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Benjamin Constant, On Religion Considered in Its Source, Its Forms, and Its Developments [2017]

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Benjamin Constant, On Religion Considered in Its Source, Its Forms, and Its Developments. Translated by Peter Paul Seaton Jr. Introduction by Pierre Manent (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2017).

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About this Title:

Constant worked on this study of humanity’s religious forms and development throughout his life, eventually publishing five volumes between 1824 and 1831. His aims were to relate religious forms to their historical contexts and civilizational developments, to show partisans of the new post-revolutionary order that the religious impulse was natural to the human heart, and to show religious reactionaries that history had left them behind and that the natural state of the religious sentiment was an unfettered “spirituality” left free to find new forms of expression.

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This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.

Table of Contents:

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on religion
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benjamin constant

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On Religion
Considered in Its Source, Its Forms, and Its Developments
Benjamin Constant
Translated by Peter Paul Seaton Jr.
With an Introduction by Pierre Manent
Liberty Fund
Edition: current; Page: [iv]

This book is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., a foundation established to encourage study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.


The cuneiform inscription that serves as our logo and as the design motif for our endpapers is the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” (amagi), or “liberty.” It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 bc in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.

Translation, introduction, editorial matter, and index © 2017 by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This English translation is drawn from the integral French text of De la religion, by Benjamin Constant, presented by Tzvetan Todorov and Etienne Hofmann. © 1999 by Actes Sud.

Frontispiece: Portrait of Benjamin Constant by Lina Vallier (fl. 1836–1852), from the Musée du Château de Versailles. Photo credit: Gianni Dagli Orti / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Constant, Benjamin, 1767–1830, author. | Seaton, Paul, 1954– translator.

Title: On religion considered in its source, its forms, and its developments / Benjamin Constant ; translated by Peter Paul Seaton, Jr. ; with an introduction by Pierre Manent.

Other titles : De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. English.

Description: Carmel : Liberty Fund, Inc., 2017 | Includes index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017026123| ISBN 9780865978966 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780865978973 (pbk. : alk. paper)

Subjects: LCSH Religions. | Religion—Phliosophy. | Polytheism.

Classification: LCC BL80.3 .C66713 2017 | DDC 200—dc23

LC record available at

Liberty Fund, Inc.

11301 North Meridian Street,

Carmel, Indiana 46032-4564

Edition: current; Page: [v]


  • Translator’s Note by Peter Paul Seaton Jr. xiii
  • Introduction to On Religion by Pierre Manent xv
  • On Religion
    • Preface 3
    • Notice to the Second Volume (1825) 15
    • Notice to Volume Four (May 1830) 17
    • Third Notice (October 1830) 19
  • first book
    • Chapter 1: On the Religious Sentiment 23
    • Chapter 2: On the Necessity of Distinguishing the Religious Sentiment from Religious Forms in Order to Understand the Development of Religions 38
    • Chapter 3: That the Moral Effect of Mythologies Proves the Distinction That We Just Established 48
    • Chapter 4: That This Distinction Alone Explains Why Several Religious Forms Appear to Be Enemies of Liberty, While the Religious Sentiment Is Always Favorable to It 56
    • Chapter 5: That the Triumph of Emerging Beliefs over Older Ones Is a Proof of the Difference between the Religious Sentiment and Religious Forms 61
    • Chapter 6: On the Way in Which Religion Has Been Envisaged until Now 64
    • Chapter 7: The Plan of the Work 79 Edition: current; Page: [vi]
    • Chapter 8: Concerning Questions That Would Be a Necessary Part of a History of Religion but Are Irrelevant to Our Purpose 84
    • Chapter 9: The Precautions That the Special Nature of Our Inquiry Obliged Us to Take 88
  • book ii: On the Crudest Form That Religious Ideas Can Assume
    • Chapter 1: The Method We Will Follow in This Book 111
    • Chapter 2: On the Form the Religious Sentiment Takes On among the Primitive Savages 112
    • Chapter 3: The Religious Sentiment’s Efforts to Rise above This Form 130
    • Chapter 4: On the Ideas of Another Life in the Worship of Savages 137
    • Chapter 5: On the Errors into Which Several Authors Have Fallen Because They Failed to Note the Struggle of the Religious Sentiment against the Form of Religion at This Period 148
    • Chapter 6: On the Influence of Priests in the Primitive State 152
    • Chapter 7: Consequences of the Influence of Jongleurs on the Worship of Savages 161
    • Chapter 8: Why We Believed That We Needed to Write in Such Detail about the Worship of Savages 170
  • book iii: On the Causes That Favor the Growth of Priestly Power from the First Steps of the Human Race toward Civilization
    • Chapter 1: The Object of This Book 175
    • Chapter 2: On the Social State That Is the Closest to the Savage State 176
    • Chapter 3: On Causes That Could Contribute Only in a Secondary Manner to the Increase of Priestly Authority 180
    • Chapter 4: On the Cause That, Whenever It Exists, Gives the Priesthood Much Power 185
    • Chapter 5: Facts That Support the Previous Assertions 189
    • Chapter 6: On Two Apparent Exceptions 195
    • Chapter 7: On the Variety in the Organization and Forms of Priestly Authority 198
    • Chapter 8: On the Division into Castes 199
    • Chapter 9: On Priestly Corporations Replacing Castes 210 Edition: current; Page: [vii]
    • Chapter 10: On the Various Competences of the Priesthood among the Nations It Dominated 213
  • book iv: On the Influence of Secondary Causes on the Extent of Priestly Power
    • Chapter 1: An Enumeration of These Causes 233
    • Chapter 2: On Climate 234
    • Chapter 3: On the Fertility or Sterility of the Soil 244
    • Chapter 4: On the Necessity of Material Works and Products for the Physical Existence of Societies 246
    • Chapter 5: On the Phenomena That Engender Astonishment or Terror 248
    • Chapter 6: The Influence of the Character and the Customary Occupations of Peoples 250
    • Chapter 7: On the Effect of Great Political Calamities 252
    • Chapter 8: On the Effect of Migrations 253
    • Chapter 9: On the Struggle of Political and Military Power against the Priestly Power 255
    • Chapter 10: Continuation of the Same Subject 265
    • Chapter 11: A Necessary Explanation of What We Just Said about the Jews 270
    • Chapter 12: That the Struggle between the Priesthood and the Temporal Authority Must End to the Advantage of the First, as Soon as the Principle of Priestly Authority Is Admitted 287
    • Chapter 13: The Summary of the Foregoing 298
  • book v: On the Priesthood’s Small Amount of Authority among Peoples Who Worshipped Neither the Stars nor the Elements
    • Chapter 1: That the Little Authority Priests Have among Nations That Do Not Have the Worship of Stars Is Demonstrated by the History of the First Times of Greece 303
    • Chapter 2: That It Is Nonetheless Possible That at a Time Prior to the Heroic Age the Greeks Had Been Enslaved by Priestly Corporations 311
    • Chapter 3: On the Religion and the Priesthood of the Earliest Times of the Greek, According to the Testimony of Greek Historians 319 Edition: current; Page: [viii]
    • Chapter 4: On the Influence of Colonies on the Social State and Religion of the Greeks 325
    • Chapter 5: On the Modifications the Independent Spirit of Greece Always Caused in What Came from Elsewhere 338
    • Chapter 6: The True Elements of Greek Polytheism 367
    • Chapter 7: The Results 372
  • book vi: The Constitutive Elements of Priestly Polytheism
    • Chapter 1: On the Combination of the Worship of Elements and the Stars with That of Fetishes 389
    • Chapter 2: On the Popular Part of Priestly Polytheism 391
    • Chapter 3: On the Secret Doctrine of the Priestly Bodies of Antiquity 395
    • Chapter 4: Example of the Foregoing Combination in the Egyptians 413
    • Chapter 5: Example of the Same Combination in the Religion of India 427
    • Chapter 6: On the Causes That Modified This Combination in India, without, However, Winning the Day against the Priesthood 466
    • Chapter 7: That We Would Be Able to Find Examples of the Same Combination among All the Peoples Subject to Priests 486
  • book vii: On the Elements That Constitute Polytheism Independent of Priestly Direction
    • Chapter 1: That the Combination Described in the Previous Book Is Alien to the Polytheism That Is Not Subject to Priests 505
    • Chapter 2: On the State of the Greeks in the Barbaric or Heroic Times 507
    • Chapter 3: On Some Questions That Must Be Resolved before Proceeding Further in Our Investigations 509
    • Chapter 4: The Point of View under which We Will Envisage the Polytheism of the Heroic Times 520
    • Chapter 5: The Embellishment of Divine Forms in the Homeric Polytheism 523
    • Chapter 6: On the Character of the Homeric Gods 527
    • Chapter 7: On the Greek Notions concerning Destiny 541
    • Chapter 8: On the Means Employed by the Greeks to Penetrate the Secrets of Destiny 545
    • Chapter 9: On the Greeks’ Notions of the Other Life 550 Edition: current; Page: [ix]
    • Chapter 10: On the Efforts of the Religious Sentiment to Rise above the Religious Form We Just Described 557
  • book viii: A Necessary Digression on the Poems Attributed to Homer
    • Chapter 1: That the Religion of the Odyssey Belongs to Another Epoch Than That of the Iliad 567
    • Chapter 2: A Question That Results from the Previous Observations 577
    • Chapter 3: That the Composition of the Odyssey, and Hence Its Mythology, Belong to a Period after That of the Iliad 579
    • Chapter 4: Conclusion 593
  • book ix: On the Priestly Religions Compared with Independent Polytheism
    • Chapter 1: The Purpose of This Book 597
    • Chapter 2: On the Form of the Gods in the Priestly Religions 598
    • Chapter 3: On the Character of the Gods in the Priestly Religions 605
    • Chapter 4: On a Singular Notion Whose Traces Are Found in Greek Religion, but Which Is Found Developed and Reduced to a Dogma in Priestly Religions 616
    • Chapter 5: On Priestly Notions of Destiny 621
    • Chapter 6: On the Priestly Means of Communication with the Gods in Sacerdotal Religions 623
    • Chapter 7: On the Notions of the Future Life in Religions Dominated by Priests 630
    • Chapter 8: On the Abodes of the Dead, and the Description of Infernal Torments, in Priestly Religions 637
    • Chapter 9: On Metempsychosis 642
  • book x: On the Teachings Peculiar to Priestly Polytheism
    • Chapter 1: The Object of This Book 649
    • Chapter 2: On the Supremacy of One God over the Others in the Priestly Religions 650
    • Chapter 3: On the Inferior Gods or the Priestly Demonology 654
    • Chapter 4: On Malevolent Divinities 659 Edition: current; Page: [x]
    • Chapter 5: Consequences of This Teaching in the Priestly Religions 669
    • Chapter 6: On the Notion of an Original Fall 671
    • Chapter 7: On a Mediating God 674
    • Chapter 8: On Triple or Ternary Divinities 676
    • Chapter 9: On the Doctrine of the Destruction of the World 679
    • Chapter 10: On the Phallus, the Lingam, and Hermaphroditic Deities 684
  • book xi: On the Fundamental Principle of Priestly Religions
    • Chapter 1: Exposition of this Principle 691
    • Chapter 2: On Human Sacrifices 694
    • Chapter 3: On Privations against Nature 710
    • Chapter 4: On Licentious Rituals 713
    • Chapter 5: On the Sanctity of Pain 719
    • Chapter 6: On Some Doctrines That Could Have Been Introduced into the Priestly Religions as Consequences of Those We Just Discussed 726
    • Chapter 7: A Demonstration of the Previous Assertions, Drawn from the Composition of the Polytheism of Ancient Rome 731
  • book xii: On the Development of Independent Polytheism to Its Highest Point of Perfection
    • Chapter 1: How the Progress of the Social State Introduces Morality into Religion 755
    • Chapter 2: On the Contradictions That Characterize This Period of Polytheism, and the Way in Which These Contradictions Disappear 759
    • Chapter 3: That the Poems of Hesiod Are Contemporaneous with the Revolution We Are Describing 762
    • Chapter 4: On Pindar 769
    • Chapter 5: On the Underworld of Pindar Compared with That of Homer and Hesiod 773
    • Chapter 6: That the Same Progression Can Be Seen in the Historians 777
    • Chapter 7: Of the Same Progression among the Greek Tragedians 785
    • Chapter 8: On Euripides 796
    • Chapter 9: A Few Words on Aristophanes 806
    • Chapter 10: Why We Do Not Speak Here of the Greek Philosophers 811 Edition: current; Page: [xi]
    • Chapter 11: On the Relations of Morality with the Two Religious Forms 812
    • Chapter 12: On the True Relations of Religion with Morality 823
  • book xiii: That the Greek Mystery Cults Were Institutions Borrowed from Foreign Priesthoods, and Which, While Contradicting the Public Religion, Did Not Modify It at All in Its Popular Portion
    • Chapter 1: How Much the Subject of This Book Is Beset with Difficulties 829
    • Chapter 2: What the Mystery Cults Were among the Nations Subject to Priests 830
    • Chapter 3: How These Mysteries Were Transported into Greece, and What They Became 833
    • Chapter 4: The Conformity of the Teachings of the Greek Mysteries with the Priestly Rituals and Teachings 839
    • Chapter 5: On the Spirit That Reigned in the Mysteries 862
    • Chapter 6: Summary of the Composition of the Greek Mysteries 865
    • Chapter 7: On Gradual Initiations, as the Initiation into the Priestly Hierarchy 868
    • Chapter 8: On the Real Object of the Mysteries 870
    • Chapter 9: On the Explanations That Have Been Given of the Mysteries 872
    • Chapter 10: That Our Way of Envisaging the Mystery Cults Alone Explains the Often Contradictory Attitude of the Greeks toward These Institutions 874
  • book xiv: On the Scandinavian Religion, and on the Revolution That Substituted a Priestly Belief for Independent Polytheism in Scandinavia
    • Chapter 1: Preliminary Observation 879
    • Chapter 2: How the Scandinavians Passed from Fetishism to Polytheism 881
    • Chapter 3: Revolution in the Scandinavian Polytheism 886
    • Chapter 4: That the Question Whether There Was a Third Religious Revolution in Scandinavia Is Irrelevant to Our Subject 899
    • Chapter 5: That the Two Revolutions of Scandinavian Polytheism Confirm Our Assertions concerning the Nature and Differences between the Two Polytheisms 900
    Edition: current; Page: [xii]
  • book xv: Results of the Work
    • Chapter 1: Question to Resolve 905
    • Chapter 2: On the Disadvantages of the Principle of Stasis, Even in the Religions That Do Not Confer an Unlimited Power on the Priesthood 912
    • Chapter 3: That the Purity of Doctrine Diminishes Nothing in the Dangers of the Principle of Stasis in Religion 916
    • Chapter 4: How Harmful to Religion Itself Is Every Obstacle to Its Progressive Perfectibility 919
  • Index 923
Edition: current; Page: [xiii]

Translator’s Note

The reader has here the first full-length English translation of Benjamin Constant’s (1767–1830) massive De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements, published in five volumes between 1824 and 1831 (with the last two appearing posthumously). It is drawn from the integral text presented by Tzvetan Todorov and Etienne Hofmann in Actes sud (“Thesaurus,” 1999).

Constant’s prose is rich, complex, and in places lush—in a word, it breathes the air of nineteenth-century romanticism. It thus presents translation challenges, but none that are insurmountable. My first principle of translation has been fidelity and accuracy; the reader will find no paraphrase here. He will be able to follow Constant’s employment of key and even characteristic terms. Insofar as possible, his word order has been respected; and his paragraph divisions have been strictly observed. The reader of a translation of a nineteenth-century French author should feel that he is reading something from another time and place; we don’t go to Constant to hear contemporary French, much less the various dialects of America. My aim has been to reproduce a distinctive nineteenth-century French voice and manner of thought speaking in comprehensible twenty-first-century English, albeit with an accent.

Constant worked on this survey and analysis of the human religious experience from fetishism to monotheism throughout his life, in wildly different circumstances. The text bears these marks. Different editions of texts are cited; spellings are not entirely consistent; there is a palpable feel of working à batons rompus. Constant himself acknowledged all this. I have made no effort to smooth these features. In an age like ours when individuality is extolled but often fails to be genuine, much less philosophically employed, it is good to encounter a brave mind that took on the most difficult subjects—religion and politics, the soul and its Edition: current; Page: [xiv] nature—with persistence and gusto. Rather than diminish his achievement because it falls short of contemporary scholarly standards, Constant’s warts are pardonable signs of a focus and capaciousness we should admire. What Pascal wrote applies to Benjamin Constant in spades: I went to a book expecting to find an author, and I found a man.

Since Pierre Manent’s magisterial introduction to the man and this work is guidance enough for the prospective reader, I can dispense with that task. I only wish to express my thanks to Christine Henderson of Liberty Fund, Inc., who approached me about this project; Colleen Watson, who exercised infinite patience in awaiting its conclusion; and my primary reader and good friend, Dan Mahoney, who introduced me to the adventure of French thought and provided moral as well as translation assistance during the long durée of this project. To all, cordial thanks.

Paul Seaton
Edition: current; Page: [xv]

Introduction to On Religion*

In France, Benjamin Constant’s fame today is principally due to his literary work, which is largely autobiographical in character.1 In his own day, he was above all famous for his political activity: across the dizzying succession of regimes that France knew starting in 1789, this man of Swiss origin was constantly at the head of the battle for all the liberties. One could say that when he died shortly after the July Revolution, in which he had fully participated and which had placed the “bourgeois king,” Louis-Philippe, on the throne, Constant had embodied the most systematic and combative version of French liberalism. Only recently, however, have people begun to take the measure of the amplitude and complexity of his political and philosophical thought. With Tocqueville, although not quite at the same level, he is the most eminent representative of the “troubled liberalism” that is so characteristic of the French political philosophy of the nineteenth century.

What characterizes the spiritual physiognomy of Constant is that he was a man who was profoundly divided between his mind and his soul, or his heart. On one hand, he adhered without reservation to the doctrine of Enlightenment liberalism, which he defended with as much constancy as trenchancy. According to him, the wellspring of modern history is the struggle between the hereditary principle and the elective principle. The French Revolution marked the definitive victory of the latter over the former, a victory that manifested the perfectibility of the human race, a perfectibility equivalent to a tendency toward equality.2 On the other hand, Edition: current; Page: [xvi] his soul suffered from, and therefore was troubled by, certain moral effects of the improved civilization of perfectibility that was in the process of triumphing. The reign of utility and self-interest narrows and weakens souls. They leave idle certain of their highest faculties, and end by putting liberty itself in danger. How to make up for this deficiency in strength and vitality? In order to resolve the problem introduced by the triumph of enlightenment for which he had worked so zealously, Constant’s solution was one that would have surprised Voltaire, and even Montesquieu: religion, or a certain version of religion.

Constant’s thought on religion is contained in the immense work that the reader of English now has, thanks to this translation. For a long time little appreciated and read in France itself, where it was out of print, this work merits serious study because it is rare that the religious phenomenon is addressed with so much candor and amplitude. The outdated character of Constant’s erudition—immense as it was—does not warrant us to treat his enterprise with condescension. It was motivated and borne along by a sincerity whose high quality and constancy are always quite rare, but especially so today.

Benjamin Constant was one of the first authors to give voice to a sentiment that has become quite familiar to us, one without which we could not live, so much has it become constitutive of our self-consciousness: the sentiment of living in history, that is to say, in a movement of irreversible progress. To be sure, certain disappointments prevent us from formulating this sentiment and conviction with the self-assurance of the first modern generations. It is therefore instructive for us to see how this axiom organized both the form and the content of Constant’s thought.

Constant starts with the observation that the reign of religious intolerance is over in Europe. The form of life that gave plausibility, and for a long time its evidence and legitimacy, to the constraint brought to bear on actions, words, and even thoughts in the name of “the true religion,” this form of life has been definitively discredited by certain intellectual, political, social, and moral changes—by “progress.” The main danger to fear from now on is found less in what remains of barbarism than in the excess of civilization. By giving itself the goal of well-being, and self-interest as its guide, civilization tends to produce a “system of egoism” that confines the individual to himself and makes him the slave of his needs. It is therefore Edition: current; Page: [xvii] important to bring another perspective to bear on the human world, by giving man the goal of constant self-perfecting and interior sentiment for his guide.

Now, precisely because intolerance has been irrevocably discredited, and the aggressive unbelief that responded to it has lost its raison d’être, today it is possible to consider the religious phenomenon impartially. What does that mean? With religion no longer having to be regarded as either a truth that has to be defended by all means or as an error and imposture to attack with the same force, one can and should consider it as a fact, that is to say, as a reality that is inseparable from the human heart, as it manifests itself at all times and places. Here Constant calls into question what one could call the genealogism of the Enlightenment, which sought to base its arguments on the hypothesis of a natural man who would have lived without religion, as well as without society and language. In this optic, if religion had a beginning—being born from the fear of thunder, for example—then it is reasonable to anticipate that it will have an end—precisely, when men no longer fear thunder. But according to Constant these are untenable conjectures. Religion, like society, like language, belongs to the very constitution of man; and it is as impossible to imagine man without religion as it is to imagine him without society or language.

At this point, one can see a tension between the two aspects of Constant’s thought that we just developed. How can religion be the universal and unchanging fact that Constant wishes to place before us while humanity obeys the law of progress; that is, of continuous and irresistible change, an axiom to which he attributes absolute validity? It would seem that, according to Constant, one must say that in human history everything changes and nothing changes.

As it happens, this is the case! With the candor I already mentioned, Constant simultaneously affirms that everything changes and nothing changes in the human phenomenon during the course of history. He escapes from contradiction by having recourse to the distinction between form and substance: the substance is unchanging while the form obeys the law of progressive change, the law of progress. The substance, the substance of man, is therefore the religious sentiment, which is always the same, immutable and eternal. The form is the ensemble of ideas and institutions in which, at each period, the religious sentiment formulates itself and takes form. In the same way as Marx, according to whom the principle of historical change resides in the contradiction between productive forces and the relations of production, according to Constant the wellspring resides principally in the contradiction between the religious sentiment and the forms in which it successively Edition: current; Page: [xviii] expresses itself. More precisely, change occurs when the sentiment separates itself from the form, and this happens when the latter no longer suits the human spirit. Thus, it is “the human spirit” that ensures the connection between the religious sentiment that does not change and the religious forms that constantly change. One has to acknowledge, however, that Constant hardly explains how this delicate and decisive operation takes place. Historical examples, both numerous and varied, are deemed to furnish the verification of a process, or a mechanism, that is presupposed or postulated rather than described or explained. In fact, the way in which Constant comprehends the religious sentiment makes it difficult to conceive of its relationship with “the human spirit.” We should pause on this point.

What is the religious sentiment, according to Constant? It is very much a sentiment, which is to say, an involuntary disposition that we do not have the power to govern, much less to suppress at will. In other words, it is a disposition that cannot be translated into strictly rational terms; it necessarily possesses a vague and mysterious character, but one that allows us to glimpse a domain where interest does not reign. Instead of dissimulating this vagueness or obscurity, Constant underscores these characteristics of the religious sentiment: it is in this type of emotion resistant to clear and distinct ideas that, according to him, human life above all experiences its disinterested desire for something better. If one has to give the word “sentiment” its most exact equivalent, it would be “revery.” It cannot escape the reader, however, that revery excludes judgment, and first of all, the judgment of real existence. The religious sentiment neither affirms nor denies the existence of the object of its desire or revery. The most that one can say, it seems, is that the religious sentiment does not positively rule out the actual existence of God or a divine object.

One would be wrong to call Constant’s sincerity into question. To be sure, he positively affirms nothing apropos to the existence of God, and one can see that even if he invokes certain Christian teachings with respect, his reticence is equal to his respect. His sincerity demands this reserve. To his eyes, the mystery that surrounds human life is so profound and encompassing that one cannot claim to dispel it by any judgment of the mind. The three great parties that claim to judge with certainty—the orthodox, the unbelievers, and the partisans of natural religion—all suppose that man can come into possession of an absolute truth, one that is always the same. On this point, says Constant, they all are equally mistaken. This does not mean that one must renounce every idea of truth. But it does mean, as the Germans were the first to recognize, and it is the sole general truth available Edition: current; Page: [xix] to the human mind, that “everything is progressive in man,” or as we would say today, “everything in man is historical.”

This is not the place to comment on what one could call Constant’s “historicism.” One can, however, point out a consequence of this “historicism.” In his eyes, the period in which one lives determines, or in any case circumscribes, the possible religious attitudes. There are epochs when it is impossible to cast doubt on the established religion; there are others when it is impossible to shore up religious conviction, that is, to escape from doubt. As Constant never tires of underscoring in all his works, the time in which he lives is of the second sort. The moderns cannot escape from doubt, from the fear of being mistaken. Their habit of constant reflection weakens and hampers the movement of the soul necessary to affirm anything of importance with certainty. This being his diagnosis, one can understand why Constant brings the religious quest for the divine object back to the human subject. There is always a truth to grasp and to cherish concerning religion, but it is not a truth concerning God, it is a truth concerning man. At the core of man there is always and everywhere this indestructible but mysterious sentiment by which man experiences, paradoxically, that he is greater than himself, and that his destiny is not measured in terms of his pleasures and his pains but according to a perfection that is found in the way he approaches the joys and challenges of life. According to Constant, it is only in these terms that one can understand the idea of divine Providence. Understood in these terms—the joys and pains are the means of perfecting man—divine Providence equates with human self-perfecting, and vice versa.

Constant’s immense investigation, which, we should note, essentially leaves Christianity and Islam to the side, is organized by a determinate polarity—that between priestly religions and the religions free of the priesthood. In his presentation, the difference that one could call “political” between the sacerdotal religions and the others is more determinative than the properly religious differences between fetishism, polytheism, and theism (this last notion approximately covers what we call monotheism). To be sure, Constant shows religion progressing along with society from the fetishism of savages to the polytheism of barbarians, with the latter tending with the progress of civilization to theism. However, this vector of religious progress is subject to a decisive influence, according to whether the religion is priestly or independent of the priesthood. The priesthood, whatever the religion might be, by claiming the monopoly of all the human goods, or at least the most precious (for these are at the root of all priestly powers), installs a system of castes that, even when they are not institutionalized as they are in India, Edition: current; Page: [xx] hampers the natural movement of human faculties and gives, as it were, a vicious form to human life. Even if he takes the precaution to concede that all the ills and evils of men do not flow from the priesthood, there is no doubt that for Constant the priesthood as such is simultaneously the great inhibitor of human progress and the great corrupter of human life. After having sequestered and protected what religion has of properly religious in the religious sentiment that the Enlightenment had ignored, Constant takes up again its aggressivity (against which he was otherwise very severe) in a political analysis that absolutely condemns a social and political form: the priesthood.

Constant’s argument therefore combines the idea of a continuous progress of civilization and the idea of an alternative between priestly religions and those without priesthoods. The first are essentially enemies of progress; or, as he regularly says, they are “stationary.” The second are open to the progress of the human spirit. Now, and this is the decisive juncture of the investigation, in human history there has been only one religion independent of the priesthood, that of the Greeks. At least since heroic times, that is, barbaric times, the Greeks were free from priestly power. He finds the proof of this in the subordinate place in which Homer places them in his poem. Hence, too, the importance that he accords to the dating of the Homeric poems in order to understand human history: the Iliad furnishes the authentic portrait of the religion of heroic times. To be sure, the Greeks welcomed many divinities brought by foreign colonies, in particular Egyptian and Thracian ones, but they nationalized these imports, purifying the divinities that had become Greek of what they contained that was originally bizarre, somber, abstract—in short, priestly. In particular, the Greeks never adopted astrolatry, which is the decisive element in priestly religion. Thus Constant celebrates the “national sovereignty” of Greece, without which the human race would have remained in a petrified state and would have everywhere been what it once was in Egypt. It is “a hundred times fortunate,” he says, that the Greeks won the victory over the priestly corporations that oppressed the rest of the earth. By keeping themselves free from the priesthood, the Greeks made themselves available to the natural development of religious ideas. Under their independent polytheism, all the aspects of the social state developed in a spontaneous and measured way. Far from crushing men, the qualities attributed to the gods were human qualities on a larger scale. In short, while everything in the priestly religions is obscure, enigmatic, abstract, and contradictory, with the Greeks nothing shocks reason at the time, that is, nothing hampered the progress of human faculties that had already begun.

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It is also true that Constant underlines the limits of the religion of the Iliad. If the figure of the gods answers to the Greeks’ need for ideal beauty, the external and moral beautification toward which the Greeks advanced was disturbed by the intervention of interest. Hence the gods, created by the need to adore, became the objects of fear and hatred, and the Greeks conducted themselves vis-à-vis the gods in as self-interested a manner as the savages do with their fetishes. But the Greek soul is not only divided between the religious sentiment and self-interest. A third element intervenes, which Constant calls “reasoning.” We would perhaps say: the logic of the idea. At the same time human society crystalized, the Greeks formed an idea of the divine society, which was going to develop according to its own logic, with the gods turning away or growing distant from men. Henceforth, the gods and men were two different species who lived apart. No less than self-interest—but for a different, even opposed, reason—religious sentiment struggled against this religious form, and while self-interest wanted to make the gods mere human auxiliaries, the religious sentiment wanted to make them judges. Now in the final analysis, sentiment is always stronger than interest. As little moral as was the individual conduct of the Homeric gods, the love of order inherent in man entered the divine world, and sentiment postulated that the gods protect the weak and punish iniquity.

This is the moment to pause over what Constant says about the relations between morality and religion, because it is here that the most significant difference between priestly religions and free ones is found. Considered in themselves, morality and religion are notions or realities that are essentially distinct, with religion defining the relations of men with the invisible world, and morality defining the relations of men among themselves. In fact—as just noted above—the life of the gods of the Iliad is essentially lacking in morality. Priestly religions, on the contrary, operate an artificial fusion of religion and morality. The gods (in truth, the priests) are its direct legislators, which leads to the fabrication of unprecedented virtues and vices; hence the imposition of an artificial moral code, one very distant from morality as it develops spontaneously in human life when it is left to its free movement. Priestly moralities are therefore, according to Constant, more corruptive than corrective. Does this mean, however, that the free religions remain, and ought to remain, distant from morality, as was the religion of the Iliad? That is not the case at all.

As essentially distinct as they may be, free religion and human morality ought to encounter one another, and their relation assume a certain form. This is the Edition: current; Page: [xxii] teaching of the Odyssey, which according to Constant is not by the Iliad’s author and presents the portrait of another society, one more advanced and milder. In the Odyssey, morality becomes a constitutive part of religion because the gods intervene, as it were, ex officio in the relations of men among themselves. The progress of civilization from one poem to the other is seen in particular in the progress that marks the condition of women in the Odyssey. As soon as civilization develops according to its natural movement, the morality that expresses and sums it up enters more and more into religion, and affects it in every way. It becomes the touchstone of religion, in fact. And by a necessary consequence, the introduction of morality into religion implies a progress in unbelief, since the gods henceforth can be done without as the tribunal of morality.

It is because it is essentially distinct from morality that free polytheism leaves morality free to develop according to its own movement, that is, according to civilization’s progress. Numerous and different gods, thus necessarily in disagreement, can hardly be recognized as competent judges, and even less as moral legislators. In contrast, constituting a type of public that, while it is neither infallible nor incorruptible, but is still more impartial and respected than mortals typically are, they naturally will be regarded as the guarantors of morality or justice, such as men spontaneously and gradually come to understand them. On the contrary, by pretending to put the divinity in the position of a moral legislator, the priestly religions are led to construct a moral code that corresponds to a surpassed phase of civilization, and in the final analysis to impose a morality that is both artificial and barbaric.

One does not know quite how to reconcile the progressivism that is so marked in Constant’s general conception with the unique value he accords to Greek life and experience. Civilization has made great progress since the Iliad, and that ought to be seen in particular in modern religion, that is, in Christianity. Now, not only does Constant halt his inquiry even before the decline of polytheism, not only does he include a good part of historical Christianity in his critique of priestly religions, but without making any explicit reference to this, he points out the features of priestly religions—the notions of a fall, of sacrifice, of a divinity that is triune and mediating—that are so many Christian teachings, confessed by the Catholic as well as the Reformed churches. Everything that makes for the properly religious content of Christianity in its various confessions seems marked with the stamp of priestly construction, as Constant understands and condemns it. This does not Edition: current; Page: [xxiii] mean that the praise directed at the Christian religion is insincere. In order to understand it, however, one must consider what Constant has to say about tolerance. He emphasizes that ancient tolerance was essentially different from modern tolerance. While the latter rests on the respect owed by society, and first of all by government, to the opinions of individuals, the tolerance of Greek or Roman polytheism was “a species of national tolerance.” Each people admitted that other peoples had their gods. Under the regime of ancient tolerance, no one had the right to adopt a foreign cult, even though the cult was authorized for the foreigners who practiced it. As Constant points out, the emperor Julian particularly reproached Christians for having abandoned the religion of their fathers. Thus, by appealing to the new possibility that is conversion, Christianity freed the individual from the constraining bond that attached him to the community in which he was born. In this way, in Constant’s eyes, it was radically liberating, and one can understand that he would say in all sincerity that Christianity constituted the most important and decisive of all the progress that the human race has made to this very day. To be sure, the benefits of this liberation were largely shackled and distorted by the priestly interpretation of Christianity, but the irresistible ending of intolerance warrants the hope that the highest potentialities of the religious sentiment will soon be deployed in a Christian society delivered from the monopoly of priests.

Many things have changed, many sorts of progress have occurred, in the direction Constant desired since the time he wrote. In particular, the abolition of the priestly monopoly has largely taken place in the Western societies marked by Christianity. Have Constant’s hopes therefore been fully realized? One would hesitate to say that the depth and vigor of the religious sentiment in our societies effectively correct or counterbalance the concern for material well-being and the reign of self-interest. Despite this observation, however, far from making Constant’s perspective anachronistic, it confirms its relevance. The material means of civilization have been perfected to an extent that Constant could not anticipate. The risks to the vigor and refinement of the superior human faculties, however, have grown in tandem. Among other things, if the domain of the exact sciences has infinitely enlarged, the part of things that we do not know, and especially human things, has not diminished at all, and it is always on the borders of this mystery that the religious sentiment takes its flight. Constant’s investigation into religion was prompted by an anxious questioning of the ambivalence of civilization and its Edition: current; Page: [xxiv] progress. Progress today has not ceased aggravating the disequilibrium between the external and the internal. To this disequilibrium there are doubtless other remedies than the one Constant recommends. In his eyes, however, the religious sentiment has a very particular advantage by rendering our lives especially precious, because it is our means of improvement, of making us capable of even sacrificing our life because there are things greater and higher than it.

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On Religion

Considered in Its Source,

Its Forms, and Its Developments

Μεμνημένον ώ ό λέγων, ὑμεῖ τε οί κριταὶ

ϕύσιν άνθρωπίνην ἕχομεν.

Reminding ourselves that the one who speaks and

the one who judges are only human.

—Plato, Timaeus, 29d

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The fragmented way we went about publishing this work has been criticized several times. The criticisms are well founded. A work such as this does need to be presented in its entirety if it is to be correctly assessed. Parceling it out necessarily leads to many objections. Although subsequent portions will answer them, the objections can appear to win the day since they are not immediately addressed.

We therefore would never have willingly chosen such a way of proceeding. But an understandable suspicion made us doubt that the public would pay attention to a work on such a subject, given the grave circumstances that surround and trouble all of us. Moreover, these investigations appeal to no particular passion, and they neither threaten nor serve momentary interests.

However, once we were reassured on this point, we would have willingly changed our procedure if commitments we had already made were not absolutely binding. The only thing we thought we could do in this case was to join the two books and publish them together. In this way we hope we have adequately treated each period. And we think that the first volume will give a clear enough idea of the perspective in which we view the important subject with which we are concerned.

The inconvenience, however, is only partly attenuated. There will be impatient judges who will take advantage of the fact that we were not able to talk about each thing immediately, but waited until its proper place.

Thus, for example, when in the first volume we establish that the majority of the notions that constituted the worship of primitive peoples are found again, taken up and consolidated, in the priestly religions of Egypt, India, or Gaul, some will oppose to this claim the profound sorts of learning attributed to the priests of Memphis, the often subtle philosophy of the Brahmins, or the sublime doctrine of the Druids. We will not be able to address this objection until the next volume, when we can treat the learning, philosophy, and doctrine themselves.

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In the same way, when we later deepen our understanding of Greek polytheism and we show that the views borrowed from the priestly religions, and presented to the Greeks by travelers, philosophers, and priests themselves, were constantly rejected by the popular genius of this nation, some will counter with the fact of the mystery religions. Our answer will be complete only when we have later proven that the mysteries were the special depositories of foreign doctrines, traditions, and ceremonies precisely because there was an incongruity between them and the public religion.

On these points, and on many others that are no less important for the development of beliefs, and for the history of religious ideas, we have to ask for the fairness of our readers. Since the different volumes will follow one another rapidly enough, the patience we ask for will not be exceedingly demanding as readers wait for the evidence for various claims.

We also ask for such fairness in order to forestall another objection, one of another kind.

We would be deeply pained if we were put in the camp of those writers who, full of a brutal vehemence, or unscrupulousness in the choice of means of succeeding, take aim at all the objects of respect that humanity has created for itself. It was the evidence of established facts, however, that compelled us to express ourselves with a certain severity (that we nonetheless believe justified) concerning the baneful influence of the priesthood among many peoples of antiquity.

To affirm that we are speaking only of ancient nations and the priests of polytheism would only be to remove ourselves from the field of battle rather than defending ourselves from attacks. So it is best to declare our entire thinking; it contains nothing that we fear to avow, and we will thereby gain the advantage of not being thought to have wrapped ourselves in allusions. Allusion is a type of aggression that is rather timorous, and it joins the inconvenience of distorting facts to that of giving animosity an impertinent cast of fear.

Thus I declare that among the accusations against the priesthood of the ancients, especially those concerning its adverse influence on the civilization of that epoch, there are many which are totally inapplicable to the priests of modern religions.

In the first place, the priests of antiquity were condemned to deception by their very functions. They had to have wondrous communications with the gods, they had signs to read, oracles to utter; all this made fraud a necessity. Our beliefs today, which are more purified and refined, have freed the priests of our day from these corrupting obligations. Happily for them, as organs of prayer, as consolers in affliction and confessors, they no longer have any miraculous attributes or functions Edition: current; Page: [5] such as those mentioned above. Such is the progress of our knowledge, and such is the calm that less material doctrines have bestowed upon minds, that fanaticism itself (where it continues to exist) has been forced to respect the limits it was the essence of the ancient priesthood to transgress, because the source of its influence was placed beyond them.

Even if certain individuals attempt to overthrow these barriers, these attempts—partial, interrupted, and resisted—are wrongs, not dangers, objects of blame and not means of dominion.

Secondly, the unlimited power of Druids or magi can never become the lot of our priests. Inclined as we are to understand, and even to find reasonable and well-founded, the apprehensions of those who warn that the priesthood tends to constitute an independent body in the State, we would nevertheless think we were much too sensitive if we supposed that the prerogatives they possess, or those they might momentarily usurp, placed them on the same level as the castes that formerly dominated royalty and deposed kings. Those who monopolized all learning and even literacy, and even created an independent esoteric language, and, presenting themselves as judges, doctors, historians, poets, and philosophers, closed the sanctuary of science to all who did not share their privileges; that is, the vast majority of mankind.

Against the tendencies of some individuals who aspire to resurrect what an interval of twenty centuries has made impossible to revive, we can trust in collective prudence. There is an instinct in social bodies which instructs them about what is unfeasible. And if misguided calculation urges this-or-that effort at restoration, this same calculation instructs them to disavow any such thing at the least sight of danger.

Moreover, if political authority is mistaken about its interests and sometimes seems to lend itself to the undue extension of so-called spiritual authority, still the conditions of the pact between the two are clear and precise. If there are monarchs who desire that Leo XII would denounce certain political doctrines, none of them wants to see in his hands the lightning bolts that Gregory VII launched against thrones. At the moment I write, a once redoubtable religious body was just banished from the States of a prince in whom it had probably invested high hopes. Let us have confidence in the times, and let us not exaggerate the threat of the clouds that two countervailing winds bring together, and which they eventually will disperse.

Therefore nothing that we have to say about the immense power of the theocratic bodies of India, Ethiopia, or even the West should be turned—even with Edition: current; Page: [6] the best intention in the world, joined with the greatest talent for interpretation—into an attack on the priests of the contemporary communions to which we owe respect as citizens, or special regard as Protestant.

As a matter of fact, our judgment against the priesthood of certain polytheisms is less harsh than the verdict brought against them by the Fathers of the Church or the theologians who followed them. We have even sometimes softened the severity of their indictments. We have pointed out the relative good that the ministers of an erroneous worship could do, because, in our judgment, when it comes to the religious sentiment, error is better than absence.

In the previous century, our attitude in this regard would perhaps have drawn much different criticisms. We would have been accused of too much indulgence. This, however, would have been an impolitic and rash act on the part of the priests of a regnant cult, to declare that they make common cause with those of an overturned cult.

As for the various measures of blame which could be applied to the priests of all religions, independently of the beliefs, epochs, and forms of the institutions, it will be obvious to anyone who knows how to read and reflect that today this blame can be merited only by those individuals who misunderstand the character of their own ministry.

The Brahmins wanted to pour burning oil into the mouth of every profane person who opened the Vedas, so much did they fear the instruction of the people and what they called the “indiscipline” of the people resulting from it. By exposing this narrow, albeit cunning policy, we do nothing to wound a clergy which claims the honor of having powerfully encouraged the rebirth of letters. And if there exist today a few individuals who would proscribe the means of extending the various sorts of knowledge to all classes, and thereby improving citizens by enlightening them, the clerical body as a whole would join us in criticizing these reborn Brahmins.

The priests of Meroë deprived their kings of the crown or put them to death. By rising up against these regicide priests, we will only scandalize those who make the throne the footstool of the altar.

The magi declared to Cambyses that his commands were above the laws. Our critique of this alliance of the priesthood and despotism does not touch at all a Church in whose name Fénelon, Massillon, and Fléchier constantly told monarchs that the laws were the foundation and limit of their power.

These explanations seemed necessary to us. As faithful historians, we have not Edition: current; Page: [7] distorted any fact nor sacrificed any truth to secondary considerations. We have attempted to forget the present century and contemporary circumstances and opinions when writing. It is from this scrupulously observed resolution that we have drawn the sort of courage that was most difficult for us: that of separating ourselves, on questions of great importance, from many men whose principles we otherwise share, and whose noble character we greatly respect.

Struck by the dangers of a sentiment that exalts itself and errs, and in whose name countless crimes have been committed, these men set themselves against all religious emotions and want to substitute for them the exact, dispassionate, invariable calculations of self-interest rightly understood. They say that such interest is sufficient to establish social order and to cause the laws of morality to be observed.

We ourselves are far from sharing the pious exaggeration that attributes all the crimes of unbelieving epochs to the absence of religious sentiment. These deplorable results of blind passions, effects that are independent of beliefs, are common to religious and unreligious centuries. Under Alexander VI communion preceded, and confession followed, murder.

We likewise recognize that the necessity of the religious sentiment is not adequately proven by the excesses of the revolutions invoking liberty during which rebellious peoples took pleasure in trampling underfoot venerable ancient customs. Revolutions are stormy times in which men, forced to precipitous judgments and hasty actions in the midst of all sorts of tumult and violence, without any guides to direct them, without observers to chasten them, even with the best of intentions, can easily be mistaken and become criminals with the purest of motives. The revolutions caused by religious convictions in their turn have not been exempt from the criminal, even savage, actions liberty herself has inspired. The violence and chaos of the Protestant wars, their thirty years of massacres, were equal in misdeeds and anarchy to those that darken the pages of the French Revolution. The fierce piety of the Puritans showed itself to be no less bloody than the shameless atheism of our demagogues.

But after having begun with these well-known concessions, we still would have to ask whether, by rejecting the religious sentiment, we fail to distinguish among the forms of religion, and if by solely operating according to the rule of self-interest the human race would not deprive itself of everything that constitutes its superiority, thereby abdicating its most beautiful titles, falling away from its true destination, and confine itself to a sphere that is much less than its true stature? In short, whether we condemn it to a diminishment that is against its nature.

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Self-interest rightly understood must destroy everything that is contrary to itself. If man, directed by this motive, triumphs over the passions that would lead him contrary to it, it also must overcome all the emotions that simply distract it from that end. Much then will be lost. If rightly understood interest is powerful enough to defeat the delirium of the senses, the hunger for wealth, and the fury of vengeance, it will overcome even more easily the movements of pity, of tenderness, of devotion, which are constantly under assault by considerations of prudence, egoism, and fear. Without doubt, by listening to the precepts of self-interest we can renounce present pleasures; but this can only be in order to obtain future advantages. We therefore ought to abstain from everything that would harm us in a lasting way. And this very rule—the sole morality acknowledged by interest—ought to apply to our generous passions and our virtues as well as to our selfish passions and our vices.

Thus, there is no noble movement of the heart against which the logic of interest cannot be directed. There is not one that, following this logic, is not a weakness or a blindness. There is not one that interest does not overthrow by its exact calculations and its convincing equations.

In response, do you tell me that interest itself opposes the foregoing depravation of our nature, since it invites us to seek the inner satisfaction that comes from the accomplishment of a courageous duty in the midst of trial and misfortune? However, do you not see that by your own words you return to these involuntary emotions which transport us into another order of ideas? And as they are alien to all calculation, they disconcert and call into question the arid doctrines of self-interest. In order to escape the consequences of the system you adopt, you falsify the system—which in truth is unworthy of you. You reintroduce into it an element it officially rejects. You give the human soul the faculty (for it truly is a faculty, and the most precious of all) to be subjugated and dominated, but also exalted, independently of, and even contrary to, its interest.

If this self-interest triumphed completely, man would not experience any regret except when he was mistaken concerning his interest. He would feel only the satisfaction of having carefully observed its precepts.

But no, nature did not place our guide in self-interest, but in an intimate sentiment. This sentiment tells us what is evil and what is good. Rightly understood, interest only lets us know what is advantageous or harmful.

If you therefore do not want to destroy the work of nature, respect this sentiment in each of its emotions. You cannot bring an axe to bear on any of the branches of the tree without sooner or later cutting the trunk and causing death.

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If you treat as chimerical this indefinable emotion which seems to reveal to us an infinite being, the soul, creator, or essence of the world (what do the imperfect names we give it matter?), your criticism will go even further despite your intention, and even against it.

What happens in the depths of our soul is finally inexplicable; and if you always demand mathematical demonstrations, you will end up with only negations and denials.

If the religious sentiment is folly because it cannot be proved, love is also a folly, enthusiasm a delirium, human sympathy a weakness, devotion an irrational act.

If the religious sentiment must be silenced because, you say, it misleads us, one would also have to eradicate pity because it has its perils, and often troubles and torments us. One would have to reprimand the high-heartedness that moves us to fly to the aid of the oppressed, because it certainly is not in our interest to call upon us blows not destined for us. Above all—pay especial attention here—one must renounce the liberty that you so cherish. From one end of the earth to the other, the soil upon which mankind walks is full of the corpses of its defenders. It is not self-interest that erects altars to this deity of proud and noble souls! It waits for others to do so, and to provide a safe haven for it; and if strong winds come up to shake that edifice, you will see it desert liberty’s worship or, at most, take a shameful pride in neutrality.

Has not experience proven this? What have we seen the past twenty years in Europe? Self-interest rightly understood reigning without rival. And what has been the fruit of this reign? (I repeat: we are not speaking about crimes. We grant that interest rightly understood condemns them, and that its counsels would have spoken against them.)1 But this indifference, this servility, this persistence in calculation, Edition: current; Page: [10] this versatility in endless pretexts—what is that but interest rightly understood?

It served, it is true, to maintain order in times of disaster. Order is necessary to well-being. But interest sacrificed to external order all the sentiments whose appearance and exercise could be hazardous. Order is always, at least in appearance, on the side of force. Self-interest placed itself alongside force, if not to second it at least to remove obstacles to it. It bemoaned its victims, but when they were being taken to the place of execution it made sure that order was not troubled. It allowed heads to roll, and it guaranteed property. It called for the end of pillage while facilitating legal murder.

It served the development of the intellectual faculties, yes, but while developing them it degraded them. It claimed to be “spiritual” because intellectual, but the mind so construed directed itself against every sentiment that was not egoistical. Self-denial became the object of derision. Human nature itself was mocked by irony, even disdained, while interest’s advocates claimed to offer a “reasonable” appreciation of things (or at least a witty barb).

By the very fact that it was held to be “truly intellectual,” its adherents flattered themselves as a sort of loyal opposition. As long as there was no danger, interest rightly understood allowed itself the luxury of criticizing indifferently good as well as evil. Once danger appeared, though, self-interest counseled the prudent applause of evil along with the good. In this way, under moderate authority one was rebellious, and under violent power one was servile.

The virtues suffered the same degradation as the faculties. They lost the charm that attests to their celestial origin. They were so prudent, so reserved, so anxious that they might do too much, that one could guess that the soul played no part in them, and that the real source of virtue had dried up.

One was charitable because interest said to the wealthy that poverty without hope is to be feared. But charity was thereby denatured. The alms that flow from pity and compassion were forbidden by interest. Moreover, one deprived the poor of his liberty in exchange for his subsistence. The rich thought they were benevolent when they gave the poor bread through prison windows.

Calculation did not stop there. Intruding in advance upon the generations to Edition: current; Page: [11] come, the indigent was reproved for his natural inclinations to procreate, and his children for their very existence. People calculated just how many human arms were needed to do necessary work. The rest of the human race was proscribed as being superfluous. Life was transformed into a carefully tended park, its owners empowered to close its walls to outsiders, entrance to which depended wholly upon their good pleasure.

The domestic virtues were practiced, it is true. It is more in keeping with interest to enjoy life in peace at home than to encounter hostility there, and sexual scandal troubles a quiet life. But the domestic virtues themselves were lowered and abased as a result. Now one considered one’s family with an egoistical eye. One’s threatened friend was turned away for fear of alarming an anxious spouse. The country’s cause was abandoned because interest demanded that a daughter’s dowry not be compromised. Unjust authority was obeyed because interest did not want to inhibit a son’s career.

It was said that there were no vices in all that; in fact there was prudence, what we could call moral arithmetic. We had the logical and rational part of man, but separated from his noble and elevated part. In a word, this was interest rightly understood.

To be sure, honorable exceptions consoled our gaze. But these exceptions, were they not incompatible with, even deviations from, the system of egoism? Were they not the homage paid to the reality and power of our emotions?

And please note: the picture we just sketched supposes prosperity, calm, a state of things in which nothing disturbs calculation. A situation in which interest calmly and without any effort always knows what it ought to do, and can always make itself heard and understood. It is a beautiful ideal, that of a society governed by rightly understood interest. But what does it possess that goes beyond a group of industrious beavers or the well-regimented activities of bees? And if circumstances change, if serious dangers trouble this methodically arranged society, the system will have other consequences.

Its natural effect is to make each individual his own center. But when each is his own center, isolation results for all. And when all are isolated, the result is dust. When the storm comes the dust is scattered.

O friends of liberty, it is not with such elements that a people obtains, establishes, or preserves liberty. It comes from habits absent from your system, an elevation of soul that your system was not able to destroy, a generous disposition that inspires and transports you yourselves despite your teaching. You are mistaken Edition: current; Page: [12] about the human race and, perhaps, about yourselves. Contemplate the man dominated by his senses, besieged by his needs, softened by civilization, and more enslaved to his pleasures as civilization makes them easier to obtain. See how many opportunities it offers for corruption. Take stock of the flexibility of language that surrounds him with excuses and masks the shamefulness of egoism. Are you going to deprive him of the sole disinterested motive that does battle against so many causes of degradation?

All moral systems reduce to two. One gives us self-interest as our guide and well-being as our goal. The other proposes improvement, betterment, progress in perfecting ourselves as the goal, and interior sentiment as our guide, a certain abnegation of ourselves, and the capacity for sacrifice.

By adopting the first, you will make of man the most able, the most astute, of the animals. But it is in vain that you put him at the top of this material hierarchy. He still will be below the last rung of any moral hierarchy. You in fact put him in a sphere different from the one you think you are assigning him. And when you have circumscribed him within this sphere of degradation, all your institutions, all your efforts, and all your exhortations will be useless. You will triumph over all external enemies, but the interior enemy will be invincible.

Institutions are empty forms when no one will sacrifice for them. When it is egoism that overthrows tyranny, it knows only how to distribute the spoils of tyranny.

Once before, the human race seemed plunged into the abyss. Then too a long period of civilization had enervated it.2 The intelligence that knows how to analyze everything had cast doubt on truths as well as errors.

Self-interest and calculation united the enlightened classes under their standard. Edition: current; Page: [13] An iron yoke held the laboring classes immobile. In this situation, how many useless efforts, how many victims, were found among the small minority which harkened back to a less abject past and which looked forward to a less miserable future? Everything was fruitless, even success was sterile. After Caligula, after Nero, even much later under the reigns of Galba, Probus, and Tacitus, noble citizens believed for a moment that liberty could be reborn. But liberty struck down saw its defenders fall with it. The times failed to support them. Self-interest abandoned them.3 The world was populated with slaves, either exploiting servitude or suffering it. Then the Christians appeared. They placed their point of reference outside egoism. They did not dispute the material universe, which material force held enchained. They did not kill, they died, and it was by dying that they conquered.

Friends of liberty, proscribed first by Marius then by Sylla, be the first Christians of a new empire. Liberty is nourished by sacrifices. Return the power of sacrifice to the enervated race that has lost it. Liberty always needs citizens, sometimes heroes. Do not extinguish the convictions that serve as the basis of the civic virtues. Create heroes by giving them the strength to be martyrs.

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Notice to the Second Volume (1825)

In order to forestall as much as we can certain objections that will be leveled by that portion of our critics whose critical art consists in pointing out minutiae in order to discredit the essential, we believe we need to forewarn our readers of the following. Having pursued our researches at different times and in different countries, we have been obliged to use different editions of the same works and to draw the facts we have made use of from books written in different languages, sometimes even from French works translated into English or German. We therefore have a diversity of citations and a variety of spellings for the same proper names. For example, while speaking of the Jews we have cited the Books of Samuel sometimes by that title, sometimes by the customary title of Books of Kings. And when, in order to demonstrate the absurdity of certain arguments of theologians, we have extracted certain passages from The Monarchy of the Hebrews, a work translated from the Spanish of the Marquis de Saint-Philippe, we were not always able to indicate the exact page. Yet again, while treating the Indians we have written either Bhaguat Geeta or Bhaguat Gita, Petrees or Pitris.

Our intention was to clear up these disparities, no matter how insignificant they were. But several escaped our attention and we noticed them too late. We also have often preferred designations more generally known to those with a more scientific appearance, and more familiar spelling to what was more exact. We used the word paria, for example, instead of using tschandala. Most of the time we wrote Oromaze instead of Ormuzd, and we always wrote cuttery, instead of kchtriya, and so forth.

These statements were not needed for readers who do not have a parti pris, either for or against our views. But we do anticipate some who are ill-willed, from whom we cannot expect good faith. We therefore believed we needed to deprive them of the facile pleasure of trying to be more erudite than we are in matters we know as well as they.

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Notice to Volume Four (May 1830)

We now publish the last two volumes of a work that we could not finish sooner. Political duties prevented us from making it less imperfect than it no doubt is. We however do not say this to excuse ourselves: the reader judges the intrinsic merit of the book, not the personal situation of the author.

One observation, however, is necessary, especially concerning the first half of the fourth volume. There we deal only with the externals of the priestly religions, and we bring together indiscriminately the facts that pertain to them and characterize them.

This is because for the peoples dominated by priests, the externals were the entirety of the religion. Because the self-interest of the priests was everywhere the same, everywhere they had the same teachings and the same rites, except for modifications owing to climate and circumstance.

If we had disdained and dismissed this popular aspect and had occupied ourselves only with its mystical sense, we would have given an air of profundity to our work that would have charmed many readers.

There are those who still swoon when they hear about the priests of Egypt, or the Brahmins, or the magi. One would say that by admiring these purported sages they become as wise as them.

We say this of the gullible portion of our readers; there are others, however, of a different stamp.

They extol what was, because what was powerfully suits them. What is, and above all what announces itself, suits them very little.

We have been criticized for having taken as our point of departure the primitive state, because, we are told, it has not been proven that it was the first state of mankind.

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But we recognized long before our opponents that the origin of our species is enveloped in shadows impossible to dispel. We made clear, though, that wanting to follow the intellect in its development and progress, we have had to start at the point where this progress began. That the primitive state was the first state matters little to us: man fell into it. All nations indicate a time when this was their state; that is enough for us.

Some have claimed that we ought to have taken as our basis some universal revelation, showing it being gradually lost and then rediscovering its traces in the midst of its corruptions and distortions.

If there was a universal revelation, it was gradual, individual, and entirely interior. Does one want us to be even more orthodox? The revelation restricted to one people remained alien to other peoples. They operated in the midst of the errors of darkest ignorance, barbarism, and the fiercest or most licentious superstitions. May it never happen that we seek the traces of a divine revelation in the human sacrifices of Tyre or the debauchery of Ecbatana!

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Third Notice (October 1830)

These two volumes ought to have appeared at the end of last July. The happy events of the time delayed the publication. But since the entirety was printed except for the analytic index, nothing has been changed except for a note of five or six lines (bk. XV, ch. III, n. 2). The readers therefore should not be surprised by a few statements that three months ago perhaps may have taken some courage and which today would only be anachronistic, or of a few rather severe judgments concerning some men who at the time called for our heads. They have been defeated. But forgetting offenses is one thing, esteeming the perpetrators, another. While we impose the former as a duty, we do not feel obliged to feign the latter when we do not feel it.

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CHAPTER 1: On the Religious Sentiment

Montesquieu, the author of The Spirit of the Laws, rightly said that all beings have their laws, the divinity as well as the world, the world as well as men, men as well as the other species of animals.1

These laws constitute the nature of each species. They are the general and permanent cause of the mode of existence of each species; and when external causes bring some partial change to this mode of existence, the core resists and always reacts against the modifications.

One therefore should not want to assign causes to these primordial laws; rather it is from them that one should explain particular phenomena.

Why does this class of animals live in groups while in another each individual lives alone? Why is the union of the sexes more or less lasting in this one while in another, once desire is satisfied, the primitive instinct regains its power?

One cannot say anything beyond “these species are this way.” It is a fact whose truth is established and for which explanations are arbitrary. For the weakest among these species are not, as one might expect, the most sociable. Even in coming together they do not extend any assistance to each other. What they do is obey their nature, which imposes laws upon them, that is, a disposition that characterizes them and determines their mode of existence.

If, therefore, there is in the heart of man a sentiment not found in the rest of living beings which always occurs, whatever the condition in which he finds himself, is it not plausible that this sentiment is a fundamental law of his nature?

In our judgment, such is the religious sentiment. The primitive hordes, the barbarous tribes, the nations which have attained the social state, those that languish Edition: current; Page: [24] in the decrepitude of civilization—all experience the power of this indestructible sentiment.

It triumphs over all interests. The primitive for whom fishing or a difficult hunt provides bare subsistence will devote a portion of the catch to a fetish. A bellicose people will lay down their arms to come together in front of an altar. Free nations will interrupt their deliberations to call upon the gods in their temples. Despots will grant their slaves days of respite.

Passions as well as interests yield to it. When suppliants grasp the knees of sacred statues, vengeance is halted, hatred appeased. Man imposes silence upon his most imperious passions. He forbids himself pleasure, swears off love, launches himself into suffering and death.

This sentiment, however, joins itself to all our needs and all our desires. We ask the gods for everything that we do not sacrifice to them. The citizen calls upon them for the sake of his country; the lover separated from what he loves confides his beloved to them. The prayer of the prisoner pierces the walls of the cell that encloses him; and the tyrant is disturbed on his throne by powers invisible, and can hardly be reassured by imagining them to be mercenary.

Would one oppose to these numerous examples a few miserable peoples who are described as wandering on the earth without religious ideas? Their existence, however, is based upon the dubious testimony of a few travelers who are probably inaccurate. One certainly can doubt the accuracy of writers who on the basis of mere report affirm the atheism of a people they have never seen or visited,2 or those who, failing to see the religion that was actually in place, have concluded from the absence of another form of it that it does not exist.3 In any event, how Edition: current; Page: [25] important an exception can be the tribes who eat human flesh, and whose condition resembles that of brutes?

We therefore can consider this sentiment to be universal, even if it is nothing but a great error.

From time to time, some men affirm that it is just such an error. To hear them speak, the real first causes of religion are fear, ignorance, authority, and cunning.4 In this view, one would have to say that external and accidental causes have changed the inner, permanent nature of man, and have given him another nature. What is even stranger, he would not be able to undo this nature even when the causes no longer exist!

For it is in vain that his knowledge grows, in vain that having the physical laws of the world explained to him, he is taught to no longer ascribe any causal power to beings to whom he can pray. The teachings of experience cause religion to be relocated to another domain. But they do not banish it from the human heart. As he is progressively enlightened, the sphere from which religion withdraws becomes larger. Again religion retires, but it does not disappear. What mortals believe, and what they hope for, always places itself, as it were, on the circumference of what they know. Cunning and authority can abuse religion, but they cannot create it. If it were not already in our souls, authority would not have been able to use it as an instrument, and ambitious castes make a trade of it.

But if it is found deep within the human soul, where does the opposition to this general conviction, to this universal assent of mankind come from? Should we suspect their motives or their understanding? Should we charge them with a presumptuous ignorance or accuse them of being interested in rejecting a teaching which, while reassuring to virtue, is threatening only to vice?

No. In many eras these men are the most educated, the most knowledgeable, the most respectable of their times. In their ranks we find generous defenders of liberty, irreproachable citizens, philosophers devoted to the search for truth, and ardent enemies of all arbitrary or oppressive power. Most of them, being devoted to sustained and difficult study, are preserved from corrupting temptations by the pleasures of study and the habit of reflection. How, then, can religion, which has Edition: current; Page: [26] nothing frightening for such men, become such a repugnant object? Is its absurdity so clear and evident to them? But they themselves recognize that reasoning leads only to doubt. By what singular reversal of ideas, then, has the natural and innocent recourse by such an imperfect being as man to beings deemed capable of helping him sometimes provoked their fierce hatred instead of exciting in them the sympathy that it appears to call for?

Casting a glance on the entirety of life’s trajectory, who would dare to say that this recourse is useless or superfluous? The causes of our misfortune are numerous. Authority can pursue us; lies can publicly injure us. The bonds of a thoroughly artificial society wound us. Fate strikes what we hold most dear. Old age comes toward us, a somber period of life when objects grow dim and seem to withdraw, when something cold and dark casts its shadows upon what surrounds us. We seek everywhere for consolation, and almost all of our consolations are religious. When the world abandons us, we form an alliance beyond the world. When men persecute us, we create an appeal above men. When we see our dearest illusions—for justice, liberty, the homeland—vanish, we console ourselves by believing that there exists somewhere a Being who will be able to reward us for being faithful to them, despite our adverse circumstances. When we regret the loss of a beloved object, we erect a bridge across the abyss and cross it in thought. Finally, when life escapes us, we thrust ourselves toward another life. Thus religion is the faithful companion, the ingenious and indefatigable friend, of the unfortunate. It would seem that it is especially the one who regards all these hopes as erroneous who ought to be most profoundly moved by this universal agreement of all suffering beings, by these requests and pleas of suffering rising from all points on the globe toward a heaven of the coldest, sternest bronze, where they are bound to remain unanswered.

But religion has been perverted. Some have pursued man even to this last haven, into this intimate sanctuary of his existence. Persecution, however, provokes revolt. Deploying itself against this or that particular opinion, authority stirs all worthy minds to demonstrate on that opinion’s behalf. There is in us something that grows indignant at any intellectual constraint. To be sure, this principle can go as far as fury; it can be the cause of many crimes, but it belongs to what is noble in our nature.

Hence, in all the centuries when men demanded their moral independence, one saw this resistance to religion. This resistance appeared to be directed against the sweetest of affections, the religious sentiment, but in fact was really directed against the most oppressive of tyrannies. By placing force on the side of faith, one Edition: current; Page: [27] placed courage on the side of doubt. The zeal of believers gave rise to the vanity of unbelievers, and men made a point of pride a teaching whose principal merit lay in the audacity it took to profess it.

I have often been struck with horror and astonishment when reading the famous System of Nature. This lengthy diatribe of an old man who wanted to close any possible future ahead of him, this apparently inexplicable hunger for destruction, this enthusiasm against a gentle and consoling idea, seemed to me to be a bizarre sort of madness. But I eventually understood what was going on by recalling that authority had lent violent and artificial support to this idea. Hence, from a sort of repugnance felt toward the writer who triumphantly presented to his reader the great void as the truth of what awaited him and the objects of his affection, I passed to a certain esteem for the intrepid opponent of an arrogant authority.

But now the reign of intolerance has passed. Notwithstanding the efforts a narrow and antiquated policy might still make to reestablish it in a few countries of Europe, we will not see it reappear. The civilization of our day rejects it; it is incompatible with it. To return the human race to these iniquitous laws, it would be necessary for a new invasion of barbarous peoples to bring about the overthrow and destruction of our present societies. This danger is not to be feared. No part of the globe today harbors such primitive conquerors of civilized nations. And if probabilities do not deceive, the excess of civilization is the sole danger we have to fear.

But with the demise of intolerance’s dominion, the animosity engendered by oppression must go away as well. Whoever makes such hostility his chief point of pride must cease and desist. Unbelief has lost its greatest charm, that of danger. Where there no longer is peril, there no longer is attraction.

The moment therefore is auspicious for us to take up this vast subject without partiality and without animosity. The moment is favorable to consider religion as a fact whose reality no one can contest, and whose nature and successive developments need to be considered and grasped.

The inquiry is immense. Even those who have seen this have not appreciated its full extent. Even though many have already written on the subject, its principal question remains unrecognized. For a long time a country can be a theater of war and yet still remain in all other respects quite unknown to the troops that crisscross it. They see in plains only fields of battle, in mountains, possible command posts, and valleys as transportation channels. It is only in peacetime that one can examine the country for its own sake.

This has been the fate of religion, a vast country that has been attacked and Edition: current; Page: [28] defended with equal tenacity and violence on both sides, but which has not had a disinterested visitor able to provide a faithful description.

Until now only the exterior of religion has been considered. The history of its inner sentiment remains, in its entirety, to conceptualize and execute. Dogmas, beliefs, practices, and ceremonies are the forms that the interior sentiment takes, and then subsequently breaks and remakes.5 According to what laws, though, does Edition: current; Page: [29] it take these forms? According to what laws does it change them? These are questions no one has examined. They have described the outside of the labyrinth; no one has penetrated to its center, no one could. Everyone sought religion’s origins in circumstances outside man, the devout as well as the philosophers. The former would not believe that man could be religious without some particular and local revelation; the latter, without the action of external objects. Both shared in a fundamental error from which followed a series of errors. Yes, to be sure, there was a revelation, but this revelation was universal, it is constant, it has its source in the human heart. Man needs to listen only to himself. He needs to listen only to that nature that speaks to him in a thousand voices in order to be brought irresistibly to religion.

To be sure, external objects influence beliefs, but they only modify the forms, they do not create the internal sentiment that serves as their basis.

It is this sentiment, though, that they have constantly misunderstood. We have often been shown the primitive filled with fear at the sight of the often harmful phenomena of nature. In his fear he divinizes rocks, tree trunks, the skins of beasts—all the various objects that offer themselves to his sight.

From this some have concluded that terror is the sole source of religion. But in reasoning this way it is precisely the fundamental question that is neglected. Where the terror at the idea of hidden powers comes from is not explained. No one accounts for the need that man experiences to discover and to adore these occult powers.

The more one considers the various systems that are expressly developed against any religious idea, the more this disposition becomes difficult to explain. If man does not differ from the animals except because he possesses a higher degree of the faculties with which they are endowed, if his intelligence is of the same nature as theirs but only more developed and extensive, then it follows that everything that intelligence produces in him it ought to produce in them (to a lesser degree, to be sure, but to some degree). But it does not.

If religion comes from fear, why, then, are animals—many of whom are more timorous than we—not religious? If it comes from gratitude, and the gifts (as well as the rigors) of physical nature are the same for all the living beings, why Edition: current; Page: [30] does mankind alone have religion? If ignorance of causes is the cause of religion, we are obliged to apply the same reasoning to animals. Since ignorance of causes exists more for animals than for man, how does it happen that man alone seeks to discover unknown causes? At the other extreme of civilization—that is, at times when ignorance of natural causes no longer exists and man is no longer subject to the terrors of a nature he has subjugated—do we not see the same need for a mysterious correspondence between the world and invisible beings reappear?

When one attributes religion to our more perfect constitution, one fails to see a very essential distinction. Do you understand by “constitution” the ensemble of all our faculties, our organs, our judgment, our power of reflecting and synthesizing, as well as our sentiments? I agree. But what you call our constitution is nothing but our nature, and you should therefore recognize that religion is in our nature. Do you understand by “constitution” only the superiority of physical means with which man is endowed? But if that superiority was the root of the religious sentiment, since there are animals that are better organized than others, one ought to see in them some signs and expressions of this sentiment, which would be more or less proportionate to the perfection of their constitution.

If by means of memory and foresight man combines ideas and derives from the facts he sees the consequences that follow from them, then we have to acknowledge that animals too have memory, they too have foresight. The dog corrected by its master avoids repeating the same behavior. How, then, does it happen that being no less exposed than man to physical accidents, the canine does not seek to know their causes, while he does seek to avoid, or at least disarm, the anger of an offended master?

Moreover, whatever foresight you attribute to a primitive human being, of all creatures none is more forgetful and careless of his present interests than he! When his needs are satisfied, the Eskimo sleeps in the crease of rocks, meditates about nothing, observes nothing. The Carib Indian does not extend his reflection beyond today. However, when it comes to religion the Eskimo becomes curious, the Carib farsighted. This is because religion is for them a need more vital and more imperious than all the others, a need that takes precedence over the rest of their nature, over their indifference, their apathy, and their lack of curiosity.

Even supposing that the religious sentiment, and the hopes and enthusiasm it inspires, are empty illusions, they still would be illusions peculiar to man; they would distinguish him from the rest of living things. And from this there would result a second, no less singular, distinction. All beings perfect themselves insofar Edition: current; Page: [31] as they obey their nature. Man would perfect himself the more that he departs from his. The perfection of all other beings is found in truth; that of man would be found in error!

We will go further. If religion was not natural to man, the superiority of his constitution would lead him away from it rather than to it. Why? The result of this superior constitution being that he better satisfies his needs by the forces and powers he has come to understand and has arrived at controlling, he would have fewer motives to suppose or invoke unknown powers. The better he finds himself on the earth, the less he would be inclined to raise his eyes to heaven.

This observation is applicable to all the states of human society. There is no condition in which, if you do not recognize religion as being inherent in man, it would not be a superfluous ornament to his existence. Look at our civilized institutions. Agriculture serves our need for food. Our walls and our roofs protect us from the seasons. Laws protect us from violence. Governments are charged with maintaining these laws, and for better or worse they acquit themselves of this duty. There are punishments for those who break them. In another vein, there are luxury, refinements, and pleasures for the wealthy. There are sciences to explain to us the phenomena that surround us, and to parry those which threaten us. There are doctors for the ill. As for death, it is an inevitable accident, needless to worry about. Is not everything wonderfully arranged? What need does this arrangement not meet? What fear or worry is there without ways of assuaging it? Where, therefore, is the external cause that makes religion necessary? Religion, however, is a necessity that everyone feels, some always, others from time to time. This is because it is not found outside us, it is within us, it is part of us.

People have never really wanted to recognize what man is. They have questioned external objects concerning man’s inherent dispositions. It is not surprising that they have not been able to provide an answer. People have sought the origin of religion in the same way they sought the origin of society and the origin of language. The same error was at work in all these investigations. One began by supposing that man had once existed without society, without language, and without religion. But this presupposed that he could do without these things because he had been able to exist without them. From this false presupposition error proceeded. Society, language, and religion are inherent in man; the forms vary. One can ask about the cause of the variety. One can seek to know why man in society has this or that sort of government; why in this religion there is this practice or that dogma; why this language has affinities with that one. But to claim to go back before all of them is Edition: current; Page: [32] a fanciful effort, a sure means of arriving nowhere. To assign religion, sociability, and language to anything other than the nature of man is to be mistaken, and wilfully so. Man is not religious because he is fearful, he is religious because he is human. He is not sociable because he is weak, he is sociable because it belongs to his essence. To ask why he is religious, why he is sociable, is to ask the reason for his physical structure and for what constitutes his very mode of existence.6

People have fallen into a second error. They have believed that because we are dealing here with something that has a great deal of influence on men, one must either destroy it or maintain it. And in the various projects of either destruction or preservation they have confused what was transitory and perishable with what was necessarily eternal and indestructible.

As we have said, there is something indestructible in religion. It is not a discovery of the enlightened human being which is foreign to the ignorant, nor an error of the ignorant from which the enlightened can free himself. But one still must distinguish the substance from the forms, and the religious sentiment from religious institutions. Not that we intend here to speak ill of either these forms or these institutions. We will see during the course of this work that the religious sentiment cannot do without them. We will go even further. At each stage, the form that was established naturally was good and useful. It became noxious only when individuals or castes took control of it and perverted it in order to prolong it. But it is no less true that while the substance is always the same, immutable and eternal, the form is variable and transitory.

Therefore, that this or that religious form is attacked does not mean that man is able to do without religion. The philosopher may direct his arguments against it, the irony of his sarcasms, the indignation of his intellectual independence—in Greece Epicurus may dethrone the gods of Olympus, at Rome Lucretius may proclaim the mortality of the soul and the vanity of our hopes, Lucan may insult Homer’s teachings, or Voltaire other religious dogmas, an entire generation of men may applaud the contempt directed at a longtime respected belief—this in no way entails that man can do without religion. It indicates only that the current form Edition: current; Page: [33] no longer suits the human spirit, that the religious sentiment has separated itself from it.

But someone will ask, how do you get at the religious sentiment independently of the forms it assumed? We never find it thus separated in reality, to be sure, but by entering into the depths of our soul it is possible, we believe, to grasp it in thought.

When one examines the human species through the prism of the relations that obtain between the place it occupies in the world and the goal it appears destined to attain on earth, one is struck by the harmony and the just proportions that exist between this goal and the means man possesses to attain it. To master the other species; to press a large number of them into its service; to destroy, or keep at bay, those that refuse to obey; to compel the earth it inhabits to abundantly satisfy its needs, and to provide enough variety for its pleasure; to climb the summit of mountains in order to submit them to cultivation; to descend into the abyss; to extract metals and to employ them for its purposes; to master wave and fire, to make them cooperate in marvelous transformations; to brave the weather by clothing, and time by buildings; in a word, to subjugate physical nature; to enslave it and to turn its own forces against it: these are only the first steps of man toward the conquest of the universe. Soon enough, raising himself even higher, he directs his reason enlightened by experience against his own passions. He imposes a uniform yoke upon his internal enemies who are even more rebellious than the external obstacles he defeated. He obtains from himself and others sacrifices that one would have said were impossible. He manages to have property respected by the one who has none, the law by the one it condemns. The few exceptions that are easily put down do not fundamentally disturb the general order.

Thus man—again, considered only in his earthly relationships—seems to have arrived at the peak of his moral and physical perfection. His faculties are admirably combined to guide him toward the goal. His senses are more perfect than those of inferior species (if not in particular at least in their ensemble) by the assistance they lend each other. His memory is so faithful that it allows him to retrace different objects without confusing them, his judgment allows him to classify and judge, his mind each day reveals new relationships. All cooperate to lead him rapidly to successive discoveries and thus to consolidate his dominion.

However, in the midst of these successes and triumphs, neither the universe he subjugates nor the social organizations that he establishes, neither the laws he proclaims nor the needs he has satisfied, not even the pleasures he refines and Edition: current; Page: [34] varies, are sufficient for his soul. A desire constantly rises within him and asks for something else. He has examined, traversed, conquered, even decorated the worldly manse within which he finds himself, and yet his gaze still seeks another sphere. He has become the master of visible, limited nature, and he thirsts for an invisible, unlimited nature. He has provided for a variety of interests that, because more complicated and artificial, seem to be of a higher order. He has known all and calculated all. And still he experiences a weariness, that of only being occupied with interests and calculations. A voice cries from his very depths and says to him that all these things are but mechanisms, more or less ingenious, more or less perfect, but they cannot serve as either the goal or the final boundary of his existence. What he has previously taken as the goal turns out to be a series of means.

This disposition must be inherent in man because there is no one who has not been gripped, more or less strongly, by it, perhaps in the silence of the night or on the shores of the sea or in the solitude of the fields. There is not a human being who has not, at least for an instant, forgotten himself and felt himself carried away, as it were, on the waves of a vague contemplation, plunged into an ocean of new and disinterested thoughts without any strict connection to this life. The man who is the most controlled by active and self-interested passions nevertheless, sometimes despite himself, has felt these movements which take him away from all particular and self-regarding ideas. They arise in him when he least expects it. Everything that in the physical order belongs to nature, to the universe, to immensity; everything that in the moral order stirs tenderness and enthusiasm—the spectacle of a virtuous action, of a generous sacrifice, of a danger bravely confronted, the pain of another attended to or comforted, disdain for vice, devotion to the unfortunate, resistance to tyranny—all these reveal and nourish in the soul this mysterious disposition. And even if the ingrained habits of egoism prompt it to smile at this momentary exultation, it does not do so without a secret shame, one it hides beneath the mask of irony. A silent instinct tells it that in doing so it is disrespecting the noblest portion of our being.

We should add that in studying ourselves at these moments—admittedly so brief and so unlike the rest of our existence—we find that at the very moment when we fall back from this exaltation and find ourselves recaptured by the interests that constantly solicit us, we feel ourselves having descended from an elevation into a denser, less pure atmosphere. We have to do violence to ourselves to reengage with what we typically call reality.

There is therefore a tendency in us that is in contradiction with our apparent Edition: current; Page: [35] goal and with all the faculties that help us to advance toward that goal. These faculties, all adapted to our use, correspond among themselves in order to serve us; they aim toward our greatest utility and they make us our sole center. The tendency we just described, however, impels us outside ourselves and imparts a motion that does not have utility for a goal, but rather seems to bear us toward an unknown, invisible center, one without any analogy to our habitual existence and our mundane interests.

This tendency frequently creates great disorder in us. It nourishes itself with what our logic calls chimeras. It entertains emotions that our intellect cannot account for. It disinterests us in our ordinary interests. It forces us to believe despite our doubts, conversely, to afflict us in the midst of prosperity, to make us sigh in the midst of happiness. It is remarkable that traces of this disposition are found in all of our noble and refined passions. Like it, all these passions have something mysterious and contradictory about them. Ordinary reason cannot explain this in any satisfying way. One finds it in love, in the exclusive preference for an object which we have been able to do without for a long time, and which many others resemble;7 in the need for glory, that thirst for a fame that will last beyond us; in the pleasure we find in devotion, a joy that is contrary to the habitual instinct of our nature; in melancholy, that sadness without a cause, but in whose midst we find a pleasure that escapes analysis; and in a thousand other indescribable sensations that cannot be explained by reason.

Here we will not seek the origin of this disposition which makes of man an ambiguous and enigmatic being, and sometimes makes him not at home on earth. Believers can see in this the memory of a fall, philosophers the germ of a future perfection. This is a question we will leave undecided.

But we do affirm that if one connects this disposition to the universal sentiment we spoke of above that moves man to address himself to invisible beings, to make his destiny depend upon them, to place more importance on the relations he has with them than on the more immediate advantages of the visible world, one cannot Edition: current; Page: [36] deny that these two things appear to go closely together, and that the second is, in a certain manner, but the practical application of the first.

We experience a confused desire for something better than we know: the religious sentiment presents us something better. We are troubled by the boundaries that hem and offend us: the religious sentiment announces to us a time when we will transcend these limits. We are tired of the troubles of this life, which never go away completely and thus render any repose impossible: the religious sentiment gives us an idea of an ineffable rest, one that is exempt from the surfeit of satiety. In a word, the religious sentiment is the response to that cry of the soul that no one can silence, this élan toward the unknown, toward the infinite, that no one can entirely master, no matter what the distractions are with which he surrounds himself or the dexterity with which he deafens or abases himself.

If someone charges this definition with being obscure or vague, we will ask, how can one precisely define something that transforms and modifies itself in every individual, in each country, in every epoch? All our intimate sentiments seem to mock the efforts of language. Words fail what they express by the very fact that they generalize, serving to designate and to distinguish rather than to define. An instrument of the mind, they render well only the notions of the mind. They fail in everything that belongs either to the senses or to the soul. Define the emotion that the consideration of death causes in you, the wind that echoes through ruins or tombs, the harmony of sounds or those of form. Define reverie, the inner stirring of the soul, in which all the pleasures of the senses or of thought come together in a mysterious confusion.

In placing the religious sentiment at the peak, but in the same category as our most profound and pure emotions, we are not thereby denying the reality of what it reveals or divines. In order to deny that this sentiment has a real basis, we would have to suppose that there is an incoherence in our nature, which would be even more strange and implausible because it would be the only one of its kind. Nothing appears to exist in vain. Every symptom indicates a cause; every cause produces its effect. Our bodies are destined to perish, thus they contain the seeds of destruction. These seeds, even when they are combatted by the vital principle that ensures our temporary existence, eventually triumph. Why would the tendency that we have described and which is perhaps determined by a seed of immortality, why wouldn’t it also triumph? We feel our bodies led toward the tomb; the tomb opens before them. But we feel another part of ourselves, a more intimate part (although Edition: current; Page: [37] less well known), attracted to another sphere. Who would dare to say that this sphere does not exist? Or that it is closed to us?

If you wander in the night, knowing only the idea of darkness but still experiencing a secret pain at the darkness, when suddenly you see in the distance the horizon gradually lighting up, would you not think that behind the dark horizon is a luminous universe, one that your inexplicable desire had already indicated?

Thus, even though the religious sentiment never exists without some form, it can still be conceived independently of every form by abstracting from everything that varies according to the different situations, circumstances, and relative levels of knowledge in society and history, and bringing together everything that remains unchanging in them.

It is because this sentiment adjusts itself to all conditions, all centuries, and all conceptions that the appearances with which it clothes itself are often crude. But despite this external deterioration one always finds in them the traits that characterize it and cause it to be recognized. Even when it associates itself, as we have already seen, with the most common interests, with the most vulgar calculations, it nonetheless resists this alliance. In this it is like a celestial envoy who, in order to give order to a barbarous tribe, accommodates himself to their highly imperfect mores and language. His voice and his visage nonetheless will always attest that they come from a superior race and originate in a happier kingdom. What is more ignorant and more superstitious than the ignorant savage who daubs with mud and blood his primitive fetish? But follow him to the tomb of his deceased; listen to the lamentations of warriors for their chieftains, of the mother for the child she lost. You will discern something in them that will penetrate to your soul, that will stir your emotions, that will revive your hope. The religious sentiment will seem to you to break free of its present form.

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CHAPTER 2: On the Necessity of Distinguishing the Religious Sentiment from Religious Forms in Order to Understand the Development of Religions

The distinction that we attempted to establish in the previous chapter has gone unrecognized, or been misunderstood, up until now. However, it is the key to unlocking a host of problems to which no one has been able to provide a solution. Not only is the origin of religious ideas inexplicable if we do not acknowledge the existence of the religious sentiment; but one also encounters a thousand phenomena during the course of religious development that it is impossible to account for if we do not distinguish the sentiment from its forms. Nothing must be neglected, therefore, to make this truth clear and to support it with ample evidence.

The religious sentiment is born of the need that man experiences to put himself in communication with invisible powers.

The form is born of the need that he equally experiences to render both regular and permanent the means of communication he believes he has discovered.

The consecration of these means, their permanence and regularity, are things he cannot do without. He wants to be able to count on his belief; he must find it today as it was yesterday; it must not seem to disappear like a cloud at each moment. Moreover, it is necessary that he see this path supported by those with whom he has relations of interest, habit, and affection. Since he is destined to live with his fellow human beings and to communicate with them, he does not even enjoy his own sentiment unless it is connected with the universal sentiment. He does not like to commit himself to opinions no one else shares. He desires the approval of others for his thoughts as well as his actions; and external approval is necessary for his internal satisfaction.1

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From all this it results that at each period a positive form is established that is proportionate to the level of development of the period.

But every positive form, no matter how satisfactory it might be for the present, contains a seed of resistance and opposition to the progress of the future. By the very fact of its permanence, it contracts a dogmatic and unchanging character which refuses to follow intelligence in its discoveries and the soul in its emotions. Each day, however, renders the latter purer and more refined. In order to make more of an impression on its followers, the form is forced to make use of almost material images. Soon, the religious form offers to the human beings who are tired of this world simply another world that resembles it. The ideas that it proposes become more and more narrow, like the earthly ideas of which they merely are a copy. Finally the time arrives when it only presents to the mind assertions it cannot accept, to the soul practices that do not satisfy it. The religious sentiment then separates from this petrified form. It demands another form that does not offend it. It seeks and strives until it finds one.

Behold the history of religion. You can see from it that if the sentiment and its forms are confused, one understands nothing.

Without this distinction, how can you explain a whole series of religious phenomena that strike any reader of the annals of different peoples?

Why, for example, when a religious form is well established and civilization has developed to a certain degree, does unbelief inevitably manifest itself, and with growing boldness and audacity? Greece, Rome, modern Europe: all show this.

To want to explain it by the prominence of a few individuals who all at once (one knows not why) took it upon themselves to undermine respected beliefs is to confuse an effect for the cause, a symptom for the disease.

Writers are but the organs of dominant opinions, and their consonance with these opinions and their fidelity in expressing them are the basis of their success. Place Lucan in Homer’s time, or merely in Pindar’s, have Voltaire be born under Louis IV or under Louis XI, and neither Lucan nor Voltaire will even attempt to shake the belief of their contemporaries. If they did, it would be in vain. The plaudits Edition: current; Page: [40] they obtained in their day, the praise that encouraged them, came less from their own merit than from the conformity of their teachings with those that were beginning to gain credit. They said without restraint what everyone thought. Each reader recognized himself in their writings, he admired himself in his interpreter.

It is not an arbitrary fact that peoples are devout or irreligious. Logic is a need of the mind, as religion is of the soul. No one doubts because he wants to doubt, just as no one believes because he wills to believe.

There are times when it is impossible to sow doubt; there are others when it is impossible to revive conviction.

Where do these contrary impossibilities come from?

When the intellect has progressed but the religious form remains the same, the form is no more than deceptive. The religious sentiment struggles against it. True, despite the intention of those who have it, it sometimes slips into positive religion, but the ministers of the religion detect this and fight the sentiment.

The philosophers of antiquity, up to but not including Epicurus, for the most part expressed only this tendency of the religious sentiment.2 They did not have irreligious or antireligious intentions. Their efforts to purify belief were so unhostile Edition: current; Page: [41] to religion that with great conviction they defended the ensemble of beliefs while they wanted to modify (and sometimes discard) a few details. But the positive religions know nothing of this sort of benevolence. For them reformers are enemies. The death of Socrates and the exile of Anaxagoras are well known. Two thousand years later Fénelon’s doctrine of pure love, which was nothing but the religious sentiment seeking to find a place among fixed dogmas, was condemned as a heresy.3

Persecution, however, has inevitable effects. The desire to break the vexatious yoke of a form that reveals itself to be oppressive becomes the sole purpose toward which thought works.

The imagination’s own activity, and reasoning’s subtlety, turn against what reason formerly found plausible and what imagination was formerly pleased to revere. In a word, the religious sentiment separates itself from the old form.

Then, however, the persecution intensifies. But it causes a sort of fanaticism of unbelief in the rebellious souls, one that intoxicates the enlightened portions, the superior classes, of society. Soon enough, this unbelief attacks the religious Edition: current; Page: [42] sentiment itself. Previously merely hampered by the material form of the religion, that sentiment now finds itself subject to the frontal attack that unbelief makes on religion. Just as revolutions against despotism are ordinarily followed by a period of anarchy, so too the shaking of popular beliefs is accompanied by an unchecked hatred and disdain for all religious ideas. And even though the religious sentiment continues to possess its rights even in the face of this assault, the overall appearance is that unbelief is total, that man has abjured forever anything belonging to religion. This is despite the enthusiasm for Nature, for the great Whole, that we note among the most unbelieving authors and which, truth be told, is the religious sentiment in atheism itself, reproducing itself under a different name.

But a new problem presents itself, and again it is only the distinction between sentiment and form that can resolve it.

Why does it happen that whenever positive religions are entirely discredited, men give themselves over to the most frightful superstitions?

Consider the inhabitants of the civilized world during the first three centuries of our era. Look at them as they are described by Plutarch. He was an honorable writer who would have wanted to be a believer, who sometimes imagined himself to be one, but was drawn away, despite himself, by the current of contemporary unbelief and caught the contagion of skepticism.

First of all, at that time there is skepticism, invincible in its arguments, peremptory in its denigrations, and triumphant in its ironic tone. But alongside it one finds a torrent of crude, often wild superstitions sweeping through the civilized world. The old polytheism had fallen, but another replaced it, the latter given to the occult, the somber, and the bizarre. Individuals gave themselves over to it while also being ashamed of it. The official ceremonies of the pontiffs were succeeded by the tumultuous processions of the priests of Isis, the last auxiliaries and (suspect) allies of the dying cult. They were alternatively summoned and rejected by its ministers, who despaired of their own cause. The newcomers included unruly and despised emissaries; indecent dancers; fanatical prophets; intrusive beggars; men with disheveled hair, lacerated bodies, and bloodied chests; and eunuchs deprived of the gender they had foresworn, as well as of the reason they numbed. They paraded images and even relics of divinities throughout the towns and cities. They filled the air with their cries, they astonished the crowd with their grotesque contortions and frightened it with their hideous convulsions. But remarkably, this crowd, no longer moved by the ancient pomp and ceremonies, felt its devotion Edition: current; Page: [43] revived by this troupe of crude charlatans and tricksters. All this occurred among peoples who were believed to be enlightened.4

The practices that no longer sufficed were replaced by the hideous bloodbaths of bulls. Despite the best efforts of civic magistrates, revolting rites came streaming into places of worship from the most despised peoples. Human sacrifice was reintroduced into religion and thus dishonored its fall as it had sullied its birth. The gods exchanged their elegant forms for monstrous deformities. In fact, imported from everywhere, these gods were better received the stranger they appeared. It was as a group that they were invoked, it was as a group that the imagination wanted to deal with them. Terrified of finding the heavens empty and silent, it wanted to repopulate the deserted heavens with any sort of being. Sects multiplied, individuals claiming to be inspired wandered everywhere, and political authority no longer knew how to deal with the disbelief that threatened the status quo as well as the mad doctrines that wanted to replace it. Authority contracted unavailing alliances with the priests of the undermined cults. It exhausted itself with exhortations that were more useless than pathetic. It sought to defend the past,5 but it succeeded only in maintaining deceptive appearances. Reason meanwhile disputed the future with the unexpected errors that also claimed the future as their conquest.

Nor were these errors the sole possession of the ignorant classes. Madness invaded all the ranks of society. Even the most effeminate Roman males and the most delicate females made their way face-down up the steps of the Capitol and congratulated themselves for arriving at the top with bloodied knees.6 In the palaces of emperors and in the apartments of Roman ladies one found all the monsters of Egypt, images of dogs, wolves, and sparrow hawks. Once upon a time these were symbols of creative power in the mystery religions, but now they were simultaneously Edition: current; Page: [44] objects of derision and of public veneration. They indicated the enigmatic character of the current mixture of all the gods.7

All this, however, still did not satisfy the human race. It rediscovered religious terror but sought in vain for belief, and it was of belief that it had need. The same Plutarch shows us men of every condition—rich, poor, young, old. Sometimes without any visible cause they are seized by a frantic despair, they tear their clothes and roll in the mire, crying out that they are cursed by the gods.8 Sometimes they talk about the gods in bantering and ironic tones, then they repair to obscure locations and consult with sorcerers and sellers of amulets and talismans. Sometimes they go at night to cemeteries to disinter the dead or to sacrifice infants or let them expire on tombs, so that they can read their own fate in their entrails. And finally, despite their enervated natures, braving both pain and the law, they sometimes submit their weakened bodies to incredible lacerations in order to compel the unknown power they blindly seek, in this way snatching from hell what they no longer hope to obtain from heaven.

Where did this moral disorder come from, at a time when philosophy had spread its teachings everywhere, and when enlightenment seemed to have dissipated the darkness of ignorance?

At that time, men applauded themselves for having overcome all the prejudices, errors, and fears that had previously bedeviled them—and yet every prejudice, error, and fear seemed to be unleashed. The empire of reason had been proclaimed, and the entire universe was struck by madness. All the systems were based upon calculation and appealed to self-interest, they permitted pleasure and recommended repose—and never were aberrations more shameful, human endeavors more disordered, pain and suffering more poignant. This was because in its attacks against the religious form, skepticism also attacked the sentiment that the human race cannot live without. Having emerged victorious from the battles he waged, man cast a look at the world he had created, one deprived of protective powers, and he was astonished at his victory. No longer did the excitement of battle, the thought of danger that had animated his courage, and the desire to regain contested rights sustain him. His imagination, previously preoccupied with an uncertain victory, was now released and, as it were, deserted; it turned upon itself. Man found himself alone on an earth that eventually must swallow him.

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On this earth, the generations pass one by one, transient, isolated, subject to chance. They appear, they suffer, they die: no bond connects them. No voice prolongs the existence of the previous races of men, and the voice of living ones must soon be swallowed up in the eternal silence. What will man do without memory, without hope, poised between the past that abandons him and the future that is wholly closed before him? His petitions are no longer heard; his prayers remain without answer. He has rejected all the supports with which his predecessors had surrounded themselves. He is reduced to his own powers. It is with them alone that he must confront old age, remorse, and the innumerable ills that besiege him. In this violently unnatural state, his actions constantly belied his reasonings, his fears and terrors were a constant atonement for his mockeries. One would say that he was struck with a double vertigo: sometimes insulting what he should revere, sometimes trembling before what he ought to disdain.

An eternal law that one must acknowledge, whatever opinions one might otherwise have on questions that we believe are insoluble, seems to have willed that the earth is uninhabitable when an entire generation no longer believes in a wise and benevolent power watching over men. Separated from heaven, this earth becomes a prison, and the prisoner hits his head on the ceiling and walls that contain him. The religious sentiment beats wildly against the broken forms because a form is lacking that advancing understanding could acknowledge.

Let this form appear and opinion will gather round it, morality attach itself to it, and authority, even if resistant for a time, will end by yielding. Everything returns to order, and restless spirits and troubled souls rediscover repose.

This is what happened when the Christian religion appeared. The religious sentiment took hold of this purified form. Its vague, melancholic, and touching part found asylum in Christianity at the very moment when man had acquired knowledge of the laws of physical things and the existing religion had therefore lost the support that ignorance gave it.

Under the dominion of the ancient form, religion had raised itself from earth to heaven; but its basis had eroded. By giving it a foundation, the new form caused religion to return to earth from heaven. One can consider this period as the moral resurrection of the human race. The political world remained subject to chaos, but the intellectual world was reconstituted for several centuries.

One more thing remains to be observed. At this period the religious sentiment was full of the memory of what it had suffered in the confines of a positive form. It feared in the new form everything that resembled the shackles imposed on it by Edition: current; Page: [46] the previous form. It enjoyed all its freedom. Happy to have rediscovered axioms that it believed were certain and truths that seemed undeniable to it, it savored the delights of believing, but it also rejected creeds for which it had no need, as well as practices that to it were indifferent or superfluous and hierarchies that reminded of the previous yoke that had so much injured it.

It wanted no priesthood. We are all priests, said Tertullian. We are all consecrated as such before the heavenly Father.9

It disdained the magnificence of ceremonies. It was concerned only with the infinite, universal, invisible Being, to whom every man should erect a temple in his heart.10 Wearing the humblest of clothes, and sometimes only half-covered, Christians disdained pagan pomp, the ornate decorations of sacred buildings, and pontifical vestments; they did not erect altars, they did not revere images. Tolerant because it was sincere, the religious sentiment joyfully opened admission to Heaven to all nations, to all prayers, to all times.11 It delighted in sharing its happiness Edition: current; Page: [47] with the entire human race because this happiness was purely spiritual. A time will come, though, and under a form that already was being prepared, when temporal goods would again be the objects of desire, and religion would come to be prodigious with exclusions and stingy with benefits, because its ministers became avid for gold and power.

The religious sentiment also claimed this same liberty with regard to rituals and ascetic practices. It proclaimed man freed from every man-made obligation; no one could impose upon him an artificial duty.12 No external thing could stain him, no fast was prescribed for him, no food was forbidden him.13 So much did the religious sentiment at this period of its rebirth take care to declare itself independent of forms, and so much did it fear to sully its purity by practices that likened it to the old cults it had come to disdain.

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CHAPTER 3: That the Moral Effect of Mythologies Proves the Distinction That We Just Established

It is not only in order to understand the general development of religion that one must distinguish the religious sentiment from its forms. One must also recognize the distinction in order to resolve particular questions of detail that have been unanswerable until now.

Powerful and civilized nations have worshipped gods that provided examples of all the vices. Who would not have thought that this scandalous example would corrupt the worshippers? On the contrary, as long as they remained faithful to this worship these nations presented the spectacle of the highest virtues.

That is not all. These same nations abandoned their beliefs, and it was then that they were plunged into the abyss of corruption. The Romans were chaste, austere, and disinterested when they burned incense to the pitiless Mars, to the adulterer Jupiter, to Venus the immodest, and to Mercury the protector of fraud. When they deserted the altars of their cruel or licentious deities, they showed themselves depraved in their mores, insatiable in their greed, and barbarous in their egoism.

How did this strange phenomenon arise? Do men become better by adoring vice? Do they become perverse when they cease to worship it?

No, of course not. But as long as the religious sentiment dominates the form, it exerts a reparative power. The reason for this is simple. The religious sentiment is an emotion of the same sort as all of our natural emotions. Therefore, it is always in harmony with them. It is always in accord with sympathy, pity, justice—in a word, with all the virtues.1 It follows that as long as it remains united with this religious Edition: current; Page: [49] Edition: current; Page: [50] Edition: current; Page: [51] Edition: current; Page: [52] Edition: current; Page: [53] Edition: current; Page: [54] form, the weak ones of this religion can be scandalized, its gods can be corrupt, and this form nonetheless will have a positive effect on morality.

The tales of a religion are the object of an incredulity that neither requires nor provokes reflection. They are lodged in a separate compartment of the human brain and do not interact with the rest of its ideas. Just as arithmetic is the same in India as elsewhere despite the Indian Trimurti, so morality was the same in Rome as elsewhere, despite the traditions that seemed contrary to it. The people that attributed its own origin to the love affair between Mars and a vestal virgin nonetheless inflicted the strictest punishment upon any unfaithful virgin.

Nor does the moral character of the gods have the influence one might suppose. Whatever this character, the relationship established between the gods and men is always the same. The gods’ particular misconduct does not affect this relationship, much as the misconduct of kings does not affect their laws established against the misdeeds of individuals. In Alexander the Great’s army, the Macedonian soldier convicted of murder was condemned even though his judge had assassinated Clitus. Like the great of this world, the gods have a public character and a private one. In their public character they are the supports of morality; in their private Edition: current; Page: [55] character they obey only their passions. But they do not have a relationship with men except in their public character.2 It is to this that the religious sentiment exclusively attaches itself, since it is pleased to respect and admire what it worships, even to the point of casting a veil over everything that might detract from it.

But when the sentiment separates from the form that it formerly purified by its powerful action, everything changes, even though this might not be immediately perceived. The corrupting traditions that it left in the shadows, or that it interpreted in a way to avoid their adverse consequences, reappear and add their support to depravation. Thus, in a paradoxical manner, one could say that the less man believes in the gods, the more he imitates them.

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CHAPTER 4: That This Distinction Alone Explains Why Several Religious Forms Appear to Be Enemies of Liberty, While the Religious Sentiment Is Always Favorable to It

There is another problem even more difficult to resolve, about which error is even more dangerous.

Take according to the letter the fundamental precepts of all religions, and you will find them always in accord with the most extensive principles of liberty. One could say that they extol a liberty that is so extensive that even to this day applying them has seemed impossible in political life.

But now consider the history of religions, and you will often find that the authorities they established worked in concert with earthly authorities to banish liberty. India, Ethiopia, and Egypt show us the human race subjected, decimated, and, as it were, penned in by priests. Some periods of our modern times present, albeit under somewhat more attractive traits, a hardly different spectacle. And not so long ago the most complete despotism we had known had taken hold of religion as an obliging, even zealous, auxiliary. During fourteen years of servitude religion no longer was the divine presence come down from heaven to astonish, or reform, the earth. Dependent and timid, it had bowed before the throne of power, received its orders, and passively observed its deeds, giving flattery and receiving disdain. It no longer caused ancient walls to resound with the sounds of courage and conscience. And far from instructing the great of this world about a severe God who judges kings, it sought the haughty gaze of its earthly master in the way it should have sought its God. It judged itself happy if it was not constrained to command invasions and wars in the name of a message of peace, or to undermine the sublimity of its teachings with the sophistries of politics, or to ask heaven to bless successful injustice. This would be to slander the divine by accusing it of complicity with evil.

These contradictions between the theory and practice in the majority of religious systems have accredited two opinions that can be extremely harmful and are Edition: current; Page: [57] equally false. The first is that religion is a natural ally of despotism; the second, that the absence of the religious sentiment is favorable to liberty.

Only our distinction between the sentiment of religion and its form can spare us from this double prejudice.

Considering the religious sentiment in itself, and independently of all the forms it can assume, it is obvious that it contains no principle or any element of servitude.

Liberty, equality, and justice (which is but equality) are, to the contrary, its favorite ideas. The creatures who have emerged from the hands of a god whose goodness directs his power, who are subject to the same physical destiny and endowed with the same moral faculties ought to enjoy the same rights.

By studying the epochs when the religious sentiment triumphed, one sees that in every one liberty was its companion.

In the midst of universal servitude under the Roman emperors, whose thirst for absolute power had degraded them even below their slaves (which is saying something), the first Christians resurrected the noble doctrines of equality and fraternity among all men.1 In another case, nothing was more independent (we would say: more democratic) than the Arabs when Islam was in its first fervor.2 Protestantism saved Germany from universal monarchy under Charles V. Present-day England owes to it its constitution.

The absence of religious sentiment, on the other hand, favors tyranny’s pretensions. If the destinies of the human race are handed over to the vicissitudes of blind material fatalism, is it surprising that they often fall into the hands of the most unfit, the most cruel or despicable of human beings? If the rewards of virtue and the punishment of crime are only the vain illusions of weak and timid imaginations, why, then, should we complain when crime is rewarded or virtue proscribed? If life at bottom is only a strange and transient appearance, without Edition: current; Page: [58] a future, without a past, and so short that one would believe that it is hardly real, why should we sacrifice ourselves for principles whose realization is in the future? It would be better to profit from each present hour, uncertain as we are that the next will come, and enjoy pleasure as long as it is possible. Thus, closing our eyes before the inevitable abyss of death, we should prostrate ourselves and, rather than resisting, give ourselves over to servitude, perhaps making ourselves masters if we can or slaves if that place is occupied, becoming betrayers rather than betrayed, torturers rather than victims.

The period when the religious sentiment disappears from the souls of men is always close to the time of their subjection. Religious peoples can be slaves, but no irreligious people have remained free. Liberty cannot establish itself, nor can it preserve itself, without disinterestedness, and every morality in which the religious sentiment is lacking can base itself only on calculation. In order to defend liberty, one must know how to sacrifice one’s life, and what is more than life for the one who sees in death only his annihilation? Thus, when despotism joins forces with the absence of religious sentiment, humanity is left prostrate in the dust; everywhere force is deployed. In their disdain for everything connected with religious ideas, men who styled themselves enlightened are seeking a miserable recompense for their slavery. One would say that their certainty that another world does not exist is their consolation for their shame in this one.

Nor should one think that what we call enlightenment gains by this. When the inquisitor’s whip is raised, this unbelieving host returns to the foot of the altars on its knees, and while leaving the temples, atheism joins itself to hypocrisy. What a deplorable condition for a nation arrived at this state! It asks nothing from authority but wealth, from the law only impunity. It separates action from speech, speech from thought. It believes itself free to betray its own opinion, provided that it can congratulate itself on its indifference to its own duplicity. It considers force as legitimating everything that it pleases. Flattery, calumny, and ignobility pretend to be innocent by claiming to be commanded. By declaring himself compelled to act, everyone regards himself as being thereby absolved. Created by heaven for magnanimous resistance, courage makes itself the executor of unworthy decrees. One risks his life not to overcome oppressors but to kill victims. One fights heroically for causes one disdains. Dishonorable speech goes from mouth to mouth, idle noise, which because it does not come from any real source, nowhere imparts conviction, allowing truth and justice no expression that is not gravely marred. The mind, the basest of instruments when it is separated from conscience, still proud of Edition: current; Page: [59] its miserable flexibility, elegantly parades itself in the midst of the general degradation. People laugh about their own servitude and their own corruption without being any less enslaved, any less corrupt. And this sort of joke, lacking both judgment and limits, is itself the truly ridiculous symptom of an incurable degradation.

When a nation has for a long time suffered a religion that in itself is defective, or is disfigured by its ministers, the friends of liberty can become unbelievers, and often these unbelievers are the most distinguished men of the country. When a vexatious government has maintained by force the superstition which supports its injustices, the friends of liberty can become unbelievers, and these unbelievers can then become heroes and martyrs. Their virtues, though, are based on the memory of another teaching. It is a noble incoherence in their system, the heritage of the religious sentiment. They owe their internal strength to this inheritance.

Is not this sentiment the refuge where, above the action of time and beyond the reach of vice, the ideas come together which are the true worship of all virtuous men on earth? Is it not the center where the grand tradition of what is good, great, and noble is preserved across the baseness and iniquity of the centuries? Does it not speak to virtue in its own language when the discourse of everyone around it is that of baseness and servility? When the friends of liberty are deprived of these consolations and this hope, their souls always try to regrasp the support denied them. Raised on the maxims of Epicurus, like him denying any existence after this life, in the midst of his great struggles Cassius invoked the shade of the great Pompey. And in his last conversation with Brutus he said: “Yes, it would be beautiful if there were genii who take an interest in human affairs. It would be beautiful if we were strengthened in such a noble and holy cause not only by our infantrymen and our fleet, but also by the assistance of immortals.”3

This is the invariable tendency of the religious sentiment. Between it and liberty, between the absence of this sentiment and tyranny there is an identical nature, a principle of homogeneity.

But something of an opposite nature sometimes enters into religious forms. A spiritual authority, born from the need of establishing regular communications between heaven and earth, may ally with political power. Religion that had proclaimed the liberty and equality of all too often becomes the auxiliary of someone’s tyranny.

Note the following, though: even then, it is not truly religious men who sign Edition: current; Page: [60] this pact. The members of the priestly bodies in Egypt that tyrannized the people, or which in other countries, Persia for example, lent their support to political oppression, did not regard the cult they abused as a divine thing, which they then abused. The religious sentiment had nothing to do with this abuse. One does not compromise things one believes to be divine.

Thus, to resolve this question, as well as all others, one has to distinguish the religious sentiment from the forms that make it visible.

Far from being the author of the evil that certain forms of worship can cause men, this sentiment is the victim. Far from sanctioning these oppressive forms, it rejects them and protests against them.

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CHAPTER 5: That the Triumph of Emerging Beliefs over Older Ones Is a Proof of the Difference between the Religious Sentiment and Religious Forms

Last of all we ask each reader of good faith, if one does not admit the difference between the religious sentiment and the religious form, how can one explain the immense advantage that new forms have in the struggle with those worn by time?

Let us return to the period that has already provided us numerous examples.

Two religions disputed the universe.

One was supported by authority; it was strong with ten centuries of continuous existence. Better put: its origin was lost in the mists of time. Poets had embellished it, philosophers had purified it, it had cast far from itself everything that might shock reason.1 It was the religion of all civilized nations; it was the authorized cult of the dominant people.

The other had neither the protection of authority nor the support of ancient traditions. Poetry gave it no ornamentation. It was not accompanied by philosophy’s brilliance. It certainly had not contracted an alliance with the imposing profundities of metaphysics. It was born in an obscure country, among a people odious to the rest of humanity (even among them, from the least respectable portion of that people); hence it was an object of universal disdain.

Who would not believe that the first religion must triumph over the second? All enlightened men thought so; all smiled when rumor brought to their attention the existence of a few fanatics who were scattered, unknown, and persecuted.

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How did it happen that the event overcame these proud predictions? It was because, separated from the former form, the religious sentiment had sought refuge in the new one. And why? Because despite the purifications the ancient form had received, it still recalled the epochs that the sentiment now rejected, especially the vices and imperfections of the former times. The names of these gods were attached to the memories of crudeness and ignorance. Shaken from every direction by human investigations, it had lost its charm and had become, as it were, profane. The new form, on the other hand, was devoid of every noxious memory. The name of its founder and of the God it taught recalled no previous epoch that had harmed the religious sentiment. That sentiment therefore gave itself enthusiastically to the new form. It adopted its banner; it was by the mouth of its followers that it spoke. They owed to it that consciousness of strength and the certainty in their speech that contrasted so strikingly with the timidity and hesitation of their opponents’ language. The apostles of the new form went forward surrounded by miracles, which were undeniable by the sole fact that those who affirmed them were full of an unshakeable conviction. The defenders of the old form based themselves upon wonders that they themselves doubted, worn copies of no longer imitable models. The former made fearless use of both faith and reason, of reason against their opponents, of faith for their own teaching. Engaging in philosophical dialectics, they did not fear to compromise a cause that could not be undermined by such reasoning. Their attack-weapon was critical examination, their banner a deep and personal conviction. The others hesitated between a reason that threatened them and an enthusiasm that paled before the one opposed to it. The skepticism they wished to direct against their adversaries turned against them, and because they were not firm in their belief they were timid in their refutations. Their apologies were marked by condescension, by avowals that were first extorted, then retracted, with insinuations that allowed others to see that the religion they recommended was intended only for the weak, and that the strong could do without it. To be sure, they placed themselves in the camp of the strong, but one is a poor missionary when one places oneself above one’s own profession of faith.

One could believe that they were zealous for yet another reason. They were moved by their interest, while the martyrs of the other side were far from the time when the victory of their faith would procure personal advantages to those who espoused it. But disinterestedness is the first of powers. In areas when it is necessary to persuade and convince, obvious self-interest weakens rather than strengthens one’s case.

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So, please note how all these ideas congregated around the religious sentiment and, obedient to its least indication, were modified, even transformed, to serve it. In the older belief that philosophy had subjugated, man had been lowered to the rank of an imperceptible atom in the immensity of the universe. The new form made him the center of a world that had been created for him. He was at once the work and the aim of God. The philosophical notion is, perhaps, truer, but how much more is the other one full of warmth and life! And from another point of view it possesses a yet higher and more sublime truth. If one locates grandeur in what really constitutes it, there is more grandeur in a proud thought, in a profound emotion, in an act of devotion, than in all the mechanisms of the celestial spheres.

Thus see the older form constantly propose exchanges and deals with its rival, and how these offers were met with disdainful refusal. What a remarkable thing! Looking only from the outside it was strength that hesitated and weakness that wanted the battle. This was because true force was entirely on the side of apparent weakness. The ancient form was dead; it aspired only to the peace of the dead. The new form wanted to fight and conquer because, being full of the religious sentiment, it had reanimated the life of the soul and had awoken the skeletons in the tombs.

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CHAPTER 6: On the Way in Which Religion Has Been Envisaged until Now

If we now apply the previous reflections to the way in which religion has been envisaged until now, you will not be surprised that almost all those who have engaged this vast topic have been misled. In general, three groups have emerged, who fell into grave errors because they mistook the nature and the progressive development of the religious sentiment.1

The first group considers religion to be inaccessible to man by his own lights and efforts; it is communicated to him by the Supreme Being in a positive and unchanging manner. Religion suffers diminishment only when it is modified by the human spirit. Therefore, when this occurs it must be brought back as much as possible to its original state, to its primitive purity. Shaken beliefs at all costs must be shored up. However, this view did not ask if such an endeavor is in the power of any existing authority. History reveals that all precautions in this vein were useless, all rigors powerless. Socrates drinking the hemlock, Aristotle fleeing Athens, Diogoras outlawed—none of this halted Athens’s unbelief. Greek philosophy came to Rome. Initially chased from Rome, it soon returned and triumphed. And the austerity of Louis XIV’s old age only prepared France for an even greater, more open, and bolder irreligion.

The second group was rightly sensitive to the evils produced by fanaticism and intolerance. However, it saw only falsehood in religion, sometimes quite vulgar, sometimes sophisticated, sometimes rather material, sometimes more abstract, but always more or less harmful. This perspective concluded that it was desirable to Edition: current; Page: [65] found morality on a wholly mundane basis, and to extirpate the religious sentiment. Had it consulted human experience, however, it would have seen that religion is always being reborn at the very moment when enlightenment proudly thinks it has killed it. Juvenal wrote that only children believe in another life. However, at the same time an unknown sect arose in the empire, its eyes fixed on a world to come, and the present world became its conquest. If religion is necessary to us, if a faculty is found in us that demands to be employed, if our imagination needs to transcend the limits that enclose us, if the suffering and troubled dimensions of our being need a world they can make use of and embellish, in vain would one reproach religion for its drawbacks or its dangers. Necessity will always conquer prudence. The one who can no longer inhabit the land must confront the waves, no matter how littered with reefs the ocean may be.

Finally, the third group takes what it believes to be the golden mean between the two extremes. They acknowledge only what they call natural religion, which they reduce to the purest dogmas and the simplest notions. But this group differs from the other two groups, the orthodox and the unbelievers, not by their path but only by their goal. Like the others, they believe that man can be put in possession of an absolute truth, hence that he can remain always the same, totally stationary. Whoever maintains these dogmas possesses this truth. But whoever falls short of them by his unbelief, or goes beyond them by acknowledging miraculous revelations, is equally mistaken.

With these three perspectives, we can say that until now no one has considered religion under its true aspect. A glance at the religious and the anti-religious writings of France, England, and Germany will provide irrefutable proofs of this claim.

Before the eighteenth century all the works published in France by the defenders of the different religious communities were dedicated to the victory of their own sect. However, they all shared an underlying consensus that ruled out the fundamental questions or dispensed them from raising them.

A fruitful source of disputes, heresy was seen by Catholics as a voluntary fault and was treated as a crime.2 The adherents of this view agreed with their opponents on the basics and contested only some of their consequences.

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Even more discredited than heresy (although less persecuted), unbelief was rejected by a French public opinion drawing, on one hand, on the lively interest stirred by the wars of religion, and, on the other, on the prestige of a king who had made belief fashionable and a means of advancement.

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When Bossuet thundered against the pagans in his History or prosecuted Protestants in his Polemics, he appeared as a judge condemning the guilty rather than as an impartial narrator of events or a calm examiner of various doctrines. And when he directed his blows against unbelievers it was verdicts he issued, verdicts, to be sure, that were accompanied by arguments, but arguments in which authority played a much greater role than reasoning.

Far be it from us, though, to diminish the real merit of a great man. If the perspective in which Bossuet viewed religion necessarily lacked impartiality and scope, it was admirable in its nobility and elevation. In his mouth religion spoke a dignified and proud language, one it, sadly, has abandoned since then. Despite the orator himself, led (perhaps even overcome) by his own genius, the last sparks of liberty found refuge in his eloquence. What he did not say to an absolute monarch in the name of the fundamental laws and the people’s true interest, he said in the name of the God before whom all creatures return to their original equality.3

Nonetheless, while rendering justice to a writer whose panegyrists praise only what is violent and hateful in his works, we believe that we can say that nothing Bossuet has left us—and a fortiori, nothing left us in the other works of the century—can be usefully applied to the new questions we have raised. This includes anything concerning the distinction between the substance and the forms of religion, the development of religious ideas, the gradual changes in beliefs, as well as those successive and irresistible improvements found in mankind’s religious experience. These questions were unknown, and completely foreign, to the earlier religious debates.

After Louis XIV the scene changed. Freed from the authority of an old king and from the etiquette of an old court, France launched itself on the path of license. This was the natural effect of a longtime repression. Madame de Prie succeeded Madame de Maintenon, and ecclesiastical honors went from Bossuet to DuBois. Unbelief emerged from hypocrisy’s tomb.

To be clear, I am not simply presenting the unbelievers of the last century as the heirs of the orgies of the Regency. Nobler motives inspired many of them. A slow but sure reaction prepared itself over a long period of time. The Saint Bartholomew Day’s Massacre had repulsed everyone. The murders of Henry III and Henry IV Edition: current; Page: [68] had stirred opinion against religious assassination. Then Louis XIV succeeded in enlisting all the sentiments of mankind against priestly oppression. He did so by means of the cruelties that accompanied the revoking of the Edict of Nantes. He did so by ordering the stationing of troops, by confiscations, by torturing fathers and incarcerating mothers, and by kidnapping children. The philosophers’ indignation against him was both just and sincere. But even this anger and the works it inspired, the sorts of associations they formed to wage war against the doctrines they accused of so many crimes and evils—all these things inculcated in them the spirit of a sect. And everywhere this spirit dominates, it employs the same means.

Voltaire had said that it is better to strike hard than to strike justly. And all his imitators, a great and active throng who ran from the literary heights to the most obscure ranks, raged against religion. They did so with a fury that was almost always the inverse of the learning they possessed and the talents at their disposal.

In some circumstances Voltaire’s maxim is useful. While violent persecutions had ceased, less obvious ones remained to be overcome. Every means seemed legitimate to inspire horror at any sort of persecution. But disarming fanaticism is not the same as adequately understanding and appreciating the religious sentiment. From these tactics came an insulting and sarcastic way of talking about something dear to the majority of human beings. And while this style is always certain to attain momentary success in an old and corrupt nation, it necessarily inspires disgust in refined and sensitive souls—those who are a powerful if unnoticed minority, who will always end up laying down the law even in the midst of general decadence.

Those philosophers who, even while they attacked the existing religion wanted to preserve the principles serving as the basis of all religion, considered the principles only in their most ignoble and crudest version, as a supplement to criminal laws. Reading their writings, one sees that they wanted religion to serve them immediately, as a sort of police force; they wanted religion to help guarantee their property and their lives, to discipline their children and maintain good order in their marriages. They are so utilitarian that they seem to fear believing for nothing.4 They want religion to repay them for believing in it.

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This narrow and partial way of looking at religion has several drawbacks.

Just as by seeking in the beauties of nature immediate utility, and their direct application to society, one tarnishes all the charms of this magnificent spectacle, so too one degrades religion by seeing only what is useful in it. Secondly, practical utility does not at all imply the truth of the theory, and men are not more religious because they are told that religion is useful; one does not believe in utility. Finally, the social utility of religion serves as a pretext for rulers to violate the consciences of the governed. In arguing this way, authors give unbelieving peoples masters who persecute them.

This need for immediate and, as it were, purely material utility is the characteristic vice of our national spirit.5 It has some advantages, to be sure. It gives greater regularity and more coherence to the concatenation of ideas. People walk more directly to the goal and do not lose sight of it. But when one examines every question in only one way, one runs the risk of failing to see all of its aspects. In following this path, one rejects all involuntary sentiments, impressions, and emotions. They, however, are sometimes exactly what is needed to cause strict reasoning to take another look; sometimes they possess the key that logic by itself does not.

Three authors, however, sometimes rose above this narrow and degrading view. One we have already spoken of: Fénelon. We saw, however, that he was stopped in his tracks by the authority of the Catholic Church, which indicted him for having maintained that man can love God with a pure and disinterested love. The second author was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Some of his writings are imbued with a genuine religious sentiment that is pure, disinterested, entirely devoid of ulterior motives. But Rousseau was complicated. He teemed with a thousand contradictory thoughts, and he combined them in confused and discordant ways. This was as true of religion as of politics. He who was the most positive and affirmative of men was also the most impatient with the affirmations of others. He shook everything, not because he wanted to destroy everything, as some have said, but because everything seemed to him out of its proper place. With prodigious force he shook the foundations and toppled the columns upon which human existence had rested, for good and for ill, until then. But he was a poor architect, and he could not construct Edition: current; Page: [70] a new edifice from these scattered materials. Only destruction resulted from his efforts, and from the destruction a chaos that still bears his mark.

Lastly, Montesquieu—more by his penetrating mind than by his soul—would have been able to shed new light on religion. There was no subject he approached without detecting many new truths. And since all truths are connected, he advanced truth. Ascending from the facts that he discerned and put forth with admirable sagacity, he rose to the cause common to these numerous effects. Turning to religion, he might have been able to detect the general principle in the midst of its infinitely varied modifications. But besides the fact that even a genius can surpass his century only to a certain extent, in the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu examined religion only tangentially, as it were. He said only what he had to say. Reading this great work of the eighteenth century one gets the impression that the author dismissed a host of ideas that presented themselves to him as being beside his purpose.

The French Revolution occurred because we had too much enlightenment to live any longer under arbitrary authority. It lost its way, however, because we did not have enough enlightenment to profit from freedom. The Revolution unshackled a multitude totally unprepared by any experience or reflection for the sudden emancipation they experienced. It quickly transformed itself into a merely material force, one without rule or brake, directed against all the institutions whose imperfections had provoked it.

Religion became the object of a detestable persecution. Then, what followed had to follow: the reaction was as strong as the original action had been unjust and violent. Among contemporary authors in France, many present themselves as defenders of religion. They, however, are no less ignorant of history than their predecessors, the demagogues. No less obtuse concerning what history teaches about the consequences of all tyrannical measures, they propose the old strictures that failed under François I, Philippe II, Mary of England, and Louis XIV. Pitiful sophists, they betray both governments and peoples!

Thus, religion has always been treated in France in a partial, and often in a superficial, way. It has been defended with virulent pedantry and attacked with indiscriminate hostility.

What about England? There, did religion find less obstinate partisans or more equitable opponents?

Thanks to a fortunate set of circumstances, even though established by force under Henry VIII, because of the cruelties of Mary and the fruitless efforts of the Edition: current; Page: [71] Stuarts, Protestantism became identified with the constitution that was England’s glory for so long. In addition, however, there also resulted from this that religion, more so than in any other enlightened country, became a dogmatic matter6 immune to all free and impartial discussion.

Warburton, Hurd, and Tillotson possessed the domineering spirit of Bossuet but without his genius. The English Church was for them what the Catholic Church was for the bishop of Meaux, with this difference, that intolerance is even more absurd in their case. By denying others the right to be heretics, they abdicated their own right to be Protestants. Writers in England of a lesser order generally have more classical learning than our theologians, but their perspective is no broader. They understand no better the animating spirit of ancient times or foreign peoples. Nor is their thought more liberal, while their logic runs in the same vicious circle.

To be sure, the English sectarians have shed some light on the first Christian centuries. Every controversy generates some light. But these dissidents (who are as subject as the defenders of orthodoxy to the dogmatic spirit that characterizes the entire nation) do not depart from the narrow circle traced by dogmas. They fight over their interpretation. Even here, though, all the parties share common presuppositions, so no one addresses more fundamental matters and primary truths. Their dispute is over how far to go in developing principles they all agree to be true.

Unbelievers are looked down on more in England than elsewhere because the English recall that one of the means Charles II used to destroy the nation’s liberty was to ridicule religion. Among the unbelievers, Collins, Tindall, Woolston, and later Toulmin occupy a lesser rank. We intentionally omitted Hobbes. Religion appeared to Hobbes as a means of tyranny, and he publicly massaged it without believing it. He cannot be considered religion’s friend, because he dishonored it, nor as its enemy, because he recommended it. Toland owes whatever is meritorious in his thought to Spinoza. Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Cherbury, and Hume are the Edition: current; Page: [72] only writers in this category who have real value. But they all also have the defects of the French thinkers: an imperious tone, epigrammatic utterances, bitterness, malevolent insinuations, deliberately distorted facts, and artfully mutilated narratives.

In his Natural History of Religion, Hume showed a good deal of wit but little profound learning. His irony is effective because of its apparent mildness, and his sallies often hit their mark. But the work is nonetheless quite unworthy of its serious subject.

With a sometimes treacherous adroitness, which he used when he thought he could get away with it, Gibbon spoiled his immense learning, his tireless research, and the often remarkable subtlety of his views. He did so as well by a complete lack of sympathy for enthusiasm. Sympathy for it, however, is the necessary condition for describing a young religion. And, finally, he did so by a revolting indifference toward both misfortune and courage.

Thomas Paine only reproduced in a commonplace and often crude style the shallow metaphysics of Baron Holbach. Embracing a widespread error, he saw in religion only an enemy of the freedom he cherished (without, however, understanding freedom). Because he exaggerated the principles of liberty, he misunderstood the nature of religion.

Even though Godwin is much more profound and ingenious than Paine in developing his sometimes utopian political ideas, when it comes to religion he barely goes beyond Paine. Dominated by the prejudices of a vulgar philosophy, he abdicated his characteristic penetration. In his attacks against an indestructible sentiment, he appeared to be ignorant of the human heart, which in many ways he was able to describe with remarkable fidelity.

Between the two, religious dogmatism and violent (or frivolous) unbelief divide the minds of England. But neither speaks to the human soul. And the essence of religion is found in neither the subtleties of dogma nor the abstractions of unbelief.

Looking closer at the religious attitudes of the two countries we just surveyed, one can detect a certain likeness, although one must look closely. The English sects are limited in their religious aspirations by the letter of the dogmas they wish to retain. The upcoming generation in France, which is beginning to experience a need for religion, is doubly inhibited. On one hand, by a tradition of unbelief that has become a kind of philosophical dogma, one they do not dare abandon, and, on the other, by the unfortunate alliance of religion and politics. These causes inhibit among us and among our neighbors the development of the religious sentiment.

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Protestant Germany presents a better scene. Almost all the Germans have the great merit, or great good fortune, of recognizing a fundamental truth without which one discovers nothing true nor establishes anything good. This truth is that everything in man is progressive. None of his ideas remains fixed; they develop even despite resistance, coming to light through various obstacles. At the end of any significant interval of time they are found to have undergone modification, having received essential improvements.

Of all truths, this is the one most rejected in France. We have a certain self-complacency, which at any given time makes us believe that we have arrived at perfection, and therefore the human race should stop and admire us.

Germans are less content, less satisfied with themselves in the present, and less envious of future generations. They know that each generation is placed at some point on a great continuum in order to draw profit from what came before and to prepare what is to be done later. Social, political, and religious forms appear to them as they are: indispensable supports for man, but which must be modified when he changes. This attitude by itself is an excellent criterion for judging religion.

For the past century, a particular circumstance has confirmed them in this attitude and caused them to make progress on this path.

Previously, Protestantism in Germany was what it still is in England: a belief-system as dogmatic as the Catholicism from which the reformers broke. The ministers of the two main dissident communions forgot that their leaders could not justify their reforms except by proclaiming freedom of belief in matters of worship. They rose indignantly against the limits laid down by the Roman Church. But in an absurd and cruel contradiction—one for which their leaders had provided the model—they claimed to be authorized to propose no less arbitrary ones. They demanded liberty for themselves but refused it to their enemies. They railed against the injustice and folly of intolerance, and they made use of both.

Frederick II ascended to the throne. The literature of his country was in its infancy. He granted all his favors to French letters. Excepting Voltaire, who could not live for long in an atmosphere of patronage and dependency, these writers were second-rate, even mediocre. Vain, ambitious, and second-rate, as are all those who condescend to become the entourage of power, they had founded their reputation in France on glib unbelief and were totally lacking a spirit of serious investigation. Depending upon how you look at it, seriousness of purpose either motivates or excuses unbelief. In any event, called to a foreign court, they brought with them this unbelief, the instrument of their success. Therefore Christianity saw itself under Edition: current; Page: [74] constant assault from this philosophical monarch, his sycophants, and their eager imitators. All the sides of the faith which appeared weak were ruthlessly exposed; all legends were mercilessly ridiculed.

A few German writers, much superior to their French models, joined this audacious, impious order. From among them came the Wieland-school in poetry, the school of Nicolai in prose, and Lessing himself. We would be embarrassed to compare him to the Marquis d’Argens and La Metrie in terms of good faith, learning, and genius, but sometimes he resembled them. The vexations by authority in several German principalities furnished the adversaries of religion more than pretexts. Professors denounced for their views and preachers persecuted for heterodoxy indicated the need for more intellectual freedom. And the hatred generated by the persecutions extended to the ideas that the persecutors claimed to vindicate.

But the German spirit finally repudiated both of these sterile dogmatic approaches. It is naturally meditative, too serious to be distracted for long by such superficiality, too sincere to sacrifice what it deems true to applause. The German character itself inclines to enthusiasm, and it finds happiness in religion—as in love—only in exaltation and reverie. It therefore rejected the two quarreling parties, one advancing as proofs only sarcasms that every equitable judge knew were unjust, the other propounding as facts what every learned man knew were not so.

As a result, many defenders of threatened belief presented themselves. Because of the liberty of writing and publishing that Frederick allowed, the new apologists of religion made their case, each in his own way. Thus there was an army, but one without a general and with all-important differences among the troops.

Some attached themselves to the old system and propped it up as much as they could on the old supports of miracles and prophecy. Others renounced these means and restricted themselves to the purely moral aspect of religion, casting into the shadows the historical, traditional, and, especially, the miraculous parts.

This did not occur at once, however. This was an honorable retreat, with each post successively abandoned, the better to preserve all the others. What were later called improvements at the time appeared to be sacrifices.

Then Frederick died. Now authority adopted a policy toward religion contrary to his. It wanted to reunite under a common banner all the different theologians. Those who refused to do so came under attack from those who had remained faithful to the old doctrines. Their previous modifications were termed crimes, their previous sacrifices were called apostasy. You have extreme parties in religion just as you do in politics. Edicts of persecution appeared, apparently dictated from the tomb.

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In this way many zealous supporters of Christianity were declared to be enemies. They did not accept this title, though. From their efforts to defend themselves, combined with the impossibility to reprise the doctrines they had disavowed (or simply left behind), emerged a system which contained the germ of an idea we believe is eminently just.

In this system, man, having emerged from the hands of the supreme power, was guided by the divine from his first steps. But the creator proportioned his assistance to the condition and faculties of his creatures. The Jewish religion led the Hebrews to the point where they were capable of a purified faith. Christianity then replaced the Law of Moses. The Reformation made Christianity compatible with the Enlightenment to come in the next century. Other improvements will some day come to reform the Reformation.7

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We will leave to the side the supernatural aspects acknowledged by this system, aspects that will fail to satisfy the devout and will displease the philosophers. But, as we said, it contains the germ of a new and important thought, one we will develop in a moment. For now we need to finish our investigation into Germany’s religious condition.

The system we just sketched is consoling and noble. There was only one more step to take to rid religion of that narrow and threatening tendency which consists in supposing truth to be a gift of chance or caprice and condemns to eternal damnation those who without any fault of their own are deprived of it.8

However, lacking all historical, metaphysical, and moral proofs, and stamped with anthropomorphism, the weak spot of all beliefs, this system could hardly satisfy the mind which demands demonstrations nor a certain sentiment of the heart. This sentiment loves to clothe the Being it adores with infinite benevolence and goodness. Propose faith as a matter of revelation, it can triumph over objections and doubts; and the most bellicose prophet has proclaimed a very similar idea as the source of his divine mission. But as something proposed by man to man, like all other human inventions it had to float in the ocean of conjectures that surrounded it, only to reappear when oblivion had given it an air of novelty.

At the end of a few years, the Germans went beyond this hypothesis and embraced another, broader one. In some respects it was more satisfactory.

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Since we have to explain it in a few words, we beg the French reader’s pardon for the vagueness he may experience at first. It will go away, we hope, and we also hope he will see that the fog contains a clear idea.

The advocates of the new system say that religion is the universal language of nature but expressed in different signs, doctrines, symbols, and rites. All peoples, or at least the enlightened class among them, the priests, spoke this language. The differences one observes are only temporary anomalies, unimportant forms, that the one who desires to understand and judge religion must set aside in order to enter into the mysterious vital center in which they all converge.

This newer point of view, the one through which learned Germans view religion today, has been of immense utility. To it we owe admirable discoveries concerning the relations of religions among themselves, concerning peoples’ interactions, and the common thread among mythologies. To it we owe the knowledge we have of antiquity, both in its depths and in its charms. Our savants have studied the monuments, records, and traditions of long-ago times much as geologists study the earth or zoologists the skeletons of extinct species. The Germans have rediscovered the nature of man in these traditions and monuments. This nature is always the same, although diversified. Consequently, it must be the living basis for every investigation and for all systems of explanation. In the writings of Fréret, Dupuis, and Sainte-Croix, Greece and the Orient resemble dessicated mummies. Under the pens of Creuzer and Goerres, these same mummies become elegant and admirable statues worthy of Praxiteles and Pheidias.

Everything serves the intellect in its eternal search. Systems are instruments by which man discovers the truth about details while being mistaken about the whole. When the systems are superseded, truths remain.

Moreover, there is a just side to this hypothesis, one that appeals to the religious sentiment chased from its haunts and seeking a refuge. Moreover, this occurs at a time when dogmatic unbelief inspires a sort of fatigue among us. I predict we will soon enough see it arrive in France and replace the narrow and arid system of Dupuis. This will be a triumph of the imagination and in some respects a gain for science.9

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However, its adherents seem to have misunderstood a connected truth, without which this system will suffer from the defect characteristic of all systems.

Without doubt, religion is the language in which nature speaks to man. But this language varies; it has not been the same in every epoch, whether coming from the people’s mouths or the enlightened classes that governed them. Religion for both classes is subject to a regular progression. Priests obey it, as well as the tribes they dominate. This progression is more mysterious in the priestly doctrines because under the priestly yoke everything is more mysterious. Sometimes, too, it is slower, because the priests do everything to slow it down. But for all that it is no less inevitable and determined by fixed laws, which have their origin in the human heart.

One is therefore mistaken when, instead of seeing a purer teaching as the result of the labors and the progress (in a word, the moral and intellectual amelioration) of the human race, one supposes that this or that doctrine came before all the other ones for no particular reason, or when it is placed at a time when man in fact was incapable of conceiving it, simply in order to protect the honor of the priestly caste. These priests, however, even though more learned (and, above all, craftier) than the mass of people, were very far from being able to rise to the level of certain ideas that could only be the result of constant efforts, accumulated discoveries, and uninterrupted meditation.

To want to make religion something immutable and veiled only to the vulgar, to hope that one will discover this single natural language and that, then, the cults, dogmas, and symbols of all the nations will reveal themselves as parts of this sacred language, is to be captive to an empty hope. It is not in these symbols or in the doctrines that this unity can be found. But if you penetrate into the nature of man, you will gain access to the unique source of all religions and the germ of all the modifications they undergo.

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CHAPTER 7: The Plan of the Work

The sketch we just provided of the different ways in which religion has been considered up until now seems to us to prove that there is an important lacuna in the treatment of this subject. In this work we have tried to fill it in as much as our powers allowed.

In doing so, we have not declared war on any doctrine; we have not attacked the divinity of any faith. But we have thought that we could respectfully set aside the thornier questions connected with religion and begin with an obvious fact. That fact? That the religious sentiment is an essential attribute, an inherent quality, of our nature.1

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We studied the forms that this sentiment can assume. We found them necessarily commensurate with the situation of the individuals or peoples who profess a religion. Is it not obvious that the primitive human being who is solely occupied with subsistence cannot have the same religious notions as a civilized one? When society is established, but the physical laws of the world are unknown, is it not understandable that natural forces would be objects of worship? But at a more advanced period when the laws of physical nature are better known, adoration retreats to the plane of morality. Later still, when the causal relations in the moral order are known, religion retreats to metaphysics and spirituality. Later still, when the subtleties of metaphysics are abandoned as powerless to explain anything, it is in the sanctuary of our soul that religion finally finds its impregnable asylum.

This therefore was our first principle. We said: since civilization is progressive, religious forms must be tied to this progression. History confirmed us in this first result of our researches.

We next examined what were the different periods of this progressive development. We noticed that each religious form divides into three distinct periods.

Man first of all runs toward a religion. That is, in accord with his instinct and level of intellectual development, he seeks to discover the relations between him and invisible powers. When he believes he has discovered them, he gives them a determinate and regular form.

Having provided in this way for this first necessity of his nature, he develops and perfects his other faculties. But these very developments render the form he had given to his religious ideas unsuitable to his subsequently developed faculties.

At this point the destruction of the form is inevitable. The polytheism of the Iliad is unsuitable to the century of Pericles. In his tragedies Euripides makes himself the spokesman for the naissant irreligion.

Now, if the disappearance of the former belief is inhibited by existing institutions—and this is the natural course of things—this artificial prolongation is only a matter of inertia; the human race then seems deprived of life. Enthusiasm and real faith desert religion. There are only formulas, practices, and priests left.

But this unnatural condition cannot last. A struggle ensues, not only between the established religion and the intellect it offends, but between the religion and the sentiment it no longer satisfies.

This struggle leads to the third period: the destruction of the old form, followed by crises of total unbelief. These are disordered and sometimes terrible moments, but they are unavoidable when man must be liberated from what has become a Edition: current; Page: [81] shackle. These crises are always followed by a form of religious ideas better adapted to the faculties of the human spirit, and religion itself emerges younger, purer, and lovelier from its ashes.

From his most primitive state man follows this path. But he does encounter obstacles of various kinds along the way. Among them there are some that are external and some that are internal.

The internal ones are, first, his ignorance; then the domination of his senses and domination by the objects that surround him; his own egoism; and, finally, his own reason, at least in certain respects.

There is in reason when it is separated from sentiment what I could call a material part, one that opposes all élans of the soul.2 We saw earlier that it cannot account for any of our intimate emotions. To apply it to religion, with its coolness and inherent limitations, is to apply arithmetic to poetry. One denatures reason and falsifies it when applying it outside its sphere. In our daily lives it shows us very well the obstacles and pitfalls before us. But turned toward heaven it is only an earthbound torch, one that obscures the splendor of the stars.3

The external obstacles are, first, the calamities which by troubling the physical Edition: current; Page: [82] existence of man, retard his moral progress; and, second, the various interests that lead other men to cause him, willingly or not, to take the opposite path.

Man is thus placed among three opposing forces which contend for control. One could say that heaven calls him from on high, earth retains him below, and his fellow human beings attend to him horizontally. Nonetheless, even in the midst of the various obstacles he must overcome, he advances in conformity to the impulse his nature imparts to him. His progress is set; it is necessary. It can be contravened or suspended for a time, but over the long term nothing can give him a different orientation.

This is the series of ideas, or rather facts, that we propose to prove. If we are successful, the result will be salutary in several ways.

Since religion is inherent in human nature and always reemerges under a new form when the previous one is broken, and since religion naturally adjusts itself to the developments and progress of each epoch, it follows that philosophers, while working to purify religious ideas, ought to renounce any effort to fight against the religious sentiment, to try to destroy what is indestructible. On the other hand, authority neither can nor ought to try to shackle, redirect, or even speed up the improvements brought to religion by the labors of the intellect.4

We said it ought not even attempt to speed them up. This is because as much as free and gradual improvements appear to be desirable, we find premature and violent reforms to be repugnant. We detest intolerant authority, although we fear philosophical authoritarianism too. Louis XVI’s persecutions did much harm, but the purported enlightened learning of Joseph II caused almost as much. The imprudent decrees of the Constituent Assembly caused no less harm, if not by their immediate effects at least by their proximate consequences.

Let authority be neutral. Human intelligence, heaven’s gift, will take charge of the rest. It is not religion’s enemy except when religion persecutes. It will better accomplish its tasks of impartiality and improvement if it is not hampered by artificial obstacles, troubled by artificial threats, and forced to overreach in order to overcome stubborn resistances.

The neutrality of authority will even serve to preserve a while longer the religious forms to which habit or conviction ought to attach some importance. These Edition: current; Page: [83] forms will last longer when they do not resist imperceptible improvements. It is normally in the midst of conflict that they break down. It was the priests of Athens who first broke the entente that existed between philosophy and polytheism, which philosophy still wished to respect. The inflexibility of Leo X precipitated the full-scale Reformation that Luther himself did not envisage when he began his attacks against the abuses of the Catholic Church.5

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CHAPTER 8: Concerning Questions That Would Be a Necessary Part of a History of Religion but Are Irrelevant to Our Purpose

Having explained to our readers our aims and our plan, we need to explain why several questions that would naturally enter into a work of history will be omitted here. We also need to indicate the precautions we have had to take in order to attain the goal we set ourselves. We will speak of them in the following chapter.

To discover how man rises from crude beliefs to more sophisticated ones, we had to go back to the least advanced stage of human society, the primitive or savage state.

Here a question presented itself. Was the savage state the original state of our species?

The philosophers of the eighteenth century declared themselves in the affirmative, but with inadequate arguments and reflection. All their religious and political systems are based upon the hypothesis of a human race originally found in the condition of brutes, animals wandering in the forests, competing for the fruits of trees and the flesh of other animals. But if this was the natural condition of mankind, how did men emerge from it?

The reasonings attributed to early human beings for them to adopt the social state contain a clear petitio principii. They suppose an already existing social state. One cannot know its benefits unless one has experienced them. But in this view, society itself is the result of the development of human intelligence. In truth, however, the development of intelligence is the result of human social existence.

Some philosophers invoked chance. To do so, however, is to employ a term without definite meaning. Chance does not overcome nature. Nor has chance civilized the lower species. But according to these philosophers, they too were subject to chance, including what we could call fortunate chance.

The civilizing of primitive peoples by foreign ones leaves the problem untouched. Edition: current; Page: [85] Superiors may instruct inferiors, but who instructed the teachers? It is a causal chain suspended in mid air. In addition, primitive peoples reject civilization when it is presented to them.

The closer men are to the savage state, the less given they are to change. Scattered at the ends of the earth, the wandering hordes we have discovered have not taken one step toward civilization. The inhabitants of the shores that Nearchus visited centuries ago are still today as they were two thousand years ago. Today, as then, they gather an uncertain subsistence from the sea. Today, as then, wealth consists in sea-borne bones thrown up by waves upon the shore. Physical need has not instructed them; wretched poverty has not enlightened them. Modern-day travelers have found them just as Alexander’s admiral did twenty centuries ago.1

The same is true of the savages described in antiquity by Agatharchides,2 and in our days by Lord Bruce.3 Even though surrounded by civilized nations, and living next to the kingdom of Meroë with its well-known priesthood (equal in authority and learning to that of Egypt), these hordes have remained in their primitive condition. Some sleep under trees, bending their branches and fixing them in the ground; some capture rhinos and elephants and cure their skins in the sun; some chase ostriches; others collect the locusts the wind wafts to them in the desert or the cadavers of crocodiles or seahorses washed up on the shore. Therefore, the diseases that Diodoras described centuries ago as the result of these filthy foods still afflict the descendants of these unfortunate races.4 The centuries have passed them over with no improvements, no progress, no discoveries. We acknowledge this truth.

We therefore will not take the savage state as the original condition of mankind. We do not place ourselves at any purported cradle of mankind. Nor do we attempt to determine how religion began, but only in what way, when it is in the crudest state one can conceive, it rose and gradually arrived at purer notions.

We do not positively affirm that this crude state was the first condition of mankind. Nor do we put ourselves in opposition to a point of view that sees this condition as a decline, a fall. But it is the point furthest removed from perfection. That Edition: current; Page: [86] is enough for us to feel compelled to place ourselves there in order to better survey the distance the species has traveled to arrive at the opposite pole.

To be sure, one could make the following objection.

When one returns to the most obscure historical periods, one can see only the outlines of enormous masses that the darkness both covers and renders more imposing. Moreover, the different masses present remarkably similar traits even when separated by chasms.

Surveying Europe, Asia, and what we know of Africa; starting from Gaul, or even Spain, and passing through Germany, Scandinavia, Tartary, India, Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, we find everywhere similar practices and cosmogonies, and religious bodies, rites, sacrifices, ceremonies, customs, and views all with undeniable similarities. And we find these practices, cosmogonies, corporations, rites, sacrifices, ceremonies, and opinions in America, in Mexico, and in Peru.

It is vain to assign some general dispositions of the human spirit as the cause of these similarities.5 In many details and particulars there are such minutely exact resemblances6 that it is impossible to find the reason for them simply in nature, Edition: current; Page: [87] much less in chance. However, given what we are daily learning about the antiquities of India, in which English scholars recognize the principal dates of Jewish history and the tales of the Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian religions, a nearly certain hypothesis has emerged. It posits a single people as the common source—the universal stem—of the human race, long since disappeared. Is it not from this people that we ought to seek religion’s point of departure, instead of the miserable hordes whose nature barely resembles our own?

To be clear: we are not saying that it is impossible for a diligent scholar or inspired genius to one day come to the great truth, the great, decisive fact that can reconnect in a single chain the scattered links we deal with here. We wish to acknowledge those learned men, indefatigable seekers, who aim at such a discovery. We certainly admire their infinite patience, the courage that nothing daunts and which braves unimaginable difficulties. For this can occur only by studying each people in its smallest particulars and details, by comparing the smallest practices and the most confused traditions; by collecting the debris of many ancient languages. And we are not here speaking of the languages that are ancient for us, but those that were already dead for our predecessors. It is, perhaps, only by traveling through the entire world and, as it were, excavating the accumulated layers of history that they will be able to amass all the materials required for the final success of the work in which a truly noble hope sustains them.

But as precious as it would be, this success would only lead to the point where we are now. The hypothesis of an original people creates an additional difficulty for those who adopt it. On one hand, since this takes them back beyond recorded history, they have to study geological history as well in order to discover the physical revolutions by which this original people was destroyed. (Here is another example of the great truth that whenever you wish to thoroughly pursue a question, you have to attend to everything.) On the other hand, the destruction of an original people being uncontestable, many of its surviving parts were forced to recommence the great work of civilization. One can at most suppose that some countries retained memories of a previous situation, some traditions and practices from it. But these memories would be vague, the traditions confused, the practices unintelligible because their original motives were forgotten. The system one develops, therefore, will have to begin with this condition of crudity and ignorance from which we believed we were obliged to commence.

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CHAPTER 9: The Precautions That the Special Nature of Our Inquiry Obliged Us to Take

Many precautionary measures have been necessary for us to attain the goal we proposed in this work.

The first has been to distinguish the different epochs of each religion.

A nation does not have at the end of a century the same beliefs it had at the beginning. Even though it worships the same divinities, it does not preserve the same ideas for long.

By entering into civilization, peoples contract an impulse that never ceases, but the changes it prompts are imperceptible. No visible sign indicates them. The exterior of a religion remains unchanging, even when its doctrines are modified. Only the names of the gods do not change, which is a new cause of error in understanding religion.

In the minds of many learned readers, each mythology contains an ensemble of opinions without any particular chronology. Homer’s religion and Pindar’s seem to them to be exactly similar; and finding on the shores of the Tiber the same celestial agents as those they find on the shores of the Simoeis, they believe that Homer and Virgil described a fairly similar religion.1

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This is not true. The gods of the Iliad, far from being those of the Roman poets, are not even exactly those of the Odyssey. The gods of Greece have nothing in common with those of Ovid and of Virgil except the names and a few stories whose meaning has changed. Their moral character, the relations they have with men at the two different periods, have no connection.

Until now, people have collected rather than critically appreciated the materials. In connection with Greek religion, people cite indifferently Homer and Virgil, Hesiod and Lucan. Modern mythologies have been consulted to understand the Edition: current; Page: [90] most remote periods, not to mention referencing ancient philosophers whose clear aim and interest was to purify ancient polytheism.2

Running together both dates and doctrines, the authors of most systems have Edition: current; Page: [91] brought together the views of different periods; they have failed to distinguish teachings borrowed from abroad from indigenous ones, stories that always belonged to the nation’s beliefs from those that were gradually introduced or that entered suddenly by some unexpected event.

It is true of the ancient religions as it is of their geography: everything is progressive. Homer’s geography is not Hesiod’s, Hesiod’s is not that of Aeschylus, Aeschylus’s is not Herodotus’s. One has to factor progress into everything concerning antiquity.

But what further complicates the difficulty is that almost all the mythologies have suffered chronological distortions. More recent views have been placed in the most remote times, and the most ancient views have been presented as being degenerations of earlier ones. Why this has occurred is easy to understand, however, once it is pointed out.

When the progress of enlightenment has broken the connection between religious ideas and the rest of a people’s ideas, a thousand refinements, a thousand subtle explanations, are introduced into the religion. But the inventors of these refinements do not present them as deviations from current worship. The majority of political innovators do not say they want to establish a new order. To hear them, they want only to restore institutions to their original purity. It is the same with religion.

Philosophers and enlightened minds claim the mantle of antiquity for their additions, as well as their more or less ingenious (abstract or learned) interpretations.3 This is also, even especially, true of priests. As we will show elsewhere, they are subject to two impulses. The first is to preserve current views because it is their immediate interest. The second is to introduce into religion (which they tend to regard as their property) all of their subsequent discoveries because this is the long-term Edition: current; Page: [92] interest of the priesthood. In order to better control the present generation, they borrow the voice of past generations.4

The Bhagavad Gita is a work composed with the obvious intention of substituting a more philosophic teaching for the Vedantic doctrine.5 Krisha says to his disciple that he earlier revealed to others the sublime truths he is communicating today. The lapse of time had covered them over. Like all reformers he attributes his teaching to antiquity. Similarly, in a dialogue falsely attributed to the Egyptian Mercury and translated by Apuleius,6 addressing himself to Egypt, this legislator exclaims that a time will come when instead of a pure cult there will be only ridiculous fables. This is the utterance of a philosopher who, while depending upon the forward march of the human spirit moving from ignorance to enlightenment, reverses the movement in order to give his views greater authority.7

One can see an analogous procedure among the wise men of Greece. Empedocles, Heraclitus, even Plato8 tried to identify their hypotheses with what they called the ancient theology. Plato, for example, attributed the worship of stars to Edition: current; Page: [93] the first Greeks, a practice which was always alien to them.9 It is only on the basis of his testimony, against the entire historical record, that people believe the Greeks began with star worship.

It is obvious that all the refinements of religious beliefs are subsequent to an initial simple credulity. In the same way it is obvious that civilization follows barbarism.10 But another quite natural motive caused these innovations to be placed before the original popular stories and fables. Placed there, they contribute to making religion respectable. They are imposing phantoms that add to the somber majesty of an ancient edifice. If they were overtly substituted for traditional belief, they would appear to be impieties.

This observation is verified among almost all the ancient peoples. In Persia, we see the refined and mysterious views of the old Bactrian Empire attributed to Persian barbarians and the vestiges of their early, cruder religion presented as the corruption of a purer worship.

If we accepted the history of Scandinavian mythology as it is recounted today, we would believe that the peoples of the North began with theism and allegory and ended with fetishism. We are told that the first of the Scandinavian deities was called Alfadur, All-Vater, Father of All; then came Odin and his two brothers. The Norns (or Fates) initially numbered three, and presided in a general manner over the past, the present, and the future. It was easy to see its allegorical character, but later it was lost sight of. Then there were as many Norns as there were human beings; they became the fetishes of individuals. This development would be inexplicable, however, if we accepted it as it is recounted. But it becomes easy to understand when we note that it was brought in by the Drottes, or priests, who had acquired great authority among the Scandinavians.

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In the same way in Greek polytheism, cosmogonic deities—Chronos, or Time, Rhea, Sky, Erebus, Night, Ocean, and Earth—apparently preceded real divinities.

It is essential to have these observations in mind as one reads this work. Its nature does not allow us to bring in all the facts, to enter into all the indispensable details, to demonstrate how well-founded the distinctions we establish between the different periods of beliefs in fact are. We do need to ask the readers who may think that a particular fact contradicts our theses, whether it was introduced later than people today believe. Who was the first author to report the fact? When did he live? Did he, perhaps, confuse the opinions of his time, or his own conjectures, with earlier views?

The second precaution we had to take was to set aside the scientific explanations of ancient worship that have been given by several distinguished scholars. To be sure, the works of these learned men were very useful. They have shed a great deal of light on little-known portions of the history of remote times. They have illuminated several essential questions. They have offered often-interesting conjectures, sometimes probable ones. No truth is to be disdained. The solution to a much smaller problem, one whose investigation seemed rather unimportant, has cast an unexpected light on subjects of the greatest importance. Science is always salutary, as ignorance is always harmful.

Nonetheless, these learned men, we dare to affirm, have committed a grave error.

For some, religion was nothing but the symbolic representation of agriculture, for others, of astronomy; for still others, only historical facts distorted by traditions or allegories misconstrued by ignorance. In certain respects, each and all of these explanations contain some truth. In all the countries of the earth a class of more or less powerful men has sought to make religion the depository of human learning. But to conclude from this that religion was invented to contain this hidden treasure, and that popular views were only the disguise, or corruption, of this teaching, is to fall into error. Religious fables only gradually became the hieroglyphs in which the learned class registered its observations and calculations concerning facts, or its hypotheses concerning causes.

The error of these learned men does not consist in the fact that they attributed some scientific meaning to religion, but that they put it before the popular or literal meaning. Instead of considering religion as a sentiment, they envisaged it as a combination of ideas; instead of recognizing in it an affect of the soul, they wanted to transform it into a work of the mind. Instead of seeing nature, they saw only art.

Moreover, as if this fundamental error were not enough, each one chose one particular hypothesis as the sole source of religion. Thus, a system that is defective Edition: current; Page: [95] at its base became fanciful and strained in its details.11 One system took no account of the most natural inclinations of man; another called into question the most credible testimony of antiquity. Another rejected both what the direct study of ourselves reveals and what history teaches.

Open The Primitive World. There you will find neither the sentiment of that profound and virile piety, that intimate and serious conviction that characterized the Romans, nor knowledge of the events that occasioned the introduction of national festivals into worship and made it a source of political patriotism as well as religious veneration. The Regifugium (the King’s Flight), obviously intended to commemorate the expulsion of the Tarquins,12 while also connected with priestly traditions borrowed from abroad, becomes exclusively the departure of the sun at the end of the year. Jupiter Stator is the sun that comes to a halt. The Fortuna of women ceases to recall the mission of Veturia. An author changes it first of all to a festival of Victory, on the pretext that it recalled a victory of filial piety. Then it became the triumph of the sun over winter. Nero founded the Juvenalia13 to celebrate the great event when he first cut his beard; that is, when he offered the spectacle of the emperor of the world presenting himself as an actor and poet.14 It became an emblem of the renewal of the seasons.15

Thus distorting everything, scholars arrive on the scene, each one carrying his Edition: current; Page: [96] favorite banner,16 behind which he drags captive facts, bizarrely clothed.17 One of them sees the flood everywhere, another, fire. One sees a succession of months, another a succession of dynasties.18 None of them, however, has pushed the audacity and ingeniousness of this genre as far as the man who dominates the field in France;19 for him all the gods and heroes from Osiris to Mohammed were only the Edition: current; Page: [97] Edition: current; Page: [98] Edition: current; Page: [99] sun and the stars. But the truth is that agriculture, astronomy, history, metaphysics, and above all allegory in any of its forms were subsequent to religion. They became parts of religion but are not its basis. Religion took them to its bosom but does not owe its existence to them. Scientific systems have been introduced into every religion, but no one has ever made a scientific system into a religion.20

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Once admitted into the worship, however, these scientific systems have never had a direct relationship with the moral effects of the beliefs. They were never in popular circulation, if I can put it that way. The most allegorical portion of the Greek religion, that which dealt with the origin of the world, the Titans, and Prometheus, was what the people occupied themselves with the least. The allegorical divinities played almost no role in the national religion. Uranus, Ocean, Saturn were the objects of neither hope nor fear nor petition. Herodotus seems to be ignorant of what Homer meant by Ocean, so little were the cosmogonic personifications connected with popular views.21 He never spoke of the anger or the protection given by the beings of this class.22 Their festivals were of another sort than those of the reigning deities. They were ceremonies with no other point than commemoration without practical effect, and they assumed no reciprocal influence of gods on men or men on gods.

Nothing is more likely than that the mutilation of Uranus is an allegory; that a philosopher (probably before the Greeks) in this way wanted to represent the end of creative force, a cessation that dates from the beginning of (natural) order because by subjecting generations to the cycle of procreation, nature seems to forswear the creation of new forms. Or that the philosopher attributed this mutilation to Chronos—that is, Time—because the idea of time is inseparable from that of a fixed and regular succession; or that Hesiod, who had gathered together priestly doctrines from everywhere in order to introduce them into Greek religion, painted this allegory in poetic colors. But what moral or political effect could this allegory have on the people?23

It is certain that in the astronomical language of the Roman religion Pan represented the sun. But if in the public worship this god was only a subordinate divinity, Edition: current; Page: [101] rather malign in his intentions, grotesque in his forms, and the object of the people’s high spirits rather than their fear or adoration, who cannot see that the “astronomic Pan” had no real connection with the national religion? What does it matter if Heracles is said to be the sun and his twelve labors the zodiac, or that Jupiter and Juno, or the loves of Mars and Venus, are physical systems, if the nation that worships these divinities sees them as real beings upon whom its destiny depends, and if in the stories told about their actions, it only seeks ways of propitiating them?

What we are saying here in no way is intended to denigrate the usefulness of the works to which we refer. It is worthwhile penetrating to the hidden sense of ancient cults. But even the discovery of this secret meaning does not suffice to help us understand religion in its essential relationships. The mass of men take religion as it presents itself. For them the form is the substance.24 It is in the letter of mythologies that one can observe the progress of morality and the successive modifications that religions underwent. Allegories and symbols can remain the same in all periods because they express ideas that do not change. Popular fables change because they express ideas that do change.25

Thus, to choose an example known to all our readers, Apollo’s anger at the Greeks was leveled first against animals; subsequently it was directed against men. It is clear that by this the poet wanted to depict the advance of a plague and its ravages. Just as well as Homer, Ovid (or, for that matter, any modern poet who would employ ancient mythology) can use this allegory to convey a natural phenomenon.26 But the popular account—that is, the one that refers to Apollo’s character Edition: current; Page: [102] and to the motives that moved him—was necessarily subject to the changes that took place in the moral views of the religion. If, as in the polytheism of the Iliad, the gods are simply egoists, the anger of the sun-god was motivated by the fact that he was not offered enough sacrifices or because someone offended one of his priests.27 If, however, a purer morality is an essential part of the religion—which happens as civilization progresses—the poet will recount that the god was angry at the Greek army because of its crimes.28

Scholars,29 however, have unfortunately always had a certain disdain for this part of mythology. One of them says that it is more important to know the real teaching of philosophers and savants about divinity, the universe, the soul, and nature than to collect the stupid fables of the vulgar and the absurd embellishments of the poets.30 We think the exact opposite. The philosophers’ doctrines produced hypotheses and systems; the stories revered by the vulgar constituted the real influence of religion. They decided the morality of peoples. They prepared and introduced all the religious struggles, wars, and revolutions.

Nor is it correct to say that the scientific theology was the sole religion of the learned and the philosophers. We find traces of popular religion in the most learned men and among almost all the sages of antiquity. If one day we treat Greek philosophy, we will show Socrates consulting the Pythia, Xenophon following oracles, Plato according implicit faith to divination.31

Even when men depart in many respects from the teachings professed by those before or around them, these doctrines do not lose all their rights. They resemble a defending army that is dispersed and yet which goes to battle in small platoons. Edition: current; Page: [103] At first glance the terrain belongs to the invader. But the defenders have their refuges, their redoubts, their strong places, which they defend and from which they sally forth to counterattack from time to time. Even when philosophy is ascendant over the learned class, fragments of the popular religion continue to be found in the opinions of this class. And even to understand these opinions one has to study this vulgar religion.32 When they invent, poets themselves still conform to the received religion in order to give their inventions the appearance of truth. As the most judicious of Romans (Varro) said,33 the ancient religions were for the people what the poets represented at each period. To consider only their hidden meaning is like wanting to analyze the history of drama by describing the pulleys and ropes that help move stage scenery.34

Finally, men have neglected to distinguish carefully enough the religions dominated by priests from those that remain independent of sacerdotal direction. It is obvious upon minimal reflection, however, that the path of religion is different depending upon the degree of authority possessed by the priesthood. This is true from the first developments of religious ideas.

It is not necessary for us to seek here how it happened that some peoples were subject to priests from the first moment of their coming together in society, while others enjoyed complete independence for a long time and were never wholly subjugated by them.

We will enter into the examination of the facts when we treat the Greek religion of Homeric times, and when we describe the Egyptian religion as it existed until the mixing and destruction of all the cults of antiquity. Now it is enough to establish the difference between the two species of religion that are often confused.

When a priestly body takes control of a religion from its beginning, the religion follows a different path than when the priesthood, gradually establishing itself, Edition: current; Page: [104] arrives later at constituting itself as a regular and recognized body. The authority of priests has to be unlimited when it exists from the formation of the society. The more intellectually crude the belief, the more authority the ministers of this belief have if they form an independent class.

The little influence that the jongleurs of many savage tribes possess comes from the fact that, since the condition of the tribes is one not organized by fixed rules, everything in them is hazy and uncertain, everything follows momentary impressions and unreflective habit. Nothing has the force of law, the priesthood no more than everything else. But when a people sees a priestly institution arise before there is any political institution capable of fighting against it or restraining it (as was the case with Egypt), it must suffer the yoke of this priestly power. Henceforth religion, which left to itself is composed of all the sentiments, all the notions, and all the conjectures natural to man, in the hands of priests becomes the subject of premeditated calculation and systematic arrangement.

When man occupies himself with religion as something that belongs to him, example and habit lead him to prefer the worship he sees in use around him. Wanting to have the targets of his prayers listen to him, he speaks to them in the words spoken by his ancestors and his contemporaries. Nonetheless, everything in the worship is individual. The individual adds or subtracts or changes without anyone else arrogating the right to be offended. He runs the risk of displeasing the gods, but not of being punished by other men. Prayers and sacrifices, whether offered on domestic altars, in forest retreats, or at the tops of mountains, rise directly to the invisible world without having to seek a privileged channel. Everything is free and open between heaven and earth.

In priestly religions, on the contrary, heaven is closed; a triple rampart encloses the immortals. All access is guarded by jealous intermediaries. Everything is submitted to priests: all the individual’s conjectures, his fears, his presentiments of the future, the accidents that happen, the strange things that surprise him, the phantoms he perceives in the darkness, the noises he hears, the shadows he sees in his dreams. From these, the priests compose laws and a special science. Every victim not offered by them is rejected as impious; any incense offered by others is sacrilegious. In order to obtain divine assistance or protection, it is necessary to gain their favor along with that of the gods.

The character of the gods also changes significantly. The person who asks religion only to bring about divine benevolence seeks to discover what the gods want. The priest who expects from religion the means to govern men seeks how he must portray the beings in whose name he wishes to govern. One must not exaggerate, Edition: current; Page: [105] however, the priest’s activity. While submitting religion to different changes in accordance with his calculations, he invents nothing, he makes use only of what already exists. His work is not a work of creation but of arrangement, of form and order. Nor does one invent religious opinions; they arise in the minds of men independently of their wills. Some adopt them, others make use of them. The priesthood has found the seed of all religious notions in the heart of man,35 but it then despotically directed the development of this germ. In this way it imprinted a development on religion that it would not have followed naturally.

It is because of the failure to distinguish these two types of belief that people have committed so many mistakes in the history of religions. By confusing them, they attempted to blaze a path that led at the same time to two opposite extremes, and they exhausted themselves in vain efforts for a chimerical end. The distinction between religions subjected to a priesthood and those that are independent is the first condition for conceiving adequate ideas in this area.

One can see how vast is the range of ideas that we have to deal with. It is so huge that to comprehend it, both in its entirety and in its details, is above the powers of man, and perhaps above the public’s capacity to attend to in the present circumstances. In this work, therefore, we restricted ourselves to indicate and to demonstrate, both by reasoning and by facts, the fundamental truth from which all the others flow.

We have begun from the crudest form that religious ideas can assume. We have shown the religious sentiment creating this form then struggling against it, and sometimes arriving, by means of its own marvelous and mysterious energy, at rendering the form noble and heart-touching despite itself. We then said how this form was modified, whether by sacerdotal bodies or by the progress of the human spirit among peoples who were free of sacerdotal authority.

We began with the priestly religions. To be sure, one cannot follow the human spirit in its natural progression except by studying the independent religions. All the changes occur openly in these religions, while under the empire of priests the work goes on behind closed doors, in the mysterious interior of these privileged corporations. But the cults that the priests dominated are historically the oldest; and the very small number of nations among whom the priesthood had little authority were most likely emancipated from the former rather than preserved from it. It follows then that the simplicity of religions left to themselves comes above all Edition: current; Page: [106] from the fact that the human spirit successively removed the crude notions that belong to the infancy of belief, ideas that the priesthood, in contrast, had turned into dogmas. Because of this, in order to understand the simplest cults one must have profoundly studied the most complicated ones.

One will see, we hope, that the majority of the reproaches that are addressed to religion really touch only some of its ministers. The religions that have struggled with the greatest success against their power have been the gentlest, the most humane, the purest. If our readers accept this, and derive from it appropriate consequences, we believe that the admiration customarily bestowed on the Persian, Egyptian, or Frankish priestly bodies will be much diminished.

We have limited ourselves to this part of religious history.

With the fundamental truth being recognized, it would be easy to deduce its consequences and to follow it in its innumerable and admirable modifications. After having seen how the two forms that religion takes are constituted, one that the human spirit creates for itself and one that priests most often have imposed upon it, the reader can discern the principle of perfectibility that presides over one and the principle of stasis that weighs on the other. When peoples come together these two forms encounter and are mixed. If it is human intelligence that emerges victorious, its ideas concerning the divine nature are improved and undergo a rapid and positive development. But one can also see the seeds of decline that even these improved ideas contain, as well as the irresistible religious impulse that will lead to even greater refinement.

At that point the most purified and refined religious form becomes the only one that is admissible, it becomes the imperious need of the civilized world. Then, the collapse of the old and discredited beliefs leaves man grief-stricken amidst the rubble he has called down upon himself. He does not regain his courage except by means of a new belief. But this one too undergoes decline. It seems to take a few steps back toward the periods of ignorance and resuscitates barbarous doctrines. But the nature of the human spirit being the same, it reacts as before against these temporary relapses. Each century considers whatever is proportionate to its learning and enlightenment to be the final and unchangeable attainment of the good and the true. But a new century arrives and the limit is pushed back. New ones are then posed, which subsequent generations are destined to replace by pushing them even further back.

Therefore, it is not a detailed history of religion that we have undertaken. To retrace the religious revolutions of all the nations would be to write the history of all Edition: current; Page: [107] nations. Religion is connected with everything. Just as it penetrates into the most intimate regions of man, everything that touches him touches religion. As it modifies everything it touches, it is modified by everything that touches it. The various causes come into contact, clash, and modify one another. In order to explain the development of a religion, one has to examine the climate, the government, the present and past habits of the people who profess it. What exists certainly influences, but what no longer exists does not cease influencing. Memories are like Epicurus’s atoms, elements that constantly enter into new combinations. To embark upon these investigations would be to write a universal history. We therefore have tried to avoid a strictly historical form of writing, both because of the length that would be required and because of the infinite repetitions it would entail. One cannot simultaneously develop the history of every religion. Since all peoples have not advanced in the same way because of the changes in their opinions brought in by events and circumstances, we would have had to constantly repeat observations made about one nation when dealing with another.

However, it is impossible to give to these investigations the purely didactic form that Montesquieu gave his reflections on the laws. Laws are written; consequently their revolutions can be precisely connected to definite periods. But religion, existing in large measure in the heart and in the spirit of man, changes insensibly without being perceived;36 and some of these changes can only be treated historically.

We have tried to present to our readers only results, based, to be sure, upon many facts. We have refuted some objections, but we have passed over others in silence. Perhaps we have failed even to think of others. If we had developed everything, this work would have been too long to read. The history of exceptions would have become longer than that of the general rule. The rule is one and simple, the causes of exceptions innumerable and complicated.

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CHAPTER 1: The Method We Will Follow in This Book

We have defined the religious sentiment, the need man experiences to put himself in communication with the nature that surrounds him and the unknown forces that seem to him to animate that nature.

The religious form is the means he employs to establish this communication.

It is obvious that the choice of this means is not arbitrary. Man does not decide from pure caprice for one form over another. He is determined in his choice by the sentiments that are found naturally in his soul, by the ideas that reflection suggests to his intellect, and by the demands that egoism inspires. Some have wrongly considered self-interest as his sole motive. While this is an overstatement, its action is quite powerful inasmuch as it is constant and ineradicable.

In order to detect the results of these different causes, two ways present themselves. One can try to observe and describe the work of each one of the faculties separately, and then the work of them together when a religion is created. Or one can bring together the best-established facts relative to the religious beliefs of the most ignorant peoples, and then seek to find what in these beliefs should be attributed to sentiment, to intelligence, and to self-interest.

The first method seems to us to be too metaphysical and abstract. It is better to start with the historical facts, in order to ascend to the causes of the facts.

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CHAPTER 2: On the Form the Religious Sentiment Takes On among the Primitive Savages

Many of the primitive tribes we know of are in a state little different from that of animals.1 Some are ignorant of the use of fire; others provide for their subsistence like beasts of the forest, while others, even less industrious, use neither cunning nor force to feed themselves, but simply wait for the death of other animals and eat their wretched and unhealthy flesh. Some only have five or six barely articulate cries as their language.

The hordes just above them are more or less advanced in their means of survival. They have invented some instruments for hunting or fishing. They have developed greater variety in the articulate sounds they make use of to express their passions or their needs. They have built huts. Some have tamed animals. The union of the sexes has acquired a more stable form, or at least it has been extended beyond mere desire and enjoyment.

The first groups resemble wolves and foxes, the second, beavers and bees.

The primitive savage is born into this crude state. When he suffers, he cries; when he is hungry, he hunts or he fishes. The need to reproduce makes itself felt, he satisfies it. He grows old, he dies, or his children kill him.

Nonetheless, what we have called the religious sentiment stirs in him. He sees himself surrounded and dominated, or at least influenced, by forces whose nature and origin he cannot grasp. And an instinct that is peculiar to him2 among all the beings on earth appears to inform him that the power that animates these unknown Edition: current; Page: [113] forces is not without some relationship to him. He experiences the need to establish relations, to determine them in some fixed way. He seeks, haphazardly, this superior power. He speaks to it, he calls upon it, he adores it.

As we have demonstrated, it is not simply fear that causes this instinct to appear within him. The objects of fear are neither the sole nor the principal objects of his worship. To be sure, he sometimes places among them some that caused him harm. But he often adores some that do not inspire any fear in him.

To conclude from the terror he feels when he believes that some objects are full of a divine nature, that it was the terror that caused him to adore them, is to mistake an effect for a cause.

Nor is it any idea of self-interest that creates his first worship. He prostrates himself before objects that cannot be of any use to him. After having deified them, he seeks to make them useful, but that is another movement of his nature. To consider it as the primary is again to confuse effect and cause.

The savage worships different objects because he must adore something. But what objects will he worship? He consults his environment. There is nothing that can enlighten him. He turns to himself. He draws his answer from his own heart. This response, though, is commensurate with the weakness of the reason he barely employs and his profound ignorance. This reason does not have the faintest notion of the idea of Divinity of a later period. This ignorance especially deceives him concerning the causes of natural phenomena.

As we have already said,3 man always places his religious ideas in the sphere of the unknown. For the savage everything is unknown. His religious sentiment therefore will apply itself to everything he encounters.

Everywhere there is motion he believes there is life. The stone that falls seems to be either fleeing or following him. The torrent that rushes heads toward him; some angry spirit dwells in the steaming waterfall. The wind that moans is the expression of some suffering, or some menace. The eerie echo of some canyon foretells the future or answers a query. And when a civilized European shows the savage a magnetic needle, he sees a being taken from its native land and anxiously desiring to return home.4

Everywhere there is movement the savage assumes there is life. And everywhere he supposes there is life, he supposes that there is some action or intention that Edition: current; Page: [114] has him in view. Man exists for a long time before he recognizes that he is not the center of all things. The infant imagines himself to be this center toward which all tends; the savage reasons like an infant.

Surrounded by powerful, active objects that constantly impact his destiny, he adores those among these objects that strike his imagination most forcefully. Chance decides this.5 It can be a rock, a mountain, sometimes a stone, often an animal.

This worship of animals seems to us to be strange. Upon reflection, however, it is very natural.

In animals, there is something that is unknown—we could say mysterious—that must dispose the savage to worship them.

So much makes them enigmatic beings: the impossibility of comprehending Edition: current; Page: [115] and judging them (which we share with the savage, although habit inhibits us from seeing it); their instincts, which are surer than our reason; their facial expressions, which so vividly express what is going on within them; the variety and wonderful strangeness of their forms; the often frightening rapidity of their movements; their sympathy with nature, which allows them to sense approaching natural occurrences that man cannot foresee; finally, the eternal barrier between them and man because of the absence of language.

“It would be necessary,” said the judicious Heeren,6 “to have been a primitive oneself, to understand the relationship he believes he has with animals.”

As long as he has not stripped them of their aura by domesticating them, he shares both his life and his dominion with them. They are his equals in the forests, while they defy him by taking wing or by plunging into the depths of the seas. They possess to an eminent degree many of his individual faculties. They take turns being his prey or his predators. One can easily see why he sometimes places the hidden seat of the invisible forces in the beings whose existence he finds utterly mysterious, not to mention their purpose.

Primitive veneration for animals even survives into the time when man domesticates them and uses them for his purposes. In fact, the acquisition of domestic Edition: current; Page: [116] animals produces such an important revolution in his life that he is even more disposed to attribute an almost divine nature to this new companion of his labors.7

The Kamtschatka have domesticated only one species of animal. After their death they have themselves torn apart by the members of that species in the hope of rejoining their ancestors. The faithful dogs that shared life’s adventures with them become their guide to the future world.8

The preference that a savage accords to one sort of animal over others comes from chance circumstances rather than the complicated reasons that many have tried to come up with.9 The Troglodytes that Pliny talks about simply worshipped the tortoises that swam to them.10 Striking colors, the sheen of their scales, the rapidity of their movements were, perhaps, what garnered religious respect for serpents, who then acquired a distinguished place in the majority of mythologies.11

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But in all these cases, the idea of utility has so little place in the motives for worship that often when the idol is alive, the worshipper kills it in order to be able to carry it around with him.12 And it is even more true that the unknown is the sphere where adoration takes place, that at the time when man adores almost all the animals he never renders worship to his fellows. Man is what he knows best; this is the source of a great exception that has struck many writers without their being able to explain it.

This crude worship is so natural to man in his ignorance that he returns to it as soon as he is freed from the bonds, or cast away from the advantages, of public religion.

The pariahs of India are denied all interaction with the other castes; being neither admitted nor subject to any other worship, they have reprised this belief. We are told by travelers that each of them chooses his own deity, sometimes this or that animal, sometimes a stone or a tree.13

In China, where religion is only a form and the mandarins are pantheists or atheists,14 the people worship serpents and offer them sacrifice.15

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However, the activity of the religious sentiment does not limit itself to the creation of this narrow and crude form. Above the fetishes16—material deities, if I can put it that way—that are created, invoked, and then destroyed by the successive needs of the moment, there always hovers a vaguer notion, one that is more mysterious and less applicable to ordinary life, which nonetheless fills the soul of the worshipper with an even more profound respect and a more intimate emotion.

With the savage, as with the civilized human being, the religious impulse directs itself toward the idea of the infinite and the immense. From this comes the idea of the Great Spirit, which resides in the clouds high above the mountains or in the depths of the seas. Always invisible, it is rarely invoked because it takes so little part in the destiny of the inhabitants of the earth. But the soul rises toward it, as if it were trying to mount to nobler thoughts than those that ignorance provides.

This tendency is very imperious; it is found even in the most savage of hordes. The Cucis, the mountain people of Tipra found in northeastern India and Bangladesh, are the most ignorant and wildest of savages. They think that there is a divinity in each tree. They have no positive laws. Murder among them is punished only by the relatives of the deceased, if they have the ability to avenge the death. Society does not intervene at all. They cut off the heads of the females of their enemies if they find them defenseless; and when they kill a pregnant woman, it is an occasion of rejoicing and glory. Nonetheless, they recognize a Great Spirit different from all the other deities they adore;17 they do not dare to represent it in any image.18

An American savage who had a bull for a fetish told a missionary one day that he did not worship the bull itself but the manitou of bulls, who was hidden beneath the earth and animated the animals of that species with his breath. He added that those who adored bears also believed in a manitou of bears. And when he was asked if there was one for men, he replied in the affirmative.19

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This is obviously an effort on the part of savages to generalize their conceptions. It is the religious sentiment struggling against a crude form that encloses and hampers it.20 This effort on the part of the religious sentiment to rise to a notion of a god superior to fetishes suggests to the savage an even more abstract conception, one that in the philosophies of civilized periods will undergo immense developments.

At this point we would like to speak of a division into two substances, or of a spiritual nature. While it will occupy a large place in our subsequent investigation, here, when it is but an imperceptible seed, we can say only a few words about it. It is enormously important in religious history, especially to the battle that all philosophical systems wage against positive religions, as well as playing a great role in the hidden or esoteric doctrines of all these religions.

To be sure, we do not claim that the savage himself conceives a division into two substances, or a spiritual nature, in the same way that the ancient or modern philosophers do. The ease with which he attributes life to all objects in fact seems to be an obstacle to being able to divide them into animate and inanimate. However, continuing his observations concerning the nature that surrounds him, he notes two aspects in all the phenomena that present themselves: rest and motion. Since the cause of motion is never visible to him, he is very quickly led to suppose that it belongs to another nature from the being to which motion is communicated. Hence, there arises a distinction between the substance that impresses the movement and the one that receives it.

The element (air) within which we exist, and which simultaneously envelops and enters into us, is by itself capable of suggesting the idea of a spiritual nature. The invisible and, in a certain sense, intangible air acts upon us constantly, but also variously. Sometimes it is an unseen benefactor, refreshing us in the midst of stifling heat; sometimes it is a terrible enemy, freezing us with a chilly blast; sometimes moaning all around us, it shakes the earth, stirs waves, and with unimaginable Edition: current; Page: [120] violence overturns our walls and pursues us into our last shelters, destroying our most impregnable refuges. In these ways the idea of active but invisible and intangible beings naturally comes to mind, which we are easily tempted to conceive of as incorporeal.

Turning to himself, man notes a quite obvious struggle between the active principle that controls his organs and the passive being in which this principle seems to be enclosed. The soul controls the body; the body, though, resists the soul, which in turn sighs, or becomes indignant at being disobeyed, and accuses the body of its own defects. It is the body’s organs that are deceived and deceive, its senses that mislead and seduce the soul. The same complaints to this effect are found with the primitive and with the philosopher, in the forests of the New World and in the academy. The old Iroquois gives to his son the same counsel that Socrates gave to the youth of Athens. From this it results that the more that man wants to conceive a perfect being, the more he frees it from matter.

The religious sentiment eagerly grasps this distinction and applies it to the divine nature. In it, the religious sentiment finds liberation from all limits and a grandeur, immensity, and purity that please it.

All the travelers who have reported the religious opinions of the Tahitians report that they distinguish the supreme Deity from the matter it puts in motion.21 The same opinion is found among several tribes in Florida. And if we give credence to the observations of more than one attentive observer, it is not wholly absent from the beliefs of some tribes of Siberia.

If these primitive conjectures are vague, if their hypotheses are confused, this only better proves that sentiment precedes intelligence when the human race takes its first steps; it glimpses what intellect cannot conceive, what it does not even dare conceive, and what it often combats with the severe strictures of logic.

Up until now we have spoken only of the action of sentiment in the creation of the religious form. But man possesses other powers, other faculties, which also cooperate in this creation and which cannot do so except by following the rules of their nature.

If sentiment nourishes itself with vague emotions, the intellect is more demanding; it wants reasoning whose rigor satisfies it. The inner need that man experiences to adore beings who communicate with him, whose protective cares watch over him, is enough for sentiment to conceive of tutelary deities. Intellect in contrast Edition: current; Page: [121] observes before judging. It collects and compares external phenomena and from them draws somewhat different conclusions. If several of these phenomena declare a benevolent force, others indicate hostility and hatred. This opposition shows itself at each moment, and in each particular, of physical and moral nature; at each epoch it is an insoluble enigma for the most developed minds. Who does not know the multiple efforts of the philosophical schools to resolve the problem of the origin of evil?

The much less subtle and less scrupulous intellect of the savage determines the question more simply. In the world there is good and evil. Therefore, there are hostile gods and benevolent ones. Dualism, which plays such a great role in the sophisticated religion of Zoroaster and which almost triumphed in Christian belief, in principle goes back to the religious notions of the savage.

The Araucanians believed in a hostile god,22 and the Iroquois exhorted one another not to listen to the perverse deity whose pleasure was to destroy them by leading them astray.23

But sentiment always rises up against this distressing conception. Not being able to destroy it because it conforms to the rules of logic, the sentiment at least softens it by maintaining the supremacy of the good principle over the evil one.24 This supremacy, which we will see presented in brilliant poetic colors in the Persian religion, is a fundamental dogma in the worship of primitive tribes.25

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If sentiment has its emotions and intelligence its laws, self-interest has its desires and wishes. Religion must accommodate itself to them. The less man is enlightened, the more his self-interest is impetuous, while at the same time enclosed in a narrow and base sphere. His passions are more violent, his ideas of the useful limited to the present moment.

Therefore, as soon as the religious sentiment creates objects of worship, man is pressed by self-interest to employ them for his use. He thus enters into a new path on which self-interest works to falsify the religious sentiment.

Sentiment had led him toward the unknown; self-interest leads him back to known quantities. Sentiment had raised him above himself; interest brings him back to his own level.

We are going to follow him on this new path. We will show religion as self-interest made it. Later we will return to the struggle that the religious sentiment wages against self-interest.

As soon as man believes he has found the hidden power that he sought so persistently, as soon as he has before him the object that he supposes possesses supernatural forces, he works to turn these forces to his advantage. He studies from this point of view the object he adores. It is no longer the religious sentiment that dominates; it is the mind, working for self-interest, that reflects upon the object originally presented to it by the religious sentiment.

To please this object, to obtain its favor, and to interest it in its projects is now the purpose of the primitive. It is no longer a need of the soul that he satisfies by worshipping, but some benefit for which he hopes. He no longer obeys the sentiment; he pursues a calculation.

In order to attain his goal, he tries to judge this mysterious object. Now, he can only do so by analogy, and by analogy with the single thing of which he has some knowledge—himself. Since he grows angry when someone offends him and he is appeased when someone apologizes, or he becomes benevolent when someone serves or pleases him, he concludes that the object he worships will do the same. When some calamity strikes, he seeks the cause in the malevolence of the idol that he has unwittingly offended.26 He then tries to disarm it with prayers and praise by all the means his own experience suggests to him and which would be successful with him. All this presupposes that his relationship to the unknown is similar to men’s among themselves.

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Soon he takes another step. Having appeased this being, he seeks to render it favorable. The same means he used to disarm its anger are used to attain its favor.

The idea of sacrifice is inseparable from every religion. One could even say that it is inseparable from every lively and profound emotion. Love is pleased to sacrifice everything it holds dear to the beloved; it even loves consecrating itself to the beloved by the cruelest of sufferings and the most painful of deprivations. Turkish lovers beat their breasts and tear their arms beneath the windows of their beloved. The knights of the Middle Ages inflicted voluntary sufferings upon themselves and imposed difficult trials in order to honor the ladies whose colors they bore.27 And in the ecstasies of her tender yet passionate devotion, Madame Guyon sought everywhere for antipathies to vanquish, repugnancies to overcome.

Like all the movements of man, this movement is found in the savage. Barely are there gods, when the idea of sacrifice presents itself.

Initially lacking all refinement or sophistication, the idea leads him to share with his idols everything he finds agreeable, depriving himself of some portion of his food, his clothing, or the spoils he has acquired by some victory, which he attributes to supernatural assistance.

But soon the notion of sacrifice becomes more complicated. It is not only material offerings that the gods demand; they require from their worshippers proofs of submission, of devotion, of self-denial. From this come fasts,28 self-lacerations, and voluntary austerities.29 The shores of the Orinoco in Spain and the steppes of Tartary have seen penances as austere as those once found in the deserts of the Thebaid; and the celebrated celibacy of our saints has its own martyrs among the savages.

It seems to us that philosophers have not sufficiently reflected upon this tendency Edition: current; Page: [124] of men to constantly refine sacrifice. They have too often attributed to artifice and calculation what in fact is nature’s doing. For example, they have seen only the caprice of priestly tyranny in the ideas of impurity connected to the union of the sexes found among almost all peoples. These ideas, they say, are an attempt to afflict human beings with arbitrary denials. To be sure, the priests have profited from this notion of impurity in order to extend their power over that part of human existence that seems to be the most removed from their despotism. But the original notion has deeper roots than priestcraft. If it did not have such roots, it would not be found among savage tribes as well as civilized nations.

Everywhere nature has connected the need for secrecy, the sentiment of shame, to the tenderest of sentiments. It does so with an artfulness that one might initially call bizarre, but which reveals itself to be quite admirable when one follows it through all of its consequences.

Everything delicate, touching, and pure in the relations of love rests upon this marvelous connection; we also owe to it everything that is regular and orderly in our social organization. It is by yielding to one man alone this mysterious reserve whose divine rule is imprinted on her heart, that a woman devotes herself and her modesty to him. For him alone she pulls back the veils, which continue to be her refuge and her glory. From it comes the deep trust of the spouses, the fruit of an exclusive relationship. Each recognizes the sacrifice as well as the exquisite combination of desire and respect it entails. Because of it they share a thousand intimate memories that time only embellishes, kept even more pure and profound by the fact that they finally cannot be expressed in words.

Now, this instinct that attaches a sentiment of shame or modesty to the pleasures of love could easily have suggested to men the idea of a certain degree of wrongdoing attached to these pleasures, while the great intensity of the pleasures that accompany love made forgoing them a sacrifice worthy of being offered to the gods.

Like all the instincts that civilization develops and refines, this instinct is not the work of civilization. It is also found in the savage heart. The Iroquois have their sacred virgins;30 and among the Hurons there are many who profess a vow Edition: current; Page: [125] of perpetual chastity. Young blacks, both male and female, despite the hot climate in which they live, oblige themselves to practice strict abstinence from the pleasures of the senses.31 The greater number who cannot wholly resist their attraction atone for this fault by painful penances, or make newly born infants expiate it by such cruel procedures that their lives are put in danger.32 Man is always shadowed Edition: current; Page: [126] by the thought that he is not here simply to enjoy himself, and that to be born, to procreate, and to multiply are not his only destiny.

Later we will see the priesthood of more than one ancient people make perverse use of this indefinable but indestructible sentiment; we will see that what nature engraved in the heart of human beings to bring the two sexes together by means of a common modesty, and which means that each for the other is the sole beloved on earth, was interpreted by priests as entailing the rejection of the first law of this nature, the union of the sexes. An absurd celibacy became a slow but terrible torture that ignores the senses, overturns the imagination, and brings acute pain and trouble to the most delicate souls. In the priestly religions it became the best way of honoring the gods. But even as we bring this criminal abuse to light, we also have to recognize that the primitive notion of impurity preceded the abuse.

Self-interest, however, did not wait long to intervene in this powerful notion of sacrifice, which when it seizes hold of men takes turns perfecting, then misleading, them.

Sentiment wanted sacrifice to be disinterested. Interest wants it to be an exchange of services. Religion is thus reduced to commerce. And worship ceases when its profitability does. Man goes from one fetish to another, always seeking a more faithful ally, a more powerful protector, a more zealous accomplice.

Directing religion toward this ignoble aim, self-interest deprives it of every moral aspect. The fetish is a greedy, egotistical being allied to a human being as egotistical as it is, although weaker. The sacrifices it rewards only refer to it. The duties it imposes consist in victims, in offerings, in expressions of submission—agreed-upon currency that will be required in the future. It is payment demanded by the fetish for the protection it accords. Let this payment be given exactly, neither of the contracting parties cares one whit about a third party.

Religion then becomes such a commercial exchange that man establishes, as it were, an account with his god. He looks to see if this god has adequately acquitted itself of the engagements he supposedly contracted. And if the balance does not Edition: current; Page: [127] square, the worshipper abandons or punishes the deity, strikes it or breaks it, consigns it to the flames or the deep.33

It would be unreasonable to protest too much at the absurdity of such revenge. Such puerile conduct has its counterpart in more enlightened times,34 and the most refined religion has not always preserved its more ignorant followers from it.35

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When one savage becomes the enemy of another their fetishes do, too.36 Later, when two nations fight, the gods divide and each nation has its heavenly auxiliaries. This is the same thought adapted to the social state of each period. Among civilized peoples, as with ignorant tribes, divine assistance is given not because of the justice of the cause but because of the liberality of the worshippers.

Here, too, we have to caution our readers against the hasty disdain that civilization lavishes upon savages. Whatever the belief might be, the main thing is to see if sentiment or self-interest predominates. If it is self-interest, the purity of the doctrine does not matter. Religion then is only worship of fetishes. And in civilized souls corrupted by egoism and blinded by fear, this fetishism is as revolting as it is among the Iroquois. Louis XI put himself on the level of these miserable tribes when, prostrate before Our Lady of Cléry, he tried to atone for a fratricide by bribing the saint with magnificent gifts.

In times of great danger the savage does not rest content with his customary fetish, he seeks the assistance of all those of which he has any knowledge; their number can mount into the thousands.37 In the same way, when their harvest has been poor Russian peasants (whom absolute power believes it has converted) borrow their saints from their more fortunate neighbors, because they have shown themselves more effective.38 Before the battle of Marathon, the Athenians instituted the cult of Pan, whom they had not worshipped before that time.39 Louis XI, of whom we just spoke, when he was on his deathbed gathered relics from everywhere on earth.40

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Once he has entered this path, man is forced to follow it to the end. Having conceived gods who are similar to him by their passions, he has to conceive them similar to him in their needs, their habits, and their destiny. The goddesses of the Kamtschatka carry their newborns on their backs, like human women do. These divine infants suffer and cry like human infants. And every night coming down from the mountains, the pregnant Olympia runs to the river as eager to fish as humans, but more adroit and fortunate than they.41

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CHAPTER 3: The Religious Sentiment’s Efforts to Rise above This Form

Such is the worship of man in the primitive state.1 It is religion at the most animal-like period of the human spirit. It is behind all the forms that we will describe in the sequel. The gods are not brought together in a body, as with the polytheism of civilized nations. Its vague notions of the Great Spirit do not rise to the level of theism. It chooses its protectors from a much lower sphere. It does not have the zealous spirit of theocracy, which, by placing its god in perpetual hostility to all other gods, by means of intolerance creates the national spirit and patriotism.

In this narrow and undeveloped conception, however, is contained the seed of all the elevated ideas that will be developed later.

The sacred objects of primitive worship are negligible, useless, monstrous, and ridiculous. But is this not another proof of the need that man has to worship?

He attributes life and intelligence to all objects. He thinks that all concern themselves with him, that they speak to him, threaten him, and warn him. The spiritualist who sees nothing in nature that is not animated by the divine spirit, and the pantheist who conceives divinity to be inherent in every part of the physical world, only follow the path originally blazed by the savage with his confused notions and halting steps. His worship is but the religious sentiment in its original form. It is man asking the nature he neither understands nor can understand where force, power, and goodness are to be found. No matter how crude it may appear, this religious sentiment is nobler, and even more rational, than all the systems that see in life only a matter of chance, and in intelligence a transient accident.

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We have already indicated some of the efforts that the religious sentiment makes to purify its form. We saw such efforts in the prototypical Manitou, the Great Spirit of the heavens or the seas.

To clearly see the struggle this effort entails, it will help to contrast the prayers the savage addresses to his fetishes with those he offers to the Great Spirit.

The Koryak says to his idol (while sacrificing dogs and reindeer to it): “Receive our gifts, but in turn send us what we expect from you.” In this prayer, everything is base, egoist, greedy.

In contrast, the Delaware Indians’ battle hymn, sung in honor of the great Manitou of the earth, seas, and skies, is characterized by an entirely religious, and entirely moral, resignation.

To arms to fight the enemy!

Unsheathe your axe and brandish your mace.

Will I ever see my father’s roof, the wife of my marriage bed, or the infants she carries on her back and nourishes at her breasts?

Supreme Spirit, Great Spirit above, take pity on my spouse and watch over the children she has given me.

I am a weak and powerless creature, not an instant of my life belongs to me, not one of my limbs.

I go where duty calls me for the honor and freedom of my nation. Let not the tears of those close to me flow because of me.2

The religious sentiment does not limit itself to distinguishing the infinite being toward which it rises from the vulgar idols that self-interest has created. It exerts its influence on the idols themselves, which it constantly seeks to ennoble and embellish.

As we have seen, the savage does not attribute human form to his fetishes. He likens them to it as much as he can, however, because for him this figure is the ideal of beauty. He sculpts them, he decorates them. The Laplanders, the Caribs, the inhabitants of New Zealand, those who live on the banks of the Amazon, the Africans of Loango, the tribes of Central or South America—all fashion idols of mud, stone, wood, and the cloth they acquire from more civilized peoples. They attempt to give them a human form. Pieces of coral or pebbles represent the eyes, Edition: current; Page: [132] animal skins serve as clothes, then they decorate them in a thousand ways.3 The Russians subjugated the Tamertones and the Tartars of Attai but without civilizing them, and forced them to submit to a few Christian practices without eradicating their penchant for fetishes. In their world, they knew no more beautiful apparel than the uniforms of the Russian dragoons. They therefore believed their fetishes were dressed like the officers.4 It is difficult not to smile at this. But this is the poor savage’s attempt to attach to his god everything magnificent that he knows. Thus one sees in this creature the germ of the idea that with Phidias’s chisel will produce the Olympian Jupiter.

We have shown that morality remains foreign to the contract established between man and his fetish. In truth, it is very possible for reason to conceive of religion apart from morality. The relations of men with the gods constitute religion. The relations of men with one another constitute morality. These two things have no necessary relationship with each other. The gods can be simply concerned with men’s conduct toward them without any interest in men’s behavior toward one another. And men can be concerned with the gods simply in connection with the duties of worship. Morality can exist in complete independence.

One cannot conceive of a religion that does not represent the gods as powerful. But it is easy to conceive a religion that grants them no other attribute but power. This in fact would be very natural if terror was the sole source of religion. Natural phenomena only suggest the idea of power. There is no affinity between the lightning that strikes, the flood that carries away, the abyss that swallows, and moral good or evil. Even after having personified the accidents of nature by attributing them to intelligent beings, and after having established the communication with them that serves as the basis for the exchanges between the two parties, man still has many steps to take before imposing upon them disinterested duties or gratuitous actions.

If sentiment, therefore, did not succeed in altering the state of things established by self-interest, religion would inevitably become harmful to morality. The worshipper of a mercenary god, counting on an assistance paid for, would trample on justice with more boldness if he thought he was assured of supernatural assistance.

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Fortunately, even in this degraded condition sentiment calls upon morality, and in a thousand ways causes it to enter religion.

First of all, we can look at the relationship in its narrowest form; that is, the contract between the two parties. It implies the idea of fidelity to engagements, which is a moral notion.

In the second place, even in the primitive state a kind of human association exists. The individuals of a tribe are united by a common interest. This common interest needs to have its tutelary divinity.5 Religion takes the association under its protection. It protects the association against its own members, and the members of the association against one another.

The greatest and most difficult problem of society consists in finding some sanction for the engagements that men assume among themselves. The need for this sanction makes itself felt during each human transaction. We never deal with someone whose interests differ from ours without trying to read in his eyes if his real intentions correspond to his words. And sad experience constantly informs us of the inadequacy of our efforts. Voice, gesture, and look can all be the accomplices of deceit.

Religious conviction creates a safeguard: the oath. But with the disappearance of the conviction, the guarantee disappears as well. All too often in the course of history an irreligious people goes from one oath of obedience to another, but not really believing that it is bound by either. It considers them to be mere formulas that authority has the right to demand; therefore the current authority supersedes the previous. For their part, authorities who are as hypocritical as they are irreligious repudiate the promises made the night before, without any concern for the public scandal thus caused. In such a situation, all bonds are severed, justice no longer exists; duty disappears with it, and mere force reigns. Perjury on both sides makes society a permanent state of war and deceit.

But in the primitive state the oath has greater force. One should be grateful to religion that from the very origins of societies it creates this guarantee. The Malabars,6 blacks,7 Kalmucks,8 and Ostyaks9 all call upon their fetishes as witnesses Edition: current; Page: [134] on solemn occasions. In this way they submit their momentary passions and changing humors to an invisible yoke.

To be sure, egoism fights this salutary influence of religion; it persuades itself that the gods it invokes will never come forward against it. Several fetish-worshipping tribes believe that they can perjure themselves with impunity when they deal with strangers: they believe their fetishes cannot take up the latter’s cause.10 We will see this contradiction continue among civilized peoples.

Nonetheless, it is an advance to have created a guarantee within a people. The notions at the base of this guarantee will not be slow to expand beyond the narrow confines of a particular territory. Exerting its influence from savage to savage, later religion will exercise it from nation to nation; in fact, it already prepares this move.

The beliefs of American tribes imposed a duty upon them of respecting the envoys of neighboring nations. Placed under the protection of the Great Spirit, these envoys could not be mistreated without committing a crime, and the guilty were delivered over to immediate death. Thus, continues the missionary from whom I borrow this fact,11 messengers who were charged with declaring a war of devastation and extinction were listened to in silence, then escorted with respect to the borders of the territory.

Thus even in its crudest state religion is beneficial. To be sure, this direct utility is neither the sole nor the most important aspect of it, and we adamantly oppose Edition: current; Page: [135] the idea that it should go in first place. In a moment we will show that it is even more salutary because of the emotions it causes than the crimes it forbids. But we should spend some time on this first sort of usefulness even though it is subordinate. We wish to prove that it follows even from fetishism.

According to a traveler,12 on the island of Nuku Hiva all the laws and all social order rest on religion. These laws and this order consist in declaring that such-and-such a thing is sacred; that is to say, that the owner alone has the right to touch it. This consecration takes place by means of the priests. They call taboo everything they have consecrated. The persons and the properties of all the inhabitants of the island are taboo. No one dares to steal from them or attack their lives. Their wives share the same guarantee, and no one dares to perpetrate violence against them. When a baby is born, one or two fruit trees are declared taboo and reserved for his use alone. Since two of these trees are sufficient to nourish a man during the entire year, each has his subsistence assured. The person who violates a taboo is universally condemned and cannot escape the punishments the invisible spirits inflict upon such a one.

We must confess: we feel real emotion when we see religion even in its most imperfect form, as found among the most ignorant peoples, associating itself with the ideas of justice and beneficence, and, even as childish as it may be, doing the work that the wisdom of legislators has always recommended: providing for the lives of citizens, the subsistence of the poor, the chastity of women. It is truly moving to see the savage employing his confused ideas and finding in them a safeguard for everything dear to him.

The sentiment that we feel will become even livelier and more profound when we come to see the human spirit making progress, when we see, for instance, the taboo of Nuku Hiva at work in the Greek Jupiter, the protector of the weak and suppliants.

If man derived his religious ideas only from the material actions of external objects; if religion was only the work of the mind, a result of self-interest, ignorance, or fear; its alliance with morality would be neither so rapid nor so inevitable. But morality is a sentiment. It associates itself naturally with the religious sentiment because all sentiments cohere. The worship of invisible beings and the ideas of equity encounter and join together from the earliest days of societies. The savage’s fetish to us seems to be a vague and ridiculous chimera; it however is a great boon to his moral development and to his future improvement.

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The reader will see in what follows that we have not at all concealed the abuse suffered by the religious sentiment when it was captured by a class that wanted to monopolize it and make it an instrument of power, an object of calculation, the privilege of a few directed against all. But just as much as we believe we have to highlight and condemn the assaults on such a noble sentiment, we also believe we have to show the advantages of religion left to itself.

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CHAPTER 4: On the Ideas of Another Life in the Worship of Savages

It is above all by carefully considering the conjectures of primitive tribes on the state of the dead and on the life to come that we can clearly discern the struggle between the religious sentiment and self-interest.

If, as we think we have demonstrated, religion always places itself in the unknown, the center of all religious conjectures must be death, because death is the most imposing of all unknown things.

By his nature man is not at all disposed to believe in another life. Even when his reason adopts the idea it remains foreign to his instinct. In the universe he conceives only himself, and about himself, only life.

The closer he is to the primitive state, the stronger instinct is and the weaker his reason. Therefore his intellect refuses to think that what lived can die.

Blacks,1 and several peoples of Siberia,2 attribute death to heaven’s anger or to magic; savages of Paraguay,3 each time one of them dies, seek its soul in bushes and, not finding it there, say that it is lost. The Daures bring food to the dead for several weeks: so extraordinary does the phenomenon of death appear to them, despite so much experience of it.

Finally, however, the terrible conviction settles. The dark abyss opens, but no look can penetrate it. Man immediately fills the abyss with religion. The immense void is peopled; the darkness takes on colors; and terror, even if it does not wholly disappear, is calmed and softened.

It is from the idea of death that the religious sentiment receives its most expansive Edition: current; Page: [138] and most beautiful developments. If man were fixed on earth forever, he would end by so identifying with it that religion would flee his soul. Calculation would have too much time, cunning too many advantages, and experience—whether sad or fortunate—would end by extinguishing all emotions that belong neither to egoism nor to success. But by interrupting these calculations, death renders success futile; it dethrones authority, strips it bare, and casts it naked into the pit; it is an eloquent and even necessary ally of all the sentiments that transport us beyond this world, which is to say: all of our generous and noble sentiments. Even in the primitive state, all that religion possesses of the most pure and profound stems from this idea. When the forest-dweller of America displays the bones of his forefathers and refuses to abandon them, when the captive warrior chants while braving the most painful torture and is worried about only one thing: that he bring no shame to the shades of his ancestors, this heroism is entirely religious. It is composed of memories of the past and promises for the future. It triumphs over the present; it presides over his entire life.

However, the degradation we have already noted in the savage’s conceptions of his gods also tarnishes those of the next life. Self-interest wants to arrange this imagined world for its own use; the intellect wants to describe it; and because it cannot create from nothing and has to use existing materials, the ideal world becomes a copy of this world.

The inhabitants of Paraguay think that in the next life the individual is exposed to hunger and thirst, to the inclemency of the weather and the attacks of wild beasts, and that the shadows there are divided into rich and poor, masters and subjects.4 The savages of Louisiana refuse to believe one can do without food there.5 Tahitians believe they are reunited with their wives and can have new children with them.6 The people of Guinea, those of Greenland, the tribes of South Edition: current; Page: [139] America, fear a second death after which all is over for the individual.7 So strong is the human inclination to envisage what will be from what is.

The conjectures about the next life differ according to climate and local or individual situation. But they do not differ in fundamental nature. The one who has never left the place of his birth points to the mountains in the distance, beyond which one day he will live with his ancestors; there in his canoe he will ride the waves and cast his spear. The Indian taken to Europe awaits the fetish who can take him on the wings of the wind back to his native country.8 He wishes for a speedy death, so as to escape from the European monsters and return to his former pleasures.9 The unfortunate soul born into slavery has more humble hopes: one implores his idol that he will no longer be the slave of a white man.10

The anthropomorphism that affects the ideas of the savage has a negative consequence. It removes morality from every idea concerning the state of the dead. Even those tribes that distinguish a place of happiness and one of torments do not populate the former with the virtuous and the latter with criminals. The difference of destiny depends upon accidental circumstances. The inhabitants of the Marianne Islands, even while they acknowledge a place of sufferings and one of happiness, do not connect them with the ideas of punishment and reward. Those who die a violent death are the damned of this mythology; those whose death is easy are the elect.11

However, it should be noted that every time that travelers or missionaries have made use of the distinction in order to introduce the idea of distributive justice, Edition: current; Page: [140] and have asked the savages if guilty souls were not separated from innocent ones, the savages eagerly embraced the separation. Even if nothing in their previous stories had said so, this immediately became part of their beliefs. One would say that the religious sentiment was merely awaiting this ray of light, and that it took over this hope as if it were its natural possession.

Nonetheless, from this likening of the next life to this life, a certain abasement of religion results, and for man, constant restlessness. A host of practices emerges aimed to place the deceased beyond the needs that even the tomb does not guarantee. And long in advance, the living take prudent precautions, providing for their stay in the place that, sooner or later, awaits them. The hunter has his arrows placed beside him, the fisherman his nets.

When a Greenland child dies, the most faithful dog is buried with him in order to lead him to the relatives who have gone before him.12 The same victim, placed at the foot of the bedside of a sick Huron, is to announce their arrival to the shades that await them. In days gone by the Iroquois placed beside each deceased warrior weapons, skins, and colors with which to paint himself.13 Some even buried their fetishes with them.14 Even today the Laplanders place flint and tinder in their silver coffins in order to light their way.15 And the islanders of Car Nicobar in India consider depriving someone who just died of the future service of the animals he owned to be a sacrilegious theft.16

Who can fail to see in this a combination of self-interest and sentiment? What the savage does for himself is only egoism; what he does for the deceased that he loved belongs to religion. Religion, from this time on a consolation, trumps sadness. The father who buries with his young warrior son his bow and arrows thus represents the son to himself as running through the forests of another world, full of the vigor that recently caused the heart of the father to swell with pride. Having stopped at a cabin, a traveler found two savages, male and female, in despair over the death of a four-year-old child. The father died a few days later; the mother’s tears ceased immediately; she appeared calm and resigned. Queried by the traveler, her sadness had been caused by the idea that her son of four years could not find Edition: current; Page: [141] his own subsistence in the land of the souls; now that her spouse had rejoined him she was not worried about him and looked forward to rejoining them.17

Unfortunately, however, as consoling as they initially are, these opinions and the practices they confirm become cruel. In Nigeria,18 and among the Natches19 and the Caribs,20 slaves were buried with their masters, prisoners with their conquerors, even wives with their husbands. The Yakuts only recently gave up this practice. American tribes torment their captives in honor of their ancestors;21 and while they torture these unfortunates they invoke the shades of the heroes who died in battle.22

On the island of Borneo, the inhabitants believe that those whom they kill become their slaves in the next life; this idea has infinitely multiplied assassinations.23 Among all these peoples time is split between ambushes to capture potential victims and negotiations to redeem them. Such is the danger, too little observed until now, of applying known ideas to the unknown.

In order to inhabit a world similar to ours, the soul must resemble the body. Primitives compare it to the shadow that follows them on earth. Earthly shadows probably suggested this comparison.24 Many believe it to be of an invisible and intangible material.25 Sleep and dreams give them the idea that the soul can exist independently of its organs. Greenlanders say that when it abandons its crude envelope, the soul hunts, dances, or travels to far-away places. But it nonetheless Edition: current; Page: [142] always remains dependent upon its body, whose accidents and sufferings affect it. When the body is mutilated, it is also. It feels this mutilation even beyond the grave and forever bears the marks. Blacks fear much less to be put to death than they do to be deprived of any member.26 And one of the abilities with which the angekoks of Greenland flatter themselves, which especially recommends them in the eyes of believers, consists in healing—or in their own parlance, stitching up—wounded souls.

A strange thing! This same opinion that seems absurd to us, almost beneath the first stage of society, reproduces itself at the other extreme of civilization. When the Mogols conquered China, they ordered the conquered to shave their heads the same way they did. Throngs of Chinese preferred torture, fearing that if they appeared before their ancestors bald, their souls would not be recognized and they would be rejected.27

One might be tempted to think that the idea of metempsychosis is incompatible with these ideas. But in the wave that tosses him, man is close to this contradiction.

In and of itself, the idea of metempsychosis is a very natural one. The instinct of animals sometimes resembles reason. And when one recognizes the motives that direct humans’ actions, one is tempted to seek in their bodies the souls that have disappeared. We therefore observe some version of metempsychosis among almost all the savage tribes. But this hypothesis does not satisfy any of the subsequent needs of the imagination. Therefore in religious practice it is more or less rapidly abandoned, or at least separated from the consequences that would follow. Even though, as we saw, Greenlanders believe in it, and the poor among them make use of it to obtain benefits from the rich,28 they nonetheless bury with their children dogs who are destined to serve as guides. As for the Iroquois, they also speak of the next life where the dead reprise the occupations of this life.29 Among them, as is the Edition: current; Page: [143] case with the mystery religions and the Gospel itself, the grain that is cast in the ground is the symbol of immortality, and they bury the remains of their relations on the side of paths so that their souls may be closer to vivify the bodies formed in the bellies of pregnant women.

Nonetheless, the religious sentiment—which improves everything that falls under its influence—in the primitive state appears to prevail over the idea of metempsychosis by making it a mode of gradual purification and an exercise of divine justice. According to the mountain dwellers of Rajahmahal, the body of animals is the abode of degenerate souls,30 and if vice likens man to beasts, virtue must liken him to divinity. Nothing more resembles the migrations of souls in the priestly philosophy of Egypt and in the Greek mystery cults where this philosophy was transplanted.

After having fashioned his future dwelling place after the image of what he conceives rather than what he desires, the savage wants to decorate it in brilliant colors. He wants it to be richer in pleasures than his earthly dwelling. Tormented in this life by a hostile sky, the Laplander hopes for a milder climate and a better species of reindeer.31

However, despite the hope he gives himself, the savage is struck by an invincible terror. Despite himself, he depicts the situation awaiting him as miserable.

The drama of his last moments, the anguish and convulsions of his final agony, shed a somber hue over the unknown abode that defies every effort of the imagination to dispel.

The Patagonians say that souls dwell in the bodies of aquatic birds characterized by their halting flight and their doleful cries. According to the inhabitants of Chile, the food of the deceased is bitter to taste and black in color. In the Homeric netherworld, the stars are dimmed and flowers are darker. This is the conception of the primitive, decked out in the images of poetry.

The dreams and imaginings of self-interest, whatever they are, speak only to the egoistical part of our nature; they do not satisfy the religious sentiment, which alone can achieve victory over the repugnance the image of destruction naturally inspires in every living being. This sentiment takes no part in these fantastic paradises that address themselves only to the eyes and the senses. And from time to time an unexpected idea shines through, like lightning lighting up the night. The Edition: current; Page: [144] idea of an eternal reunion with the Great Spirit appears among the vague conjectures of the savage; it is thus that in the midst of barbarism the noble hypothesis vaguely hovers that one day will console Socrates. It is the core of a sublime system that nourishes man with the sole hope able to satisfy his soul, fill the martyr with exaltation, and the dying with confidence.

Nonetheless, at the period we are now considering the uncertain glimmers that the savage glimpses from time to time do not suffice to reassure him. He yields to visible impressions, and they dishearten and frighten him.

He would like to place the deceased in a place of pleasures, but he sees them wander miserably around their old dwelling places. Hunger, thirst, and cold torment them, and their constant suffering inspires resentment and hatred toward men.32 According to Caribs, they take on the form of venomous reptiles or of malevolent demons.33 The inhabitants of Tahiti and of New Holland, the island-dwellers of Ambon, think that they enter into huts and drink the blood of those they surprise while asleep.34 The Tschermisses encase tombs so that the dead cannot get out and eat those who survive.35 The women of Matamba dive into the sea in order to drown the souls of their husbands, who otherwise may return and revenge themselves on them.36 Several tribes do not even dare to pronounce the names of those who no longer exist, and become angry at the rashness of the individual who would utter them and thus trouble their sleep.37 Others silently ride the waves and fish in silence so that the manes do not get angry at being awakened.38 Among the Abipones, when a family loses one of its members, it burns his clothes and weapons, leaves its hut, and changes its name.39

Let us pause a moment and reflect upon these diverse movements, incompatible and contradictory. When it comes to the dead, where do this respect, this horror, and this calculation, all found together in his spirit, come from? First, whence the respect that he barely satisfies by multiple commemorations, sacrifices, and honors Edition: current; Page: [145] of every sort? Then, the horror that he calms only by the distancing, disappearance, or forgetting of the being who no longer exists, and everything connected with his memory? Or calculation, which transports egoism beyond physical destruction and forces him to create a place in an imaginary universe, which he furnishes and provides with everything he finds useful or agreeable?

We find nothing similar among the other animals. The sole instinct that belongs to their nature moves them to seek and find a solitary place where they can expire without witnesses. They seem to be instructed about one thing alone, that they must get rid of the ugly remains and not foul the air with noxious odors. As for anything else, no foresight, no anxiety about their individual destiny after death; no memory, no commemoration of those who have lived by those who survive. There may be some dubious exceptions, perhaps produced by the habits contracted by a few domesticated animals, but which probably are exaggerated observations of those who have a certain prior view. In no way do they change the general rule.

Man, on the contrary, while he is instinctively repulsed by the dead, finds himself again attracted to them by a movement that overcomes this instinct. Everything that strikes his eyes frightens him; everything that comes to his senses wounds him; nonetheless he constantly returns to these beloved (and fearful) objects.40 When decomposition renders this back-and-forth impossible, and being forced to separate from the body, he attaches himself to their tombs. The warrior reddens them with his blood; the virgin deposits a lock of hair; the mother pours her milk on it or sprinkles flowers.41 Friendship makes it a duty to descend, living, to the netherworld.42 Even egoism, sacrificing the present for the future, puts aside the better part of its possessions so as to preserve them intact for another world.

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And despite all this, some do not recognize that man is totally different from the rest of animated matter! From the beginning of the social state, when nothing is yet developed in him, death, which for the animals is only the sign of a dissolution that it undergoes without foreseeing and fearing it, without being aware of anything but the present moment, death occupies in the soul of the primitive a place greater than life itself. He does not live except, as it were, to prepare himself to die. He employs his faculties here-below only to arrange—in accordance with his still-childlike desires—the invisible abode where he must live. He is the owner who has taken lodging in a small house in order to oversee the construction of a palace. And some would have us believe that this instinct has no other cause than the vague imaginings of an ignorant, animal-like creature! But what, we must ask, would have suggested to this creature these vague imaginings? Why are they so deeply inherent in him, reserved so exclusively to him?

The obvious crudeness of the hopes and fears of the savage, therefore, do not undermine our arguments. We have already explained how the religious sentiment, the original source of all worship, is not the only faculty of man that contributes to their form. Here, as elsewhere, one sees the traces of the different impulses that share this being who is at once egoistical, rational, and moral. To logic belongs everything that is anthropomorphic, to self-interest everything that is calculated, to sentiment everything that is emotion. Reason, at once guided and deceived by analogy, brings to the abode of the dead the imitation of life. Making its calculations on the basis of this imitation, self-interest suggests to the master the barbarous requirement of sacrificing captives or slaves, to the husband the cruel affection that leads his spouse into the grave or upon the pyre, to the hunter or the warrior the desire to bring with him his bow and his arrows, his spear, or his mace.

Finally, sentiment struggles against a limited intellect and an ignoble self-interest and binds up religion’s wounds. The regrets and the respects it devotes to the dead ennoble the narrow religious conceptions. It makes use of the limited images of anthropomorphism, but it purifies them. Sometimes it teaches disinterestedness and controls avarice.43 Sometimes it wanders into metempsychosis, but Edition: current; Page: [147] there is still something touching and affectionate in the savage’s commiseration for the soul that suffers, being separated from the body, and in his efforts to find another for the suffering soul. At other times, it makes use of the crude notions that lower the next life to the level of this one, but inserts self-denial and sacrifice. Finally, by its prayer—which combines regret for the departed and hope in the deity—it purifies cruder notions concerning the nature of this divinity. In this way he elevates the material form, animating it with a spirit in which one can already recognize something divine.

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CHAPTER 5: On the Errors into Which Several Authors Have Fallen Because They Failed to Note the Struggle of the Religious Sentiment against the Form of Religion at This Period

The struggle of the religious sentiment against its form in the worship of primitive tribes leads to contradictions that have given rise to many errors.

Because the savage, in addition to the fetish that is his customary protector, recognizes a Great Spirit, an invisible god to whom he attributes the creation and even the general direction of this universe, some have concluded that a pure theism existed from the beginning as the religion of primitive tribes.

The theologians of the seventeenth century, and the historians of the eighteenth century who had not overtly enrolled under the banner of philosophy, imposed upon themselves the adoption of this hypothesis as a sacred duty.

In vain did all the monuments, narratives, and annals of antiquity agree in attesting to the polytheism of all peoples during the first reported period of their history. Modern authors dismissed this concert of witnesses with truly remarkable ease.

Since theism was the sole natural religion, when they were asked where polytheism came from they replied, “Worship was corrupted, men grew weary of seeing so simply.” But what sudden cause produced the fatigue? “Because it is difficult to conceive that a single mover impressed on the universe of beings so many contradictory motions.” But the difficulty could not have been less when men were very primitive; and if they were unable to remain at the heights of theism, they hardly could have attained it with their first steps! To this it was replied “that polytheism was the result of the human tendency to worship the things that fall under his senses.”1 But this tendency has existed at all times, with all men; how could it happen Edition: current; Page: [149] that they ceased fighting it precisely when their reason was more developed and provided them with greater means of resistance?

Nonetheless, this conventional opinion was oft repeated and the priority of theism Edition: current; Page: [150] acquired the force of received wisdom. Then a small number of minds, more reflective and less disposed to simply parrot sonorous phrases, demonstrated the error of such a system. However, as it often happens in times of philosophical or political parties, going from one error they passed through the truth and ended with new errors.

They say that the admirable regularity of this universe could not have struck intellects still in their infancy, since nothing yet manifested it. Order seems to an ignorant man to be a simple thing. He does not seek its cause. What captures his attention are convulsions and disruptions. The harmony of the spheres says nothing to the savage’s imagination. But he lends an ear to the thunder that crackles or the lightning that shakes the forest. In its meditations on invisible forces, science occupies itself with fixed rules. Ignorance is wholly captive to the disorder of exceptions.

Now, these exceptions suggest to the mind notions that are entirely contrary to a single god. Different forces seem to do battle in the heavens and on earth. Human fortunes are exposed to a thousand unforeseen and contradictory influences. One is therefore tempted to attribute these different effects to different causes.2

Up to this point, everything is correct in these reasonings. But the philosophers then inferred that in its primitive state the human race had adored only pebbles, animals, and tree branches, and had worshipped them only out of self-interest and fear. To see man prostrate before such base divinities was a triumph for unbelief. Our ears had been worn out by a century of pious embellishments concerning the purity of primitive theism, as well as pious lamentations concerning its deplorable degradation; they were no less pestered the next sixty years by equally monotonous and ill-founded declarations concerning fetishism, presented as an absurd and shameful concept, the source of all religious ideas.

The error was obvious in both directions. If it is certain that ignorant man cannot rise to theism, it is equally certain that even in fetishism there is a movement that goes far beyond the adoration of fetishes. The savage who invokes them certainly considers them to be beings stronger than he; in this they are gods. But when he punishes them, breaks or burns them, they are enemies he mistreats, and no longer gods he adores. The Great Spirit, on the contrary, the prototypical Manitou, is not exposed to these vicissitudes of worship and outrage. It is in this idea that the savage concentrates his ideas of perfection. To be sure, he thinks about it less, he Edition: current; Page: [151] only does so at irregular intervals. The interest of the moment calls him away; it constantly distracts him. Perhaps even a mute instinct informs him that he ought not to bring the being he so respects into the vulgar conflict of base passions.3 But he returns to it each time profound emotions or tender affections stir in him.

One therefore can envisage primitive worship under two points of view, depending upon whether one considers what comes from sentiment or what interest is doing. Sentiment distances the object of worship in order better to adore it; interest brings it closer, the better to use it.

Hence, on one hand, there is a certain tendency toward theism, one, however, that must remain without fruit for a long time, because divinity so conceived is much too subtle for a barely awakened intelligence. On the other hand, this is the source of crude notions that cannot soon fail to be insufficient for developing intelligence because they are too material. As it advances, it is forced to reject them.

Only to see fetishism in the belief of ignorant savage tribes is to fail to see the élan of the human soul and the first efforts of the human spirit. But to see pure theism is to anticipate the later progress of the human race and to honor primitive man with the difficult discoveries that come only later from a more developed reason.

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CHAPTER 6: On the Influence of Priests in the Primitive State

As soon as man has conceived the idea of beings superior to him with whom he has means of communication, he must acknowledge that the means are not all equally sure. It becomes important to distinguish among their degrees of reliability. If he does not hope to find the best and most sure ways by his own efforts, he naturally turns to those whom he believes are knowledgeable because of more experience, or who declare themselves to possess greater knowledge. He seeks around him privileged, favored, confident organs of the gods; and as soon as he seeks them, he finds them.

Hence, one finds among primitives the class of men whom the Tartars call schammans; the Laplanders, noaïds; Samoyeds, tadiles, and whom travelers typically designate by the generic name of jongleurs.

This still-undeveloped seed of the sacerdotal order is not the effect of fraud, ambition, or imposture, as is often said. It is inseparable from religion itself. It is not established by priests themselves; they are established by the force of things.

But as soon as the savage has created priests, the priests tend to form a corporate body.1 Here too one should not accuse them; this is also natural.

Give a certain number of men an interest distinct from the common interest: these men, united by a particular bond, by the same token will be separated from Edition: current; Page: [153] everything not belonging to the body. And they will think that bringing everything under the influence of the caste is legitimate and meritorious. Bring men together around a banner and you will have soldiers; bring them around an altar and you will have priests.

The jongleurs of the savages therefore work to construct an enclosure the vulgar cannot penetrate. They are no less jealous about everything that pertains to their sacred functions than the Druids of Gaul or the Brahmins of India. They become indignant at anyone who encroaches on their territory without obtaining their permission. They impose trials and a novitiate upon those who seek admission into the privileged body.2 The novitiate lasts several years. The trials are long and painful, even bizarre. At every period, fasts, self-lacerations, flagellations, sufferings, and vigils are the customary means for approaching the invisible powers.3 The primitive jongleurs are already led by the somber, lugubrious spirit of hierophants and mystagogues.4

When profane individuals reject this severe apprenticeship and declare themselves priests on their own authority, their rivals refuse to grant this title. They are called magicians, and whatever they are able to foretell is attributed to immoral dealings with genii hostile to humans.

Here one discerns, albeit obscurely, a distinction that will become quite important in the development of religion, the distinction between religion and magic.

Properly speaking, magic is nothing but religion separated from the religious sentiment and reduced entirely to the notions that self-interest suggests. All the characteristics self-interest gives to religion are reproduced in magic. A more than human power, the assistance obtained from this venal force by sacrifices detached from morality (and sometimes in opposition to its precepts)—in a word, the employment Edition: current; Page: [154] of unknown forces to satisfy the passions and desires of men—this is what devotion motivated by egoism seeks in every land, and what sorcerers promise in every country.

Even though they promise the same things by the same means, the priests of the primitive tribes distinguish themselves from sorcerers. This is because the rivalry that occurs between priests forces them to seek accusations against their rivals, but these accusations cannot undermine the basis of priestly authority.

Accusations that are based on the existence of malevolent gods (whose origins we analyzed earlier) marvelously combine these two objectives. They fortify belief instead of undermining it; they create two supernatural empires, rivals to one another. They employ the same weapons, appeal to the same hopes and fears, and both condemn to similar reprobation. Therefore, to the applause of Iroquois5 or Indian6 tribes, pyres are lit to devour sorcerers, or they are cast into the waves to drown. This savage acclaim was echoed in the great satisfaction expressed by the equally ignorant populaces of Paris or Madrid of yesteryear.

It is only when reason’s progress has discredited magic that priests come to see only impostors, not rivals, in magicians. They, however, delay such progress as much as they can. For how many centuries did men have to believe in lots, under penalty of impiety?7

We will return later to this subject. We will see the ministers of defeated cults Edition: current; Page: [155] proscribed as magicians, and their gods portrayed as malevolent genii. The erstwhile objects of a Saxon’s legitimate devotion became demons of the underworld in Charlemagne’s capitularies. And the pagan Roman pontiff’s prayers to the most high Jupiter will become damnable words for Christians, issuing from a dark and illicit power. Here, however, we will limit ourselves to a brief indication.

The difference between the two notions was not so clear, the boundary line between the two professions was too fine, for the savage to give it serious attention.8 More than other factors, success decides the degree of respect and confidence. Jongleurs who fail are treated as sorcerers.9 The chiefs of African blacks or Caribs put them to death indifferently as soon as they are suspected of imposture or found guilty of impotence.10

Priests or magicians, sorcerers or jongleurs, have the same functions. Their mysterious operations obtain the protection of a fetish or preserve the savage from the snares hostile fetishes extend before him. If he is dissatisfied with his god, jongleurs recommend another or fabricate one.11 When prayers are inadequate, violence is allowed, and, like the magi, the shamans pride themselves on being able to compel the immortals.12

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They conduct these operations at night in far-away locales, howling and convulsing horribly,13 accompanied by the beat of drums,14 their fires emitting only a somber flickering light.15 They use every means of inspiring fear; their costumes, for example, leave the human form barely recognizable.16 Sometimes they walk on burning coals, sometimes they pierce bodies with swords.17 The approach of the god is announced by a noise similar to an oncoming storm, and it is probably by means of an art we Europeans employ for entertainment that they make the voice of an invisible fetish respond to their requests.18

Their invocations are cast in a language that is unintelligible to those who attend the ceremony, which makes the priestly monopoly an even more inaccessible secret. Nigeria and Greenland, like Egypt, have their hieroglyphics and, like India, their sacred languages.19

The jongleurs deftly draw advantage from everything in nature or life that departs from the norm, because everything that does not follow the common rules strikes the savage with surprise and fear. Imbecility and dementia are revered. The Edition: current; Page: [157] hair of albinos serves as talismans for the blacks of Loango.20 The islanders of the South Seas worship madmen.21 Their priests make use of this natural disposition. Epilepsy becomes a gift and a privilege. In fact, it is upon this malady that they found their dynastic pretensions, requiring it to be inherited, or at least required for admission.22

Three things especially favor their authority: the fear, or the memory, of nature’s disturbances; the astonishment that dreams cause in the ignorant; and his ardent desire, his illusory hope, to know the future.

At different times, all parts of the globe have suffered violent disturbances. Everywhere the earth bears the imprint of these upheavals, which so many times have disrupted the great work of civilization. We live atop volcanoes; we walk over abysses; the sea surrounds and threatens us. While death each day leisurely chooses its victims among us, nature silently prepares even greater devastations. And in its implacable although undetected work, it views with disdain our foolhardy hopes, our fragile accumulations, and foresees the future of our vain efforts. By a single motion, with one turn of the globe, it can blot out the future while erasing the past.

The religious sentiment loves to plunge into the contemplation of these great catastrophes. Either because, being convinced of its immortal nature it flatters itself with being above the wreckage of the world, transcending a destruction that cannot touch it; or because (with a secret pleasure) it discerns the overturning of all the obstacles that separate it from the infinite Being, and which signal its reunion with this Being. Even today, when all our habits turn us away from extensive meditations and propose as life’s goal the interest of the day, we become silent and absorbed when our modern natural scientists tell us about the accumulation of strata in the earth, the remains of a thousand destroyed generations that seem to call to us and alert us as to our end. The savage meditates in his hut in his own way, not on what he knows, but on what he fears. Among all tribes one discovers traditions relating the annihilation of the world.23 Benevolent gods barely forestall the terrible Edition: current; Page: [158] moment. To whom can the primitive address himself in order to have his protectors encouraged and his enemies disarmed, if not the jongleur whose prayers are thought to be efficacious and whose terrible voice can compel, after having merely petitioned? When the stars are veiled, when eclipses diminish the pale light of the moon, the tribes, gathered on the summits of mountains or the shores of the sea, accompany the cries of their priests with their own; the lugubrious ceremonies found among all peoples24 are but the terrors of the savage submitted to a regular order, and reduced to a systematic form, by the priests.

Dreams have no less of an influence on him.

Habit familiarizes us with even the most astonishing phenomena; let the unexplained last awhile and it seems simple to us. But dreams must produce an impression on childish peoples whose depth is impossible for us to measure today. They are bizarre parodies of reality, fantastic images of life, that cross both reality and life and stir up trouble that even our reason, which has become quite rigorous and demanding, can barely contain. Not so for the savages. Those of America and Siberia begin no expedition, they conduct no exchange, they enter into no pact without the encouragement of dreams.25 These dreams take the place of inspirations, guidance, and prophecy.26 Whatever they possess that is most precious to them, that which they would defend with their lives, they abandon on the authority of a dream. Kamtschadalian women yield to whomever says he possessed them in his dream.27 An Iroquois dreams that someone cuts his arm, and he cuts it himself.28 Edition: current; Page: [159] Another dreams that he kills his friend, and he does so.29 Entire tribes head out to conquer whatever one of their members dreamed they would.30 One can easily see the power that this conviction would confer on the interpreters of heavenly signs.

Finally, the need to read the future is a cause of the dominion of these men.

It has been observed more than once that the ignorance of the events that threaten us is the greatest of the benefits that we owe to nature. The past already makes life hard enough to endure. No one has arrived at the one-third milestone of his life without having had to weep over broken bonds, dashed illusions, and disappointed hopes. What would be the case if man was provided with real foresight? Next to the tombs of those who no longer exist, he could see the grave that must welcome those who still remain. Wounded by the ingratitude of a perfidious friend, he would recognize in advance a traitor in the friend who replaced him. The present itself, transitory, barely perceptible, would be placed between two frightening phantoms. The moment that no longer exists and the one that is not yet would come together to poison the time that does exist. But man escapes the past because he forgets it, and he believes he has a future because he does not know what it contains.

However, he constantly seeks to overcome this salutary ignorance. As soon as he believes he can make religion serve his self-interest, he asks religion for the means of penetrating the beneficent obscurity that surrounds him. And the less extensive is his knowledge and the less diversified his experiences, the greater, more explicit, and affirmative are the promises he extorts from religion. Knowledge of future events is therefore placed on the first rung of the attributes that give credence to primitive jongleurs. Superstition asks them for it, ignorance implores them; if they acknowledged their own ignorance, they would abdicate their authority.

In order to preserve it, they obey the demands of superstition and ignorance. And what they reveal comes closer to the goal that is proposed, the more they are connected to the two things that most inspire fear in men: the appearance of malign genii and the return to life of those that have departed. It is the Nitos, the hostile powers, that the jongleurs consult on the island of Amboina. It is the dead that they invoke among the Iroquois, against whom the savage defends himself with so much care, these manes that he imagines to be transformed into fierce monsters, into bloodthirsty vampires. The credulous Huron hears the shades of his ancestors respond by moaning. The Carib and the black see their hair moving Edition: current; Page: [160] at the bottom of the vase in which they are kept, from which prophetic sounds emerge.31

Other epochs of religion will recall these dismal notions. In order to pierce the darkness of the future, Ulysses will go down to the netherworld to consult his mother.32 Men have always concluded that because the dead belong to the past, the future belongs to them. Or rather, it is because, in the depths of his soul, he worries about death that he interrogates those who have already experienced it.

Ministers of these frightful ceremonies, the jongleurs share (or pretend to share) the fear that they cause. They do their best not to trouble the peace of the shades. They fear that the disturbed shades would revenge themselves upon those who troubled their eternal rest. They also fear that these gods who know what destiny holds might punish the temerity of those who want to steal its secrets. It is telling to the observer that in all cults the act of prophesying is painful.33 This idea probably owes its origin to the fact that when the imagination receives one of these violent commotions that appear to raise it above its customary sphere, this commotion is accompanied by pain and contortions. But in this area, as in others, working with the givens of nature, the jongleurs have adroitly profited from this to raise the price of their activity. Even today those who arrogate to themselves the gift of prediction affect profound terror. It is with great regret, as though confronting immense dangers, that they resign themselves to unveil what the future holds.

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CHAPTER 7: Consequences of the Influence of Jongleurs on the Worship of Savages

As one can well imagine, the appearance of a priesthood in the worship of savages is accompanied by very important consequences.

We have depicted man, in matters of religion, besieged by two conflicting movements.

One is disinterested and is nourished by the very sacrifices that it imposes upon itself, while it delights in devotion and in all elevated and sublime conceptions. It spreads a sort of general perfume over these conceptions, and in its rapid, unpremeditated élan sometimes places the beliefs of the most ignorant tribe on a par with the most purified doctrine.

The other movement is egoistical, demanding, and mercenary; it transforms sacrifice into commerce, admits only positive notions, and casts worship into the narrow and turbulent sphere of mundane interests.

It is to the second movement that jongleurs must initially apply themselves in order to become masters. Their authority grows with every support they give to the notions suggested by self-interest. They therefore turn the attention of the savage as exclusively as they can toward this portion of religion. They distract it from the idea of the Great Spirit, who, in its immensity and distance from the human race, is far beyond daily supplications and the needs of the moment. They concentrate the desires of the tribes that listen to them upon their material relationships with fetishes, subordinate powers who are more at man’s level, and who belong to the one who offers them the most. They confirm men in the supposition that the gods make their favors a subject of commerce, that one assures oneself of their protection by satisfying their voracious hunger or by flattering their unpredictable vanity. By means of a calculated exaggeration, they dilate on the avidity and wickedness of these idols. The tales of blacks concerning the god Edition: current; Page: [162] Nanni,1 and of the Kamtschatka concerning their god Kutko,2 give an idea of the perversity that goes beyond the fictions of the Iliad.

The path along which the jongleurs guide their docile disciples thus seems to prepare the inevitable victory of egoism over sentiment. Resignation to suffering is a more difficult and rarer achievement than is fervor in devotion. The worship that flatters immediate desires accords better with the demands of passion than that adoration which is inapplicable to the details of life.

But after having profited from the cruder side of religious notions, the priesthood soon notices that it can derive even greater profit from their exalted and enthusiastic part.

We have already spoken of the tendency of men to refine things connected with sacrifice. As much as the effects of this tendency are admirable when sentiment is at work, it can become terrible when imposture and calculation make it an instrument.

From the fact that, in order to be agreeable to the gods, sacrifice must be painful to the one who offers it, it follows that new sacrifices will constantly be invented, always more painful and hence more meritorious. From the fact that the gods are pleased with the deprivations of their worshippers, it results that their number will be multiplied and the nature of the deprivations constantly refined. Man launches himself into an endless series of exaggerations, errors, extravagances, and barbarities, whether inflicted merely upon himself or upon himself and others. Disoriented superstition is frightened by its own hopes, and it desires to atone for them by new pains or cruelties.

Human sacrifice no doubt has had several causes.

The dedication of a portion of the booty taken from defeated enemies was extended to captives. The victor felt he had to immolate a percentage of them proportionate to the number the fortunes of battle had given him.3

We have already seen that the assumption that the future life resembles this life causes the dead to be buried with their living slaves or concubines, or burned on the same pyres with them.

The leaders of tribes have sometimes thought that by slaughtering other men they would forestall the time fixed by nature for their own demise, or that these Edition: current; Page: [163] victims would serve them as messengers to the invisible powers, that is, as conduits of their homage and their prayers.

Finally, the desire to steal from the future the secrets it contains, which the gods perhaps have hidden in human viscera, has moved primitive curiosity to bloody its hand by digging into their victims’ entrails.

These various causes introduced human sacrifice into a great number of primitive tribes.

But the principle of refining sacrifice had to favor the practice of these despicable rites in a special way. The shedding of human blood had to become the most precious offering, because in man’s eyes life is the most precious thing. And among these horrible offerings the most meritorious had to be those that struck down the dearest of victims. Nothing is more terrible than logic at work in absurdity.4

It is in accordance with this principle that we find that terrible denial of blood ties among the inhabitants of Florida and the coast of Africa:5 children immolated in the presence of their mothers. These are horrifying customs that we were habituated in our childhood to admire when it was a matter of Abraham’s obedience, but which revolt us now in the tribes we are in no way accustomed to respect.

It is so true that these practices are the effects of the calculation and authority of jongleurs that the less a tribe is subject to them, the less one encounters these barbarous rites. Then, however, it is the soothsayers who demand them as an indispensable condition for the revelation of the future.6 Moreover, we will note when we treat the peoples who have entered into civilization that human sacrifices always fall into disuse among peoples not subjugated by priests, while they are continued among all the nations who are broken to their yoke.

It is the same with the notion of chastity that we saw earlier win out in the heart of the savage over his most imperious passions. As we have already observed, not Edition: current; Page: [164] only does the priesthood make use of this idea to recommend cruel and exaggerated abstinences, but it soon demands an abnegation of a totally different sort, one that is even more bizarre and outrageous.

In the kingdom of Whydah female priests take the daughters of the most distinguished families and, after having subjected them to the most rigorous trials, instruct them in the arts of pleasure, then dedicate them to the profession of courtesan.7 Among other blacks, a priestly corporation or a religious confraternity8 composes obscene hymns that are publicly sung at solemn festivals.

In this way, by returning to the savage state, we can detect the hidden motive of the prostitution of female Babylonians and the immodest dances of the women of Memphis, established facts that are denied all too easily by writers who do not know their cause.9

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From his first steps man has believed that he has never done enough to honor his gods. His nature invites him to seek pleasure, he sacrifices pleasure to please them. Nature prescribes modesty, he offers it as a holocaust to them. But this last refinement comes from the priests. The priesthood discovered in the conflict arising between the religious sentiment and obscene practices the opportunity for a new triumph for religion, one that is the contrary of the one it had earlier attained over sexual attraction. After having forbidden the young virgin the chaste embraces of her spouse, it brought her before hideous divinities in order to profane and demean her.

This truth will become evident when we later show in the religions subjected to priests—and in them only10—terribly scandalous feasts that were authorized, even mandated, by the priesthood, the same priesthood that, on one hand, punished the least deviation from the commands of chastity with the most terrible pains, and, on the other, condemned any hesitation before prescribed obscenities and mandated orgies.11

Therefore, it is not the religious sentiment that one should accuse when it comes to these deplorable deviations. It is susceptible, to be sure, of being mistaken, as are all the emotions of our soul; but it finds in these very same emotions an assured remedy against its excesses. Purity, pity, sympathy, and that heavenly virtue which in religious language is called charity, and which is nothing but the impossibility of seeing another’s pain and misfortune without being moved to attend to it, are its inseparable companions. Soon enough, it is forced by their common nature to abjure the wild or licentious practices that foul its cradle. During the course of our Edition: current; Page: [166] work we will furnish a number of incontestable proofs that they are prolonged only by an authority that has nothing in common with the religious sentiment.

This terrible, implacable authority regularizes human folly and transforms delirium into doctrine, the terrible into a system, and barbarism into duty.

Then appear the baneful results that have often been attributed to religion. It is complicated by a thousand cruel and ridiculous practices. Hideous in form, the gods are fierce in character. The religious sentiment seeks to beautify them, the priesthood keeps them horrible, and their very success transmits these repulsive figures to more civilized periods.12

Bloody offerings, revolting rites, and terrible holocausts must be offered to such idols.

This disastrous influence of priestly artifice crosses the centuries. If we were to take according to their letter the epithets that most often accompany the mention of divine forces or divine will in more purified belief-systems, we would think that man found a strange pleasure in trembling before the odious and barbarous beings to whom he submitted his destiny. All the evils with which the human race is afflicted, man sees their origin in the malevolence of these frightening opponents. Sometimes they sow disease, unleash storms, raise floods, arm the sun with devastating heat or winter with unbearable cold; sometimes they conspire against the very world they have created and are eager to destroy it. They shake it to its foundations; the moon and the stars are threatened by monsters;13 the abyss is set to swallow it. Thus the doctrine of the destruction of the universe (about which we spoke earlier) becomes even more terrifying; soon enough, under the imposing forms of a dark cosmogony it will occupy an eminent place in the doctrines of the priests.

The foregoing considerations appear to indicate that we must consider the existence of jongleurs as a scourge of savage tribes. But other reflections must cause us not to pronounce so quickly on the question.

In the first place, the influence of the sacerdotal caste is rather limited in the primitive state, despite the efforts of the caste. The fetish of the black and the manitou of the American Indian are portable, even disposable beings. To be sure, they are the faithful companions of the hunt or war, the allies of his hatreds, the confidants Edition: current; Page: [167] of his loves. But as we have seen, he not only can consult his idol in every circumstance, he can leave it for another or punish it when it has disappointed his hopes.

This volatility in his relations with his god inspires little reverence for its ministers; and the ease with which he can interact with his god and treat directly with it often makes the intervention of others either intrusive or superfluous.

In all of South America, jongleurs limit themselves to indicating the sacrifices that will please the gods. It is the fathers of the family, or the most eminent in each hut, who by right preside over the ceremony.14 It is the same with the Tscheremisses and several neighboring, or dependant, tribes of Russia.15 Thus, whatever they do, the jongleurs have only what we could call accidental and precarious credit. They are hardly less ignorant than the rest of the tribe that they govern. And while they are associated in a corporate body, they are rivals at each particular moment; they therefore criticize one another more often than they band together.16 And despite their efforts, others—adventurers without authority—dispute their authority.17 At bottom their trade is but a dubious means of personal gain, one that is diminished by competition.18 Their authority is at the mercy of varying and fluctuating opinion. Creatures of this opinion, they rarely become its masters.19

Secondly, the quite real and very serious drawbacks connected with the influence of jongleurs are only one aspect of the question.

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In order to grasp it in its entirety, one must recognize that the less a people is enlightened, the more the priesthood is inseparable from the religion. Therefore it is not a question of simply deploring an inevitable evil; one must seek to find out if the evil exceeds the good with which it is necessarily connected.

Would it be better if the savage had no religious notions and, at this price, was freed from the jongleurs? There would be many fewer human sacrifices, terrifying rites, painful self-lacerations, and voluntary deprivations. But there also would be neither religious sanction for his emerging morality nor hope for another life (or any of the consolations that lighten the weight of his miserable existence). He would be only a wild animal, but more miserable than the other ones, his equals and his rivals. Consider the picture of American tribes drawn by a traveler known for his talent for observation and his accuracy.20 Look at these tribes tormented by physical suffering, by constantly recurring needs, by the prospect of being abandoned when they receive incurable wounds, diseases, or old age; often they take their own lives to end their prolonged agony. Cast into such an abyss, can man pay too dear for the hope that revives him? His communications with the gods, his dreams concerning future existence, his preoccupation with the dead he hopes to rejoin, the emotions religion causes in him, the duties it creates—these are all inestimable treasures for him. It shifts the weight of reality, whose burden crushes him. It transports him into the world created by his imagination; and his labors, his pains, the cold that freezes him, the hunger that devours him, and the exhaustion he feels are but the tossing and heaving of the vessel carrying him to the other shore. To be sure, the actions of the jongleurs trouble him, even in his religious consolations. But to take away this noxious influence it would be necessary to do without its consolations. It is better that he possesses them, even in an imperfect, burdensome way.

Moreover, is it certain that the jongleurs do only evil?

Without them, entire peoples would die of torpor and wretched poverty.21 They rouse them out of their apathy and force them to activity. The tribes without priests are those that are the most animal-like.22 The jongleurs, whether ignorant Edition: current; Page: [169] or crafty, deceptive or mistaken, nonetheless preserve certain medicinal traditions, some part of which is salutary.23 For the slothful savage, they make a duty of the hunt or fishing. They make a duty of the pleasures of love, to which certain climates render him almost insensitive.24 They entertain him with dreams that are not without a certain sweetness. They spread a certain charm over an otherwise deplorable life, grief-stricken by nature. We should not begrudge them that they know how to embellish desolate shores, and place their inhabitants’ hopes beyond the mountains or on the other shore of the seas.

Evil is never in what exists naturally, but in what is prolonged or reestablished by craft or force. The true good is proportion. Nature always maintains proportion when it is left free. All disproportion is pernicious. What is overripe and what is premature are equally noxious. Institutions much less crude than the priesthood of jongleurs can cause much more harm when they become unsuited to the ideas inevitably developed by the advancement of the human mind.

When we later compare the actions of jongleurs with those of the priestly bodies so lionized by writers down through the ages, the reader will perhaps be surprised to see the preference remain with the former. Priestly bodies inhibit the human race in all its progress, while jongleurs, despite themselves, push it toward an imperfect civilization. One should see in them a bit of fraud and a good deal of superstition. The others, though, will have at most a bit of superstition and certainly a good deal of fraud.

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CHAPTER 8: Why We Believed That We Needed to Write in Such Detail about the Worship of Savages

We have entered into detail in treating the religion of primitive tribes. This was necessary because in this religion are contained the seeds of all the notions that make up later beliefs. This truth must have struck our readers, even if they paid only the slightest amount of attention.

We saw not only the worship of material objects, multiplied to the infinite, but unexpected intimations of the purest theism, as well as the division into two substances and the presentment, as it were, of spiritual nature;

Not only the natural idea that the gods are pleased with sacrifices, but the need to refine them; hence human victims and children placed on the paternal pyre, the merit of celibacy and the mysterious price of virginity, and the holiness found in voluntary self-torture, as well as decency offered up on the altars;

Not only the fear of malevolent gods but the classification of divinities into two categories ranged eternally against one another, and the distinction of religious practices into licit ceremonies and perverse rites;

Not only the hope of a new life after death, but abstractions concerning the state of souls and their reunion with the infinite Being;

Not only metempsychosis, but with it the migrations and purifications of souls;

All the things, finally, that we will later see more developed among civilized peoples and cast in clearer terms, clothed with more sublime images and endowed with more attractive colors, the instinct of the savage already divines, grasps, and works with them in every way, trying to arrange them in some order that his intellect either conceives or senses. (Our proud disdain has much too much overstated the limits of this intellect.)

Whether man be a savage or civilized, he has the same nature, the same basic faculties, the same tendency to employ them. The same notions, only less subtle, must Edition: current; Page: [171] therefore offer themselves to him; the same needs and the same desires must direct him in his conjectures. However, distracted by the struggle he must wage against a natural world not yet mastered, and against a moral state devoid of guarantees, he cannot persevere in a straight and regular path. His conjectures arise and evaporate like clouds in the sky or like the phantoms of our dreams when our reason leaves us to our vagabond imagination.

Nothing, however, disappears without leaving its traces; later epochs collect them, elaborate on them, and give them regularity and consistency.

It was therefore important to describe them with some precision; they serve as the baseline of our subsequent inquiries. We will see how the human spirit works on these givens, and how it purifies them when it is left to itself and operates independently of every foreign influence. The crudest aspects are effaced, and more reasonable ones are combined and coordinated. But when it is reduced to servitude, the more reasonable ones are corrupted and perverted while the cruder ones are preserved in all their primitive absurdity.

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CHAPTER 1: The Object of This Book

In the previous book we described the religious notions of savage tribes. Our readers were able to be convinced of two truths: one, that these notions were commensurate with the ignorance and crudeness of these wretched tribes; the other, that the religious sentiment made itself felt through this inchoate and repulsive envelope.

Now we are going to seek what religion must be at the lowest rung of the social state.

The passage from the savage state to the social state is an enigma, one for which no historical fact provides the key. We therefore will take no position on the way in which the transition occurred. We have already recognized that the savage state could have been a degradation rather than the initial state of mankind, one perhaps caused by some material calamity, or a fall, the sad result of a moral fault.

This question, however, is totally outside our investigations. The only truth we wish to demonstrate is that as soon as a revolution occurs in the state of mankind, religion undergoes an analogous change. We will base our reasonings only on facts we believe are established, and we seek to explain these facts. We have no intention of talking about things on which history sheds no light. We have therefore prescribed to ourselves a law: never to speak about what we do not know. If this rule has the drawback of necessitating more than one regrettable lacuna in our treatment, it has the advantage of keeping us from more than one fanciful hypothesis.

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CHAPTER 2: On the Social State That Is the Closest to the Savage State

We will consider as the first rung of the social state the condition of those peoples larger in size than the Tartar, African, or American tribes, who cultivate the earth rather than hunt for their subsistence; who no longer content themselves with the shelter of isolated huts but build permanent buildings in proximity to one another; who know how to work with metals; and, finally, having more or less mastered physical nature, they begin to develop their moral forces, acquiring notions of property, laying down fixed laws, and, according to circumstances, choose or recognize leaders whose authority commands obedience and inspires respect (although it is still contested from time to time).

This state of the human race is generally designated as barbarism; it is in-between the animal-like stage we described in the earlier books and civilization, which will occur only much later. At this stage, peoples are just above the savage state and just below the civilized state. An almost equal distance separates the Samoyed or Iroquois from the Greek contemporary of Theseus, and the latter from the Athenian citizen under Pericles.

To be sure, the general characteristics of the barbarous centuries are modified by secondary differences determined by local factors or accidental occurrences. Nonetheless, looked at in connection with religion, the period is subject to a common rule. The notions suggested to the savage by the narrow horizons of egoism no longer satisfy the human being who has taken his first steps to a better state. Even though he is ignorant of the laws of nature he has discovered some aspects of its workings. Religion must withdraw itself from them. Man has consolidated his empire over inanimate matter and the majority of living species; he no longer can solely worship pieces of wood, animals, and stones. At the same time, the vague Edition: current; Page: [177] élan of the religion sentiment that propelled the savages toward more sublime and mysterious notions now wants them to be clothed in more fixed forms, to give them more constancy and more reality, as it were. In this way, by a double work unnoticed by him, the human being progressing toward civilization tries, simultaneously, to have what is too far above him come down to him and to raise up what is base and beneath him.

Likewise, the isolation in which fetishes live ceases being suitable to the gods of peoples united in societies. Men brought together in social bodies need to be united in their sentiments. To see these sentiments shared is itself a pleasure. They put their gods in common; in fact, this reunion of the gods occurs necessarily as soon as the coming-together of men occurs. Human society being formed, a celestial society forms too. The objects of worship compose an Olympus as soon as worshippers form a people.

By a similar necessity the gods divide power. Being the god of an isolated individual, the fetish had to satisfy all the needs of its devoté. All the fetishes, therefore, had the same functions. Now the gods have distinct functions.

In some way, this revolution is the counterpart of the division of labor among men that occurs with the development of society. In the savage state each individual alone provided all his needs. In civilized society, devoting himself to a particular occupation, each one provides not only for himself but for the similar needs of others. In fetishism, the fetish is responsible for everything that pertains to the individual; when nascent polytheism succeeds it, each deity is charged with one thing, although for everyone.

For this same reason, the gods then take on distinctive names, while fetishes did not have individual names. It was at the moment when, thanks to the arrival of Egyptian colonies, the Greeks passed from fetishism to polytheism that they assigned special names to each of their divinities.1

It is not that fetishism disappears entirely with the appearance of this new form. We have already shown that even at much more advanced periods, under different guises it remains an essential part of religious ideas. Even more so, therefore, must it continue in those peoples among whom whatever imperfect knowledge there exists remains the property of a class interested in the perpetuation of ignorance; and among other peoples that are occupied with war and pillage, Edition: current; Page: [178] who concentrate their indomitable passions and developing understanding on the struggles and conflicts of this world. Thus we find traces of fetishism both among the Greeks of the heroic period, when the priesthood had no influence, and among the Egyptians, whose priests subjected them to an iron yoke. Only, these vestiges of a belief the human spirit has risen above combine with the worship that replaces it, and the old fetishes, now disciplined, submit themselves to the greater national deities.2

These are the first developments of religious notions that the birth of civilization causes. Whatever the power of priests may be otherwise, the steps are the same. However, if we wish to go further, two paths open before us that grow further apart the further they go. One is the path man follows when he is left to his own powers and his own instinct. The other path is the one that priesthood leads him on when it reduces him to slavery.

Here appears the distinction we established earlier between priestly religions and those in which no priesthood succeeded in subjugating it. Our first concern, therefore, must be to name the causes that favored, and those that limited, priestly authority.3

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CHAPTER 3: On Causes That Could Contribute Only in a Secondary Manner to the Increase of Priestly Authority

While they favored the accidental influence of isolated jongleurs, the religion of the savage state and the character of the tribes that professed this religion worked against the regular establishment of priestly power. Despite the superstition of these ignorant tribes, they harbor at the bottom of their hearts a deep aversion to this class of men. The Chiquitos of Paraguay once massacred them all, saying they were more harmful than useful.1 The Kalmuks and Laplanders often express the same opinion about their soothsayers.2 How, then, does it happen that emerging from this condition of savagery, men often grant an extensive authority to these purported organs of heaven? To the contrary, given that they are growing in knowledge, should they not liberate themselves from a dominion that rests only on their ignorance?

In order to solve this problem—which contains all of history’s problems—one has to discover a cause whose action is uniform. That means one in the absence of which the priesthood would have only precarious, limited authority, while being present confers awesome, immense, unlimited credentials upon priests.

Should we seek the cause of this development in the religious disposition itself, which, when it takes control of the soul, elevates it above all present and visible interests? If so, the priesthood would everywhere have unlimited influence.

Should we attribute it to the factors that in certain countries restrained its influence? To rivalry with political authority or the ascendancy of a warrior caste? But the contest between the interpreters of heaven and the rulers of the earth occurred Edition: current; Page: [181] everywhere. All have seen a warrior caste arise among them. From the identity of the cause, the sameness of the effect ought to exist.

Should we attribute it to climate? It is easy to think that in countries where the climate disposes man to contemplation and gives great energy to his imagination at the same time that it dispenses him from material labor because of the fecundity of the soil, that the class that has assigned itself the task of providing for the needs of this imagination greedy for tales and terrors would rapidly acquire unlimited power.

Nonetheless, the climate cannot be considered the primary cause of the subjection of the human race to priestly corporations. The priesthood has been invested with an unlimited authority in all climates. The Druids of the Gauls in their forests; the magi of the Persians on mountaintops; the priests of Egypt in their marshes: they not only have exercised an equal authority, but owe this power to a similar organization. The Brahmins of India and the Drottes of Scandinavia, the former under burning skies, the others in the midst of snow, are brothers wearing different clothing owing to the degree of heat or cold. They nonetheless display an unmistakable family resemblance.

On the other hand, there are very hot climates where we find no powerful priesthood. The jongleurs of several black tribes have little more power than the shamans of Tartary. Among the Greeks, the priesthood always had very little power, while its influence among the Gauls was almost unlimited.

Now, for a cause to be recognized as sufficient, it is not strictly necessary that the effect exist only because of that cause, because it could have occurred for another reason; on the other hand, it is at least indispensable that, everywhere the cause exists, the effect is found. In this light, we have to see climate as a secondary, accessory cause.

It is the same thing with the terrors inspired by the calamities of nature.

There is no doubt that one must place natural catastrophes among the factors of social, and especially religious, institutions whose memory is preserved in the traditions of almost all the peoples of the earth.

In ordinary circumstances, man is threatened only by the dangers resulting from the customary actions of the objects that surround him. Even then, however, he is propelled by the fear these objects inspire to address himself to those who say they are heaven’s confidants, the gods’ favorites and intermediaries. How much more, therefore, when all the elements are unleashed and he experiences great calamities, Edition: current; Page: [182] must he rush headlong into all the excesses of superstition and fall at the feet of whomever appears to have some credit with the powers that now threaten him? It is not fraud that engenders terror, but terror that solicits fraud. It presents an easy target, which in fact runs under the yoke, crying out for divine assistance and supernatural support in the face of inexplicable calamities.

However, there are peoples among whom great natural disasters have occurred who are not subject to priests. The annals of Greece are full of traditions relative to a flood. Everywhere this country experienced terrible upheavals. But at least since the heroic age, the Greeks are remarkable for their independence from priestly authority.

It is the same with the effects of colonies.

All nations attribute their departure from the primitive state to the arrival of some foreign colony. The Indians speak of the Samaneens come from the North, who removed them from a condition very little different from that of brutes.3

According to plausible hypotheses, Egyptian civilization comes from Ethiopian4 and Indian colonies. Greek civilization was the work of Phoenicians and Edition: current; Page: [183] Egyptians. Etruria was inhabited by primitives when the Lydians, then the Pelasgians arrived. It appears that Phoenicia civilized Gaul, and that Gaul rendered the same service to portions of Germany. To this we can add that the inhabitants of Scandinavia did not know the social state when the victorious Dacians made their way there.

But one must distinguish four sorts of colonies in antiquity. Some were wholly military, others both military and priestly; others, purely sacerdotal; a few, finally, neither military nor sacerdotal.

By military, we refer to those colonies that took over the entire country. A few partial victories do not justify the designation. No colony is established without battle, but when the result is the mixing of the two peoples, this is not military in the sense we give the term.

Purely military colonies do not advantage priestly authority. The effect of the conquest is not theocratic government but military or feudal government (if we can use a modern term in talking about antiquity). The conquest sometimes even destroys, or at least limits, priestly authority. This authority was much less in the new establishments of the barbarians in the Roman Empire than in their former homelands.

Purely sacerdotal colonies introduce a priesthood that becomes all-powerful only by degrees. Such was probably the Phoenicians’ influence on the Gauls.

Colonies that are neither military nor priestly eventually mix with the indigenous people. Civilization progresses as a result, but priests as a body do not gain in stature. We will see the Greeks civilized by colonies that came from a country that was wholly subject to priestly authority but remain free of this authority because these colonies did not have priests for leaders.

Finally, sacerdotal and military colonies establish a priesthood that, if it is not the sole power, is always the first of powers. Ethiopians5 exercised this influence on Egypt.

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It is certain, therefore, that colonies could extend the dominion of priests over countries in which they would not have naturally arisen. But it also is obvious that their action cannot be regarded as a first cause. To say that one colony has imposed certain institutions on another is to explain why the latter has received them. But one still has to explain why they were established in the home country of the colony.

It therefore is not in man’s nature nor in the climate, not in natural catastrophes nor in the migrations of peoples, that the cause we are seeking can be found. It resides in a circumstance that, because it is connected with the ideas that man conceives of the beings he worships, is both necessary and sufficient to solve the problem.

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CHAPTER 4: On the Cause That, Whenever It Exists, Gives the Priesthood Much Power

There are peoples whose entire existence depends upon the observation of the stars. This may be because their geographical situation invites or requires them to sail and navigate; or because the nature of their soil requires, as a condition of their subsistence or their safety, precise astronomical calculations.

There are other peoples among whom natural phenomena of all sorts abound that are helpful to foresee or at least natural to observe with attentive curiosity.

When man finds himself in such circumstances, because of the nature of the religious sentiment he must infallibly direct his adoration toward either the torches in the sky or the unknown forces he supposes govern the terrestrial phenomena.

Once again, it is not his gratitude toward one or his terror before the other that initially suggests to him the idea and the need of worship. But the idea that possesses him, the need that torments him, leads him to seek objects of worship. He naturally puts in first place those that have the most influence on his existence.

Therefore there are peoples who have been led to substitute the worship of stars for the crude worship we described earlier. There are others that an equal necessity forced to worship the elements.1

Often these two kinds of divinities are invoked together: the sun, at once a Edition: current; Page: [186] globe of fire and the king of the planets, is the center or common feature of the two religious systems.

Now, these two systems immediately create a priesthood vested with an authority that the jongleurs of savages could not have had. It is impossible to transform the elements or stars into individual fetishes. No one can claim them as his exclusive property. They necessarily become collective deities, and priests are needed to represent the nation to them.

Moreover, to come to know the movements of the stars—to observe natural phenomena in general—a certain amount of attention and study is required.

From the beginning of societies, when the mass of people is still quite ignorant, this necessity establishes corporate bodies whose occupation is the study of Edition: current; Page: [187] the stars and their goal, the observation of nature. Their discoveries become their property.2

Since these corporations make themselves the exclusive depository of the emerging science, they cannot fail to acquire a greater influence than naturally belongs to the priesthood in religions whose gods are not the objects of scientific observations.

There is more. Alongside the study of the regular movements of the stars, soon there is the study of their supposed relations with men. Next to the observation of earthly phenomena is placed the interpretation of these phenomena, which seem to speak a sacred language to mankind.3 The worship of celestial bodies that leads to astronomy also leads to astrology,4 the worship of elements leads to divination:5 two quite extensive, and much more immediate, means of influence for the priesthood.6

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As a consequence, one finds that priests, while they have little authority over fetishistic peoples (or who come to polytheism from fetishism), have an immense authority over the nations given to the worship of the stars and the elements.

The religion natural to the savage neither requires nor allows for priests other than the isolated jongleurs. Worship of the stars calls for astronomers; worship of the elements, natural scientists, or at least men who claim to know and control the hidden forces of the universe. From all this comes an indefinite increase of authority.

Now let us consider the facts. They will support the reasonings just provided.

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CHAPTER 5: Facts That Support the Previous Assertions

Let us return for a moment to the savage tribes. It will convince us of this truth.

In America, the inhabitants of Florida principally worshipped the sun and the moon.1 All-powerful priests maintained them subject; and the cruelest as well as most lascivious priestly practices characterized their worship.2 In Africa, the Jagas3 hold the sun as the highest deity; stars direct them in their wars; and temporal as well as spiritual authority is united in the hands of the calandola, or high priest.4

We do not deny that accidental circumstances could have subjected some peoples among whom star worship was not present to theocratic authority. Thus, among the blacks of Whydah, whose national deity is a serpent of a particular type, the priesthood forms a powerful body. But this is because formerly, at the time of a decisive battle, this serpent deserted the enemy and became their miraculous ally: adroit jongleurs took advantage and devoted themselves to its service.5 This small example does not weaken the general rule. The neighboring tribes were not seduced by it; and since no other event caused them to deviate from their natural path, and because they do not render exclusive worship to the sun, their own priesthood has remained without influence or regular authority.

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If from savage tribes we pass to civilized peoples,6 the same fact will strike us with the same evidence.

The Egyptian religion was founded on astronomy.7 The authority of the Egyptian priesthood was unlimited. Near to Egypt, Ethiopia was also inhabited by tribes that worshipped stars; it was also famous for the absolute power of the priests of Meroë. Syrians adored the sun and the moon under the names of Aglibolos and Malachbul.8 All the world knows of the shameless orgies, the fanatical rites, and obscene mutilations of the Syrian priesthood. Similarly, the veneration the Persian religion had for the elements is too well known to need proof.9 These Edition: current; Page: [191] peoples put to death anyone who sullied either fire or waves.10 Among them, this worship was combined with star-worship.11 Therefore, even though they were often threatened by kings, and sometimes were the victims of cruel persecutions, the magi successfully fought their enemies and always regained authority.

The observation of the stars was an essential part of the Indian religion,12 and Edition: current; Page: [192] India has always recognized the dominion of the Brahmans. Everything leads us to believe that China, while atheistic today, in the midst of the crudest superstitions, in former times professed a religion that subjected the people to priests.13 And we find astronomy14 at each stage of its records, and in its rites, vestiges of the worship of the elements.15 Mexican priests exercised a terrible authority; the sun was the principal divinity of Mexico.16 The bloody despotism of the Carthaginian priesthood is attested to by all historians.17 The Carthaginians were devoted to Edition: current; Page: [193] star-worship.18 The nations that neighbored the Jews were for the most part subject to a tyrannical clergy, and they led the people of God into astrolatry. When Ezekiel wanted to depict its guilty defection, he showed the Levites turning their back on the tabernacle and rendering homage to the rising sun. And when Josiah declared a war to the death on idolatry, he confiscated the horses and burned the chariots devoted to this fiery idol.19

If we leave the East and South for the West and the North, we will find that the worship of the elements produced the same effects in Germany and Gaul20 as astronomy did in India and Egypt. We will see the forests of this part of the globe still harboring the hideous monuments of the absolute and bloodthirsty authority of the Druids: at the head of the idolatrous objects proscribed by Canute are the Sun, Fire, Moon, and the Earth.21 This last deity was invoked under the name Edition: current; Page: [194] of Hertha by the tribes described by Tacitus;22 the Slavs adored the god of Air; Chen-Yk, with his Tatars, sacrificed to Heaven, whose son he said he was.23 And when a new Odin, simultaneously a warrior and a priest, wanted to subjugate the Scandinavians, he preached the identity of their supreme god with the sun.

Thus in quite different countries, among peoples with very opposite customs, thanks to the worship of elements and the stars, the priesthood acquired a power that we can barely conceive of today.

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CHAPTER 6: On Two Apparent Exceptions

History appears to present two exceptions to the principle we just articulated. These two exceptions, the Arabs and the Germans, are found in two different climates and at almost the two extremes of the world.

Caesar tells us that the Germans recognized only visible gods: the sun, the moon, Vulcan.1 The worship of stars and the elements is clearly indicated. Caesar, however, adds that the Germans had no Druids presiding over sacred matters. They built no temples and only rarely offered sacrifice. In this way we have peoples who both worshipped heavenly bodies and remained independent of sacerdotal power.

But Tacitus contradicts Caesar.2 According to Tacitus, the Germans had all-powerful priests, and by the ministry of these priests they sacrificed not only animals but humans. People have tried to reconcile these two impressive authorities by supposing a forced migration of Gallic Druids into Germany. This migration would have taken place under the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius; both persecuted the Druids with implacable hostility.3 The fugitive priests would have brought with them the institutions of their former homeland. All this would have occurred in the interval between Caesar and Tacitus.4

This hypothesis, however, is refuted by several uncontestable facts. The unlimited power of the priests of Germany goes back long before the time when, according to the hypothesis, the priestly authority would have been established. The Germanic divinities have indigenous names that rule out a Gallic origin. The German priests sang hymns and canticles that were peculiar to them, and that were composed Edition: current; Page: [196] in their own language. They were preserved without change after the arrival of the fugitives from Gaul. The latter were received as brothers, not teachers.5

Caesar knew only the frontiers of Germany. Tacitus, writing a century later when the interior of the country was invaded if not conquered by the Romans, had to have more exact information and ideas. His testimony is therefore preferable. The Germans do not make an exception to the rule.

We cannot say the same thing about the Arabs. It is certain that even though the stars figured among their divinities, the authority of the priesthood among them was almost nil. Until Mohammed, each tribe and each family created, and changed at will, the objects and rites of its worship.6 This is because the Arabs were a tribe of hunters, with man being the prey. They laid in wait for travelers in order to plunder them. As hunters, they were fetishists. They worshiped lions, eagles, gazelles—in a word, all the animals of which their environment abounded.7 Stars were placed among their fetishes,8 as we showed must happen. But the worship of rocks, a clear indicator of fetishism, held first place.9 They washed them in oil and wine, a practice we will find among the Greeks. Such was their attachment to one of these idols that we will see this stone resist the efforts of Islam and reappear in the temple of Edition: current; Page: [197] the Kaaba, where, despite the Prophet, it received the homage of Muslims.10 The character of the Arabs constantly triumphed over the circumstances that could have subjected them to priestly power.11 Dispersed after Alexander’s conquests, the magi took refuge in the desert and lived with its wild inhabitants.12 But their influence did not survive into the safe haven, and at most they introduced a few of their rites into Arab fetishism. Even these were isolated and barely recognizable.13 In fact, these rites, which we will speak about later, will allow us to prove several of our assertions concerning the character that the priesthood gives to religion.

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CHAPTER 7: On the Variety in the Organization and Forms of Priestly Authority

The organization of the priesthood was not the same among the nations that star-worship, or the worship of the hidden forces of nature, had subjected to the power of priests. Nonetheless they can be reduced to two categories: hereditary castes or tribes, and corporations in which elections seem to have played a part in their composition.

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CHAPTER 8: On the Division into Castes

The division into castes could only have had a religious notion as its primary cause. The other causes that have been put forth—the superior beauty of privileged races, the legislator’s will, conquest, or the reasonable submission of peoples—are inadequate and superficial explanations.

The beauty of the races upon which some have wanted to endow this sort of superiority itself requires an explanation. The difficulty is postponed rather than resolved.

With modern scholars,1 we acknowledge that the two or even three superior castes that dominated in India originally formed only one nation, and that when this nation came down from the mountains and defeated the indigenous people, it was distinguished from them by a whiteness of color and regularity of features.2 It confirmed its rule by fixed institutions clothed with the authority of religion. We, however, must also recognize that these fixed institutions had already existed in the highlands of the Himalayas and the Caucasus before being established on the plains of Indostan. It is impossible to believe that the second caste, that of warriors, at the very moment when victory would have swelled its pride and stoked its courage, would have agreed to an innovation that was to its detriment. Soldiers guided by priests, however, can preserve in the midst of their military successes a superstitious respect for the mysterious theocracy to whom they attribute their Edition: current; Page: [200] victories. But this theocracy must rest on earlier customs and habits. Altars can be brought into camp, but they cannot be raised there de novo. As long as we have not discovered the cause of the priestly preeminence, of which the division into castes is only the development, we will be no closer to a solution. Thus the beauty of the conquerors and the deformity of the defeated, even granting them their fullest extent (and despite notable exceptions),3 do not explain the establishment of castes. One has to seek among the conquerors to find the principle.

When Aristotle4 attributed this to Sesostis, he followed the custom of the Greeks, who attributed all the institutions of whose origin they were ignorant to this conqueror. No legislator, however, assaults natural equality in this way, unless he finds some support in preexisting opinion.

The Indians of today speak of an earlier experience of anarchy and the sentiment that then would have led the people to avoid it at all costs by establishing innumerable barriers against disorder. Like us, however, they are civilized men who when they form conjectures concerning very distant times lend them the refinements of their own civilization. In the abasement of the inferior castes and their acquiescence in it there is something that neither the exhaustion caused by anarchy nor the desire for order explains. Nor can it be the result of a simple political arrangement. It must go back to a social state where the majority of human beings did not yet possess knowledge of their rights or the awareness of their strength.5

As we said above, priestly government is not the result of conquest. Nothing resembles these mysterious barriers raised among the inhabitants of the same country. In a military government, the inequality of ranks has a real difference, that of force, as its principle. The principle of the inequality of castes owes to an opinion of an original stain, an indelible mark that no disproportion between forces can efface. The Brahmins of India did not acquire political authority by right. They do not form the caste of warriors from whom most often kings are drawn.6 We, however, see these kings and these warriors try in vain to enter into the sacred caste, and finally sheathe their swords before the barrier separating them from the Edition: current; Page: [201] unarmed Brahmins. Niebuhr7 notes as a most unusual occurrence that during his time in India a prince had succeeded in entering the order of Brahmins by means of gifts and adroitness.8

It is not that we consider the division into castes exactly as a priestly invention. It could have found its source in a natural disposition of man. He is inclined to render his institutions more fixed by a more or less regular distribution of the different occupations of life among different classes. This tendency, which sometimes prevails in the bosom of civilization, already is seen among savage tribes. The Iroquois and the Algonquins joined together a few centuries ago, on the condition that one would be farmers, the other hunters.9 Among some African tribes, there are hereditary fishermen and hunters.10 Among the Turks,11 the administration Edition: current; Page: [202] of justice is the property of certain families who practice it, if I can put it this way, hereditarily. The Laplanders have races of magicians;12 and among the mountain dwellers of Scotland one finds races of doctors and poets up to the end of the eighteenth century.13

Without the self-interested calculations of the class, therefore, men could consider the children of those they believed favored by the gods to be called to inherit this favor. But the priesthood took advantage of this human inclination, as it does with everything in nature; and in order to better profit from it, the priesthood combined it with an equally natural idea, the distinction between purity and impurity.

There are climates that render certain foods harmful and certain illnesses widespread or contagious. Very hot climates oblige their inhabitants to frequent baths and ablutions. From this came the abstinences or precautions that are indicated by necessity, and soon are consecrated by habit. Priests find in these precautions or abstinences the germ of a mysterious notion that they develop and extend. A thousand indifferent circumstances, a thousand fortuitous encounters, in their doctrine become causes of impurity. Nothing will seem so understandable if one reflects on the multitudes of ceremonies, expiations, and purifications that this notion entails, and in which the intervention of priests was always presented as being indispensable.

Thus the ideas of impurity occupy an important place in religions subject to priests. One sees in Strobius’s purported extracts from Hermes that the elements complain of being defiled.14 The respect the peoples of the West and the North had for them is well known; the fear of profaning them by mixing them with unclean objects; and the view that placed in this latter category everything connected with man—his breath, his hair, and his mortal remains.

What proves that these ideas had become the subjects of an interested calculation is that arbitrariness was soon introduced in the interdiction of various foods. Their healthfulness or lack thereof ceased to be the primary concern. The distinction being already established, people wanted to explain prohibitions in that way, but in most cases this was found to be false.15

The religious sentiment itself also can have a role in the establishment of castes. Edition: current; Page: [203] The idea of purity is one of those ideas that it cherishes the most; and it had to eagerly adopt what was laid down in this regard by the privileged mortals who commanded both respect and fear.

Once the notions of purity and impurity were admitted, it had to happen that among the occupations necessary for life, several had to condemn those who performed them to different sorts of taint. With these professions rather naturally passing from father to son, a sort of gradation was established among the classes. No one could approach a member of another class without a preliminary purification, and soon enough each one took the greatest pride in being approached by the fewest possible number of individuals, because those whose contact he avoided seemed to him to be creatures of an inferior order.16

Placed at the summit of the social hierarchy, the priesthood encouraged these ideas, which were most favorable to its views because they established a distinction that was permanent, because hereditary; incontestable, because the will of the gods; applicable at every moment, because it prescribed forms that had to be observed in the most everyday relations. In a similar way the Egyptian priests, not content to keep from them foreigners who ate unclean foods, obliged all those who appeared before them to perform repeated ablutions.17

In this way, separations that nature and custom had introduced into the different classes, but which their own will and the progress of civilization could have reversed and would have overturned, became insurmountable barriers because of the priesthood. In this perspective, the establishment of castes could be regarded as their work. The interpreters of the divine law, they supported this institution with their authority. As accidental and precarious as it was, they made it sacred and inviolable. The priesthood, if I can put it this way, penned in the human race and subdivided it into isolated fractions, thus preventing it from uniting against the tyrants who said they were its guides.

The countries where the institution of castes is found most clearly and solidly established are precisely those that combine the worship of stars and the heat of climate; the latter is a secondary cause, as we said, but still very favorable to the Edition: current; Page: [204] power of priests. They therefore always attribute this division of the human race to the gods. Among the Indians, Brahma is its author.18 Isis established it among the Egyptians. Directed by a hero under the direct inspiration of Oromaze, Diemschid divided the inhabitants of Bactria into four classes.19 And in ancient Assyria it was Mahabad,20 the first legislator and king, but also the first prophet and the inventor of the first language, who divided the subject people into castes.21

In general, this division is rather uniform. The unimportant variations found Edition: current; Page: [205] in the accounts of travelers do not disturb the reality, and change nothing of the nature, of the principal fact.

In our day no less than in the remotest past, the first order in India is that of the Brahmins,22 while the second belongs to warriors.23 It does not much matter that reports differ concerning the inferior orders.24 The institutions of a country constantly exposed to invasions and perpetually subjected to foreigners necessarily had to be affected by this series of disturbances. But it still is the case that the individuals of the different castes are separated by a religious barrier, and even in the ordinary encounters of life can approach one another only at the distance prescribed by religion.25 When this distance is violated, the member of the superior caste is expelled from his rank, and he escapes servitude only by apostasy or flight.26 The Edition: current; Page: [206] same fate awaits the one whose lips touch food prepared by someone of an inferior caste.27 The poor Brahmins who are employed as secretaries by wealthy Indians believe they are degraded by eating with their masters.28

So great is the authority of these ideas concerning the distinction of castes among these peoples that they even override the interest of religion itself. Indians who have become unclean seek refuge in Islam, even in the face of the threat of being sold as slaves. The Muslim author who reports these details attributes this intolerance to the will of God, who in this way compels his enemies to facilitate the triumph of his faith and the increase of the faithful.29

A fortiori, marriages between unequals are forbidden. Formerly, death was the inevitable punishment. The softening of mores has substituted banishment, and Brahmins have arrogated the right to take wives from the warrior caste.30 But even if time and nature have mitigated the severity of the institutions, the mixed races that result from these impious alliances are still looked upon with disfavor, and the ignoble professions are assigned to them.31

At the lowest rung of this tyrannical hierarchy one sees a proscribed race cast outside the social state. The unfortunate pariahs, for the most part fishermen and tanners, are not found among the ranks of men.32 They are excluded from all society, not allowed on roads, at fountains, or in temples. Their touch, their mere presence, and even their breath are impure. Formerly, one could kill them with impunity. Even today, the other castes would think twice about lending them assistance.33

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By a singular reversal, in the midst of oppression men seek to console themselves by exercising it themselves rather than resisting it. Pariahs are divided among themselves into orders that transmit the disdain others bear to them. The horror they can display seems to them to be a recompense for the horror they inspire in others.

The institution of castes was consecrated in Egypt in an equally immutable way.34 The main divisions were the same. The differences in details that owe to incomplete enumerations or misrecognized subdivisions are of little importance.35 It suffices for us that the priests are always, by heredity, the first of all the classes,36 Edition: current; Page: [208] and the warriors form the second.37 It is also remarkable that the shepherds in Egypt, like the pariahs in India, were the objects of universal disdain.38 Herodotus tells us that alone among the Egyptians they could not enter the temples. And no one wanted their daughters to marry them, nor to marry theirs. They only intermarried.39

One, however, must not fail to note the differences between the Indian and the Egyptian institutions. They perhaps owe to politics as much as religion.40 The Edition: current; Page: [209] passage from Herodotus to which we just referred points to an exception made against shepherds. It gives rise to the thought that the hereditariness of professions was reinforced more rigorously than that of races. This would mean that marriages between and among the inferior castes were not as reproved as they were in India. India’s castes, in contrast, were treated more with despotic harshness than with religious horror. Calculating everything in view of social utility, Egyptian policy did not cast them from the social state, but made them bear all its burdens and pains.41 In India, the division into castes was purely a matter of conscience; in Egypt, it was linked with administration.

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CHAPTER 9: On Priestly Corporations Replacing Castes

The Ethiopians, the Indians, and the inhabitants of Egypt are the peoples of Antiquity among whom one most clearly perceives the division into castes. Among many other peoples, various signs seem to indicate that this division had existed, but then had weakened. For example, it is probable that in the original country of the magi, in Media and especially in Bactria, this order was a veritable caste. But the revolution that transported them to Persia properly speaking, having placed it more or less under the royal power, denatured the institution. Even though formally prescribed by Zoroaster,1 the division into castes was never scrupulously put into practice. Among the Persians, we see a class of nobles, one of warriors, and one of laborers, but nothing proves that the classes were necessarily hereditary. The hereditary priesthood is the only one attested by the ancients.2

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The same is true among the Mexicans,3 the Hebrews, and all the southern peoples subject to the power of priests. But going toward the West and the North, hereditary disappears, and we find corporations that appear to be elective.

Caesar reports that members of the nobility could enter into the order of Druids.4 Porphyry goes even further. According to him, the sacerdotal corporations were composed of all those who, without any distinction of race, obtained the approval of the city or the country.5

However, one cannot maintain that priests invested with an immense authority were disposed to share it with first-comers. It seems probable to us that if these corporations were elective by law or custom, they were hereditary in fact.6 We read in Diodorus that among these same peoples of the North, certain families were charged, descending from father to son, with everything that concerned the worship of the gods.7 Young nobles were constrained to a novitiate of twenty years under the direction of the Druids.8 And even the nations that had preserved the right to elect their princes recognized that the priests had the right to choose the head of the priests.9

Finally, the difference in forms can be explained by the difference in situations. An active, bellicose, vagabond way of life takes away some of the fixity of institutions, Edition: current; Page: [212] even if their strength and intensity of action are not diminished. In the next chapter we will see that the power of the Drottes, the Druids, and all the ministers of religion who governed the nations known under the names Getes, Scythians, Celts, Scandinavians, and Gauls were often as despotic as the Brahmins of India or the priests of Egypt.

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CHAPTER 10: On the Various Competences of the Priesthood among the Nations It Dominated

Among the nations subjugated by priestly corporations, as among those that were divided into castes, the power of priests did not limit itself to matters concerning religion.

To be sure, religious functions always occupied the first place. Priests1 asserted the exclusive right to preside at prayers, sacrifices, and ceremonies, whether the most or the least important rites of the external worship. Among the Persians, the magi were charged with all the offerings: their invocations alone were efficacious,2 and the consecration of victims consisted in a theogony chanted by a member of this order.3 These theogonies, the living transmission of the eternal word, had an irresistible power. The magi repeated them regularly, even perpetually, sometimes alone in the temples, sometimes before the assembled faithful. They varied them according to the sun’s position, the seasons, the time of day, but they must never be interrupted. Deprived of their salutary resounding, the world would have prematurely returned to chaos. The silence of the magi would have been the universe’s last hour.

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Whoever in Egypt sacrificed a victim that was not marked by the sacerdotal seal was punished with death.4 Among the Gauls, only the Druids5 interpreted signs.6 They alone observed the flight of birds. No profane hand dared dig into the entrails of humans sacrificed to the gods.7 Gete,8 German,9 and Breton priests accompanied their armies; they alone could implore heaven for them and consign their enemies to death. Despite their theism, the Jews were not an exception. They closed the sanctuary to all but priests.10 Abiram and Dathan were swallowed up for having usurped clerical functions. Uzzah perished because he involuntarily touched the ark.11 Fifty thousand Bethsamites were struck dead because they looked upon it.12 Even though he had destroyed the worship of idols, Uzziah was chased from the temple by the high priest because he had laid hold of the encensoir.13

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In all the feasts of Indians, Brahmins presided.14 Who could take their place? Brahma existed and lived in them. They are his children. To honor them was to honor him. He received with equal benevolence the homage directed at him and what was directed to his representatives on earth.15 Endowed with a miraculous force and virtue, their hand sprinkled consecrated water on the animals that nourished man, the furnishings constructed for the different needs of life, and the weapons destined for its defense.16 They determined days of rejoicing and days of mourning. They alone taught the faithful their appropriate prayers; and if someone revealed them to another person the latter’s head rolled, a very ingenious way of controlling indiscretion and discouraging curiosity. Divination was reserved to them.17 No one could build a pagoda unless some revelation instructed him concerning the spot preferred by the divinity, and the Brahmins were always the necessary intermediaries of these communications.

All teachings were modified in accordance with this principle. The waters of the Ganges possess a miraculous virtue for the expiation of sins. But it was feared that the guilty, desirous of absolution, would escape the priestly power by plunging into the river on their own. As a result, one had to hold in his hand blades of straw blessed by a Brahmin.18 Even the gods patiently waited while the priests determined their forms and their abodes. The stones worshipped by Indians owe Edition: current; Page: [216] their sacred nature to the prayers of Brahmins, who call down divinity upon them. Before this mysterious invocation, the stones of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are but profane pebbles.19 The lingam becomes a sacred object only when a solemn ceremony has confined the god within the newly sculpted idol.20 Ancient oaks needed to be sprinkled with blood from the hands of Druids to become worthy of the Gauls’ veneration.21

But the priesthood does not content itself with only, and exclusively, exercising religious functions. It arrogates a considerable part of political22 and civil authority as well. A king, Plato says, cannot reign in Egypt if he has not been admitted to the knowledge of sacred things. Every man from another class who ascends the throne must have himself received into the priestly order.23

The election of kings was reserved to priests and soldiers, but the votes of priests counted one hundred- or two hundred-fold.24 After his election, the king who had Edition: current; Page: [217] acceded to the priesthood25 remained subject to the ones who had elected him. He was served not by slaves but by the sons of priests who were more than twenty years old. He had as regular associates only the ministers of worship. The hours of his walks, those of his ablutions and his baths, the moments he was permitted to enjoy venereal pleasures, all were fixed by them.26 In public ceremonies, after having prayed for the prince, the high priest publicly examined and censured his conduct.27 And just as the priesthood attended him at his installation, the same priesthood calculated each minute of his final agony, and sanctified him with the purifying waters of the Nile.28

Even more powerful, the Ethiopian priesthood not only elected kings but dethroned or condemned them to death.29 It also decided on war and peace.30

During their theocracy, the Jews always consulted Jehovah through the intermediary Edition: current; Page: [218] of the high priest concerning the choice of their generals. Their sacred books show judges in many respects placed in a subordinate position.

Some have claimed that Brahmins could neither ascend the throne nor lead the armies. But credible travelers cite several contrary examples,31 and it was not so long ago that the king of the Marathas was subject to twelve Brahmins who governed in his name.32

The institutions of the peoples of the North and the West present a singular mixture of political liberty and priestly despotism. Far from diminishing the power of priests, the guarantees that citizens had established against their civil and military leaders redounded to the advantage of their spiritual masters. The peoples exercised the right of dismissal against the former, but not against anyone cloaked in the priesthood.33 This naturally gave them a great superiority to the removable detainers of temporal authority.34 Sometimes we see priests unite the two powers. Edition: current; Page: [219] Comosicus, the sovereign pontiff of the Goths, governed them not only as priest but as king.35 Other times, even though it lacked the visible marks of royalty, the priesthood exercised a most formidable authority over it. Kings were not exempt from the human victims that the ministers of the gods had the right to demand. It was even a widespread view that it was a favorable augur when the lot fell on a prince.36

Among almost all these nations, the judicial power belonged to the priests, as well as political authority.37 Among the Germans, they put the accused in irons, they inflicted punishments, they executed criminals, not as administering the justice of men, but as accomplishing the sentences of the gods.38 The Drottes of the Scandinavians were both priests and judges.39 The Druids pronounced on all the Edition: current; Page: [220] disagreements between individuals.40 They gave clemency by offering safe haven in their sanctuaries. This custom has subsisted to our day in Italy and Spain, the countries most dominated by the Catholic priesthood.

It was as the inheritor of these privileges that the Christian clergy obtained from Constantine, Theodosius, and, finally, from Charlemagne that civil tribunals could not take cognizance of cases brought before bishops;41 it is well known that they presided over trials by fire and water, and the judgments of God.42

Independently of the sentences they pronounced in their capacity as judges, priests employed the instrument of excommunication against those who attempted to resist them; and this excommunication involved the loss of all civil and political rights. How so? It banished the guilty from all places destined for worship, but this was where the citizens came together to deliberate about national interests. Likewise, it was in the depths of the forests that tribunals summoned plaintiffs to appear, and where they rendered their verdicts. And last, these forests were the sanctuary of the gods. It was forbidden to the excommunicated to enter these places. In these ways, they could not attend the assemblies of the people or present themselves before tribunals to seek justice. Thus disarmed and without protection, they found themselves subject everywhere to public horror. Everyone fled them, believing they were sullied by their mere presence.43

To be sure, among the Persians and the Indians, from time immemorial foreign domination rendered the temporal consequences of excommunication less terrible. But the priests attempted to compensate with the threat of greater punishments Edition: current; Page: [221] after death. The Sadder is filled with imprecations against the opponents of the magi and frightful descriptions of the eternal torments that await them. “He whom the gods themselves cannot destroy,” say the Brahmins, “he who cannot be killed by Indra, or Cali, or Vishnu, will be consumed by fire if a Brahmin curses him.”44 Today, one can see as a vestige of the excommunication formerly in use, the loss of caste these same Brahmins claim to inflict on the members of other castes when they refuse to comply with even multiple requests. This spiritual demotion causes them to descend into an even lower caste.45

As one can easily anticipate, so many and so diverse a number of prerogatives were accompanied by vast properties and numerous exemptions. Egyptian priests did not pay any tribute, but were charged with collecting it.46 They said that Isis had given them a third of Egypt47 for their maintenance and the upkeep of the Edition: current; Page: [222] cult. When Pharaoh appropriated the money, flocks, and goods of his subjects, he did not touch the priests’ possessions.48

In India, in the absence of heirs, the Brahmins inherited.49 When Gauls died, they transmitted their goods to the gods and to their ministers.50 Strabo writes of the immense domains belonging to the Druids, and the slaves who cultivated them. There were temples to which more than six thousand serfs were attached.51 Armenia presents the same spectacle attending the altars of Anaitis.52 Moses, whose priesthood was in imitation of the Egyptians’,53 gave the Levites a tenth of the harvest and the yield of flocks, as well as everything that fell under interdiction, everything vowed to the Lord, the redemption of firstborn infants, a portion of all the animals that were killed, and, finally, the first fruits of the harvest. Rigorous laws in this world54 and frightening punishments in the next55 were the protective hedges of these immense estates. The sword and the anathema, laws and social pressure, gods and demons—all were invoked to guarantee them.

Weighed down with wealth and dispensed from every pecuniary burden, the priests had also emancipated themselves from all other dangerous or painful duties. Even in the most warlike nations, they were not obliged to bear arms,56 and they could not be put to death for even the most serious crimes.

For a long time, the Christian priesthood claimed a similar privilege. One still sees traces of this exemption in England in what is called the benefit of the clergy. Edition: current; Page: [223] In India, Brahmins formerly enjoyed the same privilege.57 But now that the time of their unlimited power has passed, this prerogative has become harmful to them, and the punishments that they undergo are even more cruel because of the precautions taken to make sure they do not shed blood when punished.58

To justify the accumulation of so much power and so many privileges, the arguments of priests were everywhere the same. The human race is on the earth only to accomplish the will of the gods. All the actions of individuals have a more-or-less direct relation with this will. Priests know this will, and make it known. It belongs to them, therefore, to judge and punish disobedience.

The identity of means is no less noticeable.

An austere, retired life; a difficult, hence rare, admission to it; an affectation of superior purity; care taken to appear before the profane only on solemn occasions when the priest communicates with the gods;59 ostentatious deprivations and unbelievable austerities: everywhere these make the priesthood appear a separate race. In order to enhance its prestige, no effort is spared. Without any hesitation, it sacrifices its life to its power. Among more than one people, when sovereign pontiffs are struck by dangerous illnesses, they have recourse to suicide or secretly receive death at the hand of an aide in order not to be subject—like the vulgar—to this fatal necessity of our nature.60

It is the exclusive possession of the sciences, however, that above all is the foundation of sacerdotal power. This monopoly established the priesthood as the privileged thinker, one might say, of the human race. Therefore this exclusive possession was everywhere the object of its most attentive and scrupulous vigilance. It reserved to itself the teaching of morality, of philosophy, of eloquence, of jurisprudence, of history, of poetry, of physics, of astronomy. In Egypt, the priests were the sole historians.61 Among the Gauls, poetry was permitted only to the bards, an inferior class of Druids.62 Still, however, the sacred hymns and canticles that contained the elements of the various disciplines had to be composed by the superior Edition: current; Page: [224] class.63 Even as the sole preceptors of the youth—whom they brought into the depths of the forests so as to produce an even greater impression on them—they still refrained from initiating them into their teachings (what they called physiology and magic;64 that is, their interpretation of nature and the means of obtaining supernatural communications). In the same way, the magi had assumed sole responsibility for education in the vast Persian empire;65 instruction could come from no other source.66

Among all these peoples, medicine, a science with many relations to religion (at least as conceived by priests, as simultaneously positive and conjectural), was associated with the priesthood. We saw this in connection with the savage state in the person of the jongleur.67 Certain salubrious elements could be touched only by priests performing certain ceremonies;68 the famous serpent’s egg, the virtues attributed to the mistletoe of oaks, the solemnity with which one gathered the Edition: current; Page: [225] samolus and selago, were only the combination of a few medicinal secrets with mysterious rites.69

All this knowledge, carefully kept in the sanctuary, was shared only with great difficulty with foreigners and the profane.70 The ancients report the obstacles that Eudoxus, traveling with Plato, had to overcome to obtain from the Egyptians a few fragments of their astronomical views.71 And the confidences given were always cloaked in darkness. Iamblichus, whose character (and times) inclined to admire everything that was unintelligible, extolled the wisdom of those men who, as he put it, imitated nature by surrounding it with obscurity.72

Consider the precautions taken against the vulgar. The people of Egypt could not learn to read without thereby committing a crime.73 Two or three species of language74 and of writing,75 each one a new mystery, served as a double or triple rampart against an indiscreet curiosity.76 The Druids too rejected writing; and Edition: current; Page: [226] when it was applied to religion, they declared this to be the greatest of crimes.77 The reading of the Vedas is permitted only to the Brahmins,78 and boiling oil is poured into the mouth of whoever violates this prohibition.79

In this way, since the existence of the priesthood rests on mystery, it gathers together all the developments of force and all the resources of cunning, in order to heighten the darkness surrounding it, and to prolong its existence.

The priests not only put themselves on guard against the peoples they govern: they extend their distrust to themselves. The subdivisions of their hierarchy80 in India and in Egypt,81 as well as among the Gauls, had as their natural effect hiding their most important secrets from the lower ranks. Of the forty-two books of Mercury Trismegistus,82 the first thirty-six were known only by the superior classes.83

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The priesthood showed itself no less farsighted when it came to individuals. Even when he was a member of the sacred corporations, no individual wrote in his own name on religion or philosophy.84

Some moderns have noted as worthy of surprise that history, while transmitting the memory of the great sacerdotal bodies that have reigned on the earth, has almost never mentioned a distinguished individual. This is because the priesthood’s instinct warned it that in order to attain the common goal, the aspirations of individuals had to be suppressed.85 What we have taken as the proper names of Chaldean and Phoenician writers probably were the designation of a class. The word “Sanchuniathon” among the Phoenicians signified a savant, a philosopher; that is, a priest.86 Many Indians assured Lord Jones that Buddha was a generic name.87 In Egypt, all the works on religion and the sciences bear the name of Thot or Hermes.88 In all of Edition: current; Page: [228] Egyptian history, says a German author,89 one never hears of the talents or merit of any priest in particular. No discoverer is known, no individual who had a marked influence on the people.

This supremacy of the corporation, and this absence of any individual preeminence, cannot be the result of chance. The priesthood had decided that the eminent qualities of a few were injurious to the prestige of the rest. They wanted to enjoy in common the veneration of the nation. They wanted to transmit a collective respect to their successors. Everything therefore had to be related to the whole. No one had the right to distinguish himself for his own sake.90

In this way, we have an oft-noted phenomenon whose cause has never been sought. The sciences in Egypt rapidly attained a degree of perfection but suddenly were stunted. And the entire enlightened class occupied the same rung, becoming immobile before a barrier that was never overcome.91

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Thus everything about these domineering corporations, whether within or externally, was monotonous, immobile, and anonymous. This was a discipline analogous to the military, which renders soldiers more terrifying the more blinkered they are; forcing each member to work together without ever separating from the mass and distinguishing himself. If the priests had encouraged the hope of distinguishing oneself, this would have disturbed their common projects by inconsiderate actions and by imprudent conduct. They wanted their forward progress to be in lockstep, they wanted their look uniform, because they wanted to enslave the earth rather than enlighten it, to dominate by their collective weight, not their individual glory.

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CHAPTER 1: An Enumeration of These Causes

By placing all the nations subject to priests into a single category, we do not claim that priestly power has been exactly the same among these different nations. An infinity of events and circumstances had to modify it in many ways.

Among them there is the climate, which, although it is not a primary cause, nonetheless exercises a good deal of influence because it sometimes renders institutions stationary and sometimes encourages their upheaval or their development; the fertility or sterility of the region; the peaceful or bellicose spirit of peoples; their active or indolent character; national independence or subjection to a foreign yoke; great political revolutions, which, shaking states to their very foundations, extend devastation to palaces as well as huts and, by destroying worldly security, compel the unfortunate to seek repose and place hope in another world; geographical isolation or commerce with others; the more or less imperious necessity of physical labor; accidents caused by the nature of the soil, the density of the air, or exhalations coming from the earth; strange phenomena that constantly strike the inhabitants of certain countries with terror; finally, migrations, whether chosen or compelled. All these things had to produce different effects that it is essential to recognize.

We will attempt to point them out.

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CHAPTER 2: On Climate

As we demonstrated earlier, climate does not create the authority of priests, but it does contribute to increasing or prolonging it.

To call its influence into doubt, as Helvetius did, is to close one’s eyes to the most manifest evidence. Take a trip to the frost and snow of Iceland, Lapland, and Greenland, then to the smiling, clear skies of India. On one hand, you will see rocks white with snow, arid valleys, and lakes covered with thick fog; on the other, mountains crowned with immense, magnificent forests and fragrant retreats where the air itself appears to be an eager benefactor to man, lavishing upon him its harmonious sounds, sweet freshness, and exquisite scents. In one zone, you will see mournful pines rise above, while moss provides a carpet below; in the other, prodigious amounts of vegetation covering the plains and decorating the hills; in the former, a few animals that seem to reflect the hostility of nature and who in vain ask the companion of their misery, their human master, for a meager nourishment, which he can provide only with great effort; while elsewhere there is an abundance of living beings clothed in resplendent colors, found in sometimes elegant, sometimes gigantesque forms, but always marked with the imprint of a superabundance of life. The mineral kingdom itself, the most imperfect realm because the most material and the most distant from intelligence, is nonetheless subject to the same law dividing the two. In the North it offers only pebbles and rocks, while in the South it displays the splendor of an exuberant wealth, depositing gold in the midst of sands and causing precious stones to lodge in the cavities of the earth. One can easily sense the numerous differences that must result for the inhabitants of these two zones from locations that are so dissimilar. The religious need remains the same, but its expression is not the same, and its appearances vary.

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Compare the tales of the Skalds and the songs of the Sacontala. In the former, the cow Audumla has to lick with great effort the frozen snow, and only slowly does a restless, petulant, and suffering race of men appear. A cold sweat that condenses, dark blood that congeals, mutilated members that grow stiff—these are the hideous elements of creation. Depicted in bizarrely poetic colors, the serpent Mitgard, the wolf Fenris, and that prophet of destruction, the raven, all of them witnesses or agents at the birth of the world, offer only dark, repulsive images. One would say that struck by the hostility of everything that surrounds them, the inhabitants of these severe climates find a sad pleasure in noting the rigors of heaven. On the other hand, Brahma rests indolently on the lotus, his cradle; Vishnu emerges from the blossom of a flower; Krishna, when he opens his ruby mouth, displays all the marvels of the universe; and the young Sacontala, in the delightful garden that her presence embellishes, is an emblem of the affection of nature for man. The inhabitants of the woods rejoice around her. At her approach, flowers blossom and spontaneously form lovely garlands. The elements themselves rival one another in serving and pleasing her. She is in the midst of all visible and invisible beings like a favored child in the midst of a family that cherishes and protects her.1

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Indigenous to some climates thanks to astrolatry, transplanted by migrations to others, the priesthood makes its calculations and modifies these different impressions. The South is its natural domain, the North is its conquest.

Northern climates, when the cold is not pushed to excess (because the extreme of cold, as well as the extreme of heat, almost entirely deprives man of his faculties),2 northern climates, I say, give an extreme tension to human organs. From this results strenuous activity. Physical needs are satisfied only with difficulty. From this comes a tendency toward theft and violence. When northern peoples fight, they have fierce wars. A life that is always tumultuous leaves them little time for religious ideas. Their risky expeditions make necessary protective gods who are within reach. Priests therefore would have little influence over them unless colonization brought them in contact with an already established priesthood.

Southern climates, on the other hand, when their influence is not counteracted by other circumstances, simultaneously form slothful bodies and active imaginations, and the former encourage the latter. Physical indolence leaves an open field to imagination’s reveries. While the body is immobile, the religious sentiment is excited, and the human spirit wanders in its conjectures, exalts in its hopes, and loses itself in its terrors. And those who come in the name of heaven to give order to these terrors, hopes, and conjectures, are listened to with respect and approval.

Thus the roots of priestly authority have always been less profound in northern nations than among the peoples of the South. In India, invasions, conquests, and the devastations wrought by foreigners—calamities that go back to the most Edition: current; Page: [237] remote times, and which have been constantly repeated to today—have barely affected the authority of the Brahmans, while the Romans in less than two centuries destroyed, if not the hidden influence, at least the official rule, of the Druids in Gaul and in Britain.

One does not find in the North the great tenacity of belief that is so astonishing among the peoples of the South (because it seems so difficult to reconcile with their lack of energy). Terribly timid in war, Indians brave the cruelest deaths and the most refined tortures rather than abjure their religion or break its least precept. Much less obstinate, the barbarians of the North have always easily embraced foreign cults.3 It is also to be noted that while the northern religions have never exceeded their frozen environs, the warm climates have sent their beliefs to the entire world. The men of the North have conquered the South. The opinions of the South have conquered the North.

The need for repose and aversion to every form of struggle deprive southern peoples of every means of shaking off an established yoke. In the same way that Indians cannot repulse the invasions of foreigners, they remain passively subject to the dominion of Brahmins. No one should object to this the religious innovations that under the form of divine incarnations or philosophical systems have taken place in India during different epochs, or the multiple sects that divide it. These innovations appear to us to be so frequent because we see them brought together, while in actuality they were scattered at widely different times; moreover, they have not dispossessed the sacerdotal caste; its power has always been so great that dissidents have always returned to its yoke. Among these dispirited nations, external activity directed toward others is almost impossible. They therefore seek refuge in a sort of interior activity, one that is more compatible with their effeminate disposition, and to which their imagination grants miraculous power.

From this comes the singular teaching of the efficacy of penitence and self-laceration. This doctrine gives their fables a character different from those of all other mythologies. Their penances are not solely directed at the expiation of crimes or to correct mistakes. Their aim is much vaster, and their import much greater. Austerities, fasts, and invocations dominate nature, chance, other men, and the gods themselves.4 The people of the North present to us nothing resembling Edition: current; Page: [238] this Indian notion of penitence. The interior vigor that animates them dispenses them from painful lacerations, or from placing their strength in curses. Even in dominating them, the priesthood does not change their nature. Born for battle, it is for battle that they are called upon. Disappointed by certain gods, Scandinavians threaten to scale Valhalla in order to lay hold of these gods. Indians, on the other hand, moved by the sentiment of their impotence, refuse any and all combat, and fall back upon themselves and pray or curse instead of fighting. It is by prayer that they defend themselves; it is by prayer that they revenge themselves. It is by prayer that they shake, or shore up, the world. It is even by prayer that they have children. The five children of Pandu owed their birth to the power of a magic Edition: current; Page: [239] prayer.5 Anathema, which is a sort of inverted prayer, has no less power. The curse of a single penitent penetrates heaven, chills its inhabitants, and compels them to submit.6 And this irresistible influence is not reserved, as one might think, solely to believers. Rebellious giants and shades of the dark possess the same advantage.7

Indians bring this mysterious weapon into their ordinary relations, the only one that fits with their weakness. They have recourse to it in the business of civil life as well as in their religious interests; they use it against their earthly persecutors as they do against heavenly ones; against the English who oppress them as well as their own inexorable divinities; against their creditors or debtors as well as Brahma or Vishnu.

Any other sort of resistance is beyond their moral faculties. Suicide therefore is very easy for them, and it is by a unique combination of strength and apathy that they often place their resistance in suicide.8 Disarmed by their own nature, they Edition: current; Page: [240] are conquered in advance, as it were, by the priesthood, which, peacefully atop a hierarchy, receives their homage without having to take the trouble to demand it.

Their power finds an auxiliary in another effect of the climate.

One would say that nature’s creative force in the South is exclusively concentrated in the development of material beings, in the profusion of vegetation, in the enormous number of forms and the wealth of colors in the animal kingdom, and that it neglects the principle of the moral life that is progress. In the majority of the countries of the East and the South man is not occupied, as in Europe, with varying the objects that surround him, nor, if I can put it this way, in varying himself. Time, which destroys individuals, changes nothing with the species. The generations replace one another, without being distinguished from one another. The Arab wears the clothes and sandals he wore at the time of Abraham. The Bedouin of today bakes his cakes and buries his dead like the Bedouin who was Moses’s contemporary. The past three centuries, the Indian has seen in the European his master and his scourge. He accepts his yoke, but would be embarrassed by his finery, and rejects his ways. Everything in these burning climates bears the imprint of a necessity that is as invariable as it is irresistible. Custom takes the place of the will. Everything seems to be imposed by chance, but calculated to last eternally. Everything is marked with immobility, and by a natural consequence effects become causes.

The immobility that results from climate’s action on the faculties of man further Edition: current; Page: [241] enhances this action. The theocratic despotism that it favors keeps its slaves at a distance from one another. The regular communication of individuals and classes among themselves, in Europe the principle of progress and perfecting, is foreign to the East and the South. Religious barriers separate castes, and thanks to polygamy (which is always brought back by the climate whether it be in accordance with religious law or not),9 the family itself is no longer a united society. Isolated in this way, and without any external distractions, the human species is entirely handed over to the constant, monotonous influence of the priesthood.

On the other hand, while rendering this empire more indestructible, the climates of the South also temper its effects. When man does not stubbornly contradict nature, it almost always adds some sort of remedy to a great evil. The climates that are the most favorable to priestly authority are at the same time those that impart the most gentleness to the character, habits, and customs of peoples. Priests themselves do not remain strangers to this salutary softening. However, when priestly omnipotence is the effect of a transitory accident and thus rests on institutions that have no source in nature (something that has to happen in northern climes), no such compensation can occur. All the periods in the history of the Gauls or of Great Britain attest to the ferocity of the Druids, while Brahmins often show themselves to be benevolent and approachable. The general precepts of their moral teaching are pure and sublime.10 Their souls are open to pity. All suffering beings stir their sympathy.

This disposition extends itself to their cruelest rituals and somewhat veils the monstrosity of human sacrifice. It is forbidden to sacrifice anyone who has not volunteered. Edition: current; Page: [242] Even in this barbaric practice, the humanity of Indians has need of the consent of the victim in order to excuse in its own eyes what it is doing. This same desire is even manifest in the very words pronounced by the sacrificing priest.11

It is to the mildness of the mores12 the climate inspires that one should attribute the spirit of tolerance that shines in the religious books of almost all the Indian sects.13 But watch out: let the priests think their interest is slightly compromised, Edition: current; Page: [243] and the priestly spirit awakens. It is then in vain that benevolent nature appears to lead them away from bloody superstition. The priesthood triumphs over nature. Then the religions of the South pass quickly from the most affecting tolerance to the most terrible ferocity, from the deepest compassion (even for animals) to the most pitiless cruelty toward men. If one wants proof, let him reread the following passage from the pen of a fine translator: “‘From the bridge of Rama to the Himilayas white with snow, whoever would spare Buddhists, whether young or old, let him be put to death,’ cried the pitiless Koumaril-Bhatt to his merciless followers, as he ordered the massacre of Buddhists.”14

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CHAPTER 3: On the Fertility or Sterility of the Soil

The fertility or sterility of the soil also ought to enter into account. The Indians and the black peoples of coastal Africa inhabit an equally hot climate. They equally despise work. But the African finds himself compelled to work because nature has condemned him to wrest from the soil the subsistence she otherwise refuses. He thus acquires and retains a habit of action and movement that follows him into his very pleasures. The Indian, on the other hand, whose needs are furnished by a soil that is both fertile and spontaneous, places his supreme happiness in an almost total repose. And after repose, the Indian rests some more, as if fatigued by repose itself. The African, in contrast, after working seeks boisterous games and dances that giddy and numb him. From this it results (with only a few exceptions owing to chance accidents) that the blacks of Africa are much less preoccupied with religion than the inhabitants of India, and the priesthood has much more power over the latter than the former.

In addition, wherever the vegetal kingdom is rich and diverse, the knowledge of medicinal plants acquires a much greater importance than it can in regions of arid soil. The practice of medicine thus becomes an additional cause of priestly influence.

The fertility of the soil has yet another effect. In countries where work is a necessary condition of subsistence, the number of ceremonies that interrupt or suspend work has serious consequences which do not exist when the earth provides for men’s needs. It is then that priests profit from their ascendancy to multiply ceremonies, and the great number of solemnities then increases the ascendancy of those who have instituted them. Everything we know about Egyptian religion is proof of this. But as it happens that these institutions can be transported from countries where they were, if not suitable at least harmless, into those where different circumstances Edition: current; Page: [245] render them harmful, the commands of the religion contradict local necessities. In order to overcome these necessities, the priesthood is obliged to exercise its authority more imperiously, and to arrogate to itself even more authority in areas where, according to nature, it ought to have less.

Sometimes the same cause, or better put: two opposed causes, assist the priesthood in its usurpations by suggesting teachings favorable to it. Thus the fertile Delta suggested the idea of the good principle to Egyptians. But by the same token, the aridity of the deserts of Libya appeared to manifest the activity of a malevolent divinity. Now, there is no doctrine that priests seize hold of more eagerly than the notion of a god of evil.

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CHAPTER 4: On the Necessity of Material Works and Products for the Physical Existence of Societies

A remarkable thing: while the love of repose and indolence favors the dominion of priests, so too does the urgent necessity for manual labor and material objects on the part of a society; perhaps even more than the former. “No one,” writes Diodorus,1 “by looking at Lake Moeris, could calculate how many thousands of men, and what huge number of years, had to be employed in constructing such an object.” Now, its construction naturally fell on the lower castes. Its direction was confided to the ruling caste. This caste had only to indicate what needed to be done and compel its execution. Why? It knew the secret of flooding, it could calculate its return and its phases; it knew how to distribute its waters, how to stop them from being destructive, how to contain or to expand them, to divide them into canals, to construct dams. Under pain of death, the people were condemned to obedience because it was a matter of defending against the return of the waters in a country that had been seized from water’s dominion. From this came the most severe oppression, justified initially by necessity, later prolonged by interest, then transformed into a duty by religion and sanctioned by habit.2

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This circumstance had to imprint a much more somber character on the worship and priesthood of Egypt than was ever the case with Indian religion and its ministers. Thus, we see among the Egyptians no trace of the mildness, humanity, and spirit of tolerance that honor the people of India.

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CHAPTER 5: On the Phenomena That Engender Astonishment or Terror

To this cause peculiar to Egypt is joined another, which also operated in Etruria. The rebirth of Egypt seemed to be an annual miracle. The phenomena that accompanied the arrival of the waters, their stay, and their withdrawal astonished observers. Meteors, fumes, and the fetid fogs1 that rose from the lime of a country submerged under water, upon which the burning sun cast its harsh rays; the numerous and various events that necessarily resulted from the movement of the people fleeing the flooding, then descending from the mountains as the waters receded—so many causes could not fail to dispose souls to superstition and submission to its ministers.

In the same way, earthquakes, frightening apparitions, and noxious miasmas2 in Edition: current; Page: [249] Etruria encouraged the triumph of the priesthood which had been transplanted in the country by colonies of Pelasgians who had left Greece before the heroic times.3

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CHAPTER 6: The Influence of the Character and Customary Occupations of Peoples

Priestly authority is no less affected by the pacific or belligerent character of peoples. Egypt lived for a very long time as peaceful. The humor of its inhabitants was never warlike.1 In this country there were never, as in Greece, leaders of armed peoples who limited, much less destroyed, theocratic domination. Nor were there, as at Rome, political institutions that constrained the priesthood by incorporating it into itself. The efforts of soldiers or princes to become independent were fruitless, or at least what success they achieved was temporary, and Egypt was always delivered over to the priests, at first its kings, and tutors of its kings, after they had descended from the throne. These priests recognized so well the advantages a lasting peace held for them that the conquests of Sesostris and the expeditions of his successors were always considered scandalous. The kings of Egypt were condemned to inaction. Their names serve only to designate a succession of years marked by no memorable enterprise. And 330 of them succeed one another like gray shadows that nothing particularly characterizes or distinguishes.

On the other hand, it is probable that without their passion for war the Scandinavians would not have struggled for so long against the usurpations of the Drottes, and that it would not have been necessary to have three revolutions and two foreign invasions in order to overcome their resistance.2 If we knew the details of the history of Germany and Gaul, it is probable that we would see the ascendancy of the Druids shaken from time to time by the efforts of military chiefs.

In general, the more that man is occupied with earthly interests, the less he Edition: current; Page: [251] allows himself to be dominated by other men who speak in the name of heaven. Everything that calls him back to the business of life places limits on a power whose justification is found elsewhere than in this world, whose promises can be fulfilled only beyond the grave.

If, despite the scattered facts that indicate the terrible power of the Carthaginian priesthood, priests are rarely spoken of in what is reported to us about Carthage, this can be explained by the spirit of enterprise and the mercantile activity that, among these rivals of the Romans, doubtless had effects comparable to those of the martial spirit of the followers of Odin.

But such is the complicated action of different causes that combine and modify each other, that the same commerce that limited the power of priests in Carthage enhanced it in Ethiopia.

The colleges of Ammonium and Meroë inhabited the fertile oases scattered throughout the sandy deserts. These oases were the resting places of the caravans that crossed the country. Only there did they find water, vegetation, and shade. But they also sought directions to where they were going, as well as the distance and location of places they would have to cross. The priests gave them such information in their temples, in the form of oracles;3 while indicating to the travelers their route, they also revealed to them the destiny that hung over them.

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CHAPTER 7: On the Effect of Great Political Calamities

Great political calamities also influence the extent of priestly power. In the same countries where the climate establishes the narrowest limits to this authority, these limits cannot resist the extraordinary circumstances that lead men back to superstition. Great defeats as well as great misfortunes—a famine, a plague—give it fierce new life, analogous to the bloody character of warlike peoples. Theocratic despotism reappears in its most terrifying extent, along with the most frightful rites. Prosperity, wealth, perhaps even the beginnings of enlightenment, had diminished the empire of the Carthaginian priests; but then Carthage was threatened by Agathocles. The organs of the gods then suddenly regained the fullness of their authority; the children of the most illustrious families were dragged to the temples, and their blood was offered in expiation and sacrifice.1

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CHAPTER 8: On the Effect of Migrations

At first glance, far-off migrations would seem to be prejudicial rather than helpful to priestly power. Even when it is not their primary aim, war is their inseparable companion. Personal courage and military talent, faculties that need regular exercise to develop and which propel men into the active life, as well as force them to have regular contact with the multitude, are hardly compatible with the prestige with which the priestly order covers itself. It thus gives them formidable rivals.1 We thus observe several nations free themselves from their priests, at least for a time, during the long voyages they undertake to find a homeland. In the migration from Egypt to Greece, and the blending of Egyptian colonies with Greek tribes,2 the priesthood almost entirely lost its authority. And much later in the New World it was a migration (instigated and directed by a priest, it is true) that led the Tenochtitlán tribe into Mexico, and to choose as its chief Acamapitzin. Even the colonies that were particularly devoted to the sacerdotal cause, those of Ethiopia,3 for example, which left their country in order to advance this cause, did not always completely escape from this natural effect of expatriation. While in Meroë the king had to be drawn from the sacred caste, history teaches us that in Egypt Sethos, a priest of Ptah who took over the throne, was considered a usurper.

Nonetheless, special circumstances can cause even these migrations to serve the advantage of the priesthood. The Jews are an example. The exit from Egypt, the sufferings of the Jews, and their sojourn in the desert certainly consolidated the rule of Moses and the Levites. This is because the Jewish people had a fixed goal; Edition: current; Page: [254] and before departing the land of their slavery, their prophet had fixed their gaze upon a country that God promised them. The entire expedition was religious. It rested entirely upon hopes that had faith for their basis and the promise of Jehovah for guarantee.

Moreover, the weakening of priestly authority by migrations is often only temporary. When a fixed and stable life replaces the wandering life, the priesthood, even if it does not always resume its title, reprises its power. It was thus in Egypt and in Mexico, and it did not happen in Greece only because of the reason we will lay out in the next book.

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CHAPTER 9: On the Struggle of Political and Military Power against the Priestly Power

Independently of the accidental or temporary causes that can more or less significantly modify the extent and forms of priestly power, there is one that, without having obtained among ancient peoples the more decisive or durable results we just discussed, nonetheless produced very remarkable effects and cast the human race into an all-too-frequent state of turmoil. We therefore think it is our duty to give this subject some development. We mean to speak about the struggle that took place in all the countries subject to priests between them and the holders of the other powers.

This contest is found in the nature of things and is therefore inevitable.

Even in the countries where the priesthood is originally the sole power, a subordinate authority is not slow to establish itself. Occupied with the care of dominating the peoples by religion, priests are forced to delegate to subordinates the administration of the State and its defense against foreign invasions. As a consequence two new powers are formed: the political power and the military power. At the beginning, they appear to be mere emanations from the priesthood. Its delegates receive a revocable mission, and they fulfill a duty of obedience rather than exercise an authority. But henceforth power seems to be divided. Its different branches appear to be confided to different hands, and this appearance soon enough turns to reality. The temporal heads of government and the generals of the armies are gripped by the sentiment of their strength, and the moment arrives when, whether by a spontaneous impulse or because public opinion invites them, they reject their subordination and claim independence. It is the signal of a struggle that, once commenced, will never end.

This is the spectacle that India, Egypt, Persia, and, above all, Judea, present.

Sometimes the cutteries, or warriors, puffed up with pride, shake off the authority Edition: current; Page: [256] of the Brahmins. But some avatar avenges the sacred caste and punishes the rebels with terrible severity.1 Sometimes an impious monarch, having forbidden the worship of the gods, and having provided the example of a sacrilegious mixing of castes, the priesthood’s curses strike him dead, and his more compliant successor submits to the sway of the ministers of the altars.2 Other times, the periodic destruction of the world is attributed to the diminishment of respect for the priestly order, and once again, Brahmans rise from the chaos to govern the restored world.3

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It is plausible that analogous revolutions occurred in Egypt during what is called the reign of the gods.4 The caste of warriors, the second in the State, appears to have risen against the first.5 But the latter won the victory. The later establishment of the monarchy did not end the struggle.6 Refractory monarchs succumbed during their lifetime or after their death.7 And in the division of Egypt among the twelve kings, he who separated from the others in order to place himself at the mercy of priests8 soon obtained the sovereignty of the entire empire, which he resigned himself to not ruling except in accordance with their orders.9

We will mention Ethiopia, which was the scene of much bloodier revolutions, only in passing. We have already seen that the priests of Meroë condemned their Edition: current; Page: [258] kings to death. In revenge, one of these, Ergamenes, a contemporary of the second Ptolemy, had all the priests massacred in their own temple.

The history of ancient Etruria has remained quite obscure. But the order given to the Etruscans by their king Mezentius to give him the first fruits they were accustomed to devote to the gods, can probably be seen as an attack against the priesthood.10

We have already said that we will treat in a later book the religion of the Scandinavians and the revolutions that ended with the triumph of the head of a colony of priests.11

The same struggle occurred in Persia. But it was complicated by particular circumstances. To be understood here, we need to lay out these circumstances. The digression will be brief.

Three powerful empires, the Babylonians, the Lydians, and the Medes, divided Asia. The nomadic Persians, who lived in a state of extreme barbarism, obeyed the Medes as much as wandering hordes in the vigor of barbarism can obey masters rendered soft by lengthy civilization. In the midst of Persia, mountain-dwelling clans, sometimes defeated but never subjugated, lived in inaccessible retreats.12 Cyrus, who originally was named Agradatus,13 had himself proclaimed head of these divided tribes. His efforts and their success, as recounted by Herodotus, confirm how close these tribes still were to the savage state.14 Having united them, Edition: current; Page: [259] Cyrus led them against their effeminate masters, who were weakened by the refinements of luxury, the extent of their possessions, and by the despotism that is as fatal to masters as to their slaves. Cyrus’s victory was easy.

What he did otherwise—his conquests, his ruses, and his oft-vaunted institutions (which ended in bequeathing Asia to a madman and founding a dynasty that lasted a mere seven years)—all that is beside our point. What is of interest to us is what his conduct was vis-à-vis the priesthood of the old empire he conquered.

The religion of Bactria was a priestly religion. It sanctified the division of castes.15 And the caste of priests, itself hereditary and powerful, took part in government and marched at the head of the pomp and ceremony of the court.

The chief of the barbarians was greatly taken with these solemnities and ceremonies. He hastened to surround himself with them, moved by that naïve vanity that is not at all unknown to kings born on the throne, and which can mark even more nonhereditary ones. The Median civilization worked a change in him comparable to the one that Chinese civilization operated more than once on the Tartars. All the Median customs were imitated,16 and religious institutions were not Edition: current; Page: [260] exempted from this imitation. Nothing being less in keeping with the rustic and barely developed intelligence of the Persians than the abstractions and mysticism of an old cult, the Zend Avesta (which from then on ruled the Medes)17 never became the national book.

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The mass of Persians retained their ancient gods, their “paternal gods” as historians call them.18 Sometimes the religion even modified its own practices, which the magi wanted to compel them to preserve.19 It was probably not the intention of the magi that Zoroastrianism became the popular religion. Like that of the Indians, Egyptians, and other eastern or southern peoples, this religion of the Medes was the property of the priests. Its adoption in Persia consisted in the admission and presence of magi at the court, rather than the dissemination of their teachings. The worship of Media thus became that of the Persian palace.20 Cyrus welcomed it as a portion of the ceremonial that flattered his pride, rather than as a conviction of his soul. The demanding activity of a martial life and the cares of despotism rendered him little susceptible to that. In addition, he wanted his authority to profit from it. The religious and political code of an empire long given to servitude contained a fine model21 for the government he was establishing or Edition: current; Page: [262] reviving, and it offered a means of reconciling the formerly insubordinate tribes to the new government. These tribes were once instruments of the warrior, but now they were objects of distrust on the part of the despot. Cyrus surrounded the royalty with divine honors.22 He turned to his advantage the ideas of purity and impurity that in other countries were useful only to the priesthood.23

Whether because he despaired of destroying the magi or because he believed he had found a support in them, Cyrus preserved their dignities and several of the prerogatives that they had enjoyed in their former country.24 They continued to be the ministers of worship, the counselors of kings, the judges of the people. But authority sells its benefits at a price. Cyrus kept the magi dependent upon him. Corporations, however, possess a kind of flexibility that comes from the certainty of survival and eventual victory. The priestly spirit was preserved, hidden but intact. The dementia and death of Cambyses opened a path to its hopes.

From this time on, the magi constantly attempted to recapture their former power. In these efforts they invoked not only the respect the Medes had for their native priests but also the hatred they had for their foreign conquerors. The usurpation of the false Smerdis was a revolt both of the magi against the kings and of the Medes against the Persians. The kings defended themselves and opposed the priests Edition: current; Page: [263] with not only tyrannical, but sometimes terrible, means. The strange, and certainly garbled, anecdote of satraps compelling Darius to forbid praying to gods during thirty days25 appears to be an obscure indication of some despotic political violence against the power of the clergy. Better known is the annual feast celebrated in all the empire in memory of the massacre involving the priestly order. Already under Cambyses a magus had undergone a terrible torture.26 Under Darius, another had been suspended on a cross, and before ascending the throne Smerdis had been shamefully mutilated.

Despite these terrible cruelties, the magi continued the struggle with a perseverance that was rewarded.

Several circumstances that we previously indicated as contributing to the power of priests militated in the magi’s favor. If they had against them the climate of Persia, properly speaking, where high mountains covered with snow for several months transform the South into the North, as it were, they had for them the climates of Bactria and Media.27 In this vast empire there was a struggle of climate against climate.

For the same reason, if the bellicose character of the Persians could show itself resistant to a priestly domination that was contrary to their wild customs—a domination founded upon notions much too abstract for their still undeveloped intelligence—the refinement of the civilized portion of the empire and its long habit of seeing the magi as their guides and instructors, had to have won out over the repugnance of the population, itself the artificial aggregate of formerly scattered tribes.

Finally, the action and influence of the phenomena of nature that we spoke about in connection with Egypt and Etruria were no less powerful in several regions either subject to or close by Persia. As Mr. Creuzer observed,28 Azerbaijan is famous for its sources of coal tar. Its soil is full of resinous substances; bitumen floats on the surface of lakes. Often in the midst of the darkest nights columns of flame rise which seem to the astonished eye the miraculous appearance of an Edition: current; Page: [264] avenging or rewarding deity. The priesthood would have turned to its advantage both the astonishment and the fright that such phenomena elicited.

Thus profiting with great address from the prerogatives the conqueror of their country had granted them, the magi extended them under his successors. From the time of Xerxes they were about as powerful as during the time of Astyagus. And during the course of our inquiry we will see all the characteristics pertaining to cults subject to priests gradually reintroduced, if under more or less mitigated forms, in both the teachings and the rites of the Persians.

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CHAPTER 10: Continuation of the Same Subject

The Hebrew books provide the most precious and detailed information concerning the causes that lead to the separation of the two powers, and the way in which this separation occurs. It is also in these books that one finds the most detailed discussion of the dissensions and hostilities that result from it.

Initially, Jehovah governs without division. In his name, Moses exercises the supreme authority. Even though invested with the priesthood, Aaron himself obeys the prophet.1 The two powers only form one. Nonetheless, succumbing to the weight of multiple burdens, Moses delegates the civil and judicial functions to men whom the people present to him.2 These men are but his instruments; but already the popular choice contains the seed of an authority different from the theocratic authority.

This seed seems to disappear under Joshua. He concentrates both powers in his hands, speaks to Jehovah, transmits His will to the Hebrews, commands the priests as well as the elders of the tribes, sacrifices victims, presides over ceremonies, pronounces judgment, and leads the army. But after his death, invasions and defeats give the military power new importance separate from the priesthood. Warriors, imprecisely called judges, take their place immediately below the high priests, and an independent spirit is not slow to take hold of them. They demand hereditary rights; a portion of the Jews recognize them;3 and a first appeal is made to establish Edition: current; Page: [266] a monarchy.4 This effort is repressed, and the judges remain on the second rank. They are not named until after the pontiffs, and their borrowed and restricted authority is nothing compared with the priests’.5 The priests, however, seem dissatisfied with even this supremacy; the priesthood wants to take back temporal authority. Eli was simultaneously judge and high priest, and Samuel, who replaced him, united the two functions at the battle of Masphat.6

But finally the idea of the separation of powers triumphed.

The people demanded a king.7 In vain, the priesthood resisted, in vain, they told the people of the Divine’s indignation,8 and the punishments this anger prepared.9 An unheeded threat! The priesthood was compelled to accede.10 The different powers appeared and henceforth will do battle.

One cannot fail to recognize in the history of Saul and Samuel (even though presented from the perspective and for the sake of the priests) the revenge of theocracy against the monarchy it had grudgingly established.11

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The prince, chosen from an obscure rank by the priesthood that wanted to remain his masters,12 subject to obligations that were equivalent to servitude, consecrated at the hands of the high-priest,13 obliged himself to take the priesthood as his guide and counselor on every occasion. In his very first expedition, it was in the name of the high priest that he ordered the people to follow him.

This transaction preserved all the advantages for the priesthood. Soon, however, a sacrifice offered in the absence of the high priest,14 an act of clemency contrary to its orders,15 stirred its indignation.16 The monarch defended himself, but in vain. Sometimes he employed force. He had Achimeleck and eighty-five priests who helped his rival killed.17 Sometimes he prostrated himself at the feet of his rival and besought him not to take revenge against his family when he ascended the throne. Finally, though, he succumbed and bequeathed to his successors (sprung from another race) the sad duty of submission or the dangerous option of resistance.

It is also true that the overthrow of Saul was not the spontaneous movement of the people, that among the twelve tribes of Israel only one declared itself against him, while all the others remained faithful to his family and his person.18

After his fall, the Hebrew annals are full of the attempts of priests against the kings and of kings against the priests. Solomon banished the high-priest Abiathar, who had taken sides with his brother Adonija.19 Asa cast the prophet Ananias Edition: current; Page: [268] into a cell.20 He punished with death several prominent men of Judah who had declared themselves for the prophet. Jehoiada had Athalia killed in order to place the young Joash on the throne.21 Joash, who owed his throne to Jehoiada, publicly accused him of dilapidation and later, without any regard for the memory of his benefactor, ordered that his son Zechariah should be stoned.22 This murder was avenged by the assassination of the king.23 Even though he reestablished the Mosaic cult in its purity, Azariah24 wanted to shake off the yoke of the priests. The Levites had transformed the temple of the Lord into a stronghold where they could defend themselves; it was their fortress and arsenal. Azariah having forced the doors of the temple, the high-priest called armed Levites against him, and the monarch was chased from the sanctuary.25 Jeremiah was arrested by the order of Zedekiah, and Joachim punished Uriah with the ultimate torment.26

We draw only these episodes from the part of Jewish history that pertains to the two faithful tribes, because one could attribute the active conspiracies of the priests and the violent persecutions of the kings to the idolatrous portions of Israel who resisted belief itself, rather than to a struggle between powers. One clearly sees in the history of Jehu a priestly rebellion parallel to that of Saul and David. Elisha secretly anointed this usurper.27 Jehu killed Jehoram, had his mother Jezebel killed, as well as seventy-two sons of Ahab and forty-two brothers of Ochosias, the king of Judah, and he assembled all the priests of Baal in a temple and had them slaughtered.28 As his reward, Elisha promised the kingdom of Israel for him and his posterity until the fourth generation.

The Hebrew kings sought everywhere for help against the always threatening priestly influence. Hence their eagerness to form alliances with neighboring nations, even though they were appalled by those nations’ worship. Barely crowned, David sought the friendship of Hanun, king of the Ammonites. Solomon married Edition: current; Page: [269] the daughter of Pharaoh29 and made a treaty with Hiram, king of Tyre.30 Asa allied with the king of Syria.31

In vain the prophets thundered against these alliances. Fearless imitators of Moses, threatening instruments of heavenly decrees who were equally independent of the priesthood and the monarchy, they filled Judea with their denunciations. Their faces dark with ashes, their bodies belted with the skins of animals, they left forests and caves to fill the cities with their cries and the councils of kings with their anathemas. All their writings are full of severe descriptions of the luxury, tyranny, corruption, and infidelity of the Hebrew monarchs. Hosea employs every conceit, all the allegories, all the metaphors of oriental poetry to depict the excesses and degradation of these princes, the hedonism of the court, the lethargy of the government, the abasement of subjects, and the apostasy of masters.32 Amos left Judah to condemn Jeroboam in the very heart of his empire.33 Micah depicts the earth shaken, the mountains falling, and valleys opening beneath the feet of a guilty people and an oppressive monarch.34 But by indicating what their weaknesses were to the holders of temporal authority, these threats also made clear the necessity of shoring up the throne.

This conflict of the two powers, more than anyone has noted up until now, contributed to push the kings of the Jews toward idolatry. The condemned worship, observes Spencer, was above all introduced under the kings. All the judges remained faithful, while there were very few princes who did not turn toward idols.35 They saw in them a weapon against their rivals and a refuge against their implacable enemies. In this way, it could be true of the Jews—as it was among many other peoples—that the priesthood itself caused damage to the cause it believed itself to serve, and that religion had to bear the consequence of the faults, or the ambition, of its defenders.

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CHAPTER 11: A Necessary Explanation of What We Just Said about the Jews

While expressing ourselves on the Hebrew priesthood with a candor we have tried neither to hide nor to soften, it was far from our intention to attack the religion of Moses in itself. We are very far from wanting to join with those who have placed the Jews at the lowest rung of ancient peoples and have presented their doctrine as a fierce and fanatical superstition. The writers of the eighteenth century who treated the holy books of the Hebrews with disdain mixed with hostility judged Antiquity itself in a terribly superficial way, and the Jews were of all the nations the one they least understood, whether it be their genius, their character, or their religious institutions. In order to join with Voltaire against Ezekiel or Genesis, one has to combine two things that make his mockery rather sad: deep ignorance and a most deplorable frivolity. Far from sharing this view, which became popular at the end of the previous century, we regard the Hebrews as very much superior to the tribes that surrounded them, and even to the despotic empires that reduced them to slavery. However, we recognize (which no impartial judge can contest) that their annals are filled with revolting facts and cruel actions that we have no intention of justifying. In order to explain this apparent contradiction, here we will lay out our entire thought, making use of the right our own faith grants us. This right is to examine and study the records upon which this belief is founded. And nothing obliges us to hide the results this examination yields.

If one admits revelations—that is, direct and supernatural manifestations of the Divinity to man—one ought to consider these revelations as assistance granted by a powerful and benign being to one who is ignorant and weak, when his forces are not enough for him to improve his lot on earth.1

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Then a ray breaks through the darkness covering the uncertain traveler seeking his way. But the goal of man is perfecting himself. He cannot do so except by his own efforts, by the exercise of his own faculties, by the activity of his own free will. If he is protected by a wise and benevolent power, whom his sentiment needs to recognize despite the doubts that logic can raise, this power itself must limit its assistance to instruction, by revealing truths proportionate to man’s intelligence. These revelations enlighten him without enchaining him, they leave him free to use this gift at his own risk and peril; he can abuse it, even reject it. The struggle that good and evil wage within him, his halting efforts, his fruitless attempts, his errors, and even his crimes do not disprove the revelation he has received. These things belong to the struggle that is his lot, and this struggle itself is the means of perfecting himself. Led toward this goal by a power that would enslave his will, he would lose his quality as a free agent; and reduced to the status of a machine, his perfection would become mechanical. Amelioration would have nothing moral about it. Therefore the Divinity confides truth to man, which he must defend, preserve, and develop. This is the mission of his intelligence. But in charging him with this mission, it changes nothing in his nature. It leaves this nature as it was—imperfect, subject to error, able to be mistaken about means, often choosing defective, bad, even culpable ones.

Apply this framework to the revelation of Moses. We see him born in a country given over to the crudest superstitions, in the midst of a tribe regarded as impure, and even more ignorant than the rest of the people. Now, theism is not compatible with such a degree of ignorance. How, then, could Moses have been in advance of his century? Some have attributed this theism to Egypt. They have thought that, adopted by an Egyptian priest, he must have known the secret teachings of the priesthood of this country and constructed his religion from them. This opinion seems to us to be completely mistaken.

When we later put forth the different philosophies of barbarous peoples, and the mystery religions of the Greeks into which these philosophies were introduced, we will have the occasion to show just how little the theism (which then combined with pantheism) resembled the idea of the unity of God of the Hebrews, presented in a simple and clear way in their books, and entering into moral relations with men. This last characteristic constitutes the essential difference separating the two species of theism: the supreme God of the priestly philosophies had only cosmogonic features. This God was only the union of the hidden forces of nature, personified in an abstraction (even though the two words seem to contradict each other), or the combination of all the attributes of this sort scattered Edition: current; Page: [272] among the popular divinities. The absence of any particular providence, and the denial of intelligence and individuality, were its distinctive features. It is true that at the decline of polytheism, with all sorts of opinions having been introduced into Greece via the mysteries, a less abstract theism, one more susceptible to becoming a real religion, was admitted, not as the dominant system but as one of the systems among which the priests chose what was most suitable to individual initiates.

But this has no relation to the theism of Moses, which existed twelve centuries earlier. With a marvelous sagacity, Moses spoke to unlettered men the language that was suitable to them, while only rarely adjusting his teaching to the exigencies of their limitations. Moreover, his concessions consisted more in words than in things;2 they were passing clouds that obscured only for a moment what was sublime in the ideas he taught concerning the Supreme Being. Idle questions and insoluble problems were carefully avoided. The legislator of the Jews did not seek, like the priests of Egypt and India or the philosophers of Greece did, what God’s substance was, if He exists with, or without, extension, if He is finite or infinite, if His existence is eternal and necessary, or if it was the result of some arbitrary will. The prophet of Mount Sinai avoided those flights of an uncontrolled imagination of the sort found in popular cults that give them a ridiculous and repulsive cast, and those useless intellectual subtleties that ushered the philosophical theism of India into a labyrinth whose end was necessarily either atheism or pantheism. Atheism because reason, forced to proceed by negation, finally transforms the Divinity into a negation. Pantheism because recognizing only a single substance under a thousand illusory appearances, it absorbs the universe in its author, and substitutes for the religious sentiment a certain enthusiasm that pleases itself with sonorous phrases, but deprives religion of everything consoling, tender, and moral, leaving it at most an imposing form and sterile majesty. In the Genesis account of creation, to which one must accord everything the genius of the East merits, one finds neither an inert rebellious matter nor a mysterious egg, nor a giant cut in pieces, and no alliance between blind forces and atoms devoid of intelligence, neither a necessity that chains reason nor a chance that disturbs it.

This superiority of the religion of Moses is not limited to doctrine; it extends Edition: current; Page: [273] to its rites. Those that the Jewish books prescribed, no matter how bizarre they appear to our minds formed by a more advanced civilization, are less bloody, less corrupting, less favorable to superstition, than those of the peoples subject to priestly polytheism.3 When we later consider the ceremonies, the customs, and the modes of worship of these peoples, we will always see in first place human sacrifices and obscene feasts. The Hebrews owed to Moses their being preserved from this double opprobrium.4

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We say all this with so much more conviction because our view was formed slowly and, as it were, despite ourselves. The appearance and duration of Jewish theism, in a time and among a people equally incapable of conceiving the idea and preserving it, are in our eyes facts that cannot be explained by reasoning. That subsequent to this acknowledgment, what we call revelation, the instruction of Providence, a light due to His wisdom and goodness, others call an interior sentiment, the development of a seed deposited in the human soul, does not much matter to us. For the one who believes in God, every illumination comes from Him, as well as everything in us that is good and noble; and revelation is found wherever there is something true, noble, and good.

But in the particular case of Moses, what constituted what we call revelation, if not the knowledge of the unity of God and the religious sanction given by this unique God to the moral duties and obligations of man?

The deliverance of the Hebrews, slaves in Egypt, their being brought together in a body as an independent nation, their wanderings, their conquests, all these things are found within the sphere of human things. They therefore ought to be judged like all human things.

Doubtless, Moses’s enterprise was noble and generous, and in a certain sense one can say that liberating his fellow citizens is a mission come down from heaven. But this enterprise did not exceed the forces of our nature. Others have tried it, and others have succeeded as well as Moses.

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No doubt also, it was always in the name of Jehovah that he commanded. It was in the name of Jehovah that he inculcated humanity in the Jews, fraternity among themselves, and even hospitality toward strangers. And yet it was also in the name of Jehovah that he drew the sword against the Amorrheans5 and that he had the Midianite women killed.6

It therefore requires readers with an upright spirit and an equitable heart—that is, friends of both the truth and religion—to distinguish what the exigencies of Moses’s position forced him to confound. We would go further and say: things that in good conscience he had to combine.

According to his deepest, most intimate conviction (and truth, as it is given to man to experience, is entirely found in his convictions), Moses regarded as an inspiration from God the project that he had formed of delivering his compatriots, of rescuing them from the most humiliating conditions,7 the most burdensome labors,8 as well as the recurring cruelties constantly suggested to their oppressors by the suspicions they entertained of the oppressed. The year of his birth had been marked by an execrable act9—the slaughter of the newly born—on the part of harsh masters whom they had served in an expedition against Ethiopia.10 A little while later, the murder, certainly legitimate, of one of the agents of the tyranny11 connected his self-interest with his patriotism. He therefore raised the banner of independence, and the exodus from Egypt was the first fruit of his courage and his perseverance.12

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But dangers of every sort threatened the tribe he guided and of which he was the mainstay. Fearful, indecisive, and weakened by 430 years of slavery,13 it had contracted habits that even its hatred of Egypt could not break. Moses always had to fear that it was going to ask again for its fetters, and that even far from Egypt it would become an Egyptian-like people. It was to prevent this backsliding that he designed all his institutions. This aim is as discernable in his fundamental laws as in the most minute regulations; it dictated what he said about clothing, it presided over food, it directed the work of the poor and oversaw the luxury of the rich; it likewise presided at the funerals of all.14 This aim, however, was never perfectly attained, and Moses was constantly forced to concessions that both angered and grieved him.15

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While he prepared victories against the countries that he had to invade, it was necessary for him to achieve an ever more difficult victory over the people, more difficult because it could escape him at any moment. Hence the need to inoculate his people from the memories of the past and the seductions of the present.16 Hence those severe laws against the vanquished, who were more numerous than their victors.17 Hence those horrifying punishments of Jews who fell back into idolatry. Greater indulgence toward the first would have led to the alteration, then Edition: current; Page: [278] the destruction, of the nascent Jewish nation. Less rigor against the second would have allowed every trace of the theism that was far from consonant with their intellectual development to disappear. This, however, was their only distinctive characteristic and the sole point of cohesion among them. Nonetheless, it is obvious that revelation, properly speaking, this act of supreme power manifesting itself to man in order to explain the meaning of his existence to him and to clothe his duties with a religious sanction, has nothing in common with these steps of a legislator to govern his people, or of a conqueror to consolidate his success.

Even though he was instructed in the great truth that one day would transform the entire human race into a single family, is there any surprise that in order that his people would not lose this knowledge, Moses adopted the means that seemed best to him? That these means had features of the barbaric customs of a time when human life was little respected?18 That he did not fully gauge the disproportion between his teaching and the level of intellectual development of his compatriots and contemporaries?19 That even while recognizing this disproportion, he was prematurely condemned to a violent struggle? That this struggle compelled him to excessive severities? That in order to have faithful guardians of the truth of which his soul was so convinced, he established a priesthood invested with a terrible power? That this priesthood abused its authority? All of the foregoing is in the purely human order and has nothing to do with revelation.

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These were the things that have been confused. The sectarian spirit has maintained that not only did Moses’s doctrine about the Supreme Being come from a divine source, but the Hebrew books themselves were divine—even their material redaction. The facts recounted by Moses and the writers who came after him were not judged as historical facts and in accordance with the rules of morality, which Edition: current; Page: [280] are the first and most intimate of revelations. People have seen in these facts acts of the divine will, and they have imposed upon themselves the duty of approving what in other circumstances they would have condemned, and of praising what in the annals of any other people would have been judged to be awful.20 This blindness Edition: current; Page: [281] in one direction produced blindness in the other direction. Our philosophers are enlightened, learned, and friends of the truth, at least at the outset of their career, until the point when the struggle with religion provokes their vanity and tests their impartiality, then they turn to the Jewish books and make them the object of their mockery and their harangues. These attacks in turn provoke defenders who base themselves on a principle that is equally false. These apologists have often had to produce apologies of crime and cruelty.

The distinction we established above would have spared unbelievers many pointless and puerile critiques, and religious men from having to defend many contradictions. Let the Inquisition rise again and the orthodox of every sect threaten us with their anathemas, we do not recognize revelation in massacres or towns reduced to rubble, or in children torn from their mothers. We see in the bloody records of a barbarous epoch, first, necessity imposing its cruel laws on a conqueror, which perhaps can be excused, but certainly do not merit praise. Later, we see the jealous, implacable priestly spirit. On the other hand, we recognize the revelation made to Moses in the parts of the Hebrew books where all the virtues are recommended, filial love, conjugal love, hospitality toward strangers, chastity, friendship (which no other legislation raised to the ranks of virtues), justice, and even pity, even though the epoch of pity had not yet come, for this epoch is Christianity. Here is the divine voice. Here is the manifestation of heaven on earth. And it is only here that one cannot be mistaken in giving praise, because it appeals to all the sentiments, ennobles and purifies all affections, comes well before enlightenment, and even in the midst of barbarism penetrates the soul with truths that reason would discover only much later.21 Readers, however, have confused facts and doctrine. Edition: current; Page: [282] Because the priesthood was established as the guardian of the divine law, as the redactors of the annals of the nation subject to the law everything these annals contained was said to be the divine law. Because the law of the Jews was holy, some wanted to use it to sanctify every event in Jewish history.

People at least should have recalled from what sources, as well as by whom, this history was assembled. Redacted at different epochs, and always by Levites; several times destroyed, notably at the taking of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity;22 reconstituted by Esdras,23 who belonged to the priestly line,24 and, his zeal sharpened by misfortune, who exaggerated the severity of Moses’s laws:25 the Hebrew books had to be thoroughly suffused with the priestly spirit.26 As a comparison, Edition: current; Page: [283] let us suppose that after several thousand years, when the centuries and the changes that they give rise to have reduced our books to bits and pieces, people recover as the records of Christianity the Gospel and a few historians during our times of barbarism, or degradation, when the massacre of the Albigensians or the horrors of the Inquisition or Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre are taken to be acts willed and approved by Providence. Is it not certain that a priestly corporation enriched by these heirlooms, and arrogating to itself a monopoly of them, would bend them to its caste interests, and while exalting what cannot be too exalted, the admirable morality of the Gospel and its no less admirable gentleness, would also extol the zeal of the inquisitors and the obedience of the torturers?27

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This is what has happened, and it is in keeping with this confusion of distinct ideas that the Hebrew books have been judged.28 For our part, we have already said how we think they should be judged. From the principle we adopt, it follows that the purity of teaching is not compromised by the acts that are foreign to it, and that culpable acts are not excused by the purity of a doctrine that does not command them. The Jewish priesthood certainly could have commandeered the truths that heaven had communicated to Moses in order to monopolize them, to bend them to its interests, just as more than one pope or Christian monarch has taken hold of the Gospel and tried to corrupt it. But in the same way that Christianity contributed nothing to the massacres committed by priests in its author’s Edition: current; Page: [285] name, Judaism did not contribute to the attacks ordered by other priests in Jehovah’s name. One therefore need not accept absurd sophisms in order to legitimize terrible acts. Bossuet, who praised Samuel killing Agag and the Levites deposing Osias,29 resembles the Italian Capilupi30 and the courtier Pibrac,31 who present Charles IX as directed in his hypocrisy and his murders by the all-powerful will of God.

We will end this chapter with a reflection that has always resonated with us, and which we think will do the same with the reader.

There is no doubt the Jewish religion has its terrible parts, and no one can peruse its annals without walking in blood and over ruins. Nonetheless the world owes Moses an enormous debt. When in late Antiquity, devoid of every belief, desolated by doubt, degraded by corruption, the whole earth required new worship, and given the state of enlightenment this worship could only be theism, the theism of the Jews served as the standard. And one saw man reborn to all that was noble and precious in life by being reborn to religion. What a marvelous dispensation of the power that decides our destinies! Things that seem to have no relation among themselves, either by their time or by their nature, combine at the right moment to direct the human race to its end.

Twelve centuries before Plato, Moses gave theism a body that permitted this sublime idea to be preserved until the moment when intelligence became capable of conceiving it. Twelve centuries after Moses, Plato prepared minds in such a way that in adopting theism they were able to receive it purified by the divine author of the Christian religion, and to resist the violent and obstinate attempts of a sizable portion of Jewish converts who wanted to take Christianity back to Judaism. Without Moses, it is probable that all the efforts of philosophy would Edition: current; Page: [286] have only plunged mankind into pantheism or a hidden atheism. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, this was where the philosophy and the religion of the Indians ended. Without Plato, it is possible, humanly speaking, that overcome by the efforts of Judaizing Christians, Christianity would have become a Jewish sect.32

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CHAPTER 12: That the Struggle between the Priesthood and the Temporal Authority Must End to the Advantage of the First, as Soon as the Principle of Priestly Authority Is Admitted

The picture we drew of the warfare the priesthood waged against political and military power should have demonstrated to our readers that even if the priests have not always emerged victorious from this struggle, they have always retained vast prerogatives that have aided them in regaining those they lost.

This result of a rivalry that has continued from century to century, and which still continues, should not surprise us.

Once the principle of priestly authority is recognized, those who exercise it have in their favor both the religious sentiment that resides in the depths of souls and the constant and irresistible action of habit, which moves men to respect the object of their forebears’ reverence. In addition, there is the influence of their particular superstitions, which are the companions of all their days, the solutions to all their doubts, the explanations of every phenomenon, and the soothing of every fear. And, finally, there is logic itself and rigorous reasoning.

When religion is independent, the religious sentiment can defend itself against the usurpations of the priesthood. It believes it is inwardly invested with a mission, and in its inner forum it is its own authority. But when the struggle is engaged, not between consciences but between powers, the religious sentiment must declare itself for the power that most resembles conscience and that, being without visible arms, least resembles power itself. If it were to enlist on the side of force, it would belie its own nature. There is no common ground between it and force. If it were to render homage to force, it would enter into the domain of human calculations and would die of suicide.

But it is not in this sentiment alone that the attacked priesthood finds a defender. Reason, which the laws of its nature constrain to proceed from initial givens to consequences, and from principles to applications, lends the assistance of incontestable arguments.

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As soon as man has need of privileged intermediaries in order to communicate with invisible beings, omnipotence belongs by right to these intermediaries. In order to deflate the pretensions of these exclusive favorites of heaven, one has to suppose that religion is the common property of all. Each one, bearing in his breast the torch designed to enlighten him, compares the light offered to him with the one he possesses. But when the monopoly of this light is granted to a small number, how can the ascendancy of this few have any limits? According to what warrant could the temporal power establish its independence? Such a title would be redundant if it were in accord with celestial decrees, criminal if different from them.

In the priestly system, what is the goal of the world? The accomplishment of the divine will. What are political organizations? Means of ensuring this accomplishment. What are the heads of societies? The detainers of a subordinate authority that has no right to be obeyed, except because it obeys the authority that founded it. What, finally, is the natural organ of this sole legitimate authority? The priesthood.

These Jewish or Egyptian kings, these rajas of India, chosen by the gods from among their equals, possess all their rights from the goodness of the gods, as manifested by their priests. These priests consecrate their ascension, pour sacred oils on their heads, command the peoples to consider them their masters; they also observe their actions, listen to their confessions, absolve them from their faults, wash them of their guilt, reprimand them during their lifetime, and judge them after their death. Prostrate at the knees of these dispensers of supernatural favors, these kings begged permission to ascend the throne; they walked up its steps humble and suppliant. Then suddenly they are to declare themselves the equals—the superiors even—of those who made them? They are to raise their authority to the level of the divine authority, treat it as an equal, and assume there are interests other than those of eternity, and declare themselves the guardians of these material interests even against heaven?

Such patent contradictions cannot be admitted. To try to impose them on the mind is to insult it.

To say to peoples: Profess the religion that pleases and reassures you; if it is your desire or your need, take men as ministers of this religion, as the mediators of your worship and praise; and as long as you consider it just and fitting, subject yourself to the direction and instructions of these men. Nothing is more reasonable. But when you say to them: Behold priests who are infallible when it comes to you and to whom an implicit submission is due, as long as they only attack your rights, only restrict your faculties, only limit your thinking. But when it comes to us, your Edition: current; Page: [289] earthly masters, these priests lose their infallibility. When it comes to your interests, resistance is a crime, but it becomes a duty when ours are threatened. For us you will brave the anger of heaven, which we otherwise exhorted you to fear. Then we will punish obedience, when otherwise we punished disobedience.

These arguments apply to modern times as well as to ancient times, to Gregory VII as to Samuel or Joad, and the concessions of priests transformed into courtiers and the arguments of statesmen become sophists equally run aground against them.

Therefore, every time the priesthood has seen itself attacked by authority, religious souls have supported it with all their might. A secret voice told them that when heaven and earth have become divided, heaven must be obeyed. Religious prohibition has struck all peoples with terror. Anathema has depopulated courts and camps. As the Indians say: a single word has always done more in the mouth of a priest than the sword has in the hands of a warrior.

And if we reflect a moment, we will not be tempted to bemoan this inevitable result.

To be sure, if one were to place on one side the Egyptian castes, the magi, or the Brahmins, and on the other, freedom of belief and of worship, the choice would not be in doubt. But between Chephren or Cambyses and the priests who contest their power, the preference is due to the priests. Not that they were worthy, but if tyranny in the name of religion is terrible, tyranny in the name of material force is both terrible and degrading.

Under the first, at least conviction can be found among the slaves, and only the tyrants are corrupted. But when the oppression is separated from faith, slaves too are depraved and become as abject as their masters. We candidly acknowledge that we have never felt much sympathy for Louis the Pious doing penance at the feet of a papal legate, or for the emperor Henry IV waiting in bare feet for a pope to absolve him. We have reserved our compassion for other objects. We have extended it to those obscure populations, outlawed and proscribed because they listened to the voice of their conscience, and refused to commit what for them were betrayals and sacrileges. For those Vaudois who asked only to be able to exercise their peaceful worship in their valleys; for those Jews who throughout the centuries were tormented, dispossessed, and burned; for those Hussites who at least were able to avenge their leader delivered to the fire in violation of imperial promises; for those Scots who were put to death by the abominable Duke of York1 because they Edition: current; Page: [290] refused the Oath of Test, which he himself did not swear; for those Huguenots suspended on the fence or pressed into galley service. As for the unfortunate members of royal families who declared themselves independent of the power that was the mysterious sanction of their despotism, we have been able to see in this belated resistance (according to their own view) only an incoherent rebellion,2 and we are not sure if Europe would have been better off because of their success.

A great example is before our eyes, and this example raises certain doubts.

Among the priestly nations of Antiquity, the result of the conflict between the temporal and the spiritual authority was always the triumph of the latter. But in a nation that is ordinarily placed among the moderns, because it still exists and because it occupies no place in ancient history, the priesthood has been defeated.

The reader can surmise that we mean to speak of China.

It is incontestable that the ancient religion of China was a priestly religion based like all in this category on the worship of the elements and the stars.3 Vestiges of this worship show themselves in all the solemn ceremonies preserved till today by the custom that survived the belief. The Chinese cosmogony bears the imprint of the ingenuity of priests. Here one finds the cosmogonic egg,4 the Trimurti,5 the misshapen figures,6 the incestuous gods,7 the reunion of virginity and fecundity,8 Edition: current; Page: [291] evil-doing divinities,9 fanciful animals,10 mystical conceptions (whose origins we will talk about later,11 and which independent religions never admit into their native accounts). Among their ancient rites one finds human sacrifice.12 Finally, the annals of China speak of a high-priest named Tai-chi-ling, whose authority formerly was very great.

But by events that have been transmitted in much too vague a manner to allow for detailed accounts or satisfactory explanations, the priesthood succumbed in China. Chased from the altar, religion descended to the throne. The emperor declared himself the principal minister, or the absolute master, which is the same thing. The entire learned class affected a proud disdain for the priests.13 It is because Edition: current; Page: [292] of this disdain that our philosophers have lavished praise upon the Chinese.14

But let us examine what was the real result of this so-celebrated victory.

Religion, reduced to trivial and fastidious ceremonies that recalled only disdained or dead beliefs, mere etiquette substituted for sentiment, dead letters replacing Edition: current; Page: [293] real belief, rites devoid of meaning, practice without theory, irreligious abstractions for the enlightened class, stupefying superstitions for the populace; a worship of ancestors, but no hope for a future life;15 a worship of spirits and the Edition: current; Page: [294] crudest, most positive materialism;16 and for the rest, the weightiest oppression, the most absolute arbitrariness,17 barbarous tortures,18 limitless corruption, cunning at the service of fear, a complete absence of all generous sentiments, an apathy that coexisted with the love of gain, and even the human figure taking on the degraded traits of a frightful immobility. Behold what we see in China. Without Edition: current; Page: [295] detracting from its truthfulness, we could add features to this portrait that would render it both shameful and ridiculous. To wit: in this country where civil authority affects such a proud independence vis-à-vis everything that pertains to belief, there have been many emperors who have surrounded themselves with monks, and lavished on them the treasure of the State, in order to acquire from them the famous elixir of immortality.19 This has cost the lives of those who have obtained it, the reward of their prodigality and promises.20 Thus in China, as elsewhere, magic replaces religion.

In vain, some emperors disturbed by this extreme of degradation have wanted to revive religious belief. As means to do so, however, they only had their authority, and in this sort of endeavor its fate is to fail. They have thought that by rendering religion more reasonable, by subjecting it to a more imposing uniformity, and above all by recommending it as useful, they would make it acceptable to the people. But it is not as reasonable or as clothed with regular forms or as useful to its followers, but as divine, that it can be accepted. When utility is placed in the scales, it interferes with religion’s earthy foundation. When religion is declared an instrument of the State, its mystique is destroyed. The classes to whom it is destined are by a secret instinct alerted to disdain what other mortals treat with such an arrogant familiarity. The concordat of the emperor Yung-Lo, which in certain respects recalls the Augsburg Interim of Charles V, could never take root among the Chinese, and Qianlong, who, whether out of cunning or madness, proclaimed Edition: current; Page: [296] himself the Buddha incarnate at the end of his life, did not at all disturb an indifferent public; he encountered neither support nor contradiction.21

By stripping priests of their influence, the temporal sovereigns of China seem to have inherited their spirit. Their despotism was no less stagnant, only the people it degraded lost the excuse of conviction. Instead of being the effect of a sincere error, its slavery is one of ignoble fear and craven servility. In a manner of speaking, China is a theocracy of atheists, or if you wish, of materialistic pantheists, who replace religion with the sword and bamboo. The faculties of man are as compromised under the emperors as they were under the priests. The yoke is as harsh, the opprobrium greater. We have to bemoan, but we can also esteem, a nation subject to superstition and ignorance. Even among its errors, this nation preserves its good faith. It continues to obey the sentiment of duty. It can even have virtues, even though these virtues are badly directed. But a race that has only fear as its psychological Edition: current; Page: [297] wellspring, and as its motive the salary bestowed from above by the power that oppresses it; a race without any illusions that elevate it, and without errors that excuse it, has fallen from the rank Providence assigned to it. The faculties that remain to it, and the intelligence it continues to display, are for it and for the world only one more misfortune and shame.22

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CHAPTER 13: The Summary of the Foregoing

One can see from the content of this book that we are far from closing our eyes to the exceptions (or to put it better: the variations) that have slipped in under the general rule. We recognize these variations, and what we have said about them can guide the reader in applying the general rule to what needs to be said about each people in particular.

We therefore ask our readers not to become distracted by objections based upon particular details that are always easy to gather, but which when generalized yield only error. We are quite aware that someone might point out that we say that the priesthood dominated both under the beautiful skies of India and in the dark forests of Gaul, in order to accuse us of putting on a par the religion of the Brahmins and that of the Druids. In doing so, though, one would be attributing to our researches a systematic character that would suffice to discredit us with every impartial reader. Proceeding in this way lacks only one thing, however: good faith. To deprive our opponents of this pretext, we forewarn our readers. The priestly power was different in its forms, its extent, and its intensity in each of the nations of which we have spoken.1 Many things mitigated, combated, and modified it. In Edition: current; Page: [299] India, the climate; in the North, war; in Persia, the monarchy; in Carthage, commerce. But these softenings, resistances, and modifications were accidental and temporary inflections. The principle remained the same, and the power itself resisted, survived, and overcame.

If some think that we have painted this power in colors that are too unflattering, that we have misunderstood its relative usefulness, at least in certain periods of an imperfect society, and that instead of showing it subjugating, oppressing, and maintaining in ignorance a race created for perfectibility and enlightenment, we should have recognized that more than once it elevated savage hordes, softened the mores of barbarians, united dispersed tribes against the elements that threatened them, imposed fertility on a harsh soil or wholesomeness on a dour nature; that in a word, by means of its special and precocious knowledge, it was the very first author of the civilization that later would dethrone it, we would grant a certain degree of force to these claims. But we would point out to these readers that we have said nothing contrary to them. At such a stage of the social state, the priesthood could have contributed to the great work of the human race and done its part to realize the views of a benevolent Providence. We will not deny this at all.

We say only that the priestly spirit, the enemy—as is every esprit de corps—of the progress and prosperity of the mass of human beings, because this prosperity and these advancements lead them toward independence, has dearly sold its benefits to mankind. We will also say that it is quite fortunate that a people we will speak about shortly liberated itself from this empire. If thanks to the priesthood, the lot of the Egyptians was better than that of today’s Eskimos or Samoyedes, it would be quite deplorable if the fate of the entire human race had not differed from that of Egypt. If men were able to gradually elevate themselves to the point of being able to comprehend and embrace a religion like that which all enlightened peoples profess today, it is because there was one people in history who, because of fortunate circumstances and their own energy, were able to escape from priestly power.

Let each one, then, after having well considered the facts, have his reservations. Pointing out these possible exceptions (which, however, were only few and limited) is the most an impartial reader could ask of us.

More extensive developments would have broken the thread of our inquiry. We will frequently be compelled during the course of this work to trust in the learning of those who read us. Our task is already sufficiently vast and difficult, and wanting to fulfill it without violating the limits we earlier laid down, we have neither the time nor the space to take part in discussions and controversies over details.

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  • A great order of the ages arises anew. . . .
  • Now a new generation is sent down from high heaven
  • —Virgil, Eclogues, book IV
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CHAPTER 1: That the Little Authority Priests Have among Nations That Do Not Have the Worship of Stars Is Demonstrated by the History of the First Times of Greece

Among the nations who have worshipped neither stars nor the elements, the priesthood has possessed only a very limited authority, and what we could call an accidental ascendancy. The Greeks are the proof.

While the security of Egypt entirely depended upon the precision of calculations based upon astronomy, the geographic position of Greece made the study of this science not particularly necessary. For a long time it was merely a subject of curiosity. The small number of stars that Homer or Hesiod mention indicate only elementary observations and rather traditional, or perhaps imported, ideas rather than those obtained by methodical personal investigation. Greek progress in astronomy goes back at most to the fortieth Olympiad, or to the origin of the first Ionian school.1 And their astronomical tales are clearly put forth only in their lyrical poetry. Therefore, whatever Plato may say—who is only expressing an opinion2—they never professed the worship of the stars.3 As a consequence, at least Edition: current; Page: [304] from the moment when we see them appear on the world stage, we find that alone among all peoples they were free from the power of priests.4

Consider the subordinate rank they occupy in the poems of Homer, the oldest records of Greece. The heads of nations and the generals of the armies preside over the rites of religion; and in the interior of families the same functions are exercised, and the same privilege claimed, by the elders and the fathers. Agamemnon constantly bears at his side a sword to fight and a sword with which to offer sacrifice.5 He immolates victims with his own hand.6 Nestor7 and Peleus8 do the same, and the poet adds that everything is done according to custom. Alcinous presides over the religious ceremonies of the Phaeacians.9 In all the descriptions of these ceremonies, the name of priests is not even mentioned,10 but rather that of the head of the Edition: current; Page: [305] peoples.11 Moreover it is heralds who, before the prayers, sprinkle sacred water over the hands of suppliants.12 No priest intervenes in the purification of the Greek army.13 Now, if on this solemn occasion, when it was a matter of ending a terrible plague, the Greeks had employed the ministry of some priest, it would doubtless have been mentioned. After the victory, the army deliberated to know if they should offer sacrifice. The opinions of the leaders were divided. Some acquitted themselves of this religious duty; others did not. Each consulted only his own sentiment and will.

Men eminent among the people and in the army often read the future. Covered with glory, the gods appeared to these mortals.14 Each individual could declare, on his own authority, that he communicated with heaven.

Among the Trojans, whom despite himself the author of the Iliad depicts as more civilized than the Greeks,15 Theano, a priestess of Minerva, lives in the Edition: current; Page: [306] temple of the goddess (or at least opens its doors), offers her gifts, and addresses prayers to her.16 But this priestess was named by the people,17 and among the Trojans, no less than among the Greeks, the warriors were augurs. The habitants of Olympus communicate directly with them. Helenus; Polydamas; Laogonus;18 Eunomia;19 Cassandra, daughter of Priam; and Oenone, wife of Paris,20 have the gift of prophecy.

Often this faculty is united to royalty, as with Amphilochus21 and Theonoe, daughter of Proteus.22 At other times, the gods bestow it upon men without them desiring or hoping for it. Amphiaraus had never been initiated into the mysteries of the future. One night in the house of Phliunte—behind it, specifies the precise Pausanias23—the prophetic spirit took hold of him, and henceforth never left him. We cite Pausanias even though he is a very modern author because he gathered on site, with the scrupulosity that is his mark and merit, the most ancient traditions. After the death of Amphiaraus, Apollo chose Polyphides24 and his son Theoclymenus25 to be oracles. Neither, however, appears to have been a priest.

Direct communications were much more respected than those obtained by the intermediary of priests. Priam, receiving from Jupiter the order to go and ask for the remains of Hector from his murderer, did not consult the priests about the will of this god, but he asked for a sign, which he received. He expressed himself on this score in a way that merits attention. If a priest, he says, an interpreter of heavenly signs, had given me this counsel, I would have accused him of lying, and I would have turned from him with contempt.26 Later, though, these same direct communications will be considered criminal. This is due to a natural progression of ideas.

Those who devote themselves exclusively to the worship of the gods, and pride Edition: current; Page: [307] themselves on their special favors, gain nothing from this devotion, neither special prerogatives nor uncontested authority. They lead a wandering life, following in the train of the armies, present in councils and at feasts despite generals and kings who typically hate them.27 They are not called for, they are not sought, except when someone thinks he needs them. Their interpretations of divine wills are often called into question, and they sometimes are the objects of shabby treatment. Banished and outlawed, Theoclymenus escaped from his fellow citizens only by embarking with Telemachus. This is evidence that at the time the gift of prophecy conferred no privileges. Leiodes claimed it in vain as he sought to disarm the anger of Ulysses.28 Hippotes, one of the Heracleidae, killed the oracle Carnus.29 Calchas hesitated to speak before Agamemnon out of fear of arousing his anger. I am only, he said, a common man, without defense before a king.30 When, reassured by Achilles that he revealed the will of Apollo, Agamemnon showered him with reproaches.

Three verses of the Odyssey indicate in a very remarkable way the inferior rank the priests occupied. They are represented as men at the service of the public, and put on a par with doctors, architects, and singers, those to whom one grants hospitality, and who subsist on the charity of those who employ them.31

It is true that Homer in general appears to be favorable to the priestly cause. In his poems, heaven almost always backs up the organs of its decrees. But the Homeric poems are after the heroic ages of Greece by at least two centuries, and the attitude of the poet in favor of the priestly estate is the natural effect of a development we will describe later.32

One would be wrong to consider the existence of priestly families, which were Edition: current; Page: [308] numerous in Greece33 and are mentioned in the Odyssey itself,34 as a proof of the power of priests. The idea of the Greeks concerning the gift of prophecy seems to have some analogy with that of modern peoples concerning nobility. They thought that this divine favor was transmitted from father to son. Calchas came from a family that had enjoyed it for three generations.35 Mopsus owed his birth to Manto, daughter of Tiresias.36 Amphilochus was a prophet like his father, Amphiaraus. Herodotus recounts that Evenius had received the gift of divination from heaven because the Apollonians had unjustly deprived him of sight. The historian adds, as a natural consequence of this fact, that Deiphonus, son of this Evenius, fulfilled the functions of an oracle in the army.37

The foreign origin of these priestly families is of no importance to this question. We will see later that if some had descended from the colonies by which Greece was civilized, and had retained the direction of certain special rites as their patrimony,38 they nonetheless never became a legally established institution. The public religion did not belong to them at all. Their true monopoly was in the mystery Edition: current; Page: [309] cults, and the mysteries were separate from the public religion.39 This is a yet stronger reason to think that these families exercised no influence in the times described by the epics, since their authors appear to know nothing about the place of mystery cults in the Greek religion.40

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CHAPTER 2: That It Is Nonetheless Possible That at a Time Prior to the Heroic Age the Greeks Had Been Enslaved by Priestly Corporations

The considerations we just submitted to our readers do not, however, lead us to affirm that the Greeks were never governed by priestly bodies. Several facts that have come down to us through the obscurity of the centuries and the confusion of fables, even though they are more or less scattered, seem to indicate that at a period prior to the one we call mythical Greece was momentarily subject to an order of priests, whether indigenous or foreign.1 We encounter in Homer some indications of the weakening of this power. The priests of the ages that preceded were invested with a greater authority and occupied a rank higher than those that are shown to us under the walls of Troy. Like the kings, Tiresias carries a scepter of Edition: current; Page: [312] gold; he himself is called a king.2 The tradition—certainly false—that attributed to Theseus the division of the inhabitants of Attica into classes, similar in some respects to the division into castes, seems to be the confused memory of a far-off time when this classification existed in Greece.3

We also find in the traditions that have come down to us concerning the customs of the first Pelasgians, teachings and rites that characterize priestly cults. Herodotus speaks of a phallic Hermes, not Egyptian but Pelasgian.4 Several authors attest that they saw phalluses on the bas-reliefs of the walls of Mycenae, Tirynthe, and other Greek cities, as at Bubustis in Egypt.5 The Pelasgians had offered human sacrifices.6 Vestiges of the worship of the elements and stars appear in some ancient Greek temples. The sacred fire burned perpetually in the Prytaneum of Athens.7 In the same city, there was an altar formerly dedicated to the earth.8 Elsewhere, the sea was worshipped as a divinity distinct from Neptune. Cleomenes sacrificed a bull to it by having it cast into the waves.9 The Argiens cast horses into the lake of Argolide in honor of the Seasons;10 and Titania, the worshipper of the winds, was celebrated over a long period for her quadruple holocausts and magic invocations that go back to Media.11 The worship of the Arcadians Edition: current; Page: [313] was noticeably marked with astronomical ideas.12 The hideous forms of some of the divinities of a much more remote time13 differed from the elegance of those that embellished the temples and were celebrated by the poets of Greece.14

But even while granting to these scattered facts the authority it is reasonable to accord them, what we proved earlier must still be admitted. Formerly enslaved to priests, the Greeks became independent of them.

How did this revolution occur? How did the priests, triumphant in all the other countries they governed, so completely succumb in Greece?

On this question we can only offer some conjectures.

In this matter, however, we have to decline the help of the two principal guides that moderns employ.

Homer gives no indication of a period when the Greek priests would have enjoyed a less limited power than what he attributes to them. He is silent about the event that would have deprived them of their privileges and cast them into a tenuous and subordinate position. Herodotus says nothing about how the phallic cult was banished from the public religion and took refuge in the mysteries. The assertions of these two authors have the character of vague reminiscences rather than of accurate accounts. Such reminiscences can cross the upheavals of the centuries without being affected and inexplicably appear in the midst of a state of things with which they have no relation.

But does the history of other nations yield light that Greece’s denies? In an earlier book, we saw that the military or political authority attempted everywhere to break the yoke of priestly authority.

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What was attempted everywhere else could have happened in Greece. The mild and temperate climate of this country disposed its inhabitants to develop their intellectual faculties. They did not have to irrigate their territory with large hydrostatic devices. Natural limits divided their country into small States, which were often attacked by their neighbors. The small boundaries that confined them made absolute despotism on the part of an order or caste almost impossible, and the constantly recurring necessity of defense had to make the military authority prevail. Finally, the worship of stars was foreign to Greece. This circumstance was decisive. Without astrolatry’s absence, the Greeks would never have been a fortunate exception to the common rule. Etruria was divided like Greece into small, warring principalities, and India could do without material works; but until the third century of Rome, priests governed Etruria, and they still dominate India.

Favored by their location, the Greeks could have been favored by chance; and what did not succeed in Egypt, Persia, or Ethiopia could have succeeded in a country where circumstances rendered the endeavor easier, and obstacles less insurmountable.

We will not try to determine when in the development of Greek civilization this revolution could have occurred. The endeavors of this sort undertaken by various nations took place at different times. But if the thing did occur in Greece, it is certain that the Greeks were not in a completely primitive state, because their priestly corporations possessed learning in astronomy,15 and the warrior caste had arrogated to itself the possession of lands. In this way, one finds traces of science and notions of property.16

The tradition of Danaus and his fifty daughters killing the fifty sons of Egypt, would not this be the garbled memory of a massacre of the warrior caste by the priests? Supposing the type of anachronism that is rather natural to times when no one observed exact dates, could not one assign a similar motive to the attacks on the oracle at Delphi by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles? Would it not be the same for the religious wars that several historians speak about, and locate in various places in Greece,17 wars the poets cast as the battle of the gods against the Titans? Modern scholars have believed that here they recognized the struggle of the Pelasgians against eastern or southern colonies. (This opinion, however, will be refuted later.)

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What is beyond dispute is that the Titans professed the worship of the elements and the stars, of the earth and the sky,18 which is to say: a type of worship that necessarily establishes priestly authority.19 What is also sure is that the Titans were chased from Greece.20 Is it not probable that they formed a corporation similar to those we have seen in Egypt, India, Persia, and among the Gauls, and that this corporation was defeated and made to flee by men who no longer wished to wear the shackles their ancestors wore?

Perhaps divisions among the priests contributed to their expulsion. A rather plausible although obscure tradition recounts battles at Argos between the priests of Apollo and Bacchus.21 These battles recall the internal discord of the Egyptian Edition: current; Page: [316] priesthood. It most often is by means of dissension among possessors of power that power falls.

If one reflects on the fact that everywhere the Titans went after their defeat they established mystery cults, priestly corporations, and all the customs that characterize peoples subject to priestly control; if one considers that in Etruria, for example, it has been demonstrated that the teachings and ceremonies of religion were brought by a colony of Pelasgians,22 with colleges of priests invested with a limitless authority, while no such power appears among the Greeks descended from the Pelasgians who remained there.23 Given all this, the existence of an earlier priestly religion in this country, and its destruction before Homeric times, acquire great probability.

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This hypothesis would explain the emancipation from the power of priests of which the Greeks offer the sole example. We will prove later that the liberty enjoyed in this respect by the Scandinavians lasted only for a time.

The same hypothesis would explain the disproportion between Homer’s elegant language and the social state presented in the Iliad. In this way, it is less astounding to see an idiom that one could regard as the chef d’oeuvre of civilization employed to depict still semibarbaric mores. By it, one can go back to the origin of those bizarre portions of mythology that contrast so starkly with the customary mythology of the first Greek poets. There is an obvious analogue with the teachings and fables of all countries where the priesthood reigned. These ill-fitting portions thus show themselves to be the fragments of a destroyed whole, disconnected fragments preserved by men who survived its destruction. Certain oddities that struck us in some of the priestly institutions of Greece, especially the most ancient and the most foreign to the popular Greek religion, become easy to explain.

We therefore do not reject the assumption that at a time that is now covered by a thick night there was a priestly religion in Greece, as well as powerful corporations created by it devoted to its maintenance. But a violent revolution destroyed this religion and its priests, along with all the civilization of which they were the authors. All the historical information going back to the first times of Greece shows its inhabitants reduced to the savage state.24 Nothing is simpler to understand, and more inevitable. Along with the priests, everything of science, arts, and learning had to disappear, at least for a time. In fact, their overthrow cast Greece beyond barbarism. The tendency of priestly power being to hold the people in ignorance, the destruction of the priesthood in the country where it had reigned without challenge must have led to the destruction of all the earlier civilization. This is what has been noted among all peoples subject to priests, the Hebrews, in Egypt, in Phoenicia. The sciences always follow the fate of the priestly order.25 The question Edition: current; Page: [318] is to know how, when this order is destroyed, the human race begins its march forward again. If, as in the East, it falls beneath the yoke, along with servitude it reprises the small portion of knowledge that its masters tolerate.26 If it is emancipated, as were the Greeks, its progress, while slow at first, is subsequently inhibited by nothing. Free but ignorant, the Greeks fell back into fetishism because they professed a priestly polytheism, which, as we will see, is always composed of two parts: on one hand, a secret doctrine; on the other, fetishism. The priestly corporations being destroyed, the secret doctrine was forgotten and fetishism alone remained.

For the rest, we ought not to deplore this retrograde movement. Under the domination of the priests, the sciences (contained in a narrow and mysterious enclave) could only be the property in Greece—as elsewhere—of a small number who made it the basis or the instrument of its despotism. In all things, poverty is better than monopoly.

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CHAPTER 3: On the Religion and the Priesthood of the Earliest Times of the Greek, According to the Testimony of Greek Historians

Cast back into the primitive state, the Greeks had to cross its phases by degrees, and practice its form of worship.1 Like the primitives of all periods, they must have assumed that the different parts of nature were animated by a divine spirit, and they worshipped this divine spirit in animals, stones, trees, and mountains.

These, in fact, are the divinities all the Greek writers indicate as the oldest objects of the religious veneration of their compatriots.

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In olden times, says Pausanias, the Greeks rendered honors to entirely inanimate stones which, since then, they offered to the images of the immortals.2 The Thespians adored a branch;3 the inhabitants of the isle of Euboea and the Carians, pieces of wood;4 the mountain dwellers of Cythera, the trunk of a tree; at Samos, a simple plank had altars; and the oldest images of the Pallas and the Ceres of Athens were stakes, similar to the idols of the Tongouse.5 The Venus of Paphos was a stone. Three stadia from Gytheio there was a featureless rock. It was said that Orestes, having sat upon it, recovered his reason. In commemoration of this event, this mysterious rock bore the surname Jupiter.6 It is probable that it originally was an object of worship, and that the homage rendered it was preserved after the religion was modified, and a tale was invented to explain it. Often the fables that are presented as the source of ceremonies are really their consequences. The Orchomenians maintained a profound respect for stones that had fallen from the sky and were gathered, they said, by Eteocles.7 But there are two passages in Pausanias that are even more striking.

“In Phares, a town of Achaia,” he writes,8 “by the statue of Mercury Agorean, thirty squared stones are worshipped by the inhabitants in the name of a divinity; this is conformed to the ancient religion of the Greeks.” “The statue of Cupid at Thespiae,” he recounts elsewhere, “is, as in the earliest times, a shapeless rock that no one used for any other purpose.”9

We find at Phlius in the Peloponnese the worship of animals. In the middle of the public square arose the divine image of a goat.10 At Thebes, weasels had obtained celestial honors.11 And according to an ancient tradition, the citadel of Edition: current; Page: [321] Athens had a serpent as its protecting god. This tradition existed at least until the time of the war with Persia, because the purported disappearance of the serpent was one of the means Themistocles employed to cause the Athenians to depart their city and set sail.12

It would be easy for us to point out in the practices of the Greeks, even in later eras, the traces of the fetishistic primitives. They washed the feet of statues in blood. And what is even more remarkable, the devotées of Athena poured sacred oil over certain consecrated stones.13 In the same way, the Ostiacs, the Tongouse, and other peoples smeared their fetishes with blood.14

Like the primitives, the Greeks of the earliest times mistreated their divinities. Theocritus reminds the god Pan of this in one of his Idylls.15 And the author of the Theogony16 writes of the destruction of their temples, their altars, and their statues as the punishment of perfidious gods.

To be sure, there is a difference between the fetishes of Greece and those of the modern savages that travelers have helped us to understand. Those of Greece were already national. This is because the information we have concerning this fetishism dates from a period when the Greeks already began to form societies. The fetishes of the association had to replace those of individuals. But the latter were not wholly replaced. The Greeks carried on their persons little pygmy gods that they constantly invoked.17

Some writers have regarded these diminutive simulacra as mere images, made to recall invisible divinities. But any distinction between divinities and simulacra Edition: current; Page: [322] is premature when it concerns peoples who are still quite ignorant. Among them the simulacra are gods because they move, they cry, they speak, they predict. Superstition is so inclined to confuse the two things that the confusion persists despite subsequent enlightenment and the different spirit of centuries. In contemporary Madrid, Lisbon,18 and Naples, Madonnas lower their eyes, cover themselves, and sigh; Saint January sheds tears. Fetishism is always in the wings, as it were, ready to reenter religion. It does not succeed today because the priesthood, while profiting from the popular tendency to enhance its authority, is monitored by the learned class and therefore rejects or disavows whatever in fetishism is too absurd. But among the Greeks fallen back into savagery, and among whom there was neither a regular priesthood nor an educated class, fetishism had to triumph.

The roots it put down were profound. We just spoke of the serpent of Themistocles. But at another period a plague produced the same effect as did the invasion of the barbarians. Struck by the plague, the Athenians recalled that their ancestors had killed the inventor of the vine, Icarus, for having led them to the drunkenness that they believed was fatal. They also raised altars to a faithful dog who had not been able to survive his master.19

This Greek fetishism had jongleurs for priests, little different from modern ones.20 It is in vain that the priests of later times attempted to present them in a favorable, even imposing, light. They attribute to crude customs mysterious motives. But the priests of today’s savages provide approximate ideas concerning those of yesterday, and the Greek tragedies all agree in the matter, which confirms us in the conviction that the two priesthoods were identical.21

If we turn to the words of Homer, we would not elevate even the priests of Dodona above the category of jongleurs. He shows them sleeping on the hard ground, covered with mire, braving the rigors of the cold with naked feet, improvising their oracles.22 Leather bowls23 suspended from old oaks, whose prophetic Edition: current; Page: [323] sound announces the future, are much like the drums of the Laplanders. And despite the equivocation detected by Herodotus, the inspired doves resemble fetishes,24 and the bag in which Aeolus gives Ulysses the four winds has an unmistakable likeness to the bags full of wind that the sorcerers of the North sell to sailors. Nonetheless, it could be the case that these priests of Dodona were the relics of a destroyed priestly corporation.25

More than one writer affirms that they disposed of their manhood, and we will see that this mutilation was practiced in the majority of religions dominated by priests. They were bound to rigorous abstinences and to follow severe rules. This is yet another agreement with the customs of priestly peoples, and a new difference between the Selles,26 the priests of Dodona, and the later priesthood of the Greeks. Not forming a corporate body, the Selles in Homeric times were not subject to any fixed rule. Herodotus27 tells us that they treated the popular anthropomorphism Edition: current; Page: [324] with great disdain, and called the genealogies of the gods “fables invented only yesterday.” This was because in the midst of their present ignorance, the past bequeathed to them traditions that contradicted the new teachings of Greece. We do not think that to explain this opposition of teachings (if such an expression can be used when it is a question, on one hand, of crude notions, and, on the other, of garbled memories) it is necessary to attribute the origin of the priests of Dodona to Egyptian colonies.28 They would have acted in the same way if they were the descendants of indigenous priests.

Scattered members of a dispersed caste, they had to affiliate themselves with everything that recalled their former power. Everywhere that a priesthood encounters priestly privileges, teachings, or customs, it recognizes itself in its works. There is a natural confraternity among all priesthoods. Rivalries may suspend it, but they do not break it. Behold in the Iliad the Greek diviner embracing the cause of a foreign priest. The priesthood has for its homeland only the priestly order itself.

Whatever may be the case with these different hypotheses, whether the priests of Dodona were simple jongleurs, the products of fetishism, or the disfigured remains of a destroyed priestly corporation, it is certain that they remained throughout the entirety of the heroic age in a state of degradation and obscurity, which made their influence absolutely nil.

It was not to them, therefore, that Greece owed its return to civilization, and even when it had entered onto this path, as much as they could, they persisted in not following it. Greece’s return to more civilized mores was the work of Phoenician or Egyptian colonies who landed on their shores around three centuries before the Trojan War. Here, however, we encounter new problems to illumine and new errors to refute.

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CHAPTER 4: On the Influence of Colonies on the Social State and Religion of the Greeks

People have greatly exaggerated the influence of foreign colonies, especially Egyptian, on Greece.1 They have thought, and continue to think, that the Greeks, having received from these colonies their doctrines, rites, and belief, along with the initial learning suitable to their social state, that the development of their religion Edition: current; Page: [326] was not the result of the natural development of the human spirit, but a chance event that gave this religion a distinctive direction.

This error goes back to the Greeks themselves. Consumed by an insatiable thirst for learning, their historians and philosophers believed that they had to derive all their knowledge from these countries of the East and the South, which were regarded as the sanctuaries of the sciences and wisdom. They therefore found in these renowned regions everything that could strike their already receptive imaginations, as well as their minds rendered credulous by their curiosity. Priests cloaked in darkness listened to their questions with haughty condescension and responded with proud reserve. They offered symbols, images, enigmatic ceremonies, everything that the most striking pomp and the most august mysteries could do to dazzle eyes and penetrate souls. Their revelations were craftily calculated to accord with the dispositions of the hearer. Varied, and only partial, revelations added the greater value of the unknown, of what was still covered in silence, to the value of what was taught. Even the spectacle of a uniform and peaceful despotism contained something seductive for these sages exhausted by the turbulence of anarchy. The sanctuaries of Memphis and Thebes appeared to them more suitable to meditation than the agora of Athens. And when they returned to the midst of their fellow citizens, who were constantly agitated by hostile passions and ephemeral interests, the profound peace and unshakable stability that they had exchanged for the convulsions of democracy seemed quite regrettable.

To these motives rooted in a natural and understandable bias, add the inclination of men to extol what they took so much time and trouble to discover and convey. By elevating the wisdom of Egypt, Herodotus and Plato vaunted their own learning, their studious investigations, and indefatigable zeal.

From this it has followed that today we generally consider the Greeks to be the docile disciples of Egyptian colonists, and we give little weight to the facts that argue against this opinion, one we have adopted on trust. Therefore, we first must examine what sort were the colonies established in Greece by the Egyptians who were their leaders, what teachings they brought with them, what interest they had in causing them to prevail, and the authority that they naturally obtained over the indigenous peoples.

As we have said, the Egyptians were divided into castes. Their priesthood was a monopoly. Their religion was dual: abstract, on one hand, crude on the other, symbolic or material, depending upon the point of view in which one considered it. The people knew only the exterior of this religion, and this exterior, which Edition: current; Page: [327] consisted in the worship of animals that the multitude took to be gods, barely raised the public belief above the level of fetishism.2 From this country, which was divided into such different classes carefully separated from one another, came the colonies. If these colonies had been composed of priests, and these priests had been victorious, we would have seen in Greece what was seen in other countries: an enslaved people and an all-powerful priesthood, a fetishistic people and a learned, metaphysical, and astronomical priesthood.

But the Egyptians had a great horror of the sea, for them it was the evil principle.3 No member of the superior castes participated in sailing. Any maritime voyage was forbidden to priests.4

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Perhaps this circumstance ought to cause us to make a distinction among the colonies come from Egypt. Diodorus, speaking of those that Belus led to Babylon, says that this prince established priests there on the Egyptian model and exempted them from all taxes and public duties. But he says nothing similar about the colonies established in Greece.5

The emigrants who made up the latter were probably only men of the people, forced by need to overcome the national repugnance, and at most guided by a few leaders of distinguished birth, but much less occupied with science and religion than with the risks of their endeavor.6 Such colonies can know only the externals Edition: current; Page: [329] of a religion whose secret meaning was scrupulously hidden from the vulgar.7 It has often been noticed among all nations that men devoted to war, sailors, and all those who, braving great dangers and undergoing violent trials, find little leisure in their adventurous lives for reflection, ordinarily fall into a wholly external superstition.

Therefore, there was not the distance between the colonies and the first Greeks that has been supposed. The gap was only of a few degrees, and this circumstance was very favorable to the civilization of Greece.

For a colony to civilize savages, there cannot be between them too great a disproportion of force or learning. When the colonies have too great a superiority of force, they do not civilize the natives, they enslave them or destroy them. When they have too great a superiority in enlightenment, the native savages cannot rise from their crude ideas to the much more refined opinions of the colonists. Intermediaries are lacking. The American tribes have remained savage and fetishist because they were able to remain in barbarism and polytheism before attaining theism and civilization. The Europeans have never civilized the savages they discovered, because they have always proposed mores, ideas, and a religion entirely beyond the savages’ grasp. The distance was too great.

It was not thus in Antiquity. The difference between the colonies and the natives was much less, communication had to be easier, instruction more effective. But by the same token, an amalgam had to result, rather than a revolution.

The Egyptian colonies had as their goal neither to convert nor to civilize the peoples they discovered. The sole object was to find a soil that would feed them, a shore that could become their new homeland. It, therefore, was in their interest not to have irreconcilable dissonance between their religious ideas and those of the former owners of the land. What was in their interest was also in keeping with their inclination. Polytheism always believes it finds itself in other religions. It sees allies where monotheism sees adversaries.

To be sure, the priesthood seeks to strip polytheism of this character. When they encounter their neighbors or their enemies, peoples given to priestly polytheism Edition: current; Page: [330] destroy temples, overturn statues, and massacre suppliants. But this is because they come as conquerors.

The colonists who landed in Greece, in contrast, came as fugitives and almost as suppliants themselves. They therefore worked at mixing their opinions with those of the indigenous peoples. The difference of languages offered a great means for presuming a similarity of opinions. The necessity of being understood caused ideas that were not the same to be translated into a very imperfect language, and translation became a sort of concordat by which a mixed idea was formed of the two primary ideas without anyone noticing. It was by means of a similar process that our missionaries to China, obliged to express the Christian religion in Chinese, were accused of apostasy by those who remained in Europe.

We should add that a distinctive characteristic of polytheism in all periods is that in this sort of belief man does not remain exclusively attached to these gods, but only when they protect him effectively. Titus Livy tells us that the Albans, having lost to the Romans and been brought to Rome, were thoroughly incensed at their gods and gave up their worship.8 In a moment, we will see polytheistic nations appropriate the divinities of even their enemies, when they believe they find in them more powerful, or more loyal, auxiliaries.

Now, the colonies that arrived in Greece had to have experienced many misfortunes during their crossing. Leaving their native land, battered by winds, menaced by waves, exposed to hunger and to all sorts of physical difficulties, only with great efforts did they attain the soil that promised them a better future. It was natural that they conceived a kind of anger against the gods that had so poorly protected them, and that their souls were open to finding more propitious gods. If they had debarked among peoples whose cult was already established, they would have adopted it without hesitation. But since the fall of their priesthood, the Pelasgians professed only a primitive fetishism, whose anonymous idols were not combined and regimented in a body like those of Egypt. The colonists borrowed what they could from the indigenous belief. As Herodotus tells us, they gave names to gods who until then did not have any.9 With their own memories they filled in whatever lacunae appeared. They combined some of their own with the opinions of their new fellow citizens; these they also coordinated, some with their own traditions. Edition: current; Page: [331] For their part, the Pelasgians had to have easily given themselves to this sort of amalgamation. Ignorant peoples think about their gods as about themselves. They believe that foreigners know and can do many things that they do not know and cannot do. They similarly believe that foreign gods (who have the merit of being unknown and the advantage of never having failed) can do and know more things than their own gods.

If one were to argue against this mutual tolerance on the basis of the counterexample of the special intolerance of Egyptian polytheism, that is, by referring to the wars that occurred from time to time in Egypt over sacred animals, we would reply that these wars were started by the rivalry of priests among themselves, and had as their causes not disputes over opinions, but insults leveled at the objects of worship. The absence of priests and the change of place had to return the polytheism of the colonies to the natural spirit of polytheism. This spirit is not tolerant in the sense that moderns attach to the word, which is to say, the respect governments have for all the religious opinions of individuals; but it is a species of national tolerance, of people to people, tribe to tribe. We see this spirit in the permission granted the Pelasgians to consult their oracle concerning the innovations proposed to them.

What we just said about Egyptian colonies applies with a few modifications to those of Thrace.10 Among all the countries that the historians of Antiquity help us understand, Thrace is distinguished by its barbarous worship, its fanatical rites, and its fierce enthusiasm. There the priesthood was clothed not only with the regular sacred authority possessed by the priesthood of Egypt,11 but with an even more redoubtable power because it drew from a sort of religious delirium, one inspired and nourished by ceremonies in part obscene, in part cruel. It seems certain that Thrace sent colonies to Greece, and that these colonies had priests for leaders who attempted to have their bloody customs and wild orgies triumph. Their efforts were not without some partial successes, which stained the Greek religion from time to time. But it always did its best to reject these noxious importations, and in general it succeeded. It is probable that the Thracian priests wanted to initiate the Greeks into Orphic teachings (which we will talk about later),12 which combined Edition: current; Page: [332] in an unsurprising mixture (once one understands the cause) the most subtle metaphysics with the most revolting external worship. But neither this metaphysics, which was introduced into the systems of philosophy, nor this external cult, which was transformed in the mysteries into a secret cult, prevailed in the public religion.13 The Thracian colonies were always odious to the leaders of the Greek tribes; they often fought them openly; and the transactions with them that they proposed or allowed had for their purpose and their result preserving the peoples’ beliefs from the contagion of a foreign fanaticism.14

Nonetheless, some have supposed that whatever their origin, these colonies arrived Edition: current; Page: [333] in Greece animated with fervent zeal and an ardor for war; that they waged religious wars against the Greeks; and that having been victorious, they changed the beliefs of the country they conquered.

This conjecture is destroyed by a single fact, however, which no one can contest. The religion purportedly established by the victorious foreigners was in no way the same as that of the country from which they came. Now, one cannot reasonably see how these foreigners, so attached to their religion that they would wage war to the death against the Pelasgians who refused to accept it, nonetheless would have abandoned it on their own in order to embrace an entirely new one. One cannot understand any better where this new religion would have come from, which was neither that of the former homeland of the foreigners nor that of the people they conquered. One would have to suppose that they would have immediately and spontaneously composed a religion different from the two older ones. This supposition runs against everything that reflection tells us about the development of the human race, as well as all that history confirms.

When a conquering people succeeds in making the conquered people adopt its beliefs, the belief that it imposes is precisely the same as that which it professed in its own country, at least during the first phases of its adoption. It is not altered by the change of place, except later. How, then, to explain that after colonies from Thrace15 or Egypt arrived in Greece, having waged war against the inhabitants of the country to establish their cult, and having triumphed after several fierce battles, a completely different worship resulted than that of Thrace or Egypt?

Nothing is less congenial to the spirit of primitive peoples than the form of intolerance that causes or fuels wars of religion. Even the advocates of this hypothesis had to have sensed this, because they compare the priests of what they call the ancient cult with the American jongleurs of our day.16 There is no trace of intolerance in the character of these jongleurs. They and their disciples listen with great curiosity, and no hostility, to the Europeans who speak to them about the Christian religion.

I do not know from what secret chronicles, in what contemporaneous memoirs, certain savants have drawn their information concerning times that we know about Edition: current; Page: [334] only by the works of authors who were separated by more than twenty centuries from the times in question.17 They speak to us of Cyclops, Corybants, and Curetes as if they had lived in intimate familiarity with them. They know all the particulars of the life of Prometheus, who they say was a very enlightened man worthy of living in a less barbaric century, and who wanted to reconcile the two parties. For this purpose going from one party to the other, he became the victim of his own zeal and saw himself attacked by unjust calumnies that have lasted until today.18 In a word, they write the history of these long-gone epochs like someone recounting the intrigues of the court of Louis XIV or Louis XV.

Herodotus, who conveyed with great clarity everything he had gathered relative to the establishment of Greek religion and the influence colonies had exercised on its formation, does not make the least reference to religious wars occurring at this time. “Formerly,” he says, “the Pelasgians offered sacrifices accompanied by prayers, as was told to me at Dodona. But they did not distinguish by particular names the beings they worshipped,19 because they had not received any instruction on this score. They simply called them gods, in order to designate the rulers of all things. Much later, Egyptians taught them the names they had to give them. They consulted the oracle to know if they ought to obey these instructions come from barbarians. They received permission. From then on they made use of them in their religious ceremonies. . . . But they still were ignorant, almost up to our own time, of where each god came from and if they all had existed as they do at present. . . . Homer and Hesiod composed for the Greeks the genealogies of the gods . . . assigning to them their functions and their dignities, and limning their forms.”20

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Even though more learned and philosophic than Herodotus, no more than Herodotus did Thucydides attribute the revolution brought about in the Greek religion to religious wars.21

The influence of colonies on the formation of Greek polytheism was therefore very limited.22 The Pelasgian fetishism furnished most of the materials. The colonies Edition: current; Page: [336] added several fables and, above all, many rites.23 But they did not substitute by force24 one cult for another. They did not transport the beliefs of the former homeland to their new establishments. In point of fact, they had rather imperfect ideas about this belief in the first place. They did not give the Greeks a religion. They only placed them in a state of civilization that had to modify their own religious ideas.

As for a small number of priestly institutions brought from Thrace, Egypt, or Phoenicia, these took root only in a few cities whose particular location favored them; for the longest time, though, they occupied only a secondary rung. Thus, for example, nature had brought together around Delphi everything that nourished and stimulated superstition and enthusiasm. Vast hollows exhaled vapors that rendered those who inhaled them delirious. Countless springs bubbled everywhere. Hidden grottos made it easy to forget the world, and seemed to promise communication with invisible powers. The deep shadows of ancient forests struck minds with religious terror. Moreover, it is plausible that a colony of priests come from Thrace and Macedonia early on established itself in that marvelous place, applying itself to introducing and maintaining priestly ideas and ceremonies. At Delphi, therefore, are found many customs, traditions, teachings, and rites that are imported from elsewhere.25 But the relations of the priesthood of Delphi with Edition: current; Page: [337] the national worship were neither regular nor habitual. They did not exist at all in Homer’s time; the name Delphi does not appear once in the Homeric epics.26

Thus Greece, having regained its independence from a priesthood whose organization we only imperfectly understand, also maintained it against the colonies that civilized it. It maintained it equally against the repeated efforts of the priests of Thrace, Egypt, and Phoenicia to introduce their institutions and found their empire by hook or by crook. This, however, required a long, sometimes violent, struggle. It also did not occur without admitting some portions of the priestly mythology and, especially, more than one foreign rite. Even the institutions a people rejects influence its own; combatants are changed by combat, even victors by victory. But Greece subjugated everything it admitted. We will demonstrate this truth, the most important of historical truths, because the victory of Greece decided the fate of the human race.

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CHAPTER 5: On the Modifications the Independent Spirit of Greece Always Caused in What Came from Elsewhere

If the Greek genius was hardly favorable to the introduction of priestly teachings and opinions, the geographic position of the Greeks seemed to invite their barbarian neighbors to try frequently to introduce them.

Greece was everywhere surrounded by islands that foreign sailors had chosen for refuge or as a new homeland, and where they brought their religion.

As much as it is possible to conjecture, a priest whom the historians named Olen, whom they place even before the mythical time of Orpheus; or—and this seems more likely to us—a colony of which Olen was either the leader or the collective name, came to Delos via Asia Minor,1 singing the story of Diana and Apollo in its hymns, as well as of the offspring of Latona;2 that is, professing an astronomical religion. As a consequence, we see in the religious practices of Delos Edition: current; Page: [339] many ceremonies that are different from the rites of Greece. There we see sacred virgins3 and fragments of the hymns sung by the islanders that resemble invocations in the Zend books and the Vedas.

Lemnos and Samothrace, formerly named Leucosi,4 were another route by which priestly religions came to Greece. Situated between this country and Asia, whose shores were not yet populated by any Greek colony, these islands received the first emigrants from Phrygia, Lydia, and Lycia. By their physical circumstances they were favorable to priestly power; they bore the imprint of nature’s revolutions. The destruction of the neighboring islands of Lemnos was an accredited prophecy,5 and Mr. de Choiseul-Gouffier6 saw traces of the disappearance of Chryse, swallowed up so long ago after having become famous by the misfortunes of Philoctetes.7 The most ancient sailing people, the Phoenicians, landed in Samothrace. They brought there their Cabiri, misshaped divinities that we will see reappear in the mystery cults, whose name goes back to Indian mythology.8 They seem to have lived for a long time on this island. It even seems probable that for some time the Phoenician language was the sole in use.9 Other colonies composed of Phrygians taught there the art of working in metals,10 and Diodorus speaks of the astonishment that their metal workers occasioned in the inhabitants by their charms and superior knowledge.11 These metal workers worshipped the elements; they rendered homage to the heavens and to the earth. Since priests bring into their religion everything that they know, this priesthood combined its metallurgic knowledge with astronomy. The dances they conducted while armed retraced both the dominion of man over the iron he had subjugated and the movement of the celestial spheres.12

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Each military expedition of the Greeks established relations between them and peoples subject to priests. From the time of the siege of Troy, they encountered the Phrygians, to whom Homer attributes Greek mores, but who clearly were a priestly nation. The cult of Cybele and her mutilations were of Phrygian origin.13 The Trojans had purchased their palladium from Abaris the Scythian; in other words, they had the same religion as the Scythians, or one not much different.14 They cast living horses into rivers,15 a type of sacrifice that expressed the worship they rendered the elements.16

From the most remote times commerce had united Greece to the East. At an even more remote and legendary time (because it precedes the era of Semiramis), we see the opulent and celebrated city of Ephesus arise on the site where the Cayster runs into the Aegean Sea. On one hand, it was the entrepôt of the wealth of Asia, on the other, one of the principal refuges of the Ionian colony. What antiquity tells us about the construction of its temple is a combination of traditions whose details differ but whose meaning is the same.

The son of the Amazon Penthesilia, Caistrus was the father of Semiramis by means of his dalliances with Derceto. He was also the father of Ephesus, who built the temple of Ephesus.17 Others attribute the construction of this edifice to the Amazons. These enemies of males, proud of their virginity and worshippers of a bloody deity Artemis, the Amazons very much resemble a priestly idea or institution.18 The priests of Ephesus also submitted themselves to mutilations that we also find in Syria,19 and the flame that burned perpetually on their altars was a souvenir Edition: current; Page: [341] of the worship of fire. The Greeks also began early with Colchis. The inhabitants of Colchis came from an Egyptian colony. One can see an analogy between the fables of the two countries. In Colchis there was a river that bore the name of Isis.20 Greek merchants must have carried fables from there, which they garbled.

Finally religion itself, even while distinguishing the Greeks from the barbarians, established bonds between these two races of men that reinforced their mutual superstition. Very early on the Greeks consulted the most faraway oracles. Envoys from Elis crossed the deserts of Libya to query the oracle of Ammonius.21

It follows from all this that from the first moments of Greek civilization there were paths traced by which priestly opinions laid siege, as it were, to Greek polytheism, and endeavored to penetrate into it. Under a certain aspect and up to a certain point, they succeeded. The Greeks near to Homeric times must have been disposed to eagerly receive marvelous tales and solemn rites, which they did not understand well enough to see how incompatible they were with their own ideas and their national character. Their ignorance, a quality common to all infant peoples; their poetic imagination, which loved everything offered it to explain natural phenomena by supernatural causes rather than the mechanisms of the world (a sad discovery they had yet to make); a lively and spontaneous constitution; their respect for everything that came from afar, a respect that contrasted starkly with their disdain for barbarians; and finally, the constant struggle of their inner sentiment with the form of their belief—all these things prepared a rather easy entrance to foreign teachings. A tradition that many men repeat, said Hesiod, becomes a divinity. This phrase clearly expresses the profound and credulous curiosity of nascent societies, their need to know everything, whose impatient inexperience receives without examination everything told to it, and confounds together everything it receives.

Hence those countless borrowings from foreign nations by the Greeks of the most remote period. There is almost no Greek divinity whose actions or attributes are not a mixture of fables and priestly teachings. But the Greek spirit always triumphed; it reworked the fables, nationalized the imports, modified the teachings, and stripped them of what in the minds of the priests was their essential character.

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Let us support this with few examples, without trying to put them into a regular order. We do so because it seems useful not to leave this fundamental truth without proofs. We, however, have to confess that in so doing we are anticipating a later section in our work, one that requires a good deal of development. It is only in another book that we will present the complete exposition of the dogmas and rites that enter into the composition of the priestly religions of antiquity. There perhaps is a slight inconvenience in showing how the Greeks rejected them before talking about them as a whole. On the other hand, we think we have already sufficiently indicated what these composite religions were; we have seen that they contained science, cosmogonic hypotheses, personifications of physical forces, symbolic language and rites, a metaphysics that ends in pantheism, while being overlaid and mixed with popular fables, falling back from time to time into fetishism. These general ideas suffice for the moment, and it is important to support with evidence our claims concerning the immense distance that separates the Greeks from the rest of ancient nations.22

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In order to be better understood by the majority of our readers, we will take examples from among the best known divinities, among those, that is, who appear most frequently in the poems of Homer. This way people will better appreciate the supremacy of the Greek genius that while admitting far-off, mysterious traditions concerning these different deities, transformed them into indigenous tales, and removed from the divinities that had become Greek what was bizarre or somber, abstract or frightful, in a word: sacerdotal.

This method will also have the advantage of putting to the side several difficulties concerning details that we will be forced to consider later when we present the tableau of Homeric polytheism. No one will object that we took too literally this brilliant mythology, since we will have already indicated the elements that composed it; the philosophical, metaphysical, or cosmogonic teachings to which it alludes; and how the genius of Greece reworked and completely nationalized it.

Let us first recall an observation we already made in the first book.

The Greeks admitted tales that hardly differed from priestly cosmogonies into their own hypotheses concerning the creation of the world because these tales, at once confused and foreign, did not really interest them. The physical force and moral character of the gods, the relations of these gods with men, their regular influence on the destiny of their worshippers, these were—these had to be—what interested the religious sentiment in its anxious ignorance; they were objects of a constant attention and active curiosity. The Greeks wanted their gods to resemble them because they wanted the means of dealing with them at all times. But that these supernatural beings and the human race that worshipped them owed their existence to Chaos, to Night, to Earth, to chance, even; that they were intended to give a clear signal to following generations that they were no longer subject to fixed laws; that by uniting the dual creative force in themselves, or the active and passive principles, they could reproduce independently of sexual union by mysterious and often obscene procedures, or by strange mutilations, none of that was of any importance to a young people. And the Greeks put up no resistance to the fact that these foreign traditions brought such symbolic and sacerdotal ideas. According to Hesiod,23 the virgin Earth gives birth to the Sea, the Mountains, and the Sky without the cooperation of a spouse. The Sky produces Time, or Saturn, Edition: current; Page: [344] and Saturn raises a sacrilegious hand against the generative power of his father. In all this, the stamp of the East has to be recognized, and the Greek genius made no effort to change these cosmogonic absurdities. It sensed that in the future it would have nothing to do with them, and in order not to be burdened by them, it put them in a separate sphere. Sky, Earth, Ocean, and their entire race of fabulous monsters—Cyclops, Centimanes and Gorgons, Chimera, Hecate, and Echidna, mother of the sphinx—are the object of no national cult. In their depictions, poets allude to them from time to time, and philosophers in their systems. For the rest, these grand shadows remain immobile, as it were, in the dark precincts where they are confined.24 They never came forth to join with active divinities, those invoked by the people in their temples, objects of prayers and sacrifices. It was upon the latter that the Greek spirit operated, and while examining these divinities one after another, we will see what its action was.

In Homeric polytheism, Minerva is not exactly, as is often said, the goddess of wisdom and prudence. To define her in this way would be to make her an allegorical divinity; the period of allegory, however, has not yet arrived. Minerva is proud, irritable, driven by a thousand human passions, as are all the inhabitants of Olympus. She however is in general more prudent and wiser than the other gods. This is because she is to be identified with the Phoenician Onga, brought with Cadmus to Thebes in Boetia,25 and because under obscure forms this divinity Edition: current; Page: [345] represented the intelligence of the universe. But how did it come about that instead of being produced by the couplings of Jupiter, her birth is a marvel, that she has no mother, that she suddenly emerged, entirely armed, from her father’s head? This is because the Onga of Phoenicia, who is a cosmogonic divinity, and under this heading either virginal or hermaphroditic,26 is not subject to the common laws of generation, but came miraculously from the abyss that contains, engenders, and absorbs everything.

Why does this goddess of wisdom, the intelligence of the world, preside over domestic works, the small cares of women in the interior of their homes? This is because to her attributes have been joined those of the Egyptian Neith,27 transported to Athens by a colony of Sais. This Neith had received from Ptah the canvas of nature and worked on this mysterious cloth.28

How is it that Minerva, who thus did not disdain such peaceful occupations, is also the goddess of war and, bearing resplendent weapons, finds herself at home in the melée, in the midst of carnage and death? This is because the caste of warriors in Egypt was devoted to Neith, and bore her symbol, the beetle, on their rings.29 What connection is there between this bellicose Minerva and the tale that recounts that she invented the flute, but then cast it far from her because it disfigured the nobility of her features? This is because the flute was invented by the Phoenicians, and music and dance are the typical attributes of priestly divinities, expressing the harmony of the spheres.30 Finally, why did this goddess, bearing all the ideal beauty that characterized the gods of Greece, carry on her standard the terrifying head of Medusa? This is because the Libyan Pallas had appeared for the first time in Libya on the Triton lake,31 and the dress of the young girls of this country bore a remote resemblance to the serpents of the Gorgon;32 or perhaps Edition: current; Page: [346] (here the traditions lose themselves in one another) it was the urn of the Nile, capped by the head of a man and surrounded by serpents, a mute symbol in Egypt but become for the Greeks the object of a detailed poetic account.33

Thus the Greek Minerva was originally a composite of incoherent ideas drawn from the different mythologies of foreign countries and reassembled. From this union, however, resulted a divinity who was perfectly conformed to the spirit of Greece’s polytheism, an elegant divinity, passionate and majestic, who descends to the earth and takes part in the actions of men, pursuing or protecting heroes. The intelligence of Onga, which in the priestly version had no relation with the destiny of mortals and signifies only the overcoming of chaos, in Greece is applied to the active interests of men, to their daily struggles. The mystical cloth that in the fingers of the Neith of Egypt represents the world is now the emblem of female industry. The head of Medusa, which recalls the terrifying attributes of priestly divinities, becomes the monument of the victory of a warrior whom Minerva assisted;34 the goddess mounts a chariot, arms herself with a spear, and puts on a breastplate: all these images are purely Greek. In order to finish the task of making her indigenous, her birth is transported to Arcadia.35 And last, the olive is her favorite tree. Now she is completely Athenian.36 All traces of her foreign origin are gone. There is nothing more different from the Egyptian Neith than the Minerva of the Iliad, and no one would recognize in the protector of Diomedes and Ulysses one of the dark forces personified by the priests of Tyre.37

The Egyptian colonies38 that had brought the worship of Apollo from Egypt Edition: current; Page: [347] into Greece also had to introduce the traditional tales and rites practiced in their country. We find therefore the same animal, a wolf, dedicated to the sun at Lycopolis and likewise at Delphos; by his sideways gait he can image the indirect course of the sun.39 This figure brought into Greek traditions tales relating to the battles of Osiris. Under the figure of a wolf, this god came to help his son Orus;40 and Latona, leaving the Hyperborean countries to seek refuge at Delos had taken on the same form, it was said.41 Nor can one fail to recognize in the Daphnephoria42 that the Thebians celebrated every nine years in honor of the Ismenian Apollo, an astronomical feast. It took its name from the laurel carried by the comeliest adolescents of the town. It was surrounded by flowers and olive branches. From an olive tree, itself decorated by laurel branches and woven flowers, and covered with a purple veil, were suspended balls of different sizes representing the sun and the planets, decorated with garlands whose number was a symbol of the year. On the altar burned a flame whose movement, color, and crackling revealed the future; as we have observed, this was a species of divination peculiar to the priesthood, and Edition: current; Page: [348] was especially in vogue at Olympus, the second city of the sacred land, and under this title the center of many priestly customs.43 The god of the sun was the god of music by a natural analogy to the course of the stars. And the sparrow hawk, the standard image of the divine essence in Egypt, in Homer was called the favorite bird of Apollo.44 As soon, however, as this Apollo of Egyptian origin took a distinct place in Greek mythology, the national spirit worked to strip him of these astronomical attributes. All the mysterious or scientific ideas disappeared from the Daphnephoria; they became the commemoration of the love of a god for a girl who resisted his desires.

A new god, Helios, fulfills the functions of the sun. In his quality as the son of Uranus and the Earth,45 this god was placed among the cosmogonic personifications.46 He played no role in the tales of the poets. He is mentioned only twice by Edition: current; Page: [349] Homer.47 He had no priests, no cult; no solemn feast was celebrated in his honor. Thus stripped of all abstract signification, Apollo appears in Olympus, takes part in celestial feasts, intervenes in the quarrels of the earth, is the tutelary god of the Trojans, the protector of Paris and Aeneas, the slave of Admete, the lover of Hyacinth and Daphne. It is so true that the genius of the Greeks was the author of all these changes in the character of the divinities that we see Apollo retain in the mysteries where the priestly traditions had relegated them the astronomical attributes stripped away by the public cult. Later, the Neoplatonists will seek to give him the same attributes when they attempt to make polytheism an allegorical system of science and religious philosophy.48 But in the popular religion, instead of being the god who makes humans fruitful, he is a simple shepherd who guides the flock. Instead of dying and rising again, he is always young. Instead of burning mortals with his devouring rays, he shoots terrifying arrows from his quiver of gold. Instead of announcing the future in the mysterious language of the planets, he prophesizes in his own name. He no longer directs the harmony of the spheres by means of his mystical lyre; he has an imperfect lyre invented by Mercury, one Edition: current; Page: [350] he perfects. He no longer leads the dance of stars, but walks at the head of the nine muses, each one presiding over one of the beaux-arts.49

Diana was subject to a no less remarkable alteration. At Delos, she is obviously a cosmogonic power because she is the mother of Eros, who in the theogonies is always taken as a creative force.50 Among the Scythians, she is a fierce goddess, thirsty for the blood of men, with a frightful form. This is how she initially appeared to the Spartans, because on seeing her they fell into a state close to delirium. At Colchis, she is so little Greek that she defended the Golden Fleece against the Argonauts. Her guardian dogs and their menacing teeth guarded the seven doors of the sanctuary that contained this precious treasure, and her voice commands monsters whose forms recall the fictions of India.51 At Ephesus,52 a mere look at Edition: current; Page: [351] her figure reveals the priestly imprint. How different she is in Greek mythology! Yet a closer examination shows that none of these attributes entirely disappeared. If she is the goddess of the hunt, this is because Isis, accompanied by her faithful dogs and Anubis with a dog’s head, had sought the body of her spouse,53 and the companions of Isis became the pack of Diana. If from the heights of heaven she directed the bronze globe that scatters the darkness of the night, and if the half-moon decorated her head, it is because Isis is the moon, and the half-moon is part of the adornment of the goddess of Ephesus. If she is the cause of the infirmities of women, if she strikes them with madness, sometimes with death;54 if, in the same way, she sacrifices the children of Niobe; it is because she remembers being the Tithrambo of Egypt, that is, the moon considered in its malevolent aspect.55 But such is the repugnance of the Greeks to transport into religion what belongs to science that in the same way they separated Apollo and the sun, they separated Edition: current; Page: [352] Diana and the moon,56 thus rendering her freer, more individual, and more independent. A virgin, she defied the power of Love; she harshly punishes the weaknesses of her nymphs. This understanding of virginity, which we have even seen in the worship of primitives,57 is an idea natural to man, but which the priesthood adopts and amplifies. For the Greeks whom the priesthood does not dominate, this attribute is only a secondary trait, the effect of the caprice or modesty of a young girl; and the poets call into question sometimes its reality, sometimes its duration. Even as a virgin, Diana presides over births, a combination that echoes that of the power to create and the power to destroy.58 One sees how incoherent are the remnants of the priestly notions that survived this metamorphosis, and at the same time how much they accompany it. They hardly touch upon the fundamental idea. The Hertha of Scythia, the Bendis of Thrace,59 the Isis of Egypt, and the Diana of Ephesus are no longer; now they have become the lithe young huntress who as swift as the wind pursues the frightened inhabitants of the woods.

Recall what Hermes was in the Egyptian religion.60 But the Greek Hermes is a Edition: current; Page: [353] wholly other god. He presides over neither sciences nor writing, nor over medicine or astronomy. He has not composed divine books that contain their elements. The interpreter of the gods in Egypt, in Greece he is only their messenger. This is why he retains the wings that elsewhere were an astronomical symbol.61 If in memory of the directions given by the priests of Ammonium to the caravans crossing the desert he is the protector of commerce, the Greeks stripped all its somber gravity from this attribution. By a grotesque analogy that belied this function, Mercury became the god of fraud and lies.62 Is this, perhaps, a reaction of the Greek spirit against the pretentions of the priesthood, by way of a recollection of what the Egyptian Hermes had been? Please note how, even if all the priestly attributes are done away with in popular belief, they reappear in the mystical portion that the hymns, whether Orphic or Homeric, have preserved. The Hermes of these hymns has almost nothing in common with the Hermes of the Iliad or even the Odyssey. He rather recalls sometimes the qualities of the Egyptian Hermes, sometimes the legends of the avatars of India. Born in the morning of the union of Jupiter with Maia (whose name leads us back to the Indian Maia), Hermes escapes from the arms of his mother four hours after his birth, finds a tortoise on the ground, makes a lyre out of it, and sings of the loves of which he is the fruit, and of the nymphs of the maternal grotto. Behold, he is the inventor of music. He later steals the flocks of Apollo, hides them in a cave, kills fifty cows, and roasts them on a brazier: behold, Edition: current; Page: [354] the inventor of fire. He offers sacrifice to the gods; that is, like Thot-Hermes, he regularizes the religious ceremonies. He eats the flesh of his victims, covers the flame he lit, and returns to the grotto. Malleable as a cloud, he enters by the key-hole and settles in his cradle: nothing more resembles the childhood escapades of Krishna. His mother is wroth; he reproaches her for seeing in him only a child, and declares that no one better distinguishes good from evil than he. Is this not Krishna, who, reprimanded by his nurse, simply opens his mouth, and to her great surprise she sees all the worlds united in all their splendor? Apollo pursues him. The flight of a bird, a witness or indiscreet confidant, directs the pursuit and betrays the hiding place of the fugitive. But come to the grotto, Apollo sees only a cradle in which a newly born infant sleeps. He nonetheless grabs him and wants to throw him into the depths of Tartarus. Hermes invokes the infirmity of his age and swears on Jupiter’s head his innocence. Apollo brings him to Olympus, and after a thousand burlesque ruses, totally incompatible with the refined tastes of the Greek poets,63 Hermes returns his flocks to the god and is admitted by the gods.64

We will not speak extensively about the stories relative to Hercules. Their foreign origin is well enough known,65 and their occult meaning has been the subject of tireless researches. Nonetheless, since it is one of the parts of Greek mythology where the triumph of the Greek genius is most obvious, a few words will not be out of place.

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Adored at Thebes in Egypt, Hercules is the sun at the renewal of the year.66 It is he who, by leaving footprints on the earth, ensures a fruitful year.67 He holds the phoenix in his hand, the symbol of rebirth.68 He was killed by Typhon, a new proof of his identity with Osiris. He rises from the dead, like the sun after the winter.69

Struck by all these allegories, Herodotus tried to reconcile them with his previous ideas. But soon enlightened about the uselessness of the attempt, he declared (while imploring the indulgence of the gods of his homeland) that it was in Egypt and not in Greece that one must seek the etymology of the name of Hercules, and the meaning of the traditions connected with him.70

In fact, the Greek Hercules is only a hero. It is not the signs of the zodiac that he traverses, but monsters from which he delivers the world. Civilized and given to agriculture, Egypt saw in him fecundity. Uncultivated and savage, Greece saw only physical force. Each of his exploits is susceptible to a secret meaning, but it was the literal sense that was adopted. And if the epithets that the poets gave him recall the hidden meanings, the external sense soon enough replaces them in the popular interpretation.71 What did it matter to the Greeks that the victory over Antaeus of this son of Jupiter was, as a very ingenious French savant explained,72 the triumph of art and work over the burning sands of Libya? What did it matter that Hercules, disposing of his enemy by removing him from the earth that gave Edition: current; Page: [356] him his strength, is really the Nile divided into a thousand canals, thus preventing the arid sand from returning into desert? For them, Antaeus was only a giant and Hercules, his conqueror. Neither the idea they conceived of him nor the homage they bestowed upon him contrasted with the rest of popular mythology. Only, at the end of his glorious career the Greek Hercules reprised in certain respects traits of the Egyptian Hercules. The latter, after having obtained from Jupiter Ammon the privilege of looking upon him, was plunged into an ineffable, all-absorbing contemplation that incorporated him into the infinite being.73 Here one recognizes the doctrine of the priests—found in the majority of their philosophical systems—of the reunion of partial beings with divinity. Consumed by a fatal tunic, the Greek Hercules desired to return to the earth all that he had received from an earthly mother. He placed himself upon the fire, the flames consumed him, and the divine breath that animated him was lost in the soul of the universe.74 Thus Greece offered him a double cult. On one hand, he was adored as a hero, on the other, he was worshipped as a god.75 From this resulted a singular construction in Homeric mythology, unique in its kind. The deified Hercules enjoyed an unalloyed happiness in Olympus while the shadow of Hercules moaned in the netherworld.76

We will be even more concise concerning Bacchus. The worship of this god is certainly of Indian origin. But to arrive at Greece it had to cross other lands: upper Asia, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Thrace, and in this crossing its tales had to change and become embellished. It is impossible to deny his identity with Osiris.77 It is equally impossible not to recognize in him the Shiva of India and the Lingam, his symbol.78 The way in which his cult arrived among the Greeks, probably by Edition: current; Page: [357] several successive migrations across very far-off countries, will always be an insoluble enigma, at least with respect to the dates of these migrations and the particular events that accompanied them.79 The fables of which he is the hero,80 the rites these tales animate—rites that are sometimes of a profound sadness, sometimes of a delirious gaiety, alternatively bloody and licentious, lugubrious and frenetic—never became part of the Greek religion.81 Everywhere they appeared they excited horror and fear. The misfortunes and destruction of several dynasties were attached to their sudden and terrifying appearance. Agave tore to pieces her son Pentheus. Ino dove into the sea with Melicertes. Having gone mad, the daughters of Mina committed horrible murders and underwent a hideous metamorphosis. Later, a similar madness seems to have seized the virgins of Athens and provoked Edition: current; Page: [358] them to commit suicide. No matter how fictitious these accounts, they nonetheless indicate a widespread opinion that better established facts support.82 The style of the poets who entertain us with these traditions is grave and mysterious, and betrays a priestly origin. The philosopher Euripides and the mocker Ovid, who express themselves with so much levity concerning other legends, in describing the death of Pentheus seem to share the bloody pleasure, fierce irony, and fanaticism of the bacchants. One would say that the priestly genius had mastered the unbelieving poets, and that even after ten centuries the frenzy of ancient orgies dazzled their senses and troubled their reason.

At the time of Homer, these melancholic accounts were unknown or dismissed. Bacchus is spoken of only once, on the occasion of the victory he won over Lycurgus.83 And the scholiasts were astonished that the poet, having placed Bacchus among the divinities, had him take no part in the affairs that divided them. This is because the Greek genius early on refused even to modify this too heterogeneous idea. But they compensated with the companions and satellites of Bacchus.

Silenus, whom we will later see was one of the chief figures in the priestly demonology, Silenus, intermediary between the gods and mortals, son of the still virgin Earth and born without the assistance of a man,84 became a drunken, ridiculous old man who only recalled grotesque ideas.

The god Pan, who made the woods resound with the music of his flute and who followed behind Bacchus leading choruses of nymphs and satyrs, in Egypt85 Edition: current; Page: [359] was one of the eight superior gods, and even the first of the eight. He was the great Whole, the Demiurge, the Firmament. Three cities were dedicated to him: Mendes, found on one of the arms of the Nile; Hermopolis at the center of the country; and Chemnis in the Thebaid. In their secret doctrine, the priests formed an abstract and metaphysical idea of him, while the people’s fetishism represented him with horns and cloven hoofs.86 But the allegory combined apparently opposed ideas. His cleft hoofs were the emblem of prolific force,87 his horns, the rays of the sun and the moon, his visage with a shining aspect, the lit-up sky; while his furred feet were the image of the earth, the forests, and the animals who lived in them.88 Taken over by Greek mythology, Pan retained all his external attributes, but each one took on a different significance. His head and his feet, far from expressing a cosmogonic idea, made him the god of shepherds. Once representing the harmony of the spheres, his dances became the dances of the inhabitants of hamlets. His jowls, shining a florid red, witnessed to drunkenness. His flute composed of seven reeds that alluded to the seven planets became a rustic pipe. In a word, he was now a secondary god or a demi-god.89 It was not that the original ideas were not preserved, but they were preserved in a way to astound those who encountered them with their contradictions.90

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“The temple of Pan,” says Pausanias, “is in Arcadia. There it is said that this god, the most powerful of all, answers the prayers of men, and severely punishes the wicked. Next to his statue burns a sacred fire that never goes out; and at Olympus his altar rises in the interior of Jupiter’s temple.”91 This worship, this opinion of the distributive justice of Pan, his place next to Olympian Jupiter, these are things that hardly go together with the status of a field-god. Some purely Greek traditions seem marked with the same foreign souvenirs. Pan assisted the Athenians at Marathon and Salamis.92 He helped the Macedonians win a victory over the barbarians. He came to the aid of Antigonus Gonatas, who was attacked by the Gauls. Finally, it was his terrible voice that struck terror in entire armies and put them to rout. How can one reconcile such power with the idea of a subordinate, almost laughable deity, whom his own worshippers treat with a levity very close to disdain?93

We will leave Vulcan to the side, whose very name directs our thoughts to Egypt,94 and in whom we could point to the eternal, uncreated fire, the active principle of the world.95 This fire that burns in the stars, that circulates through Edition: current; Page: [361] all the parts of the universe, that organizes inert matter in a thousand different forms,96 becomes a god whose halting gait and conjugal calamities give rise to inextinguishable laughter on Olympus. We will end with a last example, that of the Cabiri.

In the language of priests, the Cabiri designate the two great opposing forces.97 They are the earth and the sky, wet and dry, body and soul, inert matter and vivifying intelligence. Their original figure was unshapely and ugly. They were monstrous dwarf gods.98 They were brought to Samothrace in this form. There, they were called the grand gods, strong and powerful. They were sometimes hermaphroditic and sometimes each of a different sex.99 Their cult consisted in orgies rather similar to those of the Phrygian Cybele. Loud music stirred their worshippers to wild dances. Greek mythology in turn took them over, and the poets examined what features could be used in the necessary transformation. The statues of the Cabiri had been placed in the port of Samothrace. They presided over the winds. They were made gods favorable to sailors and terrible to pirates.100 They appeared at the peak of masts in the form of shining flames, announcing the end of storms.101 They expressed the opposition between light and darkness. One of the gods had to be hidden under the earth while the other shone in the sky. They had emerged from the cosmogonic egg:102 the two new divinities emerged from an egg, fruit of the lovemaking of Jupiter and Leda. In order to further nationalize them, they became the protective heroes of Sparta and watched over the Olympic Edition: current; Page: [362] games.103 They were identified, via Helen, with the family of the Atrides. Warrior adventures104 were attributed to them, to provide a motive for their apotheosis.105 The gods gave them winged chargers.106 They were named Castor and Pollux, and the hideous Cabiri became the handsome Tyndaridae.107

The application we just made of this principle to a small number of Greek divinities would yield comparable results if we extended it to all the Greek gods. Juno, who in the Orphic teaching was the air or atmosphere and was the moon among the Phoenicians, retained among the Greeks only very contradictory remnants of her priestly characteristics. In this way, she is both the wife and the sister of Jupiter. And people allude to her original personification of the atmosphere when they recall that, once upon a time, she was suspended among the clouds.108 In the hymns that contained the foreign teachings entering Greece via the mysteries, Juno was incensed that her spouse had caused Minerva to spring from his head. She addressed the Earth, the Heaven, and the Titans, in order to produce by herself Edition: current; Page: [363] Typhoeus, who had a hundred arms and one hundred heads. The Earth responded with a groan that announced the fulfillment of her prayer, and soon the birth of the monster caused terror among both the gods and men.109 Nothing is less Greek than this fiction. Therefore we find no trace of it in Homer. Juno is a jealous and vindictive divinity with human interests, passions, and desires, but supernatural force. But nothing is allegorical in these desires, or cosmogonic in her forces.

The Mars of Thrace, to whom the poets frequently allude,110 and the Mars of Phoenicia, who served as the chief text for Dupuis111 and his astronomical hypothesis, and for the German Canne,112 whose etymological subtleties were no less ingenious and just as admissible, are probably the archetypes of the Homeric Ares.113 But as indomitable and fierce as the latter might be, he equals neither in excess nor irrationality the priestly version. His forms are more noble, his worship more humane: the human sacrifices offered at Sparta when he first arrived have fallen into disuse.114 And if we draw from authorities subsequent to Homer, we would see that the impetuous and cruel Mars, formerly avid for human blood and carnage, was called the avenger of the innocent, the guide of the just, and the protector of mortals.115

In the cult of Adonis, composed not only of the traditions of various countries but referring to different divinities116 imported into Greece at different times from Edition: current; Page: [364] Syria, Phoenicia,117 Egypt, Cyprus, and later Alexandria; in the cult of Adonis, as we were saying, which involves a mixture of science, lamentations, and obscenities (the mystical images of death and resurrection),118 the Greeks at first saw only the poetic side, the unhappy loves of Venus and a handsome adolescent. And when they later admitted some of his foreign rites, they separated the Greek Venus from the Syrian Venus, and the feasts of Adonis were exclusively attached to the latter.119

The entire history of Pasiphae is borrowed from an astronomical cult;120 but only the sordid passion of Pasiphae for a bull remains in the Greek fable. The daughter of Inachus is Isis; she gives birth to Epaphus, who engendered the celestial Bull, like Apis born of a heifer impregnated by a moonbeam. But in Greece she retains from her Egyptian origins only the horns on her head, which embellish rather than disfigure her.

The wild, indecent races of Isis or Cybele for their spouses or their mutilated lovers,121 in Greece becomes the touching story of a mother who seeks a beloved daughter throughout the entire universe.

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Jupiter122 owed to Egypt several of the objects of his love;123 to Libya his shield, one of his mistresses,124 and his brother Neptune; to Phoenicia his father, his grandfather, Ceres his wife, and his daughter Proserpina; to Thrace his son Mars; to the ancient indigenous cult of the Pelasgians Juno, his wife and sister; to Phrygia his cup-bearer Ganymede; to Scythia his rival Prometheus; finally to India the divine bird, bearer of his thunder; his eagle is clearly a Greek imitation, and thus embellished and stripped of strange additions, but nonetheless a recognizable imitation of Garudha, the king of the birds in India, with a piercing gaze, rapid flight, golden plumage, a wonderful combination of human, eagle, and sparrow hawk, and the mount of Vishnu.125 Nonetheless, despite this priestly mosaic (if the expression is allowed) the Jupiter of Homer is exactly what the master of the gods ought to be at this period of polytheism.126

If Greece in this way incorporated so many foreign ideas into its beliefs, which it subordinated to its genius; even more so it ought to have received from elsewhere many practices and rites. Rites in fact are introduced more easily than opinions can be shared. From this came many customs in Greece that the Greeks themselves could not explain. For example: the invectives that women hurled at one Edition: current; Page: [366] another during the feasts of Damia and Anxesia, which were in imitation of Egyptian women during the feasts of Bubastis. From the same source came the duties of continence or even virginity imposed upon certain priestesses.127 But more compassionate than priestly polytheism, Greek religion ordinarily was more indulgent to the infirmities of nature or sought to anticipate them. Among these priestesses, some exercised their functions only until the time when they became nubile; others made such rigorous vows only when age rendered them incapable of violating them.128 Finally, from this cause came the theoxenia found in several cities in Greece—in Athens, Delphi,129 and Achaia130—which were solemn commemorations of the admission of foreign gods. But even while engaging in these rites, the Greek people did not inform themselves about their meaning. They were content with the accumulation of striking ceremonies, of dances and pomp, which they enlivened with their own spirit and gaiety. Their previous views remained intact. The practices borrowed from abroad were for them spectacles in which they were both actors and spectators, occasions for celebration and means of coming together.

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CHAPTER 6: The True Elements of Greek Polytheism

If our readers were to bring together what they just read, they would recognize the truth we have attempted to establish. In its spirit, or its tendency, Greek religion has nothing that likens it to the tendency or spirit of religions subject to priests.

Its initial element was fetishism; but the colonies that brought civilization combined the fetishes and changed them into national gods.1

To this first modification of fetishism was added a circumstance that completed the transition of this belief to polytheism: the apotheoses of several leaders of the foreign colonies.2

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Nothing is more natural than these apotheoses. Men who arrived among the savages with some knowledge of indispensable arts, and who not being the strongest could only be the benefactors of those they instructed, had to appear to be gods. The unfortunate inhabitants of America display the same tendency to divinize the Spanish whom they see sailing their ships or mounted on their horses; Edition: current; Page: [369] and these pitiless conquerors do not disabuse them of their errors, except by the combined force of their cruelties and crimes.

By these apotheoses, a certain number of divinities took on human form. Gradually, all the others followed this example. Rocks, stones, trees, and mountains ceased to be worshipped under their natural form, and events were assumed to explain their metamorphosis.3

In their former countries, the colonists had seen priests deify the great phenomena of nature. The memory of these deifications mixed with the apotheoses. From this resulted gods whose character was dual, whose attributes were mixed. But the part of the character and these attributes that was due to the priests disappeared by degrees, and the time of this disappearance can be determined. It was the substitution of the cult of Jupiter for that of Saturn. Jupiter is the center of the popular mythology.4 Everything prior to his reign is somber, mysterious, incoherent. The vague conceptions of the savages struggled with the strange traditions of foreigners. Everything that follows the advent of Jupiter is elegant, regular, applicable to the needs of a people advancing toward civilization. New gods succeeded old ones. These new gods have a more individual existence that more conforms to that of men. Jupiter and Neptune replaced Uranus and Ocean. In Venus, a seductive deity, passionate like mortals, the generative force was personified, which formerly was scattered among Night, Discord, and the Sea, obscure figures without any direct action on human life.5

The same colonies had brought ceremonies and rites whose meaning they had forgotten. Vestiges of these rites were preserved, but without any explanation of their motives.6 The imagination of the Greeks invented them. Become enigmatic, Edition: current; Page: [370] priestly practices gave way to fables. Sometimes when the practice fell into disuse, the fable survived it, but without being able to recall the original practice.7

Once entered onto this path, the Greeks never stopped. Everywhere one sees a variety of ingenious traditions flower. Some owed their birth to the meaning of a proper name; others to a distant resemblance between two objects that otherwise have no relation; some to an oddity of nature, or to an effect of chance. The river that flows by Mantinea is called Ophis; this is because a serpent served as guide to the inhabitants of this city who were seeking a homeland.8 The myrtle of Trezene has pierced leaves; this is because Phaedrus, consumed by a deadly love, pierced them with a golden pin when he was in despair.9 The rock by Mount Sipylus resembles from afar a woman bent toward the earth; this is Niobe bent under the weight of her sadness.10 An olive tree makes itself noted in the Argolida by its crooked form: Hercules shaped it that way in order to fix the limits of the country of the Asineans.11 Sometimes the traditions express the patriotic desire to nationalize discoveries claimed by foreigners. Thus, it is no longer the Egyptian Cecrops but the Athenian Triptolemus who was the inventor of the plow.12

Each of these traditions served to make the Greek religion more indigenous. They established new bonds between the gods and those who worshipped them, between the soil and those who lived on it. At the death of a hero, the trees, rivers, heaven, and the earth mourned, like his compatriots.

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These scattered traditions were concentrated and, as it were, circumscribed in a span of time determined by a fictional chronology.13 This length is manifestly too contracted to contain the many confused events found in it. Recalled only by rare and obscure memories, the infancy of nations becomes rather dense and appears much shorter than it was in reality.

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CHAPTER 7: The Results

These are the several heterogeneous elements of Greek polytheism. It is a mixture of some remnants of a crude cult with memories of the past, as well as those of far-off countries, together with tales of travelers. It is the history of the migrations and establishment of each people, the settling into each country, the foundation of cities, the exploits of leaders, and the rivalries and misfortunes of their dynasties. It is the story of science disguised as fables, precepts put into action, metaphysical subtleties personified and unrecognizable. In a living religion, these things are commingled. Imagination and belief do not distinguish among them as do reason and reflection. Classification is a kind of anatomy that is exercised only on corpses.

From all these heterogeneous elements, however, a uniform whole results, animated by the same spirit.

If, as we agree was the case, the Greek religion was more than any other enriched by foreign borrowings, these never altered its constitutive genius. The customs and opinions that the Greeks received at different times from different nations entered only partially, separately, some in one place, others in another, but without reconstituting the whole they had formed when in the hands of priests, and without ever dominating the mass of Greek opinions.1 The changes the latter underwent were always the effect of the progress of enlightenment and the natural development of Edition: current; Page: [373] thought. Privileged by nature and by chance, by their own interior force this people subjected to their national spirit the multiform materials from which they composed their religion. The superb climate, the almost unique good fortune they had of being civilized by foreigners without being subjected by them—a combination of circumstances that was never reproduced in history—allowed them to never depart from the natural development of religious ideas. At each period, the religion had the character that the epoch had to imprint. The traditions, ceremonies, truths, and errors come from abroad always bent to this character. The Greeks never accepted these discordant materials, except on the condition that they could fashion them at their pleasure.2 Drawing from the fetishism of their ancestors some of the fundamental traits of their gods, they ennobled their inclinations and beautified their forms. They accepted from the East only names and rites. While sacralizing the memories of their ancient (and confused) history, they painted these vestiges of barbarous times with more brilliant, and softer, colors. Placing some of the men who had civilized them on Olympus, they so clothed them with celestial attributes that their earthly origin was covered with a veil.

Later we will notice more than once that when the Greeks adopted fables from other peoples, portions of which did not fit with the ensemble of their ideas, they Edition: current; Page: [374] rejected these parts. And if much later the progress of thought made them more fitting, they would reprise what they had rejected.3 So much did the national spirit exercise a despotic sovereignty over all these opinions!

A fortunate and salutary sovereignty, without which the human race—become stationary and petrified—would everywhere today be the same as it was in Egypt!

Instead of developing and purifying itself, the religious sentiment struggling under unnatural fetters would have become disordered because of the lack of progress, delirious because of the lack of liberty. This truth will be manifest in all its evidence when we follow the development of Greek polytheism step by step, embellishing the forms of its gods, improving their character, introducing morality into religion, and separating from belief everything that no longer accorded with the new notions concerning humanity and justice.

Priestly polytheism, in contrast, preserved all the deformities and vices of these idols. Wounded by this oppressive disproportion between them and itself, the religious sentiment experienced only terror where it needed to place confidence. It resembled the legendary giant who was immortal but captive, who because of the crushing weight of an enormous burden moved only by convulsions. Sometimes he cast himself into bitter sadness,4 sometimes he gave himself over to irrational Edition: current; Page: [375] joys.5 The latter, however, were a kind of inebriation, even more troubling than the melancholy he tried to escape. One would say that among priestly nations, tired of being prey to constant sadness, man foreswears reason in order to escape the suffering that haunts him. But the result of these efforts is not a happy or even calm condition. The shouts of a disordered and artificial exhilaration degenerated into lamentations; frenetic dances were marked by mutilations, battles,6 and dark commemorations; and debauchery itself was mixed with deep sadness. It was at the somber ceremony of Adonis at Byblos that Syrian women offered the sacrifice of their chastity.7 Peoples subjected to priests passed from abasement to license, and from orgies to despair. By a singular effect of the symbolizing spirit, sensual ideas combined with lugubrious ones.8 The gods who presided over death were honored by obscene rituals; those who presided over life by cruel ones. The phallus was planted on sepulchers,9 and the same phallus was drenched in blood.

Today, it is only with great difficulty that one can conceive the full extent of the evil done to man by the priesthood of Antiquity. At this period, religious notions felt the effects of the unreflective and petulant impulses of the human race in its infancy. In contrast, the excess of civilization of our days condemns the generations to premature fatigue. The past centuries weigh heavily on us; experience takes hold of us from the cradle, and our youth already bears the imprint of the caducity of time. But at least as a kind of recompense, we possess science and enlightenment. Among nascent peoples, man was intoxicated by the fullness of his forces and the pleasures of his new life. All of nature seemed to speak to him, while it is silent to us. Religion had its childish joys, which it has long since lost. It had not put on the robe of the adult. But the priests, merciless preceptors of the nations they controlled, Edition: current; Page: [376] deprived them of these joys without giving them enlightenment in return. They wanted them to be at once as docile as children and as sad as men.

Greek polytheism was the only one that in its public part—we are not speaking here about the mysteries—protected itself from the dual extremes of sadness and license.10 In the majority of Greek cities, nocturnal rites were forbidden.11 The Olympic games, both the Pythian and the Isthmian, occupied in the Greek national worship the place that the festivals of Sais, Hierapolis, Memphis, or Bubastis played in Egypt. In Egypt, one’s gaze was offended by revolting objects, one’s ears struck with discordant clamors; and in order to worship the gods, man seemed to descend from the level where nature originally placed him. While in Greece, elegant games, harmonious choruses, and a noble contest of talents, as well as the beautiful alliance of all the arts, raised him above the earth, as it were, and encouraged both the beauty of forms and the sublimity of thought.

It is therefore fortunate—a thousand times fortunate—for the human race that the Greeks12 followed the path that nature laid out for them. They alone preserved that liberty of thought that allows the soul its most sublime flights, the spirit its noblest developments. The victory they won over the priestly corporations who oppressed the rest of the earth was the signal and sign of the high destiny reserved to man by the beneficent being who created him. We owe to the Greeks the life of the mind and moral strength. They have passed on these precious goods to us as our heritage.13 We must carefully guard this inestimable Edition: current; Page: [377] deposit. Ancient Greece knew how to acquire it, may modern Europe know how to defend it.

But we must not flatter ourselves that because of the brilliant period of civilization in which we find ourselves, we have no dangers to fear. It is less impossible than one might think to return generations dominated by egoism and weakened Edition: current; Page: [378] by luxury to the situation of those ancient peoples that an all-powerful priestly order kept in subjugation and immaturity. If one constantly attacks instructing the laboring classes; if one forbids the most efficient modes of communicating even elementary education to them; if one goes so far as to forbid them the use of the alphabet;14 if one lavishes terribly misguided admiration upon the priests of former times, whose teachings, rites, and doctrines reason disdains, thus making sincere piety an object of repugnance, the danger becomes great.

We will not go as far in our alarums as the dean of German scholars, who accuses the ingenious commentators on the philosophies and symbolic cults of Antiquity of presaging by means of their learned systems the return of theocracy, subjection to thrones, and the corruption of nations.15 His fears, however, do not seem to us to be entirely fanciful. A great question is thereby clearly posed, and upon its Edition: current; Page: [379] answer depends our future. How did man emerge from the mire in which he lived with the animals?16 Did he raise himself to the awareness of his celestial origin by the power of his soul and his intellect, divine gifts of his creator, or does he owe his new being to the partial and parsimonious17 instructions of those corporations Edition: current; Page: [380] that earlier swaddled him in crude fictions, enervated him with subtleties, and frightened him with wild ceremonies or brutalized him with shameful rites?

That the imitators of the magi or the heirs of the Druids would adopt the latter view, nothing is simpler. The independence enjoyed by the Greeks is a scandal for them. The few facts that can please them, the death of Socrates or the exile of Anaxagoras, cannot satisfy them. They demand the entirety, the whole, which charms them by its vast silence, its enormous weight, and its solemn immobility.18

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But in a truly strange incoherence, the philosophy of the eighteenth century, because of its irreligious passion, lent its assistance to these enemies of all enlightenment. It declared itself the admirer of the enslaved peoples who bordered the Indus and the Nile. Their worship differed from Christianity: this was enough to obtain the favor of the unbelievers. Basing their superficial learning and biting harangues on dubious witnesses and apocryphal writings, these philosophers wanted to humiliate Christian priests by the praise they lavished upon Brahmans, and to denigrate the Gospel—which they poorly understood—by exalting the Vedas, which they knew not at all. And in a patent non sequitur, in order to mock the Christian Messiah, born of a virgin, dying on a cross, and redeemer of man, they Edition: current; Page: [382] extolled the disciples of Krishna, himself the son of a virgin, killed too by the wood of arrows, for the salvation of the human race.19

A general prejudice resulted from this absurd alliance between two opposed fanaticisms, one that continues to influence even the better minds.20 This prejudice is not without danger, and it would be wrong to view it as merely a historical error. The theocracies of the Middle Ages justified themselves by means of the example of ancient theocracies. Today, some propose the sanctuaries of Eleusis and Memphis as models, and the philosophical panegyrists of ancient Egypt wonderfully serve the aims of those who would like to impose an Egyptian yoke on modern Europe.

Against this yoke, civilization is insufficient. Civilization enfeebles souls; it disposes them to support everything, because it offers them easy resources to withdraw from everything. By teaching the slave to mock his master, it renders obedience less humiliating for his vanity. Servitude believes it is less vile when it can console itself with irony.21

Child of civilization, industry is no less ineffective. It hardly worries about oppression, because for a while it can escape from it. It confines itself to a sphere Edition: current; Page: [383] where it believes freedom of thought is superfluous; and when its eyes are opened, the light comes too late.

The sciences obtain protection for their material aspects, which they pay for with adroit concessions. Admitted into the inner circle, they become complicit with the monopoly they share.

Left to itself, philosophy is without force. It leads to doubt, and doubt saps the energy of the soul.

The religious sentiment alone can save us. By enhancing the price of life, by surrounding it with an air of immortality, it ensures that this life itself can be an object of sacrifice. It is even more precious, though, because it is our means of improvement. Nor is this all. Because of it, our thoughts are no longer circumscribed in a narrow sphere. And persecution, injustice, and death are but the steps that lead to the source of all good.

We have already said this: the current crisis is the same that threatened human nature at the time of the establishment of Christianity. But one circumstance today is more favorable. At that time, no rallying point offered itself to the dispirited human being. Everything was vague, confused, and uncertain; he sought some form—and every form fled from him like a cloud.

Today we are in possession of Christianity. And of all the forms the religious sentiment can assume, Christianity is at once the most satisfying and the purest. As it was taught by its divine author, it soothes all the pains of the soul. It respects all the liberties of the intellect while also delivering it from doubt. And with its subtle and varied sympathy, it offers to all—from the palace to the cottage—the consolations they need.

Unalterable yet flexible, it engraves essential truths on hearts, it receives the tributes of the centuries, as well as the improvements they bring. Religious people should not be offended that we speak of the improvements of Christianity. In its moral doctrine, in its precepts, in everything that comes from its author, it is not perfectible because it is perfect. But in its forms, and above all in the partial opinions its followers have adopted, it has room for improvement.

Experience shows this. The most ardent defenders of Catholicism, those whose express mission would seem to be to maintain its doctrines in all their rigor, involuntarily witness to this. They themselves reject those harsh and fanatical maxims against which our more enlightened reason and our gentler mores have long since rebelled.

Do we not read in a recently published book by the head of a university in Edition: current; Page: [384] France, an author who thus, as it were, legally represents the religion of State, did we not read a vigorous refutation of a doctrine that almost the entirety of Catholics believed, and still believes, is imposed by the Roman Church?22 To be sure, men versed in the history of dogma know that Catholicism, no matter how severe certain of its ministers have made it out to be, never formally pronounced the condemnation of unbelievers who were so because of the chance of birth, or because of invincible ignorance or other circumstances beyond their will. In a spirit of justice, as well as a desire for fraternal tolerance, we are quite pleased to acknowledge the following: the Catholic religion does not question Providence, it does not level terrible anathemas at those who can only be characterized as subject to an involuntary misfortune. The famous maxim, outside of the Church there is no salvation, has been wrongly interpreted; and the Sorbonne itself has restricted the meaning of the axiom, even in writings that continued to display its easily provoked spirit and its hatred of independent thought.23

It cannot be denied, however, that an interpretation that both reason and religion reprove has been constantly proclaimed as an article of faith; that it motivated bloody proscriptions and great cruelties; that the Spaniards invoked it when massacring the unfortunate inhabitants of America; that the Sorbonne—to which we just rendered due justice—adopted this interpretation without noting or calling Edition: current; Page: [385] attention to the actions contrary to it that its own zeal had prompted;24 that fanatical preachers, whether from the pulpit or in works directed against other Christian communions, consign to eternal damnation the child who professes the worship imposed on him by birth, as well as the savage of the New World who is ignorant of the name of Christ.

This is therefore an immense step, an uncontestable improvement, in the practical doctrine of a Church proud of its immutability, when it disavows the maxim that, as we said, was never embraced in theory, but which she permitted or accredited for the longest time.

Thus Christianity is perfected, in the sense that it removes the additions that disfigured it less than a century ago. And even in the midst of the retrograde movement that some want to impart to the human race, men of all opinions are following—whether freely or out of compulsion, by craft or conviction—the new path that time guides them on. Time is always active, always irresistible.

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CHAPTER 1: On the Combination of the Worship of Elements and the Stars with That of Fetishes

To a certain extent we have prepared our future path. We have indicated the first cause of priestly power, described its extent, and pointed out the path that priests have an interest in pursuing from the very origin of societies; we have shown the different direction, imprinted by nature on the free human spirit, taken among nations independent of priesthoods.

We therefore can proceed without fear of well-founded objections to the examination of free and progressive cults, as well as those that are imposed and immobile, determine their respective forms, and seek what the action of the religious sentiment is under one and the other of these forms, an action that is less perceptible the more dogmatic the collective authority is, and the more individuality is constricted. This sort of action therefore is harder to discern in priestly polytheism than in independent polytheism.

We will first of all treat priestly polytheism, then compare it with the latter. Before that, however, we need to tell the reader that even though we will show the path taken by the priesthood, we do not at all claim that in acting in this way it conceived such a determinate plan from the beginning.

The circumstances that we have described had to create its power.1 According to the demands of the moment, these circumstances suggested its employment. By the fact that such a power existed, it imposed on its possessors the necessity of maintaining it; they were gripped by the need to extend it. Every class whose authority depends upon an intellectual superiority that it cannot preserve except by a monopoly is in a dangerous position. Every progress that happens outside it is a threat to it. And this danger, the same even in variety, imparts a uniform response Edition: current; Page: [390] to the class. It then seems to have conceived a plan, while it only follows the direction daily dictated by the threat of the day. This plan, however, which could not have been conceived at the beginning, soon results from the very prosecution of it. Experience enlightens; the priesthood sees that immobility, ignorance, and the degradation of everything not belonging to it are the very conditions of its existence. It encloses itself in an impenetrable enclosure, where it keeps everything of knowledge and science that it has harvested; it then declares a war to the death upon all science and all knowledge that show themselves without.

We therefore do not attribute to the priests of semi-savage times the gigantic project of governing the world. We only say that once formed by necessity into priestly bodies in different countries, given the position in which they found themselves, like all corporations they obeyed their interest. This interest led them to acquire and defend an empire that their successors over the centuries rendered even more unlimited.

We do not write out of hatred for the priesthood. We would have wished not to have to speak against any class of men, if only to avoid an appearance of partiality in investigations that, as we said, were intended to remain entirely apart from the debates and agitations of the moment. Is it our fault, however, if in the most remote ages we encountered an enemy we were not seeking? Is it our fault if this enemy, so little to be feared on the banks of the Orinoco or the steppes of Tartary, shows itself much more terrible on the banks of the Nile or the Ganges? Finally, is it our fault if we write at a later time when many memories have been effaced and many resentments have subsided, at a time when, as we love to acknowledge, an even milder and purer divine form has most fortunately distinguished the modern priesthood from the priestly despots of ancient times, tyrants at once of kings and peoples, that an imprudent audacity, confusing such different things, would awaken all the memories and take pleasure in reviving all the resentments?

Our work was written well before today’s circumstances. If it appears in a few of its parts to be a book of circumstance, we are not to blame.

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CHAPTER 2: On the Popular Part of Priestly Polytheism

In the climates that force men to observe the heavenly bodies, the first form of worship is astrolatry. In the countries where star worship is not natural, but where natural phenomena favor the power of priests, the first cult is the worship of the elements. However, the stars that follow their eternal course in the heavens above, and the elements, abstract divinities, so to speak, because their underlying unity escapes our senses, are not entities susceptible to being employed by the still-childish human being; he therefore cannot be satisfied with them.

The religious sentiment could be content. The more its gods are vague, mysterious, and above him, the more they please him.

It is otherwise with interest. Interest demands that its gods descend to earth to protect the human race at a more immediate level. Thus, while the privileged sacerdotal corporations put elements and stars at the top rung of the divine hierarchy, the multitude, finding itself outside these bodies, seeks or retains gods commensurate with its intelligence. Now, since it is kept away from all science and all study, its intelligence is barely more developed than that of the primitive. The gods of the multitude and those of the primitive are therefore pretty much of the same nature.

Among almost all the peoples subject to priestly polytheism, the worship of animals, of stones and trees, and of crudely fashioned little simulacra, and among tribes of a more martial bent, the worship of spears and swords, come to fill the immense distance separating the inhabitants of heaven from those of earth.

The Germans, whose priests offered worship to invisible or heavenly divinities, the air, water, night, sun, the vault of heaven, also worshipped animals1 and trees Edition: current; Page: [392] as fetishes. They washed the trees in blood;2 they cast victims into rivers.3 In other words, this was a combination of the two worships. The superstition still found today that each river in Germany is attended by a seductive, deceiving nymph, called by the people Nix, and who is charged with the death of those who perish in their waves, is probably a memory of this.

The astronomic religion of the Etruscans excluded neither the worship of betyles—that is, animated stones4—nor homage rendered to the prophetic woodpecker,5 to the warrior’s spear,6 or to oaks covered with moss in the forests of ancient Latium.7

It is with the gods of this second sort that communication is the most frequent and direct. All the Egyptian festivals, those of Heliopolis excepted, were devoted to animal-gods,8 and it was in their name that oracles were given.9

Individuals divided these secondary deities. Each man or each tribe chose a special protector from among them. This is what happened in Egypt with the animals. This is what still occurs in India with consecrated stones.

But priests have a great interest that man cannot approach his gods without an intermediary and conclude his business directly. As a consequence, the priesthood takes over the fetishes and brings them into a single body. Each is no longer, as among the blacks or the Iroquois, the personal ally of the worshipper who chose it. Grouped under a common banner, they form a regular army, as it were, subject to Edition: current; Page: [393] the laws of a mysterious discipline. In the assistance they give to those who ask for it, they are directed not simply by the consideration of the meats offered to them or the honors given, but by a will that comes from even higher and that substitutes calculation for instinct and despotism for anarchy. Each species of fetish is brought together under a head, the archetype of the entire species.

We have found10 the germ of this idea in the worship of savages. The priests took hold of it and developed it.11 Apis, Anubis, and Bubastis were gods of this sort.12

The priesthood thus diverts toward a single individual deity the worship that previously extended to all his peers, while orienting the latter to their natural objectives: work, death, and everything for which men wish to employ them. It thus reconciles the exigencies of superstition with the needs of society. In addition, it gives a more solemn character to the consecrated object. Each individual no longer has an idol that belongs solely to him, but a generic divinity. To please this divinity, he has to have recourse to its ministers.13

In principle, this is the make-up of priestly polytheism. At the beginning, it differs from crude fetishism only by, first, the introduction of celestial or invisible divinities that have little relationship with their worshippers, and, second, the putting in common of once-separated idols who continue to be the gods of the people. Edition: current; Page: [394] It later distances itself even further as these idols are likened to human form. This happens independently of the will of priests, or even in defiance of it. Finally, it is distinguished from the primitive savage cult by the symbolic meanings that establish certain relations between the fetishes and the gods of a higher nature. As we will explain, these relations unite, but without identifying, the science of the priests and the belief of the people.

None of these things, however, addresses the religious sentiment in order to be purified or ennobled by it. Considered from the moral point of view, religion has made no progress. A small number of men have monopolized its influence; they have robbed from the majority of their fellows what until then had been their property. As for the rest, no improvement occurs; the form is different, but without being better. It even has this further vice, that it opposes an obstacle to any improvement that did not exist in the former order of things.

But the intellect has laws it is constrained to follow, despite its calculations and even despite its interests. These laws govern the priesthood, it resists them in vain; they force it to open another path besides the public religion; they oblige it to create a secret doctrine wholly different from the fables believed and the doctrines imposed. Priestly polytheism then becomes a much more complicated system; we will talk about it in the following chapter.

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CHAPTER 3: On the Secret Doctrine of the Priestly Bodies of Antiquity

In order to form a clear idea of the secret doctrine of the priestly corporations of Antiquity, we first of all have to note that this doctrine divided into two very different branches. The first was composed of the results suggested to priests by the observation of stars and planets and the phenomena of nature. It constituted a science rather than a religion.1 This science upon which the power of the sacred caste rested had to be preserved for it, and made inaccessible to the rest of the people. Hence, the oral traditions that never left the sanctuary; hence, the mysterious books that remained eternally closed to the multitude.2 In them were placed the astronomical calculations, the physical discoveries, the remedies indicated by the barely begun study of disease, and the effects of medicinal plants on the human body; in addition, the means of reading the future with the aid of the stars or Edition: current; Page: [396] natural phenomena. In a word, everything that two thousand years later Varro will designate under the name of natural theology or sacred physics.

But the very existence of books or traditions of this sort was an invitation to the priests to add to them whatever suited them, a possibility of which they made ample use. Accounts that attributed to them the invention of all the arts, the establishment of laws, the founding of cities, and, finally, the transition from the savage state to civilization;3 the marvelous modes of communication that had established such intimate relations between heaven and its favorites; rites destined to eternalize the memory of these revelations; institutions dictated by the gods, the division into castes, and all the privileges of the priestly order were enshrined by these traditions or saved in these books.

History itself entered, although under a legendary guise. Expeditions undertaken by the order of priests or directed against them; the prosperity of the kings they had served; the misfortunes, crimes, and fall of the tyrants who had resisted them; natural calamities, the chastisement of peoples, political upheavals, the punishment of kings: all were combined in a fictional chronology and presented with a gilded mythology. These accounts, these annals, and these ceremonies had only a superficial connection with the priests’ secret doctrine. The priests, moreover, had an interest in letting them escape in bits and pieces from the darkness that covered them. The crowd was thus struck by an even greater respect for its teachers and guides.

The second part of their secret doctrine is of a more elevated nature, and consequently truly mysterious. The study of celestial bodies and natural phenomena starts by observing certain facts. These facts have causes. It is in the intellect’s nature to seek them. To be sure, at the period we are describing the intellect was confined within a narrow circle; and it was the monopoly of a very small number of men who worked assiduously, often with success, at stifling its impulses. But these dark monopolists, these merciless privileged priests, were after all men themselves, and nature had to make itself felt across the fetters they imposed on the disinherited class, and which they attempted to impose on themselves.4

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The priests therefore asked themselves what were the beings that presided at the creation or ordering of the world, why did these beings have the will to do so, how were they invested with creative power? Of what substance were they? To what did they owe their lives? Are they one or many? Dependent or independent of each other? Self-movers or compelled by necessary laws?

These questions inevitably present themselves to the mind; and in whatever situation in which it finds itself, in whatever circle it encloses itself, the mind wants to answer them. Its nature constrains it to want to do so.

Here the priests entered into an entirely new career. Without abandoning the sacerdotal character, they took on that of metaphysicians and philosophers. And if they maintained the public religion unchanging and stationary, they also gave themselves over without scruple to the boldest and most abstract speculations.

Independently of mythical accounts and prescribed rites, the Indian books contain numerous, quite different, metaphysical systems. The magi were divided into several sects; and we can discern the same diversity among the Egyptians.

What is truly remarkable is that the hypothesis that most dominated in the sacerdotal doctrines was subversive of all religious ideas. It was pantheism, an abstract theism that implied the uselessness of all worship and the unavailing character of all prayer. In the final analysis, it was atheism under different forms. In their secret doctrine, the Chaldean priests attribute the origin of the world to a necessity without intellect, a force without will. This same necessity, this same force, they say, governs the world through immutable laws. All the beings that exist—products without purposes, forms without permanence—emerge from chaos and return to it. Thought itself is only the chance result of blind elements. There is no life to come where virtue will be rewarded or crimes punished.5

This absence of religion in the secret doctrine of a caste whose power is rooted in religion can be explained by the position of this caste. When in possession of its native liberty the human mind reflects upon the infinite, upon eternity, on Edition: current; Page: [398] the relations of the invisible world with the material world; sentiment takes its place among the judges and participates in the decision. But the position occupied by the priestly corporations of Antiquity had to suffocate and destroy the religious sentiment within them. Everywhere there is calculation, cunning, and self-interested aims, that is, the project of making religion an instrument and bending it to a goal not its own; the religious sentiment first withers, then it disappears.

From their beginnings, the priestly corporations of ancient peoples saw themselves called to transform religion into a means of power. For the Brahmin, the magus, and the priest of Heliopolis, the cult was a trade, as it was for the jongleur. In this respect, it does not matter whether it was exercised with finesse or not, ignorance or learning. Fraud, deception, and lies were its constitutive elements. In excluding belief, fraud degraded the worship. The priest who invents the purported means of communication with heaven knows even more firmly that his inventions are a fraud when he has artfully arranged them to make an impression on the credulous crowd. Profiting from his knowledge of astronomy when he announces the return of an eclipse as the frightful sign of divine anger, he cannot deceive himself concerning the falsity of the cause he is affirming. While the multitude prostrates itself, he remains a stranger to what is truly religious in the emotions of the multitude. He shares neither its terrors nor its hopes, because it was he alone who stirred them by proclaiming himself the interpreter of a voice he does not hear, the minister of an intervention that does not exist. He wants to deceive, so how can he believe?

Thus, the priestly corporations had to lose the capacity for religious sentiment by the mere fact that they degraded religion by employing it for their own self-interest. The only thing that remained to guide them in the meditations the religious sentiment would have contributed to if the priesthood had not stifled it was dry, severe logic. However, every time one puts the soul and its emotions, the conscience and its interior revelations, outside the pale, disbelief, doubt, and even denial fight with at least equal arms against the hopes that our heart constantly demands.6

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Atheism opposes to these hopes striking contrary arguments. It shows the universal order—invoked by belief in its favor—being disturbed every day by exceptions whose roots are found in the universe itself; these call into question the intelligence or power or goodness of the supreme cause. They mock final causes, charging their proponents with begging the question, or arguing in vicious circles. In a way that is truly deplorable, they exult at the gradual enfeeblement of the soul, which they say is the result of the body’s organs and thus shares their decline, and dies when it does. Great is the disadvantage of the religious person who wants to fight by reasoning alone! It can only end badly if he only calls reasoning to his assistance, and not the certainty imprinted by heaven on the bottom of our soul.

The rival of atheism, pantheism presents itself with arguments no less strong, and even more seductive colors.7 At the sight of all these partial beings, similar Edition: current; Page: [400] to fantastic dreams, reentering into the indefinable whole only to reemerge, then return again, who has not been tempted to call these appearances into question, and to see in the universe only one real substance, whose brief modifications are similar to shadows cast by objects or stars reflected on the water?8

We would go even further. When the religious sentiment is not halted by the imperious need for moral hopes, it finds some attraction in the prospect of plunging into pantheism. There exists between us and all the parts of nature—animals, plants, the winds, the waves, the heavens—a mysterious and ineffable correspondence that seems to reveal to us that we are all parts of the same being, torn from its bosom by a violent separation, but in so transitory a way that it is all but illusory, and that we must return to in order to overcome the division that torments us, as well as the individuality that weighs so heavily upon us. The disposition of our soul to pantheism is such that the mysticism of all the religions, as well as the extreme abstraction found in all the philosophies, ends with this result. Compare the verses of Xenophanes, the eloquent prose of Pliny, the symbols of the Brahmins, the hymns of the Persian sufis, the allegories of the Neoplatonists, the expressions of certain Muslim sects, and those of Japan and the Chinese educated class, the intoxication of our quietists, and the new metaphysics of a German philosophy, and you will find pantheism differently put forth, sometimes in words that are remarkably similar. Yet pantheism is no less destructive of the distinction between the Creator and the creature, of all retributive justice, and all special providence in the first, and moral merit and efficacious prayer in the second; in a word, of everything that could satisfy the religious sentiment.

To be sure, in recognizing that dry and haughty logic gives these doctrines certain unfortunate advantages, we do not insinuate that the hopes of the religious sentiment are false. The reader has already seen as early as our first book that we contest the jurisdiction of reason in whatever does not relate to physical nature and to the relations established by men among themselves. For everything that is not restricted to these spheres, an élan of the soul seems to carry more conviction than the most rigorous syllogisms of logic. Still, the point we have articulated is nonetheless true. From this it follows that irreligion among the philosophers of independent peoples who follow the natural course of their thoughts has often been combated, even overcome, by the invincible resistance of the religious sentiment. On the other hand, irreligion in the bosom of the priestly corporations of Antiquity Edition: current; Page: [401] encountered nothing that resisted and moderated it. Open what remains of the sacred books of the nations bent beneath the theocratic yoke, remembering that these books were exclusively destined to priests. In them you sometimes will see a pantheism that, by identifying the world and its author, reduces all beings to seeming modifications of a single eternal substance; sometimes the denial of any intelligence presiding over the order of the universe, that is, a blind material necessity, substituted for all the conceptions the religious sentiment suggests or demands.9

This has been noted long before us by a great number of learned observers who by different routes have arrived, sometimes surprising themselves, at this unanimous, although strange, conclusion: that the secret doctrine of the ancient priesthoods was subversive not only of the particular religions in whose name they ruled, but of all religion whatsoever. We distinguish ourselves from them on only two points.

First of all, they noted a fact; we have sought and pointed out the cause.

In the second place, they have concluded from this fact that these irreligious systems exclusively made up the secret doctrine, which they considered as a coherent whole, one that was connected to a single thought around which were grouped secondary parts of a regular edifice, with ideas all of the same sort, homogeneous among themselves, exempt from contradictions, and contributing by their combination and harmony to the demonstration of the chief thought. Our view is wholly opposite. We believe that the priestly corporations of antiquity did not Edition: current; Page: [402] have a single doctrine, and we see the proof of this in the facts, and their explanation in the manner in which their secret doctrine was formed.

Born with the priesthood at the very moment when necessity imposed upon it the law of acquiring the various sorts of knowledge without which society could not subsist, this doctrine was the receptacle and depository of these various forms of knowledge. As they grew, as others came to swell the mass, or as conjectures, suppositions, and systems, true or false, were associated with them, the gradually observed facts, the successive discoveries, and the hypotheses resulting from these facts and discoveries were all placed there in layers, as it were.

Priests always add, and they never subtract. They always add because these additions were required to maintain their doctrine at the level of their own understanding; they never subtract because each retrenchment is an innovation; moreover, the unity of doctrine does not matter one whit to the corporations taken in their entirety. What do these corporations want to do? Dominate. They have the public cult as means, imposed as a yoke and maintained by inflexible laws. Their inner doctrine had relevance to the vulgar only because it inspired more admiration for the holders of the august and impenetrable secrets. From this point of view, the nature and coherence of these secrets was rather irrelevant: individuals attach themselves to different opinions; but the esprit de corps chooses arms, and views with equal indifference truths and errors. In fact, the variety of hypotheses served the priests even better in the explanations they had to give to initiates and foreigners. Partial responses tailored to the dispositions of hearers were most suitable; and the more numerous and different these systems, the more inexhaustible the arsenal of the priesthood.

Let us take the priests of Egypt as an example. They satisfied the gullible Herodotus when they showed him the similarity between their fables and those of Greece; they flattered Plato’s inclination when they showed him the most subtle metaphysical notions as their inner doctrine, while they lowered themselves to purely human interpretations with Diodorus, with the events of history reworked in symbolic form being the basis of the religion that the people revered without understanding. They thus flattered each in his preferred opinion, accordingly as he strongly held it or had the flexibility to modify it.

The most opposed hypotheses thus coexisted under the same veil and were designated by the same name. Side by side, atheistic or pantheistic systems, theism, dualism, perhaps even skepticism had their place, and each of these systems was divided into several branches. Pantheism sometimes allied itself with spiritualism, Edition: current; Page: [403] with matter then being conceived as an illusion of the pure spirit. This is how it is presented in modern India, and probably was presented in ancient Egypt. Other times it identified itself with materialism, and what was only one form became the sole substance, spirit only being a deceptive result of these merely apparent modifications of this substance. In this version, it reigns in Tibet, Ceylon, and China.10 Elsewhere, the unique substance was infinitely divisible, and countless imperceptible atoms were made the constitutive parts of the great Whole, which nonetheless remained changeless and always the same.

Theism also separated into two distinct categories. Submitting to the yoke of logic, sometimes it lost everything that was mild and consoling and no longer offered man that particular Providence whose immense love receives our prayers, accepts our repentance, absolves us of our faults, and has pity on our sufferings. God, creator of the world, had impressed upon it general unchangeable laws that no supplication, no merit, no appeal to justice or goodness could alter. From the instant that this world had received the divine impulse, all events—we would go further: all sentiments, all thoughts—were subject to a chain of necessity which nothing had been able, nothing could, break. Causes had had to produce, they would produce forever, their inevitable effects. In this way, at bottom theism was only a more vivid form of invincible fatality:11 a sad and disheartening hypothesis which repels sentiment; for it does not demand, like the self-interested fetishism of the primitive, that the being to whom one offers homage should satisfy earthly passions or lend a mercenary support to even culpable desires; nor, on the other hand, does it implore a voice that could answer it, an approval that would sustain it, a heavenly sympathy that would revive it when injustice or adversity assail it. Edition: current; Page: [404] By thwarting this hope, you cast it back upon itself disconsolate, and it is then tempted to sunder itself from a belief deprived of all warmth and life.

Other times, deviating from its original rigor, theism combines with emanationism. Beings separated from God, and always less pure as they grow farther from their source, nonetheless can return to it by successive purifications. This system, which is obviously contained in the secret doctrine of the Egyptians, soon enough emerged from the sanctuary and was introduced into the public belief. Only (and here we commend the priesthood) it was acts of liberality, obedience to priests, and the exact observance of the rites commanded by them that were the means of purification.

Dualism itself was presented in two forms: one that granted a complete parity, an equal force, and an equal duration to the principle of good and the principle of evil; and one that reduced the latter to the status of an inferior being, reserving a definitive victory for the first.

Some have maintained that skepticism was always foreign to the occult doctrines of the priesthood.12 We grant that of all the systems skepticism was the one the priests had to most carefully conceal. Affirmation always has something imposing: it announces science or it implies authority. It can present itself as a discovery, gather together those who profess it, and give them a common interest. But skepticism, which does not allow affirmation, brings its adherents together only to disperse them, like light troops who by chance fall upon whomever they encounter. Skepticism, whose tendency is to dissolve and disunite, and which calls into question every authority, its own included, is what is most repugnant to the priestly spirit. However, a writer13 who has long and carefully observed the Brahmins tells us of a school of Brahmin skeptics, and even though we cannot ascribe extensive learning or solid critical skills to him, when it is a question of a positive fact, his testimony is not without value.

In truth, it is impossible to think that among men protected by the darkness that surrounds them, and taking on from every angle those questions that are eternally insoluble, none would have been led to skepticism, which is the natural term of all these investigations, a conclusion that reason comes to consider as a shelter as Edition: current; Page: [405] soon as it ceases seeing it as a stumbling block. If one has not detected skepticism in the doctrines of the priesthood, it is because this system more than any other had to be hidden from the inferior classes marked out for belief, who must not suspect that their masters were reduced to doubt.

All these doctrines were jammed into the secret philosophy of the priests, more ready to mix and blend than to do battle with one another; two causes combined to make this sort of confusion easy.

The first was the terminology that the priests saw they were obliged to employ to express their metaphysical hypotheses. At the moment when they began to occupy themselves with the arduous questions of the origin of things, ignorance on several points was still quite profound, while the knowledge of other points was mixed with many errors. Language, above all, was very imperfect. To convey the notion of cause and effect, it only had words derived from the simplest and crudest ideas, those for example of to engender and to be born.14

These words were applied in a thousand ways. To be born does not only mean to be produced, but to be subsequent to an object, or to be inferior to it, or even simply to have borrowed some quality from it, or having received some modification from it. One said of all the properties, all the forces, all the attributes of a substance, that they were born of it, that they had been engendered by it. Applied without distinction to all the systems, this terminology established among them an apparent likeness that made their real opposition less striking and pronounced. The pantheist showed the great Whole engendering the illusion that deceives us by making us see diversity in the unity; the god of theism equally engendered the creatures who become corrupt by going away from their source; and to express the production of the world by an eternal necessity, the atheist had recourse to the image of generation, or, more fantastically, he said that the necessary being had broken up and the universe was born of its fragments.

In a moment, we will return to another effect of this priestly language. Here we limit ourselves to indicating how it brought together divergent hypotheses under similar expressions.

A second cause favored this confusion.

Even though looked at collectively the priestly corporations of Antiquity could not feel any respect for the religion molded by their hands and bent to their purposes, from time to time the religious sentiment that always returns reasserted its Edition: current; Page: [406] rights over certain members of these corporations, or over initiates honored with their confidences. Then suddenly reintroduced into the most unbelieving doctrines was an enthusiasm that denatured and disguised them. The soul struggled against logic, and the native emotions of one imposed a form that appeared to be religious upon the arid conceptions of the other.

Listen to Apuleius depicting the pantheism of Egypt, or the disciple of Krishna giving thanks to his master for the revelation with which the heavenly incarnation had just favored him. “O Nature!” cries the former, “sovereign over all the elements, daughter simultaneous with the origin of the centuries, supreme divinity, queen of manes, first of immortals, unchanging figure of gods and goddesses, who with a nod gives the heavens their luminous shafts, winds their healthful breath, to the netherworlds their terrible silence; the unique being whom the universe venerates in a thousand ways by varied rites, under different names, and whom those who are versed in the ancient doctrine call Isis, it is you whom the Egyptians know how to worship by suitable ceremonies that they have transmitted to the Greeks; it is you who surrounds the globe, inflames the sun, governs the world, treads underfoot Tartarus. The stars answer you, times obey you, gods rejoice because of you, the elements are subject to you; at thy breath the winds breathe, the clouds swell, and seeds germinate and grow. Your majesty strikes with a holy terror the birds that tremble in the air, the wild animals that cross the mountains, the serpents that slide in the grass, the monsters that the Ocean contains in its depths. You are the constant and holy protector of mortals, whom you care for with a maternal affection in their afflictions, and whom you receive in your bosom after their death, where everything returns, because everything has come from you.”15

“Great god,” cried Arjuna when Krishna appeared in his true form to him, wearing brilliant robes and magnificent garlands, with countless eyes and mouths, holding in his millions of arms swords, ready to strike, exuding celestial perfumes, and covered with all the marvelous things that shine separately in the universe; “Great god! I see in your breast all the divinities brought together, and all the classes of different beings. I see Brahma on his lotus throne, and from the saints to the celestial serpents. I see you yourself on all sides, with your infinite forms, your eyes, your mouths, your arms that no one can count; but I cannot discover either your beginning or your end, nor your middle, universal lord, eternal source of the worlds. I see you with your resplendent crown, armed with a bludgeon and a terrible sling, Edition: current; Page: [407] like a shining globe that no one can look upon. You are resplendent with an ineffable brilliance, like fire in all its force and the stars in all their glory: the sun and the moon are your eyes; your mouth is a volcano that spouts flames. The celestial hosts do not know whether they ought to flee or approach you. Some seek shelter with you; others, frightened, extend suppliant hands and sing your praises. When I contemplate you surrounded with so much light, decorated with so many colors, my courage abandons me. When I regard your menacing teeth, emblems of time, which devours all beings, I remain motionless and confounded. I see the warriors of armies and the sovereigns of the earth fall into your mouth, as into a burning furnace. Some remain suspended between your teeth, their bodies severed. But finally all of them, all these heroes of the human race, are engulfed in this abyss, like the rivers that run rapidly and lose themselves in the Ocean, or like a swarm of insects casts themselves into the flame that draws them in to consume them.”16

Some of these words are eloquent; several seem to indicate a profound sentiment of immensity, of power, of the supremacy of a God distinct from the world he governs and the generations he creates or destroys. But at bottom these are only the fine and touching irrelevancies of individuals who yield to their emotions, which perhaps deceive them into the intoxication of such sonorous expressions.

The symbolic language of the priesthood always introduces into the formulations of pantheism a contradiction that sometimes gives it the external appearance of theism. The principle of pantheism is to not distinguish the whole from its parts. But since when the whole is personified, relations are established that necessarily imply the existence of the parts, the notion of diversity that pantheism would like to avoid reenters the doctrine; and it protests in vain against the accusation of duplicity leveled against it. It is thus that in the same Bhagavad Gita cited above, Krishna says: “I am the humidity in the water, the light in the sun and moon, the entreaty in the Vedas, the sound in the air, human nature in man, perfume on the earth, and devotion in the pious soul; I am the intelligence of sages, the glory of the proud, the strength of the strong. All things are suspended from me, as precious stones on a ribbon that holds and supports them.”17

By this even Krishna, who claims to be the sole existent, differs from the partial existences, as the ribbon from the precious stones. This extorted inexactitude in the expressions, however, changes nothing in the core of the system, and disguises Edition: current; Page: [408] rather than changes it. This Nature, which Apuleius appears to make an intelligent and compassionate divinity, in the Egyptian teaching is nothing but an impassible Whole, of which partial beings are only forms produced aimlessly, and which it annihilates without pity. This universal lord of the world before whom Arjuna prostrates himself is only the universe itself; and the Bhagavad Gita from which we have drawn this enthusiastic passage contains the system of pantheism that is at once the most subtle, the most rigorous, and the most foreign (as we will see) to every heartfelt sensibility, as well as the most destructive of morality.

This is the perspective in which one should envisage the metaphysical part of the secret doctrine of the priests of antiquity. This doctrine does not limit itself to one system. The hypotheses generated by each series of meditations were received and registered in it. Since no religious sentiment had a hold over the corporation (considered as a collective body dominated exclusively by its self-interest), irreligion was not rejected, but rather was admitted as equal to any other theory, on the condition of remaining a mystery. The corporation profited, moreover, from this diversity of systems by adapting its confidences to the character of each auditor, all the while constantly attentive to preserve the external appearances of unity. Thus, those who have seen theism, dualism, pantheism, and even atheism in the priestly philosophies are both right and wrong. They were right: all these things were there; they were wrong: none was there by itself.18

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Let us now summarize what we just said about the composition of priestly polytheism. Its basis is astrolatry, or the worship of elements, under which is placed fetishism. Above this vulgar worship hovers a scientific system that the priesthood works to perfect, and which it always holds beyond the reach of the subject classes. To this system of science, which is but the observation of facts, are joined the efforts to discover their causes, and these endeavors end with philosophical and metaphysical hypotheses. These hypotheses do not at all form an ordered whole; each exists apart, unknown by the people. They therefore can neither scandalize the people by their impiety, nor perplex them by their discordance. Finally, these three elements are clothed in one or several symbolic languages, which result both from the imperfection of language and from the priests’ tendency toward mystery.19 These terminologies in turn express (1) the relations of the superior gods, Edition: current; Page: [410] astronomical or elemental, with the fetishes or gods in human form; (2) those of metaphysical beings or abstractions with the divinities of the people20 and the superior gods; and (3) the relations of cosmogonic personifications with the axioms of science and the objects of public worship. But they have yet another consequence.

From the words “to be born” and “engender” result cosmogonies and theogonies that appear behind the popular mythology at a remote distance, as it were. The infinite, the void, and the creative, preserving, and destroying force become a class of gods heretofore unknown, whose loves, rapes, incests, and mutilations represent the different hypotheses aimed at explaining the creation of this universe.21 Going beyond religion by metaphysics, the priests return to it by the cosmogonies that Edition: current; Page: [411] this metaphysics suggests to them. Personified and endowed with will, life, and action, the cosmogonic beings are all the more imposing as they are vague. These gods hover over the public belief, sometimes entering into it, and above all they imprint on it their somber, mysterious, often obscene and revolting colors. Delayed as much as possible even though they are inevitable, the partial revelations in that way become less unexpected, and have a less dangerous effect because less brusque, and the parts that from time to time escape from the secret doctrine are admitted into the public religion with less trouble, and are harmonized more easily with it.22

The theogonies and cosmogonies furnish it with incoherent fables and overload it with enigmatic ceremonies;23 it is to this cause that one must attribute those wild and licentious orgies that are so strange a part of priestly cults. In order to make more sensible the contrast and the union of the creative and destructive forces, the priests of these cults display with great pomp the bloody signs of their shameful mutilations, or fight fiercely at the foot of their altars in order to express the struggle of the elements.24 Sure of its power, the sacerdotal esprit de corps spares them no pain, and transforms its instruments into victims. Religion, however, in its relations with the multitude remains unchanging, because it is upon religion that the power of the priestly corporations and the authority of the theocracy rest. The priests who within the sanctuary disdain or denature religion with Edition: current; Page: [412] their interpretations, without practice all its rites with remarkable ardor—perhaps the awareness of their indifference toward its opinions serves to warm them for its practices. Be that as it may, convinced of the necessity of keeping the multitude always fervent, and of offering an example of this fervor, they compel themselves to the most minute practices, as well as the most painful deprivations. The Brahmin and the bonze impose fasts, austerities, starvations, and even tortures upon themselves, which only the most sincere devotion should undertake. The Brahmin’s secret doctrine is a pantheism that cannot admit any worship; the bonze25 is a veritable atheist because he recognizes only—albeit under a different name—a material world lacking in intelligence.26 But in exchange, reserving for themselves the inner doctrine that declares only absorption or nothingness for man, in public the bonze and the Brahmin proclaim the immortality of the soul and promise happiness in another life to those who enrich and honor them.

This combination whose fundamental traits we have traced here subsequently differs in details according to climates, local situations, the genius of peoples, their habits, even the accidents that influence their destiny. But the core never varies. We will prove this by successively applying the principles we have developed to the religion of Egypt and that of India.

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CHAPTER 4: Example of the Foregoing Combination in the Egyptians

The combination we just described is clearly seen in Egyptian polytheism.

First of all, we see the worship of animals: the cat receives divine honors at Bubastis; the billy goat at Mendes; the bull at Hieropolis; the eagle and the sparrow hawk at Thebes and Phile; the ape at Arsinoe; the crocodile on the lake of Moeris; the ichneumon in the Heracleotic prefecture; elsewhere the ibis, the shrew, the dog, the cock, the lion; at Elephantine and Syene, the oxyrhynchus, lepidotes, and the eel.1

People have wanted to explain this worship in several ways; none of them bears serious scrutiny.

To speak, as does Diodorus, of the metamorphoses of the gods is to account for an absurdity with a fable.

To go back to the banners that different tribes would have raised is to reverse the order of things. A people can choose as a standard some representation of what they worship; but they do not worship this-or-that object because they have chosen it as a standard.

The policy of kings seeking to divide their subjects by giving them different objects of religious veneration is a maladroit application of Euhemerus’s system, Edition: current; Page: [414] which, as we know, related the origin of all religions to the machinations of legislators. But fetishism was prior to every positive law. Favored by the self-interest of a class, it was able to prolong itself under civilization by the action of authority; but it had to arise freely in the bosom of barbarism.

Finally, we have already shown that the usefulness of different species counts for precious little in the worship that savages offer them.2 It was the same in Egypt. Useful and harmful animals were equally adored.

When a belief is shaken, it is difficult to imagine what its former credibility rested on. Then one attributes a thousand kinds of subordinate utility to it, none of which is enough to cause it to be adopted, and which only provide after the fact an apparent explanation of what has become inexplicable.3 Thus in our days Lent has been justified by saying that it helps fishermen because of the rule of abstinence from meat; but those who first imposed abstinences upon themselves only had in mind pleasing heaven.

If the explanations of Diodorus are superficial, those of Plutarch sin by excessive subtlety.

To hear him, sometimes the worship of animals is owing to metempsychosis.4 But such as primitives conceive it, metempsychosis can hardly serve as the basis of a cult because, vague and erratic in its conjectures, it prescribes neither pity nor respect for the animals whose bodies are the harbors of wandering souls.5

Sometimes, he says, understanding animals as the work of the evil principle, the inhabitants of Egypt would have wanted to disarm the principle by adoring them. But this assertion was dictated to the philosopher of Chaeronea by his tendency to find dualism everywhere; it is belied by the facts. Far from being the creatures Edition: current; Page: [415] of the evil principle, in the Egyptian view the animal-gods were its enemies, and to appease it they sacrificed them.

Sometimes, finally, Plutarch exhausts himself in efforts at detecting and bringing to light an imaginary resemblance between the qualities that characterize certain species and those he attributes to the gods; but these gods had to already exist in order to note the resemblances, and it was only later that they could have enriched the symbolic language.

In his conjectures, Porphyry comes closer to the truth. According to him, divinity embraces all beings; it also resides in animals, and man adores it wherever it is found. But Porphyry expresses here only the first élan of the religious sentiment in fetishism. He does not account for the combinations by which the worship of animals takes on a regular form and continues long after man has placed the divinity high above physical nature.

The writers of our days have been even more unfortunate in their attempts. There are those who have imagined that the Egyptians worshipped animals only in order to recall the meaning attached to each of them in the hieroglyphs.6 But if the Egyptian religion was only a kind of writing, a calendar, or an alphabet, it was not a religion. If its scientific meaning was hidden from the people, what idea could the people have of the forms in which the occult calendar or hidden alphabet was cloaked? How could they conceive gods created to signify periods or letters, but whose meaning was concealed from them?

One cannot repeat this too often: what constitutes a religion is the manner in which its adherents understand it.7

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The discovery of a cult in vigor among the primitives that is perfectly similar to the external worship of the Egyptians ought to put an end to these fanciful hypotheses.8 Place among black tribes corporations of priests who have come to the knowledge of the movement of the stars, and who preserve this knowledge in their sanctuary away from the curiosity of the profane: these corporations will not seek to change the objects of vulgar worship; on the contrary, they will solemnize them;9 they will give them more pomp and regularity. Above all, they will ensure that the assistance of the priesthood is necessary in every ceremony. Then, by means of a mystical or symbolic meaning, they will attach these material objects to their hidden science; and you will have among the blacks exactly the religion of Egypt. Fetishism at its foundation, astrolatry at its ceiling, and within a science founded on astronomy, thanks to which the fetishes, gods for the people, will be symbols for the priests.10

To invert this order is a gross error. What was recognized for a long time as a sign cannot suddenly be transformed into a god; but it is easy to conceive that what passed for a god in the opinion of the masses can become an allegory, a symbol, or a sign for a more enlightened class. In this way Plutarch’s idea receives its application, and frivolous or fanciful resemblances motivate the choice of symbols. The ox Apis11 owed to a few spots, at first accidental, then artfully repeated, the Edition: current; Page: [417] honor of being one of the signs of the zodiac.12 A studied analogy between the productive force and the Mendes billy goat made it the heaven, father of the stars; the cat owed to his shining fur, as the ibis its equivocal color (which appeared halfway between the night and the day), to be the symbol of the moon; the falcon became the symbol of the year.13 The beetle, which spends six months under the earth, was the emblem of the sun.14 And what proves that popular superstition combined with science is that the Egyptian believers wore beetles on their necks as amulets or talismans.15

It was the same with trees and plants,16 fetishes no less revered than the animals.

The leaves of the palm, whose longevity seemed to be a divine privilege,17 decorated the couches of priests, because this tree, putting forth branches every month, marks the renewal of the lunar cycle.18 The lotus, which we will also encounter in India, the cradle of Brahma19 as well as Osiris,20 the perséa brought from Ethiopia by a priestly colony,21 the arnoglossum whose seven sides recall the seven planets, and which for this reason was called the glory of the heavens;22 all these plants had connections with astronomy.23

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The people saw in them objects of an ancient worship; the priesthood found characteristics that helped recall and perpetuate its discoveries.

To these initial elements of worship were added the influence of localities,24 which sometimes disturbed the uniformity that the priesthood attempted to establish, and sometimes combined practices that referred to a particular location with rites founded on the general principles of science.

Hence, on one hand came the diversity of animals that were worshipped by the different tribes of Egypt. If they were only symbols, would the priests who seek to make their institutions uniform have introduced such varied, and irreconcilable, symbols? These varieties are explicable only by the condescension of the priesthood to the previous habits of the peoples.25

Hence, on the other hand came those jumbled allegories not connected by a common bond, forming many separate strata, as it were. Apis, for example, first of all the prototypical manitou of bulls, then depository of the soul of Osiris26 (and in this capacity the sun), finds that he has a third meaning that is somewhat intermediate between the two previous ones. He is the representative of the Nile, the river that nourishes the country; and while his color, the arrangement of his ebony black skin, the spots of striking whiteness that must cover his forehead, and finally the length of his days, which cannot exceed twenty-five years, all come from Edition: current; Page: [419] astronomy; the festival of his birth is celebrated on the day the cresting of the river begins. He is led in pomp to Nilopolis and, when the end of his time has come, is cast into a fountain consecrated to the Nile.27

Historical facts also appear to have entered into the Egyptian religion. Several of its stories seem to allude to the wars of pastoral peoples. The death of Osiris, emblem of the sun in winter, could have been originally the commemoration of a real event;28 Osiris, then, would have been, not exactly a deified man, but a hero later associated with a divinity that had never participated in the human condition. This is why the monuments of Egypt show him sometimes looking like a mummy, and history speaks of his tombs, while Isis always remained a stranger to particular places and the different forms of departing from this life.29

Metaphysical hypotheses came next.

Pantheism is unmistakable in the famous inscription engraved at Sais on the temple of Isis30 and Neith: “I am everything that was, all that is, all that will be.”31 The Egyptian priests added that Neith and Ptah, intelligence and force, were not separate beings but different manifestations of a universal being. Hathor, the boundless, elementary night, was that primordial unity that knew all beings and made one with them. It was the great Whole, the sole existing being, the unique god not yet manifest.32

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Alongside this pantheism, although probably from a less distant period, appear evident traces of theism.

“Escape all these common limits,” says the spurious Hermes Trismegistus,33 “cast yourself far from your body, escape time, become eternity, recognize yourself as immortal, capable of understanding everything and doing everything. Be higher than any height, more profound than any depth; be at once in all the parts of the world, in heaven, on earth, and in the depths of the waters. Grasp in a single embrace all the cycles, all the measures, all the qualities, all the vast extents, and you will be able to comprehend what is God. He has neither limit nor end; he is without color and without figure, eternal and unchanging goodness, the principle of the universe, reason, nature, act, necessity, number, and renovation,34 stronger than any strength, more excellent than any excellence, above all praise, and only to be worshipped by silent adoration.35 He is hidden because he has no need to appear in order to exist. The times manifest him, but eternity veils him. Consider the order of the world, it must have an author—a single author—because in the midst of countless bodies and the most varied movements a single order makes itself seen. If several creators existed, the weakest would be envious of the strongest, and the disorder would lead to chaos. There is but one world, a soul of the world, Edition: current; Page: [421] one sun, one moon, one god.36 He is the life of all, their father, their source, their power, their light, their intelligence, their spirit, and their breath. All are in him, by him, under him. He preserves them, makes them fruitful, and directs them.”37

Nonetheless, even this theism falls back into pantheism. After this listing of all the epithets, this accumulation of all the attributes, the fundamental axiom returns: one alone is all, and all is but one.38 Outside of him there is neither god nor angel nor demon, nor even any substance.

The doctrine of emanation also combines with theism;39 sometimes the movement comes from the bottom, sometimes from the top. In the first case, the soul emanates from matter, intelligence from the soul, God from the intelligence.40 In the other case, secondary gods emanate from the supreme god, demons from gods, men from demons, birds from men, quadrupeds from birds, fish from quadrupeds, reptiles from fish. The lower animals then mount back to heaven by the same path when they are sufficiently purified by their different metamorphoses.41

But soon a bond is established, on one hand, between these metaphysical hypotheses and the astronomical gods, and, on the other, between these same hypotheses and the idols of the people.

The sparrow hawk that can be found on the door of all temples is not only the sun but also the symbol of the divine nature. The shrew that the inhabitants of Athribis worshipped, and whom the Egyptians believed was blind because its eyes are so tiny that they can hardly be detected, signifies for the metaphysician the incomprehensibility of the first principle.42 The ibis is not only the symbol of the moon but also of Hermes, because Hermes measured the rise of the Nile, and the ibis at the time of the flooding eats the serpents and insects that infest the banks of the river. The Ethiopian vulture figures the passive principle because, it was said, there was no male in the species; and for an opposite reason the beetle, born without the cooperation of a female, is the emblem of the active principle. Thus in Egypt, as elsewhere, the errors of physics are sanctified by religion. Upon Edition: current; Page: [422] becoming a victim, the prophetic gazelle43 bequeathed its horns to Hermes Anubis, who learned from her the division of the day into twelve hours; the lotus, a local symbol in its connections with the Nile, an astronomical one in its relations with the sun, cosmogonic as the nuptial bed of the two first principles, reappears in the metaphysical sphere as the emblem of rebirth or immortality. The onion, the most ridiculed and most famous of the fetishes, thanks to the skins that compose it, and which seem to be so many spheres contained one within the other, is the vegetal image of this vast universe, always different and always the same, where each part represents the whole.44 In other words, the symbol of pantheism. In this perspective, one can understand the importance the Egyptians attached to it.45

Finally, for the reason we indicated in the previous chapter, the cosmogonies and theogonies appear. Those of Egypt, like those of all the priestly nations, are the figurative expressions of metaphysical hypotheses concerning the origin of things. Hador, the elemental night, engenders the first gods, Cneph, Ptah, and Neith, who soon dispute their mother for preeminence. They come into the received religion: Neith becomes Isis, Cneph and Ptah both take the name of Osiris. But in their quality as cosmogonic, they cannot remain in the beaten path, and by a mystical nuptial or a forced incest (because contained in the womb of their mother) they in turn engender other divinities. Aroueris is the fruit of the precocious loves of the sister and brother; the birth of Anubis is due to an incestuous adultery, that of Harpocrates to the monstrous union of death and life.46 Variable symbols of different doctrines, these gods represent, accordingly as they apply to one or another Edition: current; Page: [423] of these doctrines, matter and the spirit that coordinates and animates it, the creative forces, both preserving and destructive, that struggle with each other, the two principles of good and evil, or, finally, the apparent divisions of the sole substance, that is, sometimes theism,47 sometimes dualism,48 and other times pantheism.

Obscene images and licentious tales enter into the religion simply by the effect of the words borrowed from the union of the sexes. Isis crosses the earth to find the organs of which a cruel enemy has deprived her spouse, and her journeys are marked by indecencies and new incests (we will later see the influence of these symbols on the public ceremonies and rites).

At the same time, these gods are connected to science properly speaking; they are the planets. Isis is the moon; Typhon the sad and baneful Mercury; Osiris the sun whom death strikes twice a year: in the spring, a period of excessive heat brought to Egypt by the winds of the desert; in autumn, when the country hidden beneath the waters wonders if the waters that submerge it will destroy it or make it fertile. But, once more, these gods take the names and forms of animals. The cow is Isis, Osiris the sparrow hawk, Typhon the crocodile; and the sphinx that is found on Egyptian coins of the time of Hadrian, because of his complicated attributes, is at once the bringing together of the animals worshipped by the people and the figure of unity in the pantheistic doctrine of the priests.49 Thus the theogonies and cosmogonies create a new species of mythology that combines, by means of its mystical sense, with philosophy, and by its literal sense, with superstition.

Another circumstance further complicates this combination. The hieroglyphs have an effect almost parallel to that of the cosmogonies. All the hieroglyphic signs being images, the one who makes use of them cannot render his thought except by clothing it in narrative or fabular form. For example, is he trying to indicate an Edition: current; Page: [424] astronomical discovery? He designates the different stars by animal figures or other objects that are thought to act upon each other. Hence a number of narratives that in the eyes of the people take on the authority of a revelation, or at least of history. Thus are born several sacred traditions of the Egyptian priests concerning their gods or their kings.50

But no matter how the combination of these religious elements happens, and whatever the significance one gives to the symbols, a uniform rule is invariably observed. The gods that the people implore, those that influence its destiny, are always closer to the fetishes than to the symbolic divinities. The Egyptians explicitly said that Osiris, Isis, Horus, Typhon, and his wife or concubine Nephthys were gods of the third class; and even though later they equated them with the planets, they distinguished them in this classification—a contradiction that only better proves the complexity of their doctrines.

It was in their quality as animal or anthropomorphic gods that these beings were worshipped, that they heard prayers and took part in the affairs of mortals. As metaphysical notions or planetary gods, they had meaning only for the priests;51 and if the progress of science sometimes led to modifications in the rites and the legends (modifications of which there are traces),52 the spirit of the public religion never felt these modifications.

This complexity of the Egyptian religion, its symbols, its allegories, its constant stream of significations and meanings, in which the most recent or more subtle did not cause the forgetting of the previous ones—all this explains the contradictions found in the majority of ancient authors.53

When Plutarch considered the gods of Egypt as local divinities, and for him Osiris is the Nile and Isis the earth that the river makes fertile; when he later rises to the astronomical meaning, and Osiris is the sun and Isis the moon; when elsewhere Edition: current; Page: [425] he embraces metaphysical or cosmogonic theories, making Osiris and Isis the active and passive principles, and, following the terminology of the Platonic philosophy, the first is the soul of the world, the second is the matter put in order and animated by this universal soul, and Horus their son is the visible world, the result of the overcoming of Chaos, of Typhon, the evil principle contained in matter, which struggles against the divine spirit that ought to animate it: assuredly Plutarch contradicts himself; but if there is contradiction, there is not error. All these meanings existed in the Egyptian doctrine; and Plutarch did not really begin to be mistaken except when he adopted one over the others.54

One also understands that by reversing the order of ideas and the course of events, one could construct brilliant and rather plausible systems in favor of a purported Egyptian theism. This was what Jablonsky did, for a long time the sole guide of scholars, who became commentators on his positions. If we are to believe them, the Egyptians would have believed initially in theism alone; but the division of the attributes and activity of the Supreme Being would have given rise to several conceptually distinct divinities. And alongside these divinities, others would have been placed that were aimed at striking the senses; these would include the moon, the planets, and the heavenly vault. To these eight gods would have been joined the solstices and the equinoxes, and soon enough the five intercalary days. The worship of the Nile would have been one of the results of the devastation and benefits of the river. Finally, priestly symbols employed to enigmatically signify the divine nature would have introduced an inferior cult.55 We will not point out all the particular errors of this system; we will limit ourselves to saying that one must reverse the series of hypotheses and start from the combined worship of fetishes and stars in order to detect them in the secret doctrine of the priests, transformed sometimes into conceptual deities, sometimes into a single God who creates and Edition: current; Page: [426] directs the universe, sometimes into a sole substance that absorbs in its bosom this universe, these divinities, and the supreme God.

This combination also explains the nature of the gradual communications made to foreigners by Egyptian priests. Even by promising secrecy, Herodotus learns only the least important things from them. Become less insistent, they instructed Diodorus about everything concerning Osiris, without binding the traveler to silence. At the time of the Ptolemies, the priests were constrained to unveil their secret doctrine because philosophy had come to similar ideas and published them; but then the priests had two goals to achieve and several precautions to take. They did not want to let it be known that from its origins their secret doctrine had been so separate from the public religion, that the latter was only an instrument of control. Nor did they want it known that they admitted new ideas. As a consequence, they represented these new ideas as having always been part of their secret doctrine, and this doctrine as being intimately bound—and always having been bound—to the public religion. Hence, the explanation of all the religious customs, explanations that were overly subtle and contrived.56

As the philosophic doctrines multiplied and became contradictory, the priests tailored their divinities and their explanations to each of them, each divinity becoming the symbol of all these discordant doctrines.

When the priests saw their religion wholly discredited, they abandoned philosophy entirely and limited themselves to maintaining the superstition of the people by returning, as it were, to fetishism, by way of sorcery.

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CHAPTER 5: Example of the Same Combination in the Religion of India

The same combination is found in the Indian religion; but it is less easy to recognize.1 A circumstance that at first glance would appear to be favorable to our investigation turns out to be an obstacle rather than an aid. The Indians are a nation that still exists. One could hope that they would provide explanations of themselves and their ancestors. But if their existence has continued for thousands of years despite both time and invasions, it is because they have always harbored a deep repugnance for foreigners and strangers. This repugnance continues today in all its force,2 and our discussions with men who see us as impure masters and unclean oppressors are adversely affected by a religious prejudice fortified by political hatred.

Moreover, the records3 of their belief and worship that we possess, even though Edition: current; Page: [428] Edition: current; Page: [429] they are quite numerous and varied, do not at all form a whole. If from time to time, one part sheds light on another, most often they contradict and contend with one another. The exact time of none of these records is incontestable; the authenticity of several is doubtful; and since those that are apocryphal are always marked by a brilliant but bizarre imagination, and by the excessive abstractness that characterizes the literary and philosophical products of this country, one is in even a poorer position to fix the dates, to sift out original opinions, and to determine the development and progression of these opinions.

The original Vedas, the Akho-Vedas, are lost. Even the Brahmins acknowledge this. The details that they communicated to Holwell4 concerning the revelation and transmission of these books demonstrate that even since their restoration, according to tradition, they were reworked again, and consequently the doctrine they contained was often modified.

According to these details, 4,900 years before our era, in order to reconcile fallen spirits to himself, the supreme God initially entrusted the divine law to Brahma in a heavenly language. Having translated it into Sanskrit, it formed the four Vedas. A thousand years later, Brahmins wrote six commentaries on these books. These commentaries are the six Angas, which treat the pronunciation of the holy vowels, the liturgy, grammar, sacred rhythm, astronomy, and the meaning of mysterious words. Five hundred years went by, and new commentators published a second interpretation, in which they departed from the original meaning and interpolated several allegories and many fables. From that came the four Upavedas, containing the rules of medicine, music, the profession of arms, and the mechanical arts; and the four Upangas, in the first of which were later put the eighteen Puranas.

Finally, three thousand years after the appearance of the original Vedas, five inspired writers presented a new redaction. One of them, Vyasa, the author of the Puranas, is also the author of the great epic poem of the Indians, the Mahabharata. But this Vyasa could very well have been a generic name designating a series of commentators on the Vedas, just like the name Homer probably indicates the authors of the first Greek epics.5 The uncertainty that covers the time of Vyasa, and which the efforts of Mr. Bentley have not been able to resolve,6 incline us toward Edition: current; Page: [430] this view.7 The contradictions of the Indians themselves in this regard are obvious and striking. On one hand, they separate the Ramayana, a poem they attribute to Valmiki, from the Mahabharata of Vyasa by a distance of 864,000 years; and on the other hand, they affirm that these two poets often encountered and consulted one another concerning the redaction of their poems. When this absurd chronology is brought to their attention, they avoid the objection by recurring to a miracle. Vyasa is, moreover, a mythological person; sometimes he is the regeneration of Brahma, born in the third age four years after his mother’s intercourse with a rishi, sometimes he is an incarnation of Vishnu in the womb of the young Caly, who remained a virgin after giving birth.8

The second redactor of the Vedas was Manu, more known than the first as the legislator of the Indians.9 The collection of his laws is their oldest code; but this code is probably neither the work of a single man nor the work of a single century.10 The three other redactors are suspect of heresy, as even the Brahmins acknowledge.

We will not examine the truth of the foregoing narrative; but it clearly indicates the repeated reworkings of the Indian religion. Everyone knows the important statements of Wilford concerning the falsifications of the pandit who had furnished him materials for his comparison between the fables of India and those of Egypt.11 It seems to us that one can draw from this some important consequences concerning the falsifications of Indian books in general. The Indians themselves do not contest these falsifications, but limit themselves to excusing them by saying that the corruption of the world forces the sages to lend the support of a legendary antiquity to more sublime truths.12 If it were further argued, as Abbé Dubois does, that the climate rather rapidly destroys all records and forces the Brahmins to recopy them each century, one can imagine how many interpolations and alterations of doctrine must result.

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If one also considers that during twelve to fourteen hundred years these records thus mutilated, these copies thus reworked, these commentaries—whose authors sought to have a favorite opinion win out—served as either an occasion or a pretext for works of philosophy or metaphysics that each sect believed was the sole original and true system, then one will appreciate the wariness that must be brought to them and to their examination. In fact, it is enough to read them with a modicum of attention to recognize that far from containing a received doctrine, for the most part they are the work of reformers or inspired men who wanted to interpret and purify—that is, modify and transform—the received doctrine. The Neardirsen, for example, which the Hindus of Bengal and of all the southern provinces of India regard as a holy Shaster, while those of Deccan, Coromandel, and Malabar reject it, is a pure system of metaphysics, admitted into the holy books thanks to the progression of ideas; so too could have been the case for the works of the eclectics, if the polytheism purified by them had been maintained.13 It is the same with the Bhagavad Gita; the effort to replace what is already there with something new, the mark of a reformer who fights and argues with the extant, is found on every line;14 and when Krishna releases the souls of women from the curse that condemned them to pass into the body of a Brahmin before ascending to heaven, here one recognizes the reformer battling a prejudice sanctified by the ancient religion.

Therefore, to seek in these books the primitive popular mythology is to take, as many have done, Neoplatonism for the religion of the first centuries of Greece or Edition: current; Page: [432] Rome. Nothing is more similar to the India Shasters, as far as the content of ideas, than the works of the pagan philosophers who in the second and third centuries of our era worked to dress up Greek polytheism as allegories, and to ascribe to it subtleties that were quite foreign to its genius, and wholly unknown to its first adherents.15

To the difficulties that result from the alterations of the sacred books, we must add those that arise from the revolutions that the Indian religion underwent.

One must recognize at least four, and even five, principal ones: Brahmanism; Shivism; Vaishnavism, which Krishna did not invent but perfected; and Buddhism, which was expelled from India properly speaking after fierce wars and terrible massacres,16 but which is triumphant in Tibet and shares Nepal with the religion of the Brahmins.

Everywhere on the surface of India are striking proofs of these revolutions. Several temples are considered to be the work of evil genii, and no one dares to practice the rites of the abolished cult. Now, among all peoples abandoned cults pass for sacrilegious magic: their priests are sorcerers, and their gods blameworthy and malevolent beings.

The Vedas also acknowledge these religious upheavals in India. They order bloody sacrifices, and even human sacrifices.17 The repugnance of Indians for the shedding of blood, even though it has always been inspired in them by the climate, Edition: current; Page: [433] was therefore not a part of their original worship. But when civilization prevailed (despite the priests) against this barbarous custom, the honor of its abolition was given to Vishnu18 in his incarnation as Buddha,19 thus attaching all successive reforms to the ancient divinities, as was the custom.20

The incarnations reported in the books of Indian religion are for the most part periods of reform. The Bhagavata Purana (the Bhagavatam) says that Vishnu becomes incarnate each time his presence is necessary to combat error and to have the truth triumph.21 In his fifteenth incarnation,22 Vishnu corrects the Vedas; Krishna, the great reformer who following one tradition attempted to banish obscene ceremonies from worship, is the eighth or the seventeenth incarnation of Vishnu. Buddha, who undermined the system of Brahmanism by abolishing castes, is, according to different chronologies, the ninth or the nineteenth.

To be sure, this last revolution is subject to much uncertainty. Scholars are divided over the person and epoch of Buddha. Some23 regard his cult as a deviation, a reform or heresy that was introduced into that of Brahma, and Buddha therefore was later than him. Others24 have adopted the opposite view. They identify Buddha with Baouth, an ancient idol; one still finds here-and-there shapeless simulacra and ruined temples dedicated to him. They suppose that his religion, which was before Brahmanism, was proscribed and supplanted by the Brahmins and found refuge in Tibet and Ceylon, in Tartary, Japan, and China, while also preserving itself in a few Indian tribes.25

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This question is very difficult to resolve. On one hand, the worship of Baouth does appear to be older than Brahmanism. The traditions attached to it and the crude exteriors of its figures indicate fetishism. On the other hand, the Buddha who meditated the abolition of castes was certainly subsequent to Brahma. As we argued much earlier, the castes had to be established originally without any contradiction, or they would never have been established. Buddha could have attacked them after they were sacralized, as modern philosophers attacked existing institutions; but these institutions preceded the philosophers.

The difficulty would resolve itself if we admitted two Buddhas: the first would be the same as the ancient Baouth, and the second would be the author of the religion that divided India and was introduced into China, substituting the name of Fo for that of Buddha.26 Then, there would be nothing in common between the second Buddha and the ancient Baouth, if not that the first preceded the division into castes and the second was later than its establishment. In other words, one would have been ignorant of an institution not yet existing; the other, finding it established and sacralized, would have fought it.27

We, however, can leave the historical question undecided. Today Buddha is nothing but a legendary figure, like Vishnu, Rama, and all the Indian avatars become incarnate for the regeneration of the human race. His adventures are for the most part those of Rama in the Ramayana.28 Buddhists have transferred them to their favorite incarnation.

“When he descended from the celestial region in order to enlighten the angels and mortals,” recount these heretics, “the beautiful Mahamaya, wife of the rajah Sutah, monarch of Ceylon, received him in her chaste womb, which immediately became as resplendent and transparent as the most diaphanous crystal. The divine child, beautiful as a flower, awaited the hour of his birth, supporting himself on Edition: current; Page: [435] his hands. After ten months and ten days of a mysterious pregnancy, Mahamaya obtained permission from her spouse to visit her father. The roads, bordered on either side by trees that spontaneously put forth fruit, refreshed by urns full of limpid water, and lit by the light of a thousand torches in her honor, made themselves smooth and straight before her. Not far from the route she followed, a garden offered itself to her sight. She wished to rest there and gather flowers. The pains of childbirth came upon her. Trees bent their heads toward her so as to shelter her from others’ eyes. The air was filled with delicious perfumes, sounds at once melodious and sad resounded from afar, and nature itself felt an indefinable shudder, prophetic of divisions, struggles, and misfortunes. Buddha was born, and Brahma received him in a vase of gold; but already endowed with marvelous strength, the future avatar jumped onto the earth and, taking seven steps, rejoined his mother, who brought him back to her home. A holy man, withdrawn into the forest in order to practice silent worship, was alerted to the birth of Buddha by a secret voice. The virtue of his penances enabled him to fly through the air, and he presented himself before the rajah in order to give homage to the new-born god. Seeing him, he displayed alternately an immense joy and a profound sadness. Asked about these contradictory appearances, he replied: I am in pain, he said, because Buddha, once raised to the rank of avatar, will leave me far from him, perhaps will reject me; but I rejoice at his current presence, which absolves me from my sins.

The god—who was not yet one—was named Sacya, and lived unknown for sixteen years. At that time, a famous rajah offered the hand of his daughter Vasutura to the one who could bend a magic bow. A thousand rajahs tried in vain. Sacya, happier in the endeavor, wed the daughter of Chuhidan. He became a father; but a revelation having enlightened him, and followed by a single servant, he left his palace, his son, and his wife, and having crossed the Ganges, he even sent away his companion, along with his horse and armor.

Five flowers, contemporaries of the creation of the world, were put in the hands of Brahma. Sacya discovered in the calyx of one of these flowers clothing of the sort worn by hermits whose humility is maintained by alms. He put them on. Thus disguised, he continued his pilgrimage. A traveler passing by him, weighed down with eight bundles of sweet-smelling herbs, did reverence to the pilgrim, who laid his sacred body on the herbs. All at once a temple rose from the earth; it was thirty cubits high, and in the sanctuary was a throne of gold. Brahma descended in the midst of clouds, holding a dais over the head of Sacya. Indra came to refresh him Edition: current; Page: [436] with a fan, and Naga, the king of serpents, led to him the four tutelary deities that sat enthroned at each corner of the universe.

But the Assurs29 came running, full of rage, to attack the avatar. The gods abandoned him; defenseless, Sacya implored the Earth, who, more helpful, opened a vast mouth to its subterranean waters. Defeated, the Assurs were put to flight. The five sacred codes proclaimed the divinity of Sacya, who under the name Buddha, after confirming his new dignity by twenty-one days of rigorous fasting, was seated above the highest of the world,30 enjoying the ineffable happiness of an absolute impassability. He left behind him the sacred codes. By reading them, the faithful delivers himself from the machinations of unclean spirits, opens the paths of redemption, removes his soul from reincarnation, preserves himself from poverty, arrives at honors, heals himself from illness, and obtains by faith nieban or nivani, the eternal felicity that consists in the absence of all change, in the loss of all individuality, in the annihilation of all sentiment, all knowledge, all thought.”

This is the legend of Buddha. Designated Sommonacodom in Ceylon, Godama in Siam, Fo and sometimes Tamo in China, and represented in Tibet by the Grand Lama,31 he nonetheless has all the characteristics of an Indian incarnation, even though the sect he founded subsequently substituted apotheoses for incarnations. One recognizes these characteristics in the miracles that established his superiority to Bommaza, a god who disputes his empire, and who imprudently defies his skill. Hidden in the center of the earth like an imperceptible grain of sand, Bommaza was discovered by the penetrating look of Buddha, who in his turn was commanded to hide himself. He placed himself in Bommazo’s eyebrow and let his rival seek in vain for him in the four great islands, and in the two thousand islands of lesser extent, in the depths of the Ocean, and on the inaccessible summits of Zetchiavala, and even on the peak of Mienmo,32 thus frustrating all his efforts and compelling him to acknowledge his defeat. In another legend, Buddha is only Edition: current; Page: [437] Vishnu who becomes incarnate to destroy the Tripura, three fierce giants living in enchanted cities with walls of gold, leather, and iron, cities they transported everywhere they wanted to extend their works of destruction with the aid of immense wings and by invoking the Lingam. Vishnu-Buddha defeated them by his preaching and his great works.

He nonetheless is considered to be the author of a detestable heresy, and the malevolence of Brahmins in his regard shines through all of their accounts. After having, almost despite themselves, adored Buddha, the gods of Brahmanism refuse him their assistance, and if he is sometimes confused with the three great objects of Hindu worship, most often his rank as an avatar establishes only accidental and temporary relations between him and them. However, the disfavor cast on the enemy of the caste system does not weaken his divine character. The fundamental difference between Brahmin spirituality and Buddhist materialism becomes perceptible only when one leaves aside public rites and the traditions that animate them, and attends exclusively to the philosophic or secret doctrine. The externals of the religions—their ceremonies, their sacrifices, their priestly establishments, their tendency to the contemplative life—have maintained a resemblance between the two that disguises, albeit unsuccessfully, their mutual hatred.

The Cheritras, or sacred books, of one have an evident analogy with the epic poems of the other. The Ramakien of the Siamese appears to be only a translation of the Ramayana, albeit with less poetry and charm. Throughout their fictions, as well as in the orthodox mythology, one sees sometimes a penitent seized with mystical devotion at the sight of a withered fig tree command the elements by his austerities; sometimes a rajah pierced by a magic spear because he wants to make his own a beautiful woman whom this living spear protects; here an alligator plunges into the Ocean, embracing a young princess who miraculously escapes from this frightful lover; there an elephant aspires to the hand of another princess, who is not preserved from this bizarre match except by the penance of a hermit and the valor of a hero; further on, the tiger and the bull, united in close friendship, obtain human form through the prayers of a rishi. Krishna, Bhagavatti, and Rama are found in these tales under slightly modified names.33

This uninterrupted succession of reforms, whose dates the priesthood deliberately inverted or confused, this absence of any non-falsified records, this priestly effort to disguise the ancient doctrines by amalgamating them with the new or Edition: current; Page: [438] explaining them by them,34 all these things render the religious history of India a chaos. Light shines only on certain isolated details, although each day the portions that are illumined grow; but it will take more than a century for the whole to be revealed to our eyes.

Nonetheless, one can discern in this religion the same elements as in the Egyptian: fetishism gradually transformed into anthropomorphism, the worship of elements and stars, initially as a cult, then as a science, metaphysical hypotheses, and cosmogonies.

The worship of trees, of quadrupeds, of birds, of stones is preserved in India even to our day by being associated with the worship of the superior gods by the mystical union that assigns them material objects as abodes.35 Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are deemed to reside in the Kolpo, and sometimes to be born in certain pebbles. Routren36 is pleased to confine himself in the outrachou;37 the god of the pagoda of Perwuttum is only a shapeless stone;38 and every time some malady or accident strikes the inhabitant of a village, all his fellows come together to seek a black stone, the mysterious sanctuary of the divinity. When they have found it, they carry it in pomp and raise altars to it.39

The Indians worship the elephant, the eagle, the sparrow hawk, the crow, the ape, the beetle (who is among them, as in Egypt, an astronomical symbol, because his antennae and the shine of his wings figure the day star); the swan, whose striking Edition: current; Page: [439] white color braves contact with the water that surrounds it, is the emblem of the soul winding its way without blemish through the temptations of the earthly world in order to unite with God. They choose their sacred bulls following the same rules as the Egyptians;40 and the followers of Shiva regularly observe the day dedicated to this quadruped divinity,41 who bears Shiva in the air, whose three horns are the Vedas, and who is so redoubtable to injustice that the latter’s reign cannot begin, except where the tail of the celestial bull ends.42

The cow is invoked as representing Surabhi, the dispenser of felicity; Budrani, the well beloved of Shiva, is represented in the figure of a heifer; Lachmi, the beautiful companion of Vishnu, who sometimes assumes the same form and rests on the bosom of his lover. The history of the cow Nandini, so poetically recounted by Calidasa in the Rhagu-Vansa; that of the cow Bahula, who asks life of a tiger, a charming episode of the Itahasas,43 are embellishments of these memories of fetishism.44 The fantastical birds Garuda45 and Aruna are idealized fetishes who are connected to astrolatry. Aruna, weak and imperfect, is the dawn that precedes the sun and emits only a dubious light; Garuda is the sun in all its pomp, the type of the truth, the mount of Vishnu.

The same reminiscences can be seen in the more modern sects. The Jainists, heretics detested by the Brahmins, and about whom we can speak here only in passing Edition: current; Page: [440] without digressing from our subject,46 associate each of their saints or deified penitents with an animal that serves as its emblem.47 Finally, in the forests and on the mountains of the Carnatic region, as well as on different points of the coast of Malabar, fetishism still exists in its integrity. Several tribes of nomadic savages worship only their individual demons or genii, and do not worship the great divinities of the country.48

The association of this fetishism with an anthropomorphism that can only be regarded as a change of external forms is manifest in the fables that, in attributing the human figure to gods, add to them characteristics borrowed from the animals that were previously worshipped alone.49

Alongside this combined fetishism and anthropomorphism is placed the worship of the elements and the stars. One of the very ancient authors who transmitted to us exact information about India saw close by the coast of Coromandel a Edition: current; Page: [441] temple dedicated to the five elements.50 The air, fire, and earth invoked under their true names, with the sun, the moon, and the planets, are designated at the same time under the appellations of Brahma, Vishnu, and Buddha (always honored, although always suspect). The origin of the Vedas is attributed to the elements. The Rig-Veda is born of fire, the Yajur-Veda of air, the Sama-Veda of the sun.51 Sometimes the tendency of the Indians to deify everything transforms the Vedas themselves into divinities. In the Varaha-Purana, Narada recounts that one day he saw on a lake an astonishingly large flower that was resplendent with the most vivid colors. One the banks of the same lake was a radiantly beautiful girl. She rested indolently on the grass, her eyes half-closed and her bosom exposed. Who are you, I said to her, continued Narada, O unknown beauty, the most perfect of virgins, as slender as the birch that rises to the sky? She closed her eyes and kept silence. Then the memory of divine things left me; I forgot the Shasters and the Vedas themselves, and I approached her who had captivated all my thoughts; three celestial forms were on her bosom. The eyes of the last shone with an indescribable éclat, like the sun. After having displayed themselves, they disappeared. The unknown girl remained alone. Tell me, I cried out, how I lost my Vedas. The first form that you saw on my bosom, she responded, was the Rig-Veda or Vishnu, the second was the Yajur-Veda or Brahma, the third was the Sama-Veda or Shiva. Reprise therefore, O Narada, your Vedas and your Shasters, make your ablutions in this lake, which is the Veda-Sarovara, or the lake of the Vedas, and you will recall the different transmigrations that you have experienced.52 Thus the Vedas are three gods, but three elemental gods who celebrate themselves in mystical chants; for the Rig–Veda begins with a hymn addressed to fire, the Yajur-Veda by a hymn to air, the Sama-Veda by a hymn to the sun.53

Above appears the scientific religion—astronomy, astrology, its companion, the observation of natural phenomena—and its application either to religious uses such as divination or to practical ones like medicine.

The history of Krishna is entirely astronomical. The twelve nymphs that constitute Edition: current; Page: [442] his retinue are the signs of the zodiac; and the inconstancy that carries him from one to the other is the passage of the sun through these various signs.54 His victory over the great serpent Caliga-Naga, like that of Apollo over a monster of the same species, recalls the action of the day-star purifying the atmosphere. Before the dawn, the Brahmins ask the sacred Trimurti to give to humans the light of the heavens.55 They associate with it the immortal torches that warm and enlighten us; and it is also to these scientific gods that the vanaprastas who sanctify themselves in solitude offer the most meritorious and efficacious sacrifices.56

The Surya-Siddhanta, the most ancient of the astronomical treatises, is considered to be a revelation.57 Its author, Meya, received it from the sun as a reward for his penances.58 Shiva has his Tontros, which have made known to men the revolutions of the months and the days. Brahma and Vishnu-Siddhanta indicate by their names alone their divine origin. Other Siddhantas are written by simple mortals, but under a supernatural inspiration; all of them together number eighteen, and like the Puranas they bear the title of Shasters, expressive of their superiority over subsequent commentaries, profane works of the human spirit;59 and what finally gives these Shasters the priestly stamp is when one notices the attempts of the priests to reconcile the infallibility of their teachings with the successive rectifications that were brought on by the development of knowledge. The movements of the planets can change, it is said in the Surya-Siddhanta, but the principles of the science remain the same; and in order to soften the contradiction that exists between the discoveries that have been made and the absurd tales of the Puranas and the Vedas, whose authority one dare not dispute, the pandits have recourse Edition: current; Page: [443] to interpretations. Sometimes the fables refuse. Thus, the Vedas positively teach that eclipses are occasioned by the dragon Rahu, a horrible monster whose head was cut off by Vishnu. This monster, who would have stolen from the gods a few drops of their amrita, the ambrosia of India, bequeathed his immortal head to the heavens and his tail to the earth, from where, rising up, it furiously pursues (like the Fenrir of the Scandinavians) the sun and the moon in order to devour them. The pandits say that the fact is certain; but obliged to apply human intelligence to astronomy, they write like philosophers, and not like theologians. The physicists of the eighteenth century expressed themselves in the same way. The similarity of circumstances necessarily produced similarity of language.

Astronomy is not the only science that religion takes hold of, that it enlists, that it identifies with its fables, and that it submits to its authority. Legislation is contained in the Dharma-Shastra. Medicine is also the gift of a god who revealed it in the Ajur-Veda, of which only a few fragments exist; and one of the Upanishads of the Vedas contains a treatise on astronomy.

In several Puranas, a special section is reserved to geography, and the Brahmins proscribed geographic treatises in the vulgar language. We have the divine Puranas, they said, what more does the human race need?60

The seven musical notes are placed under the protection of seven divinities in the Rama-Veda. This divine art was communicated to our species by Brahma and Sarasvatti, his daughter; and their son Nared is the inventor of the lyre, like Mercury among the Greeks. The further divisions of the different tones are personified as so many nymphs in the Sangita-Ratnakara;61 or at other times associating one science with another, that is, astronomy to music; the Indians reduce the musical notes to six so that they can correspond to the seasons of the year.62 They devote a particular harmonic mode to depict the melancholy of the harsh months, the gaiety of the return of spring, the harshness of excessive heat, or the rebirth of nature when the rains refresh the burning air; and constantly reducing fables to science, they suppose six Ragas, beings intermediary between gods and men, playing in the air, bestowing their favors upon five companions with unparalleled beauty, each the mother of eight genii, who flutter in their wake on the summit of mountains Edition: current; Page: [444] or even the folds of clouds, a most graceful family, one that rivals the most elegant fictions of Greek mythology.63

Grammar, finally, the ingenious organization of the most decisive and most inexplicable discovery, the discovery of language, which the animals approach but never attain, and which, serving as the instrument and bond of the faculties of man, assigns him his rank in creation; grammar has the serpent Patanjali as its author, who fixed its laws in his Morabashya.64 Another famous grammarian, Panini, is extolled in the Puranas as inspired and a prophet.65 The history of his commentator Catya-Juna is connected to legends;66 and Bhartri-Hari, a didactic poet who put in verse the rules established by his predecessors, is the brother of Vicrama-Ditya, whose austerities, wars, and miracles figure on each page of the sacred poems.67 The Agni-Pourana is a system of prosody; and the invention of this art to which the Indians attach so much importance goes back to Pingala-Naga, a legendary being represented (like Patanjali) under the form of a reptile, or perhaps identical with Patanjali himself.68

Thus in India as in Egypt, it is always from religion that science comes, it is by religion that it is preserved; and as in Egypt, its possession is a privilege claimed by the priestly order. Misfortune to the one who would try to pry it from them! When the kings of Magadha permitted the educated of their court to publish writings destined for the instruction of all the classes, indignant Brahmins cursed Edition: current; Page: [445] his kingdom with anathemas and declared it a sacrilegious country where no believer could live.69

In a more elevated sphere, we find the metaphysical hypotheses, subtler than in Egypt, and subdivided, diversified, and nuanced in such a way that in this work we renounce any effort to treat them, or even to list them. To be sure, like so many others we could give a show of erudition by leaving their native names to these systems and their infinite subtleties. Two or three extracts from Colebrooke and Schlegel would furnish us with more than sufficient material; and by translating these authors without attribution we would appropriate to ourselves the honor of their erudition. But we will not needlessly tire the reader; we do not need to treat these views in themselves, but rather in the way in which the priests, whether Brahmin or Buddhist, introduce them into their learned doctrine, and the influence that the introduction of this doctrine exercised on the public worship. As a result, instead of taking each Indian system and dealing with it, we will remain faithful to the great divisions we have already established: theism, pantheism, emanationism, dualism, and atheism.

Theism is found in almost all the sacred books of India. The Brahmins’ creed teaches that the worshipper of the sole god has no need of idols. The Bedang, which in a very long fable concerning the creation of the world, personifies the attributes of this unique god and relates the origin of all things to him alone. The Laws of Manu70 combine this teaching with that of absolute fatality; the Dirm-Shaster proclaims it, reducing all the accounts that seem to contradict the unity of God to particular manifestations of Providence;71 and the Bhagavatam recounts fables without number to inculcate and emphasize this unity.

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Sometimes it recounts that one of the fathers of the human race, wanting to know the divine nature, imposed upon himself severe penances, and by the force of his fasts and self-afflictions caused a brilliant flame to shoot out from his forehead. All the gods were frightened and sought shelter near Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. These three superior divinities presented themselves to the penitent. Then prostrating himself before them, he said: I recognize only one God; which of you is the true God? Tell me, so that I can adore it. The three gods responded: there is no difference among us. A single being is at once the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer. To adore him under one of these forms is to honor him under all three.72

Elsewhere, we learn that Sati, daughter of Daksha, the wife of Shiva, scorned by her father, stirred her spouse to avenge her. A giant with a thousand arms produced from one of the hairs he had plucked in his anger entered into the assembly of the gods and cut off the head of Daksha, who cursed his daughter. The gods complained to Brahma, Shiva pardoned his father-in-law. The head of a billy goat replaced the head cut off and consumed by fire, and Vishna declared again that the three gods, depositories of the forms of nature, comprise one essence and are one and the same God.73

Theism is equally manifest in another tale, which is also connected with the historical event of the abolition of the worship of Brahma.

Proud of his power to produce, Brahma one day wanted to rival Shiva the destroyer, and claimed to be superior to Vishnu, who maintained all created things. A terrible battle ensued between Vishnu and Brahma. The celestial spheres were shaken; the stars fell from the sky; the earth trembled. In the midst of this terrible tumult, a column of fire appeared; one could perceive neither its summit nor its base. At this sight, the two antagonists were convinced that supremacy would belong to the one who could discover the foundations of this column or who could attain its summit. Vishnu in the form of a wild boar dug in the earth for a thousand years, digging a distance of three thousand leagues each minute. But the foot of the column remained hidden in the abyss. Vishnu recognized his impotence. Brahma changed into a swan and rose into the air to a height that speech cannot describe. In an hour he crossed thirty-six thousand leagues, and his flight lasted one hundred thousand years. Finally, his exhausted wings refused to carry him further. As he re-descended to earth he encountered a flower. He took it in his hand and Edition: current; Page: [447] would not release it except on the condition that it would testify to the success of his endeavor. It had barely uttered this false testimony when the column of fire opened up. Shiva appeared, laughing with a terrible laughter, and as punishment for his lie he condemned Brahma to no longer have temples or images or followers. The repentence of the god disarmed Shiva’s anger, but he did not retract his sentence, and Brahma was worshipped only by Brahmins, without any public cult and without external ceremonies. In this way, the superiority of Shiva,74 supreme god, sole master of all, whom all the beings serve and sacrifice to, was recognized.75

It is remarkable that in this tale, as well as in several others, the Indians give preference to the destructive principle. This characteristic of their mythology is explained by their disposition to consider annihilation as the supreme bliss. It is a misfortune for all beings to put on earthly forms; the power that destroys them, the power that delivers man from the individuality that weighs so heavily upon him, ought to have preference over the principle that maintains these forms and this individuality. Moreover, for a contemplative people, the idea of destruction is more unchanging, infallible, and hence more imposing, than that of preservation, which is always varied and occurs in time, while destruction is in eternity; hence preservation is always defeated by destruction. Thus, in the wars of the gods against the giants, Shiva is almost always the principal god. Brahma is the head of his army, and four Vedas are his steeds; Vishnu serves as his arrow.

We will not cite the Ezouvedam, since it is now proven that we owe it to the pious fraud of a zealous missionary.76 But the ease with which the missionary Edition: current; Page: [448] could deceive the most careful readers of authentic books thus demonstrates that theism was one of the philosophic doctrines of the Brahmins.

However, should we therefore conclude—as more than one author preoccupied with a single idea has—that theism is the religion of India, or at least that by itself it constituted the entirety of the Brahmanical teaching?

This conclusion would be false. Who does not see that for the ignorant and credulous crowd, the literal sense of these narratives in which the gods fight, destroy one another, and reconcile, or the vestiges of fetishism that appear in them, and where it is a question of their births and their marriages, can hardly be counterbalanced by a metaphysical axiom that, by offering only an abstraction, most often causes the divinity to descend from the rank of a moral being to merely being a substance? This is the formulation of a philosophy, and not the teaching of a religion.

What these fables inculcate, rituals confirm. In nuptial ceremonies, one invokes Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devendren, the twelve Adityas, the eight Vanuras, the nine Brahmas, the eleven Rudras,77 the Siddas, the Saddias, the Navadas, the seven great penitents, the nine planets, and finally all the gods whose names come to mind.

Theism therefore was never the public belief of India. Even the sects that profess it deviate from it constantly. The exclusive worshippers of Shiva78 associate with him Bhavani, his wife. Those of Vishnu79 render at the same time worship to Radha, one of his favorites. Others who claim to offer homage only to Rama80 include Sita, his spouse, or venerate the two spouses together.81 One sees in Indian mythology gods struggling with giants, often oppressed by them, compelled by penances,82 or subjugated by curses, and despite their power submitting to what is most painful to them. Each temple, each pagoda, witnesses to the plurality of gods, their metamorphoses, their weaknesses, their vices. The temple of Tirumaton recalls the triumph of the giant Eruniaschken over gods and men combined, the Edition: current; Page: [449] prayers of Brahma, which moved Vishnu to pull the earth out of the abyss where this giant had plunged it, the wiles of this god to defeat this terrible adversary in the form of a boar.83 The figure of Devendren recalls his illegitimate loves and his punishment, at first indecent, then bizarre.84

The proof that theism was never the belief in vigor jumps out of the writings of the philosopher-priests who adhered to it. Some of them, more timid and reserved, opened themselves to followers only after prescribing a profound silence. Thus in the Oupannayana, when the father of the neophyte teaches him the existence of a sole god, sovereign master, principle of all things; he adds that it is a mystery not to be communicated to the unintelligent vulgar, to do so would draw the greatest calamities upon the guilty one. Others who were more candid openly combat polytheism.85 But one does not fight unless the doctrine already Edition: current; Page: [450] exists. No one today, among either Muslims or Christians, would write against polytheism.86

If theism seems to dominate in the Bhagavatam and the Dirm-Shaster, it is impossible not to see pantheism in the other sacred books. In point of fact, the Vedas do not contain a pure pantheism. They teach that there are three worlds; one is the thought of the divinity, the second the realization of this thought by the production of an ideal world, the third the material world of which the ideal world is the type. But the commentators on the Vedas have applied themselves to give Edition: current; Page: [451] a pantheistic interpretation to the texts.87 The universal power, says one of them, this power that shines in the sun and rules the spirit of man, is the luster in the diamond, the sap in trees and plants, in living things their soul; is also the creator, and Providence, and the force that preserves; it projects and absorbs all; it is the sun and all the gods, everything that moves and everything that is motionless in the three worlds. The Vedantic philosophy goes further; it rejects this trinity of worlds (Trilokya); it admits only one, which is multiplied by an illusion. The recognition of this illusion constitutes the divinity that alone exists, and the universe is but a phantom without reality. The substance of the soul, the sentiment it has of its existence, its various knowledges, its perceptions, all these things are God himself, says the creed of the Brahmins.88 Everything that was from all time is God, all that is, is God, all that will be, is still God.89 You, me, all the beings are Vishnu.90 Reject all notions of diversity, and see the universe in your soul.91 And the Bhagavatam, suddenly forgetting its favorite theme, teaches that there is nothing in the world that is not Vishnu; that this unique being takes different forms; that it acts in different ways; but that all is only one with him, and that the substance of all bodies, of all souls, is nothing but his own, returning to itself after an apparent separation.92

But it is above all in the Bhagavad Gita that this doctrine is developed. It is there that Krishna defines himself, saying that he was at the beginning of all things, all that exists but is not perceived; that since then he is all that was and all that will be, and that outside of him there is only illusion. I am, he continues, the sacrifice and the cult, the perfume and the invocation, the fire and the victim, generation and destruction, the sun and the rain, immortality and death, being and nothing.93 Edition: current; Page: [452] Pantheism shows itself even in the particular notions concerning each divinity. Brahma is at once each man individually and collectively the human race, which means that he is born and dies every day, because at each instant human beings are born and die; and he also dies every one hundred years, because this is the term of the longest human life.94

But in the same way that we have seen the adherents of theism carefully attach their doctrine to popular fables, so too the pantheists, far from disdaining the tales, include them in a system that would seem to exclude them. When, in order to better inculcate this pantheistic hypothesis, Krishna describes himself to his disciple and says: I am the soul contained in the body of all the beings, the beginning, middle, and end of all things: among the Adityas95 I am Vishnu; among the stars, the sun; I am one of the cardinal points of the heaven in the midst of the winds; and the first book of the Vedas; among the faculties, I am life; and in animated beings, reason; I am the most powerful of the eleven destinies, and among the genii, that of wealth, among the elements, fire, and Merou among the mountains;96 among the sages I am their head Vrischapati;97 among the warriors, Scandra, the god of war; among the rivers, the Ocean; among words, the mysterious oum;98 I am the head of the celestial choirs,99 and the first of the mounis among the pious penitents; among the cults, silent adoration; among the trees of the forest I am Asvatta;100 among the horses, Urchisrava, who emerged from the waves with the Edition: current; Page: [453] so-sought-after amrita;101 among the elephants, Airavat, and the sovereign among men; among the weapons, thunder; among the beasts, the cow Kamaduk,102 daughter of the sea, I am the fruitful god of love; among the reptiles I am their head, Vasuki, among the serpents the eternal serpent, and among the inhabitants of the tides, the god who governs; among the judges, I am Yama, the judge of the netherworld; among the evil spirits, Prahlad,103 and in all calculations, I am time; among the animals I am their king, and among the birds, the prodigious Vainateya; among the winds that purify, I am the air; in the midst of heroes, Rama;104 among the fish, Makar,105 among the rivers, the Ganges, child of Janhnu;106 I am the first of the vowels, and among words I am duandua;107 I am death and resurrection, fortune, fame, eloquence, memory, intelligence, valor, patience, Gayatri108 among the harmonious measures, glory, industry, victory, the essence of all the qualities; among the months, margasirsha;109 among the seasons, spring, Vyasa among the inspired;110 among the poets, Usana;111 among governors I am the scepter, and the silence among secrets; of all things, be they living or not, there is none that I am not. When Arjuna answered him: You are Vayu, the god of the winds, Agni, the god of fire, Varun, the god of the seas, Sasanka, the moon, Prajapati, the god of Edition: current; Page: [454] nations, and Prapitamaha, the powerful ancestor, is it not obvious that the author of the Bhagavad Gita alters the fables he accredits?

Ourchasrva the steed, Kamaduk the cow, Yama the judge of the netherworld, Jahnu father of the Ganges are so many illusions and, as it were, respects paid to received fictions under which pantheism is introduced, and replaces them; they are like an obligatory set of rubrics; but in the end, all the fables come to pantheism. In his infancy, Krishna stole the milk of their flocks from the nymphs. They complained to Yasoda, his nurse. As his sole response, the god opened his glittering mouth, and Yasoda, totally surprised, saw the entire universe in all its splendor.112 Who does not see pantheism in this account, concealed under a legend that it confirms, all the while establishing a doctrine destructive of all legends?

Sometimes a pantheistic profession of faith concludes a narrative that seems neither to prepare it nor to support it. Trivicrama reigned on the banks of the Godaveri. Each morning a Brahmin presented him a flower. The king received it respectfully, but when it had withered, he tossed it on the floor of his palace. One day, opening the one he had just received, he saw in it a diamond of great value. Queried, the Brahmin promised to explain this mystery if the prince would accompany him into a forest. They set out and, once arrived at their destination, saw a cadaver propped up by the branches of an oak. The Brahmin asked his illustrious companion to carry the body to his home. Overcoming his repugnance, Trivicrama took the corpse over his shoulders; but the dead man, entertaining him with marvelous stories, succeeded in escaping from him twenty-five times. The angry monarch finally took hold of the fugitive stranger, who revealed to him the plot of the Brahmin, who aspired to his throne and was preparing his death by magical rites, for which a body that had ceased to live was necessary. The conspiring priest was punished, and Shiva, revealing himself to the eyes of the prince, said: Three times you came forth from my own essence; two times I have recalled you to my bosom. When ten days will have come, I will receive you again, and you will no longer be separated from me.113

Other times, pantheism reintroduces polytheism in ways whose subtlety is interesting to note. To adore the Supreme Being who contains all the beings is to adore oneself, say the pantheists—and this adoration ought to be prohibited. But it is legitimate to worship the parts of the divinity that are superior to others, and this Edition: current; Page: [455] worship can legitimately be addressed to the idols that the divinity, by the power of incantations, is forced to enter.114

Ceremonies, too, have a double tendency. The apotheoses of all the instruments used in the celebrations—the vessels, the tripods, the pavilions, or pandels, even the herbs that become so many gods who are adored—are a disguised pantheism; and the following is also rooted in pantheism: the homage offered to the instruments of all the professions during the feast of Gauri, one of the names of Paravati, wife of Shiva. The worker prostrates himself before his plows, his picks, his sickles; the mason before his trowel and rule, the carpenter before his saw and axe; the barber invokes his razors, the writer his iron stylus, the warrior his weapons, the fisherman his nets, the weaver his line; the farmer sacrifices to the manure that fertilizes his lands. But if these mysterious rites recall for the Brahmin imbued with the secret teaching its abstract unity, the transformation of material objects into particular divinities inculcates the plurality of gods in the vulgar.

One can say the same about the holy epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Pantheism frequently shows up in the Ramayana,115 and in it one also finds the doctrine of the three worlds taught by the Vedas,116 as well as the priestly notion that attributes to the gods the invention of all the sciences and arts. This idea serves as the introduction to the work, and the episode of the two birds is recounted with particular charm. (One is killed by a hunter and missed by its companion; this touches Valmiki’s compassion and inspires the harmonious rhythm that Brahma blesses.)117 As for the Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part), the pantheistic doctrine is even more manifest; but its poetry necessarily led the poets to replace abstractions with images and stories in which individuality returned.118 Edition: current; Page: [456] If the color of these epics is in a sense more solemn and philosophical than those of Homer, the gods of the Ramayana are no less individualized, no less passionate, no less different in their characters, penchants, and wills, than the gods of Homer. This variety—which is harmonized with pantheism only by means of a series of arguments that are quite difficult to follow—necessarily had to have an effect on the people. The multitude from whom a most jealous prohibition keeps these sacred volumes119 is nonetheless allowed to hear them recited in the ceremonies it attends, and what this teaches them cannot but further confirm them in their polytheistic belief.120

It is certain that the Indian who, while pirouetting twelve times, exclaims in his prayers, I am Brahma, the universe is me, nothing but I exist in the universe, does not attach to these words any philosophic sense. At the moment when he repeats them, his multiplied worship of divinities who are infinite in number proves that he does not adhere to the exclusive conception in pantheism that denies all diversity. To stubbornly see in pantheism the definitive doctrine of India is, therefore, to take a part, even a fraction, for the whole, and to generalize a partial truth, which is the infallible means of committing an error.121

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The system of emanation also presents itself under almost the same forms as in Egypt. The divinity is divided into a multitude of gods who, first of all, take on bodies of human form; these bodies, however, are light, diaphanous, and pure. By degrees, their bodies become darker, heavier, and ever more corrupt; these gods thus descend to the condition of men, in order subsequently to return to their original source. Here there is both theism and pantheism:122 theism in that everything emanates from a single being, to which all are reunited by purifications; pantheism in the tendency of all the partial beings to reunite with the grand Whole, and once this reunion is effected, everything is absorbed in the same substance, and all individuality disappears.123

Dualism also makes itself seen. Having entered into metaphysical doctrine with theism and pantheism, both of which have need of it (the one to absolve itself,124 the other to explain its double appearance), it moves from the sanctuary into the people’s fables. In his countless incarnations, Vishnu appears on earth at each moment in order to combat evil, be it under the form of a hero, a reformer, a penitent, a sage; or of a tortoise, a boar, or a lion with the face of a man. Often the good and evil principles are united in the same god considered in two different aspects. Varuna, the god of the seas, sometimes protects and purifies the mortal race; sometimes, surrounded by crocodiles and serpents, it holds souls captive in its depths. Edition: current; Page: [458] Shiva is beneficent when he rests on Mount Kailash, having a bull for a mount and a gazelle for an emblem, pleased with the happiness he grants when his luminous visage turns to transmit to the corrupted world a refreshing current, source of prosperity and delights; but soon malevolent, he demands blood, is pleased with tears, and his mouth emits devouring flames. Finally, Ganga or Bhavani, this goddess of India, the weaver of nature, the dominatrix of the Himalayas, the primitive water that grants all beings the gift of existence, becomes Cali the terrible, who presides in the other world over the torments of sinners, and here demands human victims.125

What we have just said about theism, pantheism, emanation, and dualism applies to atheism. In whatever way one interprets and even tortures the doctrine of Fo, the beginning and end of this doctrine are the void and nothing. The ancestors of the human race came from nothing, and they returned to nothing; we all will return there. All living and non-living beings are different only in appearance, like snow, ice, and hail, which are but different forms of water. Matter alone exists. Birth, death, crime, virtue, moral blemishes, and purification on this earth—all are illusions. If one wants to avoid the word “atheism,” one can call this a materialized pantheism; but it is based on the same principles as atheism, and it ends with the same consequences; and the special confidence the reformer made to his disciples on his deathbed,126 which, even if it is not a historical fact nonetheless expresses the basis of the system, testifies against the subtleties that these disciples now invoke to ward off the accusation of atheism leveled against them by all the other sects. Nonetheless, among the Buddhists, as among the orthodox Brahmins, all the hypotheses coexist; and what is more, by means of precautions we spoke about above,127 this class of men maintains the people in wholly contradictory opinions. This class conforms itself to the external rites, it imposes and extols them, and tradition shows them going out after their master has expired to astonish the people with the austerity of their penances and the fervor of their religious invocations.

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The elements that compose the religions of Egypt and India are therefore identical. Both contain fetishism, science, and philosophy, the latter giving rise to hypotheses that have presented themselves to the human spirit everywhere, hypotheses of which the priests do not exclusively adopt one, but which they deposit in the sanctuary.128

Finally, a last circumstance completes the identity. Constrained like the Egyptian priests to express the metaphysical hypotheses in figurative language, the Brahmins have transformed them into cosmologies characterized by monstrous intercourse and births, rapes, and incest. It would take too long to enter into the details of these cosmogonies, which are more complicated and incoherent than those of any other people, because the systems they have to explain were more numerous and subtle.

It is enough to show Brahma,129 the first of beings, pure above all purity, excellent above all excellence, the light of lights, engendering the sacred Word, son of God, parallel to God, the Word whose first letter, presided over by Brahma, contains the earth, the world, men, spring, and the past; the second, presided over by Vishnu, the atmosphere, the vital heat, the autumn, and the present; the third, the sun, winter or the season of rains, and the future that awaits Shiva Mahadeva, the god of destruction. Maya, however, Maya the deceiver, sister and daughter of the all-powerful, Maya, the desire of Brahma, the eternal love, and in its quality as love, illusion, embraces her father with ineffable incestuous desire. Languidly lying on the brilliant fabric woven by her expert hands, she receives throughout time the fruitful seed of him who was alone. A tricolored (red, black, and white) heifer, by the combination of these three colors the emblem of the three forces that create, conserve, and destroy, she gives birth to the deceptive forces that people the world of appearances. She changes lies into truth, truth into lies, hiding the universal being that truly exists behind the partial ones who do not.

The fundamental ideas of this cosmology are found everywhere. According to a tradition, the original force, Adishakti, gave birth to the three gods, the Trimurti, Edition: current; Page: [460] brought together in a single body. She fell blindly in love with them, and she espoused her children. Following another tradition, from the seed of Adishakti, the creative energy, was born Siva, the energy that kills. He who existed alone, says the Yajur-Veda, was seized with fear; but he reflected: what do I have to fear, I who am alone? But then he was gripped by love; but what did love do for him in his solitude? He desired the existence of another, and he became like male and female in their mutual embraces. The two halves then separated, and the woman, fearing incest, took on different forms: she changed into a cow, but he changed into a bull; into a mare, he into a stallion; into a nanny goat, he into a billy goat; into a sheep, he into a ram; in this way the different species were created, from the colossal elephant to the imperceptible insect.

In one of the Puranas, the gigantic Atri, one of the first fathers of the human race, was practicing rigorous penance in a withdrawn place. A generative drop fell into the Ocean. It is my son, he cried out, I commend him to you. Lazy Ocean let the seed float at the whim of the winds and waves. Finally, recalling the neglected deposit, he placed it in the heavens. A moon was born, but pale, imperfect, exhausted by the buffetings it had undergone. The gods then cast it into the bosom of the waves, surrounding it with fortifying plants and trees full of precious sap, and soon a new moon emerged in the resplendent air.

According to another story, the visions of the three gods who existed only in idea encountered at a single point. The shock engendered the white goddess, who is the Trimurti, a virgin under a triple form; but who at the same time is Sarasvati, daughter of Brahma, and Bhavani, the wife of Shiva; she celebrated her joy at being created by dancing, and from her bosom escaped the three eggs from which the three gods emerged. Here appears the cosmogonic egg that is found in the traditions of all peoples. This egg, half gold, half silver, of which one portion forms the heavens, the other the earth; whose seed is the day star, whose yoke, the mountains, veins, the rivers, and whose heat, alternately burning and fertilizing, hardens the unfeeling rocks or gives life to living beings. But by a series of contradictions that are peculiar to cosmogonies that contain a subtle metaphysics, the creator himself becomes the creature of the egg he produces; and it is from this broken egg that he emerges, the first time he shows itself.130

However, born from the mixture and confusion of all the seeds, Haranguer-Behah,131 Edition: current; Page: [461] sometimes the principle of production, sometimes the collection of subtle elements, sometimes chaos, engenders Pradjapat, at once the first generation, the figure of the world, and the representative of the year. And this Pradjapat moves his hands to his mouth, and this movement engenders the fire of sacrifices, and this fire appears as a steed whose head is to the east, rump to the west, and sides to the north and south; from Pradjapat’s seed comes the earth, and from the union of this seed with the word comes the sun; and in his consuming hunger Haranguer-Behah, like Saturn, wants to devour the newly born; daughter of the fear that he inspires in them, the word opposes him; and dividing itself among the names of the different creatures and the expression of divine thoughts, it incorporates itself in the sacred Vedas. Here one cannot fail to see a universal symbol found in the most opposed cosmogonies. This insatiable hunger of Haranguer-Behah, who devours everything that he produces, and who produces only in order to have more to devour, is the terrifying image of the destruction reserved for all that exists. Creation, a transitory work, seems to be only the illusory means of filling an abyss that is never filled. The Greek Chronos is the Haranguer-Behah of the Indians. Should one conclude that this idea came from India? Is it not more plausible that a law of nature that experience reveals before all others—we mean to say: this rapid tendency of all beings toward the unknown abyss that awaits and engulfs them—in all countries has suggested this image to man as soon as he began to reflect?

But if Indian cosmogonies thus resemble in general ways those of all peoples ruled by priests, their climate gives them a special set of characteristics. The love of inactivity, the passion for a dreamy immobility, and the charms of an inner contemplation that softens the shocks from without—these pass from the character of the worshippers to the character of the objects worshipped; and creation, before being brought into being, encounters more than one obstacle from this disposition. The first being created by Brahma fled to the desert in order to give himself over to contemplation until the end of time. Nine rishis, products of a second act of the will of the Eternal, all refused the work of creation;132 only then was it that Brahma, combining the two favorite ideas of generation by the union of the sexes and the energy of contemplation, united with Sarasvati, and from this incestuous union were born one hundred Edition: current; Page: [462] sons who, in their turn, each engendered one hundred daughters. At the same time, by the force of his thought he drew from the depths of the waters the earth, the gods, and the Rudras, who asked him how they could in their turn form creatures. Brahma entered into himself, meditated, and gave birth to the sacred fire; and all these secondary beings, practicing austerities and penances with this fire, during the course of a year manufactured a single cow, the type of cows, who gave birth to 999 calves.

One cannot account for so many strange inventions that seem to be the crude and confused work of an imagination gone mad, except by attributing them to the need that the priests experienced, for the satisfaction of their own intellect, to attain the first causes of the phenomena they observed, and to show—accordingly as they were inclined to theism or pantheism—sometimes the grand Whole subdividing, sometimes the creative being causing the type of the celestial world to emanate from it, to which the material world would correspond. With respect to the dominion of the priests over the multitude, these cosmogonies were superfluous. This empire rested adequately on fetishism and anthropomorphism. But wanting to register their hypotheses and their systems, and being able to express them only in images borrowed from an imperfect language, they built up a repertoire of the most bizarre and obscene figures, explaining the strangeness by symbolism, and covering the obscenity by allegory.

The mixture of these different elements shines out in India as in Egypt. The Adityas, of whom Vishnu is the twelfth, represent the twelve months:133 behold the astronomical part. These Adityas are the sons of Adidi, the productive force, and of Casyapa, infinite space.134 Here a cosmogonic hypothesis mixes with astronomy. Finally, Vishnu is one of the most active gods of the popular mythology, and as such brings together the belief that offers idols, the science that observes facts, the metaphysics that seeks their causes, and the cosmogony that is forced to personify. Even in their prayers most marked with pantheism, the Brahmins allude to the observation of the planets, and even more frequently to the ancient forms in which the fetishism or the anthropomorphism of its cradle had clothed the gods.135 Combining, for example, on one hand, fetishism with astronomy, Edition: current; Page: [463] and on the other, astronomy with music, they gave Surya the sun the epithet of Hamsa the swan.136

The famous invocation or prayer of the Indians by which Krishna identifies himself,137 the Gayatri, is a mysterious and complicated thing in which all these notions are found: it is a rhythm,138 a sacred language, the text of the Vedas, a teaching, an all-powerful ceremony that the Brahmins are obliged to practice without ceasing, a revelation, and, at the same time, a separate being, a goddess, the mother of the universe, the spouse of Brahma, the female sun; all of which means: superstition, astronomy, abstractions, and mysticism mixed in such a way that it is impossible to separate them.

In Tibet, all of whose doctrines derive from the teaching of Fo and are therefore Indian despite the modifications they have received, Cenresi, represented in the figure of a wheel, which expresses the transformation by which he successively became the substance of all souls and all bodies, Cenresi, at once nature, the world, and necessity, the motor of the world, in popular legends is also an infant descended from heaven, exposed on a mountain, found by shepherds, risen to the rank of legislator by his wisdom and his miracles, but who, despairing of the crimes of men, breaks his head against a rock into twelve pieces, each one of which becomes a head.139 Here the popular fable combines with pantheism by bringing in, rather confusedly to be sure, the idea of a divine sacrifice and redemption by it, an idea we will have to talk about later.

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If one sought a final example of the most extravagant fables combined with science and mystical ideas, one would find it in the history of Trishanku, the most bizarre of the episodes collected in the Ramayana. One of the ancestors of Rama, Trishanku conceived the project of ascending, while alive, to the celestial abode. Rebuffed by the penitents he asked, and whose curses changed him into a pariah, he addressed himself to the powerful Vishvamitra, who prepared a sacrifice to which the gods were invited. On their refusal to attend, Vishvamitra, by the power of his austerities, launched Trishanku into the ethereal sphere. The gods cried to him: “Your place, O tchandala, is not among us.” Cast down from the height of the air, the king spewed torrents of blood. His protector caught him in his fall, and, by a second effect of the penitential practices he had performed, he created new gods, a new firmament, and new stars. The Indian Olympus capitulated; its inhabitants addressed humble supplications to Vishvamitra. Trishanku remained suspended, head toward the earth but surrounded with a brilliant light; and all the stars created by Vishvamitra are maintained in a lower station, resplendent with the light his words communicated to them. This fantastical story obviously indicates astronomical discoveries communicated by the priests in their fabular language; it also contains the customary ideas of India concerning the merit and power of voluntary suffering, the confirmation of the dominion of the Brahmins (who constrain the gods to obey them), and, finally, allusions to geographical science, because the blood Trishanku coughed up reddened the river Sama, which flows in the part of Tibet called Tsan by the Chinese.140

This amalgam of popular fictions with science sometimes introduces contradictions that are difficult to account for when one seeks a chimerical unity;141 sometimes it produces very singular (and often amusing) tales. Suranah or Suranu, the wife of the sun, not being able to support the glare that surrounded her spouse, secretly fled from him. Made miserable by her absence, the sun asked her back from Twashta, his father-in-law. The latter proposed, as the only way to have a lasting reconciliation, to let his rays be shorn. The sun consented, and placed upon a wheel he was shorn of his hair; this is why when the haze clears, he appears without sunbeams, but as a round and reddish mass. But Twashta had performed the operation Edition: current; Page: [465] inexpertly, and his son-in-law had several wounds; hence the spots that sometimes appear in the evening on the disc of the sun.142

Thus, in the priestly religions there is a perfect similarity, not only as far as content but also in the organization of the material. Science is attached to fetishism by way of personifications, to philosophy by symbols; in order to recount the facts observed by science, and to assign them their causes, philosophy borrows fetishism’s images and tales; and fetishism, while associated with science and philosophy without the multitude being aware of it, remains the religion of the people by becoming a part of the priestly idiom.

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CHAPTER 6: On the Causes That Modified This Combination in India, without, However, Winning the Day against the Priesthood

In beginning the chapter one has just read, we announced that it would not contain an exposition of the teachings or the rituals of the Indian religion, and that we simply wanted to indicate the elements of which the religion was composed and the way in which they were combined. As a consequence, many questions had to be postponed. Nothing was said about the character of the gods, their relations with men, the influence of these relations on morality, the notions—whether popular or philosophic—concerning the life to come, and on human destiny. These will be treated elsewhere; one, however, demands some treatment at this point.

Identical with the priestly cults in its materials and their organization, the religion of India is superior to them in many respects, however. Made mysterious by the priests, it seems to experience a need to expand, as it were, that fights against the disposition to mystery. Too often cruel under the empire of a caste, there is an innate sentiment of sympathy and mildness to it that the theocratic spirit cannot stifle. One would say about the Indians that they are a people of children accustomed to respect cruel masters, but contemplating their harsh practices with real astonishment; and who combine with the rites they do not understand a cheerfulness that nothing can destroy, and an innocence that nothing can taint.

One departs from Egypt exhausted, oppressed by an atmosphere where breathing is difficult and existence burdensome. One flees Gaul with horror, haunted by hideous and bloody spectacles over which a somber mysticism near to magic hovers. One finds this oppression, this mysticism, and these bloody spectacles in India as well, yet one comes near it charmed. The oppression weighs less, thanks to the elasticity of an imagination that plays with the yoke that has been imposed. The mysticism is embellished with élans of enthusiasm and songs of love. The hideous spectacles are relegated to a distance that veils them, and, mixing them with Edition: current; Page: [467] fabulous traditions, gives to the reality that still exists an air of fictitiousness that softens its horror.

Whence this difference? From two causes. We have already alluded to one;1 we need to return to it a second time. We will indicate the other, and perhaps these results will appear to be novel and worth considering.

The climate is the first of these causes. Less harsh and more serene than that of Germany and Gaul, no less pure but less monotonous than Egypt’s, India’s climate benevolently cradles the inhabitants of that country under its riant variety. The material world displays itself poetically, and this poetry penetrates the soul, which reproduces it no less brilliantly and even more fantastically.

To be sure, the priests have exercised their power in order to poison these gifts of heaven; but at least in part they have failed before nature; and they themselves have sometimes yielded to its ascendancy: their creeds have become less severe, their songs more harmonious; and despite their efforts, surrounded by images that charm him, happy when he is permitted to be, peaceful when he is not made mad by a fanaticism foreign to his character, the Indian has remained benevolent despite the Brahmins who command him to abhor what does not belong to his caste, as well as tolerant, even though the Brahmins have often dragged him into bloody wars and pushed him to horrible massacres.

In order to understand the effect of the climate on the Indians, one must read their sacred poems. They clothe their most abstract doctrines in vivid colors; when they encounter traditions containing a too shocking ferocity, they envelop them in a profusion of images that barely allows them to be seen, and when nothing in their religion contrasts with natural affections, they express them with an energy and tenderness that cannot be found in any of the masterworks of antiquity, and that one would seek in vain in the civilized poetry of our modern times. What is more innocent, for example, and more gracious, than the description of the courtesans sent to attract to the court the pious Dasharatha, the son of a sage who has withdrawn into the forest? His ignorance of the distinction between the sexes, his astonishment at the sight of the various female forms, the harmonious movements of these unknown seducers, their white skin, their diaphanous garments, the sound of the bells that decorate their agile feet, the sensuality and alacrity of their dance, the first stirrings of a desire unknown until then, and which enters sweetly into an innocent soul, the heavens resounding with ineffable melodies, Edition: current; Page: [468] the gods pouring torrents of perfume on the boat that bears Rishyashringa and his beautiful companions, everything is lovely in this picture.2 What the other cults of the same nature present as an ignoble mixture of superstition and debauchery is transformed under the fingers of Valmiki into a magical combination in which desire and sensuality become religious, and religion invites to pleasure.

And if we transport ourselves next to Dasharatha, forced to expose his son to the perils of war; if we lend an ear to the groans of this old man burdened with eleven thousand years, and who is bound by an oath against which his paternal heart protests; if we see him casting himself at the feet of the powerful Vishvamitra, asking grace from him, and repeating a thousand times this touching refrain: “Rama, my beloved, is my life, my support, my supreme treasure. I cannot live without Rama. How will he be able to confront these ten-headed monsters? O sage! Do not deprive me of Rama,”3 without any hesitation we would place these passages alongside the famous description of Venus’s girdle, where desire, sweet words, and flattering prayer triumph over wisdom itself;4 as well as the goodbyes of Hector and Andromache, or Priam’s lamentations.

In general, the comparison of the Ramayana with the Iliad, whether in literary, philosophic, or religious terms, would be a singularly worthwhile and instructive endeavor. The hatred of priests, a distinctive characteristic of Greek heroes and kings, and the boundless veneration of the Indians for their Brahmins, the contrast of the simple yet sublime poetry of Homer with the exuberant imagination of Valmiki, the similarity of events and difference of mores, would shed light on the changes circumstances and times imprint on the human race.

The first book of the Ramayana presents us with a narrative similar in its details, although opposed in its results, to that which begins the second song of the Iliad. Jupiter sends a deceptive dream to Agamemnon in order to move him to lead the Greeks to battle. Vishnu, wanting to become incarnate in the womb of Kaushalya, brings to Dasharatha, her spouse, the potion that is to prepare the miraculous Edition: current; Page: [469] pregnancy. But the description of the heavenly messenger is laconic in the Greek poet: the master of the gods summons the dream, speaks to it; the dream flies to the son of Atreus, fulfills his mission, and disappears.5 The author, impatient to get to the action, suppresses all the details that would slow it down.

But the Indian poet, in contrast, delights in drawing a picture of everything that would recall the divine splendor. Certain to please his readers, he leisurely depicts the supernatural being that descends from the heavens. “From the midst of the flame that rose on the altar of sacrifice, in the midst of celestial melodies that filled the air, rose suddenly a supernatural being of incomparable brilliance and incomparable stature, clothed in striking purple, powerful, heroic, irresistible; his face was black, his eyes burned with a fire without parallel; his hair and his beard were of an azure color, they covered his breast and his shoulders with tufts of hair; he was equal in height to the highest mountains, strong like a majestic tiger; similar to the sun, his form shone like a burning flame; in his muscles were found the vigor of the lion. His hands were covered with varied jewelry; twenty-seven pearls surrounded his neck; his teeth resembled the king of the stars; he pressed to his bosom, like a beloved wife, the urn of gold with silver sides filled with the divine payousa, the ambrosia of the immortals. Approaching Rishyashringa, he says: ‘See in me the emanation of Brahma; take this drink, and let Dasharatha receive it from your hands.’”6

The same difference between Homeric and Indian poetry is found in an episode of the Ramayana rather similar to the story of Briseis, except that in the Iliad she is a captive, and in the Ramayana, the cow Sabala.

Two verses of Homer are enough to recount the departure of the young prisoner,7 whose mute sadness is recalled only much later. Valmiki devotes fourteen to depict a Sabala who is at once plaintive and threatening: “Sabala, taken away by the monarch with audacious aims, meditates alone while crying, full of despair. How am I forgotten by the penitent with powerful words, and dragged away, the outraged victim of the servants of a king? What did I do to the prophet whose sight penetrates the secret of things, so that the sage exempt from moral taint would abandon me thus, me, so faithful? And meditating, and meditating again, she races away, knocking over thousands of her profane guards, and runs more rapidly Edition: current; Page: [470] than the wind to the threshold of the hermitage. She arrives, tormented with anguish and bathed in tears, and sobs at the feet of the holy man of bitter lamentations. You desert me, O blessed one, learned in the Vedas, rich in austerities, son of Brahma, you desert your humble companion”; and the sage responds to her as an adopted daughter, as a beloved sister.8

Here we are only indicating some examples, but these examples belong to a whole: they demonstrate the opposite character of the two genres of poetry. Homeric poetry is entirely external, ardent, full of movement, squeezed into those of its descriptions that are not indispensable to the action itself, more narrative than lyrical, adapted more to the retelling of deeds than to the vagaries of reverie; as a result, it is little religious, and devotes religion to earthly purposes instead of elevating it above the human sphere. Essentially meditative, Indian poetry concerns itself with the surrounding objects only to draw them to itself, take them in, and, as it were, identify them with itself; one sees in its often overwrought descriptions, its too frequent repetitions, in the accumulation of confused, incoherent epithets that tend by their subtle harmony to give rise to emotion rather than to describe external objects, that it attributes only a relative reality to such objects, and that for it true reality is in the soul, which always aspires to unite itself with God. This disposition makes the poetry of India eminently religious. Movement bothers it, contemplation enchants it; it is never happy except with this daughter of repose; it always leaves her with regret and therefore with a certain effort; and the less that action is its element, the more it employs striking colors and gigantesque forms in its accounts; when it departs from its nature, it does violence to itself, and this violence imparts something convulsive and disordered to it.

Nonetheless, it constantly returns to its native gentleness; it attempts to soften the fierce traditions that revolt it. Omburischa the king wanted to sacrifice a human victim; Indra saved him from the sacred fire. The king persisted. A poor Brahmin sells him one of his sons for millions of the purest gold, heaps of diamonds, and one hundred thousand cows. The unfortunate son encounters Vishvamitra practicing his holy penances. His heart full of anguish, he casts himself at the feet of the famous penitent. “No longer for me,” he says, “is there either a father who protects me or a mother who caresses me, no faithful friend, nor companion on the earth. O you whose voluntary sufferings have endowed with divine energy, save an unfortunate one without hope; let the king’s sacrifice take place, but let me live.” Edition: current; Page: [471] Touched with compassion, Vishvamitra orders his children to replace the stranger who had implored him; they refuse, and his curses make them unclean pariahs. Turning then to the suppliant: “Recite,” he said, “at the instant you are offered as a victim this powerful mantra9 that I give you, agreeable praise in honor of Indra and the other gods.” The ceremony begins, the gods approach with eagerness to participate; but the victim intones the mysterious hymn, and Indra, charmed, delivers him by granting the king the fruit of a vow whose fulfillment he prevented.

Everything in this narrative is significant. The poet allows himself no blame: the immolation of a human victim seems to him to be a virtuous act; the victim himself does not want the sacrifice to be interrupted; the prince is rewarded for his pious intention. The priestly influence is completely manifest here;10 but the Indian character, which does not dare fight against this influence, eludes and triumphs over it by reconciling the merit of the sacrificer and the salvation of the victim.11

What we know of the Mahabharata will provide our claims with new proofs. Several parts of this epic have striking likenesses to the Odyssey. The voyages of Bhima are analogous to the long travels of Ulysses; and the episode of the giant Hidimbo, a monstrous cannibal, resembles Polyphemus. But the Indian poet throughout adds to the strange adventures he recounts gentler and more profound sentiments than the Greek poet. The love of the sister of Hidimbo contrasts with the brutal ferocity of her brother, while nothing softens the half-burlesque, half-repulsive portrait of the savage Cyclops; and the filial and fraternal devotion of Bhima is painted in much more touching colors than the somewhat cold respect that Telemachus has for Penelope, as well as the so-long-delayed reunion of this queen with her husband.

An analogous character is manifest in all the ceremonies and rituals. The celebration of marriage recounts the alliance of man with nature, be it living or nonliving. It is in the name of the thirst-quenching water, the purifying fire, the restorative air, and the gods who reside in the elements that the young spouse is given to her husband, with these words: “Let all the assembled divinities chain your hearts to each other; let water, air, and fire unite you, and above all be united by love, that intoxicating potion. Three intoxicating beverages are drawn from the grain, from Edition: current; Page: [472] milk, and from the flowers of Brahma; the fourth is woman. They intoxicate by their scent, by their looks. It is love that gives this virgin, it is love that receives her. Sama who directs the silver moon, once confided her to a Gandharba who shone in the celestial choirs; this Gandharba passed her to the god of fire; the god of fire yields her to you, and with her, wealth and a numerous posterity. Sun that presides over the divine harmonies, darting rays, nymphs of the sun, brilliant stars, nymphs of the moon, fecund rains, nymphs of the air, and you sacred hymns, nymphs of the intellect, protect this happy couple. Charming Sarasvati by whom all the elements were created, sanctuary where the seeds of the universe developed, hear this nuptial song, glory of spouses. Be my companion, says the spouse in his turn, while pouring over the head of the virgin bride water that cleanses all stains, be my companion, the breath of my breath, bone of my bones, essence of my essence, let no one break our bonds. I invoked the goddess of happiness, and you are this goddess. I am the Sama-Veda and you, the Rig-Veda. I am the sun and you are the earth. Remove by this water endowed with a marvelous power the sinister omens that might be hidden in your eyebrows and your hair, everything that would be sinful in your words or your smiles, everything that would be impure in your gracious hands, in your lithe legs, and your most secret charms. Daughter of the sun, mount upon this chariot similar to the seven-petaled flower,12 painted in various colors, shining like gold. Source of ambrosia, increase the prosperity of your husband; let all be gay, let all be caressing, let all be pleasure and joy.” Finally, the priest comes to command the gods in a solemn voice: “Air, fire, moon, sun, expiators of evil, remove all the marks that would tarnish the beauty of this virgin, everything in her that would harm her spouse. Woman, I banish far from you the threats, dangers, and enchantments of the evil genii, everything that would threaten your beloved, your race, your flocks, your goods, and your name. Now let the sacrificial cow—other times offered in sacrifice—today be put at liberty by the prayer of the young wife; do not kill the innocent cow, the mother of the Rudras, the daughter of Vasus, the sister of the Adityas, who generously gives us streams of delicious milk; let go her reins, let her eat the grass of the prairie, and nourish herself with healthy plants, and drink long draughts of the pure water of the sacred river.”13

These ceremonies which are so poetic are combined, it is true, with obscene practices: the image of the Lingam wounds the sight; the priest offends virginal Edition: current; Page: [473] modesty by bringing indiscreet hands to the generative organ that is to be touched with a holy oil; and it was probably from India that the revolting practice came to Rome in the last days of a corrupt republic that forced the newly married woman to sacrifice the beginnings of the virginity she was to lose to hideous idols.

But here, too, it was the priestly genius abusing the idea of sacrifice,14 and pursuing with its bizarre laws the human race in its most intimate affections and pleasures.

Philosophy itself, even in its rashest speculations, experiences the beneficent influence of the climate. Contrast the pantheism of India with that of China or Tibet. Chinese pantheism offers only a blind and mute force; mechanism dominates in religious thinking, as in political organization. One would call it the ossified debris of a world that no longer exists, whose gigantic forms, while stirring astonishment, present only the idea of death. In India, on the contrary, something living escapes from the priestly clutches: ingenious images, while attesting to the identity of god and the soul, profit from the momentary difference to encourage man to perfection. “Two birds inhabited the same tree: one ate its fruits; the other, not touching them, contemplates and awaits his companion. One is god, the other is the soul contained in the body; it is the plaything of illusion, and deplores its own impotence. But when she discovers the one who lives with her, union occurs, eternal and intimate, and the soul is delivered from all error and all suffering.” There is individuality in the account, despite the doctrine that proscribes individuality; and the marvelous diversity of forms lets them escape from the exclusive unity to which logic and doctrine try to reduce them.

The second circumstance that distinguishes Indian religion from all the beliefs subject to priests is the theory of incarnations; a theory that in truth all these religions endorse, but none of which makes the use of that the Indians do. First inculcated by the priesthood for its benefit, this theory later reacted against it.

As the Indians understand it, it has nothing unreasonable about it.15 They say Edition: current; Page: [474] that as soon as one admits a benevolent power that created man in order to perfect him and make him happy, by what right can one refuse this power its choice of means toward this goal? When corruption or ignorance causes the work of his hands to err, given his pity and his indulgence, how can one prohibit him from sending an emanation of himself to reopen the path to heaven? By recognizing the miracle of creation one has ruled out denying any other miracle. The real absurdity is when one limits to a determinate country or time the action of this benevolent Providence; on the contrary, it begins anew each time the world has need of it, and the world, they add, constantly has need of it.16

This doctrine is found everywhere in the Puranas. The earth complains that under the weight of iniquity it is ready to fall back into the abyss; the gods groan under the oppression of evil genii. Vishnu consoles them by promising a savior who will break this tyranny. This savior, he says, will be born among the shepherds and in the hut of a shepherd; and in a further refinement (which belongs to ideas that we do not need to develop here), this savior becomes incarnate in the womb of a virgin.

In order to parry the specious objections that these strange, sometimes scandalous accounts might suggest to hard-to-please judges, the Indians suppose that once incarnate the divinity does not know himself: subject to all the errors, vices, and infirmities—the unhappy lot of spirit united with matter—the god who becomes incarnates loses awareness of his divine nature. He identifies with the form that he took on. The action of the present effaces the memory of the past.17 Thus Brahma became an unclean tchandala who for a long time lived by theft and murder; Edition: current; Page: [475] but suddenly recalled to his divine essence by the prayers and merits of two penitents, this vile pariah was raised to the first rank of the inspired and the poets. He explains the Vedas, and the wisest humble themselves before his marvelous interpretations. He takes the lyre, and the echoes of his harmonious songs resound in the Ramayana, and the earth is instructed and corrected by learning the history of Vishnu, already descended seven times among mortals, from Valmiki. Finally taking his own flight for heaven, this poet Valmiki, an unclean being who became regenerate, whose name was once the object of horror but is now the object of veneration and enthusiasm: he is Brama atoning for a rash pride, sentencing himself to celebrate Vishnu. In the same way, Vishnu incarnated as Balaramen or Bala-Rama does not recall that he is a god except when, as the destroyer of the giants, he liberates the human race from the sacrilegious worship these giants had imposed.18

This theory of incarnations has continued in India until our day. The Sikhs, a sect of deists who for four centuries have undergone bloody warfare against the orthodox and the Muslims,19 regard Gobind Singh, who won great victories for their belief, as the tenth avatar; Gobind Singh died at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

If one now reflects upon the direct and necessary consequences of this fundamental principle of the Indian religion, one will find it quite favorable to the progressive development of this religion. It prepares the imagination to contemplate new marvels and the understanding to receive new doctrines. It represents doctrine Edition: current; Page: [476] as never being definitively fixed, and always leaves open a space above the law where a better law can appear. As we already said,20 each incarnation is a period of improvement and reform. The learned Creuzer and his able translator felt this truth in their bones, as it were;21 but it seems to us that they obscured or falsified it. To hear them, incarnations would be either systems that were originally different, or the remnants of a single system, the work of time and genius, which came from an ancient and primitive Catholicism that was dissolved and fragmented by time.22 This is an error. There is no unique system; nor were there simply sects with different doctrines. First of all there were crude beliefs, then successive refinements which, despite the priests, the theory of incarnations would favor. To be sure, the times of some of these incarnations could have, even had to have, been inverted, for a reason we gave in our first volume.23 Thus, even though in the Indian narratives the religion of Brahma preceded that of Shiva,24 the latter must have been the older because it is the least advanced; and the religion of Brahma, the most metaphysical of all, had to have succeeded Shaivism.25

But whatsoever the confusions that had to have been introduced into the mythological chronology by this voluntary reversal of dates (which are impossible to determine with any precision), the progression of ideas, and the myths that express them, is not unrecognizable.26 This progression makes itself felt even in the forms Edition: current; Page: [477] of the incarnations. Vishnu first of all assumes the form of a fish. Soon an amphibian, he extends his action to the earth and the sea; later raising himself higher in the animal kingdom, he becomes a strong and frightening boar; even later, the king of animals, he adds a human head to the body of a lion. His teaching, which is gentler and purer than Shiva’s, attests to the march of civilization. The efforts of Krishna against licentious practices,27 Buddha’s efforts against the inequality of castes, are so many steps taken toward less revolting and less oppressive institutions; and these efforts, evaded or proscribed by the Brahmins, nonetheless have the advantage of at least momentarily imparting a salutary direction to minds; and of preserving them from the Egyptian apathy in which the priesthood always tries to keep them.

Unfortunately, the Brahmins constantly fought the salutary influence of the two circumstances we just discussed; and since in this world the good has its inconveniences, as evil has its advantages, the benevolent influence of a climate that bestows so many favors upon the Indians at the same time consolidated the priestly dominion.

A reading of the Ramayana is extremely interesting from this point of view. Everything our travelers have said in blame and disdain concerning the enslavement of the Indians to the Brahmins is surpassed by what we find in the great epic of Valmiki; and his testimony is so much more impressive as it is with real admiration that he reports the proofs of devotion and submission with which they are surrounded. Here it is an opulent city, Uyodhya,28 where no one dares offer a Brahmin less than a thousand rupees at a time.29 There, when the son of a hermit approaches, a king leaves his capital at the head of all his court; he returns, modestly following the holy man at a distance; the entire city is decorated with garlands; it sparkles with burning torches, and hymns of obedience resound in its Edition: current; Page: [478] ramparts.30 Later, speaking to the priests he employs in the sacrifices, Dasharatha addresses humble petitions to them; he calls himself their servant, their slave; he has thousands of magnificent tents built to receive their brothers, foreign and native, and fills them with exquisite meats and wines. None of them, says the poet, even had to express a wish; all were anticipated by the prince. They constantly extolled the food prepared for them by his command. They exclaimed: “Son of Rhagava, how well you have fed us!