Page images
PDF
EPUB

Dispeople all Olympus—aye, draw down
Yon bright-haired sun from his celestial height,
To give

account of that most fond pursuit
Through yon dim groves of cypress.”

And corresponding to the characters of their gods were the rites of their worship. Bacchus, the god of the vintage, was most acceptably worshipped amidst the frantic revels of the wine-cup; and Venus found her befitting homage in the licensed indulgence of lust and sensuality. The temples of the Goddess of Beauty were too often little else than brothels licensed from the skies. Ingenious theft was regarded as well pleasing to Hermes ; and Mars received his best homage amidst the slaughters of the battle-field. How extensively the military spirit prevailed may be inferred from the fact, that even the Goddess of Wisdom herself, the patroness also of household arts, the most intellectual perhaps of all the divinities, was eminently a military goddess, and bore the helmet, shield, and spear, as her almost invariable symbols. Thus crime was sanctioned and sanctified. They who “ deified adultery, and throned incest in the skies," could not feel any great horror of these crimes when committed by themselves. They who represented the throne of heaven itself as acquired by fraud and usurpation, could find at least a partial excuse for their own acts of criminal ambition. Indeed, scarcely an act was registered in the calendar of crimes, scarcely an outrage on moral principle was branded with its deserved penalty by the enactments of human law, but had its precedent and sanction in the copious archives of Olympus. True, in this way tho moral sense could never be utterly extinguished, nor could men cease to condemn in themselves what was tolerated in the gods they worshipped; yet a glance must show that the inevitable and powerful tendency of all this was to weaken the restraints of principle, and throw a loose rein to the headlong and fiery passions of the multitude. Its actual effects on the state of society our limits will not allow us to depict at length. Their outline is drawn with a pen of iron in awful and ineffaceable lines in the opening chapter of the Epistle to the Romans; where, without the slightest tinge of exaggerated coloring, is sketched a picture from whose features the heart recoils in horror; a picture whose fidelity is fully attested by the records of heathenism itself in that age, and which stands for all subsequent time an awful warning of the inevitable consequences of departing from the living God. The lines are fled, but the impression is complete. Licentiousness in its most

unnatural and loathsome forms, falsehood, treachery, cruelty, a hardness of heart which steeled itself alike against the claims of compassion and the instincts of natural affection, are prominent among the black catalogue of vices which defiled heathenism in its best estate, and which rapidly corrupted the sources of its political and social prosperity. But few were the exceptions which existed to the general corruption of morals. * Few and far between” were the examples of undefiled and irreproachable morality, even among those whose characters are most adorned by such virtues as heathenism could boast. No pagan Greek has transmitted to posterity a more unsullied reputation than “the Father of Philosophy." None certainly based his system of morality upon purer and nobler principles. Yet the reader of Plato and Xenophon cannot escape the conviction that Socrates' standard of moral virtue was immeasurably lower than that presented in the New Testament; and that, even if we feel bound hesitatingly to acquit him from a personal contamination by the vices laid to his charge by some of his ancient detractors, yet after all the light in which he looked upon these vices was in many respects abhorrent from that in which they are presented on the page of inspiration. Ingratitude toward our heavenly Benefactors, irreverence toward a being or beings clothed with transcendently exalted perfections—such crimes could be in some measure appreciated and severely rebuked by Socrates. But of sin against a holy God, how feeble, how unworthy his conception !

But we are partially anticipating another inquiry which we propose to consider, viz., whether heathenism itself did not furnish an antidote to the deadly poison which itself engendered. Did not the philosophy in which Greece prided herself, and in which she wrought such marvels of intellectual achievement, effectually, or at least partially counteract the degrading tendencies of a corrupt faith, and lead sensualized and sinking humanity once more into an upward path of spiritual culture? To this inquiry again we are compelled to respond with an emphatic negative. Grecian philosophy - does indeed present many features which command our warmest admiration. It exhibits the struggles of a national mind of extraordinary vigor and acuteness after a complete system of truth. It leaves scarcely a single path of speculation unexplored ; scarcely a single province in the wide realm of matter, mind, and morals escaped its adventurous and vigorous endeavor to enter and subjugate; scarcely a single problem is presented in the whole range of physical and met

[graphic][subsumed]

.

spiritual nature and relations were but glimpses; and hence in immediate connection with the sublimest truths it set forth, as equally valid and authoritative, the wildest and most absurd conjectures.

Thus an image in which gold, silver, iron, and clay are promiscuously and incongruously blended, would well represent the best theological systems of philosophic Paganism. Here we meet with sublime expressions regarding the Divine agency in nature; but anon we find perhaps that this agency is but a natural power, acting irrationally and blindly, or at best a mere “soul of the world," having no moral character, nor even power of independent volition. The early speculations on the origin of things seem to have left a Divine agency almost entirely out of the account, and to have sought an explication of the origin and structure of the universe in the mere natural properties of matter and motion. And the celebrated “mindof Anaxagoras, who first introduced into the Greek cosmogony a principle distinct from and independent of matter, although endowed with some very lofty qualities, yet proves

itself little else than a mere intellectual machine, working by a sort of natural necessity, and only on a very limited scale. Of God as a creator, that is, as a producer of the universe out of nothing, (" so that the things which are seen were not made from the things which do appear,'') we meet up to the time of Plato absolutely not the slightest indication. The eternity of matter seems with all his predecessors, as with most of those who succeeded him, quite as necessary a doctrine as the eternity of mind. Whether Plato himself held to the doctrine of creation, in its absolute sense, is a point on which the learned hold different opinions, and which cannot perhaps be positively determined.

One of his leading arguments for the future existence of the soul is, that there must be a separate existence of souls, else there would be no source of supply to the exigences of ever-springing life. This, with the extension which he gives to the argument, so as to include all the phenomena of change, decay, and reproduction, goes far to show that in Plato's opinion, even if absolute creative power had ever been exercised, it had long since ceased to act, and the entire economy of nature was carried forward by the mere modification of existing elements of being. But we must not at present pursue this subject. We only add that the Greek philosophy was generally either Atheistic, or (which is nearly equivalent) Pantheistic; and that very few of its votaries recognized' God as an infinite, absolute, supreme Moral Ruler. Indeed, notwithstanding the sublime expres

sions employed by Socrates, we may well doubt whether he had any conception of the absolute ubiquity of the Divine Being. That his presence pervaded the entire creation he seems clearly to have held ; but that he regarded it as also filling infinite space, we have no sufficient reason for believing.

The Greek philosophers were also most of them (all, perhaps, of the earlier ones) materialists. They looked upon the soul as a subtle species of matter, or the mere result of a nice adjustment and organization of the elements which composed the body. Thus, with the Pythagoreans, the body was a sort of skilfully adjusted musical instrument, and the soul the harmony to which it gave birth. With the Ionians, the soul was air or fire, or some intermediate essence, according to the views which they respectively took of the elementary principle from which had sprung all the existing variety of things. With many, therefore, the separate existence of the soul was either wholly discarded, or, if held at all, was held quite independently of their philosophical dogmas, and frequently in fact in direct contrariety to them. The Pythagoreans, while they represented the soul sometimes as number, and sometimes as harmony, (according as the mathematical or the musical element of their philosophy happened to be uppermost,) still taught its separate and future existence, but degraded the doctrine by blending it with that of the metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, according to which the soul which today animates the breast of the philosopher, might to-morrow tenant the body of a monkey or a reptile. Socrates seems to have taught in a more rational way the future being and immortality of the soul ; and Plato applied the energies of his capacious and almost divine intellect to exploring the depths, and reaching “ the height of the great argument. But while the Phædo stands certainly as one of the noblest monuments of Greek antiquity, rich in all the graces of style and sentiment, in all that wealth and splendor of diction and imagery by which the Great Enchanter of antiquity could throw fascination and attractiveness around the most abstract and subtle disquisition, yet it certainly stands as a mournful proof that the profoundest human intellect fails to fathom the deep things of the spirit of man, as well as the deep things of the Spirit of God. Some noble, and more puerile (or at least weak) arguments are offered for the soul's future existence. The author presses into his service his favorite doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul, and his still more favorite doctrine of absolute forms or essences ; now he appeals to the natural instincts, the irre

« PreviousContinue »