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Special characteristics of Greek oratory

Hitherto we have been seeking to bring into relief, against the modern conception, that character which is common to Greek and to Roman oratory. But Greek oratory, as compared with Roman, has a stamp of its own. It is separated from the Roman, not, indeed, by so wide an interval, yet by a line as firm as that which separates both from the modern.
all Greek art hus the plastic character.

That character which, with special modifications, belongs to every artistic creation of the Greek mind, whether this be a statue, a temple, a poem, a speech, or an individual's conception of his own place in life, is usually, and rightly, called the plastic. When it is desired to describe the primary artistic aspect of Greek Tragedy, this is commonly and justly done by a comparison with Sculpture. But it is certain that

Popular misconception of what is meant by ‘plastic’.
comparatively few understand the real meaning of ‘plastic’, ‘sculpturesque’, in these relations; and that to a vast majority of even cultivated persons, the statement of this affinity conveys an altogether erroneous notion. The reason of this is that the place held in antiquity by Sculpture is now held jointly by Painting, Music and certain forms of Poetry; that the modern mind instinctively refers the sculptural to the standard of the picturesque; and that, consequently, while the positive and essential characteristics of Sculpture are lost sight of, its negative qualities, relatively to Painting, become most prominent. These are, the absence of colour and the exclusion of tumultuous or complex action. Hence to the popular modern conception of Sculpture there usually attaches the notion of coldness and of rigidity. When people are told that Greek Tragedy (for example) is sculpturesque, they form this idea of it—that it has grandeur, but that it is cold and rather stiff. Then, if they are convinced that somehow the Greeks really were a race with the very highest genius for art, they begin to feel a secret wish that this alleged analogy between Greek Tragedy and sculpture might turn out to be a mistake. Here is an opportunity. The ingenious step in and
A result of this misconception.
say, ‘It is a mistake. It is pedantry and sentiment. For our part, we have always felt that Sophokles was frigid, and that Euripides, with his pathetic humanity, his tender women, his heroes who are not ashamed to display their emotions, was the better artist; now, dismiss the prepossessions created by students who are in no sympathy with nature or men, look at the facts as they are, deign to take homely views, and say, Is it not so?’
Conscquent danger to the whole study of the antique.

The question at issue here happens to be vital to the immediate subject of these pages, viz., the development, through Attic oratory, of Attic prose. It is, however, just as vital for every other department whatsoever in the study of ancient art, literature and thought, for it involves nothing less than our fundamental conception of the antique. Unless that conception is true, everything will be seen in a distorted light, and the best things that the ancient world has to teach will be neglected for the secondbest.

Character of Greek thought in the best days of Greek art;

Let us take a moment of the period when, as a matter of fact, the creative activity of Greek art was abundant—say 440 B.C.—and consider what, at that moment, was the principal characteristic of Greek reflection1. This will be best understood by a comparison with two other characters of thought; that which has belonged, though in a multitude of special shapes, to the East, and that of mediæval Europe. Oriental thought, as interpreted by Oriental art, fails to define humanity or to give a clear-cut

compare with the Oriental
form to any material which the senses offer to it. Life is conceived only generally, as pervading men, animals and vegetables, but the distinctive attributes of human life, physical or spiritual, are not pondered or appreciated. The human form, the human soul, are not, to this Eastern thought, the objects of an absorbing and analysing contemplation. To European
and with the Medieval.
mediævalism, they are so; but the body is regarded as the prison and the shame of the soul; and mediæval art expresses the burning eagerness of the soul to escape from this prison to a higher communion. The three marks of mediæval art are individualism, desire and ecstasy; individualism, since the artist is struggling to interpret a personal intensity, and goes to grotesqueness in the effort; desire, since the perpetual longing of the Church on earth for her Master is the type of the artist's passion; ecstasy, since this passion demands the surrender of reason and has its climax in the adoration of a mystery revealed2. Between the Oriental and the Mediæval art stands the Greek. Greek art defines humanity, the body and the soul of man. But it has not reached the mediæval point; it has not learned to feel that the body is the prison and the shame of the soul. Rather, it regards the soul as reflecting its own divinity upon the body. ‘What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ If Hamlet could have stopped there, he would have been a Greek; but he could not, he was sick with a modern distemper, abandonment to the brooding thought
Greek reflection was at a happy pause:
that sapped his will3. The Greek of the days when art was supreme could and did stop there; he was Narcissus, standing on the river bank, looking into the deep, clear waters where the mirror of his image shows the soul, too, through the eyes, Narcissus in love with the image that he beholds,—but Narcissus as yet master of himself,—as yet with a firm foot-hold upon the bank, not as yet possessed by the delirious impulse to plunge into the depths. Here, then, was the first condition for the possibility of a great art. Reflection had taken the right direction, had got far enough, but had not got too far; it was a pause. But, in order that this pause should be joyous, and that the mind should not, from weariness or disappointment, hasten forward, another thing was
and the Greeks were beautiful
necessary—that men and women should be beautiful. By some divine chance, the pause in reflection coincided with the physical perfection of a race; and the result was Greek art.

1 The essay on Winckelmann, in Mr W. H. Pater's ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance.’ is the most perfect interpretation of the Greek spirit in art that I know. If the restatement of some of its points should gain for it fresh students, such a separation of its teaching from its beauty may deserve to be forgiven.

2 I have not at hand an article on (I think) Mr Rossetti's poems, which appeared some years ago in the Westminster Review, and in which these traits of mediævalism were very finely delineated.

3 Dowden, ‘Shakspere's Mind and Art,’ p. 47.

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