in literature and the arts;--why that progress,
so rapid and so sustained, so soon received a check, and became
retrograde,--are problems left to the wonder and conjecture of
posterity. The wrecks and fragments of those subtle and profound
minds, like the ruins of a fine statue, obscurely suggest to us the
grandeur and perfection of the whole. Their very language--a type
of the understandings of which it was the creation and the image--in
variety, in simplicity, in flexibility, and in copiousness, excels
every other language of the western world. Their sculptures are
such as we, in our presumption, assume to be the models of ideal
truth and beauty, and to which no artist of modern times can
produce forms in any degree comparable. Their paintings, according
to Pliny and Pausanias, were full of delicacy and harmony; and some
even were powerfully pathetic, so as to awaken, like tender music
or tragic poetry, the most overwhelming emotions. We are accustomed
to conceive the painters of the sixteenth century, as those who
have brought their art to the highest perfection, probably because
none of the ancient paintings have been preserved. For all the
inventive arts maintain, as it were, a sympathetic connexion between
each other, being no more than various expressions of one internal
power, modified by different circumstances, either of an individual,
or of society; and the paintings of that period would probably bear
the same relation as is confessedly borne by the sculptures to all
succeeding ones. Of their music we know little; but the effects
which it is said to have produced, whether they be attributed to
the skill of the composer, or the sensibility of his audience, are
far more powerful than any which we experience from the music of
our own times; and if, indeed, the melody of their compositions
were more tender and delicate, and inspiring, than the melodies of
some modern European nations, their superiority in this art must
have been something wonderful, and wholly beyond conception.

Their poetry seems to maintain a very high, though not so
disproportionate a rank, in the comparison. Perhaps Shakespeare, from
the variety and comprehension of his genius, is to be considered,
on the whole, as the greatest individual mind, of which we have
specimens remaining. Perhaps Dante created imaginations of greater
loveliness and energy than any that are to be found in the ancient
literature of Greece. Perhaps nothing has been discovered in the
fragments of the Greek lyric poets equivalent to the sublime and
chivalric sensibility of Petrarch.--But, as a poet. Homer must be
acknowledged to excel Shakespeare in the truth, the harmony, the
sustained grandeur, the satisfying completeness of his images, their
exact fitness to the illustration, and to that to which they belong.
Nor could Dante, deficient in conduct, plan, nature, variety, and
temperance, have been brought into comparison with these men, but
for those fortunate isles laden with golden fruit, which alone
could tempt any one to embark in the misty ocean of his dark and
extravagant fiction.

But, omitting the comparison of individual minds, which can afford
no general inference, how superior was the spirit and system of
their poetry to that of any other period! So that had any other
genius equal in other respects to the greatest that ever enlightened
the world, arisen in that age, he would have been superior to all,
from this circumstance alone--that had conceptions would have assumed
a more harmonious and perfect form. For it is worthy of observation,
that whatever the poet of that age produced is as harmonious and
perfect as possible. In a drama, for instance, were the composition
of a person of inferior talent, it was still homogeneous and free
from inequalities it was a whole, consistent with itself. The
compositions of great minds bore throughout the sustained stamp of
their greatness. In the poetry of succeeding ages the expectations
are often exalted on Icarian wings, and fall, too much disappointed
to give a memory and a name to the oblivious pool in which they

In physical knowledge Aristotle and Theophrastus had already--no
doubt assisted by the labours of those of their predecessor whom
they criticize--made advances worthy of the maturity of science.
The astonishing invention of geometry, that series of discoveries
which have enabled man to command the element and foresee future
events, before the subjects of his ignorant wonder, and which have
opened as it were the doors of the mysteries of nature, had already
been brought to great perfection. Metaphysics, the science of man's
intimate nature, and logic, or the grammar and elementary principles
of that science received from the latter philosophers of the Periclean
age a firm basis. All our more exact philosophy is built upon the
labours of these great men, and many of the words which we employ
in metaphysical distinctions were invented by them to give accuracy
and system to their reasonings. The science of morals, or the
voluntary conduct of men in relation to themselves or others, dates
from this epoch. How inexpressibly bolder and more pure were the
doctrines of those great men, in comparison with the timid maxims
which prevail in the writings of the most esteemed modern moralists!
They were such as Phocion, and Epaminondas, and Timoleon, who formed
themselves on their influence, were to the wretched heroes of our
own age.

Their political and religious institutions are more difficult to
bring into comparison with those of other times. A summary idea
may be formed of the worth of any political and religious system,
by observing the comparative degree of happiness and of intellect
produced under its influence. And whilst many institution and
opinions, which in ancient Greece were obstacles to the improvement
of the human race, have been abolished among modern nations, how
many pernicious superstitions and new contrivances of misrule, and
unheard-of complications of public mischief, have not been invented
among them by the ever-watchful spirit of avarice and tyranny!

The modern nations of the civilized world owe the progress which
they have made--as well in those physical sciences in which they
have already excelled their masters, as in the moral and intellectual
inquiries, in which, with all the advantage of the experience of
the latter, it can scarcely be said that they have yet equalled
them,--to what is called the revival of learning; that is, the study
of the writers of the age which preceded and immediately followed
the government of Pericles, or of subsequent writers, who were,
so to speak, the rivers flowing from those immortal fountains.
And though there seems to be a principle in the modern world,
which, should circumstances analogous to those which modelled
the intellectual resources of the age to which we refer, into so
harmonious a proportion, again arise, would arrest and perpetuate
them, and consign their results to a more equal, extensive, and
lasting improvement of the condition of man--though justice and
the true meaning of human society are, if not more accurately, more
generally understood; though perhaps men know more, and therefore
are more, as a mass, yet this principle has never been called into
action, and requires indeed a universal and an almost appalling change
in the system of existing things. The study of modern history is
the study of kings, financiers, statesmen, and priests. The history
of ancient Greece is the study of legislators, philosophers,
and poets; it is the history of men, compared with the history of
titles. What the Greeks were, was a reality, not a promise. And what
we are and hope to be, is derived, as it were, from the influence
and inspiration of these glorious generations.

Whatever tends to afford a further illustration of the manners and
opinions of those to whom we owe so much, and who were perhaps, on
the whole, the most perfect specimens of humanity of whom we have
authentic record, were infinitely valuable. Let us see their errors,
their weaknesses, their daily actions, their familiar conversation,
and catch the tone of their society. When we discover how far the
most admirable community ever framed was removed from that perfection
to which human society is impelled by some active power within each
bosom to aspire, how great ought to be our hopes, how resolute our
struggles! For the Greeks of the Periclean age were widely different
from us. It is to be lamented that no modern writer has hitherto
dared to show them precisely as they were. Barthelemi cannot
be denied the praise of industry and system; but he never forgets
that he is a Christian and a Frenchman. Wieland, in his delightful
novels, makes indeed a very tolerable Pagan, but cherishes too many
political prejudices, and refrains from diminishing the interest of
his romances by painting sentiments in which no European of modern
times can possibly sympathize. There is no book which shows the
Greeks precisely as they were; they seem all written for children
with the caution that no practice or sentiment, highly inconsistent
with our present manners, should be mentioned, lest those manners
should receive outrage and violation. But there are many to whom
the Greek language is inaccessible, who ought not to be excluded by
this prudery from possessing an exact and comprehensive conception
of the history of man; for there is no knowledge concerning what man
has been and may be, from partaking of which a person can depart,
without becoming in some degree more philosophical, tolerant, and

One of the chief distinctions between the manners of ancient Greece
and modern Europe, consisted in the regulations and the sentiments
respecting sexual intercourse. Whether this difference arises from
some imperfect influence of the doctrines of Jesus, who alleges
the absolute and unconditional equality of all human beings, or
from the institutions of chivalry, or from a certain fundamental
difference of physical nature existing in the Celts, or from a
combination of all or any of these causes acting on each other, is
a question worthy of voluminous investigation. The fact is, that
the modern Europeans have in this circumstance, and in the abolition
of slavery, made an improvement the most decisive in the regulation
of human society; and all the virtue and the wisdom of the Periclean
age arose under other institutions, in spite of the diminution
which personal slavery and the inferiority of women, recognized by
law and opinion, must have produced in the delicacy, the strength,
the comprehensiveness, and the accuracy of their conceptions, in
moral, political, and metaphysical science, and perhaps in every
other art and science.

The women, thus degraded, became such as it was expected they
would become. They possessed, except with extraordinary exceptions,
the habits and the qualities of slaves. They were probably not
extremely beautiful; at least there was no such disproportion in
the attractions of the external form between the female and male
sex among the Greeks, as exists among the modern Europeans. They
were certainly devoid of that moral and intellectual loveliness
with which the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation of
sentiment animates, as with another life of overpowering grace,
the lineaments and the gestures of every form which they inhabit.
Their eyes could not have been deep and intricate from the workings
of the mind, and could have entangled no heart in soul-enwoven

Let it not be imagined that because the Greeks were deprived of
its legitimate object, they were incapable of sentimental love; and
that this passion is the mere child of chivalry and the literature of
modern times. This object or its archetype for ever exists in the
mind, which selects among those who resemble it that which most
resembles it; and instinctively fills up the interstices of the
imperfect image, in the same manner as the imagination moulds and
completes the shapes in clouds, or in the fire, into the resemblances
of whatever form, animal, building, &c., happens to be present to
it. Man is in his wildest state a social being: a certain degree
of civilization and refinement ever produces the want of sympathies
still more intimate and complete; and the gratification of the
senses is no longer all that is sought in sexual connexion. It
soon becomes a very small part of that profound and complicated
sentiment, which we call love, which is rather the universal thirst
for a communion not only of the senses, but of our whole nature,
intellectual, imaginative and sensitive, and which, when individualized,
becomes an imperious necessity, only to be satisfied by the complete
or partial, actual or supposed fulfilment of its claims. This want
grows more powerful in proportion to the development which our
nature receives from civilization, for man never ceases to be a
social being. The sexual impulse, which is only one, and often a
small part of those claims, serves, from its obvious and external
nature, as a kind of type or expression of the rest, a common basis,
an acknowledged and visible link. Still it is a claim which even
derives a strength not its own from the accessory circumstances
which surround it, and one which our nature thirsts to satisfy. To
estimate this, observe the degree of intensity and durability of
the love of the male towards the female in animals and savages and
acknowledge all the duration and intensity observable in the love
of civilized beings beyond that of savages to be produced from
other causes. In the susceptibility of the external senses there
is probably no important difference.

Among the ancient Greeks the male sex, one half of the human race,
received the highest cultivation and refinement: whilst the other,
so far as intellect is concerned, were educated as slaves and were
raised but few degrees in all that related to moral of intellectual
excellence above the condition of savages. The gradations in the
society of man present us with slow improvement in this respect.
The Roman women held a higher consideration in society, and were
esteemed almost as the equal partners with their husbands in the
regulation of domestic economy and the education of their children.
The practices and customs of modern Europe are essentially different
from and incomparably less pernicious than either, however remote
from what an enlightened mind cannot fail to desire as the future
destiny of human beings.

[written c.1818; pub. 1840]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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