If that be true, or less than gravely overstated: if the English Bible hold this unique place in our literature; if it be at once a monument, an example and (best of all) a well of English undefiled, no stagnant water, but quick, running, curative, refreshing, vivifying; may we not agree, Gentlemen, to require the weightiest reason why our instructors should continue to hedge in the temple and pipe the fountain off in professional conduits, forbidding it to irrigate freely our ground of study?
It is done so complacently that I do not remember to have met one single argument put up in defence of it; and so I am reduced to guess-work. What can be the justifying reason for an embargo on the face of it so silly and arbitrary, if not senseless?
Does it reside perchance in some primitive instinct of taboo; of a superstition of fetish-worship fencing off sacred things as unmentionable, and reinforced by the bad Puritan notion that holy things are by no means to be enjoyed?
If so, I begin by referring you to the Greeks and their attitude towards the Homeric poems. We, of course, hold the Old Testament more sacred than Homer. But I very much doubt if it be more sacred to us than the Iliad and the Odyssey were to an old Athenian, in his day. To the Greeks—and to forget this is the fruitfullest source of error in dealing with the Tragedians or even with Aristophanes—to the Greeks, their religion, such as it was, mattered enormously. They built their Theatre upon it, as we most certainly do not; which means that it had sunk into their daily life and permeated their enjoyment of it, as our religion certainly does not affect our life to enhance it as amusing or pleasurable. We go to Church on Sunday, and write it off as an observance; but if eager to be happy with a free heart, we close early and steal a few hours from the working-day. We antagonise religion and enjoyment, worship and holiday. Nature being too strong for any convention of ours, courtship has asserted itself as permissible on the Sabbath, if not as a Sabbatical institution.
Now the Greeks were just as much slaves to the letter of their Homer as any Auld Licht Elder to the letter of St Paul. No one will accuse Plato of being overfriendly to poetry. Yet I believe you will find in Plato some 150 direct citations from Homer, not to speak of allusions scattered broadcast through the dialogues, often as texts for long argument. Of these citations and allusions an inordinate number seem to us laboriously trivial— that is to say, unless we put ourselves into the Hellenic mind. On the other hand Plato uses others to enforce or illustrate his profoundest doctrines. For an instance, in “Phaedo” (Sec. 96) Socrates is arguing that the soul cannot be one with the harmony of the bodily affections, being herself the master-player who commands the strings: