The Pagan Oracles by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

It is remarkable–and, without a previous explanation, it might seem paradoxical to say it–that oftentimes under a continual accession of light important subjects grow more and more enigmatical. In times when nothing was explained, the student, torpid as his teacher, saw nothing which called for explanation–all appeared one monotonous blank. But no sooner had an early twilight begun to solicit the creative faculties of the eye, than many dusky objects, with outlines imperfectly defined, began to converge the eye, and to strengthen the nascent interest of the spectator. It is true that light, in its final plenitude, is calculated to disperse all darkness. But this effect belongs to its consummation. In its earlier and struggling states, light does but reveal darkness. It makes the darkness palpable and “visible.” Of which we may see a sensible illustration in a gloomy glass-house, where the sullen lustre from the furnace does but mass and accumulate the thick darkness in the rear upon which the moving figures are relieved. Or we may see an intellectual illustration in the mind of the savage, on whose blank surface there exists no doubt or perplexity at all, none of the pains connected with ignorance; he is conscious of no darkness, simply because for him there exists no visual ray of speculation–no vestige of prelusive light.

Similar, and continually more similar, has been the condition of ancient history. Once yielding a mere barren crop of facts and dates, slowly it has been kindling of late years into life and deep interest under superior treatment. And hitherto, as the light has advanced, pari passu have the masses of darkness strengthened. Every question solved has been the parent of three new questions unmasked. And the power of breathing life into dry bones has but seemed to multiply the skeletons and lifeless remains; for the very natural reason–that these dry bones formerly (whilst viewed as incapable of revivification) had seemed less numerous, because everywhere confounded to the eye with stocks and stones, so long as there was no motive of hope for marking the distinction between them.

Amongst all the illustrations which might illuminate this truth, none is so instructive as the large question of PAGAN ORACLES. Every part, indeed, of the Pagan religion, the course, geographically or ethnographically, of its traditions, the vast labyrinth of its mythology, the deductions of its contradictory genealogies, the disputed meaning of its many secret “mysteries” [teletai— symbolic rites or initiations], all these have been submitted of late years to the scrutiny of glasses more powerful, applied under more combined arrangements, and directed according to new principles more comprehensively framed. We cannot in sincerity affirm–always with immediate advantage. But even where the individual effort may have been a failure as regarded the immediate object, rarely, indeed, it has happened but that much indirect illumination has resulted–which, afterwards entering into combination with other scattered currents of light, has issued in discoveries of value; although, perhaps, any one contribution, taken separately, had been, and would have remained, inoperative. Much has been accomplished, chiefly of late years; and, confining our view to ancient history, almost exclusively amongst the Germans–by the Savignys, the Niebuhrs, the Otfried Muellers. And, if that much has left still more to do, it has also brought the means of working upon a scale of far accelerated speed.

The books now existing upon the ancient oracles, above all, upon the Greek oracles, amount to a small library. The facts have been collected from all quarters,–examined, sifted, winnowed. Theories have been raised upon these facts under every angle of aspect; and yet, after all, we profess ourselves to be dissatisfied. Amongst much that is sagacious, we feel and we resent with disgust a taint of falsehood diffused over these recent speculations from vulgar and even counterfeit incredulity; the one gross vice of German philosophy, not less determinate or less misleading than that vice which, heretofore, through many centuries, had impoverished this subject, and had stopped its discussion under the anile superstition of the ecclesiastical fathers.

These fathers, both Greek and Latin, had the ill fortune to be extravagantly esteemed by the church of Rome; whence, under a natural reaction, they were systematically depreciated by the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation. And yet hardly in a corresponding degree. For there was, after all, even among the reformers, a deep-seated prejudice in behalf of all that was “primitive” in Christianity; under which term, by some confusion of ideas, the fathers often benefited. Primitive Christianity was reasonably venerated; and, on this argument, that, for the first three centuries, it was necessarily more sincere. We do not think so much of that sincerity which affronted the fear of persecution; because, after all, the searching persecutions were rare and intermitting, and not, perhaps, in any case, so fiery as they have been represented. We think more of that gentle but insidious persecution which lay in the solicitations of besieging friends, and more still of the continual temptations which haunted the irresolute Christian in the fascinations of the public amusements. The theatre, the circus, and, far beyond both, the cruel amphitheatre, constituted, for the ancient world, a passionate enjoyment, that by many authors, and especially through one period of time, is described as going to the verge of frenzy. And we, in modern times, are far too little aware in what degree these great carnivals, together with another attraction of great cities, the pomps and festivals of the Pagan worship, broke the monotony of domestic life, which, for the old world, was even more oppressive than it is for us. In all principal cities, so as to be within the reach of almost all provincial inhabitants, there was a hippodrome, often uniting the functions of the circus and the amphitheatre; and there was a theatre. From all such pleasures the Christian was sternly excluded by his very profession of faith. From the festivals of the Pagan religion his exclusion was even more absolute; against them he was a sworn militant protester from the hour of his baptism. And when these modes of pleasurable relaxation had been subtracted from ancient life, what could remain? Even less, perhaps, than most readers have been led to consider. For the ancients had no such power of extensive locomotion, of refreshment for their wearied minds, by travelling and change of scene, as we children of modern civilization possess. No ships had then been fitted up for passengers, nor public carriages established, nor roads opened extensively, nor hotels so much as imagined hypothetically; because the relation of xenia, or the obligation to reciprocal hospitality, and latterly the Roman relation of patron and client, had stifled the first motions of enterprise of the ancients; in fact, no man travelled but the soldier, and the man of political authority. Consequently, in sacrificing public amusements, the Christians sacrificed all pleasure whatsoever that was not rigorously domestic; whilst in facing the contingencies of persecutions that might arise under the rapid succession of changing emperors, they faced a perpetual anxiety more trying to the fortitude than any fixed and measurable evil. Here, certainly, we have a guarantee for the deep faithfulness of early Christians, such as never can exist for more mixed bodies of professors, subject to no searching trials.

Better the primitive Christians were (by no means individually better, but better on the total body), yet they were not in any intellectual sense wiser. Unquestionably the elder Christians participated in the local follies, prejudices, superstitions, of their several provinces and cities, except where any of these happened to be too conspicuously at war with the spirit of love or the spirit of purity which exhaled at every point from the Christian faith; and, in all intellectual features, as were the Christians generally, such were the fathers. Amongst the Greek fathers, one might be unusually learned, as Clement of Alexandria; and another might be reputed unusually eloquent, as Gregory Nazianzen, or Basil. Amongst the Latin fathers, one might be a man of admirable genius, as far beyond the poor, vaunted Rousseau in the impassioned grandeur of his thoughts, as he was in truth and purity of heart; we speak of St. Augustine (usually called St. Austin), and many might be distinguished by various literary merits. But could these advantages anticipate a higher civilization? Most unquestionably some of the fathers were the elite of their own age, but not in advance of their age. They, like all their contemporaries, were besieged by errors, ancient, inveterate, traditional; and accidentally, from one cause special to themselves, they were not merely liable to error, but usually prone to error. This cause lay in the polemic form which so often they found a necessity, or a convenience, or a temptation for assuming, as teachers or defenders of the truth.

He who reveals a body of awful truth to a candid and willing auditory is content with the grand simplicities of truth in the quality of his proofs. And truth, where it happens to be of a high order, is generally its own witness to all who approach it in the spirit of childlike docility. But far different is the position of that teacher who addresses an audience composed in various proportions of sceptical inquirers, obstinate opponents, and malignant scoffers. Less than an apostle is unequal to the suppression of all human reactions incident to wounded sensibilities. Scorn is too naturally met by retorted scorn: malignity in the Pagan, which characterized all the known cases of signal opposition to Christianity, could not but hurry many good men into a vindictive pursuit of victory. Generally, where truth is communicated polemically (this is, not as it exists in its own inner simplicity, but as it exists in external relation to error), the temptation is excessive to use those arguments which will tell at the moment upon the crowd of bystanders, by preference to those which will approve themselves ultimately to enlightened disciples. Hence it is, that, like the professional rhetoricians of Athens, not seldom the Christian fathers, when urgently pressed by an antagonist equally mendacious and ignorant, could not resist the human instinct for employing arguments such as would baffle and confound the unprincipled opponent, rather than such as would satisfy the mature Christian. If a man denied himself all specious arguments, and all artifices of dialectic subtlety, he must renounce the hopes of a present triumph; for the light of absolute truth on moral or on spiritual themes is too dazzling to be sustained by the diseased optics of those habituated to darkness. And hence we explain not only the many gross delusions of the fathers, their sophisms, their errors of fact and chronology, their attempts to build great truths upon fantastic etymologies, or upon popular conceits in science that have long since exploded, but also their occasional unchristian tempers. To contend with an unprincipled and malicious liar, such as Julian the Apostate, in its original sense the first deliberate miscreant, offered a dreadful snare to any man’s charity. And he must be a furious bigot who will justify the rancorous lampoons of Gregory Nazianzen. Are we, then, angry on behalf of Julian? So far as he was interested, not for a moment would we have suspended the descending scourge. Cut him to the bone, we should have exclaimed at the time! Lay the knout into every “raw” that can be found! For we are of opinion that Julian’s duplicity is not yet adequately understood. But what was right as regarded the claims of the criminal, was not right as regarded the duties of his opponent. Even in this mischievous renegade, trampling with his orangoutang hoofs the holiest of truths, a Christian bishop ought still to have respected his sovereign, through the brief period that he was such, and to have commiserated his benighted brother, however wilfully astray, and however hatefully seeking to quench that light for other men, which, for his own misgiving heart, we could undertake to show that he never did succeed in quenching. We do not wish to enlarge upon a theme both copious and easy. But here, and everywhere, speaking of the fathers as a body, we charge them with anti-christian practices of a two-fold order: sometimes as supporting their great cause in a spirit alien to its own, retorting in a temper not less uncharitable than that of their opponents; sometimes, again, as adopting arguments that are unchristian in their ultimate grounds; resting upon errors the reputation of errors; upon superstitions the overthrow of superstitions; and drawing upon the armories of darkness for weapons that, to be durable, ought to have been of celestial temper. Alternately, in short, the fathers trespass against those affections which furnish to Christianity its moving powers, and against those truths which furnish to Christianity its guiding lights. Indeed, Milton’s memorable attempt to characterize the fathers as a body, contemptuous as it is, can hardly be challenged as overcharged.

Never in any instance were these aberrations of the fathers more vividly exemplified than in their theories upon the Pagan Oracles. On behalf of God, they were determined to be wiser than God; and, in demonstration of scriptural power, to advance doctrines which the Scriptures had nowhere warranted. At this point, however, we shall take a short course; and, to use a vulgar phrase, shall endeavor to “kill two birds with one stone.” It happens that the earliest book in our modern European literature, which has subsequently obtained a station of authority on the subject of the ancient Oracles, applied itself entirely to the erroneous theory of the fathers. This is the celebrated Antonii Van Dale, “De Ethnicorum Oraculis Dissertationes,” which was published at Amsterdam at least as early as the year 1682; that is, one hundred and sixty years ago. And upon the same subject there has been no subsequent book which maintains an equal rank. Van Dale might have treated his theme simply with a view to the investigation of the truth, as some recent inquirers have preferred doing; and, in that case, the fathers would have been noticed only as incidental occasions might bring forward their opinions–true or false. But to this author the errors of the fathers seemed capital; worthy, in fact, of forming his principal object; and, knowing their great authority in the Papal church, he anticipated, in the plan of attaching his own views to the false views of the fathers, an opening to a double patronage–that of the Protestants, in the first place, as interested in all doctrines seeming to be anti-papal; that of the sceptics, in the second place, as interested in the exposure of whatever had once commanded, but subsequently lost, the superstitious reverence of mankind. On this policy, he determined to treat the subject polemically. He fastened, therefore, upon the fathers with a deadly acharnement, that evidently meant to leave no arrears of work for any succeeding assailant; and it must be acknowledged that, simply in relation to this purpose of hostility, his work is triumphant. So much was not difficult to accomplish; for barely to enunciate the leading doctrine of the fathers is, in the ear of any chronologist, to overthrow it. But, though successful enough in its functions of destruction, on the other hand, as an affirmative or constructive work, the long treatise of Van Dale is most unsatisfactory. It leaves us with a hollow sound ringing in the ear, of malicious laughter from gnomes and imps grinning over the weaknesses of man–his paralytic facility in believing–his fraudulent villany in abusing this facility–but in no point accounting for those real effects of diffusive social benefits from the Oracle machinery, which must arrest the attention of candid students, amidst some opposite monuments of incorrigible credulity, or of elaborate imposture.

See also  The Story Of A Wise Woman by Edward Eggleston

As a book, however, belonging to that small cycle (not numbering, perhaps, on all subjects, above three score), which may be said to have moulded and controlled the public opinion of Europe through the last five generations, already for itself the work of Van Dale merits a special attention. It is confessedly the classical book–the original fundus for the arguments and facts applicable to this question; and an accident has greatly strengthened its authority. Fontenelle, the most fashionable of European authors, at the opening of the eighteenth century, writing in a language at that time even more predominant than at present, did in effect employ all his advantages to propagate and popularize the views of Van Dale. Scepticism naturally courts the patronage of France; and in effect that same remark which a learned Belgian (Van Brouwer) has found frequent occasion to make upon single sections of Fontenelle’s work, may be fairly extended into a representative account of the whole–“L’on trouve les memes arguments chez Fontenelle, mais degages des longueurs du savant Van Dale, et exprimes avec plus d’elegance.” This rifaccimento did not injure the original work in reputation: it caused Van Dale to be less read, but to be more esteemed; since a man confessedly distinguished for his powers of composition had not thought it beneath his ambition to adopt and recompose Van Dale’s theory. This important position of Van Dale with regard to the effectual creed of Europe–so that, whether he were read directly or were slighted for a more fashionable expounder, equally in either case it was his doctrines which prevailed–must always confer a circumstantial value upon the original dissertations, “De Ethnicorum Oraculis.”

This original work of Van Dale is a book of considerable extent. But, in spite of its length, it divides substantially into two great chapters, and no more, which coincide, in fact, with the two separate dissertations. The first of these dissertations, occupying one hundred and eighty-one pages, inquires into the failure and extinction of the Oracles; when they failed, and under what circumstances. The second of these dissertations inquires into the machinery and resources of the Oracles during the time of their prosperity. In the first dissertation, the object is to expose the folly and gross ignorance of the fathers, who insisted on representing the history of the case roundly in this shape–as though all had prospered with the Oracles up to the nativity of Christ; but that, after his crucifixion, and simultaneously with the first promulgation of Christianity, all Oracles had suddenly drooped; or, to tie up their language to the rigor of their theory, had suddenly expired. All this Van Dale peremptorily denies; and, in these days, it is scarcely requisite to add, triumphantly denies; the whole hypothesis of the fathers having literally not a leg to stand upon; and being, in fact, the most audacious defiance to historical records that, perhaps, the annals of human folly present.

In the second dissertation, Van Dale combats the other notion of the fathers–that, during their prosperous ages, the Oracles had moved by an agency of evil spirits. He, on the contrary, contends that, from the first hour to the last of their long domination over the minds and practice of the Pagan world, they had moved by no agencies whatever, but those of human fraud, intrigue, collusion, applied to human blindness, credulity, and superstition.

We shall say a word or two upon each question. As to the first, namely, when it was that the Oracles fell into decay and silence, thanks to the headlong rashness of the Fathers, Van Dale’s assault cannot be refused or evaded. In reality, the evidence against them is too flagrant and hyperbolical. If we were to quote from Juvenal–“Delphis et Oracula cessant,” in that case, the fathers challenge it as an argument on their side, for that Juvenal described a state of things immediately posterior to Christianity; yet even here the word cessant points to a distinction of cases which already in itself is fatal to their doctrine. By cessant Juvenal means evidently what we, in these days, should mean in saying of a ship in action that her fire was slackening. This powerful poet, therefore, wiser so far than the Christian fathers, distinguishes two separate cases: first, the state of torpor and languishing which might be (and in fact was) the predicament of many famous Oracles through centuries not fewer than five, six, or even eight; secondly, the state of absolute dismantling and utter extinction which, even before his time, had confounded individual Oracles of the inferior class, not from changes affecting religion, whether true or false, but from political revolutions. Here, therefore, lies the first blunder of the fathers, that they confound with total death the long drooping which befell many great Oracles from languor in the popular sympathies, under changes hereafter to be noticed; and, consequently, from revenues and machinery continually decaying. That the Delphic Oracle itself–of all oracles the most illustrious–had not expired, but simply slumbered for centuries, the fathers might have been convinced themselves by innumerable passages in authors contemporary with themselves; and that it was continually throwing out fitful gleams of its ancient power, when any very great man (suppose a Caesar) thought fit to stimulate its latent vitality, is notorious from such cases as that of Hadrian. He, in his earlier days, whilst yet only dreaming of the purple, had not found the Oracle superannuated or palsied. On the contrary, he found it but too clear- sighted; and it was no contempt in him, but too ghastly a fear and jealousy, which labored to seal up the grander ministrations of the Oracle for the future. What the Pythia had foreshown to himself, she might foreshow to others; and, when tempted by the same princely bribes, she might authorize and kindle the same aspiring views in other great officers. Thus, in the new condition of the Roman power, there was a perpetual peril, lest an oracle, so potent as that of Delphi, should absolutely create rebellions, by first suggesting hopes to men in high commands. Even as it was, all treasonable assumptions of the purple, for many generations, commenced in the hopes inspired by auguries, prophecies, or sortileges. And had the great Delphic Oracle, consecrated to men’s feelings by hoary superstition, and privileged by secrecy, come forward to countersign such hopes, many more would have been the wrecks of ambition, and even bloodier would have been the blood-polluted line of the imperial successions. Prudence, therefore, it was, and state policy, not the power of Christianity, which gave the final shock (of the original shock we shall speak elsewhere) to the grander functions of the Delphic Oracle. But, in the mean time, the humbler and more domestic offices of this oracle, though naturally making no noise at a distance, seem long to have survived its state relations. And, apart from the sort of galvanism notoriously applied by Hadrian, surely the fathers could not have seen Plutarch’s account of its condition, already a century later than our Saviour’s nativity. The Pythian priestess, as we gather from him, had by that time become a less select and dignified personage; she was no longer a princess in the land–a change which was proximately due to the impoverished income of the temple; but she was still in existence; still held in respect; still trained, though at inferior cost, to her difficult and showy ministrations. And the whole establishment of the Delphic god, if necessarily contracted from that scale which had been suitable when great kings and commonwealths were constant suitors within the gates of Delphi, still clung (like the Venice of modern centuries) to her old ancestral honors, and kept up that decent household of ministers which corresponded to the altered ministrations of her temple. In fact, the evidences on behalf of Delphi as a princely house, that had indeed partaken in the decaying fortunes of Greece, but naturally was all the prouder from the irritating contrast of her great remembrances, are so plentifully dispersed through books, that the fathers must have been willingly duped. That in some way they were duped is too notorious from the facts, and might be suspected even from their own occasional language; take, as one instance, amongst a whole harmony of similar expressions, this short passage from Eusebius–hoi Hellenes homologentes ekleloipenai auton ta chresteria: the Greeks admitting that their Oracles have failed. (There is, however, a disingenuous vagueness in the very word ekleloipenai), ed’ allote pote ex aionos–and when? why, at no other crisis through the total range of their existence–e kata tes chrones tes euangelikes didaskalias–than precisely at the epoch of the evangelical dispensation, etc. Eusebius was a man of too extensive reading to be entirely satisfied with the Christian representations upon this point. And in such indeterminate phrases as kata tes chrones (which might mean indifferently the entire three centuries then accomplished from the first promulgation of Christianity, or specifically that narrow punctual limit of the earliest promulgation), it is easy to trace an ambidextrous artifice of compromise between what would satisfy his own brethren, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, he could hope to defend against the assaults of learned Pagans.

In particular instances it is but candid to acknowledge that the fathers may have been misled by the remarkable tendencies to error amongst the ancients, from their want of public journals, combined with territorial grandeur of empire. The greatest possible defect of harmony arises naturally in this way amongst ancient authors, locally remote from each other; but more especially in the post-christian periods, when reporting any aspects of change, or any results from a revolution variable and advancing under the vast varieties of the Roman empire. Having no newspapers to effect a level amongst the inequalities and anomalies of their public experience in regard to the Christian revolution, when collected from innumerable tribes so widely differing as to civilization, knowledge, superstition, etc. hence it happened that one writer could report with truth a change as having occurred within periods of ten to sixty years, which for some other province would demand a circuit of six hundred. For example, in Asia Minor, all the way from the sea coast to the Euphrates, towns were scattered having a dense population of Jews. Sometimes these were the most malignant opponents of Christianity; that is, wherever they happened to rest in the letter of their peculiar religion. But, on the other hand, where there happened to be a majority (or, if not numerically a majority, yet influentially an overbalance) in that section of the Jews who were docile children of their own preparatory faith and discipline, no bigots, and looking anxiously for the fulfilment of their prophecies (an expectation at that time generally diffused),–under those circumstances, the Jews were such ready converts as to account naturally for sudden local transitions, which in other circumstances or places might not have been credible.

This single consideration may serve to explain the apparent contradictions, the irreconcilable discrepancies, between the statements of contemporary Christian bishops, locally at a vast distance from each other, or (which is even more important) reporting from communities occupying different stages of civilization. There was no harmonizing organ of interpretation, in Christian or in Pagan newspapers, to bridge over the chasms that divided different provinces. A devout Jew, already possessed by the purest idea of the Supreme Being, stood on the very threshold of conversion: he might, by one hour’s conversation with an apostle, be transfigured into an enlightened Christian; whereas a Pagan could seldom in one generation pass beyond the infirmity of his novitiate. His heart and affections, his will and the habits of his understanding, were too deeply diseased to be suddenly transmuted. And hence arises a phenomenon, which has too languidly arrested the notice of historians; namely, that already, and for centuries before the time of Constantine, wherever the Jews had been thickly sown as colonists, the most potent body of Christian zeal stood ready to kindle under the first impulse of encouragement from the state; whilst in the great capitals of Rome and Alexandria, where the Jews were hated and neutralized politically by Pagan forces, not for a hundred years later than Constantine durst the whole power of the government lay hands on the Pagan machinery, except with timid precautions, and by graduations so remarkably adjusted to the circumstances, that sometimes they wear the shape of compromises with idolatry. We must know the ground, the quality of the population, concerned in any particular report of the fathers, before we can judge of its probabilities. Under local advantages, insulated cases of Oracles suddenly silenced, of temples and their idol-worship overthrown, as by a rupture of new-born zeal, were not less certain to arise as rare accidents from rare privileges, or from rare coincidences of unanimity in the leaders of the place, than on the other hand they were certain not to arise in that unconditional universality pretended by the fathers. Wheresoever Paganism was interwoven with the whole moral being of a people, as it was in Egypt, or with the political tenure and hopes of a people, as it was in Rome, there a long struggle was inevitable before the revolution could be effected. Briefly, as against the fathers, we find a sufficient refutation in what followed Christianity. If, at a period five, or even six hundred years after the birth of Christ, you find people still consulting the local Oracles of Egypt, in places sheltered from the point-blank range of the state artillery,–there is an end, once and forever, to the delusive superstition that, merely by its silent presence in the world, Christianity must instantaneously come into fierce activity as a reagency of destruction to all forms of idolatrous error. That argument is multiplied beyond all power of calculation; and to have missed it is the most eminent instance of wilful blindness which the records of human folly can furnish. But there is another refutation lying in an opposite direction, which presses the fathers even more urgently in the rear than this presses them in front; any author posterior to Christianity, who should point to the decay of Oracles, they would claim on their own side. But what would they have said to Cicero,–by what resource of despair would they have parried his authority, when insisting (as many times he does insist), forty and even fifty years before the birth of Christ, on the languishing condition of the Delphic Oracle? What evasion could they imagine here? How could that languor be due to Christianity, which far anticipated the very birth of Christianity? For, as to Cicero, who did not “far anticipate the birth of Christianity.” we allege him rather because his work De Divinatione is so readily accessible, and because his testimony on any subject is so full of weight, than because other and much older authorities cannot be produced to the same effect. The Oracles of Greece had lost their vigor and their palmy pride full two centuries before the Christian era. Historical records show this a posteriori, whatever were the cause; and the cause, which we will state hereafter, shows it a priori, apart from the records.

See also  Another Word On Thoreau by John Burroughs

Surely, therefore, Van Dale needed not to have pressed his victory over the helpless fathers so unrelentingly, and after the first ten pages by cases and proofs that are quite needless and ex abundanti; simply the survival of any one distinguished Oracle upwards of four centuries after Christ–that is sufficient. But if with this fact we combine the other fact, that all the principal Oracles had already begun to languish, more than two centuries before Christianity, there can be no opening for a whisper of dissent upon any real question between Van Dale and his opponents; namely, both as to the possibility of Christianity coexisting with such forms of error, and the possibility that oracles should be overthrown by merely Pagan, or internal changes. The less plausible, however, that we find this error of the fathers, the more curiosity we naturally feel about the source of that error; and the more so, because Van Dale never turns his eyes in that direction.

This source lay (to speak the simple truth) in abject superstition. The fathers conceived of the enmity between Christianity and Paganism, as though it resembled that between certain chemical poisons and the Venetian wine-glass, which (according to the belief

[Footnote: Which belief we can see no reason for rejecting so summarily as is usually done in modern times. It would be absurd, indeed, to suppose a kind of glass qualified to expose all poisons indifferently, considering the vast range of their chemical differences. But, surely, as against that one poison then familiarly used for domestic murders, a chemical reagency might have been devised in the quality of the glass. At least, there is no prima facie absurdity in such a supposition. ]

of three centuries back) no sooner received any poisonous fluid, than immediately it shivered into crystal splinters. They thought to honor Christianity, by imaging it as some exotic animal of more powerful breed, such as we English have witnessed in a domestic case, coming into instant collision with the native race, and exterminating it everywhere upon the first conflict. In this conceit they substituted a foul fiction of their own, fashioned on the very model of Pagan fictions, for the unvarying analogy of the divine procedure. Christianity, as the last and consummate of revelations, had the high destination of working out its victory through what was greatest in a man–through his reason, his will, his affections. But, to satisfy the fathers, it must operate like a drug–like sympathetic powders–like an amulet–or like a conjurer’s charm. Precisely the monkish effect of a Bible when hurled at an evil spirit–not the true rational effect of that profound oracle read, studied, and laid to heart–was that which the fathers ascribed to the mere proclamation of Christianity, when first piercing the atmosphere circumjacent to any oracle; and, in fact, to their gross appreciations, Christian truth was like the scavenger bird in Eastern climates, or the stork in Holland, which signalizes its presence by devouring all the native brood of vermin, or nuisances, as fast as they reproduce themselves under local distemperatures of climate or soil.

It is interesting to pursue the same ignoble superstition, which, in fact, under Romish hands, soon crept like a parasitical plant over Christianity itself, until it had nearly strangled its natural vigor, back into times far preceding that of the fathers. Spite of all that could be wrought by Heaven, for the purpose of continually confounding the local vestiges of popular reverence which might have gathered round stocks and stones, so obstinate is the hankering after this mode of superstition in man that his heart returns to it with an elastic recoil as often as the openings are restored. Agreeably to this infatuation, the temple of the true God–even its awful adytum–the holy of holies–or the places where the ark of the covenant had rested in its migrations–all were conceived to have an eternal and a self- vindicating sanctity. So thought man: but God himself, though to man’s folly pledged to the vindication of his own sanctities, thought far otherwise; as we know by numerous profanations of all holy places in Judea, triumphantly carried through, and avenged by no plausible judgments. To speak only of the latter temple, three men are memorable as having polluted its holiest recesses: Antiochus Epiphanes, Pompey about a century later, and Titus pretty nearly by the same exact interval later than Pompey. Upon which of these three did any judgment descend? Attempts have been made to impress that coloring of the sequel in two of these cases, indeed, but without effect upon any man’s mind. Possibly in the case of Antiochus, who seems to have moved under a burning hatred, not so much of the insurgent Jews as of the true faith which prompted their resistance, there is some colorable argument for viewing him in his miserable death as a monument of divine wrath. But the two others had no such malignant spirit; they were tolerant, and even merciful; were authorized instruments for executing the purposes of Providence; and no calamity in the life of either can be reasonably traced to his dealings with Palestine. Yet, if Christianity could not brook for an instant the mere coexistence of a Pagan oracle, how came it that the Author of Christianity had thus brooked (nay, by many signs of cooperation, had promoted) that ultimate desecration, which planted “the abomination of desolation” as a victorious crest of Paganism upon his own solitary altar? The institution of the Sabbath, again–what part of the Mosaic economy could it more plausibly have been expected that God should vindicate by some memorable interference, since of all the Jewish institutions it was that one which only and which frequently became the occasion of wholesale butchery to the pious (however erring) Jews? The scruple of the Jews to fight, or even to resist an assassin, on the Sabbath, was not the less pious in its motive because erroneous in principle; yet no miracle interfered to save them from the consequences of their infatuation. And this seemed the more remarkable in the case of their war with Antiochus, because that (if any that history has recorded) was a holy war. But, after one tragical experience, which cost the lives of a thousand martyrs, the Maccabees–quite as much on a level with their scrupulous brethren in piety as they were superior in good sense–began to reflect that they had no shadow of a warrant from Scripture for counting upon any miraculous aid; that the whole expectation, from first to last, had been human and presumptuous; and that the obligation of fighting valiantly against idolatrous compliances was, at all events, paramount to the obligation of the Sabbath. In one hour, after unyoking themselves from this monstrous millstone of their own forging, about their own necks, the cause rose buoyantly aloft as upon wings of victory; and, as their very earliest reward–as the first fruits from thus disabusing their minds of windy presumptions–they found the very case itself melting away which had furnished the scruple; since their cowardly enemies, now finding that they would fight on all days alike, had no longer any motive for attacking them on the Sabbath; besides that their own astonishing victories henceforward secured to them often the choice of the day not less than of the ground.

But, without lingering on these outworks of the true religion, namely, 1st, the Temple of Jerusalem; 2dly, the Sabbath,–both of which the divine wisdom often saw fit to lay prostrate before the presumption of idolatrous assaults, on principles utterly irreconcilable with the Oracle doctrine of the fathers,–there is a still more flagrant argument against the fathers, which it is perfectly confounding to find both them and their confuter overlooking. It is this. Oracles, take them at the very worst, were no otherwise hostile to Christianity than as a branch of Paganism. If, for instance, the Delphic establishment were hateful (as doubtless it was) to the holy spirit of truth which burned in the mind of an apostle, why was it hateful? Not primarily in its character of Oracle, but in its universal character of Pagan temple; not as an authentic distributor of counsels adapted to the infinite situations of its clients–often very wise counsels; but as being ultimately engrafted on the stem of idolatrous religion–as deriving, in the last resort, their sanctions from Pagan deities, and, therefore, as sharing constructively in all the pollutions of that tainted source. Now, therefore, if Christianity, according to the fancy of the fathers, could not tolerate the co-presence of so much evil as resided in the Oracle superstition,–that is, in the derivative, in the secondary, in the not unfrequently neutralized or even redundantly compensated mode of error,–then, a fortiori, Christianity could not have tolerated for an hour the parent superstition, the larger evil, the fontal error, which diseased the very organ of vision–which not merely distorted a few objects on the road, but spread darkness over the road itself. Yet what is the fact? So far from any mysterious repulsion externally between idolatrous errors and Christianity, as though the two schemes of belief could no more coexist in the same society than two queen-bees in a hive,–as though elementary nature herself recoiled from the abominable concursus,–do but open a child’s epitome of history, and you find it to have required four entire centuries before the destroyer’s hammer and crowbar began to ring loudly against the temples of idolatrous worship; and not before five, nay, locally six, or even seven centuries had elapsed, could the better angel of mankind have sung gratulations announcing that the great strife was over–that man was inoculated with the truth; or have adopted the impressive language of a Latin father, that “the owls were to be heard in every village hooting from the dismantled fanes of heathenism, or the gaunt wolf disturbing the sleep of peasants as he yelled in winter from the cold, dilapidated altars.” Even this victorious consummation was true only for the southern world of civilization. The forests of Germany, though pierced already to the south in the third and fourth centuries by the torch of missionaries,–though already at that time illuminated by the immortal Gothic version of the New Testament preceding Ulppilas, and still surviving,–sheltered through ages in the north and east vast tribes of idolaters, some awaiting the baptism of Charlemagne in the eighth century and the ninth, others actually resuming a fierce countenance of heathenism for the martial zeal of crusading knights in the thirteenth and fourteenth. The history of Constantine has grossly misled the world. It was very early in the fourth century (313 A. D.) that Constantine found himself strong enough to take his earliest steps for raising Christianity to a privileged station; which station was not merely an effect and monument of its progress, but a further cause of progress. In this latter light, as a power advancing and moving, but politically still militant, Christianity required exactly one other century to carry out and accomplish even its eastern triumph. Dating from the era of the very inaugurating and merely local acts of Constantine, we shall be sufficiently accurate in saying that the corresponding period in the fifth century (namely, from about 404 to 420 A. D.) first witnessed those uproars of ruin in Egypt and Alexandria–fire racing along the old carious timbers, battering- rams thundering against the ancient walls of the most horrid temples– which rang so searchingly in the ears of Zosimus, extorting, at every blow, a howl of Pagan sympathy from that ignorant calumniator of Christianity. So far from the fact being, according to the general prejudice, as though Constantine had found himself able to destroy Paganism, and to replace it by Christianity; on the contrary, it was both because he happened to be far too weak, in fact, for such a mighty revolution, and because he knew his own weakness, that he fixed his new capital, as a preliminary caution, upon the Propontis.

See also  A Night On The Divide by Bret Harte

There were other motives to this change, and particularly (as we have attempted to show in a separate dissertation) motives of high political economy, suggested by the relative conditions of land and agriculture in Thrace and Asia Minor, by comparison with decaying Italy; but a paramount motive, we are satisfied, and the earliest motive, was the incurable Pagan bigotry of Rome. Paganism for Rome, it ought to have been remembered by historians, was a mere necessity of her Pagan origin. Paganism was the fatal dowry of Rome from her inauguration; not only she had once received a retaining fee on behalf of Paganism, in the mysterious Ancile, supposed to have fallen from heaven, but she actually preserved this bribe amongst her rarest jewels. She possessed a palladium, such a national amulet or talisman as many Grecian or Asiatic cities had once possessed–a fatal guarantee to the prosperity of the state. Even the Sibylline books, whatever ravages they might be supposed by the intelligent to have sustained in a lapse of centuries, were popularly believed, in the latest period of the Western empire, to exist as so many charters of supremacy. Jupiter himself in Rome had put on a peculiar Roman physiognomy, which associated him with the destinies of the gigantic state. Above all, the solemn augury of the twelve vultures, so memorably passed downwards from the days of Romulus, through generations as yet uncertain of the event, and, therefore, chronologically incapable of participation in any fraud–an augury always explained as promising twelve centuries of supremacy to Rome, from the year 748 or 750 B. C.– cooperated with the endless other Pagan superstitions in anchoring the whole Pantheon to the Capitol and Mount Palatine. So long as Rome had a worldly hope surviving, it was impossible for her to forget the Vestal Virgins, the College of Augurs, or the indispensable office and the indefeasible privileges of the Pontifex Maximus, which (though Cardinal Baronius, in his great work, for many years sought to fight off the evidences for that fact, yet afterwards partially he confessed his error) actually availed–historically and medallically can be demonstrated to have availed–for the temptation of Christian Cesars into collusive adulteries with heathenism. Here, for instance, came an emperor that timidly recorded his scruples–feebly protested, but gave way at once as to an ugly necessity. There came another, more deeply religious, or constitutionally more bold, who fought long and strenuously against the compromise. “What! should he, the delegate of God, and the standard-bearer of the true religion, proclaim himself officially head of the false? No; that was too much for his conscience.” But the fatal meshes of prescription, of superstitions ancient and gloomy, gathered around him; he heard that he was no perfect Cesar without this office, and eventually the very same reason which had obliged Augustus not to suppress, but himself to assume, the tribunitian office, namely, that it was a popular mode of leaving democratic organs untouched, whilst he neutralized their democratic functions by absorbing them into his own, availed to overthrow all Christian scruples of conscience, even in the most Christian of the Cesars, many years after Constantine. The pious Theodosius found himself literally compelled to become a Pagan pontiff. A bon mot

[Footnote: “A bon mot.”–This was built on the accident that a certain Maximus stood in notorious circumstances of rivalship to the emperor [Theodosius]: and the bitterness of the jest took this turn- that if the emperor should persist in declining the office of Pont. Maximus, in that case, “erit Pontifex Maximus;” that is, Maximus (the secret aspirant) shall be our Pontifex. So the words sounded to those in the secret [synetoisi], whilst to others they seemed to have no meaning at all. ]

circulating amongst the people warned him that, if he left the cycle of imperial powers incomplete, if he suffered the galvanic battery to remain imperfect in its circuit of links, pretty soon he would tempt treason to show its head, and would even for the present find but an imperfect obedience. Reluctantly therefore the emperor gave way: and perhaps soothed his fretting conscience, by offering to heaven, as a penitential litany, that same petition which Naaman the Syrian offered to the prophet Elijah as a reason for a personal dispensation. Hardly more possible it was that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, than that a Roman senator should forswear those inveterate superstitions with which his own system of aristocracy had been riveted for better and worse. As soon would the Venetian senator, the gloomy “magnifico” of St. Mark, have consented to Renounce the annual wedding of his republic with the Adriatic, as the Roman noble, whether senator, or senator elect, or of senatorial descent, would have dissevered his own solitary stem from the great forest of his ancestral order; and this he must have done by doubting the legend of Jupiter Stator, or by withdrawing his allegiance from Jupiter Capitolinus. The Roman people universally became agitated towards the opening of the fifth century after Christ, when their own twelfth century was drawing near to its completion. Rome had now reached the very condition of Dr. Faustus–having originally received a known term of prosperity from some dark power; but at length hearing the hours, one after the other, tolling solemnly from the church-tower, as they exhausted the waning minutes of the very final day marked down in the contract. The more profound was the faith of Rome in the flight of the twelve vultures, once so glorious, now so sad, an augury, the deeper was the depression as the last hour drew near that had been so mysteriously prefigured. The reckoning, indeed, of chronology was slightly uncertain. The Varronian account varied from others. But these trivial differences might tell as easily against them as for them, and did but strengthen the universal agitation. Alaric, in the opening of the fifth century [about 4l0]–Attila, near the middle [445]–already seemed prelusive earthquakes running before the final earthquake. And Christianity, during this era of public alarm, was so far from assuming a more winning aspect to Roman eyes, as a religion promising to survive their own, that already, under that character of reversionary triumph, this gracious religion seemed a public insult, and this meek religion a perpetual defiance; pretty much as a king sees with scowling eyes, when revealed to him in some glass of Cornelius Agrippa, the portraits of that mysterious house which is destined to supplant his own.

Now, from this condition of feeling at Rome, it is apparent not only as a fact that Constantine did not overthrow Paganism, but as a possibility that he could not have overthrown it. In the fierce conflict he would probably have been overthrown himself; and, even for so much as he did accomplish, it was well that he attempted it at a distance from Rome. So profoundly, therefore, are the fathers in error, that instead of that instant victory which they ascribe to Christianity, even Constantine’s revolution was merely local. Nearly five centuries, in fact, it cost, and not three, to Christianize even the entire Mediterranean empire of Rome; and the premature effort of Constantine ought to be regarded as a mere fluctus decumanus in the continuous advance of the new religion,–one of those ambitious billows which sometimes run far ahead of their fellows in a tide steadily gaining ground, but which inevitably recede in the next moment, marking only the strength of that tendency which sooner or later is destined to fill the whole capacity of the shore.

To have proved, therefore, if it could have been proved, that Christianity had been fatal in the way of a magical charm to the Oracles of the world, would have proved nothing but a perplexing inconsistency, so long as the fathers were obliged to confess that Paganism itself, as a gross total, as the parent superstition (sure to reproduce Oracles faster than they could be extinguished), had been suffered to exist for many centuries concurrently with Christianity, and had finally been overthrown by the simple majesty of truth that courts the light, as matched against falsehood that shuns it.

As applied, therefore, to the first problem in the whole question upon Oracles,–When, and under what circumstances, did they cease?— the Dissertatio of Van Dale, and the Histoire des Oracles by Fontenelle, are irresistible, though not written in a proper spirit of gravity, nor making use of that indispensable argument which we have ourselves derived from the analogy of all scriptural precedents.

But the case is far otherwise as concerns the second problem,–How, and by what machinery, did the Oracles, in the days of their prosperity, conduct their elaborate ministrations? To this problem no justice at all is done by the school of Van Dale. A spirit of mockery and banter is ill applied to questions that at any time have been centres of fear, and hope, and mysterious awe, to long trains of human generations. And the coarse assumption of systematic fraud in the Oracles is neither satisfactory to the understanding, as failing to meet many important aspects of the case, nor is it at all countenanced by the kind of evidences that have been hitherto alleged. The fathers had taken the course–vulgar and superstitious–of explaining everything sagacious, everything true, everything that by possibility could seem to argue prophetic functions in the greater Oracles, as the product indeed of inspiration, but of inspiration emanating from an evil spirit. This hypothesis of a diabolic inspiration is rejected by the school of Van Dale. Both the power of at all looking into the future, and the fancied source of that power, are dismissed as contemptible chimeras. Upon the first of these dark pretensions we shall have occasion to speak at another point. Upon the other we agree with Van Dale. Yet, even here, the spirit of triumphant ridicule, applied to questions not wholly within the competence of human resources, is displeasing in grave discussions: grave they are by necessity of their relations, howsoever momentarily disfigured by levity and the unseasonable grimaces of self-sufficient “philosophy.” This temper of mind is already advertised from the first to the observing reader of Van Dale by the character of his engraved frontispiece. Men are there exhibited in the act of juggling, and still more odiously as exulting over their juggleries by gestures of the basest collusion, such as protruding the tongue, inflating one cheek by means of the tongue, grinning, and winking obliquely. These vilenesses are so ignoble, that for his own sake a man of honor (whether as a writer or a reader) shrinks from dealing with any case to which they do really adhere; such a case belongs to the province of police courts, not of literature. But, in the ancient apparatus of the Oracles although frauds and espionage did certainly form an occasional resource, the artifices employed were rarely illiberal in their mode, and always ennobled by their motive. As to the mode, the Oracles had fortunately no temptation to descend into any tricks that could look like “thimble-rigging;” and as to the motive, it will be seen that this could never be dissociated from some regard to public or patriotic objects in the first place; to which if any secondary interest were occasionally attached, this could rarely descend so low as even to an ordinary purpose of gossiping curiosity, but never to a base, mercenary purpose of fraud. Our views, however, on this phasis of the question, will speedily speak for themselves.

See also  "Limiting The Amount Of A Day’s Work" by Arthur Brisbane

Meantime, pausing for one moment to glance at the hypothesis of the fathers, we confess ourselves to be scandalized by its unnecessary plunge into the ignoble. Many sincere Christian believers have doubted altogether of any evil spirits, as existences, warranted by Scripture, that is, as beings whose principle was evil [“evil, be thou my good:” P. L.]; others, again, believing in the possibility that spiritual beings had been (in ways unintelligible to us) seduced from their state of perfection by temptations analogous to those which had seduced man, acquiesced in the notion of spirits tainted with evil, but not therefore (any more than man himself) essentially or causelessly malignant. Now, it is well known, and, amongst others, Eichhorn (Einletung in das alte Testament) has noticed the fact, which will be obvious, on a little reflection, to any even unlearned student of the Scriptures who can throw his memory back through a real familiarity with those records, that the Jews derived their obstinate notions of fiends and demoniacal possessions (as accounting even for bodily affections) entirely from their Chaldean captivity. Not before that great event in Jewish history, and, therefore, in consequence of that event, were the Jews inoculated with this Babylonian, Persian, and Median superstition. Now, if Eichhorn and others are right, it follows that the elder Scriptures, as they ascend more and more into the purer atmosphere of untainted Hebrew creeds, ought to exhibit an increasing freedom from all these modes of demoniacal agency. And accordingly so we find it. Messengers of God are often concerned in the early records of Moses; but it is not until we come down to Post-Mosaical records, Job, for example (though that book is doubtful as to its chronology), and the chronicles of the Jewish kings (Judaic or Israelitish), that we first find any allusion to malignant spirits. As against Eichhorn, however, though readily conceding that the agency is not often recognized, we would beg leave to notice, that there is a three- fold agency of evil, relatively to man, ascribed to certain spirits in the elder Scriptures, namely: 1, of misleading (as in the case of the Israelitish king seduced into a fatal battle by a falsehood originating with a spiritual being); 2, of temptation; 3, of calumnious accusation directed against absent parties. It is not absolutely an untenable hypothesis, that these functions of malignity to man, as at first sight they appear, may be in fact reconcilable with the general functions of a being not malignant, and not evil in any sense, but simply obedient to superior commands: for none of us supposes, of course, that a “destroying angel” must be an evil spirit, though sometimes appearing in a dreadful relation of hostility to all parties (as in the case of David’s punishment). But, waiving all these speculations, one thing is apparent, that the negative allowance, the toleration granted to these later Jewish modes of belief by our Saviour, can no more be urged as arguing any positive sanction to such existences (to demons in the bad sense), than his toleration of Jewish errors and conceits in questions of science. Once for all, it was no purpose of his mission to expose errors in matters of pure curiosity, and in speculations not moral, but exclusively intellectual. And, besides the ordinary argument for rejecting such topics of teaching, as not necessarily belonging to any known purpose of the Christian revelation (which argument is merely negative, and still leaves it open to have regarded such communications as a possible extra condescension, as a lucro ponatur, not absolutely to have been expected, but if granted as all the more meritorious in Christianity), we privately are aware of an argument, far more rigorous and coercive, which will place this question upon quite another basis. This argument, which, in a proper situation, and with ampler disposable space, we shall expose in its strength, will show that it was not that neutral possibility which men have supposed, for the founder of our faith to have granted light, casually or indirectly, upon questions of curiosity. One sole revelation was made by Him, as to the nature of the intercourse and the relations in another world; but that was for the purpose of forestalling a vile, unspiritual notion, already current amongst the childish Jews, and sure to propagate itself even to our own days, unless an utter averruncatio were applied to it. This was its purpose, and not any purpose of gratification to unhallowed curiosity; we speak of the question about the reversionary rights of marriage in a future state. This memorable case, by the way, sufficiently exposes the gross, infantine sensualism of the Jewish mind at that period, and throws an indirect light on their creed as to demons. With this one exception, standing by itself and self-explained, there never was a gleam of revelation granted by any authorized prophet to speculative curiosity, whether pointing to science, or to the mysteries of the spiritual world. And the true argument on this subject would show that this abstinence was not accidental; was not merely on a motive of convenience, as evading any needless extension of labors in teaching, which is the furthest point attained by any existing argument; but, on the contrary, that there was an obligation of consistency, stern, absolute, insurmountable, which made it essential to withhold such revelations; and that had but one such condescension, even to a harmless curiosity, been conceded, there would have arisen instantly a rent–a fracture–a schism–in another vast and collateral purpose of Providence.

From all considerations of the Jewish condition at the era of Christianity, the fathers might have seen the license for doubt as to the notions of a diabolic inspiration. Why must the prompting spirits, if really assumed to be the efficient agency behind the Oracles, be figured as holding any relation at all to moral good or moral evil? Why not allow of demoniac powers, excelling man in beauty, power, prescience, but otherwise neutral as to all purposes of man’s moral nature? Or, if revolting angels were assumed, why degrade their agency in so vulgar and unnecessary a way, by adopting the vilest relation to man which can be imputed to a demon–his function of secret calumnious accusation; from which idea, lowering the Miltonic “archangel ruined” into the assessor of thieves, as a private slanderer (diabolos), proceeds, through the intermediate Italian diavolo, our own grotesque vulgarism of the devil;

[Footnote: But, says an unlearned man, Christ uses the word devil. Not so. The word used is diabolos. Translate v. g. “The accuser and his angels.” ]

an idea which must ever be injurious, in common with all base conceptions, to a grand and spiritual religion. If the Oracles were supported by mysterious agencies of spiritual beings, it was still open to have distinguished between mere modes of power or of intelligence, and modes of illimitable evil. The results of the Oracles were beneficent: that was all which the fathers had any right to know: and their unwarranted introduction of wicked or rebel angels was as much a surreptitious fraud upon their audiences, as their neglect to distinguish between the conditions of an extinct superstition and a superstition dormant or decaying.

To leave the fathers, and to state our own views on the final question argued by Van Dale–“What was the essential machinery by which the Oracles moved?”–we shall inquire,

1. What was the relation of the Oracles (and we would wish to be understood as speaking particularly of the Delphic Oracle) to the credulity of Greece?

2. What was the relation of that same Oracle to the absolute truth?

3. What was its relation to the public welfare of Greece?

Into this trisection we shall decompose the coarse unity of the question presented by Van Dale and his Vandals, as though the one sole “issue,” that could be sent down for trial before a jury, were the likelihoods of fraud and gross swindling. It is not with the deceptions or collusions of the Oracles, as mere matters of fact, that we in this age are primarily concerned, but with those deceptions as they affected the contemporary people of Greece. It is important to know whether the general faith of Greece in the mysterious pretensions of Oracles were unsettled or disturbed by the several agencies at work that naturally tended to rouse suspicion; such, for instance, as these four which follow:–1. Eminent instances of scepticism with regard to the oracular powers, from time to time circulating through Greece in the shape of bon mots; or, 2, which silently amounted to the same virtual expression of distrust, Refusals (often more speciously wearing the name of neglects) to consult the proper Oracle on some hazardous enterprize of general notoriety and interest; 3. Cases of direct failure in the event, as understood to have been predicted by the Oracle, not unfrequently accompanied by tragical catastrophes to the parties misled by this erroneous construction of the Oracle; 4. (which is, perhaps, the climax of the exposures possible under the superstitions of Paganism), A public detection of known oracular temples doing business on a considerable scale, as accomplices with felons.

Modern appraisers of the oracular establishments are too commonly in all moral senses anachronists. We hear it alleged with some plausibility against Southey’s portrait of Don Roderick, though otherwise conceived in a spirit proper for bringing out the whole sentiment of his pathetic situation, that the king is too Protestant, and too evangelical, after the model of 1800, in his modes of penitential piety. The poet, in short, reflected back upon one who was too certain in the eighth century to have been the victim of dark popish superstitions, his own pure and enlightened faith. But the anachronistic spirit in which modern sceptics react upon the Pagan Oracles is not so elevating as the English poet’s. Southey reflected his own superiority upon the Gothic prince of Spain. But the sceptics reflect their own vulgar habits of mechanic and compendious office business upon the large institutions of the ancient Oracles. To satisfy them, the Oracle should resemble a modern coach-office–where undoubtedly you would suspect fraud, if the question “How far to Derby?” were answered evasively, or if the grounds of choice between two roads were expressed enigmatically. But the to loxon, or mysterious indirectness of the Oracle, was calculated far more to support the imaginative grandeur of the unseen God, and was designed to do so, than to relieve the individual suitor in a perplexity seldom of any capital importance. In this way every oracular answer operated upon the local Grecian neighborhood in which it circulated as one of the impulses which, from time to time, renewed the sense of a mysterious involution in the invisible powers, as though they were incapable of direct correspondence or parallelism with the monotony and slight compass of human ideas. As the symbolic dancers of the ancients, who narrated an elaborate story, Saltando Hecubam, or Saltando Loadamiam, interwove the passion of the advancing incidents into the intricacies of the figure–something in the same way, it was understood by all men, that the Oracle did not so much evade the difficulty by a dark form of words, as he revealed his own hieroglyphic nature. All prophets, the true equally with the false, have felt the instinct for surrounding themselves with the majesty of darkness. And in a religion like the Pagan, so deplorably meagre and starved as to most of the draperies connected with the mysterious and sublime, we must not seek to diminish its already scanty wardrobe. But let us pass from speculation to illustrative anecdotes. We have imagined several cases which might seem fitted for giving a shock to the general Pagan confidence in Oracles. Let us review them.

The first is the case of any memorable scepticism published in a pointed or witty form; as Demosthenes avowed his suspicions “that the Oracle was Philippizing.” This was about 344 years B.C. Exactly one hundred years earlier, in the 444th year B.C., or the locus of Pericles, Herodotus (then forty years old) is universally supposed to have read, which for him was publishing, his history. In this work two insinuations of the same kind occur: during the invasion of Darius the Mede (about 490 B.C.) the Oracle was charged with Medizing; and in the previous period of Pisistratus (about 555 B.C.) the Oracle had been almost convicted of Alcmoeonidizing. The Oracle concerned was the same,–namely, the Delphic,–in all three cases. In the case of Darius, fear was the ruling passion; in the earlier case, a near self-interest, but not in a base sense selfish. The Alemoeonidae, an Athenian house hostile to Pisistratus, being exceedingly rich, had engaged to rebuild the ruined temple of the Oracle; and had fulfilled their promise with a munificence outrunning the letter of their professions, particularly with regard to the quality of marble used in facing or “veneering” the front elevation. Now, these sententious and rather witty expressions gave wings and buoyancy to the public suspicions, so as to make them fly from one end of Greece to the other; and they continued in lively remembrance for centuries. Our answer we reserve until we have illustrated the other heads.

In the second case, namely, that of sceptical slights shown to the Oracle, there are some memorable precedents on record. Everybody knows the ridiculous stratagem of Croesus, the Lydian king, for trying the powers of the Oracle, by a monstrous culinary arrangement of pots and pans, known (as he fancied) only to himself. Generally the course of the Delphic Oracle under similar insults was–warmly to resent them. But Croesus, as a king, a foreigner, and a suitor of unexampled munificence, was privileged, especially because the ministers of the Delphic temple had doubtless found it easy to extract the secret by bribery from some one of the royal mission. A case, however, much more interesting, because arising between two leading states of Greece, and in the century subsequent to the ruder age of Croesus (who was about coeval with Pisistratus, 555 B. C.), is reported by Xenophon of the Lacedemonians and Thebans. They concluded a treaty of peace without any communication, not so much as a civil notification to the Oracle; to men Teo ouden ekoinosanto, hopis he eirpnp genoito–to the god (the Delphic god) they made no communication at all as to the terms of the peace; outoi de ebeleuonto, but they personally pursued their negotiations in private. That this was a very extraordinary reach of presumption, is evident from the care of Xenophon in bringing it before his readers; it is probable, indeed, that neither of the high contracting parties had really acted in a spirit of religious indifference, though it is remarkable of the Spartans, that of all Greek tribes they were the most facile and numerous delinquents under all varieties of foreign temptations to revolt from their hereditary allegiance–a fact which measures the degree of unnatural constraint and tension which the Spartan usages involved; but in this case we rather account for the public outrage to religion and universal usage, by a strong political jealousy lest the provisions of the treaty should transpire prematurely amongst states adjacent to Boeotia.

See also  Shakespeare’s Lyrics by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Whatever, meantime, were the secret motive to this policy, it did not fail to shock all Greece profoundly. And, in a slighter degree, the same effect upon public feeling followed the act of Agesipolis, who, after obtaining an answer from the Oracle of Delphi, carried forward his suit to the more awfully ancient Oracle of Dodona; by way of trying, as he alleged, “whether the child agreed with its papa.” These open expressions of distrust were generally condemned; and the irresistible proof that they were, lies in the fact that they led to no imitations. Even in a case mentioned by Herodotus, when a man had the audacity to found a colony without seeking an oracular sanction, no precedent was established; though the journey to Delphi must often have been peculiarly inconvenient to the founders of colonies moving westwards from Greece; and the expenses of such a journey, with the subsequent offerings, could not but prove unseasonable at the moment when every drachma was most urgently needed. Charity begins at home, was a thought quite as likely to press upon a Pagan conscience, in those circumstances, as upon our modern Christian consciences under heavy taxation; yet, for all that, such was the regard to a pious inauguration of all colonial enterprises, that no one provision or pledge of prosperity was held equally indispensable by all parties to such hazardous speculations. The merest worldly foresight, indeed, to the most irreligious leader, would suggest this sanction as a necessity, under the following reason:–colonies the most enviably prosperous upon the whole, have yet had many hardships to contend with in their noviciate of the first five years; were it only from the summer failure of water under circumstances of local ignorance, or from the casual failure of crops under imperfect arrangements of culture. Now, the one great qualification for wrestling strenuously with such difficult contingencies in solitary situations, is the spirit of cheerful hope; but, when any room had been left for apprehending a supernatural curse resting upon their efforts–equally in the most thoughtfully pious man and the most crazily superstitious–all spirit of hope would be blighted at once; and the religious neglect would, even in a common human way, become its own certain executor, through mere depression of spirits and misgiving of expectations. Well, therefore, might Cicero in a tone of defiance demand, “Quam vero Grecia coloniam misit in Aetoliam, Ioniam, Asiam, Siciliam, Italiam, sine Pythio (the Delphic), aut Dodonseo, aut Hammonis oraculo?” An oracular sanction must be had, and from a leading oracle–the three mentioned by Cicero were the greatest;

[Footnote: To which at one time must be added, as of equal rank, the Oracle of the Branchides, in Asia Minor. But this had been destroyed by the Persians, in retaliation of the Athenian outrages at Sardis. ]

and, if a minor oracle could have satisfied the inaugurating necessities of a regular colony, we may be sure that the Dorian states of the Peloponnesus, who had twenty-five decent oracles at home (that is, within the peninsula), would not so constantly have carried their money to Delphi. Nay, it is certain that even where the colonial counsels of the greater oracles seemed extravagant, though a large discretion was allowed to remonstrance, and even to very homely expostulations, still, in the last resort, no doubts were felt that the oracle must be right. Brouwer, the Belgic scholar, who has so recently and so temperately treated these subjects (Histoire de la Civilisation Morale et Religieuse chez les Grecs: 6 tomes: Groningue–1840), alleges a case (which, however, we do not remember to have met) where the client ventured to object:–“Mon roi Apollon, je crois que tu es fou.” But cases are obvious which look this way, though not going so far as to charge lunacy upon the lord of prophetic vision. Battus, who was destined to be the eldest father of Cyrene, so memorable as the first ground of Greek intercourse with the African shore of the Mediterranean, never consulted the Delphic Oracle in reference to his eyes, which happened to be diseased, but that he was admonished to prepare for colonizing Libya.–“Grant me patience,” would Battus reply; “here am I getting into years, and never do I consult the Oracle about my precious sight, but you, King Phoebus, begin your old yarn about Cyrene. Confound Cyrene! Nobody knows where it is. But, if you are serious, speak to my son–he’s a likely young man, and worth a hundred of old rotten hulks, like myself.” Battus was provoked in good earnest; and it is well known that the whole scheme went to sleep for several years, until King Phoebus sent in a gentle refresher to Battus and his islanders, in the shape of failing crops, pestilence, and his ordinary chastisements. The people were roused–the colony was founded–and, after utter failure, was again re-founded, and the results justified the Oracle. But, in all such cases, and where the remonstrances were least respectful, or where the resistance of inertia was longest, we differ altogether from M. Brouwer in his belief, that the suitors fancied Apollo to have gone distracted. If they ever said so, this must have been merely by way of putting the Oracle on its mettle, and calling forth some plainer–not any essentially different–answer from the enigmatic god; for there it was that the doubts of the clients settled, and on that it was the practical demurs hinged. Not because even Battus, vexed as he was about his precious eyesight, distrusted the Oracle, but because he felt sure that the Oracle had not spoken out freely; therefore, had he and many others in similar circumstances presumed to delay. A second edition was what they waited for, corrected and enlarged. We have a memorable instance of this policy in the Athenian envoys, who, upon receiving a most ominous doom, but obscurely expressed, from the Delphic Oracle, which politely concluded by saying, “And so get out, you vagabonds, from my temple–don’t cumber my decks any longer;” were advised to answer sturdily–“No!–we shall not get out–we mean to sit here forever, until you think proper to give us a more reasonable reply.” Upon which spirited rejoinder, the Pythia saw the policy of revising her truly brutal rescript as it had stood originally.

The necessity, indeed, was strong for not acquiescing in the Oracle, until it had become clearer by revision or by casual illustrations, as will be seen even under our next head. This head concerns the case of those who found themselves deceived by the event of any oracular prediction. As usual, there is a Spartan case of this nature. Cleomenes complained bitterly that the Oracle of Delphi had deluded him by holding out as a possibility, and under given conditions as a certainty, that he should possess himself of Argos. But the Oracle was justified: there was an inconsiderable place outside the walls of Argos which bore the same name. Most readers will remember the case of Cambyses, who had been assured by a legion of oracles that he should die at Ecbatana. Suffering, therefore, in Syria from a scratch inflicted upon his thigh by his own sabre, whilst angrily sabring a ridiculous quadruped whom the Egyptian priests had put forward as a god, he felt quite at his ease so long as he remembered his vast distance from the mighty capital of Media, to the eastward of the Tigris. The scratch, however, inflamed, for his intemperance had saturated his system with combustible matter; the inflammation spread; the pulse ran high: and he began to feel twinges of alarm. At length mortification commenced: but still he trusted to the old prophecy about Ecbatana, when suddenly a horrid discovery was made–that the very Syrian village at his own head-quarters was known by the pompous name of Ecbatana. Josephus tells a similar story of some man contemporary with Herod the Great. And we must all remember that case in Shakspeare, where the first king of the red rose, Henry IV., had long fancied his destiny to be that he should meet his death in Jerusalem; which naturally did not quicken his zeal for becoming a crusader. “All time enough,” doubtless he used to say; “no hurry at all, gentlemen!” But at length, finding himself pronounced by the doctor ripe for dying, it became a question whether the prophet were a false prophet, or the doctor a false doctor. However, in such a case, it is something to have a collision of opinions–a prophet against a doctor. But, behold, it soon transpired that there was no collision at all. It was the Jerusalem chamber, occupied by the king as a bed-room, to which the prophet had alluded. Upon which his majesty reconciled himself at once to the ugly necessity at hand [bb]!!!! “In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.” [bb] The last case–that of oracular establishments turning out to be accomplices of thieves–is one which occurred in Egypt on a scale of some extent; and is noticed by Herodotus. This degradation argued great poverty in the particular temples: and it is not at all improbable that, amongst a hundred Grecian Oracles, some, under a similar temptation, would fall into a similar disgrace. But now, as regards even this lowest extremity of infamy, much more as regards the qualified sort of disrepute attending the three minor cases, one single distinction puts all to rights. The Greeks never confounded the temple, and household of officers attached to the temple service, with the dark functions of the presiding god. In Delphi, besides the Pythia and priests, with their train of subordinate ministers directly billeted on the temple, there were two orders of men outside, Delphic citizens, one styled Arizeis, the other styled Hosioi,–a sort of honorary members, whose duty was probably inter alia, to attach themselves to persons of corresponding rank in the retinues of the envoys or consulting clients, and doubtless to collect from them, in convivial moments, all the secrets or general information which the temple required for satisfactory answers. If they personally went too far in their intrigues or stratagems of decoy, the disgrace no more recoiled on the god, than, in modern times, the vices or crimes of a priest can affect the pure religion at whose altars he officiates.

Meantime, through these outside ministers–though unaffected by their follies or errors as trepanners–the Oracle of Delphi drew that vast and comprehensive information, from every local nook or recess of Greece, which made it in the end a blessing to the land. The great error is, to suppose the majority of cases laid before the Delphic Oracle strictly questions for prophetic functions. Ninety-nine in a hundred respected marriages, sta
te-treaties, sales, purchases, founding of towns or colonies, etc., which demanded no faculty whatever of divination, but the nobler faculty (though unpresumptuous) of sagacity, that calculates the natural consequences of human acts, cooperating with elaborate investigation of the local circumstances. If, in any paper on the general civilization of Greece (that great mother of civilization for all the world), we should ever attempt to trace this element of Oracles, it will not be difficult to prove that Delphi discharged the office of a central bureau d’administration, a general depot of political information, an organ of universal combination for the counsels of the whole Grecian race. And that which caused the declension of the Oracles was the loss of political independence and autonomy. After Alexander, still more after the Roman conquest, each separate state, having no powers and no motive for asking counsel on state measures, naturally confined itself more and more to its humbler local interests of police, or even at last to its family arrangements.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *