The Legacy of Greek Literature: Part 2 of 2.

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.

Cover image from Dover thrift edition of Plato’s “Symposium” & “Phaedrus.”

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.”

Black-and-white plate from The Legacy of Greece.

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.

Charles Dickens at his desk in 1858.

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.

Black-and-white plate from The Legacy of Greece.

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.



29 thoughts on “The Legacy of Greek Literature: Part 2 of 2.

  1. Dickens is too moralistic. Too bad the Greeks didn’t know about quantum physics–I wonder what they would have made of it (probably would have embraced its beauty and been frightened by its strangeness).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent… the idea of beauty related to perfection and truth is certainly a legacy of Plato´s theory of Forms… this second part was as good as the first one… thanks so much for sharing… I will schedule a tweet to be sent soon, of course… Sending you all my best wishes!. Aquileana 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read about Aristotle and Plato as a kid and I loved their philosophy, although it made little sense to me then, now it has bundles of meaning and it helps me a lot in my life… Great to see that someone s exploring Greek literature and taking time to write so well about it… Keep it up dear…

    PS> Which country are you from? Since I love Greek wise man and love reading about them, I want to ask how did you get interested in them? you can skip to answer if you don’t want to talk about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m from the U.S., Hemangini. And mostly, I got interested in Greek literature through books that I found in second-hand shops (really cheap). Much like yourself, I didn’t care for it much when I was younger. But now I appreciate the wisdom of it. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. your most welcome and thanks for replying 🙂

        I wish many Greek literature were available here, they just aren’t and the ones that are, those are so costly >.<

        Happy reading to you… Share more so my hungry brain can have some Greek thoughts for food.

        see you

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such a beautiful post and as I actually have learned (ancient) greek at school it fills me with much pleasure!:) Sadly many people don´t think it necessary anymore to learn it and I´m afraid it will vanish someday…:( The translations are of course wonderful (hopefully) but the true beauty of this language appears mostly in the original – for me there is nothing more beautiful than hearing Homer´s Odysssey read out loud:)

    Liked by 1 person

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