In our last article, we touched on the first two elements of Greek literature: simplicity and perfection of form. Today, we’ll go on to briefly discuss the last two elements: truth and beauty. We shall readily admit, however, that the former is our primary focus.
And, again, we will mainly be relaying the opinions of Mr. R.W. Livingstone, and providing a concise commentary on his thoughts.
Livingstone wrote: “The third mark of Greek literature . . . is perhaps its most important, certainly its most universal quality. It is truthfulness. The Greeks told no fewer lies than other races, but they had the desire and the power to see the world as it is . . . The Greek truthfulness is spontaneous, natural, and effortless — the native quality of the artist, who sees, and forgets himself in the vision.”
Take, for example, Keats’s description of the “poetic temperament.”
“It has no self, it is everything and nothing . . . it enjoys light and shade . . . A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, he is continually in, for, and filling some other body.”
Now, it was Livingstone’s belief that a mastery of truth included, of course, the ability to relay the truth; but also, to relay the truth of tragic events, “without leaving a final and dominant sense of gloom.”
Yes — very sensible. And yet (unlike people such as myself), Mr. Livingstone was no fan of authors such as Charles Dickens. Well, Charles Dickens especially. In his opinion, Dickens relayed truth “up to a point;” but, moreover, he sketched a world “in which at the end vice finds itself in the gutter while virtue marries the heroine . . . in so writing he is . . . the self-appointed Judge of a universe which he conceives to be cruel.”
Well, perhaps he has a point. It’s true that Dickens highly valued the concept of “good over evil.” It was Livingstone’s opinion that this concept was not always a truthful one; and that is true. But, just because it’s not what is, doesn’t mean it’s not what should be. And that, to me, is a very sound theory of truth.
Take this passage from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. The words pertain to one Christopher “Kit” Nubbles.
He was only a soft-hearted grateful fellow, and had nothing genteel or polite about him; consequently instead of going home again in his grief to kick the children and abuse his mother (for when your finely strung people are out of sorts they must have everybody else unhappy likewise), he turned his thoughts to the vulgar expedient of making them more comfortable if he could.
Now — it’s true that this is an example of Dickens’s fondness of deriding those who think themselves better, and championing the underprivileged. And that, to Livingstone, is not truth. Yet I’m afraid that I am forced to disagree. Goodness, to me, is truth; and evil is the lie. I know, I know! That sounds like the line of a wishy-washy romantic. But it is my version of truth; and it is necessary for every person to have their own.
And yet, I wholeheartedly agree that the Greeks had an innate ability to see truth; and to record it. This is a large reason for the immortality of their literature; and a large reason why it shall never perish.
Now, as to the beauty of Greek literature — anyone who has read even a page of it cannot dispute it. We shall sum it up with a paragraph from Livingstone’s essay.
It amounts to a different way of viewing the world; the Greeks were more sensitive to beauty than we are . . . This is curiously illustrated by their treatment of tragic themes. There is no want of tragedy in Homer or the dramatists — their view of life is probably darker than our own — and they have been praised for a pessimism that faced and admitted the black truth. Yet the cloud of evil is continually broken by rays of beauty.
Yes — the Greeks’ outlook was a dark one, and hardly a “Dickensian” one. And yet, perhaps this makes the marks of beauty in their works even more poignant.