Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

VII. The Greeks

4. What is "Hellenism"?
 

The average Greek or Hellenised Vlach in Macedonia, who professes to believe that the whole population is Greek, is doubtless to a great extent the victim of his daily impressions. He lives in a town which is for the most part Hellenised. He never goes into the country. He does not know the villages or the village folk. But even the more educated and moderate Greek, who admits frankly that the Macedonians are Slavs, will add a claim on behalf of Greece to more territory than her sons inhabit, "in recognition of the civilising mission of Hellenism." I confess to some difficulty in deciding what Hellenism means in this connection. What is the specific attitude of mind which it denotes ? What is the message which the modern Hellenes are struggling to convey to Macedonia ? What doctrine of sweetness and light is it which causes them to fight for the right to bury Vlachs, or to exclude Bulgarians from their


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hospitals ? The Church is the most prominent feature of modern Hellenism, and it seems to be as far from the old Hellenic spirit as it is from primitive Christianity. Moreover, it differs in nothing from the Russian, the Servian, or the Bulgarian Churches. Nor is there anything Hellenic in the Greek political ideals as one see them in Greece they are the ideals of the French Revolution, and the mother of the Boule is not the Athenian democracy, but the British theory of constitutional monarchy and representative government. And, besides, the same spirit of democracy is incarnated quite as faithfully in free Bulgaria. It would be as hard to discover in the modern Greeks a trace of the ancient artistic spirit. Domestic architecture is no doubt an impossible luxury in Turkey, for a man who was daring enough to construct an imposing house would invite exactions and oppressions. But there is nothing to prevent the Greeks from constructing beautiful churches if only they possessed the instinct and the taste. Imposing and even costly churches one does see; as, for example, the new cathedral at Koritza, but it is vulgar to the last degree. There are ambitious new buildings in Athens, but their architects were Germans. The popular lithographs, the coloured prints of the late war, the illustrated newspapers in Athens, all of them belong to a level of perception which the poorest English village has outgrown. With music the case is even worse. The national manner of singing is a monotonous falsetto, indescribably dreary and unutterably tuneless. The Church music is no less undeveloped and painful, yet any one who has ever had the good fortune to hear a choir of Russian sailors or soldiers going through the same orthodox service, as I have heard them in Crete, knows what its artistic possibilities are in the hands of Slav barbarians. When one comes to ask, however, whether modern "Hellenism" includes a devotion to literature, it is rather harder to give a definite answer. Certainly the Greeks in Macedonia are not a reading people, but then under Turkish rule books are hard to come by. The Turkish censorship excludes not merely every book which contains a syllable that might be construed as a criticism on


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Ottoman institutions or the Moslem religion; it bans on principle every book that suggests revolt against any established order or any recognised Church. Dante is forbidden, Pascal's "Pensées" are on the index, and a copy of "Les Misérables," which I once tried to smuggle in, was ruthlessly seized but then the title may have led the customs official to mistake it for a treatise on the Macedonians. Such a system, as a Greek bookseller in Monastir naïvely explained to me, is "very discouraging for the trade."And the result was that he sold little beside school-books and the nastiest type of French boulevard novel for moral corruption seems to be the one literary import which the censorship encourages. And yet I managed to find in his shop Tourgénief's "Sportsman's Sketches" (in French), Voltaire's "Candide," and Lucian's "Dialogues." (There are clearly some gaps in the censor's theological hedge.) There must have been a public even in Monastir for these books. But perhaps the most significant thing about this bookshop was that while it contained a fair supply of such reading, and an unrivalled collection of grammars and phrase-books for the benefit of would-be emigrants to America, Austria, and Roumania, there was virtually nothing in modern Greek save calendars, catechisms, and school-books. The bookseller explained that he dared not import even Greek novels, and naturally all Athenian periodicals and newspapers save an innocent sheet published under the censor's eye in Smyrna are articles of contraband. Under such conditions it is hardly fair to criticise the achievements of Hellenism as a civilising agent in Turkey. But certainly it is significant of the national attitude, that while the Bulgarian schools are modern institutions devoted to science, commerce, and the modern languages, the Greek gymnasia favour a purely literary course. The main study is ancient Greek, and it is not an uncommon thing to meet a clerk or a country solicitor who can recite three or four plays, a speech or two of Demosthenes, and half the Odyssey.

That a race living under such arduous conditions, brutalised by Turkish oppression and internecine strife, endowed, moreover, with keen commercial instincts, should


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prove itself in its schools so little utilitarian, argues a rare intellectual distinction and elevation. An unkindly critic might analyse the motives that make for this choice of studies, and find prominent among them a certain national vanity which sees in the great literature of the past only a sort of sanction for the overweening pretensions of the present. But the sense that they have a cloud of witnesses behind them in their ancestry, and the imagination which makes the great past a very living thing, is a worthy and splendid stimulus. Without it there would have been no Hellenic revival in the last century, and no war of independence. It lies at the root of that reckless and devoted patriotism which is the strongest passion of the typical Greek. On the other hand, this perpetual emphasis on the peculiar and exclusive past of the Greek race is the foundation of much of its prevailing Chauvinism. A Greek who has studied the classics conceives himself to be entitled to despise his "barbarian" neighbour, the Bulgar. The barbarian meanwhile has been busily and laboriously converting himself into a modern European. He has studied economics, or it may be natural science, in Geneva, while on the literary side the merest glance through a Russian grammar has sufficed to open up to him one of the greatest and most humane of modern literatures. For my part I am vandal enough to think Tolstoi a better influence than Demosthenes.
 

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