It is not surprising that so prominent and sustained a criticism of popular belief as that of Euripides, produced, moreover, on the stage, called forth a reaction from the defenders of the established faith, and that charges of impiety were not wanting. It is more to be wondered at that these charges on the whole are so few and slight, and that Euripides did not become the object of any actual prosecution. We know of a private trial in which the accuser incidentally charged Euripides with impiety on the strength of a quotation from one of his tragedies, Euripides's answer being a protest against dragging his poetry into the affair; the verdict on that belonged to another court. Aristophanes, who is always severe on Euripides, has only one passage directly charging him with being a propagator of atheism; but the accusation is hardly meant to be taken seriously. In The Frogs, where he had every opportunity of emphasising this view, there is hardly an indication of it. In The Clouds, where the main attack is directed against modern free-thought, Euripides, to be sure, is sneered at as being the fashionable poet of the corrupted youth, but he is not drawn into the charge of impiety. Even when Plato wrote his Republic, Euripides was generally considered the "wisest of all tragedians." This would have been impossible if he had been considered an atheist. In spite of all, the general feeling must undoubtedly have been that Euripides ultimately took his stand on the ground of popular belief. It was a similar instinctive judgment in regard to religion which prevented antiquity from placing Xenophanes amongst the atheists. Later times no doubt judged differently; the quotation from Melanippe is in fact cited as a proof that Euripides was an atheist in his heart of hearts.
In Aristophanes we meet with the first observations concerning the change in the religious conditions of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In one of his plays, The Clouds, he actually set himself the task of taking up arms against modern unbelief, and he characterises it directly as atheism. If only for that reason the play deserves somewhat fuller consideration.
It is well known that Aristophanes chose Socrates as a representative of the modern movement. In him he embodies all the faults with which he wished to pick a quarrel in the fashionable philosophy of the day. On the other hand, the essence of Socratic teaching is entirely absent from Aristophanes's representation; of that he had hardly any understanding, and even if he had he would at any rate not have been able to make use of it in his drama. We need not then in this connexion consider Socrates himself at all; on the other hand, the play gives a good idea of the popular idea of sophistic. Here we find all the features of the school, grotesquely mixed up and distorted by the farce, it is true, but nevertheless easily recognisable: rhetoric as an end in itself, of course, with emphasis on its immoral aspect; empty and hair-splitting dialectics; linguistic researches; Ionic naturalism; and first and last, as the focus of all, denial of the gods. That Aristophanes was well informed on certain points, at any rate, is clear from the fact that the majority of the scientific explanations which he puts into the mouth of Socrates actually represent the latest results of science at that time—which in all probability did not prevent his Athenians from considering them as exceedingly absurd and ridiculous.
What matters here, however, is only the accusation of atheism which he made against Socrates. It is a little difficult to handle, in so far as Aristophanes, for dramatic reasons, has equipped Socrates with a whole set of deities. There are the clouds themselves, which are of Aristophanes's own invention; there is also the air, which he has got from Diogenes of Apollonia, and finally a "vortex" which is supposed to be derived from the same source, and which at any rate has cast Zeus down from his throne. All this we must ignore, as it is only conditioned partly by technical reasons—Aristophanes had to have a chorus and chose the clouds for the purpose—and partially by the desire to ridicule Ionic naturalism. But enough is left over. In the beginning of the play Socrates expressly declares that no gods exist. Similar statements are repeated in several places. Zeus is sometimes substituted for the gods, but it comes to the same thing. And at the end of the play, where the honest Athenian, who has ventured on the ticklish ground of sophistic, admits his delusion, it is expressly said:
"Oh, what a fool I am! Nay, I must have been mad indeed when I thought of throwing the gods away for Socrates's sake!"
Even in the verses with which the chorus conclude the play it is insisted that the worst crime of the sophists is their insult to the gods.
The inference to be drawn from all this is simply that the popular Athenian opinion—for we may rest assured that this and the view of Aristophanes are identical—was that the sophists were atheists. That says but little. For popular opinion always works with broad categories, and the probability is that in this case, as demonstrated above, it was in the wrong, for, as a rule, the sophists were hardly conscious deniers of the gods. But, at the same time, at the back of the onslaught of Aristophanes there lies the idea that the teaching of the sophists led to denial of the gods; that atheism was the natural outcome of their doctrine and way of reasoning. And that there was some truth therein is proved by other evidence which can hardly be rejected.
In the indictment of Socrates it is said that he "offended by not believing in the gods in which the State believed." In the two apologies for Socrates which have come down to us under Xenophon's name, the author treats this accusation entirely under the aspect of atheism, and tries to refute it by positive proofs of the piety of Socrates. But not one word is said about there being, in and for itself, anything remarkable or improbable in the charge. In Plato's Apology, Plato makes Socrates ask the accuser point-blank whether he is of the opinion that he, Socrates, does not believe in the gods at all and accordingly is a downright denier of the gods, or whether he merely means to say that he believes in other gods than those of the State. He makes the accuser answer that the assertion is that Socrates does not believe in any gods at all. In Plato Socrates refutes the accusation indirectly, using a line of argument entirely differing from that of Xenophon. But in Plato, too, the accusation is treated as being in no way extraordinary. In my opinion, Plato's Apology cannot be used as historical evidence for details unless special reasons can be given proving their historical value beyond the fact that they occur in the Apology. But in this connexion the question is not what was said or not said at Socrates's trial. The decisive point is that we possess two quite independent and unambiguous depositions by two fully competent witnesses of the beginning of the fourth century which both treat of the charge of atheism as something which is neither strange nor surprising at their time. It is therefore permissible to conclude that in Athens at this time there really existed circles or at any rate not a few individuals who had given up the belief in the popular gods.
A dialogue between Socrates and a young man by name Aristodemus, given in Xenophon's Memorabilia, makes the same impression. Of Aristodemus it is said that he does not sacrifice to the gods, does not consult the Oracle and ridicules those who do so. When he is called to account for this behaviour he maintains that he does not despise "the divine," but is of the opinion that it is too exalted to need his worship. Moreover, he contends that the gods do not trouble themselves about mankind. This is, of course, not atheism in our sense; but Aristodemus's attitude is, nevertheless, extremely eccentric in a community like that of Athens in the fifth century. And yet it is not mentioned as anything isolated and extraordinary, but as if it were something which, to be sure, was out of the common, but not unheard of.
It is further to be observed that at the end of the fifth century we often hear of active sacrilegious outrages. An example is the historic trial of Alcibiades for profanation of the Mysteries. But this was not an isolated occurrence; there were more of the same kind at the time. Of the dithyrambic poet Cinesias it is said that he profaned holy things in an obscene manner. But the greatest stress of all must be laid on the well-known mutilation of the Hermae at Athens in 415, just before the expedition to Sicily. All the tales about the outrages of the Mysteries may have been fictitious, but it is a fact that the Hermae were mutilated. The motive was probably political: the members of a secret society intended to pledge themselves to each other by all committing a capital crime. But that they chose just this form of crime shows quite clearly that respect for the State religion had greatly declined in these circles.
What has so far been adduced as proof that the belief in the gods had begun to waver in Athens at the end of the fifth century is, in my opinion, conclusive in itself to anybody who is familiar with the more ancient Greek modes of thought and expression on this point, and can not only hear what is said, but also understand how it is said and what is passed over in silence. Of course it can always be objected that the proofs are partly the assertions of a comic poet who certainly was not particular about accusations of impiety, partly deductions ex silentio, partly actions the motives for which are uncertain. Fortunately, however, we have—from a slightly later period, it is true—a positive utterance which confirms our conclusion and which comes from a man who was not in the habit of talking idly and who had the best opportunities of knowing the circumstances.
In the tenth book of his Laws, written shortly before his death, i.e. about the middle of the fourth century, Plato gives a detailed account of the question of irreligion seen from the point of view of penal legislation. He distinguishes here between three forms, namely, denial of the existence of the gods, denial of the divine providence (whereas the existence of the gods is admitted), and finally the assumption that the gods exist and exercise providence, but that they allow themselves to be influenced by sacrifices and prayers. Of these three categories the last is evidently directed against ancient popular belief itself; it does not therefore interest us in this connexion. The second view, the denial of a providence, we have already met with in Xenophon in the character of Aristodemus, and in the sophist Thrasymachus; Euripides, too, sometimes alludes to it, though it was far from being his own opinion. Whether it amounted to denial of the gods or not was, in ancient times, the cause of much dispute; it is, of course, not atheism in our sense, but it is certainly evidence that belief in the gods is shaken. The first view, on the other hand, is sheer atheism. Plato consequently reckons with this as a serious danger to the community; he mentions it as a widespread view among the youth of his time, and in his legislation he sentences to death those who fail to be converted. It would seem certain, therefore, that there was, in reality, something in it after all.
Plato does not confine himself to defining atheism and laying down the penalty for it; he at the same time, in accordance with a principle which he generally follows in the Laws, discusses it and tries to disprove it. In this way he happens to give us information—which is of special interest to us—of the proofs which were adduced by its followers.
The argument is a twofold one. First comes the naturalistic proof; the heavenly bodies, according to the general (and Plato's own) view the most certain deities, are inanimate natural objects. It is interesting to note that in speaking of this doctrine in detail reference is clearly made to Anaxagoras; this confirms our afore-mentioned conjectures as to the character of his work. Plato was quite in a position to deal with Anaxagoras on the strength not only of what he said, but of what he passed over in silence. The second argument is the well-known sophistic one, that the gods are nomoi, not physei, they depend upon convention, which has nothing to do with reality. In this connexion the argument adds that what applies to the gods, applies also to right and wrong; i.e. we find here in the Laws the view with which we are familiar from Callicles in the Gorgias, but with the missing link supplied. And Plato's development of this theme shows clearly just what a general historical consideration might lead us to expect, namely, that it was naturalism and sophistic that jointly undermined the belief in the old gods.
With Socrates and his successors the whole question of the relation of Greek thought to popular belief enters upon a new phase. The Socratic philosophy is in many ways a continuation of sophistic. This is involved already in the fact that the same questions form the central interest in the two schools of thought, so that the problems stated by the sophists became the decisive factor in the content of Socratic and Platonic thought. The Socratic schools at the same time took over the actual programme of the sophists, namely, the education of adolescence in the highest culture. But, on the other hand, the Socratic philosophy was in the opposite camp to sophistic; on many points it represents a reaction against it, a recollection of the valuable elements contained in earlier Greek thought on life, especially human life, values which sophistic regarded with indifference or even hostility, and which were threatened with destruction if it should carry the day. This reactionary tendency in Socratic philosophy appears nowhere more plainly than in the field of religion.
Under these circumstances it is a peculiar irony of fate that the very originator of the new trend in Greek thought was charged with and sentenced for impiety. We have already mentioned the singular prelude to the indictment afforded by the comedy of Aristophanes. We have also remarked upon the futility of looking therein for any actual enlightenment on the Socratic point of view. And Plato makes Socrates state this with all necessary sharpness in the Apology. Hence what we may infer from the attack of Aristophanes is merely this, that the general public lumped Socrates together with the sophists and more especially regarded him as a godless fellow. Unless this had been so, Aristophanes could not have introduced him as the chief character in his travesty. And without doubt it was this popular point of view which his accusers relied on when they actually included atheism as a count in their bill of indictment. It will, nevertheless, be necessary to dwell for a moment on this bill of indictment and the defence.
The charge of impiety was a twofold one, partly for not believing in the gods the State believed in, partly for introducing new "demonic things." This latter act was directly punishable according to Attic law. What his accusers alluded to was the daimonion of Socrates. That they should have had any idea of what that was must be regarded as utterly out of the question, and whatever it may have been—and of this we shall have a word to say later—it had at any rate nothing whatever to do with atheism. As to the charge of not believing in the gods of the State, Plato makes the accuser prefer it in the form that Socrates did not believe in any gods at all, after which it becomes an easy matter for Socrates to show that it is directly incompatible with the charge of introducing new deities. As ground for his accusation the accuser states—in Plato, as before—that Socrates taught the same doctrine about the sun and moon as Anaxagoras. The whole of the passage in the Apology in which the question of the denial of gods is dealt with—a short dialogue between Socrates and the accuser, quite in the Socratic manner—historically speaking, carries little conviction, and we therefore dare not take it for granted that the charge either of atheism or of false doctrine about the sun and moon was put forward in that form. But that something about this latter point was mentioned during the trial must be regarded as probable, when we consider that Xenophon, too, defends Socrates at some length against the charge of concerning himself with speculations on Nature. That he did not do so must be taken for certain, not only from the express evidence of Xenophon and Plato, but from the whole nature of the case. The accusation on this point was assuredly pure fabrication. There remains only what was no doubt also the main point, namely, the assertion of the pernicious influence of Socrates on the young, and the inference of irreligion to be drawn from it—an argument which it would be absurd to waste any words upon.
The attack, then, affords no information about Socrates's personal point of view as regards belief in the gods, and the defence only very little. Both Xenophon and Plato give an account of Socrates's daimonion, but this point has so little relation to the charge of atheism that it is not worth examination. For the rest Plato's defence is indirect. He makes Socrates refute his opponent, but does not let him say a word about his own point of view. Xenophon is more positive, in so far as in the first place he asserts that Socrates worshipped the gods like any other good citizen, and more especially that he advised his friends to use the Oracle; in the second place, that, though he lived in full publicity, no one ever saw him do or heard him say anything of an impious nature. All these assertions are assuredly correct, and they render it highly improbable that Socrates should have secretly abandoned the popular faith, but they tell us little that is positive about his views. Fortunately we possess other means of getting to closer grips with the question; the way must be through a consideration of Socrates's whole conduct and his mode of thought.
Here we at once come to the interesting negative fact that there is nothing in tradition to indicate that Socrates ever occupied himself with theological questions. To be sure, Xenophon has twice put into his mouth a whole theodicy expressing an elaborate teleological view of nature. But that we dare not base anything upon this is now, I think, universally acknowledged. Plato, in the dialogue Euthyphron, makes him subject the popular notion of piety to a devastating criticism; but this, again, will not nowadays be regarded as historical by anybody. Everything we are told about Socrates which bears the stamp of historical truth indicates that he restricted himself to ethics and left theology alone. But this very fact is not without significance. It indicates that Socrates's aim was not to alter the religious views of his contemporaries. Since he did not do so we may reasonably believe it was because they did not inconvenience him in what was most important to him, i.e. ethics.
We may, however, perhaps go even a step farther. We may venture, I think, to maintain that so far from contemporary religion being a hindrance to Socrates in his occupation as a teacher of ethics, it was, on the contrary, an indispensable support to him, nay, an integral component of his fundamental ethical view. The object of Socrates in his relations with his fellow-men was, on his own showing—for on this important point I think we can confidently rely upon Plato's Apology—to make clear to them that they knew nothing. And when he was asked to say in what he himself differed from other people, he could mention only one thing, namely, that he was aware of his own ignorance. But his ignorance is not an ignorance of this thing or that, it is a radical ignorance, something involved in the essence of man as man. That is, in other words, it is determined by religion. In order to be at all intelligible and ethically applicable, it presupposes the conception of beings of whom the essence is knowledge. For Socrates and his contemporaries the popular belief supplied such beings in the gods. The institution of the Oracle itself is an expression of the recognition of the superiority of the gods to man in knowledge. But the dogma had long been stated even in its absolute form when Homer said: "The gods know everything." To Socrates, who always took his starting-point quite popularly from notions that were universally accepted, this basis was simply indispensable. And so far from inconveniencing Socrates, the multiplicity and anthropomorphism of the gods seemed an advantage to him—the more they were like man in all but the essential qualification, the better.
The Socratic ignorance has an ethical bearing. Its complement is his assertion that virtue is knowledge. Here again the gods are the necessary presupposition and determination. That the gods were good, or, as it was preferred to express it, "just" (the Greek word comprises more than the English word), was no less a popular dogma than the notion that they possessed knowledge. Now all Socrates's efforts were directed towards goodness as an end in view, towards the ethical development of mankind. Here again popular belief was his best ally. To the people to whom he talked, virtue (the Greek word is at once both wider and narrower in sense than the English term) was no mere abstract notion; it was a living reality to them, embodied in beings that were like themselves, human beings, but perfect human beings.
If we correlate this with the negative circumstance that Socrates was no theologian but a teacher of ethics, we can easily understand a point of view which accepted popular belief as it was and employed it for working purposes in the service of moral teaching. Such a point of view, moreover, gained extraordinary strength by the fact that it preserved continuity with earlier Greek religious thought. This latter, too, had been ethical in its bearing; it, too, had employed the gods in the service of its ethical aim. But its central idea was felicity, not virtue; its starting-point was the popular dogma of the felicity of the gods, not their justice. In this way it had come to lay stress on a virtue which might be termed modesty, but in a religious sense, i.e. man must recognise his difference from the gods as a limited being, subject to the vicissitudes of an existence above which the gods are raised. Socrates says just the same, only that he puts knowledge or virtue, which to him was the same thing, in the place of felicity. From a religious point of view the result is exactly the same, namely, the doctrine of the gods as the terminus and ideal, and the insistence on the gulf separating man from them. We are tempted to say that, had Socrates turned with hostile intent against a religion which thus played into his hands, the more fool he. But this is putting the problem the wrong way up—Socrates never stood critically outside popular belief and traditional religious thought speculating as to whether he should use it or reject it. No, his thought grew out of it as from the bosom of the earth. Hence its mighty religious power, its inevitable victory over a school of thought which had severed all connexion with tradition.
That such a point of view should be so badly misunderstood as it was in Athens seems incomprehensible. The explanation is no doubt that the whole story of Socrates's denial of the gods was only included by his accusers for the sake of completeness, and did not play any great part in the final issue. This seems confirmed by the fact that they found it convenient to support their charge of atheism by one of introducing foreign gods, this being punishable by Attic law. They thus obtained some slight hold for their accusation. But both charges must be presumed to have been so signally refuted during the trial that it is hardly possible that any great number of the judges were influenced by them. It was quite different and far weightier matters which brought about the conviction of Socrates, questions on which there was really a deep and vital difference of opinion between him and his contemporaries. That Socrates's attitude towards popular belief was at any rate fully understood elsewhere is testified by the answer of the Delphic Oracle, that declared Socrates to be the wisest of all men. However remarkable such a pronouncement from such a place may appear, it seems impossible to reject the accounts of it as unhistorical; on the other hand, it does not seem impossible to explain how the Oracle came to declare itself as reported. Earlier Greek thought, which insisted upon the gulf separating gods and men, was from olden times intimately connected with the Delphic Oracle. It hardly sprang from there; more probably it arose spontaneously in various parts of Hellas. But it would naturally feel attracted toward the Oracle, which was one of the religious centres of Hellas, and it was recognised as legitimate by the Oracle. Above all, the honour shown by the Oracle to Pindar, one of the chief representatives of the earlier thought, testifies to this. Hence there is nothing incredible in the assumption that Socrates attracted notice at Delphi as a defender of the old-fashioned religious views approved by the Oracle, precisely in virtue of his opposition to the ideas then in vogue.
If we accept this explanation we are, however, excluded from taking literally Plato's account of the answer of the Delphic Oracle and Socrates's attitude towards it. Plato presents the case as if the Oracle were the starting-point of Socrates's philosophy and of the peculiar mode of life which was indissolubly bound up with it. This presentation cannot be correct if we are to regard the Oracle as historical and understand it as we have understood it. The Oracle presupposes the Socrates we know: a man with a religious message and a mode of life which was bound to attract notice to him as an exception from the general rule. It cannot, therefore, have been the cause of Socrates's finding himself. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a man choosing a mode of life like that of Socrates without a definite inducement, without some fact or other that would lead him to conceive himself as an exception from the rule. If we look for such a fact in the life of Socrates, we shall look in vain as regards externals. Apart from his activities as a religious and ethical personality, his life was that of any other Attic citizen. But in his spiritual life there was certainly one point, but only one, on which he deviated from the normal, namely, his daimonion. If we examine the accounts of this more closely the only thing we can make of them is—or so at least it seems to me—that we are here in the presence of a form—peculiar, no doubt, and highly developed—of the phenomena which are nowadays classed under the concept of clairvoyance. Now Plato makes Socrates himself say that the power of avoiding what would harm him, in great things and little, by virtue of a direct perception (a "voice"), which is what constituted his daimonion, was given him from childhood. That it was regarded as something singular both by himself and others is evident, and likewise that he himself regarded it as something supernatural; the designation daimonion itself seems to be his own. I think that we must seek for the origin of Socrates's peculiar mode of life in this direction, strange as it may be that a purely mystic element should have given the impulse to the most rationalistic philosophy the world has ever produced. It is impossible to enter more deeply into this problem here; but, if my conjecture is correct, we have an additional explanation of the fact that Socrates was disposed to anything rather than an attack on the established religion.
A view of popular religion such as I have here sketched bore in itself the germ of a further development which must lead in other directions. A personality like Socrates might perhaps manage throughout a lifetime to keep that balance on a razor's edge which is involved in utilising to the utmost in the service of ethics the popular dogmas of the perfection of the gods, while disregarding all irrelevant tales, all myths and all notions of too human a tenor about them. This demanded concentration on the one thing needful, in conjunction with deep piety of the most genuine antique kind, with the most profound religious modesty, a combination which it was assuredly given to but one man to attain. Socrates's successors had it not. Starting precisely from a Socratic foundation they entered upon theological speculations which carried them away from the Socratic point of view.
For the Cynics, who set up virtue as the only good, the popular notions of the gods would seem to have been just as convenient as for Socrates. And we know that Antisthenes, the founder of the school, made ample use of them in his ethical teaching. He represented Heracles as the Cynical ideal and occupied himself largely with allegorical interpretation of the myths. On the other hand, there is a tradition that he maintained that "according to nature" there was only one god, but "according to the law" several—a purely sophistic view. He inveighed against the worship of images, too, and maintained that god "did not resemble any thing," and we know that his school rejected all worship of the gods because the gods "were in need of nothing." This conception, too, is presumably traceable to Antisthenes. In all this the theological interest is evident. As soon as this interest sets in, the harmonious relation to the popular faith is upset, the discord between its higher and lower ideas becomes manifest, and criticism begins to assert itself. In the case of Antisthenes, if we may believe tradition, it seems to have led to monotheism, in itself a most remarkable phenomenon in the history of Greek religion, but the material is too slight for us to make anything of it. The later Cynics afford interesting features in illustration of atheism in antiquity, but this is best left to a later chapter.
About the relations of the Megarians to the popular faith we know next to nothing. One of them, Stilpo, was charged with impiety on account of a bad joke about Athene, and convicted, although he tried to save himself by another bad joke. As his point of view was that of a downright sceptic, he was no doubt an atheist according to the notions of antiquity; in our day he would be called an agnostic, but the information that we have about his religious standpoint is too slight to repay dwelling on him.
As to the relation of the Cyrenaic school to the popular faith, the general proposition has been handed down to us that the wise man could not be "deisidaimon," i.e. superstitious or god-fearing; the Greek word can have both senses. This does not speak for piety at any rate, but then the relationship of the Cyrenaics to the gods of popular belief was different from that of the other followers of Socrates. As they set up pleasure—the momentary, isolated feeling of pleasure—as the supreme good, they had no use for the popular conceptions of the gods in their ethics, nay, these conceptions were even a hindrance to them in so far as the fear of the gods might prove a restriction where it ought not to. In these circumstances we cannot wonder at finding a member of the school in the list of atheoi. This is Theodorus of Cyrene, who lived about the year 300. He really seems to have been a downright denier of the gods; he wrote a work On the Gods containing a searching criticism of theology, which is said to have exposed him to unpleasantness during a stay at Athens, but the then ruler of the city, Demetrius of Phalerum, protected him. There is nothing strange in a manifestation of downright atheism at this time and from this quarter. More remarkable is that interest in theology which we must assume Theodorus to have had, since he wrote at length upon the subject. Unfortunately it is not evident from the account whether his criticism was directed mostly against popular religion or against the theology of the philosophers. As it was asserted in antiquity that Epicurus used his book largely, the latter is more probable.
Whereas in the case of the "imperfect Socratics" as well as of all the earlier philosophers we must content ourselves with more or less casual notes, and at the best with fragments, and for Socrates with second-hand information, when we come to Plato we find ourselves for the first time in the presence of full and authentic information. Plato belongs to those few among the ancient authors of whom everything that their contemporaries possessed has been preserved to our own day. There would, however, be no cause to speak about Plato in an investigation of atheism in antiquity, had not so eminent a scholar as Zeller roundly asserted that Plato did not believe in the Greek gods—with the exception of the heavenly bodies, in the case of which the facts are obvious. On the other hand, it is impossible here to enter upon a close discussion of so large a question; I must content myself with giving my views in their main lines, with a brief statement of my reasons for holding them.
In the mythical portions of his dialogues Plato uses the gods as a given poetic motive and treats them with poetic licence. Otherwise they play a very inferior part in the greater portion of his works. In the Euthyphron he gives a sharp criticism of the popular conception of piety, and in reality at the same time very seriously questions the importance and value of the existing form of worship. In his chief ethical work, the Gorgias, he subjects the fundamental problems of individual ethics to a close discussion without saying one word of their relation to religion; if we except the mythic part at the end the gods scarcely appear in the dialogue. Finally, in his Republic he no doubt gives a detailed criticism of popular mythology as an element of education, and in the course of this also some positive definitions of the idea of God, but throughout the construction of his ideal community he entirely disregards religion and worship, even if he occasionally takes it for granted that a cult of some sort exists, and in one place quite casually refers to the Oracle at Delphi as authority for its organisation in details. To this may further be added the negative point that he never in any of his works made Socrates define his position in regard to the sophistic treatment of the popular religion.
In Plato's later works the case is different. In the construction of the universe described in the Timaeus the gods have a definite and significant place, and in the Laws, Plato's last work, they play a leading part. Here he not only gives elaborate rules for the organisation of the worship which permeate the whole life of the community, but even in the argument of the dialogue the gods are everywhere in evidence in a way which strongly suggests bigotry. Finally, Plato gives the above-mentioned definitions of impiety and fixes the severest punishment for it—for downright denial of the gods, when all attempts at conversion have failed, the penalty of death.
On this evidence we are tempted to take the view that Plato in his earlier years took up a critical attitude in regard to the gods of popular belief, perhaps even denied them altogether, that he gradually grew more conservative, and ended by being a confirmed bigot. And we might look for a corroboration of this in a peculiar observation in the Laws. Plato opens his admonition to the young against atheism by reminding them that they are young, and that false opinion concerning the gods is a common disease among the young, but that utter denial of their existence is not wont to endure to old age. In this we might see an expression of personal religious experience.
Nevertheless I do not think such a construction of Plato's religious development feasible. A decisive objection is his exposition of the Socratic point of view in so early a work as the Apology. I at any rate regard it as psychologically impossible that a downright atheist, be he ever so great a poet, should be able to draw such a picture of a deeply religious personality, and draw it with so much sympathy and such convincing force. Add to this other facts of secondary moment. Even the close criticism to which Plato subjects the popular notions of the gods in his Republic does not indicate denial of the gods as such; moreover, it is built on a positive foundation, on the idea of the goodness of the gods and their truth (which for Plato manifests itself in immutability). Finally, Plato at all times vigorously advocated the belief in providence. In the Laws he stamps unbelief in divine providence as impiety; in the Republic he insists in a prominent passage that the gods love the just man and order everything for him in the best way. And he puts the same thought into Socrates's mouth in the Apology, though it is hardly Socratic in the strict sense of the word, i.e. as a main point in Socrates's conception of existence. All this should warn us not to exaggerate the significance of the difference which may be pointed out between the religious standpoints of the younger and the older Plato. But the difference itself cannot, I think, be denied; there can hardly be any doubt that Plato was much more critical of popular belief in his youth and prime than towards the close of his life.
Even in Plato's later works there is, in spite of their conservative attitude, a very peculiar reservation in regard to the anthropomorphic gods of popular belief. It shows itself in the Laws in the fact that where he sets out to prove the existence of the gods he contents himself with proving the divinity of the heavenly bodies and quite disregards the other gods. It appears still more plainly in the Timaeus, where he gives a philosophical explanation of how the divine heavenly bodies came into existence, but says expressly of the other gods that such an explanation is impossible, and that we must abide by what the old theologians said on this subject; they being partly the children of gods would know best where their parents came from. It is observations of this kind that induced Zeller to believe that Plato altogether denied the gods of popular belief; he also contends that the gods have no place in Plato's system. This latter contention is perfectly correct; Plato never identified the gods with the ideas (although he comes very near to it in the Republic, where he attributes to them immutability, the quality which determines the essence of the ideas), and in the Timaeus he distinguishes sharply between them. No doubt his doctrine of ideas led up to a kind of divinity, the idea of the good, as the crown of the system, but the direct inference from this conception would be pure monotheism and so exclude polytheism. This inference Plato did not draw, though his treatment of the gods in the Laws and Timaeus certainly shows that he was quite clear that the gods of the popular faith were an irrational element in his conception of the universe. The two passages do not entitle us to go further and conclude that he utterly rejected them, and in the Timaeus, where Plato makes both classes of gods, both the heavenly bodies and the others, take part in the creation of man, this is plainly precluded. The playful turn with which he evades inquiry into the origin of the gods thus receives its proper limitation; it is entirely confined to their origin.
Such, according to my view, is the state of the case. It is of fundamental importance to emphasise the fact that we cannot conclude, because the gods of popular belief do not fit into the system of a philosopher, that he denies their existence. In what follows we shall have occasion to point out a case in which, as all are now agreed, a philosophical school has adopted and stubbornly held to the belief in the existence of gods though this assumption was directly opposed to a fundamental proposition in its system of doctrine. The case of Plato is particularly interesting because he himself was aware and has pointed out that here was a point on which the consistent scientific application of his conception of the universe must fail. It is the outcome—one of many—of what is perhaps his finest quality as a philosopher, namely, his intellectual honesty.
An indirect testimony to the correctness of the view here stated will be found in the way in which Plato's faithful disciple Xenocrates developed his theology, for it shows that Xenocrates presupposed the existence of the gods of popular belief as given by Plato. Xenocrates made it his general task to systematise Plato's philosophy (which had never been set forth publicly by himself as a whole), and to secure it against attack. In the course of this work he was bound to discover that the conception of the gods of popular belief was a particularly weak point in Plato's system, and he attempted to mend matters by a peculiar theory which became of the greatest importance for later times. Xenocrates set up as gods, in the first place, the heavenly bodies. Next he gave his highest principles (pure abstracts such as oneness and twoness) and the elements of his universe (air, water and earth) the names of some of the highest divinities in popular belief (Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter). These gods, however, did not enter into direct communication with men, but only through some intermediate agent. The intermediate agents were the "demons," a class of beings who were higher than man yet not perfect like the gods. They were, it seems, immortal; they were invisible and far more powerful than human beings; but they were subject to human passions and were of highly differing grades of moral perfection. These are the beings that are the objects of the greater part of the existing cult, especially such usages as rest on the assumption that the gods can do harm and are directed towards averting it, or which are in other ways objectionable; and with them are connected the myths which Plato subjected to so severe a criticism. Xenocrates found a basis for this system in Plato, who in the Symposium sets up the demons as a class of beings between gods and men, and makes them carriers of the prayers and wishes of men to the gods. But what was a passing thought with Plato serving only a poetical purpose was taken seriously and systematised by Xenocrates.
It can hardly be said that Xenocrates has gained much recognition among modern writers on the history of philosophy for his theory of demons. And yet I cannot see that there was any other possible solution of the problem which ancient popular belief set ancient philosophy, if, be it understood, we hold fast by two hypotheses: the first, that the popular belief and worship of the ancients was based throughout on a foundation of reality; and second, that moral perfection is an essential factor in the conception of God. The only inconsistency which we may perhaps bring home to Xenocrates is that he retained certain of the popular names of the gods as designations for gods in his sense; but this inconsistency was, as we shall see, subsequently removed. In favour of this estimate of Xenocrates's doctrine of demons may further be adduced that it actually was the last word of ancient philosophy on the matter. The doctrine was adopted by the Stoics, the Neo-Pythagoreans, and the Neo-Platonists. Only the Epicureans went another way, but their doctrine died out before the close of antiquity. And so the doctrine of demons became the ground on which Jewish-Christian monotheism managed to come to terms with ancient paganism, to conquer it in theory, as it were.
This implies, however, that the doctrine of demons, though it arose out of an honest attempt to save popular belief philosophically, in reality brings out its incompatibility with philosophy. The religion and worship of the ancients could dispense with neither the higher nor the lower conceptions of its gods. If the former were done away with, recognition, however full, of the existence of the gods was no good; in the long run the inference could not be avoided that they were immoral powers and so ought not to be worshipped. This was the inference drawn by Christianity in theory and enforced in practice, ultimately by main force.
Aristotle is among the philosophers who were prosecuted for impiety. When the anti-Macedonian party came into power in Athens after the death of Alexander, there broke out a persecution against his adherents, and this was also directed against Aristotle. The basis of the charge against him was that he had shown divine honour after his death to the tyrant Hermias, whose guest he had been during a prolonged stay in Asia Minor. This seems to have been a fabrication, and at any rate has nothing to do with atheism. In the writings of Aristotle, as they were then generally known, it would assuredly have been impossible to find any ground for a charge of atheism.
Nevertheless, Aristotle is one of the philosophers about whose faith in the gods of popular religion well-founded doubts may be raised. Like Plato, he acknowledged the divinity of the heavenly bodies on the ground that they must have a soul since they had independent motion. Further, he has a kind of supreme god who, himself unmoved, is the cause of all movement, and whose constituent quality is reason. As regards the gods of popular belief, in his Ethics and his Politics he assumes public worship to be a necessary constituent of the life of the individual and the community. He gave no grounds for this assumption—on the contrary, he expressly declared that it was a question which ought not to be discussed at all: he who stirs up doubts whether honour should be paid to the gods is in need not of teaching but of punishment. (That he himself took part in worship is evident from his will.) Further, in his ethical works he used the conceptions of the gods almost in the same way as we have assumed that Socrates did, i.e. as the ethical ideal and determining the limits of the human. He never entered upon any elaborate criticism of the lower elements of popular religion such as Plato gave. So far everything is in admirable order. But if we look more closely at things there is nevertheless nearly always a little "but" in Aristotle's utterances about the gods. Where he operates with popular notions he prefers to speak hypothetically or to refer to what is generally assumed; or he is content to use only definitions which will also agree with his own philosophical conception of God. But he goes further; in a few places in his writings there are utterances which it seems can only be interpreted as a radical denial of the popular religion. The most important of them deserves to be quoted in extenso:
"A tradition has been handed down from the ancients and from the most primitive times, and left to later ages in the form of myth, that these substances (i.e. sky and heavenly bodies) are gods and that the divine embraces all nature. The rest consists in legendary additions intended to impress the multitude and serve the purposes of legislation and the common weal; for these gods are said to have human shape or resemble certain other beings (animals), and they say other things which follow from this and are of a similar kind to those already mentioned. But if we disregard all this and restrict ourselves to the first point, that they thought that the first substances were gods, we must acknowledge that it is a divinely inspired saying. And as, in all probability, every art and science has been discovered many times, as far as it is possible, and has perished again, so these notions, too, may have been preserved till now as relics of those times. To this extent only can we have any idea of the opinion which was held by our fathers and has come down from the beginning of things."
The last sentences, expressing Aristotle's idea of a life-cycle and periods of civilisation which repeat themselves, have only been included in the quotation for the sake of completeness. If we disregard them, the passage plainly enough states the view that the only element of truth in the traditional notions about the gods was the divinity of the sky and the heavenly bodies; the rest is myth. Aristotle has nowhere else expressed himself with such distinctness and in such length, but then the passage in question has a place of its own. It comes in his Metaphysics directly after the exposition of his philosophical conception of God—a position marked by profound earnestness and as it were irradiated by a quiet inner fervour. We feel that we are here approaching the sanctum sanctorum of the thinker. In this connexion, and only here, he wished for once to state his opinion about the religion of his time without reserve. What he says here is a precise formulation of the result arrived at by the best Greek thinkers as regards the religion of the Greek people. It was not, they thought, pure fabrication. It contained an element of truth of the greatest value. But most of it consisted of human inventions without any reality behind them.
A point of view like that of Aristotle would, I suppose, hardly have been called atheism among the ancients, if only because the heavenly bodies were acknowledged as divine. But according to our definition it is atheism. The "sky"-gods of Aristotle have nothing in common with the gods of popular belief, not even their names, for Aristotle never names them. And the rest, the whole crowd of Greek anthropomorphic gods, exist only in the human imagination.
Aristotle's successors offer little of interest to our inquiry. Theophrastus was charged with impiety, but the charge broke down completely. His theological standpoint was certainly the same as Aristotle's. Of Strato, the most independent of the Peripatetics, we know that in his view of nature he laid greater stress on the material causes than Aristotle did, and so arrived at a different conception of the supreme deity. Aristotle had severed the deity from Nature and placed it outside the latter as an incorporeal being whose chief determining factor was reason. In Strato's view the deity was identical with Nature and, like the latter, was without consciousness; consciousness was only found in organic nature. Consequently we cannot suppose him to have believed in the divinity of the heavenly bodies in Aristotle's sense, though no direct statement on this subject has come down to us. About his attitude towards popular belief we hear nothing. A denial of the popular gods is not necessarily implied in Strato's theory, but seems reasonable in itself and is further rendered probable by the fact that all writers seem to take it for granted that Strato knew no god other than the whole of Nature.
We designated Socratic philosophy, in its relation to popular belief, as a reaction against the radical free-thought of the sophistic movement. It may seem peculiar that with Aristotle it develops into a view which we can only describe as atheism. There is, however, an important difference between the standpoints of the sophists and of Aristotle. Radical as the latter is at bottom, it is not, however, openly opposed to popular belief—on the contrary, to any one who did not examine it more closely it must have had the appearance of accepting popular belief. The very assumption that the heavenly bodies were divine would contribute to that effect; this, as we have seen, was a point on which the popular view laid great stress. If we add to this that Aristotle never made the existence of the popular gods matter of debate; that he expressly acknowledged the established worship; and that he consistently made use of certain fundamental notions of popular belief in his philosophy—we can hardly avoid the conclusion that, notwithstanding his personal emancipation from the existing religion, he is a true representative of the Socratic reaction against sophistic. But we see, too, that there is a reservation in this reaction. In continuity with earlier Greek thought on religion, it proceeded from the absolute definitions of the divine offered by popular belief, but when criticising anthropomorphism on this basis it did not after all avoid falling out with popular belief. How far each philosopher went in his antagonism was a matter of discretion, as also was the means chosen to reconcile the philosophical with the popular view. The theology of the Socratic schools thus suffered from a certain half-heartedness; in the main it has the character of a compromise. It would not give up the popular notions of the gods, and yet they were continually getting in the way. This dualism governs the whole of the succeeding Greek philosophy.
During the three or four centuries which passed between the downfall of free Hellas and the beginning of the Roman Empire, great social and political changes took place in the ancient world, involving also vital changes in religion. The chief phenomenon in this field, the invasion of foreign, especially oriental, religions into Hellas, does not come within the scope of this investigation. On the one hand, it is an expression of dissatisfaction with the old gods; on the other, the intrusion of new gods would contribute to the ousting of the old ones. There is no question of atheism here; it is only a change within polytheism. But apart from this change there is evidence that the old faith had lost its hold on men's minds to no inconsiderable extent. Here, too, there is hardly any question of atheism properly speaking, but as a background to the—not very numerous—evidences of such atheism in our period, we cannot well ignore the decline of the popular faith. Our investigation is rendered difficult on this point, and generally within this period, by the lack of direct evidence. Of the rich Hellenistic literature almost everything has been lost, and we are restricted to reports and fragments.
In order to gain a concrete starting-point we will begin with a quotation from the historian Polybius—so to speak the only Greek prose author of the earlier Hellenistic period of whose works considerable and connected portions are preserved. Polybius wrote in the latter half of the second century a history of the world in which Rome took the dominant place. Here he gave, among other things, a detailed description of the Roman constitution and thus came to touch upon the state of religion in Rome as compared with that in Greece. He says on this subject:
"The greatest advantage of the Roman constitution seems to me to lie in its conception of the gods, and I believe that what among other peoples is despised is what holds together the Roman power—I mean superstition. For this feature has by them been developed so far in the direction of the 'horrible,' and has so permeated both private and public life, that it is quite unique. Many will perhaps find this strange, but I think they have acted so with an eye to the mass of the people. For if it were possible to compose a state of reasonable people such a procedure would no doubt be unnecessary, but as every people regarded as a mass is easily impressed and full of criminal instincts, unreasonable violence, and fierce passion, there is nothing to be done but to keep the masses under by vague fears and such-like hocus-pocus. Therefore it is my opinion that it was not without good reason or by mere chance that the ancients imparted to the masses the notions of the gods and the underworld, but rather is it thoughtless and irrational when nowadays we seek to destroy them."
As a proof of this last statement follows a comparison between the state of public morals in Greece and in Rome. In Greece you cannot trust a man with a few hundred pounds without ten notaries and as many seals and double the number of witnesses; in Rome great public treasure is administered with honesty merely under the safeguard of an oath.
As we see, this passage contains direct evidence that in the second century in Hellas—in contradistinction to Rome—there was an attempt to break down the belief in the gods. By his "we" Polybius evidently referred especially to the leading political circles. He knew these circles from personal experience, and his testimony has all the more weight because he does not come forward in the role of the orthodox man complaining in the usual way of the impiety of his contemporaries; on the contrary, he speaks as the educated and enlightened man to whom it is a matter of course that all this talk about the gods and the underworld is a myth which nobody among the better classes takes seriously. This is a tone we have not heard before, and it is a strong indirect testimony to the fact that Polybius is not wrong when he speaks of disbelief among the upper classes of Greece.
In this connexion the work of Polybius has a certain interest on another point. Where earlier—and later—authors would speak of the intervention of the gods in the march of history, he operates as a rule with an idea which he calls Tyche. The word is untranslatable when used in this way. It is something between chance, fortune and fate. It is more comprehensive and more personal than chance; it has not the immutable, the "lawbound" character of fate; rather it denotes the incalculability, the capriciousness associated, especially in earlier usage, with the word fortune, but without the tendency of this word to be used in a good sense.
This Tyche-religion—if we may use this expression—was not new in Hellas. Quite early we find Tyche worshipped as a goddess among the other deities, and it is an old notion that the gods send good fortune, a notion which set its mark on a series of established phrases in private and public life. But what is of interest here is that shifting of religious ideas in the course of which Tyche drives the gods into the background. We find indications of it as early as Thucydides. In his view of history he lays the main stress, certainly, on human initiative, and not least on rational calculation, as the cause of events. But where he is obliged to reckon with an element independent of human efforts, he calls it Tyche and not "the immortal gods." A somewhat similar view we find in another great political author of the stage of transition to our period, namely, Demosthenes. Demosthenes of course employs the official apparatus of gods: he invokes them on solemn occasions; he quotes their authority in support of his assertions (once he even reported a revelation which he had in a dream); he calls his opponents enemies of the gods, etc. But in his political considerations the gods play a negligible part. The factors with which he reckons as a rule are merely political forces. Where he is compelled to bring forward elements which man cannot control, he shows a preference for Tyche. He certainly occasionally identifies her with the favour of the gods, but in such a way as to give the impression that it is only a facon de parler. Direct pronouncements of a free-thinking kind one would not expect from an orator and statesman, and yet Demosthenes was once bold enough to say that Pythia, the mouthpiece of the Delphic Oracle, was a partisan of Macedonia, an utterance which his opponent Aeschines, who liked to parade his orthodoxy, did not omit to cast in his teeth. On the whole, Aeschines liked to represent Demosthenes as a godless fellow, and it is not perhaps without significance that the latter never directly replied to such attacks, or indirectly did anything to impair their force.
During the violent revolutions that took place in Hellas under Alexander the Great and his successors, and the instability of social and political conditions consequent thereon, the Tyche-religion received a fresh impetus. With one stroke Hellas was flung into world politics. Everything grew to colossal proportions in comparison with earlier conditions. The small Hellenic city-states that had hitherto been each for itself a world shrank into nothing. It is as if the old gods could not keep pace with this violent process of expansion. Men felt a craving for a wider and more comprehensive religious concept to answer to the changed conditions, and such an idea was found in the idea of Tyche. Thoughtful men, such as Demetrius of Phalerum, wrote whole books about it; states built temples to Tyche; in private religion also it played a great part. No one reflected much on the relation of Tyche to the old gods. It must be remembered that Tyche is a real layman's notion, and that Hellenistic philosophy regarded it as its task precisely to render man independent of the whims of fate. Sometimes, however, we find a positive statement of the view that Tyche ruled over the gods also. It is characteristic of the state of affairs; men did not want to relinquish the old gods, but could not any longer allow them the leading place.
If we return for a moment to Polybius, we shall find that his conception of Tyche strikingly illustrates the distance between him and Thucydides. In the introduction to his work, on its first page, he points out that the universally acknowledged task of historical writing is partly to educate people for political activities, partly to teach them to bear the vicissitudes of fortune with fortitude by reminding them of the lot of others. And subsequently, when he passes on to his main theme, the foundation of the Roman world-empire, after having explained the plan of his work, he says: "So far then our plan. But the co-operation of fortune is still needed if my life is to be long enough for me to accomplish my purpose." An earlier—or a later—author would here either have left the higher powers out of the game altogether or would have used an expression showing more submission to the gods of the popular faith.
In a later author, Pliny the Elder, we again find a characteristic utterance throwing light upon the significance of the Tyche-religion. After a very free-thinking survey of the popular notions regarding the gods, Pliny says: "As an intermediate position between these two views (that there is a divine providence and that there is none) men have themselves invented another divine power, in order that speculation about the deity might become still more uncertain. Throughout the world, in every place, at every hour of the day, Fortune alone is invoked and named by every mouth; she alone is accused, she bears the guilt of everything; of her only do we think, to her is all praise, to her all blame. And she is worshipped with railing words—she is deemed inconstant, by many even blind; she is fickle, unstable, uncertain, changeable; giving her favours to the unworthy. To her is imputed every loss, every gain; in all the accounts of life she alone fills up both the debit and the credit side, and we are so subject to chance that Chance itself becomes our god, and again proves the incertitude of the deity." Even if a great deal of this may be put down to rhetoric, by which Pliny was easily carried away, the solid fact itself remains that he felt justified in speaking as if Dame Fortune had dethroned all the old gods.
That this view of life must have persisted very tenaciously even down to a time when a strong reaction in the direction of positive religious feeling had set in, is proved by the romances of the time. The novels of the ancients were in general poor productions. Most of them are made after the recipe of a little misfortune in each chapter and great happiness in the last. The two lovers meet, fall in love, part, and suffer a series of troubles individually until they are finally united. The power that governs their fates and shapes everything according to this pattern is regularly Tyche, never the gods. The testimony of the novels is of special significance because they were read by the general mass of the educated classes, not by the select who had philosophy to guide them.
Another testimony to the weakening of popular faith in the Hellenistic age is the decay of the institution of the Oracle. This, also, is of early date; as early as the fifth and fourth century we hear much less of the interference of the oracles in political matters than in earlier times. The most important of them all, the Delphic Oracle, was dealt a terrible blow in the Holy War (356-346 B.C.), when the Phocians seized it and used the treasures which had been accumulated in it during centuries to hire mercenaries and carry on war. Such proceedings would assuredly have been impossible a century earlier; no soldiers could have been hired with money acquired in such a way, or, if they could have been procured, all Hellas would have risen in arms against the robbers of the Temple, whereas in the Holy War most of the states were indifferent, and several even sided with the Phocians. In the succeeding years, after Philip of Macedonia had put an end to the Phocian scandal, the Oracle was in reality in his hands—it was during this period that Demosthenes stigmatised it as the mouthpiece of Philip. In the succeeding centuries, too, it was dependent on the various rulers of Hellas and undoubtedly lost all public authority. During this period we hear very little of the oracles of Hellas until the time before and after the birth of Christ provides us with definite evidence of their complete decay.
Thus Strabo, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, says that the ancients attached more importance to divination generally and oracles more particularly, whereas people in his day were quite indifferent to these things. He gives as the reason that the Romans were content to use the Sibylline books and their own system of divination. His remark is made a propos of the Oracle in Libya, which was formerly in great repute, but was almost extinct in his time. He is undoubtedly correct as to the fact, but the decline of the oracular system cannot be explained by the indifference of the Romans. Plutarch, in a monograph on the discontinuance of the oracles, furnishes us with more detailed information. From this it appears that not only the Oracle of Ammon but also the numerous oracles of Boeotia had ceased to exist, with one exception, while even for the Oracle at Delphi, which had formerly employed three priestesses, a single one amply sufficed. We also note the remark that the questions submitted to the Oracle were mostly unworthy or of no importance.
The want of consideration sometimes shown to sacred places and things during the wars of the Hellenistic period may no doubt also be regarded as the result of a weakening of interest in the old gods. We have detailed information on this point from the war between Philip of Macedonia and the Aetolians in 220-217 B.C. The Aetolians began by destroying the temples at Dium and Dodona, whereupon Philip retaliated by totally wrecking the federal sanctuary of the Aetolians at Thermon. Of Philip's admiral Dicaearchus we are told by Polybius that wherever he landed he erected altars to "godlessness and lawlessness" and offered up sacrifice on them. Judging by the way he was hated, his practice must have answered to his theory.
One more phenomenon must be mentioned in this context, though it falls outside the limits within which we have hitherto moved, and though its connexion with free-thought and religious enlightenment will no doubt, on closer examination, prove disputable. This is the decay of the established worship of the Roman State in the later years of the Republic.
In the preceding pages there has been no occasion to include conditions in Rome in our investigation, simply because nothing has come down to us about atheism in the earlier days of Rome, and we may presume that it did not exist. Of any religious thought at Rome corresponding to that of the Greeks we hear nothing, nor did the Romans produce any philosophy. Whatever knowledge of philosophy there was at Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks. The Greek influence was not seriously felt until the second century B.C., even though as early as about the middle of the third century the Romans, through the performance of plays translated from the Greek, made acquaintance with Greek dramatic poetry and the religious thought contained therein. Neither the latter, nor the heresies of the philosophers, seem to have made any deep impression upon them. Ennius, their most important poet of the second century, was no doubt strongly influenced by Greek free-thinking, but this was evidently an isolated phenomenon. Also, by birth Ennius was not a native of Rome but half a Greek. The testimony of Polybius (from the close of the second century) to Roman religious conservatism is emphatic enough. Its causes are doubtless of a complex nature, but as one of them the peculiar character of the Roman religion itself stands out prominently. However much it resembled Greek religion in externals—a resemblance which was strengthened by numerous loans both of religious rites and of deities—it is decidedly distinct from it in being restricted still more to cultus and, above all, in being entirely devoid of mythology. The Roman gods were powers about the rites of whose worship the most accurate details were known or could be ascertained if need were, but they had little personality, and about their personal relations people knew little and cared less. This was, aesthetically, a great defect. The Roman gods afforded no good theme for poetry and art, and when they were to be used as such they were invariably replaced by loans from the Greeks. But, as in the face of Greek free-thought and Greek criticism of religion, they had the advantage that the vital point for attack was lacking. All the objectionable tales of the exploits of the gods and the associated ideas about their nature which had prompted the Greek attack on the popular faith simply did not exist in Roman religion. On the other hand, its rites were in many points more primitive than the Greek ones, but Greek philosophy had been very reserved in its criticism of ritual. We may thus no doubt take it for granted, though we have no direct evidence to that effect, that even Romans with a Greek education long regarded the Greek criticism of religion as something foreign which was none of their concern.
That a time came when all this was changed; that towards the end of the Republic great scepticism concerning the established religion of Rome was found among the upper classes, is beyond doubt, and we shall subsequently find occasion to consider this more closely. In this connexion another circumstance demands attention, one which, moreover, has by some been associated with Greek influence among the upper classes, namely, the decay of the established worship of the Roman State during the last years of the Republic. Of the actual facts there can hardly be any doubt, though we know very little about them. The decisive symptoms are: that Augustus, after having taken over the government, had to repair some eighty dilapidated temples in Rome and reinstitute a series of religious rites and priesthoods which had ceased to function. Among them was one of the most important, that of the priest of Jupiter, an office which had been vacant for more than seventy-five years (87-11 B.C.), because it excluded the holder from a political career. Further, that complaints were made of private persons encroaching on places that were reserved for religious worship; and that Varro, when writing his great work on the Roman religion, in many cases was unable to discover what god was the object of an existing cult; and generally, according to his own statement he wrote his work, among other things, in order to save great portions of the old Roman religion from falling into utter oblivion on account of the indifference of the Romans themselves. It is obvious that such a state of affairs would have been impossible in a community where the traditional religion was a living power, not only formally acknowledged by everybody, but felt to be a necessary of life, the spiritual daily bread, as it were, of the nation.
To hold, however, that the main cause of the decay of the established religion of Rome was the invasion of Greek culture, together with the fact that the members of the Roman aristocracy, from whom the priests were recruited and who superintended the cult, had become indifferent to the traditional religion through this influence, this, I think, is to go altogether astray. We may take it for granted that the governing classes in Rome would not have ventured to let the cult decay if there had been any serious interest in it among the masses of the population; and it is equally certain that Greek philosophy and religious criticism did not penetrate to these masses. When they became indifferent to the national religion, this was due to causes that had nothing to do with free-thought. The old Roman religion was adapted for a small, narrow and homogeneous community whose main constituent and real core consisted of the farmers, large and small, and minor artisans. In the last centuries of the Republic the social development had occasioned the complete decay of the Roman peasantry, and the free artisans had fared little better. In the place of the old Rome had arisen the capital of an empire, inhabited by a population of a million and of extraordinarily mixed composition. Not only did this population comprise a number of immigrant foreigners, but, in consequence of the peculiar Roman rule that every slave on being set free attained citizenship, a large percentage of the citizens must of necessity have been of foreign origin. Only certain portions of the Roman religion, more especially the cult of the great central deities of the State religion, can have kept pace with these changed conditions; the remainder had in reality lost all hold on Roman society as it had developed in process of time, and was only kept alive by force of habit. To this must be added the peculiar Roman mixture of mobility and conservatism in religious matters. The Roman superstition and uncertainty in regard to the gods led on the one hand to a continual setting up of new cults and new sanctuaries, and on the other hand to a fear of letting any of the old cults die out. In consequence thereof a great deal of dead and worthless ritual material must have accumulated in Rome in the course of centuries, and was of course in the way during the rapid development of the city in the last century of the Republic. Things must gradually have come to such a pass that a thorough reform, above all a reduction, of the whole cult had become a necessity. To introduce such a reform the republican government was just as unsuited as it was to carry out all the other tasks imposed by the development of the empire and the capital at that time. On this point, however, it must not be forgotten that the governing class not only lacked ability, for political reasons, to carry out serious reforms, but also the will to do so, on account of religious indifference, and so let things go altogether to the bad. The consequence was anarchy, in this as in all other spheres at that time; but at the same time the tendency towards the only sensible issue, a restriction of the old Roman State-cult, is plainly evident. The simultaneous strong infusion of foreign religions was unavoidable in the mixed population of the capital. That these influences also affected the lower classes of the citizens is at any rate a proof that they were not indifferent to religion.
In its main outlines this is all the information that I have been able to glean about the general decline of the belief in the gods during the Hellenistic period. Judging from such information we should expect to find strong tendencies to atheism in the philosophy of the period. These anticipations are, however, doomed to disappointment. The ruling philosophical schools on the whole preserved a friendly attitude towards the gods of the popular faith and especially towards their worship, although they only accepted the existing religion with strict reservation.
Most characteristic but least consistent and original was the attitude of the Stoic school. The Stoics were pantheists. Their deity was a substance which they designated as fire, but which, it must be admitted, differed greatly from fire as an element. It permeated the entire world. It had produced the world out of itself, and it absorbed it again, and this process was repeated to eternity. The divine fire was also reason, and as such the cause of the harmony of the world-order. What of conscious reason was found in the world was part of the divine reason.
Though in this scheme of things there was in the abstract plenty of room for the gods of popular belief, nevertheless the Stoics did not in reality acknowledge them. In principle their standpoint was the same as Aristotle's. They supposed the heavenly bodies to be divine, but all the rest, namely, the anthropomorphic gods, were nothing to them.
In their explanation of the origin of the gods they went beyond Aristotle, but their doctrine was not always the same on this point. The earlier Stoics regarded mythology and all theology as human inventions, but not arbitrary inventions. Mythology, they thought, should be understood allegorically; it was the naive expression partly of a correct conception of Nature, partly of ethical and metaphysical truths. Strictly speaking, men had always been Stoics, though in an imperfect way. This point of view was elaborated in detail by the first Stoics, who took their stand partly on the earlier naturalism which had already broken the ground in this direction, and partly on sophistic, so that they even brought into vogue again the theory of Prodicus, that the gods were a hypostasis of the benefits of civilisation. Such a standpoint could not of course be maintained without arbitrariness and absurdities which exposed it to embarrassing criticism. This seems to have been the reason why the later Stoics, and especially Poseidonius, took another road. They adopted the doctrine of Xenocrates with regard to demons and developed it in fantastic forms. The earlier method was not, however, given up, and at the time of Cicero we find both views represented in the doctrine of the school.
Such is the appearance of the theory. In both its forms it is evidently an attempt to meet popular belief half-way from a standpoint which is really beyond it. This tendency is seen even more plainly in the practice of the Stoics. They recognised public worship and insisted on its advantages; in their moral reflections they employed the gods as ideals in the Socratic manner, regardless of the fact that in their theory they did not really allow for gods who were ideal men; nay, they even went the length of giving to their philosophical deity, the "universal reason," the name of Zeus by preference, though it had nothing but the name in common with the Olympian ruler of gods and men. This pervading ambiguity brought much well-deserved reproof on the Stoics even in ancient times; but, however unattractive it may seem to us, it is of significance as a manifestation of the great hold popular belief continued to have even on the minds of the upper classes, for it was to these that the Stoics appealed.
Far more original and consistent is the Epicurean attitude towards the popular faith. Epicurus unreservedly acknowledged its foundation, i.e. the existence of anthropomorphic beings of a higher order than man. His gods had human shape but they were eternal and blessed. In the latter definition was included, according to the ethical ideal of Epicurus, the idea that the gods were free from every care, including taking an interest in nature or in human affairs. They were entirely outside the world, a fact to which Epicurus gave expression by placing them in the empty spaces between the infinite number of spherical worlds which he assumed. There his gods lived in bliss like ideal Epicureans. Lucretius, the only poet of this school, extolled them in splendid verse whose motif he borrowed from Homer's description of Olympus. In this way Epicurus also managed to uphold public worship itself. It could not, of course, have any practical aim, but it was justified as an expression of the respect man owed to beings whose existence expressed the human ideal.
The reasons why Epicurus assumed this attitude towards popular belief are simple enough. He maintained that the evidence of sensual perception was the basis of all knowledge, and he thought that the senses (through dreams) gave evidence of the existence of the gods. And in the popular ideas of the bliss of the gods he found his ethical ideal directly confirmed. As regards their eternity the case was more difficult. The basis of his system was the theory that everything was made of atoms and that only the atoms as such, not the bodies composed of the atoms, were eternal. He conceived the gods, too, as made of atoms, nevertheless he held that they were eternal. Any rational explanation of this postulate is not possible on Epicurus's hypotheses, and the criticism of his theology was therefore especially directed against this point.
Epicurus was the Greek philosopher who most consistently took the course of emphasising the popular dogma of the perfection of the gods in order to preserve the popular notions about them. And he was the philosopher to whom this would seem the most obvious course, because his ethical ideal—quietism—agreed with the oldest popular ideal of divine existence. In this way Epicureanism became the most orthodox of all Greek philosophical schools. If nevertheless Epicurus did not escape the charge of atheism the sole reason is that his whole theology was denounced off-hand as hypocrisy. It was assumed to be set up by him only to shield himself against a charge of impiety, not to be his actual belief. This accusation is now universally acknowledged to be unjustified, and the Epicureans had no difficulty in rebutting it with interest. They took special delight in pointing out that the theology of the other schools was much more remote from popular belief than theirs, nay, in spite of recognition of the existing religion, was in truth fundamentally at variance with it. But in reality their own was in no better case: gods who did not trouble in the least about human affairs were beings for whom popular belief had no use. It made no difference that Epicurus's definition of the nature of the gods was the direct outcome of a fundamental doctrine of popular belief. Popular religion will not tolerate pedantry.
In this connexion we cannot well pass over a third philosophical school which played no inconspicuous role in the latter half of our period, namely, Scepticism. The Sceptic philosophy as such dates from Socrates, from whom the so-called Megarian school took its origin, but it did not reach its greatest importance until the second century, when the Academic school became Sceptic. It was especially the famous philosopher Carneades, a brilliant master of logic and dialectic, who made a success by his searching negative criticism of the doctrines of the other philosophical schools (the Dogmatics). For such criticism the theology of the philosophers was a grateful subject, and Carneades did not spare it. Here as in all the investigations of the Sceptics the theoretical result was that no scientific certainty could be attained: it was equally wrong to assert or to deny the existence of the gods. But in practice the attitude of the Sceptics was quite different. Just as they behaved like other people, acting upon their immediate impressions and experience, though they did not believe that anything could be scientifically proved, e.g. not even the reality of the world of the senses, so also did they acknowledge the existing cult and lived generally like good heathens. Characteristic though Scepticism be of a period of Greek spiritual life in which Greek thought lost its belief in itself, it was, however, very far from supporting atheism. On the contrary, according to the correct Sceptic doctrine atheism was a dogmatic contention which theoretically was as objectionable as its antithesis, and in practice was to be utterly discountenanced.