It is impossible rightly to understand Euripides without due consideration of the period to which he belonged. Even the clearest thinker cannot escape the influence of his age; how much less, then, can the poet, who draws from it the inspiration for his creations and in return marks it with the impress of his genius? Aeschylus, the veteran of Marathon, is the dramatist of the Athenian heroic age. Sophocles reflects in his noble creations the cultured spirit of the age of Pericles, and transmits it in its purity to succeeding times. Euripides is the dramatist of the Peloponnesian war and the Ochlocracy or mob-government. In the course of this period, however, was completed a mighty revolution throughout Greece in every relation of life. It was at this time that the spirit of Greece first began, in its focus at Athens, to free itself from the good old traditions in matters of state, custom and religious feeling. Pericles had established a pure democracy; he had invited the whole body of citizens to liberty and intellectual culture. But with his death liberty degenerated into license, and culture, spreading among a wider circle, soon became superficial. With the change from democracy to ochlocracy public life lost its dignity more and more, and the deterioration of morals struck still deeper into all the relations of family life.
The noble struggle against the Persians for freedom and fatherland had raised the Greeks both politically and morally; on the other hand, the Peloponnesian war, waged by Greek against Greek, little by little, like some foul cancer, drew away the whole strength of the body, and finally led to its general dissolution. All feeling for true greatness and nobility was lost, and moral insensibility decked itself with their empty names. At Athens men's minds were filled with a restless desire and striving after novelty. The less the results of Athenian politics came up to their conception of the greatness of sovereign demos, the more did men question the existing principles of public duty and morality, hitherto regarded as fundamental. A new age produced a new race, frivolous and artificial, without mental balance, doomed to intellectual blindness, and guided in its political aims by the most unreasoning selfishness. The more cultivated sort tried, by means of political trials, party strife, proscription of the rich, litigious wrangling and a truly democratic mistrust of all existing institutions, to stifle the inner unrest of their minds and to escape the dark influence of a period which was ever growing more gloomy. In this way they lost all capacity for simple pleasures; faith in the old gods quickly vanished, and with it the moral significance of the religious myths. Its place was taken in some minds by a dreary superstition, in others by an unsound intellectualism.
Loss of faith in the gods involved a similar loss of faith in the divine in man; this was followed by a gross materialism, which found its greatest happiness in enjoyment, its greatest pain in self-denial. Family ties became laxer; loose connections tolerated, though not approved by public opinion, destroyed the sanctity of the marriage bond. All faith in woman's dignity and virtue disappeared, and men avenged by hatred and scorn the indignity they had themselves inflicted on the weaker sex. The hetæræ, who had once been, as they were called, "companions," had become mere mercenaries; and they bore much the same relation to Aspasia of Miletus, whom Pericles had made his consort, as Phæax and Hyperbolus did to that statesman himself. A certain general culture, consisting mainly in mere cleverness of style and rhetoric, and derived chiefly from the sophists, aggravated the universal confusion and instability of mind by the deceptive appearance of solidity. From these blighting influences even the better natures, men morally and mentally superior to their fellows, could not wholly escape.
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