The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume VII (of 20)

Page 81 of 99

But most men do not know what a house is, and the mass are actually poor all their days because they think they must have such an one as their neighbor's. As if one were to wear any sort of coat the tailor might cut 390 out for him, or, gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat and cap of woodchuck-skin, should complain of hard times because he could not buy him a crown![422]

It reflects no little dignity on Nature, the fact that the Romans once inhabited her,---that from this same unaltered hill, forsooth, the Roman once looked out upon the sea, as from a signal station. The vestiges of military roads, of houses and tessellated courts and baths,---Nature need not be ashamed of these relics of her children. The hero's cairn,---one doubts at length whether his relations or Nature herself raised the hill. The whole earth is but a hero's cairn. How often are the Romans flattered by the historian and antiquary! Their vessels penetrated into this frith and up that river of some remote isle. Their military monuments still remain on the hills and under the sod of the valleys. The oft-repeated Roman story is written in still legible characters in every quarter of the old world, and but to-day a new coin is dug up whose inscription repeats and confirms their fame. Some "Juda Capta," with a woman mourning under a palm tree, with silent argument and demonstration puts at rest whole pages of history.[423]

The Earth

Which seems so barren once gave birth

To heroes, who o'erran her plains,

Who plowed her seas and reaped her grains.

Some make the mythology of the Greeks to have 391 been borrowed from that of the Hebrews, which however is not to be proved by analogies,---the story of Jupiter dethroning his father Saturn, for instance, from the conduct of Cham towards his father Noah, and the division of the world among the three brothers. But the Hebrew fable will not bear to be compared with the Grecian. The latter is infinitely more sublime and divine. The one is a history of mortals, the other a history of gods and heroes, therefore not so ancient. The one god of the Hebrews is not so much of a gentleman, not so gracious and divine, not so flexible and catholic, does not exert so intimate an influence on nature as many a one of the Greeks. He is not less human, though more absolute and unapproachable. The Grecian were youthful and living gods, but still of godlike or divine race, and had the virtues of gods. The Hebrew had not all of the divinity that is in man, no real love for man, but an inflexible justice. The attribute of the one god has been infinite power, not grace, not humanity, nor love even,---wholly masculine, with no sister Juno, no Apollo, no Venus in him. I might say that the one god was not yet apotheosized, not yet become the current material of poetry.[424]

The wisdom of some of those Greek fables is remarkable. The god Apollo (Wisdom, Wit, Poetry) condemned to serve, keep the sheep of King Admetus. So is poetry allied to the state.

To acus, Minos, Rhadamanthus, judges in hell, 392 only naked men came to be judged. As Alexander Ross comments, "In this world we must not look for Justice; when we are stript of all, then shall we have it. For here something will be found about us that shall corrupt the Judge." When the island of gina was depopulated by sickness at the instance of acus, Jupiter turned the ants into men, i. e. made men of the inhabitants who lived meanly like ants.[425]

The hidden significance of these fables which has been detected, the ethics running parallel to the poetry and history, is not so remarkable as the readiness with which they may be made to express any truth. They are the skeletons of still older and more universal truths than any whose flesh and blood they are for the time made to wear. It is like striving to make the sun and the wind and the sea signify. What signifies it?[426]

Piety, that carries its father on its shoulders.[427]

Music was of three kinds,---mournful, martial, and effeminate,---Lydian, Doric, and Phrygian. Its inventors Amphion, Thamyris, and Marsyas. Amphion was bred by shepherds. He caused the stones to follow him and built the walls of Thebes by his music. All orderly and harmonious or beautiful structures may be said to be raised to a slow music.

Harmony was begotten of Mars and Venus. 393

Antus was the son of Neptune and the Earth. All physical bulk and strength is of the earth and mortal. When it loses this point d'appui it is weakness; it cannot soar. And so, vice versa, you can interpret this fable to the credit of the earth.

They all provoked or challenged the gods,---Amphion, Apollo and Diana, and was killed by them; Thamyris, the Muses, who conquered him in music, took away his eyesight and melodious voice, and broke his lyre. Marsyas took up the flute which Minerva threw away, challenged Apollo, was flayed alive by him, and his death mourned by Fauns, Satyrs, and Dryads, whose tears produced the river which bears his name.

The fable which is truly and naturally composed, so as to please the imagination of a child, harmonious though strange like a wild-flower, is to the wise man an apothegm and admits his wisest interpretation.

When we read that Bacchus made the Tyrrhenian mariners mad, so that they leaped into the sea, mistaking it for "a meadow full of flowers," and so became dolphins, we are not concerned about the historical truth of this, but rather a higher, poetical truth. We seem to hear the music of a thought, and care not if our intellect be not gratified.[428]

The mythologies, those vestiges of ancient poems, the world's inheritance, still reflecting some of their original hues, like the fragments of clouds tinted by the 394 departed sun, the wreck of poems, a retrospect as [of] the loftiest fames,---what survives of oldest fame,---some fragment will still float into the latest summer day and ally this hour to the morning of creation. These are the materials and hints for a history of the rise and progress of the race. How from the condition of ants it arrived at the condition of men, how arts were invented gradually,---let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological, periods, which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human events. If we rise above this wisdom for the day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which they have been supplied with the simplest necessaries,---with corn and wine and honey and oil and fire and articulate speech and agricultural and other arts,---reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor; that, in the lapse of the divine periods, other divine agents and godlike men will assist to elevate the race as much above its present condition.

Aristus "found out honey and oil." "He obtained of Jupiter and Neptune, that the pestilential heat of the dog-days, wherein was great mortality, should be mitigated with wind."[429]

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