Oscar Wilde, ‘The Rise of Historical Criticism’ (q.d.; early essay; c.1875)

The Rise of Historical Criticism (Collected Works, London: Galley Press Edn. 1997, pp.1105-1149. Section 2): At an early period in their intellectual development the Greeks reached that critical point in the history of every civilised nation, when speculative inavdes the domain of revealed truth, when the spiritual ideas of the people can no longer be satisfied by the lower, material conceptions of their inspired writers, and when men find it impossible to poure the new wine of free thought into the old bottles of a narrow and trammelled creed./From their Aryan ancestors they had received the fatal legacy of a mythology stained with immoral and monstrous stories which strove to hide the rationa order of nature in a chaos of miracles, and to mar by [imuted] wickedness the perfection of God's nature—the very shirt of Nessos in which the Heracles of rationalism barely escaped annihilation. [...]

It is difficult to shake the popular belief in miracles, but no man will admit sin and immorality [err. Immortality] as attributes of the Ideal he worships; so the first smptoms of a new order of thought are shown in the passionate outcires of Exnaphanes and Heracitos againtst the evil thing said by Homer of the sons of God; and in the stoy told of Pyhtagoras, how that he say tortured in Hell the “two founders of Greek theology”, we can recognise the rise of the Aufklarng as clearly as we see the Reformation foreshadowed in the Inferno of Dante.

Any honest belief, then, in the plain truth of these stories soon succumbed before the destructive effects of the a priori ethical criticism of this school; but the orthodox party, as is ther custom, found immediatelya a convenient shelter under the aegis of the doctrine of metaphors and concealed meanings.

To this allegorical school the tale of the fight around the walls of Troy was a mystery, behind which, as behind a veil, were hidden certain moral and physical truths. To contest between Athena and Ares was that eternal contest betweeen rational thought and the brute force of ignorance; the arrows which rattled in the quiver of the “Far Darter” were no longer the instruments of vengeance shot from the golden bow of the child of God, but the common rays of the sun, which was itself nothing but a mere inert mass of burning metal.

Modern investigation, with the ruthlessness of Philistine analysis, has ultimately brought Helen of Troy down to a symbol of the dawn [...]

Now while this tendency to look for metaphors and hidden meaning must be ranked as one of the germs of historical criticsm, yet it was essentially unscientific. Its inherent weakness is clearly pointed out by Plato, who showed that while this theory will no dooubt explain many of the current legends, yet, if it is to be appealed to at all, it must be as a universal principal; a position he is by no means prepared to admit.

Like many other great principles it suffered from its disciples, and furnished its own refutation when the web of Penelope was analysed into a metaphor of the rules of formal logic, the warp representing the preemises, and the woof the conclusions.

Rejecting, then the allegorical interpretation of the sacred writings [1107] as an esentially dangerous method, proving either too much or too little, Plato himself returns to the earlier mode of attack, and re-writes history with a didactic purposes, laying down certain ethical canons of historical criticism. God is good; God is just; God is true; God is without the common passions of me. There are the tests to which we are to bring the stories of the Greek religion. (1107-08.)

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