[Footnote 36: Cf. Deut. xxiii. 17, where 'alamoth (puellae) is rendered in the Sapphist sense. Ezekiel xvi. 17. Fecisti tibi imagines masculinas.]
It was the prophets that foretold it. Gloomy, fanatic, implacable and, it may be, mad, yet inspired at least by genius which itself, while madness, is a madness wholly divine, they heralded the future, they established the past. Abraham they drew from allegory, Moses from myth. They made them live, and so immortally that one survives in Islam, the other in words that are a law of grace for all.
If, in visions possibly ecstatic, they beheld heights that lost themselves in immensity, and saw there an ineffable name seared by forked flames on a tablet of stone; if that spectacle and the theophany of it were but poetry, the decalogue is a fact, one so solid that though ages have gone, though empires have crumbled, though the customs of man have altered, though the sky itself have changed, still is obeyed the commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
From Chemos in Moab, from Rimmon among the Ammonites, no such edict had come. It felled them. Amon-Ra it tore from the celestial Nile, and Bel-Marduk from the Silver Sky. The Refaim hid them in shadows as surely as they buried there the high and potent lords of Greece and Rome. These interments, completed by others, the prophets began. For it was they who, in addition to the command, revealed the commandant, creator of whatever is: the Being Absolute that abhorred evil, loved righteousness, punished the transgressor and rewarded the just; El Shaddai, then really Lord of Hosts.
It may be that already in Israel there had been some prescience of this. But it lacked the authority of inspired text. The omission was one that only seers could remedy. It was presumably in these circumstances that an agreement was imagined which, construed as a condition of a covenant, assumed to have been made with Abraham, was further assumed to have been renewed to Moses. The resulting poetry was enveloped in a romance of which Continental scholarship has discovered two versions, woven together, perhaps by Ezra, into a single tale.
"In the beginning Elohim created the heaven and earth." That abrupt declaration, presented originally in but one of the versions, had already been pronounced of Indra and also of Ormuzd. The Hebraic announcement alone prevailed. It emptied the firmament of its monsters, dislodged the gods from the skies, and enthroned there a deity at first multiple but subsequently unique. Afterward seraphs and saints might replace the evaporated imaginings of other creeds; Satan might create a world of his own and people it with the damned; theology might evolve from elder faiths a newer trinity and set it like a diadem in space; angels and archangels might refill the devastated heavens of the past; none the less, in the light of that austere pronouncement, for a moment Israel dwelled in contemplation of the Ideal.
At the time it is probable that the story of the love of the sons of Jahveh for the daughters of men, together with the pastel of Eden as it stands to-day, were not contained in existing accounts of that ideal. These legends, which regarded as legends are obviously false, but which, construed as allegories, may be profoundly true, were probably not diffused until after the captivity, when Israel was not more subtle, that is not possible, but, by reason of her contact with Persia, more wise.
The origin of evil these myths related but did not explain. Since then, from no church has there come an adequate explanation of the malediction under which man is supposed to labour because of the natural propensities of beings that never were. That explanation these myths, which orthodoxy has gravely, though sometimes reluctantly, accepted, both provide and conceal. They date possibly from the Ormuzdian revelation: "In the beginning was the living Word."
John, or more exactly his homonym, repeated the pronouncement, adding: "The word was made flesh." But, save for a mention of the glory which he had before the world was, he omitted to further follow the thought of Ormuzd, who, in describing paradise to Zarathrustra, likened it, in every way, to heaven. There the first beings were, exempt from physical necessities, pure intelligences, naked as the compilers of Genesis translated, naked and unashamed, but naked and unashamed because incorporeal, unincarnate and clothed in light, a vestment which they exchanged for a garment of flesh, coats of skin as it is in Genesis, when, descended on earth, their intelligence, previously luminous, swooned in the senses of man.
In Egypt, the harper going out from Amenti sang: "Life is death in a land of darkness, death is life in a land of light." There perhaps is the origin of evil. There too perhaps is its cure. But the view accepted there too is pre-existence and persistence, a doctrine blasphemous to the Jew as it was to the Assyrian, to whom the gods alone were immortal, and to whom, in consequence, immortal beings would be gods. In the creed of both, man was essentially evanescent. To the Hebrew, he lived a few, brief days and then went down into silence, where no remembrance is. There, gathered among the Refaim to his fathers, he remained forever, unheeded by God.
The conception, passably rationalistic and not impossibly correct, veiled the beautiful allegory that was latent in the Eden myth. It had the further defect, or the additional advantage, of eliminating any theory of future punishment and reward. In lieu of anything of the kind, there was a doctrine that evil, in producing evil, automatically punished itself. The doctrine is incontrovertible. But, for corollary, went the fallacy that virtue is its own reward. Against that idea Job protested so energetically that mediaeval monks were afraid to read what he wrote. Yet it was perhaps in demonstration of the real significance of the allegory that a spiritualistic doctrine—always an impiety to the orthodox—was insinuated by the Pharisees and instilled by the Christ.
The basis of it rested perhaps partially in the idealism of the prophets. The clamour of their voices awoke the dead. It transformed the skies. It transfigured Jahveh. It divested him of attributes that were human. It outlined others that were divine. It awoke not merely the dead, but the consciousness that a god that had a proper name could not be the true one. Thereafter mention of it was avoided. The vowels were dropped. It became unpronounceable, therefore incommunicable. For it was substituted the term vaguer, and therefore more exact, of Lord, one in whose service were fulfilled the words of Isaiah: "I am the first and I am the last, and beside me there is no God."
In the marvel of that miraculous realization were altitudes hitherto undreamed, peaks from whose summits there was discernible but the valleys beneath, and another height on which stood the Son of man. Yet marvellous though the realization was, instead of diminishing, it increased. It did not pass. It was not forgot. Ceaselessly it augmented.
In the Scriptures there are many marvels. That perhaps is the greatest. Amon, originally an obscure provincial god of Thebes, became the supreme divinity of Egypt. Bel, originally a local god of Nippur, became in Babylon Lord of Hosts. But Jahveh, originally the tutelary god of squalid nomads, became the Deity of Christendom. The fact is one that any scholarship must admit. It is the indisputable miracle of the Bible.
In Judea, when Jahveh was addressed, he answered, if at all, with a thunderclap. Since then he has ceased to reply. Zeus was more complaisant. One might enter with him into the intimacy of the infinite. The father of the Graces, the Muses, the Hours, it was natural that he should be debonair. But he had other children. Among them were Litai, the Prayers. In the Vedas, where Zeus was born, the Prayers upheld the skies. Lame and less lofty in Greece, they could but listen and intercede.
The detail is taken from Homer. In his Ionian Pentateuch is the statement that beggars are sent by Zeus, that whoever stretches a hand is respectable in his eyes, that the mendicant who is repulsed may perhaps be a god—suggestions which, afterward, were superiorly resumed in the dictum: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
[Footnote 37: Odyssey, xviii. 485, v. 447, xiv. 56.]
The Litai were not alone in their offices. There were the oracles of Delphi, of Trophonios and of Mopsos, where one might converse with any divinity, even with Pan, who was a very great god. But Olympos was neighbourly. It was charming too. There was unending spring there, eternal youth, immortal beauty, the harmonies of divine honey-moons, the ideal in a golden dream; a stretch of crystal parapets, from which, leaning and laughing, radiant goddesses and resplendent gods looked down, and to whom a people, adolescent still, looked up.
In that morning of delight fear was absent, mystery was replaced by joy. The pageantry of the hours may have been too near to nature to know of shame, it was yet too close to the divine to know of hate. Man, then, for the first time, loved what he worshipped and worshipped what he loved. His brilliant and musical Bible moved his heart without tormenting it. It conducted but did not constrain. It taught him that in death all are equal and that in life the noble-minded are serene.
In the Genesis of this Bible there is an account of a golden age and of a paradise into which evil was introduced by woman. The account is Hesiod's, to whom the Orient had furnished the details. It may be that both erred. If ever there were a golden age it must have been in those days when heaven was on earth and, mingling familiarly with men, were processions of gods, gods of love, of light, of liberty, thousands of them, not one of whom had ever heard an atheist's voice. Related to humanity, of the same blood, sons of the same Aryan mother, they differed from men only in that the latter died because they were real, while they were deathless because ideal.
The ideal was too fair. Presently Pallas became the soul of Athens. But meanwhile from the East there strayed swarms of enigmatic faces; the harlot handmaids of her Celestial Highness Ishtar, Princess of Heaven; the mutilated priests of Tammuz her lover; dual conceptions that resulted in Aphrodite Pandemos, the postures of Priapos, the leer of the Lampsacene, and, with them, forms of worship comparable, in the circumadjacent beauty, to latrinae in a garden, ignoble shapes that violated the candour of maidens' eyes, but with which Greece became so accustomed that on them moral aphorisms were engraved. "In the mind of Hellas, these things," Renan, with his usual unctuousness, declared, "awoke but pious thoughts."
Pious at heart Hellas was. Even art, which now is wholly profane, with her was wholly sacred. The sanctity was due to its perfection. The perfection was such that imbeciles who fancy that it has been or could be surpassed show merely that they know nothing about it. At Athens, where Pheidias created a palpable Olympos, Pallas stood colossally, a torch in her hand, a lance at her shoulder, a shield at her side, a plastron of gold on her immaculate breast, a golden robe about her ivory form, and on her immortal brow a crown of gold, beneath which, sapphire eyes, that saw and foresaw, glittered. To-day the place where the marvellous creation stood is vacant. With the gorgeous host Pallas has departed. But the torch she held still burns. From the emptiness of her virginal arms, that never were filled, proceeds all civilization.
Adjacently at Eleusis was Demeter. Pallas was the soul of Greece. Eleusis was the Jerusalem, Demeter the Madonna.
Demeter—the earth, the universal mother—had, in a mystic hymen with her brother Zeus, conceived Persephone. The latter, when young and a maiden, beckoned perhaps by Eros, wandered from Olympos and was gathering flowers when Pluto, borne by black horses, erupted, raped her, and tore her away. The cries of the indignant Demeter sterilized the earth. To assuage her, Zeus undertook to have Persephone recovered, provided that in Hades, of which Pluto was lord, she had eaten nothing. But the girl had—a pomegranate grain. It was the irrevocable. Demeter yielded, as the high gods had to yield, to what was higher than they, to Destiny. Meanwhile, in the shadows below, Persephone was transfigured.
Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh and that weep; For these give joy and sorrow: but thou, Proserpina, sleep.... O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth, I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth. In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven, the night where thou art, Where the silence is more than all tunes, where sleep overflows from the heart, ... And the murmur of spirits that sleep in the shadow of gods from afar Grows dim in thine ears and deep as the deep dim soul of a star. In the sweet low light of thy face, under heavens untrod by the sun, Let my soul with their souls find place and forget what was done or undone. Thou art more than the gods that number the days of our temporal breath For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.
Like Hesiod, Swinburne erred, though perhaps intentionally, as poets should, for the greater glory of the Muses. Persephone brought not death but life. The aisles of despair she filled with hope. Transfigured herself, Pluto she transformed. She changed what had been hell into what was to be purgatory. It was not yet Elysium, but it was no longer Hades. Plato said that those who were in her world had no wish at all for this.
It is for that reason that Demeter is the Madonna of Greece, as her ethereal daughter was the saviour. The myth of it all, brought by Pythagoras from Egypt is very old. Known in Memphis, it was known too in Babylon, perhaps before Memphis was. But the legend of Isis and that of Ishtar—both of whom descended into hell—lack the transparent charm which this idyl unfolds and of which the significance was revealed only to initiate in epiphanies at Eleusis.
Before these sacraments Greece stood, a finger to her lips. Yet the whispers from them that have reached us, while furtive perhaps, are clear. They furnished the poets with notes that are resonant still. They lifted the drama to heights that astound. Even in the fancy balls of Aristophanes, where men were ribald and the gods were mocked, suddenly, in the midst of the orgy, laughter ceased, obscenities were hushed. Afar a hymn resounded. It was the chorus of the Initiate going measuredly by.
The original mysteries were Hermetic. Enterable only after a prolonged novitiate, the adept then beheld an unfolding of the theosophy of the soul. In visions, possibly ecstatic, he saw the series of its incarnations, the seven cycles through which it passed, the Ship of a Million Years on which the migrations are effected and on which, at last, from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, it sails to its primal home.
That home was colour, its sustenance light. There, in ethereal evolutions, its incarnations began. At first unsubstantial and wholly ineffable, these turned for it every object into beauty, every sound into joy. Without needs, from beatitude to beatitude blissfully it floated. But, subjected to the double attraction of matter and of sin, the initiate saw the memories and attributes of its spirituality fade. He saw it flutter, and fluttering sink. He saw that in sinking it enveloped itself in garments that grew heavier at each descent. Through the denser clothing he saw the desires of the flesh pulsate. He saw them force it lower, still lower, until, fallen into its earthly tenement, it swooned in the senses of man. From the chains of that prison he learned that the soul's one escape was in a recovery of the memory of what it had been when it was other than what it had become.
That memory the mysteries provided. Those of Eleusis differed from the Egyptian only in detail. At Eleusis, in lieu of visions, there were tableaux. Persephone, beckoned by desire, straying then from Olympos, afterward fainting in the arms of Pluto, but subsequently, while preparing her own reascension, saving and embellishing all that approach, was the symbol, in an Hellenic setting, of the fall and redemption of man.
The human tragedy thus portrayed was the luminous counterpart of the dark dramas that Athens beheld. There, in the theatre—which itself was a church with the stage for pulpit—man, blinded by passions, the Fates pursued and Destiny felled.
The sombre spectacle was inexplicable. At Eleusis was enlightenment. "Eskato Bebeloi"—Out from here, the profane—the heralds shouted as the mysteries began. "Konx ompax"—Go in peace—they called when the epiphanies were completed.
In peace the initiate went, serenely, it is said, ever after. From them the load of ignorance was lifted. But what their impressions were is unrecorded. They were bound to secrecy. No one could learn what occurred without being initiated, or without dying. For death too is initiation.
The mysteries were schools of immortality. They plentifully taught many a lesson that Christianity afterward instilled. But their drapery was perhaps over ornate. Truth does not need any. Truth always should be charming. Yet always it should be naked as well. About it the mysteries hung a raiment that was beautiful, but of which the rich embroideries obscured. The mysteries could not have been more fascinating, that is not possible, but, the myths removed, in simple nudity they would have been more clear. Doubtless it was for that very reason, in order that they might not be transparent, that the myths were employed. It is for that very reason, perhaps, that Christianity also adopted a few. Yet at least from cant they were free. Among the multiple divinities of Greece, hypocrisy was the unknown god. Consideration of the others is, to-day, usually effected through the pages of Ovid. One might as well study Christianity in the works of Voltaire. Christianity's brightest days were in the dark ages. The splendid glamour of them that persists is due to many causes, among which, in minor degree, may be the compelling glare of Greek genius. That glare, veiled in the mysteries, philosophy reflects.
Philosophy is but the love of wisdom. It began with Socrates. He had no belief in the gods. The man who has none may be very religious. But though Socrates did not believe in the gods he did not deny them. He did what perhaps was worse. He ignored their perfectly poetic existence. He was put to death for it, though only at the conclusion of a long promenade during which he delivered Athenian youths of their intelligence. Facility in the operation may have been inherited. Socrates was the son of a midwife. His own progeny consisted in a complete transfiguration of Athenian thought. He told of an Intelligence, supreme, ethical, just, seeing all, hearing all, governing all; a creator made not after the image of man but of the soul, and visible only in the conscience. It was for that he died. There was no such god on Olympos.
There was an additional indictment. Socrates was accused of perverting the jeunesse doree. At a period when, everywhere, save only in Israel, the abnormal was usual, Socrates was almost insultingly chaste. The perversion of which he was accused was not of that order. It was that of inciting lads to disobey their parents when the latter opposed what he taught.
"I am come to set a man against his father," it is written in Matthew. The mission of Socrates was the same. Because of it he died. He was the first martyr. But his death was overwhelming in its simplicity. Even in fairyland there has been nothing more calm. By way of preparation he said to his judges: "Were you to offer to acquit me on condition that I no longer profess what I believe, I would answer; 'Athenians, I honour and I love you, but a god has commanded me and that god I will obey, rather than you.'"
In the speech was irony, with which Athens was familiar. But it also displayed a conception, wholly new, that of maintaining at any cost the truth. The novelty must have charmed. When Peter and the apostles were arraigned before the Sanhedrin, their defence consisted in the very words that Socrates had used: "We should obey God rather than man."
[Footnote 38: Acts v. 29.]
Socrates wrote nothing. The Buddha did not either. Neither did the Christ. These had their evangelists. Socrates had also disciples who, as vehicle for his ideas, employed the nightingale tongue of beauty into which the Law and the Prophets were translated by the Septuagint and into which the Gospels were put.
It would be irreverent to suggest that the latter are in any way indebted to Socratic inspiration. It would be irrelevant as well. For, while the Intelligence that Socrates preached differed as much from the volage and voluptuous Zeus as the God of Christendom differs from the Jahveh of Job, yet, in a divergence so wide, an idealist, very poor except in ideas; a teacher killed by those who knew not what they did; a philosopher that drained the cup without even asking that it pass from him; a mere reformer, though dangerous perhaps as every reformer worth the name must be; but, otherwise, a mere man like any other, only a little better, could obviously have had no share. For reasons not minor but major, Plato could have had none either.
It is related that a Roman invader sank back, stricken with deisidaimonia—the awe that the gods inspired—at the sight of the Pheidian Zeus. It is with a wonder not cognate certainly, yet in a measure relative, that one considers what Socrates must have been if millennia have gone without producing one mind approaching that of his spiritual heir. It was uranian; but not disassociated from human things.
Plato, like his master, was but a man in whom the ideal was intuitive, perhaps the infernal also. In the gardens of the Academe and along the banks of the Ilissus, he announced a Last Judgment. The announcement, contained in the Phaedo, had for supplement a picture that may have been Persian, of the righteous ascending to heaven and the wicked descending to hell. In the Laws, the picture was annotated with a statement to the effect that whatever a man may do, there is an eye that sees him, a memory that registers and retains. In the Republic he declared that afflictions are blessings in disguise. But his "Republic," a utopian commonwealth, was not, he said, of this world, adding in the Phaedo, that few are chosen though many are called.
The mystery of the catholicism of the Incas, reported back to the Holy Office, was there defined as an artifice of the devil. With finer circumspection, Christian Fathers attributed the denser mystery of Greek philosophy to the inspiration of God.
Certainly it is ample. As exemplified by Plato it has, though, its limitations. There is no charity in it. Plato preached humility, but there is none in his sermons. His thought is a winged thing, as the thought of a poet ever should be. But in the expression of it he seems smiling, disdainful, indifferent as a statue to the poverties of the heart. That too, perhaps, is as it should be. The high muse wears a radiant peplum. Anxiety is banished from the minds that she haunts. Then, also, if, in the nectar of Plato's speech, compassion is not an ingredient, it may be because, in his violet-crowned city, it was strewn open-handed through the beautiful streets. There, public malediction was visited on anyone that omitted to guide a stranger on his way.
Israel was too strictly monotheistic to raise an altar to Pity, the rest of antiquity too cruel. In Athens there was one. In addition there were missions for the needy, asylums for the infirm. If anywhere, at that period, human sympathy existed, it was in Greece. The aristocratic silence of Plato may have been due to that fact. He would not talk of the obvious, though he did of the vile. In one of his books the then common and abnormal conception of sexuality was, if not authorized, at least condoned. It is conjectural, however, whether the conception was more monstrous than that which subsequent mysticity evolved.
Said Ruysbroeck: "The mystic carries her soul in her hand and gives it to whomsoever she wishes." Said St. Francis of Sales: "The soul draws to itself motives of love and delectates in them." What the gift and what the delectation were, other saints have described.
Marie de la Croix asserted that in the arms of the celestial Spouse she swam in an ocean of delight. Concerning that Spouse, Marie Alacoque added: "Like the most passionate of lovers he made me understand that I should taste what is sweetest in the suavity of caresses, and indeed, so poignant were they, that I swooned." The ravishments which St. Theresa experienced she expressed in terms of abandoned precision. Mme. Guyon wrote so carnally of the divine that Bossuet exclaimed; "Seigneur, if I dared, I would pray that a seraph with a flaming sword might come and purify my lips sullied by this recital."
[Footnote 39: Relation sur le Quietisme.]
Augustin pleasantly remarked that we are all born for hell. One need not agree with him. In the presence of the possibly monstrous and the impossibly blasphemous, there is always a recourse. It is to turn away, though it be to Zeus, a belief in whom, however stupid, is ennobling beside the turpitudes that Christian mysticism produced.
At Athens, meanwhile, the religion of State persisted. So also did philosophy. When, occasionally, the two met, the latter bowed. That was sufficient. Religion exacted respect, not belief. It was not a faith, it was a law, one that for its majesty was admired and for its poetry was beloved. In the deification of whatever is exquisite it was but an artistic cult. The real Olympos was the Pantheon. The other was fading away. Deeper and deeper it was sinking back into the golden dream from which it had sprung. Further and further the crystal parapets were retreating. Dimmer and more dim the gorgeous host became. In words of perfect piety Epicurus pictured them in the felicity of the ideal. There, they had no heed of man, no desire for worship, no wish for prayer. It was unnecessary even to think of them. Decorously, with every homage, they were being deposed.
But if Epicurus was decorous, Evemerus was devout. It was his endeavour, he said, not to undermine but to fortify. The gods he described as philanthropists whom a grateful world had deified. Zeus had waged a sacrilegious war against his father. Aphrodite was a harlot and a procuress. The others were equally commendable. Once they had all lived. Since then all had died. Evemerus had seen their tombs.
One should not believe him. Their parapets are dimmer, perhaps, but from them still they lean and laugh. They are immortal as the hexameters in which their loves unfold. Yet, oddly enough, presently the oracle of Delphi strangled. In his cavern Trophonios was gagged. The voice of Mopsos withered.
That is nothing. On the Ionian, the captain of a ship heard some one calling loudly at him from the sea. The passengers, who were at table, looked out astounded. Again the loud voice called: "Captain, when you reach shore announce that the great god Pan is dead."
[Footnote 40: Plutarch: de Oracul. defect. 14.]
It may be that it was true. It may be that after Pan the others departed. When Paul reached Athens he found a denuded Pantheon, a vacant Olympos, skies more empty still.
The name of the national deity of Israel is unpronounceable. The name of the national divinity of Rome is unknown. To all but the hierophants it was a secret. For uttering it a senator was put to death. But Tullius Hostilius erected temples to Fear and to Pallor. It may have been Fright. The conjecture is supported by the fact that, as was usual, Rome had any number of deified epithets, as she had also a quantity of little bits of gods. These latter greatly amused the Christian Fathers. Among them was Alemona, who, in homely English, was Wet-nurse.
Tertullian, perhaps naively, remarked: "Superstition has invented these deities for whom we have substituted angels." In addition to the diva mater Alemona was the divus pater Vaticanus, the holy father Vatican, who assisted at a child's first cry. There was the equally holy father Fabulin, who attended him in his earliest efforts at speech. Neither of them had anything else to do.
Pavor had. At thunder, at lightning, at a meteor, at moisture on a wall, at no matter what, at silence even, the descendants of a she-wolf's nursling quailed. They lived in a panic. In panic the gods were born. It is but natural, perhaps, that Fright should have been held supreme. The other gods, mainly divinities of prey and of havoc, were lustreless as the imaginations that conceived them. Prosaic, unimaged, without poetry or myth, they dully persisted until pedlars appeared with Hellenic legends and wares. To their tales Rome listened. Then eidolons of the Olympians became naturalized there. Zeus was transformed into Jupiter, Aphrodite into Venus, Pallas into Minerva, Demeter into Ceres, and all of them—and with them all the others—into an irritable police. The Greek gods enchanted, those of Rome alarmed. Plutarch said that they were indignant if one presumed to so much as sneeze.
Worship, consequently, was a necessary precaution, an insurance against divine risks, a matter of business in which the devout bargained with the divine. Ovid represented Numa trying to elude the exigencies of Jove. The latter had demanded the sacrifice of a head. "You shall have a cabbage," said the king. "I mean something human." "Some hairs then." "No, I want something alive." "We will give you a pretty little fish." Jupiter laughed and yielded. That was much later, after Lucretius, in putting Epicurus into verse, had declared religion to be the mother of sin. By that time Fear and Pallor had struck terror into the very marrow of barbarian bones. Fright was a god more serviceable than Zeus. With him Rome conquered the world. Yet in the conquest Fright became Might and the latter an effulgence of Jove's.
Jove was magnificent. In the Capitol he throned so augustly that we swear by him still. Like Rome he is immortal. But Pavor, that had faded into him, was never invoked. The reason was not sacerdotal, it was political. Rome never imposed her gods on the quelled. With superior tact she lured their gods from them. At any siege, that was her first device. To it she believed her victories were due. It was to avoid possible reprisals and to remain invincible, that her own national divinity she so carefully concealed that the name still is a secret. With the gods, Rome gathered the creeds of the world, set them like fountains among her hills, and drank of their sacred waters. Her early deity is unknown. But the secret of her eternity is in the religions that she absorbed. It was these that made her immortal.
To that immortality the obscure god of an obscure people contributed largely, perhaps, but perhaps, too, not uniquely. Jahveh might have remained unperceived behind the veil of the sanctuary had not his altar been illuminated by lights from other shrines. In the early days of the empire, Rome was fully aware of the glamour of Amon, of the star of Ormuzd, Brahm's cerulean lotos and the rainbow heights of Bel-Marduk. But in the splendour of Jove all these were opaque.
Jupiter, always imposing, was grandiose then. His thoughts were vast as the sky. In a direct revelation to Vergil he said of his chosen people: "I have set no limits to their conquest or its duration. The empire I have given them shall be without end." Hebrew prophets had spoken similarly. Vergil must have been more truly inspired. The Roman empire, nominally holy, figuratively still exists. Yet fulfilment of the prophecy is due perhaps less to the God of the Gentiles than to the God of the Jews. Though perhaps also it may be permissible to discern in the latter a transfiguration of Jove, who originally Zeus, and primarily not Hellenic but Hindu, ultimately became supreme. After the terrific struggle which resulted in that final metamorphosis, Jerusalem, disinherited, saw Rome the spiritual capital of the globe.
[Footnote 41: AEneid i. 278.]
Jerusalem was not a home of logic. Rome was the city of law. That law, cold, inflexible, passionless as a sword and quite as effective, Rome brandished at philosophy. It is said that the intellectual gymnastics of Greece were displeasing to her traditions. It is more probable that augurs had foreseen or oracles had foretold that philosophy would divest her of the sword, and with it of her sceptre and her might. Ideas cannot be decapitated. Only ridicule can demolish them. Philosophy, mistress of irony, resisted while nations fell. It was philosophy that first undermined established creeds and then led to the pursuit of new ones. Yet it may be that a contributing cause was a curious theory that the world was to end. Foretold in the Brahmanas, in the Avesta and in the Eddas, probably it was in the Sibylline Books. If not, the subsequent Church may have so assumed.
Dies irae, dies illa, Solvet saeclum in favilla, Teste David cum Sibylla.
Not alone David and the Sibyl but Etruscan seers had seen in the skies that the tenth and last astronomical cycle had begun. Plutarch, in his life of Sylla, testified to the general belief in an approaching cataclysm. Lucretius announced that at any moment it might occur. That was in the latter days of the republic. In the early days of the empire the theory persisting may have induced the hope of a saviour. Suetonius said that nature in her parturitions was elaborating a king. Afterward he added that such was Asia's archaic belief. Recent discoveries have verified the assertion. In the Akkadian Epic of Dibbara a messiah was foretold. That epic, anterior to a cognate Egyptian prophecy, anterior also to the Sibylline Books, was anterior too to the Hebrew prophets and necessarily to those of Rome.
[Footnote 42: Censorinus: De die nat. 17.]
[Footnote 43: De rerum nat., v. 105.]
[Footnote 44: In Augusto, 74.]
[Footnote 45: In Vesp. 4.]
[Footnote 46: Jastrow: op. cit.]
[Footnote 47: See back, Chapter III.]
Among these was Vergil. In the fourth Eclogue he beheld an age of gold, preceded by the advent on earth of a son of Jove, under whose auspices the last traces of sin and sorrow were to disappear and a new race descend from heaven. "The serpent shall die," he declared, adding: "The time is at hand."
The Eclogue was written 40 B.C., during the consulate of Pallio, whom the poet wished perhaps to flatter. Then presently Ovid sang the deathless soul and Tibullus gave rendezvous hereafter. The atmosphere dripped with wonders. The air became charged with the miraculous. At stated intervals the doors of temples opened of themselves. Statues perspired visibly. There was a book that explained the mechanism of these marvels. It interested nobody. Prodigies were matters of course.
The people had a heaven, also a hell, both of them Greek, a purgatory that may have been Asiatic, and, pending the advent of the son of Jove, in Mithra they could have had a redeemer. Had it been desired, Buddhism could have supplied gospels, India the trinity, Persia the resurrection, Egypt the life. From Iran could have been obtained an Intelligence, sovereign, unimaged, and just. That was unnecessary. Long since Socrates had displayed it. In addition, Epicurus had told of an ascension of heavens, skies beyond the sky, worlds without number, the many mansions of a later faith.
Meanwhile, austerity was an appanage of the stoics, in whose faultless code the dominant note was contempt for whatever is base, respect for all that is noble. A doctrine of great beauty, purely Greek, as was everything else in Rome that was beautiful, its heights were too lofty for the vulgar. It appealed only to the lettered, that is to the few, to the infrequent disciples of Zeno and of Cicero, his prophet, who, Erasmus said, was inspired by God.
It may be that Cicero inspired a few of God's preachers. The latter were not yet in Rome. Christ had not come. At that period, unique in history, man alone existed. The temples were thronged, but the skies were bare. Cicero knew that. Elysium and Hades were as chimerical to him as the Epicurean heavens. "People," he said, "talk of these places as though they had been there." But that which was superstition to him he regarded as beneficial for others, who had to have something and who got it, in temples where a sin was a prayer.
There was once a play of which there has survived but the title: The Last Will and Testament of Defunct Jupiter. It appeared in the days of Diocletian, but it might have appealed when Cicero taught. Faith then had fainted. Fright had ceased to build. Worship remained, but religion had gone. The gods themselves were departing. The epoch itself was apoplectic. The tramp of legions was continuous. Not alone the skies but the world was in a ferment. It was not until a diadem, falling from Cleopatra's golden bed, rolled to the feet of Augustus, that the gods were stayed and faith revived.
In the interim, prisoners had been deported from Judea. At first they were slaves. Subsequently manumitted, they formed a colony that in the high-viced city resembled Esther in the seraglio of Ahasuerus. Rome, amateur of cults, always curious of foreign faiths, might have been interested in Judaism. It had many analogies with local beliefs. Its adherents awaited, as Rome did, a messiah. They awaited too a golden age. For those who were weary of philosophy, they had a religion in which there was none. For those to whom the marvellous appealed, they had a history in which miracles were a string of pearls. For those who were sceptic concerning the post-mortem, they offered blankness. In addition, their god, the enemy of all others, was adapted to an empire that recognized no sovereignty but its own. Readily might Rome have become Hebrew. But then, with equal ease, she might have become Egyptian.
For those who were perhaps afraid of going to hell and yet may have been equally afraid of not going anywhere, Egypt held passports to a land of light. Then too, the gods of Egypt were friendly and accessible. They mingled familiarly with those of Rome, complaisantly with the deified Caesars, as already they had with the pharaohs, a condescension, parenthetically, that did not protect them from Tiberius, who, for reasons with which religion had nothing whatever to do, persecuted the Egyptians, as he persecuted also the Jews. None the less, Rome, weary of local fictions, might have become converted to foreign ideas. In default of Syrian or Copt, she might have become Persian as already she was Greek.
Augustus had other views. Divinities, made not merely after the image of man but in symbols of sin, he saluted. With a hand usually small, but in this instance tolerably large, he re-established them on their pedestals. A relapse to spiritual infancy resulted. It was what he sought. He wanted to be a god himself and he became one. His power and, after him, that of his successors, had no earthly limit, no restraint human or divine. It was the same omnipotence here that elsewhere Jupiter wielded.
Jupiter had flamens who told him the time of day. He had others that read to him. For his amusement there were mimes. For his delectation, matrons established themselves in the Capitol and affected to be his loves. But then he was superb. Made of ivory, painted vermillion, seated colossally on a colossal throne, a sceptre in one hand, a thunderbolt in the other, a radiating gold crown on his august head, and, about his limbs, a shawl of Tyrian purple, he looked every inch the god.
The Caesars, if less imposing, were more potent. Their hands, in which there was nothing symbolic, held life and death, absolute dominion over everything, over every one. Jupiter was but a statue. They alone were real, alone divine. To them incense ascended. At their feet libations poured. The nectar fumes confused. Rome, mad as they, built them temples, raised them shrines, creating for them a worship that they accepted, as only their due perhaps, but in which their reason fled. In accounts of the epoch there is much mention of citizens, senators, patricians. Nominally there were such people. Actually there were but slaves. The slaves had a succession of masters. Among them was a lunatic, Caligula, and an imbecile, Claud. There were others. There was Terror, there was Hatred, there was Crime. These last, though several, were yet but one. Collectively, they were Nero.
If philosophy ever were needed it was in his monstrous day. To anyone, at any moment, there might be brought the laconic message: Die. In republican Rome, philosophy separated man from sin. At that period it was perhaps a luxury. In the imperial epoch it was a necessity. It separated man from life. The philosophy of the republic Cicero expounded. That of the empire Seneca produced.
The neo-stoicism of the latter sustained the weak, consoled the just. It was a support and a guide. It preached poverty. It condemned wealth. It deprecated honours and pleasure. It inculcated chastity, humility, and resignation. It detached man from earth. It inspired, or attempted to inspire, a desire for the ideal which it represented as the goal of the sage, who, true child of God, prepared for any torture, even for the cross, yet, essentially meek, sorrowed for mankind, happy if he might die for it.
[Footnote 48: De Provid. i.]
[Footnote 49: Cf. Lactantius vi. 17.]
[Footnote 50: Epit. cxx. 13.]
[Footnote 51: Lucanus ii. 378.]
[Footnote 52: Ibidem.]
In iambics that caressed the ear like flutes, poets had told of Jupiter clothed in purple and glory. They had told of his celestial amours, of his human and of his inhuman vices. Seneca believed in Jupiter. But not in the Jove of the poets. That god dwelled in ivory and anapests. Seneca's deity, nowhere visible, was everywhere present. Creator of heaven and earth, without whom there is nothing, from whom nothing is hidden, and to whom all belongs, our Father, whose will shall be done.
[Footnote 53: Nemo novit Deum. Epit. xxxi. Ubique Deus. Epit. xli.]
[Footnote 54: Mundum hujus operis dominum et artificem. Quaest. nat. i.]
[Footnote 55: Sine quo nihil est. Quaest. nat. vii. 31.]
[Footnote 56: Nil Deo Clausam. Ep. lxxxx.]
[Footnote 57: Omnia habentem. Ep. xcv.]
[Footnote 58: Parens noster. Ep. cx.]
[Footnote 59: Placeat homini quidquid Deo placuit. Ep. lxxv.]
"Life," said Seneca, "is a tribulation, death a release. In order not to fear death," he added, "think of it always. The day on which it comes judges all others." Meanwhile comfort those that sorrow. Share your bread with them that hunger. Wherever there is a human being there is place for a good deed. Sin is an ulcer. Deliverance from it is the beginning of health—salvation, salutem."
[Footnote 60: Ep. xxvi. 4.]
[Footnote 61: De Clem. ii. 6.]
[Footnote 62: Ep. xcv. 51.]
[Footnote 63: De Vita Beata, 14.]
[Footnote 64: Ep. xxviii. 9.]
Words such as these suggest others. They are anterior to those which they recall. The latter are more beautiful, they are more ample, there is in them a poetry and a profundity that has rarely been excelled. Yet, it may be, that a germ of them is in Seneca, or, more exactly, in theories which, beginning in India, prophets, seers, and stoics variously interpreted and recalled.
However since they have charmed the world, their effect on Nero was curious. Seneca was his preceptor. But so too was Art. The lessons of these teachers, fusing in the demented mind of the monster, produced transcendental depravity, the apogee of the abnormal and the epileptically obscene. What is more important, they produced Christianity.
Christianity already existed in Rome, but obscurely, subterraneanly, among a class of poor people generally detested, particularly by the Jews. Christianity was not as yet a religion, it was but the belief of a sect that announced that the world was to be consumed. Presently Rome was. The conflagration, which was due to Nero, swept everything sacred away.
Even for a prince that, perhaps, was excessive. Nero may have felt that he had gone too far. An emperor was omnipotent, he was not inviolable. Tiberius was suffocated, Caligula was stabbed, Claud was poisoned. Nero, it may be, in feeling that he had gone too far, felt also that he needed a scapegoat. Christian pyromania suggested itself. But probably it suggested itself first to the Jews, who, Renan has intimated, denounced the Christians accordingly. Such may have been the case. In any event, then it was that Christianity received its baptism of blood.
All antiquity was cruel, but, barring perhaps the immense Asiatic butcheries, Nero contrived then to surpass anything that had been done. Bloated and hideous, his hair done up in a chignon, a concave emerald for monocle, in the crowded arena he assisted at the rape of Christian girls. Their lovers, their brothers and fathers were either eaten alive by beasts or, that night, dressed in tunics that had been soaked in oil, were fastened to posts and set on fire, in order that, as human torches, they might illuminate palace gardens, through which, costumed as a jockey, Nero raced.
The spectacle in the amphitheatre, which fifty thousand people beheld; the succeeding festival at which all Rome assembled, were two acts in the birthday of a faith.
Then, to the cradle, presently, Wise Men came with gifts—the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh, of creeds anterior though less divine.
THE NEC PLUS ULTRA
It was after fastidious rites, the heart entirely devout and on his knees, that Angelico di Fiesole drew a picture of the Christ. The attitude is emulative. It is with brushes dipped in holy water that Jesus should be displayed, though more reverent still is the absence of any delineation.
Reverence of that high character history formerly observed. There is no mention of the Saviour in the chronicles of those who were blessed in being his contemporaries. One indiscreet remark of Josephus has been recognized as the interpolation of a later hand, well-intentioned perhaps, but misguided. Jesus glows in the Gospels. Yet they that awaited the day when, in a great aurora borealis, the Son of man should appear, had passed from earth before one of the evangels was written.
It was a hundred years later before the texts that comprise the New Testament were complete. It was nearly two hundred before they were definitive. In the interim many gospels appeared. Attributed indifferently to each of the Twelve, one was ascribed to Judas. There was a Gospel to the Hebrews, a Gospel to the Egyptians. There were evangels of Childhood, of Perfection and of Mary.
These primitive memoirs were based on oral accounts of occurrences long anterior. Into them entered extraneous beauties, felicities of phrase and detail, which, with naif effrontery, were put into the mouth of one apostle or another, even into that of Jesus. The ascription was regarded as highly commendable. It was but a way of glorifying the Lord. Besides, the scenarii of these pious evocations the prophets had traced in advance.
"Rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout, daughter of Jerusalem, behold thy King cometh unto thee; he is just and having salvation, lowly and riding upon an ass."
That king of the poor whom Zachariah had foreseen, the stumbling block of Israel that Isaiah had foretold, the Son, mentioned by Hosea, whom Jahveh had called out of Egypt, was the Saviour, ascending in glory as Elijah had done. A passage incorrectly rendered by the Septuagint indicated a virginal birth. That also was suggestive.
The little biographies in which these developments appeared were intended for circulation only among an author's narrow circle of immediate friends, at most to be read aloud in devout reunions. If, ultimately, of the entire collection, four only were retained, it is probably because these best expressed existing convictions. Though, irrespective of their beauties, Irenaeus said that there had to be four and could be but four, for the reason that there are four seasons, four winds, four corners of the earth, and the four revelations of Adam, Noah, Moses, and Jesus.
It is not on that perhaps arbitrary deduction that their validity resides, but rather because the parables and miracles which they recite became the spiritual nourishment of a world. To their title of eternal verities they have other and stronger claims. They have consoled and they have ennobled. Elder creeds may have done likewise, but these lacked that of which Christianity was the unique possessor, the marvel of a crucified god.
Saviours there had been. Mithra was a redeemer. Zoroaster was born of a virgin. Persephone descended into hell. Osiris rose from the dead. Gotama was tempted by the devil. Moses was transfigured. Elijah ascended into heaven. But in no belief is there a parallel for the crucifixion, although in Hindu legend, Krishna, a divinity whose mythical infancy a mythical prototype of Herod troubled, died, nailed by arrows to a tree.
In Oriental lore Krishna is held to have been the eighth avatar of Vishnu, of whom Gotama was the ninth. Krishna was therefore anterior to the Buddha, at least in myth. But it would be a grave impropriety to infer that with the legend concerning him the narrative of the crucifixion has any other connection than the possible one of having suggested it. The Bhagavad-Purana, in which the legend occurs, is relatively modern, though the legend itself may, like the Tripitaka, have existed orally, for centuries, before it was finally committed to writing.
There can, however, be no impropriety in recalling analogies that exist between the Saviour and one whom the Orient holds also divine. These analogies, set forth in the first chapter of the present volume, are, it may be, wholly fortuitous, though Pliny stated that, centuries before his day, disciples of Gotama were established on the Dead Sea and, from a passage in Josephus, it seems probable that the Essenes were Buddhists, in the same degree perhaps that the Pharisees were Parsis. But the point is also obscure. It is immaterial as well. The Gospels were not written in Jerusalem but mainly in Rome, where crucifixions were common, as they were, for that matter, throughout the East, but where, too, all religions were acclimated and the supernatural was at home.
Rome had witnessed the tours de force of Apollonios of Tyana. Those of Simon the Magician had also been beheld. Rome had seen, or, it may be, thought she believed she had seen, Vespasian cure the halt and the blind with a touch. The atmosphere then was charged with the marvellous. The temples were filled with prodigies, with strange gods, beckoning chimeras, credulous crowds.
There was something superior. Rome was the depository of the legends and lore of the world. A haunt of the Muses, the sensual city was a hermitage of philosophy as well. These things collectively represented a great literary feast, of which not all the courses have descended to us, though, as is not impossible, a lost dish or two, transmuted, by the alchemy of faith, from dross into gold, the Gospels may perhaps contain.
In that case there is cause for great thankfulness. Moreover, assuming the transmutation, no impiety can be implied. It was as usual and as indicated as were papyrus and the stylus. It is common to-day for a poet, before spreading his own wings, to contemplate those of another. Inspiration is infectious.
A page of verse, whether Hindu, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, or Latin, was as useful then. Dante fed on the troubadours. They are lost and forgot. He divinely stands greater than the tallest of them all. In a measure the same may be true of those from whom the Gospels came. Yet with a very notable difference. The Divina Commedia was written for all time. So too were the Gospels. But not intentionally. They were written to prepare man for the immediate termination of the world. With the most perfect propriety, therefore, anything serviceable could have been utilized and probably was. The devout had but to lift their eyes. In the words of Isaiah, there, before them, were the treasures of nations; there were the camels and dromedaries bearing from every side incense and gold; there were the sons of strangers to build up their walls.
The sons were many, the treasures as great. Even otherwise there was the Law, there too were the Prophets. Moses fasted for forty days. Elisha performed a miracle of the loaves, if he did not that of the fishes. Job saw the Lord walking upon the sea. Jeremiah said: "Seek and ye shall find." Isaiah bid those that sorrowed come and be consoled. In the poem of that poet the servant of the Lord had vinegar when he thirsted, he was spat upon and for his garments lots were cast.
In an effort to fill in a picture of which the central figure had passed from the real to the ideal, these things may have been suggestive. So also, perhaps, was the Talmud. The redaction of that chaos began in the second century. But the Vedas, the Homeric poems, the Tripitaka as well, existed in memory long before they were committed to writing. The same is true of the Talmud. Orally it existed prior to the Christ. Considered as literature, if it may be so considered, it is the reverse of endearing. But of the many maxims that it contains there are some of singular charm. Among others is the Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth. The origin of that, as already indicated, is traceable to the Tripitaka, which, parenthetically, were so well known in Babylon that Gotama was there regarded as a Chaldean seer. That abridgement of the Law which is called the Golden Rule is also in the Talmud, as also, before the Talmud was, it was in the Tripitaka. The injunction to love one's enemies is equally in both. So is the very excellent suggestion that one should consider one's own faults before admonishing a brother concerning his defects. But the perhaps subtle intimation that the desire to commit adultery is as reprehensible as the act, and the rather extravagant statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, these, originally, were perhaps uniquely Talmudic. Currently cited with multiple others they were all so many common sayings, which, strung together in the Gospels, became a rosary of most perfect pearls.
[Footnote 65: Talmud Babli: Baba bathra, 11 a.]
[Footnote 66: Schabbath, 37 a.]
In a passage of Irenaeus it is stated that the Gospel according to St. Matthew was arranged by the Church for the benefit of the Jews who awaited a Messiah descended from David. A Syro-Chaldaic evangel, known as the Gospel to the Hebrews, had then appeared. So also had the Gospel according to St. Mark. But these offered no evidence that Jesus was the one they sought. Another was then prepared. Written in Greek and bearing the authoritative name of Matthew, it traced from David, Joseph's descent.
The narrative continued: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child by the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband being a just man and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost."
The genealogy completed, though perhaps inadequately, since Jesus, not being a son of Joseph, could not have descended from David, the Church continued: "Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying, Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son and call his name Emmanuel."
The prophecy mentioned occurs in Isaiah vii, 14. In the King James version it is as follows: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel." But the Aramaic reading is: "Behold an 'alma shall conceive." 'Alma means young woman. The Septuagint, in translating it, employed the term [Greek: parthenos], or maiden. In Matthew the term was retained.
Matthew, at the time, had long been dead. Even had he been living it is improbable that he could write in Greek. Unfortunately there were others who could not only write Greek but read Hebrew. In particular, there was a rabbi Aquila who retranslated Isaiah with no other purpose than the malign object of definitely re-establishing the exact expression which the old poet had used.
[Footnote 67: Renan: Les Evangiles.]
It was presumably in these circumstances that the Evangel of Mary was advanced. Among other elucidations, the work contained professional testimony of the immaculacy that was claimed. Additionally, in reparation of the earlier oversight, the Virgin was genealogically descended from the royal line.
That, however, is apocryphal, and if, regarding the other genealogy, exegesis has since obscured the luminousness of the method adapted by the Church, the latter's intention was none the less irreproachable, and that alone imports. Before it, before the miracle of the nativity and the divine episodes of the transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, reverently the Occident has knelt. They are indeed divine. If they did not occur in Judea, they have occurred ever since. Continuously, in the hearts of the devout, they are repeated.
Unhappily there were heretics then as now. To the Gnostics, Jesus was an aeon that had never been. To the Docetists, he was a phantasm. There are always brutes that can believe but in the reality of things. There are others to whom the symbolic is dumb. In the Gospels there is much that is figurative, there is more that is ineffable, there are suggestions sheerly ideal.
"In my Father's house are many mansions," the Saviour declared. In his own ministry there are as many lights. He was a vagrant and he created pure sentiment. He was a nihilist and he inspired a new conception of life. He said he had not come to destroy and he changed the face of the earth. He remitted the sins of a harlot and condemned both marriage and love. There are other antitheses, deeper contradictions. These perhaps are more apparent than real. Behind them there may have been the co-ordination of a central thought. Of many gospels but few remain. Among the lost evangels was one that Valentinian said was imparted only to the more spiritual of the disciples. It may be that in it a main idea was elucidated and, perhaps, as a consequence, the meaning of the esoteric proclamation: "Before Abraham was I am."
Yet though now the authoritative explanation be lacking, its significance seems to run beneath the texts. At the first apparition of Jesus, the chief preoccupation of those that stood about was what prophet of the old days had returned in the new. Some thought him Elijah. Others Jeremiah. Antipas feared that he was the Baptist revived. Jesus himself asked the disciples whom he was said to be. Later he assured them that the awaited return of Elijah had been accomplished in John. That assurance, together with the perplexities regarding him and the esoteric announcement which he made concerning himself, can hardly indicate anything else than a belief in reincarnation.
The belief, common to all antiquity, though not necessarily valid on that account, is not discernible in Hebrew thought, perhaps for the reason that it is not perceptible in Babylonian. Yet the myth of Eden barely conceals it. It is almost obvious in the allegory of Beth-el. Solomon said: "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning or ever earth was." If the idea contained in that statement was not a part of the philosophy attributed to the Christ, it might have been. The amount of beauty stored in it is more enormous than in any other.
To the materialist the beauty is meaningless. To the mathematician it has the value of a zero from which the periphery has gone. But at the Pillars of Hercules early geographers put on their maps: Hic deficit orbis—Here ends the world. They had no suspicion that beyond that world there stretched another twice as great. Materialists may be equally naif. On the other hand, they may not be. The theory of reincarnation is one that transcends the limits of experience.
Of the many tenets of the belief there are but two with which the matter-of-fact agrees. One of them concerns the conservation of energy, the other the negation of death. Theory and practice unite in admitting that the supply of energy is invariable. Constantly it is transformed and as constantly transposed, but whether it enter into fungus or star, into worm or man, the loss of a particle never occurs. Death consequently is but the constituent of a change. When it comes, that which was living assumes a state that has in it the potentiality of another form. A tenement has crumbled and a tenant gone forth. Though just where is the riddle.
In the thousand and one nights that were less astronomic than our own, it was thought that the riddle was answered. Poets had erected an edifice of verse and called it Creation. In the strophes of the epic the earth was a flat and stationary parallelogram. About the earth, and uniquely for its benefit, sun, moon and stars paraded. Above was a deity one or multiple. Below were places of vivid discomfort. To the latter, or to the former, the soul of man proceeded. There were no other resorts. Creation had its limits.
Poets younger yet more gray have presented a different conception. In the glare of a million million of suns they have sent the earth spinning like a midge. Beyond the uttermost horizon they have strewn other systems, other worlds; beyond the latter, more. Wherever imagination in its weariness would set a limit, there is space begun.
There too is energy. Throughout the stretch of universes the same force pulsates that is recognizable here. A deduction is obvious. Throughout infinity are sentient beings, perhaps our brothers, perhaps ourselves.
The obvious, very frequently, is misleading. But the dream of precipitation into that wonderful tornado of worlds has the merit of more colourful idealism than that which was formerly displayed. Taken but as an hypothesis, it holds suggestions ampler than any other conveys. It intimates that just as the butterfly rises from the chrysalis, so does the spiritual rise from the flesh. It indicates that just as the sun cannot set, so is it impossible for death to be.
There are topics about which words hover like enchanted bees. Death is one of them. Mediaevally it was represented by a skeleton to which prose had given a rictus, poetry a scythe, and philosophy wings. From its eyries it swooped spectral and sinister. Previously it was more gracious. In Greece it resembled Eros. Among its attributes was beauty. It did not alarm. It beckoned and consoled. The child of Night, the brother of Sleep, it was less funereal than narcotic. The theory of it generally was beneficent. But not enduring. In the change of things death lost its charm. It became a sexless nightmare-frame of bones topped by a grinning skull. That perhaps was excessive. In epicurean Rome it was a marionette that invited you to wreathe yourself with roses before they could fade. In the Muslim East it was represented by Azrael, who was an angel. In Vedic India it was represented by Yama, who was a god. But mediaevally in Europe the skeleton was preferred. Since then it has changed again. It is no longer a spectral vampire. It has acquired the serenity of a natural law. Regarding the operation of that law there are perhaps but three valid conjectures. Rome entertained all of them. There, there was a tomb on which was written Umbra. Before it was another on which was engraved Nihil. Between the two was a portal behind which the Nec plus ultra stood revealed.
The portal, fashioned by the philosophy of ages, still is open, wider than before, on vaster horizons and unsuspected skies. Through it one may see the explication of things; the reason why men are not born equal, why some are rich and some are poor, why some are weak and some are strong, why some are wise and many are not. One may see there too the reason of joys and sorrows, the cause of tears and smiles. One may see also how the soul changes its raiment and how it happens to have a raiment to change. One may see all these things, and others besides, in the revelation that this life, being the refuse of many deaths, has acquired merits and demerits in accordance with which are present punishments and rewards.
In proportion as these are utilized or disregarded, so perhaps is retrogression induced or progress achieved. But not in Hades or yet in Elysium. These were the inventions of man for his brother. So also was the very neighbourly heaven which the early Church devised. But because that has gone from the sidereal chart, it does not follow that there is no such place. Because there is nothing alarming under the earth, it does not follow that hell has ceased to be. On the contrary. Both are constant, though it be but in the heart.
In the light of reincarnation it is probable that neither can occur there without anterior cause. But probably too it is the preponderance of either that creates the mystery of life, as it may also foreshadow the portent of death.
Death, it may be, is not merely a law but a place, perhaps a garage which the traveller reaches on a demolished motor, but whence none can proceed until all old scores are paid. Pending payment, there, perhaps the soul must wait. But the bill of its past acquitted, it may be that then it shall be free to pursue on trillions of spheres the diversified course of endless life—free to pass from world to world, from beatitude to bliss, from transformation to transfiguration, from the transitory to the eternal; weaving, meanwhile, a garland of migrations that stretch from sky to sky, marrying its memoirs with those of the universe, and, finally, from some ultimate zenith, reviewing, as it casts them aside, the masks of concluded incarnations.
The prospect, overwhelming in beauty, is really divine. The divine is always utopian. But there is the supreme Alhambra of dream. It exceeds any other, however excessive another may be. It is the Nec plus ultra. Into it all may wander and never weary of the wonders that are there. It may be unrealizable, but for that very reason it must be also ideal.
FINIS HISTORIAE DEORUM