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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

R. W. Livingstone 
On the Ancient Greek Literature

From, R. W. Livingstone, Literature,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













Page 3

'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.... The wrecks and fragments of these 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 ... in variety, in simplicity, in flexibility, and in copiousness, excels every other language of the western world.' Then, after some words on their sculpture, he adds: 'their poetry seems to maintain a very high, though not so disproportionate a rank, in the comparison' (with other literatures).[106]

[106] Shelley, On the Manners of the Ancients.

'The Greeks are the most remarkable people who have yet existed.... They were the beginners of nearly everything, Christianity excepted, of which the modern world makes its boast.... They were the first people who had a historical literature; as perfect of its kind (though not the highest kind) as their oratory, their sculpture, and their architecture. They were the founders of mathematics, of physics, of the inductive study of politics, of the philosophy of human nature and life. In each they made the indispensable first steps, which are the foundation of all the rest.'[107]

[107] Mill, Dissertations, ii. 283 f.

'I have gone back to Greek literature with a passion quite astonishing to myself.... I felt as if I had never known before what intellectual enjoyment was. Oh that wonderful people! There is not one art, not one science, about which we may not use the same expression which Lucretius has employed about the victory over superstition "Primum Graius homo". I think myself very fortunate in having been able to return to these great masters while still in the full vigour of life and when my taste and judgement are mature. Most people read all the Greek that they ever read before they are five-and-twenty.... A young man, whatever his genius may be, is no judge of such a writer as Thucydides. I had no high opinion of him ten years ago. I have now been reading him with a mind accustomed to historical researches and to political affairs; and I am astonished at my own former blindness, and at his greatness. I could not bear Euripides at college. I now read my recantation. He has faults undoubtedly. But what a poet!'[108]

[108] Macaulay, Life and Letters, i. 43.

These men—and there is no difficulty in adding to their number—are not only qualified but unprejudiced witnesses. They have no parti pris. They cannot be accused, as schoolmasters and dons are sometimes accused, of holding shares in a great Trading Bank of Greece and Rome Unlimited, and having a personal motive for their enthusiasm. Nor can it be said that they admired Greece because they knew nothing better. All—Goethe no less than the others—had English literature in their hands, knew it well and appreciated its greatness. Yet this, given in their own words, is the impression which Greek made on them. Securus iudicat orbis terrarum; and the verdict here is plain. It is clear that we have in Greek a surviving body of poetry and prose which is of unique interest to any one who cares for literature.

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Cf. Elpenor's Bilingual Anthology of Greek Literature * Greek History Resources
A History of Greek Philosophy * A Sketch of the history of Greek literature
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Greek Literature - Ancient, Medieval, Modern

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