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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.8

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 8

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series


Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2

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  [109] FAITHFUL to the spirit of his early Epicurean philosophy and theimpulse to surrender himself, in perfectly liberal inquiry about it, toanything that, as a matter of fact, attracted or impressed himstrongly, Marius informed himself with much pains concerning the churchin Cecilia's house; inclining at first to explain the peculiarities ofthat place by the establishment there of the schola or common hall ofone of those burial-guilds, which then covered so much of theunofficial, and, as it might be called, subterranean enterprise ofRoman society.

  And what he found, thus looking, literally, for the dead among theliving, was the vision of a natural, a scrupulously natural, love,transforming, by some new gift of insight into the truth of humanrelationships, and under the urgency of some new motive by him so farunfathomable, all the conditions of life. He saw, in all its primitivefreshness and amid the lively facts of its actual coming into theworld, as a reality of [110] experience, that regenerate type ofhumanity, which, centuries later, Giotto and his successors, down tothe best and purest days of the young Raphael, working under conditionsvery friendly to the imagination, were to conceive as an artisticideal. He felt there, felt amid the stirring of some wonderful newhope within himself, the genius, the unique power of Christianity; inexercise then, as it has been exercised ever since, in spite of manyhindrances, and under the most inopportune circumstances.Chastity,--as he seemed to understand--the chastity of men and women,amid all the conditions, and with the results, proper to such chastity,is the most beautiful thing in the world and the truest conservation ofthat creative energy by which men and women were first brought into it.The nature of the family, for which the better genius of old Romeitself had sincerely cared, of the family and its appropriateaffections--all that love of one's kindred by which obviously one doestriumph in some degree over death--had never been so felt before.Here, surely! in its genial warmth, its jealous exclusion of all thatwas opposed to it, to its own immaculate naturalness, in the hedge setaround the sacred thing on every side, this development of the familydid but carry forward, and give effect to, the purposes, the kindness,of nature itself, friendly to man. As if by way of a due recognitionof some immeasurable divine condescension manifest in a [111] certainhistoric fact, its influence was felt more especially at those pointswhich demanded some sacrifice of one's self, for the weak, for theaged, for little children, and even for the dead. And then, for itsconstant outward token, its significant manner or index, it issued in acertain debonair grace, and a certain mystic attractiveness, acourtesy, which made Marius doubt whether that famed Greek"blitheness," or gaiety, or grace, in the handling of life, had been,after all, an unrivalled success. Contrasting with the incurableinsipidity even of what was most exquisite in the higher Roman life, ofwhat was still truest to the primitive soul of goodness amid its evil,the new creation he now looked on--as it were a picture beyond thecraft of any master of old pagan beauty--had indeed all the appropriatefreshness of a "bride adorned for her husband." Things new and oldseemed to be coming as if out of some goodly treasure-house, the brainfull of science, the heart rich with various sentiment, possessingwithal this surprising healthfulness, this reality of heart.

  "You would hardly believe," writes Pliny,--to his own wife!--"what alonging for you possesses me. Habit--that we have not been used to beapart--adds herein to the primary force of affection. It is this keepsme awake at night fancying I see you beside me. That is why my feettake me unconsciously to your sitting-room at those hours when I waswont to [112] visit you there. That is why I turn from the door of theempty chamber, sad and ill-at-ease, like an excluded lover."--

  There, is a real idyll from that family life, the protection of whichhad been the motive of so large a part of the religion of the Romans,still surviving among them; as it survived also in Aurelius, hisdisposition and aims, and, spite of slanderous tongues, in the attainedsweetness of his interior life. What Marius had been permitted to seewas a realisation of such life higher still: and with--Yes! with a moreeffective sanction and motive than it had ever possessed before, inthat fact, or series of facts, to be ascertained by those who would.

  The central glory of the reign of the Antonines was that society hadattained in it, though very imperfectly, and for the most part bycumbrous effort of law, many of those ends to which Christianity wentstraight, with the sufficiency, the success, of a direct andappropriate instinct. Pagan Rome, too, had its touchingcharity-sermons on occasions of great public distress; itscharity-children in long file, in memory of the elder empress Faustina;its prototype, under patronage of Aesculapius, of the modern hospitalfor the sick on the island of Saint Bartholomew. But what pagancharity was doing tardily, and as if with the painful calculation ofold age, the church was doing, almost without thinking about it, withall the liberal [113] enterprise of youth, because it was her verybeing thus to do. "You fail to realise your own good intentions," sheseems to say, to pagan virtue, pagan kindness. She identified herselfwith those intentions and advanced them with an unparalleled freedomand largeness. The gentle Seneca would have reverent burial providedeven for the dead body of a criminal. Yet when a certain womancollected for interment the insulted remains of Nero, the pagan worldsurmised that she must be a Christian: only a Christian would have beenlikely to conceive so chivalrous a devotion towards mere wretchedness."We refuse to be witnesses even of a homicide commanded by the law,"boasts the dainty conscience of a Christian apologist, "we take no partin your cruel sports nor in the spectacles of the amphitheatre, and wehold that to witness a murder is the same thing as to commit one." Andthere was another duty almost forgotten, the sense of which Rousseaubrought back to the degenerate society of a later age. In animpassioned discourse the sophist Favorinus counsels mothers to suckletheir own infants; and there are Roman epitaphs erected to mothers,which gratefully record this proof of natural affection as a thing thenunusual. In this matter too, what a sanction, what a provocative tonatural duty, lay in that image discovered to Augustus by the TiburtineSibyl, amid the aurora of a new age, the image of the Divine Mother andthe [114] Child, just then rising upon the world like the dawn!

  Christian belief, again, had presented itself as a great inspirer ofchastity. Chastity, in turn, realised in the whole scope of itsconditions, fortified that rehabilitation of peaceful labour, after themind, the pattern, of the workman of Galilee, which was another of thenatural instincts of the catholic church, as being indeed thelong-desired initiator of a religion of cheerfulness, as a true loverof the industry--so to term it--the labour, the creation, of God.

  And this severe yet genial assertion of the ideal of woman, of thefamily, of industry, of man's work in life, so close to the truth ofnature, was also, in that charmed hour of the minor "Peace of thechurch," realised as an influence tending to beauty, to the adornmentof life and the world. The sword in the world, the right eye pluckedout, the right hand cut off, the spirit of reproach which those imagesexpress, and of which monasticism is the fulfilment, reflect one sideonly of the nature of the divine missionary of the New Testament.Opposed to, yet blent with, this ascetic or militant character, is thefunction of the Good Shepherd, serene, blithe and debonair, beyond thegentlest shepherd of Greek mythology; of a king under whom the beatificvision is realised of a reign of peace--peace of heart--among men.Such aspect of the divine character of Christ, rightly understood,[115] is indeed the final consummation of that bold and brillianthopefulness in man's nature, which had sustained him so far through hisimmense labours, his immense sorrows, and of which pagan gaiety in thehandling of life, is but a minor achievement. Sometimes one, sometimesthe other, of those two contrasted aspects of its Founder, have, indifferent ages and under the urgency of different human needs, been atwork also in the Christian Church. Certainly, in that brief "Peace ofthe church" under the Antonines, the spirit of a pastoral security andhappiness seems to have been largely expanded. There, in the earlychurch of Rome, was to be seen, and on sufficiently reasona
ble grounds,that satisfaction and serenity on a dispassionate survey of the factsof life, which all hearts had desired, though for the most part invain, contrasting itself for Marius, in particular, very forcibly, withthe imperial philosopher's so heavy burden of unrelieved melancholy.It was Christianity in its humanity, or even its humanism, in itsgenerous hopes for man, its common sense and alacrity of cheerfulservice, its sympathy with all creatures, its appreciation of beautyand daylight.

  "The angel of righteousness," says the Shepherd of Hermas, the mostcharacteristic religious book of that age, its Pilgrim's Progress--"theangel of righteousness is modest and delicate and meek and quiet. Takefrom thyself grief, for (as Hamlet will one day discover) 'tis thesister [116] of doubt and ill-temper. Grief is more evil than anyother spirit of evil, and is most dreadful to the servants of God, andbeyond all spirits destroyeth man. For, as when good news is come toone in grief, straightway he forgetteth his former grief, and no longerattendeth to anything except the good news which he hath heard, so doye, also! having received a renewal of your soul through the beholdingof these good things. Put on therefore gladness that hath alwaysfavour before God, and is acceptable unto Him, and delight thyself init; for every man that is glad doeth the things that are good, andthinketh good thoughts, despising grief."--Such were the commonplacesof this new people, among whom so much of what Marius had valued mostin the old world seemed to be under renewal and further promotion.Some transforming spirit was at work to harmonise contrasts, to deepenexpression--a spirit which, in its dealing with the elements of ancientlife, was guided by a wonderful tact of selection, exclusion,juxtaposition, begetting thereby a unique effect of freshness, a graveyet wholesome beauty, because the world of sense, the whole outwardworld was understood to set forth the veritable unction and royalty ofa certain priesthood and kingship of the soul within, among theprerogatives of which was a delightful sense of freedom.

  The reader may think perhaps, that Marius, who, Epicurean as he was,had his visionary [117] aptitudes, by an inversion of one of Plato'speculiarities with which he was of course familiar, must havedescended, by foresight, upon a later age than his own, and anticipatedChristian poetry and art as they came to be under the influence ofSaint Francis of Assisi. But if he dreamed on one of those nights ofthe beautiful house of Cecilia, its lights and flowers, of Ceciliaherself moving among the lilies, with an enhanced grace as happenssometimes in healthy dreams, it was indeed hardly an anticipation. Hehad lighted, by one of the peculiar intellectual good-fortunes of hislife, upon a period when, even more than in the days of austere ascesiswhich had preceded and were to follow it, the church was true for amoment, truer perhaps than she would ever be again, to that element ofprofound serenity in the soul of her Founder, which reflected theeternal goodwill of God to man, "in whom," according to the oldestversion of the angelic message, "He is well-pleased."

  For what Christianity did many centuries afterwards in the way ofinforming an art, a poetry, of graver and higher beauty, we may think,than that of Greek art and poetry at their best, was in truthconformable to the original tendency of its genius. The genuinecapacity of the catholic church in this direction, discoverable fromthe first in the New Testament, was also really at work, in thatearlier "Peace," under [118] the Antonines--the minor "Peace of thechurch," as we might call it, in distinction from the final "Peace ofthe church," commonly so called, under Constantine. Saint Francis,with his following in the sphere of poetry and of the arts--the voiceof Dante, the hand of Giotto--giving visible feature and colour, and apalpable place among men, to the regenerate race, did but re-establisha continuity, only suspended in part by those troublous interveningcenturies--the "dark ages," properly thus named--with the graciousspirit of the primitive church, as manifested in that first earlyspringtide of her success. The greater "Peace" of Constantine, on theother hand, in many ways, does but establish the exclusiveness, thepuritanism, the ascetic gloom which, in the period between Aurelius andthe first Christian emperor, characterised a church undermisunderstanding or oppression, driven back, in a world of tastelesscontroversy, inwards upon herself.

  Already, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, the time was gone by when menbecame Christians under some sudden and overpowering impression, andwith all the disturbing results of such a crisis. At this period thelarger number, perhaps, had been born Christians, had been ever withpeaceful hearts in their "Father's house." That earlier belief in thespeedy coming of judgment and of the end of the world, with theconsequences it so naturally involved in the temper [119] of men'sminds, was dying out. Every day the contrast between the church andthe world was becoming less pronounced. And now also, as the churchrested awhile from opposition, that rapid self-development outward fromwithin, proper to times of peace, was in progress. Antoninus Pius, itmight seem, more truly even than Marcus Aurelius himself, was of thatgroup of pagan saints for whom Dante, like Augustine, has provided inhis scheme of the house with many mansions. A sincere old Roman pietyhad urged his fortunately constituted nature to no mistakes, nooffences against humanity. And of his entire freedom from guile onereward had been this singular happiness, that under his rule there wasno shedding of Christian blood. To him belonged that half-humorousplacidity of soul, of a kind illustrated later very effectively byMontaigne, which, starting with an instinct of mere fairness towardshuman nature and the world, seems at last actually to qualify itspossessor to be almost the friend of the people of Christ. Amiable, inits own nature, and full of a reasonable gaiety, Christianity has oftenhad its advantage of characters such as that. The geniality ofAntoninus Pius, like the geniality of the earth itself, had permittedthe church, as being in truth no alien from that old mother earth, toexpand and thrive for a season as by natural process. And that charmedperiod under the Antonines, extending to the later years of the [120]reign of Aurelius (beautiful, brief, chapter of ecclesiasticalhistory!), contains, as one of its motives of interest, the earliestdevelopment of Christian ritual under the presidence of the church ofRome.

  Again as in one of those mystical, quaint visions of the Shepherd ofHermas, "the aged woman was become by degrees more and more youthful.And in the third vision she was quite young, and radiant with beauty:only her hair was that of an aged woman. And at the last she wasjoyous, and seated upon a throne--seated upon a throne, because herposition is a strong one." The subterranean worship of the churchbelonged properly to those years of her early history in which it wasillegal for her to worship at all. But, hiding herself for awhile asconflict grew violent, she resumed, when there was felt to be no morethan ordinary risk, her natural freedom. And the kind of outwardprosperity she was enjoying in those moments of her first "Peace," hermodes of worship now blossoming freely above-ground, was re-inforced bythe decision at this point of a crisis in her internal history.

  In the history of the church, as throughout the moral history ofmankind, there are two distinct ideals, either of which it is possibleto maintain--two conceptions, under one or the other of which we mayrepresent to ourselves men's efforts towards a betterlife--corresponding to those two contrasted aspects, noted above, as[121] discernible in the picture afforded by the New Testament itselfof the character of Christ. The ideal of asceticism represents moraleffort as essentially a sacrifice, the sacrifice of one part of humannature to another, that it may live the more completely in whatsurvives of it; while the ideal of culture represents it as aharmonious development of all the parts of human nature, in justproportion to each other. It was to the latter order of ideas that thechurch, and especially the church of Rome in the age of the Antonines,freely lent herself. In that earlier "Peace" she had set up forherself the ideal of spiritual development, under the guidance of aninstinct by which, in those serene moments, she was absolutely true tothe peaceful soul of her Founder. "Goodwill to men," she said, "inwhom God Himself is well-pleased!" For a little while, at least, therewas no forced opposition between the soul and the body, the world andthe spirit, and the grace of graciousness itself was pre-eminently
withthe people of Christ. Tact, good sense, ever the note of a trueorthodoxy, the merciful compromises of the church, indicative of herimperial vocation in regard to all the varieties of human kind, with auniversality of which the old Roman pastorship she was superseding isbut a prototype, was already become conspicuous, in spite of adiscredited, irritating, vindictive society, all around her.

  Against that divine urbanity and moderation [122] the old error ofMontanus we read of dimly, was a fanatical revolt--sour, falselyanti-mundane, ever with an air of ascetic affectation, and a bigoteddistaste in particular for all the peculiar graces of womanhood. By itthe desire to please was understood to come of the author of evil. Inthis interval of quietness, it was perhaps inevitable, by the law ofreaction, that some such extravagances of the religious temper shouldarise. But again the church of Rome, now becoming every day more andmore completely the capital of the Christian world, checked the nascentMontanism, or puritanism of the moment, vindicating for all Christianpeople a cheerful liberty of heart, against many a narrow group ofsectaries, all alike, in their different ways, accusers of the genialcreation of God. With her full, fresh faith in the Evangele--in averitable regeneration of the earth and the body, in the dignity ofman's entire personal being--for a season, at least, at that criticalperiod in the development of Christianity, she was for reason, forcommon sense, for fairness to human nature, and generally for what maybe called the naturalness of Christianity.--As also for its comelyorder: she would be "brought to her king in raiment of needlework." Itwas by the bishops of Rome, diligently transforming themselves, in thetrue catholic sense, into universal pastors, that the path of what wemust call humanism was thus defined.

  [123] And then, in this hour of expansion, as if now at last thecatholic church might venture to show her outward lineaments as theyreally were, worship--"the beauty of holiness," nay! the elegance ofsanctity--was developed, with a bold and confident gladness, the likeof which has hardly been the ideal of worship in any later age. Thetables in fact were turned: the prize of a cheerful temper on a candidsurvey of life was no longer with the pagan world. The aesthetic charmof the catholic church, her evocative power over all that is eloquentand expressive in the better mind of man, her outward comeliness, herdignifying convictions about human nature:--all this, as abundantlyrealised centuries later by Dante and Giotto, by the great medievalchurch-builders, by the great ritualists like Saint Gregory, and themasters of sacred music in the middle age--we may see already, in dimanticipation, in those charmed moments towards the end of the secondcentury. Dissipated or turned aside, partly through the fatal mistakeof Marcus Aurelius himself, for a brief space of time we may discernthat influence clearly predominant there. What might seem harsh asdogma was already justifying itself as worship; according to the soundrule: Lex orandi, lex credendi--Our Creeds are but the brief abstractof our prayer and song.

  The wonderful liturgical spirit of the church, her wholly unparalleledgenius for worship, [124] being thus awake, she was rapidlyre-organising both pagan and Jewish elements of ritual, for theexpanding therein of her own new heart of devotion. Like theinstitutions of monasticism, like the Gothic style of architecture, theritual system of the church, as we see it in historic retrospect, ranksas one of the great, conjoint, and (so to term them) necessary,products of human mind. Destined for ages to come, to direct with sodeep a fascination men's religious instincts, it was then alreadyrecognisable as a new and precious fact in the sum of things. What hasbeen on the whole the method of the church, as "a power of sweetnessand patience," in dealing with matters like pagan art, pagan literaturewas even then manifest; and has the character of the moderation, thedivine moderation of Christ himself. It was only among the ignorant,indeed, only in the "villages," that Christianity, even in conscioustriumph over paganism, was really betrayed into iconoclasm. In thefinal "Peace" of the Church under Constantine, while there was plentyof destructive fanaticism in the country, the revolution wasaccomplished in the larger towns, in a manner more orderly anddiscreet--in the Roman manner. The faithful were bent less on thedestruction of the old pagan temples than on their conversion to a newand higher use; and, with much beautiful furniture ready to hand, theybecame Christian sanctuaries.

  [125] Already, in accordance with such maturer wisdom, the church ofthe "Minor Peace" had adopted many of the graces of pagan feeling andpagan custom; as being indeed a living creature, taking up,transforming, accommodating still more closely to the human heart whatof right belonged to it. In this way an obscure synagogue was expandedinto the catholic church. Gathering, from a richer and more variedfield of sound than had remained for him, those old Roman harmonies,some notes of which Gregory the Great, centuries later, and aftergenerations of interrupted development, formed into the Gregorianmusic, she was already, as we have heard, the house of song--of awonderful new music and poesy. As if in anticipation of the sixteenthcentury, the church was becoming "humanistic," in an earlier, andunimpeachable Renaissance. Singing there had been in abundance fromthe first; though often it dared only be "of the heart." And it burstforth, when it might, into the beginnings of a true ecclesiasticalmusic; the Jewish psalter, inherited from the synagogue, turning now,gradually, from Greek into Latin--broken Latin, into Italian, as theritual use of the rich, fresh, expressive vernacular superseded theearlier authorised language of the Church. Through certain survivingremnants of Greek in the later Latin liturgies, we may still discern ahighly interesting intermediate phase of ritual development, when theGreek [126] and the Latin were in combination; the poor, surely!--thepoor and the children of that liberal Roman church--responding alreadyin their own "vulgar tongue," to an office said in the original,liturgical Greek. That hymn sung in the early morning, of which Plinyhad heard, was kindling into the service of the Mass.

  The Mass, indeed, would appear to have been said continuously from theApostolic age. Its details, as one by one they become visible in laterhistory, have already the character of what is ancient and venerable."We are very old, and ye are young!" they seem to protest, to those whofail to understand them. Ritual, in fact, like all other elements ofreligion, must grow and cannot be made--grow by the same law ofdevelopment which prevails everywhere else, in the moral as in thephysical world. As regards this special phase of the religious life,however, such development seems to have been unusually rapid in thesubterranean age which preceded Constantine; and in the very first daysof the final triumph of the church the Mass emerges to general viewalready substantially complete. "Wisdom" was dealing, as with the dustof creeds and philosophies, so also with the dust of outworn religioususage, like the very spirit of life itself, organising soul and bodyout of the lime and clay of the earth. In a generous eclecticism,within the bounds of her liberty, and as by some providential powerwithin her, [127] she gathers and serviceably adopts, as in othermatters so in ritual, one thing here, another there, from varioussources--Gnostic, Jewish, Pagan--to adorn and beautify the greatest actof worship the world has seen. It was thus the liturgy of the churchcame to be--full of consolations for the human soul, and destined,surely! one day, under the sanction of so many ages of humanexperience, to take exclusive possession of the religious consciousness.


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