Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Roman Empire just before the Birth of Christ

still in the chapter "The End of the World" - on the already declining Roman empire and culture - from The Everlasting Man...

For the shepherds were dying because their gods were dying. Paganism lived under poetry; that poetry already considered under the name of mythology. But everywhere, and especially in Italy, it had been a mythology and a poetry rooted in the countryside; and that rustic religion had been largely responsible for the rustic happiness. Only as the whole society grew in age and experience, there began to appear that weakness in all mythology already noted in the chapter under that name. This religion was not quite a religion. In other words, this religion was not quite a was not so much immoral as irresponsible; it has no foresight of the final test of time. Because it was creative to an extent it was credulous to any extent. It belonged to the artistic side of man, yet even considered artistically it had long become overloaded and entangled. The family trees sprung from the seed of Jupiter were a jungle rather than a forest; the claims of the gods and demigods seemed like things to be settled rather by a lawyer or a professional herald than by a poet.
The last few sentences above about the family tree especially struck me (as both true and written with great wit). I have a book called The Genealogy of Greek Mythology, which is very handy for studying mythology and culture with my co-op class, but boy is it complicated! As a matter fact, it's not really a book, but a long, fold-out, double-sided chart. They have the mortals on one side and the immortals on the other.

I do not believe that mythology must begin with eroticism. But I do believe that mythology must end in it. I am quite certain that mythology did end in it. Moreover, not only did the poetry grow more immoral, but the immorality grew more indefensible...The psychology of it is really human enough, to anyone who will try that experiment of seeing history from the inside. There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat...The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense...They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with nightmares.
This next part made me think and wonder a bit. It's always bugged me when people have implied that country living is more moral than city living. But I wonder if what he means here is somethings simpler (and which I could see might be true); that the poor living in the country are happier and more content than the poor living in the city. Perhaps this is because they are naturally surrounded by more of God's beauty that can be shared and enjoyed by all. I remember being shocked, when I lived in San Diego and read about some young people who had grown up in the inner city of San Diego and never been to the ocean!

It is proverbial that what would once have been a peasantry became a mere populace of the town dependent for bread and circuses; which may again suggest to some a mob dependent upon doles and cinemas. In this as in many other respects, the modern return to heathenism has been a return not even to the heathen youth but rather to the heathen old age. But the causes of it were spiritual in both cases; and especially the spirit of paganism had departed with its familiar spirits. The heart had gone out of it with its household gods, who went along with the gods of the garden and the field and the forest. The Old Man of the Forest was too old; he was already dying. It is said truly in a sense that Pan died because Christ was born. It is almost as true in another sense that men knew that Christ was born because Pan was already dead. A void was made by the vanishing of the whole mythology of mankind, which would have aspyxiated like a vacuum if it had not been filled with theology.

You have to understand the word "thought" in the right sense in order to read this next part properly. It's very easy to misread it at first and expect that first sentence to end somewhat differently. Basically, it's used as a noun here, not a verb.

His sense of describing restlessness is really striking. The word "jaded" also comes to mind.

Theology is thought, whether we agree with it or not. Mythology was never thought, and nobody could really agree with it or disagree with it. It was a mere mood of glamour and when the mood went it could not be recovered. Men not only ceased to believe in the gods, but they realised that they had never believed in them. They had sung their praises; they had danced round their altars. They had played the flute; they had played the fool...But with them as with us, the human family itself began to break down under servile organisation and the herding of the towns. The urban mob became enilghtened; that is it lost the mental energy that could create myths. All round the circle of the Mediterranean cities the people mourned for the loss of gods and were consoled with gladiators.

There was nothing left that could conquer Rome; but there was also nothing left that could improve it. It was the strongest thing that was growing weak. It was the best thing that was going to the bad. It is necessary to insist again and again that many civilisations had met in one civilisation of the Mediterranean sea; that it was already universal with a stale and sterile universality. The peoples had pooled their resources and still there was not enough. The empires had gone into partnership and they were still bankrupt. No philosopher who was really philosophical could think anything except that, in that central sea, the wave of the world had risen to its highest, seeming to touch the stars. But the wave was already stooping; for it was only the wave of the world.

Atheism became really possible in that abnormal time; for atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of a dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul; the sense that there is a meaning and a direction in the world it sees.
Christianity emerges. I love the unique point-of-view Chesterton helps us look at it from.

A convenient compromise had been made between all the multitudinous myths and religions of the Empire; that each group should worship freely and merely give a sort of official flourish of thanks to the tolerant Emperor, by tossing a little incense to him under his official title of Divus. Naturally there was no difficulty about that; or rather it was a long time before the world realised that there ever had been even a trivial difficulty anywhere. The members of some Eastern sect or secret society or other seemed to have made a scene somewhere; nobody could imagine why. The incident occurred once or twice again and began to arouse irritation out of proportion to its insignficance. It was not exactly what these provincials said; though of course it sounded queer enough. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seem quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood...They were a scratch company of barbarians and slaves and poor and unimportant people; but their formation was military; they moved together and were very absolute about who an what was really a part of their little system; and about what they said, however mildly, there was a ring like iron. Men used to many mythologies and moralities could make no analysis of the mystery, except the conjecture that they meant what they said. All attempts to make them see reason in the perfectly simple matter of the Emperor's statue seemed to be spoken to deaf men. It was as if a new meteoric metal had fallen on the earth; it was a difference of substance to the touch. Those who touched their foundation fancied they had struck a rock.

Nobody yet knows very clearly why that level world has thus lost its balance about the people in its midst; but they stand unnaturally still while the arena and the world seem to revolve around them. And there shone on them in that dark hour a light that has never been darkened; a white fire clinging to that group like an unearthly phosphorescence, blazing its track through the twilights of history and confounding every effort to confound it with the mists of mythology and theory; that shaft of light or lightening by which the world itself has struck and isolated and crowned it; by which its own enemies have made it more illustrious and its own critics have made it more inexplicable; the halo of hatred around the Church of God.


electroblogster said...

Wow is appropriate. Some great poetic prose here.

Dr. Thursday said...

Oh, yes! And if you haven't read TEM yet, please get it onto your list... these nuggets are good but it's even better to have the whole thing.

But I understand about not having time, especially with work - I can't believe how the time is flying by...