Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/33

This page has been validated.

God-fearing armies, as Carlyle tells us, are the best armies. So, as Bagehot has pointed out, those kinds of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character are sure to prevail, all else being the same; and creeds or systems that conduce to a soft, limp mind tend to perish. Strong beliefs win strong men, and then make them stronger. Such is, no doubt, another cause why monotheism tends to prevail over polytheism. It at once attracts and produces steadier character. It is not confused by competing rites nor distracted by miscellaneous duties.

As in man, at the outset, the moral and spiritual faculties lie mostly latent, overshadowed by his animal wants and passions, so the gods, in whose image he fashions at first the dimly discerned divine, are beings of physical power and sensuous nature, personifications of giant strength, imperative will, terrible passions, dangerous to arouse—a wanton Mylitta, a thievish Hermes, an implacable Pluto, the Moloch only to be propitiated by giving him the best-beloved child to devour in his sacred flame; or a burly Thor, whose hammer-blows rive huge valleys in the ground, to whom any deceit by which he may overcome his foes is entirely allowable.

From this low nature range, where morality is not yet known, the conceptions of the gods move up to the philosophic level, and from that to the ethical range. The Hindoo Rita, at first simply the fixed path of the sun or other heavenly bodies, became, as the next step, generalized in law or order in the abstract; and then was exalted into the celestial path of rectitude and peace, the eternal power making for righteousness. Osiris, at first the setting sun, becomes next the mysterious principle of life and harmony; then, the great judge of men's conduct, the source of good.

All nature-religions, derived as they are from the physical world and its processes, and originating in the infancy of civilization, are ethically imperfect. They are not immoral, so much as innocent of those distinctions, modesties, and virtues, to which so much regard is later given. But, just because of this, many incidents of their sacred histories come in time to seem impure and revolting. While Zeus was clearly recognized as the sky that fertilizes the earth and quickens nature, the myths of his manifold amours—how, in swan-garb of feathery cirrhus, he approaches and overshadows Leda; how in a shower of golden, sunlight rain he impregnates Danaë, the imprisoned earth of frosty spring—all these would be intelligible and inoffensive. But when Zeus became the supreme ruler of earth and heaven, the all-holy law-giver, then men could not but soon find these narratives shocking to their moral sense. We do not easily bear the thought that the objects of our worship should be inferior in any respect to ourselves. When this is felt, then the worship must be radically reformed, or it falls before some faith of purer type.

All the great universal religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and