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its own reward, there is much that is ennobling in it. Even that
literature is most prized and most enduring which is artistic, like the
odes of Horace, the epics of Virgil, the condensed narrative of Tacitus;
like the "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," or the "Deserted Village," or
"Corinne," or "Waverley." Varro was the most learned writer whom Rome
produced, and the most voluminous. Yet scarcely any thing remains of his
productions. They were deficient in art, like German histories - very
useful in their day, but only survive in the writings of those who made
use of their materials. Hence science is not so enduring as poetry, when
poetry is exalted, since it is superseded by new discoveries. Hence
style in writing, when of great excellence, gives immortality to works
which could not have lived without it, even had they been ever so
profound. Voltaire's "Charles XII." is still a classic, like the numbers
of the "Spectator," although superficial, and, perhaps, unreliable. A
great painting is like the history of Thucydides - it lives because it is
a creation. Hence art, when severe and lofty, cannot be too highly
praised or cherished. A man cannot write for bread as he writes for
fame; and he cannot write for fame as he writes to satisfy his own
ideal. The immortal poets are those who sing themselves away to the
regions of bliss, in a divine ecstacy, from love of art, or to give
expression to the feelings which fill the soul. Sir Walter Scott could
write his "Ivanhoe" when inspired by the sentiments which warmed the
chivalrous ages; he became a mere literary hack when he wrote to pay his

[Sidenote: The true artist.]

The true artist is one of the favorites of Heaven, in a great measure
exalted above mortal commiseration, even if his days are clouded with
cares and sorrows. He lives in a different and purer atmosphere than
ordinary men. He may not banquet on the pleasures of sense, but he
revels in the joys of the soul. A Dante may be sad and sorrowful, as
when, in his gloomy wanderings and isolations, he asked of Fra Ilario
the rest and peace of his sacred monastery; but he was sad as a greater
than he wept over Jerusalem, in the profound seriousness of superior
knowledge, in the sublime solitariness of an inhabitant of another and
grander sphere. Genius ever partakes of this sadness, and it is as
shallow to mistake it for misery as it would be to pity the saint
passing through the tribulations of our worldly pilgrimage, in full view
of the unending glories which are in store for him in the celestial
city. The higher joys of the soul are foreign to frivolity, tumult, and
the mirth of wine, - those pleasures most prized by the weak or sensual.
There is nothing more sublime in this world than the example of a lofty
nature seeking the imperishable, the true, the beautiful, the good, amid
discomfort, or reproach, or neglect.

Such are truly great artists. Sometimes they are munificently rewarded
by their generation with praises and material goods, as was Apelles
among the Greeks, and Raphael among the Italians. Sometimes their
excellence was unappreciated, except by a few. But whether appreciated
or not, the great artists of antiquity belong to the constellation of
men of genius which shall shine forever. They lived in their own
glorious realm of thought and feeling, which the world can neither
understand nor share. They did not live for utilities. They lived to
realize their own exalted ideas of excellence.

[Sidenote: Decline of art.]

[Sidenote: Prostitution of art.]

[Sidenote: The later Romans incapable of appreciating art.]

[Sidenote: The degradation of art.]

[Sidenote: utter failure of art as a conservative power.]

But this was not the case in imperial Rome. All writers speak of a most
signal decline in the arts from Augustus to Diocletian. Even
architecture became corrupted. It was without taste, or a mere copy,
like the arch of Constantine, from the older models. There were no
original edifices erected, and such as were built were in defiance of
all the principles that were established by the Greek architects. Least
of all did art encourage grand sentiments. It did not paint ethereal
beauty. It did not chisel the marble to elevate or instruct. Statues
were made to please the degraded taste of rich but vulgar families, to
give pomp to luxury, to pander wicked passions. Painting was absolutely
disgraceful; and we veil our eyes and hide our blushes as we survey the
decorations of Pompeii. How degrading the pictures which are found amid
the ruins of ancient baths! Art was sensualized, perverted, corrupting.
Paintings appealed either to perverted tastes, or fostered a senseless
pride, or stimulated unholy passions, or flattered the vanity of the
rich - brought angels down to earth, not raised mortals to heaven. They
commemorated the regime of tyrants, or amused the wealthy classes, whose
wealth had bought alike the muse of the poets and the visions of the
sculptor. Art was venal. She sold her glories, which ought to be as
unbought as the graces of life and the smiles of beauty; and she became
a painted Haetera, drunk with the wine-cups of Babylon, and fantastic
with the sorceries of Egypt. How could she, thus prostituted, elevate
the people, or arrest degeneracy, or consecrate the ancient
superstitions? She facilitated rather than retarded the ruin. It is
marvelous how soon art degenerated with the progress of luxury,
reproducing evil more rapidly than good, and obscuring even truth
itself. Pleasures that appeal to the intellect will ever be in
accordance with prevailing tastes, and the more exquisite the art the
more fatally will it lead astray by the insidious entrance of a form as
an angel of light. We cannot extinguish art without destroying one of
the noblest developments of civilization; but we cannot have
civilization without multiplying the dangers and temptations of human
society. And even granting that the arts of the pagan world had a
refining influence on the few, what is this unless accompanied with the
virtues which grow out of self-sacrifice? I am not speaking of those
glories which art ought to represent, but of those attractions which it
presents when degraded. What conservative influence can result from the
Venus of Titian? Why did not art reform morals, as morals elevated art?
And why did art degenerate? Why did it not keep its own? The truth is,
that art is esoteric, and not popular. The imagination of the vulgar is
not sufficiently cultivated to see, in the emblems which art typifies,
those passions or sentiments which have moved generations with
enthusiasm. A Gothic cathedral is infinitely more interesting to a man
of sentiment or learning than to an unlettered boor. The ignorant cannot
appreciate the historical fidelity and marvelous study of races which
appear in such a statue as the African Sybil. We must comprehend the
character of Moses before we can kindle with admiration at the dignity
and majesty which Michael Angelo impersonated in his statue. When
Phidias, Praxiteles, and Lysippus moulded their clay models, they had a
Pericles, a Plato, or a Demosthenes for their critics and admirers. It
was for them they worked, and by them they were stimulated - not the
rabble crowd of slaves and sycophants. But when, at Rome, there was no
Cicero, no Octavius, no Mecaenas, no Horace, the artists toiled to please
imperial gluttons, pretentious freedmen, ignorant generals, drunken
senators, and venal judges. Their sublime art became the handmaid of
effeminacy, of vanity, of sensuality. It could not rise above the level
of those who dedicated themselves to its service. It did not make men
better. Was Leo X. a wiser Pope because he delighted in pictures? Did
art make the Medici at Florence more susceptible to religious
impressions? Does art sanctify Dresden or Florence? Does it make modern
capitals stronger, or more self-sacrificing, better fitted to contend
with violence, or guard against the follies which undermine a state?
What are the true conservative forces of our world? On what did Luther
and Cranmer build the hopes of regeneration? The cant of dilettanti
would be laughed at by the old apostles and martyrs. Art amuses, and may
refine when it is itself pure. It does not brace up the soul to
conflict. It does not teach how to resist temptation. It presents
temptations rather. It gilds the fascinations of earth. It does not
point to duties, or the life to come. That which is conservative is what
saves, not what adorns. We want ideas, invisible agencies, that which
exalts the mind above the material. So far as art can do this it is
well. It is a great element of civilization. So far as gardens and
flowers and villas and groves can do this, let us have them. Let us make
a paradise out of a desert. Man was put into Eden to dress and to keep
it. The material, rightly directed and used, is part of our just
inheritance. Man is physical as well as intellectual. It is monkish and
erratic to spurn the outward blessings of Providence. An inheritance in
Middlesex is worth more than one in Utopia. Give us beauty and grace -
they are invaluable. But let us remember, also, that it is chiefly from
moral truth that the soul expands - the recognition of responsibilities
and duties. No matter how splendid we make the triumphs of art in its
aesthetic influence, the question returns, Did these, in their best
estate, in Greece and Rome, lead to patriotism, to sacrifice, to an
elevated social home? And if these did not arrest corruption, how could
art, when perverted, save a falling empire? All profound inquiries as to
the progress of the race centre in moral truths, - those which have
reference to the spiritual rather than the material, the future rather
than the present. Art failed because it did not propound grand ideas
which pertain to spiritual and future interests. It especially failed
when it pandered to perverted tastes, when it was the mere pastime of
the rich, and diverted the mind from what is greatest and holiest. St.
Paul, when he wandered through the Grecian cities, said very little of
the sculptures and the temples which met his eye at every turn. He was
not insensible to beauty and grandeur. But he felt that all renovating
forces came from the ideas which he was sent to preach. He did not
condemn art; he probably admired it; but this he saw was a poor
foundation of national happiness and strength. If the severe morality of
the Stoics was a feeble barrier against corruption, how much more feeble
were temples to Minerva, and statues to Jupiter, and pictures of Venus?
Great was Diana of the Ephesians, but not as an influence to stem
degeneracy. Exalt art as highly as we can, it is not a renovating power,
and it is this of which we speak.

[Sidenote: Attempts of literature.]

[Sidenote: Degradation of literature.]

Literature attempted something higher than art; nor need we expatiate on
its transcendent excellence in the classical ages. This itself was art,
art in the highest and most enduring form, and will live when marbles
moulder away. Virgil, Cicero, Horace, Tacitus, Livy, Ovid, were great
artists, and civilization will perpetuate their fame. They cannot die.
What more immortal than the artistic delineations of man and of nature
which the poets and historians wrought out with so much labor and
genius? When did men, uninspired by Christianity, utter sentiments more
tender, or thoughts more profound, or aspirations more lofty? They are
our perpetual study and marvel - prodigies of genius, such as appear only
at great intervals. All that is most valuable in the ancient
civilization is perpetuated in its literature, and survives empires and
changes. The men who were amused and instructed by these great
masterpieces _have_ passed away, as well as their empire, but these
will interest remotest generations. These live by their own vitality. If
the unaided intellect of man could soar so high under the withering
influence of paganism and political slavery and social degradation, we
cannot but feel that Christianity has higher missions to accomplish than
to stimulate the intellectual faculties of man; and, while we remember
that, in our own times, some of the highest creations of genius have
been made by those who have repudiated the spirit of Christianity, we
cannot but feel that conservative influences do not come from
literature, in its best estate, unless its ideas are inspired by the
Gospel. The great writers of the Augustan age did not arrest degeneracy,
any more than Goethe and Bulwer and Byron and Hugo have in our own day.
They amused, they cultivated, they adorned; they did not save. Nor is it
probable that the great masterpieces of antiquity were favorite subjects
of study, except with a cultivated few, any more than Milton, Bacon, and
Pascal are read in our times by the people. They enriched libraries;
they were venerated and preserved in costly bindings; but they were not
familiar guides. The people read nothing. The great writers of antiquity
complain of the frivolity of the public taste. Moreover, the troubles of
the empire and the corruptions of society were unfavorable to lofty
creations of genius. Men were absorbed in passing events; and literary
men generally pandered to the vile taste of the people, or stooped to
adulate the monsters whom they feared. Hunting and hawking furnished
subjects for the muse of the poets. History was reduced to dull and dry
abridgments, and still drier commentaries. The people sought scandalous
anecdotes, or demoralizing sketches, or frothy poetry. The decline in
letters, like the decline in art, kept pace with the public misfortunes.
When lofty and contemplative characters were saddened and discouraged,
in view of public and private corruption, and saw ruin approaching, they
had no spirit to make great exertions - and exertions which would not be
appreciated. They sought retreats. There was no life, no enthusiasm in
literature. It was conventional - to suit fashionable coteries, with whom
strength was unpalatable and dignity a rebuke. Sound was preferred to
sense. Rhetoric supplanted thought. A sentimental flow of words passed
current for poetry. Literary men united into mutual admiration
societies, and exalted their own frivolous productions. As the penny-a-
liners of our day enumerate in their catalogue of great men chiefly
those who have written romances and poetry for magazines, and pass
unnoticed the stern thinkers of the age, so the literary gossips of Rome
made the city ring, like grasshoppers, with their importunate chink.
Unfortunately they were the only inhabitants of the field, for "no great
cattle" kept silence under the shadow of the protecting oak. Nero
suppressed the writings of Lucan, because he painted, in his
"Pharsalia," the follies of the time. Lucian gave vent to his bitter
sarcasms, and raised the veil of hypocrisy in which his generation had
wrapped itself; but his mockery, like that of Voltaire, demolished,
without seeking to substitute any thing better instead. Petronius
laughed at the vices he did not wish to remove, and in which he himself
shared. Juvenal and Martial both flattered the tyrants they detested.
The nobles may have laughed at their bitter sarcasms, but they pursued
their pleasures. Literature, under Augustus, did but little to elevate
the Roman mind. What could be expected when it was coarse, feeble, and
frivolous? If intellectual strength will not keep men from vices, what
can be expected when intellect panders to passions and interests? There
is no more absurd cant than that the culture of the mind favors the
culture of the heart. What do operas and theatres for the elevation of
society? Does a sentimental novel prompt to duty? Education seldom keeps
people from follies when the will is not influenced by virtues. If
Socrates sought the society of Aspasia, if Seneca amassed a gigantic
fortune in the discharge of great public trusts, if Cicero languished in
his exile because deprived of his accustomed pleasures, if Marcus
Aurelius was blind to the rights and virtues of Christians, what could
be hoped of the literary sensualists of the fourth century? If knowledge
did not restrain the passions of philosophers, how could passions be
restrained when every influence tended to excite them? Athens fell when
her arts and schools were in the zenith of their glory, how could Rome
stand when arts and schools undermined the moral health? Neither poets,
nor historians, nor critics had in view the regeneration of society.
They wrote, as poets and novelists write now, for bread, for fame, for
social position. If such a man as Racine, so lofty and severe, was
killed by a frown from Louis XIV., how could such an elaborate
voluptuary as Petronius live out of the smiles of Nero and the
flatteries of the court? If literature is feeble to arrest degeneracy
when it is lofty, inasmuch as it reaches only the cultivated few, how
inadequate it is when it is itself corrupted! The taste of our times,
with all our glorious Christian literature, and our public libraries,
our lecturers, our preachers, our professors, and our standard classical
authorities, is scarcely kept from being perverted by the flimsy
literature which has inundated us, and the newspaper platitudes which we
devour with our breakfast. With every effort of true and Christian
philanthropists, it is questionable whether there is any moral progress
among us. There is a material growth; but does the moral correspond,
with all our immense machinery for the elevation of society? What, then,
could be expected at Rome, where there were no public libraries, no
newspapers, no lyceums, no pulpits, no printing-presses, and where books
were the solace of a few aristocrats, and where these aristocrats could
only be amused by scandalous anecdotes and frivolous poetry. Literature
did not even hold its own. It steadily declined from the Augustan age.
It declined in proportion as the people had leisure to read it. Instead
of elevating society, society corrupted literature. The same may be said
of literature as was said of art. It did not fulfill its mission, if it
was intended to save. It could reach only a small part of the
population, and those whom it did reach were simply amused.

[Sidenote: Failure of literature.]

It would be too sweeping to affirm that the better forms of Roman
literature did not refine and elevate, but unfortunately they reached
only a few minds, and not always those who had political and social
power. Literature was not powerful enough, was not sufficiently
circulated, and the greater part of it was demoralizing, thus proving a
savor of death rather than a savor of life. When a civilization
reproduces evil more rapidly than good, there is not much hope for
society, except from some signal interposition of Almighty power.
Society is infinitely gloomy to a contemplative man, when there are no
antidotes to the poison which is rapidly consuming the vitality of
states. We contemplate approaching death, and death amid the array of
physical glories. It is like a rich man laid on the bed from which he
will never rise, surrounded with every comfort and every pleasure that
men seek. Literature was a feeble medicine to the dying patient. Had all
classes banqueted on the rich treasure of the mind, and been content,
then there might have been some hope. But this was not the fact. Only a
few reveled in the glories of thought. And these scorned the people.

[Sidenote: Ancient philosophy.]

But philosophy attempted something higher and nobler - even to reform
morals, especially at Rome. The Romans had but little taste for abstract
speculations. And hence they did not extend the boundaries of thought
and reason beyond the limits which the Greeks arrived at. But they
adopted what was most practical in the Grecian philosophy, and applied
it to common life.

If there is any thing lofty in paganism, it is philosophy. It proposed
to seek the beautiful, the true, the good; to divert men from degrading
pursuits; to set a low estimate on money, and material gains, and empty
pleasures. It was calm, fearless, and inquiring. All sects of
philosophers despised the pursuits of the vulgar, and affected wisdom.
Minerva, not Venus, not Diana, was the goddess of their idolatry. It
deified reason, and sought to control the passions. It longed for the
realms of truth and love. It believed in the divine, and detested the
gross. Hence the philosophers were not eager for outward rewards, and
kept aloof from the demoralizing pleasures of the people. They attired
themselves in a different garb, lived retired, and studied the welfare
of the soul. Mind was adored, and matter depreciated. They were esoteric
men who abhorred vice, and sought the higher good. Morally, they were in
general superior to other men, as they were in intellectual gifts and
attainments. And they opposed the popular current of opinions, and
stemmed popular vices. They were the reformers of the ancient world, the
sages - earnest men, advocating the great certitudes of love and
friendship and patriotism - the lofty spirits of their time, preoccupied
and rapt in their noble inquiries into nature and God. Look at Socrates,
so careless of dress, walking barefooted, giving what he had away,
courting mortification, and disdaining popular favor, if he could only
persuade his pupils of the greatness of the infinite and imperishable.
Look at Pythagoras, refusing political office, and consecrating himself
to teaching. Look to Xenophanes, wandering over Sicily in the holy
enthusiasm of a rhapsodist of truth. Look at Parmenides, forsaking
patrimonial wealth, that he might teach the distinction between ideas
obtained through the reason, and ideas obtained through the senses. Look
at Heraclitus, refusing the splendid offers of Darius, and retiring to
solitudes, that he might explore the depths of his own nature. See
Anaxagoras, allowing his fortune to melt away, that he might discover
the many faces of nature. See Empedocles, giving away his fortune to
poor girls, that he might attack the Anthropomorphism of his day; or
Democritus declining the sovereignty of Abdera, that he might have
leisure to speculate on the distinction between reflection and
sensation; or Diogenes living in a tub; or Plato in his garden; or
Aristotle in the shady side of the Lyceum; or Zeno guarding the keys of
the citadel. See the good Aurelius, in later and more corrupt ages,
forsaking the pleasures of an imperial throne, that he might meditate on
his soul's welfare, or the slave Epictetus, unfolding the richest
lessons of moral wisdom to a corrupt and listless generation.

[Sidenote: The Romans fail to appreciate philosophy.]

The loftier forms of the ancient philosophy were never popular, even at
Athens. The popular teachers were sophists and rhetoricians, who, as men
of fashion and ambition, despised the sublime speculations of Socrates
and Plato. The Platonic philosophy had a hold only of a few, and these
were men of powerful minds, but stood aloof from the prevailing tastes
and pleasures. It had still less influence on the Roman mind, which was
practical and worldly. Platonism opposed the sensualism and materialism
of the times, believed in eternal ideas, sought the knowledge of God as
the great end of life - a sublime realism which was hardly more
appreciated than Christianity itself. Platonism was doubtless the
highest effort of uninspired men, under the influence of pagan ideas and
institutions, to attain a knowledge of God and the soul. It gloried in
immortality, and claimed for man a nature akin to the deity, and
destined to a higher development after death. It endeavored to
understand our complex nature, and trace a connection between earth and
heaven. It sought to distinguish between forms and essence, the
spiritual and the sensual. It spiritualized the popular mythology, and
insisted on the unity on which it fundamentally rests. It did not sneer
at religious earnestness, and looked upon the beatitudes of the soul as
the highest good of earth.

[Sidenote: Platonism.]

But such knowledge was too wonderful for the Romans. It was high, and
they could not attain unto it. Its ends were too spiritual and elevated.
There was scarcely an eminent Roman who adopted the system. Cicero came
the nearest to understand its spiritual import, but it was too lofty
even for him. He composed a republic and a treatise of laws, in which
reason and the rule of right should be made the guide of states and
empires. In this way Platonism, as a sublime hypothesis, entered into
jurisprudence. It affected the thinking of master minds, even as it

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 43 of 50)