The works of the Apostolic Fathers. The Apologies of Justin. The practical treatises of Tertullian. The Epistles of Cyprian. The Canons of Councils. The Apostolical Constitutions and Canons. The Acts of Martyrs. — On the condition of the Roman Empire: the Histories of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dion Cassius, the writings of Seneca, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Martial.
W. Cave: Primitive Christianity, or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the first ages of the Gospel. London, fifth ed. 1689.
G. Arnold: Erste Liebe, d. i. Wahre Abbildung der ersten Christen nach ihrem lebendigen Glauben und heil. Leben. Frankf. 1696, and often since.
Neander: Denkwürdigkeiten aus der Geschichte des christlichen Lebens (first 1823), vol. i. third ed. Hamb. 1845. The same in English by Ryland: Neander’s Memorials of Christian Life, in Bohn’s Library, 1853.
L. Coleman: Ancient Christianity exemplified in the private, domestic, social, and civil Life of the Primitive Christians, etc. Phil. 1853.
C. Schmidt: Essai historique sur la société dans le monde Romain, et sur la transformation par le Christianisme. Par. 1853. The same transl. into German by A. V. Richard. Leipz. 1857.
E. L. Chastel: Études historiques sur l’influence de la charité durant les Premiers siècles chrét. Par. 1853. Crowned by the French Académe. The same transl. into English (The Charity of the Primitive Churches), by G. A. Matile. Phila. 1857.
A. Fr. Villemain: Nouveaux essais sur l’infl. du Christianisme dans le monde Grec et Latin. Par. 1853.
Benj. Constant Martha (Member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, elected in 1872): Les Moralistes sous l’Empire romain. Paris 1854, second ed. 1866 (Crowned by the French Academy).
Fr. J. M. Th. Champagny: Les premiers siècles de la charité. Paris, 1854. Also his work Les Antonins. Paris, 1863, third ed. 1874, 3 vols.
J. Denis: Histoire des theories et des idées morales dans l’antiquité. Paris, 1856, 2 tom.
P. Janet: Histoire de la philosophie morale et politique. Paris, 1858, 2 tom.
G. Ratzinger: Gesch. der kirchlichen Armenpflege. Freib. 1859.
W. E. H. Lecky: History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. Lond. and N. Y. 1869, 2 vols., 5th ed. Lond. 1882. German transl. by Dr. H. Jalowicz.
Marie-Louis-Gaston Boissier: La Religion romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins. Paris, 1874, 2 vols.
Bestmann: Geschichte der Christlichen Sitte. Nördl. Bd. I. 1880.
W. Gass: Geschichte der christlichen Ethik. Berlin, 1881 (vol. I. 49-107).
G. Uhlhorn: Die christliche Liebesthätigkeit in der alten Kirche. Stuttg. 1881. English translation (Christian Charity in the Ancient Church). Edinb. and N. York, 1883 (424 pages).
Charles L. Brace: Gesta Christi: or a History of humane Progress under Christianity. N. York, 1883 (500 pages).
89. Moral Corruption of the Roman Empire
Besides the Lit. quoted in § 88, comp. the historical works on the Roman Empire by Gibbon, Merivale, and Ranke; also J. J. A. Ampère’s Histoire Romaine à Rome (1856-64, 4 vols.).
Friedländer’s Sittengeschichte Roms (from Augustus to the Antonines. Leipzig, 3 vols., 5th ed. 1881); and Marquardt and Mommsen’s Handbuch der römischen Alterthümer (Leipz. 1871, second ed. 1876, 7 vols., divided into Staatsrecht, Staatsverwaltung, Privatleben).
Christianity is not only the revelation of truth, but also the fountain of holiness under the unceasing inspiration of the spotless example of its Founder, which is more powerful than all the systems of moral philosophy. It attests its divine origin as much by its moral workings as by its pure doctrines. By its own inherent energy, without noise and commotion, without the favor of circumstance — nay, in spite of all possible obstacles, it has gradually wrought the greatest moral reformation, we should rather say, regeneration of society which history has ever seen while its purifying, ennobling, and cheering effects upon the private life of countless individuals are beyond the reach of the historian, though recorded in God’s book of life to be opened on the day of judgment.
To appreciate this work, we must first review the moral condition of heathenism in its mightiest embodiment in history.
When Christianity took firm foothold on earth, the pagan civilization and the Roman empire had reached their zenith. The reign of Augustus was the golden age of Roman literature; his successors added Britain and Dacia to the conquests of the Republic; internal organization was perfected by Trajan and the Antonines. The fairest countries of Europe, and a considerable part of Asia and Africa stood under one imperial government with republican forms, and enjoyed a well-ordered jurisdiction. Piracy on the seas was abolished; life and property were secure. Military roads, canals, and the Mediterranean Sea facilitated commerce and travel; agriculture was improved, and all branches of industry flourished. Temples, theatres, aqueducts, public baths, and magnificent buildings of every kind adorned the great cities; institutions of learning disseminated culture; two languages with a classic literature were current in the empire, the Greek in the East, the Latin in the West; the book trade, with the manufacture of paper, was a craft of no small importance, and a library belonged to every respectable house. The book stores and public libraries were in the most lively streets of Rome, and resorted to by literary people. Hundreds of slaves were employed as scribes, who wrote simultaneously at the dictation of one author or reader, and multiplied copies almost as fast as the modern printing press. The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal a high degree of convenience and taste in domestic life even in provincial towns; and no one can look without amazement at the sublime and eloquent ruins of Rome, the palaces of the Caesars, the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Baths of Caracalla, the Aqueducts, the triumphal arches and columns, above all the Colosseum, built by Vespasian, to a height of one hundred and fifty feet, and for more than eighty thousand spectators. The period of eighty-four years from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius has been pronounced by high authority “the most happy and prosperous period in the history of the world.”
But this is only a surface view. The inside did not correspond to the outside. Even under the Antonines the majority of men groaned under the yoke of slavery or poverty; gladiatorial shows brutalized the people; fierce wars were raging on the borders of the empire; and the most virtuous and peaceful of subjects — the Christians — had no rights, and were liable at any moment to be thrown before wild beasts, for no other reason than the profession of their religion. The age of the full bloom of the Graeco-Roman power was also the beginning of its decline. This imposing show concealed incurable moral putridity and indescribable wretchedness. The colossal piles of architecture owed their erection to the bloody sweat of innumerable slaves, who were treated no better than so many beasts of burden; on the Flavian amphitheatre alone toiled twelve thousand Jewish prisoners of war; and it was built to gratify the cruel taste of the people for the slaughter of wild animals and human beings made in the image of God. The influx of wealth from conquered nations diffused the most extravagant luxury, which collected for a single meal peacocks from Samos, pike from Pessinus, oysters from Tarentum, dates from Egypt, nuts from Spain, in short the rarest dishes from all parts of the world, and resorted to emetics to stimulate appetite and to lighten the stomach. “They eat,” says Seneca, “and then they vomit; they vomit, and then they eat.” Apicius, who lived under Tiberius, dissolved pearls in the wine he drank, squandered an enormous fortune on the pleasures of the table, and then committed suicide. He found imperial imitators in Vitellius and Heliogabalus (or Elaogabal). A special class of servants, the cosmetes, had charge of the dress, the smoothing of the wrinkles, the setting of the false teeth, the painting of the eye-brows, of wealthy patricians. Hand in hand with this luxury came the vices of natural and even unnatural sensuality, which decency forbids to name. Hopeless poverty stood in crying contrast with immense wealth; exhausted provinces, with revelling cities. Enormous taxes burdened the people, and misery was terribly increased by war, pestilence, and famine. The higher or ruling families were enervated, and were not strengthened or replenished by the lower. The free citizens lost physical and moral vigor, and sank to an inert mass. The third class was the huge body of slaves, who performed all kinds of mechanical labor, even the tilling of the soil, and in times of danger were ready to join the enemies of the empire. A proper middle class of industrious citizens, the only firm basis of a healthy community, cannot coëxist with slavery, which degrades free labor. The army, composed largely of the rudest citizens and of barbarians, was the strength of the nation, and gradually stamped the government with the character of military despotism. The virtues of patriotism, and of good faith in public intercourse, were extinct. The basest avarice, suspicion and envy, usuriousness and bribery, insolence and servility, everywhere prevailed.
The work of demoralizing the people was systematically organized and sanctioned from the highest places downwards. There were, it is true, some worthy emperors of old Roman energy and justice, among whom Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius stand foremost; all honor to their memory. But the best they could do was to check the process of internal putrefaction, and to conceal the sores for a little while; they could not heal them. Most of the emperors were coarse military despots, and some of them monsters of wickedness. There is scarcely an age in the history of the world, in which so many and so hideous vices disgraced the throne, as in the period from Tiberius to Domitian, and from Commodus to Galerius. “The annals of the emperors,” says Gibbon, “exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.” “Never, probably,” says Canon Farrar, “was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practised with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars.” We may not even except the infamous period of the papal pornocracy, and the reign of Alexander Borgia, which were of short duration, and excited disgust and indignation throughout the church.
The Pagan historians of Rome have branded and immortalized the vices and crimes of the Caesars: the misanthropy, cruelty, and voluptuousness of Tiberius; the ferocious madness of Caius Caligula, who had men tortured, beheaded, or sawed in pieces for his amusement, who seriously meditated the butchery of the whole senate, raised his horse to the dignity of consul and priest, and crawled under the bed in a storm; the bottomless vileness of Nero, “the inventor of crime,” who poisoned or murdered his preceptors Burrhus and Seneca, his half-brother and brother-in-law Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, his mistress Poppaea, who in sheer wantonness set fire to Rome, and then burnt innocent Christians for it as torches in his gardens, figuring himself as charioteer in the infernal spectacle; the swinish gluttony of Vitellins, who consumed millions of money in mere eating; the refined wickedness of Domitian, who, more a cat than a tiger, amused himself most with the torments of the dying and with catching flies; the shameless revelry of Commodus with his hundreds of concubines, and ferocious passion for butchering men and beasts on the arena; the mad villainy of Heliogabalus, who raised the lowest men to the highest dignities, dressed himself in women’s clothes, married a dissolute boy like himself, in short, inverted all the laws of nature and of decency, until at last he was butchered with his mother by the soldiers, and thrown into the muddy Tiber. And to fill the measure of impiety and wickedness, such imperial monsters were received, after their death, by a formal decree of the Senate, into the number of divinities and their abandoned memory was celebrated by festivals, temples, and colleges of priests! The emperor, in the language of Gibbon, was at once “a priest, an atheist, and a god.” Some added to it the dignity of amateur actor and gladiator on the stage. Domitian, even in his lifetime, caused himself to be called “Dominus et Deus noster,” and whole herds of animals to be sacrificed to his gold and silver statues. It is impossible to imagine a greater public and official mockery of all religion.
The wives and mistresses of the emperors were not much better. They revelled in luxury and vice, swept through the streets in chariots drawn by silver-shod mules, wasted fortunes on a single dress, delighted in wicked intrigues, aided their husbands in dark crimes and shared at last in their tragic fate. Messalina the wife of Claudius, was murdered by the order of her husband in the midst of her nuptial orgies with one of her favorites; and the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero, after poisoning her husband, was murdered by her own son, who was equally cruel to his wives, kicking one of them to death when she was in a state of pregnancy. These female monsters were likewise deified, and elevated to the rank of Juno or Venus.
From the higher regions the corruption descended into the masses of the people, who by this time had no sense for anything but “Panem et Circenses,” and, in the enjoyment of these, looked with morbid curiosity and interest upon the most flagrant vices of their masters.
No wonder that Tacitus, who with terse eloquence and old Roman severity exposes the monstrous character of Nero and other emperors to eternal infamy, could nowhere, save perhaps among the barbarian Germans, discover a star of hope, and foreboded the fearful vengeance of the gods, and even the speedy destruction of the empire. And certainly nothing could save it from final doom, whose approach was announced with ever-growing distinctness by wars, insurrections, inundations, earthquakes, pestilence, famine, irruption of barbarians, and prophetic calamities of every kind. Ancient Rome, in the slow but certain process of dissolution and decay, teaches the
“… sad moral of all human tales;
’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past;
First freedom, and then glory — when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last.”
90. Stoic Morality
ED. Zeller: The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics. Translated from the German by O. J. Reichel. London (Longman, Green & Co.), 1870. Chs. x-xii treat of the Stoic Ethics and Religion.
F. W. Farrar (Canon of Westminster): Seekers after God. London (Macmillan & Co.), first ed. n. d. (1869), new ed. 1877 (Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, 336 pages).
Comp. also the essays on Seneca and Paul by Fleury, Aubertin, Baur, Lightfoot, and Reuss (quoted in vol. I.).
Let us now turn to the bright side of heathen morals, as exhibited in the teaching and example of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch — three pure and noble characters — one a slave, the second an emperor, the third a man of letters, two of them Stoics, one a Platonist. It is refreshing to look upon a few green spots in the moral desert of heathen Rome. We may trace their virtue to the guidance of conscience (the good demon of Socrates), or to the independent working of the Spirit of God, or to the indirect influence of Christianity, which already began to pervade the moral atmosphere beyond the limits of the visible church, and to infuse into legislation a spirit of humanity and justice unknown before, or to all these causes combined. It is certain that there was in the second century a moral current of unconscious Christianity, which met the stronger religious current of the church and facilitated her ultimate victory.
It is a remarkable fact that two men who represent the extremes of society, the lowest and the highest, were the last and greatest teachers of natural virtue in ancient Rome. They shine like lone stars in the midnight darkness of prevailing corruption. Epictetus the slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the crowned ruler of an empire, are the purest among the heathen moralists, and furnish the strongest “testimonies of the naturally Christian soul.”
Both belonged to the school of Zeno.
The Stoic philosophy was born in Greece, but grew into manhood in Rome. It was predestinated for that stern, grave, practical, haughty, self-governing and heroic character which from the banks of the Tiber ruled over the civilized world. In the Republican period Cato of Utica lived and died by his own hand a genuine Stoic in practice, without being one in theory. Seneca, the contemporary of St. Paul, was a Stoic in theory, but belied his almost Christian wisdom in practice, by his insatiable avarice, anticipating Francis Bacon as “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.” Half of his ethics is mere rhetoric. In Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the Stoic theory and practice met in beautiful harmony, and freed from its most objectionable features. They were the last and the best of that school which taught men to live and to die, and offered an asylum for individual virtue and freedom when the Roman world at large was rotten to the core.
Stoicism is of all ancient systems of philosophy both nearest to, and furthest from, Christianity: nearest in the purity and sublimity of its maxims and the virtues of simplicity, equanimity, self-control, and resignation to an all-wise Providence; furthest in the spirit of pride, self-reliance, haughty contempt, and cold indifference. Pride is the basis of Stoic virtue, while humility is the basis of Christian holiness; the former is inspired by egotism, the latter by love to God and man; the Stoic feels no need of a Saviour, and calmly resorts to suicide when the house smokes; while the Christian life begins with a sense of sin, and ends with triumph over death; the resignation of the Stoic is heartless apathy and a surrender to the iron necessity of fate; the resignation of the Christian, is cheerful submission to the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Father in heaven; the Stoic sage resembles a cold, immovable statue, the Christian saint a living body, beating in hearty sympathy with every joy and grief of his fellow-men. At best, Stoicism is only a philosophy for the few, while Christianity is a religion for all.
Epicteti. Dissertationum ab Arriano digestarum Libri IV. Euiusdem Enchiridion et ex deperditis Sermonibus Fragmenta .. recensuit .. Joh. Schweighäuser. Lips. 1799, 1800. 5 vols. The Greek text with a Latin version and notes.
The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of his Discourses, in four books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. A translation from the Greek, based on that of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston (Little, Brown & Co.), 1865. A fourth ed. of Mrs. Carter’s translation was published in 1807 with introduction and notes.
The Discourses of Epictetus, with the Enchiridion and Fragments. Translated, with Notes, etc., by George Long. London (George Bell & Sons), 1877.
There are also other English, as well as German and French, versions.
Epictetus was born before the middle of the first century, at Hierapolis, a city in Phrygia, a few miles from Colossae and Laodicea, well known to us from apostolic history. He was a compatriot and contemporary of Epaphras, a pupil of Paul, and founder of Christian churches in that province. (Col_1:7; Col_4:12, Col_4:13). There is a bare possibility that he had a passing acquaintance with him, if not with Paul himself. He came as a slave to Rome with his master, Epaphroditus, a profligate freedman and favorite of Nero (whom he aided in committing suicide), and was afterwards set at liberty. He rose above his condition. “Freedom and slavery,” he says in one of his Fragments, “are but names of virtue and of vice, and both depend upon the will. No one is a slave whose will is free.” He was lame in one foot and in feeble health. The lameness, if we are to credit the report of Origen, was the result of ill treatment, which he bore heroically. When his master put his leg in the torture, he quietly said: “You will break my leg;” and when the leg was broken, he added: “Did I not tell you so?” This reminds one of Socrates who is reported to have borne a scolding and subsequent shower from Xantippe with the cool remark: After the thunder comes the rain. Epictetus heard the lectures of Musonius Rufus, a distinguished teacher of the Stoic philosophy under Nero and Vespasian, and began himself to teach. He was banished from Rome by Domitian, with all other philosophers, before a.d. 90. He settled for the rest of his life in Nicopolis, in Southern Epirus, not far from the scene of the battle of Actium. There he gathered around him a large body of pupils, old and young, rich and poor, and instructed them, as a second Socrates, by precept and example, in halls and public places. The emperor Hadrian is reported to have invited him back to Rome (117), but in vain. The date of his death is unknown.
Epictetus led from principle and necessity a life of poverty and extreme simplicity, after the model of Diogenes, the arch-Cynic. His only companions were an adopted child with a nurse. His furniture consisted of a bed, a cooking vessel and earthen lamp. Lucian ridicules one of his admirers, who bought the lamp for three thousand drachmas, in the hope of becoming a philosopher by using it. Epictetus discouraged marriage and the procreation of children. Marriage might do well in a “community of wise men,” but “in the present state of things,” which he compared to “an army in battle array,” it is likely to withdraw the philosopher from the service of God. This view, as well as the reason assigned, resembles the advice of St. Paul, with the great difference, that the apostle had the highest conception of the institution of marriage as reflecting the mystery of Christ’s union with the church. “Look at me,” says Epictetus, “who am without a city, without a house, without possessions, without a slave; I sleep on the ground; I have no wife, no children, no praetorium, but only the earth and the heavens, and one poor cloak. And what do I want? Am I not without sorrow? Am I not without fear? Am I not free? … Did I ever blame God or man? … Who, when he sees me, does not think that he sees his king and master?” His epitaph fitly describes his character: “I was Epictetus, a slave, and maimed in body, and a beggar for poverty, and dear to the immortals.”
Epictetus, like Socrates, his great exemplar, wrote nothing himself, but he found a Xenophon. His pupil and friend, Flavius Arrianus, of Nicomedia, in Bithynia, the distinguished historian of Alexander the Great, and a soldier and statesman under Hadrian, handed to posterity a report of the oral instructions and familiar conversations (διατριβαί) of his teacher. Only four of the original eight books remain. He also collected his chief maxims in a manual (Enchiridion). His biography of that remarkable man is lost.
Epictetus starts, like Zeno and Cleanthes, with a thoroughly practical view of philosophy, as the art and exercise of virtue, in accordance with reason and the laws of nature. He bases virtue on faith in God, as the supreme power of the universe, who directs all events for benevolent purposes. The philosopher is a teacher of righteousness, a physician and surgeon of the sick who feel their weakness, and are anxious to be cured. He is a priest and messenger of the gods to erring men, that they might learn to be happy even in utter want of earthly possessions. If we wish to be good, we must first believe that we are bad. Mere knowledge without application to life is worthless. Every man has a guardian spirit, a god within him who never sleeps, who always keeps him company, even in solitude; this is the Socratic daimonion, the personified conscience. We must listen to its divine voice. “Think of God more often than you breathe. Let discourse of God be renewed daily, more surely than your food.” The sum of wisdom is to desire nothing but freedom and contentment, and to bear and forbear. All unavoidable evil in the world is only apparent and external, and does not touch our being. Our happiness depends upon our own will, which even Zeus cannot break. The wise man joyously acquiesces in what he cannot control, knowing that an all-wise Father rules the whole. “We ought to have these two rules always in readiness: that there is nothing good or evil except in the will; and that we ought not to lead events, but to follow them.” If a brother wrongs me, that is his fault; my business is to conduct myself rightly towards him. The wise man is not disturbed by injury and injustice, and loves even his enemies. All men are brethren and children of God. They own the whole world; and hence even banishment is no evil. The soul longs to be freed from the prison house of the body and to return to God.
Yet Epictetus does not clearly teach the immortality of the soul. He speaks of death as a return to the elements in successive conflagrations. Seneca approaches much more nearly the Platonic and Socratic, we may say Christian, view of immortality. The prevailing theory of the Stoics was, that at the end of the world all individual souls will be resolved into the primary substance of the Divine Being.
Epictetus nowhere alludes directly to Christianity, but he speaks once of “Galileans,” who by enthusiasm or madness were free from all fear. He often recurs to his predecessors, Socrates, Diogenes, Zeno, Musonius Rufus. His ethical ideal is a cynic philosopher, naked, penniless, wifeless, childless, without want or desire, without passion or temper, kindly, independent, contented, imperturbable, looking serenely or indifferently at life and death. It differs as widely from the true ideal as Diogenes who lived in a tub, and sought with a lantern in daylight for “a man,” differs from Christ who, indeed, had not where to lay his head, but went about doing good to the bodies and souls of men.
Owing to the purity of its morals, the Enchiridion of Epictetus was a favorite book. Simplicius, a Neo-Platonist, wrote an elaborate commentary on it; and monks in the middle ages reproduced and Christianized it. Origen thought Epictetus had done more good than Plato. Niebuhr says: “His greatness cannot be questioned, and it is impossible for any person of sound mind not to be charmed by his works.” Higginson says: “I am acquainted with no book more replete with high conceptions of the deity and noble aims of man.” This is, of course, a great exaggeration, unless the writer means to confine his comparison to heathen works.
92. Marcus Aurelius
Μάρκου Ἀντονίνου τοῦ αὐτοκράτορος τῶν εἰς ἑαυτὸν βιβλία ιβ´ (De Rebus suis libri xii). Ed. by Thomas Gataker, with a Latin Version and Notes (including those of Casaubon). Trajecti ad Rhenum, 1697, 2 vols. fol. The second vol. contains critical dissertations. (The first ed. appeared at Cambridge, 1652, in 1 vol.) English translation by George Long, revised ed. London, 1880.
See the liter. quoted in § 20, above (especially Renan’s Marc. Auréle, 1882).
Marcus Aurelius, the last and best representative of Stoicism, ruled the Roman Empire for twenty years (a.d. 161-180) at the height of its power and prosperity. He was born April 26, 121, in Rome, and carefully educated and disciplined in Stoic wisdom. Hadrian admired him for his good nature, docility, and veracity, and Antoninus Pius adopted him as his son and successor. He learned early to despise the vanities of the world, maintained the simplicity of a philosopher in the splendor of the court, and found time for retirement and meditation amid the cares of government and border wars, in which he was constantly engaged. Epictetus was his favorite author. He left us his best thoughts, a sort of spiritual autobiography, in the shape of a diary which he wrote, not without some self-complacency, for his own improvement and enjoyment during the last years of his life (172-175) in the military camp among the barbarians. He died in Panonia of the pestilence which raged in the army (March 17, 180). His last words were: “Weep not for me, weep over the pestilence and the general misery, and save the army. Farewell!” He dismissed his servants and friends, even his son, after a last interview, and died alone.
The philosophic emperor was a sincere believer in the gods, their revelations and all-ruling providence. His morality and religion were blended. But he had no clear views of the divinity. He alternately uses the language of the polytheist, the deist, and the pantheist. He worshipped the deity of the universe and in his own breast. He thanks the gods for his good parents and teachers, for his pious mother, for a wife, whom he blindly praises as “amiable, affectionate, and pure,” and for all the goods of life. His motto was “never to wrong any man in deed or word.” He claimed no perfection, yet was conscious of his superiority, and thankful to the gods that he was better than other men. He traced the sins of men merely to ignorance and error. He was mild, amiable, and gentle; in these respects the very reverse of a hard and severe Stoic, and nearly approaching a disciple of Jesus. We must admire his purity, truthfulness, philanthropy, conscientious devotion to duty, his serenity of mind in the midst of the temptations of power and severe domestic trials, and his resignation to the will of providence. He was fully appreciated in his time, and universally beloved by his subjects. We may well call him among the heathen the greatest and best man of his age. “It seems” (says an able French writer, Martha), “that in him the philosophy of heathenism grows less proud, draws nearer and nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the ‘Unknown God.’ In the sad Meditations of Aurelius we find a pure serenity, sweetness, and docility to the commands of God, which before him were unknown, and which Christian grace has alone surpassed. If he has not yet attained to charity in all that fullness of meaning which Christianity has given to the world, he already gained its unction, and one cannot read his book, unique in the history of Pagan philosophy, without thinking of the sadness of Pascal and the gentleness of Fénélon.”
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are full of beautiful moral maxims, strung together without system. They bear a striking resemblance to Christian ethics. They rise to a certain universalism and humanitarianism which is foreign to the heathen spirit, and a prophecy of a new age, but could only be realized on a Christian basis. Let us listen to some of his most characteristic sentiments:
“It is sufficient to attend to the demon [the good genius] within, and to reverence it sincerely. And reverence for the demon consists in keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness and dissatisfaction with what comes from God and men.” “Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.” “Do not disturb thyself. Make thyself all simplicity. Does any one do wrong? It is to himself that he does the wrong. Has anything happened to thee? Well; out of the universe from the beginning everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to thee. In a word, thy life is short. Thou must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice. Be sober in thy relaxation. Either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together, but still a universe.” “A man must stand erect, and not be kept erect by others .” Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to my mind, and never stop [doing good].” “What is thy art? to be good.” “It is a man’s duty to comfort himself and to wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed at the delay.” “O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.” “Willingly give thyself up to Clotho” [one of the fates], “allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases. Every thing is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” “Consider that before long thou wilt be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist which thou now seest, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned, and to perish, in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.” “It is best to leave this world as early as possible, and to bid it friendly farewell.”
These reflections are pervaded by a tone of sadness; they excite emotion, but no enthusiasm; they have no power to console, but leave an aching void, without hope of an immortality, except a return to the bosom of mother nature. They are the rays of a setting, not of a rising, sun; they are the swansong of dying Stoicism. The end of that noble old Roman was virtually the end of the antique world.
The cosmopolitan philosophy of Marcus Aurelius had no sympathy with Christianity, and excluded from its embrace the most innocent and most peaceful of his subjects. He makes but one allusion to the Christians, and unjustly traces their readiness for martyrdom to “sheer obstinacy” and a desire for “theatrical display.” He may have had in view some fanatical enthusiasts who rushed into the fire, like Indian gymnosophists, but possibly such venerable martyrs as Polycarp and those of Southern Gaul in his own reign. Hence the strange phenomenon that the wisest and best of Roman emperors permitted (we cannot say, instigated, or even authorized) some of the most cruel persecutions of Christians, especially in Lugdunum and Vienne. We readily excuse him on the ground of ignorance. He probably never saw the Sermon on the Mount, nor read any of the numerous Apologies addressed to him.
But persecution is not the only blot on his reputation. He wasted his affections upon a vicious and worthless son, whom he raised in his fourteenth year to full participation of the imperial power, regardless of the happiness of millions, and upon a beautiful but faithless and wicked wife, whom he hastened after her death to cover with divine honors. His conduct towards Faustina was either hypocritical or unprincipled. After her death he preferred a concubine to a second wife and stepmother of his children.
His son and successor left the Christians in peace, but was one of the worst emperors that disgraced the throne, and undid all the good which his father had done.
Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander; Seneca, the teacher of Nero; Marcus Aurelius, the father of Commodus.
Πλουτάρχου τοῦ χαιρωνέως τὰ Ἠθικά. Ed. Tauchnitz Lips. The same with a Latin version and notes in
Plutarchi Chaeronensis Moralia, id est, Opera, exceptis vitis, reliqua. Ed. by Daniel Wyttenbach. Oxon. 1795-1800, 8 vols. (including 2 Index vols.). French ed. by Dübner, in the Didot collection.
Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by several Hands. London, 1684-’94, 5th ed. 1718. The same as corrected and revised by William W. Goodwin (Harvard University). With an introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1870, 5 vols.
Octave Greard: De la moralité de Plutarque. Paris, 1866.
Richard Chenevix Trench (Archbishop of Dublin): Plutarch, his life, his Parallel Lives, and his Morals. London (Macmillan & Co.), 2nd ed. 1874.
W. Möller: Ueber die Religion des Plutarch. Kiel, 1881.
Julia Wedgwood: Plutarch and the unconscious Christianity of the first two centuries. In the “Contemporary Review” for 1881, pp. 44-60.
Equally remarkable, as a representative of “unconscious Christianity” and “seeker after the unknown God” though from a different philosophical standpoint, is the greatest biographer and moralist of classical antiquity.
It is strange that Plutarch’s contemporaries are silent about him. His name is not even mentioned by any Roman writer. What we know of him is gathered from his own works. He lived between a.d. 50 and 125, mostly in his native town of Chaeroneia, in Boeotia, as a magistrate and priest of Apollos. He was happily married, and had four sons and a daughter, who died young. His Conjugal Precepts are full of good advice to husbands and wives. The letter of consolation he addressed to his wife on the death of a little daughter, Timoxena, while she was absent from home, gives us a favorable impression of his family life, and expresses his hope of immortality. “The souls of infants,” he says at the close of this letter, “pass immediately into a better and more divine state.” He spent some time in Rome (at least twice, probably under Vespasian and Domitian), lectured on moral philosophy to select audiences, and collected material for his Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans. He was evidently well-bred, in good circumstances, familiar with books, different countries, and human nature and society in all its phases. In his philosophy he stands midway between Platonism and Neo-Platonism. He was “a Platonist with an Oriental tinge.” He was equally opposed to Stoic pantheism and Epicurean naturalism, and adopted the Platonic dualism of God and matter. He recognized a supreme God, and also the subordinate divinities of the Hellenic religion. The gods are good, the demons are divided between good and bad, the human soul combines both qualities. He paid little attention to metaphysics, and dwelt more on the practical questions of philosophy, dividing his labors between historical and moral topics. He was an utter stranger to Christianity, and therefore neither friendly nor hostile. There is in all his numerous writings not a single allusion to it, although at his time there must have been churches in every considerable city of the empire. He often speaks of Judaism, but very superficially, and may have regarded Christianity as a Jewish sect. But his moral philosophy makes a very near approach to Christian ethics.
His aim, as a writer, was to show the greatness in the acts and in the thoughts of the ancients, the former in his “Parallel Lives,” the latter in his “Morals,” and by both to inspire his contemporaries to imitation. They constitute together an encyclopaedia of well-digested Greek and Roman learning. He was not a man of creative genius, but of great talent, extensive information, amiable, spirit, and universal sympathy. Emerson calls him “the chief example of the illumination of the intellect by the force of morals.”
Plutarch endeavored to build up morality on the basis of religion. He is the very opposite of Lucian, who as an architect of ruin, ridiculed and undermined the popular religion. He was a strong believer in God, and his argument against atheism is well worth quoting. “There has never been,” he says, “a state of atheists. You may travel over the world, and you may find cities without walls, without king, without mint, without theatre or gymnasium; but you will never find a city without God, without prayer, without oracle, without sacrifice. Sooner may a city stand without foundations, than a state without belief in the gods. This is the bond of all society and the pillar of all legislation.”
In his treatise on The Wrong Fear of the Gods, he contrasts superstition with atheism as the two extremes which often meet, and commends piety or the right reverence of the gods as the golden mean. Of the two extremes he deems superstition the worse, because it makes the gods capricious, cruel, and revengeful, while they are friends of men, saviours (σωτῆρες), and not destroyers. (Nevertheless superstitious people can more easily be converted to true faith than atheists who have destroyed all religious instincts.)
His remarkable treatise on The Delays of Divine Justice in punishing the wicked, would do credit to any Christian theologian. It is his solution of the problem of evil, or his theodicy. He discusses the subject with several of his relatives (as Job did with his friends), and illustrates it by examples. He answers the various objections which arise from the delay of justice and vindicates Providence in his dealings with the sinner. He enjoins first modesty and caution in view of our imperfect knowledge. God only knows best when and how and how much to punish. He offers the following considerations: 1) God teaches us to moderate our anger, and never to punish in a passion, but to imitate his gentleness and forbearance. 2) He gives the wicked an opportunity to repent and reform. 3) He permits them to live and prosper that he may use them as executioners of his justice on others. He often punishes the sinner by the sinner. 4) The wicked are sometimes spared that they may bless the world by a noble posterity. 5) Punishment is often deferred that the hand of Providence may be more conspicuous in its infliction. Sooner or later sin will be punished, if not in this world, at least in the future world, to which Plutarch points as the final solution of the mysteries of Providence. He looked upon death as a good thing for the good soul, which shall then live indeed; while the present life “resembles rather the vain illusions of some dream.”
The crown of Plutarch’s character is his humility, which was so very rare among ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, and which comes from true self-knowledge. He was aware of the native depravity of the soul, which he calls “a storehouse and treasure of many evils and maladies.” Had he known the true and radical remedy for sin, he would no doubt have accepted it with gratitude.
We do not know how far the influence of these saints of ancient paganism, as we may call Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch, extended over the heathens of their age, but we do know that their writings had and still have an elevating and ennobling effect upon Christian readers, and hence we may infer that their teaching and example were among the moral forces that aided rather than hindered the progress and final triumph of Christianity. But this religion alone could bring about such a general and lasting moral reform as they themselves desired.
94. Christian Morality
The ancient world of classic heathenism, having arrived at the height of its glory, and at the threshold of its decay, had exhausted all the resources of human nature left to itself, and possessed no recuperative force, no regenerative principle. A regeneration of society could only proceed from religion. But the heathen religion had no restraint for vice, no comfort for the poor and oppressed; it was itself the muddy fountain of immorality. God, therefore, who in his infinite mercy desired not the destruction but the salvation of the race, opened in the midst of this hopeless decay of a false religion a pure fountain of holiness, love, and peace, in the only true and universal religion of his Son Jesus Christ.
In the cheerless waste of pagan corruption the small and despised band of Christians was an oasis fresh with life and hope. It was the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. Poor in this world’s goods, it bore the imperishable treasures of’ the kingdom of heaven. Meek and lowly in heart, it was destined, according to the promise of the Lord without a stroke of the sword, to inherit the earth. In submission it conquered; by suffering and death it won the crown of life.
The superiority of the principles of Christian ethics over the heathen standards of morality even under its most favorable forms is universally admitted. The superiority of the example of Christ over all the heathen sages is likewise admitted. The power of that peerless example was and is now as great as the power of his teaching. It is reflected in every age and every type of purity and goodness. But every period, while it shares in the common virtues and graces, has its peculiar moral physiognomy. The ante-Nicene age excelled in unworldliness, in the heroic endurance of suffering and persecution, in the contempt of death, and the hope of resurrection, in the strong sense of community, and in active benevolence.
Christianity, indeed, does not come “with observation.” Its deepest workings are silent and inward. The operations of divine grace commonly shun the notice of the historian, and await their revelation on the great day of account, when all that is secret shall be made known. Who can measure the depth and breadth of all those blessed experiences of forgiveness, peace, gratitude, trust in God, love for God and love for man, humility and meekness, patience and resignation, which have bloomed as vernal flowers on the soil of the renewed heart since the first Christian Pentecost? Who can tell the number and the fervor of Christian prayers and intercessions which have gone up from lonely chambers, caves, deserts, and martyrs’ graves in the silent night and the open day, for friends and foes, for all classes of mankind, even for cruel persecutors, to the throne of the exalted Saviour? But where this Christian life has taken root in the depths of the soul it must show itself in the outward conduct, and exert an elevating influence on every calling and sphere of action. The Christian morality surpassed all that the noblest philosophers of heathendom had ever taught or labored for as the highest aim of man. The masterly picture of it in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus is no mere fancy sketch, but a faithful copy from real life.
When the apologists indignantly repel the heathen calumnies, and confidently point to the unfeigned piety, the brotherly love, the love for enemies, the purity and chastity, the faithfulness and integrity, the patience and gentleness, of the confessors of the name of Jesus, they speak from daily experience and personal observation. “We, who once served lust,” could Justin Martyr say without exaggeration, “now find our delight only in pure morals; we, who once followed sorcery, have now consecrated ourselves to the eternal good God; we, who once loved gain above all, now give up what we have for the common use, and share with every needy one; we, who once hated and killed each other; we, who would have no common hearth with foreigners for difference of customs, now, since the appearance of Christ, live with them, pray for our enemies, seek to convince those who hate us without cause, that they may regulate their life according to the glorious teaching of Christ, and receive from the all-ruling God the same blessings with ourselves.” Tertullian could boast that he knew no Christians who suffered by the hand of the executioner, except for their religion. Minutius Felix tells the heathens: “You prohibit adultery by law, and practise it in secret; you punish wickedness only in the overt act; we look upon it as criminal even in thought. You dread the inspection of others; we stand in awe of nothing but our own consciences as becomes Christians. And finally your prisons are overflowing with criminals; but they are all heathens, not a Christian is there, unless he be an apostate.” Even Pliny informed Trajan, that the Christians, whom he questioned on the rack respecting the character of their religion, had bound themselves by an oath never to commit theft, robbery, nor adultery, nor to break their word and this, too at a time when the sins of fraud, uncleanness and lasciviousness of every form abounded all around. Another heathen, Lucian, bears testimony to their benevolence and charity for their brethren in distress, while he attempts to ridicule this virtue as foolish weakness in an age of unbounded selfishness.
The humble and painful condition of the church under civil oppression made hypocrisy more rare than in times of peace, and favored the development of the heroic virtues. The Christians delighted to regard themselves as soldiers of Christ, enlisted under the victorious standard of the cross against sin, the world, and the devil. The baptismal vow was their oath of perpetual allegiance; the Apostles’ creed their parole; the sign of the cross upon the forehead, their mark of service; temperance, courage, and faithfulness unto death, their cardinal virtues; the blessedness of heaven, their promised reward. “No soldier,” exclaims Tertullian to the Confessors, “goes with his sports or from his bed-chamber to the battle; but from the camp, where he hardens and accustoms himself to every inconvenience. Even in peace warriors learn to bear labor and fatigue, going through all military exercises, that neither soul nor body may flag … Ye wage a good warfare, in which the living God is the judge of the combat, the Holy Spirit the leader, eternal glory the prize.” To this may be added the eloquent passage of Minutius Felix: “How fair a spectacle in the sight of God is a Christian entering the lists with affliction, and with noble firmness combating menaces and tortures, or with a disdainful smile marching to death through the clamors of the people, and the insults of the executioners; when he bravely maintains his liberty against kings and princes, and submits to God, whose servant he is; when, like a conqueror, he triumphs over the judge that condemns him. For he certainly is victorious who obtains what he fights for. He fights under the eye of God, and is crowned with length of days. You have exalted some of your stoical sufferers to the skies; such as Scaevola who, having missed his aim in an attempt to kill the king voluntarily burned the mistaking hand. Yet how many among us have suffered not only the hand, but the whole body to be consumed without a complaint, when their deliverance was in their own power! But why should I compare our elders with your Mutius, or Aquilius, or Regulus, when our very children, our sons and daughters, inspired with patience, despise your racks and wild beasts, and all other instruments of cruelty? Surely nothing but the strongest reasons could persuade people to suffer at this rate; and nothing else but Almighty power could support them under their sufferings.”
Yet, on the other hand, the Christian life of the period before Constantine has been often unwarrantably idealized. In a human nature essentially the same, we could but expect the same faults which we found even in the apostolic churches. The Epistles of Cyprian afford incontestable evidence, that, especially in the intervals of repose, an abatement of zeal soon showed itself, and, on the reopening of persecution, the Christian name was dishonored by hosts of apostates. And not seldom did the most prominent virtues, courage in death, and strictness of morals, degenerate into morbid fanaticism and unnatural rigor.