Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

mortal victim; and the “ mother of the loves” might infuse her own passions into the lover, and rejoice in the effects of the wantonness and disorder which she had provoked. But that which the gods suggested and willed, they could not condemn. Whatever was the culpability, it was to be ascribed only to the impulse and inspiration which produced it; and the criminal might feel himself sufficiently absolved, while he was thus permitted to transfer bis guilt and his responsibility to the inhabitants of heaven*.

The very rites of the religion which afforded such feeble support to the cause of virtue, were to promote the

progress of public and private corruption. They occupied, in their observance, all classes of the community ; the girl, the matron, the boy, and the man. Every grosser and viler passion was called forth to unrestricted indulgence during their continuance; and who could join the rout of Bacchus, engage in the processions of the Bona Dea, or mingle in the mysteries of Corinthian impurity, without bringing back to society a heart corrupted by the grossness and obscenity of the scene in which he had been engaged?

Of this religion, then, it will scarcely be affirmed

When Alexander, after the death of Clito, lamented his crime, the Sophist consoled him by the assurance that he was impelled by a superior power. Plut. In Alexandr. Phædra, in her calamity, ascribes her guilt to the wrath of Venus, kindled by the chastity of the unhappy Hypolitus. Eurip. Hypol. Hercules, after he had niurdered his wife and children, attributes the deed to the malignity of Juno, and derives his consolation from his impiety. See Eurip. Hercules Furens. Ovid. Epist. Phædr. ad Hypol. and Gibbon, Miscell, Works. Essai sur de Literat. Ixxy.

that' it diffused the knowledge, or heightened the reverence, of virtue. The obligations of duty were weakly and coldly impressed; the vices of men were justified by the vices of the gods; the sanctions of motive were often corrupt, and always inadequate; and the precept was as rare and as ineffectual which was to enlighten individual or public ignorance, as the restraint, which was to repress public or individual depravity, was feeble and frail.*

Under such a system, morals and manners became equally impure. Patriotism was stimulated and recompensed by praise, and the wisdom and vigour of the magistrate were visible in the order and prosperity of the state. But there was little delicacy of principle and of conduct, or rather little that was not degenerate and gross; and, when we behold a people, so much extolled for their learning and politeness, permitting the walls of their chambers to bepolluted by images of obscene indulgence; sending forth their wives and children to intermingle in the riots of naked and lascivious fanatics; erecting temples to the most wanton of gods, and for appropriate worshipt; delighting to exhibit the grossest

* Herodot. lib. v. c. 4, 5. Minut. Felix, cap. xxv. Lactant, lib. i. C. 25. Strabo, Geograph, lib, viii. p. 387. Quint. Curt. lib. v. c. 1. - Gibbon, Etude de la Literat. Ixxvi. may be consulted by the reader who is better pleased than I am with the superstition of the Greeks.

† It is remarkable that all the more elegant festivals of Paganism were outlived by its most vile and barbarous ceremonies. The temples of Venus remained open to the most impure of her worshippers, the mysteries of Bacchus continued to be celebrated with all the licence of ancient times, and the hideous sacrifices of the tavrobolia and criobolia, the aspersion of the blood of the bull and of the ram, were celebrated with undiminished fervor. Fontenelle, Hist. des Oracl. ch. iv. Shall we wonder at the progressive pro

and most licentious figures on the vases with which their apartments were adorned; encouraging the performers of their plays to display openly on the stage the most disgusting emblems; and permitting their priests to bear aloft the same emblems as the indispensable ornaments of their devout celebrities; when we behold the Greeks and the Romans thus steeped in private debauchery and public profligacy, and thus tolerating or encouraging all that is shame. ful and impudent in public and private excess, we shall no longer be inclined to affirm the moral efficacy of their religious institutions, and no longer, perhaps, hesitate to confess, that the superstition which they embraced was favourable, in no slight degree, to the encouragement and the indulgence of the most impure and the most licentious of their passions *

The defects of the whole religion have been disclosed, with yet greater freedom, by a philosopher not remarkably fastidious in his estimate of Paganism. According to his statement, a man of the highest character, at Athens or at Rome, might be guilty of incest, of parricide, of assassination, of perjury, of treason, and of other crimes too abominable to be named, without “ diminishing in the least from the “ brightness of his good name.” His death too might, unblamed, be suitable to such a life. “ He

Aigacy of Rome, recorded by so many writers; or be in the slightest degree astonished that, under such a system, women of high name and station should be found to appear frequently and fearlessly before the Ædiles, and inrol themselves in the lists of licensed prostitution? Suet. lib. iii. c.35. Tacit. Annal. lib. ii. c. 85. Juvenal pictures the depravity of his times with all the fervour of the poet and all the indignation of the moralist. Satyr. vi. passim.

* Some of the paintings on the walls of the chambers at Herculaneum, exhibited, with prurient accuracy, the revels of the most unchaste of the Greek and Roman divinities; and the grossness of the emblems displayed by the priests is alluded to by almost every classical author of antiquity. But I would particularly refer to a vase in Winkelman, and a passage in Aristophanes, as affording an abundant proof of the theatrical exhibitions of impure and offensive emblems. Winkelman. Hist. de l'Art de l'Antiquite. Tom. I. p. 182. 204. Aristoph. Nub. v. 539. The priests of the East indulged in the public display of the same objects. Plut. de Is, et Osir. Herod. lib. v. 48.

might conclude the scene by a desperate act of “ self-murder, and die with the most absurd blas“phemies in his mouth; and, notwithstanding all “ this, he shall have statues erected to his memory,

poems and orations shall be composed in his praise, great sects shall be proud of calling themselves by his name, and the most distant posterity shall

blindly continue their admiration, though, were “ such a one to rise among themselves, they would

justly regard him with horror and execration*. The detail is sufficiently striking. If exaggerated in any of its parts, it is just in substance; and that which, otherwise, might be regarded as an incredible fiction, the author has abundantly confirmed by the evidences of history.

It may be here affirmed, and I am not disposed to deny, that, in the schools at least of Greece and Rome, the voice of a just piety and a sound morality, was sometimes heard. The philosopher did not, indeed, direct his inquiries, until late, to the science of morals.

· It

Hume's Essays. A Dialogue. I admit that he almost parallels his character with that of a modern Parisian. But let me again press the distinction to which I have already adverted. The vices of the first are consistent with the religion which he professed, and tolerated by it. The vices of the last are in utter coñtradiction to the precepts and spirit of Christianity,

S

But, when it became fashionable, in consequence of the example of Socrates *; to discuss the distinctions of vice and virtue, precepts of practical wisdom were enforced and taught, which were worthy of the character of the classic nations of antiquity, and might be almost thought to breathe a Christian spirit. Enmity should be niortal, friendship eternal ; let placability and mercy be assigned a place among the noblest virtues; the injury succeeded by repentance should be absolved by pardon ; knowledge without action is a superstructure without a base, a beginning without an end; the most exalted of sciences are not to be compared, in value or utility, with a single duty which binds us more closely to our parents, tó society, and to our country t: Maxims such as these iwere frequently and emphatically announced, and the pages which they illuminate might furnish a code, not wholly adequate, perhaps, to the moral necessities of man, yet well calculated to extend the infuence of virtue, and to diffuse the lessons of practical truth.

But, however excellent the precepts of philosophy might have been, they were little serviceable to the mass of mankind. They were scattered through many volumes; discussed rather for the proud display of metaphysical subtilty, or the scholastic exercise of philosophical leisure, than the laudable purpose of popular edification ; and they were addressed, with elaborate erudition, to the few who were accounted

[ocr errors]

• Socrates primus Philosophiam devocavit e cælo, et in urbibus collocavit; et coegit de vita et moribus quærere. Cic Tusc. Disputat. lib. v. 4.

+ Cic de Offic. lib. i. c. 6. lib. c. 43, 44. Marc. Aurel. lib. ix. C, 47. Id. lib. v. c. 51.

« AnteriorContinuar »