Victorian Hellenism

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Victorian Hellenism

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...

(The entire section is 1,121 words.)