The Greeks told no fewer lies than other races, but they had the desire and the power to see the world as it is. By this essential quality they gave Europe the conception of philosophy and science. These we inherit from them alone; Palestine and our German ancestors neither created them, nor show any signs of the temper that creates them, and Rome received her share from Greece.
The word ‘Truthfulness’ may seem to suggest the realism of some modern writers. But the Greek truthfulness was different. It should be distinguished from the laboured detachment and painful impartiality of such a writer as Flaubert, whose realism conceals him in the same sense as the walls of the engine-room conceal the panting machines within.
The Greek Truthfulness is spontaneous, natural, and effortless—the native quality of the artist, who sees, and forgets himself in the vision. Nor has it anything to do with photographic realism. It has not the impersonality of that method or its flat and lifeless effect. A man, and no machine, makes the picture, feeling intensely what he sees, and though this intensity does not distort his vision, we are conscious, as we read, of a human personality, and we feel the electric thrill of life.
Nor is it akin to that type of modern realism, which, like a noxious drug, lays hold on the spirits and depresses the heart—the realism which paints so black a picture of human life, that it affects us physically like days of continued fog, and gives us no more complete and truthful a picture of the world.
There is hardly any Greek writer, perhaps none at all, of whom this can be said. Many moderns can faithfully describe what is disagreeable, but their effects are often brutal and always depressing.
The gift of portraying suffering and evil with unflinching truth, yet of conveying other feelings than those of mere horror, is reserved for few. Its rarity perhaps explains the rarity of great tragedy, of which it seems to be a condition that it shall truthfully show what is darkest in life, without leaving a final and dominant sense of gloom.
The great Greek writers possessed this secret. They are as sensitive to evil and suffering as any writer and fully as faithful in recording them. But whereas other men are simply depressed or disgusted or appalled, lose their vital forces, and gaze in paralysed fascination, these writers, in virtue of a sense which is more aesthetic than moral, are aware of tremendous issues, see in sordid suffering the agonies of a labouring universe, and feel awe and wonder, not mere disgust and distress, at what human beings suffer and endure.
That is why Homer leaves us with another feeling than depression, when he tells how Priam begged his son’s body from the man who killed him.