NOT ARREST THE RUIN OF THE ROMAN WORLD.
[Sidenote: Nothing conservative in mere human creation.]
It is a most interesting inquiry why art, literature, science, philosophy, and political organizations, and other trophies of the unaided reason of man, did not prevent so mournful an eclipse of human glory as took place upon the fall of the majestic empire of the Romans. There can be no question that civilization achieved most splendid triumphs, even under the influence of pagan institutions. But it was not paganism which achieved these victories; it was the will and the reason of a noble race, in spite of its withering effects. It was the proud reason of man which soared to such lofty heights, and attempted to secure happiness and prosperity. These great ends were measurably attained, and a self-sufficient philosopher might have pointed to these victories as both glorious and permanent. When the eyes of contemporaries rested on the beautiful and cultivated face of nature, on commerce and ships, on military successes and triumphs, on the glories of heroes and generals, on a subdued world, on a complicated mechanism of social life, on the blazing wonders of art, on the sculptures and pictures, the temples and monuments which ornamented every part of the empire, when they reflected on the bright theories which philosophy proposed, on the truths which were incorporated with the system of jurisprudence, on the wondrous constitution which the experience of ages had framed, on the genius of poets and historians, on the whole system of social life, adorned with polished manners and the graces of genial intercourse--when they saw that all these triumphs had been won over barbarism, and had been constantly progressing with succeeding generations, it seemed that the reign of peace and prosperity would be perpetual. It is nothing to the point whether the civilization of which all people boasted, and in which they trusted, was superior or inferior to that which has subsequently been achieved by the Gothic races. The question is, Did these arts and sciences produce an influence sufficiently strong to conserve society? That they polished and adorned individuals cannot be questioned. Did they infuse life into the decaying mass? Did they prolong political existence? Did they produce valor and moral force among the masses? Did they raise a bulwark capable of resisting human degeneracy or barbaric violence? Did they lead to self- restraint? Did they create a lofty public sentiment which scorned baseness and lies? Did they so raise the moral tone of society that people were induced to make sacrifices and noble efforts to preserve blessings which had already been secured.
[Sidenote: Civilisation can only rise to a certain height by unabled reason.]
I have to show that the grandest empire of antiquity perished from the same causes which destroyed Babylon and Carthage; that all the magnificent trophies of the intellect were in vain; that the sources of moral renovation were poisoned; that nothing worked out, practically and generally, the good which was intended, and which enthusiasts had hoped; that the very means of culture were perverted, and that the savor unto life became a savor unto death. In short, it will appear from the example of Rome, that man cannot save himself; that he cannot originate any means of conservation which will not be foiled and rendered nugatory by the force of human corruption; that man, left to himself, will defeat his own purposes, and that all his enterprises and projects will end in shame and humiliation, so far as they are intended to preserve society. The history of all the pagan races and countries show that only a limited height can ever be reached, and that society is destined to perpetual falls as well as triumphs, and would move on in circles forever, where no higher aid comes than from man himself. And this great truth is so forcibly borne out by facts, that those profound and learned historians who are skeptical of the power of Christianity, have generally embraced the theory that nations must rise and fall to the end of time; and society will show, like the changes of nature, only phases which have appeared before. Their gloomy theories remind us of the perpetual swinging of a pendulum, or the endless labors of Ixion-- circles and cycles of motion, but no general and universal progress to a perfect state of happiness and prosperity. And if we were not supported by the hopes which Christianity furnishes, if we adopted the pagan principles of Gibbon or Buckle, history would only confirm the darkest theories. But the history of Greece and Rome and Egypt are only chapters in the great work which Providence unfolds. They are only acts in the great drama of universal life. The history of those old pagan empires is full of instruction. In one sense, it seems mournful, but it only shows that society must be a failure under the influences which man's genius originates. This world is not destined to be a failure, although the empires of antiquity were. I fall in with the most cheerless philosophy of the infidel historians, if there is no other hope for man, as illustrated by the rise and fall of empires, than what the pagan intellect devised. But this induction is not sufficiently broad. They have too few facts upon which to build a theory. Yet the theory they advance is supported by all the facts brought out by the history of pagan countries. And this is my reason for bringing out so much that is truly glorious, in an important sense, in Roman history, to show that these glories did not, and could not, save. And the moral lesson I would draw is, that any civilization, based on what man creates or originates, even in his most lofty efforts, will fail as signally as the Grecian and the Roman, so far as the conservation of society is concerned, in the hour of peril, when corruption and degeneracy have also accomplished their work. Paganism cannot give other than temporary triumphs. Its victories are not progressive. They do not tend to indefinite and ever-expanding progress. They simply show an intellectual brilliancy, which is soon dimmed by the vapors which arise out of the fermentations of corrupt society.
[Sidenote: The virtues of the primitive races.]
[Sidenote: Decline of civilization in the ancient races.]
The question here may arise why the Greeks and Romans themselves arose from a state of barbarism to the degree of culture which has given them immortality? Why did they not remain barbarians, like the natives of Central Africa? But they belonged to a peculiar race--that great Caucasian race which, in all of its ramifications, showed superior excellences, and which, in the earliest times, seems to have cherished ideas and virtues which probably were learned from a primitive revelation. The Romans, in the early ages of the republic, were superior to their descendants in the time of the emperors in all those qualities which give true dignity to character. I doubt if there was ever any great improvement among the Romans in a moral point of view. They acquired arts as they declined in virtue. If strictly scrutinized I believe it would appear that the Roman character was nobler six hundred years before Christ than in the second century of our era. It was the magnificent material on which civilizing influences had to work that accounts for Roman greatness, in the same sense that there was a dignity in the patriarchal period of Jewish history not to be found under the reigns of the kings. The same may be said of the Greeks. The Homeric poems show a natural beauty and simplicity more attractive than the rationalistic character of the Athenians in the time of Socrates. There was a progress in arts which was not to be seen in common life. And this is true also of the Persians. They were really a greater people under Cyrus than when they reigned in Babylon. There are no records of the Indo-Germanic races which do not indicate a certain greatness of character in the earliest periods. The Germanic tribes were barbarians, but in piety, in friendship, in hospitality, in sagacity, in severe morality, in the high estimation in which women were held, in the very magnificence of superstitions, we see the traits of a noble national character. It would be difficult to show absolute degradation at any time among these people. How they came to have these grand traits in their primeval forests it is difficult to show. Certainly they were never such a people as the Africans or the Malay races, or even the Slavonic tribes. These natural elements of character extorted the admiration of Tacitus, even as the Orientals won the respect of Herodotus. It is more easy to conceive why such a people as the Greeks and Romans were, in their primitive simplicity, when they were brave, trusting, affectionate, enterprising, should make progress in arts and sciences, than why they should have degenerated after a high civilization had been reached. They made the arts and sciences. The arts and sciences did not make them. They were great before civilization, as technically understood, was born. Why they were so superior to other races we cannot tell. They were either made so, or else they must have received a revelation from above, or learned some of the great truths which by God were taught to the patriarchs. Possibly the wisdom they very early evinced had come down from father to son from the remotest antiquity. The divine savor may have leavened the whole race before history was written. With their uncorrupted and primitive habits, they had a moral force which enabled them to make great improvements. Without this force they never would have reached so high a culture. And when the moral force was spent, the civilization they created also passed away from them to other uncorrupted races. The Greeks learned from Egyptians, as Romans learned from Greeks. Civilization only reached a limited state among the Egyptians. It never advanced for three thousand years. Greek culture retrograded after the age of Pericles. There were but few works of genius produced at Rome after the Antonines. The age of Augustus saw a higher triumph of art than the age of Cato, yet the moral greatness of the Romans was more marked in the time of Cato than in that of Augustus. If moral elevation kept pace with art, why the memorable decline in morals when the genius of the Romans soared to its utmost height? The virtues of society were a soil on which art prospered, and art continued to be developed long after real vigor had fled, but only reached a certain limit, and declined when life was gone. In other words, the force of character, which the early Romans evinced, gave an immense impulse to civilization, whose fruits appeared after the glory of character was gone; but, having no soil, the tree of knowledge at last withered away. If the old civilization had a life of itself, it would have saved the race. But as it was purely man's creation, his work, it had no inherent vitality or power to save him. The people were great before the fruits of their culture appeared. They were great in consequence of living virtues, not legacies of genius. They ran the usual course of the ancient nations. The sterling virtues of primitive times produced prosperity and material greatness. Material greatness gave patronage to art and science. Art and science did not corrupt the people until they had also become corrupted. But prosperity produced idleness, pride, and sensuality, by which science, art, and literature became tainted. The corruption spread. Society was undermined, and the arts fell with the people, except such as ministered to a corrupt taste, like demoralizing pictures and inflammatory music. Why did not the arts maintain the severity of the Grecian models? Why did philosophy degenerate to Epicureanism? Why did poetry condescend to such trivial subjects as hunting and fishing? Why did, the light of truth become dim? Why were the great principles of beauty lost sight of? Why the discrepancy between the laws and the execution of them? Why was every triumph of genius perverted? It was because men, in their wickedness, were indifferent to truth and virtue. Good men had made good laws; bad men perverted them. A corrupted civilization hastened, rather than retarded the downward course, and civilization must needs become corrupt when men became so. We cannot see any progress in peoples without moral forces, and these do not originate in man. They may be retained a long time among a people; they are not natural to them. They are given to them; they are given originally by God. They are the fruit of his revelations. Neither in the wilderness nor in the crowded city are they naturally produced. A perfect state of nature, without light from Heaven, is extreme rudeness, poverty, ignorance, and superstition, where brutal passions are dominant and triumphant. The vices of savages are as fatal as the vices of cities. They equally destroy society. Place man anywhere on the earth, or under any circumstances, without religious life, and moral degradation follows. Whence comes religious life? Where did Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, those eastern herdsmen and shepherds, get their moral wisdom? Surely it was inherited from earlier patriarchs, taught them by their fathers, or given directly from God himself.
[Sidenote: Virtues of primitive life.]
The most that can be said of a primitive state of society is that it is favorable for the retention of religious and moral truth, more so than populous cities, since it has fewer temptations to excite the passions. But a savage in any country will remain a savage, unless he is elevated and taught through influences independent of himself. Hottentots make no progress. Greeks made progress, since they had moral wisdom communicated to them by their ancestors: the divine light struggled with human propensities. When outward circumstances were favorable the virtues were retained; they were not born, and these were the stimulus to all improvement; and when they were lost, all improvement that is real vanished away. Civilization is the fruit of man's genius, when man is virtuous. But it does not renovate races. It is only religion coming from God which can do this.
It would be an interesting inquiry how far the religion of the old Greeks and Romans was pure--how far it was uncontaminated by superstitions. I think it would be found on inquiry, if we had the means of definite knowledge, that all that was elevating to the character had descended from a remote antiquity, and that the superstitions with which it was blended were more recent inventions. The ancestors of the Greeks were probably more truly religious than the Greeks themselves. And as new revelations were not made by God, the primitive revelations were obscured by increasing darkness, until superstition formed the predominant element.
[Sidenote: Christianity the only conservative power.]
Hence the revelations of God can only be preserved in a written form, without change or comment. Christianity is perpetuated by the Bible. So long as the Bible exists Christianity will have converts, and will be able to struggle successfully with human degeneracy. The revelations originally made to the eastern nations became traditions. The standard was not preserved in a written form to which the people had access.
[Sidenote: Primitive life favors virtue.]
[Sidenote: Evils of prosperity.]
[Sidenote: The superiority of the early to the later Greeks in Virtue.]
Moreover, the Greeks and Romans, when they were most virtuous, when they were in a state to produce a civilization, had great obstacles to surmount and difficulties to contend with. These ever develop genius and keep down destructive passions. Strength ever comes through weakness and dependence. This is the stern condition of our moral nature. It is a primeval and unalterable law that man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow, even as woman can only be happy and virtuous when her will is subject to that of her husband. A condition where labor is not necessary engenders idleness, sensuality, indifference to suffering, self-indulgence, and a conventional hardness that freezes the soul. Never, in this world, have more exalted virtues been brought to light than among the Puritans in their cold and dreary settlements in New England, even those which it is the fashion to attribute to congenial climates and sunny skies. The Puritan character was as full of passion as it was of sacrifice. We read of the existence and culture of friendship, love, and social happiness when the country was most sterile, and the difficulty of earning a living greatest. There was an outward starch and acerbity produced by toil and danger. But when people felt they could unbend, they were not icebergs but volcanoes, because the fires which burned unseen were those of the soul. The mirth of wine is maudlin and short-lived. It prompts to no labor, and kindles no sacrifices. It is satanic; it blazes and dies, a horrid mockery, exultant and evanescent. But the joy of homes, the beaming face of forgiveness, the charity which covers a multitude of faults, the assistance rendered in hours of darkness and difficulty, enthusiasm for truth, the aspiration for a higher life, the glorious interchange of thoughts and sentiments, these are well-springs of life, of peace, and of power. Nothing is to be relied upon which does not stimulate the higher faculties of the mind and soul. Ease of living blunts the moral sensibilities, and even the beauty of nature is not appreciated, when "all save the spirit of man is divine." But when men are earnest and true, uncorrupted by the vices of self-interest, and unseduced by the pleasures of factitious life, then even nature, in all her wildness, is a teacher and an inspiration. The grand landscape, the rugged rocks, the mystic forests, and the lofty mountains, barren though they be, bring out higher sentiments than the smiling vineyard, or the rich orange- grove, or the fertile corn-field, where slaves do the labor, and lazy proprietors recline on luxurious couches to take their mid-day sleep, or toy with frivolous voluptuousness. Neither a great nor a rich country is anything, if only pride and folly are fostered; while isolation, poverty, and physical discomfort, if accompanied by piety and resignation, are frequently the highest boons which Providence bestows to keep men in mind of Him. Prosperity may have been the blessing of the old Testament, but adversity is the blessing of the New--the mysterious benediction of Christ and Apostles and martyrs. A rich country does not make great men, except in craft or politics or business calculations; nor is there a more subtle falsehood than that which builds a nation's hope on the extent of its prairies, or the deep soil of its valleys, or the rich mines of its mountains, or the great streams which bear its wealth to the ocean. Mr. Buckle, fallaciously and sophistically, instances--Egypt as peculiarly fortunate and happy, because it possessed the Nile; but all that was glorious in Egypt passed away before authentic history was written, while Greece, with her barren mountains, laid the foundation of all that was valuable in the ancient civilization. What survives of Carthage or Antioch or Tyre that society now cherishes? Yet much may be traced to Greece when the people were poor, and struggling with the waves and the forests. It is not nature that ennobles man; it is man that consecrates nature. The development of mind is greater than the development of material resources. True greatness is not in an easy life, but in the struggle against nature and the victory over adverse influences. Even in our own country, it will be seen that schools and colleges and religious institutions have more frequently flourished when the people were poor and industrious than when they were rich and prodigal. Why has New England produced so many educators? Why is it that so few eminent men of genius and learning have arisen out of the turmoil and vanity of prosperous cities? Why is it that money cannot create a college, and is useless unless there is a vitality among its professors and students? The condition of national greatness is the same as that seen in the rise and fortunes of individuals. Industry, honesty, and patience, are greater than banks and storehouses. Character, even in a wicked and busy city, is of more value than money.
These truths are most emphatically illustrated by the civilization of the Romans. We are attracted by the glitter and the glare of arts and sciences. Let us see what they did for Rome, when Rome became degenerate. Let us review the chapters that have been written in this book. We point with pride to the trophies of genius and strength. We do not disparage them. They were human creations. Let us see how far they had a force to save.
The first great development of genius among the Romans was military strength. We are dazzled by the glory of warlike deeds. We see a grand army, the power of the legions, the science of war. Why did not military organizations save the empire in the hour of trial?
[Sidenote: The Roman armies in the republic.]
[Sidenote: Decline of military virtues.]
[Sidenote: Degeneracy of the legions.]
The legions who went forth to battle in the days of Aurelian and Severus, were not such as marched under Marius and Caesar. The soldiers of the republic went forth to battle expecting death, and ready to die. The sacrifice of life in battle was the great idea of a Roman hero, as it was of a Germanic barbarian. Without this idea deeply impressed upon a soldier's mind, there can be no true military enthusiasm. It has characterized all conquering races. Mere mechanism cannot do the work of life. Under the empire, the army was mere machinery. It had lost its ancient spirit; it was not inspired by patriotic glory; it maintained the defensive. The citizens were unwilling to enlist, and the ranks were gradually filled with the very barbarians against whom the Romans had formerly contended. The army was virtually composed of mercenaries from all nations, adventurers who had nothing to lose, who had but little to gain. They were turbulent and rebellious. Revolts among the soldiers were common. They brought new vices to the camps, and learned in addition all the vices of the Romans. They were greedy, unreliable, and cherished concealed enmities. They had no common interest or bond of union. They were always ready for revolt, and gave away the highest prizes to fortunate generals. They sold the imperial dignity, and became the masters rather than the servants of the emperors. Diocletian was obliged to disband the Praetorian band. The infantry, which had penetrated the Macedonian phalanx, threw away their defensive armor, and were changed to troops of timid horsemen, whose chief weapon was the bow. And they wasted their strength in civil contests more than against barbaric foes. They no longer swam rivers, or climbed mountains, or marched with a burden of eighty pounds. They scorned their ancient fare and their ancient pay. They sought pleasure and dissipation. The expense of maintaining the army kept pace with its inefficiency. Soldiers were a nuisance wherever they were located, and fanned disturbances and mobs. Their license and robbery made them as much to be dreaded by friends as by enemies. They assassinated the emperors when they failed to comply with their exorbitant demands. They often sympathized with the very enemies whom they ought to have fought. Enfeebled, treacherous, without public spirit, caring nothing for the empire, degenerate, they were thus unable to resist the shock of their savage enemies. Finally, they could not even maintain order in the provinces. "There was not," says Gibbon, "a single province in the empire in which a uniform government was maintained, or in which man could look for protection from his fellow man." What could be hoped of an empire when people were unwilling to enlist, and when troops had lost the prestige of victory? The details of the military history of the latter Romans are most sickening--revolts, rival generals, an enfeebled central power, turbulence, anarchy. Even military obedience was weakened. What would Caesar have thought of the soldiers of Valentinian siding with the clergy of Milan, when Ambrose was threatened with imperial vengeance? What would Tiberius have thought of the seditions of Constantinople, when the most trusted soldiers demanded the head of a minister they detested? Where was the power of mechanism, without genius to direct it? What could besieged cities do, when treachery opened the gates? The empire fell because no one would belong to it. How impotent the army, without spirit or courage, when the hardy races of the North, adventurous and daring, were pouring down upon the provinces--men who feared not death; men who gloried in their very losses! The legions became utterly unequal to their task; they were recalled from the distant provinces in the greater danger of the capitals; and the boundaries of the empire were left without protectors. The empire was created by strength, enthusiasm, and courage; when these failed, it melted away. And even if the old discipline were maintained, how inadequate the army against the overwhelming tide of barbarians, fully armed, and bent on conquest. In all the victories of Valerian, Constantine, and Theodosius, we see only the flickering lights of departing glory. Military genius, united with patriotism, might have delayed the fall, but where was the glory of the legions in those last days? Military science belonged to the republic, not the empire. One reason why the army did not save the empire was, because there was no army capable of meeting the exigencies of the fourth and fifth centuries. It was corrupted, perverted, conquered.
[Sidenote: The hopeless imbecility of the army under emperors.]
[Sidenote: Despair of the military emperors.]
Nor could any army, however strong, do more than prop up existing institutions. These themselves were rotten. Despotism cannot save a state. The reign of Louis XIV. was one of the most brilliant in modern annals. But no reign ever more signally undermined the state. It is the patriotism of soldiers that saves, not their physical force. Their force can be turned against the interests of a state as well as employed in its favor. Despotism sows the seeds of future ruin. No state was ever supported by military strength, except for a time, and then only when the soldiery were animated by noble sentiments. The imperial forces of Rome, while they preserved the throne of absolutisms, destroyed the self-reliance of the citizens, and supported wicked institutions. The difference in the aims of government under the Caesars, and under the consuls, was heaven-wide. The military genius which created an empire, was misdirected when that empire sought to perpetuate wrong. How different is the spirit which animated the armies of the United States, when they sought to preserve the institutions of liberty and the integrity of the state, from that spirit which animates the armies of the Sultan of Turkey! The Roman empire under the later emperors was more like the Ottoman empire, than the republic in the days of Cato. It was sick, and must die. A great army devoted to the interests of despotism generates more evils than it cures. It eats out the vitals of strength, and poisons the sources of renovation. It suppresses every generous insurrection of human intelligence. It merely arms tyrants with the power to crush genius and patriotism. It prevents the healthful development of energies in useful channels. The most that can be said in favor of the armies of the empire is, that they preserved for a time the decaying body. They could not restore vitality; they warded off the blows of fate. They could only keep the empire from falling until the forces of enemies were organized. No generalship could have saved Rome. The great military emperors must have felt that they were powerless against the combination of barbaric forces. The soul of Theodosius must have sunk within him to see how fruitless were his victories, how barren any victories to such a diseased and crumbling empire. Diocletian retired, in the plenitude of his power, to die of a broken heart. The utmost the emperors could do, was to erect on the banks of the Bosphorus a new capital, and virtually make a new combination of those provinces most removed from danger. The old capital was abandoned to its fate.
[Sidenote: The Roman constitution.]
[Sidenote: Infamy of the imperial regime.]
[Sidenote: Abortive efforts of good emperors.]
The elaborate and complicated constitution of the Romans, on which so much genius and experience were employed, was subverted when Caesar passed the Rubicon. Only forms remained, a bitter mockery, and a thin disguise. These were nothing. Neither consuls, nor praetors, nor pontiffs, nor censors, nor tribunes existed, except in name. Every office of the republic was absorbed in the imperial despotism. The glorious constitution, which gave authority to Cato and dignity to Cicero, was a dead-letter. Flatterers, and sycophants, and courtiers, took the place of senators. The imperial despotism crushed out every element of popular power, every protest of patriots, every gush of enthusiasm. The constitution could not save when it was itself lost. Never was there a more wanton and determined disregard of those great rights for which the nations had bled, than under the emperors. Every conservative influence that came from the people was hopelessly suppressed. The reign of beneficent emperors, like the Antonines, and of monsters like Nero and Caracalla, was alike fatal. The seal of political ruin was set when Augustus was most potent and most feared. Government simply meant an organized mechanism of oppression. There is nothing conservative in government which does not have in view the interests of the governed. When it is merely used to augment gigantic fortunes, or create inequalities, or encourage frivolities, and allows great evils to go unredressed, then its very mechanism becomes a refinement of despotic cruelty. When sycophants, jesters, flatterers, and panderers to passions become the recipients of court favor, and control the hand that feeds them, then there is no responsible authority. The very worst government is that of favorites, and that was the government of Rome, when only courtiers could gain the ear of the sovereign, and when it was for their interest to cover up crimes. What must, have been the government when even Seneca accumulated one of the largest fortunes of antiquity as minister? What must have been the court when such women as Messalina and Agrippina controlled its councils? The ascendency of women and sycophants is infinitely worse than the arbitrary rule of stern but experienced generals. The whole empire was ransacked for the private pleasure of the emperors, and those who surrounded them. "_L'etat, c'est moi_," was the motto of every emperor from Augustus to Theodosius. With such a spirit, so monopolizing and so proud, the rights of subjects were lost in an all-controlling despotism, which crushed out both grand sentiments and noble deeds. None could rise but those who administered to the pleasures of the emperor. All were sure to fall who opposed his will. From this there was no escape. Resistance was ruin. There was a perfect system of espionage established in every part of the empire, and it was impossible to fly from the agents of imperial vengeance. And the despotism of the emperors was particularly hateful, since it veiled its powers under the forms of the ancient republic, until in the very wantonness of its vast prerogatives it threw away its vain disguises, and openly and insultingly reveled on the forced contributions of the world. There were good and wise emperors who sought the welfare of the state, but these were exceptions to the general rule. Octavius, that Ulysses of state craft, checked open immoralities by legal enactments, discouraged celibacy, expelled unworthy members from the Senate, appointed able ministers and governors, and sought to prevent corruption, which was then so shameful. Vespasian introduced a severe military discipline among the legions, permitted citizens to have free access to his person, and promoted many great objects of public utility.
[Sidenote: Marcus Aurelius.]
Hadrian attempted to give dignity to the Senate, and visited in person nearly all the provinces of his empire, impartially administered justice, magnificently patronized art, and encouraged the loftiest form of Greek philosophy. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius set, in their own lives, examples of the sternest virtue, although they were deceived in the character of those to whom they delegated their powers, and were even ruled by unworthy favorites. Marcus Aurelius was, after all, the finest character of antiquity who was intrusted with absolute power. Contrasted with Solomon, or Augustus, or even Theodosius, he was a model prince, for he had every facility of indulging his passions, but his passions he restrained, and lived a life of the severest temperance and virtue to the end, sustained by the severest doctrines of the Stoical school. All that his rigid severity and moral elevation could do to save a decaying empire was done. He sought to base the stability of the throne on a rigid morality, on self-denial and self-sacrifice. When only twelve, he adopted the garb and the austerities of a philosopher, believing in virtue for its own sake.
From his earliest youth he associated with his instructors in the greatest freedom, and it was the happiness of his life to reward philosophers and scholars. He promoted men of learning to the highest dignities of the empire, and even showed the greatest reverence for the cultivation of the mind. Philosophy was the great object of his zeal, but he also gave his attention to all branches of science, to law, to music, and to poetry. His disposition was kind and amiable, and he succeeded in acquiring that self-command and composure which it was the professed object of the Stoics to secure. He was firm without being obstinate, gentle without being weak. He was modest, retiring, and studious. He believed that it was necessary for good government that rulers should be under the dominion of philosophy. He was so universally beloved and esteemed, that everybody who could afford it had his statue in his house. No man on a throne was ever held in such profound veneration. If ever there was, in a heathen country, an example of sublime virtue, it shone in the life of Marcus Aurelius; if ever there was an expression of supernal beauty, it was in his features beaming with love and gentleness and humility. He never neglected the duties of his office. He was noble in all the relations of a family. He was the model of an emperor. He only complained of want of time to prosecute his literary labors. He was probably the most learned man in his dominions. The Romans called him brother and father, and the Senate felt that its ancient dignity was restored. He had great causes of unhappiness. The barbarians invaded his territories; a long peace had destroyed martial energies; the Roman world was sinking into languor and decay; his adoptive brother Verus lived in luxury and dissoluteness; his wife Faustina was a second Messalina, abandoned to promiscuous profligacy; a pestilence ravaged Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Gaul, still this great man preserved his serenity, his virtues, and his fame. He was unseduced by any kind of mortal temptation, and left an unstained character, and an unrivaled veneration for his memory. And when we consider that he was the absolute master of one hundred and twenty millions, having at his disposal the riches of the world, and all its pleasures,--above public opinion, with no law to check him--a law only to himself, we find more to admire than in Solomon before his fall. His meditations have lately been translated and published--a work full of moral wisdom, rivaling Epictetus in morality, and the sages of the Middle Ages in contemplative piety. Niebuhr says it is more delightful to speak of him than of any man in history. The historical critic can see but one defect--his persecution of the Christians. He was doubtless a bigoted Stoic, as Paul was, at one time, a bigoted Pharisee; and the great delusion of his life was to rear a basis of national prosperity on the sublime morality of the philosophers whom he copied. He sought to save the state by the Stoical philosophy. Never were nobler efforts put forth on the part of a philosophic prince; but neither his patronage of philosophers, nor his own bright example, nor the doctrines of the Porch, conservative as they are, were of any avail. The Roman world could not be saved by the philosophy of Aurelius any more easily than the imperial despotism could be averted by the patriotism of Cicero. He was succeeded, after a glorious reign of twenty years, by his son Commodus, as incapable of managing an empire as Rehoboam was the kingdom of his father Solomon. Thus are the schemes and enterprises of the best men baffled by a mysterious power above us, who holds in his own hands the destinies of nations--the Divine Providence who giveth and who withholdeth strength.
Marcus Aurelius did all that human virtue could do to arrest the ruin which he saw, with the saddest grief, was impending over the empire, in spite of all the external prosperity which called forth such universal panegyric. And the empire was also favored by a succession of military emperors, who tried the force of arms, as Aurelius had philosophy.
Never did abler men reign on an absolute throne. All that genius and experience and skill could do to arrest the waves of the barbarians was done. A succession of most brilliant victories marked these later days of Rome. Amid unparalleled disasters, there were also most memorable triumphs. The glory of the Roman name was revived in Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, Carus, Diocletian, Constantius, Galerius, Constantine, Julian, all of whom rendered important services. These great emperors were uniformly victors, yet were doomed to hurl back perpetually advancing forces of Teutonic warriors, who were resolved on conquest. Diocletian was a second Augustus, and Constantine another Julius. But their conquests and reconstructions were all in vain. The barbarians advanced. They were getting more and more powerful with defeat; the Romans weaker and weaker after victory. In the middle of the fourth century the Goths were firmly settled in Dacia, the Persians had recovered the provinces between the Euphrates and the Tigris, Gaul was invaded by Germans, the Saxons had ravaged Britain, the Scots and Picts had spread themselves from the wall of Antoninus to the shores of Kent, Africa had revolted, Sapor had broken his treaties, the Goths had crossed the Danube, the Emperor Valens had been slain, with sixty thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry. From the shores of the Bosphorus to the Julian Alps, nothing was to be seen but rapes, murders, and conflagrations. Palaces were destroyed, churches were turned into stables, the relics of martyrs were desecrated, women were ravished, bishops were praying in despair, cities had fallen, the country was laid waste; the desolation extended to fishes and birds. Fruitful fields became pastures, or were overgrown with forests. The day of ruin was at hand. There was needed a hero to arise, a deliverer, a second Moses. And a great man appeared in the person of Theodosius--the most able and valiant of all the emperors after Julius Caesar.
The career of Theodosius is exceedingly interesting, since it shows that every thing which imperial genius could do to arrest ruin, was done by him.
Theodosius was thirty-three years of age when summoned from retirement to govern the world. He had learned the art of war from his father in Britain, and had, in his lifetime, defeated the Sarmatians. The Romans, disheartened by the tremendous defeat they had sustained under the walls of Adrianople, and the death of Valens the emperor, had no longer the courage to brave the Goths in the open field, and Theodosius was too prudent to lead them against a triumphant enemy. He retired to Thessalonica to watch the barbarians. In four years he had revived the courage of his troops, even as Alfred subsequently rekindled the martial ardor of the Saxons after their defeat by the Danes. On the death of Fritigern, the first great historic name among the Visigoths, his soldiers were demoralized, and divided by jealousies, and were won over by the arts and statesmanship of Theodosius, and a treaty was made with them by which they obtained a settlement within the limits of the empire, and became the allies of the emperor. The Ostrogoths were soon after defeated in a decisive battle on the Danube, and all fears were removed, at least for the present, of these hostile barbarians.
[Sidenote: Successors of Theodosius.]
Theodosius was equally fortunate in his conflicts with Maximus, who had usurped the provinces of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and who meditated the conquest of Italy. At Aquileia the usurper was seized, after a succession of defeats, stripped of his imperial ornaments, and delivered to the executioner, and Theodosius reigned without a rival in the renovated empire, practicing the virtues of domestic life, rewarding eminent merit, and protecting the interests of the church. He restored the--authority of the laws, and corrected the abuses of the preceding reigns. Whatever rival or enemy, in those distracted times, raised himself up against the imperial authority, was easily subdued. Eugenius met the fate of Maximus, and Arbogastes turned his sword against his own breast. Theodosius reigned in peace and wisdom, the idol of the church, and the object of fear to the barbaric world. He had his defects and vices, and committed errors and crimes, but his reign was beneficent, and the Christian world hoped that the evils which threatened the empire were removed. Alas, the empire was doomed. The death of Theodosius was the signal for renewed hostilities. His sons, the feeble Arcadius and Honorius, were unequal to the task of governing the empire, and it fell into the hands of the barbarians, who ruthlessly marched over the crumblings ruins, regardless of the treasures of the classic soil and of the guardians which Christianity presented in the presence of protesting bishops. The empire could not be saved by able emperors, however great their military genius. Absolutism, whether wielded by tyrants, or philosophers, or generals, was alike a failure. What hope for the empire when the Senate inculcated maxims of passive obedience to tyrants; when such lawyers as Papinias and Paulus declared that emperors were freed from all restraints? What could Alexander Severus do when the most illustrious man in the empire--the learned and immortal Ulpian--was murdered before his eyes by the guards, of which he was the prefect, and when such was the license of the soldiers, that the emperor could neither revenge his murdered friend, nor his insulted dignity; when his own life was sacrificed to the discontents of an army which had become the master of the emperors themselves? After the murder of this brave and enlightened prince, no emperor was safe upon his throne, or could do more than oppose a feeble barrier to the barbarians upon the frontiers. External dangers may have raised up able commanders, like Decius, Aurelian, and Probus; but they could not prevent the inroads of the Goths, or heal the miseries of society. Of the nineteen tyrants who arose during the reign of Gallienus, not one died a natural death. And when, after a disgraceful period of calamities, Diocletian ascended the throne, the ablest perhaps of all the emperors after Augustus, no talents could sustain the weight of public administration, and even this emperor attempted to extinguish the only influence that had power to save. Absolutism had sowed seeds of ruin, which were destined to bear most wretched fruit.
[Sidenote: Roman jurisprudence.]
Jurisprudence was the science of which the Romans have the most to boast; and this was not perfected until the time of the emperors. It was closely connected with the constitution, but was superior to it, since it was based upon the principles of natural justice or equity. This has lasted when all material greatness has vanished, and still forms the basis of the laws of European nations. This was a great element of civilization itself; it was part of the mechanism of social order; it pervaded all parts of the empire; it made the reign of tyrants endurable.
There is no doubt that the excellence of the laws formed one of the most powerful conservative influences of pagan antiquity. We glory in those laws as one of the proudest achievements of the human mind. But laws are rather an exponent of the state of society than a controlling force which modifies it. If a murderer is to be hung, or a thief imprisoned, the rigid law shows simply no mercy to murderers and thieves; it does not create a sentiment which prevents, though it may punish, iniquity. The wise division of property among heirs may operate against injurious accumulations, but does not prevent disproportionate fortunes. The more complicated the jurisprudence, the more need it seems that society has of restraints and balances. The law cannot go higher than the fountain. The more perfect the state of society, the less need there is of laws. The cautious guards against fraud simply show that frauds are common and easy. The minute regulations in reference to the protection of property and contracts, show that the prevailing customs and habits of dealers were corrupt, and needed the strong arm of a protecting government. As a general thing, it will be found that the laws are best, and most rigidly enforced, when iniquity prevails. A man is safe in Paris when he is not in Boston, but we do not infer from this fact that society is higher, but that there is a sterner necessity on the part of government to restrain crime. The laws of the Romans give the impression of the necessity of a constant watchfulness and supervision to prevent the strong preying upon the weak. Other influences are more necessary than laws to keep men virtuous and orderly. Laws are necessary, indeed; but they are not the first conditions of social existence.
[Sidenote: Perversion of the laws.]
But what are we to think of laws when they are either evaded or perverted, when there is not wisdom to feel their justice or virtue to execute them? What are laws if judges are corrupt? The venality of the judges of Rome was proverbial. Even in the comparatively virtuous age of Cicero, a friend wrote to him not to recall a certain great functionary, since he himself was implicated in his robberies, and the request was granted. The empire was regarded as spoil, and the provinces were robbed of their most valuable treasures. Witness the extortions of Verres in Sicily, when a residence of two years was enough to make the fortune of a provincial governor. Nor was Roman law ever independent of political power. The praetors were politicians having ambitious aims beyond the exercise of judicial authority. Influential men could ever buy verdicts, and the government winked at the infamy. There was justice in the abstract, but not in the reality. And when jurisprudence became complicated, judgments were made on technical points rather than on principles of equity. It was as ruinous to go to law at Rome as in London. Lawyers absorbed the money at issue by their tricks and delays. They made the practice of their noble profession obscure and uncertain. Clients danced attendance on eminent jurists, and received promises, smiles, and oyster-shells. It was, too, often better to submit to an injury than seek to redress it. Cases were decided against justice, if some technical form or ancient usage favored the more powerful party. Lawyers formed a large and powerful class, and they had fortunes to make. Instead of protecting the innocent, they shielded the guilty. Those who paid the highest fees were most certain of favorable verdicts. The laws practically operated to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Between the venality of the court and the learned jugglery of advocates, there was little hope for the obscure and indigent. Says Merivale: "The occupation of the bench of justice was the great instrument by which powerful men protected their monopolies; for, by keeping this in their own hands, they could quash every attempt at revealing, by legal practice, the enormities of their administration. And the means of seduction allowed by law, such as the covert bribery of shows and festivals, were used openly and boldly." What, then, could be hoped from the laws when they were made the channel of extortion and oppression? Law, the glory of Rome in the abstract, became the most dismal mockery of the rights of man. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its savor it is good for nothing, not even for the dunghill. When the laws practically add to the evils they were intended to cure, what hope is there in their conservative influence? The practice of the law ever remained an honorable profession, and the sons of the great were trained to it; but we find such men as Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine, who originally embarked in it, turning from it with disgust, as full of tricks and pedantries, in which success was only earned by a prostitution of the moral powers. Laws perverted were worse than no laws at all, since they could be turned by cunning, and sharp lawyers against truth and innocence. It would be harsh and narrow to say that lawyers were not necessary; but they did very little to avert evils. A wicked generation pressed over the feeble barriers which the laws presented against iniquity. They were only cobwebs to catch the insignificant. Unless good laws are enforced by virtue and intelligence, they prove a snare. It is the enforcement of laws, on the principles of justice, not the creation of them, that saves a state.
[Sidenote: Art among the later Romans.]
If a complicated system of laws and government, on which the reason and experience of ages were expended, did not prevent the empire from falling into the hands of barbarians, much less was to be expected of art, for which the Romans were also distinguished in common with the Greeks. Much is said of the ennobling influence of those great creations which gave so great lustre to ancient civilization. Founded on imperishable ideas, we naturally attribute to them a great element of national preservation, as they were of glory and pride.
[Sidenote: Its inherent beauty.]
It cannot be denied that art, when in harmony with the exalted ideals of beauty and grace, which it seeks to perpetuate on canvas or in marble, does much to improve the taste, to promote refinement and aesthetic culture. And when art is pursued with a lofty end, seeking, like virtue, its own reward, there is much that is ennobling in it. Even that literature is most prized and most enduring which is artistic, like the odes of Horace, the epics of Virgil, the condensed narrative of Tacitus; like the "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," or the "Deserted Village," or "Corinne," or "Waverley." Varro was the most learned writer whom Rome produced, and the most voluminous. Yet scarcely any thing remains of his productions. They were deficient in art, like German histories--very useful in their day, but only survive in the writings of those who made use of their materials. Hence science is not so enduring as poetry, when poetry is exalted, since it is superseded by new discoveries. Hence style in writing, when of great excellence, gives immortality to works which could not have lived without it, even had they been ever so profound. Voltaire's "Charles XII." is still a classic, like the numbers of the "Spectator," although superficial, and, perhaps, unreliable. A great painting is like the history of Thucydides--it lives because it is a creation. Hence art, when severe and lofty, cannot be too highly praised or cherished. A man cannot write for bread as he writes for fame; and he cannot write for fame as he writes to satisfy his own ideal. The immortal poets are those who sing themselves away to the regions of bliss, in a divine ecstacy, from love of art, or to give expression to the feelings which fill the soul. Sir Walter Scott could write his "Ivanhoe" when inspired by the sentiments which warmed the chivalrous ages; he became a mere literary hack when he wrote to pay his debts.
[Sidenote: The true artist.]
The true artist is one of the favorites of Heaven, in a great measure exalted above mortal commiseration, even if his days are clouded with cares and sorrows. He lives in a different and purer atmosphere than ordinary men. He may not banquet on the pleasures of sense, but he revels in the joys of the soul. A Dante may be sad and sorrowful, as when, in his gloomy wanderings and isolations, he asked of Fra Ilario the rest and peace of his sacred monastery; but he was sad as a greater than he wept over Jerusalem, in the profound seriousness of superior knowledge, in the sublime solitariness of an inhabitant of another and grander sphere. Genius ever partakes of this sadness, and it is as shallow to mistake it for misery as it would be to pity the saint passing through the tribulations of our worldly pilgrimage, in full view of the unending glories which are in store for him in the celestial city. The higher joys of the soul are foreign to frivolity, tumult, and the mirth of wine,--those pleasures most prized by the weak or sensual. There is nothing more sublime in this world than the example of a lofty nature seeking the imperishable, the true, the beautiful, the good, amid discomfort, or reproach, or neglect.
Such are truly great artists. Sometimes they are munificently rewarded by their generation with praises and material goods, as was Apelles among the Greeks, and Raphael among the Italians. Sometimes their excellence was unappreciated, except by a few. But whether appreciated or not, the great artists of antiquity belong to the constellation of men of genius which shall shine forever. They lived in their own glorious realm of thought and feeling, which the world can neither understand nor share. They did not live for utilities. They lived to realize their own exalted ideas of excellence.
[Sidenote: Decline of art.]
[Sidenote: Prostitution of art.]
[Sidenote: The later Romans incapable of appreciating art.]
[Sidenote: The degradation of art.]
[Sidenote: utter failure of art as a conservative power.]
But this was not the case in imperial Rome. All writers speak of a most signal decline in the arts from Augustus to Diocletian. Even architecture became corrupted. It was without taste, or a mere copy, like the arch of Constantine, from the older models. There were no original edifices erected, and such as were built were in defiance of all the principles that were established by the Greek architects. Least of all did art encourage grand sentiments. It did not paint ethereal beauty. It did not chisel the marble to elevate or instruct. Statues were made to please the degraded taste of rich but vulgar families, to give pomp to luxury, to pander wicked passions. Painting was absolutely disgraceful; and we veil our eyes and hide our blushes as we survey the decorations of Pompeii. How degrading the pictures which are found amid the ruins of ancient baths! Art was sensualized, perverted, corrupting. Paintings appealed either to perverted tastes, or fostered a senseless pride, or stimulated unholy passions, or flattered the vanity of the rich--brought angels down to earth, not raised mortals to heaven. They commemorated the regime of tyrants, or amused the wealthy classes, whose wealth had bought alike the muse of the poets and the visions of the sculptor. Art was venal. She sold her glories, which ought to be as unbought as the graces of life and the smiles of beauty; and she became a painted Haetera, drunk with the wine-cups of Babylon, and fantastic with the sorceries of Egypt. How could she, thus prostituted, elevate the people, or arrest degeneracy, or consecrate the ancient superstitions? She facilitated rather than retarded the ruin. It is marvelous how soon art degenerated with the progress of luxury, reproducing evil more rapidly than good, and obscuring even truth itself. Pleasures that appeal to the intellect will ever be in accordance with prevailing tastes, and the more exquisite the art the more fatally will it lead astray by the insidious entrance of a form as an angel of light. We cannot extinguish art without destroying one of the noblest developments of civilization; but we cannot have civilization without multiplying the dangers and temptations of human society. And even granting that the arts of the pagan world had a refining influence on the few, what is this unless accompanied with the virtues which grow out of self-sacrifice? I am not speaking of those glories which art ought to represent, but of those attractions which it presents when degraded. What conservative influence can result from the Venus of Titian? Why did not art reform morals, as morals elevated art? And why did art degenerate? Why did it not keep its own? The truth is, that art is esoteric, and not popular. The imagination of the vulgar is not sufficiently cultivated to see, in the emblems which art typifies, those passions or sentiments which have moved generations with enthusiasm. A Gothic cathedral is infinitely more interesting to a man of sentiment or learning than to an unlettered boor. The ignorant cannot appreciate the historical fidelity and marvelous study of races which appear in such a statue as the African Sybil. We must comprehend the character of Moses before we can kindle with admiration at the dignity and majesty which Michael Angelo impersonated in his statue. When Phidias, Praxiteles, and Lysippus moulded their clay models, they had a Pericles, a Plato, or a Demosthenes for their critics and admirers. It was for them they worked, and by them they were stimulated--not the rabble crowd of slaves and sycophants. But when, at Rome, there was no Cicero, no Octavius, no Mecaenas, no Horace, the artists toiled to please imperial gluttons, pretentious freedmen, ignorant generals, drunken senators, and venal judges. Their sublime art became the handmaid of effeminacy, of vanity, of sensuality. It could not rise above the level of those who dedicated themselves to its service. It did not make men better. Was Leo X. a wiser Pope because he delighted in pictures? Did art make the Medici at Florence more susceptible to religious impressions? Does art sanctify Dresden or Florence? Does it make modern capitals stronger, or more self-sacrificing, better fitted to contend with violence, or guard against the follies which undermine a state? What are the true conservative forces of our world? On what did Luther and Cranmer build the hopes of regeneration? The cant of dilettanti would be laughed at by the old apostles and martyrs. Art amuses, and may refine when it is itself pure. It does not brace up the soul to conflict. It does not teach how to resist temptation. It presents temptations rather. It gilds the fascinations of earth. It does not point to duties, or the life to come. That which is conservative is what saves, not what adorns. We want ideas, invisible agencies, that which exalts the mind above the material. So far as art can do this it is well. It is a great element of civilization. So far as gardens and flowers and villas and groves can do this, let us have them. Let us make a paradise out of a desert. Man was put into Eden to dress and to keep it. The material, rightly directed and used, is part of our just inheritance. Man is physical as well as intellectual. It is monkish and erratic to spurn the outward blessings of Providence. An inheritance in Middlesex is worth more than one in Utopia. Give us beauty and grace-- they are invaluable. But let us remember, also, that it is chiefly from moral truth that the soul expands--the recognition of responsibilities and duties. No matter how splendid we make the triumphs of art in its aesthetic influence, the question returns, Did these, in their best estate, in Greece and Rome, lead to patriotism, to sacrifice, to an elevated social home? And if these did not arrest corruption, how could art, when perverted, save a falling empire? All profound inquiries as to the progress of the race centre in moral truths,--those which have reference to the spiritual rather than the material, the future rather than the present. Art failed because it did not propound grand ideas which pertain to spiritual and future interests. It especially failed when it pandered to perverted tastes, when it was the mere pastime of the rich, and diverted the mind from what is greatest and holiest. St. Paul, when he wandered through the Grecian cities, said very little of the sculptures and the temples which met his eye at every turn. He was not insensible to beauty and grandeur. But he felt that all renovating forces came from the ideas which he was sent to preach. He did not condemn art; he probably admired it; but this he saw was a poor foundation of national happiness and strength. If the severe morality of the Stoics was a feeble barrier against corruption, how much more feeble were temples to Minerva, and statues to Jupiter, and pictures of Venus? Great was Diana of the Ephesians, but not as an influence to stem degeneracy. Exalt art as highly as we can, it is not a renovating power, and it is this of which we speak.
[Sidenote: Attempts of literature.]
[Sidenote: Degradation of literature.]
Literature attempted something higher than art; nor need we expatiate on its transcendent excellence in the classical ages. This itself was art, art in the highest and most enduring form, and will live when marbles moulder away. Virgil, Cicero, Horace, Tacitus, Livy, Ovid, were great artists, and civilization will perpetuate their fame. They cannot die. What more immortal than the artistic delineations of man and of nature which the poets and historians wrought out with so much labor and genius? When did men, uninspired by Christianity, utter sentiments more tender, or thoughts more profound, or aspirations more lofty? They are our perpetual study and marvel--prodigies of genius, such as appear only at great intervals. All that is most valuable in the ancient civilization is perpetuated in its literature, and survives empires and changes. The men who were amused and instructed by these great masterpieces have passed away, as well as their empire, but these will interest remotest generations. These live by their own vitality. If the unaided intellect of man could soar so high under the withering influence of paganism and political slavery and social degradation, we cannot but feel that Christianity has higher missions to accomplish than to stimulate the intellectual faculties of man; and, while we remember that, in our own times, some of the highest creations of genius have been made by those who have repudiated the spirit of Christianity, we cannot but feel that conservative influences do not come from literature, in its best estate, unless its ideas are inspired by the Gospel. The great writers of the Augustan age did not arrest degeneracy, any more than Goethe and Bulwer and Byron and Hugo have in our own day. They amused, they cultivated, they adorned; they did not save. Nor is it probable that the great masterpieces of antiquity were favorite subjects of study, except with a cultivated few, any more than Milton, Bacon, and Pascal are read in our times by the people. They enriched libraries; they were venerated and preserved in costly bindings; but they were not familiar guides. The people read nothing. The great writers of antiquity complain of the frivolity of the public taste. Moreover, the troubles of the empire and the corruptions of society were unfavorable to lofty creations of genius. Men were absorbed in passing events; and literary men generally pandered to the vile taste of the people, or stooped to adulate the monsters whom they feared. Hunting and hawking furnished subjects for the muse of the poets. History was reduced to dull and dry abridgments, and still drier commentaries. The people sought scandalous anecdotes, or demoralizing sketches, or frothy poetry. The decline in letters, like the decline in art, kept pace with the public misfortunes. When lofty and contemplative characters were saddened and discouraged, in view of public and private corruption, and saw ruin approaching, they had no spirit to make great exertions--and exertions which would not be appreciated. They sought retreats. There was no life, no enthusiasm in literature. It was conventional--to suit fashionable coteries, with whom strength was unpalatable and dignity a rebuke. Sound was preferred to sense. Rhetoric supplanted thought. A sentimental flow of words passed current for poetry. Literary men united into mutual admiration societies, and exalted their own frivolous productions. As the penny-a- liners of our day enumerate in their catalogue of great men chiefly those who have written romances and poetry for magazines, and pass unnoticed the stern thinkers of the age, so the literary gossips of Rome made the city ring, like grasshoppers, with their importunate chink. Unfortunately they were the only inhabitants of the field, for "no great cattle" kept silence under the shadow of the protecting oak. Nero suppressed the writings of Lucan, because he painted, in his "Pharsalia," the follies of the time. Lucian gave vent to his bitter sarcasms, and raised the veil of hypocrisy in which his generation had wrapped itself; but his mockery, like that of Voltaire, demolished, without seeking to substitute any thing better instead. Petronius laughed at the vices he did not wish to remove, and in which he himself shared. Juvenal and Martial both flattered the tyrants they detested. The nobles may have laughed at their bitter sarcasms, but they pursued their pleasures. Literature, under Augustus, did but little to elevate the Roman mind. What could be expected when it was coarse, feeble, and frivolous? If intellectual strength will not keep men from vices, what can be expected when intellect panders to passions and interests? There is no more absurd cant than that the culture of the mind favors the culture of the heart. What do operas and theatres for the elevation of society? Does a sentimental novel prompt to duty? Education seldom keeps people from follies when the will is not influenced by virtues. If Socrates sought the society of Aspasia, if Seneca amassed a gigantic fortune in the discharge of great public trusts, if Cicero languished in his exile because deprived of his accustomed pleasures, if Marcus Aurelius was blind to the rights and virtues of Christians, what could be hoped of the literary sensualists of the fourth century? If knowledge did not restrain the passions of philosophers, how could passions be restrained when every influence tended to excite them? Athens fell when her arts and schools were in the zenith of their glory, how could Rome stand when arts and schools undermined the moral health? Neither poets, nor historians, nor critics had in view the regeneration of society. They wrote, as poets and novelists write now, for bread, for fame, for social position. If such a man as Racine, so lofty and severe, was killed by a frown from Louis XIV., how could such an elaborate voluptuary as Petronius live out of the smiles of Nero and the flatteries of the court? If literature is feeble to arrest degeneracy when it is lofty, inasmuch as it reaches only the cultivated few, how inadequate it is when it is itself corrupted! The taste of our times, with all our glorious Christian literature, and our public libraries, our lecturers, our preachers, our professors, and our standard classical authorities, is scarcely kept from being perverted by the flimsy literature which has inundated us, and the newspaper platitudes which we devour with our breakfast. With every effort of true and Christian philanthropists, it is questionable whether there is any moral progress among us. There is a material growth; but does the moral correspond, with all our immense machinery for the elevation of society? What, then, could be expected at Rome, where there were no public libraries, no newspapers, no lyceums, no pulpits, no printing-presses, and where books were the solace of a few aristocrats, and where these aristocrats could only be amused by scandalous anecdotes and frivolous poetry. Literature did not even hold its own. It steadily declined from the Augustan age. It declined in proportion as the people had leisure to read it. Instead of elevating society, society corrupted literature. The same may be said of literature as was said of art. It did not fulfill its mission, if it was intended to save. It could reach only a small part of the population, and those whom it did reach were simply amused.
[Sidenote: Failure of literature.]
It would be too sweeping to affirm that the better forms of Roman literature did not refine and elevate, but unfortunately they reached only a few minds, and not always those who had political and social power. Literature was not powerful enough, was not sufficiently circulated, and the greater part of it was demoralizing, thus proving a savor of death rather than a savor of life. When a civilization reproduces evil more rapidly than good, there is not much hope for society, except from some signal interposition of Almighty power. Society is infinitely gloomy to a contemplative man, when there are no antidotes to the poison which is rapidly consuming the vitality of states. We contemplate approaching death, and death amid the array of physical glories. It is like a rich man laid on the bed from which he will never rise, surrounded with every comfort and every pleasure that men seek. Literature was a feeble medicine to the dying patient. Had all classes banqueted on the rich treasure of the mind, and been content, then there might have been some hope. But this was not the fact. Only a few reveled in the glories of thought. And these scorned the people.
[Sidenote: Ancient philosophy.]
But philosophy attempted something higher and nobler--even to reform morals, especially at Rome. The Romans had but little taste for abstract speculations. And hence they did not extend the boundaries of thought and reason beyond the limits which the Greeks arrived at. But they adopted what was most practical in the Grecian philosophy, and applied it to common life.
If there is any thing lofty in paganism, it is philosophy. It proposed to seek the beautiful, the true, the good; to divert men from degrading pursuits; to set a low estimate on money, and material gains, and empty pleasures. It was calm, fearless, and inquiring. All sects of philosophers despised the pursuits of the vulgar, and affected wisdom. Minerva, not Venus, not Diana, was the goddess of their idolatry. It deified reason, and sought to control the passions. It longed for the realms of truth and love. It believed in the divine, and detested the gross. Hence the philosophers were not eager for outward rewards, and kept aloof from the demoralizing pleasures of the people. They attired themselves in a different garb, lived retired, and studied the welfare of the soul. Mind was adored, and matter depreciated. They were esoteric men who abhorred vice, and sought the higher good. Morally, they were in general superior to other men, as they were in intellectual gifts and attainments. And they opposed the popular current of opinions, and stemmed popular vices. They were the reformers of the ancient world, the sages--earnest men, advocating the great certitudes of love and friendship and patriotism--the lofty spirits of their time, preoccupied and rapt in their noble inquiries into nature and God. Look at Socrates, so careless of dress, walking barefooted, giving what he had away, courting mortification, and disdaining popular favor, if he could only persuade his pupils of the greatness of the infinite and imperishable. Look at Pythagoras, refusing political office, and consecrating himself to teaching. Look to Xenophanes, wandering over Sicily in the holy enthusiasm of a rhapsodist of truth. Look at Parmenides, forsaking patrimonial wealth, that he might teach the distinction between ideas obtained through the reason, and ideas obtained through the senses. Look at Heraclitus, refusing the splendid offers of Darius, and retiring to solitudes, that he might explore the depths of his own nature. See Anaxagoras, allowing his fortune to melt away, that he might discover the many faces of nature. See Empedocles, giving away his fortune to poor girls, that he might attack the Anthropomorphism of his day; or Democritus declining the sovereignty of Abdera, that he might have leisure to speculate on the distinction between reflection and sensation; or Diogenes living in a tub; or Plato in his garden; or Aristotle in the shady side of the Lyceum; or Zeno guarding the keys of the citadel. See the good Aurelius, in later and more corrupt ages, forsaking the pleasures of an imperial throne, that he might meditate on his soul's welfare, or the slave Epictetus, unfolding the richest lessons of moral wisdom to a corrupt and listless generation.
[Sidenote: The Romans fail to appreciate philosophy.]
The loftier forms of the ancient philosophy were never popular, even at Athens. The popular teachers were sophists and rhetoricians, who, as men of fashion and ambition, despised the sublime speculations of Socrates and Plato. The Platonic philosophy had a hold only of a few, and these were men of powerful minds, but stood aloof from the prevailing tastes and pleasures. It had still less influence on the Roman mind, which was practical and worldly. Platonism opposed the sensualism and materialism of the times, believed in eternal ideas, sought the knowledge of God as the great end of life--a sublime realism which was hardly more appreciated than Christianity itself. Platonism was doubtless the highest effort of uninspired men, under the influence of pagan ideas and institutions, to attain a knowledge of God and the soul. It gloried in immortality, and claimed for man a nature akin to the deity, and destined to a higher development after death. It endeavored to understand our complex nature, and trace a connection between earth and heaven. It sought to distinguish between forms and essence, the spiritual and the sensual. It spiritualized the popular mythology, and insisted on the unity on which it fundamentally rests. It did not sneer at religious earnestness, and looked upon the beatitudes of the soul as the highest good of earth.
But such knowledge was too wonderful for the Romans. It was high, and they could not attain unto it. Its ends were too spiritual and elevated. There was scarcely an eminent Roman who adopted the system. Cicero came the nearest to understand its spiritual import, but it was too lofty even for him. He composed a republic and a treatise of laws, in which reason and the rule of right should be made the guide of states and empires. In this way Platonism, as a sublime hypothesis, entered into jurisprudence. It affected the thinking of master minds, even as it entered into Christianity at a later period, and formed an alliance with it. But, practically, it did not have much effect on life and manners. It was regarded as a system of mysticism, cherished by a very small esoteric body of believers, who were spurned as dreamers. They were looked upon very much as the transcendentalists of our own day are regarded, with whom the great body of even thinkers had but little sympathy. There was no more respect for Plato at Rome than there is for Kant among the merchants of London. His name may have been pronounced with an oracular admiration, but there was no profound appreciation of him, no general knowledge of his writings, no sympathy for his doctrines. They were to the Romans foolishness, somewhat after the sense that Christianity was to the Greeks. They transcended their experience, went beyond the limits of their thoughts, and sought spiritual certitudes which they disdained.
[Sidenote: The Aristotelian philosophy.]
[Sidenote: Its failure.]
The philosophy of Aristotle was nearly as distasteful to the Romans as that of Plato, and it was less lofty. It had a skeptical tendency, and excluded scientific light from the sphere of activity, and inculcated a proud and self-reliant spirit. The academics denied the possibility of arriving at truth with certainty; and, therefore, held it uncertain whether the gods existed or not, whether the soul is mortal or survives the body, whether virtue is preferable to vice, or the contrary. They sneered at religious earnestness, and tacitly encouraged influences greatly to be dreaded. They held in supreme contempt the popular religion, and made a mockery of religious ceremonies. They undermined superstition, but weakened religion also by substituting nothing instead of the absurdities they brushed away. Lucian was a type of these philosophers, and his bitter sarcasms were more powerful than the logic of Cicero to destroy what could not be proved. The academics may be said to have been the rationalists of antiquity. The old religions could not maintain their ground before the inquiring skepticism and sarcastic wit of these irreligious philosophers, who contented themselves with a lifeless deism--a system which did not, indeed, deny the existence and providence of God, but which attributed to the Deity an indifference respecting the affairs of men. Dr. Neander, in the first volume of the "History of the Church," has shown the effects of the unbelief of the academics on the state of society at Rome, especially on the men of rank and fashion. Infidelity, in any form, can have no conservative influence. It is designed to pull down, and not to build up. Superstition, with all its puerilities, is better than a scornful and proud philosophy which takes no cognizance of popular wants and aspirations.
[Sidenote: The Stoical philosophy.]
If any form of ancient philosophy could have renovated society, it was the Stoical school, which Zeno had founded. It commended itself, in a corrupt age, to many noble and powerful minds, because it raised them above the corruption around them, and proclaimed an ideal standard of morality. The Romans cared very little for mere speculations on God or the universe; but they did revere that which proposed a practical aim. The Stoics despised prevailing baseness, and set examples of a severe morality. Marcus Aurelius, one of the loftiest followers of this school, was a model of every virtue, and he looked upon his philosophy as a means of salvation to a crumbling empire. But the Stoics, with all their morality, were the Pharisees of pagan antiquity. They held themselves superior to all other classes of men. They gloried in their proud isolation. And with all the loftiness of Stoicism, it did not teach of a God who governed the world in mercy and love, but according to the iron decrees of necessity. It attacked error with a stern severity, but had no toleration for human weakness. It confounded the idea of God with that of the universe, and therefore destroyed his personality, making the Deity himself an influence, or a development. The Stoic despised the age, and despised every influence to elevate it which did not come from himself. He treated the most wholesome truths so partially as to be led into the greatest absurdities of doctrine and inconsistencies with their general principle. Epictetus, indeed, infused a new life into the Stoical philosophy. He taught the doctrine of passive endurance so forcibly that the Christians claimed him for their own. But there was nothing which appealed to the people in Stoicism. It was too stern and cold. It had no humanity. Hence they stood aloof, as they did from all the systems of Grecian philosophy. It was not for them, but for the learned and the cultivated. It was a system of thought; it was not a religion--a speculation and not a life. Like Platonism, the Stoical philosophy was esoteric, and only appealed to a few elevated minds, who had affected indifference to the evils of life, and had learned to conquer natural affections. The Stoical doctrines of Epictetus had a more practical end in view than those of Zeno, since they were applied to Roman thought and life. We cannot deny the purity and beauty of his aphorisms, but he was like Noah preaching before the flood. He had his disciples and admirers, but they made a feeble barrier against corruptions. It was the protest of a man before a mob of excited and angry persecutors resolved on his death. It was no more heard than the dying speech of Stephen. It was lost utterly on a people abandoned to inglorious pleasure.
[Sidenote: The Epicurean philosophy.]
The only form of philosophy which was popular with the Romans, and which was appreciated, was the Epicurean. The disciples of this school were, of course, the luxurious, the fashionable, the worldly, and it exercised upon them but a feeble restraining influence. It denied the providence of God; it maintained that the world was governed by chance; it denied the existence of moral goodness; it affirmed that the soul was mortal, and that pleasure was the only good. If the more contemplative and the least passionate rebuked gross vices, they still advocated a tranquil indifference to outward events that showed neither loftiness nor fear of judgment. Their system was openly based upon atheism. Self-love was the foundation of all action, and self-indulgence was the ultimate good. The Epicureans were the patrons of the circus, and the theatre, and the banquet, and, indeed, of all those vanities and follies which disgraced the latter days of Rome. Their influence tended to enervate and corrupt. Their philosophy, instead of preserving old forms of life, old customs, old institutions, old traditions and associations, made a mockery of them all, and was as efficient in producing decay as was the philosophy of the eighteenth century in France in paving the way for the revolution. The purest type of Epicureanism may have refined a few of the better sort, but the prevailing influence, doubtless, undermined society. The god of the reason was allied with the god of the sense, and the maniac soul of the lying prophet entered the schools. Education, as directed by them, served only to make youth worldly and frivolous. Teachers sought to amuse and not to instruct, to make royal roads to knowledge, to exalt the omnipotence of money, to set a high value on what passes away. They limited man to himself, and acknowledged no other object of human exertion than is to be found within the compass of the fleeting phenomena of the present life. They had no wish beyond the present hour, and only aimed to console man in the corruption and misery which he saw around him. They had no high aims; nor did they seek to produce profound impressions. They adapted themselves to what was, rather than what ought to be. They were easy and gracious, but utterly without earnestness. The Peripatetic inquired, sneeringly, "What is truth?" The Epicurean languidly said, "What is truth to me. There is no truth nor virtue, nor is there a God, nor a place of rewards and punishments. This world is my theatre. Let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die. I will abstain from inordinate self- indulgence, for it will shorten my life, or produce satiety, ennui, disgust--not because it is wrong. I will make the most of earth and of my faculties for pleasure. Wealth is the greatest blessing, poverty the greatest calamity. Friends are of no account, unless they amuse me or help me. The sentiment of friendship is impossible, and would be unsatisfactory." The true Epicurean quarreled with no person and with no opinions. Nothing was of consequence but ease, prosperity, self- forgetfulness. The soul of man could aspire to nothing beyond this life; and when death came, it was a release, a thing neither to be regretted nor rejoiced in, but an irresistible fate. What could be expected from such a system? What renovation in such a cold, barren, negative faith, without hope, without God in the world? The most prevalent of all the systems of philosophy, so far from doing good, did evil. How could it save when its ends were destructive of all those sentiments on which true greatness rests? What could be expected of a philosophy which only served to amuse the great, to throw contempt on the people, to undermine religious aspirations, to vitiate the moral sense, to ignore God and duty and a life to come?
Thus every influence at Rome, whether proceeding from art, or literature, or philosophy, or government, instead of saving, tended to destroy. All these things came from man, and could not elevate him beyond himself. Even religion was a compound of superstitions, ritual observances, and puerilities. It did not come from God. It was neither lofty nor pure. What good there was soon became perverted, and the evil was reproduced more rapidly than good. Only error seemed to have vitality. The false lights which sin had kindled shed only a delusive gleam. The soul occasionally asserted the dignity which God had given it, and great men swept and garnished houses, but devils reentered, and the normal condition of humanity was what the Bible declares it to be since Adam was expelled from Paradise. Genius, energy, ambition, were allowed to win their victories, and they shed a glorious light, and for a time exalted the reason of man, but alas, were soon followed by shame and degradation.
[Sidenote: All forms of civilization fail to be conservative.]
And what is the logical inference--the deduction which we are compelled to draw from this mournful history of the failure of all those grand trophies of the civilization which man has made? Can it be other than this: that man cannot save himself; that nothing which comes from him, whether of genius or will, proves to be a conservative force from generation to generation; that it will be perverted, however true, or beautiful, or glorious, because "men love darkness rather than light." All that is truly conservative, all that grows brighter and brighter with the progress of ages, all that is indestructible and of permanent beauty, must come from a power higher than that of man, whether supernatural or not--must be a revelation to man from Heaven, assisted by divine grace. It must be divine truth in conjunction with divine love. It must be a light from Him who made us, and which alone baffles the power of evil.
He did send Christianity, when every thing else had signally failed, as it will forever fail. And this is the seed of the woman which shall bruise the serpent's head.
We have now to show why this great renovating and life-giving influence did not prevent the destruction of the empire; and we may be convinced that if this great end could not be accomplished in accordance with the plans of Providence, and in accordance with the laws by which He rules the world, Christianity was in no sense a failure, as man's devices were; but, through the mouths and writings of great bishops, saints, and doctors, projected its saving truths far into the shadows of barbaric Europe, and laid the foundation for a new and more glorious civilization--a civilization not destined to perish, so far as it is in harmony with divine revelation.