In English and American culture today it is conventional wisdom to think of ancient Greece, c. 500 B.C., as the birthplace of Western civilization and to attribute the qualities associated with the flowering of Western European culture—especially those of secular humanism—to the inheritance, more or less direct, from the great flowering of art, philosophy, and especially democracy in ancient Athens. These beliefs do not take into account, however, the inheritance of Victorian values, for it was nineteenth-century Britain that initiated the valorization of all things Hellenic (relating to ancient Greece), manifested largely in the Victorians' desire to see themselves as the resurrection of Hellenic Greece. In Victorian England one aspect of the rich and complicated culture was an enthusiastic self-identification with ancient Greece. While men of the ruling classes were steeped in the study of classical literature—and its associated values—as the basis of their education, popular notions of Hellenism, of its superiority and relevance, spread throughout the culture at large.
As many scholars of Victorian culture have argued, eras preceding the Romantic and Victorian took only an occasional interest in Greece. Instead, Europeans of the Renaissance and Enlightenment viewed themselves in a line of descent from the Roman republic, extolling its politics, philosophies, and aesthetics. In the years that bridged the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, certain threads in European culture—particularly in Germany and England—prompted a desire to diverge from that Roman image. Where studies of ancient Greece occupied only a corner of scholarship and publication in the centuries preceding the nineteenth, by the end of that century such publications had far outstripped the focus on Rome. Hundreds of books, articles, and pamphlets celebrated ancient Greece's philosophy, literature, mythology, art, religion, and politics. New translations of all the major authors and many minor ones became available. Rome took on an image of decadence and insincerity, while Greece illustrated the first burgeoning of democracy, lyric poetry, humanism—all elements appealing to rising currents in Victorian culture.
England's enthusiasm for Hellenism had roots in eighteenth-century Germany, where scholars studied ancient Greek texts and culture in such earnest that it had a tremendous and far-reaching impact on the country's educational system, as well as on the later development of scholarship in general. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this rather specialized interest in classical studies had a marked growth in England. One of the most important texts of the revival, K. O. Müller's History of Greek Literature, came from Germany, but in fact appeared in translation in England in 1840 even before it reached publication in Germany.
The Victorian take on Hellenism, which both inherited and diverged from the early nineteenth-century Hellenism of the English Romantics, germinated very concretely in curricular changes at Oxford University. Long-standing language requirements for admission at both Oxford and Cambridge insured that every university educated man—as well as every man educated at schools hoping to send their students to Oxford or Cambridge—would know Latin and Greek. In the mid-nineteenth century, Oxford's curriculum changes outstripped this traditional focus on language and brought Greek history, literature, and philosophy much more pervasively into the education of all its students.
From this primary training site, the country's future leaders-in politics, letters, business, and religion-acquired a shared set of values such that even where they debated specific issues, a certain frame of reference, distilled from the prevailing interpretations of classical texts, permeated the dominant culture in all fields. As these men set the standard for their culture, the values that they embraced filtered through the country at large, no longer just in the specialized fields of history or philology. Greek myth and imagery became common in literature, in the most popular poetry as well as the most specialized texts, and in the visual arts. The presence of Hellenism in political and economic discourse was also substantial. George Grote's History of Greece, published in twelve volumes between 1846 and 1856, not only contributed to the Hellenic passion, it also put forward one of the most influential notions of ancient Greece: the belief that classical Athens had realized the greatest potential of democracy. In the mid-nineteenth century, this argument had a significant place in heated contemporary debates over the direction and nature of an expanding liberal democracy.
Frank M. Turner, one of the first specialists to study Victorian Hellenism, has frequently remarked that Victorian writers appropriated ancient Greece in particularly self-serving fashions, exploiting it as a vessel for containing an unlimited array of images or messages. Consequently, the reasons that Victorians embraced ancient Greece with such affinity, argues Turner and others, had much more to do with certain forces bearing on Victorian culture than with the history of Greece itself. Economic and political changes presented England's ruling classes with new challenges, and, as commentators from Friedrich Nietzsche to Turner have argued, they fortified themselves for this challenge with new self images borrowed from ancient Greece. Nietzsche identified the urge as one prompted by the limitations of the modern world, which sent his fellows in search of the succor of a meaningful past and mythology. When the late eighteenth century bore witness to two major revolutions, in America and France, one sympathetic response came from Romanticism. Douglas Bush ascribes the initial nineteenth-century revival of Hellenism to "the Romantic reaction against a rationalistic and mechanistic view of the world and man"—a rationalism largely exemplified by the leading poets of the eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope. The considerable room for interpretation embedded in Hellenism ultimately allowed it to assume divergent functions—from the relatively radical to the relatively conservative. For example, thinkers used Hellenism both as a mode for pushing away the traditional religious values that had held sway in England since the Restoration and as a new justification and explanation of those values.
In the 1980s, Turner noted the dearth of significant criticism on Victorian Hellenism. At the beginning of the century, Edwardian critics looking back at the Victorians—the generation just preceding their own—painted that culture over with their own need to reject its values. Consequently, previous to the wave of fresh analyses concurrent with Turner's own work, scholars either failed to look at Hellenism as a significant facet of Victorian culture or flatly accepted the Edwardian assessment at face value. Not until the 1980s did scholars begin to challenge the absence of more thoughtful inquiries and contend, as Turner did in his groundbreaking Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981), that Victorians avidly created ancient Greece in their image—or in their own desire to see themselves in a particular image. Since that time, many articles and books have appeared examining the motives and meanings of Hellenism in Victorian politics, philosophy, theology, education, and arts.
Culture and Anarchy 1883
The Golden Bough 1890
Studies in Homer and the Homeric Age 1858
The Ethics of Aristotle 1858
History of Greece 1856
The Dialogues of Plato 1871
J. P. Mahaffy
Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander 1874
K. O. Müller
History of Greek Literature 1840
Greek Studies 1895
J. A. Symonds
Greek Poets 1876
Picture of Dorian Gray 1891
(The entire section is 70 words.)
Frank M. Turner (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Victorians and Greek Antiquity," in The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Turner illustrates the pervasiveness of the Victorian fascination with classical Greece. Briefly tracing the history and breadth of that fascination, he focuses primarily on the various concepts of Greece that became most influential in British culture and stresses four concepts of history that undergirded the fascination.]
Throughout much of the European intellectual community of the last century there flourished an immense fascination for ancient Greece. From Goethe, Hegel, and Shelley to Kierkegaard, Arnold, Grote, and Fouillée, through Nietzsche, Fustel de Coulanges, and Frazer, the list of poets, critics, philosophers, historians, and scholars concerned at one time or another with the Greeks reads like an index of the major contributors to the intellectual life of the age. The results of their probing of the Greek experience were impressive on every score. Greek revival buildings came to dot the rural and urban landscape from Ireland to Russia. Ancient temples, theaters, marketplaces, palaces, and tombs buried for over two millennia were unearthed and their remains transported hundreds of miles to the west for display in museums designed to resemble Greek temples and dedicated to the...
(The entire section is 22456 words.)
The Meanings Of Hellenism
Matthew Arnold (essay date 1883)
"Hebraism and Hellenism," in Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism; and Friendship 's Garland: Being the Conversations, Letters, and Opinions of the Late Arminius, Baron von Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, Macmillan and Co., 1883, pp. 109-27.
[In one of the most persistently influential works of the Victorian age, Arnold characterizes his culture according to two complementary principles: Hebraism and Hellenism. Equating Hellenism with the humanist consciousness of the Renaissance, Arnold both stresses its centrality to modern civilization and warns against what he sees to be an inherent "moral weakness."]
This fundamental ground is our preference of doing to thinking. Now this preference is a main element in our nature, and as we study it we find ourselves opening up a number of large questions on every side.
Let me go back for a moment to Bishop Wilson, who says: "First, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness." We show, as a nation, laudable energy and persistence in walking according to the best light we have, but are not quite careful enough, perhaps, to see that our light be not darkness. This is only another version of the old story that energy is our strong point and favourable characteristic, rather than intelligence. But we may give to this idea...
(The entire section is 50947 words.)
The Literary Influence
T. G. Tucker (essay date 1907)
SOURCE: "Greek Literature and English," in The Foreign Debt of English Literature, George Bell and Sons, 1907, pp. 5-69.
[In the essay below, Tucker gives the first place of influence on all European literatures to classical Greek. He ascribes to Greek literature values highly cherished in nineteenth- and twentieth-century English letters: clarity, appreciation for "pure beauty, " and originality.]
Of all the literatures which have contributed to that of England, the Greek is by far the first and most important. The study of Greek literature is the indispensable introduction to the study of European literary history. Whether we review the literature of England, of Italy, of France, or of Germany, it is at Greece that we shall ultimately arrive. Take our English epic, Paradise Lost. It is a commonplace that it derives much inspiration from Dante's Divine Comedy. But, when we arrive at the Divine Comedy, we are assured that it would never have taken such shape but for Virgil's Aeneid. And, when we come to Virgil's Aeneid, it is a fact known to the veriest tiro that the Aeneid is a copy, and, in a sense, a plagiarism, of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The pedigree is self-evident and undeniable. Practically it is avowed at every step. Look elsewhere. Pope and Shenstone wrote "pastorals," after the...
(The entire section is 35044 words.)
Anderson, Warren D. Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1965, 293 p.
Examines Arnold's fascination with the classical tradition, particularly his interest in the culture of ancient Greece.
Björk, Lennart. "Thomas Hardy's 'Hellenism'." In Papers on Language and Literature Presented to Alvar Ellegard and Erik Frykman, edited by Sven Bäckman and Gören Kjellmer, pp. 46-58. Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1985.
Traces several possible sources for the Hellenism that appears in several of Hardy's novels and contends that it functions as "a criterion against which nineteenth-century life, and view of life, is measured."
Clarke, G. W., ed. Rediscovering Hellenism: The Hellenic Inheritance and the English Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 264 p.
Anthology of recent critical essays, several of which investigate aspects of Victorian Hellenism, including Richard Jenkyns on painting, James Bowen on education, and Anthony Stephens on Nietzsche.
DeLaura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1969, 370 p.
(The entire section is 353 words.)