CHAPTER IX. RELIGION AND MORALITY—CONCLUSION
Roman, Gods, Character, Rome, Life, Relation
It might be said that a religion—the expression of man's relation to the unseen—has not necessarily any connection with morality—man's action in himself and towards his neighbours: that an individual—or even a nation—might perfectly fulfil the duties imposed by the 'powers above,' without being influenced in conduct and character. Such a view might seem to find an apt illustration in the religion of Rome: the ceremonial pietas towards the gods appears to have little to do with the making of man or nation. But in the history of the world the test of religions must be their effect on the character of those who believed in them: religion is no doubt itself an outcome of character, but it reacts upon it, and must either strengthen or weaken. We are not therefore justified in dismissing the 'Religion of Numa' without inquiry as to its relation to morality, for on our answer to that question must largely depend our judgment as to its value.
We are of course in a peculiarly difficult position to grapple with this problem through lack of contemporary evidence. The Rome we know, in the epochs when we can fairly judge of character and morality, was not the Rome in which the 'Religion of Numa' had grown up and remained unquestioned: it had been overlaid with foreign cults and foreign ideas, had been used by priests and magistrates as a political instrument, and discounted among the educated through the influence of philosophy. But we may remember in the first place that even then, especially in the household and in the country, the old religion had probably a much firmer hold than one might imagine from literary evidence, in the second that national character is not the growth of a day, so that we may safely refer permanent characteristics to the period when the old religion held its own.
It may be admitted at once that the direct influence on morality was very small indeed. There was no table of commandments backed by the religious sanction: the sense of 'sin,' except through breach of ritual, was practically unknown. It is true that in the very early leges regiae some notion of this kind is seen—a significant glimpse of what the original relation may have been: it is there ordained that the patron who betrayed his client, or the client who deceived his patron, shall be condemned to Iuppiter; the parricide to the spirits of his dead ancestors, the husband who sells his wife to the gods of the underworld, the man who removes his neighbour's landmark to Terminus, the stealer of corn to Ceres. All these persons shall be sacri: they have offended against the gods and the gods will see to their punishment. But these are old-world notions which soon passed into the background and the state took over the punishment of such offenders in the ordinary course of law. Nor again in the prayers of men to gods is there a trace of a petition for moral blessings: the magistrate prays for the success and prosperity of the state, the farmer for the fertility of his crops and herds, even the private individual, who suspends his votive-tablet in the temple, pays his due for health or commercial success vouchsafed to himself or his relations. 'Men call Iuppiter greatest and best,' says Cicero, 'because he makes us not just or temperate or wise, but sound and healthy and rich and wealthy.' Still less, until we come to the moralists of the Empire, is there any sense of that immediate and personal relation of the individual to a higher being, which is really in religion, far more than commandments and ordinances, the mainspring and safeguard of morality: even the conception of the Genius, the 'nearest' perhaps of all unseen powers, had nothing of this feeling in it, and it may be significant that, just because of his nearness to man, the Genius never quite attained to god-head. As far as direct relation is concerned, religion and morality were to the Roman two independent spheres with a very small point of contact.
Nor even in its indirect influence does the formal observance of the Roman worship seem likely at first sight to have done much for personal or national morality. Based upon fear, stereotyped in the form of a legal relationship, religio—'the bounden obligation'—made, no doubt, for a kind of conscientiousness in its adherents, but a cold conscientiousness, devoid of emotion and incapable of expanding itself to include other spheres or prompt to a similar scrupulousness in other relations. The rigid and constant distinction of sacred and profane would incline the Roman to fulfil the routine of his religious duty and then turn, almost with a sigh of relief, to the occupations of normal life, carrying with him nothing more than the sense of a burden laid aside and a pledge of external prosperity. Even the religious act itself might be without moral significance: as we have seen, the worshipper might be wholly ignorant of the character, even the name of the deity he worshipped, and in any case the motive of his action was naught, the act itself everything. Nor again had the Roman religion any trace of that powerful incentive to morality, a doctrine of rewards and punishments in a future life: the ideas as to the fate of the dead were fluctuating and vague, and the Roman was in any case much more interested in their influence on himself than in their possible experiences after death.
The divorce then between religion and morality seems almost complete and it is not strange that most modern writers speak of the Roman religion as a tiresome ritual formalism, almost wholly lacking in ethical value. And yet it did not present itself in this light to the Romans themselves. Cicero, sceptic as he was, could speak of it as the cause of Rome's greatness; Augustus, the practical politician, could believe that its revival was an essential condition for the renaissance of the Roman character. Have we, in our brief examination of its characteristics, seen any features which may suggest the solution of this apparent antagonism? Was there in this formalism a life which escapes us, as we handle the dry bones of antiquarianism?
In the first place there may be a danger that we underrate the value of formalism itself. It spells routine, but routine is not without value in the strengthening of character. The private citizen, who conscientiously day by day had carried out the worship of his household gods and month by month observed the sacred abstinence from work on the days of festival, was certainly not less fitted to take his place as a member of a strenuous and well-organised community, or to serve obediently and quietly in the army on campaign. Even the magistrate in the execution of his religious duties must have acquired an exactness and method, which would not be valueless in the conduct of public business. And when we pass to the origin of this formalism—the legal relation—the connection with the Roman character becomes at once more obvious. The 'lawgivers of the world,' who developed constitution and code to a systematised whole such as antiquity had not dreamed of before, imported, we may say if we like, their legal notions into the sphere of religion: but we must not forget the other side of the question. The permanence and success of this greater contract with higher powers—the feeling that the gods did regard and reward exact fulfilment of duty—cannot have been without re-action on the relations of the life of the community: it was, as it were, a higher sanction to the legal point of view: a pledge that the relations of citizen and state too were rightly conceived. 'There is,' says Cicero, speaking of the death of Clodius in the language of a later age, 'there is a divine power which inspired that criminal to his own ruin: it was not by chance that he expired before the shrine of the Bona Dea, whose rites he had violated': the divine justice is the sanction of the human law. Even in the fear, from which all ultimately sprang, there was a training in self-repression and self-subordination, which in a more civilised age must result in a valuable respect and obedience. The descendants of those who had made religion out of an attempt to appease the hostile numina, feeling themselves not indeed on more familiar terms with their 'unknown gods,' but only perhaps a little more confident of their own strength, were not likely to be wanting in a disciplined sense of dependence and an appreciation of the value of respect for authority, which alone can give stability to a constitution. If fear with the Romans was not the beginning of theological wisdom, it was yet an important contribution to the character of a disciplined state.
But, as I have hinted in the course of this sketch more than once, the answer to this problem, as well as the key to the general understanding of the Roman religion, is to be found in the worship of the household. If we knew more of it, we should see more clearly where religion and morality joined hands, but we know enough to give us a clue. There not only are the principal events of life, birth, adolescence, marriage, attended by their religious sanction, but in the ordinary course of the daily round the divine presence and the dependence of man are continually emphasised. The gods are given their portion of the family meal, the sanctified dead are recalled to take their share of the family blessings. The result was not merely an approach—collectively, not individually—to that sense of the nearness of the unseen, which has so great an effect on the actions of the living, but a very strong bond of family union which lay at the root of the life of the state. It would be difficult to find a clearer expression of the notion than in the fact that the same word pietas, which expresses the due fulfilment of man's duty to god, is also the ideal of the relations of the members of a household: filial piety was, in fact, but another aspect of that rightness of relation, which reveals itself in the worship of the gods. No doubt that, in the city-life of later periods, this ideal broke down on both sides: household worship was neglected and family life became less dutiful. But it was still, especially in the country, the true backbone of Roman society, and no one can read the opening odes of Horace's third book without feeling the strength of Augustus' appeal to it.
And if we translate this, as we have learned to do, into terms of the state, we can get some idea of what the Romans meant by their debt to their religion. As the household was bound together by the tie of common worship, as in the intermediate stage the clan, severed politically and socially, yet felt itself reunited in the gentile rites, so too the state was welded into a whole by the regularly recurring annual festivals and the assurance of the divine sanction on its undertakings. It might be that in the course of time these rites lost their meaning and the community no longer by personal presence expressed its service to the gods, but the cult stood there still, as the type of Rome's union to the higher powers and a guarantee of their assistance against all foes: the religion of Rome was, as it has been said, the sanctification of patriotism—the Roman citizen's highest moral ideal. It has been remarked, perhaps with partial truth, that the religion of the Æneid—in many ways a summary of Roman thought and feeling—is the belief in the fata Romae and their fulfilment. The very impersonality of this conception makes it a good picture of what religion was in the Roman state. It was not, as with the Jews, a strong conviction of the rightness of their own belief and a certainty that their divine protectors must triumph over those of other nations, but a feeling of the constant presence of some spirits, who, 'if haply they might find them,' would, on the payment of their due, bear their part in the great progress of right and justice and empire on which Rome must march to her victory. It was the duty of the citizen, with this conception of his city before his eyes, to see to it that the state's part in the contract was fulfilled. From his ancestors had been inherited the tradition, which told him the when, where, and how, and in the preservation of that tradition and its due performance consisted at once Rome's duty and her glory. 'If we wish,' says Cicero, 'to compare ourselves with other nations, we may be found in other respects equal or even inferior; in religion, that is in the worship of the gods, we are far superior.' The religion of Rome may not have advanced the theology or the ethics of the world, but it made and held together a nation.
|Written By Cyril Bailey|