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Hellenic Literature

Wikipedia provides us with a somwhat clinical definition:

Greek literature refers to writings composed in areas of Greek influence, throughout the whole period in which the Greek-speaking people have existed.’

Considering that the ancient Hellenes gave to the world its first written language, it is no surprise that Hellenic literature was the first to surface from that innovation.  What is surprising is that after millennia of evolution, the world’s literature has adopted all of the ancient Hellenic genres, but it has not been able to add a single new one.  Perhaps it is more enlightening to hear what those who followed the ancient Hellenes said of Greek literature. . .

The first century BC Roman philosopher Cicero, whose letters are often credited with breathing life into the Renaissance, introduced the Romans to Greek philosophy by translating the Greek writings into Latin.  As such, it would be telling to know what Cicero had to say about Greek literature:

  • ‘In learning, and in every branch of literature, the Greeks are our masters.’ (Tusc. 1.1.2.)
  • ‘because Latin learning is derived from Greek.’ (Inst. Or. I. 1.12.)

GoetheMuch later, near the end of the Renaissance, the German writer and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said of Greek literature:

  • ‘Though one of the Greek tragedians may seem rather greater and more complete than another, their work as a whole has a single pervading quality.  It is marked by grandeur, excellence, sanity, complete humanity, a high philosophy of life, a lofty way of thinking, a powerful intuition.  We find these qualities in their surviving lyric and epic poetry as well as in their drama: we find them in their philosophers, orators, and historians and, to an equally high degree, in their surviving sculpture.  (Gespräche, 3. 387)
  • (Standing) ‘Beside the great Attic poets, like Aechylus and Sophocles, I am absolutely nothing.’ (Gespräche, 3. 443)

ShelleyThe English poet, Percy Shelley said:

  • ‘Their very language. . . in variety, in simplicity, in flexibility, and in copiousness, exceeds every other language of the western world.‘ (On the Manners of the Ancients.)

John.Stuart.MillThe English philosopher, John Stuart Mill said:

  • ‘The Greeks are the most remarkable people who have yet existed.  They were the beginners of nearly everything. . .’ (Dissertations, ii.)

MacaulayThe British historian, Thomas Macaulay said:

  • ‘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!’ (Life and Letters, i. 431)

LivingstoneThe British classical scholar, Sir Richard Livingstone said:

  • ‘. . . No nation has created literary art in the sense in which the Greeks created it, or developed, as they did, the various literary genres out of nothing.  They had no models or guides or external help.  Rome had Greek literature to follow and herself gave patterns to her successors; but the Greeks made what they made out of nothing, and are thus creators in the true sense of the word, and as no other people have been.’ ( The Legacy of  Greece; Literature, 260.)

We could add legions of similar comments and conclusions from those who pursued literature to the degree that they could truly comprehend the compelling nature of those exceptional ancients.  In today’s world, this accomplishment is dismissed as the greatness of an extinct civilization.  The truth is that the sensibilities of the ancients have been handed down through the hundreds of generations and is alive and well in the modern literary Hellenes.

 

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