Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Matthew Arnold (18221888)
From A Speech at Eton
THE WORD I will take is the word Eutrapelos, Eutrapelia. Let us consider it first as it occurs in the famous Funeral Oration put by Thucydides into the mouth of Pericles. The word stands there for one of the chief of those qualities which have made Athens, says Pericles, the school of Greece; for a quality by which Athens is eminently representative of what is called Hellenism: the quality of flexibility. A happy and gracious flexibility, Pericles calls this quality of the Athenians, and it is no doubt a charming gift. Lucidity of thought, clearness and propriety of language, freedom from prejudice and freedom from stiffness, openness of mind, amiability of manners, all these seem to go along with a certain happy flexibility of nature, and to depend upon it. Nor does this suppleness and flexibility of nature at all necessarily imply, as we English are apt to suppose, a relaxed moral fibre and weakness. In the Athenian of the best time it did not. In the Athenians, says Professor Curtius, the sense of energy abhorred every kind of waste of time, their sense of measure abhorred bombast and redundancy, and their clear intelligence everything partaking of obscurity or vagueness; it was their habit in all things to advance directly and resolutely to the goal. Their dialect is characterised by a superior seriousness, manliness, and vigour of language.
There is no sign of relaxation of moral fibre here; and yet, at the same time, the Athenians were eminent for a happy and gracious flexibility. That quality, as we all know, is not a characteristic quality of the Germanic nations, to which we ourselves belong. Men are educable, and when we read of the abhorrence of the Attic mind for redundancy and obscurity of expression, its love for direct and telling speech, and then think of modern German, we may say with satisfaction that the circumstances of our life have at any rate educated us into the use of straightforward and vigorous forms of language. But they have not educated us into flexibility. All around us we may observe proofs of it. The state of Ireland is a proof of it. We are rivals with Russia in Central Asia, and at this moment it is particularly interesting to note, how the want of just this one Athenian quality of flexibility seems to tell against us in our Asiatic rivalry with Russia. Russia, observes one who is perhaps the first of living geographers,an Austrian, Herr von Hellwald,possesses far more shrewdness, flexibility, and congeniality than England; qualities adapted to make the Asiatic more tractable. And again: there can be no dispute which of the two, England or Russia, is the more civilised nation. But it is just as certain that the highly civilised English understand but indifferently how to raise their Asiatic subjects to their own standard of civilisation; whilst the Russians attain, with their much lower standard of civilisation, far greater results amongst the Asiatic tribes, whom they know how to assimilate in the most remarkable manner. Of course they can only bring them to the same level which they have reached themselves; but the little which they can and do communicate to them counts actually for much more than the great boons which the English do not know how to impart. Under the auspices of Russia the advance in civilisation amongst the Asiatics is indeed slow and inconsiderable, but steady, and suitable to their natural capacities and the disposition of their race. On the other hand, they remain indifferent to British civilisation, which is absolutely incomprehensible to them.
Our word flexibility has here carried us a long way, carried us to Turkestan and the valleys of the Jaxartes and Oxus. Let us go back to Greece, at any rate. The generation of Pericles is succeeded by the generation of Plato and Aristotle. Still the charming and Athenian quality of eutrapelia continues to be held in high esteem. Only the word comes to stand more particularly for flexibility and felicity in the give-and-take way of gay and light social intercourse. With Aristotle it is one of the virtues; the virtue of him who in this pleasant sort of intercourse, so relished by the Greeks, manages exactly to hit the happy and right mean; the virtue opposed to buffoonery on the one side, and to morose rusticity, or clownishness on the other. It is in especial the virtue of the young, and is akin to the grace and charm of youth. When old men try to adapt themselves to the young, says Plato, they betake themselves, in imitation of the young, to eutrapelia and pleasantry.
Four hundred years pass, and we come to the date of the Epistle to the Ephesians. The word eutrapelia rises in the mind of the writer of that Epistle. It rises to St. Pauls mind, and he utters it; but in how different a sense from the praising and admiring sense in which we have seen the word used by Thucydides and Aristotle! Eutrapelia, which once stood for that eminently Athenian and Hellenic virtue of happy and gracious flexibility, now conveys this favourable sense no longer, but is ranked, with filthiness and foolish talking, among things which are not convenient. Like these, it is not to be even so much as once named among the followers of God: neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting (eutrapelia), which are not convenient.
This is an extraordinary change you will say. But now, as we have descended four hundred years from Aristotle to St. Paul, let us ascend, not four hundred, not quite even one hundred years, from Thucydides to Pindar. The religious Theban poet we shall see (and the thing is surely very remarkable) speaks of the quality of eutrapelia in the same disapproving and austere way as the writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians. The young and noble Jason appears at Iolcos, and being questioned about himself by Pelias, he answers that he has been trained in the nurture and admonition of the old and just Centaur, Chiron. From his cave I come, from Chariclo and Philyra, his stainless daughters who there nursed me. Lo, these twenty years am I with them, and there hath been found in me neither deed nor word that is not convenient; and now, behold I am come home that I may recover my fathers kingdom. The adjective eutrapelos, as it is here used in connexion with two nouns, means exactly a word or deed, in biblical phrase of vain lightness, a word or deed such as is not convenient.
There you have the history of the varying use of the words eutrapelos, eutrapelia. And now see how this varying use gives us a clue to the order and sense, as we say, of all that Greek world, so nearly and wonderfully connected with us, so profoundly interesting for us, so full of precious lessons.