CHAPTER 15

THE ANCIENTS

 

But, besides what has been said, we are to remember that Aristotle appeals to the ancients as sustaining his view of the import of the word. But, to translate aion eternity would also bring him into direct conflict with all the ancients. For, in the early centuries, the idea of eternity does not occur at all in the word, and it was introduced into it only in the later centuries of the language. Nor is it hard to trace the process by which this sense was finally introduced. It is the more important to do this, as there is, in some lexicographers, a disposition still to give eternity as the original sense of aion, and the popular mind cannot be thoroughly freed from this fallacy until the real facts in the case are clearly understood.

Moreover, a biographical sketch of this word, and its changes from the beginning to this day, would develop a history of peculiar interest and great profit. But I cannot enter into it in detail. I will only give a sketch of the great river of thought connected with this word, from its earliest beginnings down to this day, when it is the centre of a world-wide controversy.

Who, then, are the ancients to whom Aristotle appeals? Beyond all doubt Homer and Hesiod come into this list, and also the Orphic hymnists. Here, then, if anywhere, we are to look for the testimony of the ancients. After these come the great lyric and dramatic poets Pinder, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To these may be added the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Let us then see if Aristotle’s appeal to the ancients will sustain the position that the primary and original sense of aion was eternity.

What, then, was the original and earliest meaning of this word? I reply LIFE, denoting a physical energy of the system that causes normal action and averts decay. Of this we have a striking illustration in Homer (Il., xix., 27). Here Achilles expresses to his mother his fears that flies will breed worms in the wounds of the slain Menoetius, and cause putrefaction in his body, for life (aion) has been destroyed. Here the mind is fixed on life, the vital power, the destruction of which creates the danger of putrefaction. Here, then, the idea of time is utterly excluded. Again, in the lamentation of Andromache over the death of Hector, she says, “Oh, my dear husband, too early hast thou perished from life (aion) and left me a widow!” (Il., xxiv., 725).

So, also, Sarpedon says pathetically to Hector, “Do not leave me disabled by a mortal wound, a prey to the Greeks, but defend me, and permit my life (aion) to leave me in your city.” Here he had no idea of time or of eternity, but only of the privilege of giving up his life in the beloved city Troy, which he had come to defend.

The same use of aion to denote life is found in the Homeric “Hymn to Mercury,” v. 42., 119, in which that god is described as destroying the life ([Greek word for aion]) of a mountain-tortoise and making a lyre of its shell, and as destroying the lives (aionas) of two cows to prepare a feast. In the fragments of Pindar, “Hypochor.” iii., 5, to describe the death of a man killed by a club, it is said, “His life [(Greek word for aion)] was dashed out through his bones.”

Aeschylus, also, in “Prometheus,” 862, refers to animal life when he says, “Each wife shall deprive her husband of life (aion), plunging into his breast the sharp two-edged sword.”

From this abstract idea of life, it passed to a concrete form to denote a living spirit, an [Greek word], or aeon. We see such a transition illustrated by Virgil, in the use of the Latin vita, life. Speaking of the spirits of departed men who thronged to meet Aeneas, he calls them (Aen., vi., 192) “vitas sine corpore” (lives), i.e., living spirits, without bodies. This use of aion to denote living spirits does not occur in the Homeric poems. But it does occur in Euripides (“Herac.” 900). By the chorus, Jupiter is called aion, i.e., the Supreme living Spirit. This accords with Aristotle’s use of aion. It is found also at a later period in Epictetus, book ii., chap. V., who declares that he is not an aion (a spirit), but a man. In accredited ecclesiastical writers also various orders of angels are called aions. The excess of the Gnostics in multiplying aions in their manifold systems seems to have caused a timid reaction in lexicographers, and a desire to drop the word in this sense, as denoting no reality, and as no regular Greek word. Yet its claim to be a true part of the Grecian language cannot be rationally denied or ignored. It ought to have its place in every good lexicon. Hitherto the idea of eternity is so far from being primary and original, that it is entirely excluded. The element of time, in any form, is not included in these original uses of the word.

Nevertheless, as the idea of duration is essentially connected with prolonged life, the word assumed an idea of time and denoted the continuous time of life at any given point, and also the total duration of life, as stated by Aristotle. Ideas of the circumstances and character of life were also introduced, as a prosperous, honorable, joyful life, or the reverse. In this sense it is commonly used, not only by Homer, but by the great poets, lyric and dramatic – Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – who show undeniably how it was understood in common life. In Euripedes (“Orestes,” 603) Orestes says, “A happy life (aion) is theirs who are well united in marriage.” In “Bacchae” the chorus says that Semele, “having given birth to Dionysus, left this life (aion), being smitten by a divine thunderbolt” (92, 93). In Sophocles (“Philoctetes,” 179), the chorus laments, “O miserable generations of mortals, to whom not even a tolerable life (aion) is assigned!” So Philoctetes says (1348), “O sad, hateful, gloomy life!” (aion). So Euripides (Hecuba, 754-7), Agamemnon says to Hecuba: “What do you long for? Is it to lay aside your servile life (aion)? She replies: “No, indeed; but having punished the evil-doers to be in servitude all my life” (aion). In “Phoiniss.” (1520) Antigone laments that she is to live always a single life (aion) with flowing tears. Pindar (“Nemea,” ix., 106) says, “From labors in youth, and justice, proceeds in old age a happy life” (aion). In “Frag.,” p. 96, vol. iii., “Do not while you live darken pleasure, for a pleasant life (aion) is the best portion for a man.” “Isthmia, vii., 39, “Enjoying daily pleasures, I approach old age, and the fated duration of life” (aion). In all these popular writers the idea of eternity does not occur.

But the idea duration of life, or age, does occur; and, as our word age, denoting the time of the life of a man, also comes to denote the lifetime of a generation, and then a period marked with some characteristic, as the antediluvian age, or the Mosaic age, and then those living in that period, so was it with the word aion. This is conceded by all.

The senses of the word thus far spoken of, in which the idea of physical life is at first predominant and exclusive, and afterward is united with ideas of time, outward state, and moral character, occur for over five centuries in such writers as Homer, Hesiod, the Orphic hymnists, Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides; but we do not yet come to the idea of eternity.

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