Page images



Heathen Morals, especially among the Ancients. Having, in preceding lectures, considered the character of heathen gods, and the manner, in which they were worshipped, the present will consist of inquiries into the state of pagan morals.

Though men are often censured, with justice, for rashness and want of forethought, there are none, it is believed, from whose calculations futurity is wholly excluded. All persons abstain from many actions, which they would perform, were not the consequences foreseen, or apprehended to be injurious. To those, on whom our happiness is known to depend, we are cautious not to give offence. Religion of every kind recognizes the existence of an invisible power, whether this power is possessd by one, or distributed among many. On this power it represents man as dependent, not only for his present being and prosperity, but for happiness after death, should the soul survive the body. No other hopes or fears seem calculated to produce effects so important, as those which result from religion.

So long, as human creatures give no offence to that Supreme Power on which they depend, no evil is thence to be apprehended. But, whenever offence is given, methods of making it known will not be wanting. Nothing, therefore, can be more reasonable than the fears and hopes, which religion inspires. Nothing can be better founded, than the expectation, that the Deity will cause us to feel the effect, ei ther of his approbation or displeasure. Now, it is very obvious, that the moral effect of religion will depend on the requirements, or by consequence, on the character of that Power, which is the object of worship. If uprightness, benevolence, and purity, are attributes of God, the unjust, malevolent, and impure, have every thing to apprehend. But, if, on the contrary, the divine attributes are passion, caprice, jealousy, lust, and revenge, it is evident, that the good have nothing to hope, nor the bad to fear. Neither the belief nor worship of such a God, can have any auspicious influence on moral deportment. But, if in addition to this, the rites, prescribed in his worship, be such, as to fix in the mind his bad qualities,-or such, that the performance of them, implies immorality in his votaries, his religion will be at open warfare with good morals, and might be advantageously exchanged even for atheism itself. Considering the character of heathen gods and heathen rites, it could scarcely be doubted, even were the facts unknown, that deep corruption of morals would be the result. Their very religion, we have seen, required them to be immoral. We are not, however, to conclude, that all parts of their relig. ion conspired to produce the same effects on the community. In this religion were recognized a future state and a retribution. Those who were guilty of great crimes, such as murder, adultery, and gross injustice, were threatened with a place in Tartarus; there to experience eternal punishment. The truth seems to be, that there was no more consistency in the duties, which their religion required, than there was in the representations, which it made of invisible powers. It exhibited the gods themselves as the perpetrators of crimes. It threatened at the same time, eternal punishment to human offenders. Viewed in some points of light, its tendency was to discountenance crimes; in others, to encourage them, and embolden the guilty. It is impossible to exonerate Virgil from this charge of inconsistency. In the

6th book of Æneid, he paints in lively colours, the torments, endured by criminal ghosts, in the infernal abodes. On an other occasion, he mentions rapti Ganymedis honores, alluding to a crime in Jupiter, the object of their Supreme adoration, more detestable, than most of those offences, for which mortals in Tartarus are made to endure eternal pains. That neither the poetic, nor any other doctrine of a future state was very generally received, in the advanced periods of the Greek or Roman governments, has been already shown. But even if it had been believed, as understood among the ancient pagans, it would have made but feeble resistance to the inflamed passions of men, excited and sanctioned, as they were, by the licentiousness of the gods.

I shall now briefly set before you some facts, indicating the state of morals, as well in those nations, where the intellectual powers of man, received their highest polish, as among those of less refinement. And,

I. We notice the inhuman custom of exposing infants. In Greece, the father had the right of pronouncing on the life or death of his children. On their birth, they were laid at his feet; and if he took them in his arms, they were saved. When he was not wealthy enough to bring them up, or when he despaired of being able to correct certain defects in their conformation, he turned aside his eyes, and they were instantly carried off to be exposed, or put to death. The laws forbade this barbarity at Thebes, but authorized, or tolerated it throughout almost all the rest of Greece.

Leland asserts, on the authority of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, that Romulus obliged the Romans to bring up all their male children, and the oldest of the females.

They were allowed, therefore, to destroy all the female children but the eldest. There is a scene in one of the comedies of Terence, which has been noticed by Warburton, as indicating a state of public feelings, corresponding with the spirit of this law. Chremes is represented, as enraged at his wife, whom he had commanded to expose a new born daughter, for having entrusted that office to another, in conse

in quence of which the infant escapes. Of those persons, whom, the remains of natural instinct, remonstrate against such barbarity, he speaks, as ignorant of what is right, and good, and just. These sentiments, in the play of a favorite author, were publicly uttered on the Roman theatre.

This horrid practice of exposing infants, says a learned author, was universal. This crime was so common among the Arabians, that Mahomet found it necessary to exact an oath of the Arabian women, not to destroy their children.

Nothing more clearly shows, the degree, to which the best and tenderest feelings of our natures may, by the influence of custom and vice, be subdued. In all these instances, the mother's assent to the sacrifice of her infant either is obtained, or it is not. If it is obtained-if maternal affection can be so smothered or extinguished, it is then only, when moral depravily has cast its shadows of deepest horror. But if the sacrifice is made without this consent, the father in demanding it, is pre-eminently cruel. He triumphs at once over two objects, more calculated, than all others on earth, to excite compassion,

II. The feeling displayed in war, and the treatment, which enemies and prisoners received, evince a very corrupt state of morals, in those countries, where revealed religion has not been enjoyed. Homer has doubtless given to the heroes of the Iliad such characters, as were considered honorable and becoming to warriors, in those ages, when they are supposed to have flourished. In many of these, we find unmixed ferocity, and a thirst for revenge, which nothing can satiate.

Why so tender hearted ?" says Agamemnon to Menelaus, seeing him hesitate, while a Trojan of high rank, who had the misfortune to be disabled by being thrown from his chariot, was begging his life. « Are you and your house so beholden to the Trojans? Let not one of them escape destruction from your hands; no, not the child within his mother's womb. Let all perish unmourned ; let not a ves


tige of them be seen remaining.” It is added by Mitford, whose words I have used," that the poet gives the sanction of his own approbation, to this in humanity in a prince, by no means generally characterized as inhuman.

Patroclus, the friend of Achilles, insults with vulgar wit and 'malignity, the dying character of Hector. Yet this same friend of Achilles, is, on many occasions, denominated the mild Patroclus. The same spirit of revenge was afterwards exhibited by Hector. When he had killed Patroclus, and stripped him of his rich armour, he postponed the most pressing and most important concerns, equally his own and his country's, to the gratification of a weak revenge. “Losing sight of all the greater objects of the battle, while he strugg!ed for the naked corse, with intention to complete its contumely, by giving it to be devoured by Trojan dogs; and to make his vengeance lasting, by depriving it of those funeral rites, which, in the opinion of the times, were necessary to the repose of souls after death."

Modern nations have set some bounds to the licentiousness of war. To take the life of a suppliant enemy; especially to do this for the avowed purpose of satiating revenge, would be thought among modern christian nations, to be a flagrant violation of the laws of liberal warfare. But Homer ascribes to his most illustrious characters a deportment, more criminal than this. The vengeance of Hector follows not a suppliant, but a slain enemy. It has for its object, not the body alone, which is incapable of suffering, but that immortal part, which survives the body,

The barbarous custom of denying burial to enemies, slain in battle, appears indeed to have been confined to the earlier Greeks. At a period so late, at the Peloponnesian war, such liberty, was not, I believe, ever denied. Though it is remarked by Mitford, whose opinion on any subject of Grecian history, is entitled to high regard, that morality was not better understood, in the days of Zenophon, Plato, and philosopy, than in the time of Homer.

« PreviousContinue »