The Permanence of Literature

Gilbert Murray: The Interpretation of Ancient Greek Literature

“Among the elements that contribute to the higher evolution of human life, it looks as if one might make a broad division: some are progressive, so that each new stage supersedes the last, some are eternal and are never superseded. I will not try to specify the two classes more precisely; one might say roughly that material things are superseded and spiritual things not; or that everything considered as an achievement can be superseded, but considered as so much life, not. Neither classification is exact, but let it pass. Our own generation is perhaps unusually conscious of the element of change. We live, since the opening of the great epoch of scientific invention in the nineteenth century, in a world utterly transformed from any that existed before. Yet we know that behind all changes the main web of fife is permanent. The joy of an Egyptian child of the First Dynasty in a clay doll was every bit as keen as the joy of a child now in a number of vastly better dolls. Her grief was as great when it was taken away. Those are very simple emotions, but I believe the same holds of emotions much more complex. The joy and grief of the artist in his art, of the strong man in his fighting, of the seeker after knowledge or righteousness in his many wanderings; these and things like them, all the great terrors and desires and beauties, belong somewhere to the permanent stuff of which daily life consists; they go with hunger and thirst and love and the facing of death. And these it is that make the permanence of literature. There are many elements in the work of Homer or Aeschylus which are obsolete and even worthless, but there is no surpassing their essential poetry. It is there, a permanent power which we can feel or fail to feel, and if we fail the world is the poorer. And the same is true, though a little less easy to see, of the essential work of the historian or the philosopher.”

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