The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 2

Page 2

I do not think that anyone will call either Mr. Sheppard's statements, or mine, exaggerated, who knows the bitter complaints of the wickedness and folly of the time, which are to be found in the writings of the Emperor Julian. Pedant and apostate as he was, he devoted his short life to one great idea, the restoration of the Roman Empire to what it had been (as he fancied) in the days of the virtuous stoic Emperors of the second century. He found his dream a dream, owing to the dead heap of frivolity, sensuality, brutality, utter unbelief, not merely in the dead Pagan gods whom he vainly tried to restore, but in any god at all, as a living, ruling, judging, rewarding, punishing power.

No one, again, will call these statements exaggerated who knows the Roman history of his faithful servant and soldier, Ammianus Marcellinus, and especially the later books of it, in which he sets forth the state of the Empire after Julian's death, under Jovian, Procopius, Valentinian, (who kept close to his bed-chamber two she-bears who used to eat men, one called Golden Camel, and the other Innocence---which latter, when she had devoured a sufficiency of his living victims, he set free in the forests as a reward for her services---a brutal tyrant, whose only virtue seems to have been his chastity); and Valens, the shameless extortioner who perished in that great battle of Adrianople, of which more hereafter. The last five remaining books of the honest soldier's story are a tissue of horrors, from reading which one turns away as from a slaughter-house or a witches' sabbath.

No one, again, will think these statements exaggerated who knows Salvian's De Gubernatione Dei. It has been always and most justly held in high esteem, as one great authority of the state of Gaul when conquered by the Franks and Goths and Vandals.

Salvian was a Christian gentleman, born somewhere near Treves. He married a Pagan layd of Cologne, converted her, had by her a daughter, and then persuaded her to devote herself to celibacy, while he did the like. His father-in-law, Hypatius, quarreled with him on this account; and the letter in which he tries to soothe the old man is still extant, a curious specimen of the style of cultivated men in that day. Salvian then went down to the south of France and became a priest at Marseilles, and tutor to the sons of Eucherius, the Bishop of Lyons. Eucherius, himself a good man, speaks in terms of passionate admiration of Salvian, his goodness, sanctity, learning, talents. Gennadius (who describes him as still living when he wrote, about 490) calls him among other encomiums, the Master of Bishops; and both mention familiarity this very work, by which he became notorious in his own day, and which he wrote about 450 or 455, during the invasion of the Britons. So that we may trust fully that we have hold of an authentic contemporaneous work, written by a good man and true.

Let me first say a few words on the fact of his having---as many good men did then---separated from his wife in order to lead what was called a religious life. It has a direct bearing on the History of those days. One must not praise him because he (in common with all Christians of his day) held, no doubt; the belief that marrage was a degradation in itself; that though the Church might mend it somewhat by exalting it into a sacrament, still, the less of a bad thing the better:---a doctrine against which one need not use (thank God) in England, the same language which Michelet was most justly used in France. We, being safe from the poison, can afford to talk of it calmly. But I boldly assert, that few more practically immoral doctrines than that of the dignity of celibacy and the defilement of marriage (which was the doctrine of all Christian devotees for 1000 years) have, as far as I know, ever been preached to man. That is a strong statement. It will be answered perhaps, by the patent fact, that during those very 1000 years the morality of Europe improved more, and more rapidly, than it had ever done before. I know it; and I thank God for it. But I adhere to my statement, and rejoin---And how much more rapidly have the morals of Europe improved, since that doctrine has been swept away; and woman, and the love of woman, have been restored to their rightful place in the education of man?

 But if we do not praise Salvian, we must not blame him, or any one else who meant to be an honest and good man. Such did not see to what their celibate notions would lead. If they had, we must believe that they would have acted differently. And what is more, their preference for celibacy was not fancy, but common sense of a very lofty kind. Be sure that when the two middle-aged Christian people consider it best to part, they have very good reasons for such a solemn step, at which only boys or cynics will laugh. And the reasons, in Salvian's case, and many more in his day, are patent to common human understanding. Do not fancy that he had any private reason, such as we should very fairly assign now: public reasons, and those, such as God grant no living man may see, caused wise men to thank God that they were not burdened with wife and child. Remember the years in which Salvian lived---from 416 perhaps to 490. It was a day of the Lord such as Joel saw; 'a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains; a great people and strong; there had not been ever the like, neither should be any more after it: the land was a garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness: Yea, and nothing should escape them.' All things were going to wrack; the country was overrun by foreign invaders; bankruptcy, devastation, massacre, and captivity were for perhaps 100 years the normal state of Gaul, and of most other countries besides. I have little doubt that Salvian was a prudent man, when he thought fit to bring no more human beings into the world. That is an ugly thought---I trust that you feel how ugly, unnatural, desperate a thought it is. If you do not, think over it till you do, till it frightens you. You will gain a great step thereby in human sympathy, and therefore in the understanding of history. For many times, and in many places, men have said, rightly or wrongly, 'It is better to leave none behind like myself. The miseries of life (and of what comes after this life) are greater than its joys. I commit an act of cruelty by bringing a fresh human being into the world.' I wish you to look at that thought steadily, and apply it for yourselves. It has many applications: and has therefore been a very common one.

 But put to yourselves---it is too painful for me to put to you---the case of a married gentleman who sees his country gradually devastated and brought to utter ruin by foreign invaders; and who feels---as poor Salvian felt, that there is no hope or escape; that the misery is merited, deserved, fairly earned (for that is the true meaning of those words), and therefore must come. Conceive him seeing around him estates destroyed, farms burnt, ladies and gentlemen, his own friends and relations, reduced in an hour to beggary, plundered, stript, driven off in gangs---I do not choose to finish the picture: but ask yourselves, would an honourable man wish to bring sons---much more daughters---into the world to endure that?

Put yourselves in Salvian's place. Forget for a few minutes that you are Englishmen, the freest and bravest nation upon earth, strong in all that gives real strength, and with a volunteer army which is now formidable by numbers and courage---which, did the terrible cal come, might be increased ten times in as many months. Forget all that awhile; and put yourselves in Salvian's place, the gentleman of Gaul, while Franks and Goths, Burgunds and Vandals were sweeping, wave after wave, over that lovely land; and judge him rationally, and talk as little as possible of his superstition, and as much as possible of his human feeling, prudence, self-control, and common sense. Believe me, neither celibacy, nor any other seemingly unnatural superstition would have held its ground for a generation if there had not been some practical considerations of common sense to back them. We wonder why men in old times went into monasteries. The simplist answer is, common sense sent them thither. They were tired of being the slaves of their own passions; they were tired of killing, and of running the chance of being killed. They saw society, the whole world, going to wrack, as they thought, around them: what could they do better, than see that their own characters, morals, immortal souls did not go to wrack with the rest. We wonder why women, especially women of rank, went into convents; why, as soon as a community of monks was founded, a community of nuns sprung up near them. The simplest answer is, common sense sent them thither. The men, especially of the upper fighting classes, were killed off rapidly; the women were not killed off, and a large number always remained, who, if they had wished to marry, could not. What better for them than to seek in convents that peace which this world could not give?

They may have mixed up with that simple wish for peace the notion of being handmaids of God, brides of Christ, and so forth. Be it so. Let us instead of complaining, thank heaven that there was some motive, whether quite right or not, to keep alive in them self-respect, and the feeling that they were not altogether useless and aimless on earth. Look at the question in this light, and you will understand two things; first, how horrible the times were, and secondly, why there grew up in the early middle age a passion for celibacy.

 Salvian, in a word, had already grown up to manhood and reason, when he saw a time come to his native country, in which were fulfilled, with fearful exactness, the words of the prophet Isaiah:----

'Behold, the Lord maketh the land empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants therof. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the seller, so with the buyer; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled; for the Lord hath spoken this word.'

And Salvian desired to know the reason why the Lord had spoken that word, and read his Bible till he found out, and wrote thereon his book De Gubernatione Dei, of the government of God; and a very noble book it is. He takes his stand on the ground of Scripture, with which he shews an admirable acquaintance. The few good were expecting the end of the world. Christ was coming to put an end to all these horrors: but why did he delay his coming? The many weak were crying that God had given up the world; that Christ had deserted his Church, and delivered over Christians to the cruelties of heathen and Arian barbarians. The many bad were openly blaspheming, throwing off in despair all faith, all bonds of religion, all common decency, and crying, Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Salvian answers them like an old Hebrew prophet: 'The Lord's arm is not shortened. The Lord's eyes are not closed. The Lord is still as near as ever. He is governing the world as He has always governed it: by the everlasting moral laws, by which the wages of sin are death. Your iniquities have earned exactly what God has paid you. Yourselves are your own punishment. ou have been wicked men, and therefore weak men; your own vices, and not the Goths, have been your true conquerors.' As I said in my inaugural lecture---that is after all the true theory of history. Men may forget it in piping times of peace. God grant that in the dark hour of adversity, God may always rise up to them a prophet, like good old Salvian, to preach to them once again the everlasting judgments of God; and teach them that not faulty constitutions, faulty laws, faulty circumstances of any kind, but the faults of their own hearts and lives, are the causes of their misery.

M. Guizot, in his elaborate work on the History of Civilization in France, has a few curious pages, on the causes of the decline of civil society in Roman Gaul, and its consequent weakness and ruin. He tells you how the Senators or Clarissimi did not constitute a true aristocracy, able to lead and protect the people, being at the mercy of the Emperor, and nominated and removed at his pleasure. How the Curiales, or wealthy middle class, who were bound by law to fulfil all the municipal offices, and were responsible for the collection of the revenue, found their responsibilities so great, that they by every trick in their power, avoided office. How, as M. Guizot well puts it, the central despotism of Rome stript the Curiales of all they earned, to pay its own functionaries and soldiers; and gave them the power of appointing magistrates, who were only after all the imperial agents of that despotism, for whose sake they robbed their fellow-citizens. How the plebs, comprising the small tradesmen and free artizans, were utterly unable to assert their own opinions or rights. How the slave population, though their condition was much improved, constituted a mere dead weight of helpless brutality.

And then he says, that the Roman Empire was dying. Very true: but often as he quotes Salvian, he omits always to tell us what Roman society was dying of. Salvian says, that it was dying of vice. Not of bad laws and class arrangements, but of bad men. M. Guizot belongs to a school which is apt to impute human happiness and prosperity too exclusively to the political constitution under which they may happen to live, irrespectively of the morality of school, there has been of late a strong reaction, the highest exponent, nay the very coryphæus of which is Mr. Carlyle. He undervalues, even despises, the influence of laws and constitutions: with him private virtue, from which springs public virtue, is the first and sole cause of national prosperity. My inaugural lecture has told you how deeply I sympathize with his view---taking my stand, as Mr. Carlyle does, on the Hebrew prophets.

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