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CONTINUATION OF THE SECOND JOURNEY OF PAUL—PAUL AT ATHENS.
Paul, accompanied still by the faithful Beræans, sailed for Athens. From the end of the Gulf of Thermmus to Phalera, or to Piræus, the voyage in a small craft occupies three or four days. The traveller passes the foot of Olympus, of Ossa, and of Pelion; he follows the sinuosities of the interior sea which Eubœa separates from the rest of the Ægæan Sea, and touches the singularly narrow strait of Euripus. On either bank one skirts that truly holy ground where perfection is at once discovered, where the ideal has really existed,—that soil which has seen the noblest of races found at once art, science, philosophy, and politics. Paul, no doubt, experienced on landing there that species of filial sentiment which cultivated men experience when touching this venerated soil. It was another world: his holy ground was elsewhere.
Greece had not recovered from the terrible blows she had received during the previous centuries. Like the sons of Earth, these aristocratic tribunes had torn one another to pieces; the Romans had completely exterminated them; the old families had nearly disappeared; the ancient cities of Thebes and of Argos had become poor villages; Olympus and Sparta had been humiliated; Athens and Corinth were the sole survivors. The country was almost a desert: the images of desolation which we gather from the descriptions of Polybius, Cicero, 87Strabo, and Pausanias are heart-rending. The appearances of liberty which the Romans had left in the towns, and which only disappeared under Vespasian, were little else than irony. The wicked administration of the Romans had ruined everything; the temples were no longer maintained; at each step there were pedestals from which the conquerors had stolen the statues, or which adulation had consecrated to the new rulers. Peloponesus, in particular, had been struck dead. Sparta had killed her; consumed by the proximity of this foolish Utopia, that poor country never sprang into life again. At the Roman epoch, moreover, the administration of the large cities had absorbed and superseded the numerous small ruling centres: Corinth attracted to itself all the life.
The race, if we except Corinth, had, however, remained quite pure; the number of Jews outside of Corinth was inconsiderable. Greece had received but a single Roman colony. The invasions of slaves and of Albanians, which have so completely changed the Hellenic blood, did not take place till later. The old religions were still flourishing. Some women, unknown to their husbands, practised much in secret, at the far corner of the gymnasiums, the foreign superstitions, especially those of the Egyptians. The sages, however, protested. “What a God he must be,” said they, “who is pleased with the surreptitious homage of married women! A wife ought not to have other friends besides those of her husband. The gods, are they not our best friends?”
It seems that, either during the voyage or at the moment of his arrival in Athens, Paul regretted having left his companions in Macedonia. Perhaps that new world astonished him, and he found him-self there too much isolated. What is certain is, that in dismissing the faithful Beræans he charged 88them to request Silas and Timothy to come and join him at the earliest possible moment.
Paul therefore found himself for some days alone at Athens. This had not happened to him for a long time. His life had been as a whirlwind, and he had never journeyed without two or three companions. Athens, to the world, was something unique—at all events, something totally different from anything that Paul had seen before; hence, he was extremely embarrassed. In waiting for his companions, he amused himself by roaming, in the widest sense, over the city. The Acropolis, with the innumerable statues which covered it, and which constituted it a museum such as had never before been seen, must, in particular, have been to him a subject of the deepest reflection.
Athens, although she had suffered much from Sylla, although, like Greece, she had been pillaged by the Roman administrators, and was already in part despoiled by the gross avidity of its masters, had yet the appearance of being ornamented with almost all her master-pieces of art. The monuments of the Acropolis were intact. Some clumsy additions of detail, quite a sufficient number of mediocre works which were already glittering in the sanctuary of high art, some silly substitutions, which consisted in placing Romans on the pedestals of ancient Greeks, had not changed the sanctity of that immaculate temple of the beautiful. Pœcile, with its brilliant decoration, was as fresh as it was on the fast day. The exploits of the odious Secundus Carinas, the purveyor of statues for the gilded House, did not commence until some years after, and Athens suffered less from this than did Delphos and Olympus. The false taste of the Romans for colonnaded cities had not penetrated here; the houses were poor and by no means commodious. That exquisite city was moreover an irregular city, 89with narrow streets which were the conservators of its old monuments, and archaic souvenirs were preferred to streets scientifically laid out. Many of these marvellous things affected Paul but little; he beheld the only perfect objects which had ever existed, which shall ever exist,—the Propylæum, that chef-d’œuvre of grandeur; the Parthenon, which absorbed every other grandeur save its own; the Temple of Victory without wings, worthy of the battles which it consecrated; the Erechthæum, a prodigy of elegance and of finish; the Errhephoræ, these divine young women with a bearing so full of grace; he beheld all that, and his faith was not overcome, nor was he disquieted. With the prejudices of the iconoclastic Jew, insensible to the plastic beauties which blinded him, he took these incomparable figures for idols. “His spirit,” says his biographer, “was stirred in him when. he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” Ah! thou lovely and chaste images, true gods and goddesses, tremble! Behold him who raised against you the hammer! The fatal words had gone forth: “Ye are idols!” The error of that pitiful little Jew was your death-warrant!
Surrounded by so many things which he did not understand, there were two which greatly struck the Apostle: first, the very religious character of the Athenians, which was manifested by a multitude of temples, altars, and sanctuaries of every description, symbols of a tolerant eclecticism which they carried into religion; in the second place, certain anonymous altars which were erected to the “unknown gods.” These altars were somewhat numerous at Athens and in the environs. Other cities of Greece possessed them also. Those at the port of Phalera (Paul must have seen them on landing) were celebrated; they belonged to the legends of the Trojan War. They bore this inscription:—90“To the unknown gods.” Some of them were even thus inscribed:—
“To an unknown God.” These altars owed their existence to the extreme scrupulousness of the Athenians for things religious, and to their habit of seeing in everything the manifestation of a mysterious and special power. Fearing, without knowing it, to offend some god of whose name they were ignorant, or of neglecting a powerful god, or even of wishing to obtain a favour which might depend upon a certain divinity with whom they were unacquainted, they either erected anonymous altars, or placed up the afore-mentioned inscriptions. It is possible, too, that these fanciful inscriptions were taken from altars which were originally anonymous, to which, in the work of making a general census, had to be affixed some such an epigraph, for lack of the knowledge of that which properly belonged to them. Paul was greatly surprised at these dedications. Interpreting them with his Jewish mind, he imputed to them a meaning which did not belong to them. He believed that they had reference to a God called par excellence “The Unknown God.” He saw in that Unknown God the God of the Jews, the only God, towards whom Paganism itself might have had some mysterious aspirations. This idea was the more natural, because in the eyes of Pagans that which in particular characterised the God of the Jews was, that he was a God without name, a doubtful God. It was further probable that it was in some religious ceremony, or m some philosophical discussion, that Paul heard the hemistiche:—
Τοῦ γὰρ χαὶ γένος ἐσμέν91
borrowed from the hymn of Cleanthes to Jupiter, or from the Phenomena of Aratus, and which was frequently used in the religious hymns. He grouped in his mind those features of local colouring, and sought to compose a discourse on them appropriate to his new auditors: for he felt that here it was necessary for him to modify greatly his preaching.
Certain it is Athens was far from being then what she had been for centuries, the centre of human progress, the capital of the republic of mind. Faithful to her ancient character, this divine mother of art was one of the last asylums of liberalism and of the republican spirit. She was what might be called a city of opposition. Athens was always on the side of the lost cause. She energetically declared for the independence of Greece, and for Mithridates against the Romans, for Pompey against Cæsar, for the republicans against the triumvirs, for Antony against Octavius. She raised statues to Brutus and to Cassius by the side of those of Harmodius and of Aristogiton; she honoured Germanicus to the point of compromising herself; she merited the insults of Piso. Sylla plundered her in an atrocious manner, and dealt the final blow to her democratic constitution. Augustus, although merciful to her, did not show her any favour. Her title as a free city was never taken away, but the privileges of free cities were gradually diminished under the Cæsars and the Flavii. Athens was thus in the condition of a city suspected and disgraced, but justly ennobled through her disgrace. At the advent of Nerva, there began for her a second life. The world, having returned to reason and to virtue, recognised its mother. Nerva, Herod Atticus, Hadrian, Antonine, Marcus Aurelius, restored her, endowing her even with monuments and new institutions. Athens became again for four centuries the city of philosophers, of artists, of genius, the holy 92city of every liberal soul, the pilgrim city of those who loved the beautiful and the true.
But let us not anticipate events. At the sad moment at which we are now arrived, the ancient splendour had disappeared, and the new had not yet dawned. She was no longer “the city of Theseus,” and was not yet “the city of Hadrian.” In the century before our era, the philosophic school of Athens had been very brilliant; Philo of Larissa, and Antiochus of Ascalon, had continued or modified the academy; Cratippus taught there peripatetics, and understood how to be at once the friend, the master, the consoler, or the protégé of Pompey, of Cæsar, of Cicero, and of Brutus. Romans, the most celebrated and most eminent in business, attracted to the Orient by ambition, halted at Athens to listen to the philosophers in vogue. Atticus, Crassus, Cicero, Varro, Ovid, Horace, Agrippa, Virgil, either studied or resided there as amateurs. Brutus passed there his last winter, dividing his time between the peripatetic Cratippus and the academician Theomnestus. Athens was, on the eve of the battle of Philippi, a centre of opinion of the highest importance. The instruction which was given there was entirely philosophic, and much superior to the insipid eloquence of the school of Rhodes. That which was indeed prejudicial to Athens was the advent of Augustus and the universal pacification. The precepts of philosophy were from that time suspected—the schools lost their importance and their activity. Rome, on the other hand, by reason of the brilliant literary evolution which she had achieved, became for some time semi-independent of Greece in regard to matters of thought. Other centres were formed: as a school of varied instruction, Marseilles was preferred. The original philosophy of the four great sects had come to an end. Eclecticism, a sort of flabby, unsystematic 93style of philosophising, had commenced. If we except Ammonius of Alexandria, the master of Plutarch, who founded about that time at Athens a species of literary philosophy, which was to become the fashion, beginning with the reign of Hadrian, there was no one illustrious, about the middle of the first century, in the one city of the world which had produced or attracted the most celebrated men. The figures which were now consecrated with deplorable prodigality on the Acropolis were those of consuls, of pro-consuls, of Roman magistrates, and of members of the imperial family. The temples which were erected there were dedicated to the goddess Rome, and to Augustus. Nero had even his statues there. Artists of talent having been attracted to Rome, the Athenian works of the first century were, for the most part, of a mediocre quality that is surprising. Still monuments, such as the clock of Andronicus Cyrrhesta, the portico of Athene Archegetes, the temple of Rome and of Augustus, the mausoleum of Philopappus, were either a little anterior or posterior to the time when Paul saw Athens. Never had the city, during its long history, been more mute and peaceful.
She still preserved, however, a great portion of her nobility. She still occupied the first rank in the regards of the world. Despite the harshness of the times, the respect for Athens was profound, and every one bowed to her. Sylla, though so terrible in consequence of her rebellion, had pity on her. Pompey and Cæsar, before the battle of Pharsalia, caused it to be proclaimed by a herald that all the Athenians were to be spared, as priests of the goddesses Thesmophores. Pompey gave a large sum of money to adorn the city: Cæsar refrained from avenging himself on her, and contributed to the erection of one of the monuments. Brutus and Cassius, who comported themselves as private persons, 94were received and flattered like heroes. Antony loved Athens, and liked to reside there. After the battle of Actium, Augustus pardoned her for the third time, and his name, like that of Cæsar, was inscribed on an important monument. His family and entourage were looked upon at Athens as benefactors. The Romans were at great pains to prove that they left Athens free and honoured. Spoiled children of fame, the Athenians lived thenceforward on the recollections of their past history. Germanicus, while be resided at Athens, wished to be preceded by only one lictor. Nero, though not superstitious, did not dare to enter the city for fear of the Furies which lived under the Areopagus,—of those terrible “Semnes,” which the parricides dreaded. The recollection of Orestes made him tremble. He dare no more affront the mysteries of Eleusis, at the threshold of which the herald proclaimed that the profligate and the impious were to be careful not to approach. Noble foreigners, descendants of dethroned kings, came to spend their fortunes at Athens, and were delighted to find themselves decorated with high-sounding and mock titles. All the small barbarian kings emulated one another in rendering service to the Athenians, and in restoring their monuments.
Religion was one of the principal causes of this exceptional favour. Essentially municipal and political in its origin, having for its basis the myths relating to the foundation of the city and to its divine protectors, the religion of Athens was at first only the religious consecration of patriotism and of the institutions of the city. It was the cult of the Acropolis. “Aglaure” and the oath which the young Athenians took upon the altar had no other meaning; just as if religion with us consisted in drawing the conscription, in drilling, and in honouring the colours. It soon became insipid enough; it possessed nothing 95infinite, nothing that touched man through his destiny, nothing universal. The railleries of Aristophanes against the gods of the Acropolis proved by themselves alone that these gods could not bring every race under subjection. The women were turned early in the direction of petty foreign devotions like those of Adonis. The mysteries, in particular, were successful; philosophy in the hands of Plato was a kind of delicious mythology, whilst art created for the multitude images really admirable. The Athenian gods became the gods of beauty. The old Athene Poliade was but a mannikin, without apparent arms, swathed in a peplos, like the old virgin of Loretta. Toreutic accomplished an unexampled miracle; she made realistic statues after the model of the Italian and Byzantine Madonnas, adorned with appropriate ornaments, which were at the same time marvellous masterpieces. Athens succeeded in possessing, after a sort, one of the most perfect religions of antiquity. This religion underwent at that time a kind of eclipse, on account of the misfortunes of the city. The Athenians were the first to defile their sanctuary. Lachares stole the gold from the statue of Athene. Demetrius Poliorcetes was installed by the inhabitants themselves in the opisthodome of the Parthenon. He harboured his courtesans near himself, and people were amused by the scandals that such surroundings must have caused to the chaste goddess. Aristion the last defender of the independence of Athens, permitted the immortal lamp of Athene Poliade to be extinguished. Such, however, was the glory of that unique city, that the universe seemed to take to heart the adoption of her goddess, at the moment when she deserted her. The Parthenon, through the action of foreigners, regained her honours. The mysteries of Athens were a religious attraction for the whole Pagan world.96
But it was principally as a city of schools that Athens exercised a peculiar prestige. That new destiny which, through the assiduity of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, came to possess a character so decided, had been begun two centuries before. The city of Miltiades and Pericles had been transformed into a university city, a sort of Oxford, the resort of all the young noblesse, who scattered gold in handfuls. It contained nothing but professors, philosophers, rhetoricians, pedagogues of every description, sophmores, tutors, gymnasts, pædotribes, hoplomates, masters of fencing and of riding. From the time of Hadrian the cosmetists or prefects of the students assumed to a certain extent the importance and the dignity of the archons. People fixed the date of the years by them: the old Greek education, destined in principle to form the free citizen, became the pedagogic law of the human species. Alas! she produces henceforth little else than rhetoricians; bodily exercises, formerly a real occupation of the heroes upon the banks of the Illissus, became now a mere matter of pose. A circus grandeur, the gestures of Franconi, have replaced solid grandeur. But it is the peculiar attribute of Greece to have ennobled everything. Even the work of the schoolman became with her a moral ministry. The dignity of the professor, in spite of more than one abuse, was one of her creations. The jeunesse dorée could sometimes remember the fine discourses of its masters. She was, like all youths, republican; she flocked to the appeal of Brutus; she was mown down at Philippi. The day was employed in declaiming on tyrannicide and on liberty, in celebrating the noble death of Cato, and in making a eulogy on Brutus.
The population had always been sprightly, spirituelle, curious. Every one lived in the open air, in perpetual contact with the rest of the world, breathing, 97under smiling skies, a serene atmosphere. The strangers, who were numerous and eager after knowledge, evinced great activity of mind. Publicity, the journalism of the ancient world—if one may be permitted to make use of such an expression—had its centre at Athens. The city not being commercial, everybody had but one care, which was to learn the news, to be made au courant of what was said and of what was being done in the universe. It is very remarkable that the great development of religion did not destroy rational culture. Athens might have been at once the most religious city of the world, the Parthenon of Greece, and the city of philosophers. When we see in the theatre of Dionysius the marble arm-chairs which surround the orchestra bearing each the name of the priesthood the titulary of which came to sit there, we should say that here was a city of priests; and yet it was pre-eminently the city of free-thinkers. The religions in question had neither dogmas nor holy writ. They had not for physics the horror that Christianity has always evinced, and which has led it to condemn positive researches. The priest and the Epicurean atomist, except for a few broils, lived peaceably enough together. The true Greeks were perfectly contented with such accord, founded not upon logic, but upon mutual tolerance and mutual regard.
This was for Paul a species of existence altogether new. The cities in which he had up till now preached were for the most part commercial cities, resembling Leghorn or Trieste, and having large Jewries rather than brilliant centres, cities of the great world and of great culture. Athens was profoundly Pagan; Paganism was bound up with every pleasure, with every interest, with every glory of the city. Paul hesitated a great deal. Timothy at length arrived from Macedonia; Silas, for reasons which we do not know was not able to come.98
There was a synagogue at Athens, and Paul disputed in it with the Jews, and with the “devout persons;” but in such a city any successes in the synagogue counted for little. That brilliant agora in which was displayed so much mind, that portico Pœcile in which was asked every conceivable question, tempted him. He spoke there not as a preacher addressing himself to the multitude assembled, but as a stranger feeling his way—putting forth his ideas timidly, and seeking to create for himself some point d’appui. “Jesus and the resurrection” (anastasis) appeared foreign words, and destitute of meaning. Several of them, as it would appear, took anastasis for the name of a goddess, and believed that Jesus and Anastasia were some new divine couple that these Oriental dreamers had come to preach. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, it is said, came near and listened.
This first contact of Christianity with Greek philosophy was not very encouraging. We have never seen a better example of how men of mind ought to distrust themselves and to guard against laughing at an idea, however foolish it may seem to them. The bad Greek spoken by Paul, his incorrect and halting phraseology, were not calculated to make him accredited at Athens. The philosophers turned their backs disdainfully at his barbarous speech. “He is a babbler” (spermologos), said some. “He is a preacher of strange gods,” said others. No one could have suspected that this babbler would one day supplant them, and that, four hundred and seventy-four years later, their professorships would be suppressed as useless and injurious, in consequence of the preaching of Paul. What a grand lesson! Proud of their superiority, the Athenian philosophers disdained the questions pertaining to popular religion. In their midst superstition flourished. Athens almost equalled in that 99respect the most religious cities of Asia Minor. The aristocracy of thinkers cared little for the social wants which made themselves felt under the cover of so many unpolished worships. Such a renunciation is always punished. When philosophy declares that she will not occupy herself with religion, religion responds by extinguishing her; and this is just, for philosophy is something only when she shows to humanity the way, when she takes up seriously the infinite problem which is the same for all.
The liberal spirit which reigned at Athens assured Paul of complete security. Neither Jews nor Pagans attempted anything against him; but that tolerance was even worse than hatred. Moreover, the new doctrine produced a lively reaction, at least in the Jewish society; here it could find only curious and blasé auditors. It appears that one day the auditors of Paul, wishing to obtain from him a sort of official exposition of his doctrine, conducted him to the Hill of Mars, and there summoned him to declare what religion he preached. It is indeed possible that there is some legend here, and that the celebrity of the Areopagus may have led the narrator of the Acts, who had not been an eyewitness, to select this illustrious audience to enable him to deliver on his hero a pompous discourse, a philosophic harangue. This hypothesis, nevertheless, is not necessary. The Areopagus had retained, under the Romans, Its ancient organisation. It had even seen its prerogatives increased, as a result of the policy which led the conquerors to suppress in Greece the ancient democratic institutions, and to replace them by the Council of Notables. The Areopagus had always been the aristocratic corporation of Athens: it gained what the democracy had lost. Let us add that people were living in an epoch of literary dilettanteism, and that that tribunal, by its classic celebrity, enjoyed a great prestige. Its moral authority 100was recognised by the entire world. The Areopagus thus became again, under Roman domination, what it had been at different times in the history of the Athenian Republic, a political body, almost divested of judicial functions, the real senate of Athens, intervening only in certain cases, and constituting a conservative nobility of retired functionaries. Beginning with the first century of our era, the Areopagus figures in the inscriptions as head of the powers of Athens, superior to the Council of Six Hundred, and to the people. The erection of statues, in particular, was made by it, or at least with its authorisation. At the epoch at which we are now arrived, it had just decreed a statue to Queen Berenice, daughter of Agrippa I., with whom we shall soon see Paul en rapport. It seems also that the Areopagus exercised a certain superintendence over instruction. It was a chief council of religious and moral censure, before which was brought all that concerned laws, manners, medicine, luxury, ædileship, the religions of the city; and there is no-thing unlikely in the fact that when a novel doctrine was promulgated, that the preacher should be invited to come and make his declarations before such a tribunal, or at least to the place in which it held its sessions. Paul, it is said, stood up in the middle of the assembly and spoke thus:
“Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription:—‘To the Unknown God.’ Whom, therefore, ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world, and all things therein, seeing that he is lord of earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands, neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life and breath, and all things. And hath made of one blood all nations of 101men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation. That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are all his offspring.’ Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, or graven by art of man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. Because he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts xvii. 22-31).
At these words, according to the narrator, Paul was interrupted. Hearing him speak of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and others said:—“We will hear thee again of this matter.”
If the discourse which we have just related was really delivered, it must indeed have produced a very singular impression upon the cultivated minds which heard it. That almost barbarous speech, now incorrect and formless, now scrupulously correct; that unequal eloquence, strewn with happy fancies and disagreeable failings; that profound philosophy, embracing beliefs the most singular, and extending, seemingly, to another world. Immensely superior to the popular religion of Greece, such a doctrine was in many things below the level of the current philosophy of the age. If, on the one hand, it extended the hand to that philosophy through the elevated notion of divinity and the beautiful theory which it proclaimed of the moral unity of the human mind, on the other, it embraced in part supernatural 102beliefs that no informed mind could admit. In any case, it is not surprising that Christianity had no success in Athens. The motives which were to work the success of Christianity, were elsewhere than in the circle of letters. They were lodged in the hearts of pious women, in the secret aspirations of the poor, the slaves, and the afflicted of every description. Before philosophy could approach the new doctrine, it was necessary that philosophy itself should be much debased, and that the new doctrine should be renounced from the grand chimera of the near judgment, that is to say, from the concrete ideas with which from its first formation it had been enveloped.
Whether it was delivered by Paul, or by one of his disciples, this discourse, in any case, shows us an endeavour, almost the only one in the first century, made to reconcile Christianity with philosophy, and even, in one sense, with Paganism. The author, giving proof of a breadth of views most remarkable amongst the Jews, discovers in all races a sort of innate sense of the divine, a sort of secret instinct of monotheism which might lead to the knowledge of the true God. To be believed in, Christianity is nothing more than natural religion, which one arrives at by consulting simply one’s own heart, and by interrogating oneself conscientiously—the two-sided idea which was soon to reproach Christianity with deism, and to inspire a pride of which it had been shorn. This is the first example given of the tactics of certain apologists of Christianity, in advance of philosophy, using or feigning to use scientific language; speaking with complaisance or politeness of the reason advanced by the other side of wishing to have it believed, by means of skilfully grouped quotations, that in the main it might be understood by lettered people; but which led to misunderstandings that were inevitable, for they plainly declared 103their opinions, and spoke of their supernatural dogmas. One can already perceive the effort to translate into the language of Greek philosophy Jewish and Christian ideas; one can foresee Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Biblical ideas, and those of Greek philosophy, aspired to embrace one another; but in order to that many concessions had to be made; for that God in which we live and move is far removed from the Jehovah of the prophets, and from the celestial father of Jesus.
Be that as it may, the times were far from being ripe for such an alliance; at any rate, it was not to take place at Athens. Athens, at the point which it had reached in history, that city of grammarians, of gymnasts, and of fencing-masters, was likewise as ill adapted as it was possible to be, for receiving Christianity. The power over vassals, the hardness of heart of the schoolman, were unpardonable sins in the eyes of grace. The pedagogue is the least convertible of men; for he has a religion of his own, which is routine, faith in old authors, and a taste for literary exercises. This satisfies him, and extinguishes in him all other desires. There has been found at Athens a series of hermes-portraits of cosmetics of the second century. The latter are splendid men, grave, majestic, with a noble mien, and yet Hellenic. From the inscriptions we learn of the honours and pensions which were conferred on them: the really great men of the ancient democracy never had so many of these. Assuredly if Paul had encountered some of the predecessors of these superb pedants, he could not have achieved much more success than, during the Empire, would have had a romancist imbued with neo-Catholicism, attempting to convert to his views a Universitarian attached to the religion of Horace, or than would in our own days a socialist humanitarian declaiming against English prejudices before the fellows of Oxford or Cambridge.104
In a society so different from that in which he had till now lived, in the midst of rhetoricians and professors of dialectics, Paul found himself indeed from home. His thoughts constantly reverted to the dear Churches of Macedonia and Galatia, where he had discovered such an exquisite religious sentiment. He thought many times of departing for Thessalonica. A lively desire carried him thence, the more so as he had received news that the faith of the young Church had been subjected to many severe tests, and he feared that the proselytes might succumb to the temptations. Some obstacles, that he attributed to Satan, prevented him from carrying out that project. When he could no longer forbear, as he himself said, he separated once more from Timothy, whom he sent to Thessalonica to confirm, to exhort, and to console the faithful, and remained alone again at Athens.
He laboured there with renewed vigour, but the soil was unpropitious. The sprightly Athenian mind was diametrically opposed to that tender and profound religious disposition which produced conversions, and which was predestined to Christianity. The truly Hellenic ground was little inclined to the doctrine of Jesus. Plutarch, living in an atmosphere purely Greek, had not the least wind of it in the first half of the second century. Patriotism, attachment to old recollections of country, turned the Greeks against exotic worships. “Hellenism” became an organised, almost rational religion, which admitted a great part of philosophy. The “gods of Greece” appeared to wish to be regarded as the universal gods of humanity.
That which characterised the religion of Greece formerly, that which still characterises it in our day, is the want of infinity, of the unconfined, of compassion, of feminine softness. The profoundness of German and Celtic religious sentiment is lacking in 105the true Hellenic race. The piety of Greek orthodoxy consists in practices and in exterior signs. The orthodox Churches, sometimes very elegant, have none of the terrors which one feels in a Gothic Church. In that Oriental Christianity there are no tears, prayers, or outward compunctions. The funerals there are almost gay. They take place at night, or at the setting of the sun, when the shadows have become lengthened, and are accompanied by songs set in a medium key, and are a display of bright colours. The fanatical gravity of the Latins is distasteful to those brisk, cheerful, and sprightly races. The infirm one is not cast down; he watches death softly approach; all about him is smiles. Herein lies the secret of that divine gaiety of the Homeric poems and of Plato—the narration of the death of Socrates in Phædon shows hardly a taint of sadness. Life produces its flower, then its fruit; what is wanted more? If, as it can be maintained, the pre-occupation of death is the most important characteristic of Christianity and of modern religious sentiment, then the Greek race is the least religious of races. It is a superficial race, treating life as a thing devoid of the supernatural, and having no future. Such simplicity of conception is owing in great measure to the climate, to the purity of the atmosphere, to the astonishing joy that one breathes, but even more so to the instincts of the Hellenic race, finely idealistic. Anything—a tree, a flower, a lizard, a tortoise, calls up the recollection of a thousand metamorphoses which have been sung by the poets; a jet of water, a small crevice in the rock which is called a cave of the nymphs; a well with a drinking-cup at the brink; an arm of the sea so narrow that the butterflies cross it, and nevertheless navigable for the largest ships, like the Bosphorus; orange groves, cypress trees, whose shades are reflected on the sea; a small pine wood in the midst 106of rocks—suffice in Greece to produce the contentment which is awakened by beauty. People walk in the gardens during the night to listen to the nightingales; sit down in the clear moonlight to play the flute; go to drink the pure mountain water, carrying with them a piece of bread, and a flask of wine, which is drunk while singing. At family feasts, there is suspended above the doors a crown of branches, to match with the headpieces of flowers; on days of public festivals, thyrsi are carried, adorned with leaves; the days are passed in dancing, playing with tame goats; these are the delights of the Greeks, the pleasures of a race, poor, economical, eternally young, inhabiting a charming country, finding its welfare within itself, and in the gifts that the gods have given it. The shepherd’s song or pastoral, after the manner of Theocritus, was in the Hellenic countries a reality. Greece al-ways delighted in that unpretentious species of delicate and amiable poetry, the species the. most characteristic of her literature, the mirror of her own life, though almost always silly and artificial. Good humour and the delights of life are Greek traits par excellence. This race is always twenty years old; for she, indulgere genio is not the deep drinking of the English, or the gross diversions of the French; it is simply to think that nature is kind, that one can and one ought to unbend to it. For Greece, in fact, nature is a counsellor of elegance, a mistress of justice and of virtue:—“concupiscence.” The idea that nature induces us to do evil is to her a not-sense. The taste for personal adornment which distinguishes the palicare, and which is exhibited with so much innocence in the Greek girl, is not the pompous vanity of the barbarian, the vulgar pretension of the bourgeois, swollen with the ridiculous pride of an upstart; it is the pure and delicate sentiment of unsophisticated youth, 107which feels itself to be the legitimate heir of the true inventors of beauty.
Such a race, one can understand, would have received Jesus with a smile. It was a subject these exquisite children were incapable of learning from us—serious, profound, really simple devotion without glory, goodness without parade. Socrates is a moralist of the first order, but he has nothing to do with the history of religion. The Greek always appears to us a little cold and heartless; he has wit, action, subtlety, but has nothing of the pensive or the melancholic. On the other hand, with us Celts and Germans, the source of our genius is our heart. Our deepest recesses (au fond de nous) resemble a fairy fountain, a fountain clear, fresh, and deep, in which is reflected the infinite. With the Greek, love of self and vanity is mixed with everything; vague sentiment is unknown to him; reflection upon his own destiny ap-pears to him unprofitable. Pushed to the length of caricature, so incomplete a mode of understanding life as it is conditioned, at the Roman epoch, the græculus esuriens, grammarian, artist, charlatan, acrobat, physician, amuser of the whole world, greatly resembling the Italian of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; at the Byzantine epoch, the theological sophist making religion degenerate into subtle disputes; in our day, the modern Greek, sometimes foolishly vain and ungrateful; the orthodox fathers, with their egotistical and materialistic religion. Unfortunate he who arrests that decadence! Shame upon him who, in front of the Parthenon, dreams of holding it up to ridicule! Nevertheless, this has to be acknowledged: Greece was never seriously Christian, nor is she to this day. No race in our Middle Ages was less romantic, more destitute of chivalrous sentiment. Plato built all his theory of the beautiful en se passant without reference to woman. To think of a woman in order to be incited 108to do great things! a Greek would have been surprised at such language. For him, he thought of men assembled around the agora, he thought of his country. In this respect the Latins were nearer to us. Greek poetry, incomparable in the grander species of it, such as the epic, the tragic, the disinterested lyric poetry, had not, it seems, the sweet elegiac note of Tibullus, of Virgil, of Lucretius, a note so much in harmony with our sentiments, so closely related to that which we love.
The same difference is found between the piety of St Bernard, of St François d’Assisi, and that of the saints of the Greek Church. These splendid schools of Capadocia, of Syria, of Egypt, of the Fathers of the desert, approximate the philosophical schools. The popular holy writings of the Greeks are more mythological than those of the Latins. The majority of the saints represented in the iconostase of a Greek house, before which a lamp burns, are not great authors, great men like saints of the West: they are often fanciful beings, old gods transfigured, or at least a combination of historic and mythological personages, like St George. And that admirable temple of St Sophia! It is an Aryan temple: the whole human species might have made its prayers there. Not having had either people, inquisition, scholasticism, or Middle Age barbarism, having always preserved a leaven of Arianism, Greece rejected with greater facility than any other country a supernatural Christianity, just as those Athenians of former times were at once (thanks to a sort of vivacity which was a thousand times more profound than the seriousness of our dull races) the most superstitious of peoples, and the nearest approach to Rationalism. The popular Greek songs are still to-day charged with Pagan images and ideas. Differing so widely from the West, the East remained during the Middle Ages, and down to modern 109times, true “Hellenists;” at bottom more Pagan than Christian, living on a religion of old Greek patriotism, and of old authors. These Hellenists were, in the fifteenth century, the promoters of the Renaissance in the West, to which they affixed Greek texts, the basis of all civilisation. The same spirit has presided, and will continue to preside, over the destinies of new Greece. When we have fully studied that which made of us bears the caul of a cultivated Hellenist, we see that there is in him very little Christianity: he is Christian in form, as a Persian is a Mussulman, but at bottom he is “Hellenist.” His religion is the adoration of the ancient Greek genius. He pardons every heresy to philo-Hellenism, to him who admires its past: he is much less a disciple of Jesus and of St Paul, than of Plutarch and of Julian.
Wearied by his little success at Athens, Paul, without awaiting the return of Timothy, departed for Corinth. He had not formed at Athens any considerable Church. There were only a few isolated persons, among others a certain Dionysius, who belonged, it is said, to the Areopagus, and a woman, named Damaris, who had adhered to his doctrines. This was, then, in his apostolic career, his first and almost only check.
Even in the second century the Church at Athens is of little importance. Athens was one of the cities which was the last to be converted. After Constantine, she is the centre of opposition against Christianity, the bulwark of philosophy. By a rare privilege she preserved the temples intact. These prodigious monuments, protected through the ages, thanks to a sort of instinctive respect, were to come down to us as an eternal lesson of good sense and honesty, given by artists of genius. Even to-day we feel that the Christian covering which is spread over the old Pagan foundation is very superficial. 110It is hardly necessary to modify the actual names of the churches at Athens to find again the names of the ancient temples.
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