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Among Famous Books

Among Famous Books
Author: Kelman John
Title: Among Famous Books
Release Date: 2006-04-02
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
Count views: 24
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Printed in 1912


The object of the following lectures is twofold. They were delivered inthe first place for the purpose of directing the attention of readers tobooks whose literary charm and spiritual value have made themconspicuous in the vast literature of England. Such a task, however,tends to be so discursive as to lose all unity, depending absolutelyupon the taste of the individual, and the chances of his experience inreading.

I have accordingly taken for the general theme of the book that constantstruggle between paganism and idealism which is the deepest fact in thelife of man, and whose story, told in one form or another, provides thematter of all vital literature. This will serve as a thread to givecontinuity of thought to the lectures, and it will keep them near tocentral issues.

Having said so much, it is only necessary to add one word more by way ofexplanation. In quest of the relations between the spiritual and thematerial, or (to put it otherwise) of the battle between the flesh andthe spirit, we shall dip into three different periods of time: (1)Classical, (2) Sixteenth Century, (3) Modern. Each of these has acharacter of its own, and the glimpses which we shall have of them oughtto be interesting in their own right. But the similarity between thethree is more striking than the contrast, for human nature does notgreatly change, and its deepest struggles are the same in allgenerations.



The Gods of Greece


Marius the Epicurean


The Two Fausts


Celtic Revivals of Paganism


John Bunyan


Pepys' Diary


Sartor Resartus


Pagan Reactions


Mr. G.K. Chesterton's Point of View


The Hound of Heaven

[Pg 1]



It has become fashionable to divide the rival tendencies of modernthought into the two classes of Hellenistic and Hebraistic. The divisionis an arbitrary and somewhat misleading one, which has done less thanjustice both to the Greek and to the Hebrew genius. It has associatedGreece with the idea of lawless and licentious paganism, and Israel withthat of a forbidding and joyless austerity. Paganism is an interestingword, whose etymology reminds us of a time when Christianity had won thetowns, while the villages still worshipped heathen gods. It is difficultto define the word without imparting into our thought of it the idea ofthe contrast between Christian dogma and all other religious thought andlife. This, however, would be an extremely unfair account of the matter,and, in the present volume, the word will be used without referenceeither to nationality or to creed, and it will stand for thematerialistic and earthly[Pg 2] tendency as against spiritual idealism of anykind. Obviously such paganism as this, is not a thing which has died outwith the passing of heathen systems of religion. It is terribly alive inthe heart of modern England, whether formally believing or unbelieving.Indeed there is the twofold life of puritan and pagan within us all. Arecent well-known theologian wrote to his sister: "I am naturally acannibal, and I find now my true vocation to be in the South SeaIslands, not after your plan, to be Arnold to a troop of savages, but tobe one of them, where they are all selfish, lazy, and brutal." It isthis universality of paganism which gives its main interest to such astudy as the present. Paganism is a constant and not a temporary orlocal phase of human life and thought, and it has very little to do withthe question of what particular dogmas a man may believe or reject.

Thus, for example, although the Greek is popularly accepted as the typeof paganism and the Christian of idealism, yet the lines of thatdistinction have often been reversed. Christianity has at times becomehard and cold and lifeless, and has swept away primitive nationalidealisms without supplying any new ones. The Roman ploughman must havemissed the fauns whom he had been accustomed to expect in the thicket atthe end[Pg 3] of his furrow, when the new faith told him that these werenothing but rustling leaves. When the swish of unseen garments besidethe old nymph-haunted fountain was silenced, his heart was left lonelyand his imagination impoverished. Much charm and romance vanished fromhis early world with the passing of its pagan creatures, and indeed itis to this cause that we must trace the extraordinarily far-reaching andvaried crop of miraculous legends of all sorts which sprang up in earlyCatholic times. These were the protest of unconscious idealism againstthe bare world from which its sweet presences had vanished.

"In th' olde dayes of the King Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;
This was the olde opinion, as I rede.
But now can no man see none elves mo.
For now the grete charitee and prayeres
Of limitours and othere holy freres,

This maketh that there been no fayeryes.
For ther as wont to walken was an elf,
Ther walketh now the limitour himself."

Against this impoverishment the human revolt was inevitable, and itexplains the spirit in such writers as Shelley and Goethe. Children ofnature, who love the sun and the grass, and are at home[Pg 4] upon the earth,their spirits cry for something to delight and satisfy them, nearer thanspeculations of theology or cold pictures of heaven. Wordsworth, in hisfamous lines, has expressed the protest in the familiar words:—

"Great God, I'd rather be
A Pagan, suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn."

The early classic thought which found its most perfect expression in themythology of Greece was not originally or essentially pagan. It washumanistic, and represented the response of man's spirit to that freeand beautiful spirit which he found in nature around him. All suchsymbolism of Greek religion as that of the worship of Dionysus andCeres, shows this. In these cults the commonest things of life, the wineand corn wherewith man sustained himself, assumed a higher and richermeaning. Food and drink were not mere sensual gratifications, but divinegifts, as they are in the twenty-third Psalm; and the whole materialworld was a symbol and sacrament of spiritual realities and blessings.Similarly the ritual of Eleusis interpreted man's common life into awonderful world of mystic spirituality. Thus there was a great fund ofspiritual insight[Pg 5] of the finest and most beautiful sort in the veryheart of that life which has thoughtlessly been adopted as the type ofpaganism.

Yet the history of Greece affords the explanation and even thejustification of the popular idea. The pagan who is in us all, tendsever to draw us downwards from sacramental and symbolic ways of thinkingto the easier life of the body and the earth. On the one hand, for bloodthat is young and hot, the life of sense is overwhelming. On the otherhand, for the weary toiler whose mind is untrained, the impression ofthe world is that of heavy clay. Each in his own way finds idealismdifficult to retain. The spirituality of nature floats like a dreambefore the mind of poets, and is seen now and then in wistful glimpsesby every one; but it needs some clearer and less elusive form, as wellas some definite association with conscience, if it is to be defendedagainst the pull of the green earth. It has been well said that, for theGreek, God was the view; but when the traveller goes forward into theview, he meets with many things which it is dangerous to identify withGod. For the young spirit of the early times the temptation toearthliness was overwhelming. The world was fair, its gates were open,and its barriers all down. Men took from literature and from religionjust as much of[Pg 6] spirituality as they understood and as little as theydesired, and the effect was swift and inevitable in that degenerationwhich reached its final form in the degraded sensuality of the laterRoman Empire.

The confusing element in all such inquiry lies in the fact that one cannever get an unmixed paganism nor a perfect idealism. Just as the claimsof body and spirit are in our daily life inextricably interwoven, so theGreek thought hung precariously between the two, and was always more orless at the mercy of the individual interpreter and of the relativestrength of his tastes and passions. So we shall find it all through thecourse of these studies. It would be preposterous to deny some sort ofidealism to almost any pagan who has ever lived. The contrast betweenpagan and idealist is largely a matter of proportion and preponderatingtendency: yet the lines are clear enough to enable us to work with thisdistinction and to find it valuable and illuminating.

The fundamental fact to remember in studying any of the myths of Greeceis, that we have here a composite and not a simple system of thought andimagination. There are always at least two layers: the primitive, andthe Olympian which came later. The primitive conceptions were thoseafforded by the worship of ghosts, of dead persons, and of animals. MissJane Harrison has pointed out in[Pg 7] great detail the primitive elementswhich lingered on through the Olympian worship. Perhaps the moststriking instance which she quotes is the Anthesteria, or festival offlowers, at the close of which the spirits were dismissed with theformula, "Depart, ye ghosts, the revels now are ended." Mr. Andrew Langhas suggested that the animals associated with gods and goddesses (suchas the mouse which is found in the hand, or the hair, or beside the feetof the statues of Apollo, the owl of Minerva, etc.) are relics of theearlier worship. This would satisfactorily explain much of thedisreputable element which lingered on side by side with the noblethoughts of Greek religion. The Olympians, a splendid race of gods,representing the highest human ideals, arrived with the Greeks; but forthe sake of safety, or of old association, the primitive worship wasretained and blended with the new. In the extreme case of humansacrifice, it was retained in the form of surrogates—little woodenimages, or even actual animals, being sacrificed in lieu of the oldervictims. But all along the line, while the new gods brought theirspiritual conceptions, the older ones held men to a cruder and morefleshly way of thinking. There is a similar blend of new and old in allsuch movements as that of the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legends,where we can see[Pg 8] the combination of Christian and pagan elements soclearly as to be able to calculate the moral and spiritual effect ofeach. Thus we have in the early Greek mythology much of real paganisminvolved in the retention of the old and earth-bound gods which attachedthemselves to the nobler Olympians as they came, and dragged them downto the ancient level.

This blending may be seen very clearly in the mythology of Homer andHesiod. There it has been so thorough that the only trace ofsuperposition which we can find is the succession of the dynasties ofChronos and Jupiter. The result is the most appalling conception of themorality of celestial society. No earthly state could hope to continuefor a decade upon the principles which governed the life of heaven; andman, if he were to escape the sudden retributions which must inevitablyfollow anything like an imitation of his gods, must live more decentlythan they.

Now Homer was, in a sense, the Bible of the Greeks, and as societyimproved in morals, and thought was directed more and more fearlesslytowards religious questions, the puzzle as to the immoralities of thegods became acute.

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