“Two Thousand Years Ago”—A Contrast
The Theosophist, August, 1888
The events which preceded the formation of the Roman Empire, just before the beginning of our era, furnish an analogy in some respects to what is happening today throughout Christendom.
Nations had been conquered; foreign lands had been subdued; great triumphs over nature had been achieved; the arts of life had arrived at great excellence; life’s beauties and ornaments had reached a high standard of perfection. These triumphs had been achieved under the stimulus of the old religion; were offered as a tribute to the majesty of the early gods. This religion is already past its prime when we first get a clear view of the Roman world. The gods no longer descend from heaven to join in battles against Rome’s enemies.
No Jove-sent nymph now dictates laws in the sacred grove. No prodigies now mark the wrath and anger of the gods.
The institutions of religion are still kept up, it is true; so many priests ordained; so many vestals; so many pontiffs and augurs elected every year, The sacrifices and ceremonies of religion are still performed; but the priests and their revenues have grown fat. the vestals tend the sacred fire with careless and unzealous hands; the pontiffs and augurs have become cynical; if any one pay attention to the ceremonies of religion, to the omen of the entrails or to the pecking of the holy chickens, it is only some of the vulgar herd, or some superstitious old women; or perhaps a rustic from Corsica or the rugged Apennines.
If the triumphs still ascend to the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol, it is now to gratify the pride of the conqueror, and no longer to offer thanksgiving to the guardian god. The ignorant, and the old women perhaps, believe in it still; but all the thinking men and women of Rome know better; they keep up the farce to amuse the vulgar, but they laugh in their sleeves the while.
When two priests met, we read, they burst out laughing in each other’s faces.
Cicero does not believe much of this priest’s nonsense, we may be sure, nor Cæsar, nor Pompey. They have become wiser, have grown out of it; they have known better now for near a hundred years.
But still the old religion was good for something while it lasted. Romulus believed in it, and he who avenged Lucrece and drove the Tarquins out, and Cincinnatus, and Camillus, and many a good man and true.
Rome’s old religion was inspiring enough for Quinctus Curtius, who leaped into the yawning gulf; had power enough to lead Regulus back to Carthage, and to certain death. But that was all over, could never be restored, however much the loss of it might be lamented. It had been written on the inexorable tablets of time that “the fairy tale of Jupiter and the gods, no man can verify,” and inevitable progress could no more halt for these, than could the rebellious waves, before the royal Canute.
But this old faith had filled a large place in the Roman life; it was no mere trifle, but occupied a wide span of the horizon; and the void left by its dissolution cried aloud to be filled. A new moral stimulus was needed, and the materials lay ready to hand in Greece. Plato, the Stoics, the Epicureans, had already been busy constructing a philosophy, and a rule of life. But the practical realism of the Romans was no congenial ground for Platonic doctrines; and only a few rare souls like Brutus, and Cato of Utica, could aspire to the virtue and majesty of the Stoics’ creed. Far more congenial was that distortion of Epicurus’ philosophy which is called to our minds by the name Epicurean. All that could aid the due celebration of this doctrine’s rites, all that could minister to the perfection of pleasure, and afford delicate gratification to the senses, was already at hand. Wealth had poured in from all the world; Rome stood pre-eminent amongst the nations, fearing no rough invasion of conquering might; Grecian taste, and Grecian art were ready with their ministrations to the votaries of the new shrine.
The cultivation of the beautiful and refined; the satisfaction of all delicate æsthetic yearnings and desire; the delights of culture and art; the gratification of the senses, but a polite and refined gratification withal, seemed now the only things worth living for.
Sumptuous banquets, delicate wines, “Coan and Falernian, Massic and Surrentine, the head of Umbrian boar, the hashed limbs of a crane, the disjointed shoulders of a hare, the liver of a white goose fed on luscious figs, the Lucrine mussel, oysters from Cuceiix, crabs from Misenum, scallops from Tarentum, African cockles, apples from Tibur, the olive of Venafrum, the Albanian grape and the Venuculum;” all things dainty and refined, as we learn from Horace’s poems.
The true Epicurean, however, was no mere gross and gluttonous feeder; he was pre-eminently the man of taste. His banquets were garnished with beautiful flowers; music added its melodious charm; the wine was thrice diluted that it might bring vivacity and flow of conversation, but stop short of riotous and uproarious jollity. Our Epicurean was a man of fine nerves, of delicate perceptions; could judge you a poem or a picture as skillfully as he could discern Coan from Falernian; he could run over the whole gamut of æsthetic sensations as well as our best modern of his school. Pleasure became a regular science, a fine art to be studied like painting or poetry.
Greece was ransacked for artists, for the celebrated statues, for the Periclean master pieces.
Tyre and the East added their splendid fabrics; the whole known world was laid under contribution for delicate perfumes, for rare additions to the table.
In fine, an age had come when all was done that could be done to secure the perfection of unmixed enjoyment.
And the signs of just such a school of Epicureanism are not wanting at the present day; for look where we will, in human history, or the life of individuals, we find that one of the inevitabe results of the relaxation of religious belief is a gradual inclination towards sensualism.
Religion, say the Epicureans, is a mere fable of the priests, its fairy stories no man can verify; life is brief, the end is not far off; while our little day endures shall we not enjoy it? “Virtue” is a disagreeable, cramping thing, a strait waist-coat only necessary for highway-men and house-breakers; heroism gets one into many an awkward predicament, your “sincere” man is never out of trouble. Goodness is merely a sort of æstheticism, a flattering notion for the sensibilities of the soul. National probity never paid, or has now ceased to pay. Politics are merely a form of excitement, a diversion more fascinating than horse-racing or pigeon-shooting. These are the sentiments which find their natural home in the breast of the modern as of the ancient disciple of Epicurus. He finds in himself so many inclinations—some are rude enough to call them “sensual,” but to the Epicurean they seem merely natural and human—and he finds it so very pleasant to gratify them.
And what contrary tendency is there to oppose to his inclinations? For a force can only be overcome by another force in the opposite direction.
It is the traditional office of religion to check these tendencies; what does he find in the religion about him which moves at all in a contrary direction to them? “Bishops at a minimum salary of four thousand a year,” says the warning voice of Carlyle. It is true, as even the Epicurean knows, that the Master of these men said, “Sell all, give to the poor, and come and follow me;” but this seems to be forgotten now-a-day s. The Church he finds, if, moved by any hungering spark of divine fire, he turns his eyes in this direction is an institution where beautiful music may be heard, where graceful arches rise to the fretted roof, where reigns an atmosphere of peaceful calm and repose:
“To sleep, the cushions, and soft dean invite,
Who never mentions hell to ears polite.”
Where are sweet-voiced cherubs in white robes; where elegant sentiments are uttered in delicately-modulated tones by refined and cultured scholars.
But even an Epicurean can see that all this tends far more in his own direction than towards the Galilean.
In all this there is found nothing rough and vigorous enough to say to our Epicurean of the modern school “To live as you do, merely for gratification, is to be a little lower than the beasts of the field; be at least a man, if you cannot be a noble one.” The consequence? That the Epicurean gratifies his appetites.
If the Epicurean still persists, driven by the spark of celestial fire in interrogating those who would teach the Church better and more Christian ways, what does he find?
The professors of religion of love and brotherhood vieing with each other in denunciations, reproaches, and mutual recriminations.
“This is pure barbarism,” says the man of fine sensibilities, and hastens to seek refuge and peace. The “dissidence of dissent,” a merely jars his nerves, nothing more.
The voluptuary returns therefore and settles down in right earnest to quality himself to become “a hog of Epicurus’ drove.”
He now applies himself to the gratification of his “natural appetites,” to the enjoyment of his æsthetic propensities. And yet who shall blame the Epicure? For his representative exists in every one of us, and pleasure is really such a very pleasant thing!
But this ideal of unimpeded enjoyment, from whatever cause arising, is as old as the hills; is in fact almost entitled to rank as an innate idea; we find it in universal tradition; in the millenniums always about to arrive, as in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue; in the Golden Age; in all mythologies.
And not only this, but the present materialism, with its philosophy, from the spread of which the modern golden age is to result and even its two great scientific generalisations,—the Nebula Hypothesis, and the Evolution Theory,—are, if not as old as the hills, at least of such extreme antiquity that we can point to no period of human thought, when we can say with certainty, that their counterparts did not exist.
This present materialism is very terrible to the timid. What dreadful new mind is this humanity has fallen into? they ask, piteously; what possible escape have we from the tyranny of these terrible doctrines?
And yet this materialistic fit has fallen on humanity before,—perhaps many times.
This philosophy of physical science, at once of hope, and despair, under whose influence man thinks almost any action of his own nature, possible and likely, and yet says of himself—the crown and end of nature—that “he is indeed a thing of nought; for as the flower of the field, so he flourisheth; the wind passe; over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof knows it no more,”—this terrible nihilism is in reality no novelty but mere repetition.
There is a relation, says Emerson, between the hours of our life and the centuries of time; and these periods of doubt have fallen on mankind as often as they fell on the mind of the Prince of Denmark. It depends on the inherent vitality of the nations then in the van of human thought, whether these dark doubts are merely the precursors of a brighter dawn of hope, or are the signal for a relapse into sensuality and barbarism.
This materialism has had its counterparts in the past; and in no well marked historic epoch do they appear more clearly than in that period preceding the formation of the Roman empire which we have in outline depicted.
In Lucretius—who had them from his master Epicurus, and he from Democritus—we find the very atomic doctrine now so enthusiastically espoused by the materialists, and which finds its ablest exponent in Professor Tyndall. Not a fresh idea, not a new conception has been added; we have the very same innumerable and unchangeable atoms floating or flying at random through infinite space; the same fortuitous aggregations; the same gradual condensations; the world, merely a temporary group of them; man, merely a group, brought into being by a chance collection of atoms, to be destroyed by their inevitable dispersion.
All that is vital of this doctrine is twenty centuries old and more; existed before the birth of Christ and the beginning of Christianity; all is there that touches humanity nearly; that speaks to our deepest hopes and fears. And not only the general outline of the philosophy, but even the great scientific generalisations; as the Nebular Hypothesis, by which we build the worlds; starting from infinitely diffused radiant matter or something more attenuated still; this gradually condensing to a gas, the gas contracting to a liquid, the liquid finally becoming solid; to this add only the circular spin, and we have the Nebular theory of Laplace.
And yet what is there in all this that I do not find in the teachings of a philosopher who flourished more than five centuries before our era; and whose doctrine is thus recorded:—
“Anaximenes ascribed the first principle of all things to air, or a subtle æther, which is infinite, immense, and in perpetual motion.
“From this air, or æther, proceeded fire, water, and earth, by the process of rarefaction and condensation. The sun and stars, he supposed to be igneous masses.”
Incorporate with this, the heliocentric system, and the rotation of the planets, unquestionably known to the Platonists and Pythagoras, and what originality has Laplace to boast of in this vaunted Nebular Hypothesis which we grandiloquently ascribe as “one of the grandest scientific generalisations of our ago?”
Tho evolutionary theory too, that daring innovation which swept away so many cherished notion, and which has proved so distressing to all believers, from Louis Agassiz down; even this theory is in no better position on the score of novelty.
For do we not find the key-note of the whole doctrine the general formula from which it all is derived, and especially that most conspicuous part of it which relates to man, in Horace’s well known lines—now near two milleniums old:
“Cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris,
Mutum et turpe pecus, glandem et cubilia proptes
Ungnibus et pugnis, dein fustibus, at que porro
Pugnabant armis, quæ post fabricaverat usus;
Donee verba, quibus voces sensusque notarent,
Nominaque invenere: dehinc absistere bello,
Oppida cœperunt munire, et ponere leges.”
“When animals crept forth on the primitive earth, a dumb and wretched herd, they fought for their dens and acorns with fists, and nails, then with clubs, and at last with weapons, which experience had subsequently discovered; until they found words and names to distinguish sounds and meanings: then they left off fighting, and began to build cities and make laws.”
Was ever the struggle for existence more graphically described, or the survival of the fittest, or the gradual evolution of the man from the animal! Here and in the succeeding lines, we have even a foretaste of the most recent doctrines of the new science of Sociology.
And yet these doctrines are not original with the Romans, or even with the Greeks.
I find them all in the Upanishads of the Brahmans, and the laws of Manu.
“When I write my diary,” says Wellington, “many statues must come down;” and when these brilliant and novel theories of our modern philosophers are compared with the world-old notions, many fine reputations will be in danger, for they will be seen to rise perilously, like inverted pyramids, on the smallest possible basis of originality.
So now that we have found Darwinism, and the rest, to be no more than old friends with new faces, now we know that these astonishing and dazzling feats of materialistic speculation, have all been gone through before other awe-struck spectators ages ago, we are able to draw our breaths, and view them more collectedly, and calmly; to consider them leisurely, and to see if, after all, they may not perhaps be a little less final than their adherents would fain have us believe.
If we have hastily rushed to the conclusion that we are doomed inevitably for all future ages to a dreary materialism and nihilism, tricked out though they be with ever so fine Epicurean promises—we may perhaps he induced to pause a little; and reconsider the question, for strange beliefs have found credence since last these fine theories were in vogue. Perhaps, after all, our hasty conclusions, our gospels of “Epicureanism, the creed of the future,” “Material prosperity, the only good,” “Matter, the promise and potency of all life,” may, before long, be forced from the pedestals to which we so triumphantly raised them.