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As it would not be fair to take up our notion of the Christian religion, from the lowest and most ignorant of its professors, and still less, perhaps, to estimate its merits, by the representations which its known and avowed enemies would be likely to give; the balance of equal justice on the other side, will forbid our forming our estimate of the ancient paganism from the misconceptions of its unworthy votaries, or the interested detractions and exaggerations of its Christian opponents.
The only just and honourable estimate will be that which shall judge of paganism, as Christians would wish their own religion to be judged-by its own absolute documents, by the representations of its advocates, and the admissions of its adversaries.
When it is borne in mind, that a supernatural origination or divine authority is not claimed for these systems of theology, there can be no occasion to fear their rivalry or encroachment on systems founded on such a claim; and still less, to decry, vituperate, and scandalize these, as any means of exalting or magnifying those. There cannot be the least doubt, that in dark and barbarous ages, the rude and unlettered part of mankind would grossly pervert the mystical or allegorical sense, if such there were, in the forms of religion propounded to their observance or imposed on their simplicity; while it is impossible, that those enlighted and philosophical characters, who have left us in their writings the most undoubted evidence of the greatest shrewdness of intellect, extent of inquiry, and goodness of heart, should have understood their mythology in no better or higher significancy than as it was understood by the ignorant of their own persuasion, or would be represented by their enemies, who had the strongest possible interest in defaming and decrying it. When the worst is done in this way, Christianity would be but little the gainer by being weighed in the same scales. Should we be allowed to fix on the darkest day of her eleven hundred years of dark ages, and to pit the grossest notions of the grossest ignorance of that day, as specimens of Christianity; against the views which Christians have been generally pleased to give as representations of paganism; how would they abide the challenge, "look on this picture and on this?" Those doctrines only, of which no form or forms of the previously existing paganism could ever pretend the same or the like doctrines, can be properly and distinctively
called Christian. That degree of excellence, whose very lowest stage is raised above the very highest acme of what is known and admitted to have been no more than human, can alone put in a challenge to be regarded as divine. That which was not known before, is that only which a subsequent revelation can have taught.
To justify the claims, therefore, of such a subsequent revelation, we must make the full allowance, and entirely strike out of the equation, all quantities estimated to their fullest and utmost appreciation, which are, and have been claimed as the property of pre-existent systems; and as they were not divine, while it is pretended that this is, the discovery of a resemblance between the one and the other, can only be feared by those who are conscious that they are making a false pretence. Resemblance to a counterfeit is, in this assay, proof of a counterfeit. Brass may sometimes be brought to look like gold, but the pure gold had never yet the ring and imperfections of any baser metal.
At the time alleged as that of the birth of Jesus, all nations were living in the peaceful profession and practice of the several systems of religious faith which they had, as nations or as families, derived from their ancestors, in an antiquity lying far beyond the records of historical commemoration. Christians generally claim for this epocha of time the truly honourable distinction of being the pacific age. The benign influence of letters and philosophy, was at this time extensively diffused through countries which had previously lain under the darkest ignorance; and nations, whose manners had been savage and barbarous, were civilized by the laws and commerce of the Romans. The Christian writer Orosius, maintains that the temple of Janus was then shut, and that wars and discords had absolutely ceased throughout the world: which, though an allegorical, and very probably an hyperbolical representation of the matter, is at least an honourable testimony to the then state of the heathen world.
The notion of one supreme being was universal. No calumny could be more egregious, than that which charges the pagan world with ever having. lost sight of that notion, or compromised or surrendered its paramount importance, in all the varieties and modifications of pagan
* Mosheim, Vol. I. Chap. 1.
piety.* This predominant notion (admits Mosheim) showed itself, even through the darkness of the grossest idolatry.
The candour which gives the Protestant Christian credit for his professed belief in the unity of God, even against the conflict of his own assertion of believing at the same time in a trinity of three persons, which are each of them a God; the fairness which respects the distinction which the Catholic Christian challenges between his Latria and Doulia, his worship of the Almighty, and his veneration of the images of the saints, will never suppose that the divinity of the inferior deities was understood in any sense of disparagement to the alone supreme and undivided godhead of their "one first-one greatest-only Lord of all."
The evidences of Christianity must be in a labouring condition indeed, if they require us to imagine that a Cicero, Tacitus, or Pliny were worshippers of gods of wood and stone; or to force on our apprehensions such a violence, as that we should imagine that the mighty mind that had enriched the world with Euclid's Elements of Geometry, could have bowed to the deities of Euclid's Egypt, and worshipped leeks and crocodiles.
Orthodoxy itself will no longer suggest its resistance to the only faithful and rational account of the matter, so elegantly given us by Gibbon.+ "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered, by the people as equally true,-by the philosopher, as equally false,-and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
"Both the interests of the priests, and the credulity of the people were sufficiently respected. In their writings and conversation, the philosophers of antiquity asserted the independent dignity of reason; but they resigned their actions to the commands of law and custom. Viewing with a smile of pity and indulgence the various errors of the vulgar, they diligently practised the ceremonies of their fathers, devoutly frequented the temples of the gods; and sometimes condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition, they concealed the sentiments of *All the inferior deities in Homer, are represented as thus addressing the supreme Jove:
"Oh first and greatest, GOD! by gods adored,
We own thy power, our father and our lord."-Iliad. + Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. i. chap. 2. p. 46.
an atheist under the sacerdotal robe. Reasoners of such a temper were scarcely inclined to wrangle about their respective modes of faith, or of worship. It was indifferent to them what shape the folly of the multitude might choose to assume; and they approached with the same inward contempt and the same external reverence to the altars of the Lybian, the Olympian, or the Capitoline Jupiter."*
It was a common adage among the Greeks, lavuara uwpois-Miracles for fools; and the same proverb obtained among the shrewder Romans, in the saying, Vulgus vult decipi-decipiatur, "The common people like to be deceived-deceived let them be."
The Christian, perhaps, may boast of his sincerity, but a moment's thought will admonish him how little virtue there is in such a quality, when it forces a necessity of hypocrisy on others. Sincerity should be safe on both sides of the hedge. It was never taken for a virtue in an unbeliever.
66 Every nation then had its respective gods, over which presided one more excellent than the rest ;" and the degree of this pre-eminency, as versified by Pope from the 6th book of the Iliad, is an absolute vindication of the Pagan world from the charge of the grosser and more revolting sense of Polytheism. They were virtually DEISTS. None of their divinities were thought to approach nearer to the supremacy of the father of gods and men, than the various orders of the Cherubim and Seraphim, to the God and Father of Jesus Christ,
Who but behold his utmost skirts of glory,
And far off, his steps adore."
So in the language of their Iliad (and language has nothing more sublime) we read the august challenge :
"Let down our golden everlasting chain,
Whose strong embrace holds heaven, and earth, and main ;
To drag by this the thunderer down to earth.
Ye strive in vain. If I but lift this hand,
I heave the heavens, the ocean, and the land;
For such I reign unbounded and above,
And such are men, and gods, compared to Jove."
Mosheim, upon an evident misunderstanding, assumes that their supreme deity, in comparison to whom the * Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 49, 50.
gods and goddesses were as far off from an absolute divinity, as ever were the guardian angels and tutelary saints of Christianity; was himself believed to be subject to the rigid empire of the fates, or what the philosophers called eternal necessity. But the word fate, by its derivation from the natural indication of command-FIAT! Be it so; may satisfy us, that nothing more was meant, than that the supreme deity was bound by his own engagements, that his word was irrevocable, and that all his actions were determined and guided by the everlasting law of righteousness, and conformed to the counsels and sanctions of his own unerring mind. So that He, and He alone, could say with truth,
Necessity and Chance
Approach me not, and what I will-is FATE."
"One thing, indeed," says our authority, (Mosheim), "appears at first sight very remarkable-that the variety of religions and gods in the heathen world, neither produced wars nor dissentions among the different nations."* A diligent and candid investigation of historical data will demonstrate, that from this general rule, there is no valid and satisfactory instance of exception. The Greeks may have carried on a war to recover lands that had been distrained from the possession of their priests; and the Egyptians may have revenged the slaughter of their crocodiles; but these wars never proposed as their object, the insolent intolerance of forcing their modes of faith or worship on other nations. They were not offended at their neighbours for serving other divinities, but they could not bear that theirs, should be put to death. And if, perhaps, where we read the word divinities, we should understand it to mean nothing more than favourites; and instead of saying that people worshipped such and such things, that they were excessively or foolishly attached to them; considering that such language owes its original modification to Christian antipathies, it might be brought back to a nearer affinity to probability, as well as to charity. An Egyptian might be as fond of onions, as a Welshman of leeks, a Scot of thistles, or an Irishman of shamrock, without exactly taking their gar bage for omnipotence.+
*Their religion had not made fools of them.
+ Who that wished to be a thriving wooer, ever hesitated to drop on his knee and adore his mistress?" With my body I thee worship."---Matri