Greece (3/3)

One of the most extraordinary things to be met with in the history of ancient times is the oracles. They maintained their reputation for many successive centuries. The most famous perhaps were that of Delphi in Greece, and that of Jupiter Ammon in the deserts of Lybia. But they were scattered through many cities, many plains, and many islands. They were consulted by the foolish and the wise; and scarcely anything considerable was undertaken, especially about the time of the Persian invasion into Greece, without the parties having first had recourse to these; and they in most cases modified the conduct of princes and armies accordingly. To render the delusion more successful, every kind of artifice was put in practice. The oracle could only be consulted on fixed days; and the persons who resorted to it, prefaced their application with costly offerings to the presiding God. Their questions passed through the hands of certain priests, residing in and about the temple. These priests received the embassy with all due solemnity, and retired. A priestess, or Pythia, who was seldom or never seen by any of the profane vulgar, was the immediate vehicle of communication with the God. She was cut off from all intercourse with the world, and was carefully trained by the attendant priests. Spending almost the whole of her time in solitude, and taught to consider her office as ineffably sacred, she saw visions, and was for the most part in a state of great excitement. The Pythia, at least of the Delphian God, was led on with much ceremony to the performance of her office, and placed upon the sacred tripod. The tripod, we are told, stood over a chasm in the rock, from which issued fumes of an inebriating quality. The Pythia became gradually penetrated through every limb with these fumes, till her bosom swelled, her features enlarged, her mouth foamed, her voice seemed supernatural, and she uttered words that could sometimes scarcely be called articulate. She could with difficulty contain herself, and seemed to be possessed, and wholly overpowered, with the God. After a prelude of many unintelligible sounds, uttered with fervour and a sort of frenzy, she became by degrees more distinct. She uttered incoherent sentences, with breaks and pauses, that were filled up with preternatural efforts and distorted gestures; while the priests stood by, carefully recording her words, and then reducing them into a sort of obscure signification. They finally digested them for the most part into a species of hexameter verse. We may suppose the supplicants during this ceremony placed at a proper distance, so as to observe these things imperfectly, while the less they understood, they were ordinarily the more impressed with religious awe, and prepared implicitly to receive what was communicated to them. Sometimes the priestess found herself in a frame, not entirely equal to her function, and refused for the present to proceed with the ceremony.

The priests of the oracle doubtless conducted them in a certain degree like the gipsies and fortune-tellers of modern times, cunningly procuring to themselves intelligence in whatever way they could, and ingeniously worming out the secrets of their suitors, at the same time contriving that their drift should least of all be suspected. But their main resource probably was in the obscurity, almost amounting to unintelligibleness, of their responses. Their prophecies in most cases required the comment of the event to make them understood; and it not seldom happened, that the meaning in the sequel was found to be the diametrically opposite of that which the pious votaries had originally conceived.

In the mean time the obscurity of the oracles was of inexpressible service to the cause of superstition. If the event turned out to be such as could in no way be twisted to come within the scope of the response, the pious suitor only concluded that the failure was owing to the grossness and carnality of his own apprehension, and not to any deficiency in the institution. Thus the oracle by no means lost credit, even when its meaning remained for ever in its original obscurity. But, when, by any fortunate chance, its predictions seemed to be verified, then the unerringness of the oracle was lauded from nation to nation; and the omniscience of the God was admitted with astonishment and adoration.

It would be a vulgar and absurd mistake however, to suppose that all this was merely the affair of craft, the multitude only being the dupes, while the priests in cold blood carried on the deception, and secretly laughed at the juggle they were palming on the world. They felt their own importance; and they cherished it. They felt that they were regarded by their countrymen as something more than human; and the opinion entertained of them by the world around them, did not fail to excite a responsive sentiment in their own bosoms. If their contemporaries willingly ascribed to them an exclusive sacredness, by how much stronger an impulse were they led fully to receive so flattering a suggestion! Their minds were in a perpetual state of exaltation; and they believed themselves specially favoured by the God whose temple constituted their residence. A small matter is found sufficient to place a creed which flatters all the passions of its votaries, on the most indubitable basis. Modern philosophers think that by their doctrine of gases they can explain all the appearances of the Pythia; but the ancients, to whom this doctrine was unknown, admitted these appearances as the undoubted evidence of an interposition from heaven.

It is certainly a matter of the extremest difficulty, for us in imagination to place ourselves in the situation of those who believed in the ancient polytheistical creed. And yet these believers nearly constituted the whole of the population of the kingdoms of antiquity. Even those who professed to have shaken off the prejudices of their education, and to rise above the absurdities of paganism, had still some of the old leaven adhering to them. One of the last acts of the life of Socrates, was to order the sacrifice of a cock to be made to Aesculapius.

Now the creed of paganism is said to have made up to the number of thirty thousand deities. Every kingdom, every city, every street, nay, in a manner every house, had its protecting God. These Gods were rivals to each other; and were each jealous of his own particular province, and watchful against the intrusion of any neighbour deity upon ground where he had a superior right. The province of each of these deities was of small extent; and therefore their watchfulness and jealousy of their appropriate honours do not enter into the slightest comparison with the Providence of the God who directs the concerns of the universe. They had ample leisure to employ in vindicating their prerogatives. Prophecy was of all means the plainest and most obvious for each deity to assert his existence, and to inforce the reverence and submission of his votaries. Prophecy was that species of interference which was least liable to the being confuted and exposed. The oracles, as we have said, were delivered in terms and phrases that were nearly unintelligible. If therefore they met with no intelligible fulfilment, this lost them nothing; and, if it gained them no additional credit, neither did it expose them to any disgrace. Whereas every example, where the obscure prediction seemed to tally with, and be illustrated by any subsequent event, was hailed with wonder and applause, confirmed the faith of the true believers, and was held forth as a victorious confutation of the doubts of the infidel.

Invasion of Xerxes into Greece
It is particularly suitable in this place to notice the events which took place at Delphi upon occasion of the memorable invasion of Xerxes into Greece. This was indeed a critical moment for the heathen mythology. The Persians were pointed and express in their hostility against the altars and the temples of the Greeks. It was no sooner known that the straits of Thermopylae had been forced, than the priests consulted the God, as to whether they should bury the treasures of the temple, so to secure them against the sacrilege of the invader. The answer of the oracle was: “Let nothing be moved; the God is sufficient for the protection of his rights.” The inhabitants therefore of the neighbourhood withdrew: only sixty men and the priest remained. The Persians in the mean time approached. Previously to this however, the sacred arms which were placed in the temple, were seen to be moved by invisible hands, and deposited on the declivity which was on the outside of the building. The invaders no sooner shewed themselves, than a miraculous storm of thunder and lightning rebounded and flashed among the multiplied hills which surrounded the sacred area, and struck terror into all hearts. Two vast fragments were detached from the top of mount Parnassus, and crushed hundreds in their fall. A voice of warlike acclamation issued from within the walls. Dismay seized the Persian troops. The Delphians then, rushing from their caverns, and descending from the summits, attacked them with great slaughter. Two persons, exceeding all human stature, and that were said to be the demigods whose fanes were erected near the temple of Apollo, joined in the pursuit, and extended the slaughter. It has been said that the situation of the place was particularly adapted to this mode of defence. Surrounded and almost overhung with lofty mountain-summits, the area of the city was inclosed within crags and precipices. No way led to it but through defiles, narrow and steep, shadowed with wood, and commanded at every step by fastnesses from above. In such a position artificial fires and explosion might imitate a thunder storm. Great pains had been taken, to represent the place as altogether abandoned; and therefore the detachment of rocks from the top of mount Parnassus, though effected by human hands, might appear altogether supernatural.

Nothing can more forcibly illustrate the strength of the religious feeling among the Greeks, than the language of the Athenian government at the time of the second descent of the Persian armament upon their territory, when they were again compelled to abandon their houses and land to the invader. Mardonius said to them: “I am thus commissioned by the king of Persia, he will release and give back to you your country; he invites you to choose a further territory, whatever you may think desirable, which he will guarantee to you to govern as you shall judge fit. He will rebuild for you, without its costing you either money or labour, the temples which in his former incursion he destroyed with fire. It is in vain for you to oppose him by force, for his armies are innumerable.” To which the Athenians replied, “As long as the sun pursues his course in the heavens, so long will we resist the Persian invader.” Then turning to the Spartan ambassadors who were sent to encourage and animate them to persist, they added, “It is but natural that your employers should apprehend that we might give way and be discouraged. But there is no sum of money so vast, and no region so inviting and fertile, that could buy us to concur in the enslaving of Greece. Many and resistless are the causes which induce us to this resolve. First and chiefest, the temples and images of the Gods, which Xerxes has burned and laid in ruins, and which we are called upon to avenge to the utmost, instead of forming a league with him who made this devastation. Secondly, the consideration of the Grecian race, the same with us in blood and in speech, the same in religion and manners, and whose cause we will never betray. Know therefore now, if you knew not before, that, as long as a single Athenian survives, we will never swerve from the hostility to Persia to which we have devoted ourselves.”

Contemplating this magnanimous resolution, it is in vain for us to reflect on the absurdity, incongruity and frivolousness, as we apprehend it, of the pagan worship, inasmuch as we find, whatever we may think of its demerits, that the most heroic people that ever existed on earth, in the hour of their direst calamity, regarded a zealous and fervent adherence to that religion as the most sacred of all duties.

The fame of Democritus has sustained a singular fortune. He is represented by Pliny as one of the most superstitious of mortals. This character is founded on certain books which appeared in his name. In these books he is made to say, that, if the blood of certain birds be mingled together, the combination will produce a serpent, of which whoever eats will become endowed with the gift of understanding the language of birds. He attributes a multitude of virtues to the limbs of a dead camelion: among others that, if the left foot of this animal be grilled, and there be added certain herbs, and a particular unctuous preparation, it will have the quality to render the person who carries it about him invisible. But all this is wholly irreconcileable with the known character of Democritus, who distinguished himself by the hypothesis that the world was framed from the fortuitous concourse of atoms, and that the soul died with the body. And accordingly Lucian, a more judicious author than Pliny, expressly cites Democritus as the strenuous opposer of all the pretenders to miracles. “Such juggling tricks,” he says, “call for a Democritus, an Epicurus, a Metrodorus, or some one of that temper, who should endeavour to detect the illusion, and would hold it for certain, even if he could not fully lay open the deceit, that the whole was a lying pretence, and had not a spark of reality in it.”

Democritus was in reality one of the most disinterested characters on record in the pursuit of truth. He has been styled the father of experimental philosophy. When his father died, and the estate came to be divided between him and two brothers, he chose the part which was in money, though the smallest, that he might indulge himself in travelling in pursuit of knowledge. He visited Egypt and Persia, and turned aside into Ethiopia and India. He is reported to have said, that he had rather be the possessor of one of the cardinal secrets of nature, than of the diadem of Persia.

Socrates is the most eminent of the ancient philosophers. He lived in the most enlightened age of Greece, and in Athens, the most illustrious of her cities. He was born in the middle ranks of life, the son of a sculptor. He was of a mean countenance, with a snub nose, projecting eyes, and otherwise of an appearance so unpromising, that a physiognomist, his contemporary, pronounced him to be given to the grossest vices. But he was of a penetrating understanding, the simplest manners, and a mind wholly bent on the study of moral excellence. He at once abjured all the lofty pretensions, and the dark and recondite pursuits of the most applauded teachers of his time, and led those to whom he addressed his instructions from obvious and irresistible data to the most unexpected and useful conclusions. There was something in his manner of teaching that drew to him the noblest youth of Athens. Plato and Xenophon, two of the most admirable of the Greek writers, were among his pupils. He reconciled in his own person in a surprising degree poverty with the loftiest principles of independence. He taught an unreserved submission to the laws of our country. He several times unequivocally displayed his valour in the field of battle, while at the same time he kept aloof from public offices and trusts. The serenity of his mind never forsook him. He was at all times ready to teach, and never found it difficult to detach himself from his own concerns, to attend to the wants and wishes of others. He was uniformly courteous and unpretending; and, if at any time he indulged in a vein of playful ridicule, it was only against the presumptuously ignorant, and those who were without foundation wise in their own conceit.

Yet, with all these advantages and perfections, the name of Socrates would not have been handed down with such lustre to posterity but for the manner of his death. He made himself many enemies. The plainness of his manner and the simplicity of his instructions were inexpressibly wounding to those (and they were many), who, setting up for professors, had hitherto endeavoured to dazzle their hearers by the loftiness of their claims, and to command from them implicit submission by the arrogance with which they dictated. It must be surprising to us, that a man like Socrates should be arraigned in a country like Athens upon a capital accusation. He was charged with instilling into the youth a disobedience to their duties, and propagating impiety to the Gods, faults of which he was notoriously innocent. But the plot against him was deeply laid, and is said to have been twenty years in the concoction. And he greatly assisted the machinations of his adversaries, by the wonderful firmness of his conduct upon his trial, and his spirited resolution not to submit to any thing indirect and pusillanimous. He defended himself with a serene countenance and the most cogent arguments, but would not stoop to deprecation and intreaty. When sentence was pronounced against him, this did not induce the least alteration of his conduct. He did not think that a life which he had passed for seventy years with a clear conscience, was worth preserving by the sacrifice of honour. He refused to escape from prison, when one of his rich friends had already purchased of the jailor the means of his freedom. And, during the last days of his life, and when he was waiting the signal of death, which was to be the return of a ship that had been sent with sacrifices to Delos, he uttered those admirable discourses, which have been recorded by Xenophon and Plato to the latest posterity.

But the question which introduces his name into this volume, is that of what is called the demon of Socrates. He said that he repeatedly received a divine premonition of dangers impending over himself and others; and considerable pains have been taken to ascertain the cause and author of these premonitions. Several persons, among whom we may include Plato, have conceived that Socrates regarded himself as attended by a supernatural guardian who at all times watched over his welfare and concerns.

But the solution is probably of a simpler nature. Socrates, with all his incomparable excellencies and perfections, was not exempt from the superstitions of his age and country. He had been bred up among the absurdities of polytheism. In them were included, as we have seen, a profound deference for the responses of oracles, and a vigilant attention to portents and omens. Socrates appears to have been exceedingly regardful of omens. Plato tells us that this intimation, which he spoke of as his demon, never prompted him to any act, but occasionally interfered to prevent him or his friends from proceeding in any thing that would have been attended with injurious consequences. Sometimes he described it as a voice, which no one however heard but himself; and sometimes it shewed itself in the act of sneezing. If the sneezing came, when he was in doubt to do a thing or not to do it, it confirmed him; but if, being already engaged in any act, he sneezed, this he considered as a warning to desist. If any of his friends sneezed on his right hand, he interpreted this as a favourable omen; but, if on his left, he immediately relinquished his purpose. Socrates vindicated his mode of expressing himself on the subject, by saying that others, when they spoke of omens, for example, by the voice of a bird, said the bird told me this, but that he, knowing that the omen was purely instrumental to a higher power, deemed it more religious and respectful to have regard only to the higher power, and to say that God had graciously warned him. One of the examples of this presage was, that, going along a narrow street with several companions in earnest discourse, he suddenly stopped, and turned another way, warning his friends to do the same. Some yielded to him, and others went on, who were encountered by the rushing forward of a multitude of hogs, and did not escape without considerable inconvenience and injury. In another instance one of a company among whom was Socrates, had confederated to commit an act of assassination. Accordingly he rose to quit the place, saying to Socrates, “I will be back presently.” Socrates, unaware of his purpose, but having received the intimation of his demon, said to him earnestly, “Go not.” The conspirator sat down. Again however he rose, and again Socrates stopped him. At length he escaped, without the observation of the philosopher, and committed the act, for which he was afterwards brought to trial. When led to execution, he exclaimed, “This would never have happened to me, if I had yielded to the intimation of Socrates.” In the same manner, and by a similar suggestion, the philosopher predicted the miscarriage of the Athenian expedition to Sicily under Nicias, which terminated with such signal disaster. This feature in the character of Socrates is remarkable, and may shew the prevalence of superstitious observances, even in persons whom we might think the most likely to be exempt from this weakness.


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