IN November, 1905, the Collège de France honored the writer by asking him to succeed M. Naville in opening the series of lectures instituted by the Michonis foundation. A few months later the "Hibbert Trust" invited him to Oxford to develop certain subjects which he had touched upon at Paris. In this volume have been collected the contents of both series with the addition of a short bibliography and notes intended for scholars desirous of verifying assertions made in the text. 0_1 The form of the work has scarcely been changed, but we trust that these pages, intended though they were for oral delivery, will bear reading, and that the title of these studies will not seem too ambitious for what they have to offer. The propagation of the Oriental religions, with the development of neo-Platonism, is the leading fact in the moral history of the pagan empire. May this small volume on a great subject throw at least some light upon this truth, and may the reader receive these essays with the same kind interest shown by the audiences at Paris and Oxford.
The reader will please remember that the different chapters were thought out and written as lectures. They do not claim to contain a debit and credit account of what the Latin paganism borrowed from or loaned to the Orient. Certain well-known facts have been deliberately
passed over in order to make room for others that are perhaps less known. We have taken liberties with our subject matter that would not be tolerated in a didactic treatise, but to which surely no one will object.
We are more likely to be reproached for an apparently serious omission. We have investigated only the internal development of paganism in the Latin world, and have considered its relation to Christianity only incidentally and by the way. The question is nevertheless important and has been the subject of celebrated lectures as well as of learned monographs and widely distributed manuals. 0_2 We wish to slight neither the interest nor the importance of that controversy, and it is not because it seemed negligible that we have not entered into it.
By reason of their intellectual bent and education the theologians were for a long time more inclined to consider the continuity of the Jewish tradition than the causes that disturbed it; but a reaction has taken place, and to-day they endeavor to show that the church has borrowed considerably from the conceptions and ritualistic ceremonies of the pagan mysteries. In spite of the prestige that surrounded Eleusis, the word "mysteries" calls up Hellenized Asia rather than Greece proper, because in the first place the earliest Christian communities were founded, formed and developed in the heart of Oriental populations, Semites, Phrygians and Egyptians. Moreover the religions of those people were much farther advanced, much richer in ideas and sentiments, more striking and stirring than the Greco-Latin anthropomorphism. Their liturgy always derives its inspiration from generally accepted beliefs
about purification embodied in certain acts regarded as sanctifying. These facts were almost identical in the various sects. The new faith poured its revelation into the hallowed moulds of earlier religions because in that form alone could the world in which it developed receive its message.
This is approximately the point of view adopted by the latest historians.
But, however absorbing this important problem may be, we could not think of going into it, even briefly, in these studies on Roman paganism. In the Latin world the question assumes much more modest proportions, and its aspect changes completely. Here Christianity spread only after it had outgrown the embryonic state and really became established. Moreover like Christianity the Oriental mysteries at Rome remained for a long time chiefly the religion of a foreign minority. Did any exchange take place between these rival sects? The silence of the ecclesiastical writers is not sufficient reason for denying it. We dislike to acknowledge a debt to our adversaries, because it means that we recognize some value in the cause they defend, but I believe that the importance of these exchanges should not be exaggerated. Without a doubt certain ceremonies and holidays of the church were based on pagan models. In the fourth century Christmas was placed on the 25th of December because on that date was celebrated the birth of the sun (Natalis Invicti) who was born to a new life each year after the solstice. 0_3 Certain vestiges of the religions of Isis and Cybele besides other polytheistic practices perpetuated themselves in the adoration of local saints. On the other hand as soon as Christianity became a moral power in
the world, it imposed itself even on its enemies. The Phrygian priests of the Great Mother openly opposed their celebration of the vernal equinox to the Christian Easter, and attributed to the blood shed in the taurobolium the redemptive power of the blood of the divine Lamb. 0_4
All these facts constitute a series of very delicate problems of chronology and interrelation, and it would be rash to attempt to solve them en bloc. Probably there is a different answer in each particular case, and I am afraid that some cases must always remain unsolved. We may speak of "vespers of Isis" or of a "eucharist of Mithra and his companions," but only in the same sense as when we say "the vassal princes of the empire" or "Diocletian's socialism." These are tricks of style used to give prominence to a similarity and to establish a parallel strongly and closely. A word is not a demonstration, and we must be careful not to infer an influence from an analogy. Preconceived notions are always the most serious obstacles to an exact knowledge of the past. Some modem writers, like the ancient Church Fathers, are fain to see a sacrilegious parody inspired by the spirit of lies in the resemblance between the mysteries and the church ceremonies. Other historians seem disposed to agree with the Oriental priests, who claimed priority for their cults at Rome, and saw a plagiarism of their ancient rituals in the Christian ceremonies. It would appear that both are very much mistaken. Resemblance does not necessarily presuppose imitation, and frequently a similarity of ideas and practices must be explained by common origin, exclusive of any borrowing.
An illustration will make my thought clearer. The votaries of Mithra likened the practice of their religion to military service. When the neophyte joined he was compelled to take an oath (sacramentum) similar to the one required of recruits in the army, and there is no doubt that an indelible mark was likewise branded on his body with a hot iron. The third degree of the mystical hierarchy was that of "soldier" (miles). Thenceforward the initiate belonged to the sacred militia of the invincible god and fought the powers of evil under his orders. All these ideas and institutions are so much in accord with what we know of Mazdean dualism, in which the entire life was conceived as a struggle against the malevolent spirits; they are so inseparable from the history even of Mithraism, which always was a soldiers' religion, that we cannot doubt they belonged to it before its appearance in the Occident.
On the other hand, we find similar conceptions in Christianity. The society of the faithful--the term is still in use--is the "Church Militant." During the first centuries the comparison of the church with an army was carried out even in details; 0_5 the baptism of the neophyte was the oath of fidelity to the flag taken by the recruits. Christ was the "emperor," the commander-in-chief, of his disciples, who formed cohorts triumphing under his command over the demons; the apostates were deserters; the sanctuaries, camps; the pious practices, drills and sentry-duty, and so on.
If we consider that the gospel preached peace, that for a long time the Christians felt a repugnance to military service, where their faith was threatened, we are tempted to admit a priori an influence of the belligerent cult of Mithra upon Christian thought.
But this is not the case. The theme of the militia Christi appears in the oldest ecclesiastical authors, in the epistles of St. Clement and even in those of St. Paul. It is impossible to admit an imitation of the Mithraic mysteries then, because at that period they had no importance whatever.
But if we extend our researches to the history of that notion, we shall find that, at least under the empire, the mystics of Isis were also regarded as forming sacred cohorts enlisted in the service of the goddess, that previously in the Stoic philosophy human existence was frequently likened to a campaign, and that even the astrologers called the man who submitted to destiny and renounced all revolt a "soldier of fate." 0_6
This conception of life, especially of religious life, was therefore very popular from the beginning of our era. It was manifestly prior both to Christianity and to Mithraism. It developed in the military monarchies of the Asiatic Diadochi. Here the soldier was no longer a citizen defending his country, but in most instances a volunteer bound by a sacred vow to the person of his king. In the martial states that fought for the heritage of the Achemenides this personal devotion dominated or displaced all national feeling. We know the oaths taken by those subjects to their deified kings. 0_7 They agreed to defend and uphold them even at the cost of their own lives, and always to have the same friends and the same enemies as they; they dedicated to them not only their actions and words, but their very thoughts. Their duty was a complete abandonment of their personality in favor of those monarchs who were held the equals of the gods. The sacred militia of the mysteries was nothing but this civic
morality viewed from the religious standpoint. It confounded loyalty with piety.
As we see, the researches into the doctrines or practices common to Christianity and the Oriental mysteries lead almost always beyond the limits of the Roman empire into the Hellenistic Orient. The religious conceptions which imposed themselves on Latin Europe under the Cæsars 0_8 were developed there, and it is there we must look for the key to enigmas still unsolved. It is true that at present nothing is more obscure than the history of the religions that arose in Asia when Greek culture came in contact with barbarian theology. It is rarely possible to formulate satisfactory conclusions with any degree of certainty, and before further discoveries are made we shall frequently be compelled to weigh contrasting probabilities. We must frequently throw out the sounding line into the shifting sea of possibility in order to find secure anchorage. But at any rate we perceive with sufficient distinctness the direction in which the investigations must be pursued.
It is our belief that the main point to be cleared up is the composite religion of those Jewish or Jewish-pagan communities, the worshipers of Hypsistos, the Sabbatists, the Sabaziasts and others in which the new creed took root during the apostolic age. In those communities the Mosaic law had become adapted to the sacred usages of the Gentiles even before the beginning of our era, and monotheism had made concessions to idolatry. Many beliefs of the ancient Orient, as for instance the ideas of Persian dualism regarding the infernal world, arrived in Europe by two roads, the more or less orthodox Judaism of the communities of
the dispersion in which the gospel was accepted immediately, and the pagan mysteries imported from Syria or Asia Minor. Certain similarities that surprised and shocked the apologists will cease to look strange as soon as we reach the distant sources of the channels that reunited at Rome.
But these delicate and complicated researches into origins and relationships belong especially to the history of the Alexandrian period. In considering the Roman empire, the principal fact is that the Oriental religions propagated doctrines, previous to and later side by side with Christianity, that acquired with it universal authority at the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of the Asiatic priests also unwittingly prepared for the triumph of the church which put its stamp on the work at which they had unconsciously labored.
Through their popular propaganda they had completely disintegrated the ancient national faith of the Romans, while at the same time the Cæsars had gradually destroyed the political particularism. After their advent it was no longer necessary for religion to be connected with a state in order to become universal. Religion was no longer regarded as a public duty, but as a personal obligation; no longer did it subordinate the individual to the city-state, but pretended above all to assure his welfare in this world and especially in the world to come. The Oriental mysteries offered their votaries radiant perspectives of eternal happiness. Thus the focus of morality was changed. The aim became to realize the sovereign good in the life hereafter instead of in this world, as the Greek philosophy had done. No longer did man act in view of tangible realities,
but to attain ideal hopes. Existence in this life was regarded as a preparation for a sanctified life, as a trial whose outcome was to be either everlasting happiness or everlasting pain.
As we see, the entire system of ethical values was overturned.
The salvation of the soul, which had become the one great human care, was especially promised in these mysteries upon the accurate performance of the sacred ceremonies. The rites possessed a power of purification and redemption. They made man better and freed him from the dominion of hostile spirits. Consequently, religion was a singularly important and absorbing matter, and the liturgy could be performed only by a clergy devoting itself entirely to the task. The Asiatic gods exacted undivided service; their priests were no longer magistrates, scarcely citizens. They devoted themselves unreservedly to their ministry, and demanded of their adherents submission to their sacred authority.
All these features that we are but sketching here, gave the Oriental religions a resemblance to Christianity, and the reader of these studies will find many more points in common among them. These analogies are even more striking to us than they were in those times because we have become acquainted in India and China with religions very different from the Roman paganism and from Christianity as well, and because the relationships of the two latter strike us more strongly on account of the contrast. These theological similarities did not attract the attention of the ancients, because they scarcely conceived of the existence of other possibilities, while differences were what they
remarked especially. I am not at all forgetting how considerable these were. The principal divergence was that Christianity, by placing God in an ideal sphere beyond the confines of this world, endeavored to rid itself of every attachment to a frequently abject polytheism. But even if we oppose tradition, we cannot break with the past that has formed us, nor separate ourselves from the present in which we live. As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely, the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed. The faith of the friends of Symmachus was much farther removed from the religious ideal of Augustus, although they would never have admitted it, than that of their opponents in the senate. I hope that these studies will succeed in showing how the pagan religions from the Orient aided the long continued effort of Roman society, contented for many centuries with a rather insipid idolatry, toward more elevated and more profound forms of worship. Possibly their credulous mysticism deserves as much blame as is laid upon the theurgy of neo-Platonism, which drew from the same sources of inspiration, but like neo-Platonism it has strengthened man's feeling of eminent dignity by asserting the divine nature of the soul. By making inner purity the main object of earthly existence, they refined and exalted the psychic life and gave it an almost supernatural intensity, which until then was unknown in the ancient world.