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13 January, 2012
Letters On Literature|
by Lang, Andrew
|To the Rev. Geoffrey Martin, Oxford.
Dear Martin,--"How individuals found religious consolation from the
creeds of ancient Greece and Rome" is, as you quote C. O. Muller, "a
very curious question." It is odd that while we have countless
books on the philosophy and the mythology and the ritual of the
classic peoples, we hear about their religion in the modern sense
scarcely anything from anybody. We know very well what gods they
worshipped, and what sacrifices they offered to the Olympians, and
what stories they told about their deities, and about the beginnings
of things. We know, too, in a general way, that the gods were
interested in morality. They would all punish offences in their own
department, at least when it was a case of numine laeso, when the
god who protected the hearth was offended by breach of hospitality,
or when the gods invoked to witness an oath were offended by
But how did a religiously minded man regard the gods? What hope or
what fears did he entertain with regard to the future life? Had he
any sense of sin, as more than a thing that could be expiated by
purification with the blood of slaughtered swine, or by purchasing
the prayers and "masses," so to speak, of the mendicant clergy or
charlatans, mentioned by Plato in the "Republic"? About these great
questions of the religious life--the Future and man's fortunes in
the future, the punishment or reward of justice or iniquity--we
really know next to nothing.
That is one reason why the great poem of Lucretius seems so valuable
to me. The De Rerum Natura was written for no other purpose than to
destroy Religion, as Lucretius understood it, to free men's minds
from all dread as to future punishment, all hope of Heaven, all
dread or desire for the interference of the gods in this mortal life
of ours on earth. For no other reason did Lucretius desire to "know
the causes of things," except that the knowledge would bring
"emancipation," as people call it, from the gods, to whom men had
hitherto stood in the relation of the Roman son to the Roman sire,
under the patria potestas or in manu patris.
As Lucretius wrought all his arduous work to this end, it follows
that his fellow-countrymen must have gone in a constant terror about
spiritual penalties, which we seldom associate in thought with the
"blithe" and careless existence of the ancient peoples. In every
line of Lucretius you read the joy and the indignation of the slave
just escaped from an intolerable thraldom to fear. Nobody could
well have believed on any other evidence that the classical people
had a gloomy Calvinism of their own time. True, as early as Homer,
we hear of the shadowy existence of the souls, and of the torments
endured by the notably wicked; by impious ghosts, or tyrannical,
like Sisyphus and Tantalus. But when we read the opening books of
the "Republic," we find the educated friends of Socrates treating
these terrors as old-wives' fables. They have heard, they say, that
such notions circulate among the people, but they seem never for a
moment to have themselves believed in a future of rewards and
The remains of ancient funereal art, in Etruria or Attica, usually
show us the semblances of the dead lying at endless feasts, or
receiving sacrifices of food and wine (as in Egypt) from their
descendants, or, perhaps, welcoming the later dead, their friends
who have just rejoined them. But it is only in the descriptions by
Pausanias and others of certain old wall-paintings that we hear of
the torments of the wicked, of the demons that torture them and,
above all, of the great chief fiend, coloured like a carrion fly.
To judge from Lucretius, although so little remains to us of this
creed, yet it had a very strong hold of the minds of people, in the
century before Christ. Perhaps the belief was reinforced by the
teaching of Socrates, who, in the vision of Er, in the "Republic,"
brings back, in a myth, the old popular faith in a Purgatorio, if
not in an Inferno.
In the "Phaedo," for certain, we come to the very definite account
of a Hell, a place of eternal punishment, as well as of a Purgatory,
whence souls are freed when their sins are expiated. "The spirits
beyond redemption, for the multitude of their murders or sacrileges,
Fate hurls into Tartarus, whence they never any more come forth."
But souls of lighter guilt abide a year in Tartarus, and then drift
out down the streams Cocytus and Pyriphlegethon. Thence they reach
the marsh of Acheron, but are not released until they have received
the pardon of the souls whom in life they had injured.
All this, and much more to the same purpose in other dialogues of
Plato's, appears to have been derived by Socrates from the popular
unphilosophic traditions, from Folk-lore in short, and to have been
raised by him to the rank of "pious opinion," if not of dogma. Now,
Lucretius represents nothing but the reaction against all this dread
of future doom, whether that dread was inculcated by Platonic
philosophy or by popular belief. The latter must have been much the
more powerful and widely diffused. It follows that the Romans, at
least, must have been haunted by a constant dread of judgment to
come, from which, but for the testimony of Lucretius and his
manifest sincerity, we might have believed them free.
Perhaps we may regret the existence of this Roman religion, for it
did its best to ruin a great poet. The sublimity of the language of
Lucretius, when he can leave his attempts at scientific proof, the
closeness of his observation, his enjoyment of life, of Nature, and
his power of painting them, a certain largeness of touch, and noble
amplitude of manner--these, with a burning sincerity, mark him above
all others that smote the Latin lyre. Yet these great qualities are
half-crushed by his task, by his attempt to turn the atomic theory
into verse, by his unsympathetic effort to destroy all faith and
hope, because these were united, in his mind, with dread of Styx and
It is an almost intolerable philosophy, the philosophy of eternal
sleep, without dreams and without awakening. This belief is wholly
divorced from joy, which inspires all the best art. This negation
of hope has "close-lipped Patience for its only friend."
In vain does Lucretius paint pictures of life and Nature so large,
so glowing, so majestic that they remind us of nothing but the "Fete
Champetre" of Giorgione, in the Louvre. All that life is a thing we
must leave soon, and forever, and must be hopelessly lapped in an
eternity of blind silence. "I shall let men see the certain end of
all," he cries; "then will they resist religion, and the threats of
priests and prophets." But this "certain end" is exactly what
mortals do not desire to see. To this sleep they prefer even
tenebras Orci, vastasque lacunas.
They will not be deprived of gods, "the friends of man, merciful
gods, compassionate." They will not turn from even a faint hope in
those to the Lucretian deities in their endless and indifferent
repose and divine "delight in immortal and peaceful life, far, far
away from us and ours--life painless and fearless, needing nothing
we can give, replete with its own wealth, unmoved by prayer and
promise, untouched by anger."
Do you remember that hymn, as one may call it, of Lucretius to
Death, to Death which does not harm us. "For as we knew no hurt of
old, in ages when the Carthaginian thronged against us in war, and
the world was shaken with the shock of fight, and dubious hung the
empire over all things mortal by sea and land, even so careless, so
unmoved, shall we remain, in days when we shall no more exist, when
the bond of body and soul that makes our life is broken. Then
naught shall move us, nor wake a single sense, not though earth with
sea be mingled, and sea with sky." There is no hell, he cries, or,
like Omar, he says, "Hell is the vision of a soul on fire."
Your true Tityus, gnawed by the vulture, is only the slave of
passion and of love; your true Sisyphus (like Lord Salisbury in
Punch) is only the politician, striving always, never attaining; the
stone rolls down again from the hill-crest, and thunders far along
Thus his philosophy, which gives him such a delightful sense of
freedom, is rejected after all these years of trial by men. They
feel that since those remotest days
"Quum Venus in silvis jungebat corpora amantum,"
they have travelled the long, the weary way Lucretius describes to
little avail, if they may not keep their hopes and fears. Robbed of
these we are robbed of all; it serves us nothing to have conquered
the soil and fought the winds and waves, to have built cities, and
tamed fire, if the world is to be "dispeopled of its dreams."
Better were the old life we started from, and dreams therewith,
better the free days -
"Novitas tum florida mundi
Pabula dia tulit, miseris mortablibus ampla;"
than wealth or power, and neither hope nor fear, but one certain end
of all before the eyes of all.
Thus the heart of man has answered, and will answer Lucretius, the
noblest Roman poet, and the least beloved, who sought, at last, by
his own hand, they say, the doom that Virgil waited for in the