Reference > Quotations > S. Austin Allibone, comp. > Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay
S. Austin Allibone, comp.  Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay.  1880.
  Of remote countries and past times he [Johnson] talked with wild and ignorant presumption. “The Athenians of the age of Demosthenes,” he said to Mrs. Thrale, “were a people of brutes, a barbarous people.” In conversation with Sir Adam Ferguson he used similar language. “The boasted Athenians,” he said, “were barbarians. The mass of every people must be barbarous where there is no printing.” The fact was this: he saw that a Londoner who could not read was a very stupid and brutal fellow; he saw that great refinement of taste and activity of intellect were rarely found in a Londoner who had not read much; and, because it was by means of books that people acquired almost all their knowledge in the society with which he was acquainted, he concluded, in defiance of the strongest and clearest evidence, that the human mind can be cultivated by means of books alone. An Athenian citizen might possess very few volumes; and the largest library to which he had access might be much less valuable than Johnson’s bookcase in Bolt Court. But the Athenian might pass every morning in conversation with Socrates, and might hear Pericles speak four or five times every month. He saw the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes: he walked amidst the friezes of Phidias and the paintings of Zeuxis: he knew by heart the choruses of Æschylus: he heard the rhapsodist at the corner of the street reciting the shield of Achilles or the death of Argus; he was a legislator, conversant with high questions of alliance, revenue, and war: he was a soldier, trained under a liberal and generous discipline: he was a judge, compelled every day to weigh the effect of opposite arguments. These things were in themselves an education; an education eminently fitted, not, indeed, to form exact or profound thinkers, but to give quickness to the perceptions, delicacy to the taste, fluency to the expression, and politeness to the manners. All this was overlooked. An Athenian who did not improve his mind by reading was, in Johnson’s opinion, much such a person as a Cockney who made his mark; much such a person as black Frank before he went to school; and far inferior to a parish clerk or a printer’s devil.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Croker’s Edition of Boswell’s Johnson, Sept. 1831.    
  If we consider merely the subtlety of disquisition, the force of imagination, the perfect energy and elegance of expression, which characterize the great works of Athenian history, we must pronounce them intrinsically most valuable; but what shall we say when we reflect that from hence have sprung directly or indirectly all the noblest creations of the human intellect; that from hence were the vast accomplishments and the brilliant fancy of Cicero; the withering fire of Juvenal; the plastic imagination of Dante; the humour of Cervantes; the comprehension of Bacon; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shakspeare? All the triumphs of truth and genius over prejudice and power, in every country and in every age, have been the triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few great minds have made a stand against violence and fraud, in the cause of liberty and reason, there has been her spirit in the midst of them; inspiring, encouraging, consoling;—by the lonely lamp of Erasmus; by the restless bed of Pascal; in the tribune of Mirabeau; in the cell of Galileo; on the scaffold of Sidney. But who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many thousands have been made wiser, happier, and better, by those pursuits in which she has taught mankind to engage: to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty,—liberty in bondage,—health in sickness,—society in solitude? Her power is indeed manifested at the bar, in the senate, in the field of battle, in the schools of philosophy. But these are not her glory. Wherever literature consoles sorrow, or assuages pain,—wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep,—there is exhibited, in its noble form, the immortal influence of Athens.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On Mitford’s History of Greece, Nov. 1824.    
  The dervise in the Arabian tale did not hesitate to abandon to his comrade the camels with their load of jewels and gold, while he retained the casket of that mysterious juice which enabled him to behold at one glance all the hidden riches of the universe. Surely it is no exaggeration to say that no external advantage is to be compared with that purification of the intellectual eye which gives us to contemplate the infinite wealth of the mental world, all the hoarded treasures of its primeval dynasties, all the shapeless ore of its yet unexplored mines. This is the gift of Athens to man. Her freedom and her power have for more than twenty centuries been annihilated; her people have degenerated into timid slaves; her language into a barbarous jargon; her temples have been given up to the successive depredations of Romans, Turks, and Scotchmen; but her intellectual empire is imperishable. And when those who have rivalled her greatness shall have shared her fate; when civilization and knowledge shall have fixed their abode in distant continents; when the sceptre shall have passed away from England; when, perhaps, travellers from distant regions shall in vain labour to decipher on some mouldering pedestal the name of our proudest chief; shall hear savage hymns chaunted to some misshapen idol over the ruined dome of our proudest temple; and shall see a single naked fisherman wash his nets in the river of ten thousand masts;—her influence and her glory will still survive,—fresh in eternal youth, exempt from mutability and decay, immortal as the intellectual principle from which they derived their origin, and over which they exercise their control.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators, Aug. 1824.    
  Books, however, were the least part of the education of an Athenian citizen. Let us, for a moment, transport ourselves in thought to that glorious city. Let us imagine that we are entering its gates in the time of its power and glory. A crowd is assembled round a portico. All are gazing with delight at the entablature; for Phidias is putting up the frieze. We turn into another street; a rhapsodist is reciting there: men, women, children are thronging round him: the tears are running down their cheeks: their eyes are fixed: their very breath is still; for he is telling how Priam fell at the feet of Achilles, and kissed those hands—the terrible,—the murderous—which had slain so many of his sons. We enter the public place; there is a ring of youths, all leaning forward, with sparkling eyes, and gestures of expectation. Socrates is pitted against the famous atheist from Ionia, and has just brought him to a contradiction in terms. But we are interrupted. The herald is crying, “Room for the Pytanes!” The general assembly is to meet. The people are swarming in on every side. Proclamation is made—“Who wishes to speak?” There is a shout, and a clapping of hands: Pericles is mounting the stand. Then for a play of Sophocles; and away to sup with Aspasia. I know of no modern university which has so excellent a system of education.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators.    
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