JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter VII.
Influencing Agencies in Literature

WHERE, in literature, shall we seek those agencies that have influenced and colored, so to speak, whatever it possesses of good and excellent? Not in criticism, for that is based upon a knowledge of the master-pieces of poetry and eloquence. Not in poetry, for the poet, though influencing after-times, is himself the product of influence; he moulds the ideas he finds popular; he is the child of his age. Not in eloquence, for the orator simply tells the people that which they already know. To something prior to all these must we look for the influencing agencies of literature. We must look to religion. Men believed in the gods before Homer sang of them. We must look to philosophy. Men's philosophical opinions influence their actions long before they undertake to account to themselves for holding them. Balmes says, truly: "When philosophers dispute, humanity itself in a sense disputes."{1} And it were well to remember that religious and philosophic problems of deepest import are one. Modern subjectivism, entirely occupied as it is with the barren question of knowing, has broken up that beautiful interdependence, to the detriment of both religion and philosophy.

Let us, then, cursorily consider the sources of those doctrines and opinions that have combined to educate humanity to its present degree of intelligence.

We will begin with the East. Ever remaining at a dead level, and apparently incapable of rising beyond a certain point of material and intellectual progress, the East furnishes the whole world with the elements of a higher civilization, which grow and flourish and bear fruit in their transplanted soils with a productiveness that they know not in their native land. Its unprogressive character makes the past from the remotest time a continuous present, by which we of the more active part and greater energy can trace our origin and measure our progress.{2}


The cradle of humanity is also the cradle of thought, of science, of literature. Far back in the twilight of history we find the Chaldaeans treating questions of astronomy and chronology with scientific accuracy, and laying the foundation of modern astronomical calculations -- nay, more, constructing for us our division of time. They it was who divided our year into months, our months into days, our days into hours, and our hours into minutes and seconds; they it was who gave us the signs of the zodiac; they divided for us the ecliptic into 360 degrees, the degree into 60 minutes, the minute into 60 seconds, and the second into 60 thirds;{3} they brought numbers to a degree of perfection that has not yet been excelled. They made ten the basis of computation for whole numbers, and their fractions they reduced to sixtieths. Their expertness in the sexagesimal system was remarkable. "The people of Babylon," says Lenormant, "and of Chaldaea, constantly put this system in practice in dealing with all kinds of quantities and measurements."{4}

The tablet of Senkereh, in the British Museum written in cuneiform of a very ancient character, reveals numerical calculations which prove the science of numbers to have been thoroughly understood at least twenty centuries before our era. The tablet is a species of ready reckoner prepared for purposes of barter. Lenormant, commenting upon it in a special monograph, calls it an "heirloom of that mysterious primitive civilization which preceded the Semites in Babylon, and from which these Semites gathered their system of cuneiform writing already formed." Here is a strong light thrown upon early times. It reveals to us these primitive peoples not as living in inaction, or bewildered by the greatness of the material universe, or in awe of all things animate or inanimate, as some would picture them; but as solid thinkers, whose speculations have already reached a practical result, entering into business transactions and commercial relations, following industrial pursuits, and learned in the arts and sciences.

"Never before the discovery of this monument," says Lenormant, in wonder at the proficiency it reveals, "would we have dared to make so bold a conjecture as to suppose that at least twenty centuries before the Christian era, at the beginning of the first Semitic empire of Chaldaea, if not still earlier, the science of numbers had made such progress in this part of the ancient world, that at that time the people of Erech, of Hur, of Larsam, of Babylon, moved with such great facility in making calculations the most delicate and complicated, knew how to form the squares and cubes of numbers, as well as to extract their roots, were acquainted with the scale of the powers of numbers, and employed a mechanism of exponents exactly like that which mathematicians of our own time make use of."{5}

These stray rays from a remote past bring home to us the depth and truth of the remark of the Egyptian priest to Solon: "You Greeks are youths in understanding; for you hold no ancient opinions derived from remote tradition, nor any science that can boast of a hoary old age."{6} And the science of Greece has come out of the East. Whatever is truthful and profound -- all that grand array of noble sentiment and speculation relative to the Divinity and the immortality of the soul, and those deep half-mastered allusions to the mysticism of science and numbers, and the meaning of myths, and the insight into the state of souls beyond the present life, in the writings of Plato, is of Egyptian, or Chaldaean, or Hindu origin. "Plato," says DeMaistre, "had read much and traveled much; there are in his writings a thousand proofs that he had searched the real source of sound tradition. He united in his own person the sophist and the theologian, or, if it may be rather so expressed, he was Greek and Chaldaean."{7} The Pythagorean school -- the profoundest of the Greek schools -- received nearly all its learning and its most characteristic doctrines from the East; instance the doctrine of metempsychosis and the scientific principles of numbers. So also with the teachings of Aristotle. The syllogism was formally applied in India for centuries before he initiated the western world into its use and application.

In the East originated every great moral truth. Let us look into the literature of China. Turning to the chief work of Lao-Tsze (604-529 B. C.) -- Tao-teh-king, the Book of the Way of Virtue, -- we are exhorted to the practice of simplicity of life, love of pastoral and patriarchal ways,{8} horror of war, humility, filial obedience, above all, self-abnegation and forgiveness of injuries, and we read this noble sentence: "The sage revenges his injuries by benefits."{9} Confucius (537-478 B.C.) considers man to be the master of his own destiny, and capable of cultivating the virtues.{10} He recognizes as clearly as does Kant the existence of the moral sense in every human breast: "The great God," said T'ang, "has conferred even on the inferior people a moral sense, in obeying which they obey a constant nature.{11} Lao-Tsze despised learning for its own sake; Confucius was over-fond of it, but he did not separate it from culture of the heart He says: "The ancients, wishing to be sincere in their thoughts first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated their knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete their thoughts were sincere; their thoughts being sincere their hearts were rectified; their hearts being rectified their persons were cultivated."{12} The Hindu child was also indoctrinated into the great value of knowledge. He was told that "of all things knowledge is esteemed the most precious treasure"; but he was also told that "learning to the inexperienced is a poison."{13} So also is filial obedience inculcated as a prime virtue throughout the East. Confucius says: "Of all things. which derive their nature from heaven and earth, man is the most noble; and of all the duties which are incumbent on him, there is none greater than filial obedience; nor in performing this, is there anything so essential as to reverence one's father."{14}

But it may be objected that these sages are comparatively modern, and their teachings are the outcome of an ethical evolution. Let us go back five hundred years earlier. We consult the fragments that have been handed down to us from the teachings of the great Iranian reformer, Zoroaster. Together with the doctrine of a Supreme Being -- Ahura-Mazda{15} -- Mithra, the Creator and Lord, we find conjoined the strictest principles of morality, purity of body and soul, a sense ofjustice, love of truth, hatred of evil -- personified in Anro-Mainyas,{16} the spirit that kills -- and responsibility for our deeds. The evil-doer makes his own hell. "This place" -- the place of eternal darkness -- "ye make, ye who are wicked through your own deeds and your own law, the worst of places, there to lead a most miserable existence."{17} Now it is an admitted fact that the purest and highest teachings of the Avesta are drawn from the older Vedic documents. Zoroaster was only bringing his Iranian brethren back to purer doctrines and practices from which they had fallen away.

We go still further back. We unearth a book that was venerable with the age of twenty centuries when Zoroaster was reforming the world. It is the oldest book on record, and dates at least back to 3500 B.C. It is now known as the Prisse Papyrus.{18} The author's name is Pita-Hotep. He is a sage old and wise: "I am become an ancient in the land; I have passed one hundred and ten years of my life, through the bounty of the king, and with the approbation of the ancients, in fulfilling my duty towards the king in the place of favor." What says the venerable book of this venerable author? What message does it hand us down the ages? -- With the exception of allusion to some local practices, now forgotten, and an occasional plain-spokenness, now not tolerated, it differs in naught from the teachings that the more recent works have handed down. To quote Pita-Hotep is simply to repeat the later lessons of Confucius, of Zoroaster, and even of Moses. His book is a book of conduct and good advice. Here is obedience inculcated with the promise of long life: "The son who receives the word of his father will grow to be old on that account" And again: "Obedience is loved of God; hated by Him is disobedience." We have seen Confucius and Vishnu-Sarman{19} laud and encourage learning. Pita-Hotep is no less enthusiastic: "The learned man is satiated with his knowledge. . . Good is the place of his heart and of his tongue; agreeable are his lips. He shall speak; his two eyes shall see; his ears shall hear." He would have his son learn from all: "With the courage given you by science, dispute with the ignorant as well as the learned." With the eloquence of Lao-Tsze he exhorts to humility and lowliness in thought and word: "If thou art become great, after thou hast been humble, and if thou hast amassed riches after poverty, being for that reason the first in thy town; if thou art known for thy wealth and art become a great lord, let not thy heart become proud because of thy riches, for it is God who is the author of them for thee. Despise not another who is as thou wast; be towards him as towards thy equal."{20} This is the spirit in which Job spake. Finally, he would have all live and act with cheerfulness: "Let thy face be cheerful as long as thou livest; has any one come out of his coffin after having once entered it?" Is this not an anticipation of the Christian joy that is the very essence of Christian living? Verily, the circle of human thought is circumscribed.

Now, let us consider the venerable antiquity of all these writings, and then let us note the fact that their authors do not pretend to invent or discover; they merely repeat that which they have learned from the ancients. Even Pita-Hotep advises that his son be taught the learning that accumulated prior to his day: "Instruct him in words of the past." When this advice was entered on the papyrus that contains it, there was already much for men to learn. The hieroglyphics were even then an ancient institution. The farther back we go the stronger and clearer flows the stream of tradition. We cannot put finger upon a single great moral truth of which we can say: With this man originated this truth. All the great authors of the ancient world simply regarded themselves as the transmitters of the wisdom and experience of past ages. Now this wisdom and this experience constitute the basis of all literature. They underlie our thinking to-day as much as they underlay the thinking of the venerable authors whom we have been quoting. Of all the beautiful and elevating thoughts found in all the great works of antiquity, there is not one that has not been crystallized into a fuller and clearer and more rounded expression in the sacred Books of the Old Testament and the New. And thus is it that Christianity, in moulding our Western modern civilization has made use of all that is ennobling and spiritualizing in the streams of human traditions. The world of grace has its foundations in the world of nature.

To the East may we also trace the errors that have disturbed the equilibrium of the world. There hung the first cloud over the distinct idea of the Godhead; there was first lost the idea of creation; thence flowed all the consequences resulting from the distortion of these two fundamental conceptions: idolatry, pantheism, atheism, misapprehension of the nature of evil. Zoroaster, in purifying the doctrines and reforming the morals of the Iranians, was confronted with the problem of evil, and knowing God to be all goodness and all holiness, he could not imagine Him to be the author or instigator of the misery and sin under which the world groans. So he conceived another Principle existing from the beginning, inferior to the Supreme Being, but having power over the earth, and over men's bodies, the author of all venomous creatures, and the source of all human misery. The Magian priests imported from Chaldaea materialistic doctrines and superstitions, raised the inferior spirits up to places of supremacy, and propagated Sabeism, astrology and magic.{21} Here are we to seek the origin of Manichaeism, with all its offshoots, the Albigensian and Waldensian and Lollard heresies.

The Buddhism to which all life is simply a becoming, and to which the highest good is a merging of the individual in the general life of the race without consciousness and without a distinct personal future;{22} and the Mohamedanism that fosters fatalism and fanaticism,{23} both find their cradle and their home in the East. And if we find China so stunted in her intellectual growth, may we not attribute it in a large measure to the fact that the teacher who did most to mould her thoughts, placed before her none of the high spiritual ideals that alone are fruitful in progress? the influence of Confucius was baneful to this extent that he ignored the supernatural life, and framed all his counsels to the bettering of men in this world alone. He discouraged all inquiry as to the life beyond the grave. "There is nothing spiritual," says a great synologue, who knows whereof he speaks, "in the teachings of Confucius. He rather avoided all references to the supernatural. In answer to a question about death, he replied: 'While you do not know life, how do you know about death?' Life then was his study, and life represented by man as he exists."{24} He had slight concern for any but the earthly future. His was not the lesson to seek first the kingdom of God, and so his people have never realized how all else comes therewith. Other things being equal, the higher the ideal, the greater is the power accompanying it. Had Confucius rested his teachings upon a more spiritual basis he would have raised Chinese civilization to a higher level. The outcome of his teachings is a reverence for the ancestral past amounting to worship and a regard for learning that has become a superstition.

{1} Fundamental Philosophy, vol. i., chap. i.

{2} "We find the Chinese just as their oldest literature describes them; we have the wandering Monguls and Turcomans, with their wagon-houses and herds, leading the Scythian's life; we see the Brahman performing the same ablutions in the sacred river, going through the same works of painful ceremony, as did the ancient gymnosophists, or, rather, as is prescribed in his sacred books of earlier dates. And still more, we discover the Arab drinking at the same wells, traversing the same paths, as did the Jew of old, on his pilgrim journeys; tilling the earth with the same implements, and at the same season; building his house on the same model, and speaking almost the same language, as the ancient possessors of the promised land." CARDINAL WISEMAN, Lectures on Science and Revealed Religion, lect. x., p. 363.

{3} " Mais le Chaldéens n'avaient pas inventé seulement la division de l'ecliptique en 360 degrés et 720 moria. Sextus Empiricus dit formellement qu'ils avaient divisé le degré en 60 minutes, et Géminus que de plus ils divisaiént Ia minute en 60 secondes, et la seconde en 60 tierces. -- Lenormant, Essai sur un Document Mathématique Chaldéen. Paris, 1868, p. 12.

{4} Ibid., p. 9.

{5} Essai sur un Document Mathématique Chaldéen, pp. 158, 159.

{6} Plato, Timaeus, iii 22.

{7} Du Pape, liv. iv., chap vii. He adds this significant remark: "Plato is not understood unless, in reading him, this idea be always present to the mind."

{8} Chap. lxxx.

{9} Stanislaus Julien: Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu, chap. lxiii.

{10} Chang Yang, xxii.

{11} Shu King. See Douglas, Confucianism and Taoism, p. 69.

{12} Ta-Hio, Douglas, Confucianism and Taoism, p. 92.

{13} Hitopadesa. This little book is an epitome of the Pancha-Tantra, the most ancient collection of fables extant. See Weber, Sanskrit Literature, p. 212.

{14} Li-Ki, Apud Douglas, loc. cit. pp. 120-1.

{15} Known as Ormuzd.

{16} Known as Ahriman.

{17} Vendîdâd. Fargard, v. §§ 177, 178. Cf. De Harlez, Avesta, p. 63. and Darmesteter, Zend-Avesta, p. 65.

{18} Fac-simile d'un Papyrus Egyptien, par M. Prisse d' Avenne, Paris, 1847.

{19} Author of Hitopadesa.

{20} Brugsch-Bey: History of Egypt under the Pharaohs, vol. I pp. 92, 93.

{21} Mgr. C. de Harlez Avesta. intro. p. 36. Kessler, Untersuchung sur Genesis des manich. Religionssystems, 1876.

{22} Sacred Books of the East, vol. xi. Matra-parinibtana, translated by T. W. Rhuys-David.

{23} See Sell's Faith of Islam, p. 160.

{24} Douglas, Confucianism and Taouism, p. 68.

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