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EDITOR'S TABLE.

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 

GOLDWIN SMITH ON MORALS.

PROFESSOR GOLDWIN SMITH is a student of history, and in the November "Atlantic Monthly" he has given us the fruits of his historical studies in relation to morality. He contributes an article on "The Prospect of a Moral Interregnum," which, being interpreted, means a moral break-down. He says that morality is based upon religion, and that in the past the collapse of religious systems has always been followed by periods of moral debasement. He then shows that in the present age there is an extensive decline of religious belief, which promises, and has already brought forth, another period of moral debasement. Goldwin Smith is an eloquent writer, and always sure of a large number of readers; whatever he says, therefore, is entitled to attention, and this article is entitled to especial attention. We dissent from some of his views, and propose to give the reasons for it.

His first historic illustration is from the Greeks. Hellenic life, public and private, is stated to have been full of religion, while the fear of the gods was a mainstay of morality. "Hellenic religion, however, was entangled with a gross mythology, immoral legends, a worship of sacrifices, a thaumaturgic priesthood, an infantine cosmogony, a polytheistic division of the physical universe into the domains of a number of separate deities." We are told that it fell before awakened intellect, while its fall was conducive to progress; but morality felt the withdrawal of its basis, as is variously shown, especially in the pages of Thucydides.

Rome is next taken up, and we are informed that here also public and private virtue was sustained by reverence for the gods. Polybius is quoted as attesting the strength of the religious sentiment among the Roman people, and the necessity of maintaining superstitions "as a concession to the requirements of the multitude." But the Roman religion, like the Greek, broke up, though "practical good sense probably played a more important part in the over-throw of superstition at Rome than in Hellas." This was followed by wide-spread immorality, but it is admitted that the case is complex: "At the same time a tremendous strain was laid on public morality by the circumstances of the empire. There ensued a cataclysm of selfish ambition, profligate corruption, and murderous faction, which left to society only the choice between chaos and a military corruption."

Professor Smith next points out the marked religious character of life and society in the middle ages under Catholic predominance, and enumerates many moral conquests of that period. Besides the triumphs of religious art there grew up the conception of the brother-hood of mankind, the sanctity of life, the value of virtues other than military, and the happy transition of society from slavery through serfage to free labor. "Catholicism fell through the superstitions and impostures which had gathered around it, and which intellect, awakened by the Renaissance, spurned away; through Papal tyranny and clerical corruption, through the general ossification, so to speak, of a system which had once in all its organs ministered to spiritual life. With it fell the morality that it had sustained, and once more we find ourselves in a moral interregnum."

Now, if we assume that these are correct historical representations, what