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Chapter 16: Religion in Aristotle — Subsequent Developments Conclusion

RELIGION in Greek literature finds its culminating point in Plato: he absorbs the previous elements of religious feeling and reflection, recasts them, and forecasts the future. In what came after him of Hellenic culture there is nothing higher, if so high. But before leaving the subject of the present volume it is desirable to note very briefly the most important changes which within the limits of the Hellenic world preceded the great change brought in by Christianity.

Much that in Plato's mind remained in fusion became crystallised in Aristotle. But besides this external difference, and underlying it, there is an essential difference of spirit between the two philosophers. The reigning motive in Plato was the moral ideal. His cherished object is the reformation of human society and the education of the individual man, following out his interpretation of the meaning of Socrates. Metaphysical speculation and the dialectic on which he laid such stress were, if not subordinated to, at least inseparable from, this essentially human aim. Aristotle in earlier years had drunk deeply of the spirit of Plato, but as his own philosophy took shape, the science of ethics became for him a branch of the study of man as a social being, and the study of man altogether came to be a branch of universal knowledge. Knowledge as such, for its own sake, as contemplated by pure reason, is, for Aristotle, the consummation of all intellectual endeavour. The forms of nature—and of these human life is one—have each an end, at which they aim unconsciously or consciously; their own complete and perfect realisation in subordination to one great final cause, ‘towards which the whole creation moves.’ Philosophy is the contemplation of these ends, and of the means which lead to them. Man is not ‘the roof and crown of things,’ but an item in the universe; it may be, not the most important item. Thus a sharp line of distinction is introduced between intellectual and moral virtue, the latter being subordinate and relative. This view is quite alien from the whole tendency of Plato, whose one excursion into the region of cosmogony was intended to be the porch and vestibule of a great structure of ideal human history, the prelude to a magnificent prose poem on human destinies—celebrating the triumph of good over evil, and of moral over material forces: good absolute, and good for man are with him inseparable. The chief attribute of the God of Aristotle is not justice in the human sense, but the energy of pure contemplation, thought in excelsis—Knowledge not in possession merely, but in constant exercise.

Aristotle also was ready to guide mankind into the right way, to shape desire into accordance with practical wisdom, and to bring both into the light of philosophic contemplation. He carried further than Plato had done the psychological analysis of ethical conditions. But the speculative philosopher, contemplating human life and all else that he could bring within his intellectual ken, was in Aristotle's conception nearer to God than the just ruler or the wise teacher of mankind. In the decay of Hellenic nationalities, politics were becoming an abstract science, of which ethics only formed a part. Science, in fact, tended to be all in all, and Aristotle, ‘the chief of those that know,’ stood at the head of an age in which the prosecution of particular sciences or departments of human knowledge became the absorbing occupation of the best minds. This, gives to his productions an air of coldness, but at the same time one of calm impersonality, which renders them, if not so attractive at first sight, extraordinarily impressive on a more persistent study. Though he is often only stamping Plato's ideas with logic, yet the precision of statement, the crisp categorical tone, the very bareness of the literary style, give to his writings an incisiveness which to many minds is more satisfactory than the chiaroscuro of Plato; although we are always haunted by the suspicion that what we know of Aristotle is really some disciple's version of him.

Aristotle's idealism is that of abstract thought, but a thought which is ever seeking, through logical determinations, to clasp with more and more of closeness the concrete actuality of things. He had at one time studied medicine in the school of the Asclepiadae, and he combines the Hippocratean method, of observation with his own special form of speculative idealism. It is strange to find him at so advanced a period of thought still clinging to the notion that the Supreme Being has the form and motion of a rotatory sphere. Like the early philosophers, and like Plato himself in his mythological mood, or like the Hebrew prophet who saw God sitting on the circle of the earth (while the inhabitants thereof were as grasshoppers), he cannot wholly get away from sensuous symbolism. His real conception is that of pure reason at its highest realisation of energy: thought evolving thought from itself, and consciously reflecting on the thought so evolved. It is thought, however, engaged in contemplating reality, and reality for Aristotle is composed of substances, in which form and matter are combined. In this metaphysical effort to unite the individual with the universal, he anticipated some modern philosophers, but it can hardly be said that such an endeavour, although fruitful as a logical method, has in either case been crowned with absolute success. In his doctrine of the soul there is a similar contradiction or obscurity, leaving it doubtful whether he to any extent agreed with Plato in believing in the continuance of the individual after death. In the early dialogues, of which the fragments have been restored by Bernays, he appears to have done so. In the ‘De Anima’, however, the human soul has indeed an immortal ever-active element, that mingles with the vital principle and controls it, but at death this portion of the divine, the active reason, is absorbed again into the divinity from which it came. That seems to imply a breach of continuity, although Plato in the ‘Timaeus,’ in speaking of the lower parts of the soul as mortal, had failed to draw this inference. The passage of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics,’ in which Aristotle leaves it doubtful whether dead ancestors are affected by the calamities of their race, refers not to Plato, but to traditional beliefs, such as we find in Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles.

Religion is not the word that first occurs to one in thinking of Aristotle. Yet in steadily regarding him, one is aware of an elevation and a colossal greatness which is not dissociated from religion in the truest sense. The very keystone of his philosophy consists in a conception of the divine life, and of the divine nature, which is really sublime. The description of the philosophic life in the tenth book of the ‘Ethics,’ if more calm, is hardly less impressive than the speech of Diotima in the ‘Symposium’; and the account of God in the ‘Metaphysics,’ Book xii., is in a similar strain:—

‘There must be some eternal substance that is exempt from change. For substance is the primary existence, and if all substance were perishable the world would perish. But motion can have no beginning and no end—it is from everlasting,—nor can time; and the only motion that is continuous is that from place to place, and especially the revolution of a sphere. And this prime motion must be ever in act, and not potential merely; so that it is useless to suppose eternal essences, such as the [Platonic] ideas, unless there is admitted some principle of change. And this must ever be in act, whereas the ideas may be potential merely, which allows the possibility of a non-existent universe and of a potentiality that is prior to actuality. But we cannot admit that theologians were right in creating all things out of night, or the natural philosophers who supposed a primeval chaos. For how can there be beginning of motion without some cause that is ever in act? It is not the timber that makes a fabric, but the principle of carpentry: nor is it the passive element in procreation that generates, but the active seed: wherefore some do introduce an ever-active energy, as Leucippus in one way, and Plato in another (‘Phaedrus,’ p. 246), for they say that motion is from everlasting. But they do not tell us wherefore or what motion, nor the manner of it, nor the cause: for nothing has its motion by chance, as in the philosophy of Leucippus, but there must always be some precedent cause, and then what is the primary motion? That makes an enormous difference. Nor can Plato be allowed to say, as he does sometimes, that the self-moving is the first principle of motion; for he makes the soul a secondary birth created together with the heaven (‘Timaeus’). Now to think of potentiality as prior to actuality is not unmeaning, but that actuality is really prior, Anaxagoras witnesses, for his ‘reason’ is ever in act. And so does Empedocles with his love and strife, and so do those who like Leucippus say that motion is from everlasting. Therefore chaos or night cannot have lasted for an infinite time, but there must always be the same universe, either in recurring cycles, or in some other way. And for this there must be a first cause. For there is something ever moving with a ceaseless motion, and the only ceaseless motion is the revolution of a sphere. It follows that the first heaven must be eternal; but there must also be a first cause of motion; the heaven both moves and causes motion; but there must be some central thing which causes motion while itself unmoved, an eternal substance ever in act. Now this is the ultimate object both of thought and of desire, whose first principles are identical. For true perfection, as conceived by absolute thought, is the object at once of reason and of will. But reason is the first mover, set in motion by the object of reason, which is substance and attribute, absolute, and ever in act. The Final Cause, therefore, and the First Cause are one: and on this depends the heaven and the whole of nature. And its life is such as ours may be for a little while,—such is that life eternally. Wherefore waking, perception, thought are pleasant in themselves, and hope and memory because of them. But absolute thought belongs to that which is absolutely good, and which in contemplating the object of thought contemplates itself, for thought is inseparable from its object. Now if God is everlastingly as we are for a little while, that is a marvellous thing; still more so, if his life is more intense than ours: and so it is. Now the Being of whom we speak has neither magnitude nor parts, but is indivisible; for it causes motion during infinite time, and nothing finite has an infinite power; nor has it passions or possibility of change, for no change is prior to locomotion, and the cause is prior to the effect. All this is manifestly so.’

The great task of Aristotle was to sum up the knowledge of his own and previous generations, to formulate it, and to reduce it to a system. His works are a repertory of the opinions of former Greek thinkers; but the statement of these is always modified by reference to his own first principles. Yet if there is much truth in Bacon's saying that Aristotle, like an Eastern potentate, cut off the heads of his elder brothers that he might reign supreme, the comprehensiveness of his view of nature and of the world regarded from the standpoint of his own first philosophy is so stupendous an achievement as to have left its impress on all succeeding ages, often dominating minds that were incapable of apprehending his full meaning. As Plato has been repeatedly overlaid with Platonism, so has Aristotle, especially in the middle age of Christianity, with Aristotelianism; but the greatness of his influence is all the more apparent. Bacon tries in vain to eliminate the Aristotelian forms of thought which had tyrannised over the Schoolmen from Averroes downward, and three centuries of modern science have not enabled men to dispense with methods first formulated by him of Stagira.

The philosophic life, which Aristotle upheld as a religious ideal, is more obviously restricted to a select few than that life to which Plato invited all in whom there was any awakening germ of higher consciousness. Yet the teaching of Aristotle has had by far the wider prevalence. Plato more profoundly influences those who love him; but the world at large finds it easier to elude his meaning. For system, though it often arrests intellectual progress, is far more comprehensible to common minds than the spirit of a living method of thought. It is partly, indeed, the result of accident that the younger philosopher has with most ages had the greater name: Aristotle lived again in Averroes, Aquinas, and the Schoolmen; it was not Plato but rather Proclus or Plotinus who was revived in the great lights of the Florentine Academy. Milton himself puts Hermes Trismegistus and the spirit of Plato in successive lines, so betraying an unworthy association.

The time is still to come when the respective merits of the two leaders of Greek thought shall be justly weighed; I will leave them with a single remark. Aristotle himself has said that thought by itself is ineffectual apart from practical ends. It is the enthusiasm for the highest ends combined with ever-active thought that makes the secret of Plato. Philosophic thought, metaphysical, logical, psychological, or physiological, might after this revert to one or other of the great precedent thinkers for its inspiration; but ethical reflection was henceforth bound to take account of Socrates and his immediate successors. And religion amongst thoughtful men could no longer be divorced from an elevated morality. Civic life in the Macedonian period no longer supplied an adequate standard; individuals who sought for a rule of life were thrown back upon themselves and on the contemplation of universal humanity. In idealising politics, Plato had upheld the pattern of a perfect life for the individual also. And Aristotle in formulating an end for man had furnished a general scheme which no subsequent thinker could dispense with. The ground was laid for the great conception of a City of God, whose citizens owed allegiance not to this or that race or country, but to mankind. And this conception, passing though the crucible of Roman life, attained its fullest realisation both in thought and conduct when the world-wide Roman Empire also was hastening to decay. From thence it passed over into Christianity. Epicurean and Stoic alike sought in allegorising mythology to secure a modus vivendi through which to live in harmony with traditional religion; but the religious Stoic, while ‘fulfilling all righteousness’ in obedience to the laws of the state, found a deeper support for his exalted morality, not in any assured continuance of conscious life, but in dwelling on the supreme cosmic order which amidst endless change moved in unison with his truest self, with the law of reason, and with ‘the god within.’

While philosophy was thus laying the foundation of a new and higher life of religious devotion, which in that age and country could never have free course, but has mingled subsequently with all religion that deserves the name, the old worships were continued in their several localities with extraordinary tenacity. The foreign rituals, some of which had already been introduced from Thrace and Phrygia, were reinforced by magical and mystic rites from Egypt and the far east, and for the world at large religion meant either an unmeaning formalism or an orgiastic craze. The Graeco-Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Serapis, confirming tendencies, already awakened by Pythagoreanism and Orphism, supplied the void which, in the decay of national spirit, became more and more intolerable to individual souls. Faith-healing, like that associated with the Asclepian worship of Epidaurus, and dream oracles, like those of Trophonius and Amphiaraus, were more and more in vogue, and the darker side of the same tendency is still apparent in the devotiones, or curses against private enemies, inscribed on brazen tablets, and registered by individuals at certain shrines,—a lasting record of the ever-recurring bond which unites malignity to superstition. Philosophy had little power to counteract such influences, but it continued its efforts both in the Greek and in the Roman world.

Philosophy itself, however, was no longer whole and sound as it once had been: it broke up into sects. In all of these the ethical impulse given by Socrates is still to be traced, but, unlike Socrates, each Scholarch thought it necessary to have a theory not only of man but of the universe, and none of them possessed the wide glance of speculative originality which appears both in Plato and in Aristotle.

Zeno the founder of the Stoic school was like Antisthenes not of pure Hellenic blood. And considering the deep personal note that was persistent in Stoicism, it is perhaps not superfluous to remark that he was partly of Phoenician ancestry. There is a fresh influx of a Semitic strain, and we may observe that about the same time a Tyrian, Theron, the son of Budastratos, was commended by the people of Cos and made their Proxenus, with high privileges for himself and his descendants. Zeno was the disciple of Crates, the Cynic follower of Antisthenes and Diogenes, and also of Stilpo the Megarian, whose dialectical subtlety seems to have enabled him to combine the crude individualism of Antisthenes with a theory of the universe in which the Heraclitean flux of opposites was reconciled in a higher unity. A materialistic cosmogony was fused with an ethical theory resting on the precept to live according to nature. The universal reason, moving in a predetermined cycle and periodically consuming all things into the primal element of fire, was hard to reconcile with the nominalism of the Cynic. Yet the moral influence of Stoicism was incalculable. The wise man, respecting the God within and living in communion with the universal, was an ideal which satisfied aspiring minds in a distracted age. It is needless to go further into the metaphysics of Stoicism, which found its true development less in the Hellenic than in the Roman world. The subject has been lately touched with equal skill and insight by Dr. Kendall, in the introduction to his masterly translation of the Private Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. I will only say that in reading those thoughts, although the cosmic theory of Zeno is always present in them, one is continually reminded of expressions in Plato and Aristotle, whose speculative point of view was different, while the essential substance of their moral and religious doctrine was nearly the same. It is the note of personal experience which gives to the great Roman's communings their unique and distinctive value.

The effect of Stoic precepts on modern ethical tradition can hardly be over-estimated. The reader of Epictetus is continually reminded of our moral commonplaces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From his ‘Manual’ to Sir H. Wotton's ‘Character of a Happy Life,’1 or from the Hymn of Cleanthes to Pope's ‘Universal Prayer,’ there is but a step.

Epicurus supported the art of life which he took from Aristippus by the mechanical atomic system of Leucippus and Democritus. The Epicurean possessed his soul in peace, consoling himself for the inevitable cares and troubles of life by the thought that consciousness would have an end when the round particles conglobated in a particular soul were dissipated into the universe at death. For the rest he sought to minimise the pain of existence by rational enjoyment and the avoidance of unreal anxieties, especially those fanciful cares which had been imposed on mankind by the teachers of the old religion. For this end he also dwelt on a psychological analysis of the passions, especially of Anger. Of this philosophy Roman literature contains a glowing poetical exposition in the work of Lucretius; world-weariness had never a more persuasive voice.

The New Academy followed their master Plato in his negative dialectic, but had no comprehension of his constructive aims. The Peripatetic school contented themselves with repeating their master's formulae and annotating them, or in following out his encyclopaedic system through the development of particular sciences. Pythagoreanism in combination with some of Plato's later views, while stimulating mathematical enquiry, degenerated on the purely philosophical side into an unmeaning symbolism.

Apart from literary criticism the intellectual endeavours which had most success in the last period of Greek culture were in the Mathematical and Medical sciences, in which we have such great names as Hipparchus the astronomer, Archimedes the mechanician, and Galen the physician. The Asclepian tradition, in which the name of Hippocrates stood eminently forth, had been, sustained by the practical devotion of many useful lives, which, in accordance with the oath taken on apprenticeship, were spent for the relief of human misery, the improvement of therapeutic methods, and the close experimental study of pathology. But this contribution to the religious life of Hellas was mainly external to the literary sphere.

Lastly, there came a time when the best minds, finding no scope in active life, sought a response to their vague aspirations in the mystical side of Plato, which they developed to the neglect of his practical and scientific aims. Philosophy-lost all distinctness in a haze of speculation. Yet in the contemplation of the ocean of infinite being, in which the Neoplatonic thinkers were absorbed, there was a sublime elevation which exercised a genuinely religious influence on the votaries of the school, and in some instances, as in that of Origen, directly prepared the way for Christianity.

Between the philosopher and the peasant came an intermediate class of cultivated persons who stood in various relations to tradition on the one hand and philosophy on the other. ‘Thought turned into rhetoric’ was the staple of all higher education. Latin literature affords examples that will occur to every mind, Cicero, Horace, Tacitus, Quintilian. As I do not mean to travel beyond Hellenic ground, I will confine myself to three examples, Pausanias, Plutarch, and Lucian. I will only remark in passing that it was from Cicero that Hume derived his acquaintance with the sceptical reasonings of the New Academy. If instead of learning from so late a disciple he had sought inspiration from the master of the first philosophical school, the course of metaphysical speculation in modern Europe might have been other than it has been.

Pausanias, the antiquarian, shows the keenest interest in the dying forms of paganism, which retained an obstinate vitality at many local shrines. He thus becomes the mouthpiece of contradictory beliefs. But from time to time he betrays his own opinion, and both in his credulity and scepticism he shows himself the child of a decadent age. The superficial theory by which mythology was partly rationalised was that which, from Euhemerus, the man who first gave it currency, is called Euhemerism. The gods of popular worship and belief are simply deified men, who for their never-forgotten services to mankind have been raised to some higher sphere. This sphere is not distinctly localised, except that it is above and in the light of day. The deification of the Ptolemies was a natural outcome of this conception. One popular belief Pausanias distinctly denies. His disbelief may have been borrowed from the Stoics. That there is a place underground where Hades or Pluto rules over the spirits of men departed is a tradition or invention of the poets which he will by no means accept. But he is ready to receive any number of wonderful tales about the magical virtues of sacred wells and the like, and if a story relates to ancient times or to a former dispensation, it cannot be too marvellous for his belief.

No writer of the silver age in Hellas has deserved so well of posterity as Plutarch. His ‘Parallel Lives,’ translated into French and English in the sixteenth century, have given to the educated classes in modern Europe a conception of the serious aspect of Paganism which is a good antidote for more flimsy notions which have occasionally prevailed. Plutarch is not a philosopher, but he is a moralist, and in that capacity often shows himself a true disciple of Plato. In the infancy of science he is, of course, the victim of many more or less innocent delusions which are gravely stated in his ‘Convivial Discourses.’ In his ‘Isis and Osiris’ he has described the contemporary phase of Egyptian religion, as understood by the Greeks. In his ‘Essay on Superstition,’ in his reasonings on the ‘Failure of Oracles,’ and in his discussion of the brief inscription at Delphi, he shows how difficult it was for a commonsense man of the world to form distinct and reasonable opinions on matters of religion in that strangely complicated time. One convenient distinction, which he and others probably owed to their reading of Plato, is worth dwelling on, because it was taken up for apologetic purposes by the early Christian Fathers. This is the distinction between gods and demons. In Plato's ‘Symposium’ Diotima tells Socrates that love is neither divine nor human:—not a god, but a great demon or spirit. Plutarch has recourse to this conception in seeking to obviate the difficulty arising from the immoralities of mythology. The gods, as Plato says, are good, and the authors of good; demons, or spirits, are both good and evil, and to them is to be attributed whatever in the old religion is inconsistent with moral excellence. A kindred notion had been expressed by Plato himself in ‘Laws’ x. 897.

Lucian, as everybody knows, is a licensed jester, but behind the jest there is often a touch of earnest meaning. He openly professes that scorn of irrational beliefs which with less of certainty has sometimes been attributed to Euripides. Nor has he anything to put in its place, except a commonsense view of human life, which, as the world then was, a wise man could not value very highly, A tone of sadness and world-weariness may often be detected underneath the laugh. A striking example is afforded by the little essay on ‘Mourning’ in which not only the absurdities and hollow conventionalities of funeral rites, which had long since lost all meaning, are freely ridiculed, but a bitter laugh is raised against the irrationality of grieving on behalf of one who has escaped from the cares and sorrows of life into the silent land. The dead man in Aristophanes, when asked to do a service for something less than a living wage, instead of saying ‘I'd sooner die first,’ exclaims ‘I'd rather come to life again.’ In Lucian the young man who has died is imagined as looking on at his own funeral and scornfully addressing his parents and other survivors, who are weeping and wailing for his untimely death: ‘I should burst out laughing at you,’ he ends with saying, ‘but for the horrid thing which you have tied about my chin’!—Lucian's account of the Syrian goddess—if it is by him—is a wonderfully faithful transcript of a part-eastern part-Hellenic worship in that age of syncretism.

Against such sceptical impieties as that just quoted from Lucian, it is right to set on the other hand those hopes concerning a future state which were cherished by many persons who had been initiated into the Orphic or other kindred mysteries. These hopes are recorded in the inscriptions of uncertain date which I have before mentioned as having been found in south Italy, Sicily, and Crete. They are engraved on gold tablets which had been solemnly deposited in Greek tombs. They contain directions which are to guide the soul of the dead man to his destined dwelling-place where he is to enjoy the blessedness obtained through initiation. He is to declare himself the son of earth and heaven. He is to take the path to the left of the well and the cypress tree, and ask to drink of the water flowing from the spring of memory. Then he shall take hisplace amongst the other heroes and become divine. It is a question of some importance whether any of these inscriptions can with confidence be traced to the age preceding Plato. In some of them which bear distinct reference to the worship of Osiris there are obvious indications of a considerably later time. One thing is certain, that Aeschylus, who was learned in all the wisdom of Eleusis, was unacquainted with any such beliefs.

Although that reformation of Hellas for which Plato longed so earnestly was never to take effect, his efforts in following up the work of Socrates had not been altogether in vain. Not only an intellectual, but an ethical standard had been set up, whose influence extended far and wide wherever Greek culture spread, not moulding states indeed, but guiding and controlling many individual lives. Looking back from the vantage-ground of the modern world, we are apt to think of the higher thought of the fourth century in Greece as a light that failed; but that is not the impression we receive in reading the fragmentary remains of the succeeding centuries. There is a want, indeed, of fresh inspiration, but what there is of noble aspiration or of generous emotion is mainly a reflection from the life of Socrates and from the mind of Plato. The emancipation of faithful slaves by formally devoting them to the service of deities such as Apollo and Asclepius is a pleasing illustration of a growing sentiment of humanity; and of this practice abundant evidence remains in inscriptions of the Alexandrian and Roman periods found at Naupactus and Delphi.

We have brought down our account of Greek religion (though the later stages have been only hastily sketched in) very nearly to the time when Hellenic teaching centred in ‘the school of one Tyrannus,’ or of Posidonius, or Crantor, or Epictetus, while the parallel stream of Hebrew prophecy had shrunk into the synagogue, where the successors of Hillel or Gamaliel expounded the Law and the prophets; and the syncretism of both influences appeared in such writings as those of Philo Judaeus.

These were the forms in which the confluent currents of Heathenism and Judaism passed over into the life and thought of Christendom, which they may be said to have enriched, but also in some measure to have darkened and disturbed. Readers of the ‘Praeparatio Evangelii’ by Eusebius of Caesarea or of the works of Origen will have no difficulty in apprehending what this means. Our endeavour has been to understand what the religion of the Hellenes was to that people themselves in its earlier stages, while they were still a people, and rather to hint than to explain the manner in which the religious experiences of that unforgettable past, the higher mind of Hellas, may still be profitable amidst the complex and conflicting circumstances of a radically altered world, ‘for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’

It remains that we should endeavour to estimate what has been so described, in relation to some of the larger issues of contemporary thought. In order to do so it is necessary to clear our minds of some lurking prepossessions. The attitude that was right and natural for the first Christians, who sought to keep alive the glowing spark of the new religion amidst the corruptions of the degenerating heathen world, is no longer required of those who have been brought up in Christendom. Yet more or less unconsciously all thought upon this subject, whether orthodox or not, is apt to be coloured by what is now a conventional attitude. When we look steadily at Greek civilisation regarded as a whole, we find that it has been unfairly dealt with both by the apologists and the assailants of Christianity. The words of Scripture, which are quite intelligible when viewed in their original connection, exert a traditional influence, which carries with it a degree of unreality when they are employed by ourselves. ‘No idol is anything in the world’ is an incontrovertible saying, as uttered by St. Paul; and yet, when we think of Athena Promachos, or Athena Polias, as she was worshipped by the Athenians of the fifth century, our thought inevitably follows a different line. On the other hand, when he says, ‘the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God,’ he uses language which Plutarch would have understood, attributing a real existence to those inferior spirits, which were as much the creation of mythological fancy as the Beings whom the Greek reverenced as supreme. These last are they whom St. Paul thus seeks to degrade in the eyes of his followers. ‘We have not followed cunningly devised fables,’ says another Apostle, contrasting a supposed artificial system invented by priests with the facts of the Gospel. The phrase has a possible significance, if referred to the inventions of Onomacritus and the other teachers of Orphism. But we have been led by the study of history and of comparative religion to look upon Greek mythology as a natural and inevitable growth, not wholly unmeaning, nor due to any man's invention, although largely modified by the creative imagination not of priests so much as of poets and theosophists; and under its many-coloured veil half concealing, half revealing many germs of spiritual truth.

Over against the traditional view of the opposition of Christianity to heathenism, there stand some neopagan doctrines which have recently come into vogue. These new teachers seem frankly to accept the orthodox apologist's estimate of Hellenic life, and to regard it, not as derogatory, but as essentially favourable. With the gloom of Christian asceticism they would contrast the genial naturalism of the imaginary heathen. Thus on both sides Paganism is apt to be identified with Hedonism, if not with licentiousness. Such views are a ridiculous travesty of Hellenic life. The life of an average Greek citizen was pestered with many a dark scruple from which Christianity has set men free. To hear some people talk, one would suppose that frivolity was a characteristic of the Greek. Whereas, in point of fact, it is the seriousness of this people that is so remarkable: not that false seriousness which is the negation of humour, but the seriousness of unimpeded energy. Whatever they undertook, they took seriously, nay, more, in a religious spirit, and therefore they performed it better than any others have done before or since. It is due to them that the moral problem was at last set forth as one for all men.

In the study of comparative religion the mistake is often made of comparing the perfection of one religion with the corruption of another: the ideal of one age with the practice of another. If the conduct of an ordinary Athenian of the time of Aristides were compared with that of an average Hebrew of the time of Ezekiel, or of a Portuguese of the upper classes in the present day, I have a strong conviction that the comparison would not be to the advantage either of the Hebrew or of the Christian. Even the code of morals, prevalent from time to time in Christian countries has been demonstrably unchristian. Look, for example, at the last, century in England. Could any one who read some faithful transcript of English manners by Fielding or Goldsmith suppose that it embodied the morality of Johnson or the religion of John Wesley or of Bishop Butler? Consider again the savage vindictiveness with which the noblest efforts of our own Protestant ancestors were alloyed. The Athenians at Melos were hardly worse than the Puritans, at Wexford. To argue from hence that the leaven of Christianity was powerless or without value for that age, would be far wide of the mark; but it is not less irrelevant, to suppose, because of the inhumanity or the abnormal sensuality that prevailed in Greek communities, that the pieties of the Iliad and Odyssey, the passionate idealism of Aeschylus, the home affections manifested on the sepulchral stelae, and the aspirations embodied in many funeral inscriptions were unmeaning, or that the religion which they represent is even now dead or ineffectual. It is an often repeated saying of the great Lessing that Christianity has been tried for eighteen centuries while the religion of Christ remains to be tried. So also, not as hostile to Christianity nor as a rival to it, but as conspiring with it, in a lower grade, if you will, it may be said that those things noble and of good report which lie enshrined in the records of centuries before Christ still remain to prove their healing and elevating effect on human life; and the noblest among these are Hebrew prophecy and Hellenic culture, of which the religion of the ancient Greeks is the highest and not the least important aspect.

Two contemporary sayings may be quoted in support of what is here advanced: one, the lines of ‘In Memoriam,’ paradoxical as they seemed to many when they first appeared:

What keeps a spirit wholly true

To that ideal which he bears?

What record?—not the sinless years

That breathed beneath the Syrian blue.

The other is an expression of Professor Jowett's in concluding that portion of his essay on Natural Religion which is devoted to the Graeco-Roman world. The whole passage may be quoted here.

‘Such was the later phase of the religion of nature with which Christianity came into conflict. It had supplied some of the needs of men by assisting to build up the fabric of society and law. It had left room for others to find expression in philosophy or art. But it was a world divided against itself. It contained two nations or opinions “struggling in its womb”: the nation or opinion of the many, and the nation or opinion of the few. It was bound together in the framework of law or custom, yet its morality fell below the natural feelings of mankind, and its religious spirit was confused and weakened by the admixture of foreign superstitions. It was a world of which it is not difficult to find traces that it was self-condemned. It might be compared to a fruit, the rind of which was hard and firm, while within it was soft and decaying. Within this outer rind or circle, for two centuries and a half, Christianity was working; at last it appeared without, itself the seed or kernel of a new organisation. That when the conflict was over, and the world found itself Christian, many elements of the old religion still remained, and reasserted themselves in Christian forms; that the “ghost of the dead Roman empire” lingered “about the grave thereof”; that Christianity accomplished only imperfectly what heathenism failed to do at all, is a result unlike pictures that are sometimes drawn, but sadly in accordance with what history teaches of mankind and of human nature.’2

‘Christianity is not a doctrine, but a life,’ was a saying of John Newton's in his later years; and it is a life that is fed by kindred elements from without, which it has the power of discriminating from things alien or hostile, of assimilating and of directing and controlling. Consciously or unconsciously this has been the case with Christian teaching since the first age: such men as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine owed much of their influence to their education in Greek learning; and the study of Hellenic life, not as it seemed to the Fathers, but as it was in itself, is of real assistance towards the growth and spread of an enlightened Christianity amongst ourselves.

The fresh outburst of intellectual and social life known as the Renaissance was greatly stimulated and encouraged by the rediscovery of Greek literature and art. But the humanism which then prevailed rested largely on an uncritical appreciation of those long-hidden treasures which acted like new wine upon undisciplined natures. It has accordingly been ridiculed by Goethe under the image of the Homunculus in the second part of ‘Faust.’ But may we not, in a more critical age, anticipate the more wholesome working of a higher humanism, in which a spirit, not of revolt, but of obedience to the essential principles of Christianity, will hail with gladness the inestimable worth of those records of the nobler things in man, coming down to us from a remoter past, in which some Fathers saw the working of the divine Logos, and Christian philosophy recognises more that is akin to the mind of Christ than in much that has been thought and written in His name?

1. The contemplation of the Hellenic record, as a whole, supplies us with facts which, when rightly considered, tend rather to confirm than to weaken our conviction of ‘the truth of Christian inspiration.’ That in two races so entirely separate from each other (I don't speak now of prehistoric times) as the Hebrew and the Greek, the development of spiritual and moral conceptions and aspirations should have so much in common, is a welcome evidence of our belief that mankind are not deserted by their Creator, but are drawn continually upwards, in the course of a divine education. ‘There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.’

Let us glance once more at some of the points in which the education of the two races, the Hebrew and the Greek, led to the expression of similar feelings or beliefs. In Homer, although religious thought is for the most part implicit, there is yet a deep feeling, founded on experience, that sin breeds sorrow, that there is a God who supports the wronged and punishes the wrongdoer. In Hesiod this breaks forth more explicitly in the cry of the oppressed, and Justice is herself personified as the daughter of Zeus. In Solon the same thought comes out with striking clearness in its application to social and civic life; and in Aeschylus we find an ideal of divine righteousness which is strikingly parallel to that of Hebrew prophecy. The eternal law in Sophocles is far exalted above the caprice and wilfulness of man. A time of doubtful disputation and of religious discouragement follows, until Socrates raises again the standard of an absolute morality, which he endeavours to base upon an ideal of knowledge,—the love of goodness, for once, conspiring with the love of truth.

Meanwhile the idea of justice or righteousness has been insensibly modified by the notion of equity taking the place of mere retaliation or retribution; and by the conception of a moral government extending beyond the limits of a single community, and of human rights participated even by barbarians and slaves. The just man, says the Platonic Socrates, cannot do harm even to an enemy.

Another development which in our modern age is closely identified with religion can be traced more distinctly in Hellenic than in Hebrew culture: I mean, the hope of immortality. The absence of this from all but the latest books of the Old Testament has been often noted. It sprang up during the depth of national distress after the Captivity, ‘growing,’ as Jowett finely says, ‘like a green plant within the hollow rind of Pharisaism.’ The question need not here be pressed, whether this belief was not already implicit in the doctrine of a living Jehovah. In Hellas, as we have seen, the primitive belief which found expression in funeral rites and in the worship of ancestors had faded in the age that is reflected through the Homeric poems, but rose into new life with the growth of hero-worship, and became prominent in the Orphic and Pythagorean teaching; though it is still a strange language to Herodotus, and seems to have had no place in the first period of Attic enlightenment. The Eleusinian mystic, indeed, cherished a bright hope, but this was too apt to rest on merely ceremonial conditions. Socrates, possessing his soul in peace, was content to leave the matter to God; but Plato, giving substance to Pythagorean fancy through the strength of moral conviction, and identifying soul with mind, attributed to the human spirit a participation in that eternity which he held to belong to truth. Hellenic faith could go no further.

The remaining stages have been too recently discussed to need recapitulation, else we might trace in a similar manner the gradual moralising of the ideas of temperance and purity, which reached their acme in the precepts given by Plato to young men in pp. 836–842 of the ‘Laws.’ What I desire to emphasise is, that in all this, for one who believes in a supreme wisdom and goodness, in other words, in a God of righteousness and truth, there is much which he cannot fail to recognise as of divine origin. The correspondence between the living pattern set before the Christian and the ideal of a perfect life as conceived by Plato is an argument that both are real. One appeals more to the heart, the other to the intellect. The higher nature of man, taken as a whole, can only find satisfaction in contemplating both in one. The spirit of the Christian life gives motive and direction towards the realisation of perfection, but that spirit is reanimated and invigorated by breathing in whatever in the world at large has an affinity to it and bears the stamp of kindred authorship.

2. If the story of Hellenic culture gives support and encouragement to what is best and highest in our modern life, it also supplies us with a warning which is not less valuable. It began with ceremonialism, and rose gradually towards a pure and elevated morality. The idea of God was purged from the beggarly elements of primitive superstition and the accretions of fanciful mythology until the most sacred names corresponded to the highest aspirations of the noblest men. But as the race declined, or became contaminated with other races, the Greek came again under the power of local superstitions which had never lost their hold, or of irrational mysticisms brought in from abroad which soothed but could not satisfy; while in comparison of these, an elaborately reasoned philosophy exercised only a limited power. Shall we not take the warning, and place our reliance, neither on mere reasoning, nor on traditional rites and ceremonies which are now unmeaning, but on those truths whose evidence is moral and spiritual, which are consecrated for us by great examples, and which speak convincingly at once to the emotions and to the mind and will?

Thus the sympathetic study of antiquity on critical lines may help not only to invigorate but, what is not less important, also to purify traditional Christianity. It is no blind imitation, even of perfect models, that I am advocating, but the rational use of that liberty which is our inheritance as Christians and as protestants, in comparing spiritual thing's with spiritual, casting off old garments, whether ancient or modern, but interweaving the brightest and best of their colours into the new.

The question of questions remains behind. We have sought to delineate successive phases of religious life and thought which did not annihilate but supplanted one another, and were finally supplanted by Christianity. Are we to infer that all these phases were alike devoid of objective reality, a more phantasmagoria, collapsing into nothingness with the men who conceived them? That is a consideration which, from time to time, must haunt the minds of all honest theologians. For it may be applied, not to one series of beliefs or worships only, but to all alike, even to those which are most sacred to ourselves. We are beginning to learn that the Jahve of the Hebrews was not quite the same as the God of Wesley or of John Henry Newman; we do not therefore think that the religion of Isaiah was unreal. It cannot be said that the God in whom John Knox so intensely believed was precisely the same Being whom Archbishop Leighton worshipped in spirit, and in truth. Yet the religion of both men was unquestionable, and we cannot doubt that, notwithstanding subjective imperfections, it had a real object.

The true point of view was anticipated by St. Paul, when he spoke of the old Hellenic worship as a feeling after God: a groping in the darkness, as Plato said, yet like other instinctive motions, having a real aim. The right consideration of the facts which have been here set forth may help at once to confirm belief and to modify unbelief. Those who believe that the one God whom Christians worship made the world and all things therein: that He has made of one blood all nations of men that dwell on the face of the whole earth: that He has ordained the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; will recognise in the noble feelings and great thoughts of the religious Greeks the working of the same spirit whose fulness is in Christ. Those, on the other hand, who in reacting from Christian tradition have been led to suspect that the idea of a God who reigns supreme over man and nature is an empty dream, a relic of the metaphysical stage of human culture, may at least admit that the parallel and independent growth of that idea amongst the Greeks and Hebrews, and the correspondence between the ideal just man of Plato and the living pattern in Christ, is a remarkable and not insignificant fact. I need not add that similar analogies may be found in other regions that lie beyond the scope of the present volume, and that the cumulative argument for the moral and spiritual nature of true religion is thus strengthened. I leave it to others to dwell, for example, on the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead,’ or the contemplative lives of Indian sages, or the religious enthusiasm of some great Eastern conqueror; but nowhere, I think, can the growth of those higher thoughts which are the sustaining nutriment of the most blessed life be traced more vividly, or to more edifying purpose, than in the Hellenic world.

It is not too much to say that these thoughts correct and supplement some extravagances and defects to which Christianity, in the historical sense, has been often prone. (1) Self-denial is amongst the Christian graces; self-culture, not less a Christian duty, is sometimes forgotten. Greek life, on the whole, is a standing protest against a merely negative and cloistered virtue. (2) Not only Christian teachers, but preachers of another sort, wisely exhort us to live for others. The French word ‘altruism,’ which has somehow come lately into vogue, is not, I believe, of Christian origin, yet it expresses what by many is regarded as the sum of Christian duty. ‘The enthusiasm of humanity’ is another phrase which has a more Christian sound, and has inspired much noble conduct; yet there is a certain vagueness in both of these when compared with that ideal of duty which was set before the citizen of an Hellenic state. To serve other men by doing the duty that lies nearest; to live for mankind by self-devotion to the interests of a community, however small or obscure; to realise one's higher self in ministering to others, are Christian conceptions, which find an added support in the life of heathenism.

To dwell once more in conclusion on the central difficulty, it may be said with truth, although the saying is paradoxical, that the great historical religions of the world stand or fall together. If Christianity is true, then there is a relative truth also, though with obvious limitations, in Judaism, in Hellenism, in Buddhism, and even in Mahomedanism. The criterion of that truth involves the reality of the ideal. If we have lost faith in that, because humanity everywhere falls short of it, that is equivalent to losing faith in the existence and beneficence of God. So long as we maintain the struggle to lessen the distance between what men acknowledge ought to be, and that which through their will and deed actually is, so long we are upholding the belief in a Supreme Being, who, in mysterious ways, is drawing His creatures nearer to Himself. That is a truth which can never be seen perfectly under the limitations of our mortal state, and yet, though seen in part, is the most inspiring of all truths.

The nearest approach to a solution of the speculative difficulties which surround it lies perhaps in the words of Bishop Butler when he speaks of the moral government of God as ‘a scheme imperfectly comprehended.’ The naturalist hypothesis, which has made an epoch in modern science, and has won its way to all but universal acceptance, rests on the postulate of an illimitable period of past time. The religious hypothesis, of which the words of Butler are an expression, demands for its support an illimitable future duration for the individual and for the world. Neither the naturalistic nor the religious postulate admits of demonstration. If the one provides us with an account of things which harmonises with experience, and with that other postulate of the uniformity of nature, on which modern science rests, the other is in accordance with that belief in a divine union of omnipotence with beneficence which has grown with the growth of the human spirit, and cannot without violence be eradicated from the religious mind.

We are still far away from the ‘new definition of God,’ of which I spoke in the beginning of this volume, and the ‘vision’ is still shadowy and evanescent; yet if in the future thought should keep pace with knowledge, and the crowding of new facts should not weaken judgment, it may be that both the vision and the definition may be simpler, more comprehensive, more far-reaching than anything which mankind have hitherto conceived.

  • 1.

    This man is free from servile bands

    Of hope to rise, or fear to fall;

    Lord of himself, though not of lands;

    And having nothing, yet hath all.

  • 2.

    Epistles of St. Paul, third edition, vol. ii. pp. 224–5. The italics are mine.