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The priests of Baal, as we learn from the first book of Kings, “ cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets till the blood gushed out upon them *.” At Sparta
At Sparta they whipped boys, often till they died, on the altar of the goddess Diana. This is not the place to notice the indecent and immoral practices which were observed over the heathen world, and especially in the civilized nations, in honour of their gods and goddesses. But these practices, together with the gross and general depravity of manners which the system of idol worship produced, furnish an illustration of the Apostle's statement; “ wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves.”
The grossest impurity of manners, the violation of every precept in the decalogue, was sanctioned by custom, if not enjoined by law. Theft was permitted in Egypt and in Sparta. Infants that were weak or imperfect in form were exposed and put to death by the authority of the legislator Lycurgus. Humanity, in the sense in which we understand that term, was in a great measure unknown. There was no provision made for the poor, the destitute, and helpless. Nor is the account which has been transmitted to us by the page of history of the sensuality and depravity that pervaded the heathen world, different from that which is recorded by the apostle Paul in the conclusion of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient ; being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.”
* 1 Kings xviii. 21-41.
Section IV.-The Influence of Legislators and Philosophers in extending this idolatrous and immoral System.
They, it is alleged, were not idolaters themselves, that their doctrines to a considerable extent counteracted the tendency of idolatry,--and that the mysteries which were so generally established, and to which the initiated only were admitted, were expressly designed to preserve the knowledge of the one true God.
I shall prove that these suppositions are unfounded; and that the philosophers and legislators of antiquity were the supporters and patrons of idolatry.
It must be admitted that they were placed in circumstances in which, whatever might have been their own views of truth and duty, they had it little in their power to influence effectually the notions of the multitude. They wanted the sanction of divine authority to enforce their instructions; they were not the authorized ministers of religion on whom it devolved to explain the doctrines relating to the gods and to their worship; their opinions, besides, on these matters were so obscure, and so much at variance with each other, that their effect, had they been communicated beyond the walls of the schools, could only be to bewilder, if, indeed, they would have any effect whatever. They, therefore, despised the people as incapable of understanding their speculations, or of profiting by them.
Philosophy,” to use the language of one of the most eminent of their number, “is content with a few judges; it designedly shuns the multitude, and is by them suspected and disliked; so that if any man should set himself to vilify all philosophy, he might do it with the approbation and applause of the people *.”
Philosophers, accordingly, so framed the vehicle in which their instructions were conveyed, and in general so wrapped the doctrines of divine things in fables, that they proved of no use in enlightening the people. With the exception of Socrates, who adopted a more familiar strain, their professed aim was, not the religious and moral improvement of mankind, but the exercise and display of their own genius, and the gratification and applause of a few learned men. In truth, scarcely one of them had any thing to communicate on religion which would have been at all profitable to the people. One of the most numerous sects maintained the absolute impossibility of coming to the knowledge of the truth in any case, and employed all the force of their ingenuity and eloquence to invalidate the proof of the being of God. Others, while they allowed that there are different degrees of probability in evidence, contended that we cannot certainly know or understand any thing, and that, therefore, we should keep our minds in a state of scepticism concerning all things,
* Tuscul. Quæst., lib. i. cap. 1.
Even the Stoics, whose pretensions to certainty were highest, and who in some things come nearest to the truth, acknowledged, that the natures of things are so covered from us, that all things seem uncertain and incomprehensible.
In confirmation of these remarks, it may be observed, that scepticism and atheism, in Greece and Rome, kept pace with the progress of philosophy, and that the world was somewhat advanced, before speculative men began to controvert or deny the existence and agency of God. Aristotle mentions, that all the philosophers before his time asserted that the world was made by a Supreme Being; and consequently that they believed in the existence of an intelligent Creator and Governor of all things. Yet, after his time, we know that the most thorough scepticism in regard to this fundamental doctrine of all religion was entertained by men of science and letters. From prudential considerations, they attempted to conceal from the multitude the real nature and tendency of their atheistical schemes, by pretending a regard for the gods and for their worship; but the covering was so transparent, that the imposition could not have succeeded, had not the people been immersed in inconceivable ignorance.
When the Romans imported the philosophy of Greece, they, at the same time, imported the scepticism and atheism that attended it. Intent upon conquest and military glory in the earlier periods of their history, they remained unacquainted with science till near the decline of the consular government. While their greatest men employed their powers, not in speculation, but in studying the arts of war, they probably
never questioned the divine origin of their worship, and considered themselves bound to yield a conscientious obedience to the civil and religious institutions of their country. During the first hundred and seventy years of the Commonwealth, they strictly observed the law of Numa, which forbade them to make any image or statue of the divine Being in the form of man or beast,--and taught them that it is impious to represent things divine by what is perishable, and that we can have no conception of God but by the understanding *. But in proportion as they became a literary people by their intercourse with the Greeks, were their idol deities indefinitely multiplied, and their learned men atheistical in their opinions, and immoral in their practice. “Professing themselves to be wise they became fools," and were instrumental by their tenets and by their example“ in changing the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.”
But it will be said, that there were philosophers both in Greece and Rome of juster views, and a purer character,—who entertained the sublimest sentiments concerning the being, attributes, and providence of God. It can be shewn, however, that they, in place of enlightening and improving the people, gave the sanction of their example, and their names, in confirmation of the established idolatry ;-and so mingled truth and error together, as to become the efficient supporters and advocates of idol worship. The most enlightened of them, not excepting even
* Plutarch in Numa.