1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Pagan Immorality in the Early Christian Era

(Part 16)

Pagan Immorality in the Early Christian Era

It is almost impossible for us to realize how powerfully paganism acted upon the general morality of the great peoples of antiquity and encouraged all manner of lawlessness and indecency. In the time of the later republic and of the early empire we have the spectacle of Roman law and philosophy powerless to restrain the brutal and obscene passions of the people excited by the influence of the popular religion, even when they had ceased to regard it as an intelligible creed. All paganism is at bottom a worship of Nature in some form or other, and in all pagan religions the deepest and most awe-inspiring attribute of nature was its power of reproduction. The mystery of birth and becoming was the deepest mystery of nature; it lay at the root of all thoughtful paganism and appeared in various forms, some of a more innocent, others of a most debasing type. To ancient pagan thinkers, as well as to modern men of science, the key to the hidden secret of the origin and preservation of the universe lay in the mystery of sex. Two energies or agents, one an active and generative, the other a feminine, passive, or susceptible one, were every-where thought to combine for creative purpose, and heaven and earth, sun and moon, day and night, were believed to co-operate to the production of being. Upon some such basis as this rested almost all the polytheistic worship of the old civilization, and to it may be traced back, stage by stage, the separation of divinity into male and female gods, the deification of distinct powers of nature, and the idealization of man's own faculties, desires, and lusts, where every power of his understanding was embodied as an object of adoration, and every impulse of his will became an incarnation of deity. But in each and every form of polytheism we find the slime-track of the deification of sex; "there is not a single one of the ancient religions which has not consecrated by some ceremonial rite even the grossest forms of sensual indulgence, while many of there actually elevated prostitution into a solemn service of religion." The corrupting influence of paganism entered into. The very essence of the social life of the Roman at the time when Christianity began its career. The thoughtful reader of contemporary literature cannot fail to observe how day by day the poison instilled itself into every nook and cranny of the social life of the people. "It met him in every incident of life, in business, in pleasure, in literature, in politics, in arms, in the theatres, in the streets, in the baths, at the games, in the decorations of his house, in the ornaments and service of his table, in the very conditions of the weather and the physical phenomena of nature. It is not easy to call up as a reality the intending sinner addressing to the deified vice which he contemplates a prayer for the success of his design; the adulteress imploring of Venus the favors of her paramour; the harlot praying for an increase of her sinful gains; the pander begging the protection of the goddess on her shameful trade; the thief praying to Hermes Dolios for aid in his enterprises, or offering up to him the first-fruits of his plunder; young maidens dedicating their girdles to Athene Apaturia; youths entreating Hercules to expedite the death of a rich uncle. And yet these things and far worse than these meet us over and over again in every writer who has left a picture of Roman manners in the later republic and under the beginning of the empire" (North Brit. Rev., vol. 47). When we turn to the writings of the early Christian Apologists we find them exposing in a scathing way this whole state of things and contrasting it with that moral law which is written by nature on the heart of men; and the pure lives of the Christians in the midst of this sea of iniquity had a wonderful effect. There is no contrast more wonderful than that which may be drawn between the grandeur .of Roman law and the debasement of the ordinary social life of the Roman people; but Roman law was founded much more on economic than on moral foundations.

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