Victorian Hellenism

February 23 2010

Stephen Marsh emails me on a Victorian view of the Hellenistic period, referring to a recent post, which links back to some earlier ones.

“Herewith a well-known piece of evidence clearly against AT’s somewhat blithe acceptance of the standard textbook view of Hellenistic philosophy as a retreat into the self, caused by the decline/suppression of the polis. I give it in both Latin and English. The Latin may be slightly adapted, as I have reproduced it from a school textbook: the English is my own.

“Cicero, De finibus bonorum et malorum, Bk III.

‘Mundum autem censent regi numine deorum, eumque esse quasi communem urbem et civitatem hominum et deorum, et unumquemque nostrum eius mundi esse partem; ex quo illud natura consequi, ut communem utilitatem nostrae anteponamus. Ut enim leges omnium salutem singulorum salutem anteponunt, sic vir bonus et sapiens et legibus parens et civilis officii non ignarus utilitati omnium plus quam suae consulit. Nec magis culpant Stoici proditorem patriae quam eum qui communem utilitatem propter suam deserit. Ex quo fit ut eum laudemus qui mortem obeat pro re publica, quod decet cariorem nobis esse patriam quam nos ipsos.

‘Praeterea quod nemo in summa solitudine vitam agere vult ne cum singulari quidem voluptatum abundantia, facile intelligitur nos ad naturalem communitatem esse natos.’

“‘They (the Stoics) think that the world is governed by the power of the gods, and that it is, as it were, a city and community shared by gods and men, and that each and every one of us is a part of this world; from this, it follows naturally that we should promote the common good in preference to our own. For, just as the law places the welfare of all above the welfare of individuals, so a man who is good, ethically aware, respectful of the law, and conscious of his duty as a citizen, is more mindful of the common good than of his own. In just the same way, the Stoics hold a man who betrays his country equally guilty with someone who abandons the common good to pursue his own advantage. It is for this reason that we praise the man who gives up his life for his country, because our country should be dearer to us than we are to ourselves.

‘Moreover, no-one wants to spend his life in complete isolation from his fellows, even if he could experience all possible pleasures by doing so: thus, it is easy to realise that we have been destined by Nature for the communal form of life she has prepared for us.’

“Why did AT allow himself to be seduced by what I call the ‘standard textbook view’ when there exists substantial evidence against it? I can only speculate as follows.

1)  The writing of the so-called ‘history of ideas’ is often corrupted by the notion that one must be able to trace a discernible pattern in the ideas whose history one claims to be writing, and this pattern must match in some way the development of the states/societies in which those ideas were produced.

2)  In Victorian Hellenism there was an idée reçue, or better an idée fixe, that Greek civilisation reached its apogee in the 5th century BC, in the polis of Athens. The values and ideals of this culture are to be found described in lapidary form by Thucydides in the ‘Funeral Speech’ he attributes to Pericles in Bk II of his History.

3)  It follows that the relationship between Classical and Hellenistic Greek culture is one of ‘perfection’ and ‘decadence’. (As far as I know, AT did not embrace the racism and homophobia often associated with this view.)”


Racism and homophobia? I could understand the first in this context, not the second.

“The racism implicit in Victorian Hellenism derives from the idea that large numbers of people were Greek by culture but not by race in the Hellenistic world (‘of course these people didn’t really understand true Hellenism’).

“The homophobia derives from the Victorian view that homosexuality was on the increase in the transition from Classical to Hellenistic Greece (or, in its more refined version, Greek bisexual culture was moving from Aphrodite Urania to Aphrodite Pandemos), so the virility and martial spirit of even the ethnically-Greek peoples was weakened (‘no wonder the Romans had no difficulty in conquering these degenerates’).”

See pre-Victorian Gibbon on effeminate Asians. A retreat into the self could, I suppose, have co-existed with what Cicero is saying here. A tendency is one direction doesn’t preclude a tendency in another. I don’t know about 1) in this case, but I’m sure Toynbee inherited part of that historical view. He certainly had the idée fixe about the fifth century as a turning-point.

On the other hand, he contributes to a book intended to form an historical background to the foundation of the League of Nations (The Evolution of World-Peace, Essays Arranged and Edited by F. S. Marvin, OUP, 1921) in which his essay, Alexander and Hellenism, written with Marvin, looks at “the greatest definite effort at world-incorporation made by the Greeks” and how it broke down. It shows some of the old Victorian view, but also a post-1918 hankering for “world-unity”. Alexander’s work is a warning to “would-be conquerors of the world in a superior spirit”. The other contributors are Paul Vinogradoff, HWC Davis, GN Clark, GP Gooch, CR Beazley, Frederick Whelen, HG Wells and Eileen Power.

The essays were based on lectures given at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, founded by George Cadbury in Birmingham. It’s not clear whether Toynbee or Marvin gave the one on Alexander. It reads like Toynbee. One, by Gilbert Murray, “on the mandatory system under the Peace Treaty”, is not printed.

3 Responses to “Victorian Hellenism”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Of course, “Victorian Hellenism” at another level suggests closet homophilia, if that word exists, not -phobia.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I have asked SM for evidence that the Greeks themselves perceived a transition “from Aphrodite Urania to Aphrodite Pandemos” in this period. Was the supposed transition more marked in Asia? And where is the “Victorian view” expressed?

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