The idolatrous worship of collective human power on an oecumenical scale has a number of advantages over the parochial form of Man-worship.
Its most obvious advantage is its timeliness at a stage in the history of a disintegrating civilization when life under the old parochial dispensation has become intolerable. Aristotle’s retrospective appreciation of the old régime may be true to the historical facts. The once idolized parochial community may originally have come into existence, as he suggests, as one of the necessities of life, and, after that, it may have justified its existence, for a time, by serving as an institutional instrument for enabling individual human beings to live a good life2 through finding scope for their creative powers. Yet in Aristotle’s world by Aristotle’s day it was no less evident—though the philosopher is silent about this, if not blind to it—that an idolized institution which, for a time, had been a stimulus had now turned into a scourge. At a stage at which constant fratricidal warfare between contending idolized parochial states has brought a society to the verge of dissolution, the alternative idolatrous worship of an oecumenical empire becomes one of the necessities of life in its turn, because it offers the only immediately effective means now of saving the self-lacerated society from committing social suicide.
The worship of an oecumenical empire has a second advantage which is intrinsic. The temper in which the worship of parochial communities is embraced by its devotees is juvenile in the shortness of its view. It is a naively optimistic response to a temporary stimulus, without any foreboding of the next chapter in the story, in which the same idolization of the same institution is going to bring grievous loss instead of gratifying gain. By contrast, the temper in which the worship of an oecumenical empire is embraced is comparatively adult. It is a response to a long-drawn-out experience of suffering, and consequently it is disciplined by a more sober appreciation of the limits of the beneficial results that can be expected from any human institution.
A third advantage is that the ideals of co-operation, concord, and peace, for which the worship of an oecumenical community stands, are in fact more likely to promote human welfare, because they are more far-sighted and less narrowly self-centred, than the ideals of competition, strife, and war, which are countenanced, and indeed positively fostered, by the worship of parochial states. A classic exposition of this point has been made by a Greek man of letters in a eulogy of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines:
At a moment when the states of the World were already laid out on the funeral pyre as the victims of their own fratricidal strife and turmoil, they were all at once presented with the [Roman] dominion and straightway came to life again.3
Universal states have a fourth advantage in the personalities of their founders. These great men have all been more effective and impressive, and most of them also more beneficent and benevolent, than the leading soldiers and statesmen of the contending states which a universal state supersedes. In the veneration paid to their memories by Posterity, the founders of universal states have been surpassed only by the founders of the philosophies and the higher religions.
Providence has… [sent] him to us and to Posterity as a saviour whose mission has been to put an end to War and to set the Universe in order.4
The feelings expressed in this contemporary encomium of the Emperor Augustus were, no doubt, also felt by as many millions of grateful subjects of the Achaemenian Emperors Gyrus and Darius, the Chinese Emperor Han Liu Pang, and the Ottoman Emperors Murād I and Mehmed II.
The greatest achievement of the greatest of these founders of oecumenical empires has been to leave behind them a school of public servants, civil and military, to carry on their work: a hereditary aristocracy like the Persian Megistanes and the Inca Orejones; or a professional public service like that of the Chinese Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Indian Empire under a British régime; or a lay monastic order, like the Ottoman Emperor’s slave-household.
This combination of advantages is a strong one, and, in virtue of it, an oecumenical empire, after having originally won acceptance by performing the negative service of saving Society from imminent self-destruction, is apt to win increasing positive respect and affection with the passage of time. The moral hold that it has won is demonstrated after it has fallen into adversity.
After an oecumenical empire has gone into decline to the point of becoming practically impotent, its faineant emperors still continue for generations and centuries to be the indispensable founts of legitimization for the usurpers who have carved out successor-states at their expense. An act of investiture at the hands of the legitimate emperor is required in order to secure the subjects’ acquiescence in the usurper’s rule; and this apparent formality is a matter of such practical importance that the most hard-headed usurpers take the greatest pains to obtain it, and make the greatest parade of it thereafter. An Odovacer, a Theodoric, and a Clovis ruled stolen western provinces of the Roman Empire as vicegerents of the Roman Imperial Government surviving at Constantinople; the Hindu Marāthās and the Christian British East India Company ruled in India as vicegerents of faineant Muslim ‘Great Moguls’ at Delhi; and most of the Christian successor-states of the Ottoman Empire were content to start life as autonomous principalities under the Padishah’s suzerainty before venturing to claim sovereign independence for themselves.
Moreover, even after a moribund oecumenical empire has at last received its long delayed coup de grâce, there may be attempts, and even repeated attempts, to resuscitate it. Classical examples of such renaissances are the resuscitation of the Ts’in and Han Empire in China by the Sui and T’ang dynasties; the resuscitation of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom, first as the Byzantine Empire and then as ‘Moscow the Third Rome’; the three avatars of the Roman Empire in Western Christendom that were conjured up successively by Charlemagne, by Otto I, and by the Haps-burgs; and the Ottoman Empire’s attempt, from the end of the eighteenth century of the Christian Era onwards, to revive its drooping prestige by posing as an avatar of the Arab Caliphate.
An oecumenical empire’s hold over its worshippers’ hearts is thus both strong and well deserved; and yet even an oecumenical empire is an unsatisfying object of worship, whether it offers itself for adoration in an institution or in a person. The institutional representation of the idol will be too remote, impersonal, and aloof to win sufficient affection, while the personal incarnation of it will be too familiar and unworthy to inspire sufficient respect.
The impersonalness of an oecumenical empire as an institution makes itself felt in the remoteness of its metropolis from the daily life of the great majority of its subjects. Now that Rome’s citizens are deployed as far afield as Cadiz, Bayrut, and Cologne, and now that Rome has no need to call them to arms for her defence against neighbouring rival Powers, Dea Roma can no longer inspire, even in their hearts, the same love and devotion as when every Roman citizen lived and worked within a day’s march of the Capitol and might be called upon, in any campaigning season, to fight for Rome against Clusium or Samnium. A fortiori, a subject of the Roman Empire who is a citizen of Sparta or Athens, or some other once sovereign independent city-state of glorious as well as shameful memory, will not be able to worship Dea Roma with anything like the conviction and enthusiasm with which he has once worshipped Athana Chalcioecus or Athene Polias. The thrill which he then felt can be recaptured by a Modern Western pilgrim when he stands on the acropolis of Athens at the spot where Pheidias’ statue of the Attic Athene once stood, and stares at the peak of Ae gina and the pinnacle of Acrocorinthus a stone’s throw away, just across the Saronic Gulf. As he gazes, the figures of a Corinthian Poseidon and an Aeginetan Athana Aphaia rise up, before his inward eye, to bid defiance to the queen of Athens. The parochial goddess was a very present help against her rival over there, before Dea Roma’s long arm put them both down from their seats. Dea Roma, the ubiquitous policewoman, cannot mean anything like as much as this to her Athenian clients, even when they have eventually been granted Roman citizenship, or even when the value of Rome’s service to their Hellenic Civilization has been brought home to them in the third century of the Christian Era by a recurrence of the danger of social collapse.
Nor can the subjects of an oecumenical empire be moved to feel much enthusiasm for the imperial public services of which they are the beneficiaries—though these services are more substantial than those provided by any parochial state ever have been or could be. Under the new oecumenical régime a more or less efficiently and justly managed imperial police, administration, and law give to any subject a guarantee that he can count on enjoying peace, security, and justice wherever he goes. Yet a régime which thus confers on him the freedom of the whole Inhabited World does not have the effect of making him feel at home in it. A public service on this oecumenical scale is too impersonal to inspire great affection or even great gratitude.
It is impersonal even in oecumenical empires in which the founders, and the public servants who carry on the founders’ work, come from the interior of their world—as they did, for example, in Ur-Nammu’s Sumero-Akkadian ‘Empire of the Four Quarters’ and in the empire, equated with ‘All that is under Heaven’, into which the Chinese World was re-united by Han Liu Pang. In this, however, those two empires were exceptional. Most oecumenical empires have been founded and maintained, not by sons of the household from their own interior, but either by marchmen or by aliens. Examples of marchmen empire-builders are the Amorite rulers of Hammurabi’s reconstituted ‘Empire of Sumer and Akkad’; the Roman rulers of an Hellenic oecumenical empire; the successive Persian and Arab rulers of a South-West Asian oecumenical empire; the Theban founders of both the Middle and the New Empire of Egypt; the still more southerly founders of the Old Empire; and the Ts’in founders of a Chinese oecumenical empire that was afterwards salvaged and re-founded by Han Liu Pang. Examples of alien empire-builders are the successive Mughal and British rulers of an oecumenical empire in India and the ‘Osmanli rulers of one in Eastern Orthodox Christendom.
Where the rulers are aliens or marchmen, there is a ready-made psychological gulf between them and their subjects; yet neither the British in India nor the ‘Osmanlis in the Near East were content till they had artificially widened this natural barrier. After having fraternized with their Indian subjects in the eighteenth century, the British rulers of India deliberately held aloof from them in the nineteenth. The ‘Osmanlis went to the length of keeping the free Muslim conquistadores of Eastern Orthodox Christendom at arm’s length from the administration of their own empire. They placed this in the hands of a lay monastic corporation, recruited from the Empire’s Christian population, who were aloof from the Emperor’s Muslim and Christian subjects alike because their voluntary conversion to Islam detached them from their ancestral Christian social milieu without assimilating them to their new co-religionists who were Muslims and freemen by birth. It is even more significant that in the Chinese Empire, which was administered by civil servants drawn from the interior of the Chinese World and sedulously educated in an ancestral Chinese tradition, one of the arcana imperii was the rule that an official must never be posted in his home province.
It was, of course, no accident that the Chinese, Ottoman, and British Indian imperial governments all took pains to secure an identical result by these diverse means. Their common concern to make sure that their civil servants should be aloof from their subjects was not perverse. It was inspired by a conviction, founded on experience, that familiarity was inimical to impartiality and efficiency. An aloofness cultivated on this calculation was not to their discredit; but it inevitably set limits to the gratitude and love which they could expect to evoke in the hearts of their subjects.
The alternative focus for the loyalty of an oecumenical empire’s subjects is a deified ruler in lieu of a deified institution; and the worship of a Roman Empire as Divus Caesar does not suffer from the remoteness, impersonalness, and aloofness that are the weaknesses of its worship as Dea Roma. While few subjects of the Roman Empire can ever visit Rome, Caesar can travel everywhere; he can stay for whatever length of time he chooses wherever he finds the most urgent work to do; and Caesar, Augustus, and Hadrian each did, in fact, spend a large part of his working life on the road and in the camp. Divus Caesar has the advantage over Dea Roma again in being a god who is a human being of like passions with his subjects; and since he is also an exceptionally potent human being, on whose fiat the lives and fortunes of all his subjects depend, he will excite strong feelings of hope or fear, veneration or contempt, love or hate. But this palpable human nature of Divus Caesar’s, which is the strength of his relation with his subjects, is also the weakness of it; for no man is really God or anything like God. Even the least ungodlike human being who has been cast for this superhuman part of playing Divus Caesar will fail egregiously to live up to it (as witness Caesar himself at Alexandria), while the failure of the least exemplary of these deified human beings will be scandalous. The prestige of a Caesar’s or an Augustus’s genius may enable a Tiberius or a Claudius to ‘get by’, but there is a limit to its vicarious effica-city. It cannot save the reputation of a Gaius or a Nero; nor can the prestige of a Marcus Aurelius’s virtue save the reputation of a Commodus, whom his father ought never to have designated as his successor.
There is also a weakness that Divus Caesar and Dea Roma have in common. In either form, the worship of an oecumenical empire is an artificial product, instead of being the spontaneous growth that the previous worship of parochial states is. It is invented and promoted for raison d’état, and is propagated by political action; and, though it does respond to a yearning for political unity that is genuine and is very widely felt, its artificiality nevertheless debars it from winning the hearts of its beneficiaries.
For these reasons, the managers of an oecumenical empire find it less and less easy, as time goes on, to secure sufficient devotion from their subjects for the empire as an object of worship in itself, whether in the chillingly impersonal form of a deified institution or in the unedifying personal form of a deified emperor; and this depreciation of the political value of the deification of the empire finds its reflection in a change of policy. A tendency sets in to ‘play down’ the doctrine of the Emperor’s divinity or even to renounce it altogether, and to seek political compensation for the loss that is thus being written off by trying to find a new religious sanction for the empire in something outside it and above it.
The divinity of the Emperor was, for example, ‘played down’ progressively in Egypt at successive stages of the long history of the Egyptian Empire. Pharaoh ‘the Great God’ in his own right becomes the Pharaoh who is a god in virtue of his being the son of the Sun-god Re; and this divinely begotten god incarnate is a more human figure in the New Empire than in the Middle Empire, and in the Middle Empire than in the Old Empire. From the age of the Middle Empire onwards he is ‘the Good God’.5 In the New Empire the heretic emperor Ikhnaton goes to the length of having himself represented, in realistic visual art, as a life-like human being in the bosom of his family; and, though he allows himself to be worshipped as a god by his Court, he presents himself to the World as the human servant and expositor of a god, manifesting Himself in the Sun-disk, who is transcendent and unique.
In the Sumero-Akkadian World, divinity was claimed by human rulers only exceptionally, and then only half-heartedly. The Akkadian militarist Naramsin allowed his name to be written with the determinative character signifying a god, and his person to be portrayed wearing a god’s horned crown.6 The successors of Ur-Nammu, the founder of the Empire of Sumer and Akkad, went to the further length of having themselves worshipped as gods, in temples dedicated to them by name, in the city-states which they had brought under the dominion of their imperial city Ur. But ‘even the King of Ur was not worshipped in a temple in his own city. He might be a god at Eshnunna; but at Ur he was the servant of the city’s owner, the moon-god Nanna’;7 and, when Hammurabi, King of Babylon, re-established the Empire of Sumer and Akkad after an interregnum, he did not revive the pretension to rule as a god incarnate, but reverted to the original Sumerian practice of ruling as a god’s vicegerent. Hammurabi’s conception of his own position and credentials is proclaimed in his name, if this is correctly interpreted as meaning ‘The Uncle [i.e. the god Marduk] is [or ‘be’] exalted’. Such personal names of human beings in the form of a sentence, in which a god is the subject of a statement or a prayer, were common in Babylonia and Assyria, as they were afterwards in Israel and in Islam; and, wherever they are current, they indicate that the bearer looks upon himself as being a transcendent god’s servant, and not as being, himself, a god incarnate.
The precedent set by Hammurabi, in making no claim to divinity for himself, was, in fact, followed by all subsequent rulers of universal states in South-West Asia. Hammurabi ruled as the human servant of Marduk—the city-god of Babylon whose dominion had become oecumenical pari passu with his human vicegerent’s. The Achaemenidae ruled as human servants of Ahuramazda (and perhaps also, locally, as servants of the gods of their subject peoples). The Umayyads, and, more explicitly, the ‘Abbasids, ruled as human servants of Allah. The precedent that the Babylonian Emperor had set was also followed, no doubt unawares, by the Roman Emperor Aurelian, when he chose to rule, not as the god that each of his predecessors had been for their subjects in the eastern provinces, but as the chosen vicegerent of a transcendent god—Sol Invictus, ‘the Unconquered Sun’—who had once been the god of Ikhnaton.
The purpose of this transfer of divinity from the human ruler to a transcendent god on whose behalf he acts is divulged in a saying attributed to Aurelian by a Greek historian; the ineffectiveness of the policy is registered in its failure to save Aurelian from meeting the fate of his deified predecessors.
Aurelian used to say that the soldiers deluded themselves in supposing that the destinies of the Emperors lay in their hands. For he used to aver that it was God who had bestowed the purple and… had decided the period of his reign.8
Evidently, when once the soldiers have broken through any inhibition that they may ever have felt against murdering a god incarnate in an emperor, it becomes less dangerous for the wearer of the imperial crown to be, not a god himself, but the human vicegerent of a transcendent god whom the murderers cannot liquidate because he is not flesh and blood. Dead gods do not fulminate. A god who can be liquidated will be debarred, in the act, from all possibility of being able to inflict posthumous punishment for the crime successfully committed against him. But a transcendent god, who survives his murdered human servant’s death, will live on to punish the murderers—as Yahweh lived on in the land of Israel, after the deportation of his people, to settle accounts with the deportees’ supplanters.
This reasoning, which makes the transfer of divinity seem politic, is psychologically cogent on one condition that is all-important. The ruler’s purpose in seeking a religious sanction for his rule outside himself is to find one that will have an effective hold upon the imagination and the feelings of his subjects at a stage at which, ex hypothesis their veneration for a god incarnate in an emperor has worn too thin to serve any longer as a prophylactic against assassination. The weakness of Aurelian’s position vis-à-vis the soldiers—who did eventually murder him in his turn—was that the soldiers did not seriously believe in the transcendent god whose unconscious agents Aurelian declares them to have been, any more than they had seriously believed in the divinity of the human gods Gaius, Nero, and Commodus. The human emperor’s transcendent divine protector must be a god in whom the Emperor’s subjects do believe, genuinely and spontaneously, if this god’s protection is to be effective.
Here the Hammurabis and Aurelians find themselves in a dilemma; for they will be chary of putting themselves in the hands of any divine patron who is not also their own creature, or at least their own nominee. If the imperial god is no longer to be the Emperor himself, political prudence will counsel that he must be under his human protege’s control in the sense of being a divinity of the Emperor’s choice, served by a priesthood who are the Emperor’s appointees, and worshipped with a ritual which the Emperor has approved, if he has not actually devised it himself. Here, however, the Emperor of the has empire has set himself an insoluble problem; for the very conditions of appointment that make a tutelary god persona grata to the Emperor himself make him a nonentity in the eyes of the Emperor’s subjects whom the puppet divinity has been commissioned to overawe.
Attempts to impose, by political authority, a religion that has been artificially manufactured for raison d’état seem, indeed, always to have failed to win the necessary allegiance from the subjects of a ruler who has sought to obtain a sanction of this artificial kind for his tottering political authority. Inability to win sufficient devotion is, as we have seen, one of the weaknesses of the worship of the oecumenical empire itself, and there will be the same fatal weakness in any artificial substitute.
In an age of Egyptian history in which the divinity of Pharaoh was on the wane, Ikhnaton failed to replace the traditional god incarnate by an abstract transcendent god, symbolized by the Sun-disk. The Aton had been designed by his human creator to serve, in an Egyptian oecumenical empire, as a common object of worship for the whole Human Race, in the empire’s Syrian and Nubian fringes, as well as in its Egyptian core. But Ikhnaton’s Egyptian subjects, at any rate, could not be persuaded to believe in this new artificial god imposed on them from above by political authority. They could not feel for the Aton what their ancestors had felt for the very present god incarnate whose divine father, Amon-Re, immortalized, in a theological union between a Theban Life-god and a Deltaic Sun-god, the political unification of the two components of the Egyptian World. This lack of popular response made it impossible for the Aton to provide an effective religious sanction for his creator-vicegerent’s régime; and this artificial religion lasted no longer than Ikhnaton’s own life and reign.
In a later age of Egyptian history, Ptolemy I failed, like Ikhnaton before him, to make an artificial religion produce the result that was his objective. This Macedonian Greek founder of an Egyptian successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire wanted to create a bond of feeling between the intrusive Greek and the indigenous Egyptian element in the population of his usurped dominions.9 He sought to achieve this politically desirable effect by Hellenizing the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis, in whose temple at Memphis, the ancient national capital of Egypt, the successive bull-incarnations of Apis were buried. This Memphite Egyptian god was given a new temple in Rhacotis, the Egyptian quarter of Ptolemy’s new Greek capital Alexandria, and here he was installed under the name Serapis, in a Hellenized visual form in which he would be an acceptable object of worship for Greeks both in Ptolemy’s dominions and beyond them. Since, by Ptolemy’s day, the Greeks were beginning to be addicted to the religiosity to which the Egyptians had long since succumbed, this new Hellenic version of an old Egyptian cult did duly strike root. But, if this successful religious innovation of Ptolemy’s was really inspired by the ulterior political purpose of promoting a rapprochement between Greeks and Egyptians, then his policy was a failure. The old Egyptian cult of a Memphite Osiris-Apis and the new Greek cult of an Alexandrian Serapis lived on side by side for centuries without ever coalescing; so that the naturalization of an Egyptian god in the Hellenic World did nothing to bring together this common god’s respective Greek and Egyptian worshippers.
This failure of the cult of Serapis to bridge the gulf between Greeks and Egyptians in the generation of the Macedonian conquest of the Achaemenian Empire contrasts significantly with the success of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe—inaugurated in the generation of the Castilian conquest of Mexico—in bridging the gulf between Spaniards and Indians; and the reason for the difference in the outcome is clear. The Virgin who was to become the patroness of a new nation, in which Indians and Creoles were to be merged, made her epiphany in the guise of an Indian goddess to an Indian peasant, and the peasant’s tale of his visions was doubted by the Spanish authorities till it was vindicated by a miracle. The conquerors found it hardly credible that the Queen of Heaven should have chosen to manifest herself as an Indian to an Indian convert. But this epiphany as an Indian to an Indian, which was a stumbling-block for the Virgin’s hereditary Spanish worshippers, won the Indians’ devotion for a goddess, imported by the conquerors, who had signified so graciously that she had taken the conquered to her heart; and thus the Great Mother of the Old World was adopted, as the Virgin of Guadalupe, by conquered natives of the New World without forfeiting her immigrant worshippers’ allegiance. In the light of the history of Ptolemy I’s unsuccessful attempt to make Religion serve a political purpose, we may surmise that the shrine at Guadalupe would never have played the key-part that it has played in the life of Mexico since the conquest if its founder had been, not the Indian peasant Juan Diego, but the Spanish empire-builder Hernan Cortes.
Ptolemy’s I’s failure to fuse his Greek and Egyptian subjects together into a single community by winning their hearts for a common religious cult did not have the explosive consequences of the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV’s unsuccessful attempt, a century and a half later, to achieve a cultural Gleichschaltung by a similar religious innovation. Antiochus hoped to create among his multifarious subjects a common feeling of imperial patriotism by identifying the old parochial god of each of the local communities in his empire with a new imperial god Zeus Ouranios. But when the Emperor attempted to transfigure Yahweh of Jerusalem into the new imperial god’s standard likeness, the result was a religious explosion that has affected the whole subsequent course of the World’s history.
Four centuries after Antiochus IV’s day, a minor explosion was produced by the Roman Emperor Elagabalus when he made the converse attempt to transfigure the local god of his own Syrian native city into an oecumenical god for all the peoples under Roman rule. The Romans were no more willing to adopt a black stone fetish from Emesa as the supreme tutelary god of the Roman Empire than the Jews had been willing to adopt a standard statue of the Seleucid imperial god Zeus Ouranios as the image of their local god Yahweh. Aurelian, in succession to Elagabalus, failed to win allegiance for the Sun-god, incongruously embodied in Elagabalus’s black stone, by presenting him in the less shocking abstract form of Sol Invictus.
Thereafter, Maximinus Daia and Julian each in turn sought to build up an artificial religion for the Roman Empire on a broader basis by cementing together all the current religions except Christianity with mortar made of the Neo-platonic philosophy. But Maximinus’s and Julian’s problem was no longer the same as Elagabalus’s and Aurelian’s. In renewing their predecessors’ attempts to manufacture an artificial religion, the two later emperors were concerned, not so much to secure a new religious sanction for their rule, as to forestall the occupation of the religious vacuum in their subjects’ hearts by a living religion. This was one which, so far from having been manufactured and imposed by any Roman emperor, had made its epiphany in a social underworld and had won its way in defiance of the Roman Imperial Government’s will. And, before Julian had re-embarked on Maximinus Daia’s forlorn hope of opposing Christianity by staging an artificial pagan counter-church, Constantine the Great had shown a deeper understanding of the reasons for Aurelian’s failure when he had transferred his allegiance from a tame and therefore impotent Sol Invictus to the Almighty God worshipped by the Christians—a god who was potent in virtue of being intractable.
Constantine had, indeed, divined that a new departure was called for by the successive bankruptcies of the worship of a god incarnate in the Emperor and the worship of a transcendent god who, though officially the Emperor’s patron, was in truth the Emperor’s puppet and was consequently incapable of winning the hearts of the Emperor’s subjects. When artificial religions have thus failed to provide the imperial régime with the effective religious sanction that it needs, there is only one alternative left to an Imperial Government. It must place itself under the aegis of some living religion that has arisen spontaneously and that cannot be discounted by the Imperial Government’s subjects as being a cult manufactured by the imperial authorities for raison d’etat. In the Roman Empire both these necessary conditions were fulfilled conspicuously by Christianity, whose spiritual independence of the imperial authorities was attested by a long record of martyrdoms, beginning with the Crucifixion of its Founder. In placing the Roman Empire under the aegis of Christianity, Constantine was following unawares a South-West Asian precedent, as Aurelian had been following one in proclaiming himself vicegerent of Sol Invictus. Aurelian had been anticipated by Hammurabi the vicegerent of Marduk the god of Babylon, and Constantine by Cyrus and Darius the vicegerents of Ahura-mazda the god of the Prophet Zarathustra. The Achaemenidae had placed themselves under the aegis of a higher religion which, like Christianity, was an independent spiritual power, and this Persian example was followed by Arab Caliphs— political ‘successors’ of the Prophet Muhammad—who ruled as ‘commanders of the faithful’ adherents of Islam.
The step taken by Constantine was revolutionary in the sense that he was purchasing an effective religious sanction for the Roman Empire at the price of submitting to the spiritual authority of a Christian Church that was not under the Imperial Government’s control and that had so far always proved unamenable to it. Was not the emperor-convert placing himself at the victorious church’s mercy? The impotence of an emperor to dethrone an officially established higher religion is illustrated, not only by Julian’s failure, but also by Akbar’s and by Hakim’s. Akbar was defeated in an attempt to replace Islam by an artificial Din Ilahi that was to have served the same purpose as Ptolemy I’s artificial cult of Serapis and as Antiochus IV’s artificial cult of Zeus Ouranios. Hakim was defeated in an attempt to revert from the worship of the God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to the pagan worship of a god incarnate in the Emperor himself. In A.D. 1956 Hakim’s artificial religion had only a tiny band of adherents in the Druses of the Lebanon and Syria, while Akbar’s artificial religion had no surviving adherents at all.
‘It is’, in truth, ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’;10 and so, even when the proven sterility of all manufactured religions drives rulers in search of a religious sanction to turn towards some living religion that is untainted by raison d’etat, Human Nature will still seek for an alternative to the dread ordeal of making an approach to Absolute Reality. In this situation, souls that have been disillusioned with the worship of collective human power, both parochial and oecumenical, are apt to turn, first, to a form of man-worship which is distinguished from other forms of it by being neither collective nor artificial. The deified self-sufficient philosopher shares with the deified parochial community the merit of being an idol that has not been manufactured in cold blood, while he shares with the deified oecumenical ruler the merit of being a person and not an institution. The worship of Man as a self-sufficient philosopher has therefore also to be tried and found wanting before the field can become clear for occupation by the higher religions.
The subject of this chapter has been dealt with in greater detail by the writer in A Study of History, vol. v, pp. 38–9, 47–56; vol. vi, pp. 185–96, 332–8; vol. vii, pp. 1–52.
See Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chap, ii, § 8 (1252 B).
Aristeides, P. Aelius, In Romam (Or. XXVI), §§ 68–70.
Decree passed, probably in 9 B.C., by the Koinon of the Roman Province of Asia, printed in Dittenberger, W., Orientis Graecae Inscriptiones Seleclae, vol. ii (Leipzig 1905, Hirzel), pp. 48–60.
See Frankfort, H., Kingship and the Gods (Chicago 1948, University of Chicago Press), p. 39.
See Frankfort, H., op. cit., pp. 224–5.
Frankfort, op. cit., p. 302.
Auctor Anonymus post Dionem, Dindorf’s edition, p. 229.
This is the motive for the establishment of the cult of Osiris that has been attributed to Ptolemy by most Modern Western students of his policy, but there are some dissentient opinions (see Nilsson, M.P., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. ii (Munich 1950, Beck), p. 148).
Heb. x. 31.