Evaluating Literary Greatness

Gilbert Murray, Religio Grammatici:

“If you take any particular form of literature, the limits of its achievement become quickly visible. Take drama: there are not many very good plays in the world. Greece, France, England, Spain, and for brief periods Russia, Scandinavia, and Germany, have made their contributions; but, apart from the trouble of learning the languages, a man could read all the very good plays in the world in a few months. Take lyric or narrative poetry, philosophy, history : there is not so very much first-rate lyric poetry in the world, nor yet narrative, nor much first-rate philosophy, nor even history. No doubt when you consider the books that have to be read in order to study the history of a particular modern period, say the time of Napoleon or the French Revolution, the number seems absolutely vast and overwhelming; but when you look for those histories which have the special gift that we are considering — that is, the gift of retaining and expressing a very high quality of thought or emotion — the number dwindles at an amazing rate. And in every one of these forms of literature that I have mentioned, as well as many others, we shall find our list of the few selected works of outstanding genius begin with a Greek name.

‘That depends,’ our modernist may say, ‘on the principles on which you make your selection. Of course the average grammaticus of the present day will begin his selected historians with Herodotus and Thucydides, just as he will begin his poets with Homer, because he has been brought up to think that sort of thing. He is blinded, as usual, with the past. Give us a Greekless generation or two and the superstition will disappear.’ How are we to answer this?

With due humility , I think, and yet with a certain degree of confidence. According to Dionysius Thrax, the last and highest of the six divisions grammatike was κρίσις ποιημάτων the judgment or criticism of works of imagination. And the voice of the great mass of trained grammatikoi counts for something. Of course they have their faults and prejudices, — the tradition constantly needs correcting, — but we must use the best criteria that we can get. As a rule, any man who reads Herodotus and Thucydides with due care and understanding recognizes their greatness. If a particular person refuses to do so, I think we can fairly ask him to consider the opinions of recognized judges. And the judgment of those who know the grammata most widely and deeply will certainly put these Greek names very high in their respective lists.”

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