Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II: the pagan empire. - History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1
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CHAPTER II: the pagan empire. - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1 
History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1 Third edition, revised (New York: D. Appleton, 1921).
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the pagan empire.
One of the first facts that must strike a student who examines the ethical teaching of the ancient civilisations is how imperfectly that teaching was represented, and how feebly it was influenced by the popular creed. The moral ideals had at no time been sought in the actions of the gods, and long before the triumph of Christianity, polytheism had ceased to have any great influence upon the more cultivated intellects of mankind.
In Greece we may trace from the earliest time the footsteps of a religion of nature, wholly different from the legends of the mythology. The language in which the first Greek dramatists asserted the supreme authority and universal providence of Zeus was so emphatic, that the Christian Fathers commonly attributed it either to direct inspiration or to a knowledge of the Jewish writings, while later theologians of the school of Cudworth have argued from it in favour of the original monotheism of our race. The philosophers were always either contemptuous or hostile to the prevailing legends. Pythagoras is said to have declared that he had seer. Hesiod tied to a brazen pillar in hell, and Homer hung upon a tree surrounded by serpents, on account of the fables they had invented about the gods.1 Plato, for the same reason, banished the poets from his republic. Stilpo turned to ridicule the whole system of sacrifices,1 and was exiled from A thens for denying that the Athene of Phidias was a goddess.2 Xenophanes remarked that each nation attributed to the gods its distinctive national type, the gods of the Æthiopians being black, the gods of the Thracians fair and blue-eyed.3 Diagoras and Theodoras are said to have denied, and Protagoras to have questioned the existence of the gods,4 while the Epicureans deemed them wholly indifferent to human affairs, and the Pyrrhonists pronounced our faculties absolutely incapable of attaining any sure knowledge, either human or divine. The Cynic Antisthenes said that there were many popular gods, but there was only one god of nature.5 The Stoics, reproducing an opinion which was supported by Aristotle and attributed to Pythagoras,6 believed in an allpervading soul of nature, but unlike some modern schools which have adopted this view, they asserted in emphatic language the doctrine of Providence, and the self-consciousness of the Deity.
In the Roman republic and empire, a general scepticism had likewise arisen among the philosophers as the first fruit of intellectual development, and the educated classes were speedily divided between avowed or virtual atheists, like the Epicureans,7 and pure theists, like the Stoics and the Platonists. The first, represented by such writers as Lucretius and Petronius, regarded the gods simply as the creations of fear, denied every form of Providence, attributed the world to a conurrence of atoms, and life to spontaneous generation, and regarded it as the chief end of philosophy to banish as illusions of the imagination every form of religious belief. The others formed a more or less pantheistic conception of the Deity, asserted the existence of a Providence,1 but treated with great contempt the prevailing legends which they endeavoured in various ways to explain. The first systemstic theory of explanation appears to have been that of the Sicilian Euhemerus, whose work was translated by Ennius. He pretended that the gods were originally kings, whose history and genealogies he professed to trace, and who after death had been defied by mankind.2 Another attempt, which in the first period of Roman scepticism was more generally popular, was that of some of the Stoics, who regarded the gods as personifications of the different attributes of the Deity, or of different forces of nature. Thus Neptune was the sea, Pluto was fire, Hercules represented the strength of God, Minerva His wisdom, Ceres His fertilising energy.3 More than a hundred years before the Empire, Varro had declared that ‘the soul of the world is God, and that its parts are true divinities.’4 Virgil and Manilius described, in lines of singular beauty, that universal spirit, the principle of all life, the efficient cause of all motion, which permeates and animates the globe. Pliny said that ‘the world and sky, in whose embrace all things are enclosed, must be deemed a god, eternal, immense, never begotten, and never to perish. To seek things beyond this is of no profit to man, and they transcend the limits of his faculties.’1 Cicero had adopted the higher Platonic conception of the Deity as mind freed from all taint of matter,2 while Seneca celebrated in magnificent language ‘ Jupiter the guardian and ruler of the universe, the soul and spirit, the lord and master of this mundane sphere, . . . the cause of causes, upon whom all things hang. . . . Whose wisdom oversees the world that it may move uncontrolled in its course, . . . from whom all things proceed, by whose spirit we live, . . . who comprises all we see.’3 Lucan, the great poet of stoicism, rose to a still higher strain, and to one which still more accurately expressed the sentiments of his school, when he described Jupiter as that majestic, all-pervasive spirit, whose throne is virtue and the universe.4 Quintilian defended the subjugation of the world beneath the sceptre of a single man, on the ground that it was an image of the government of God. Other philosophers contented themselves with asserting the supreme authority of Jupiter Maximus, and reducing the other divinities to mere administrative and angelic functions, or, as the Platonists expressed it, to the position of dæmons. According to some of the Stoics, a final catastrophe would consume the universe, the resuscitated spirits of men and all these minor gods, and the whole creation being absorbed into the great parent spirit, God would be all in all. The very children and old women ridiculed Cerberus and the Furies1 or treated them as mere metaphors of conscience.2 In the deism of Cicero the popular divinities were discarded, the oracles refuted and ridiculed, the whole system of divination pronounced a political imposture, and the genesis of the miraculous traced to the exuberance of the imagination, and to certain diseases of the judgment.3 Before the time of Constantine, numerous books had been written against the oracles.4 The greater number of these had actually ceased, and the ablest writers justly saw in this cessation an evidence of the declining credulity of the people, and a proof that the oracles had been a fruit of that credulity.5 The Stoics, holding, as was their custom, aloof from direct religious discussion, dissuaded their disciples from consulting them, on the ground that the gifts of fortune were of no account, and that a good man should be content with his conscience, making duty and not success the object of his life.6 Cato wondered that two augurs could meet with gravity.1 The Roman general Sertorius made the forgery of auspicious omens a continual resource in warfare.2 The Roman wits made divination the favourite subject of their ridicule.3 The denunciation which the early Greek moralists launched against the popular ascription of immoral deeds to the gods was echoed by a long series of later philosophers,4 while Ovid made these fables the theme of his mocking Metamorphoses, and in his most immoral poem proposed Jupiter as a model of vice. With an irony not unlike that of Isaiah, Horace described the carpenter deliberating whether he should convert a shapeless log into a bench or into a god.5 Cicero, Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, and Dion Chrysostom either denounced idolatry or defended the use of images simply on the ground that they were signs and symbols of the Deity,6 well suited to aid the devotions of the ignorant. Seneca1 and the whole school of Pythagoras objected to the sacrifices.
These examples will be sufficient to show how widely the philosophic classes in Rome were removed from the profoseed religion of the State, and how necessary it is to seek elsewhere the sources of their moral life. But the opinions of learned men never reflect faithfully those of the vulgar, and the chasm between the two classes was even wider than at present before the dawn of Christianity and the invention of printing. The atheistic enthusiasm of Lucretius and the sceptical enthusiasm of some of the disciples of Carneades were isolated phenomena, and the great majority of the ancient philosophers, while speculating with the utmost freedom in private, or in writings that were read by the few, countenanced, practised, and even defended the religious rites that they despised. It was believed that many different paths adapted to different nations and grades of knowledge converge to the same Divinity, and that the most erroneous religion is good if it forms good dispositions and inspires virtuous actions. The oracle of Delphi had said that the best religion is that of a man's own city. Polybius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who regarded all religions simply as political agencies, dilated in rapturous terms upon the devotion of the Romans and the comparative purity of their creed.2 Varro openly professed the belief that there are religious truths which it is expedient that the people should not know, and falsehoods which they should believe to be true.3 The Academic Cicero and the Epicurean Cæsar were both high officers of religion. The Stoics taught that every man should duly perform the religious ceremonies of his country.4
But the Roman religion, even in its best days, though as admirable system of moral discipline, was never an independent source of moral enthusiasm. It was the creature of the State, and derived its inspiration from political feeling. The Roman gods were not, like those of the Greeks, the creations of an unbridled and irreverent fancy, nor, like those of the Egyptians, representations of the forces of nature; they were for the most part simple allegories, frigid personifications of different virtues, or presiding spirits imagined for the protection of different departments of industry. The religion established the sanctity of an oath, it gave a kind of official consecration to certain virtues, and commemorated special instances in which they had been displayed; its local character strengthened patriotic feeling, its worship of the dead fostered a vague belief in the immortality of the soul,1 it sustained the supremacy of the father in the family, surrounded marriage with many imposing solemnities, and created simple and reverent characters profoundly submissive to an over-ruling Providence and scrupulously observant of sacred rites. But with all this it was purely selfish. It was simply a method of obtaining prosperity, averting calamity, and reading the future. Ancient Rome produced many heroes, but no saint. Its self-sacrifice was patriotic, not religious. Its religion was neither an independent teacher nor a source of inspiration, although its rites mingled with and strengthened some of the best habits of the people.
But these habits, and the religious reverence with which they were connected, soon disappeared amid the immorality and decomposition that marked the closing vears of the Republic and the dawn of the Empire. The stern simplicity of life, which the censors had so zealously and often so tyrannically enforced,1 was exchanged for a luxury which first appeared after the return of the army of Manlius from Asia,2 increased to immense proportions after the almost simultaneous conquests of Carthage, Corinth, and Macedonia,3 received an additional stimulus from the example of Antony,4 and at last, under the Empire, rose to excesses which the wildest Oriental orgies have never surpassed.5 The complete subversion of the social and political system of the Republic, the anarchy of civil war, the ever-increasing concourse of strangers, bringing with them new philosophies, customs, and gods, had dissolved or effaced all the old bonds of virtue. The simple juxtaposition of many forms of worship effected what could not have been effected by the most sceptical literature or the most audacious philosophy. The moral influence of religion was almost annihilated. The feeling of reverence was almost extinct. Augustus solemnly degraded the statue of Neptune because his fleet had been wrecked.6 When Germanicus died, the populace stoned or overthrew the altars of the gods.7 The idea of sanctity was so far removed from the popular divinities that it became a continual complaint that prayers were offered which the most depraved would blush to pronounce aloud.8 Amid the corruption of the Empire, we meet with many noble efforts of reform made by philosophers or by emperors, but we find scarcely a trace of the moral influence of the old religion. The apotheosis of the emperors consummated its degradation. The foreign gods were identified with those of Rome, and all their immoral legends associated with the national creed.1 The theatre greatly extended the area of scepticism. Cicero mentions the assenting plaudits with which the people heard the lines of Ennius, declaring that the gods, though real beings, take no care for the things of man.2 Plutarch tells of a spectator at a theatre rising up with indignation after a recital of the crimes of Diana, and exclaiming to the actor, ‘May you have a daughter like her whom you have described!’3 St. Augustine and other of the Fathers long after ridiculed the pagans who satirised in the theatres the very gods they worshipped in the temples.4 Men were still profoundly superstitious, but they resorted to each new religion as to a charm or talisman of especial power, or a system of magic revealing the future. There existed, too, to a very large extent, a kind of superstitious scepticism which occupies a very prominent place in religious history. There were multitudes who, declaring that there were no gods, or that the gods never interfered with human affairs, professed with the same breath an absolute faith in all portents, auguries, dreams, and miracles. Innumerable natural objects, such as comets, meteors, earthquakes, or monstrous births, were supposed to possess a kind of occult or magical virtue, by which they foreshadowed, and in some cases influenced, the destinies of men. Astrology, which is the special iepre sentative of this mode of thought, rose to great prominence. The elder Pliny notices that in his time a belief was rapidly gaining ground, both among the learned and among the vulgar, that the whole destiny of man is determined by the star that presides over his nativity; that God, having ordained this, never interferes with human affairs, and that the reality of the portents is due to this pre-ordainment.1 One of the later historians of the Empire remarks that numbers who denied the existence of any divinity believed nevertheless that they could not safely appear in public, or eat or bathe, unless they had first carefully consulted the almanac to ascertain the position of the planet Mercury, or how far the moon was from the Crab.2 Except, perhaps, among the peasants in the country districts, the Roman religion, in the last years of the Republic, and in the first century of the Empire, scarcely existed, except in the state of a superstition, and he who would examine the true moral influence of the time must turn to the great schools of philosophy which had been imported from Greece.
The vast place which the rival systems of Zeno and Epicurus occupy in the moral history of mankind, and especally in the closing years of the empire of paganism, may easily lead us to exaggerate the creative genius of their founders, who, in fact, did little more than give definitions or intellectual expression to types of excellence that had at all times existed in the world. There have ever been stern, upright, self-controlled, and courageous men, actuated by a pure sense of duty, capable of high efforts of self-sacrifice, somewhat intolorant of the frailties of others, somewhat hard and unsympathising in the ordinary intercourse of society, but rising to heroic grandeur as the storm lowered upon their path, and more ready to relinquish life than the cause they believed to be true. There have also always been men of easy tempers and of amiable disposition, gentle, benevolent, and pliant, cordial friends and forgiving enemies, selfish at heart, yet ever ready, when it is possible, to unite their gratifications with those of others, averse to all enthusiasm, mysticism, otopias, and superstition, with little depth of character or capacity for self-sacrifice, but admirably fitted to impart and to receive enjoyment, and to render the course of life easy and harmonious. The first are by nature Stoics, and the second Epicureans, and if they proceed to reason about the summum bonum or the affections, it is more than probable that in each case their characters will determine their theories. The first will estimate self-control above all other qualities, will disparage the affections, and will endeavour to separate widely the ideas of duty and of interest, while the second will systematically prefer the amiable to the heroic, and the utilitarian to the mystical.
But while it is undoubtedly true that in these matters character usually determines opinion, it is not less true that character is itself in a great measure governed by national circumstances. The refined, artistic, sensual civilisations of Greece and Asia Minor might easily produce fine examples of the Epicurean type, but Rome was from the earliest times pre-eminently the home of stoicism. Long before the Romans had begun to reason about philosophy, they had exhibited it in action, and in their speculative days it was to this doctrine that the noblest minds naturally tended. A great nation engaged in perpetual wars in an age when success in warfare depended neither upon wealth nor upon mechanical genius, but upon the constant energy of patriotic enthusiasm, and upon the unflinching maintenance of military discipline, the whole force of the national character tended to the production of a single definite type. In the absolute authority accorded to the father over the children, to the husband over the wife, to the master over the slave, we may trace the same habits of discipline that proved so formidable in the field. Patriotism and military honour were indissolubly connected in the Roman mind. They were the two sources of national enthusiasm, the chief ingredients of the national conception of greatness. They determined irresistibly the moral theory which was to prove supreme.
Now war, which brings with it so many demoralising influences, has, at least, always been the great school of heroism. It teaches men how to die. It familiarises the mind with the idea of noble actions performed under the influence, not of personal interest, but of honour and of enthusiasm. It elicits in the highest degree strength of character accustoms men to the abnegation needed for simultaneous action, compels them to repress their fears, and establish a firm control over their affections. Patriotism, too, leads them to subordinate their personal wishes to the interests of the society in which they live. It extends the horizon of life, teaching men to dwell among the great men of the past, to derive their moral strength from the study of heroic lives, to look forward continually, through the vistas of a distant future, to the welfare of an organisation which will continue when they have passed away. All these influences were developed in Roman life to a degree which can now never be reproduced. War, for the reasons I have stated, was far more than at present the school of heroic virtues. Patriotism, in the absence of any strong theological passion, had assumed a transcendent power. The citizen, passing continually from political to military life, exhibited to perfection the moral effects of both. The habits of command formed by a long period of almost universal empire, and by the aristocratic organisation of the city, contributed to the elevaticn, and also to the pride, of the national character.
It will appear, I think, sufficiently evident, from these considerations, that the circumstances of the Roman people tended inevitably to the production of a certain type of character, which, in its essential characteristics, was the type of stoicism. In addition to the predisposition which leads men in their estimate of the comparative excellence of different qualities to select for the highest eulogy those which are most congruous to their own characters, this fact derives a great importance from the large place which the biographical element occupied in ancient ethical teaching. Among Christians the ideals have commonly been either supernatural beings or men who were in constant connection with supernatural beings, and these men have usually been either Jews or saints, whose lives were of such a nature as to isolate them from most human sympathies, and to efface as far as possible the national type. Among the Greeks and Romans the examples of virtue were usually their own fellow-countrymen; men who had lived in the same moral atmosphere, struggled for the same ends, acquired their reputation in the same spheres, exhibited in all their intensity the same national sharacteristics as their admirers. History had assumed a didactic character it has now almost wholly lost. One of the first tasks of every moralist was to collect traits of charactet illustrating the precepts he enforced. Valerius Maximus represented faithfully the method of the teachers of antiquity when he wrote his book giving a catalogue of different moral qualities, and illustrating each by a profusion of examples derived from the history of his own or of foreign nations ‘Whenever,’ said Plutarch, ‘we begin an enterprise, or take possession of a charge, or experience a calamity, we place before our eyes the example of the greatest men of our own or of bygone ages, and we ask ourselves how Plato or Epaiainondas, Lycurgus or Agesilaus, would have acted. Looking into these personages as into a faithful mirror, we can remedy our defects in word or deed. . . . Whenever any perplexity arrives, or any passion disturbs the mind, the student of philosophy pictures to himself some of those who have been celebrated for their virtue, and the recollection sustains his tottering steps and prevents his fall.’1
Passages of this kind continually occur in the ancient moralists,2 and they show how naturally the highest type of national excellence determined the prevailing school of moral philosophy, and also how the influence of the heroic period of national history would act upon the best minds in the subsequent and wholly different phases of development. It was therefore not surprising that during the Empire, though the conditions of national life were profoundly altered, Stoicism should still be the philosophical religion, the great source and regulator of moral enthusiasm. Epicureanism had, indeed, spread widely in the Empire,3 but it proved little more than a principle of disintegration or an apology for vice, or at best the religion of tranquil and indifferent natures animated by no strong moral enthusiasm. It is indeed true that Epicurus had himself been a man of the most blameless character, that his doctrines were at first carefully distinguished from the coarse sensuality of the Cyrenaic school which had preceded them, that they admitted in theory almost every form of virtue, and that the school had produced many disciples who, if they had not attained the highest grades of excellence, had at least been men of harmless lives, intensely devoted to their master, and especially noted for the warmth and constancy of their friendships.1 But a school which placed so high a value on ease and pleasure was eminently unfit to struggle against the fearful difficulties that beset the teachers of virtue amid the anarchy of a military despotism, and the virtues and the vices of the Romans were alike fatal to its success. All the great ideals of Roman ex cellence belonged to a different type. Such men as a Decius or a Regulus would have been impossible in an Epicurean society, for even if their actuating emotion were no nobler than a desire for posthumous fame, such a desire could never grow powerful in a moral atmosphere charged with the shrewd, placid, unsentimental utilitarianism of Epicurus. On the other hand, the distinctions the Epicureans had drawn between more or less refined pleasures and their elevated conceptions of what constitutes the true happiness of men, were unintelligible to the Romans, who knew how to sacrifice enjoyment, but who, when pursuing it, gravitated naturally to the coarsest forms. The mission of Epicureanism was therefore chiefly negative. The anti-patriotic tendency of its teaching contributed to that destruction of national feeling which was necessary to the rise of cosmopolitanism, while its strong opposition to theological beliefs, supported by the genius and enthusiasm of Lucretius, told powerfully upon the decaying faith.
Such being the functions of Epicureanism, the constructive or positive side of ethical teaching devolved almost exclusively upon Stoicism; for although there were a few philosophers who expressed themselves in strong opposition to some portions of the Stoical system, their efforts usually tended to no more than a modification of its extreme and harshest features. The Stoics asserted two cardinal principles — that virtue was the sole legitimate object to be aspired to, and that it involved so complete an ascendancy of the reason as altogether to extinguish the affections. The Peripatetics and many other philosophers, who derived their opinions chiefly from Plato, endeavoured to soften down the exaggeration of these principles. They admitted that virtue was an object wholly distinct from interest, and that it should be the leading motive of life; but they maintained that happiness was also a good, and a certain regard for it legitimate. They admitted that virtue consisted in the supremacy of the reason over the affections, but they allowed the exercise of the latter within restricted limits. The main distinguishing features, however, of Stoicism, the unselfish ideal and the controlling reason, were acquiesced in, and each represents an important side of the ancient conception of excellence which we must now proceed to examine.
In the first we may easily trace the intellectual expression of the high spirit of self-sacrifice which the patriotic enthusiasm had elicited. The spirit of patriotism has this peculiar characteristic, that, while it has evoked acts of heroins which are both very numerous and very sublime, it has done so without presenting any prospect of personal immortality as a reward. Of all the forms of human heroism, it is probably the most unselfish. The Spartan and the Roman died for his country because he loved it. The martyr's ecstasy of hope had no place in his dying hour. He gave up all he had, he closed his eyes, as he believed, for ever, and he asked for no reward in this world or in the next. Even the hope of posthumous fame—the most refined and supersensual of all that can be called reward—could exist only for the most conspicuous leaders. It was examples of this nature that formed the culminations or ideals of ancient systems of virtue, and they naturally led men to draw a very clear and deep distinction between the notions of interest and of duty. It may, indeed, be truly said, that while the conception of what constituted duty was often very imperfect in antiquity, the conviction that duty, as distinguished from every modification of selfishness, should be the supreme motive of life was more clearly enforced among the Stoics than in any later society.
The reader will probably have gathered from the last chapter that there are four distinct motives which moral teachers may propose for the purpose of leading men to virtue. They may argue that the disposition of events is such that prosperity will attend a virtuous life, and adversity a vicious one—a proposition they may prove by pointing to the normal course of affairs, and by asserting the existence of a special Providence in behalf of the good in the present world, and of rewards and punishments in the future. As far as these latter arguments are concerned, the efficacy of such teaching rests upon the firmness with which certain theological tenets are held, while the force of the first considerations will depend upon the degree and manner in which society is organised, for there are undoubtedly some conditions of society in which a perfectly upright life has not even a general tendency to prosperity. The peculiar circumstances and dispositions of individuals will also influence largely the way in which they receive such teaching, and, as Cicero observed, ‘what one utility has created, another will often destroy.’
They may argue, again, that vice is to the mind what disease is to the body, and that a state of virtue is in consequence a state of health. Just as bodily health is desired for its own sake, as being the absence of a painful, or at least displeasing state, so a well-ordered and virtuous mind may be valued for its own sake, and independently of all the external good to which it may lead, as being a condition of happiness; and a mind distracted by passion and vice may be avoided, not so much because it is an obstacle in the pursuit of prosperity, as because it is in itself essentially painful and disturbing. This conception of virtue and vice as states of health or sickness, the one being in itself a good and the other in itself an evil, was a fundamental proposition in the ethics of Plato.1 It was admitted, but only to a subsidiary place, by the Stoics,2 and has passed more or less into all the succeeding systems. It is especially favourable to large and elevating conceptions of self-culture, for it leads men to dwell much less upon isolated acts of virtue or vice than upon the habitual condition of mind from which they spring.
It is possible, in the third place, to argue in favour of virtue by offering as a motive that sense of pleasure which follows the deliberate performance of a virtuous act. This emotion is a distinct and isolated gratification following a distinct action, and may therefore be easily separated from that habitual placidity of temper which results from the extinction of vicious and perturbing impulses. It is this theory which is implied in the common exhortations to enjoy ‘the luxury of doing good,’ and though especially strong in acts of benevolence, in which case sympathy with the happiness created intensifies the feeling, this pleasure attends every kind of virtue.
These three motives of action have all this common characteristic, that they point as their ultimate end to the happiness of the agent. The first seeks that happiness in external circumstances; the second and third in psychological conditions. There is, however, a fourth kind of motive which may be urged, and which is the peculiar characteristic of the intuitive school of moralists and the stumbling-block of its opponents. It is asserted that we are so constituted that the notion of duty furnishes in itself a natural motive of action of the highest order, wholly distinct from all the refinements and modifications of self-interest. The coactive force of this motive is altogether independent of surrounding circumstances, and of all forms of belief. It is equally true for the man who believes and for the man who rejects the Christian faith, for the believer in a future world and for the believer in the mortality of the soul. It is not a question of happiness or unhappiness, of reward or punishment, but of a generically different nature. Men feel that a certain course of life is the natural end of their being, and they feel bound even at the expense of happiness, to pursue it. They feel that certain acts are essentially good and noble, and others essentially base and vile, and this perception leads them to pursue the one and to avoid the other, irrespective of all considerations of enjoyment.
I have recurred to these distinctions, which were more fully discussed in the last chapter, because the school of philosophy we are reviewing furnishes the most perfect of all historical examples of the power which the higher of these motives can exercise over the mind. The coarser forms of self-interest were in stoicism absolutely condemned. It was one of the first principles of these philosophers that all things that are not in our power should be esteemed indifferent; that the object of all mental discipline should be to withdraw the mind from all the gifts of fortune, and that prudence must in consequence be altogether excluded from the motives of virtue. To enforce these principles they continually dilated upon the vanity of human things, and upon the majesty of the independent mind, and they indulged, though scarcely more than other sects, in many exaggerations about the impassive tranquillity of the sage.1 In the Roman empire stoicism flourished at a period which, beyond almost any other, seemed unfavourable to such teaching. There were reigns when, in the emphatic words of Tacitus, ‘virtue was a sentence of death.’ In no period had brute force more completely triumphed, in none was the thirst for material advantages more intense, in very few was vice more ostentatiously glorified. Yet in the midst of all these circumstances the Stoics taught a philosophy which was not a compromise, or an attempt to moderate the popular excesses, but which was rather in its austere sanctity the extreme antithesis of all that the prevailing examples and their own interests could dictate. And these men were no impassioned fanatics, fired with the prospect of coming glory. They were men from whose motives of action the belief in the immortality of the soul was resolutely excluded. In the scepticism that accompanied the first introduction of philosophy into Rome, in the dissolution of the old fables about Tartarus and the Styx, and the dissemination of Epicureanism among the people, this doctrine had sunk very low, notwithstanding the beautiful reasonings of Cicero and the religious faith of a few who clung like Plutarch to the mysteries in which it was perpetuated. An interlocutor in Cicero expressed what was probably a common feeling when he acknowledged that, with the writings of Plato before him, he could believe and realise it; but when he closed the book, the reasonings seemed to lose their power, and the world of spirits grew pale and unreal.1 If Ennius could elicit the plaudits of a theatre when he proclaimed that the gods took no part in human affairs, Cæsar could assert in the senate, without scandal and almost without dissent, that death was the end of all things.2 Pliny, perhaps the greatest of Roman scholars, adopting the sentiment of all the school of Epicurus, describes the belief in a future life as a form of madness, a puerile and a pernicious illusion.3 The opinions of the Stoics were wavering and uncertain. Their first doctrine was that the soul of man has a future and independent, but not an eternal existence, that it survives until the last conflagration which was to destroy the world, and absorb all finite things into the all-pervading soul of nature. Chrysippus, however, restricted to the best and noblest souls this future existence, which Cleanthes had awarded to all,1 and among the Roman Stoics even this was greatly doubted. The belief that the human soul is a detached fragment of the Deity naturally led to the belief that after death it would be reabsorbed into the parent Spirit. The doctrine that there is no real good but virtue deprived the Stoics of the argument for a future world derived from unrequited merit and unpunished crime, and the earnestness with which they contended that a good man should act irrespectively of reward inclined them, as it is said to have inclined some Jewish thinkers,2 to the denial of the existence of the reward.3 Panætius, the founder of Roman stoicism, maintained that the soul perished with the body,4 and his opinion was followed by Epictetus,5 and Cornutus.6 Seneca contradicted himself on the subject.7 Marcus Aurelius never rose beyond a vague and mournful aspiration. Those who believed in a future world believed in it faintly and uncertainly, and even when they accepted it as a fact, they shrank from proposing it as a motive. The whole system of Stoical ethics, which carried self-sacrifice to a point that has scarcely been equalled, and exercised an influence which has rarely been surpassed, was evolved without any assistance from the doctrine of a future life.1 Pagan antiquity has bequeathed us few nobler treatises of morals than the ‘De Officiis’ of Cicero, which was avowedly an expansion of a work of Panætius.2 It has left us no grander example than that of Epictetus, the sickly, deformed slave of a master who was notorious for his barbarity, enfranchised late in life, but soon driven into exile by Domitian; who, while sounding the very abyss of human misery, and looking forward to death as to simple decomposition, was yet so filled with the sense of the Divine presence that his life was one continued hymn to Providence, and his writings and his example, which appeared to his contemporaries almost the ideal of human goodness, have not lost their consoling power through all the ages and the vicissitudes they have survived.3
There was, however, another form of immortality which exercised a much greater influence among the Roman moralists. The desire for reputation, and especially for posthu mous reputation—that ‘last infirmity of noble minds’1 —assumed an extraordinary prominence among the springs of Roman heroism, and was also the origin of that theatrical and overstrained phraseology which the greatest of ancient moralists rarely escaped.2 But we should be altogether in error if we inferred, as some have done, that paganism never rose to the conception of virtue concealing itself from the world, and consenting voluntarily to degradation. No characters were more highly appreciated in antiquity than those of men who, through a sense of duty, opposed the strong current of popular favour; of men like Fabius, who consented for the sake of their country to incur the reputation that is most fatal to a soldier;3 of men like Cato, who remained unmoved among the scoffs, the insults, and the ridicule of an angry crowd.4 Cicero, expounding the principles of Stoicism, declared that no one has attained to true philosophy who has not learnt that all vice should be avoided, ‘though it were concealed from the eyes of gods and men,’5 and that no deeds are more laudable than those which are done without ostentation, and far from the sight of men.6 The writings of the Stoics are crowded with sentences to the same effect. ‘Nothing for opinion, all for conscience.’1 ‘He who wishes his virtue to be blazed abroad is not labouring for virtue but for fame.’2 ‘No one is more virtuous than the man who sacrifices the reputation of a good man rather than sacrifice his conscience.’3 ‘I do not shrink from praise, but I refuse to make it the end and term of right.’4 ‘If von do anything to please men, you have fallen from your estate.5 ‘Even a bad reputation nobly earned is pleasing.’6 ‘A great man is not the less great when he lies vanquished and prostrate in the dust.’7 ‘Never forget that it is possible to be at once a divine man, yet a man unknown to all the world.’8 ‘That which is beautiful is beautiful in itself; the praise of man adds nothing to its quality.’9 Marcus Aurelius, following an example that is ascribed to Pythagoras, made it a special object of mental discipline, by continually meditating on death, and evoking, by an effort of the imagination, whole societies that had passed away, to acquire a realised sense of the vanity of posthumous fame. The younger Pliny painted faithfully the ideal of Stoicism when he described one of his friends as a man ‘who did nothing for ostentation, but all for conscience; who sought the reward of virtue in itself, and not in the praise of man.’10 Nor were the Stoics less emphatic in distinguishing the obligation from the attraction of virtue. It was on this point that they separated from the more refined Epicureans, who were often willing to sublimate to the highest degree the kind of pleasure they proposed as an object, provided only it were admitted that pleasure is necessarily the ultimate end of our actions. But this the Stoics firmly denied. ‘Pleasure,’ they argued, ‘is the companion, not the guide, of our course.1 We do not love virtue because it gives us pleasure, but it gives us pleasure because we love it.’2 ‘The wise man will not sin, though both gods and men should overlook the deed, for it is not through the fear of punishment or of shame that he abstains from sin. It is from the desire and obligation of what is just and good.’3 ‘To ask to be paid for virtue is as if the eye demanded a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking.’4 In doing good, man ‘should be like the vine which has produced grapes, and asks for nothing more after it has produced its proper fruit.’5 His end, according to these teachers, is not to find peace either in life or in death. It is to do his duty, and to tell the truth.
The second distinguishing feature of Stoicism I have noticed was the complete suppression of the affections to make way for the absolute ascendancy of reason. There are two great divisions of character corresponding very nearly to the Stoical and Epicurean temperaments I have described—that in which the will predominates, and that in which the desires are supreme. A good man of the first class is one whose will, directed by a sense of duty, pursues the course he believes to be right, in spite of strong temptations to pursue an opposite course, arising either from his own passions and tendencies, or from the circumstances that surround him. A good man of the second class is one who is so happily constituted that his sympathies and desires instinctively tend to virtuous ends. The first character is the only one to which we can, strictly speaking, attach the idea of merit, and it is also the only one which is capable of rising to high efforts of continuous and heroic self-sacrifice; but on the other hand there is a charm in the spontaneous action of the unforced desires which disciplined virtue can perhaps never attain. The man who is consistently generous through a sense of duty, when his natural temperament impels him to avarice, and when every exercise of benevolence causes him a pang, deserves in the very highest degree our admiration; but he whose generosity costs him no effort, but is the natural gratification of his affections, attracts a far larger measure of our love. Corresponding to these two casts of character, we find two distinct theories of education, the aim of the one being chiefly to strengthen the will, and that of the other to guide the desires. The principal examples of the first are the Spartan and Stoical systems of antiquity, and, with some modifications, the asceticism of the Middle Ages. The object of these systems was to enable men to endure pain, to repress manifest and acknowledged desires, to relinquish enjoyments, to establish an absolute empire over their emotions. On the other hand, there is a method of education which was never more prevalent than in the present day, which exhausts its efforts in making virtue attractive, in associating it with all the charms of imagination and of prosperity, and in thus insensibly drawing the desires in the wished-for direction. As the first system is especially suited to a disturbed and military society, which requires and elicits strong efforts of the will, and is therefore the special sphere of heroic virtues, so the latter belongs naturally to a tranquil and highly organised civilisation, which is therefore very favourable to the amiable qualities, and it is probable that as civilisation advances, the heroic type will, in consequence, become more and more rare, and a kind of self-indulgent goodness more common. The circumstances of the ancient societies led them to the former type, of which the Stoics furnished the extreme expression in their doctrine that the affections are of the nature of a disease1 —a doctrine which they justified by the same kind of arguments as those which are now often employed by metaphysicians to prove that love, anger, and the like can only be ascribed by a figure of speech to the Deity. Perturbation, they contended, is necessarily imporfaction, and none of its forms can in consequence be ascribed to a perfect being. We have a clear intuitive perception that reason is the highest, and should be the directing, power of an intelligent being; but every act which is performed at the instigation of the emotions is withdrawn from the empire of reason. Hence it was inferred that while the will should be educated to act habitually in the direction of virtue, even the emotions that seem most fitted to second it should be absolutely proscribed. Thus Seneca has elaborated at length the distinction between clemency and pity, the first being one of the highest virtues, and the latter a positive vice. Clemency, he says, is an habitual disposition to gentleness in the application of punishments. It is that moderation which remits something of an incurred penalty, it is the opposite of cruelty, which is an habitual disposition to rigour. Pity, on the other hand, bears to clemency the same kind of relation as superstition to religion. It is the weakness of a feeble mind that flinches at the sight of suffering. Clemency is an act of judgment, but pity disturbs the judgment. Clemency adjudicates upon the proportion between suffering and guilt. Pity contemplates only suffering, and gives no thought to its cause. Clemency, in the midst of its noblest efforts, is perfectly passionless; pity is unreasoning emotion. Clemency is an essential characteristic of the sage; pity is only suited for weak women and for diseased minds. ‘The sage will console those who weep, but without weeping with them; he will succour the shipwrecked, give hospitality to the proscribed, and alms to the poor, ... restore the son to the mother's tears, save the captive from the arena, and even bury the criminal; but in all this his mind and his countenance will be alike untroubled. He will feel no pity. He will succour, he will do good, for he is born to assist his fellows, to labour for the welfare of mankind, and to offer to each one his part. ... His countenance and his soul will betray no emotion as he looks upon the withered legs, the tattered rags, the bent and emaciated frame of the beggar. But he will help those who are worthy, and, like the gods, his leaning will be towards the wretched. ... It is only diseased eyes that grow moist in beholding tears in other eyes, as it is no true sympathy, but only weakness of nerves, that leads some to laugh always when others laugh, or to yawn when others yawn.’1
Cicero, in a sentence which might be adopted as the motto of Stoicism, said that Homer ‘attributed human qualities to the gods; it would have been better to have imparted divine qualities to men.’ The remarkable passage I have just cited serves to show the extremes to which the Stoics pushed this imitation. And indeed, if we compare the different virtues that have flourished among Pagans and Christians, we invariably find that the prevailing type of excellence among the former is that in which the will and judgment, and among the latter that in which the emotions, are most prominent. Friendship rather than love, hospitality rather than charity, magnanimity rather than tenderness, clemency rather than sympathy, are the characteristics of ancient goodness. The Stoics, who carried the suppression of the emotions farther than any other school, laboured with great zeal to compensate the injury thus done to the benevolent side of our nature, by greatly enlarging the sphere of reasoned and passionless philanthropy. They taught, in the most emphatic language, the fraternity of all men, and the consequent duty of each man consecrating his life to the welfare of others. They developed this general doctrine in a series of detailed precepts, which, for the range, depth, and beauty of their charity, have never been surpassed. They even extended their compassion to crime, and adopting the paradox of Plato, that all guilt is ignorance,1 treated it as an involuntary disease, and declared that the only legitimate ground of punishment is prevention.2 But, however fully they might reconcile in theory their principles with the widest and most active benevolence, they could not wholly counteract the practical evil of a system which declared war against the whole emotional side of our being, and reduced human virtue to a kind of majestic egotism; proposing as examples Anaxagoras, who, when told that his son had died, simply observed, ‘I never supposed that I had begotten an immortal;’ or Stilpo, who, when his country had been ruined, his native city captured, and his daughters carried away as slaves or as concubines, boasted that he had lost nothing, for the sage is independent of circumstances.3 The framework or theory of benevolence might be there, but the animating spirit was absent. Men who taught that the husband or the father should look with perfect indifference on the death of his wife or his child, and that the philosopher, though he may shed tears of pretended sympathy in order to console his suffering friend, must suffer no real emotion to penetrate his breast,1 could never found a true or lasting religion of benevolence. Men who refused to recognise pain and sickness as evils were scarcely likely to be very eager to relieve them in others.
In truth, the Stoics, who taught that all virtue was conformity to nature, were, in this respect, eminently false to their own principle. Human nature, as revealed to us by reason, is a composite thing, a constitution of many parts differing in kind and dignity, a hierarchy in which many powers are intended to co-exist, but in different positions of ascendancy or subordination. To make the higher part of our nature our whole nature, is not to restore but to mutilate humanity, and this mutilation has never been attempted without producing grave evils. As philanthropists, the Stoics, through their passion for unity, were led to the extirpation of those emotions which nature intended as the chief springs of benevolence. As speculative philosophers, they were entangled by the same desire in a long train of pitiable paradoxes. Their famous doctrines that all virtues are equal, or, more correctly, are the same, that all vices are equal, that nothing is an evil which does not affect our will, and that pain and bereavement are, in consequence, no ills,2 though partially explained away and frequently disregarded by the Roman Stoics, were yet sufficiently prominent to give their teaching something of an unnatural and affected appearance. Prizing only a single object, and developing only a single side of their nature, their minds became narrow and their views contracted. Thus, while the Epicureans, urging men to study nature in order to banish superstition, endeavoured to correct that ignorance of physical science which was one of the chief impediments to the progress of the ancient mind, the Stoics for the most part disdained a study which was other than the pursuit of virtue.1 While the Epicurean poet painted in magnificent language the perpetual progress of mankind, the Stoic was essentially retrospective, and exhausted his strength in vain efforts to restore the simplicity of a by-gone age. While, too, the school of Zeno produced many of the best and greatest men who have ever lived, it must be acknowledged that its records exhibit a rather unusual number of examples of high professions falsified in action, and of men who, displaying in some forms the most undoubted and transcendent virtue, fell in others far below the average of mankind. The elder Cato, who, though not a philosopher, was a model of philosophers, was conspicuous for his inhumanity to his slaves.2 Brutus was one of the most extortionate usurers of his time, and several citizens of Salamis died of starvation, imprisoned because they could not pay the sum he demanded.1 No one eulogised more eloquently the austere simplicity of life which Stoicism advocated than Sallust, who in a corrupt age was notorious for his rapacity. Seneca himself was constitutionally a nervous and timid man, endeavouring, not always with success, to support himself by a sublime philosophy. He guided, under circumstances of extreme difficulty, the cause of virtue, and his death is one of the noblest antiquity records; but his life was deeply marked by the taint of flattery, and not free from the taint of avarice, and it is unhappily certain that he lent his pen to conceal or varnish one of the worst crimes of Nero. The courage of Lucan failed signally under torture, and the flattery which he bestowed upon Nero, in his ‘Pharsalia,’ ranks with the Epigrams of Martial as probably the extreme limit of sycophancy to which Roman literature descended.
While, too, the main object of the Stoics was to popularise philosophy, the high standard of self-control they exacted rendered their system exceedingly unfit for the great majority of mankind, and for the ordinary condition of affairs. Life is history, not poetry. It consists mainly of little things, rarely illumined by flashes of great heroism, rarely broken by great dangers, or demanding great exertions. A moral system, to govern society, must accommodate itself to common characters and mingled motives. It must be capable of influencing natures that can never rise to an heroic level. It must tincture, modify, and mitigate where it cannot eradicate or transform. In Christianity there are always a few persons seeking by continual and painful efforts to reverse or extinguish the ordinary feelings of humanity, but in the great majority of cases the influence of the religious principle upon the mind, though very real, is not of a nature to cause any serious strain or struggle. It is displayed in a certain acquired spontaneity of impulse. It softens the character, purifies and directs the imagination, blends insensibly with the habitual modes of thought, and, without revolutionising, gives a tone and bias to all the forms of action. But Stoicism was simply a school of heroes. It recognised no gradations of virtue or vice. It condemned all emotions, all spontaneity, all mingled motives, all the principles, feelings, and impulses upon which the virtue of common men mainly depends. It was capable of acting only on moral natures that were strung to the highest tension, and it was therefore naturally rejected by the multitude.
The central conception of this philosophy of self-control was the dignity of man. Pride, which looks within, making man seek his own approbation, as distinguished from vanity, which looks without, and shapes its conduct according to the opinions of others, was not only permitted in Stoicism, it was even its leading moral agent. The sense of virtue, as I have elsewhere observed, occupies in this system much the same place as the sense of sin in Christianity. Sin, in the conception of the ancients, was simply disease, and they deemed it the part of a wise man to correct it, but not to dwell upon its circumstances. In the many disquisitions which Epictetus and others have left us concerning the proper frame of mind in which man should approach death, repentance for past sin has absolutely no place, nor do the ancients appear to have ever realised the purifying and spiritualising influence it exercises upon character. And while the reality of moral disease was fully recognised, while a lofty and indeed unattainable ideal was continually proposed, no one doubted the essential excellence of human nature, and very few doubted the possibility of man acquiring by his own will a high degree of virtue. In this last respect there was a wide difference between the teaching of the Roman moralists and of the Greek poets.1 Homer continually represents courage, anger, and the like, as the direct inspiration of Heaven. Æschylus, the great poet of fatalism, regards every human passion as but a single link in the great chain of causes forged by the inexorable will of Zeus. There are, indeed, few grander things in poetry than his picture of the many and various motives that urged Clytemnestra to the slaughter of Agamemnon—revenge for her murdered daughter, love for Ægisthus, resentment at past breaches of conjugal duty, jealousy of Cassandra, all blending in that fierce hatred that nerved her arm against her husband's life; while above all this tumult of passion the solemn song of Cassandra proclaimed that the deed was but the decree of Heaven, the harvest of blood springing from the seed of crime, the accomplishment of the ancient curse that was destined to cling for ever to the hapless race of Atreus. Before the body of the murdered king, and in presence of the wildest paroxysms of human passion, the bystanders bowed their heads, exclaiming, ‘Zeus has willed it—Zeus the supreme Ruler, the God who does all; for what can happen in the world without the will of Zeus?’
But conceptions of this kind had little or no place in the philosophy of Rome. The issue of human enterprises and the disposition of the gifts of fortune were recognised as under the control of Providence; but man was master of his own feelings, and was capable of attaining such excellence that he might even challenge comparison with the gods. Audacious as such sentiments may now appear, they were common to most schools of Roman moralists. ‘We boast justly of our own virtue,’ said the eclectic Cicero, ‘which we could not do if we derived it from the Deity and not from ourselves.’ ‘All mortals judge that fortune is to be received from the gods and wisdom from ourselves.’1 The Epicurean Horace, in his noblest ode, described the just man, confident in his virtue, undaunted amid the crash of worlds, and he tells us to pray only for those things which Jupiter gives and takes away. ‘He gives life, he gives wealth; an untroubled mind I secure for myself.’2 ‘The calm of a mind blest in the consciousness of its virtue,’ was the expression of supreme felicity the Epicureans had derived from their master.3 Lucretius, in a magnificent passage, designates Epicurus as a god, and boasts that the popular divinities dwindle into insignificance before him. Ceres, he says, gave men corn, and Bacchus wine, but Epicurus the principles of virtue. Hercules conquered monsters, Epicurus conquered vice.4 ‘Pray,’ said Juvenal, ‘for a healthy mind in a healthy body. Ask for a brave soul unscared by death. ... But there are things you can give yourself.’5 ‘Misfortune, and losses, and calumny,’ said Seneca, ‘disappear before virtue as the taper before the sun.’6 ‘In one point the sage is superior to God. God owes it to His nature not to fear, but the sage owes it to himself. Sublime condition! he joins the frailty of a man to the security of a god.’7 ‘Except for immortality,’ he elsewhere writes, ‘the sage is like to God.’8 ‘It is the characteristic of a wise man,’ added Epictetus, ‘that he looks for all his good and evil from himself.’1 ‘As far as his rational nature is concerned, he is in no degree inferior to the gods.’2
There were, however, other veins of thought exhibited in stoicism which greatly modified and sometimes positively contradicted this view of the relations of man to the Deity. The theology of the Stoics was an ill-defined, uncertain, and somewhat inconsistent Pantheism; the Divinity was especially worshipped under the two aspects of Providence and moral goodness, and the soul of man was regarded as ‘a detached fragment of the Deity,’3 or as at least pervaded and accompanied by a divine energy. ‘There never,’ said Cicero, ‘was a great man, without an inspiration from on high.’4 ‘Nothing,’ said Seneca, ‘is closed to God. He is present in our conscience. He intervenes in our thoughts.’5 ‘I tell thee, Lucilius,’ he elsewhere writes, ‘a sacred spirit dwells within us, the observer and the guardian of our good and evil deeds. ... No man is good without God. Who, save by His assistance, can rise above fortune? He gives noble and lofty counsels. A God (what God I know not) dwells in every good man.’6 ‘Offer to the God that is in thee,’ said Marcus Aurelius, ‘a manly being, a citizen, a soldier at his post ready to depart from life as soon as the trumpet sounds.’7 ‘It is sufficient to believe in the Genius who is within us, and to honour him by a pure worship.’8
Passages of this kind are not unfrequent in Stoical writings. More commonly, however, virtue is represented as a human act imitating God. This was the meaning of the Platonic maxim, ‘follow God,’ which the Stoics continually repeated, which they developed in many passages of the most touching and beautiful piety, and to which they added the duty of the most absolute and unquestioning submission to the decrees of Providence. Their doctrine on this latter point harmonised well with their antipathy to the emotional side of our being. ‘To weep, to complain, to groan, is to rebel;’1 ‘to fear, to grieve, to be angry, is to be a deserter.’2 ‘Remember that you are but an actor, acting whatever part the Master has ordained. It may be short, or it may be long. If He wishes you to represent a poor man, do so heartily; if a cripple, or a magistrate, or a private man, in each case act your part with honour.’3 ‘Never say of anything that you have lost it, but that you have restored it; your wife and child die—you have restored them; your farm is taken from you—that also is restored. It is seized by an impious man. What is it to you by whose instrumentality He who gave it reclaims it?’4 ‘God does not keep a good man in prosperity; He tries, He strengthens him, He prepares him for Himself.’5 ‘Those whom God approves, whom He loves, He hardens, He proves, He exercises; but those whom He seems to indulge and spare, He preserves for future ills.’6 With a beautiful outburst of submissive gratitude, Marcus Aurelius exclaims, ‘Some have said, Oh, dear city of Cecrops!—but thou, canst thou say, Oh, dear city of Jupiter? ... All that is suitable to thee, oh world, is suitable to me.’7
These passages, which might be indefinitely multiplied, serve to show how successfully the Stoics laboured, by dilating upon the conception of Providence, to mitigate the arrogance which one aspect of their teaching unquestionably displayed. But in this very attempt another danger was incurred, upon which a very large proportion of the moral systems of all ages have been wrecked. A doctrine which thus enjoins absolute submission to the decrees of Providence,1 which proscribes the affections, and which represents its disciples as altogether independent of surrounding circumstances, would in most conditions of society have led necessarily to quietism, and proved absolutely incompatible with active virtue. Fortunately, however, in the ancient civilisations the idea of virtue had from the earliest times been so indissolubly connected with that of political activity that the danger was for a long period altogether avoided. The State occupied in antiquity a prominence in the thoughts of men which it never has attained in modern times. The influence of patriotism thrilled through every fibre of moral and intellectual life. The most profound philosophers, the purest moralists, the most sublime poets, had been soldiers or statesmen. Hence arose the excessive predominance occasionally accorded to civic virtues in ancient systems of ethics, and also not a few of their most revolting paradoxes. Plato advocated community of wives mainly on the ground that the children produced would be attached more exclusively to their country.2 Aristotle may be almost said to have made the difference between Greek and barbarian the basis of his moral code. The Spartan legislation was continually extolled as an ideal, as the Venetian constitution by the writers of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, the contact of the spheres of speculation and of political activity exercised in one respect a very beneficial influence upon ancient philosophies. Patriotism almost always occupied a prominence in the scale of duties, which forms a striking contrast to the neglect or discredit into which it has fallen among modern teachers. We do, indeed, read of an Anaxagoras pointing to heaven as to his true country, and pronouncing exile to be no evil, as the descent to the infernal regions is the same from every land, but such sentiments, though not unknown among the Epicureans and the Cynics, were diametrically opposed to the prevailing tone. Patriotism was represented as a moral duty, and a duty of the highest order. Cicero only echoed the common opinion of antiquity in that noble passage, in which he asserts that the love we owe our country is even holier and more profound than that we owe our nearest kinsman, and that he can have no claim to the title of a good man who even hesitates to die in its behalf.2
A necessary consequence of this prominence of patriotism was the practical character of most ancient ethics. We find, indeed, moralists often exhorting men to moderate their ambition, consoling them under political adversity, and urging that there are some circumstances under which an upright man should for a time withdraw from public affairs;3 but the general duty of taking part in political life was emphatically asserted, and the vanity of the quietist theory of life not only maintained, but even somewhat exaggerated. Thus Cicero declared that ‘all virtue is in action.’1 The younger Pliny mentions that he once lamented to the Stoic Euphrates the small place which his official duties left for philosophical pursuits; but Euphrates answered that the discharge of public affairs and the administration of justice formed a part, and the most important part, of philosophy, for he who is so engaged is but practising the precepts of the schools.2 It was a fundamental maxim of the Stoics that humanity is a body in which each limb should act solely and continually with a view to the interests of the whole. Marcus Aurelius, the purest mind of the sect, was for nineteen years the active ruler of the civilised globe. Thrasea, Helvidius, Cornutus, and a crowd of others who had adopted Stoicism as a religion, lived, and in many cases died, in obedience to its precepts, struggling for the liberties of their country in the darkest hours of tyranny.
Men who had formed such high conceptions of duty, who had bridled so completely the tumult of passion, and whose lives were spent in a calm sense of virtue and of dignity, were little likely to be assailed by the superstitious fears that are the nightmare of weaker men. The preparation for death was deemed one of the chief ends of philosophy.3 The thought of a coming change assisted the mind in detaching itself from the gifts of fortune, and the extinction of all superstitious terrors completed the type of self-reliant majesty which Stoicism had chosen for its ideal. But while it is certain that no philosophers expatiated upon death with a grander eloquence, or met it with a more placid courage, it can hardly be denied that their constant disquisitions forced it into an unhealthy prominence, and somewhat discoloured their whole view of life. ‘The Stoics,’ as Bacon has said, bestowed too much cost on death, and by their preparations made it more fearful.’1 There is a profound wisdom in the maxims of Spinoza, that ‘the proper study of a wise man is not how to die, but how to live,’ and that ‘there is no subject on which the sage will think less than death.’2 A life of active duty is the best preparation for the end, and so large a part of the evil of death lies in its anticipation, that an attempt to deprive it of its terrors by constant meditation almost necessarily defeats its object, while at the same time it forms an unnaturally tense, feverish, and tragical character, annihilates the ambition and enthusiasm that are essential to human progress, and not unfrequently casts a chill and a deadness over the affections.
Among the many half-pagan legends that were connected with Ireland during the middle ages, one of the most beautiful is that of the islands of life and of death. In a certain lake in Munster it is said there were two islands; into the first death could never enter, but age and sickness, and the weariness of life, and the paroxysms of fearful suffering were all known there, and they did their work till the inhabitants, tired of their immortality, learned to look upon the opposite island as upon a haven of repose: they launched their barks upon the gloomy waters; they touched its shore and they were at rest.3
This legend, which is far more akin to the spirit of paganism than to that of Christianity, and is in fact only another form of the myth of Tithonus, represents with great fidelity the aspect in which death was regarded by the exponents of Stoicism. There was much difference of opinion and of certitude in the judgments of the ancient philosophers concerning the future destinies of the soul, but they were unanimous in regarding death simply as a natural rest, and in attributing the terrors that were connected with it to a diseased imagination. Death, they said, is the only evil that does not afflict us when present. While we are, death is not, when death has come we are not. It is a false belief that it only follows, it also precedes, life. It is to be as we were before we were born. The candle which has been extinguished is in the same condition as before it was lit, and the dead man as the man unborn. Death is the end of all sorrow. It either secures happiness or ends suffering. It frees the slave from his cruel master, opens the prison door, calms the qualms of pain, closes the struggles of poverty. It is the last and best boon of nature, for it frees man from all his cares. It is at worst but the close of a banquet we have enjoyed. Whether it be desired or whether it be shunned, it is no curse and no evil, but simply the resolution of our being into its primitive elements, the law of our nature to which it is our duty cheerfully to conform.
Such were the leading topics that were employed in that beautiful literature of ‘Consolations,’ which the academic Crantor is said to have originated, and which occupies so large a place in the writings of Cicero, Plutarch, and the Stoics. Cicero, like all the school of Plato, added to these motives a very firm and constant reference to the immortality of the soul. Plutarch held the same doctrine with equal assurance, but he gave it a much less conspicuous position in his ‘Consolations,’ and he based it not upon philosophical grounds, but upon the testimonies of the oracles, and upon the mysteries of Bacchus.1 Among the Stoics the doctrine shone with a faint and uncertain light, and was seldom or never adopted as a motive. But that which is most impressive to a student who turns from the religious literature of Christianity to the pagan philosophies, is the complete absence in the latter of all notion concerning the penal character of death. Death, according to Socrates,1 either extinguishes life or emancipates it from the thraldom of the body. Even in the first case it is a blessing, in the last it is the greatest of boons. ‘Accustom yourself,’ said Epicurue, ‘to the thought that death is indifferent; for all good and all evil consist in feeling, and what is death but the privation of feeling?2 ‘Souls either remain after death,’ said Cicero, ‘or they perish in death. If they remain they are happy; if they perish they are not wretched.’3 Seneca, consoling Polybius concerning the death of his brother, exhorts his friend to think, ‘if the dead have any sensations, then my brother, let loose as it were from a lifelong prison, and at last enjoying his liberty, looks down from a loftier height on the wonders of nature and on all the deeds of men, and sees more clearly those divine things which he had so long sought in vain to understand. But why should I be afflicted for one who is either happy or is nothing? To lament the fate of one who is happy is envy; to lament the fate of a nonentity is madness.’4
But while the Greek and Roman philosophers were on this point unanimous, there was a strong opposing current in the popular mind. The Greek word for superstition signifies literally, fear of gods or dæmons, and the philosophers sometimes represent the vulgar as shuddering at the thought of death, through dread of certain endless sufferings to which it would lead them. The Greek mythology contains many fables on the subject. The early Greek vases occasionally represent scenes of infernal torments, not unlike those of the mediæval frescoes.1 The rapture with which Epicureanism was received, as liberating the human mind from the thraldom of superstitious terrors, shows how galling must have been the yoke. In the poem of Lucretius, in occasional passages of Cicero and other Latin moralists, above all, in the treatise of Plutarch ‘On Superstition,’ we may trace the deep impression these terrors had made upon the populace, even during the later period of the Republic, and during the Empire. To destroy them was represented as the highest function of philosophy. Plutarch denounced them as the worst calumny against the Deity, as more pernicious than atheism, as the evil consequences of immoral fables, and he gladly turned to other legends which taught a different lesson. Thus it was related that when, during a certain festival at Argos, the horses that were to draw the statue of Juno to the temple were detained, the sons of the priestess yoked themselves to the car, and their mother, admiring their piety, prayed the goddess to reward them with whatever boon was the best for man. Her prayer was answered—they sank asleep and died.2 In like manner the architects of the great temple of Apollo at Delphi, prayed the god to select that reward which was best. The oracle told them in reply to spend seven days in rejoicing, and on the following night their reward would come. They too died in sleep.3 The swan was consecrated to Apollo because its dying song was believed to spring from a prophetic impulse.4 The Spanish Celts raised temples, and sang hymns of praise to death.5 No philosopher of antiquity ever questioned that a good man, n viewing his life, might look upon it without shame and even with positive complacency, or that the reverence with which men regard heroic deaths is a foretaste of the sentence of the Creator. To this confidence may be traced the tranquil courage, the complete absence of all remorse, so conspicuous in the closing hours of Socrates, and of many other of the sages of antiquity. There is no fact in religious history more startling than the radical change that has in this respect passed over the character of devotion. It is said of Chilon, one of the seven sages of Greece, that at the close of his career he gathered his disciples around him, and congratulated himself that in a long life he could recall but a single act that saddened his dying hour. It was that, in a perplexing dilemma, he had allowed his love of a friend in some slight degree to obscure his sense of justice.1 The writings of Cicero in his old age are full of passionate aspirations to a future world, unclouded by one regret or by one fear. Seneca died tranquilly, bequeathing to his friends ‘the most precious of his possessions, the image of his life.’2 Titus on his death-bed declared that he could remember only a single act with which to reproach himself.3 On the last night in which Antoninus Pius lived, the tribune came to ask for the pass-word of the night. The dying emperor gave him ‘æquanimitas.’4 Julian, the last great representative of his expiring creed, caught up the same majestic strain. A mid the curses of angry priests, and the impending ruin of the cause he loved, he calmly died in the consciousness of his virtue; and his death, which is among the most fearless that antiquity records, was the last protest of philosophic paganism against the new doctrine that had arisen.1
It is customary with some writers, when exhibiting the many points in which the ancient philosophers anticipated Christian ethics, to represent Christianity as if it were merely a development or authoritative confirmation of the highest teaching of paganism, or as if the additions were at least of such a nature that there is but little doubt that the best and purest spirits of the pagan world, had they known them, would have gladly welcomed them. But this conception, which contains a large amount of truth if applied to the teaching of many Protestants, is either grossly exaggerated or absolutely false if applied to that of the patristic period or of mediæval Catholicism. On the very subject which the philosophers deemed the most important their unanimous conclusion was the extreme antithesis of the teaching of Catholicism. The philosophers taught that death is ‘a law and not a punishment;’2 the fathers taught that it is a penal infliction introduced into the world on account of the sin of Adam, which was also the cause of the appearance of all noxious plants, of all convulsions in the material globe, and, as was sometimes asserted, even of a diminution of the light of the sun. The first taught that death was the end of suffering; they ridiculed as the extreme of folly the notion that physical evils could await those whose bodies had been reduced to ashes, and they dwelt with emphatic eloquence upon the approaching, and, as they believed, final extinction of superstitious terrors. The second taught that death to the vast majority of the human race is but the beginning of endless and excruciating tortures—tortures before which the most ghastly of terrestrial sufferings dwindle into insignificance—tortures which no courage could defy—which none but an immortal being could endure. The first represented man as pure and innocent until his will had sinned; the second represented him as under a sentence of condemnation at the very moment of his birth. ‘No funeral sacrifices,’ said a great writer of the first school, ‘are offered for children who die at an early age, and none of the ceremonies practised at the funerals of adults are performed at their tombs, for it is believed that infants have no hold upon earth or upon terrestrial affections. ... The law forbids us to honour them because it is irreligious to lament for those pure souls who have passed into a better life and a happier dwelling-place.’1 ‘Whosoever shall tell us,’ said a distinguished exponent of the patristic theology, ‘that infants shall be quickened in Christ who die without partaking in His Sacrament, does both contradict the Apostle's teaching and condemn the whole Church. ... And he that is not quickened in Christ must remain in that condemnation of which the Apostle speaks, “by one man's offence condemnation came upon all men to condemnation.” To which condemnation infants are born liable as all the Church believes.’2 The one school endeavoured to plant its foundations in the moral nature of mankind, by proclaiming that man can become acceptable to the Deity by his own virtue, and by this alone, that all sacrifices, rites, and forms are indifferent, and that the true worship of God is the recognition and imitation of His goodness. According to the other school, the most heroic efforts of human virtue are insufficient to avert a sentence of eternal condemnation, unless united with an implicit belief in the teachings of the Church, and a due observance of the rites it enjoins. By the philosophers the ascription of anger and vengeance to the Deity, and the apprehension of future torture at His hands, were unanimously repudiated;1 by the priests the opposite opinion was deemed equally censurable.2
These are fundamental points of difference, for they relate to the fundamental principles of the ancient philosophy. The main object of the pagan philosophers was to dispel the terrors the imagination had cast around death, and by destroying this last cause of fear to secure the liberty of man. The main object of the Catholic priests has been to make death in itself as revolting and appalling as possible, and by representing escape from its terrors as hopeless, except by complete subjection to their rule, to convert it into an instrument of government. By multiplying the dancing or warning skeletons, and other sepulchral images representing the loathsomeness of death without its repose; by substituting inhumation for incremation, and concentrating the imagination on the ghastliness of decay; above all, by peopling the unseen world with demon phantoms and with excruciating tortures, the Catholic Church succeeded in making death in itself unspeakably terrible, and in thus preparing men for the consolations it could offer. Its legends, its ceremonies, its art,3 its dogmatic teaching, all conspired to this end, and the history of its miracles is a striking evidence of its success. The great majority of superstitions have ever clustered around two centres—the fear of death and the belief that every phenomenon of life is the result of a special spiritual interposition. Among the ancients they were usually of the latter kind. Auguries, prophecies, interventions in war, prodigies avenging the neglect of some rite or marking some epoch in the fortunes of a nation or of a ruler, are the forms they usually assumed. In the middle ages, although these were very common, the most conspicuous superstitions took the form of visions of purgatory or hell, conflicts with visible demons, or Satanic miracles. Like those mothers who govern their children by persuading them that the dark is crowded with spectres that will seize the disobedient, and who often succeed in creating an association of ideas which the adult man is unable altogether to dissolve, the Catholic priests resolved to base their power upon the nerves; and as they long exercised an absolute control over education, literature, and art, they succeeded in completely reversing the teaching of ancient philosophy, and in making the terrors of death for centuries the nightmare of the imagination.
There is, indeed, another side to the picture. The vague uncertainty with which the best pagans regarded death passed away before the teaching of the Church, and it was often replaced by a rapture of hope, which, however, the doctrine of purgatory contributed at a later period largely to quell. But, whatever may be thought of the justice of the Catholic conception of death or of its influence upon human happiness, it is plain that it is radically different from that of the pagan philosophers. That man is not only an imperfect but a fallen being, and that death is the penal consequence of his sin, was a doctrine profoundly new to mankind, and it has exercised an influence of the most serious character upon the moral history of the world.
The wide divergence of the classical from the Catholic conception of death appears very plainly in the attitude which each system adopted towards suicide. This is, perhaps, the most striking of all the points of contrast between the teaching of antiquity, and especially of the Roman Stoics, on the one hand, and that of almost all modern moralists on the other. It is indeed true that the ancients were by no means unanimous in their approval of the act. Pythagoras, to whom so many of the wisest sayings of antiquity are ascribed, is said to have forbidden men ‘to depart from their guard or station in life without the order of their commander, that is, of God.’1 Plato adopted similar language, though he permitted suicide when the law required it, and also when men had been struck down by intolerable calamity, or had sunk to the lowest depths of poverty.2 Aristotle condemned it on civic grounds, as being an injury to the State.3 The roll of Greek suicides is not long, though it contains some illustrious names, among others those of Zeno and Cleanthes.4 In Rome, too, where suicide acquired a greater prominence, its lawfulness was by no means accepted as an axiom, and the story of Regulus, whether it be a history or a legend, shows that the patient endurance of suffering was once the supreme ideal.1 Virgil painted in gloomy colours the condition of suicides in the future world.2 Cicero strongly asserted the doctrine of Pythagoras, though he praised the suicide of Cato.3 Apuleius, expounding the philosophy of Plato, taught that ‘the wise man never throws off his body except by the will of God.’4 Cæsar, Ovid, and others urged that in extreme distress it is easy to despise life, and that true courage is shown in enduring it.5 Among the Scoics themselves, the belief that no man may shrink from a duty co-existed with the belief that every man has a right to dispose of his own life. Seneca, who emphatically advocated suicide, admits that there were some who deemed it wrong, and he himself attempted to moderate what he termed ‘the passion for suicide’, that had arisen among his disciples.6 Marcus Aurelius wavers a little on the subject, sometimes asserting the right of every man to leave life when he pleases, sometimes inclining to the Platonic doctrine that man is a soldier of God, occupying a post which it is criminal to abandon.1 Plotinus and Porphyry argued strongly against all suicide.2
But, notwithstanding these passages, there can be no question that the ancient view of suicide was broadly and strongly opposed to our own. A general approval of it floated down through most of the schools of philosophy, and even to those who condemned it, it never seems to have assumed its present aspect of extreme enormity. This was in the first instance due to the ancient notion of death; and we have also to remember that when a society once learns to tolerate suicide, the deed, in ceasing to be disgraceful, loses much of its actual criminality, for those who are most firmly convinced that the stigma and suffering it now brings upon the family of the deceased do not constitute its entire guilt, will readily acknowledge that they greatly aggravate it. In the conditions of ancient thought, this aggravation did not exist. Epicurus exhorted men ‘to weigh carefully, whether they would prefer death to come to them, or would themselves go to death;’1 and among his disciples, Lucretius, the illustrious poet of the sect, died by his own hand,2 as did also Cassius the tyrannicide, Atticus the friend of Cicero,3 the voluptuary Petronius,4 and the philosopher Diodorus.5 Pliny described the lot of man as in this respect at least superior to that of God, that man has the power of flying to the tomb,6 and he represented it as one of the greatest proofs of the bounty of Providence, that it has filled the world with herbs, by which the weary may find a rapid and a pain less death.7 One of the most striking figures that a passing notice of Cicero brings before us, is that of Hegesias, who was surnamed by the ancients ‘the orator of death.’ A conspicuous member of that Cyrenaic school which esteemed the pursuit of pleasure the sole end of a rational being, he taught that life was so full of cares, and its pleasure so fleeting and so alloyed, that the happiest lot for man was death; and such was the power of his eloquence, so intense was the fascination he cast around the tomb, that his disciples embraced with rapture the consequence of his doctrine, multitudes freed themselves by suicide from the troubles of the world, and the contagion was so great, that Ptolemy, it is said, was compelled to banish the philosopher from Alexandria.1
But it was in the Roman Empire and among the Roman Stoics that suicide assumed its greatest prominence, and its philosophy was most fully elaborated. From an early period self-immolation, like that of Curtius or Decius, had been esteemed in some circumstances a religious rite, being, as has been well suggested, probably a lingering remnant of the custom of human sacrifices,2 and towards the closing days of paganism many influences conspired in the same direction. The example of Cato, who had become the ideal of the Stoics, and whose dramatic suicide was the favourite subject of their eloquence,3 the indifference to death produced by the great multiplication of gladiatorial shows, the many instances of barbarian captives, who, sooner than slay their fellow-countrymen, or minister to the pleasures of their conquerors, plunged their lances into their own necks, or found other and still more horrible roads to freedom,1 the custom of compelling political prisoners to execute their own sentence, and, more than all, the capricious and atrocious tyranny of the Cæsars,2 had raised suicide into an extraordinary prominence. Few things are more touching than the passionate joy with which, in the reign of Nero, Seneca clung to it as the one refuge for the oppressed, the last bulwark of the tottering mind. ‘To death alone it is due that life is not a punishment, that, erect beneath the frowns of fortune, I can preserve my mind unshaken and master of itself. I have one to whom I can appeal. I see before me the crosses of many forms. . . . I see the rack and the scourge, and the instruments of torture adapted to every limb and to every nerve; but I also see Death. She stands beyond my savage enemies, beyond my haughty fellow-countrymen. Slavery loses its bitterness when by a step I can pass to liberty. Against all the injuries of life, I have the refuge of death.’3 ‘Wherever you look, there is the end of evils. You see that yawning precipice—there you may descend to liberty. You see that sea, that river, that well—liberty sits at the bottom. . . . Do you seek the way to freedom?—you may find it in every vein of your body.’4 ‘If I can choose between a death of torture and one that is simple and easy, why should I not select the latter? As I choose the ship in which I will sail, and the house I will inhabit, so I will choose the death by which I will leave life. . . . In no matter more than in death should we act according to our desire. Depart from life as your impulse leads you, whether it be by the sword, or the rope, or the poison creeping through the veins; go your way, and break the chains of slavery. Man should seek the approbation of others in his life; his death concerns himself alone. That is the best which pleases him most. . . . The eternal law has decreed nothing better than this, that life should have but one entrance and many exits. Why should I endure the agonies of disease, and the cruelties of human tyranny, when I can emancipate myself from all my torments, and shake off every bond? For this reason, but for this alone, life is not an evil—that no one is obliged to live. The lot of man is happy, because no one continues wretched but by his fault. If life pleases you, live. If not, you have a right to return whence you came.’1
These passages, which are but a few selected out of very many, will sufficiently show the passion with which the most influential teacher of Roman Stoicism advocated suicide. As a general proposition, the law recognised it as a right, but two slight restrictions were after a time imposed.2 It had become customary with many men who were accused of political offences to commit suicide before trial, in order to prevent the ignominious exposure of their bodies and the confiscation of their goods; but Domitian closed this resource by ordaining that the suicide of an accused person should entail the same consequences as his condemnation. Hadrian afterwards assmilated the suicide of a Roman soldier to desertion.1 With these exceptions, the liberty appears to have been absolute, and the act was committed under the most various motives. The suicide of Otho, who is said to have killed himself to avoid being a second time a cause of civil war, was extolled as equal in grandeur to that of Cato.2 In the Dacian war, the enemy, having captured a distinguished Roman general named Longinus, endeavoured to extort terms from Trajan as a condition of his surrender, but Longinus, by taking poison, freed the emperor from his embarrassment.3 On the death of Otho, some of his soldiers, filled with grief and admiration, killed themselves before his corpse,4 as did also a freedman of Agrippina, at the funeral of the empress.5 Before the close of the Republic, an enthusiastic partisan of one of the factions in the chariot races flung himself upon the pile on which the body of a favourite coachman was consumed, and perished in the flames.6 A Roman, unmenaced in his fortune, and standing high in the favour of his sovereign, killed himself under Tiberius, because he could not endure to witness the crimes of the empire.1 Another, being afflicted by an incurable malady, postponed his suicide till the death of Domitian, that at least he might die free, and on the assassination of the tyrant, hastened cheerfully to the tomb.2 The Cynic Peregrinus announced that, being weary of life, he would on a certain day depart, and, in presence of a large concourse, he mounted the funeral pile.3 Most frequently, however, death was regarded as ‘the last physician of disease,’4 and suicide as the legitimate relief from intolerable suffering. ‘Above all things,’ said Epictetus, ‘remember that the door is open. Be not more timid than boys at play. As they, when they cease to take pleasure in their games, declare they will no longer play, so do you, when all things begin to pall upon you, retire; but if you stay, do not complain.’5 Seneca declared that he who waits the extremity of old age is not ‘far removed from a coward,’ ‘as he is justly regarded as too much addicted to wine who drains the flask to the very dregs.’ ‘I will not relinquish old age,’ he added, ‘if it leaves my better part intact. But if it begins to shake my mind, if it destroys its faculties one by one, if it leaves me not life but breath, I will depart from the putrid or tottering edifice. I will not escape by death from disease so long as it may be healed, and leaves my mind unimpaired. I will not raise my hand against myself on account of pain, for so to die is to be conquered. But if I know that I must suffer without hope of relief, I will depart, not through fear of the pain itself, but because it prevents all for which I would live.’6 ‘Just as a landlord,’ said Musonius, ‘who has not received his rent, pulls down the doors, removes the rafters, and fills up the well, so I seem to be driven out of this little body, when nature, which has let it to me, takes away, one by one, eyes and ears, hands and feet. I will not, therefore, delay longer, but will cheerfully depart as from a banquet.’1
This conception of suicide as an euthanasia, an abridgment of the pangs of disease, and a guarantee against the dotage of age, was not confined to philosophical treatises. We have considerable evidence of its being frequently put in practice. Among those who thus abridged their lives was Silius Italicus, one of the last of the Latin poets.2 The younger Pliny describes in terms of the most glowing admiration the conduct of one of his friends, who, struck down by disease, resolved calmly and deliberately upon the path he should pursue. He determined, if the disease was only dangerous and long, to yield to the wishes of his friends and await the struggle; but if the issue was hopeless, to die by his own hand. Having reasoned on the propriety of this course with all the tranquil courage of a Roman, he summoned a council of physicians, and, with a mind indifferent to either fate, he calmly awaited their sentence.3 The same writer mentions the case of a man who was afflicted with a horrible disease, which reduced his body to a mass of sores. His wife, being convinced that it was incurable, exhorted her husband to shorten his sufferings; she nerved and encouraged him to the effort, and she claimed it as her privilege to accompany him to the grave. Husband and wife, bound together, plunged into a lake.1 Seneca, in one of his letters, has left us a detailed description of the death-bed of one of the Roman suicides. Tullius Marcellinus, a young man of remarkable abilities and very earnest character, who had long ridiculed the teachings of philosophy, but had ended by embracing it with all the passion of a convert, being afflicted with a grave and lingering though not incurable disease, resolved at length upon suicide. He gathered his friends around him, and many of them entreated him to continue in life. Among them, however, was one Stoical philosopher, who addressed him in what Seneca terms the very noblest of discourses. He exhorted him not to lay too much stress upon the question he was deciding, as if existence was a matter of great importance. He urged that life is a thing we possess in common with slaves and animals, but that a noble death should indeed be prized, and he concluded by recommending suicide. Marcellinus gladly embraced the counsel which his own wishes had anticipated. According to the advice of his friend, he distributed gifts among his faithful slaves, consoled them on their approaching bereavement, abstained during three days from all food, and at last, when his strength had been wholly exhausted, passed into a warm bath and calmly died, describing with his last breath the pleasing sensations that accompanied receding life.2
The doctrine of suicide was indeed the culminating point of Roman Stoicism. The proud, self-reliant, unbending character of the philosopher could only be sustained when he felt that he had a sure refuge against the extreme forms of suffering or of despair. Although virtue is not a mere creature of interest, no great system has ever yet flourished which did not present an ideal of happiness as well as an ideal of duty. Stoicism taught men to hope little, but to fear nothing. It did not array death in brilliant colours, as the path to positive felicity, but it endeavoured to divest it, as the end of suffering, of every terror. Life lost much of its bitterness when men had found a refuge from the storms of fate, a speedy deliverance from dotage and pain. Death ceased to be terrible when it was regarded rather as a remedy than as a sentence. Life and death in the Stoical system were attuned to the same key. The deification of human virtue, the total absence of all sense of sin, the proud stubborn will that deemed humiliation the worst of stains, appeared alike in each. The type of its own kind was perfect. All the virtues and all the majesty that accompany human pride, when developed to the highest point, and directed to the noblest ends, were here displayed. All those which accompany humility and self-abasement were absent.
I desire at this stage of our enquiry to pause for a moment, in order to retrace briefly the leading steps of the foregoing argument, and thus to bring into the clearest light the connection which many details and quotations may have occasionally obscured. Such a review will show at a single glance in what respects Stoicism was a result of the pre-existent state of society, and in what respects it was an active agent, how far its influence was preparing the way for Christian ethics, and how far it was opposed to them.
We have seen, then, that among the Romans, as among other people, a very clear and definite type of moral excellence was created before men had formed any clear intellectual notions of the nature and sanctions of virtue. The characters of men are chiefly governed by their occupations, and the republic being organised altogether with a view to military success, it had attained all the virtues and vices of a military society. We have seen, too, that at all times, but most especially under the conditions of ancient warfare, military life is very unfavourable to the amiable, and very favourable to the heroic virtues. The Roman had learnt to value force very highly. Being continually engaged in inflicting pain, his natural or instinctive humanity was very low. His moral feelings were almost bounded by political limits, acting only, and with different degrees of intensity, towards his class, his country, and its allies. Indomitable pride was the most prominent element of his character. A victorious army which is humble or diffident, or tolerant of insult, or anxious to take the second place, is, indeed, almost a contradiction of terms. The spirit of patriotism, in its relation to foreigners, like that of political liberty in its relation to governors, is a spirit of constant and jealous self-assertion; and although both are very consonant with high morality and great self-devotion, we rarely find that the grace of genuine humility can flourish in a society that is intensely pervaded by their influence. The kind of excellence that found most favour in Roman eyes was simple, forcible, massive, but coarse-grained. Subtilty of motives, refinements of feelings, delicacies of susceptibility, were rarely appreciated.
This was the darker side of the picture. On the other hand, the national character, being formed by a profession in which mercenary considerations are less powerful, and splendid examples of self-devotion more frequent, than in any other, had early risen to a heroic level. Death being continually confronted, to meet it with courage was the chief test of virtue. The habits of men were unaffected, frugal, honourable, and laborious. A stern discipline pervading all ages and classes of society, the will was trained, to an almost unexampled degree, to repress the passions, to endure suffering and opposition, to tend steadily and fearlessly towards an unpopular end. A sense of duty was very widely diffused, and a deep attachment to the interests of the city became the parent of many virtues.
Such was the type of excellence the Roman people had attained at a time when its intellectual cultivation produced philosophical discussions, and when numerous Greek professors, attracted partly by political events, and partly by the patronage of Scipio Æmilianus, arrived at Rome, bringing with them the tenets of the great schools of Zeno and Epicurus, and of the many minor sects that clustered around them. Epicureanism being essentially opposed to the pre-existing type of virtue, though it spread greatly, never attained the position of a school of virtue. Stoicism, taught by Panætius of Rhodes, and soon after by the Syrian Posidonius, became the true religion of the educated classes. It furnished the principles of virtue, coloured the noblest literature of the time, and guided all the developments of moral enthusiasm.
The Stoical system of ethics was in the highest sense a system of independent morals. It taught that our reason reveals to us a certain law of nature, and that a desire to conform to this law, irrespectively of all considerations of reward or punishment, of happiness or the reverse, is a possible and a sufficient motive of virtue. It was also in the highest sense a system of discipline. It taught that the will, acting under the complete control of the reason, is the sole principle of virtue, and that all the emotional part of our being is of the nature of a disease. Its whole tendency was therefore to dignify and strengthen the will, and to degrade and suppress the desires. It taught, moreover, that man is capable of attaining an extremely high degree of moral excellence, that he has nothing to fear beyond the present life, that it is essential to the dignity and consistence of his character that he should regard death without dismay, and that he has a right to hasten it if he desires.
It is easy to see that this system of ethics was strictly consonant with the type of character the circumstances of the Roman people had formed. It is also manifest that while the force of circumstances had in the first instance secured its ascendancy, the energy of will which it produced would enable it to offer a powerful resistance to the tendencies of an altered condition of society. This was pre-eminently shown in the history of Roman Stoicism. The austere purity of the writings of Seneca and his school is a fact probably unique in history, when we consider, on the one hand, the intense and undisguised depravity of the Empire, and on the other, the prominent position of most of the leading Stoics in the very centre of the stream. More than once in later periods did great intellectual brilliancy coincide with general depravity, but on none of these occasions was this moral phenomenon reproduced. In the age of Leo X., in the age of the French Regency, or of Lewis XV., we look in vain for high moral teaching in the centre of Italian or of Parisian civilisation. The true teachers of those ages were the reformers, who arose in obscure towns of Germany or Switzerland, or that diseased recluse who, from his solitude near Geneva, fascinated Europe by the gleams of a dazzling and almost peerless eloquence, and by a moral teaching which, though often feverish, paradoxical, and unpractical, abounded in passages of transcendent majesty and of the most entrancing purity and beauty. But even the best moral teachers who rose in the centres of the depraved society felt the contagion of the surrounding vice. Their ideal was depressed, their austerity was relaxed, they appealed to sordid and worldly motives, their judgments of character were wavering and uncertain, their whole teaching was of the nature of a compromise. But in ancient Rome, if the teachers of virtue acted but feebly upon the surrounding corruption, their own tenets were at least unstained. The splendour of the genius of Cæsar never eclipsed the moral grandeur of the vanquished Cato, and amid all the dramatic vicissitudes of civil war and of political convulsion, the supreme authority of moral distinctions was never forgotten. The eloquence of Livy was chiefly employed in painting virtue, the eloquence of Tacitus in branding vice. The Stoics never lowered their standard because of the depravity around them, and if we trace in their teaching any reflection of the prevailing worship of enjoyment, it is only in the passionate intensity with which they dwelt upon the tranquillity of the tomb.
But it is not sufficient for a moral system to form a bulwark against vice, it must also be capable of admitting those extensions and refinements of moral sympathies which advancing civilisation produces, and the inflexibility of its antagonism to evil by no means implies its capacity of enlarging its conceptions of good. During the period which elapsed between the importation of Stoical tenets into Rome and the ascendancy of Christianity, an extremely important transformation of moral ideas had been effected by political changes, and it became a question how far the new elements could coalesce with the Stoical ideal, and how far they tended to replace it by an essentially different type. These changes were twofold, but were very closely connected. They consisted of the increasing prominence of the benevolent or amiable, as distinguished from the heroic qualities, and of the enlargement of moral sympathies, which having at first comprised only a class or a nation, came at last, by the destruction of many artificial barriers, to include all classes and all nations. The causes of these changes—which were the most important antecedents of the triumph of Christianity—are very complicated and numerous, but it will, I think, be possible to give in a few pages a sufficiently clear outline of the movement.
It originated in the Roman Empire at the time when the union of the Greek and Latin civilisations was effected by the conquest of Greece. The general humanity of the Greeks had always been incomparably greater than that of the Romans. The refining influence of their art and literature, their ignorance of gladiatorial games, and their comparative freedom from the spirit of conquest, had separated them widely from their semi-barbarous conquerors, and had given a peculiar softness and tenderness to their ideal characters. Pericles, who, when the friends who had gathered round his death-bed, imagining him to be insensible, were recounting his splendid deeds, told them that they had forgotten his best title to fame—that ‘no Athenian had ever worn mourning on his account;’ Aristides, praying the gods that those who had banished him might never be compelled by danger or suffering to recall him; Phocion, when unjustly condemned, exhorting his son never to avenge his death, all represent a type of character of a milder kind than that which Roman influences produced. The plays of Euripides had been to the ancient world the first great revelation of the supreme beauty of the gentler virtues. Among the many forms of worship that flourished at Athens, there was an altar which stood alone, conspicuous and honoured beyond all others. The suppliants thronged around it, but no image of a god, no symbol of dogma was there. It was dedicated to Pity, and was venerated through all the ancient world as the first great assertion among mankind of the supreme sanctity of Mercy.1
But while the Greek spirit was from a very early period distinguished for its humanity, it was at first as far removed from cosmopolitanism as that of Rome. It is well known that Phrynichus was fined because in his ‘Conquest of Miletus’ he had represented the triumph of barbarians over Greeks.1 His successor, Æschylus, deemed it necessary to violate all dramatic probabilities by making the Persian king and courtiers continually speak of themselves as barbarians. Socrates, indeed, had proclaimed himself a citizen of the world,2 but Aristotle taught that Greeks had no more duties to barbarians than to wild beasts, and another philosopher was believed to have evinced an almost excessive range of sympathy when he declared that his affections extended beyond his own State, and included the whole people of Greece. But the dissolving and disintegrating philosophical discussions that soon followed the death of Socrates, strengthened by political events, tended powerfully to destroy this feeling. The traditions that attached Greek philosophy to Egypt, the subsequent admiration for the schools of India to which Pyrrho and Anaxarchus are said to have resorted,3 the prevalence of Cynicism and Epicureanism, which agreed in inculcating indifference to political life, the complete decomposition of the popular national religions, and the incompatibility of a narrow local feeling with great knowledge and matured civilisation, were the intellectual causes of the change, and the movement of expansion received a great political stimulus when Alexander eclipsed the glories of Spartan and Athenian history by the vision of universal empire, accorded to the conquered nations the privileges of the conquerors, and created in Alexandria a great centre both of commercial intercourse and of philosophical eclecticism.1
It is evident, therefore, that the prevalence of Greek ideas in Rome would be in a two-fold way destructive of narrow national feelings. It was the ascendancy of a people who were not Romans, and of a people who had already become in a great degree emancipated from local sentiments. It is also evident that the Greeks having had for several centuries a splendid literature, at a time when the Romans had none, and when the Latin language was still too rude for literary purposes, the period in which the Romans first emerged from a purely military condition into an intelligent civilisation would bring with it an ascendancy of Greek ideas. Fabius Pictor and Cincius Alimentus, the earliest native Roman historians, both wrote in Greek,2 and although the poems of Ennius, and the ‘Origines’ of Marcus Cato, contributed largely to improve and fix the Latin language, the precedent was not at once discontinued.3 After the conquest of Greece, the political ascendancy of the Romans and the intellectual ascendancy of Greece were alike universal.4 The conquered people, whose patriotic feelings had been greatly enfeebled by the influences I have noticed, acquiesced readily in their new condition, and notwithstanding the vehement exertions of the conservative party, Greek manners, sentiments, and ideas soon penetrated into all classes, and moulded all the forms of Roman life. The elder Cato, as an acute observer has noticed, desired all Greek philosophers to be expelled from Rome. The younger Cato made Greek philosophers his most intimate friends.1 Roman virtue found its highest expression in Stoicism. Roman vice sheltered itself under the name of Epicurus. Diodorus of Sicily and Polybius first sketched in Greek the outlines of universal history. Dionysius of Halicarnassus explored Roman antiquities. Greek artists and Greek architects thronged the city; but the first, under Roman influence, abandoned the ideal for the portrait, and the second degraded the noble Corinthian pillar into the bastard composite.2 The theatre, which now started into sudden life, was borrowed altogether from the Greeks. Ennius and Pacuvius imitated Euripides; Cæcilius, Plautus, Terence, and Nævius devoted themselves chiefly to Menander. Even the lover in the days of Lucretius painted his lady's charms in Greek.3 Immense sums were given for Greek literary slaves, and the attractions of the capital drew to Rome nearly all that was brilliant in Athenian society.
While the complete ascendancy of the intellect and manners of Greece was destroying the simplicity of the old Roman type, and at the same time enlarging the range of Roman sympathies, an equally powerful influence was breaking down the aristocratic and class feeling which had so long raised an insurmountable barrier between the nobles and the plebeians. Their long contentions had issued in the civil wars, the dictatorship of Julius Cæsar, and the Empire, and these changes in a great measure obliterated the old lines of demarcation. Foreign wars, which develop with great intensity distinctive national types, and divert the public mind from internal changes, are usually favourable to the conservative spirit; but civil wars are essentially revolutionary, for they overwhelm all class barriers and throw open the highest prizes to energy and genius. Two very remarkable and altogether unprecedented illustrations of this truth occurred at Rome. Ventidius Bassus, by his military skill, and by the friendship of Julius Cæsar, and afterwards of Antony, rose from the position of mule-driver to the command of a Roman army, and at last to the consulate,1 which was also attained, about 40 B.C., by the Spaniard Cornelius Balbus.2 Augustus, though the most aristocratic of emperors, in order to discourage celibacy, permitted all citizens who were not senators to intermarry with freedwomen. The empire was in several distinct ways unfavourable to class distinctions. It was for the most part essentially democratic, winning its popularity from the masses of the people, and crushing the senate, which had been the common centre of aristocracy and of freedom. A new despotic power, bearing alike on all classes, reduced them to an equality of servitude. The emperors were themselves in many cases the mere creatures of revolt, and their policy was governed by their origin. Their jealousy struck down many of the nobles, while others were ruined by the public games, which it became customary to give, or by the luxury to which, in the absence of political occupations, they were impelled, and the relative importance of all was diminished by the new creations. The ascendancy of wealth began to pass into new quarters. Delators, or political informers, encouraged by the emperors, and enriched by the confiscated properties of those whose condemnation they had procured, rose to great influence. From the time of Caligula, for several reigns, the most influential citizens were freedmen, who occupied the principal offices in the palace, and usually obtained complete ascendancy over the emperors. Through them alone petitions were presented. By their instrumentality the Imperial favours were distributed. They sometimes dethroned the emperors. They retained their power unshaken through a succession of revolutions. In wealth, in power, in the crowd of their courtiers, in the splendour of their palaces in life, and of their tonbs in death, they eclipsed all others, and men whom the early Roman patricians would have almost disdained to notice, saw the proudest struggling for their favour.1
Together with these influences many others of a kindred nature may be detected. The colonial policy which the Gracchi had advocated was carried out at Narbonne, and during the latter days of Julius Cæsar, to the amazement and scandal of the Romans, Gauls of this province obtained seats in the senate.2 The immense extent of the empire made it necessary for numerous troops to remain during long periods of time in distant provinces, and the foreign habits that were thus acquired began the destruction of the exclusive feelings of the Roman army, which the subsequent enrolment of barbarians completed. The public games, the immense luxury, the concentration of power, wealth, and genius, made Rome the centre of a vast and ceaseless concourse of strangers, the focus of all the various philosophies and religions of the empire, and its population soon became an amorphous, heterogeneous mass, in which all nations, customs, languages, and creeds, all degrees of virtue and vice, of refinement and barbarism, of scepticism and credulity, intermingled and interacted. Travelling had become more easy and perhaps more frequent than it has been at any other period before the nineteenth century. The subjection of the whole civilised world to a single rule removed the chief obstacles to locomotion. Magnificent roads, which modern nations have rarely rivalled and never surpassed, intersected the entire empire, and relays of post-horses enabled the voyager to proceed with an astonishing rapidity. The sea, which, after the destruction of the fleets of Carthage, had fallen almost completely under the dominion of pirates, had been cleared by Pompey. The European shores of the Mediterranean and the port of Alexandria were thronged with vessels. Romans traversed the whole extent of the empire on political, military, or commercial errands, or in search of health, or knowledge, or pleasure.1 The entrancing beauties of Como and of Tempe, the luxurious manners of Baiæ and Corinth, the schools, commerce, climate, and temples of Alexandria, the soft winters of Sicily, the artistic wonders and historic recollections of Athens and the Nile, the great colonial interests of Gaul attracted their thousands, while Roman luxury needed the products of the remotest lands, and the demand for animals for the amphitheatre spread Roman enterprise into the wildest deserts. In the capital, the toleration accorded to different creeds was such that the city soon became a miniature of the world. Almost every variety of charlatanism and of belief displayed itself unchecked, and boasted its train of proselytes. Foreign ideas were in every form in the ascendant. Greece which had presided over the intellectual development of Rome, acquired a new influence under the favouring policy of Hadrian, and Greek became the language of some of the later as it had been of the earliest writers. Egyptian religions and philosophies excited the wildest enthusiasm. As early as the reign of Augustus there were many thousands of Jewish residents at Rome,1 and their manners and creed spread widely among the people.2 The Carthaginian Apuleius,3 the Gauls Florus and Favorinus, the Spaniards Lucan, Columella, Martial, Seneca, and Quintilian, had all in their different departments a high place in Roman literature or philosophy.
In the slave world a corresponding revolution was taking place. The large proportion of physicians and sculptors who were slaves, the appearance of three or four distinguished authors in the slave class, the numerous literary slaves imported from Greece, and the splendid examples of courage, endurance, and devotion to their masters furnished by slaves during the civil wars, and during some of the worst periods of the Empire, were bridging the chasm between the servile and the free classes, and the same tendency was more powerfully stimulated by the vast numbers and overwhelming influence of the freedmen. The enormous scale and frequent fluctuations of the great Roman establishments, and the innumerable captives reduced to slavery after every war, rendered manumission both frequent and easy, and it was soon regarded as a normal result of faithful service. Many slaves bought their freedom out of the savings which their masters always permitted them to make. Others paid for it by their labour after their emancipation. Some masters emancipated their slaves in order to obtain their part in the distribution of corn, others to prevent the discovery of their own crimes by the torture of their slaves, others through vanity, being desirous of having their funerals attended by a long train of freedmen, very many simply as a reward for long service.1 The freedman was still under what was termed the patronage of his former master; he was bound to him by what in a later age would have been called a feudal tie, and the political and social importance of a noble depended in a very great degree upon the multitude of his clients. The children of the emancipated slave were in the same relation to the patron, and it was only in the third generation that all disqualifications and restraints were abrogated. In consequence of this system, manumission was often the interest of the master. In the course of his life he enfranchised individual slaves. On his death-bed or by his will he constantly emancipated multitudes. Emancipation by testament acquired such dimensions, that Augustus found it necessary to restrict the power; and he made several limitations, of which the most important was that no one should emancipate by his will more than one hundred of his slaves.2 It was once proposed that the slaves should be distinguished by a special dress, but the proposition was abandoned because their number was so great that to reveal to then, their strength would be to place the city at their mercy.1 Even among those who were not slaves, the element that was derived from slavery soon preponderated. The majority of the free population had probably either themselves been slaves, or were descended from slaves, and men with this tainted lineage penetrated to all the offices of the State.2 ‘There was,’ as has been well said, ‘a circulation of men from all the universe. Rome received them slaves, and sent them back Romans.’3
It is manifest how profound a change had taken place since the Republican days, when the highest dignities were long monopolised by a single class, when the censors repressed with a stringent severity every form or exhibition of luxury, when the rhetoricians were banished from the city, lest the faintest tinge of foreign manners should impair the stern simplicity of the people, and when the proposal to transfer the capital to Veii, after a great disaster, was rejected on the ground that it would be impious to worship the Roman deities anywhere but on the Capitol, or for the Flamens and the Vestals to emigrate beyond the walls.4
The greater number of these tendencies to universal fusion or equality were blind forces resulting from the stress of circumstances, and not from any human forethought, or were agencies that were put in motion for a different object. It must, however, be acknowledged that a definite theory of policy had a considerable part in accelerating the movement. The policy of the Republic may be broadly described as a policy of conquest, and that of the Empire as a policy of preservation. The Romans having acquired a vast dominion, were met by the great problem which every first-class power is called upon to solve—by what means many communities with different languages, customs, characters, and traditions, can be retained peaceably under a single ruler. In modern times, this difficulty has been most successfully met by local legislatures, which, if they supply a ‘line of cleavage,’ a nucleus around which the spirit of opposition may form, have on the other hand the priceless advantage of giving the annexed people a large measure of self-government, a centre and safety-valve of local public opinion, a sphere for local ambitions, and a hierarchy of institutions adapted to the distinctive national type. Under no other conditions can a complex empire be carried on with so little strain, or effort, or humiliation, or its inevitable final dissolution be effected with so little danger or convulsion. But local legislatures, which are the especial glory of English statesmanship, belong exclusively to modern civilisation. The Roman method of conciliation was, first of all, the most ample toleration of the customs, religion, and municipal freedom of the conquered, and then their gradual admission to the privileges of the conqueror. By confiding to them in a great measure the defence of the empire, by throwing open to them the offices of State, and especially by according to them the right of Roman citizenship, which had been for centuries jealously restricted to the inhabitants of Rome, and was afterwards only conceded to Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, the emperors sought to attach them to their throne. The process was very gradual, but the whole movement of political emancipation attained its completion when the Imperial throne was occupied by the Spaniard Trajan, and by Pertinax, the son of a freedman, and when an edict of Caracalla extended the rights of Roman citizenship to all the provinces of the empire.
It will appear evident, from the foregoing sketch, that the period which elapsed between Panætius and Constantine exhibited an irresistible tendency to cosmopolitanism. The convergence, when we consider the number, force, and harmony of the influences that composed it, is indeed unexampled in history. The movement extended through all the fields of religious, philosophical, political, industrial, military, and domestic life. The character of the people was completely transformed, the landmarks of all its institutions were removed, the whole principle of its organisation was reversed. It would be impossible to find a more striking example of the manner in which events govern character, destroying old habits and associations, and thus altering that national type of excellence which is, for the most part, the expression or net moral result of the national institutions and circumstances. The effect of the movement was, no doubt, in many respects evil, and some of the best men, such as the elder Cato and Tacitus, opposed it, as leading to the demoralisation of the empire; but if it increased vice, it also gave a peculiar character to virtue. It was impossible that the conception of excellence, formed in a society where everything conspired to deepen class divisions and national jealousies and antipathies, should be retained unaltered in a period of universal intercourse and amalgamation. The moral expression of the first period is obviously to be found in the narrower military and patriotic virtues; that of the second period in enlarged philanthropy and sympathy.
The Stoical philosophy was admirably fitted to preside over this extension of sympathies. Although it proved itself in every age the chief school of patriots, it recognised also, from the very first, and in the most unequivocal manner, the fraternity of mankind. The Stoic taught that virtue alone is a good, and that all other things are indifferent; and from this position he inferred that birth, rank, country, or wealth are the mere accidents of life, and that virtue alone makes one man superior to another. He taught also that the Deity is an all-pervading Spirit, animating the universe, and revealed with especial clearness in the soul of man; and he concluded that all men are fellow-members of a single body, united by participation in the same Divine Spirit. These two doctrines formed part of the very first teaching of the Stoics, but it was the special glory of the Roman teachers, and an obvious result of the condition of affairs I have described, to have brought them into full relief. One of the most emphatic as well as one of the earliest extant assertions of the duty of ‘charity to the human race,’1 occurs in the treatise of Cicero upon duties, which was avowedly based upon Stoicism. Writing at a period when the movement of amalgamation had for a generation been rapidly proceeding,2 and adopting almost without restriction the ethics of the Stoics, Cicero maintained the doctrine of universal brotherhood as distinctly as it was afterwards maintained by the Christian Church. ‘This whole world,’ he tells us, ‘is to be regarded as the common city of gods and men.’3 ‘Men were born for the sake of men, that each should assist the others.’4 ‘Nature ordains that a man should wish the good of every man, whoever he may be, for this very reason, that he is a man.’5 ‘To reduce man to the duties of his own city and to disengage him from duties to the members of other cities, is to break the universal society of the human race.’6 ‘Nature has inclined us to love men, and this is the foundation of the law.’7 The same principles were reiterated with increasing emphasis by the later Stoics. Adopting the well-known line which Terence had translated from Menander, they maintained that man should deem nothing human foreign to his interest. Lucan expatiated with all the fervour of a Christian poet upon the time when ‘the human race will cast aside its weapons, and when all nations will learn to love.’8 ‘The whole universe,’ said Seneca, ‘which you see around you, comprising all things, both divine and human, is one. We are members of one great body. Nature has made us relatives when it begat us from the same materials and for the same destinies. She planted in us a mutual love, and fitted us for a social life.’1 ‘What is a Roman knight, or freedman, or slave? These are but names springing from ambition or from injury.’2 ‘I know that my country is the world, and my guardians are the gods.’3 ‘You are a citizen,’ said Epictetus, ‘and a part of the world. . . . The duty of a citizen is in nothing to consider his own interest distinct from that of others, as the hand or foot, if they possessed reason and understood the law of nature, would do and wish nothing that had not some relation to the rest of the body.’4 ‘An Antonine,’ said Marcus Aurelius, ‘my country is Rome; as a man, it is the world.’5
So far Stoicism appears fully equal to the moral requirements of the age. It would be impossible to recognise more cordially or to enforce more beautifully that doctrine of universal brotherhood for which the circumstances of the Roman Empire had made men ripe. Plato had said that no one is born for himself alone, but that he owes himself in part to his country, in part to his parents, and in part to his friends. The Roman Stoics, taking a wider survey, declared that man is born not for himself but for the whole world.6 And their doctrine was perfectly consistent with the original principles of their school.
But while Stoicism was quite capable of representing the widening movement, it was not equally capable of representing the softening movement of civilisation. Its condemnation of the affections, and its stern, tense ideal, admirably fitted for the struggles of a simple military age, were unsuited for the mild manners and luxurious tastes of the age of the Antonines. A class of writers began to arise who, like the Stoics, believed virtue, rather than enjoyment, to be the supreme good, and who acknowledged that virtue consisted solely of the control which the enlightened will exercises over the desires, but who at the same time gave free scope to the benevolent affections and a more religious and mystical tone to the whole scheme of morals. Professing various speculative doctrines, and calling themselves by many names—eclectics, peripatetics, or Platonists—they agreed in forming or representing a moral character, less strong, less sublime, less capable of endurance and heroism, less conspicuous for energy of will, than that of the Stoics, but far more tender and attractive. The virtues of force began to recede, and the gentler virtues to advance, in the moral type. Insensibility to suffering was no longer professed; indomitable strength was no longer idolised, and it was felt that weakness and sorrow have their own appropriate virtues.1 The works of these writers are full of delicate touches which nothing but strong and lively feelings could have suggested. We find this in the well-known letter of Pliny on the death of his slaves,2 in the frequent protests against the ostentation of indifference with which the Stoics regarded the loss of their friends, in many instances of simple, artless pathos, which strike the finest chords of our nature. When Plutarch, after the death of his daughter, was writing a letter of consolation to his wife, we find him turning away from all the commonplaces of the Stoics as the recollection of one simple trait of his little child rushed upon his mind:—‘She desired her nurse to press even her dolls to the breast. She was so loving that she wished everything that gave her pleasure to share in the best of what she had.’
Plutarch, whose fame as a biographer has, I think, unduly eclipsed his reputation as a moralist, may be justly regarded as the leader of this movement, and his moral writings may be profitably compared with those of Seneca, the most ample exponent of the sterner school. Seneca is not unfrequently self-conscious, theatrical, and overstrained. His precepts have something of the affected ring of a popular preacher. The imperfect fusion of his short sentences gives his style a disjointed and, so to speak, granulated character, which the Emperor Caligula happily expressed when he compared it to sand without cement; yet he often rises to a majesty of eloquence, a grandeur both of thought and of expression, that few moralists have ever rivalled. Plutarch, though far less sublime, is more sustained, equable, and uniformly pleasing. The Montaigne of antiquity, his genius coruscates playfully and gracefully around his subject; he delights in illustrations which are often singularly vivid and original, but which, by their excessive multiplication, appear sometimes rather the texture than the ornament of his discourse. A gentle, tender spirit, and a judgment equally free from paradox, exaggeration, and excessive subtilty, are the characteristics of all he wrote. Plutarch excels most in collecting motives of consolation; Seneca in forming characters that need no consolation. There is something of the woman in Plutarch; Seneca is all a man. The writings of the first resemble the strains of the flute, to which the ancients attributed the power of calming the passions and charming away the clouds of sorrow, and drawing men by a gentle suasion into the paths of virtue; the writings of the other are like the trumpet-blast, which kindles the soul with an heroic courage. The first is most fitted to console a mother sorrowing over her dead child, the second to nerve a brave man, without flinching and without illusion, to grapple with an inevitable fate.
The elaborate letters which Seneca has left us on distinctive tenets of the Stoical school, such as the equality of vices or the evil of the affections, have now little more than an historic interest; but the general tone of his writings gives them a permanent importance, for they reflect and foster a certain type of excellence which, since the extinction of Stoicism, has had no adequate expression in literature. The prevailing moral tone of Plutarch, on the other hand, being formed mainly on the prominence of the amiable virtues, has been eclipsed or transcended by the Christian writers, but his definite contributions to philosophy and morals are more important than those of Seneca. He has left us one of the best works on superstition, and one of the most ingenious works on Providence, we possess. He was probably the first writer who advocated very strongly humanity to animals on the broad ground of universal benevolence, as distinguished from the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration, and he was also remarkable, beyond all his contemporaries, for his high sense of female excellence and of the sanctity of female love.
The Romans had at all times cared more for the practical tendency of a system of philosophy than for its logical or speculative consistency. One of the chief attractions of Stoicism, in their eyes, had been that its main object was not to build a system of opinion, but to propose a pattern of life,1 and Stoicism itself was only adapted to the Roman character after it had been simplified by Panætius.2 Although the system could never free itself altogether from that hardnese which rendered it so unsuited for an advanced civilisation, it was profoundly modified by the later Stoics, who rarely scrupled to temper it by the admixture of new doctrines. Scneca himself was by no means an unmixed Stoic. If Epictetus was more nearly so, this was probably because the extreme hardship he underwent made him dwell more than his contemporaries upon the importance of fortitude and endurance. Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by the disciples of the most various schools, and his Stoicism was much tinctured by the milder and more religious spirit of Platonism. The Stoics, like all other men, felt the moral current of the time, though they yielded to it less readily than some others. In Thrasea, who occupied in his age a position analogous to that of Cato in an earlier period, we find little or nothing of the asperity and hardness of his great prototype. In the writings of the later Stoics, if we find the same elements as in those of their predecessors, these elements are at least combined in different proportions.
In the first place, Stoicism became more essentially religious. The Stoical character, like all others of a high order, had always been reverential; but its reverence differed widely from that of Christians. It was concentrated much less upon the Deity than upon virtue, and especially upon virtue as exhibited in great men. When Lucan, extolling his hero, boasted that ‘the gods favoured the conquering cause, but Cato the conquered,’ or when Seneca described ‘the fortune of Sulla’ as ‘the crime of the gods,’ these sentences, which sound to modern ears grossly blasphemous, appear to have excited no murmur. We have already seen the audacious language with which the sage claimed an equality with the Divinity. On the other hand, the reverence for virtue apart from all conditions of success, and especially for men of the stamp of Cato, who through a strong moral conviction struggled bravely, though unsuccessfully, against force, genius, or circumstances, was perhaps more steady and more passionate than in any later age. The duty of absolute submission to Providence, as I have already shown, was continually inculcated, and the pantheistic notion of all virtue being a part or emanation of the Deity was often asserted, but man was still the centre of the Stoic's scheme, the ideal to which his reverence and devotion aspired. In later Stoicism this point of view was gradually changed. Without any formal abandonment of their pantheistic conceptions, the language of philosophers recognised with much greater clearness a distinct and personal Divinity. Every page of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius is impregnated with the deepest religious feeling. ‘The first thing to learn,’ said the former, ‘is that there is a God, that His knowledge pervades the whole universe, and that it extends not only to our acts but to our thoughts and feelings. . . . He who seeks to please the gods must labour as far as lies in him to resemble them. He must be faithful as God is faithful, free as He is free, beneficent as He is beneficent, magnanimous as He is magnanimous.’1 ‘To have God for our maker and father and guardian, should not that emancipate us from all sadness and from all fear?’2 ‘When you have shut your door and darkened your room, say not to yourself you are alone. God is in your room, and your attendant genius likewise. Think not that they need the light to see what you do.3 What can I, an old man and a cripple, do but praise God? If I were a nightingale, I would discharge the office of a nightingale; if a swan, that of a swan. But I am a reasonable being; my mission is to praise God, and I fulfil it; nor shall I ever, as far as lies in me, shrink from my task, and I exhort you to join in the same song of praise.’4
The same religious character is exhibited, if possible, in a still greater degree in the ‘Meditations of Marcus A urelius; but in one respect the ethics of the emperor differ widely from those of the slave. In Epictetus we invariably find the strongest sense of the majesty of man. As the child of the Deity, as a being capable of attaining the most exalted virtue, he magnified him to the highest point, and never more so than in the very passage in which he exhorted his disciples to beware of haughtiness. The Jupiter Olympus of Phidias, he reminds them, exhibits no arrogance, but the unclouded serenity of perfect confidence and strength.1 Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, dwelt rather on the weakness than on the force of man, and his meditations breathe a spirit, if not of Christian humility, at least of the gentlest and most touching modesty. He was not, it is true, like some later saints, who habitually apply to themselves language of reprobation which would be exaggerated if applied to the murderer or the adulterer. He did not shrink from recognising human virtue as a reality, and thanking Providence for the degree in which he had attained it, but he continually reviewed with an unsparing severity the weaknesses of his character, he accepted and even solicited reproofs from every teacher of virtue, he made it his aim, in a position of supreme power, to check every emotion of arrogance and pride, and he set before him an ideal of excellence which awed and subdued his mind.
Another very remarkable feature of later Stoicism was its increasingly introspective character. In the philosophy of Cato and Cicero, virtue was displayed almost exclusively in action. In the later Stoics, self-examination and purity of thought were continually inculcated. There are some writers who, with an obstinacy which it is more easy to explain than to excuse, persist, in defiance of the very clearest evidence to the contrary, in representing these virtues as exclusively Christian, and in maintaining, without a shadow of proof, that the place they undeniably occupy in the later Roman moralists was due to the direct or indirect influence of the new faith. The plain fact is that they were fully known to the Greeks, and both Plato and Zeno even exhorted men to study their dreams, on the ground that these often reveal the latent tendencies of the disposition.1 Pythagoras urged his disciples daily to examine themselves when they retired to rest,2 and this practice soon became a recognised part of the Pythagorean discipline.3 It was introduced into Rome with the school before the close of the Republic. It was known in the time of Cicero4 and Horace.5 Sextius, one of the masters of Seneca, a philosopher of the school of Pythagoras, who flourished chiefly before the Christian era, was accustomed daily to devote a portion of time to self-examination; and Seneca, who at first inclined much to the tenets of Pythagoras,6 expressly tells us that it was from Sextius he learnt the practice.7 The increasing prominence of the Pythagorean philosophy which accompanied the invasion of Oriental creeds, the natural tendency of the empire, by closing the avenues of political life, to divert the attention from action to emotion, and also the increasec latitude allowed to the play of the sympathies or affections by the later Stoics, brought this emotional part of virtue into great prominence. The letters of Seneca are a kind of moral medicine applied for the most part to the cure of different infirmities of character, Plutarch, in a beautiful treatise on ‘The Signs of Moral Progress,’ treated the culture of the feelings with delicate skill. The duty of serving the Divinity with a pure mind rather than by formal rites became a commonplace of literature, and self-examination one of the most recognised of duties. Epictetus urged men so to purify their imaginations, that at the sight of a beautiful woman they should not even mentally exclaim, ‘Happy her husband!’1 The meditations of Marcus Aurelius, above all, are throughout an exercise of self-examination, and the duty of watching over the thoughts is continually inculcated.
It was a saying of Plutarch that Stoicism, which sometimes exercised a prejudicial and hardening influence upon characters that were by nature stern and unbending, proved peculiarly useful as a cordial to those which were naturally gentle and yielding. Of this truth we can have no better illustration than is furnished by the life and writings of Marcus Aurelius, the last and most perfect representative of Roman Stoicism. A simple, childlike, and eminently affectionate disposition, with little strength of intellect or perhaps originally of will, much more inclined to meditation, speculation, solitude, or friendship, than to active and public life, with a profound aversion to the pomp of royalty and with a rather strong natural leaning to pedantry, he had embraced the fortifying philosophy of Zeno in its best form, and that philosophy made him perhaps as nearly a perfectly virtuous man as has ever appeared upon our world. Tried by the chequered events of a reign of nineteen years, presiding over a society that was profoundly corrupt, and over a city that was notorious for its license, the perfection of his character awed even calumny to silence, and the spontaneous sentiment of his people proclaimed him rather a god than a man.2 Very few men have ever lived concerning whose inner life we can speak so confidently. His ‘Meditations,’ which form one of the most impressive, form also one of the truest books in the whole range of religious literature. They consist of rude fragmentary notes without literary skill or arrangement, written for the most part in hasty, broken, and sometimes almost unintelligible sentences amid the turmoil of a camp,1 and recording, in accents of the most penetrating sincerity, the struggles, doubts, and aims of a soul of which, to employ one of his own images, it may be truly said that it possessed the purity of a star, which needs no veil to hide its nakedness. The undisputed master of the whole civilised world, he set before him as models such men as Thrasea and Helvidius, as Cato and Brutus, and he made it his aim to realise the conception of a free State in which all citizens are equal, and of a royalty which makes it its first duty to respect the liberty of the citizens.2 His life was passed in unremitting activity. For nearly twelve years he was absent with armies in the distant provinces of the empire; and although his political capacity has been much and perhaps justly questioned, it is impossible to deny the unwearied zeal with which he discharged the duties of his great position. Yet few men have ever carried farther the virtue of little things, the delicate moral tact and the minute scruples which, though often exhibited by women and by secluded religionists, very rarely survive much contact with active life. The solicitude with which he endeavoured to persuade two jealous rhetoricians to abstain during their debates from retorts that might destroy their friendship,3 the careful gratitude with which, in a camp in Hungary, he recalled every moral obligation he could trace, even to the most obscure of his tutors, his anxiety to avoid all pedantry and mannerism in his conduct,2 and to repel every voluptuous imagination from his mind,3 his deep sense of the obligation of purity,4 his laborious efforts to correct a habit of drowsiness into which he had fallen, and his self-reproval when he had yielded to it,5 become all, I think, inexpressibly touching when we remember that they were exhibited by one who was the supreme ruler of the civilised globe, and who was continually engaged in the direction of the most gigantic interests. But that which is especially remarkable in Marcus Aurelius is the complete absence of fanaticism in his philanthropy. Despotic monarchs sincerely anxious to improve mankind are naturally led to endeavour, by acts of legislation, to force society into the paths which they believe to be good, and such men, acting under such motives, have sometimes been the scourges of mankind. Philip II. and Isabella the Catholic inflicted more suffering in obedience to their consciences than Nero and Domitian in obedience to their lusts. But Marcus Aurelius steadily resisted the temptation. ‘Never hope,’ he once wrote, ‘to realise Plato's Republic. Let it be sufficient that you have in some slight degree ameliorated mankind, and do not think that amelioration a matter of small importance. Who can change the opinions of men? and without a change of sentiments what can you make but reluctant slaves and hypocrites?’6 He promulgated many laws inspired by a spirit of the purest benevolence. He mitigated the gladiatorial shows. He treated with invariable deference the senate, which was the last bulwark of political freedom. He endowed many chairs of philosophy which were intended to diffuse knowledge and moral teaching through the people. He endeavoured by the example of his Court to correct the extravagances of luxury that were prevalent, and he exhibited in his own career a perfect model of an active and conscientious administrator; but he made no rash efforts to force the people by stringent laws out of the natural channel of their lives. Of the corruption of his subjects he was keenly sensible, and he bore it with a mournful but gentle patience. We may trace in this respect the milder spirit of those Greek teachers who had diverged from Stoicism, but it was especially from the Stoical doctrine that all vice springs from ignorance that he derived his rule of life, and this doctrine, to which he repeatedly recurred, imparted to all his judgments a sad but tender charity. ‘Men were made for men; correct them, then, or support them.’1 ‘If they do ill, it is evidently in spite of themselves and through ignorance.’2 ‘Correct them if you can; if not, remember that patience was given you to exercise it in their behalf.’3 ‘It would be shameful for a physician to deem it strange that a man was suffering from fever.’4 ‘The immortal gods consent for countless ages to endure without anger, and even to surround with blessings, so many and such wicked men; but thou who hast so short a time to live, art thou already weary, and that when thou art thyself wicked?’5 ‘It is involuntarily that the soul is deprived of justice, and temperance, and goodness, and all other virtues. Continually remember this; the thought will make you more gentle to all mankind.’6 ‘It is right that man should love those who have offended him. He will do so when he remembers that all men are his relations, and that it is through ignorance and involuntarily that they sin—and then we all die so soon.’1
The character of the virtue of Marcus Aurelius, though exhibiting the softening influence of the Greek spirit which in his time pervaded the empire, was in its essentials strictly Roman.2 Though full of reverential gratitude to Providence, we do not find in him that intense humility and that deep and subtle religious feeling which were the principles of Hebrew virtue, and which have given the Jewish writers so great an ascendancy over the hearts of men. Though borne naturally and instinctively to goodness, his ‘Meditations’ do not display the keen æsthetical sense of the beauty of virtue which was the leading motive of Greek morals, and which the writing of Plotinus afterwards made very familiar to the Roman world. Like most of the best Romans, the principle of his virtue was the sense of duty, the conviction of the existence of a law of nature to which it is the aim and purpose of our being to conform. Of secondary motives he appears to have been little sensible. The belief in a superintending Providence was the strongest of his religious convictions, but even that was occasionally overcast. On the subject of a future wor'd his mind floated in a desponding doubt. The desire for posthumous fame he deemed it his duty systematically to mortify. While most writers of his school regarded death chiefly as the end of sorrows, and dwelt upon it in order to dispel its terrors, in Marcus Aurelius it is chiefly represented as the last great demonstration of the vanity of earthly things. Seldom, indeed, has such active and unrelaxing virtue been united with so little enthusiasm, and been cheered by so little illusion of success. ‘There is but one thing,’ he wrote, ‘of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.’1
The command he had acquired over his feelings was sc great that it was said of him that his countenance was never known to betray either elation or despondency.2 We, however, who have before us the records of his inner life, can have no difficulty in detecting the deep melancholy that overshadowed his mind, and his closing years were darkened by many and various sorrows. His wife, whom he dearly loved and deeply honoured, and who, if we may believe the Court scandals that are reported by historians, was not worthy of his affection,3 had preceded him to the tomb. His only surviving son had already displayed the vicious tendencies that afterwards made him one of the worst of rulers. The philosophers, who had instructed him in his youth, and to whom he had clung with an affectionate friendship, had one by one disappeared, and no new race had arisen to supply their place. After a long reign of self-denying virtue, he saw the decadence of the empire continually more apparent. The Stoical school was rapidly fading before the passion for Oriental superstitions. The barbarians, repelled for a time, were again menacing the frontiers, and it was not difficult to foresee their future triumph. The mass of the people had become too inert and too corrupt for any efforts to regenerate them. A fearful pestilence, followed by many minor calamities, had fallen upon the land and spread misery and panic through many provinces. In the midst of these calamities, the emperor was struck down with a mortal illness, which he bore with the placid courage he had always displayed, exhibiting in almost the last words he uttered his forgetfulness of self and his constant anxiety for the condition of his people.1 Shortly before his death he dismissed his attendants, and, after one last interview, his son, and he died as he long had lived, alone.2
Thus sank to rest in clouds and darkness the purest and gentlest spirit of all the pagan world, the most perfect model of the later Stoics. In him the hardness, asperity, and arrogance of the sect had altogether disappeared, while the affectation its paradoxes tended to produce was greatly mitigated. Without fanaticism, superstition, or illusion, his whole life was regulated by a simple and unwavering sense of duty. The contemplative and emotional virtues which Stoicism had long depressed, had regained their place, but the active virtues had not yet declined. The virtues of the hero were still deeply honoured, but gentleness and tenderness had acquired a new prominence in the ideal type.
But while the force of circumstances was thus developing the ethical conceptions of antiquity in new directions, the mass of the Roman people were plunged in a condition of depravity which no mere ethical teaching could adequately correct. The moral condition of the empire is, indeed, in some respects one of the most appalling pictures on record, and writers have much more frequently undertaken to paint or even to exaggerate its enormity than to investigate the circmntances by which it may be explained. Such circumstances, however, must unquestionably exist. There is no reason to believe that the innate propensities of the people were worse during the Empire than during the best days of the Republic. The depravity of a nation is a phenomenon which, like all others, may be traced to definite causes, and in the instance before us they are not difficult to discover.
I have already said that the virtue of the Romans was a military and patriotic virtue, formed by the national institutions, and to which religious teaching was merely accessory. The domestic, military, and censorial discipline, concurring with the general poverty and also with the agricultural pursuits of the people, had created the simplest and most austere habits, while the institutions of civic liberty provided ample spheres for honourable ambition. The nobles, being the highest body in a free State, and being at the same time continually confronted by a formidable opposition under the guidance of the tribunes, were ardently devoted to public life. The dangerous rivalry of the surrounding Italian States, and afterwards of Carthage, demanded and secured a constant vigilance. Roman education was skilfully designed to elicit heroic patriotism, and the great men of the past became the ideal figures of the imagination. Religion hallowed the local feeling by rites and legends, instituted many useful and domestic habits, taught men the sanctity of oaths, and, by fostering a continual sense of a superintending Providence, gave a depth and solemnity to the whole character.
Such were the chief influences by which the national type of virtue had been formed, but nearly all of these were corroded or perverted by advancing civilisation. The domestic and local religion lost its ascendancy amid the increase of scepticism and the invasion of a crowd of foreign superstitions. The simplicity of manners, which sumptuary laws and the institution of the censorship had long maintained, was replaced by the extravagances of a Babylonian luxury. The aristocratic dignity perished with the privileges on which it reposed. The patriotic energy and enthusiasm died away in a universal empire which embraced all varieties of language, custom, and nationality.
But although the virtues of a poor and struggling community necessarily disappear before increasing luxury, they are in a normal condition of society replaced by virtues of a different stamp. Gentler manners and enlarged benevolence follow in the train of civilisation, greater intellectual activity and more extended industrial enterprise give a new importance to the moral qualities which each of these require, the circle of political interests expands, and if the virtues that spring from privilege diminish, the virtues that spring from equality increase.
In Rome, however, there were three great causes which impeded the normal development—the Imperial system, the institution of slavery, and the gladiatorial shows. Each of these exercised an influence of the widest and most pernicious character on the morals of the people. To trace those influences in all their ramifications would lead me far beyond the limits I have assigned to the present work, but I shall endeavour to give a concise view of their nature and general character.
The theory of the Roman Empire was that of a representative despotism. The various offices of the Republic were not annihilated, but they were gradually concentrated in a single man. The senate was still ostensibly the depository of supreme power, but it was made in fact the mere creature of the Emperor, whose power was virtually uncontrolled. Political spies and private accusers, who in the latter days of the Republic had been encouraged to denounce plots against the State, began under Augustus to denounce plots against the Emperor; and the class being enormously increased under Tiberius, and stimulated by the promise of part of the confiscated property, they menaced every leading politician and even every wealthy man. The nobles were gradually depressed, ruined, or driven by the dangers of public life into orgies of private luxury. The poor were conciliated, not by any increase of liberty or even of permanent prosperity, but by gratuitous distributions of corn and by public games, while, in order to invest themselves with a sacred character, the emperors adopted the religious device of an apotheosis.
This last superstition, of which some traces may still be found in the titles appropriated to royalty, was not wholly a suggestion of politicians. Deified men had long occupied a prominent place in ancient belief, and the founders of cities had been very frequently worshipped by the inhabitants.1 Although to more educated minds the ascription of divinity to a sovereign was simply an unmeaning flattery, although it in no degree prevented either innumerable plots against his life, or an unsparing criticism of his memory, yet the popular reverence not unfrequently anticipated politicians in representing the emperor as in some special way under the protection of Providence. Around Augustus a whole constellation of miraculous stories soon clustered. An oracle, it was said, had declared his native city destined to produce a rulei of the world. When a child, he had been borne by invisible hands from his cradle, and placed on a lofty tower, where he was found with his face turned to the rising sun. He rebuked the frogs that croaked around his grandfather's home, and they became silent for ever. An eagle snatched a piece of bread from his hand, soared into the air, and then, descending, presented it to him again. Another eagle dropped at his feet a chicken, bearing a laurel-branch in its beak. When his body was burnt, his image was seen rising to heaven above the flames. When another man tried to sleep in the bed in which the Emperor had been born, the profane intruder was dragged forth by an unseen hand. A patrician named Lætorius, having been condemned for adultery, pleaded in mitigation of the sentence that he was the happy possessor of the spot of ground on which Augustus was born.1 An Asiatic town, named Cyzicus, was deprived of its freedom by Tiberius, chiefly because it had neglected the worship of Augustus.2 Partly, no doubt, by policy, but partly also by that spontaneous process by which in a superstitious age conspicuous characters so often become the nuclei of legends,3 each emperor was surrounded by a supernatural aureole. Every usurpation, every break in the ordinary line of succession, was adumbrated by a series of miracles; and signs, both in heaven and earth, were manifested whenever an emperor was about to die.
Of the emperors themselves, a great majority, no doubt, accepted their divine honours as an empty pageant, and more than one exhibited beneath the purple a simplicity of tastes and character which the boasted heroes of the Republic had never sunpassed. It is related of Vespasian that, when dying, he jested mournfully on his approaching dignity, observing, as he felt his strength ebbing away, ‘I think I am becoming a god.’4 Alexander Severus and Julian refused to accept the ordinary language of adulation, and of those who did not reject it we know that many looked upon it as a modern sovereign looks upon the phraseology of petitions or the ceremonies of the Court. Even Nero was so far from being intoxicated with his Imperial dignity that he continually sought triumphs as a singer or an actor, and it was his artistic skill, not his divine prerogatives, that excited his vanity.5 Caligula, however, who appears to have been literally deranged,6 is said to have accepted his divinity as a serious fact, to have substituted his own head for that of Jupiter on many of the statues,1 and to have once started furiously from his seat during a thunderstorm that had interrupted a gladiatorial show, shouting with frantic gestures his imprecations against Heaven, and declaring that the divided empire was indeed intolerable, that either Jupiter or himself must speedily succumb.2 Heliogabalus, if we may give any credence to his biographer, confounded all things, human and divine, in hideous and blasphemous orgies, and designed to unite all forms of religion in the worship of himself.
A curious consequence of this apotheosis was that the images of the emperors were invested with a sacred character like those of the gods. They were the recognised refuge of the slave or the oppressed,4 and the smallest disrespect to them was resented as a heinous crime. Under Tiberius, slaves and criminals were accustomed to hold in their hands an image of the emperor, and, being thus protected, to pour with impunity a torrent of defiant insolence upon their masters or judges.5 Under the same emperor, a man having, when drunk, accidentally touched a nameless domestic utensil with a ring on which the head of the emperor was carved, he was immediately denounced by a spy.6 A man in this reign was accused of high treason for having sold an image of the emperor with a garden.7 It was made a capital offence to lest a slave, or to undress, near a statue of Augustus, or to enter a brothel with a piece of money on which his head was engraved,8 and at a later period a woman, it is said, was actuaily executed for undressing before the statue of Domitian.1
It may easly be conceived that men who had been raised to this pinnacle of arrogance and power, men who exercised uncontrolled authority in the midst of a society in a state of profound corruption, were often guilty of the most atrocious extravagances. In the first period of the Empire more especially, when traditions were not yet formed, and when experience had not yet shown the dangers of the throne, the brains of some of its occupants reeled at their elevation, and a kind of moral insanity ensued. The pages of Suetonius remain as an eternal witness of the abysses of depravity, the hideous, intolerable cruelty, the hitherto unimagined extravagances of nameless lust that were then manifested on the Palatine, and while they cast a fearful light upon the moral chaos into which pagan society had sunk, they furnish ample evidence of the demoralising influences of the empire. The throne was, it is true, occupied by some of the best as well as by some of the worst men who have ever lived; but the evil, though checked and mitigated, was never abolished. The corruption of a Court, the formation of a profession of spies, the encouragement given to luxury, the distributions of corn, and the multiplication of games, were evils which varied greatly in their degrees of intensity, but the very existence of the empire prevented the creation of those habits of political life which formed the moral type of the great republics of antiquity. Liberty, which is often very unfavourable to theological systems, is almost always in the end favourable to morals; for the most effectual method that has been devised for diverting men from vice is to give free scope to a higher ambition. This scope was absolutely wanting in the Roman Empire, and the moral condition, in the absence of lasting political habits, fluctuated greatly with the character of the Emperors.
The results of the institution of slavery were probably even more serious. In addition to its manifest effect in on-couraging a tyrannical and ferocious spirit in the masters, it cast a stigma upon all labour, and at once degraded and impoverished the free poor. In modern societies the formation of an influential and numerous middle class, trained in the sober and regular habits of industrial life, is the chief guarantee of national morality, and where such a class exists, the disorders of the upper ranks, though undoubtedly injurious, are never fatal to society. The influence of great outbursts of fashionable depravity, such as that which followed the Restoration in England, is rarely more than superficial. The aristocracy may revel in every excess of ostentatious vice, but the great mass of the people, at the loom, the counter, or the plough, continue unaffected by their example, and the habits of life into which they are forced by the condition of their trades preserve them from gross depravity. It was the most frightful feature of the corruption of ancient Rome that it extended through every class of the community. In the absence of all but the simplest machinery, manufactures, with the vast industrial life they beget, were unknown. The poor citizen found almost all the spheres in which an honourable livelihood might be obtained wholly or at least in a very great degree preoccupied by slaves, while he had learnt to regard trade with an invincible repugnance. Hence followed the immense increase of corrupt and corrupting professions, as actors, pantomimes, hired gladiators, political spies, ministers to passion, astrologers, religious charlatans, pseudo-philosophers, which gave the free classes a precarious and occasional subsistence, and hence, too, the gigantic dimensions of the system of clientage. Every rich man was surrounded by a train of dependants, who lived in a great measure at his expense, and spent their lives in ministering to his passions and flattering his vanity. And, above all, the public distribution of corn, and occasionally of money, was carried on to such an extent, that, so far as the first necessaries of life were concerned, the whole poor free population of Rome was supported gratuitously by the Government. To effect this distribution promptly and lavishly was the main object of the Imperial policy, and its consequences were worse than could have resulted from the most extravagant poor-laws or the most excessive charity. The mass of the people were supported in absolute idleness by corn, which was given without any reference to desert, and was received, not as a favour, but as a right, while gratuitous public amusements still further diverted them from labour.
Under these influences the population rapidly dwindled away. Productive enterprise was almost extinct in Italy, and an unexampled concurrence of causes made a vicious celibacy the habitual condition. Already in the days of Augustus the evil was apparent, and the dangers which in later reigns drove the patricians still more generally from public life, drove them more and more into every extravagance of sensuality. Greece, since the destruction of her liberty, and also the leading cities of Asia Minor and of Egypt, had become centres of the wildest corruption, and Greek and Oriental captives were innumerable in Rome. Ionian slaves of a surpassing beauty, Alexandrian slaves, famous for their subtle skill in stimulating the jaded senses of the confirmed and sated libertine, became the ornaments of every patrician house, the companions and the instructors of the young. The disinclination to marriage was so general, that men who spent their lives in endeavouring by flatteries to secure the inheritance of wealthy bachelors became a numerous and a notorious class. The slave population was itself a hotbed of vice, and it contaminated all with which it came in contact; while the attractions of the games, and especially of the public baths, which became the habitual resort of the idle, combined with the charms of the Italian climate, and with the miserable domestic architecture that was general, to draw the poor citizens from indoor life. Idleness, amusements, and a bare subsistence were alone desired, and the general practice of abortion among the rich, and of infanticide and exposition in all classes, still further checked the population.
The destruction of all public spirit in a population sc situated was complete and inevitable. In the days of the Republic a consul had once advocated the admission of a brave Italian people to the right of Roman citizenship, on the ground that ‘those who thought only of liberty deserved to be Romans.’1 In the Empire all liberty was cheerfully bartered for games and corn, and the worst tyrant could by these means be secure of popularity. In the Republic, when Marius threw open the houses of those he had proscribed, to be plundered, the people, by a noble abstinence, rebuked the act, for no Roman could be found to avail himself of the permission.2 In the Empire, when the armies of Vitellius and Vespasian were disputing the possession of the city, the degenerate Romans gathered with delight to the spectacle as to a gladiatorial show, plundered the deserted houses, encouraged either army by their reckless plaudits, dragged out the fugitives to be slain, and converted into a festival the calamity of their country.3 The degradation of the national character was permanent. Neither the teaching of the Stoics, nor the government of the Antonines, nor the triumph of Christianity could restore it. Indifferent to liberty, the Roman now, as then, asks only for an idle subsistence and for public spectacles, and countless monasteries and ecclesiastical pageants occupy in modern Rome the same place as did the distributions of corn and the games of the amplitheatre in the Rome of the Cæsars.
It must be remembered, too, that while public spirit had thus decayed in the capital of the empire, there existed no independent or rival power to reanimate by its example the smouldering flame. The existence in modern Europe of many distinct nations on the same level of civilisation, but with different forms of government and conditions of national life secures the permanence of some measure of patriotism and liberty. If these perish in one nation, they survive in another, and each people affects those about it by its rivalry or example. But an empire which comprised all the civilised globe could know nothing of this political interaction. In religious, social, intellectual, and moral life, foreign ideas were very discernible, but the enslaved provinces could have no influence in rekindling political life in the centre, and those which rivalled Italy in their civilisation, even surpassed it in their corruption and their servility.
In reviewing, however, the conditions upon which the moral state of the empire depended, there are still two very important centres or seed-plots of virtue to which it is necessary to advert. I mean the pursuit of agriculture and the discipline of the army. A very early tradition, which was attributed to Romulus, had declared that warfare and agriculture were the only honourable occupations for a citizen,1 and it would be difficult to overrate the influence of the last in forming temperate and virtuous habits among the people. It is the subject of the only extant work of the elder Cato. Virgil had adorned it with the lustre of his poetry. A very large part of the Roman religion was intended to symbolise its stages or consecrate its operations. Varro expressed an eminently Roman sentiment in that beautiful sentence which Cowper has introduced into English poetry, ‘Divine Providence made the country, but human art the town.2 The reforms of Vespasian consisted chiefly of the elevation to high positions of the agriculturists of the provinces. Antoninus, who was probably the most perfect of all the Roman emperors, was through his whole reign a zealous farmer.
As far as the distant provinces were concerned, it is probable that the Imperial system was on the whole a good. The scandalous rapacity of the provincial governors, which disgraced the closing years of the Republic, and which is immortalised by the indignant eloquence of Cicero, appears to have ceased, or at least greatly diminished, under the supervision of the emperors. Ample municipal freedom, good roads, and for the most part wise and temperate rulers, ecured for the distant sections of the empire a large measure of prosperity. But in Italy itself, agriculture, with the habits of life that attended it, speedily and fatally decayed. The peasant proprietor soon glided hopelessly into debt. The immense advantages which slavery gave the rich gradually threw nearly all the Italian soil into their hands. The peasant who ceased to be proprietor found himself excluded by slave labour from the position of a hired cultivator, while the gratuitous distributions of corn drew him readily to the metropolis. The gigantic scale of these distributions induced the rulers to obtain their corn in the form of a tribute from distant countries, chiefly from Africa and Sicily, and it almost ceased to be cultivated in Italy. The land fell to waste, or was cultivated by slaves or converted into pasture, and over vast tracts the race of free peasants entirely disappeared.
This great revolution, which profoundly affected the moral condition of Italy, had long been impending. The debts of the poor peasants, and the tendency of the patricians to monopolise the conquered territory, had occasioned some of the fiercest contests of the Republic, and in the earliest dava of the Empire the blight that seemed to have fallen on the Italian soil was continually and pathetically lamented. Livy, Varro, Columella, and Pliny have noticed it in the most emphatic terms,1 and Tacitus observed that as early as the reign of Claudius, Italy, which had once supplied the distant provinces with corn, had become dependent for the very necessaries of life upon the winds and the waves.2 The evil was indeed of an almost hopeless kind. Adverse winds, or any other accidental interruption of the convoys of corn, occasioned severe distress in the capital; but the prospect of the calamities that would ensue if any misfortune detached the great corn-growing countries from the empire, might well have appalled the politician. Yet the combined influence of slavery, and of the gratuitous distributions of corn, acting in the manner I have described, rendered every effort to revive Italian agriculture abortive, and slavery had taken such deep root that it would have been impossible to abolish it, while no emperor dared to encounter the calamities and rebellion that would follow a suspension or even a restriction of the distributions.3 Many serious efforts were made to remedy the evil.4 Alexander Severus advanced money to the poor to buy portions of land, and accepted a gradual payment without interest from the produce of the soil. Pertinax settled poor men as proprietors on deserted land, on the sole condition that they should cultivate it. Marcus Aurelius began, and Aurelian and Valentinian continued, the system of settling great numbers of barbarian captives upon the Italian soil, and compelling them as slaves to till it. The introduction of this large foreign element into the heart of Italy was eventually one of the causes of the downfall of the empire, and it is also about this time that we first dimly trace the condition of serfdom or servitude to the soil into which slavery afterwards faded, and which was for some centuries the general condition of the European poor. But the economical and moral causes that were destroying agriculture in Italy were too strong to be resisted, and the simple habits of life which agricultural pursuits promote had little or no place in the later empire.
A somewhat less rapid but in the end not less complete decadence had taken place in military life. The Roman army was at first recruited exclusively from the upper classes, and the service, which lasted only during actual warfare, was gratuitous. Before the close of the Republic, however, these conditions had disappeared. Military pay is said to have been instituted at the time of the siege of Veii.1 Some Spaniards who were enrolled during the rivalry of Rome and Carthage were the first example of the employment of foreign mercenaries by the former.2 Marius abolished the property qualification of the recruits.3 In long residences in Spain and in the Asiatic provinces discipline gradually relaxed, and the historian who traced the progress of Oriental luxury in Rome dwelt with a just emphasis upon the ominous fact that it had first been introduced into the city by soldiers.4 The civil wars contributed to the destruction of the old military traditions, but being conducted by able generals it is probable that they had more effect upon the patriotism than upon the discipline of the army. Augustus reorganised the whole military system, establishing a body of soldiers known as the Prætorian guard, and dignified with some special privileges, permanently in Rome, while the other legions were chiefly mustered upon the frontiers During his long reign, and during that of Tiberius, both sections were quiescent, but the murder of Caligula by his soldiers opened a considerable period of insubordination. Claudius, it was observed, first set the fatal example of purchasing his safety from his soldiers by bribes.1 The armies of the provinces soon discovered that it was possible to elect an emperor outside Rome, and Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian were all the creatures of revolt. The evil was, however, not yet past recovery. Vespasian and Trajan enforced discipline with great stringency and success. The emperors began more frequently to visit the camps. The number of the soldiers was small, and for some time the turbulence subsided. The history of the worst period of the Empire, it has been truly observed, is full of instances of brave soldiers trying, under circumstances of extreme difficulty, simply to do their duty. But the historian had soon occasion to notice again the profound influence of the voluptuous Asiatic cities upon the legions.2 Removed for many years from Italy, they lost all national pride, their allegiance was transferred from the sovereign to the general, and when the Imperial sceptre fell into the hands of a succession of incompetent rulers, they habitually urged their commanders to revolt, and at last reduced the empire to a condition of military anarchy. A remedy was found for this evil, though not for the luxurious habits that had been acquired, in the division of the empire, which placed each army under the direct supervision of an emperor, and it is probable that at a later period Christianity diminished the insubordination, though it may have also diminished the military fire, of the soldiers.3 But other and still more powerful causes were in operation preparing the military downfall of Rome. The habits of inactivity which the Imperial policy had produced, and which, through a desire for popularity, most emperors laboured to encourage, led to a profound disinclination for the hardships of military life. Even the Prætorian guard, which was long exclusively Italian, was selected after Septimus Severus from the legions on the frontiers,1 while, Italy being relieved from the regular conscription, these were recruited solely in the provinces, and innumerable barbarians were subsidised. The political and military consequences of this change are sufficiently obvious. In an age when, artillery being unknown, the military superiority of civilised nations over barbarians was far less than at present, the Italians had become absolutely unaccustomed to real war, and had acquired habits that were beyond all others incompatible with military discipline, while many of the barbarians who menaced and at last subverted the empire had been actually trained by Roman generals. The moral consequence is equally plain—military discipline, like agricultural labour, ceased to have any part among the moral influences of Italy.
To those who have duly estimated the considerations I have enumerated, the downfall and moral debasement of the empire can cause no surprise, though they may justly wonder that its agony should have been so protracted, that it should have produced a multitude of good and great men, both pagan and Christian, and that these should have exercised so wide an influence as they unquestionably did. Almost every institution or pursuit by which virtuous habits would naturally have been formed had been tainted or destroyed, while agencies of terrific power were impelling the people to vice. The rich, excluded from most honourable paths of ambition, and surrounded by countless parasites who inflamed their every passion, found themselves absolute masters of innumerable slaves who were their willing ministers, and often their teachers, in vice. The poor, hating industry and destitute of all intellectual resources, lived in habitual idleness, and looked upon abject servility as the normal road to fortune. But the picture becomes truly appalling when we remember that the main amusement of both classes was the spectacle of bloodshed, of the death, and sometimes of the torture, of men.
The gladiatorial games form, indeed, the one feature of Roman society which to a modern mind is almost inconceivable in its atrocity. That not only men, but women, in an advanced period of civilisation—men and women who not only professed but very frequently acted upon a high code of morals—should have made the carnage of men their habitual amusement, that all this should have continued for centuries, with scarcely a protest, is one of the most startling facts in moral history. It is, however, perfectly normal, and in no degree inconsistent with the doctrine of natural moral perceptions, while it opens out fields of ethical enquiry of a very deep though painful interest.
These games, which long eclipsed, both in interest and in influence, every other form of public amusement at Rome,1 originally religious ceremonies celebrated at the tombs of the great, and intended as human sacrifices to appease the Manes of the dead.1 They were afterwards defended as a means of sustaining the military spirit by the constant spectacle of courageous death,2 and with this object it was customary to give a gladiatorial show to soldiers before their departure to a war.3 In addition to these functions they had a considerable political importance, for at a time when all the regular organs of liberty were paralysed or abolished, the ruler was accustomed in the arena to meet tens of thousands of his subjects, who availed themselves of the opportunity to present their petitions, to declare their grievances, and to censure freely the sovereign or his ministers.4 The games are said to have been of Etruscan origin; they were first introduced into Rome, b.c. 264, when the two sons of a man named Brutus compelled three pair of gladiators to fight at the funeral of their father,1 and before the close of the Republic they were common on great public occasions, and, what appears even more horrible, at the banquets of the nobles.2 The rivalry of Cæsar and Pompey greatly multiplied them, for each sought by this means to ingratiate himself with the people. Pompey introduced a new form of combat between men and animals.3 Cæsar abolished the old custom of restricting the mortuary games to the funerals of men, and his daughter was the first Roman lady whose tomb was desecrated by human blood.4 Besides this innovation, Cæsar replaced the temporary edifices in which the games had hitherto been held by a permanent wooden amphitheatre, shaded the spectators by an awning of precious silk, compelled the condemned persons on one occasion to fight with silver lances,5 and drew so many gladiators into the city that the Senate was obliged to issue an enactment restricting their number.6 In the earliest years of the Empire, Statilius Taurus erected the first amphitheatre of stone.7 Augustus ordered that not more than 120 men should fight on a single occasion, and that no prætor should give more than two spectacles in a single year,1 and Tiberius again fixed the maximum of combatants,2 but notwithstanding these attempts to limit them the games soon acquired the most gigantic proportions. They were celebrated habitually by great men in honour of their dead relatives, by officials on coming into office, by conquerors to secure popularity, and on every occasion of public rejoicing, and by rich tradesmen who were desirous of acquiring a social position.3 They were also among the attractions of the public baths. Schools of gladiators—often the private property of rich citizens—existed in every leading city of Italy, and, besides slaves and criminals, they were thronged with freemen, who voluntarily hired themselves for a term of years. In the eyes of multitudes, the large sums that were paid to the victor, the patronage of nobles and often of emperors, and still more the delirium of popular enthusiasm that centred upon the successful gladiator, outweighed all the dangers of the profession. A complete recklessness of life was soon engendered both in the spectators and the combatants. The ‘lanistæ,’ or purveyors of gladiators, became an important profession. Wandering bands of gladiators traversed Italy, hiring themselves for the provincial amphitheatres. The influence of the games gradually pervaded the whole texture of Roman life. They became the common-place of conversation.4 The children imitated them in their play.5 The philosophers drew from them their metaphors and illustrations. The artists pourtrayed them in every variety of ornament.1 The vestal virgins had a seat of honour in the arena.2 The Colosseum, which is said to have been capable of containing more than 80,000 spectators, eclipsed every other monument of Imperial splendour, and is even now at once the most imposing and the most characteristic relic of pagan Rome.
In the provinces the same passion was displayed. From Gaul to Syria, wherever the Roman influence extended, the spectacles of blood were introduced, and the gigantic remains of amphitheatres in many lands still attest by their ruined grandeur the scale on which they were pursued. In the reign of Tiberius, more than 20,000 persons are said to have perished by the fall of the amphitheatre at the suburban town of Fidenæ.3 Under Nero, the Syracusans obtained, as a special favour, an exemption from the law which limited the number of gladiators.4 Of the vast train of prisoners brought by Titus from Judea, a large proportion were destined by the conqueror for the provincial games.5 In Syria, where they were introduced by Antiochus Epiphanes, they at first produced rather terror than pleasure; but the effeminate Syrians soon learned to contemplate them with a passionate enjoyment,6 and on a single occasion Agrippa caused 1,400 men to fight in the amphitheatre at Berytus.7 Greece alone was in some degree an exception. When an attempt was made to introduce the spectacle into Athens, the cynic philosopher Demonax appealed successfully to the better feelings of the people by exclaiming, ‘You must first overthrow the altar of Pity.’1 The games are said to have afterwards penetrated to Athens, and to have been suppressed by Apollonius of Tyana;2 but with the exception of Corinth, where a very large foreign population existed, Greece never appears to have shared the general enthusiasm.3
One of the first consequences of this taste was to render the people absolutely unfit for those tranquil and refined amusements which usually accompany civilisation. To men who were accustomed to witness the fierce vicissitudes of deadly combat, any spectacle that did not elicit the strongest excitement was insipid. The only amusements that at all rivalled the spectacles of the amphitheatre and the circus were those which appealed strongly to the sensual passions, such as the games of Flora, the postures of the pantomimes, and the ballet.4 Roman comedy, indeed, flourished for a short period, but only by throwing itself into the same career. The pander and the courtesan are the leading characters of Plautus, and the more modest Terence never attained an equal popularity. The different forms of vice have a continual tendency to act and react upon one another, and the intense craving after excitement which the amphitheatre must necessarily have produced, had probably no small influence in stimulating the orgies of sensuality which Tacitus and Suetonius describe.
But if comedy could to a certain extent flourish with the gladiatorial games, it was not so with tragedy. It is, indeed, true that the tragic actor can exhibit displays of more intense agony and of a grander heroism than were ever witnessed in the arena. His mission is not to paint nature as it exists in the light of day, but nature as it exists in the heart of man. His gestures, his tones, his looks, are such as would never have been exhibited by the person he represents, but they display to the audience the full intensity of the emotions which that person would have felt, but which he would have been unable adequately to reveal. But to those who were habituated to the intense realism of the amphitheatre, the idealised suffering of the stage was unimpressive. All the genius of a Siddons or a Ristori would fail to move an audience who had continually seen living men fall bleeding and mangled at their feet. One of the first functions of the stage is to raise to the highest point the susceptibility to disgust. When Horace said that Medea should not kill her children upon the stage, he enunciated not a mere arbitrary rule, but one which grows necessarily out of the development of the drama. It is an essential characteristic of a refined and cultivated taste to be shocked and offended at the spectacle of bloodshed; and the theatre, which somewhat dangerously dissociates sentiment from action, and causes men to waste their compassion on ideal sufferings, is at least a barrier against the extreme forms of cruelty by developing this susceptibility to the highest degree. The gladiatorial games, on the other hand, destroyed all sense of disgust, and therefore all refinement of taste, and they rendered the permanent triumph of the drama impossible.1
It is abundantly evident, both from history and from present experience, that the instinctive shock, or natural feeling of disgust, caused by the sight of the sufferings of men is not generically different from that which is caused by the sight of the sufferings of animals. The latter, to those who are not accustomed to it, is intensely painful. The former continually becomes by use a matter of absolute indifference. If the repugnance which is felt in the one case appears greater than in the other, it is not on account of any innate sentiment which commands us to reverence our species, but simply because our imagination finds less difficulty in realising human than animal suffering, and also because education has strengthened our feelings in the one case much more than in the other. There is, however, no fact more clearly established than that when men have regarded it as not a crime to kill some class of their fellow-men, they have soon learnt to do so with no more natural compunction or hesitation than they would exhibit in killing a wild animal. This is the normal condition of savage men. Colonists and Red Indians even now often shoot each other with precisely the same indifference as they shoot beasts of prey, and the whole history of warfare—especially when warfare was conducted on more savage principles than at present—is an illustration of the fact. Startling, therefore, as it may now appear, it is in no degree unnatural that Roman spectators should have contemplated with perfect equanimity the slaughter of men. The Spaniard, who is brought in infancy to the bull-ring, soon learns to gaze with indifference or with pleasure upon mights before which the unpractised eye of the stranger quails with horror, and the same process would be equally efficacious had the spectacle been the sufferings of men.
We now look back with indignation upon this indifference; but yet, although it may be hard to realise, it is probably true that there is scarcely a human being who might not by custom be so indurated as to share it. Had the most benevolent person lived in a country in which the innocence of these games was deemed axiomatic, had he been taken to them in his very childhood, and accustomed to associate them with his earliest dreams of romance, and had he then been left simply to the play of the emotions, the first paroxysm of horror would have soon subsided, the shrinking repugnance that followed would have grown weaker and weaker, the feeling of interest would have been aroused, and the time would probably come in which it would reign alone. But even this absolute indifference to the sight of human suffering does not represent the full evil resulting from the gladiatorial games. That some men are so constituted as to be capable of taking a real and lively pleasure in the simple contemplation of suffering as suffering, and without any reference to their own interests, is a proposition which has been strenuously denied by those in whose eyes vice is nothing more than a displacement, or exaggeration, of lawful self-regarding feelings, and others, who have admitted the reality of the phenomenon, have treated it as a very rare and exceptional disease.1 That it is so—at least in its extreme forms—in the present condition of society, may reasonably be hoped, though I imagine that few persons who have watched the habits of boys would question that to take pleasure in giving at least some degree of pain is sufficiently common, and though it is not quite certain that all the sports of adult men would be entered into with exactly the same zest if their victims were not sentient beings. But in every society in which atrocious punishments have been common, this side of human nature has acquired an undoubted prominence. It is related of Claudius that his special delight at the gladiatorial shows was in watching the countenances of the dying, for he had learnt to take an artistic pleasure in observing the variations of their agony.1 When the gladiator lay prostrate it was customary for the spectators to give the sign with their thumbs, indicating whether they desired him to be spared or glain, and the giver of the show reaped most popularity when, in the latter case, he permitted no consideration of economy to make him hesitate to sanction the popular award.2
Besides this, the mere desire for novelty impelled the people to every excess or refinement of barbarity.3 The simple combat became at last insipid, and every variety of atrocity was devised to stimulate the flagging interest. At one time a bear and a bull, chained together, rolled in fierce contest along the sand; at another, criminals dressed in the skins of wild beasts were thrown to bulls, which were maddened by red-hot irons, or by darts tipped with burning pitch. Four hundred bears were killed on a single day under Caligula; three hundred on another day under Claudius. Under Nero, four hundred tigers fought with bulls and elephants; four hundred bears and three hundred lions were slaughtered by his soldiers. In a single day, at the dedication of the Colosseum by Titus, five thousand animals perished. Under Trajan, the games continued for one hundred and twenty-three successive days.4 Lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, even crocodiles and serpents, were employed to give novelty to the spectacle Nor was any form of human suffering wanting. The first Gordian, when edile, gave twelve spectacles, in each of which from one hundred and fifty to five hundred pair of gladiators appeared.1 Eight hundred pair fought at the triumph of Aurelian.2 Ten thousand men fought during the games of Trajan.3 Nero illumined his gardens during the night by Christians burning in their pitchy shirts.4 Under Domitian, an army of feeble dwarfs was compelled to fight,5 and, more than once, female gladiators descended to perish in the arena.6 A criminal personating a fictitious character was nailed to a cross, and there torn by a bear.7 Another, representing Scævola, was compelled to hold his hand in a real flame.8 A third, as Hercules, was burnt alive upon the pile.9 So intense was the craving for blood, that a prince was less unpopular if he neglected the distribution of corn than if he neglected the games; and Nero himself, on account of his munificence in this respect, was probably the sovereign who was most beloved by the Roman multitude. Heliogabalus and Galerius are reported, when dining, to have regaled themselves with the sight of criminals torn by wild beasts. It was said of the latter that ‘he never supped without human blood.’1
It is well for us to look steadily on such facts as these. They display more vividly than any mere philosophical disquisition the abyss of depravity into which it is possible for human nature to sink. They furnish us with striking proofs of the reality of the moral progress we have attained, and they enable us in some degree to estimate the regenerating influence that Christianity has exercised in the world. For the destruction of the gladiatorial games is all its work. Philosophers, indeed, might deplore them, gentle natures might shrink from their contagion, but to the multitude they possessed a fascination which nothing but the new religion could overcome.
Nor was this fascination surprising, for no pageant has ever combined more powerful elements of attraction. The magnificent circus, the gorgeous dresses of the assembled Court, the contagion of a passionate enthusiasm thrilling almost visibly through the mighty throng, the breathless silence of expectation, the wild cheers bursting simultaneously from eighty thousand tongues, and echoing to the farthest outskirts of the city, the rapid alternations of the fray, the deeds of splendid courage that were manifested, were all well fitted to entrance the imagination. The crimes and servitude of the gladiator were for a time forgotten in the blaze of glory that surrounded him. Representing to the highest degree that courage which the Romans deemed the first of virtues, the cynosure of countless eyes, the chief object of conversation in the metropolis of the universe, destined, if victorious, to be immortalised in the mosaic and the sculpture,1 he not unfrequently rose to heroic grandeur. The gladiator Spartacus for three years defied the bravest armies of Rome. The greatest of Roman generals had chosen gladiators for his body-guard.2 A band of gladiators, faithful even to death, followed the fortunes of the fallen Antony, when all besides had deserted him.3 Beautiful eyes, trembling with passion, looked down upon the fight, and the noblest ladies in Rome, even the empress herself, had been known to crave the victor's love.4 We read of gladiators lamenting that the games occurred so seldom,5 complaining bitterly if they were not permitted to descend into the arena,6 scorning to fight except with the most powerful antagonists,7 laughing aloud as their wounds were dressed,8 and at last, when prostrate in the dust, calmly turning their throats to the sword of the conqueror.9 The enthusiasm that gathered round them was so intense that special laws were found necessary, and were sometimes insufficient to prevent patricians from enlisting in their ranks,10 while the tranquil courage with which they never failed to die supplied the philosopher with his most striking examples.1 The severe continence that was required before the combat, contrasting vividly with the licentiousness of Roman life, had even invested them with something of a moral dignity; and it is a singularly suggestive fact that of all pagan characters the gladiator was selected by the Fathers as the closest approximation to a Christian model.2 St. Augustine tells us how one of his friends, being drawn to the spectacle, endeavoured by closing his eyes to guard against a fascination he knew to be sinful. A sudden cry caused him to break his resolution, and he never could withdraw his gaze again.3
And while the influences of the amphitheatre gained a complete ascendancy over the populace, the Roman was not without excuses that could lull his moral feelings to repose. The games, as I have said, were originally human sacrifices—religious rites sacred to the dead—and it was argued that the death of the gladiator was both more honourable and more merciful than that of the passive victim, who, in the Homeric age, was sacrificed at the tomb. The combatants were either professional gladiators, slaves, criminals, or military captives. The lot of the first was voluntary. The second had for a long time been regarded as almost beneath or beyond a freeman's care; but when the enlarging circle of sympathy had made the Romans regard their slaves as ‘a kind of second human nature,’1 they perceived the atrocity of exposing them in the games, and an edict of the emperor forbade it.2 The third had been condemned to death, and as the victorious gladiator was at least sometimes pardoned,3 a permission to fight was regarded as an act of mercy. The fate of the fourth could not strike the early Roman with the horror it would now inspire, for the right of the conquerors to massacre their prisoners was almost universally admitted.4 But, beyond the point of desiring the games to be in some degree restricted, extremely few of the moralists of the Roman Empire ever advanced. That it was a horrible and demoralising thing to make the spectacle of the deaths, even of guilty men, a form of popular amusement, was a position which no Roman school had attained, and which was only reached by a very few individuals. Cicero observes, ‘that the gladiatorial spectacles appear to some cruel and inhuman,’ and, he adds, ‘I know not whether as they are now conducted it is not so, but when guilty men are compelled to fight, no better discipline against suffering and death can be presented to the eye.1 Seneca, it is true, adopts a far nobler language. He denounced the games with a passionate eloquence. He refuted indignantly the argument derived from the guilt of the combatants, and declared that under every form and modification these amusements were brutalising, savage, and detestable.2 Plutarch went even farther, and condemned the combats of wild beasts on the ground that we should have a bond of sympathy with all sentient beings, and that the sight of blood and of suffering is necessarily and essentially depraving.3 To these instances we may add Petronius, who condemned the shows in his poem on the civil war; Junius Mauricus, who refused to permit the inhabitants of Vienne to celebrate them, and replied to the remonstrances of the emperor, ‘Would to Heaven it were possible to abolish such spectacles, even at Rome!’4 and, above all, Marcus Aurelius, who, by compelling the gladiators to fight with blunted swords, rendered them for a time comparatively harmless5 But these, with the Athenian remonstrances I have already noticed, are almost the only instances now remaining of pagan protests against the most conspicuous as well as the most atrocious feature of the age. Juvenal, whose unsparing satire has traversed the whole field of Roman manners, and who denounces fiercely all cruelty to slaves, has repeatedly noticed the gladiatorial shows, but on no single occasion does he intimate that they were inconsistent with humanity. Of all the great historians who recorded them, not one seems to have been conscious that he was recording a barbarity, not one appears to have seen in them any greater evils than an increasing tendency to pleasure and the excessive multiplication of a dangerous class. The Roman sought to make men brave and fearless, rather than gentle and humane, and in his eyes that spectacle was to be applauded which steeled the heart against the fear of death, even at the sacrifice of the affections. Titus and Trajan, in whose reigns, probably, the greatest number of shows were compressed into a short time, were both men of conspicuous clemency, and no Roman seems to have imagined that the fact of 3,000 men having been compelled to fight under the one, and 10,000 under the other, cast the faintest shadow upon their characters. Suetonius mentions, as an instance of the amiability of Titus, that he was accustomed to jest with the people during the combats of the gladiators,1 and Pliny especially eulogised Trajan because he did not patronise spectacles that enervate the character, but rather those which impel men ‘to noble wounds and to the contempt of death.’2 The same writer, who was himself in many ways conspicuous for his gentleness and charity, having warmly commended a friend for acceding to a petition of the people of Verona, who desired a spectacle, adds this startling sentence: ‘After so general a request, to have refused would not have been firmness—it would have been cruelty.’3 Even in the closing years of the fourth century, the præfect Symmachus, who was regarded as one of the most estimable pagans of his age, collected some Saxon prisoners to fight in honour of his son. They strangled themselves in prison, and Symmachus lamented the misfortune that had befallen him from their ‘impious hands,’ but endeavoured to calm his feelings by recalling the patience of Socrates and the precepts of philosophy.4
While, however, I have no desire to disguise or palliate the extreme atrocity of this aspect of Roman life, there are certain very natural exaggerations, against which it is necessary for us to guard. There are in human nature, and more especially in the exercise of the benevolent affections, inequalities, inconsistencies, and anomalies, of which theorists do not always take account. We should be altogether in error if we supposed that a man who took pleasure in a gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome was necessarily an inhuman as a modern would be who took pleasure in a similar spectacle. A man who falls but a little below the standard of his own merciful age is often in reality far worse than a man who had conformed to the standard of a much more barbarous age, even though the latter will do some things with perfect equanimity from which the other would recoil with horror. We have a much greater power than is sometimes supposed of localising both our benevolent and malevolent feelings. If a man is very kind, or very harsh to some particular class, this is usually, and on the whole justly, regarded as an index of his general disposition, but the inference is not infallible, and it may easily be pushed too far. There are some who appear to expend all their kindly feelings on a single class, and to treat with perfect indifference all outside it. There are others who regard a certain class as quite outside the pale of their sympathies, while in other spheres their affections prove lively and constant. There are many who would accede without the faintest reluctance to a barbarous custom, but would be quite incapable of an equally barbarous act which custom had not consecrated. Our affections are so capricious in their nature that it is continually necessary to correct by detailed experience the most plausible deductions. Thus, for example, it is a very unquestionable and a very important truth that cruelty to animals naturally indicates and promotes a habit of mind which leads to cruelty to men; and that, on the other hand, an affectionate and merciful disposition to animals commonly implies a gentle and amiable nature. But, if we adopted this principle as an infallible criterion of humanity, we should soon find ourselves at fault. To the somewhat too hackneyed anecdote of Domitian gratifying his savage propensities by killing flies,1 we might oppose Spinoza, one of the purest, most gentle, most benevolent of mankind, of whom it is related that almost the only amusement of his life was putting flies into spiders’ webs and watching their struggles and their deaths.2 It has been observed that a very large proportion of the men who during the French Revolution proved themselves most absolutely indifferent to human suffering were deeply attached to animals. Fournier was devoted to a squirrel, Couthon to a spaniel, Panis to two gold pheasants, Chaumette to an aviary, Marat kept doves.3 Bacon has noticed that the Turks, who are a cruel people, are nevertheless conspicuous for their kindness to animals, and he mentions the instance of a Christian boy who was nearly stoned to death for gagging a long-billed fowl.4 In Egypt there are hospitals for superannuated cats, and the most loathsome insects are regarded with tenderness; but human life is treated as if it were of no account, and human suffering scarcely elicits a care.5 The same contrast appears more or lees in all Eastern nations. On the other hand, travellers are unanimous in declaring that in Spain an intense passion for the bull-fight is quite compatible with the most active benevolence and the most amiable disposition. Again, to pass to another sphere, it is not uncommon to find conquerors, who will sacrifice with perfect callousness great masses of men to their ambition, but who, in their dealings with isolated individuals, are distinguished by an invariable clemency. Anomalies of this kind continually appear in the Roman population. The very men who looked down with delight when the sand of the arena was reddened with human blood, made the theatre ring with applause when Terence, in his famous line, proclaimed the universal brotherhood of man. When the senate, being unable to discover the murderer of a patrician, resolved to put his four hundred slaves to death, the people rose in open rebellion against the sentence.1 A knight named Erixo, who in the days of Augustus had so scourged his son that he died of the effects, was nearly torn to pieces by the indignant population.2 The elder Cato deprived a senator of his rank, because he had fixed an execution at such an hour that his mistress could enjoy the spectacle.3 Even in the amphitheatre there were certain traces of a milder spirit. Drusus, the people complained, took too visible a pleasure at the sight of blood;4 Caligula was too curious in watching death;5 Caracalla, when a boy, won enthusiastic plaudits by shedding tears at the execution of criminals.6 Among the most popular spectacles at Rome was rope-dancing, and then, as now, the cord being stretched at a great height above the ground, the apparent, and indeed real, danger added an evil zest to the performances. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius an accident had occurred, and the emperor, with his usual sensitive humanity, ordered that no rope-dancer should perform without a net or a mattress being spread out below. It is a singularly curious fact that this precaution, which no Christian nation has adopted, continued in force during more than a century of the worst period of the Roman Empire, when the blood of captives was poured out like water in the Colosseum.1 The standard of humanity was very low, but the sentiment was still manifest, though its displays were capricious and inconsistent.
The sketch I have now drawn will, I think, be sufficient to display the broad chasm that existed between the Roman moralists and the Roman people. On the one hand we find a system of ethics, of which when we consider the range and beauty of its precepts, the sublimity of the motives to which it appealed, and its perfect freedom from superstitious elements, it is not too much to say that though it may have been equalled, it has never been surpassed. On the other hand, we find a society almost absolutely destitute of moralising institutions, occupations, or beliefs, existing under an economical and political system which inevitably led to general depravity, and passionately addicted to the most brutalising amusements. The moral code, while it expanded in theoretical catholicity, had contracted in practical application. The early Romans had a very narrow and imperfect standard of duty, but their patriotism, their military system, and their enforced simplicity of life had made that standard essentially popular. The later Romans had attained a very high and spiritual conception of duty, but the philosopher with his group of disciples, or the writer with his few readers, had scarcely any point of contact with the people. The great practical problem of the ancient philosophers was how they could act upon the masses. Simply to tell men what is virtue, and to extol its beauty, is insufficient. Something more must be done if the characters of nations are to be moulded and inveterate vices eradicated.
This problem the Roman Stoics were incapable of meeting, but they did what lay in their power, and their efforts, though altogether inadequate to the disease, were by no means contemptible. In the first place they raised up many great and good rulers who exerted all the influence of their position in the cause of virtue. In most cases these reforms were abolished on the accession of the first bad emperor, but there were at least some that remained. It has been observed that the luxury of the table, which had acquired the most extravagant proportions during the period that elapsed between the battle of Actium and the reign of Galba, began from this period to decline, and the change is chiefly attributed to Vespasian, who had in a measure reformed the Roman aristocracy by the introduction of many provincials, and who made his court an example of the strictest frugality.1 The period from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius, comprising no less than eighty-four years, exhibits a uniformity of good government which no other despotic monarchy has equalled. Each of the five emperors who then reigned deserves to be placed among the best rulers who have ever lived. Trajan and Hadrian, whose personal characters were most defective, were men of great and conspicuous genius. Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, though less distinguished as politicians, were among the most perfectly virtuous men who have ever sat on a throne. During forty years of this period, perfect, unbroken peace reigned ever the entire civilised globe. The barbarian encroachments had not yet begun. The distinct nationalities that composed the Empire, gratified by perfect municipal and by perfect intellectual freedom, had lost all care for political liberty, and little more than three hundred thousand soldiers guarded a territory which is now protected by much more than three millions.1
In creating this condition of affairs, Stoicism, as the chief moral agent of the Empire, had a considerable though not a preponderating influence. In other ways its influence was more evident and exclusive. It was a fundamental maxim of the sect, ‘that the sage should take part in public life,’2 and it was therefore impossible that Stoicism should flourish without producing a resuscitation of patriotism. The same moral impulse which transformed the Neoplatonist into a dreaming mystic and the Catholic into a useless hermit, impelled the Stoic to the foremost post of danger in the service of his country. While landmark after landmark of Roman virtue was submerged, while luxury and scepticism and foreign habits and foreign creeds were corroding the whole framework of the national life, amid the last paroxysms of expiring liberty, amid the hideous carnival of vice that soon followed upon its fall, the Stoic remained unchanged, the representative and the sustainer of the past. A party which had acquired the noble title of the Party of Virtue, guided by such men as Cato or Thrasea or Helvidius or Burrhus, upheld the banner of Roman virtue and Roman liberty in the darkest hours of despotism and of apostasy. Like all men who carry an intense religious fervour into politics, they were often narrow-minded and intolerant, blind to the inevitable changes of society, incapable of compromise, turbulent and inopportune in their demands,3 but they more than redeemed their errors by their noble constancy and courage. The austere purity of their lives, and the heroic grandeur of their deaths, kept alive the tradition of Roman liberty even under a Nero or a Domitian. While such men existed it was felt that all was not lost. There was still a rallying point of freedom, a seed of virtue that might germinate anew, a living protest against the despotism and the corruption of the Empire.
A third and still more important service which Stoicism rendered to popular morals was in the formation of Roman jurisprudence.1 Of all the many forms of intellectual exertion in which Greece and Rome struggled for the mastery this is perhaps the only one in which the superiority of the latter is indisputable. ‘To rule the nations’ was justly pronounced by the Roman poet the supreme glory of his countrymen, and their administrative genius is even now unrivalled in history. A deep reverence for law was long one of their chief moral characteristics, and in order that it might be inculcated from the earliest years it was a part of the Roman system of education to oblige the children to repeat by rote the code of the decemvirs.1 The laws of the Republic, however, being an expression of the contracted, local, military, and sacerdotal spirit that dominated among the people, were necessarily unfit for the political and intellectual expansion of the Empire, and the process of renovation which was begun under Augustus by the Stoic Labeo,2 was continued with great zeal under Hadrian and Alexander Severus, and issued in the famous compilations of Theodosius and Justinian. In this movement we have to observe two parts. There were certain general rules of guidance laid down by the great Roman lawyers which constituted what may be called the ideal of the jurisconsults—the ends to which their special enactments tended—the principles of equity to guide the judge when the law was silent or ambiguous. There were also definite enactments to meet specific cases. The first part was simply borrowed from the Stoics, whose doctrines and method thus passed from the narrow circle of a philosophical academy and became the avowed moral beacons of the civilised globe. The fundamental difference between Stoicism and early Roman thought was that the former maintained the existence of a bond of unity among mankind which transcended or annihilated all class or national limitations. The essential characteristic of the Stoical method was the assertion of the existence of a certain law of nature to which it was the end of philosophy to conform. These tenets were laid down in the most unqualified language by the Roman lawyers. ‘As far as natural law is concerned,’ said Ulpian, ‘all men are equal.’3 ‘Nature,’ said Paul, ‘has established among us a certain relationship.’4 ‘By natural law,’ Ulpian declared, ‘all men are born free.’5
Slavery was defined by Florentinus as ‘a custom of the law of nations, by which one man, contrary to the law of nature, is subjected to the dominion of another.’1 In accordance with these principles it became a maxim among the Roman lawyers that in every doubtful case where the alternative of slavery or freedom was at issue, the decision of the judge should be towards the latter.2
The Roman legislation was in a twofold manner the child of philosophy. It was in the first place itself formed upon the philosophical model, for, instead of being a mere empirical system adjusted to the existing requirements of society, it laid down abstract principles of right to which it endeavoured to conform;3 and, in the next place, these principles were borrowed directly from Stoicism. The prominence the sect had acquired among Roman moralists, its active intervention in public affairs, and also the precision and brevity of its phraseology, had recommended it to the lawyers,4 and the union then effected between the legal and philosophical spirit is felt to the present day. To the Stoics and the Roman lawyers is mainly due the clear recognition of the existence of a law of nature above and beyond all human enactments which has been the basis of the best moral and of the most influential though most chimerical political speculation of later ages, and the renewed study of Roman law was an important element in the revival that preceded the Reformation.
It is not necessary for my present purpose to follow into very minute detail the application of these principles to practical legislation. It is sufficient to say, that there were few departments into which the catholic and humane principles of Stoicism were not in some degree carried. In the political world, as we have already seen, the right of Roman citizenship, with the protection and the legal privileges attached to it, from being the monopoly of a small class, was gradually but very widely diffused. In the domestic sphere, the power which the old laws had given to the father of the family, though not destroyed, was greatly abridged, and an important innovation, which is well worthy of a brief notice, was thus introduced into the social system of the Empire.
It is probable that in the chronology of morals, domestic virtue takes the precedence of all others; but in its earliest phase it consists of a single article-the duty of absolute submission to the head of the household. It is only at a later period, and when the affections have been in some degree evoked, that the reciprocity of duty is felt, and the whole tendency of civilisation is to diminish the disparity between the different members of the family. The process by which the wife from a simple slave becomes the companion and equal of her husband, I shall endeavour to trace in a future chapter. The relations of the father to his children are profoundly modified by the new position the affections assume in education, which in a rude nation rests chiefly upon authority, but in a civilised community upon sympathy. In Rome the absolute authority of the head of the family was the centre and archetype of that whole system of discipline and subordination which it was the object of the legislator to sustain. Filial reverence was enforced as the first of duties. It is the one virtue which Virgil attributed in any remarkable degree to the founder of the race. The marks of external respect paid to old men were scarcely less than in Sparta.1 It was the boast of the lawyers that in no other nation had the parent so great an authority over his children.2 The child was indeed the absolute slave of his father, who had a right at any time to take away his life and dispose of his entire property. He could look to no time during the life of his father in which he would be freed from the thraldom. The man of fifty, the consul, the general, or the tribune, was in this respect in the same position as the infant, and might at any moment be deprived of all the earnings of his labour, driven to the most menial employments, or even put to death, by the paternal command.3
There can, I think, be little question that this law, at least in the latter period of its existence, defeated its own object. There are few errors of education to which more unhappy homes may be traced than this-that parents have sought to command the obedience, before they have sought to win the confidence, of their children. This was the path which the Roman legislator indicated to the parent, and its natural consequence was to chill the sympathies and arouse the resentment of the young. Of all the forms of virtue filial affection is perhaps that which appears most rarely in Roman history. In the plays of Plautus it is treated much as conjugal fidelity was treated in England by the playwriters of the Restoration. An historian of the reign of Tiberius has remarked that the civil wars were equally remarkable for the many examples they supplied of the devotion of wives to their husbands, of the devotion of slaves to their masters, and of the treachery or indifference of sons to their fathers.1
The reforms that were effected during the pagan empire did not reconstruct the family, but they at least greatly mitigated its despotism. The profound change of feeling that had taken place on the subject is shown by the contrast between the respectful, though somewhat shrinking, acquiescence, with which the ancient Romans regarded parents who had put their children to death,2 and the indignation excited under Augustus by the act of Erixo. Hadrian, apparently by a stretch of despotic power, banished a man who had assassinated his son.3 Infanticide was forbidden, though not seriously repressed, but the right of putting to death an adult child had long been obsolete, when Alexander Severus formally withdrew it from the father. The property of children was also in some slight degree protected. A few instances are recorded of wills that were annulled because they had disinherited legitimate sons,1 and Hadrian, following a policy that had been feebly initiated by his two predecessors, gave the son an absolute possession of whatever he might gain in the military service. Diocletian rendered the sale of children by the fathers, in all cases, illegal.2
In the field of slavery the legislative reforms were more important. This institution, indeed, is one that meets us at every turn of the moral history of Rome, and on two separate occasions in the present chapter I have already had occasion to notice it. I have shown that the great prominence of the slave element in Roman life was one of the causes of the enlargement of sympathies that characterises the philosophy of the Empire, and also that slavery was in a very high degree, and in several distinct ways, a cause of the corruption of the free classes. In considering the condition of the slaves themselves, we may distinguish, I think, three periods. In the earlier and simpler days of the Republic, the head of the family was absolute master of his slaves, but circumstances in a great measure mitigated the evil of the despotism. The slaves were very few in number. Each Roman proprietor had commonly one or two who assisted him in cultivating the soil, and superintended his property when he was absent in the army. In the frugal habits of the time, the master was brought into the most intimate connection with his slaves. He shared their labours and their food, and the control he exercised over them, in most cases probably differed little from that which he exercised over his sons. Under such circumstances, great barbarity to slaves, though always possible, was not likely to be common, and the protection of religion was added to the force of habit. Hercules, the god of labour, was the special patron of slaves. There was a legend that Sparta had once been nearly destroyed by an earthquake sent by Neptune to avenge the treacherous murder of some Helots.1 In Rome, it was said, Jupiter had once in a dream commissioned a man to express to the senate the divine anger at the cruel treatment of a slave during the public games.2 By the pontifical law, slaves were exempted from field labours on the religious festivals.3 The Saturnalia and Matronalia, which were especially intended for their benefit, were the most popular holidays in Rome, and on these occasions the slaves were accustomed to sit at the same table with their masters.4
Even at this time, however, it is probable that great atrocities were occasionally committed. Everything was permitted by law, although it is probable that the censor in cases of extreme abuse might interfere, and the aristocratic feelings of the early Roman, though corrected in a measure by the associations of daily labour, sometimes broke out in a fierce scorn for all classes but his own. The elder Cato, who may be regarded as a type of the Romans of the earlier period, speaks of slaves simply as instruments for obtaining wealth, and he encouraged masters, both by his precept and his example, to sell them as useless when aged and infirm.5
In the second period, the condition of slaves had greatly deteriorated. The victories of Rome, especially in the East, had introduced into the city innumerable slaves1 and the wildest luxury, and the despotism of the master remained unqualified by law, while the habits of life that had originally mitigated it had disappeared. The religious sentiments of the people were at the same time fatally impaired, and many new causes conspired to aggravate the evil. The passion for gladiatorial shows had begun, and it continually produced a savage indifference to the infliction of pain. The servile wars of Sicily, and the still more formidable revolt of Spartacus, had shaken Italy to the centre, and the shock was felt in every household. ‘As many enemies as slaves,’ had become a Roman proverb. The fierce struggles of barbarian captives were repaid by fearful punishments, and many thousands of revolted slaves perished on the cross. An atrocious law, intended to secure the safety of the citizens, provided that if a master were murdered, all the slaves in his house, who were not in chains or absolutely helpless through illness, should be put to death.2
Numerous acts of the most odious barbarity were committed. The well-known anecdotes of Flaminius ordering a slave to be killed to gratify, by the spectacle, the curiosity of a guest, of Vedius Pollio feeding his fish on the flesh of slaves; and of Augustus sentencing a slave, who had killed and eaten a favourite quail, to crucifixion, are the extreme examples that are recorded; for we need not regard as an historical fact the famous picture in Juvenal of a Roman lady, in a moment of caprice, ordering her unoffending servant to be crucified. We have, however, many other very horrible glimpses of slave life at the close of the Republic and in the early days of the Empire. The marriage of slaves was entirely unrecognised by law, and in their case the words adultery, incest, or polygamy had no legal meaning. Their testimony was in general only received in the law-courts when they were under torture. When executed for a crime, their deaths were of a most hideous kind. The ergastula, or private prisons, of the masters were frequently their only sleeping-places. Old and infirm slaves were constantly exposed to perish on an island of the Tiber. We read of slaves chained as porters to the doors, and cultivating the fields in chains. Ovid and Juvenal describe the fierce Roman ladies tearing their servants’ faces, and thrusting the long pins of their brooches into their flesh. The master, at the close of the Republic, had full power to sell his slave as a gladiator, or as a combatant with wild beasts.1
All this is very horrible, but it must not be forgotten that there was another side to the picture. It is the custom of many ecclesiastical writers to paint the pagan society of the Empire as a kind of pandemonium, and with this object they collect the facts I have cited, which are for the most part narrated by Roman satirists or historians, as examples of the most extreme and revolting cruelty; they represent them as fair specimens of the ordinary treatment of the servile class, and they simply exclude from their consideration the many qualifying facts that might be alleged Although the marriage of a slave was not legally recognised, it was sanctioned by custom, and it does not appear to have been common to separate his family.1 Two customs to which I have already referred distinguish ancient slavery broadly from that of modern times. The peculium, or private property of slaves, was freely recognised by masters, to whom, however, after the death of the slave, part or all of it usually reverted,2 though some masters permitted their slaves to dispose of it by will.3 The enfranchisement of slaves was also carried on to such an extent as seriously to affect the population of the city. It appears from a passage in Cicero that an industrious and well-conducted captive might commonly look forward to his freedom in six years.4 Isolated acts of great cruelty undoubtedly occurred; but public opinion strongly reprehended them, and Seneca assures us that masters who ill-treated their slaves were pointed at and insulted in the streets.5 The slave was not necessarily the degraded being he has since appeared. The physician who tended the Roman in his sickness, the tutor to whom he confided the education of his son, the artists whose works commanded the admiration of the city, were usually slaves. Slaves sometimes mixed with their masters in the family, ate habitually with them at the same table,6 and were regarded by them with the warmest affection. Tiro, the slave and afterwards the freedman of Cicero, compiled his master's letters, and has preserved some in which Cicero addressed him in terms of the most sincere and delicate friendship I have already referred to the letter in which the younger Pliny poured out his deep sorrow for the death of some of his slaves, and endeavoured to console himself with the thought that as he had emancipated them before their death, at least they had died free.1 Epictetus passed at once from slavery to the friendship of an emperor.2 The great multiplication of slaves, though it removed them from the sympathy of their masters, must at least have in most cases alleviated their burdens. The application of torture to slave witnesses, horrible as it was, was a matter of rare occurrence, and was carefully restricted by law.3 Much vice was undoubtedly fostered, but yet the annals of the civil wars and of the Empire are crowded with the most splendid instances of the fidelity of slaves. In many cases they refused the boon of liberty and defied the most horrible tortures rather than betray their masters, accompanied them in their flight when all others had abandoned them, displayed undaunted courage and untiring ingenuity in rescuing them from danger, and in some cases saved the lives of their owners by the deliberate sacrifice of their own.4 This was, indeed, for some time the pre-eminent virtue of Rome, and it proves conclusively that the masters were not so tyrannical, and that the slaves were not so degraded, as is sometimes alleged.
The duty of humanity to slaves had been at all times one of those which the philosophers had most ardently inculcated. Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Epicurus, were, on this point, substantially agreed.1 The Roman Stoics gave the duty a similar prominence in their teaching, and Seneca especially has filled pages with exhortations to masters to remember that the accident of position in no degree affects the real dignity of men, that the slave may be free by virtue while the master may be a slave by vice, and that it is the duty of a good man to abstain not only from all cruelty, but even from all feeling of contempt towards his slaves.2 But these exhortations, in which some have imagined that they have discovered the influence of Christianity, were, in fact, simply an echo of the teaching of ancient Greece, and especially of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, who had laid down, long before the dawn of Christianity, the broad principles that ‘all men are by nature equal, and that virtue alone establishes a difference between them.’3 The softening influence of the peace of the Antonines assisted this movement of humanity, and the slaves derived a certain incidental benefit from one of the worst features of the despotism of the Cæsars. The emperors, who continually apprehended plots against their lives or power, encouraged numerous spies around the more important of their subjects, and the facility with which slaves could discover the proceedings of their masters inclined the Government in their favour.
Under all these influences many laws were promulgated which profoundly altered the legal position of the slaves, and opened what may be termed the third period of Roman slavery. The Petronian law, which was issued by Augustus, or, more probably, by Nero, forbade the master to condemn his slave to comba with wild beasts without a sentence from a judge.1 Under Claudius, some citizens exposed their sick slaves on the island of Æsculapius in the Tiber, to avoid the trouble of tending them, and the emperor decreed that if the slave so exposed recovered from his sickness he should become free, and also, that masters who killed their slaves instead of exposing them should be punished as murderers.2 It is possible that succour was afforded to the abandoned slave in the temple of Æsculapius,3 and it would appear from these laws that the wanton slaughter of a slave was already illegal. About this time the statue of the emperor had become an asylum for slaves.4 Under Nero, a judge was appointed to hear their complaints, and was instructed to punish masters who treated them with barbarity, made them the instruments of lust, or withheld from them a sufficient quantity of the necessaries of life.5 A considerable pause appears to have ensued; but Domitian made a law, which was afterwards reiterated, forbidding the Oriental custom of mutilating slaves for sensual purposes, and the reforms were renewed with great energy in the period of the Antonines. Hadrian and his two successors formally deprived masters of the right of killing their slaves; forbade them to sell slaves to the lanistæ, or speculators in gladiators; destroyed the ergastula, or private prisons; ordered that, when a master was murdered, those slaves only should be tortured who were within hearing;1 appointed officers through all the provinces to hear the complaints of slaves; enjoined that no master should treat his slaves with excessive severity; and commanded that, when such severity was proved, the master should be compelled to sell the slave he had ill-treated.2 When we add to these laws the broad maxims of equity asserting the essential equality of the human race, which the jurists had borrowed from the Stoics, and which supplied the principles to guide the judges in their decisions, it must be admitted that the slave code of Imperial Rome compares not unfavourably with those of some Christian nations.
While a considerable portion of the principles, and even much of the phraseology, of Stoicism passed into the system of public law, the Roman philosophers had other more direct means of acting on the people. On occasions of family bereavement, when the mind is most susceptible of impressions, they were habitually called in to console the survivors. Dying men asked their comfort and support in the last hours of their life. They became the directors of conscience to numbers who resorted to them for a solution of perplexing cases of practical morals, or under the influence of despondency or remorse.3 They had their special exhortations for every vice, and their remedies adapted to every variety of character. Many cases were cited of the conversion of the vicious or the careless, who had been sought out and fasci nated by the philosopher,1 and who, under his guidance, had passed through a long course of moral discipline, and had at last attained a high degree of virtue. Education fell in a great degree into their hands. Many great families kept a philosopher among them in what in modern language might be termed the capacity of a domestic chaplain,2 while a system of popular preaching was created and widely diffused.
Of these preachers there were two classes who differed greatly in their characters and their methods. The first, who have been very happily termed the ‘ monks of Stoicism,’3 were the Cynics, who appear to have assumed among the later moralists of the Pagan empire a position somewhat resembling that of the mendicant orders in Catholicism. In a singularly curious dissertation of Epictetus,4 we have a picture of the ideal at which a Cynic should aim, and it is impossible in reading it not to be struck by the resemblance it bears to the missionary friar. The Cynic should be a man devoting his entire life to the instruction of mankind. He must be unmarried, for he must have no family affections to divert or to dilute his energies. He must wear the meanest dress sleep upon the bare ground, feed upon the simplest food, abstain from all earthly pleasures, and yet exhibit to the world the example of uniform cheerfulness and content. No one, under pain of provoking the Divine anger, should embrace such a career, unless he believes himself to be called and assisted by Jupiter. It is his mission to go among men as the ambassador of God, rebuking, in season and out of season, their frivolity, their cowardice, and their vice. He must stop the rich man in the market-place. He must preach to the populace in the highway. He must know no respect and no fear. He must look upon all men as his sons, and upon all women as his daughters. In the midst of a jeering crowd, he must exhibit such a placid calm that men may imagine him to be of stone. Ill-treatment, and exile, and death must have no terror in his eyes, for the discipline of his life should emancipate him from every earthly tie; and, when he is beaten, ‘ he should love those who beat him, for he is at once the father and the brother of all men.’
A curious contrast to the Cynic was the philosophic rhetorician, who gathered around his chair all that was most brilliant in Roman or Athenian society. The passion for oratory which the free institutions of Greece had formed, had survived the causes that produced it, and given rise to a very singular but a very influential profession; which, though excluded from the Roman Republic, acquired a great development after the destruction of political liberty. The rhetoricians were a kind of itinerant lecturers, who went about from city to city, delivering harangues that were often received with the keenest interest. For the most part, neither their characters nor their talents appear to have deserved much respect. Numerous anecdotes are recorded of their vanity and rapacity, and their success was a striking proof of the decadence of public taste.1 They had cultivated the histrionic part of oratory with the most minute attention. The arrangement of their hair, the folds of their dresses, all their postures and gestures were studied with artistic care. They had determined the different kinds of action that are appropriate for each branch of a discourse and for each form of eloquence. Sometimes they personated characters in Homer or in ancient Greek history, and delivered speeches which those characters might have delivered in certain conjunctures of their lives. Sometimes they awakened the admiration of their audience by making a fly, a cockroach, dust, smoke, a mouse, or a parrot the subject of their eloquent eulogy.1 Others, again, exercised their ingenuity in defending some glaring paradox or sophism, or in debating some intricate case of law or morals, or they delivered literary lectures remarkable for a minute but captious and fastidious criticism. Some of the rhetoricians recited only harangues prepared with the most elaborate care, others were ready debaters, and they travelled from city to city, challenging opponents to discuss some subtle and usually frivolous question. The poet Juvenal and the satirist Lucian had both for a time followed this profession. Many of the most eminent acquired immense wealth, travelled with a splendid retinue, and excited transports of enthusiasm in the cities they visited. They were often charged by cities to appear before the emperor to plead for a remission of taxes, or of the punishment due for some offence. They became in a great measure the educators of the people and contributed very largely to form and direct their taste.
It had been from the first the custom of some philosophers to adopt this profession, and to expound in the form of rhetorical lectures the principles of their school. In the Flavian period and in the age of the Antonines, this alliance of philosophy, and especially of Stoical philosophy, with rhetoric became more marked, and the foundation of liberally endowed chairs of rhetoric and philosophy by Vespasian, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius contributed to sustain it. Discourses of the Platonist Maximus of Tyre, and of the Stoic Dion Chrysostom, have come down to us, and they are both of a high order of intrinsic merit. The first turn chiefly on such subjects as the comparative excellence of active and contemplative life, the pure and noble conceptions of the Divine nature which underlie the fables or allegories of Homer, the daemon of Socrates, the Platonic notions of the Divinity, the duty of prayer, the end of philosophy, and the ethics of love.1 Dion Chrysostom, in his orations, expounded the noblest and purest theism, examined the place which images should occupy in worship, advocated humanity to slaves, and was, perhaps, the earliest writer in the Roman Empire who denounced hereditary slavery as illegitimate.2 His life was very eventful and very noble. He had become famous as a sophist and rhetorician, skilled in the laborious frivolities of the profession. Calamity, however, and the writings of Plato induced him to abandon them and devote himself exclusively to the improvement of mankind. Having defended with a generous rashness a man who had been proscribed by the tyranny of Domitian, he was compelled to fly from Rome in the garb of a beggar; and, carrying with him only a work of Plato and a speech of Demosthenes, he travelled to the most distant frontiers of the empire. He gained his livelihood by the work of his hands, for he refused to receive money for his discourses; but he taught and captivated the Greek colonists who were scattered among the barbarians, and even the barbarians themselves. Upon the assassination of Domitian, when the legions hesitated to give their allegiance to Nerva, the eloquence of Dion Chrysostom overcame their irresolution. By the same eloquence he more than once appeased sedition in Alexandria and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. He preached before Trajan on the duties of royalty, taking a line of Homer for his text. He electrified the vast and polished audience assembled at Athens for the Olympic games as he had before done the rude barbarians of Scythia. Though his taste was by no means untainted by the frivolities of the rhetorician, he was skilled in all the arts that awaken curiosity and attention, and his eloquence commanded the most various audiences in the most distant lands. His special mission, however, was to popularise Stoicism by diffusing its principles through the masses of mankind.1
The names, and in some cases a few fragments, of the writings of many other rhetorical philosophers, such as Herod Atticus, Favorinus, Fronto, Taurus, Fabianus, and Julianus, have come down to us, and each was the centre of a group of passionate admirers, and contributed to form a literary society in the great cities of the empire. We have a vivid picture of this movement in the ‘ Attic Nights’ of Aulus Gellius—a work which is, I think, one of the most curious and instructive in Latin literature, and which bears to the literary society of the period of the Antonines much the same relation as the writings of Helvétius bear to the Parisian society on the eve of the Revolution. Helvétius, it is said, collected the materials for his great work on ‘ Mind’ chiefly from the conversation of the drawing-rooms of Paris at a time when that conversation had attained a degree of perfection which even Frenchmen had never before equalled. He wrote in the age of the ‘ Encyclopaedia,’ when the social and political convulsions of the Revolution were as yet unfelt; when the first dazzling gleams of intellectual freedom had flashed upon a society long clouded by superstition and aristocratic pride; when the genius of Voltaire and the peerless conversational powers of Diderot, irradiating the bold philosophies of Bacon and Locke, had kindled an intellectual enthusiasm through all the ranks of fashion;1 and when the contempt for the wisdom and the methods of the past was only equalled by the prevailing confidence in the future. Brilliant, graceful, versatile, and superficial, with easy eloquence and lax morals, with a profound disbelief in moral excellence, and an intense appreciation of intellectual beauty, disdaining all pedantry, superstition, and mystery, and with an almost fanatical persuasion of the omnipotence of analysis, he embodied the principles of his contemporaries in a philosophy which represents all virtue and heroism as but disguised self-interest; he illustrated every argument, not by the pedantic learning of the schools, but by the sparkling anecdotes and acute literary criticisms of the drawing-room, and he thus produced a work which, besides its intrinsic merits, was the most perfect mirror of the society from which it sprang.2 Very different, both in form, subject, and tendency, but no less truly representative, was the work of Aulus Gellius. It is the journal, or common-place book, or miscellany of a scholar moving in the centre of the literary society of both Rome and Athens during the latter period of the Antonines, profoundly imbued with its spirit, and devoting his leisure to painting its leading figures, and compiling the substance of their teaching. Few books exhibit a more curious picture of the combination of intense childlike literary and moral enthusiasm with the most hopeless intellectual degeneracy. Each prominent philosopher was surrounded by a train of enthusiastic disciples, who made the lecture-room resound with their applause,1 and accepted him as their monitor in all the affairs of life. He rebuked publicly every instance of vice or of affectation he had observed in their conduct, received them at his own table, became their friend and confidant in their troubles, and sometimes assisted them by his advice in their professional duties.2 Taurus, Favorinus, Fronto, and Atticus were the most prominent figures, and each seems to have formed, in the centre of a corrupt society, a little company of young men devoted with the simplest and most ardent earnestness to the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence. Yet this society was singularly puerile. The age of genius had closed, and the age of pedantry had succeeded it. Minute, curious, and fastidious verbal criticism of the great writers of the past was the chief occupation of the scholar, and the whole tone of his mind had become retrospective and even archaic. Ennius was esteemed a greater poet than Virgil, and Cato a greater prose writer than Cicero. It was the affectation of some to tesselate their conversation with antiquated and obsolete words.3 The study of etymologies had risen into great favour, and curious questions of grammar and pronunciation nunciation were ardently debated. Logic, as in most ages of intellectual poverty, was greatly studied and prized. Bold speculations and original thought had almost ceased, but it was the delight of the philosophers to throw the arguments of great writers into the form of syllogisms, and to debate them according to the rules of the schools. The very amusements of the scholars took the form of a whimsical and puerile pedantry. Gellius recalls, with a thrill of emotion, those enchanting evenings when, their more serious studies being terminated, the disciples of Taurus assembled at the table of their master to pass the happy hours in discussing such questions as when a man can be said to die, whether in the last moment of life or in the first moment of death; or when he can be said to get up, whether when he is still on his bed or when he has just left it.1 Sometimes they proposed to one another literary questions, as what old writer had employed some common word in a sense that had since become obsolete; or they discussed such syllogisms as these :—‘ You have what you have not lost; you have not lost horns, therefore you have horns.’ ‘ You are not what I am. I am a man; therefore you are not a man.’2 As moralists, they exhibited a very genuine love of moral excellence, but the same pedantic and retrospective character. They were continually dilating on the regulations of the censors and the customs of the earliest period of the Republic. They acquired the habit of never enforcing the simplest lesson without illustrating it by a profusion of ancient examples and by detached sentences from some philosopher, which they employed much as texts of Scripture are often employed in the writings of the Puritans.3 Above all, they delighted in cases of conscience, which they discussed with the subtilty of the schoolmen.
Lactantius has remarked that the Stoics were especially noted for the popular or democratic character of their teaching.1 To their success in this respect their alliance with the rhetoricians probably largely contributed; but in other ways it hastened the downfall of the school. The useless speculations, refinements, and paradoxes which the subtle genius of Chrysippus had connected with the simple morals of Stoicism, had been for the most part thrown into the background by the early Roman Stoics; but in the teaching of the rhetoricians they became supreme. The endowments given by the Antonines to philosophers attracted a multitude of impostors, who wore long beards and the dress of the philosopher, but whose lives were notoriously immoral. The Cynics especially, professing to reject the ordinary conventionalities of society, and being under none of that discipline or superintendence which in the worst period has secured at least external morality among the mendicant monks, continually threw off every vestige of virtue and of decency. Instead of moulding great characters and inspiring heroic actions, Stoicism became a school of the idlest casuistry, or the cloak for manifest imposture.2 The very generation which saw Marcus Aurelius on the throne, saw also the extinction of the influence of his sect.
The internal causes of the decadence of Stoicism, though very powerful, are insufficient to explain this complete eclipse. The chief cause must be found in the fact that the minds of men had taken a new turn, and their enthusiasm was flowing rapidly in the direction of Oriental religions, and, under the guidance of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, of a mythical philosophy which was partly Egyptian and partly Platonic. It remains for me, in concluding this review of the Pagan empire, to indicate and explain this last transformation of Pagan morals.
It was in the first place a very natural reaction against the extreme aridity of the Stoical casuistry, and also against the scepticism which Sextus Empiricus had revived, and in this respect it represents a law of the human mind which has been more than once illustrated in later times. Thus, the captious, unsatisfying, intellectual subtleties of the schoolmen were met by the purely emotional and mystical school of St. Bonaventura, and afterwards of Tauler, and thus the adoration of the human intellect, that was general in the philosophy of the last century, prepared the way for the complete denial of its competency by De Maistre and by Lamennais.
In the next place, mysticism was a normal continuation of the spiritualising movement which had long been advancing. We have already seen that the strong tendency of ethics, from Cato to Marcus Aurelius, was to enlarge the prominence of the emotions in the type of virtue. The formation of a gentle, a spiritual, and, in a word, a religious character had become a prominent part of moral culture, and it was regarded not simply as a means, but as an end. Still, both Marcus Aurelius and Cato were Stoics. They both represented the same general cast or conception of virtue, although in Marcus Aurelius the type had been profoundly modified. But the time was soon to come when the balance between the practical and the emotional parts of virtue, which had been steadily changing, should be decisively turned in favour of the latter, and the type of Stoicism was then necessarily discarded.
A concurrence of political and commercial causes had arisen, very favourable to the propagation of Oriental beliefs. Commerce had produced a constant intercourse between Egypt and Italy. Great numbers of Oriental slaves, passionately devoted to their national religions, existed in Rome; and Alexandria, which combined a great intellectual development with a geographical and commercial position exceedingly favourable to a fusion of many doctrines, soon created a school of thought which acted powerfully upon the world. Four great systems of eclecticism arose; Aristobulus and Philo tinctured Judaism with Greek and Egyptian philosophy. The Gnostics and the Alexandrian fathers united, though in very different proportions, Christian doctrines with the same elements; while Neoplatonism, at least in its later forms, represented a fusion of the Greek and Egyptian mind. A great analogy was discovered between the ideal philosophy of Plato and the mystical philosophy that was indigenous to the East, and the two systems readily blended.1
But the most powerful cause of the movement was the intense desire for positive religious belief, which had long been growing in the Empire. The period when Roman incredulity reached its extreme point had been the century that preceded and the half century that followed the birth of Christ. The sudden dissolution of the old habits of the Republic effected through political causes, the first comparison of the multitudinous religions of the Empire and also the writings of Euhemerus had produced an absolute religious disbelief which Epicureanism represented and encouraged. This belief, however, as I have already noticed, co-existed with numerous magical and astrological superstitions, and the ignorance of physical science was so great, and the conception of general laws so faint, that the materials for a great revival of superstition still remained. From the middle of the first century, a more believing and reverent spirit began to arise. The worship of Isis and Serapis forced its way intc Rome in spite of the opposition of the rulers. Apollonius of Tyana, at the close of the Flavian period, had endeavoured to unite moral teaching with religious practices; the oracles, which had long ceased, were partially restored under the Antonines; the calamities and visible decline of the Empire withdrew the minds of men from that proud patriotic worship of Roman greatness, which was long a substitute for religious feeling; and the frightful pestilence that swept over the land in the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and his successor was followed by a blind, feverish, and spasmodic superstition. Besides this, men have never acquiesced for any considerable time in a neglect of the great problems of the origin, nature, and destinies of the soul, or dispensed with some form of religious worship and aspiration. That religious instincts are as truly a part of our nature as are our appetites and our nerves, is a fact which all history establishes, and which forms one of the strongest proofs of the reality of that unseen world to which the soul of man continually tends. Early Roman Stoicism, which in this respect somewhat resembled the modern positive school, diverted for the most part its votaries from the great problems of religion, and attempted to evolve its entire system of ethics out of existing human nature, without appealing to any external supernatural sanction. But the Platonic school, and the Egyptian school which connected itself with the name of Pythagoras, were both essentially religious. The first aspired to the Deity as the source and model of virtue, admitted dæmons or subordinate spiritual agents acting upon mankind, and explained and purified, in no hostile spirit. the popular religions. The latter made the state of ecstasy or quietism tm ideal condition, and sought to purify the mind by theurgy or special religious rites. Both philosophies conspired to effect a great religious reformation, in which the Greek spirit usually represented the rational, and the Egyptian the mystical, element.
Of the first, Plutarch was the head. He taught the supreme authority of reason. He argued elaborately that superstition is worse than atheism, for it calumniates the character of the Deity, and its evils are not negative, but positive. At the same time, he is far from regarding the Mythology as a tissue of fables. Some things he denies. Others he explains away. Others he frankly accepts. He teaches for the most part a pure monotheism, which he reconciles with the common belief, partly by describing the different divinities as simply popular personifications of Divine attributes, and partly by the usual explanation of dæmons. He discarded most of the fables of the poets, applying to them with fearless severity the tests of human morality, and rejecting indignantly those which attribute to the Deity cruel or immoral actions. He denounces all religious terrorism, and draws a broad line of distinction between both the superstitious and idolatrous conception of the Deity on the one hand, and the philosophical conception on the other. ‘ The superstitious man believes in the gods, but he has a false idea of their nature. Those good beings whose providence watches over us with so much care, those beings so ready to forget our faults, he represents as ferocious and cruel tyrants, taking pleasure in tormenting us. He believes the founders of brass, the sculptors of stone, the moulders of wax; he attributes to the gods a human form; he adorns and worships the image he has made, and he listens not to the philosophers, and men of knowledge who associate the Divine image, not with bodily beauty, but with grandeur and majesty, with gentleness and goodness.’1 On the other hand, Plutarch believed that there was undoubtedly a certain supernatural basis in the Pagan creed; he believed in oracles; he defended, in a very ingenious essay, hereditary punishment, and the doctrine of a special Providence; he admitted a future retribution, though he repudiated the notion of physical torment; and he brought into clear relief the moral teaching conveyed in some of the fables of the poets.
The position which Plutarch occupied under Trajan, Maximus of Tyre occupied in the next generation. Like Plutarch, but with a greater consistency, he maintained a pure monotheistic doctrine, declaring that ‘ Zeus is that most ancient and guiding mind that begot all things—Athene is prudence—Apollo is the sun.’1 Like Plutarch, he developed the Platonic doctrine of dæmons as an explanation of much of the mythology, and he applied an allegorical interpretatior with great freedom to the fables of Homer, which formed the text-book or the Bible of Paganism. By these means he endeavoured to clarify the popular creed from all elements inconsistent with a pure monotheism, and from all legends of doubtful morality, while he sublimated the popular worship into a harmless symbolism. ‘ The gods,’ he assures us,’ themselves need no images,’ but the infirmity of human nature requires visible signs ‘ on which to rest.’ ‘ Those who possess such faculties, that with a steady mind they can rise to heaven, and to God, are in no need of statues. But such men are very rare.’ He then proceeds to recount the different ways by which men have endeavoured to represent or symbolise the Divine nature, as the statues of Greece, the animals of Egypt, or the sacred flame of Persia.‘ The God,’ he continues, ‘the Father and the Founder of all that exists, alder than the sun, older than the sky, greater than all time, than every age, and than all the works of nature, whom no words can express, whom no eye can see . . . What can we say concerning his images? Only let men understand that there is but one Divine nature; but whether the art of Phidias chiefly preserves his memory among the Greeks, or the worship of animals among the Egyptians, a river among these, or a flame among those, I do not blame the variety of the representations—only let men understand that there is but one; only let them love one, let them preserve one in their memory.’1
A third writer who, nearly at the same time as Maximus of Tyre, made some efforts in the same direction, was Apuleius, who, however, both as a moral teacher, and in his freedom from superstition, was far inferior to the preceding. The religion he most admired was the Egyptian; but in his philosophy he was a Platonist, and in that capacity, besides an exposition of the Platonic code of morals, he has left us a singularly clear and striking disquisition on the doctrine of dæmons. ‘ These dæmons,’ he says, ‘ are the bearers of blessings and prayers between the inhabitants of earth and heaven, carrying prayers from the one and assistance from the other . . . By them also, as Plato maintained in his “Banquet,” all revelations, all the various miracles of magicians, all kinds of omens, are ruled. They have their several tasks to perform, their different departments to govern; some directing dreams, others the disposition of the entrails, others the flight of birds . . . The supreme deities do not descend to these things—they leave them to the intermediate divinities.’2 But these intermediate spirits are not simply the agents of supernatural phenomena—they are also the guardians of our virtue and the recorders of our actions. ‘ Each man has in life witnesses and guards of his deeds, visible to no one, but always present, witnessing not only every act but every thought. When life has ended and we must return whence we came, the same genius who had charge over us, takes us away and hurries us in his custody to judgment, and then assists us in pleading our cause. If any thing is falsely asserted he corrects it—if true, he substantiates it, and according to his witness our sentence is determined.’1
There are many aspects in which these attempts at religious reform are both interesting and important. They are interesting, because the doctrine of dæmons, mingled, it is true, with the theory of Euhemerus about the origin of the deities, was universally accepted by the Fathers as the true explanation of the Pagan theology, because the notion and, after the third century, even the artistic type of the guardian genius reappeared in that of the guardian angel, and because the transition from polytheism to the conception of a single deity acting by the delegation or ministration of an army of subsidiary spirits, was manifestly fitted to prepare the way for the reception of Christianity. They are interesting, too, as showing the anxiety of the human mind to sublimate its religious creed to the level of the moral and intellectual standard it had attained, and to make religious ordinances in some degree the instruments of moral improvement. But they are interesting above all, because the Greek and Egyptian methods of reform represent with typical distinctness the two great tendencies of religious thought in all succeeding periods. The Greek spirit was essentially rationalistic and eclectic; the Egyptian spirit was essentially mystical and devotional. The Greek sat in judgment upon his religion. He modified, curtailed, refined, allegorised, or selected. He treated its inconsistencies or absurdities, or immoralities, with precisely the same freedom of criticism as those he encountered in ordinary life. The Egyptian, on the other hand, bowed low before the Divine presence. He veiled his eyes, he humbled his reason, he represented the introduction of a new element into the moral life of Europe, the spirit of religious reverence and awe.
‘The Egyptian deities.’ it was observed by Apuleius, ‘were chiefly honoured by lamentations, and the Greek divinities by dances.’1 The truth of the last part of this very significant remark appears in every page of Greek history. No nation had a richer collection of games and festivals growing out of its religious system; in none did a light, sportive, and often licentious fancy play more fearlessly around the popular creed, in none was religious terrorism more rare. The Divinity was seldom looked upon as holier than man, and a due observance of certain rites and ceremonies was deemed an ample tribute to pay to him. In the Egyptian system the religious ceremonies were veiled in mystery and allegory. Chastity, abstinence from animal food, ablutions, long and mysterious ceremonies of preparation or initiation, were the most prominent features of worship. The deities representing the great forces of nature, and shrouded by mysterious symbols, excited a degree of awe which no other ancient religion approached.
The speculative philosophy, and the conceptions of morals, that accompanied the inroad of Oriental religions, were of a kindred nature. The most prominent characteristic of the first was its tendency to supersede the deductions of the reason by the intuitions of ecstasy. Neoplatonism, and the philosophies that were allied to it, were fundamentally pantheistic,2 but they differed widely from the pantheism of the Stoics. The Stoics identified man with God, for the purpose of glorifying man—the Neoplatonists for the purpose of aggrandising God. In the conception of the first, man, independent, self controlled, and participating in the highest nature of the universe, has no superior in creation. According to the latter, man is almost a passive being, swayed and permeated by a divine impulse. Yet he is not altogether divine. The divinity is latent in his soul, but dulled, dimmed, and crushed by the tyranny of the body. ‘To bring the God that is in us into conformity with the God that is in the universe,’ to elicit the ideas that are graven in the mind, but obscured and hidden by the passions of the flesh—above all, to subdue the body, which is the sole obstacle to our complete fruition of the Deity—was the main object of life. Porphyry described all philosophy as an anticipation of death—not in the Stoical sense of teaching us to look calmly on our end, but because death realises the ideal of philosophy, the complete separation of soul and body. Hence followed an ascetic morality, and a supersensual philosophy. ‘The greatest of all evils,’ we are told, ‘is pleasure; because by it the soul is nailed or riveted to the body, and thinks that true which the body persuades it, and is thus deprived of the sense of divine things.’1 ‘Justice, beauty, and goodness, and all things that are formed by them, no eye has ever seen, no bodily sense can apprehend. Philosophy must be pursued by pure and unmingled reason and with deadened senses; for the body disturbs the mind, so that it cannot follow after wisdom. As long as it is lost and mingled in the clay, we shall never sufficiently possess the truth we desire.’2
But the reason which is thus extolled as the revealer of truth must not be confounded with the process of reasoning. It is something quite different from criticism, analysis, comparison, or deduction. It is essentially intuitive, but it only acquires its power of transcendental intuition after a long process o‡ discipline. When a man passes from the daylight into a room which is almost dark, he is at first absolutely unable to see the objects around him; but gradually his eye grows accustomed to the feeble light, the outline of the room becomes dimly visible, object after object emerge into sight, until at last, by intently gazing, he acquires the power of seeing around him with tolerable distinctness. In this fact we have a partial image of the Neoplatonic doctrine of the knowledge of divine things. Our soul is a dark chamber, darkened by contact with the flesh, but in it there are graven divine ideas, there exists a living divine element. The eye of reason, by long and steady introspection, can learn to decipher these characters; the will, aided by an appointed course of discipline, can evoke this divine element, and cause it to blend with the universal spirit from which it sprang. The powers of mental concentration, and of metaphysical abstraction, are therefore the highest intellectual gifts; and quietism, or the absorption of our nature in God, is the last stage of virtue. ‘The end of man,’ said Pythagoras, ‘is God.’ The mysterious ‘One,’ the metaphysical abstraction without attributes and without form which constitutes the First Person of the Alexandrian Trinity, is the acme of human thought, and the condition of ecstasy is the acme of moral perfection. Plotinus, it was said, had several times attained it. Porphyry, after years of discipline, once, and but once.1 The process of reasoning is here not only useless, but pernicious. ‘An innate knowledge of the gods is implanted in our minds prior to all reasoning.’2 In divine things the task of man is not to create or to acquire, but to educe. His means of perfection are not dialectics or research, but long and patient meditation, silence, abstinence from the distractions and occupations of life, the subjugation of the flesh, a life of continual discipline, a constant attendance on those mysterious rites which detach him from material objects, overawe and elevate his mind, and quicken his realisation of the Divine presence.1
The system of Neoplatonism represents a mode of thought which in many forms, and under many names, may be traced through the most various ages and creeds. Mysticism, transcendentalism, inspiration, and grace, are all words expressing the deep-seated belief that we possess fountains of knowledge apart from all the acquisitions of the senses; that there are certain states of mind, certain flashes of moral and intellectual illumination, which cannot be accounted for by any play or combination of our ordinary faculties. For the sobriety, the timidity, the fluctuations of the reasoning spirit, Neoplatonism substituted the transports of the imagination; and, though it cultivated the power of abstraction, every other intellectual gift was sacrificed to the discipline of asceticism. It made men credulous, because it suppressed that critical spirit which is the sole barrier to the ever-encroaching imagination; because it represented superstitious rites as especially conducive to that state of ecstasy which was the condition of revelation; because it formed a nervous, diseased, expectant temperament, ever prone to hallucinations, ever agitated by vague and uncertain feelings that were readily attributed to inspiration. As a moral system it carried, indeed, the purification of the feelings and imagination to a higher perfection than any preceding school, but it had the deadly fault of separating sentiment from action. In this respect it was well fitted to be the close, the final suicide, of Roman philosophy. Cicero assigned a place of happiness in the future world to all who faithfully served the State.2 The Stoics had taught that all virtue was vain that did not issue in action. Even Epictetus, in his portrait of the ascetic cynic—even Marcus Aurelius, in his minute self-examination—had never forgotten the outer world. The early Platonists, though they dwelt very strongly on mental discipline, were equally practical. Plutarch reminds us that the same word is used for light, and for man,1 for the duty of man is to be the light of the world; and he shrewdly remarked that Hesiod exhorted the husbandman to pray for the harvest, but to do so with his hand upon the plough. Apuleius, expounding Plato, taught ‘that he who is inspired by nature to seek after good must not deem himself born for himself alone, but for all mankind, though with diverse kinds and degrees of obligation, for he is formed first of all for his country, then for his relations, then for those with whom he is joined by occupation or knowledge.’ Maximus of Tyre devoted two noble essays to showing the vanity of all virtue which exhausts itself in mental transports without radiating in action among mankind. ‘What use,’ he asked, ‘is there in knowledge unless we do those things for which knowledge is profitable? What use is there in the skill of the physician unless by that skill he heals the sick, or in the art of Phidias unless he chisels the ivory or the gold. . . . Hercules was a wise man, but not for himself, but that by his wisdom he might diffuse benefits over every land and sea. . . Had he preferred to lead a life apart from men, and to follow an idle wisdom, Hercules would indeed have been a Sophist, and no one would call him the son of Zeus. For God himself is never idle; were He to rest, the sky would cease to move, and the earth to produce, and the rivers to flow into the ocean, and the seasons to pursue their appointed course.2 But the Neoplatonists, though they sometimes spoke of civic virtues, regarded the condition of ecstasy as not only transcending, but including all, and that condition could only be arrived at by a passive life. The saying of Anaxagoras, that his mission was to contemplate the sun, the stars, and the course of nature, and that this contemplation was wisdom,’ was accepted as an epitome of their philosophy.1 A senator named Rogantianus, who had followed the teaching of Plotinus, acquired so intense a disgust for the things of life, that he left all his property, refused to fulfil the duties of a prætor, abandoned his senatorial functions, and withdrew himself from every form of business and pleasure. Plotinus, instead of reproaching him, overwhelmed him with eulogy, selected him as his favourite disciple, and continually represented him as the model of a philosopher.2
The two characteristics I have noticed—the abandonment of civic duties, and the discouragement of the critical spirit—had from a very early period been manifest in the Pythagorean school.3 In the blending philosophies of the third and fourth centuries, they became continually more apparent. Plotinus was still an independent philosopher, inheriting the traditions of Greek thought, though not the traditions of Greek life, building his system avowedly by a rational method, and altogether rejecting theurgy or religious magic. His disciple, Porphyry, first made Neoplatonism anti-Christian, and, in his violent antipathy to the new faith, began to convert it into a religious system. Iamblichus, who was himself an Egyptian priest, completed the transformation,1 resolved all moral discipline into theurgy, and sacrificed all reasoning to faith.2 Julian attempted to realise the conception of a revived Paganism, blending with and purified by philosophy. In every form the appetite for miracles and for belief was displayed. The theory of dæmons completely superseded the old Stoical naturalism, which regarded the different Pagan divinities as allegories or personifications of the Divine attributes. The Platonic ethics were again, for the most part, in the ascendant, but they were deeply tinctured by a foreign element. Thus, suicide was condemned by the Neoplatonists, not merely on the principle of Plato, that it is an abandonment of the post of duty to which the Deity has called us, but also on the quietist ground, that perturbation is necessarily a pollution of the soul, and that, as mental perturbation accompanies the act, the soul of the suicide departs polluted from the body.3 The belief in a future world, which was the common glory of the schools of Pythagoras and of Plato, had become universal. As Roman greatness, in which men had long seen the reward of virtue, faded rapidly away, the conception of ‘a city of God’ began to grow more clearly in the minds of men, and the countless slaves who were among the chief propagators of Oriental faiths, and who had begun to exercise an unprecedented influence in Roman life, turned with a natural and a touching eagerness towards a happier and a freer world.4 The incredulity of Lucretius, Cæsar, and Pliny had disappeared. Above all, a fusion had been effected between moral discipline and religion, and the moralist sought his chief means of purification in the ceremonies of the temple.
I have now completed the long and complicated task to which the present chapter has been devoted. I have endeavoured to exhibit, so far as can be done, by a description of general tendencies, and by a selection of quotations, the spirit of the long series of Pagan moralists who taught at Rome during the period that elapsed between the rise of Roman philosophy and the triumph of Christianity. My object has not been to classify these writers with minute accuracy, according to their speculative tenets, but rather, as I had proposed, to exhibit the origin, the nature, and the fortunes of the general notion or type of virtue which each moralist had regarded as supremely good. History is not a mere succession of events connected only by chronology. It is a chain of causes and effects. There is a great natural difference of degree and direction in both the moral and intellectual capacities of individuals, but it is not probable that the general average of natural morals in great bodies of men materially varies. When we find a society very virtuous or very vicious —when some particular virtue or vice occupies a peculiar prominence, or when important changes pass over the moral conceptions or standard of the people—we have to trace in these things simply the action of the circumstances that were dominant. The history of Roman ethics represents a steady and uniform current, guided by the general conditions of society, and its progress may be marked by the successive ascendancy of the Roman, the Greek, and the Egyptian spirit.
In the age of Cato and Cicero the character of the ideal was wholly Roman, although the philosophical expression of that character was derived from the Greek Stoics. It exhibited all the force, the grandeur, the hardness, the practical tendency which Roman circumstances had early created, combined with that catholicity of spirit which resulted from very recent political and intellectual changes. In the course of time, the Greek element, which represented the gentler and more humane spirit of antiquity, gained an ascendancy. It did so by simple propagandism, aided by the long peace of the Antonines, by the effeminate habits produced by the increasing luxury, by the attractions of the metropolis, which had drawn multitudes of Greeks to Rome, by the patronage of the Emperors, and also by the increasing realisation of the doctrine of universal brotherhood, which Panætius and Cicero had asserted, but of which the full consequences were only perceived by their successors. The change in the type of virtue was shown in the influence of eclectic, and for the most part Platonic, moralists, whose special assaults were directed against the Stoical condemnation of the emotions, and in the gradual softening of the Stoical type. In Seneca the hardness of the sect, though very apparent, is broken by precepts of a real and extensive benevolence, though that benevolence springs rather from a sense of duty than from tenderness of feeling. In Dion Chrysostom the practical benevolence is not less prominent, but there is less both of pride and of callousness. Epictetus embodied the sternest Stoicism in his Manual, but his dissertations exhibit a deep religious feeling and a wide range of sympathies. In Marcus Aurelius the emotional elements had greatly increased, and the amiable qualities began to predominate over the heroic ones. We find at the same time a new stress laid upon purity of thought and imagination, a growing feeling of reverence, and an earnest desire to reform the popular religion.
This second stage exhibits a happy combination of the Roman and Greek spirits. Disinterested, strictly practical, averse to the speculative subtilties of the Greek intellect, Stoicism was still the religion of a people who were the rulers and the organisers of the world, whose enthusiasm was essentially patriotic, and who had learnt to sacrifice everything but pride to the sense of duty. It had, however, become amiable, gentle, and spiritual. It had gained much in beauty, while it had lost something in force. In the world of morals, as in the world of physics, strength is nearly allied to hardness. He who feels keenly is easily moved, and a sensitive sympathy which lies at the root of an amiable character is in consequence a principle of weakness. The race of great Roman Stoics, which had never ceased during the tyranny of Nero or Domitian, began to fail. In the very moment when the ideal of the sect had attained its supreme perfection, a new movement appeared, the philosophy sank into disrepute, and the last act of the drama began.
In this, as in the preceding ones, all was normal and regular. The long continuance of despotic government had gradually destroyed the active public spirit of which Stoicism was the expression. The predominance of the subtile intellect of Greece, and the multiplication of rhetoricians, had converted the philosophy into a school of disputation and of casuistry. The increasing cultivation of the emotions continued, till what may be termed the moral centre was changed, and the development of feeling was deemed more important than the regulation of actions. This cultivation of the emotions predisposed men to religion. A reaction, intensified by many minor causes, set in against the scepticism of the preceding generation, and Alexandria gradually became the moral capital of the empire. The Roman type speedily disappeared. A union was effected between superstitious rites and philosophy, and the worship of Egyptian deities prepared the way for the teaching of the Neoplatonists, who combined the most visionary part of the speculations of Plato with the ancient philosophies of the East. In Plotinus we find most of the first; in Iamblichus most of the second. The minds of men, under their influence, grew introspective, credulous, and superstitious, and found their ideal states in the hallucinations of ecstasy and the calm of an unpractical mysticism.
Such were the influences which acted in turn upon a society which, by despotism, by slavery, and by atrocious amusements, had been debased and corrupted to the very core. Each sect which successively arose contributed something to remedy the evil. Stoicism placed beyond cavil the great distinctions between right and wrong. It inculcated the doctrine of universal brotherhood, it created a noble literature and a noble legislation, and it associated its moral system with the patriotic spirit which was then the animating spirit of Roman life. The early Platonists of the Empire corrected the exaggerations of Stoicism, gave free scope to the amiable qualities, and supplied a theory of right and wrong, suited not merely for heroic characters and for extreme emergencies, but also for the characters and the circumstances of common life. The Pythagorean and Neoplatonic schools revived the feeling of religious reverence, inculcated humility, prayerfulness, and purity of thought, and accustomed men to associate their moral ideals with the Deity, rather than with themselves.
The moral improvement of society was now to pass into other hands. A religion which had long been increasing in obscurity began to emerge into the light. By the beauty of its moral precepts, by the systematic skill with which it governed the imagination and habits of its worshippers, by the strong religious motives to which it could appeal, by its admirable ecclesiastical organisation, and, it must be added, by its unsparing use of the arm of power, Christianity soon eclipsed or destroyed all other sects, and became for many centuries the supreme ruler of the moral world. Combining the Stoical doctrine of universal brotherhood, the Greek predilection for the amiable qualities, and the Egyptian spirit of reverence and religious awe, it acquired from the first an intensity and universality of influence which none of the philosophies it had superseded had approached. I have now to examine the moral causes that governed the rise of this religion in Rome, the ideal of virtue it presented, the degree and manner in which it stamped its image upon the character of nations, and the perversions and distortions it underwent.
Diog, Laërt. Pythag.
Plutarch, De Profectibus in Virt.
Diog. Laërt. Stilpo.
Clem. Alexand. Strom. vii.
Cicero, De Nat. Deorum, i, 1.
Lactant. Inst. Div i. 5.
‘Pythagoras ita definivit quid esset Deus: Animus qui per univarsas mundi partes, omnemque naturam commeans atque diffusus, ex quc omnia quæ nascuntur animalia vitam capiunt.’—Ibid. Lactantius in this chapter has collected several other philosophic definitions of the Divinity. See too Plutarch, De Placit. Philos. Tertullian explains the stoical theory by an ingenious illustration: ‘Stoici enim volunt Deum sic per materiem decucurrisse quomodo mel per favos.’—Tert. De Anima.
As Cicero says: ‘Epicurus re tollit, oratione relinquit, deos.’—De Nat. Deor. i. 44.
Sometimes, however, they restricted its operation to the great events of life. As an interlocutor in Cicero says : ‘ Magna dii curant, parva negligunt.’—Cie De Natur. Deor. ii. 66. Justin Martyr notices (Trypho, i.) that some philosophers maintained that God cared for the universal or species, but not for the individual. Seneca maintains that the Divinity has determined all things by an inexorable law of destiny, which He has decreed, but which He Himself obeys. (De Provident. v.)
See on this theory Cicero, De Natur. Deor. i. 42; Lactantius, Inst. Div. i. 11.
Diog. Laërt. Vit.Zeno. St. Aug. De Civ. De, iv. 11. Maximus of Tyre, Dissert. x. (in some editions xxix.) § 8. Seneca, De Beneficus, iv 7–8. Cic. De Natur. Deor. i. 15. Cicero has devoted the first two books of this work to the stoical theology. A full review of the allegorical and mythical interpretations of paganism is given by Eusebius, Evang. Præpar. lib. lii.
St. Aug. De Civ. vii. 5.
Plin. Hist. Nat. ii. 1.
‘Nec vero Deus ipse qui intelligitur a nobis, alio modo intellgi potest nisi mens soluta quædam et libera, segregate ab omni concretione mortali, omnia sentiens et movens, ipsaque prædita motu sempiterno.’—Tusc. Quast. i. 27.
Senec. Quest. Nat. ii. 45.
‘Quæve anus tam excors inveniri potest, quæ illa, quæ quondam credebantur apud inferos portenta, extimescat?’—Cic. De Nat. Deor. ii. 2.
See on this subject a good review by the Abbè Freppel, Les Pères Apostoltques, leçn viii.
Cicero, De Leg. i. 14; Macrobius, In. Som. Scip. i. 10.
See his works De Divinatione and De Nat. Deorum, which form a curious contrast to the religions eonservatism of the De Legibus, which was written chiefly from a political point of view.
Eusebius, Præp. Evang. lib. iv.
The oracles first gave their answers in verse, but their bad poetry was ridiculed, and they gradually sank to prose, and at last ceased. Plutarch defended the inspiration of the bad poetry on the ground that the inspiring spirit availed itself of the natural faculties of the priestess for the expression of its infallible truths—a theory which is still much in vogue among Bibheal critics, and is, I believe, called dynamical inspiration. See Fontenelle, Hist. des Oracles (1st ed.), pp. 292–293.
See the famous description of Cato refusing to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon, in Lucan, Phars. ix.; and also Arrian, ii. 7. Seneca beautifully says, ‘Vis deos propitiare ? bonus esto. Satis illos coluit quisquis imitatus est.’—EP. xcv.
Cicero, De Dinn. ii. 24.
Aulus Gellius, Noct. Att.xv.22.
See a long string of witticisms collected by Legendre, Tratá de I' Opinion, ou Mémoires pour servir a I' Histowe de L Esprt human (Venise, 1735), tome i. pp. 386–387.
See Cicero, De Natura Deorum; Seneca, De Brev. Vit. c. xvi.; Plin. Hist. Nat. ii. 5; Plutarch, De Superstitione.
There is a very curious discussion on this subject, reported to have taken place between Apollonius of Tyana and an Egyptian priest. The former defended the Greek fashion of worshipping the Divinity under the form of the human image, sculptured by Phidias and Praxiteles, this being the noblest form we can conceive, and therefore the least inadequate to the Divine perfections. The latter defended the Egyptian custom of worshipping animals, because, as he said, it is blasphemous to attempt to conceive an image of the Deity, and the Egyptians therefore concentrate the imagination of the worshipper on objects that are plainly merely allegorical or symbolical, and do not pretend to offer any such image (Philos. Apoll. of Tyana, vi. 19). Pliny shortly says, ‘Effigiem Dei formamque quærere imbecillitatis humanæ reor’ (Hist. Nat. ii. 5). See too Max. Tyrius, Diss. xxxviii. There was a legend that Numa forbade all idols, and that for 200 years they were unknown in Rome (Plutarch, Life of Numa). Dion Chrysostom said that the Gods need no statues or sacrifices, but that by these means we attest our devotion to them (Orat. xxxi.) On the vanity of rich idols, see Plutarch, De Supersistione; Seneca, Ep. xxxi.
Lact. Inst. Div. vi. 25.
Dion. Halic. ii.; Polyb. vi. 56.
St. Aug. De Civ. Dei, iv. 31.
Epictetus, Enchir. xxxix.
Cicero, speaking of the worship of deified men, says, ‘indicat omnium quidem animos immortales esse, sed fortium bonorumque;—hdivines.’—De Leg. ii. 11. The Roman worship of the dead, which was the centre of the domestic religion, has been recently investigated with much ability by M, Coulanges (La Cité antique).
On the minute supervision exercised by the censors on all the details of domestic life, see Aul. Gell. Noct. ii. 24, iv. 12, 20.
Livy, xxxix. 6.
Well. Paterculus, i. 11–13; Eutropius, iv. 6. Sallust ascribed the decadence of Rome to the destruction of its rival, Carthage.
Plutarch, De Ad et Amico.
There is much curious information about the growth of Roman auxury in Pliny (Hist. Nat. lib. i. xxxiv.). The movement of decomposition has been lately fully traced by Mommsen (Hist. of Rome); Döllinger (Jew and Gentile); Denis (Hist. des Idées morales dans l’ Antiquité); Pressensé (Hist. des trois premiers Siéles); in the histories of Champagny, and in the beautiful closing chapters of the Apôtres of Renan.
Sueton. Aug. xvi.
Ibid. Calig. v.
Persius, Sat. ii.; Horace, Ep 16. vv. 57–60.
See, on the identification of the Greek and Egyptian myths, Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride. The Greek and Roman gods were habitually regarded as identical, and Cæsar and Tacitus, n like manner, identified the deities of Gaul and Germany with those of their own country. See Dollinger, Jett and Gintils, vol ii. pp. 160–165.
Plutarch, De Superstitione.
St. Aug. De Civ. Dei, vi. 6; Tertul. Apol. 15; Arnobius, Adv Gentes, iv.
‘Pars alia et hanc pellit, astroque suo eventus assignat, nascendi legibus; semelque in omnes futuros unquam Deo decretain; in reliquum vero otium datum. Sedere cœpit sententia hæc pariterque et eruditum vulgus et rude in eam cursu vadit Ecce fulgurum monitus, oraculorum præscita, aruspicum prædicta, atque etiam parva dictu, in augurlis sternumenta et offensiones pedum.’—Hist. Nat. ii. 5. Pliny himself expresses great doubt about astrology, giving many examples of men with different destinies, who had been born at the same time, and therefore under the same stars (vii, 50). Tacitus expresses complete doubt about the existence of Providence. (Ann. vi. 22.) Tiberius is said to have been very indifferent to the gods and to the worship of the temples, being wholly addicted to astrology and convinced that all things were pre-ordained. (Suet. Tib. lxix.)
Ammianus Marcellinus, xxviii 4.
De Profectibus in Virt. It was originally the custom at Roman feasts to sing to a pipe the actions and the virtues of the greatest men. (Cic Tusc. Quæst iv)
E.g. Epictetus, Ench. lii. Seneca is full of similar exhortations.
According to Cicero, the first Latin work on philosophy was by the Epicurean Amafauius. (Tusc. Quæst, iv.)
See on the great perfection of tne character of Epicurus his life by Diogenes Laertius, and on the purity of the philosophy he taught and the degree in which it was distorted and misrepresented by his Roman followers, Seneca De Vita Beata, c. xii. xiii. and Ep. xxi. Gassendi, in a very interesting little work entitled Philosophiæ Epicuri Syntagma, has abundantly proved the possibility of uniting Epicurean principles with a high code of morals. But probably the most beautiful picture of the Epicurean system is the first book of the De Finibus, in which Cicero endeavours to paint it as it would have been painted by its adherents. When we remember that the writer of this book was one of the most formidable and unflinching opponents of Epicureanism in all the ancient world, it must be owned that it would be impossible to find a grander example of that noble love of truth, that sublime and scrupulous justice to opponents, which was the pre-eminent glory of ancient philosophers, and which, after the destruction of philosophy, was for many centuries almost unknown in the world. It is impossible to doubt that Epicureanism was logically compatible with a very high degree of virtue. It is, I think, equally impossible to doubt that its practical tendency was to wards vice.
Mr. Grote gives the following very clear summary of Plato's ethical theory, which he believes to be original.—Justice is in the mind a condition analogous to good health and strength in the body. Injustice is a condition analogous to sickness, corruption, impotence in the body ... To possess a healthy body is desirable for its eonsequences as a means towards other constituents of happiness, but it is still more desirable in itself as an essential element of happiness per se, i.e., the negation of sickness, which would of itself make us miserable.... In like manner, the just mind blesses the possessor twice: first and chiefly by bringing to him happiness in itself; next, also, as it leads to ulterior happy results. The unjust mind is a curse to its possessor in itself and apart from results, though it also leads to ulterior results which render it still more a curse to him.’—Grote's Plato, vol. iii p. 131. According to Plutarch, Aristo of Chio defined virtue as ‘the health of the soul.’ (De Virtute Morali.)
‘Beata est ergo vita convesiens nataræ suæ; quæ non aliter contingere potest quam siprimum sans mens est et in perpetuâ possessione sanitatis suæ.—Seneca, De Vita Beata, c. iii.
The famous paradox that ‘the sage could be happy even in the bull of Phalaris,’ comes from the writings not of Zeno but of Epicurus—though the Stoics adopted and greatly admired it. (Cic. Tiesc. ii, See Gassendi, Philos. Epicuri Syntagma, pars iii. c. 1.)
‘Sed nescio quomodo dum lego assentior; cum posui librum et mecum ipse de immortalitate animorum cœpi cogitare, assensio omnis illa elabitur.’—Cic. Tusc. i.
Sallust, Catilina, cap. li.
See that most impressive passage (Hist. Nat. vii. 56). That the sleep of annihilation is the happiest end of man is a favourite thought of Lucretius. Thus:
This mode of thought has been recently expressed in Mr. Swinburne's very beautiful poem on The Garden of Proserpine.
Diog. Laërtius. The opinion of Chrysippus seems to have prevailed, and Plutarch (De Placit Philos) speaks of it as that of the school Cicero sarcastically says, ‘Stoici autem usuram nobis largiuntur, tanquam cornicibus: diu mansuros aiunt animos; semper, negant.’—Tusc Disp. i. 31.
It has been very frequently asserted that Antigonus of Socho having taught that virtue should be practised for its own sake, his disciple, Zadok, the founder of the Sadducees, inferred the non-existence of a future world; but the evidence for this whole story is exceedingly unsatisfactory. The reader may find its history in a very remarkable article by Mr. Twisleton on Sadducees, in Smith's Biblical Dictionary.
On the Stoical opinions about a future life see Martin, La Vie future (Paris, 1858); Courdaveaux De l'immortalité de lâme dans le Stoicisme (Paris, 1857); and Alger's Critical Hist. of the Doctrine of a Future Life (New York, 1866).
His arguments are met by Cicero in the Tusculans.
See a collection of passages from his discourses collected by M. Courdaveaux, in the introduction to his French translation of that book.
Stobæus, Eclog. Physic. lib. i. cap. 52.
In his consolations to Marcia, he seems to incline to a belief in the immortality, or at least the future existence, of the soul. In many other passages, however, he speaks of it as annihilated at death.
‘Les Stoïciens ne faisaient aucunement dépendre la morale de la perspective des peines ou de la rémunération dans une vie future. ... La croyance á l'immortalité de l'Ame n'appartenait donc, selon leur manière de voir, qu'á la physique, c'est-á-dire á la psychologie.’—Degerando, Hist. de la Philos. tome iii. p. 56.
‘Panætius igitur, qui sine controversia de officiis accuratissime disputavit, quemque nos, correctione quadam adhibita, potissimum secuti sumus.’—De Offic. iii. 2.
Marcus Aurelius thanks Providence, as for one of the great blessings of his life, that he had been made acquainted with the writings of Epictetus. The story is well known how the old philosopher warned his master, who was beating him, that he would soon break his leg, and when the leg was broken, calmly remarked, ‘I told you you would do so.’ Celsus quoted this in opposition to the Christians, asking, ‘Did your leader under suffering ever say anything so noble?’ Origen finely replied, ‘He did what was still nobler—He kept silence.’ A Christian anchorite (some say St. Nilus, who lived in the beginning of the fifth century) was so struck with the Enchiridion of Epictetus that he adapted it to Christian use. The conversations of Epictetus, as reported by Arrian, are said to have been the favourite reading of Toussaint l'Ouverture.
Tacitus had used this expression before Milton: ‘Quando etiam sapienibus cupido gloriæ novissima exuibur.’—Hist. iv. 6.
Two remarkable instances have come down to us of eminent writers begging historians to adorn and even exaggerate their acts. See the very curious letters of Cicero to the historian Lucceius (Ep. ad Divers. v. 12); and of the younger Pliny to Tacitus (Ep. vii. 33) Cicero has himself confessed that he was too fond of glory.
See the beautiful description of Cato's tranquillity under insults. Seneca, De Ira, ii. 33; De Const. Sap. 1, 2.
De Officiis, iii. 9.
Tusc. ii. 26.
Seneca, De Vit. Beat. c. xx.
Seneca. Ep. cxiii.
Seneca, Ep. lxxxi.
Persius, Sat. i. 45–47.
Epictetus, Ench. xxviii.
Seneca, De Ira, iii. 41.
Seneca, Cons. ad Helv. xiii.
Marc. Aur. vii. 67
Marc. Aur. iv. 20.
Pliny, Ep. i. 22.
‘Non dux, sed comes voluptas.’ — De Vit. Beat. c. viii.
‘Voluptas non est merces nec causa virtutis sed accessio; nec quia delectat placet sed quia placet delectat.’—Ibid., c. ix.
Peregrinus apud Aul. Gellius, xii. 11. Peregrinus was a Cynic, but his doctrine on this point was identical with that of the Stoics.
Marc. Aurel. ix. 42.
Marc. Aurel. v. 6.
Seneca, however, in one of his letters (Ep. lxxv.), subtilises a good deal on this point. He draws a distinction between affections and maladies. The first, he says, are irrational, and therefore reprehensible movements of the soul, which, if repeated and unrepressed, tend to form an irrational and evil habit, and to the last he in this letter restricts the term disease. He illustrates this distinction by observing that colds and any other slight ailments, if unchecked and neglected, may produce an organis disease. The wise man, he says is wholly free from moral disease, but no man can completely emancipate himself from affections, though he should make this his constant object.
De Clem. ii. 6, 7.
‘Peccantes vero quid habet cur oderit, cum error illos in hujusmodi delicta compellat?’—Sen. De Ira, i. 14. This is a favourite thought of Marcus Aurelius, to which he reverts again and again. See, too, Arrian, i. 18.
‘Ergo ne homini quidem nocebimus quia peccavit sed ne peccet, nec unquam ad præteritum sed ad futurum pœna referetur.’—Ibid. ii. 31. In the philosophy of Plato, an the other hand, punishment was chiefly expiatory and purificatory, (Lerminier, Introd. à l'Histoire du Droit, p. 123.)
Seneca, De Constant. Sap. v. Compare and contrast this famcus sentence of Anaxagoras with that of one of the early Christian hermits. Someone told the hermit that his father was dead. ‘Cease your blasphemy,’ he answered, ‘my father is immortal.’—Socrates, Eocl. Hist. iv. 23.
Epictetus, Ench. 16, 18.
The dispute about whether anything but virtue is a good, was, in reality, a somewhat childish quarrel about words; for the Stoics, who indignantly denounced the Peripatetics for maintaining the affirmative, admitted that health, friends, &c., should be sought not as ‘goods’ but as ‘preferables.’ See a long discussion on this matter in Cicero (De Finib. lib. iii. iv.). The Stoical doctrine of the equality of all vices was formally repudiated by Marcus Aurelius, who maintained (ii. 10), with Theophrastus, that faults of desire were worse than faults of anger. The other Stoics, while dogmatically asserting the equality of all virtues as well as the equality of all vices, in their particular judgments graduated their praise or blame much in the same way as the rest of the world.
See Seneca (Ep. lxxxix.). Seneca himself, however, has devoted a work to natural history, but the general tendency of the school was certainly to concentrate all attention upon morals, and all, or nearly all the great naturalists were Epicureans. Cicero puts into the mouth of the Epicurean the sentence, ‘Omnium autem rerum natura cognita levamur superstitione, liberamur mortis metu, non conturbamur ignoratione rerum’ (De Fin. i.); and Virgil expressed an eminently Epicurean sentiment in his famous lines:—
Plutarch, Cato Major.
Cicero, Ad Attic. vi. 2.
This contrast is noticed and Legendre in his Traité de l'Opinion, largely illustrated by M. Montée ou Mémoires pour servir á l'histoire in his interesting little work Le de l'esprit humain (Venise, 1735). Stoïcisme á Rome, and also by
‘Atque hoc quidem omnes mortales sic habent ... commoditatem prosperitatemque vitæ a diis se habers, virtutem autem nemo unquam acceptam deo retulit. Nimirum recte. Propter virtutem enim jure laudamur et in virtute recte gloriamur. Quod non contingeret si id donum a deo, non a nobis haberemus.’—Cicero, De Nat. Deor. iii. 36.
Ep. i. 18.
Seneca, Ep. lxvi.
Lucretius, v. It was a Greek proverb, that Apollo begat Æsculapius to heal the body, and Plato to heal the soul. (Legendre, Traité de l'Opinion, tome i. p. 197.)
‘Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano:
Marcus Aurelius recommends prayer, but only that we may be freed from evil desires. (ix. 11.)
 Seneca, Ep. lxvi.
Ibid. Ep. liii.
De Cont. Sap. viii.
Arrian, i. 12.
Arrian, ii. 8. The same doctrine is strongly stated in Seneca, Ep. xcii.
Cicero, De Nat. Deor. ii. 66.
Ep. lxxxiii. Somewhat similar sentiments are attributed to Thales and Bion (Diog. Laërt.).
Ep xli. There are some beautiful sentiments of this kind in Plutarch's treatise, De Sera Numinis Vindicta. It was a saying of Pythagoras, that ‘we become better as we approach the gods.’
Marc. Aur. iii. 5.
Seneca, Prœf. Nat. Quœst. iii.
Marc. Aur. x. 25.
Epict. Ench. xvii.
Epict. Ench. xi.
Seneca, De Prov. i.
Marc. Aurel. ii. 2, 3.
The language in which the Stoics sometimes spoke of the inexorable determination of all things by Providence would appear logically inconsistent with free will. In fact, however, the Stoics asserted the latter doctrine in unequivocal language, and in their practical ethics even exaggerated its power. Aulus Gellius (Noct. Att. vi. 2) has preserved a passage in which Chrysippus exerted his subtlety in reconciling the two things. See, too, Arrian, i. 17.
We have an extremely curious illustration of this mode of thought in a speech of Archytas of Tarentum on the evils of sensuality, which Cicero has preserved. He considers the greatest of these evils to be that the vice predisposes men to unpatriotic acts. ‘Nullam capitaliorem pestem quam corporis voluptatem, hominibus a natura datam. .... Hinc patriæ proditiones, hinc rerumpublicarum eversiones, hinc cum hostibus clandestina colloquia nasci,’ etc.—Oicero De Senect. xii.
‘Carisunt parentes, cari liberi, propinqui, familiares; sed omnes omnium caritates patria una complexa est; pro qua quis bonus dubitet mortem oppetere si ei sit profuturus?’—De Offic. i. 17.
See Seneca, Consol. ad Helviam and De Otio Sapien.; and Plutarch, De Exilio. The first of these works is the basis of one of the most beautiful compositions in the English language, Bolingbroke's Reflections on Exile.
Epist. i. 10.
‘Tola enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatic mortis est.’—Cicero, Tusc. i. 30 ad fin.
Essay on Death.
Spinoza, Ethics, iv. 67.
Camden. Montalembert nonces a similar legend as existing in Brittany (Les Moines d'Occident, come ii. p. 287). Procopius (De Bello Goth iv. 20) says that it is impossible for men to live in the west of Britain, and that the district is believed to be inhabted by the souls of the dead.
In his De Sera Numinis Vindicta and his Consolatio ad Uxorem.
In the Phœdo, passim. See, too, Marc. Aurelius, ii. 12.
See a very striking letter of Epicurus quoted by Diogenes Laërt. in his life of that philosopher. Except a few sentences, quoted by other writers, these letters were all that remained of the works of Epicurus, till the recent discovery of one of his treatises at Herculaneum.
Tusc. Quœst. i.
Consol. ad Polyb. xxvii.
Maury Hist. des Religions de la Grèce antique, tom. i. pp. 582–588 M. Ravaisson, in his Memoir on Stoicism (Acad. des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, tom. xxi.) has enlarged on the terrorism of paganism, but has, I think, exaggerated it. Religions which selected games as the natural form of devotion can never have had any very alarming character.
Plutarch, Ad Apollonium.
Cic. Tusc. Quœst. i.