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It is many years ago that in the Bodleian at Oxford I was shown into the beautiful room where John Selden's noble library is placed. It is a lofty, well-proportioned room, and on the walls are arrayed the silent legions of the great scholar's books.

At that time I was still fonder of books than of realities, and with breathless haste I ran over the title-pages and contents of the grand folios in over fifteen languages, written by scholars of all the Western nations and of many an Oriental people.

Then I paused before the fine oil-painting near the entrance of the room representing the face and upper body of the scholar-patriot. The face is singularly, touchingly beautiful. The delicately swung lines of the lips tell at once, more especially in their discreet corners, of the deep reticence and subtle tact of the man. No wonder my Lady Kent loved him. The combination of political power, boundless erudition, and charming male beauty could not but be pleasing to a knowing woman of the world. His eyes, big and lustrous, yet veil more than they reveal. He evidently was a man who saw more than he expressed, and felt more than he cared to show. Living in the troublous times of James the First and Charles the[Pg 161] First, he worked strenuously for the liberties of his country, while all the time pouring forth works of the heaviest erudition on matters of ancient law, religions, and antiquities.

His printed works are, in keeping with the custom of his day, like comets: a small kernel of substance, appended to a vast tail of quotations from thousands of authors. Like the unripe man I was, I liked the tail more than the kernel. Yet I had been in various countries and had acquired a little knowledge of substance.

And as I gazed with loving looks at the mild beauty of the scholar, I fell slowly into a reverie. I had read him and about him with such zeal that it seemed to me I knew the man personally. Then also I had walked over the very streets and in the very halls where he had walked and talked to Camden, Cotton, Archbishop Ussher, Sir Mathew Hale, Lord Ellesmere, Coke, Cromwell. It was the period that we, in Hungary, had been taught to admire most in all English history.

And there was more particularly one maxim of Selden's, which he carefully wrote on every one of the books of his library, which had always impressed me most.

It ran: "Liberty above everything"; or as he wrote it, in Greek: περ? παντ?? τ?ν ?λευθερ?αν.

Yes, liberty—that is, political liberty—above everything else. I had, like all people born in the fifties of the last century, believed in that one idea as one believes in the goodness and necessity of bread and wine. I could not doubt it; I thought, to doubt it was almost absurd. And so I had long made up my mind to go one day to Oxford and to make my reverent[Pg 162] bow to the scholar who had adorned the shallowest book of his vast collection by writing on it the Greek words in praise of liberty.

However, before I could carry out my pilgrimage to the Bodleian, I had been five years in the States. There indeed was plenty of political liberty, but after a year or so I could not but see that the sacrifices which the Americans had to make for their political liberty were heavy, very heavy, not to say crushing.

And I began to doubt.

I conceived that it was perhaps not impossible to assume that in Selden's maxim there were certain "ifs" and certain drawbacks. My soul darkened; and when finally I arrived at the Bodleian, I went into Selden's room, and to his portrait, prompted by an unarticulated hope that in some way or other I might get a solution of the problem from the man whose maxim I had held in so great esteem for many a long year.

So I gazed at him, and waited. The room became darker; the evening shadows began spreading about the shelves. The portrait alone was still in a frame of strangely white light. It was as if Apollo could not tear himself away from the face of one who had been his ardent devotee.

After a while I observed, or thought I did, with a sensation of mingled horror and delight, that the eyes of the portrait were moving towards me. I took courage and uttered my wish, and asked Selden outright whether now, after he had spent centuries in the Elysian fields with Pericles and Plato, whether he still was of opinion that liberty, political liberty, is the chief aim of a nation, an aim to be secured at all prices.

[Pg 163]

Thereupon I clearly saw how his eyes deepened, and how the surface of their silent reserve began to ripple, as it were, and finally a mild smile went over them like a cloud over a Highland lake.

That smile sent a shiver through my soul. Selden, too, doubts his maxim? Can political liberty be bought at too great a price? Are there goods more valuable than political liberty?

After I recovered from my first shock, I boldly approached the smiling portrait, and implored Selden to help me.

And then, in the silence of the deserted room, I saw how his lips moved, and I heard English sounds pronounced in a manner considerably different from what they are to-day. They sounded like the bass notes of a clarionet, and there was much more rhythm and cadence in them than one can hear to-day. They were also of exquisite politeness, and the words were, one imagined, like so many courtiers, hat in hand, bowing to one another, yet with a ready sword at the side.

To my request he replied: "If it should fall out to be your fervent desire to know the clandestine truth of a matter so great and weighty, I shall, for the love of your devotion, be much pleased to be your suitor and help. Do not hesitate to follow me."

With that he stepped out from the frame and stood before me in the costume of the time of the Cavaliers. He took me by the hand, and in a way that seemed both natural and supernatural, so strangely did I feel at that moment, we left unseen and unnoticed the lofty room, and arrived almost immediately after that at a place in the country that[Pg 164] reminded me of Kenilworth, or some other part of lovely Warwickshire.

It was night, and a full moon shed her mysteries over trees, valleys, and mountains. On a lawn, in the midst of a fine wood of alders, Selden halted.

There were several persons present. They struck me as being Greeks; their costume was that of Athenians in the time of Alcibiades. I soon saw that I was right, for they talked ancient Greek. Selden explained to me that they had left Elysium for a time, in order to see how the world beneath was going on. In their travels they had come to England, and were anxious to meet men of the past as well as men of the present, and to inquire into the nature and lot of the nation of which they had heard, by rumour, that it had something of the nature of the Athenians, much of the character of the Spartans, a good deal of the people of Syracuse and Tarentum, and also a trait or two of the Romans.

Of those Greeks I at once recognised Pericles, the son of Xanthippus; Alcibiades, the son of Clinias; Plato, the son of Ariston; Euripides, the son of Mnesarchos; moreover, a man evidently an archon or high official of the oracle of Delphi; and in the retinue I saw sculpturesque maidens of Sparta and charming women of Argos, set off by incomparably formed beauties of Thebes, and girls of Tanagra smiling sweetly with stately daintiness.

Selden was received by them with hearty friendliness, and conversation was soon at its best, just as if it had been proceeding in the cool groves of the Academy at Athens.

[Pg 165]

The first to speak was Pericles. He expressed to Selden his great amazement at the things he had seen in England.

"Had I not governed the city of holy Athena for thirty years," he said, "I should be perhaps pleased with what I see in this strange country. But having been at the head of affairs of a State which in my time was the foremost of the world; and having always availed myself of the advice and wisdom of men like Damon, the musician-philosopher, Anaxagoras, the thinker, Protagoras, the sophist, and last, not least, Aspasia, my tactful wife and friend, I am at a loss to understand the polity that you call England.

"What has struck me most in this country is the sway allowed to what we used to call Orphic Associations. In Athens we had, in my time, a great number of private societies the members of which devoted themselves to the cult of extreme, unnatural, and un-Greek ideas and superstitions. Thus we had thiasoi, as we called them, the members of which were fanatic vegetarians; others, again, who would not allow their adherents to partake of a single drop of Chian or any other wine; others, again, who would under no circumstances put on any woollen shirt or garment.

"But if any of these Orphic mystagogues had arrogated to themselves the right of proposing laws in the Public Assembly, or what this nation calls the Parliament, with a view of converting the whole State of Athens into an Association of Orphic rites and mysteries, then, I am sure, my most resolute antagonists would have joined hands with me to counteract such unholy and scurrilous attempts.

[Pg 166]

"I can well understand that the Spartans, who are quite unwilling to vest any real power whatever in either their kings, their assembly, their senate, or their minor officials, are consequently compelled to vest inordinate power in their few Ephors, and in the constantly practised extreme self-control of each individual Spartan. In a commonwealth like Sparta, where the commune is allowed very little, or no, power; where there are neither generals, directors of police, powerful priests or princes, nor any other incumbents of great coercive powers; in such a community the individual himself must needs be his own policeman, his own priest, prince, general, and coercive power. This he does by being a vegetarian, a strict Puritan, teetotaller, melancholist, and universal killer of joy."

Here Pericles was interrupted by the suave voice of Selden, who, in pure Attic, corroborated the foregoing statements by a reference to the people called Hebrews in Palestine. "These men," Selden said, "were practically at all times so fond of liberty that they could not brook any sort of government in the form of officials, policemen, soldiers, princes, priests, or lords whatever. In consequence of which they introduced a system of individual self-control called ritualism, by means of which each Hebrew tied himself down with a thousand filigree ties as to eating, drinking, sleeping, merrymaking, and, in short, as to every act of ordinary life. So that, O Pericles, the Hebrews are one big Orphic Association of extremists, less formidable than the Spartans, but essentially similar to them."

Selden had scarcely finished his remarks, when Alcibiades, encouraged by a smile from Plato,[Pg 167] joined the discussion, and, looking at Pericles, exclaimed:

"My revered relative, I have listened to your observations with close attention; and I have also, in my rambles through this country, met a great number of men and women. It seems to me that but for their Orphic Associations, which here some people call Societies of Cranks and Faddists, the population of this realm would have one civil war after the other.

"Surely you all remember how, in my youth, misunderstanding as I did the Orphic and mystery-craving nature of man, I made fun of it, and was terribly punished for it at the hands of Hermes, a god far from being as great as Zeus, Apollo, or Dionysus. Little did I know at that time that the exuberance of vitality, which I, owing to my wealth and station in life, could gratify by gorgeous chariot races at Olympia under the eyes of all the Hellenes, was equally strong, but yet unsatisfied, in the average and less dowered citizens of my State.

"My chequered experience has taught me that no sort of people can quite do without Orphic mysteries, and when I sojourned among the Thracians, I saw that those barbarians, fully aware of the necessity of Mysteries and Orphic Trances, had long ago introduced festivals at which their men and women could give free vent to their subconscious, vague, yet powerful chthonic craving for impassioned daydreaming and revelry. They indulge in wild dances on the mountains, at night, invoking the gods of the nether world, indulging freely in the wildest form of boundless hilarity, and rivalling in their exuberance the mad sprouting of trees and herbs in spring.

[Pg 168]

"You Laconian maidens, usually so proud and cold and Amazonian, I call upon you to say whether in your strictly regulated polity of Sparta you do not, at times, rove in the wildest fashion over the paths, ravines, and clefts of awful Mount Taygetus, in reckless search of the joy of frantic vitality which your State ordinarily does not allow you to indulge in? And you women of Argos, are you too not given to wild rioting at stated times? Have I not watched you in your religious revivals of fierce joy?"

Both the Laconian and Argive women admitted the fact, and one of them asked: "Do the women of this country not observe similar festivals? I pity them if they don't."

And a Theban girl added: "The other day we passed over Snowdon and other mounts in a beauteous land which they call Wales. It is much like our own holy Mount Kith?ron. Why, then, do the women of this country not rove, in honour of the god, over the Welsh mountains, free and unobserved, as we do annually over wild Kith?ron? They would do it gracefully, for I have noticed that they run much better than they walk, and they would swing the thyrsus in their hand with more elegance than the sticks they use in their games."

At that moment there arose from the haze and clouded mystery of the neighbouring woods a rocket of sounds, sung by female voices and soon joined in the distance by a chorus of men. The company on the lawn suddenly stopped talking, and at the bidding of the Delphic archon, whom they called Trichas, they all went in search of ivy, and, having found it, wreathed themselves with it. The[Pg 169] music, more and more passionate, came nearer and nearer.

From my place I could slightly distinguish, in mid-air, a fast travelling host of women in light dresses, swinging the thyrsus, dancing with utter freedom of beautiful movement, and singing all the time songs in praise of Dionysus, the god of life and joy.

Trichas solemnly called upon us to close our eyes, and he intoned a p?an of strange impressiveness, imploring the god to pardon our presence and to countenance us hereafter as before.

But the Laconian, Theban, and Argive maidens left us, and soaring into air, as it were, joined the host of revelling women.

After a time the music subsided far away, and nothing could be heard but the melodious soughing of the wind through the lank alder-trees.

Then, at a sign of Trichas, Plato took the word and said:

"You are aware, my friends, that whatever I have taught in my Athenian days regarding the punishment of our faults at the hands of the Powers of the Netherworld, all that has been amply visited upon me in the shape of commentaries written on my works by learned teachers, after the fashion of savages who tattoo the beautiful body of a human being.

"I may therefore say that I have at last come to a state of purification and castigation which allows[Pg 170] one to see things in their right proportion. Thus, with regard to this curious country in which we are just at present, I cannot but think that while there is much truth in what all of you have remarked, yet you do not seem to grasp quite clearly the essence, or, as we used to say, the ο?σ?α of the whole problem.

"This nation, like all of us Hellenes, has many centuries ago made up its mind to keep its political liberty intact and undiminished. For that purpose it always tried to limit, and in the last three hundred years actually succeeded in limiting, or even destroying, most of the coercive powers of the State, the Church, the nobility, the army. Selden not improperly compared them to the Jews. And as in the case of the Jews, so in the case of the English, the lack of the coercive powers of State, Church, nobility, and army inevitably engendered coercive powers of an individual or private character.

"This is called, in a general word, Puritanism. Our Spartans, who would not tolerate public coercive corporate powers any more than do the English, were likewise driven into an individual Puritanism, called their ?γωγ?, which likewise consisted of fanatic teetotalism, mutisme, anti-intellectualism, ............
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