Greece – Religion Of Beauty

THAT was indeed a wonderful epoch in Universal History when Religion and Beauty, when the spirit and the senses were united in a supreme world-embracing harmony. A most important epoch, too, it was; life became musical, its extremes touched and sent forth the thrill of sweetest notes, existence seemed a fountain of melody, welling up into song. The two great struggling principles of the human soul are the sensuous and the spiritual ; war, eternal war, has been declared between them, till this state of man is an everlasting field of battle, with the fight renewed hour by hour, and victory daily lost and won. Once, however, there was peace, universal peace between the two conflicting elements; a peace uttering itself in the noblest strains of song, in a joyous activity, in a serene worship. It is hardly more than a point in the sweep of Time, but that point gave expression to the harmony of the Universe; it was a music of the spheres in melodious conjunction; Religion was the worship of Beauty, and Beauty was the inspiration of Religion.

Whatever be the kind of religion, there are in it two factors the worshiper and the worshiped ; the man and the God. In some separation they at first are, vast and deep ; they stand off against one another, indifferent and often hostile. To bring the two sides together and make them harmonious, is the supreme act of worship, indeed of life; accursed is the man who has fallen out with his Gods. Such alienation is the unhappiest of all mortal states, the darkest and deepest chasm of the human heart. The harmonious relation between the Hu-man and Divine is the eternal verity of religion, the final test of its value for man; and we always ask, what discords of soul does this religion overcome, what melody does it reveal and utter in its worship, what reconciliation does it give between man and his God.

We would not say that there are no dissonant notes in the Greek world: there are such and in abundance. But in her worthy period, they seem to go out into melody; they pass over into sweet sounds which have been perpetuated in her song. Discords there are, but they do not remain; indeed deepest music springs from discord overcome ; the deeper the dissonance, the deeper the resultant harmony. That faculty of changing disruption of soul into equable well-attuned health, is peculiarly Greek ; dead and meaningless is music with-out tension, simplest reed pipe is more; song as well as worship must show victory over struggle the reconciliation after the conflict.

Accordingly we shall ask in the main two questions: What was the Greek God and what was the Greek worshiper? To comprehend the relation between these two is the final highest act of the Delphic sojourn; in it all the manifestations of Hellas center, from it they ray out in every direction. We must transform ourselves into that worshiper and adore the God with him, seeing and feeling what he saw and felt; thus we shall per-form for ourselves a sacred act in the appreciation of the Divine as it was manifested to some of the noblest souls of our race. For us, too, the Gods existed, if we be but willing to make them our own.

The first fact of the Divine in its Greek manifestation, is that the One breaks up into the Many, religion be-comes polytheistic. This is the most important consideration; not too much can we wrestle with its meaning. Multiplicity instead of unity is now the Divine Word; that is, there is a descent of deity into the world, an embodiment in manifold sensuous existence. There is a dropping down into the multiplicity of .Nature : God is no longer the One, Jehovah, far above all finitude, dwelling in heavenly sublimity. As such He is pure etherial spirit, freed from the earth and the earthly; an enormous unbridged chasm lies between Him and the world. But the divine soul has descended and taken possession of the sensuous world, has filled it in all its variety; thus the Divine has become many divinities, which hover below among men in some fond longing for their society.

So the old Greek felt when he went to worship : this deity has come down to me, has even my bodily shape ; in-deed a divine form may dwell in the brook, in the grove or mountain. He did not think of throwing away the sensuous side and elevating himself to the purely spiritual essence; that sensuous shape lies deep in the nature of the God, and through it alone can man come into relation with divinity. Thus all nature is lit with the Divine Soul, all the works of man are instinct with it, and man himself is to be its completest revelation; the world of Beauty springs into existence, being one too with the world of Religion.

The ineffable abstraction of deity thus becomes individual nay, a real, tangible shape. Gods are individualities, each with its own limits against the other ; such is Greek spirit everywhere, imaged in the Greek territory, in the Greek State, in the man, finally in Olympus itself. All proclaim, the divine substance is now individualized in the history of the world; in the Gods the Greek man beholds the image of his own profoundest being and aspiration. The essence of himself they are, of what he is,. and must be; he must realize them in his life, and for them suffer death. Greek polytheism means the rise of the individual as an abiding factor, not only in the World’s History, but in the complete culture of every human being.

Such was the stress laid by Greece upon the individual she loved him, fought for him, worshiped him, transfigured him at last to a God. Thus she made him eternal. The immortality of the individual is the gift of Greece to the race. Every statue of marble is an at-tempt to immortalize some phase of this spirit some deity, some hero, or perchance some man. In certain countries of the East were previous hints of this doctrine, notably in Egypt; but its fruition could only be iî Greece, where individuality is grasped as the primal germ of man’s spiritual nature, as divine and eternal. The body will pass away, but the individual spirit is an everlasting thing ; so the Greek body, the Greek State, Greek Olympus have long since disappeared, but their spirit lives to-day, being immortal, and therein a true prophecy of itself.

The Greek Gods, therefore, descend into the world and become many; but they must not be considered as mere natural objects or forces of Nature. They still re-main spiritual, are beings whose essence is intelligence in some form. They have a physical side, but even this physical side is to be filled with the divine soul, is in some sort to be a revelation of the deity. Yet the natural element must be present in the God, it is not a mere external sign or symbol, it is inseparable from the di-vine manifestation. The two worlds, the physical and spiritual, touched in the deity and were transformed into a new world of harmonious forms, that of Art.

It is true that the Greeks spoke of an antecedent time in their own development when the Gods were quite sunk in Nature, hardly more than physical appearances. But such Gods must be put down, the old Gods of Chaos ; hard was the struggle, this primal struggle of Greek spirit. It has been narrated by the poet Hesiod, and has already been considered in our journey, of which it is a very important part; it is the song of the rise of the spiritual out of the natural. Many of these old Gods were hurled down to gloomy Tartarus out of the way; others were still tolerated in certain dark corners of life, as the Furies; others continued to flit in the little by-ways of Nature, as the Nymphs ; but the true Greek world belongs to the new Gods, the Olympians.

Still the Greek religion remains polytheistic. It has purified itself of gross natural forms, it has elevated itself to spirit, but not to the unity of the Godhead. That can never be, the beautiful world of the Gods would then perish, there would be no Religion of Beauty. The happy mean must be preserved which delights in the revelation of the Divine through the senses; the war is not yet opened which is to drive out of the world the last remaining sensuous element, and smite to pieces the beautiful Gods. A dim mutter of it may be already heard in the background, still the Greek remained joyous even amid his forebodings.

The Gods are, therefore, many; Hellas would not be Hellas, if it had not many individuals in its Pantheon. Still, in spite of them there is one Divine essence in which all the Gods participate; does that deep-lurking thought never hover before the consciousness of the Greek ? When he speaks of the Gods, their unity comes out in the very instinct of his speech; he must consider them as having one thing in common, namely divinity, else they could not be Gods. Yes, he must feel that unity lying back of his present conception ; the One thus will start up before him, or float dimly in the distance. There it is, an ineradicable phase of human spirit; spectral it may appear to him, still it is a reality.

Such is, indeed, all intelligence in its innermost movement, though thwarted by man’s perversity. Let him assert the Half, it will insist upon being the Whole; let him, as at present, assert the Many, in the very assertion it will hint the One. Strangest, deepest of all human facts, the fundamental one of all mind; it is the key-note of history, of man’s development, the source of all movement; this it is, that the human spirit will not rest in a one-sided phase of itself, but demands its own completeness. Behold the process : a party arises which lives for a period by asserting a part, which may be well enough at such given date ; then it dies of a lie which is usually this, under many forms: our part or party is the Whole. Upon such an assertion it acts, ignoring or seeking to destroy the other part or party; this destruction of the other may indeed take place, still the Half cannot make itself the Whole ; the very attempt is self-destruction.

Of old this movement of mind was known to the Greek thinker; its most abstract phase is touched upon in his discussions. Plato called it the Dialectic, and its development of some given theme a Dialogue. Truest of all things for the Greek mind was Plato’s Dialectic of the One and the Many, now deemed a mere play of ingenuity; but in that play an entire world was involved. Therein the philosopher reveals the very soul of his nation in its purest essentiality, and at the same time shows a new stage of its development; he casts away the old revelation of Art as sullied too much with the senses, and exhibits Greek spirit viewing itself in its own stainless mirror of Thought. But Plato lies beyond the precincts of Delphi.

So we look eagerly for the traces of this feeling for the other Part, for the One, in Greek polytheism. Soon we come upon its faint suggestion and begin to recognize it; behold it, a dim far-off specter, ghostly in every sense. Many are the Gods, but there appears a shadowy hand behind them which holds them, or is already in some deadly struggle with them. Read Homer, the first and greatest Greek, creator of the Greek world ; even above his Zeus a dark necessity seems at times to hover, formless, uncontrollable, swooping down into the Olympian household and upsetting the plans of the Gods. At other times this dim power seems one with the might of Zeus, who thus becomes the one and supreme divinity. A veritable specter to the mind of the Greeks, standing back of their world; so it must remain while their time lasts. But that spec-ter will advance into the foreground and develop in-to the solidest reality; we saw it come down upon Greece at Chaeroneia, and sweep away the Olympian world. In many forms it hovered there in the Greek background; Fate the tragedians called it, and represented it as the outer unknown realm which enclosed every Grecian man and the Grecian State, thus making it the dark, awe-inspiring setting for their tragedies. Homer rather subjects Fate to Zeus, by conceiving both to be one at bottom ; yet even he is full of pre-monition of that which is to come; developed Hellas will be over-arched by that impenetrable brazen sky of Fate which at last will fall and crush all that is beneath it.

In such untoward way the One appears to the Greek world, spectral, fateful, threatening. Moreover it was conceived as formless in the main, while the happy Greek Gods had forms, beautiful forms standing in the clearest daylight. That supreme One cannot be formed, cannot have limits put upon it. No one can get the full consciousness of the Greek worshiper without this amorphous fatality eternally hovering over him, even over his Gods. It was the shudder he felt in his joy, it was the everlasting threat suspended over his life, his world; it was the God above his Gods, it was the One behind the Many and controlling them. Polytheism begets Fate.

Yet the strange thing to us is, that this condition did not produce unhappiness, but joy rather. The Grecian man accepted the event in full ; if it occurred, that was enough, it had a supreme right to be, whatever may have been his will in the matter. The fact is the divine reality with which he will not quarrel if it kills him; thus he retains his mood in spite of the Tartarean ray of Fate casting long shadows upon him and his world. Indeed he was more joyous than we can possibly be, just for the reason that Fate lay outside of him; thus he could internally free himself from its pressure, and remain serene, even mirthful. But we moderns have taken up Fate into ourselves; we have made it internal, and thus destroyed it; such is the Christian solution. Still we have its responsibility, its weight within our souls, where it must be fought and put down every day with struggle and sorrow.

This necessity is, therefore, the highest divine attribute; it must accordingly appear in the Greek Gods themselves. Mark its transition; it is the supreme influence of the Greek Pantheon, hence must enter every deity; hardly of that Pantheon it is, yet it cannot be excluded. Is not the conception of God one of power, indeed of all-power? But here is the supreme power; Fate is that highest might in which each Greek God must participate, if he be a God. This is his one divine element among many human elements, this constitutes his unity with divinity; take this away, and the Gods are merely human; are indeed no Gods. But as above all chance and partaking of this necessity, they are deities.

Thus Fate, the supreme One, descends into the God. Now can we find this characteristic in the divine expression ? Let us glance at the statues, and mark the main feature of their faces; a feature which they manifest in common. A look of the eternal, unchangeable, a look of Fate they all have amid their variety; human forms they possess, but transfigured to something above; they partake of an existence which is not transitory and temporal, which reaches beyond even themselves into an unseen world. They all have that look above, the look of Destiny; this is indeed the essence of Classic Art, and which no other Art has or can have that divine look above, the look of Fate. So we see the element of necessity manifesting itself in the divine and becoming its attribute, declaring, Thus must the God be and not otherwise. A gallery of antique sculpture has such a look even through Roman imitation; its chief interest is, that we may behold all these chiseled shapes having the one look, the look of Destiny.

The statue, though a reproduction of man’s physical body, has in it something far more ; indeed, the fact that it is not a copy of the human form, makes it what it is, namely a work of Art, a manifestation of the Divine in a sensuous shape. Mere imitation it is not; the distinctive thing is thus left out, which is the look of necessity, the serene elevation above the temporal. The actual man of flesh and blood has in him and around him the element of accident; his physical being is on all sides ex-posed to mutation ; the transitory is the very stamp of his life. The child of Time and Place, the sport of Chance, the victim of externalities such is the individual man by nature; but in this statuesque formation, or rather transformation, the phase of accident is stripped off, the caprices of Nature are gotten rid of, he is created anew by the Artist, every part of his frame has the image of necessity peering through the physical setting, the human form is transfigured into the Divine one.

Such, then, is the work of the Artist: to transmute the finite into the eternal; it still seems the earthly shape, yet everything earthly has been removed, made pure by Olympian fire. To have the eye which can see the true in these fleeting members, and embody the same in a marble shape which speaks of aught more lasting than marble, which has the look of Destiny it-self, belongs to the Artist, the God-compelling man, not Artist so much as Priest, as Revealer. The natural thus becomes the bearer of the spiritual, which is its supreme purpose in the world. Note again that the work of Art is not the copy of some model ; then the merely accidental features and natural elements would appear; it is the transformation of these into the image of the necessary, of the divine. So the Gods of Greece looked in their true realization. when they were the creation of faith, of the Religion of Beauty. That look above is the Ideal, filling the soul of every true seer, now the Artist ; with it, every limb becomes transparent and reveals the God. Later in time this faith was lost, Realism entered and the Ideal vanished from the marble Pantheon.

The great religious teacher of Greece, therefore, was the Artist, and his doctrine was the Religion of Beauty, not as an affected dilletantism, but as a profound, soul-inspiring faith. He revealed the Highest unto the worshiper with a sacred zeal; through his work alone the divinity was manifested. His gift was imagination, creative imagination, for he created the Gods, that is, revealed them. Recollect the statement of the pious old Historian, Herodotus, who says that the poets Hom-er and Hesiod gave to the Greeks their Gods; the same was true of Phidias the sculptor. The imagination catches the look of Destiny and fastens it into a face; thus it transmutes the human to the divine, nature to spirit; it fills the shape with the Ideal and makes it a work of Art. Yet to the Greek it was more, it was a God, a revelation of the world-governing power, and worthy of being worshiped; thus Art and Religion were inseparable, and there arose the Religion of Beauty. The great Revealer, too, was the Artist, who was truly the High Priest or the Interpreter of the God to men ; as Religion and Art fall together and become one, so do priest and artist.

Such is the twofold development of the Greek Pantheon; the Gods descending into the sensuous world for their manifestation become many individuals, each of whom participates in the divine essence, and thus looks back to the unity of them all. It is the One, this glimmer of the true God, from the outside threatening Olympus like Destiny, yet reflected in the face of every Greek deity. But the multiplicity remains the enduring fact, without it there could be no beautiful world, no Religion of Beauty ; with it Delphi alone becomes a beautiful world of these transfigured shapes, into which the Artist has put the look of the Divine One ; thousands upon thousands they stand, here, statues forming an Olympus of their own. Nature, too, comes to the front with her transformations; every object of hers is changed to an image, if not of marble, then of poetry, even more lasting than marble.

We may now turn to the second religious factor; the worshiper, and seek to enter into his feeling and thought as he approached his sanctuary. Worship is the act of the finite man elevating himself into harmony with the Divine; he feels the God dwelling within, and thus passes from alienation to unity with the Highest. The work of Art is the revelation of Divinity, in it deity descends into the world, and is reconciled with the world. Before the statue the worshiper appears, and is to make the harmony expressed in it his own, the harmony between the senses and spirit; thus his life will be in musical concert with the world around him. For that image of stone is to become internal, the worshiper is to transform it into spirit, to transform the hard marble; he is to make the God indwell his soul. Temple, too, is to go within him ; hence it is built with such care and beauty ; the finite man is raised to be the true temple of divinity.

As the Artist reveals the God, so the worshiper takes up the revelation and makes it his own ; makes it himself. The one forms the beautiful object, the other transforms himself into that beautiful object, and thus is his own Artist, with his own life as material. Such was the true Greek worshiper, he also had to be Artist, to be poet in his worship. The image before him must rise out of its natural form into its spiritual suggestion ; devotion was a poetic work, an act of imagination; still further, he must mould his character into that conception ; thus he realizes in himself the nature of his God, and becomes a Maker too. The shape of stone before his eye is not of necessity an idol ; it is rather a radiant image which flashes into him the divine manifestation ; it is the supreme artistic model after which he is to fashion himself. The Greek Divine Service was an act of the poetic imagination ; worship was a poem conceived, if not sung; therein was the worshiper elevated into the presence of the beautiful God; into whose image he was to transform himself, and be a living embodiment of the Religion of Beauty.

We must expect to find the character of the Greek Pantheon imprinted upon the Greek man who adored its deities, There was the polytheistic side ; festivals, games, theater, song and dance, all in honor of the God. The rich, sensuous life of the Greeks unfolded in this divine multiplicity to its fullest bloom. There was, too, the Olympian sportfulness, for many are the Gods, and they cannot all be in earnest; they must limit one an-other and be like mortals, though they claim to be Gods too. There is an irony in them which is always ready to burst into open mirth; they are indeed a happy company. Yet there is the unity behind them, the dark background of Fate which threatens them all, in which however they must participate; thus joy passes into earnestness, and both are joined in a supreme serenity.

In the Greek sacrifice, too, the same principle prevailed; some object of value was surrendered, swine and cattle were slaughtered to the God, but therein were enjoyed, for the sacrifice was a scene of eating and drinking; the God was chiefly honored by man’s happiness. This is not our notion of sacrifice, this is not renunciation, the surrender of the whole life to some divine behest, accompanied with want, hardship, even death. To the Greek such a renunciation would be a terrific dissonance; between the divine and sensuous life there must be harmony, which finds its true utterence in worship. Polytheism is this descent into the realm of the senses which it fills with song, sacrifice, festival, in fine, fills with beautiful Gods, and reconciles, for a time at least, the Upper and Lower Worlds.

But that outside power still remained and made itself felt in everything —that external might of destiny. Every Greek will was to a degree paralyzed by it, and would not act without a sign which came from the outside power. There was something external to him which he knew not of, it was the Divine which showed itself in an omen, it was the Fate which lay back of his life, back of his Olympus. He had not in himself the complete circuit of bis deed. Behold the flight of the eagle, it furnishes the missing link without which he cannot act, it is the messenger of the hidden power, whose very essence consists in not being understood. Any object of Nature might express that unknown realm, which lies outside of his purpose: the rustling of leaves, the brook, the bird, animals, unconscious human speech. Thus an external, accidental power entered into every Greek deed, as it was a constituent part of the Greek world.

It is in the drama, however, that we find the strongest expression of this external power. It makes the poetry of the Greeks tragic, as well as their world. Fate enters and sweeps off the individual who acts, particularly the heroic individual. His deed lies in a realm which is surrounded and controlled on all sides by this incalculable destiny ; he defies it, grapples with it, like a Greek athlete, and is flung out of existence for his daring. A wrestler with Fate is the Greek tragic character; manfully he steps forth to meet his combatant, the dark and formless, issuing from the bounds of the Greek horizon ; the spectators look on with quakes of terror, for they feel in the end of their hero their own end, the end of Hellas. It is that same Destiny which we saw threatening Olympus.

The great historical character, Themistocles, Alexander, has the same element in him; like the Greek divinity he is the victim of Fate. He, too, is a tragic character, his end is unhappy; heroically he struggles with his problem, but it contains the portion-of Destiny which overwhelms him at last. Yet this is not all. Fate descends into him, as it descended into his deity, and be-comes a part of his innermost nature, in fact his divine, eternal part. The Great Men of Greece are plastic figures, as the Gods are; they have that look above, the look of destiny ; they seem beyond mortals, into whose form they have come down, they are still our exemplars of lofty individuality. Their high deeds show this fateful influence, which, while it smites them from without, at the same time possesses them within.

In some such way we bring before ourselves the two leading facts the worshiped and the worshiper of the Religion of Beauty. There was the recognition of the God by the Man, and of the Man by the God; the two touch in a kind of ecstasy and become filled with endless musical vibrations. How comes it that the Greek soul was so melodious ? is the ever-recurring, never-answered question ; to the last a person is dissatisfied with any abstract solution, however complete, and longs to turn his ear to the music itself. We know that this sensuous life when filled with the divine spirit throbs in pulsations of harmony, which are the source of all true song; we know that the God embodied in forms of sense be-comes the supremely beautiful, and giver of joys which make life one continued festival. Therein we may dwell for a time, in imagination at least, which we are aware is the soul of Greek worship.

Another question we must ask of this religion, the gravest of all questions : For the heart alienated from the God, what way of restoration could it show? What peace could it offer to a being who has become conscious of a separation from the Divine, perhaps of a fall therefrom ? For man, even the Grecian man must have experienced at times a scission from what keeps the Universe in order, from what is truest above and here below. To overcome that deep disruption, and to set the jarring soul in concert with itself and the world, is the prime task of every Religion, and of every worthy system of Thought. The bright Greek temperament falls into discord, into sorrow, possibly into despair; what rescue? The Religion of Beauty has a path of escape, a by-path, not clear, not fully revealed, but unquestionably helpful.

This is the domain of the mysteries, which, true to their name, have remained mysterious to this day. But so much may be said of them : they were separated from the open public worship; the beautiful world, product of imagination, revealed in Art, was abandoned ; a deeper, more awful rite was craved by the soul. Initiation was required; it was something which did not carry its purport on its face ; symbolism entered which seeks to convey a meaning from beyond ; the simple harmony between spirit and sense, which is the principle of Art, is split asunder, and Art is no longer its own explanation. The way of purification from the natural and the rise to the purely spiritual, by symbols, is the mystery a mystery indeed to the Religion of Beauty, indicating its limitation as well as its final overthrow. Yet even thus the mystery is reached, not through suffering but through vision ; after all, the individual, serenely viewing the wondrous image of transformation, is not assailed, but has his joy, and so Art makes itself valid in this last Greek refuge. Some glance into immortality was also given, doubtless, in the mysteries ; since to behold it is the last supreme purification of vision. But their great doctrine was unquestionably that unity of the Godhead, which in the public religion had dropped into polytheism; some adumbration of the. One, the spiritual One, must have been given, and thus Fate, the tragedy of the ancient world was to a degree softened, if not overcome, by the mysteries.

But the plainest view of a mastery over Fate, was given by the great Athenian tragic poets, who thereby indicated that they were not fully satisfied with their Art, or at least saw beyond its limits. Look at blind old Oedipus, who was so often whelmed into wrong by that dire external power, and heroically took all the consequences as his own ; at last through much suffering the insight of freedom comes to him, he declares his innocence and is absolved from guilt, being received to the Gods. Still stronger is the example of Orestes, as portrayed by Aeschylus ; after long wandering and sorrow, he is purified of crime sent upon him by Fate, and is restored to a new guiltless life by institutions which pronounce him free; thus he is not taken to the Gods for salvation, but is rescued in this lower world. Deepest prophetic gleam is this, not merely into the future of the Greek religion, but of all religion, which is to be truly realized in secular institutions. In such manner the ancient tragic poets seem to break with Fate, casting far ahead in Time and demanding some reconciliation, though Fate was the ground-work of their Art and of their world.

Such was the lofty view of the Athenian bards,, true prophets ; a glimpse into the atonement which was to be, an early message was theirs of that religion of suffering through which comes the final reconciliation. They saw that mind must heal its own wounds, if it be universal; sorrow purifies the soul, which therein reaches a new transfiguration. Some such word they speak, must in-deed speak, for the Poet is the herald of the new time which bursts out of the old. But with that word comes another change; the Religion of Beauty, which had made its world so harmonious, separates into two hostile armies, and the war between the spirit and senses opens ; therewith the Greek music is brought to a close.