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"I assert, says Balbus in Cicero, not only that the world, but all its parts were first created, and are at all times governed by the providence of the gods." This is indeed strong language. But, by what follows in the same work, the author has prevented us from understanding it in the most comprehensive sense. He tells us, that "the gods take care of great matters only, and neglect those that are small."
III. Another important reason why ancient philosophers were inadequate guides in matter of religion, was, that they concealed, from the common people, those truths, which they themselves had discovered. "It was a maxim with them," says Dr. Priestly, "to think with the wise, and to act with the vulgar." This was indeed briefly mentioned in the lecture concerning the immortality of the soul. It is now advanced for a different purpose. The custom of concealing truth from the vulgar is of great antiquity. The philosophers of Egypt were attached to it, no less than those of Greece and Rome. Clement of Alexandria, as quoted by Leland, asserts, "that the Egyptians did not expose their religious mysteries promiscuously to all; nor did they communicate the knowledge of divine things to the people." In the Timæus of Plato, there is the following sentence; "It is a difficult matter to find out the Maker and Parent of the Universe; and when you have found him, to declare him to all, is impossible." Or, as the Abbe Barthelemy, and, after him' Dr. M'Knight gives the sense, "It is not safe or lawful to discover him to others, when found." The former of these authors goes on to observe, that "hence have resulted those equivocal expressions,which, in some measure, reconcile error and truth. The name of God is among the number. The application of which, by ancient abuse, had been extended to whatever, throughout the universe, excites our admiration, or is excellont among men for influence or power. It is sometimes used in the singular, and sometimes in the plural number: and by its alternate appearance under each of these forms, both the populace and learned were equally satisfied."
This representation is confirmed by the second letter of Plato to Dionysius; "Beware," says he to his royal correspondent, "not to speak publicly on these subjects, i. e. the origin of evil, for what some admire with enthusiasm, is to others an object of contempt and ridicule. I never have delivered, nor will ever publish in writing, my real sentiments." Whether this remarkable avowal had reference to the subjects of philosophy in general, or only to the subject then under discussion, is not perhaps perfectly obvious. But if such be the caution, or rather the duplicity of an instructer, in one instance, we cannot very safely be answerable for his sincerity in another.
If, therefore, the wise men of ancient times had proceeded much further, than they did, in the knowledge of things divine:-if, indeed, they had obtained satisfactory light on all subjects, which relate to man as a moral agent, the necessity of revelation would not have been superseded, so long as this knowledge was concealed from the world. Religion is a matter in which all men have an equal interest. If there be a future state, and if there be any connexion between the happiness or misery of that state, and the present habits and actions of men, a knowledge of this concerns the laborer, the mechanic, or even the slave, not less than those, who move in a sphere, more conspicuous and elevated.
It is impossible not to be struck with the difference between the character of heathen sages, and that of Jesus Christ and his apostles, considered as religious guides. The latter do not indeed provoke opposition. They wish not to irritate the passions or to augment the prejudices of men. Still they have nothing of that extravagant prudence, which prevented Plato from discovering his real sentiments. By them the distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrines, was not observed. They considered all men as moral agents, and as having a great interest at stake. They considered all, as bewildered in darkness, and in need of having light shed down upon their paths. When a sentiment was viewed by them, as nearly connected with sound morals and pi
ety, they boldly avowed it, and taught it to others, though the passions, and prejudices, and interests of men, were combined for its suppression. Now, whether the chris tian religion be true or not, it cannot be denied, that its author and its early preachers acted, in this respect, comformably to the character, in which they appeared; and with a courage, propriety, and dignity, to which we find nothing parallel in the conduct of ancient sages.
IV. A still further reason, why the philosophers were inadequate guides, was, that they enjoined on their disciples, even in religion, a rigid conformity to the laws of the country.
The first line in what are denominated the Golden Ver
ses of Pythagoras, contained in the Collectanea Majora, is "Honour the gods, after the manner, which the law prescribes." Col. Maj. 312.
Socrates was certainly of the same opinion. In the former part of this lecture, it was shown, that he himself offered sacrifice after the manner of his country. From a dialogue between him and Euthydemus, preserved in the fourth book of Xenophon's Memorabilia, it appears, that whatever had been the prescribed worship, he would not have hesitated to comply with it. To this question, "Who is a pious man ?" it is answered, "He, who worships the gods." It is subjoined," May each one worship in the manner, he thinks best?" the response is, " No, but agreeably to the law, which directs, what ought to be done." (Xen. Op. 345. 308.)
Similar to this is the direction of Plato, as quoted by the Abbe Barthelemy. (Anach. iv. 253.) It is that the gods are to be worshipped in the manner prescribed by the laws; assigning as a reason, that human wisdom is unable to arrive at any positive knowledge on the subject. "He blames those men, as putting impious notions into the heads of young persons, who taught them, that they ought not to look on those to be gods, whom the law required them to regard as such." He represents it, says Leland, as the duty and office of a le
gislator to punish those, who do not believe the gods to be such as the law declares them to be. (Lel. i. 353.)
The same author informs us, that there are some remarkable passages, produced by Augustine, from a work of Seneca, now lost, in which he speaks with great freedom of the vulgar mythology. (Lel. i. 180.) Speaking of the images of the gods, he finds fault with their giving them the forms and habits of men, wild beasts, fishes, and a mixture of sexes, and adds, "they call those gods, which, if they had life and breath, and a man should meet them unexpectedly, would pass for monsters. He exposes the cruel and lascivious. rites, made use of in the worship of their deities. And yet declares, that a wise man will observe all these things, not indeed as acceptable to the gods, but as commanded by the laws."
Agreeably to this kind of casuistry, individuals were to make no use of their own intellects in judging of the manner, in which divine worship was to be performed; the whole would be under the direction of the civil magistrate; and what was enjoined in one country, would be condemned in another. At this rate, how would it have been possible, that the world should ever be reclaimed from the errors and absurdities of pagan mythology? Who was to reclaim them? The philosophers? But they referred the whole matter to the legislators. By whom then were the legislators to be reclaimed? The fact is, that this conduct of the philosophers did a positive injury. It did not merely leave things disordered as they were, but confirmed that disorder.
The philosophers proceeded a step further, if Socrates and Plato may be allowed to represent the rest. (Anach. iii. 113.) The reason, assigned by Plato, why, in his own republic, he prescribed nothing concerning the worship of the gods, is, says the author of the Travels of Anacharsis, that the regulation of that matter appertained to the Oracle at Delphi. And Xenophon represents Socrates, as encouraging Eythydemus, who was anxious to know, how he might make suitable returns to the gods, by reminding him, that the Oracle at Delphi, when consulted, as to what was acceptable to the
gods, gave this for an answer," that they must be worshippea according to the law of the city." (Xen. Op. 342.)
It appears, therefore, that both these extraordinary men. sanctioned, by their own authority, the Delphic imposture. Whether or not they considered the Oracle as an imposture, is to our present purpose, immaterial. The design and tendency of the Oracle was doubtless to favour and perpetuate the established religion. In proportion, as the oracles were regarded, the whole system of pagan superstition would gain strength and influence, and the chains of error would be riv eted on the human mind. It is, I know, very possible to make a large collection of splendid sentences, weighty and sublime maxims, from the sages of antiquity and from none more, I presume, than from Socrates, Plato, and Seneca. But can we deny, that what they built up with one hand, they demolished with the other? What availed their noblest speculations and sublimest rhapsodies, if, after all, the religion of human beings must be settled by the Delphic Oracle?
Lastly. We shall be able further to judge how far they were qualified to guide men in the affairs of religion, if we consider the lives of some, who professed philosophy, and the moral maxims transmitted to us in the writings of others. Hegesias, Anniceres, Theodorus, and Bion, were openly profligate. Arcesilaus and Lacydas died by excessive drinking. Not materially different from theirs was the character of Speusippus, who with Anniceres, placed all good in pleasure.
It was a doctrine of Theodorus, "that a man may, upon occasion, commit theft, adultery, or sacrilege, there being nothing in these naturally evil." (Stanley, 146.) Nor can philosophers of more illustrious name be exculpated from the charge of teaching pernicious moral maxims.
Socrates, as it is positively asserted by Salvian, recommended, Uxorem propriam ut nullus habeat. Matrimonia enim cunctis debent esse communia. (He lent his own wife Xantippe to Alcibiades. Pot. Gr. Ant. ii. 305.)
That community of wives, which Salvian tells us, was re