While many writers and artists were seeking to take a firmer grip on reality, the philosophers, while claiming to do the same, were in fact teaching how to resist its incursions by cultivating a remote, impregnable, invulnerable peace of mind.
Another way, however, in which the same escape could be achieved was by inventing a better world instead, in which all the obstacles in the way of good living had been finally broken down, and this was a popular exercise in the Hellenistic age. The emphasis was on an imaginary country in which the desired peace of mind had been reached by universal goodwill and collaboration among its inhabitants. For this was an age, in spite of all its wars, in which the concept that all men and women share a common humanity had gained considerable strength. Already in the fifth century the Athenian orator Antiphon and the philosopher-scientist Democritus of Abdera had enunciated this doctrine with force.
In this new, huge Greek or partly Hellenized world, many philosophers travelled and migrated a lot from place to place, which made them feel rootless and awakened their susceptibility to international points of view. Thus, Diogenes the Cynic, a typical exile, declared ‘I am a citizen of the universe.” In the same spirit his pupil Crates of Thebes could declare that he had no one city (his knapsack was city enough for him); for the entire world was his citadel and his house. Epicurus, too, had spent fifteen years in banishment without a fixed home before he settled in Athens, so that his rejection of current political and social values likewise bears the marks of a refugee philosopher. They were migrants who had abandoned the rights and duties of their own cities, accepting life as aliens and second-class residents in the states where they finally settled.
However, a contemporary poet, Theocritus, had the same purpose in mind but produced an entirely different recipe altogether, and it is a recipe which had more than a touch of original and profound genius. In the simplest terms, Theocritus’ prescription was withdrawal into communion with nature and the countryside. Theocritus was keen to dissociate his works from the grandiose epic, heroic, Homeric tradition: but to his readers, all of whom knew their Homer, his way of doing so raised an intriguing and paradoxical point familiar from the acrobatics of Apollonius and others. For Theocritus’ poems, in the same typical Hellenistic manner, are crammed with Homeric references, but they turn them all upside down.
Thus, Theocritus allows his humble herdsmen to indulge in ludicrously unsuitable epic reminiscences; and he ironically transposes the old Homeric situations into modern and highly unheroic, comic forms. In the characteristic Hellenistic manner (which his like-minded friends could appreciate), he is reviving mythological epic – but reviving it in very modern and subversive terms. As such, Theocritus’s pastoral poems virtually amounted to a new literary form, as he himself proudly suggested – a highly individual and profound contribution to the current quest for peace of mind.
This peace of mind may be elusive indeed; yet it can be found. The alluring, moving beauty of this message that makes Theocritus the only Hellenistic poet who can still communicate powerfully with modern readers, if they are prepared to look carefully beneath the apparently trivial rustic surface. Above all it was he whose pastoral world created the most moving and profound of all the escapes from ordinary living into ataraxy – an escape which he insists is not an evasion. Instead, he offers that peace of mind is the only true life: and it is within our reach.
Adapted from “From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World” by M. Grant. Published by Scribner. 1982.
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