The history of religious speculation appears in extreme outline to have been of the following character. We may conceive mankind to have been originally launched into the universe with no knowledge either of themselves or of the scene in which they were placed; with no actual knowledge, but distinguished from the rest of the creation by a faculty of gaining knowledge; and first unconsciously, and afterwards consciously and laboriously, to have commenced that long series of experience and observation which has accumulated in thousands of years to what we now see around us. Limited on all sides by conditions which they must have felt to be none of their own imposing, and finding everywhere forces working, over which they had no control, the fear which they would naturally entertain of these invisible and mighty agents assumed, under the direction of an idea which we may perhaps call inborn and inherent in human nature, a more generous character of reverence and awe. The laws of the outer world, as they discovered them, they regarded as the decrees, or as the immediate energies, of personal beings; and as knowledge grew up among them, they looked upon it, not as knowledge of nature, but of God, or the gods. All early paganism appears, on careful examination, to have arisen out of a consecration of the first rudiments of physical or speculative science. The twelve labours of Hercules are the labours of the sun, of which Hercules is an old name, through the twelve signs. Chronos, or time, being measured by the apparent motion of the heavens, is figured as their child; Time, the universal parent, devours its own offspring, yet is again itself, in the high faith of a human soul conscious of its power and its endurance, supposed to be baffled and dethroned by Zeus, or life; and so on through all the elaborate theogonies of Greece and Egypt. They are no more than real insight into real phenomena, allegorized as time went on, elaborated by fancy, or idealized by imagination, but never losing their original character.
Thus paganism, in its very nature, was expansive, self-developing, and, as Mr Hume observed, tolerant; a new god was welcomed to the Pantheon as a new scientific discovery is welcomed by the Royal Society; and the various nations found no difficulty in interchanging their divinities - a new god either representing a new power not hitherto discovered, or one with which they were already familiar under a new name. With such a power of adaptation and enlargement, if there had been nothing more in it than this, such a system might have gone on accommodating itself to the change of times, and keeping pace with the growth of human character. Already in its later forms, as the unity of nature was more clearly observed, and the identity of nature throughout the known world, the separate powers were subordinating themselves to a single supreme king; and, as the poets had originally personified the elemental forces, the thinkers were reversing the earlier process, and discovering the law under the person. Happily or unhappily, however, what they could do for themselves they could not do for the multitude. Phoebus and Aphrodite had been made too human to be allegorized. Humanized, and yet, we may say, only half-humanized, retaining their purely physical nature, and without any proper moral attribute at all, these gods and goddesses remained to the many examples of sensuality made beautiful; and, as soon as right and wrong came to have a meaning, it was impossible to worship any more these idealized despisers of it. The human caprices and passions which served at first to deepen the illusion, justly revenged themselves; paganism became a lie, and perished.
In the mean time, the Jews (and perhaps some other nations, but the Jews chiefly and principally) had been moving forward along a road wholly different. Breaking early away from the gods of nature, they advanced along the line of their moral consciousness; and leaving the nations to study physics, philosophy, and art, they confined themselves to man and to human life. Their theology grew up round the knowledge of good and evil, and God, with them, was the supreme Lord of the world, who stood towards man in the relation of a ruler and a judge. Holding such a faith, to them the toleration of paganism was an impossibility; the laws of nature might be many, but the law of conduct was one; there was one law and one king; and the conditions under which he governed the world, as embodied in the Decalogue or other similar code, were looked upon as iron and inflexible certainties, unalterable revelations of the will of an unalterable Being. So far there was little in common between this process and the other; but it was identical with it in this one important feature, that moral knowledge, like physical, admitted of degrees; and the successive steps of it were only purchasable by experience. The dispensation of the law, in the language of modern theology, was not the dispensation of grace, and the nature of good and evil disclosed itself slowly as men were able to comprehend it. Thus, no system of law or articles of belief were or could be complete and exhaustive for all time. Experience accumulates; new facts are observed, new forces display themselves, and all such formulæ must necessarily be from period to period broken up and moulded afresh. And yet the steps already gained are a treasure so sacred, so liable are they at all times to be attacked by those lower and baser elements in our nature which it is their business to hold in check, that the better part of mankind have at all times practically regarded their creed as a sacred total to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away; the suggestion of a new idea is resented as an encroachment, punished as an insidious piece of treason, and resisted by the combined forces of all common practical understandings, which know too well the value of what they have, to risk the venture upon untried change. Periods of religious transition, therefore, when the advance has been a real one, always have been violent, and probably will always continue to be so. They to whom the precious gift of fresh light has been given are called upon to exhibit their credentials as teachers in suffering for it. They, and those who oppose them, have alike a sacred cause; and the fearful spectacle arises of earnest, vehement men contending against each other as for their own souls, in fiery struggle. Persecutions come, and martyrdoms, and religious wars; and, at last, the old faith, like the phoenix, expires upon its altar, and the new rises out of the ashes.
Such, in briefest outline, has been the history of religions, natural and moral; the first, indeed, being in no proper sense a religion at all, as we understand religion; and only assuming the character of it in the minds of great men whose moral sense had raised them beyond their time and country, and who, feeling the necessity of a real creed, with an effort and with indifferent success, endeavoured to express, under the systems which they found, emotions which had no proper place in them.
Of the transition periods which we have described as taking place under the religion which we call moral, the first known to us is marked at its opening by the appearance of the Book of Job, the first fierce collision of the new fact with the formula which will not stretch to cover it.
[start of notes]
I have in my possession a paper copy of Short Studies on Great Subjects (Volume 1), written by J A Froude, which contains the essay The Book of Job. I have treated this as the authoritative version.
Details from the first few pages:
- Short Studies on Great Subjects
- By James Anthony Froude, M.A., the Late Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford.
- Printed in 1903 by
Longmans, Green, and Co.
39 Paternoster Row, London
- First issued in the Silver Library, Nov. 1890.
- Reprinted, Sep. 1892, June 1894, June 1895, April 1897, June 1898, January 1901, and January 1903.
In this book, The Book of Job is found on pages 280-338.
A footnote indicates that this essay was originally published in the Westminster Review in 1853.
I downloaded a text version of this book from Project Gutenberg [link], which I used as my starting text. The text claims that it was produced by Suzanne Lybarger and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at www.pgdp.net from images made available by The Internet Archive / Canadian Libraries.
Changes from the original text:
- I have removed word-breaking hyphens.
- I have not preserved the original line breaks. I treat each paragraph as a single line.
- I have not preserved page divisions or page numbers.
- I have replaced the original indentation at the start of each paragraph with an empty line after each paragraph.
- I have replaced double spaces after a period with a single space.
- In the original text, colons and semicolons are preceded by a thin space, which I have not preserved.
- The letters "oe" in the words "Phoebus" and "phoenix" were originally a single ligature grapheme, similar to æ.
[end of notes]