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On ihe Opinions of the Heathens, their Legislators, Poets,
and Philosophers, relative to God, to Moral Duty, and
a Future State. It is not surprising, my dear friend, that your philosophical companions should endeavour to persuade you, in opposition to the train of argument in my last letter, that unassisted reason not only can discover, but has discovered, all that is necessary to be known, as it regards our duty or our expectations. The powers of the intellect, notwithstanding their defects and their limitations, have doubtless done much in every department of art, of literature, and of science: and those who are best able to estimate the value of intellectual productions, are probably, for that very reason, apt to ascribe to the mind much more than it can really accomplish. Besides this, several of the philosophers who have indulged in moral speculations since the æra of the Christian revelation, and even those who have been the warmest opposers of that revelation, have de rived, indirectly, from the source to which they would disdain to apply directly, many highly important truths, many valuable rules of conduct, many powerful incentives to virtue: they have thus travelled by a torch snatched from the temple of God, while both themselves and their followers idly imagine their path is illuminated by light of their own creating. Thus, the later Platonists, Plotinus, Porphyry, Jamblicus, and Hierocles, are well known to have been pupils of Ammonius of Alexandria, a Christian, and the tutor of Origen: whence it happens that the Christian Fathers were accused of Platonizing; instead of which the truth is, that the philosophers just mentioned filched from the Christian repository. But, to judge correctly in this respect, let us inquire what was effected in
morals and religion by the intellectual energies of the great and learned men and philosophers who existed previously to the dawn of “the Sun of righteousness!.” Such an inquiry will place the subject in a proper point of view; nor can it be thought uncandid towards the advocates of unassisted reason, when it is recol. lected that, whatever may have been the mental stature of Bolingbroke, and Gibbon, and Hume, and Voltaire, they would appear diminutive enough when placed by the side of Aristotle, and Socrates, and Plato, and Seneca. If, then, this research, conducted with as much regard to brevity as its nature will admit, shall evince the inferiority of the principal ethical and religious systems of the ancients to the Christian scheme, or shall show their inefficacy to restrain from vice, or to incite to virtue, we shall possess an additional argument for the necessity of Revelation, as well as a cogent proof that the system which is so infinitely superior to all that has been produced by the greatest of upinspired men, must have emanated from Him who is “the Father of lights,” physical and mental.
| Indeed there is great reason to believe, that nothing strictly speaking, in morals or theology, was the genuine result of the mental efforts of the wisest ancient heathens. Many of them were candid enough to profess to have derived what knowledge they had, not merely from the exertions of their reason, but from a higher source, even from very ancient traditions, to wbich they usually assigned a divine original. “What Socrates said of the Deity (observes Dryden in the Preface to Religio Laici), what Plato writ, and the rest of the heathen philosophers of several nations, is all no more than the twilight of revelation, after the sun of it was set in the race of Noah." Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and Eusebios, all prove that Plato especially learned much from the Hebrews while he was in Egypt. Hence flows an observation which operates two ways in favour of religion, and doubly evinces the goodness of God in bis dispensations towards mankind; for we may learn that He prepared a way in his providence for the traditionary dissemination of the principal moral truths he revealed to our first parents ; and it will appear farther, I trust, in the course of this work, that at tbe very period when the light originally communicated had well nigh become tinct, He introduced the full blaze of the gospel dispensation.
Now, as to the heathens generally, though it was commonly admitted among them that the formation of the world was owing to chance, yet many of them ascribed it to a plurality of causes or authors : and even those who acknowledged one Supreme Being corrupted the doctrine of the unity, by making him to be of the same nature as the other gods, though of a higher order. And thus originated the custom of the priests, who, in all their sacred ceremonies and devotions, after addressing themselves to the especial deities to whom it was necessary at each particular time to offer up prayers or sacrifices, were wont to invoke all the gods in general. It was, besides, a universal notion among them, that the Supreme God did not concern himself with the affairs of this world, but committed them wholly to inferior deities; whence sprang their idolatry, and the habit of neglecting the worship of the Supreme God, or of confounding it with that of the multitude of idol-deities. They first deviated from the worship of one God, to the worshiping heaven and the heavenly bodies; then to the worship of heroes and deified men; then they turned the names and attributes of God into distinct divinities, and worshiped them as such; then they paid divine honours to the images and symbols of the gods; and then they deified whatever was useful in human life, however mean,-and the qualities, affections, and dispositions of the human mind, however grovelling and despicable. It did not suffice with them to worship oxen, and burn incense to crocodiles and serpents. It did not satisfy them merely to metamorphose beasts into gods, but they conversely transformed their gods into beasts, ascribing to them drunkenness, sodomy, and the most loathsome vices. Drunkenness they worshiped under The name of Bacchus; lasciviousness under that of Venus. Momus was with them the god of calumny, and Mercury the god of thieves. How little scrupulous would they be respecting adultery and rebellion, when they considered Jupiter, the greatest of their gods, to
be an adulterer and a rebellious
The consequence of all this was that, at length, the worship of avowedly evil beings became very prevalent. Hence many of their rites were cruel and contrary to humanity; and hence the licentiousness and impurity of their religion and worship became notorious. . Thus, to select only one or two instances out of many, the rites of the goddess Cybele were no less infamous for lewdness ihan for cruelty; and these impure customs spread far and wide. Strabo relates that there was a temple of Venus at Corinth so rich that it maintained above a thousand harlots sacred to her service, ιεροδέλες εταιρας, which were consecrated both by men and women to that goddess. And Eusebius> is compelled to use language, when describing the height of wickedness and impurity the worship of the heathens attained, which no virtuous man can read without shuddering. Well might it be said of the heathens by an Apostle, God
gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts." The vices and enormities in which the heathens indulged were not checked by any suitable restraining motive: for whatever might be the speculative opinions of one or two philosophers, who were influenced to believe the immortality of the soul by very fanciful reasonings, the belief of a future state was totally set at nought by the majority of both Greeks and Romans. Thus, according to Plato, the doctrine taught by Socrates, concerning the immor
? Præpar. Evangel, lib. ii, cap. 6, p. 74. The reader may how. ever find, in the Octavius of Minutius Felix, an account of the heathen gods and worship, delivered in a fine strain of irony, with the suppression of the grosser circumstances.
3 As Pythagoras, who we are informed by Diogenes Laertius (in Pythag.) held that the human soul is a portion of the ether (änóorraoua ảidépos), and therefore immortal, because the ether is so. And Pliny the naturalist, speaking thus of Hipparchus, gives at the same time his own opinion :- -" The never enough commended Hipparchus, being one than whom po one more fully approved the relation of the stars to man, and the opinion of our souls being a part of the heaven, Animasque nostras partem esse cæli.” Nat. Hist. lib. ii. cap. 26.
tality of the soul and a future state, “met with little credit among men; and indeed Socrates himself remarked that the opinion of the soul's being blown away, and perishing with the body, prevailed generally. Polybius also complains that in his time the belief of a future state was rejected both by the great men and the bulk of the people, and he ascribes to this disbelief the great corruption of manners: though even Polybius, while he blames the great men among the Greeks for encouraging the people to disbelieve and despise future punishments, represents them as only useful fictions. How much the disbelief of future retributions prevailed at Rome is evident from one of Cæsar's orations on the Catiline conspiracy; and Cato's reply, in which he said, “ Cæsar looked upon those things to be fables which are related concerning the Inferi, where bad men, far from the mansions of the virtuous, are confined to abodes, dreary, abominable, and full of horrors.” Long after the time of Cæsar the like contempt of an awful futurity was entertained: for Pliny the naturalist labours hard to expose the absurdity of ascribing accountable immortality to the soul, and says
" that these are childless and senseless fictions of mortals, who are ambitious of a never-ending existence.”
“ Puerilium ista deliramentorum, avidæque nunquam desinere mortalitatis commenta sunt4.”
That a contempt and disbelief of future punishments weakened the fear of God, is obvious : and as to the love of God, that noble principle which is evidently fitted to produce the most elevated degrees of moral uprightness, and a happiness corresponding to our sublimest desires, the heathens were utter strangers to it. And with regard to their conduct towards one another, it must not be forgotten that none of them recognised the exalted principle of loving enemies. I am aware that some have affirmed that this principle was taught in the Grecian schools, and have referred to the Gorgias of Plato in proof of their assertion, But,
4 Hist. Nat. lib. vii. cap. 55.