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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: brain candy

So who is this Mencius fellow?

Anyone familiar with the great Chinese philosopher Mencius could not help but think of him if they happened to read Jerry Coyne’s July 31 USA Today piece As atheists know, you can be good without God. That’s because Coyne opens his essay with a personal anecdote illustrating “the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments,” which was the defining theme of Mencius’ philosophy (and which Mencius famously illustrated in a way highly reminiscent of Coyne’s anecdote).

For those not familiar with Mencius, and/or those who know a little and wish to learn more (a category in which I place myself) a very handy resource is the article on Mencius in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the entry is by Kwong-Loi Shun, Chair Professor of Philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he is also author of Mencius and Early Chinese Thought). And for anyone not familiar with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is to wikipedia as Buffalo mozzarella is to Cheese Whiz.

Here is how Professor Shun begins his article:

Mencius (fourth century B.C.E.) sought to defend the teachings of Confucius (sixth to fifth century B.C.E.) against other influential movements of thought, especially those associated with Mozi (fifth century B.C.E.) and Yang Zhu (fifth to fourth century B.C.E.). He is probably best known for the view that “human nature is good”, a view of human nature on the basis of which he defended the Confucian ideal and developed an account of the self-cultivation process. His view was subsequently challenged by Xunzi (third century B.C.E.), another major Confucian thinker, who defended the alternative view that “human nature is evil”.

Confucian thinkers of the Han (206 B.C – 220 C.E.) were influenced by the teachings of both, but by the late Tang (618–907), influential intellectuals such as Han Yu (768–824) came to regard Mencius as the true transmitter of Confucius’ teachings. This view was shared by Confucian thinkers of the early Song (960–1279), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) included the Mengzi (Mencius) as one of the Four Books, which became canonical texts of the Confucian tradition. Mencius came to be regarded as the greatest Confucian thinker after Confucius himself, and his teachings have been very influential on the development of Confucian thought in the Song, Ming (1368–1644), Qing (1644–1912), and up to modern times.

>The Top Eleven Books On Paganism Most Pagans Have Never Heard Of

>A few suggestions for light summer reading, submitted for your approval. In truth, many of these will be familiar to any regular visitors to egregores.

1. Hellenic Religion & Christianization, c. 370-529
by Frank Trombley
What happened to ancient Paganism? This.

2. The Morality of Happiness
by Julia Annas
Don’t be unethical. Be happy. Be Pagan.

3. Hellenism in Byzantium
by Anthony Kaldellis
In late antiquity Hellenism became a distinctly religious identity, and this Pagan religious identity survived as a continuous tradition in Byzantium, the very heart of Christendom.

4. George Gemistos Plethon: Last of the Hellenes
by C.M. Woodhouse
When he died in 1453, Plethon left behind secret writings proving that he was a polytheistic Pagan. These posthumously discovered writings begin with the declaration: “The Gods really do exist.”

5. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy
by Geoffrey Ernest Maurice De Ste. Croix
It turns out early Christians wanted to be martyrs and intentionally sought their own deaths by committing criminal acts of violence, including murder. I guess Christians are just funny that way.

6. History and Silence: The Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity
by Charles W. Hedrick Jr.
The Pagans of the late 4th century were revolting. Some people, like Alan Cameron, claim they weren’t. But they really were.

7. Buddhist Goddesses of India
by Miranda Shaw
Goddess worship before Goddess worship was cool. (And the Buddha was a Pagan.)

8. Vergil in the Middle Ages
by Domenico Comparetti
The cult of Vergil is a continuous Pagan tradition. So there.

9. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets
by Sarah Iles Johnston and Fritz Graf
“I am a child of Earth and the starry Sky. My race is heavenly.”

10. Babylon Memphis Persepolis
by Walter Burkert
That’s funny, these Pagans don’t look European.

11. Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomble
by Paul Christopher Johnson
“Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body.”

>Anne Ross’ "Pagan Celtic Britain" (Thank the Gods for Big Fat Books!)

>Here is a very brief excerpt from Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain (which I am reading now – but I’ve only made it through the first chapter, which is still almost 100 pages):

We cannot accept the the view that, with the coming of Christians, paganism died. In Britain, as in Ireland, the old faiths, the old remedies, and the old names spelling comfort and protection must have continued to be resorted to long after the spreading of the message of the one God, and this can be demonstrated, amongst other things, by the penitentials which refer to dark practices, and the castigations of the militant saints denouncing the pagan pursuits of their sometimes unwilling adherents. But there would be no reason to end with the establishment of the Christian faith either, for even in the twentieth century in the Celtic countries, echoes of the old pagan world can be detected and beliefs, furtive and uneasy, but nevertheless strong, as well as oral tradition of an entertainment nature, persist among the people who derive more than their linguistic traditions from the barbarian past.
[p. 28]

And here are a few reviews found scattered about teh internets (some with accompanying excerpts):

At Celticscholar’s blog from July, 2009

Everyone who studies Celtic beliefs knows that many aspects of pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs remain shrouded in mystery. Ann Ross in this comprehensive book is trying to convince us, the readers, that neither the Roman invasion of Britain nor the coming of Christianity eliminated pagan religious practice….

The book is a great reference when it comes to what evidence we have of the Celtic religion, and a good starting point for more research. The kind of book that you can refer to from time to time to find evidence of sacred animals and what kind of cults can be found in Britain. A good reference book to have.

Another very positive review, this one by Andrea S. Garret at the greenmanreview.com website.

A 1996 review by Ellen Evert Hopman at keltria.org:

Pagan Celtic Britain is one the foundation stones of modern Druid scholarship and anyone aspiring to the title of Druid should own a copy. The book’s greatest value is the solid archaeological evidence Dr. Ross provides to support her statements.

1999 review by J. Craig Melia at the Druid Order of WhiteOak website.

Originally published in 1967, Pagan Celtic Britain is one of the most important studies on the subject, despite the tendancy in some circles of viewing the work as out-dated.

The Cognitive Dissonance. It Tickles.

How many blogs simultaneously defend Geert Wilders’ criticism of Islam (and not just his right to voice that criticism — but that, too, obviously!), and also mourn the passing of the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn, who was one of the most important leftist voices in the English speaking world in the late 20th century and even well into the first decade of the 21st??

Not very freaking many. That’s how many.

“If two people agree about everything, one of them is unnecessary.”
Oscar Wilde*

*Oh, alright. Maybe it was Winston Churchill, or someone else. But Oscar Wilde obviously should have said it. I mean, anyone can see that, right?

"Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies."

One of the cool things about human languages is their infinite creative capacity. Every native speaker of any human language has the ability to create (and “emit”) completely “new utterances” – meaningful strings of words that have never previously been spoken, but that are nevertheless immediately understandable by others.

Just the other day I saw posted to an internet discussion group the sentence “I am a Kemetic from New Jersey.” (For those not up on their Paganese, a “Kemetic” is a person who follows the ancient polytheistic religious traditions of Kemet, the ancient name for what modern English speakers refer to as “Egypt”.) When I read those words I had no difficulty in understanding them, but I also immediately thought that this was very likely to be a “new utterance”, a string of words that had never been uttered in English before.

And then just this morning as I was glancing through the Huffington Post I saw the headline “Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies.” I’m pretty sure that is a “new utterance”, too! Another likely candidate is the headline of a small item in todays India Express online edition: “Why this Republic needs more time zones.” By their very nature, headlines probably have a higher than average probability of being completely new utterances.

Not to make light of the death of Pernell Roberts, who gained fame playing Adam Cartwright. It turns out Roberts was a pretty damned interesting guy. He liked to brag that “I distinguished myself by flunking out of college three times,” after which he worked at such professions as tombstone maker and railroad riveter, before finally settling down and becoming a successful actor.

Many lesser actors would have been perfectly happy to have a central role in a hugely successful TV series like Bonanza. But Pernell Roberts thought his character, and the show in general, was poorly conceived and the writing especially left much to be desired. He finally left Bonanza at the height of the show’s popularity and took a series a smaller roles until finally landing the lead in Trapper John, MD (a full 14 years after leaving Bonanza).

The ability of human languages to create ever new “utterances” was one of the key ingredients in Noam Chomsky’s withering critique of B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism back in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

The Western Mystery Tradition(s): Factions and Fault Lines

This is a subject that has been rattling around in my mind for quite some time. It began to come into focus more clearly a few years ago when I was reading Joscelyn Godwin’s The Theosophical Enlightenment. One of the subplots of that book, especially in the concluding four chapters, is that of the the increasing amount of tension over the “East versus West” issue among Esotericists during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In one corner were those wished to drink deeply (and ever more deeply) from the fonts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In the other corner were those whose motto was “East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

Another theme that pops up in Godwin‘s book is that of “therapeutic blasphemy“, a term Godwin borrows from one of Britain’s most prominent Buddhists, Sangharakshita. The idea of “therapeutic blasphemy” is, in essence, that Christianity is such a pervasive influence in western culture, that only by a positive and concerted effort can one break free of its pernicious (and largely unconscious) influence. In particular, all those born in a Christian society (even if not raised Christian, even nominally) must go through a period of public denunciation of Christianity, ie, “Therapeutic Blasphemy”, otherwise they are doomed to remain perpetually under the thrall of the cult of the creed making fishermen.

Reference to therapeutic blasphemy always reminds me of Jesus’ own advice to his disciples to “shake the dust from your feet” upon leaving a place where the people were not receptive to his teachings.

Another book that I read at the same time was Christopher McIntosh’s The Roscicrucians, in which McIntosh draws attention to two types of factionalism among Esotericists: (1) that of political conservatives (in particular, monarchists), versus political liberals (in particular, republicans), and (2) that of Hermeticists who are “Christian only in that they include some Christianity but do not stress it”, versus Rosicrucians who “are primarily Christian but draw on other non-Christian sources”. [Those quotes are actually from Kathleen Raine’s Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn, which McIntosh quotes from on p. 105 of his book.]

A third book that influenced my thinking on these matters is Richard Kaczynski‘s Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (of which I am the proud owner of a signed copy, and also of which a revised and expanded version is due out later this year – yay!). In that book Kaczynski portrays Crowley (and to a lesser, or possibly greater extent Allan Bennett) as a Hermetic/Pagan (or in Bennett’s case Hermetic/Hindu/Buddhist) presence in the Golden Dawn at odds with the more staid Rosicrucian/Christian mainstream of the Order. The “conservatives”, led by William Butler Yeats, won the day in the end, despite (or possibly because of) Crowley’s alliance with S.L. McGregor Mathers. Christopher McIntosh, in his book mentioned in the preceding paragraph, concurs with this view, saying that the Golden Dawn became “totally ‘Rosicrucianized'” under Yeats, with all rituals rewritten so that they were now “Christian in emphasis” [pp. 104-105].

My personal interest in (and attraction to) Traditionalism and my abhorrence for Modernism have also led me to investigate the writings of Julius Evola, Arturo Reghini, and similar characters, despite my own (ever waning) leftist leanings. It has also led me to keep an eye on Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalists blog, where a a fascinating item appeared just yesterday about a new English translation by Joscelyn Godwin of some writings by Marco Baistrocchi (an Italian Traditionalist and next-generation fellow-traveler of Evola and Reghini). These writings by Baistrocchi were critiques of Rene Guenon’s The King of the World. From what very little I know, the basis of Baistrocchi’s criticism of The King of the World, was that the story presented by Guenon in that book (first published in 1927), according to Baistrocchi, “was a deliberate manipulation, designed to shut off Western seekers from Eastern wisdom and to divert them, first into Catholicism, then into Islam.” For more details see this page (where the immediately preceding quote is lifted from), which is part of the Theosophical History website. At that page there is also ordering information for Godwin’s translation of Baistrocchi’s writings.

Here is a little excerpt mentioning Evola, Reghini, and Baistrocchi (among others), from another book by Godwin: The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions:

In Italy after World War I there was a concerted effort to restore the ancient Roman religion, led by Arturo Reghini and supported, for a time, by the young Julius Evola, whose Imperialismo Pagano (1928) is a forceful defense of Pagan imperialism against its Christian supplanter. Evidence of more recent activities emerges from the journal Politica Romana, which serves as a forum for a number of distinguished scholars and thinkers including the late Marco Baistrocchi (a diplomat by profession), Piero Fenili (a judge), and the expatriate American Dana Lloyd Thomas. Roman religion appears there in a broad context of philosophical polytheism, keeping company with Mahayana Buddhism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonism. The feasts of the Roman calendar are commemorated, the Gods and sacred sites of the city are honored, and the Italian Renaissance and the Masonically-inspired Risorgimento are celebrated as manifestations of the original spirit of Italy. An effort in a similar direction was the journal Antaios, edited by Mircea Eliade and Ernst Junger. Avowedly polytheistic, Antaios aimed at a Europe of mutually respectful homelands rejoicing in their ancestral myths, their Gods and Goddesses, and in the earth from which, in the Greek legend, the giant Antaios derived his strength.
[p. 165]

To tell you the truth, Dear Reader, I am amazed that I have finally organized my thoughts on this subject even this much!! For now I will leave off with this unapologetically schematic list of dichotomies that seem to be ever present, just below the surface (if that much) of the swirling currents of the Western Mystery Tradition(s), for future consideration and investigation:

East vs. West

Pagan vs. Christian

Traditionalist vs. Modernist

Conservative vs. Liberal

Nota Bene: The books mentioned above by Godwin, McIntosh, and Kaczynski are all simply magnificent. Tasty, tasty brain-food for all discriminating occultist bookworm types!
Richard Kaczynski just yesterday announced to the world that he has “sent off the revised and expanded edition of Perdurabo for copy-editing”!! Check out his blog for the details.

Goethe on Scepticism, etc.

It is only when a man knows little, that he knows anything at all. With knowledge grows doubt.

An active scepticism is one which constantly aims at overcoming itself, and arriving by means of regulated experience at a kind of conditioned certainty.

The general nature of the sceptical mind is its tendency to inquire whether any particular predicate really attaches to any particular object; and the purpose of the inquiry is safely to apply in practice what has thus been discovered and proved.

The thinker makes a great mistake when he asks after cause and effect: they both together make up the indivisible phenomenon.

Deep and earnest thinkers are in a difficult position with regard to the public.

Superstition is the poetry of life. And so it does not hurt the poet to be superstitious.

Mysticism is the scholastic of the heart, the dialectice of the feelings.

When a boy begins to understand that an invisible point must always come before a visible one, and that the shortest way between two points is a straight line, before he can draw it on his paper with a pencil, he experiences a certain pride and pleasure. And he is not wrong; for he has the source of all thought opened to him; idea and reality, potentia et actu, are become clear; the philosopher has no new discovery to bring him; as a mathematician, he has found the basis of all thought for himself.

Let us remember how great the ancients were; and especially how the Socratic school holds up to us the source and standard of all life and action, and bids us not indulge in empty speculation, but live and do.

If we set our gaze on antiquity and earnestly study it, in the desire to form ourselves thereon, we get the feeling as if it were only then that we really became men.

The Beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.

With the growth of knowledge our ideas must from time to time be organized afresh. The change takes place usually in accordance with new maxims as they arise, but it always remains provisional.

We more readily confess to errors, mistakes, and shortcoming in our conduct than in our thoughts.

And the reason of it is that conscience is humble and even takes a pleasure in being ashamed. But the intellect is proud, and if forced to recant is driven to despair.

This also explains how it is that truths which have been recognised are at first tacitly admitted, and then gradually spread, so that the very thing which was obstinately denied appears at last as something quite natural.

Ignorant people raise questions which were answered by the wise thousands of years ago.

Our mistake is that we doubt what is certain and want to establish what is uncertain. My maxim in the study of Nature is this: hold fast what is certain and keep a watch on what is uncertain.

[From: The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe]

"that all our knowledge is a knowledge of states of consciousness."

On Descartes’ “Discourse Touching the Method of Using One’s Reason Rightly and of Seeking Scientific Truth” (1870)
T.H. Huxley, Collected Essays I

It has been well said that “all the thoughts of men, from the beginning of the world until now, are linked together into one great chain;” but the conception of the intellectual filiation of mankind which is expressed in these words may, perhaps, be more fitting metaphor. The thoughts of men seem rather to be comparable to the leaves, flowers, and fruit upon the innumerable branches of a few great stems, fed by commingled and hidden roots. These stems bear the names of the half-a-dozen men, endowed with intellects of heroic force and clearness, to whom we are led, at whatever point of the world of thought the attempt to trace its history commences, just as certainly as the following up the small twigs of a tree to the branchlets which bear them, and tracing the branchlets to their supporting branches, brings us, sooner or later, to the bole.

It seems to me that the thinker who, more than any other, stands in the relation of such a stem towards the philosophy and the science of the modern world is Réné Descartes. I mean, that if you lay hold of any characteristic product of modern ways of thinking, either in the region of philosophy, or in that of science, you find the spirit of that thought, if not its form, to have been present in the mind of the great Frenchman.

There are some men who are counted great because they represent the actuality of their own age, and mirror it as it is. Such an one was Voltaire, of whom it was epigrammatically said, “he expressed everybody’s thoughts better than anybody.” But there are other men who attain greatness because they embody the potentiality of their own day, and magically reflect the future. They express the thoughts which will be everybody’s two or three centuries after them. Such an one was Descartes.

Born in 1596, nearly three hundred years ago, of a noble family in Touraine, Réné Descartes grew up into a sickly and diminutive child, whose keen wit soon gained him that title of “the Philosopher,” which, in the mouths of his noble kinsmen, was more than half a reproach. The best schoolmasters of the day, the Jesuits, educated him as well as a French boy of the seventeenth century could be educated. And they must have done their work honestly and well, for, before his schoolboy days were over, he had discovered that the most of what he had learned, except in mathematics, was devoid of solid and real value.

“Therefore,” says he, in that ‘Discourse’ which I have taken for my text, “as soon as I was old enough to be set free from the government of my teachers, I entirely forsook the study of letters; and determining to seek no other knowledge than that which I could discover within myself, or in the great book of the world, I spent the remainder of my youth in travelling; in seeing courts and armies; in the society of people of different humours and conditions; in gathering varied experience; in testing myself by the chances of fortune; and in always trying to profit by my reflections on what happened. . . . And I always had an intense desire to learn how to distinguish truth from falsehood, in order to be clear about my actions, and to walk surefootedly in this life.”

But “learn what is true, in order to do what is right,” is the summing up of the whole duty of man, for all who are unable to satisfy their mental hunger with the east wind of authority; and to those of us moderns who are in this position, it is one of Descartes’ great claims to our reverence as a spiritual ancestor, that, at three-and-twenty, he saw clearly that this was his duty, and acted up to his conviction. At two-and-thirty, in fact, finding all other occupations incompatible with the search after the knowledge which leads to action, and being possessed of a modest competence, he withdrew into Holland; where he spent nine years in learning and thinking, in such retirement that only one or two trusted friends knew of his whereabouts.

In 1637 the first-fruits of these long meditations were given to the world in the famous “Discourse touching the Method of using Reason rightly and of seeking Scientific Truth,” which, at once an autobiography and a philosophy, clothes the deepest thought in language of exquisite harmony, simplicity, and clearness.

The central propositions of the whole “Discourse” are these. There is a path that leads to truth so surely, that any one who will follow it must needs reach the goal, whether his capacity be great or small. And there is one guiding rule by which a man may always find this path, and keep himself from straying when he has found it. This golden rule is–give unqualified assent to no propositions but those the truth of which is so clear and distinct that they cannot be doubted.

The enunciation of this great first commandment of science consecrated Doubt. It removed Doubt from the seat of penance among the grievous sins to which it had long been condemned, and enthroned it in that high place among the primary duties, which is assigned to it by the scientific conscience of these latter days. Descartes was the first among the moderns to obey this commandment deliberately; and, as a matter of religious duty, to strip off all his beliefs and reduce himself to a state of intellectual nakedness, until such time as he could satisfy himself which were fit to be worn. He thought a bare skin healthier than the most respectable and well-cut clothing of what might, possibly, be mere shoddy.

When I say that Descartes consecrated doubt, you must remember that it was that sort of doubt which Goethe has called “the active scepticism, whose whole aim is to conquer itself; “ and not that other sort which is born of flippancy and ignorance, and whose aim is only to perpetuate itself, as an excuse for idleness and indifference. But it is impossible to define what is meant by scientific doubt better than in Descartes’ own words. After describing the gradual progress of his negative criticism, he tells us:–

“For all that, I did not imitate the sceptics, who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.”

And further, since no man of common sense when he pulls down his house for the purpose of rebuilding it, fails to provide himself with some shelter while the work is in progress; so, before demolishing the spacious, if not commodious, mansion of his old beliefs, Descartes thought it wise to equip himself with what he calls “une morale par provision,” by which he resolved to govern his practical life until such time as he should be better instructed. The laws of this “provisional self-government” are embodied in four maxims, of which one binds our philosopher to submit himself to the laws and religion in which he was brought up; another, to act, on all those occasions which call for action, promptly and according to the best of his judgment, and to abide, without repining, by the result: a third rule is to seek happiness in limiting his desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them; while the last is to make the search after truth the business of his life.

Thus prepared to go on living while he doubted, Descartes proceeded to face his doubts like a man. One thing was clear to him, he would not lie to himself–would, under no penalties, say, “I am sure” of that of which he was not sure; but would go on digging and delving until he came to the solid adamant or, at worst, made sure there was no adamant. As the record of his progress tells us, he was obliged to confess that life is full of delusions; that authority may err; that testimony may be false or mistaken; that reason lands us in endless fallacies; that memory is often as little trustworthy as hope; that the evidence of the very senses may be misunderstood; that dreams are real as long as they last, and that what we call reality may be a long and restless dream. Nay, it is conceivable that some powerful and malicious being may find his pleasure in deluding us, and in making us believe the thing which is not, every moment of our lives. What, then, is certain? What even, if such a being exists, is beyond the reach of his powers of delusion? Why, the fact that the thought, the present consciousness, exists. Our thoughts may be delusive, but they cannot be fictitious. As thoughts, they are real and existent, and the cleverest deceiver cannot make them otherwise.

Thus, thought is existence. More than that, so far as we are concerned, existence is thought, all our conceptions of existence being some kind or other of thought. Do not for a moment suppose that these are mere paradoxes or subtleties. A little reflection upon the commonest facts proves them to be irrefragable truths. For example, I take up a marble, and I find it to be a red, round, hard, single body. We call the redness, the roundness, the hardness, and the singleness, “qualities” of the marble; and it sounds, at first, the height of absurdity to say that all these qualities are modes of our own consciousness, which cannot even be conceived to exist in the marble. But consider the redness, to begin with. How does the sensation of redness arise? The waves of a certain very attenuated matter, the particles of which are vibrating with vast rapidity, but with very different velocities, strike upon the marble, and those which vibrate with one particular velocity are thrown off from its surface in all directions. The optical apparatus of the eye gathers some of these together, and gives them such a course that they impinge upon the surface of the retina, which is a singularly delicate apparatus connected with the termination of the fibres of the optic nerve. The impulses of the attenuated matter, or ether, affect this apparatus and the fibres of the optic nerve in a certain way; and the change in the fibres of the optic nerve produces yet other changes in the brain; and these, in some fashion unknown to us, give rise to the feeling, or consciousness of redness. If the marble could remain unchanged, and either the rate of vibration of the ether, or the nature of the retina, could be altered, the marble would seem not red, but some other colour. There are many people who are what are called colour-blind, being unable to distinguish one colour from another. Such an one might declare our marble to be green; and he would be quite as right in saying that it is green, as we are in declaring it to be red. But then, as the marble cannot, in itself, be both green and red, at the same time, this shows that the quality “redness” must be in our consciousness and not in the marble.

In like manner, it is easy to see that the roundness and the hardness are forms of our consciousness, belonging to the groups which we call sensations of sight and touch. If the surface of the cornea were cylindrical, we should have a very different notion of a round body from that which we possess now; and if the strength of the fabric, and the force of the muscles, of the body were increased a hundredfold, our marble would seem to be as soft as a pellet of bread crumbs.

Not only is it obvious that all these qualities are in us, but, if you will make the attempt, you will find it quite impossible to conceive of “blueness,” “roundness,” and “hardness” as existing without reference to some such consciousness as our own. It may seem strange to say that even the “singleness” of the marble is relative to us; but extremely simple experiments will show that such is veritably the case, and that our two most trustworthy senses may be made to contradict one another on this very point. Hold the marble between the finger and thumb, and look at it in the ordinary way. Sight and touch agree that it is single. Now squint, and sight tells you that there are two marbles, while touch asserts that there is only one. Next, return the eyes to their natural position, and, having crossed the forefinger and the middle finger, put the marble between their tips. Then touch will declare that there are two marbles, while sight says that there is only one; and touch claims our belief, when we attend to it, just as imperatively as sight does.

But it may be said, the marble takes up a certain space which could not be occupied, at the same time, by anything else. In other words, the marble has the primary quality of matter, extension. Surely this quality must be in the thing and not in our minds? But the reply must still be; whatever may, or may not, exist in the thing, all that we can know of these qualities is a state of consciousness. What we call extension is a consciousness of a relation between two, or more, affections of the sense of sight, or of touch. And it is wholly inconceivable that what we call extension should exist independently of such consciousness as our own. Whether, notwithstanding this inconceivability, it does so exist, or not, is a point on which I offer no opinion. Thus, whatever our marble may be in itself, all that we can know of it is under the shape of a bundle of our own consciousnesses.

Nor is our knowledge of anything we know or feel more, or less, than a knowledge of states of consciousness. And our whole life is made up of such states. Some of these states we refer to a cause we call “self;” others to a cause or causes which may be comprehended under the title of “not-self.” But neither of the existence of “self,” nor of that of “not-self,” have we, or can we by any possibility have, any such unquestionable and immediate certainty as we have of the states of consciousness which we consider to be their effects. They are not immediately observed facts, but results of the application of the law of causation to those facts. Strictly speaking, the existence of a “self” and of a “not-self” are hypotheses by which we account for the facts of consciousness. They stand upon the same footing as the belief in the general trustworthiness of memory, and in the general constancy of the order of Nature–as hypothetical assumptions which cannot be proved, or known with that highest degree of certainty which is given by immediate consciousness; but which, nevertheless, are of the highest practical value, inasmuch as the conclusions logically drawn from them are always verified by experience.

This, in my judgment, is the ultimate issue of Descartes’ argument; but it is proper for me to point out that we have left Descartes himself some way behind us. He stopped at the famous formula, “I think, therefore I am.” Yet a little consideration will show this formula to be full of snares and verbal entanglements. In the first place, the “therefore” has no business there. The “I am” is assumed in the “I think,” which is simply another way of saying “I am thinking.” And, in the second place, “I think” is not one simple proposition, but three distinct assertions rolled into one. The first of these is, “something called I exists;” the second is, “something called thought exists;” and the third is, “the thought is the result of the action of the I.”

Now, it will be obvious to you, that the only one of these three propositions which can stand the Cartesian test of certainty is the second. It cannot be doubted, for the very doubt is an existent thought. But the first and third, whether true or not, may be doubted, and have been doubted. For the assertor may be asked, How do you know that thought is not self-existent; or that a given thought is not the effect of its antecedent thought, or of some external power? And a diversity of other questions, much more easily put than answered. Descartes, determined as he was to strip off all the garments which the intellect weaves for itself, forgot this gossamer shirt of the “self”; to the great detriment, and indeed ruin of his toilet when he began to clothe himself again.

But it is beside my purpose to dwell upon the minor peculiarities of the Cartesian philosophy. All I wish to put clearly before your minds thus far, is that Descartes, having commenced by declaring doubt to be a duty, found certainty in consciousness alone; and that the necessary outcome of his views is what may properly be termed Idealism; namely, the doctrine that, whatever the universe may be, all we can know of it is the picture presented to us by consciousness. This picture may be a true likeness–though how this can be is inconceivable; or it may have no more resemblance to its cause than one of Bach’s fugues has to the person who is playing it; or than a piece of poetry has to the mouth and lips of a reciter. It is enough for all the practical purposes of human existence if we find that our trust in the representations of consciousness is verified by results; and that, by their help, we are enabled “to walk surefootedly in this life.”

Thus the method, or path which leads to truth, indicated by Descartes, takes us straight to the Critical Idealism of his great successor Kant. It is that Idealism which declares the ultimate fact of all knowledge to be consciousness, or, in other words, a mental phænomenon; and therefore affirms the highest of all certainties, and indeed the only absolute certainty, to be the existence of mind. But it is also that Idealism which refuses to make any assertions, either positive or negative, as to what lies beyond consciousness. It accuses the subtle Berkeley of stepping beyond the limits of knowledge when he declared that a substance of matter does not exist; and of illogicality, for not seeing that the arguments which he supposed demolished the existence of matter were equally destructive to the existence of soul. And it refuses to listen to the jargon of more recent days about the “Absolute” and all the other hypostatised adjectives, the initial letters of the names of which are generally printed in capital letters; just as you give a Grenadier a bearskin cap, to make him look more formidable than he is by nature.

I repeat, the path indicated and followed by Descartes, which we have hitherto been treading, leads through doubt to that critical Idealism which lies at the heart of modern metaphysical thought. But the “Discourse” shows us another, and apparently very different, path, which leads, quite as definitely, to that correlation of all the phænomena of the universe with matter and motion, which lies at the heart of modern physical thought, and which most people call Materialism.

The early part of the seventeenth century, when Descartes reached manhood, is one of the great epochs of the intellectual life of mankind. At that time, physical science suddenly strode into the arena of public and familiar thought, and openly challenged not only Philosophy and the Church, but that common ignorance which often passes by the name of Common Sense. The assertion of the motion of the earth was a defiance to all three, and Physical Science threw down her glove by the hand of Galileo.

It is not pleasant to think of the immediate result of the combat; to see the champion of science, old, worn, and on his knees before the Cardinal Inquisitor, signing his name to what he knew to be a lie. And, no doubt, the Cardinals rubbed their hands as they thought how well they had silenced and discredited their adversary. But two hundred years have passed, and however feeble or faulty her soldiers, Physical Science sits crowned and enthroned as one of the legitimate rulers of the world of thought. Charity children would be ashamed not to know that the earth moves; while the Schoolmen are forgotten; and the Cardinals–well, the Cardinals are at the Œcumenical Council, still at their old business of trying to stop the movement of the world.

As a ship, which having lain becalmed with every stitch of canvas set, bounds away before the breeze which springs up astern, so the mind of Descartes, poised in equilibrium of doubt, not only yielded to the full force of the impulse towards physical science and physical ways of thought, given by his great contemporaries, Galileo and Harvey, but shot beyond them; and anticipated, by bold speculation, the conclusions, which could only be placed upon a secure foundation by the labours of generations of workers.

Descartes saw that the discoveries of Galileo meant that the remotest parts of the universe were governed by mechanical laws; while those of Harvey meant that the same laws presided over the operations of that portion of the world which is nearest to us, namely, our own bodily frame. And crossing the interval between the centre and its vast circumference by one of the great strides of genius, Descartes sought to resolve all the phænomena of the universe into matter and motion, or forces operating according to law. This grand conception, which is sketched in the “Discours,” and more fully developed in the “Principes” and in the “Traite de l’Homme,” he worked out with extraordinary power and knowledge; and with the effect of arriving, in the last-named essay, at that purely mechanical view of vital phænomena towards which modern physiology is striving.

Let us try to understand how Descartes got into this path, and why it led him where it did. The mechanism of the circulation of the blood had evidently taken a great hold of his mind, as he describes it several times, at much length. After giving a full account of it in the “Discourse,” and erroneously ascribing the motion of the blood, not to the contraction of the walls of the heart, but to the heat which he supposes to be generated there, he adds:–

“This motion, which I have just explained, is as much the necessary result of the structure of the parts which one can see in the heart, and of the heat which one may feel there with one’s fingers, and of the nature of the blood, which may be experimentally ascertained; as is that of a clock of the force, the situation, and the figure, of its weight, and of its wheels.”

But if this apparently vital operation were explicable as a simple mechanism, might not other vital operations be reducible to the same category? Descartes replies without hesitation in the affirmative.

“The animal spirits,” says he, “resemble a very subtle fluid, or a very pure and vivid flame, and are continually generated in the heart, and ascend to the brain as to a sort of reservoir. Hence they pass into the nerves and are distributed to the muscles, causing contraction, or relaxation, according to their quantity.”

Thus, according to Descartes, the animal body is an automaton, which is competent to perform all the animal functions in exactly the same way as a clock or any other piece of mechanism. As he puts the case himself:–

“In proportion as these spirits [the animal spirits] enter the cavities of the brain, they pass thence into the pores of its substance, and from these pores into the nerves; where, according as they enter, or even only tend to enter, more or less, into one than into another, they have the power of altering the figure of the muscles into which the nerves are inserted, and by this means of causing all the limbs to move. Thus, as you may have seen in the grottoes and the fountains in royal gardens, the force with which the water issues from its reservoir is sufficient to move various machines, and even to make them play instruments, or pronounce words according to the different disposition of the pipes which lead the water.

“And, in truth, the nerves of the machine which I am describing may very well be compared to the pipes of these waterworks; its muscles and its tendons to the other various engines and springs which seem to move them; its animal spirits to the water which impels them, of which the heart is the fountain; while the cavities of the brain are the central office. Moreover, respiration and other such actions as are natural and usual in the body, and which depend on the course of the spirits, are like the movements of a clock, or of a mill, which may be kept up by the ordinary flow of the water.

“The external objects which, by their mere presence, act upon the organs of the senses; and which, by this means, determine the corporal machine to move in many different ways, according as the parts of the brain are arranged, are like the strangers who, entering into some of the grottoes of these waterworks, unconsciously cause the movements which take place in their presence. For they cannot enter without treading upon certain planks so arranged that, for example, if they approach a bathing Diana, they cause her to hide among the reeds; and if they attempt to follow her, they see approaching a Neptune, who threatens them with his trident: or if they try some other way, they cause some other monster, who vomits water into their faces, to dart out; or like contrivances, according to the fancy of the engineers who have made them. And lastly, when the rational soul is lodged in this machine, it will have its principal seat in the brain, and will take the place of the engineer, who ought to be in that part of the works with which all the pipes are connected, when he wishes to increase, or to slacken, or in some way to alter their movements.”

And again still more strongly:–

“All the functions which I have attributed to this machine (the body), as the digestion of food, the pulsation of the heart and of the arteries; the nutrition and the growth of the limbs; respiration, wakefulness, and sleep; the reception of light, sounds, colours, flavours, heat, and such like qualities, in the organs of the external senses; the impression of the ideas of these in the organ of common sense and in the imagination; the retention, or the impression, of these ideas on the memory; the internal movements of the appetites and the passions; and lastly, the external movements of all the limbs, which follow so aptly, as well the action of the objects which are presented to the senses, as the impressions which meet in the memory, that they imitate as nearly as possible those of a real man: I desire, I say, that you should consider that these functions in the machine naturally proceed from the mere arrangement of its organs, neither more nor less than do the movements of a clock, or other automation, from that of its weights and its wheels; so that, so far as these are concerned, it is not necessary to conceive any other vegetative or sensitive soul, nor any other principle of motion, or of life, than the blood and the spirits agitated by the fire which burns continually in the heart, and which is no wise essentially different from all the fires which exist in inanimate bodies.”

The spirit of these passages is exactly that of the most advanced physiology of the present day; all that is necessary to make them coincide with our present physiology in form, is to represent the details of the working of the animal machinery in modern language, and by the aid of modern conceptions.

Most undoubtedly, the digestion of food in the human body is a purely chemical process; and the passage of the nutritive parts of that food into the blood, a physical operation. Beyond all question, the circulation of the blood is simply a matter of mechanism, and results from the structure and arrangement of the parts of the heart and vessels, from the contractility of those organs, and from the regulation of that contractility by an automatically acting nervous apparatus. The progress of physiology has further shown, that the contractility of the muscles and irritability of the nerves are purely the results of the molecular mechanism of those organs; and that the regular movements of the respiratory, alimentary, and other internal organs are governed and guided, as mechanically, by their appropriate nervous centres. The even rhythm of the breathing of every one of us depends upon the structural integrity of a particular region of the medulla oblongata, as much as the ticking of a clock depends upon the integrity of the escapement. You may take away the hands of a clock and break up its striking machinery, but it will still tick; and a man may be unable to feel, speak, or move, and yet he will breathe.

Again, in entire accordance with Descartes’ affirmation, it is certain that the modes of motion which constitute the physical basis of light, sound, and heat, are transmuted into affections of nervous matter by the sensory organs. These affections are, so to speak, a kind of physical ideas, which are retained in the central organs, constituting what might be called physical memory, and may be combined in a manner which answers to association and imagination, or may give rise to muscular contractions, in those “reflex actions” which are the mechanical representatives of volition.

Consider what happens when a blow is aimed at the eye. Instantly, and without our knowledge or will, and even against the will, the eyelids close. What is it that happens? A picture of the rapidly advancing fist is made upon the retina at the back of the eye. The retina changes this picture into an affection of a number of the fibres of the optic nerve; the fibres of the optic nerve affect certain parts of the brain; the brain, in consequence, affects those particular fibres of the seventh nerve which go to the orbicular muscle of the eyelids; the change in these nerve-fibres causes the muscular fibres to alter their dimensions, so as to become shorter and broader; and the result is the closing of the slit between the two lids, round which these fibres are disposed. Here is a pure mechanism, giving rise to a purposive action, and strictly comparable to that by which Descartes supposes his waterwork Diana to be moved. But we may go further, and inquire whether our volition, in what we term voluntary action, ever plays any other part than that of Descartes’ engineer, sitting in his office, and turning this tap or the other, as he wishes to set one or another machine in motion, but exercising no direct influence upon the movements of the whole.

Our voluntary acts consist of two parts: firstly, we desire to perform a certain action; and, secondly, we somehow set a-going a machinery which does what we desire. But so little do we directly influence that machinery, that nine-tenths of us do not even know of its existence. Suppose one wills to raise one’s arm and whirl it round. Nothing is easier. But the majority of us do not know that nerves and muscles are concerned in this process; and the best anatomist among us would be amazingly perplexed, if he were called upon to direct the succession, and the relative strength, of the multitudinous nerve-changes, which are the actual causes of this very simple operation. So again in speaking. How many of us know that the voice is produced in the larynx, and modified by the mouth? How many among these instructed persons understand how the voice is produced and modified? And what living man, if he had unlimited control over all the nerves supplying the mouth and larynx of another person, could make him pronounce a sentence? Yet, if one has anything to say, what is easier than to say it? We desire the utterance of certain words: we touch the spring of the word-machine, and they are spoken. Just as Descartes’ engineer, when he wanted a particular hydraulic machine to play, had only to turn a tap, and what he wished was done. It is because the body is a machine that education is possible. Education is the formation of habits, a superinducing of an artificial organisation upon the natural organisation of the body; so that acts, which at first required a conscious effort, eventually became unconscious and mechanical. If the act which primarily requires a distinct consciousness and volition of its details, always needed the same effort, education would be an impossibility.

According to Descartes, then, all the functions which are common to man and animals are performed by the body as a mere mechanism, and he looks upon consciousness as the peculiar distinction of the “chose pensante,” of the “rational soul,” which in man (and in man only, in Descartes’ opinion) is superadded to the body. This rational soul he conceived to be lodged in the pineal gland, as in a sort of central office; and here, by the intermediation of the animal spirits, it became aware of what was going on in the body, or influenced the operations of the body. Modern physiologists do not ascribe so exalted a function to the little pineal gland, but, in a vague sort of way, they adopt Descartes’ principle, and suppose that the soul is lodged in the cortical part of the brain–at least this is commonly regarded as the seat an instrument of consciousness.

Descartes has clearly stated what he conceived to be the difference between spirit and matter. Matter is substance which has extension, but does not think; spirit is substance which thinks, but has no extension. It is very hard to form a definite notion of what this phraseology means, when it is taken in connection with the location of the soul in the pineal gland; and I can only represent it to myself as signifying that the soul is a mathematical point, having place but not extension, within the limits of the pineal body. Not only has it place, but it must exert force; for, according to this hypothesis, it is competent, when it wills, to change the course of the animal spirits, which consist of matter in motion. Thus the soul becomes a centre of force. But, at the same time, the distinction between spirit and matter vanishes; inasmuch as matter, according to a tenable hypothesis, may be nothing but a multitude of centres of force. The case is worse if we adopt the modern vague notion that consciousness is seated in the grey matter of the cerebrum, generally; for, as the grey matter has extension, that which is lodged in it must also have extension. And thus we are led, in another way, to lose spirit in matter.

In truth, Descartes’ physiology, like the modern physiology of which it anticipates the spirit, leads straight to Materialism, so far as that title is rightly applicable to the doctrine that we have no knowledge of any thinking substance, apart from extended substance; and that thought is as much a function of matter as motion is. Thus we arrive at the singular result that, of the two paths opened up to us in the “Discourse upon Method,” the one leads, by way of Berkeley and Hume, to Kant and Idealism; while the other leads, by way of De La Mettrie and Priestley, to modern physiology and Materialism. Our stem divides into two main branches, which grow in opposite ways, and bear flowers which look as different as they can well be. But each branch is sound and healthy and has as much life and vigour as the other.

If a botanist found this state of things in a new plant, I imagine that he might be inclined to think that his tree was monœcious–that the flowers were of different sexes, and that, so far from setting up a barrier between the two branches of the tree, the only hope of fertility lay in bringing them together. I may be taking too much of a naturalist’s view of the case, but I must confess that this is exactly my notion of what is to be done with metaphysics and physics. Their differences are complementary, not antagonistic; and thought will never be completely fruitful until the one unites with the other. Let me try to explain what I mean. I hold, with the Materialist, that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all the operations of which will, sooner or later, be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat. If a pound weight falling through a distance of a foot gives rise to a definite amount of heat, which may properly be said to be its equivalent; the same pound weight falling through a foot on a man’s hand gives rise to a definite amount of feeling, which might with equal propriety be said to be its equivalent in consciousness. And as we already know that there is a certain parity between the intensity of a pain and the strength of one’s desire to get rid of that pain; and, secondly, that there is a certain correspondence between the intensity of the heat, or mechanical violence, which gives rise to the pain, and the pain itself; the possibility of the establishment of a correlation between mechanical force and volition becomes apparent. And the same conclusion is suggested by the fact that, within certain limits, the intensity of the mechanical force we exert is proportioned to the intensity of our desire to exert it.

Thus I am prepared to go with the Materialists wherever the true pursuit of the path of Descartes may lead them; and I am glad, on all occasions, to declare my belief that their fearless development of the materialistic aspect of these matters has had an immense, and a most beneficial, influence upon physiology and psychology. Nay, more, when they go farther than I think they are entitled to do–when they introduce Calvinism into science and declare that man is nothing but a machine, I do not see any particular harm in their doctrines, so long as they admit that which is a matter of experimental fact–namely, that it is a machine capable of adjusting itself within certain limits.

I protest that if some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right; the freedom to do wrong I am ready to part with on the cheapest terms to any one who will take it of me. But when the Materialists stray beyond the borders of their path and begin to talk about there being nothing else in the universe but Matter and Force and Necessary Laws, and all the rest of their “grenadiers,” I decline to follow them. I go back to the point from which we started, and to the other path of Descartes. I remind you that we have already seen clearly and distinctly, and in a manner which admits of no doubt, that all our knowledge is a knowledge of states of consciousness. “Matter” and “Force” are, as far as we can know, mere names for certain forms of consciousness. “Necessary” means that of which we cannot conceive the contrary. “Law” means a rule which we have always found to hold good, and which we expect always will hold good. Thus it is an indisputable truth that what we call the material world is only known to us under the forms of the ideal world; and, as Descartes tells us, our knowledge of the soul is more intimate and certain than our knowledge of the body. If I say that impenetrability is a property of matter, all that I can really mean is that the consciousness I call extension, and the consciousness I call resistance, constantly accompany one another. Why and how they are thus related is a mystery. And if I say that thought is a property of matter, all that I can mean is that actually or possibly, the consciousness of extension and that of resistance accompany all other sorts of consciousness. But, as in the former case, why they are thus associated is an insoluble mystery.

From all this it follows that what I may term legitimate materialism, that is, the extension of the conceptions and of the methods of physical science to the highest as well as the lowest phænomena of vitality, is neither more nor less than a sort of shorthand Idealism; and Descartes’ two paths meet at the summit of the mountain, though they set out on opposite sides of it.

The reconciliation of physics and metaphysics lies in the acknowledgment of faults upon both sides; in the confession by physics that all the phænomena of Nature are, in their ultimate analysis, known to us only as facts of consciousness; in the admission by metaphysics, that the facts of consciousness are, practically, interpretable only by the methods and the formulæ of physics: and, finally, in the observance by both metaphysical and physical thinkers of Descartes’ maxim–assent to no proposition the matter of which is not so clear and distinct that it cannot be doubted.

When you did me the honour to ask me to deliver this address, I confess I was perplexed what topic to select. For you are emphatically and distinctly a Christian body; while science and philosophy, within the range of which lie all the topics on which I could venture to speak, are neither Christian, nor Unchristian, but are Extra-christian, and have a world of their own, which to use language which will be very familiar to your ears just now, is not only “unsectarian,” but is altogether “secular.” The arguments which I have put before you tonight, for example, are not inconsistent, so far as I know, with any form of theology.

After much consideration, I thought that I might be most useful to you, if I attempted to give you some vision of this Extra-christian world, as it appears to a person who lives a good deal in it; and if I tried to show you by what methods the dwellers therein try to distinguish truth from falsehood, in regard to some of the deepest and most difficult problems that beset humanity, “in order to be clear about their actions, and to walk surefootedly in this life,” as Descartes says.

It struck me that if the execution of my project came anywhere near the conception of it, you would become aware that the philosophers and the men of science are not exactly what they are sometimes represented to you to be; and that their methods and paths do not lead so perpendicularly downwards as you are occasionally told they do. And I must admit, also, that a particular and personal motive weighed with me,–namely, the desire to show that a certain discourse, which brought a great storm about my head some time ago, contained nothing but the ultimate development of the views of the father of modern philosophy. I do not know if I have been quite wise in allowing this last motive to weigh with me. They say that the most dangerous thing one can do in a thunderstorm is to shelter oneself under a great tree, and the history of Descartes’ life shows how narrowly he escaped being riven by the lightnings, which were more destructive in his time than in ours.

Descartes lived and died a good Catholic, and prided himself upon having demonstrated the existence of God and of the soul of man. As a reward for his exertions, his old friends the Jesuits put his works upon the “Index,” and called him an Atheist; while the Protestant divines of Holland declared him to be both a Jesuit and an Atheist. His books narrowly escaped being burned by the hangman; the fate of Vanini was dangled before his eyes; and the misfortunes of Galileo so alarmed him, that he well-nigh renounced the pursuits by which the world has so greatly benefited, and was driven into subterfuges and evasions which were not worthy of him.

“Very cowardly,” you may say; and so it was. But you must make allowance for the fact that, in the seventeenth century, not only did heresy mean possible burning, or imprisonment, but the very suspicion of it destroyed a man’s peace, and rendered the calm pursuit of truth difficult or impossible. I fancy that Descartes was a man to care more about being worried and disturbed, than about being burned outright; and, like many other men, sacrificed for the sake of peace and quietness, what he would have stubbornly maintained against downright violence. However this may be, let those who are sure they would have done better throw stones at him. I have no feelings but those of gratitude and reverence for the man who did what he did, when he did; and a sort of shame that any one should repine against taking a fair share of such treatment as the world thought good enough for him.

Finally, it occurs to me that, such being my feeling about the matter, it may be useful to all of us if I ask you, “What is yours? Do you think that the Christianity of the seventeenth century looks nobler and more attractive for such treatment of such a man?” You will hardly reply that it does. But if it does not, may it not be well if all of you do what lies within your power to prevent the Christianity of the nineteenth century from repeating the scandal?

There are one or two living men, who, a couple of centuries hence, will be remembered as Descartes is now, because they have produced great thoughts which will live and grow as long as mankind lasts.

If the twenty-first century studies their history, it will find that the Christianity of the middle of the nineteenth century recognised them only as objects of vilification. It is for you and such as you, Christian young men, to say whether this shall be as true of the Christianity of the future as it is of that of the present. I appeal to you to say “No,” in your own interest, and in that of the Christianity you profess.

In the interest of Science, no appeal is needful; as Dante sings of Fortune–

“Quest’ è colei, ch’è tanto posta in croce
Pur da color, cho le dovrian dar lode
Dandole biasmo a torto e mala voce.
Ma ella s’ è beata, e ciò non ode:
Con l’ altre prime creature lieta
Volve sua spera, e beata si gode:”*

so, whatever evil voices may rage, Science, secure among the powers that are eternal, will do her work and be blessed.
* “And this is she who’s put on cross so much
Even by them who ought to give her praise,
Giving her wrongly ill repute and blame.
But she is blessed, and she hears not this:
She, with the other primal creatures, glad
Revolves her sphere, and blessed joys herself.”
Inferno, vii. 90–96 (W. M. Rossetti’s Translation).

[I highly recommend the online, annotated version of this essay found at The Huxley File website. Here is a direct link to this particular piece by Huxley at that site: http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE1/DesDis.html]

Charlemagne, Part Deux: "A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system." (ABHRM, Part Six)

[This post is a continuation from the post: Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism [ABHRM], Part Five)]

“Committed … to the ‘correction’ and education of their subjects.”

The generalized cultural collapse in Roman Italy and what had previously been the western Roman provinces severely weakened the Orthodox (Nicene) Church in the west during the fifth through eighth centuries AD. During this time various heresies (especially but not exclusively Arianism) and even Paganism had more breathing room. In some places, such as Britain, Christianity as a whole declined, at least for a while. But this was not in any way the result of a change of heart or any kind of “liberalization” on the part of the Church.

More than anything else, the somewhat greater religious diversity that is apparent in the west during the darkest of the Dark Ages reveals the extent to which the spread of Christianity (as well as the imposition of one and only one monolithic form of Christianity) had been and continued to be dependent on state sponsored violence. Without a strong, centralized and repressive state as an ally, Christianity in the west was in trouble. But a new saviour arrived late in the 8th century: Charlemagne.

As a direct result of the intervening Dark Age, the resurgent western Christianity that thrived in Charlegmagne’s bloody wake was a fundamentally changed religion. For one thing, a Church whose bishops and most prestigious “theologians” and “philosophers”, such as they were, could not read Greek (and had no interest in learning how) could make no serious claim of seamless continuity with the Christianity of the early “church fathers” who had styled themselves as the heirs and continuators of classical Hellenic culture and philosophy. Compare the Buddhists of Korea (2500 miles from India), who have maintained a strong continuous tradition of Sanskrit studies (because that is the language of the Mahayana Sutras) since soon after Buddhism was first introduced to the “hermit kingdom” in the 4th century AD up to the present day, with the new western Christendom whose “scholars” could not be bothered to learn the language in which the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the Nicene Creed had been written!

But what the new Christendom of the West lacked in intellectual curiosity and capacity it more than made up for in cruelty and ferocity, as becomes abundantly clear in the following extended excerpts from Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, and also Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom.

Charles [Charlemagne] had not set himself the declared aim of converting the Saxons to Christianity right from the very beginning. Before him, his father and grandfather had fought against them, and on each occasion, after having defeated them, they were satisfied with the payment of tribute. Einhard [c.775-840, Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne] who was writing when the wounds had had time to heal and could have easily attributed Charles’s campaigns beyond the Rhine to reassuring predestinations, actually asserts in very pragmatic terms that ‘there were too many reasons for disturbing the peace, for example the border between us and them crossed an open plain, except in a few places where great forests or mountain chains more clearly divided the two countries. Thus murder, raids, and arson were continuously committed by one side or the other.’ In the chronicler’s opinion, this insecurity of the frontier with the barbarians inevitably meant that ‘in the end the exasperated Franks could no longer be contented with returning each blow with another and decided to wage full-scale war against them.’

It is clear that religious motivations were inextricably bound up with political ones, as since the time of Charles Martel I [c. 688-741], Frankish swords had sustained missionary work beyond the Rhine. One of the conditions that Pepin [714-768] imposed on the defeated Saxons was the guarantee that the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clergy working in the area would be free to continue their apostolic tasks without hindrance. It must have appeared obvious to some of these missionaries that Charles’s war had a religious justification. ‘If you do not accept belief in God,’ Saint Lebuin told the Saxons, ‘there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay waste.’ But the Saxons obstinately refused to believe, so in the end that king had to make his move.

It was a ferocious war in a country with little or no civilization, with neither roads nor cities, and entirely covered with forests and marshland. The Saxons sacrificed prisoners of war to their Gods, as Germans had aways done before converting to Christianity, and the Franks did not hesitate to put to death anyone who refused to be baptized. Time and again the Saxon chiefs, worn down by war with no quarter, sued for peace, offered hostages, accepted baptism, and undertook to allow missionaries to go about their work. But every time that vigilance slackened and Charles was engaged on some other front, rebellions broke out, Frankish garrisons were attacked and massacred, and monasteries were pillaged. Even the border regions of the Frankish kingdom were not safe. In 778, when Saxons found out that the king and his army were engaged on the other side of the Pyrenees, and would not be able to return before many weeks of forced marches, they appeared in the Rhine Valley. Local commanders had great difficulty in containing them, and then only after much devastation and plunder.

During the period of these rebellions, the figure of a single leader
emerged from among the Saxon ranks. His name was Prince Widukind, and his authority was acknowledged by all the tribes. Just at the time when Charles felt confident that he had pacified the region and gained the loyalty of the Saxon nobles, it was this leader who triggered the most spectacular rebellion by wiping out the Frankish forces hurriedly sent to confront him on the Suntel Mountains in 782. Beside himself with anger at the treachery that had also cost him the lives of two of his closest aides, his chamberlain Adalgisile and his constable Geilo, Charles bround in a new army and forced the rebels to capitulate, with the exception of Widukind, who took refuge with the Danes. The Saxons had to hand over their arms and then, when he had them in his power, he had 4,500 of them decapitated in a single day at the Verden on the Aller, a tributary of the Weser. This episode produced perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation.

Several historians have attempted to lessen Charle’s responsibility for the massacre, by stressing that until a few months earlier the king thought he had pacified the country, the Saxon nobles had sworn allegiance, and many of them had been appointed counts. Thus the rebellion constituted an act of treason punishable with death, the same penalty that the extremely harsh Saxon law imposed with great facility, even for the most insignificant crimes. Others have attempted to twist the accounts provided by sources, arguing that the Saxons were killed in battle and not massacred in cold blood, or even that the verb decollare (decapitate) was a copyist’s error in place of decolare (relocate), so ther prisoners were simply deported. None of these attempts has proved credible ….

In reality, the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Bible. Exasperated by the continual rebellions, Charlemagne wanted to act like a true king of Israel. The Amelkites had dared to raise their hand to betray God’s people, and it was therefore right that every last one of them should be exterminated. Jericho was taken all those inside had to be put to the sword, including men, women, old people, and children, even the oxen, sheep, and donkeys, so that no trace would be left of them. After defeating the Moabites, David, with whom Charles liked to compare himself, had the prisoners stretched out on the and ground, and two out of three were killed. This, too, was part of the Old Testament from which teh king drew constant inspiration, and it is difficult not to discern a practical and cruelly coherent application of that model in the massacre of Verden. Besides, the royal chronicler wrote a few years later, the war against the Saxons had to be conducted in such a manner that ‘either they were defeated and subjugated to the Christian religion of completely swept away.’

In the years that followed 782, Charles conducted a war of unparalleled ruthlessness. For the first time, he wintered in enemy territory and systematically laid the country to waste to starve the rebels. At the same time, he had published the most ferocious of all the laws enacted during his life, the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons. We can only shudder as we read the sections of this law that condemn to death those who fail to observe fasting on Friday, thus reflecting a harsh Christianity far removed from the original message of the New Testament [bollocks]. Yet we should be careful not to put the blame for this barbarity onto the times in general. The Capitulare de partibus Saxonie is one of those provisions by which an infuriated general attempts to break the resistance of an entire people through terror, and Charles must bear the moral responsibility, like the many twentieth-century generals responsible for equally inhuman measures. It is more important to emphasize that the edict provoked criticisms among Charles’s entourage precisely because of its ruthlessness. Particularly severe criticisms came from Alcuin, the spiritual adviser he most listened to.

The policy of terror and scorched earth initially appeared to pay off. In 785, after the Franks has ravaged the country as far as the Elbe, Widukind was obliged to capitulate, and he presented himself at the palace of Attigny in France to be baptized. The king acted as godfather. Pope Adrian congratulated the victor and ordered thanks to be given in all the churches of Christendom for the new and magnificent victory for the faith. But the baptism imposed by force did not prove very effective. In 793 the harshness of Frankish government ferocity provoked another mass insurrection in the northern regions of Saxony, which had been more superficially Christianized. ‘Once again breaking their faith,’ according to the royal chronicler, the Saxons burned churches, massacred clergymen, and prepared yet again to resist in their forests.

Charles intervened with now customary ferocity, indeed with even more drastic and frighteningly modern measures. Rather than limit himself to devastating the rebel country and starving the population, he deported them en masse and planned the resettlement of those areas with Frankish and Slav colonists. However, he was an able politician and soon understood the need to modify his approach to the problem. He intensified his contacts with the Saxon aristocracy and sought out their collaboration. At a large assembly in Aachen in 797, he isssued on their advice a new version of the capitulary that was considerably more conciliatory than the previous one. This twin policy proved immediately effective, because it guaranteed almost definitively the collaboration of the Saxon nobles with the new regime. Eigil, the monk at Fulda monastery who wrote the account of Abbot Sturmi’s life, stated during those very years that Charles had imposed Christ’s yoke on the Saxons ‘through war, persuasion, and also gifts,’ demonstrating that he well understood how a new flexibility had made it possible to integrate those obstinate Pagans into the Christian empire.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, Alessandro Barbero, pp. 44-48]

Compare the above passage from Barbero with the following from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom:

Charlemagne proved to be a man of truly “Napoleanic” energy and width of vision. He was constantly on the move and constantly planning. In one year alone (in 785) he covered 2,000 miles, pacing the frontiers of his new dominions. Such energy boded ill for the Old Saxons. The fate of the Pagan Saxons was crucial to Charles’ new concept of Christian empire. Not only were Saxons Pagan, they were a surprisingly aggressive warrior confederacy whose raids affected precisely the areas in central Germany werhe Frankish settlement and a Frankish style of life had begun to be established.

As had once been the case along the Roman limes, so now in the eighth century, part of the danger posed by the Saxon challenge came from the fact that Franks and Saxons had drawn closer to each other. Saxon noblemen had already come to adopt a large measure of Frankish customs. Yet, like King Radbod [of Frisia], they clung all the more tenaciously to Paganism so as to differentiate themselves from the Franks. It was all the more essential for the prestige of the Carolingian family that the Saxons, who come to adopt so much of Franksih ways, should be declared to be outside the pale as Pagans, and that, as Pagans, they should be well and truly defeated.

In 772, Charlemagne led the Franks into Saxony. They were said to have desecrated the great intertribal sanctuary of the Irminsul, the giant tree which uphead the world. They rode home again, with much plunder, in time for the hunting season in the Ardennes. Next spring the Franks were in northern Italy. In 774, Charles became king, also, of the Lombards. He even made a short visit to Rome. It was the first time that a Frankish king had set foot in Rome. It was also the first time since the fifth century that a western ruler of such power had been greeted in Rome with the sort of elaborate ceremonies which the Romans know so well how to put on. Charles entered Saint Peter’s and, next day, was led through the gigantic basilica churches of the city. In return, Charles proved to be a generous donor. An influx of Frankish silver marked a dramatic recovery in the fortunes of the popes, which was made plain by an unprecedented boom in buildings and repairs.

But it was in Germany, and not in Italy, that Charles showed himself to be a ruler as determined to be obeyed in all matters as any Roman emperor had been. The Saxon war was fought along the same routes into northern Germany as had been taken the legions of Augustus. But this time, unlike Augustus who lost his legions in the Teutoburger Wald, Charlemagne won. It was an unusually vehement war, characterized by the storming, one after another, of well-defended hill-forts. The very flexibility of the kingless society of the Old Saxons prolonged the misery. Total surrender of the Saxons as a whole was impossible. Fifteen treaties were made and broken in 13 years. One Saxon nobelman, Widukind, was able to avoid submission for decades on end. He fled to the Danes and involved even the Pagans of Frisia in his resistance.

For a decade, and entire Frankish order was challenged in the north. Charles found himself forced to take over more territory than he had, perhaps, at first intended to do. He pressed on from the Weser to the Elbe, entering the northern healthlands as far as the Danes. The populations of whole areas were forcibly relocated. In 782, he had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded at Verden, southeast of Bremen….

In 785, Widukind finally submitted and accepted Christian baptism. In the same year, Charles issued his Capitulary on the Region of Saxony. A Capitulary was a set of administrative rulings “from the word of mouth of the king,” grouped under capita, short headings. These were very different in their brusque clarity from the long-winded rhetoric of Roman imperial edicts. They registered, in writing, the invisible, purely oral shock wave of the royal will. The royal will was unambiguous. In theory at least, the frontier was now definitively closed. No other rituals but those of the Christian Church could be practiced in a Frankish province.

“If anyone follows pagan rites and causes the body of a dead man to be consumed by fire … let him pay with his life.

“If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbapitized, amd of he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.”

A small body of clergymen (notably Alcuin, a Saxon from Boniface’s Britain, who was himself connected with the family of Willibrod) were challenged by the brusqueness to restate, more forcibly than ever before, a view of Christian missions which emphasized preaching and persuasion. But, in fact, when it came to Charlemagne’s treatment of the Saxons, most later writers took no notice of Alcuin’s reservations. They accepted the fact that, as befitted a strong king, Charlemagne was entitled to preach to the Saxons ‘with a tongue of iron’ — as a later Saxon writer put it without a hint of blame. Force was what was needed on a dangerous frontier. Education began, rather, at home. IN the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors, a substantially new Church was allied with a new political system, both of which were committed, to a quite unprecedented degree, to the “correction” and education of their subjects.
[The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown, pp. 431-433]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

Are there two kinds of religion? (Part One: David Hume on Polytheism and Monotheism)

David Hume on Polytheism and Monotheism
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) set down his thoughts on the subject of the origins and foundations of religion in The Natural History of Religion. In that work, Hume wrote that “polytheism or idolatry was, and must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind”. Indeed, the first section is titled “That Polytheism was the primary Religion of Men.” The following excerpt, comprising the opening half dozen paragraphs of that section, nicely illustrates what Hume has to say, while at the same time providing us with a rather unguarded view of the self-perceptions of Europeans of his day with respect to their fellow, non-European, human beings.

It appears to me, that if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind. This opinion I shall endeavor to confirm by the following arguments.

It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1,700 years ago all mankind were polytheists. The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few philosophers, or the theism, and that too not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form no objection worth regarding. Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. No marks, no symptoms of any more perfect religion. The most ancient records of the human race still present us with that system as the popular and established creed. The north, the south, the east, the west, give their unanimous testimony to the same fact. What can be opposed to so full an evidence?

As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth; but fell into error, as soon as they acquired learn- and politeness.

But in this assertion you not only contradict all appearance of probability, but also our present experience concerning the principles and opinions of barbarous nations. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia, are all idolaters. Not a single exception to this rule. Insomuch that, were a traveller to transport himself into any unknown region; if he found inhabitants cultivated with arts and sciences, though even upon that supposition there are odds against their being theists, yet could he not safely, till farther inquiry, pronounce any thing on that head: but if he found them ignorant and barbarous, he might beforehand declare them idolaters; and there scarcely is a possibility of his being mistaken.

It seems certain that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some grovelling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: by abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: and slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never think that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.

The causes of such objects as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention or curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or enquiry. Adam, rising at once in Paradise, and in the full perfection of his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose. But a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make enquiries concerning the cause of objects to which, from his infancy, he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarised to it, and the less inclined to scrutinise and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty; and immediately sets him a-trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal complete in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religious opinion or affection. Ask him, whence that animal arose; he will tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not that he will so much as start the question, whence the first animal; much less, whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose. Or, if you start such a question to him, expect not that he will employ his mind with any anxiety about a subject so remote, so uninteresting, and which so much exceeds the bounds of his capacity.

Part of Hume’s thesis was controversial, and part was not. The part that was controversial was his contention that polytheism came first, and that monotheism does not appear on the scene until much later. Hume’s solidly historical theory of “primary polytheism” was strongly opposed by the completely ahistorical theory of “original monotheism”. Two centuries after David Hume, Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959) produced a very nice and succinct summary of the debate between these two positions, in his essay The Formation of Monotheism, which I will talk about in a future post. I will also defer until the (hopefully not too distant) future the following two highly relevant questions:

1. Is this distinction between polytheism and monotheism really so absolute? Aren’t there “transitional” religions occupying some gray area between monotheism and polytheism, and/or between primary and secondary religions?

2. What about Christians (and others) today, like Karen Armstrong, who attempt to portray “all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” as essentially the same or at least equally valid, and who, implicitly or explicitly, reject the idea that there are fundamentally different kinds of religion?

What was not controversial, however, was Hume’s claim that monotheism and polytheism represent utterly different forms of religion. This was uncontroversial because it is, as everyone knows, one of the most basic theological cornerstones of Christianity and all other genuinely monotheistic religions.

For now I will conclude with another extended excerpt from Hume on another controversial claim of his: that primary, polytheistic religions are inherently tolerant, whereas monotheistic religions are inherently intolerant. Here is the entirety of the section titled “Comparison of these Religions with regard to Persecution and Toleration.”:

Polytheism or idolatrous worship, being founded entirely in vulgar traditions, is liable to this great inconvenience, that any practice or opinion, however barbarous or corrupted, may be authorized by it; and full scope is left for knavery to impose on credulity till morals and humanity be expelled from the religious systems of mankind. At the same time, idolatry is attended with this evident advantage, that, by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the Gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other. Theism is opposite both in its advantages and disadvantages. As that system supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish everything frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives of justice and benevolence. These mighty advantages are not indeed over-balanced (for that is not possible), but somewhat diminished, by inconveniences, which arise from the vices and prejudices of mankind. While one sole object of devotion is acknowleged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious. Nay, this unity of object seems naturally to require the unity of faith and ceremonies, and furnishes designing men with a pretense for representing their adversaries as profane, and the objects of divine as well as human vengeance. For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, and as no one can conceive that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles, the several sects fall naturally into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of all human passions.

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the Gods? “Those legally established in each city,” replied the oracle. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the Gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.

The intolerance of almost all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priest and bigots.

The disciples of Zoroaster shut the doors of heaven against all but the Magians. Nothing could more obstruct the progress of the Persian conquests than the furious zeal of that nation against the temples and images of the Greeks. And after the overthrow of that empire, we find Alexander, as a polytheist, immediately re-establishing the worship of the Babylonians, which their former princes, as monotheists, had carefully abolished. Even the blind and devoted attachment of that conqueror to the Greek superstition hindered not but he himself sacrificed according to the Babylonish rites and ceremonies.

So sociable is polytheism, that the utmost fierceness and aversion which it meets with in an opposite religion is scarcely able to disgust it, and keep it at a distance. Augustus praised extremely the reserve of his grandson, Caius Cæsar, when this latter prince, passing by Jerusalem, deigned not to sacrifice according to the Jewish law. But for what reason did Augustus so much approve of this conduct? Only because that religion was by the Pagans esteemed ignoble and barbarous.

I may venture to affirm that few corruptions of idolatry and polytheism are more pernicious to political society than this corruption of theism, when carried to the utmost height. The human sacrifices of the Carthaginians, Mexicans, and many barbarous nations, scarcely exceed the Inquisition and persecutions of Rome and Madrid. For besides that the effusion of blood may not be so great in the former case as in the latter; besides this, I say, the human victims, being chosen by lot, or by some exterior signs, affect not in so considerable a degree the rest of the society. Whereas virtue, knowledge, love of liberty, are the qualities which call down the fatal vengeance of inquisitors; and when expelled, leave the society in the most shameful ignorance, corruption, and bondage. The illegal murder of one man by a tyrant is more pernicious than the death of a thousand by pestilence, famine, or any undistinguishing calamity.

In the temple of Diana at Aricia near Rome, whoever murdered the present priest was legally entitled to be installed his successor. A very singular institution! For, however barbarous and bloody the common superstitions often are to the laity, they usually turn to the advantage of the holy order.

In case anyone missed it, in the above passages David Hume can hardly be said to be at all admiring, or even sympathetic, in his view of polytheism. In fact, he can’t help but repeatedly insist on the superiority of monotheism! It’s quite possible that this is simply a posture that he chooses to adopt, perhaps ironically, perhaps defensively. Nevertheless what he is saying can in no way be interpreted as any kind of straightforward endorsement of polytheism.

Hume was not at all unique in his assessment of the relationship between monotheism and intolerance: this view was shared by other Enlightenment figures including Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Edward Gibbon. But this same opinion was also shared, and very forcefully reiterated, by the historian J.B. Bury (1861-1927), and it is supported by the work of a wide variety of eminent contemporary historians including, but not limited to, Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, Charles Freeman and Jan Assmann. For more on Bury, MacMullen, & Co., see this previous post. On the general issue of religious typology also see these previous posts:
The Essence of Religion
What is Counterreligion?
What kind of religion is Buddhism?
In honor of Freddie Mercury: “We are Zoroastrians, my friends ….”
Religions of the Library
Religions of the Library, Part Deux