Iron Sharpeneth Iron - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs
Iron Sharpeneth Iron - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs
Iron Sharpeneth Iron
Life is very jealous of its secrets, and it is only by irrepressible questioning that man has read what he has read of the truth. The insurgent “Why?” of our early years is perhaps the one childish thing we ought to cherish to our dying day. All sorts of evil things—surface-familiarity, routine, but above all self-satisfaction—combine to stifle and to end our curiosity; at length we acquiesce in and forget our ignorance, and thereafter stand with our prejudices cumbering the ground for those who would go further. Questioning is health to the soul, and perhaps success is to be measured not by the fulness of the answers we receive but by our eagerness in asking.
Almost everyone knows that there is in the Bible a Book of Proverbs. A few of its sayings are in daily use. Most men have read a chapter or two. But at that point knowledge is apt to flag. What lack of enterprise! It is like giving up an excursion at the first mile-stone. Why should there be a Book of Proverbs? Why did men think it worth transmitting, and why did they finally count it sacred literature? Why has it just the form it has? How comes it, for instance, that single sayings have sometimes blossomed into little essays, and brief comparisons grown into finished pictures? What is the note of clear intention which pervades the chapters and gives them a certain unity and individuality? Zeal and energy characterise the Book. Zeal for what? The previous chapter indicates that the answer to that last question may be stated concisely in the one word “Wisdom,” the meaning of which subsequent pages will unfold. The aim of the present chapter is to discover an adequate reason for the zeal.
Not seldom it happens that enthusiasm for a cause is first provoked by opposition. For example, belief that international relationships ought to be governed by ethical principles was generally and genuinely held by the vast majority of English-speaking people in 1914; but the belief lacked energising force. It seemed enough to entertain it. Of the existence of a fundamentally different conception—that Might is the ultimate right in national affairs—we were of course aware, but the knowledge did not disturb us greatly. We fondly imagined that after some more debate, and a little more reflection, so unenlightened and unneighbourly a notion must disappear.
When, however, Germany suddenly put false theory into infamous practice, mark how our amiable opinion became not only an urgent and indispensable ideal, but a definite policy which must at all costs be upheld and made effective, if humanity was to be saved from the yoke of an utterly immoral tyranny. In a moment we realised the awful immediacy of the issue that had been at stake. The debate was not as we supposed, on paper. Here was no wordy strife. Nay! the battle at our gates was not confined even to the quick bodies of men; it penetrated to the very mind and spirit, so that almost St. Paul’s words seemed again in place: “Ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with ... the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us in the heavenly places.”
Similarly it was an insistent menace that roused the fervour of the Wise-men of Israel. Subtle but deadly opposition compelled them either to champion their cause or see it fall. Wisdom in consequence acquired a firmer outline. Because another Creed was in the air, it also became a definite “Way of life.” The issues were clarified, the trend of things revealed. It was felt there were but two paths for a man to choose, now sharply defined and seen to lead in opposite directions:
Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings,
And the years of thy life shall be many.
I have taught thee in the way of Wisdom,
I have led thee in paths of uprightness.
When thou goest thy steps shall not be straightened,
And if thou runnest thou shalt not stumble.
Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go:
Keep her, for she is thy life.
Enter not into the paths of the wicked,
And walk not in the way of evil men.
Avoid it, pass not by it;
Turn from it, and pass on.
For they sleep not except they have done mischief;
And their sleep is taken away unless they cause some to fall.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
And drink the wine of violence.
But the path of the righteous is as the shining light,
That shineth more and more unto the perfect day.
The way of the wicked is as darkness
They know not at what they stumble.
What then, was Wisdom’s opponent? Not Folly in the perennial sense, else where was the novelty of the situation? The foe was Folly masquerading as Wisdom, a specious spurious Wisdom which, said the Jewish moralists, despite appearances was No-Wisdom. But if it was not the reality, it was very like it; for the false Wisdom was beautiful, brilliant, and exceedingly effective, had all the rights of sovereignty save one, all the qualities of permanence save one—a firm basis in morality. It lacked only the “fear of the Lord,” which the Jew defined as “to depart from evil,” and which he held to be the one possible foundation for the truly wise life. Not having that, it was but the devil robed as an angel of light, Folly of Follies, a Temple of Wisdom founded upon the sand.
In order to do justice to the efforts made by the Jews of the third and second centuries B.C. to maintain an intellectual, moral and spiritual independence in face of the new learning, or rather the new manner of life we are about to describe, it is necessary to appreciate not only the force of the attack but also the limited resources of the defence. Let us begin therefore by striving to realise the position of the Palestinian Jews in the ancient world. The overwhelming religious importance of the Jews has so distorted the proportions of that world that even the professed student of antiquity finds it difficult to recover the true perspective and realise their geographical and historical insignificance.
Without pausing to reflect, answer this question, “Which were the chief nations of antiquity?” “The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans,” is perhaps the reply that would rise most readily to your lips. But as well might one classify the inhabitants of the modern Western world into Manxmen, Europeans, and Americans! “Which were the famous countries of the pre-Christian era?” “Palestine, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia,” might be our response. But the Egyptians and Babylonians did not hang with breathless interest on the fortunes of Palestine, as we are naturally prone to imagine. They cared no more for the fate of Jerusalem than modern Europe does for the fortunes of Monaco. Now and again a king of Egypt marching north along the Philistine plain, or a grand monarch of Babylon, sweeping south to the borders of Nile, might turn aside a fraction of his host to ravage and overcome the Judæan highlands. But, as a rule, Jerusalem, not being on the main track of conquest, was not vitally affected by the coming and going of the huge armies that issued periodically from the northern and southern Empires.
And next consider how unimportant even in Palestine were the Jews of post-exilic days. The history of that country is familiar to us only from the records of the Jewish Scriptures. If with the same fulness we could hear the story from the standpoint of Israel’s neighbours the proportions of things might seem immensely changed. How hard it is to remember that Solomon in all his glory had no authority in Philistine towns thirty miles away; and that Hiram of Tyre doubtless considered himself every whit as great a lord as the ruler of Jerusalem, and perhaps more highly civilised, certainly his superior in the matter of arts and crafts. In 722 B.C., with the capture of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel passed out of history, and with the influx of alien settlers into its desolated territory the district became semi-heathen.
In 586 B.C. a like fate befell the little kingdom of Judah, the Temple of Jerusalem being burnt, the city walls destroyed and the upper classes carried off to Babylonia. Thereafter for a period of a century and a half Jerusalem existed only as an enfeebled, unfortified township. The return of exiles from Babylon in the reign of Cyrus (537 B.C.), though the fame of it bulked large in Jewish tradition, was no great increase of strength, perhaps little more than the accession of a few influential families. Not until a century later in the time of Nehemiah, about 432 B.C., did the Jews feel that their political history had recommenced; and, even so, the work of Nehemiah was not the creation of a kingdom for his people but the circumvallation of their one city.
With its walls restored Jerusalem might again be said to exist, a defenced city, no longer dependent on the mercy of petty and jealous neighbours. But the territories of the Jews remained much as before; namely the fields and little villages to a distance of some ten or fifteen miles around Jerusalem. Nor was there any considerable extension of purely Jewish land until the successes of the Maccabees were gained in 166 B.C. To sum up. Even after the work of Nehemiah had been accomplished, the Jewish State in Palestine was still no more than an insignificant upland community, a drop in the ocean of pagan races enclosing it; a tract some fifteen miles in length and breadth with Jerusalem as its only city. Doubtless the Jews were encouraged by the prosperity of their kinsfolk in the great cities of Babylonia, Syria and Egypt.
But that was a source only of moral or financial help, not of physical protection: and to the east were the wild nomadic tribes, and south of Jerusalem the treacherous Edomites, and to the north the worse than alien Samaritans, whose Temple on Mount Gerizim challenged Jerusalem’s last glory, its spiritual pre-eminence. Galilee was heathen land; on the west were the splendid heathen cities of the coast; and far to the distant south beyond mysterious Nile and away to the most distant north ranged the vast territories of heathen monarchs before whose military power and worldly splendour Jerusalem was altogether less than nothing and vanity.
In 332 B.C. a thunderbolt smote all the countries of the near East. In that year a European army, led by the young king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, invaded Asia Minor—with such astonishing effects that the event marks the commencement of a distinct epoch in history, the Greek or Hellenic age. Military conquests prove sometimes to be of small consequence in the great movement of human affairs, and famous battles often have decided no more than that so many thousand men should die untimely deaths and that this royal house instead of that should hold the throne: an almost meaningless result. Only those wars are decisive which, like the present one, involve the dominance of one or other of two divergent conceptions or ideals of human life.
Now the conquests of Alexander were of this latter character; and, that being so, their significance has to be measured not only from the standpoint of events but also from the history of ideas. At this point then—the coming of the Greeks to the East—let our narrative be checked for a moment that we may reach the same event by following up a different line of thought, namely the history of the development of human society. What is the significance of Alexander from that point of view? Our aim in examining the question will have to be threefold; to present (of course, in simplest outline) first, the ruling principles of the Eastern or Oriental manner of life; secondly, the Western—that is, the Greek or Hellenic—ideals; and thirdly, the attempt of Alexander and his successors to impose this Hellenic culture upon the Easterns and, in particular, upon the Jews in Palestine.
1. First, of ancient Oriental life. In a previous chapter it was said that behind Palestine looms Arabia and beneath the Jew is the Arab. From before the dawn of history the immense grass-lands of Arabia have been peopled by small nomadic tribes who derived a sufficient livelihood from the flocks they possessed and followed. All the organised life of the Semitic races, with whom alone we are here concerned, has its instincts rooted in this nomadic existence, about which much might profitably be said; but only one point is essential, and to that our remarks will be confined. It is that these pastoral communities have solved the problem of life under existing circumstances. The rigid limitations of their physical surroundings dictates a narrow circle of ambitions beyond which they do not pass, so long as the conditions remain unchanged.
For not only have they discovered how to live, but they have found out the best way of living, within their simple, monotonous world. Therefore they continue, but they do not change. Progress was practically unthought of, certainly undesired; and in fact the life of the modern Bedouin of Arabia is still in its essentials the same as that depicted in the Book of Genesis. But about 3000 B.C., for the first time though not the last time in history, Arabia became overcrowded, in the sense that its pasturage was insufficient to sustain the population, and multitudes of nomads, hunger-driven, poured forth into the fertile territories bordering the deserts. There the arts of agriculture and of building were learnt, settled communities formed, tribal organisation yielded to larger groups, kingdoms arose, and eventually great empires.
But the civilised life of the Semites proved to be as lacking in the instinct for progress, whether material, moral or intellectual, as in its simpler way the original pastoral existence has been. Life in Semitic towns became richer and more complex up to a certain point, but there ambition faded, and the ingrained habit of acquiescence in existing circumstances prevailed, hindering and preventing further growth. Thus, politically, this eastern civilisation was characterised by the mass of the people seeking no share in their own government. They were content to be ruled by authorities whom they seldom created and never effectively controlled. It has been truly said that the kings of the East fought over the heads of their subjects. The affairs of a baker in Jerusalem, a merchant in Gaza, a craftsman in Tyre (provided the victorious army left him alive) were unaltered by the rise and fall of his rulers.
To the bulk of the inhabitants of the Palestinian towns it mattered little whether they were temporarily independent or were under the heel now of Babylon, now of Egypt, now of Persia. Men hoped for no more than that trade should be possible, food obtainable, and that the injustice in the realm should be—not abolished (no one was so mad as to entertain the notion) but—kept within tolerable bounds. For the rest, what more could a man desire than to live as had his father before him? Ancestral custom held the whole of life in its paralysing grasp, and choked initiative. The potter sought no new patterns; what was wrong with the old? Why devise a new method of ploughing, when the old way grew the crops? Innovation was an altogether hateful thing.
Hence, however populous Eastern towns might grow, however active and prosperous their commerce, life in them was essentially stationary, its ambitions limited, its possibilities achieved. In all Palestine there was but one spark of unexhausted thought; namely, the conception of God which the great prophets of Israel had discovered and transmitted to their people. Evidently a nation which remembered such words as these: I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt offerings and meal offerings I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream — that nation is not finished; it has living seed within its soil. Yes, but against this confident assertion recall how shrunken and enfeebled the Jewish community had become.
Further, remember that in all things except their religion and their morality these Jews were part and parcel of the general Oriental civilisation. In their civil occupations, their commercial and agricultural methods, they also were just as much slaves of tradition and as content with their bondage, as were their neighbours. “Slaves of tradition,” how much the words cover! If even dimly we could realise the misery, disease and squalor of the poor, the degradation of womanhood, in those tradition-ridden Eastern towns; if we could taste like gall and bitterness in our own experience one thousandth part of the injustice and cruelties of those “contented” despotisms; “A stationary civilisation, having reached the limit of its ambitions”—how easily the phrase is framed!—if we could feel how much that meagre consummation left to be desired, the words would seem to be written in blood and blotted with tears!
2. Meanwhile in Europe, across the blue seas of the Eastern Mediterranean, a new thing had come to pass: an organisation of human life different in form and in intention because different in mind and spirit. By its means the intellectual powers and artistic achievements of man were swiftly to be raised to an unimagined splendour, and, even so, to remain unexhausted: we say “unexhausted” because the inspiring and energising ideas which Greek genius was the first to realise and accept have never ceased to operate, being in fact the intellectual principles upon which Western civilisation has been constructed, and providing the ideal towards which the development of society is still directed.
Doubtless there is terribly much to deplore in modern life; we are far from wisdom, peace and true prosperity; it may be doubted whether the conditions of the poor under modern industrialism are not, in places, worse than anything even the East can show. And yet there is one incalculable difference revolutionising the whole prospect. Unlike the East, we do not acquiesce in existing evils. We are not exhausted, not apathetically willing to accept things as they are. We spurn as nonsense and cowardice any suggestions that the limit of human development has been attained. Vehemently and hopefully we insist on the achievement of better things. Not all the errors of the past and the resultant evils of the present daunt us. We are rebels against our failures, and our discontent is the measure of our vitality. This instinct for improvement, which is the characteristic of Western life, we owe—an infinite debt—to the people whose coming into history we have now, briefly, to relate.
As early as before 2000 B.C., the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, together with certain parts of the mainland of Greece, were the home of a vigorous sea-faring people, possessing remarkable artistic talent. Their civilisation is now known by the name Minoan. Somewhere between 1200 and 1100 B.C. catastrophic disaster befel this race. Out of the immense grass-lands which stretch from the plains of Hungary in Europe eastward right across central Asia there issued a multitude of men, moving southward with their wives and families.
The invaders swept down into Thessaly and Greece, filling the mainland and pressing onwards across the sea to the Ægean Isles, massacring or enslaving the Minoan inhabitants. But if the newcomers at first brought ruin to a more highly developed race, they had their own virtues. They carried with them a fresh vigour, like a breeze from the north. Hardy and simple, they were not rude savages; they had learnt the use of wheeled vehicles, they had tamed the horse, and above all they possessed, as individuals, a certain sturdy independence and an uncommon open-mindedness. Fortunately, the older population was not extinguished; large numbers survived as slaves, and from these in time the “horse-tamers”—as the conquerors loved to style themselves—learnt for themselves the secrets of the Minoan arts and crafts. With astonishing rapidity they were to improve upon their teachers.
Owing to the mountainous character of Greece and the indentations of its coast, the invaders were split into many separate communities, each easily controlling the small plains and valleys in the immediate neighbourhood, but finding it difficult, if not unnatural, to extend its rule beyond the mountain passes. For defensive purposes the members of these small groups naturally tended to inhabit a single fortified town, which became the all-absorbing centre of the tiny state; the town being, as it were, a stronghold and its territories a garden round it. Thus there came into existence what is known as “the Greek City-State.” Like the Arabian tribes who also had passed from nomadism to settled life, each of these new communities fell for a time under some form of despotic government, now the rule of one man, a King or “Tyrant,” now of a clique of rich and powerful persons, an Aristocracy.
But there was something in the character of the Greeks which proved intolerant of such organisation, and, unlike the Arabians, they passed beyond that experience and developed a novel and, as events were to prove, an invaluable social system to which they gave the name “Democracy.” The foundation principle of the democratic state lay in the conviction that every adult free-born citizen, being an integral part of the state, contributing to its prosperity and security, was entitled to a share in its government. Slaves were outside the franchise, but all others whether base-born or noble, rich or poor, clever or stupid, were citizens—each with a vote and a voice in the direction of public policy, internal and external.
To this citizen-body belonged the power of electing from among themselves officers, both civil magistrates and military commanders, to whom administration was temporarily entrusted, and who were ultimately responsible for their actions to the citizen-body. Under happy fortune this system was adopted as the constitution of society in the leading Greek cities. Mark the mental and moral qualities thereby engendered. In the first place men became exhilaratingly conscious that they possessed individual freedom combined with corporate strength. Each citizen felt himself to be of political importance, an organic part of the state, entitled on the one hand to a share in its glory and its privileges, and on the other responsible himself for the general welfare. How can the epoch-making importance of this fact adequately be emphasised?
In primitive patriarchal society the individual had been free but only within the narrow limits imposed by the rigidity of custom and the bare simplicity of rudimentary life. And civilised town-life of the Eastern type, as we have seen, was complex and magnificent in many ways, but nevertheless had missed the secret of advancing freedom. Intellectually it hated novelties. Politically it made men either kings or the slaves of kings, giving them either too great importance or none at all. Hence the larger the Eastern town, the more powerful and extensive the State, the less was the mass of the people personally concerned in their civil or military affairs. “Freedom” in an Eastern city meant anarchy. The Greeks succeeded in bringing freedom and civilisation into organic union. So far from choking liberty, the connection of each Greek citizen with his city was perceived to be the very cause of the freedom he enjoyed, the means by which his privileges were multiplied and secured. Hence the greater the organisation of society the greater the opportunities each citizen acquired for the development of personal talent and inclination. It is assuredly no exaggeration to describe such an achievement as “epoch-making.”
Along with political freedom went mental freedom. Interchange of opinion took place easily and continually between all grades of the free community. The general obligation to promote the social, commercial, and military well-being of the state stimulated discussion and gave to debate the piquancy and solemnity of serious issues. A Greek might be poor, but he could hold up his head with the richest as a member of the citizen army and the citizen electorate; and in the citizen assembly he need not be a gray-beard to be reckoned wise. Mental ability became the test of worth, and the benumbing tyranny of tradition was overthrown; at least its unquestioned rule was at an end. Custom must henceforth submit to criticism and seek to justify itself. Enterprise, enquiry, innovation became the order of the day. It was the emancipation of the human intelligence.
Moreover, since the rough work of society was performed by the slave population, Greek citizens found much leisure at their disposal. Herein was obviously a danger, but also an opportunity; and fortunately the genius of the people was not found wanting, so that, in the early days the Greeks turned their leisure to good purpose, physical and intellectual. Part of their leisure was devoted to physical exercises, running, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus, chariot-racing; and in the healthful competition of these games in stadium and hippodrome they found continual pleasure. But their ardour for mental exercise was even keener.
They began to think with restless energy and with brilliant results; men of genius, poets, historians, philosophers, and artists, by their matchless achievements raised the intellectual interests of their contemporaries to an extraordinary extent. In general, the Greeks acquired a wonderful feeling for proportion and natural rhythmic beauty. “Nothing in excess” became their motto, but what was meant thereby was no timid mediocrity, but an avoidance of extreme, wherever the extreme was grotesque or foolish. Men sought an equipoise of perfection, and felt infinite delight in the increasing measure of their success. Within a few hundred years the Greeks had produced masterpieces of art and literature which few nations have been able even to rival, none to surpass.
In short, three characteristics distinguished Greek or Hellenic civilisation: First, Emulation. Men vied one with another, vied with their own past efforts. They sought to excel and achieved excellence. Second, Intellectualism. The critical faculties of the mind were increasingly released from the trammels of tradition. Reason became the touchstone of life in all its aspects; and thus, just as in our own age, the immense destructive and constructive energies of the free intelligence were ceaselessly set to work. Third, Patriotism. This third quality calls for fuller comment, for it was the main source of Greek morality. Greek religion contributed something to the growth of moral principles, but less than one might imagine.
Its ethical interest for the most part was limited to inculcating the fear lest Divine vengeance should follow gross outrage of the normal decencies of life. Doubtless also the artistic sense fostered love of the good, since, as a rule, what is wicked appears to men to be ugly; yet the fruits from this source also were not much to boast of. But from the intense patriotism fostered by the City-States came great moral consequences. The interests of the State claimed men’s allegiance, and the claim was nobly answered. Not only great-hearted leaders but also masses of ordinary men were willing to set the public weal above their individual prosperity or security. In striving to be noble citizens men became noble men.
Thousands and thousands were conscious that they could not live unto themselves—without shame. Altruism was a searching reality in their lives, and its burdens were loyally, even gladly, accepted. Men were very zealous for their city, longing for its honour and renown, ready to toil for it, to face hardship and peril on its behalf, and for its safety to die unflinchingly. And no less measure of sacrifice was all too frequently required from the citizens of these ambitious and war-like little States. Let their own words tell how they met the supreme call: “Through these men’s valour, the smoke of the burning of wide-floored Tegea went not up to heaven, who chose to leave the city glad and free to their children, and themselves to die in the forefront of the battle.” Or, best of all, take Simonides’ epitaph on the Athenians fallen at Plataea:—
“If to die nobly is the chief part of excellence,
To us of all men Fortune gave this lot;
For hastening to set a crown of freedom on all Hellas,
We lie possessed of praise that grows not old.”
Surely no one can fail to hear in those words and in the spirit of this Greek life the music of familiar things, things which we have taken to our heart. That is because the thoughts of Hellas are the source from which our own intellectual and social ideas have been derived.
But Hellenic life was not sunshine without shadow. For all its power and brilliance Greek society was exposed to many perils and was guilty of serious mistakes. These, however, we have here no need to discuss in full. It is enough to note that, when-and-where-soever the necessity for ardent patriotism was absent or unfelt the Greek conception of life lacked adequate moral incentive, and sinister conditions which were a very black shadow in a fair world could and did arise. Much might also be said regarding the jealousies of the petty cities, whence came warfare constant, embittered, and suicidal. Nevertheless it remains absolutely true, that compared with the stagnation of Eastern civilisation, Hellenism was life and health. Judge from one token, the epitaphs just quoted. Men could not write like that in Palestine or Babylon, because they never died for such a cause.
In the years between 359 and 338 B.C. the independent Greek cities were all forced to admit the suzerainty, first of Philip II., king of Macedon, and, after his assassination in 336, of his son Alexander, who was to be remembered throughout history as Alexander the Great. The humiliation was not in any way a crushing blow to the spirit of Greece. To the yoke of Philip and Alexander the city-states could submit with a good grace, for the Macedonians were of the same ancestry as the Greeks, and for years had been to all intents and purposes a part of the Greek world; and Alexander was wholly Hellenic in his upbringing and his ideas. Had he not been educated by the great philosopher, Aristotle? In 334 B.C., the young king organised an army of Macedonians and Greeks and set forth to make a grand assault upon the nations of the East: a stupendous task, but the enterprise appealed to the Greeks as a poetic requital of the awful peril one hundred and fifty years before when Xerxes of Persia at the head of a horde of Orientals had crossed to Greece and almost blotted out its rising life.
If the task was colossal and the force to achieve it tiny, the results staggered the imagination of the world. The huge Persian Empire crumbled at the touch of Greek military prowess, directed by the genius of Alexander. In three years the young Macedonian had become absolute master of Western Asia Minor, of Egypt, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia. In 326 B.C. he pushed his conquests to the Punjab, and in 325 he died; but Hellenism did not die with him. The East had seen many conquerors rise and sweep through its lands in triumph, and had continued to dream its long dreams. But the military achievements of Alexander were only the beginning of his work. What stirred the East to its depths was the fascination of the ideas that had accompanied him and that he deliberately sought to establish among the conquered peoples; with what measure of success it now remains to consider.
3. A stormy period followed Alexander’s death. Eventually his Eastern dominions were divided between two of his generals; Ptolemy, who took possession of Egypt, and Seleucus, who became ruler of Syria and the Mesopotamian territories. Happily it is not necessary to follow the confused struggles that ensued between them and their successors—struggles in which Palestine, situated between the rival kingdoms, was continually involved. The point to be observed is that both Ptolemy and Seleucus were Hellenes, as also were most of their leading men, and both they and their successors prosecuted, with all possible energy, Alexander’s policy, the Hellenising of the East. Consider the forces directed to the attainment of that object.
The powerful influences of the royal courts in Egypt and Syria saw to it that throughout the length and breadth of their kingdoms places of honour were reserved for Greeks and such Orientals as might show themselves capable of appreciating and adopting Hellenic culture. To be a Greek, if not by race, then by imitation, became the only avenue to wealth or fame or royal favour.
Alexander, however, had seen that if Hellenism was permanently to subdue and recreate the East it must touch not only the interests of such as are clothed in soft raiment and in kings’ courts live delicately, it must be made a reality daily affecting the life of common folk; and with the foresight of genius he himself pointed the way to secure that end. Realising the organic connection between the Greek ideals and the Greek city, he established at strategic points of his Empire new cities planned on the Hellenic model. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings persevered in this scheme. New cities of the Grecian type were founded in their realms, and the old towns were conformed to the new order of things so far as might be.
In all important centres the essential accompaniments of Hellenic life were introduced: new political organisation for the election of magistrates, and buildings to meet the system; a hall for the Senate, shady pillared galleries where the free citizens might gather to lounge and talk, baths and gymnasia, a stadium and a hippodrome for the games, and for the drama a theatre. With such interests and amusements the imagination of the common folk was stirred and pleased. The youth of the cities became enthusiastic for the gaieties and glories of the competitive games. Guilds of athletes were formed and received the privilege of wearing a special dress, “a broad-brimmed hat, a fluttering cloak broached about the shoulders, and high laced boots.”
In great public processions these young men marched as a special class, wearing crowns of gold, and bearing witness to the wealth and pride of their respective cities by the colours and rich embroideries of their attire. But staider folk than the young and fashionable were also caught in the wide-spread nets of Hellenism. The wealth of the Greek cities and the royal favour shown them attracted commerce, and sleepy Eastern merchants discovered that if they wished to do business they must conform to the prevailing tastes; so that Greek became the language of the market-place as well as of the Court. Finally, the learning and skill of the East confessed its conqueror. Greek art and Greek literature, Greek science and philosophy made the older Eastern styles seem worthless in comparison. Within two centuries following the death of Alexander the near East had been transformed. Hellenism had cast its spell over the whole of life.
The period is one of profound interest for the study of humanity. On the one hand it did much to secure the perpetuation of the intellectual methods of the Greeks, which might have perished had they not been extended beyond the frontiers of the small Greek States in Europe; and on the other hand it showed that the East can change. Human nature is not, as some would have us believe, divided for ever into irreconcilable sections. There are no unbridgeable gulfs between the Eastern and the Western mind. If the modern Westernising movements in China or India should fully succeed, they will but demonstrate anew what was proved long ago in Asia Minor during the three critical centuries before Christ. The challenge these facts present to those who suppose that Christianity cannot become a universal faith is obvious. We must not attempt to give a detailed picture of Hellenism. But even these outlines are enough to show how thoroughly and dramatically the immemorial fashions of the East had been upset and new ambitions kindled, so that men must have felt as if they had been emancipated from the dead past and told to make trial of a new form of life, one that was already brilliant and delightful, but was most of all thrilling in its unknown possibilities. The peoples that walked in darkness thought they had seen a great light.
One fact, however, and that of prime importance, has been left out of count in this description of the situation. Hellenism in the East had a fatal deficiency; it lacked the keen patriotism that inspired the life of the old Greek cities. In Athens men had known that only by the maintenance of their best ideals could Athens lead the intellect of Greece, only by discipline and self-sacrifice could the foe be driven from Athenian fields, could Athens rule the seas, could Athens be free and Athens glorious. But citizens of some Hellenised city of Syria experienced no such sentiments. Their politics were urban not imperial, academic not matter of life and death. To be a captain in the armies of Ptolemy or Seleucus might be a convenient way of gaining a livelihood and might lead to fame, fortune and favour; but after all, to fight in those ranks was to fight for kings’ glories, not for hearth and home. The ambitions of the petty states of Greece had had certain evil aspects; strifes, jealousies, envyings were ever present among them, bleeding the higher interests of their common civilisation. Nevertheless the need for passionate devotion to one’s city had been the root of Hellenic virtue, and that not even Alexander’s genius could transplant to Asiatic soil.
Moreover, even such faint assistance as Greek religion gave to morality failed the Hellenism of the East. By Alexander’s time the early conceptions of the gods had been riddled by criticism, and as yet neither philosophy nor mysticism had discovered for morality a basis intelligible and acceptable to ordinary men. The earnest spirits of the day were aware of the danger ahead. They foresaw that, if society continued on its present course unchecked, its moral bankruptcy must bring disaster. For not all the Greeks were eating, drinking, and making money: some were asking questions about life to which a demoralised Hellenism could give no satisfying answer. And the problem was more than merely intellectual.
The perils and pains of actual life made the enigma a personal agony for many men, who saw that “they were being carried onward into a future of unknown possibilities, and whatever might lie on the other side of death, the possibilities on the hither side were disquieting enough. Even in our firmly ordered and peaceful society, hideous accidents may befall the individual, but in those days when the world showed only despotic monarchies and warring city-states, one must remember that slavery and torture were contingencies which no one could be sure that the future did not contain for him.” In the old days it had been possible to appeal for succour to deities not wholly inhuman in their ways and thoughts. “If now that hope faded into an empty dream, man found himself left naked to fortune. With the mass of passionate desires and loves he carried in his heart, the unknown chances of the future meant ever-present fear.” The situation called for remedy. Hellenism itself evolved the Stoic philosophy as a possible solution for its urgent problems.
Our contention is that in their own sphere and in their own fashion the Jewish proverbs, as used at this period by the Wise in Jerusalem, were, like Stoicism, an answer to the moral instability which contemporary Hellenism had spread abroad.
But even if Hellenism could have entered Syria in its purest form, it would have needed all its nobility to overcome the vices ingrained in the East. When it came to the task with faith in the high gods shaken and falling, with the spur of patriotism left behind in Greece, no wonder that the ugly elements hitherto held in check in the city-states fed themselves fat amid the ancient evils of the Oriental world.
Particularly in Syria did the baser tendencies of Hellenism run riot. Life there did indeed become richer, richer in iniquity. If facts have any meaning, then the history of Syria and Egypt in the Hellenic age cries aloud in witness of the futility of a civilisation, however brilliant, that lacks a basis of moral idealism: “Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid.” The fine culture of the Hellenised lands was dependent on the wrongs and miseries of countless slaves; the cities were filled with glittering, venal women; and the general population sank deeper and deeper in corruption, gluttony, and license. Even the games in Syria were made to pander to the base side of human nature; and, although ideally the cult of athletics might be an excellent thing, “in its actual embodiment it could show all degrees of degradation.”
Life in the Syrian towns became for the most part a studied gratification of the grosser senses. Here is the accusation of an eye-witness, a Syrian Greek named Poseidonius, who lived about 100 B.C.: “The people of these cities are relieved by the fertility of their soil from a laborious struggle for existence. Life is a continual series of social festivities. Their gymnasiums they use as baths, where they anoint themselves with costly oils and myrrhs. In the public banqueting halls they practically live, filling themselves there for the better part of the day with rich foods and wines; much that they cannot eat they carry away home. They feast to the prevailing music of strings. The cities are filled from end to end with the noise of harp-playing.”
And yet it was a great and wonderful age. Although the nobler qualities of the Greek cities could not be made to grow in the new soil, the genius of the Greek intellectual attitude to life was rescued from the bickerings and fatal factions of the little states and was successfully communicated to the larger world, to become in time the priceless heritage of Western civilisation. Rightly conceiving that the spiritual aspect of human life is the supreme thing, we are accustomed to divide history into the period before and the period after the birth of Christ; but were attention to be confined solely to the mental development of mankind, the dividing line would be found in the coming of the Hellenic methods of thought.
The bearing of these facts upon our subject is not far to seek. In face of the subtle influences that were transforming their environment how fared it with the Palestinian Jews? Jerusalem was sheltered by its outlying position from the full tide of Hellenism. Had it not been so, its special characteristics could scarcely have been preserved; it would have become as one of the cities of the coast. But if Jerusalem was not swept away by the flood, that does not imply that the rain of new ideas was not falling in its streets and markets. From 300 to 200 B.C. Palestine was controlled by the Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt, from 198 B.C. by the Syrian Seleucids. This change of authority imposed no check upon the progress and vigour of the Hellenistic movement. Greek cities sprang up throughout the land, and older towns were eager to adapt themselves to the new models. Shortly after the death of Alexander, Samaria and Ptolemais (Acco) had already become centres of Greek influence, and there was a group of Greek cities beyond Jordan.
Imagine too how quickly and how effectively the ideas of the Jews in Jerusalem would be affected by intercourse with the flourishing colonies of their brethren now thoroughly at home in the great centres of Greek dominion in Egypt, Syria and Babylon. It is not surprising therefore to find a Greek writer about 250 B.C. observing that “many of the traditional ordinances of the Jews are losing their hold.” And if any reader wishes further confirmation, he need only turn to the works of Josephus, and note the relish with which that writer tells the story of Joseph the son of Tobiah, nephew of the High-Priest, who by his insolent wit won favour at the Egyptian Court, and battened for a while on the extortionate taxes he wrung from the towns of southern Syria: a repulsive character but quite evidently a popular hero in the estimation of many of his Jewish contemporaries. Picture the coming and going of Greek traders in the bazaars of Jerusalem, and the journeying of Jewish merchants to and from the markets of the Hellenic cities.
Consider what it meant that the immense mercantile centre of Alexandria, with its tempting opportunities to the acute and enterprising Jew, lay only a few days’ journey to the south. In short, Hellenism was swiftly becoming the very atmosphere men breathed. Certainly its manifold allurements were only too visibly and temptingly displayed before the eyes of the young and ambitious in Jerusalem. And yet Hellenism had met its match in the strange city of Zion. Greek met Jew, and in the struggle the Wise-men of Israel played no insignificant part. For they marshalled and moulded their proverbs till they represented the Wisdom of Israel set over against the worldly-wisdom of Greece. They counselled a way of life which was not the seductive Greek way. They sturdily opposed another doctrine to the fashionable immorality of Hellenism with its overwhelming prestige and ostensible success.
For several generations the attack of the new civilisation came by way of peaceful penetration, which was perhaps harder to resist than open enmity, since nobody could deny the good in Hellenism, its beauty, and its cleverness, if only it had been pure in heart. Later, as we shall see, the campaign was to be conducted with all the devices of reckless and inhuman violence. Hebraism against Hellenism! All Egypt, Syria, and Persia had made scarcely an effort to resist the spell of the new learning and the new ways. At first sight then how unequal the contest! A stiff moralism preaching against the pleasures of sin to hot-blooded, able, and ambitious men. A clique of obscurantists arrayed not against a kingdom or an empire but against a magnificent, world-conquering civilisation. The Jews maintain their ground? Impossible! No, not wholly so; for this battle, like another which touches us more closely, was ultimately spiritual; and because the Jews held a conception of the nature and destiny of man deeper, truer, than even the Greeks had found, Hebraism in the end proved stronger than Hellenism with all its genius and all its works.
Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie