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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 5

Most Greeks without belief in Immortality


    Yet one thing we must add. This Greek religious morality is built up without any clear belief in a future life. Never has the average Hellene been able to form a satisfactory conception of the soul's existence, save dwelling within a mortal body and under the glorious light of beloved Helios. To Homer the after life in Hades was merely the perpetuation of the shadows of departed humanity, "strengthless shades" who live on the gloomy plains of asphodel, feeding upon dear memories, and incapable of keen emotions or any real mental or physical progress or action. Only a few great sinners like Tantalus, doomed to eternal torture, or favored being like Menelaus, predestined to the "Blessed Isles," are ordained to any real immortality. As the centuries advanced, and the possibilities of this terrestrial world grew ever keener, the hope of any future state became ever more vague. The fear of a gloomy shadow life in Hades for the most part disappeared, but that was only to confirm the belief that death ends all things.

Where'er his course man tends,
Inevitable death impends,
And for the worst and for the best,
Is strewn the same dark couch of rest.[3]

    So run the lines of a poet whose name is forgotten, but who spoke well the thought of his countrymen.

    True there has been a contradiction of this gloomy theory. The "Orphic Mysteries," those secret religious rites which have gained such a hold in many parts of Greece, including Athens, probably hold out an earnest promise to the "initiates" of a blessed state for them hereafter. The doctrine of a real elysium for the good and a realm of torment for the evil has been expounded by many sages. Pindar, the great bard of Thebes, has set forth the doctrine in a glowing ode.[4] Socrates, if we may trust the report Plato gives of him, has spent his last hours ere drinking the hemlock, in adducing cogent, philosophic reasons for the immortality of the soul. All this is true,—and it is also true that these ideas have made no impression upon the general Greek consciousness. They are accepted half-heartedly by a relatively few exceptional thinkers. Men go through life and face death with no real expectation of future reward or punishment, or of reunion with the dear departed. If the gods are angry, you escape them at the grave; if the gods are friendly, all they can give is wealth, health, honor, a hale old age, and prosperity for your children. The instant after death the righteous man and the robber are equal. This fundamental deduction from the Greek religion must usually, therefore, be made—it is a religion for this world only. Let us see what are its usual outward operations.


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