Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Clergymen are supposed to be educated; that is, they go to college before taking holy orders, and study what are called "the classics"—the masterpieces of Greek and Roman literature. Theology is not enough to fit them for the pulpit. They must also be steeped in "the humanities," It is felt that they would never find all they require in the Bible. They find a great deal of it in Pagan writings, and as these are unknown to the people, it is safe for the clergy to work the best "heathen" ideas into their interpretation of the Christian Scriptures. There was a time, indeed, when Christian preachers were fond of references to Pagan poets and philosophers. The people were so ignorant, and such implicit believers, that it could be done with security. But now the case is altered. The people are beginning to "smell a rat." It dawns upon them that if so many fine things were said by those old Pagans—not to mention the still more ancient teaching of India and Egypt—Christianity can hardly merit such epithets as "unique" and "wonderful." Accordingly it is becoming the fashion in clerical circles to avoid those old Pagans, or else to damn them all in a sweeping condemnation. Some indeed go to the length of declaring—or at least of insinuating—that all the real truth and goodness there is in the world began with the Christian era. This extreme is affected by the Evangelical school, and is carried to its highest pitch of exaggeration by such shallow and reckless preachers as the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes. Soon after the Daily Chronicle correspondence on "Is Christianity Played Out?" this reverend gentleman, and most accomplished "perverter of the truth," screamed from the platform of St. James's Hall that women and children were regarded as slaves and nuisances before the time of Christ; which is either a deliberate falsehood, or a gross misreading both of history and of human nature. Mr. Hughes has since been gathering his energies for a bolder effort in the same direction. He now publishes in the Methodist Times his latest piece of recklessness or fatuity. It is a sermon on "The Solidarity of Mankind," and is really an exhibition of the solidity of Mr. Hughes's impudence. It required nothing but "face," as Corbett used to call it, to utter such monstrous nonsense in a sermon; it would need a great deal more courage than Mr. Hughes possesses to utter it on any platform where he could be answered and exposed.

Mr. Hughes believes in our "common humanity," and he traces it from "the grand old gardener" (Tennyson). "We are all descended from Adam," he says, "and related to one another." Now this is not true, even according to the Bible; for when Cain fled into the land of Nod he took a wife there, which clearly implies the existence of other people than the descendants of Adam. But this is not the worst. Fancy a man at this time of day—a burnin' an' a shinin' light to a' this place—gravely standing up and solemnly telling three thousand people, most of whom we suppose have been to school, that the legendary Adam of the book of Genesis was really the father of the whole human race!

This common humanity is claimed by Mr. Hughes as "a purely Christian conception." Yet he foolishly admits that "the Positivists in our own day have strongly insisted on this great crowning truth which we Christians have neglected." Nay, he states that when Kossuth appealed in England on behalf of Hungary, he spoke in the name of the "solidarity" of the human race. And why solidarity? Because the word had to be taken from the French. And why from the French? "Because the French," Mr. Hughes says, "have risen to a loftier level of human brotherhood than we." Indeed! Then what becomes of your "purely Christian conception," when "infidel France" outshines "Christian England"? How is it, too, you have to make the "shameful" confession that "we"—that is, the Christians—took "nineteen centuries to find out the negro was a man and therefore a brother"? You did not find it out, in fact, until the eighteenth century—the century of Voltaire and Thomas Paine—the century in which Freethought had spread so much, even in England, that Bishop Butler in the Advertisement to his Analogy, dated May, 1736, could say that "many persons" regarded Christianity as proved to be "fictitious" to "all people of discernment," and thought that "nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule." How is it your "Christian conceptions" took such a surprising time to be understood? How is it they had to wait for realisation until the advent of an age permeated with the spirit of scepticism and secular humanity?

Mr. Hughes is brave enough—in the absence of a critic—to start with Jesus Christ as the first cosmopolitan. "He came of the Jewish stock," we are told, "and yet he had no trace of the Jew in him." Of course not—in Christian sermons and Christian pictures, preached and painted for non-Jewish, and indeed Jew-hating nations. But there is a very decided "trace of the Jew in him" in the New Testament. To the Canaanite woman he said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." To the twelve he said, "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." It was Paul who, finding he could not make headway against the apostles who had known Jesus personally, exclaimed, "Lo, we turn to the Gentiles." That exclamation was a turning point. It was the first real step to such universalism as Christianity has attained. No wonder, therefore, that Comte puts Paul instead of Jesus into the Positivist calendar, as the real founder of Christianity.

Even in the case of St. Paul, it is perfectly idle to suppose that his cosmopolitanism extended beyond the Roman empire. A little study and reflection would show Mr. Hughes that the very fact of the Roman empire was the secret of the cosmopolitanism. Moral conceptions follow in the wake of political expansion. The morality of a tribe is tribal; that of a nation is national; and national morality only developes into international morality with the growth of international interests and international communication. Now the Roman empire had broken up the old nationalities, and with them their local religions. The human mind broadened with its political and social horizon. And the result was that a cosmopolitan sentiment in morals, and a universal conception in religion, naturally spread throughout the territory which was dominated by the Roman eagles. Christianity itself was at first a Jewish sect, which developed into a cosmopolitan system precisely because the national independence of the Jews had been broken up, and all the roads of a great empire were open to the missionaries of a new faith.

But let us return to Mr. Hughes's statements. He tells us that the solidarity of mankind was "revealed to the human race through St. Paul"—which is a great slur upon Jesus Christ, and quite inconsistent with what Mr. Hughes affirms of the Nazarene. It is also inconsistent with the very language of St. Paul in that sermon of his to the Athenians; for the great apostle, in enforcing his argument that all men are God's children, actually reminds the Athenians that "certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring."

Mr. Hughes goes on to say that "our common humanity" is "a perfectly new idea." "Max Muller," he tells us, "says that there was no trace of it until Christ came. It is a purely Christian conception." Professor Max Muller, however, is not infallible. He sometimes panders to Christian prejudices, and this is a case in point. What he says about "humanity" is an etymological quibble. Certainly the Greeks knew nothing about it, simply because they did not speak Latin. But they had an equivalent word in philanthropia, which was in use in the time of Plato, four hundred years before the birth of Christ.*

Max Muller or no Max Muller, we tell Mr. Hughes that he is either reckless or ignorant in declaring that the idea of human brotherhood owes its origin to Christ, Paul, or Christianity. To say nothing of Buddha, whose ethics are wider than the ethics of Christ, and confining ourselves to Greece and Rome, with the teaching of whose thinkers Christianity comes into more direct comparison—it is easy enough to prove that Mr. Hughes is in error, or worse. Four centuries before Christ, when Socrates was asked on one occasion as to his country, he replied, "I am a citizen of the world." Cicero, the great Roman writer, in the century before Christ, uses the very word caritas, which St. Paul borrowed in his fine and famous chapter in the first of Corinthians. Cicero, and not St. Paul, was the first to pronounce "charity" as the tie which unites the human race. And after picturing a soul full of virtue, living in charity with its friends, and taking as such all who are allied by nature, Cicero rose to a still loftier level. "Moreover," he said, "let it not consider itself hedged in by the walls of a single town, but acknowledge itself a citizen of the whole world, as though one city." In another treatise he speaks of "fellowship with the human race, charity, friendship, justice."

We defy Mr. Hughes to indicate a single cosmopolitan text in the New Testament as strong, clear, and pointed as these sayings of Socrates and Cicero—the one Greek, the other Roman, and both before Christ. Let him ransack gospels, epistles, acts, and revelations, and produce the text we call for.

From the time of Cicero—that is, from the time of Julius Caesar, and the establishment of the Empire—the sentiment of brotherhood, the idea of a common humanity, spread with certainty and rapidity, and is reflected in the writings of the philosophers. The exclamation of the Roman poet, "As a man, I regard nothing human as alien to me," which was so heartily applauded by the auditory in the theatre, expressed a growing and almost popular sentiment. The works of Seneca abound in fine humanitarian passages, and it must be remembered that if the Christians were tortured by Nero at Rome, it was by the same hand that Seneca's life was cut short. "Wherever there is a man," said this thinker, "there is an opportunity for a deed of kindness." He believed in the natural equality of all men. Slaves were such through political and social causes, and their masters were bidden to refrain from ill-using them, not only because of the cruelty of such conduct, but because of "the natural law common to all men," and because "he is of the same nature as thyself." Seneca denounced the gladiatorial shows as human butcheries. So mild, tolerant, humane, and equitable was his teaching that the Christians of a later age were anxious to appropriate him. Tertullian calls him "Our Seneca," and the facile scribes of the new faith forged a correspondence between him and their own St. Paul. One of Seneca's passages is a clear and beautiful statement of rational altruism. "Nor can anyone live happily," he says, "who has regard to himself alone, and uses everything for his own interests; thou must live for thy neighbor, if thou wouldest live for thyself." Eighteen hundred years afterwards Auguste Comte sublimated this principle into a motto of his Religion of Humanity—Vivre pour Autrui, Live for Others. It is also expressed more didactically by Ingersoll—"The way to be happy is to make others so"—making duty and enjoyment go hand in hand.

Pliny, who corresponded with the emperor Trajan, and whose name is familiar to the student of Christian Evidences, exhorted parents to take a deep interest in the education of their children. He largely endowed an institution in his native town of Como, for the assistance of the children of the poor. His humanity was extended to slaves. He treated his own with great kindness, allowing them to dispose of their own earnings, and even to make wills. Of masters who had no regard for their slaves, he said, "I do not know if they are great and wise; but one thing I do know, they are not men." Dion Chrysostom, another Stoic, plainly declared that slavery was an infringement of the natural rights of men, who were all born for liberty; a dictum which cannot be paralleled in any part of the New Testament. It must be admitted, indeed, that Paul, in sending the slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon, did bespeak humane and even brotherly treatment for the runaway; but he bespoke it for him as a Christian, not simply as a man, and uttered no single word in rebuke of the institution of slavery.

Plutarch's humanity was noble and tender. "The proper end of man," he said, "is to love and to be loved." He regarded his slaves as inferior members of his own family. How strong, yet how dignified, is his condemnation of masters who sold their slaves when disabled by old age. He protests that the fountain of goodness and humanity should never dry up in a man. "For myself," he said, "I should never have the heart to sell the ox which had long labored on my ground, and could no longer work on account of old age, still less could I chase a slave from his country, from the place where he has been nourished for so long, and from the way of life to which he has been so long accustomed." Sentiments like these were the natural precursors of the abolition of slavery, as far as it could be abolished by moral considerations.

Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, who had himself been a slave, taught the loftiest morality. Pascal admits that he was "one of the philosophers of the world who have best understood the duty of man." He disdained slavery from the point of view of the masters, as he abhorred it from the point of view of the slaves. "As a healthy man," he said, "does not wish to be waited upon by the infirm, or desire that those who live with him should be invalids, the freeman should not allow himself to be waited upon by slaves, or leave those who live with him in servitude." It is idle to pretend, as Professor Schmidt of Strasburg does, that the ideas of Epictetus are "colored with a reflection of Christianity." The philosopher's one reference to the Galileans, by whom he is thought to have meant the Christians, is somewhat contemptuous. Professor Schmidt says he "misunderstood" the Galileans; but George Long, the translator of Epictetus, is probably truer in saying that he "knew little about the Christians, and only knew some examples of their obstinate adherence to the new faith and the fanatical behavior of some of the converts." It should be remembered that Epictetus was almost a contemporary of St. Paul, and the accurate students of early Christianity will be able to estimate how far it was likely, at that time, to have influenced the philosophers of Rome.

Marcus Aurelius was one of the wisest and best of men. Emperor of the civilised world, he lived a life of great simplicity, bearing all the burdens of his high office, and drawing philosophy from the depths of his own contemplation. His Meditations were only written for his own eyes; they were a kind of philosophical diary; and they have the charm of perfect sincerity. He was born a.d. 121, he became Emperor a.d. 161, and died a.d. 180, after nineteen years of a government which illustrated Plato's words about the good that would ensue when kings were philosophers and philosophers were kings. Cardinal Barberini, who translated the Emperor's Meditations into Italian, in 1675, dedicated the translation to his own soul, to make it "redder than his purple at the sight of the virtues of this Gentile."

Marcus Aurelius combines reason with beautiful sentiment. His emotion is always accompanied by thought. Here, for instance, is a noble passage on the social commonwealth—"For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away." In a still loftier passage he says—and let us remember he says it to himself, not to an applauding audience, but quietly, and with absolute truth, and no taint of theatricality—"My nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world." In his brief, pregnant way, he states the law of human solidarity—"That which is not good for the swarm, neither is it good for the bee." And who could fail to appreciate this sentiment, coming as it did from the ruler of a great empire?—"One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass thy life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men."

Here again, it is the fashion in some circles, to pretend that Marcus Aurelius was influenced by the spread of Christian ideas. George Long, however, speaks the language of truth and sobriety in saying, "It is quite certain that Antoninus did not derive any of his Ethical principles from a religion of which he knew nothing." To say as Dr. Schmidt does that "Christian ideas filled the air" is easy enough, but where is the proof? No doubt the Christian writers made great pretensions as to the spread of their religion, but they were notoriously sanguine and inaccurate, and we know what value to attach to such pretensions in the second century when we reflect that even in the fourth century, up to the point of Constantine's conversion, Christianity had only succeeded in drawing into its fold about a twentieth of the inhabitants of the empire. Enough has been said in this article to show that the idea of our common humanity is not "a purely Christian conception," that it arose in the natural course of human development, and that in this, as in other cases, the apologists of Christianity have simply appropriated to their own creed the fruits of the political, social, and moral growth of Western civilisation.

* Mr. Hughes talks so much that he must have little time for reading. Every educated man, however, is supposed to be acquainted with Bacon's Essays, the thirteenth of which opens as follows:—"I take goodness in this sense, the affecting of the weal of men, which is that the Grecians called Philanthropia; and the word humanity (as it is used) is a little too light to express it." Bacon not only knew the antiquity of Philanthropia, but preferred it to the later and less weighty term so ignorantly celebrated by Mr. Hughes.

Previous Chapter | Home | Contents | Next Chapter

HTML © 2002 - 2017