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VIII: The Attributes of Beauty Wisdom and Truth

The attributes of divinity that may be called aesthetic and intellectual have been far less prominent in the leading religions of the world than those which were the subject of the preceding chapter: perhaps for the reason expressed in Matthew Arnold's easy aphorism ‘conduct is three-fourths of life’. This arithmetic may not be exact; but we are aware that morality does not exhaust the whole connotation of life or of God: there is a residue in both that is of vital interest.

We may first consider the relation between the idea of Beauty and the idea of divinity. The first and naïve question whether God is to be imagined as beautiful would be turned aside as irrelevant by the more advanced religions, and is only answered simply and strongly in the affirmative by the most anthropomorphic, namely the Greek. The perception of the divine personality as the transcendent embodiment of human beauty was at once the crowning achievement and the limitation of Greek religion; and we are only beginning to realize what such imagination meant for the art of the world. But the attribute of beauty had not much value for the Jewish religious imagination—and we are not sure what the Psalmist exactly meant when he exclaimed ‘Out of Zion hath God appeared in perfect beauty’. There is no prominence of the idea of beauty as a divine attribute in Egyptian religion, except in the worship of the material divine sun; nor so far as I am aware in Moslemism,1 nor in Mesopotamian or Vedic polytheisms.2 The association of the idea of beauty with the religious sphere, encouraged by the strong anthropomorphism of the Hellenes and by their unique artistic faculty and enthusiasm, was a distinctive feature of Greek philosophy, and especially the Platonic and Neoplatonic, reappearing at a later period in the religious theory of the Cambridge Platonists.3 When Plotinus uses the beauty of flowers as a proof of God's providence operating in the world,4 when St. Augustine asserts that God is beautiful, that is to say, is the spiritual soul of beauty in created things, because the visible heavens and earth are beautiful,5 they are in accord with the experience not uncommon at the present day that deep perception of beauty in the world is one vehicle of communion with the divine spirit.

The overmastering impressionableness of the Greek temperament to beauty suggested to Greek philosophy the conviction that beauty was a part of a higher reality; it also produced phenomena in the polytheism that can scarcely be paralleled in other religions; for the powerful enthusiasm of the poet and the craftsmen seemed to come from a superhuman source, and projected on the divine world such forms as the Muses and Mnemosyne which became living figures in popular cult. There arise divine patrons of the arts; the poet could be termed a qei/oj avnh,r, a divinely-inspired man; the invocation of the Muses, a pedantic convention of our later classicists, might have been a real source of psychic energy for the early Greek. The mystic feeling that poetic or artistic achievement was an inspiration of some higher power, other than oneself, can be paralleled from other peoples and other times. One may quote a strange passage from the Epic poetry of Scandinavia, the grandiloquent phrase of a Skald who calls his song ‘the storm of the mind of Odin,’ as if Odin's spirit swept tempestuously over his strings. Some interesting modern examples are given by Dean Inge in his recent Gifford Lectures on Plotinus;6 such as the well-known lines of Wordsworth on the poet's vision:

In such access of mind, in such high hours

Of visitation from the living God,

Thought was not: in enjoyment it expired—

and the strange experience of Mozart attesting how his symphonies at certain happy times came into his imagination as a whole, all at once ‘and this is perhaps the best gift I have my divine Master to thank for’. We may also glean a few examples from other religions than the Greek of the attribution of art-patronage to special divinities: the great Babylonian god Nebo was specially the patron of scribes and artists;7 in Hinduism Ganesh, the elephant-god, is supposed to preside over literature; and the striking phrase quoted above from Norse poetry seems to correspond to real Scandinavian belief, for another well-known Skald, Egil, declares that Odin ‘has given me recompense for my woes; he gave me an art (that of poetry) free from fault and stain’.8 But none of these divine personages are real parallels to the Greek Muses, for they did not originate like the latter as projections of the psychic energy of the art-impulse, but were pre-established figures in their respective Pantheons who happened to acquire this special interest. In fact, the only example that I have been able to find that appears to offer a close parallel is given in a report on the religion of the Haidas, the savage inhabitants of Queen Charlotte Island, who are said to worship two divine sisters called ‘The Singers’ who taught men the gift of song.9

In the end a searching comparison of all the higher religions convinces us that none has stood in so close and so stimulating a relation to the human art-faculty as the Hellenic stood; in particular we can discern how the worship of Apollo aided the development of European music.10 Also we owe it to the aesthetic-religious trend of Greek philosophy that the idea of Beauty has been raised by Christian mystics to the divine sphere, and has irradiated the austerer Judaic conception of a purely moral God.

We have next to consider the attributes of Wisdom and Truth. In ranking Sapientia or Wisdom among the three essential attributes of divinity the schoolmen were in accord with the popular belief as expressed in most of the higher religions. Even in the lower stages of culture the worshipper imputes to his deity or to the superhuman order of spirits a higher knowledge and a higher wisdom in the practical sense than he himself possesses; for he consults these beings as to the future and believes himself to be inspired by them in dreams on doubtful and hidden matters that they know and which he cannot discover by himself. Passing from the cruder stage, religious thinking comes to impute to the divinity the power of knowing all the hidden things of the world, even of knowing the hidden thoughts and emotions of man's heart, an advanced belief of great import for morality. But it may be long before a clear conception of omniscience is reached as an essential faculty and attribute of high divinity. In some of the polytheisms of the cultured peoples, we by no means find omniscience or even a high degree of wisdom attributed to each deity alike; on the contrary we find a single deity or a few specializing in wisdom. In old Egyptian religion the god Ptah is described as ‘the intelligence and tongue of the Gods, the source of the thoughts of every God, of every man, of every animal’.11 In the Babylonian it is the God Ea who is par excellence the God of Wisdom, though he shares this function with Nebo. In the Hellenic, Zeus, Athena, and Apollo are preeminent as the deities of wisdom both practical and theoretical; as early as the Homeric period some kind of omniscience was claimed for Zeus, and later the same claim is made for Apollo by the Delphic oracle and by Pindar. We may regard it in fact as inevitable that whenever religious thinking had advanced to the belief in a divine government of the world of nature and the world of man, divine wisdom would come to be conceived as omniscient, though the concept might be hindered and clouded in the polytheisms; and it is not one that the sacred texts of the monotheistic religions tend to emphasize. There is emphasis laid on it as an attribute of Ahura in the later Mazdean texts as on the ignorance of the evil god;12 the second part of the name of the Highest, Ahura Mazdāh, marks his Wisdom; and in the Mazdean list of divine names specially prepared for repetition by the faithful many of intellectual significance occur, such as ‘the knower’, ‘the Farseeing’, ‘Of best insight’.13 In the prophetic books of the Old Testament and in passages in the Psalms the omniscience of Jahwé is clearly revealed or implied and most forcibly presented in the book of Job. In our own liturgy God is ‘the power to whom all hearts are open and no secret is hid’, ‘who knows our necessities before we ask’; and in a verse in the Qur'an Mahomet dwells on this super-knowledge of the High God, ‘With him are the keys of the unseen. None knows them save He: He knows what is in the land and in the sea; and there falls not a leaf save that he knows it.’14

With Wisdom Truth is essentially linked in the ideal both of human character and the divine; we may distinguish the one from the other by regarding Wisdom as a power of the mind, Truth as an active accord of the mind with the highest realities of the spiritual and physical world, involving the hostile determination of the will against falsehood and deceit. But in the use of these terms in the religious literature of the world ambiguity may arise, for each of them has an intellectual, a moral, and a religious aspect; and we observe that the ideal presented by a higher religion may be differently coloured according as stress is laid upon one or the other of these different aspects; we may be hereby prompted to different views of the conduct of life. Familiarity with various sacred texts will soon convince the reader that wisdom for the writers of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha meant something different from what ‘Sophia’ meant for the Greeks; and Truth for the Mazdean meant something different from what it signifies for the modern scientist. The sacred books of Judaism appraise and exalt Wisdom, whether as a Divine attribute or the most blessed gift to men, only in the moral-religious sense, the power of ordering life in accordance with the law of righteousness and of rightly understanding the ways of the Most High: no reverence is paid to secular human knowledge for its own sake;15 in fact in the third chapter of Genesis there is a glimmering of the barbaric idea that knowledge is evil. The same may be said of the ‘wisdom’ in the Zarathustrian Gathas and in the later Mazdean texts: Truth is preached in this religion as a great moral ideal: Ahura the God of Right is also the God of Truth,16 just as the evil demon or god stands for falsehood (Drug); and the sacred texts accord with the statement in Herodotus that truth was the moral virtue specially inculcated in the Persian youth. But neither in Mazdeism nor in Judaism nor in orthodox Islam do we find any expression of the belief that God inspires or favours the devotion of the human intellect to pure science or high philosophy. The religious trend of these three great peoples was innately hostile or indifferent to such pursuits. The pious Mazdean preferred sacred spells to medical science for the healing of the sick;17 and when intellectual light came to penetrate Judaism and Islam, it was light from an alien source, not from Jahwé or Allah, but from Hellas.

The outburst and marvellous development of science and philosophy from the sixth century onwards in Hellas is primarily due to the intellectual genius of the race and their enthusiastic devotion to the things of the mind. As has been well said, the Hellene was the first man who endeavoured to make himself at home in the world; and for that purpose he was incited to study it as it was. And in this he was actually assisted or at least not hindered—as for long centuries Christendom was hindered—by religion. And what have been considered drawbacks and limitations in his religion, the absence of Sacred Books whose pronouncements on the physical universe or the solar system might have to be accepted as authoritative against the discoveries of true science, the absence in fact of any religious dogma concerning creation and the nature of things or the origin and destiny of man which faith was constrained to accept, these were positive advantages for the freedom of thought and speculation. Of course, Greek religion did not originate science or philosophy, but it was powerless to hinder their growth and it became wise enough to encourage it: the Delphic oracle, for instance, was caught by the intellectual enthusiasm and was credited with kindly and wise encouragement to thinkers and students, notably to Socrates';18 and as I pointed out in a former series of these lectures the temples of Asklepios, though they dabbled in the miraculous, became the nursing-ground of modern medicine.19 What is more important is that the devotion of the thinker and the inquirer could rise in gifted individuals of this race to such a pitch that it could seem an inspiration from a higher source and could be imputed to God. And this affected their theory of the ideals of human life and their view of the divine character and attributes. Whereas for the Hebrew the personality of God is mainly a moral power, by Plato and Aristotle and the succeeding schools it tends to be expressed in intellectual terms; so that God could be defined as the supreme ‘Nous’ or Mind of the Universe, as Apollo was explained by Empedokles as the ‘Holy Thought’ of the world.20

An important ‘pragmatic’ result of this view is that the philosopher and the philosophic life is the personality and the life nearest and dearest to God; this valuation is familiar to the reader of Plato; and Aristotle is his true disciple in placing the life of theoretic contemplation above the moral and practical as bringing men nearer to the divine ideal. We may compare certain utterances of the Pythagorean school, as that it is by keeping in accord with Truth that we come closest to God;21 and that the wise man alone is holy and beloved by God.22 This religious consecration of science, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge must have stimulated the intellectual ardour of the few; and even the man of the people could be persuaded that the activity of the philosopher and ‘savant’ was in some degree inspired. Although this Hellenic ideal survived with a changed expression in Neoplatonism, it could not maintain itself in the face of a victorious Christianity, whose spirit and trend of enthusiasm were essentially alien to the life of the secular thinker and scientist. Stress is now laid on repentance and faith rather than knowledge, and among the divine attributes on Justice, Mercy, and Love rather than on Wisdom and Thought. It might be supposed that the Gnostics, so far as these heretical sects could be called Christian, form an exception; for most of them proclaimed ‘Gnosis’ or ‘Knowledge’ as the essense of a perfect life and the key to salvation. But this ‘Gnosis’ involved no knowledge of the world, for the material world was regarded by their systems as evil and contemptible, but only ‘knowledge of God and his mysteries’, and it was obtained not by intellectual effort but by revelation. It was also expounded for the most part in a theosophy, perhaps the most bewildering and insane that was ever presented to the world; and this intellectual degradation is further deepened by the taint of magic and astrology. Therefore, although some of these writings contain here and there flashes of profound thought that might avail for higher religion and ethics, they are on the whole of all Christian or semi-Christian literature the most alien to the Hellenic intelligence.

The relations of the Christian churches in the different periods to science and philosophy are well known to historians and scholars. In the long record we may search in vain for any sincere acceptance of a belief that a contemplative life of pure thought and scientific research was a consecrated or religious life, unless indeed consecrated to the uses of orthodoxy. The Renaissance saw the revival both in thought and art of the Hellenic spirit; but no real reconciliation of that spirit and the Christian was then found nor has been found since. When Mark Pattison declared that he consecrated his life to pure research because he was a Christian, we may feel that he did not reveal the inner spring of his devotion. And the conflict between religion and science has not yet been healed. The toilers in the field of knowledge are many and untiring; but we have no evidence that they are generally warmed by the feeling that their aspiration is divine. This is the animating faith in Browning's A Grammarian's Funeral, it is the source of those inspired words that in his Hyperion Keats puts into the mouth of the boy-Apollo—

Knowledge enormous makes a God of me:

Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,

Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,

Creations and destroyings, all at once

Pour into the wide hollows of my brain

And deify me…

These words seem strange at the present time; but they would not have seemed strange to Herodotus, whose master-passion they express, or to Aristotle and his disciples, nor even to Virgil as we may judge from a similar inspired passage in the Georgics;23 for these men belonged to a nation and an age whose religion made it possible to believe that the life of the thinker, the student, and the artist was in some way consecrated to God.

It may be remarked finally that the attribute of omniscience, into which the essential quality of divine wisdom, the more we reflect on it, is inevitably expanded, is the one philosophic concept of the divine nature that is most easily adapted to popular religion and most intelligible to the popular mind. It is implied in every prayer that recognizes the divine control of the world and guidance of human life. Nor on the deepest reflection is it found to clash, as the attribute of omnipotence may be found, with the essential ideal of divine benevolence or with the postulate of a free human will. The free human agent may act in this way or that; and an omniscient deity must be supposed to know how each individual will act, even as in certain cases men may know. Predestination, indeed, destroys human freedom of action. But fore-knowledge is not predestination.

  • 1.

    It does not appear in the long list of divine attributes given in the Koran (Palmer, pp. lxvii-lxviii).

  • 2.

    Prof. Macdonell refers to a text in the Rigveda (op. cit. p. 40), in which Vishnu is invoked to endow an unborn child with his own beautiful form. The Asvins are described in one or two passages as beautiful (ib. p. 49), but on the whole the Vedic deities are characterized by their power rather than their beauty.

  • 3.

    Of. Cambr. Platon. (Campagnac, p. 174): ‘God is also that unstained Beauty and supreme Good which our wills are perpetually catching after: and wheresoever we find true Beauty, Love and Goodness, we may say, Here or there is God.’

  • 4.

    Aug. De Civ. Dei, 10. 14: Plotinus' treatment of kallo,nh and to. kalo,n in relation to the highest reality shows the Greek aesthetic spirit, but some hazy and contradictory thinking; vide Inge, Plotinus, 2, p. 123.

  • 5.

    Confessions, Bk. XI, 4.

  • 6.

    2, pp. 155–157.

  • 7.

    Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, 1, p. 238.

  • 8.

    Craigie, Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, p. 20.

  • 9.

    Swanton in Smithsonian Inst. Bur. of Amer. Ethnol. 1905, p. 448 (vide Arch. f. Relig. Wissensch. 1911, pp. 224–5).

  • 10.

    For a discussion of this topic vide Cults, 4, pp. 243–52.

  • 11.

    Moret, Kings and Gods of Egypt, p. 64, quoting from Breasted, Ägyptische Zeitschrift, 39, p. 39.

  • 12.

    Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, p. 291.

  • 13.

    Id., The Treasure of the Magi, p. 95.

  • 14.

    Palmer, The Koran, p. 121 (6. 55–9).

  • 15.

    Vide the panegyric on Truth in I Esdras 4. 34–41.

  • 16.

    Cf. Porphyry, Vit. Pyth. 41: ‘the God whom they call Oromazes they say is like to the light in respect of his body and to Truth in respect to his soul.’

  • 17.

    Vide Sacred Books, vol. 4, p. 87; my Evolution of Religion, p. 132.

  • 18.

    Vide Cults, 4, pp. 242–3.

  • 19.

    Greek Hero-Cults, pp. 265–75.

  • 20.

    The same aspect of God is presented in Neo-Platonism, e.g. Procl. in Tim. 22 d.

  • 21.

    Stob. Flor. 11. 25.

  • 22.

    Mullach, Frag. Phil. Graec. 1, p. 497.

  • 23.

    2, II. 475–92.

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