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Many persons who are quite prepared to admit the importance to the world of Greek poetry, Greek art, and Greek philosophy, may still feel it rather a paradox to be told that Greek religion specially repays our study at the present day. Greek religion, associated with a romantic, trivial, and not very edifying mythology, has generally seemed one of the weakest spots in the armour of those giants of the old world. Yet I will venture to make for Greek religion almost as great a claim as for the thought and the literature, not only because the whole mass of it is shot through by those strange lights of feeling and imagination, and the details of it constantly wrought into beauty by that instinctive sense of artistic form, which we specially associate with Classical Greece, but also for two definite historical reasons. In the first place, the student of that dark and fascinating department of the human mind which we may call Religious Origins, will find in Greece an extraordinary mass of material belonging to a very early date. For detail and variety the primitive Greek evidence has no equal. And, secondly, in this department as in others, ancient Greece has the triumphant if tragic distinction of beginning at the very bottom and struggling, however precariously, to the very summits. There is hardly any horror of primitive superstition of which we cannot find some distant traces in our Greek record. There is hardly any height of spiritual thought attained in the world that has not its archetype or its echo in the stretch of Greek literature that lies between Thales and Plotinus, embracing much of the "Wisdom-Teachers" and of St. Paul.
The progress of Greek religion falls naturally into three stages, all of them historically important. First there is the primitive Euêtheia or Age of Ignorance, before Zeus came to trouble men's minds, a stage to which our anthropologists and explorers have found parallels in every part of the world. Dr. Preuss applies to it the charming word "Urdummheit," or "Primal Stupidity." In some ways characteristically Greek, in others it is so typical of similar stages of thought elsewhere that one is tempted to regard it as the normal beginning of all religion, or almost as the normal raw material out of which religion is made. There is certainly some repulsiveness, but I confess that to me there is also an element of fascination in the study of these "Beastly Devices of the Heathen," at any rate as they appear in early Greece, where each single "beastly device" as it passes is somehow touched with beauty and transformed by some spirit of upward striving.
Secondly there is the Olympian or classical stage, a stage in which, for good or ill, blunderingly or successfully, this primitive vagueness was reduced to a kind of order. This is the stage of the great Olympian gods, who dominated art and poetry, ruled the imagination of Rome, and extended a kind of romantic dominion even over the Middle Ages. It is the stage that we learn, or mis-learn, from the statues and the handbooks of mythology. Critics have said that this Olympian stage has value only as art and not as religion. That is just one of the points into which we shall inquire.
Thirdly, there is the Hellenistic period, reaching roughly from Plato to St. Paul and the earlier Gnostics. The first edition of this book treated the whole period as one, but I have now divided it by writing a new chapter on the Movements of the Fourth Century B.C., and making that my third stage. This was the time when the Greek mind, still in its full creative vigour, made its first response to the twofold failure of the world in which it had put its faith, the open bankruptcy of the Olympian religion and the collapse of the city-state. Both had failed, and each tried vainly to supply the place of the other. Greece responded by the creation of two great permanent types of philosophy which have influenced human ethics ever since, the Cynic and Stoic schools on the one hand, and the Epicurean on the other. These schools belong properly, I think, to the history of religion. The successors of Aristotle produced rather a school of progressive science, those of Plato a school of refined scepticism. The religious side of Plato's thought was not revealed in its full power till the time of Plotinus in the third century A.D.; that of Aristotle, one might say without undue paradox, not till its exposition by Aquinas in the thirteenth.
The old Third Stage, therefore, becomes now a Fourth, comprising the later and more popular movements of the Hellenistic Age, a period based on the consciousness of manifold failure, and consequently touched both with morbidity and with that spiritual exaltation which is so often the companion of morbidity. It not only had behind it the failure of the Olympian theology and of the free city-state, now crushed by semi-barbarous military monarchies; it lived through the gradual realization of two other failures—the failure of human government, even when backed by the power of Rome or the wealth of Egypt, to achieve a good life for man; and lastly the failure of the great propaganda of Hellenism, in which the long-drawn effort of Greece to educate a corrupt and barbaric world seemed only to lead to the corruption or barbarization of the very ideals which it sought to spread. This sense of failure, this progressive loss of hope in the world, in sober calculation, and in organized human effort, threw the later Greek back upon his own soul, upon the pursuit of personal holiness, upon emotions, mysteries and revelations, upon the comparative neglect of this transitory and imperfect world for the sake of some dream-world far off, which shall subsist without sin or corruption, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. These four are the really significant and formative periods of Greek religious thought; but we may well cast our eyes also on a fifth stage, not historically influential perhaps, but at least romantic and interesting and worthy of considerable respect, when the old religion in the time of Julian roused itself for a last spiritual protest against the all-conquering "atheism" of the Christians. I omit Plotinus, as in earlier chapters I have omitted Plato and Aristotle, and for the same reason. As a rule in the writings of Julian's circle and still more in the remains of popular belief, the tendencies of our fourth stage are accentuated by an increased demand for definite dogma and a still deeper consciousness of worldly defeat.
I shall not start with any definition of religion. Religion, like poetry and most other living things, cannot be defined. But one may perhaps give some description of it, or at least some characteristic marks. In the first place, religion essentially deals with the uncharted region of human experience. A large part of human life has been thoroughly surveyed and explored; we understand the causes at work; and we are not bewildered by the problems. That is the domain of positive knowledge. But all round us on every side there is an uncharted region, just fragments of the fringe of it explored, and those imperfectly; it is with this that religion deals. And secondly we may note that religion deals with its own province not tentatively, by the normal methods of patient intellectual research, but directly, and by methods of emotion or sub-conscious apprehension. Agriculture, for instance, used to be entirely a question of religion; now it is almost entirely a question of science. In antiquity, if a field was barren, the owner of it would probably assume that the barrenness was due to "pollution," or offence somewhere. He would run through all his own possible offences, or at any rate those of his neighbours and ancestors, and when he eventually decided the cause of the trouble, the steps that he would take would all be of a kind calculated not to affect the chemical constitution of the soil, but to satisfy his own emotions of guilt and terror, or the imaginary emotions of the imaginary being he had offended. A modern man in the same predicament would probably not think of religion at all, at any rate in the earlier stages; he would say it was a case for deeper ploughing or for basic slag. Later on, if disaster followed disaster till he began to feel himself a marked man, even the average modern would, I think, begin instinctively to reflect upon his sins. A third characteristic flows from the first. The uncharted region surrounds us on every side and is apparently infinite; consequently, when once the things of the uncharted region are admitted as factors in our ordinary conduct of life they are apt to be infinite factors, overruling and swamping all others. The thing that religion forbids is a thing never to be done; not all the inducements that this life can offer weigh at all in the balance. Indeed there is no balance. The man who makes terms with his conscience is essentially non-religious; the religious man knows that it will profit him nothing if he gain all this finite world and lose his stake in the infinite and eternal.
Am I going to draw no distinction then between religion and mere superstition? Not at present. Later on we may perhaps see some way to it. Superstition is the name given to a low or bad form of religion, to the kind of religion we disapprove. The line of division, if we made one, would be only an arbitrary bar thrust across a highly complex and continuous process.
Does this amount to an implication that all the religions that have existed in the world are false? Not so. It is obvious indeed that most, if analysed into intellectual beliefs, are false; and I suppose that a thoroughly orthodox member of any one of the million religious bodies that exist in the world must be clear in his mind that the other million minus one are wrong, if not wickedly wrong. That, I think, we must be clear about. Yet the fact remains that man must have some relation towards the uncharted, the mysterious, tracts of life which surround him on every side. And for my own part I am content to say that his method must be to a large extent very much what St. Paul calls [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or faith: that is, some attitude not of the conscious intellect but of the whole being, using all its powers of sensitiveness, all its feeblest and most inarticulate feelers and tentacles, in the effort somehow to touch by these that which cannot be grasped by the definite senses or analysed by the conscious reason. What we gain thus is an insecure but a precious possession. We gain no dogma, at least no safe dogma, but we gain much more. We gain something hard to define, which lies at the heart not only of religion, but of art and poetry and all the higher strivings of human emotion. I believe that at times we actually gain practical guidance in some questions where experience and argument fail. That is a great work left for religion, but we must always remember two things about it: first, that the liability to error is enormous, indeed almost infinite; and second, that the results of confident error are very terrible. Probably throughout history the worst things ever done in the world on a large scale by decent people have been done in the name of religion, and I do not think that has entirely ceased to be true at the present day. All the Middle Ages held the strange and, to our judgement, the obviously insane belief that the normal result of religious error was eternal punishment. And yet by the crimes to which that false belief led them they almost proved the truth of something very like it. The record of early Christian and medieval persecutions which were the direct result of that one confident religious error comes curiously near to one's conception of the wickedness of the damned.
To turn to our immediate subject, I wish to put forward here what is still a rather new and unauthorized view of the development of Greek religion; readers will forgive me if, in treating so vast a subject, I draw my outline very broadly, leaving out many qualifications, and quoting only a fragment of the evidence.
The things that have misled us moderns in our efforts towards understanding the primitive stage in Greek religion have been first the widespread and almost ineradicable error of treating Homer as primitive, and more generally our unconscious insistence on starting with the notion of "Gods:" Mr. Hartland, in his address as president of one of the sections of the International Congress of Religions at Oxford, dwelt on the significant fact about savage religions that wherever the word "God" is used our trustiest witnesses tend to contradict one another. Among the best observers of the Arunta tribes, for instance, some hold that they have no conception of God, others that they are constantly thinking about God. The truth is that this idea of a god far away in the sky—I do not say merely a First Cause who is "without body parts or passions," but almost any being that we should naturally call a "god"—is an idea not easy for primitive man to grasp. It is a subtle and rarefied idea, saturated with ages of philosophy and speculation. And we must always remember that one of the chief religions of the world, Buddhism, has risen to great moral and intellectual heights without using the conception of God at all; in his stead it has Dharma, the Eternal Law.
Apart from some few philosophers, both Christian and Moslem, the gods of the ordinary man have as a rule been as a matter of course anthropomorphic. Men did not take the trouble to try to conceive them otherwise. In many cases they have had the actual bodily shape of man; in almost all they have possessed—of course in their highest development—his mind and reason and his mental attributes. It causes most of us even now something of a shock to be told by a medieval Arab philosopher that to call God benevolent or righteous or to predicate of him any other human quality is just as Pagan and degraded as to say that he has a beard. Now the Greek gods seem at first sight quite particularly solid and anthropomorphic. The statues and vases speak clearly, and they are mostly borne out by the literature. Of course we must discount the kind of evidence that misled Winckelmann, the mere Roman and Alexandrian art and mythology; but even if we go back to the fifth century B.C. we shall find the ruling conceptions far nobler indeed, but still anthropomorphic. We find firmly established the Olympian patriarchal family, Zeus the Father of gods and men, his wife Hera, his son Apollo, his daughter Athena, his brothers Poseidon and Hades, and the rest. We probably think of each figure more or less as like a statue, a habit of mind obviously wrong and indeed absurd, as if one thought of "Labour" and "Grief as statues because Rodin or St. Gaudens has so represented them. And yet it was a habit into which the late Greeks themselves sometimes fell; their arts of sculpture and painting as applied to religion had been so dangerously successful: they sharpened and made vivid an anthropomorphism which in its origin had been mostly the result of normal human laziness. The process of making winds and rivers into anthropomorphic gods is, for the most part, not the result of using the imagination with special vigour. It is the result of not doing so. The wind is obviously alive; any fool can see that. Being alive, it blows; how? why, naturally; just as you and I blow. It knocks things down, it shouts and dances, it whispers and talks. And, unless we are going to make a great effort of the imagination and try to realize, like a scientific man, just what really happens, we naturally assume that it does these things in the normal way, in the only way we know. Even when you worship a beast or a stone, you practically anthropomorphize it. It happens indeed to have a perfectly clear shape, so you accept that. But it talks, acts, and fights just like a man—as you can see from the Australian Folk Tales published by Mrs. Langloh Parker—because you do not take the trouble to think out any other way of behaving. This kind of anthropomorphism—or as Mr. Gladstone used to call it, "anthropophuism" —"humanity of nature"—is primitive and inevitable: the sharp-cut statue type of god is different, and is due in Greece directly to the work of the artists.
Excerpted from Five Stages of Greek Religion by Gilbert Murray. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted July 2, 2014