Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/May 1894/Religious Belief as a Basis of Moral Obligation
|RELIGIOUS BELIEF AS A BASIS OF MORAL OBLIGATION.|
FOLLOWING the primitive period of tribal ethics comes a second stage of social and moral development, which Mr. Maine calls the supersession of the bond of blood by the bond of belief. Ethnocentric attraction gives way to what might be called theocentric attraction, and a broader and more spiritual sort of association is formed, having for its basis, not consanguinity, but conformity in religious conceptions. The god takes the place of the human progenitor of the tribe, or rather grows out of his deification in the evolution of ancestor worship, which is probably the oldest of cults.
Nevertheless, in this case, the fundamental principle of primitive society, which makes friendship coextensive with kinship, is not abrogated, but only enlarged in its application, causing those who worship the same deities or propitiate the same demons to enter into fraternal relations and call themselves brethren.
The canonical prohibition of marriage between persons connected merely by the artificial ties of a religious rite, such as sponsors and baptized infants, godfathers, godmothers, and god-children, proves how intimately the idea of ritual relationship was associated with that of real relationship in the minds of those who established and perpetuated this institution. This fiction of sacramental kinship was at one time carried so far in the papal Church as to forbid the sponsor to be joined in wedlock even to the parent of a godchild. Cohabitation between a patrinus and a matrina was regarded as incest until the Council of Trent removed the ecclesiastical bar to such unions. The fact that they had assumed the position of spiritual parents to one infant prevented them from becoming the real and lawful parents of another infant. The importance attached to the name-day, which in most Catholic countries quite supplants the birthday as an anniversary, is also additional evidence of the vigor and vitality of primitive conceptions as embodied in ecclesiastical institutions.
Religion is, in fact, as Schelling observes, the strongest cement of primitive society, and the influence which contributes more than any other to the evolution and organization of the nation and state out of the tribe. Plutarch says: "Methinks a man should sooner find a city built in the air, without any ground to rest upon, than that any commonwealth altogether void of religion should be either first established or afterward preserved and maintained in that estate. For it is this that contains and holds together all human society and is its main prop and stay." Hegel expressed the same idea when he asserted that "the idea of God forms the general foundation of a people." Herbart calls attention to the pedagogical and disciplinary value of religion in the early stages of man's development, since it teaches him to subordinate present desires to future welfare, to look to the remote results of his conduct, and to sacrifice momentary pleasures here to permanent advantages hereafter.
But the ordinary experiences of life, especially in a cold climate, are quite as effective in inculcating thrift and enforcing the first elementary principle of domestic and political economy—that a man can not eat his pudding and keep it too. Stress of hunger emphasizes the necessity of laying up stores of provisions against time of need, and teaches foresight and forehand more directly and more forcibly than any hypothetical relation of man to the gods could do.
Originally the tie of religion must have been identical with the tie of relationship, and the brotherhood of belief coextensive with the brotherhood of blood, since all members of the same family or tribe would naturally adore the same domestic or tribal deities. Without this acceptance of the tribal theology and traditions by every individual of the tribe, the public peace would be constantly disturbed and the very existence of primitive society imperiled.
With the lapse of time and the increase of intelligence, however, vague wonder and ignorant worship would give place in more thoughtful minds to obstinate questionings, blank misgivings, and stubborn skepticisms, leading logically and inevitably to open schisms, and resulting in the formation of new communities of faith, crystallizing around the nucleus of a vital religious conviction. It was then proved, what all later history confirms, that spiritual affinities have a stronger cohesive attraction than natural affinities, and that, in every case of tension, the latter are sure to yield and be rent asunder.
Even the founder of Christianity, who professed to proclaim a gospel of peace on earth and good will to man, foresaw and did not hesitate to declare that this sundering of the closest consanguineous connections and division of families into hostile factions would be the necessary consequence of his teachings. He spoke of his doctrines as a sword destined to sever the nearest ties of natural affection and affinity, setting the son at variance against the father, and the daughter against the mother, and converting the members of a man's household into his bitterest foes.
The center of cohesive attraction, which binds the new community so firmly together and so relentlessly ruptures all older associations, is the creed, or what is known in Christian theology as the symbol, the same term that, as we have already seen, was used by the Greeks to denote the token or pledge of hereditary hospitality and friendship between families, which furnished a basis for the formation of treaties of amity and commerce between tribes.
Strictly tribal religions never proselytize. Instead of seeking to share with alien tribes the favor and protection of their gods, they wish to monopolize whatever power and patronage may be derived from this source as a means of rendering themselves superior to their enemies. This was the case with the ancient Hebrews, who never thought of sending missionaries into other lands to make converts to Jehovah, but would have condemned such a procedure as treasonable. It is true that Jesus, in his denunciation of the Pharisees, declared that they "compass sea and land to make one proselyte"; but this reproof referred to their zeal as a political party in winning adherents among their own countrymen, in order to supplant the more liberal-minded and less rigidly ritualistic Sadducees in the Sanhedrin.
Jesus himself evidently never intended to break away from Judaism and to become the founder of a new religion. According to his own statement, he was "not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." His mission was not to destroy, but to fulfill; not to abrogate, but to accomplish the law. He sought to give a spiritual interpretation to ancient precepts and injunctions; to revivify and rehabilitate the moral sentiment, hitherto dwarfed and deformed under the heavy burden of a perfunctory ceremonialism; and to enforce the commandments of God free from all incrustations of the traditions of men.
Curiously, and yet naturally enough, it was out of the very strictest sect of the Pharisees, so severely rebuked on account of their proselytic spirit, that the great proselyte Paul came—the man whose breadth of view and energy of purpose changed a local reformatory movement, which seemed to have been practically suppressed by the crucifixion, into a world-wide religion, by emancipating it from the fetters of Mosaic formalism, taking it out of the narrow ghetto of tribalism, and imparting to it a universal character. In this bold effort to turn apparent disaster into permanent victory, by breaking through the barriers of Judaism and preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, he met with the most determined opposition from the near kin and personal friends of Jesus, as well as from the principal disciples in Jerusalem.
To this process of development—by which Christianity, whose "field is the world," rose out of Judaism, the special cult of a privileged race—we have a parallel in the historical evolution of Buddhism, as a religion of pure humanity aspiring to universality, out of the narrow exclusiveness of Brahmanism with its rigorous politico-ethnological system of hereditary caste.
If, however, we go back to an earlier period, we meet with a most striking example of the workings of these conflicting forces in the disintegration and reconstruction of old Aryan society, thirty centuries ago, in the highlands of Bactria. The nature of this epoch-making movement, which took place as the result of Zarathustra's teachings and under his leadership, and the deep and enduring enmity it excited between people of the same blood, are perceptible in the solemn pledge or confession of faith by which the proselyte was received into the fellowship of the Iranian community.
This remarkable document, written in the ancient Gatha dialect, which is surmised to have been the vernacular of Zarathustra's native province and the mother-tongue of the prophet, begins with an abjuration of the ancestral deva worship and a vow of devotion to the glorious and munificent Ahuramazda, and then proceeds to a renunciation of all evil works, and especially of those deeds of violence peculiar to nomadic freebooters: "I choose the beneficent Armaiti (earth), the good. May she be mine! I detest all fraud and injury done to the spirit of the earth, and all damage and destruction to the homes of the Mazdayasnians. I permit the good spirits, which dwell on the earth in the form of good animals (such as sheep and kine), to roam undisturbed according to their pleasure. I j)raise, besides, all offerings and prayers to promote the growth of life. I will never do harm or hurt to the habitations of the Mazdayasnians, neither with my body nor with my soul. I forsake the devas, the wicked and malicious workers of iniquity, the most baneful, most malignant, and basest of beings. I forsake the devas and their like, the wizards and their allies, and all creatures whatsoever of such kind. I forsake them in thought, in word, and in deed. I forsake them hereby publicly, and declare that all their deceits and lies shall be put away." After further asseverations in the same strain, and after renouncing anew the devas, and entering into covenant with the waters, the woods, and the living spirit of Nature, and accepting the creed of the fire-priests, the diffusers of light and of truth, the convert concludes by avowing himself to be a disciple of Zarathustra, an adherent of the pure Ahuryan religion, and a member of the righteous brotherhood. Henceforth he is a sworn foe of the evil-doing, ancestral deities, and a zealous co-worker with Ahuramazda in promoting good thoughts, good words, and good deeds—humata, hûkhta, hvarshta.
With this proclamation of a purer religion the promulgation of a higher law of social life and a superior form of civilization was genetically connected—namely, the sacred duty of fostering and gladdening the spirit of the earth (personified as the goddess or angel Armaiti), by tilling the soil and making it fruitful. Husbandry is holiness to the Lord. In the third fargard of the Vendidâd this conception of agriculture as a sacred calling is particularly enlarged upon and enforced. The earth is there compared to a beautiful woman, who fails to fulfill her noblest functions so long as she remains virgin and barren. "He who cultivates barley cultivates righteousness, and extends the Mazdayasnian religion as much as though he resisted a thousand demons, made a thousand offerings, or recited a thousand prayers." Indeed, the best way to fight evil spirits is to redeem the waste places which they are supposed to inhabit. The spade and the plow are more effective than magic spells and incantations as means of exorcism. An old Avestan verse, which is quoted in inculcation and encouragement of tillage, and may have been sung by Iranian husbandmen as they sowed the seed and reaped the harvest, celebrates the influence and efficacy of their toil in discomfiting and driving out devils:
"The demons hiss when the barley's green,
The demons moan at the thrashing's sound;
The demons roar as the grist is ground,
The demons flee when the flour is seen."
[These lines have also in the original a sort of rude rhyme or assonance peculiar to ancient poetry:
"Yadh yavô dayât âat daeva gîs'en,
Yadh s'udhus dayât âat daêva tus'en;
Yadh pistro dayât âat daêva uruthen,
Yadh gundô dayât âat daêva perethen."
Vendidâd, iii, 105-108, Spiegel's ed.]
If the Mazdayasnian religion, as revealed in the Avesta, illustrated in a remarkable manner the Benedictine maxim laborare est orare, it had no sympathy with the melancholy salutation memento mori, with which the Trappist greets the members of his silent brotherhood. As taught by the Iranian prophet and still practiced by the modern Parsis, it is pre-eminently a religion of thrift, and enjoins as a sacred duty the honest accumulation and hearty enjoyment of wealth. Poverty and asceticism have no place in its list of virtues. Voluntary abstinence from the pleasurable things of the good creation is an act of base ingratitude and treason toward the bountiful giver of them. He who despises them is a contemner of Ahuramazda and an ally of the devas, and contributes thus far to the triumph of evil in the world. The righteous man should not dwell upon the idea of death, but banish it from bis thoughts and earnestly strive after the realization of a fuller and richer life. It is the height of folly to suppose that mortifications of the flesh can further spiritual growth. Whatever fosters the health of the body favors the health of the soul; but the emaciation of the body impoverishes the soul. The notion which underlies what is known as "muscular Christianity" pervades the entire Avesta and finds a na'ive and pithy expression in the following text of the Vendidãd, which the tiller of the soil is directed always to bear in mind and frequently to repeat:
"Who eateth not for naught hath strength,
No strength for robust purity,
No strength for robust husbandry,
No strength for getting robust sons."
[Here, too, we have a bit of old poetry passed into a proverb. In the original the only trace of rhyme (and this we have preserved in the rendering) is the assonance of the second and third lines:
"Naêchis aquarentam tva,
Nôit ughrâm ashyãm,
Nôit ughrâm vas'trãam,
Nôit ughrâm putrôistêm."
Vendidâd, iii, 112-115.
The editorial bracketing of the last line by Prof. Spiegel, as a possible interpolation, indicates an excess of critical suspicion, since this line not only fills out the verse, but also finishes up the thought, rounding and completing the expression of the sentiment with a climax.]
In another passage Ahuramazda declares: "Verily I say unto thee, O Spitama Zarathustra! the man who has a wife is far above him who begets no sons; he who has a household is far above him who has none; he who has children is far above the childless man; he who has riches is far above him who is destitute of them. And of two men, the one who fills himself with meat is filled with the good spirit (vôhu manô) much more than he who goes hungry; the latter is all but dead; the former is above him by the worth of a kid (as'perena), by the worth of a sheep, by the worth of an ox, by the worth of a man. [As'perena, usually rendered weight or coin, is derived from as'par, and means not walking or not grown, a young animal, a kid or a lamb. Cf. Sanskrit sphar or sphur, to expand or to swell.] Such a person can resist the onsets of As'tvîdhôtus (the demon of death); can resist the self-moving arrow; can resist the winter fiend, even though thinly clad; can resist and smite the wicked tyrant; can resist the assaults of the ungodly Ashemaogho (the destroyer of purity) who does not eat." (Vend, iv, 130-141.)
According to Herodotus (i, 136), the Persian king gave prizes to those of his subjects who had the greatest number of children. Vigorous procreation was one of the most effectual means of grace. It is stated in the Sad-dar that "to him who has no child, the Chinvad bridge (leading to paradise) shall be barred. The first question the angels who guard this narrow passage will ask him is whether he has left in this world a likeness of himself; if he answers in the-negative, they will leave him standing at the head of the bridge, full of sorrow and despair." In the same work that contains this piece of eschatology it is also written: "There are those who strive to pass a day without eating and who abstain from meat; we, too, have our strivings and abstainings, namely, from evil thoughts, and evil words, and evil deeds. Other religions prescribe fasting from bread; ours enjoins fasting from sin."
The Brahmans maintained that the man who died without a son went to perdition, because there was no one to pay him the traditional family worship; hence the necessity of adopting a son in case he had none of his own. The Levitical law, as we have already seen, compelled a man to take the wife of a deceased brother, who died childless, and raise up seed to him. In the Persian Rivâyats, or collections of traditions, similar matrimonial prescriptions are given. Thus, if a man over fifteen years of age dies childless and unmarried, his relations are to provide a maiden with a dowry and marry her to another man. Half of the children resulting from this union are to belong to the dead man and half of them to his proxy, the actual husband, and she herself is to be the dead man's wife in the next world. This kind of wife is called satar, "adopted." Again, if a widow, who has no children by her first husband, marries again, half of her children by the second husband are regarded as belonging to the first husband, and she also belongs to him in the future life; such a wife is called chakar, "serving." The first child of an only daughter belongs to her parents, if they have no sons, and they give her one third of their property in compensation. This kind of wife is called yukan, or "only child" wife. (Dr. E. W. West, Pahlavi Texts, in The Sacred Books of the East, vol. v, p. 143.) All these laws and customs show the vital importance attached to the possession of male offspring and to the preservation of an unbroken succession in the line of descent.
There are strong indications that the transition from pastoral to agricultural life in old Aryan society preceded the transformation of religious conceptions, and that the latter grew up gradually as a means of concentrating and more completely consolidating the former. In the second fargard of the Vendidâd a curious account is given of Yima, who lived before Zarathustra and is spoken of as a king rich in herds and a man of renown in Airyana-Vaêjô, the Eden of the race. It was this exalted personage whom Ahuramazda is said to have first chosen to be the promulgator of the true faith. But Yima, the son of Vivanghañt (a name derived perhaps from vangh, to dwell or abide, and meaning settler or dweller in fixed habitations), excused himself, on the plea of unfitness for the prophetic office. He may have been, like Moses, a man of deeds rather than of words, "slow of speech and of a slow tongue." Then said Ahuramazda, "If thou wilt not be the bearer and herald of the faith, then shalt thou inclose my habitations and become the protector and preserver of my settlements." Thereupon he gave him a golden plowshare and a goad decorated with gold as insignia of his royal office. [The word s'ufra I prefer to translate "plowshare" rather than "sword" with Haug, or "lance" with Spiegel. It means literally a cutting instrument. In the Avesta, plowing is called "cutting the cow"; and in the Vedic hymns the phrase "cut the cow" is equivalent to "make fertile the earth." "The soul of the cow" (gêush urvâ) means the spirit of the earth or the animating energy of Nature. In the Pahlavi translation of this passage s'ufra is rendered by sûlâk-homand, "having holes" or "sieve," and might therefore correspond to the Sanskrit s'ûrpa, "winnowing tray." The Pahlavi for plowshare is sûlâk, and the close resemblance of this word to sûlâk, "hole," modern Persian sûlâkh and sûrâkh, may have led to a confusion and interchange of terms, both of which involve the idea of piercing or perforating.]
And Yima bore sway three hundred years; and the land "was filled with cattle, oxen, men, dogs, birds, and red blazing fires," until there was no more room for them therein. Then Yima went southward (literally, "toward the stars on the noonday path of the sun"), and, invoking the bounteous Armaiti, touched the earth with the golden plowshare and pierced it with the goad; and, in obedience to his behest, the earth expanded and became one third larger than before. This process he repeated, according to the Zand, after six hundred years and again after nine hundred years, with a constantly increasing extension of the earth, which finally became about thrice its original size, and thus afforded ample space for men and kine.
It is not difficult to discover the meaning of this legend. It is the mythical statement of the effect of agriculture in practically enlarging the surface of the earth by increasing its capacity for supporting animal life, and thus rendering it possible for a greater number of persons to subsist on the products of the same area of soil. A tract of country which would furnish precarious food for a single hunter, or pasturage for a score of herdsmen, would, even under rude tillage, easily supply sustenance for a hundred husbandmen. Indeed, it has been estimated that one acre of arable land will bring forth as much food and consequently sustain as many inhabitants as two thousand acres of hunting ground.
In the fullness of time Yima was succeeded by the man who, like Aaron, could "speak well," and in the first Gâtha we find an address which Zarathustra delivered to his countrymen congregated around the sacred fire. It begins as follows: "I will now reveal to you who are here assembled the wise words of Mazda, the worship of Ahura, the hymns in praise of the good spirit, the sublime truth, which I see rising out of the sacred flames." He then appeals to them as the "offspring of renowned ancestors" to rouse their minds and give heed to his divine message: "To-day, O men and women, you should choose your creed."
After this brief exordium, he plunges at once into his subject and offers his solution of the old and ever-puzzling problem of good and evil, which he personifies as twin spirits, counter-workers in the creation of the world, each exercising its peculiar activity and contributing its characteristic element, and promoting respectively the happiness and the misery of mankind. It may also be safely asserted that, from a theistic point of view, no more logical and satisfactory solution of the difficulty has ever been presented. He earnestly exhorts his hearers to follow after the good and to eschew the evil. "Choose between these two spirits, for ye can not serve both." "Be pure and not vile." "Let us be such as help the life of the future." "Obey, therefore, the commandments which Mazda has proclaimed and enjoined upon mankind; for they are a snare and perdition to liars, but prosperity to the believer in the truth and the source of all bliss."
The whole aim of this discourse, of which these extracts suffice to indicate the drift, is to persuade his hearers to renounce or to confirm them in their renunciation of the old Aryan polytheism and worship of the devas, as we find it in the Vedas, and to adopt monotheism or the adoration of the one great and good but by no means omnipotent being, Ahuramazda. As a philosophical system, his doctrine was dualistic and recognized the existence of two original and independent principles in the universe; as a cult, it was monotheolatrous and worshiped only one of these powers.
It may be added that long before the close of the Vedic period the Indo-Aryans had also begun to devote themselves to husbandry, although their chief wealth still consisted in herds. The burden of their hymns and prayers to the gods is for much cattle and a large family of vigorous sons. The foes which they now had mostly to contend with were the Dasyus or aborigines of India. The occasional mention of Aryan enemies may be partly reminiscences or records of an earlier time and partly references to intertribal warfares, of which there was evidently no lack. It must be borne in mind that all the Vedic hymns appear to have been composed in northern India, and principally in the region now known as the Panjâb. In none of these poetical productions do we find any distinct remembrance of a trans-Himalayan origin or any definite allusion to a former residence outside of India. This circumstance proves that at the time of the supposed migration from the North the ancestors of the Indo-Aryans must have been rude barbarians, destitute not only of written records, but also of the ability to preserve and transmit from generation to generation traditions of great events in their own tribal or national history. The savage has a short memory for whatever lies beyond the sphere of his individual experience.
One of Zarathustra's chief injunctions was to "listen to the soul of the earth," and to "succor and foster the life of Nature." This is to be done by cultivating and fertilizing the soil; since the increase of its productivity augments the sum of vitality in the world and contributes to the ascendency of the voumanô or good mind, synonymous with vis vitalis or living force, and aids in securing the supremacy of Ahuramazda. Instead of bowing down in servile fear before the phenomena of Nature, the Mazdayasnians are directed to revere and cherish her kindly and beneficent spirit, so that "the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose."
Angrô-Mainyush and his satellites, the devas, on the other hand, are constantly striving to resist and to thwart this purpose and to keep the earth in her native state of virginal wildness and ruggedness by investing her with the dread sanctities and superstitions of a crude polytheistic physiolatry, by assaulting and ravaging the cultivated settlements of the Ahuryan agriculturists, and by fomenting and fostering the spirit of primeval savagery, personified as Akemmanô, or the evil mind. In the sacred books and traditions of both factions, and more especially in those of the reformatory party, are frequent traces of this social rupture and religious schism, and of the deadly hostility naturally existing between nomadic hordes, that still adhere to a life of pasturage and pillage, and men of more advanced ideas, who dwell in fixed habitations (gaêthas) and devote themselves to husbandry.
I am well aware that M. James Darmesteter and other representatives of what might be called the meteorological school of Avestan scholars deny the historical reality of a religious schism of the kind here described, and would reduce Zarathustra and all the incidents of his life to a series of solar myths. It is, however, only on the theory of a religious schism that the fact that the deities of Brahmanism are the devils of Zoroastrianism, and vice versa, can be adequately explained. To assert that this antagonism is the result of an "accidental selection" of gods is no explanation at all. The religious history of mankind is not a record of casualties or mere chapter of accidents.
Besides, we have a modern example of a similar enmity growing out of the transition from nomadic to sedentary life in the mythology of the Dards, who are, perhaps, one of the oldest races and most primitive peoples of the East, and who believe in the existence of demons called yatsh (bad), which, like the Homeric Cyclops (the barbarous aborigines of the Sicilian coast), are of gigantic stature, and have only one eye, set in the middle of their forehead. These demons haunt the mountains and the wilderness, and are exceedingly hostile to agriculturists, whom they vex and harm in every possible manner, stealing and destroying the crops, and even carrying off the husbandmen to their gloomy caverns. In this scrap of mythology we have the survival of the old strife between barbarism and civilization, which began with man's first efforts to improve his condition.
The barbarian is, in fact, the most uncompromising incarnation and typical representative of conservatism; and it is the survival of the barbarian temper of mind that constantly hampers progress and hinders reform in modern times. His daily life is the dullest routine and would be unbearable, were it not the outcome and expression of the general rigidity and sterility of his intellect. He treads religiously in the footsteps of his forefathers, generation after generation, the whole mass moving on bodily and mentally in single file, as is the custom with savages. He is the stubborn foe of all innovations, and punishes as treason against the tribe every deviation from the beaten trail. Under such circumstances no social transformation can be effected without fierce battle and bloodshed. In the primitive history of mankind, as in the early physical history of the globe, great changes are uniformly the result of great convulsions.
It is not merely the love of booty that leads nomadic tribes to attack and lay waste the permanent settlements of husbandmen, but the instinct of self-preservation resisting the encroachments of a new form of social organization which imperils the old. For this reason hunters are hostile to herdsmen, and herdsmen to tillers of the soil; since pasturage diminishes the extent and value of hunting grounds, and agriculture diminishes the area of pasturage.
Mr. D. Mackenzie Wallace gives a striking illustration of this antagonism in the history of the Cossacks of the Don, who, so long as they lived by sheep-farming and marauding, prohibited agriculture under pain of death. This severe interdict of a peaceful pursuit originated, not as some have supposed in the desire to foster the warlike spirit of the people, but rather in a perception of the fact that "the man who plowed up a bit of land infringed thereby on his neighbor's right of pasturage." By this act he became in a certain sense guilty of treason against pastoral society, the very foundations of which, the green sod, he broke up and destroyed with his plowshare. He not only restricted and reduced the actual area of grazing, but also struck a blow at the life of a cattle-rearing community. The practical workings of this crude and clannish conception of patriotism are recorded, as Mr. Wallace observes, on the pages of Byzantine annalists and old Russian chroniclers, who describe the periodical havoc of farmsteads committed by the nomadic tribes which from time immemorial had roamed the vast plains north of the Black and Caspian Seas, razing the houses, ravaging the fields, and leaving the bodies of the husbandmen as food for vultures.
The roving Bedouins, dwellers in the desert, as their name implies, despise the cultivators of the soil and call them contemptuously fellahin (plowers, boors); and their kinsmen the Anasis (anâsî, men) hover on the borders and levy blackmail on the villages of Syria. It is also significant for the persistency of this primitive point of view that the Arabic word for agriculture (falâhat), should also mean "fraudulent traffic," as though the permanent possession of a piece of land and the exclusive use or sale of the products of the soil were in themselves swindling operations.
These facts of to-day suffice to show the kind of opposition which Zarathustra had to face in his efforts to establish the Iranians in fixed settlements and to accustom them to the acquisition and proper utilization of landed property. In order to accomplish this purpose it was necessary to teach the holiness of husbandry and to invest seedtime and harvest with the sanctity of religion.
The Mormons, after their migration to Salt Lake, where the very existence of the community depended upon converting the desert into a garden, inaugurated the same policy, declaring through the mouth of their prophet that the human race could be redeemed and paradise regained only by means of tillage and making agriculture a sacred vocation and the pursuit of it a prominent part of their creed.
The priests of the old deva cult, the progenitors of the Brahmans, on the other hand denounced Zarathustra as a schismatic and a renegade, a contemner of the gods and blasphemer, a scorner of ancient custom and subverter of social order. They therefore opposed the innovation and fought for the faith of their fathers with such clumsy weapons as they were most skilled in wielding, looting the homesteads, uprooting and trampling down the green blades of wheat and barley, which stood as representatives of the growing heresy, and, with a logic peculiar to theological zealots and ecclesiastical inquisitors in all ages, refuting the new doctrine and resisting the reformatory movement by greater energy and assiduity in the ancient and honorable calling of cattle-lifting.
As we have already seen, the duty of a man to shield and sustain a tribesman against an alien under all circumstances is imperative. Acts of extortion, treachery, or violence, which would be punished by death if committed against a member of the same tribe, are regarded as indifferent or laudable when the injured person is a foreigner. The same tendency to approve or to extenuate the bad conduct of "brethren" enters also more or less into the ethics of communities or collective bodies which are held together by the bond of belief.
All people in a low state of civilization have a strong prejudice against lending money on interest, and look upon all such transactions as sinful. The same notion still prevails among the lower classes of civilized nations, whose superstitions are in most cases mere survivals of savage life. So strong is this feeling, inculcated and consecrated by religious teachings and traditions, that a certain stigma attaches to the money broker even in the minds of otherwise intelligent persons. "Many lend money on interest," says Cato, "but it is not honorable to do so. Our ancestors enacted in their laws that the thief should restore twofold, but the taker of interest fourfold, from which we see how much worse a usurer was thought to be than a thief."
In general, however, usury, like every other supposed crime, was regarded as wrong only when applied to kindred or tribesmen. The Jews were forbidden to "take a breed of barren metal" from those of their own faith, but might exact it from Gentiles. Curiously enough, in the middle ages this privilege was granted to the Jews, not in the spirit of favoritism, but as a necessity to sovereigns and to society and from feelings of utter scorn and contempt. As neither government nor trade could do without this vilely esteemed vocation, the Jews were selected to carry it on, because they were considered a vile people incapable alike of improvement or of deeper degradation. The state and the Church, which felt an interest in the spiritual welfare and safety of the Christian, were wholly indifferent to the future fate of the Jew. That sweet saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, surnamed the honeyflowing teacher (doctor mellifluus), urged the rulers of his day to tolerate the Jews, not because he hated persecution, but in order that Christians might not be constrained to imperil the salvation of their souls by the sin of usury. The Israelitic pariahs of mediæval society rendered the same service to Christian virtue that professional prostitutes do to female chastity. We have a striking illustration of this point of view in a decree issued in 1219, by the German emperor Frederick III, permitting the Jews to dwell in Nuremberg and to take a percentage for the use of money. Inasmuch as this business, he said in justification of his edict, is essential to the growth of commerce and the prosperity of the city, it will be a lesser evil and wrong for Jews to practice usury than for Christians, since the former are a stubborn and stiffnecked race, and, if they persist in their perversity, as they probably will do, are doomed to be damned anyhow.
The Hebrew, on the other hand, heartily reciprocated the Christian's contumely, and could hardly conceal, under the prudent disguise of mock humility, his disdain for the upstart Nazarene. He not only deemed it a religious duty to cheat him in money matters, but thought it perfectly right to use him as an agent in base or criminal transactions which a good Israelite could not conscientiously perform.
This mental and moral attitude, which even the modern Hebrew still maintains, is strikingly exemplified by the following incident: Between 1820 and 1830 a band of burglars, numbering over one hundred persons and consisting entirely of Jews, made property so unsafe as to create a panic among the inhabitants of the Prussian provinces of Posen and Brandenburg. The chief of the band was a certain Loewenthal in Berlin, and all the members of it were extremely devout attendants of the synagogue and strict observers of every jot and tittle of the Levitical law. They never broke into the houses of Jews and never stole on the Sabbath, since such an act would be a desecration of the sacred "day of rest"; but, rather than let an exceptionally favorable opportunity escape, they sometimes employed a so-called schabbesgoï [schabbesgoï (Sabbath-Gentile) is a Jew-German term for the Christian attendant or servant who does for an Israelite on the Sabbath the things which his religion forbids him to do for himself] to commit the crime for them, and, if necessary, did not hesitate to have some one of their own number accompany him on his burglarious expedition a couple of thousand yards or so, the limits of a Sabbath day's journey. In case one of the band was suspected of any particular offense and arrested, the surest and speediest way of clearing himself was to prove an alibi by the testimony of two witnesses, as the law required. But the pious Hebrew regards perjury with peculiar abhorrence, and fears above all things to take a false oath. Shylock was eager to cut the heart out of his hated enemy, but he would not lay perjury upon his soul—no, not for Venice! The burglars kept, therefore, in their pay two Christians, who were as ready to forswear themselves as any Tammany Hall politician at the polls, and who made the requisite false oaths at fixed rates.
These examples serve to show the natural tendency of mankind to look upon compatriots and coreligionists from a different moral standpoint from that with which they regard persons who are not connected with them by such ties, and to whom they not only attribute a lower standard of right and wrong, but also act upon it as a rule of conduct in dealing with them.
Great dissimilarity in physical characteristics intensifies the ethical estrangement caused by differences of blood and of belief. The more any tribes of men deviate from ourselves in form and feature, the less we are inclined to think of them as endowed with the same powers and passions, the same kind of sympathy and sensibility as ourselves, or as entitled to the same rights that we possess. A people with black skin, woolly hair, flat noses, and countenances of a strongly prognathous character do not enlist our kindly feelings and awaken our affections in the same manner and degree as representatives of a fair-complexioned and finely featured type would do. The schemes of European governments and of private individuals and corporations for the exploration, partition, and colonization of Africa are based upon the assumption that the Africans themselves have no claim to the continent which they inhabit. The only African colony that has ever been founded on principles of common justice and with a full recognition of the rights of the natives is the Republic of Liberia, established more than sixty years ago under the auspices of the United States, and this was done solely for the sake of getting rid of an undesirable population of free negroes at home. All the other enterprises of this sort are morally and legally no better than buccaneering expeditions.
The ethical maxims which we are wont to accept as axiomatic in our mutual relations as civilized individuals and nations are too easily set aside as inconvenient and inapplicable to our dealings with the so-called lower races. The fatal facility with which under such circumstances enlightened Europeans of the nineteenth century may revert to primitive savagery as soon as the outward restraints of civilization are removed is seen in the early settlers of Australia, who did not scruple to shoot the defenseless and harmless aborigines as they would any game, and feed the carcasses to their hounds. The inoffensive and rather feeble-bodied Negritos were treated as beasts of venery, which could be hunted without danger and furnished plentiful supplies of dog's meat, costing the sportsman nothing, not even a pang of conscience, only the price of a cartridge. (Cf. Schaafhausen, in The Anthropological Review, London, 1869, p. 368.)
More recent and even more revolting exemplifications of this tendency to relapse in barbarism are the atrocities committed by Major Barttelot, and the conduct of Mr. Jameson, of Stanley's Emin-Relief Expedition, who purchased a young negro girl and gave her to a horde of cannibals in order to make sketches from life of the manner in which she was torn in pieces and devoured.
There are also instances on record of Englishmen, Dutchmen, and Frenchmen who in their warfare with Indians adopted from their savage foes the custom of scalping and torturing their captives. In fact, as Waitz has shown in his Anthropolgy (iii, 174), there is scarcely a vice of barbarous tribes which Europeans when removed from the restrains of civilization have not practiced. In the South Sea islands they have in some cases become anthropophagous.
Here we are suddenly brought face to face with the depressing fact that men, who are heirs to ages of intellectual culture and armed with all the powers and possibilities of good and evil which modern science has put into their hands, yet relapse morally to the level of rude cave dwellers and contemporaries of the mammoth in making their superiority of mental endowment and material equipment minister to deeds and passions worthy of the lowest stage of barbarism.
All emigration to wild regions is, in a greater or less degree, atavistic in its effects, and, by loosening or removing the many leading strings of association by which the average man is kept in an upright position and a straightforward course, lets him fall back and retrograde, and thus tends to bring him nearer to his flint-chipping neolithic ancestor. It throws each individual upon his own ethical resources by releasing him from the constant though hardly conscious social pressure of an environment which is the resultant of long periods of human progress, and by which alone the masses of so-called civilized nations are prevented from relapsing into the original condition of the race.
Happily, however, such extreme cases of moral reversion as those of the early emigrants to Australia and the recent explorers of Africa are only sporadic, and the ubiquity of humane and enlightened public opinion arising from greater frequency and rapidity of international intercourse, and causing its immediate influence to be felt in the remotest and roughest border lands of savage and civilized life, will render them still rarer in the future. The telegraph and the telephone are making it daily more difficult and will eventually make it impossible for the most pushing pioneer wholly to lose communication with the advancing body of organized forces behind him, or to break away from the control of that community of impulses and purposes, and that consensus of moral ideas and perceptions, which we call public conscience. This influence is beginning to penetrate even the darkest regions of Central Africa and to protect the unknown barbaric tribes against the ravages of Arab slave traders and the arbitrary authority of European adventurers. Each nation that joins in this combined movement is doubtless seeking, first of all, to further its own commercial and colonial interests; but it suffices as an illustration of the prevailing spirit of the age that the basis on which they profess to unite is the broad principle of a common humanity.
- See Popular Science Monthly, January, 1894.
- [We have referred to this characteristic decree in The Popular Science Monthly for December, 1891, p. 176, in illustration of another subject.]