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without it, generally entertained correct views of religious truth, would be considerably less, than if it should be found on inquiry, that gross ignorance on the subject had generally prevailed in the world.
As all religion is founded on our relation to a Supreme intelligent Being, it is proper to begin our inquiry concerning the necessity of revelation, by considering what opinions as to the divine nature, have prevailed among heathen, whether ancient or modern.
That ancient nations worshipped a multiplicity of gods, is a proposition, which requires no proof to any one, in the slightest degree, acquainted with the Greek and Roman historians and poets.* So early, as the time of Hesiod, there were reckoned thirty thousand gods, inhabiting the earth, who were subjects of Jupiter, and guardians of men.† Those Deities were to be considered, as in a sense domesticated in Greece. In addition to these, Abp. Potter informs us, that there was a custom, which obliged them to entertain a great many strange gods.‡
The religion of the Greeks was probably derived from Phoenicia, Egypt, and Thrace, and was transmitted to the Romans.§
In our inquiry as to the necessity of revelation, it may be convenient to consider, what views of the Deity were entertained by those, whose superior application and wisdom procured for them the distinction of philosophers. But, as these were comprised in a very small number, when compared with the whole mass of the pagan world, their opinions, even were they less discordant than they are, would by no means enable us to ascertain the popular belief. The opinion of a few wise and studious men was one thing; and that of the great mass of community, another. To obtain the latter, I know not, that any method can be more effectual, than to consult the writings of poets and historians. The writings of philosophers may indeed con. tribute, in no inconsiderable degree, to the same object: not * Priestley's lectures on Jew. Rel. 63. +Hesiod. Oper. and Dies. L. I. 250.
†Gr. Antq. I. 202.
Cudw. Int. Syst. I. 187.
because the opinions, which they entertained, indicate those of the vulgar; but because their practice was much influenced by the prevailing sentiment, which seems to have been occasionally animadverted upon in their writings.
The testimony of historians will, I suppose, be thought liable to no exception. For surely there can be no reason, why their testimony in regard to religion, should not be as readily taken, as when it relates to natural history, forms of government, or military operations. On the testimony of poets, it may be thought, that less reliance can be placed.
It is not indeed necessary to conclude, that the ancient poets always believed what they wrote concerning the gods. But, that they both designed and expected, that others should believe it, I think, there can be little doubt. To give pleasure, is allowed to be the grand aim of poetry. Extensively to accomplish this end, it must contain nothing offensive to the prevailing opinion. A poet, who writes fiction, is careful to construct his fable in such manner, as shall not be abhorrent from the feelings and temper of his readers. Milton, in his "Paradise Lost," uses much fiction. But, had this been of such a kind, as to disgrace and belie the christian religion, would his admirable poem have acquired popularity in a christian nation? Ancient poets had not less sagacity, than those of later times. Would the poets of Greece and Italy have agreed, almost without an exception, in such representation of religion and the gods, as was generally disbelieved; and which, if believed, must have appeared as it really was, a disgrace to human reason, and blasphemous to the Supreme Being?
I cannot represent this matter more clearly, than in the words of the learned Mr. Farmer.
"The accounts, given of the heathen gods, by the poets, did in fact constitute both the popular and civil theology; or the religion, received by the people, and established by the laws.*
Worship of Hum. Spir 292. for which he quotes Aug. Civ. Dei L. I. c. 132 Dio. Chrys. Dion. Hal. Cic. de nat. Deor. 2 24,
"The people, continues he, were more disposed to adopt the doctrine of the poets, than any physical interpretations; and regard their writings, as the rule both of their faith and worship. Even the most absurd fables were understood literally, and received by the people, with implicit faith, in Greece, as well as in other countries.
"With regard to epic and dramatic poets, they cannot, without great impropriety, deviate from the customs of the ages, of which they write; the merit of their writings consisting very much in their being accurate representations of life and manners. Whenever, therefore, the poets, of whom we are now speaking, use the liberty of embellishment, their very fictions must be conformable to the received standard of the public religion."
Agreeable to this are the words of the profound Dr. Cudworth; "We cannot," says he, "make a better judgment concerning the generality and bulk of the ancient pagans, than from the poets and mythologists, who were the chief instructors of them."*
There is a remarkable passage in Plato's Timæus, as quoted by Dr. Leland. "The poet cannot sing," says the Greek philosopher, "except he be full of God, and carried out of himself." They do not say these things by art, but by a divine power. God uses them, as his ministers, as he does the deliverers of oracles, and divine prophets, that we, hearing them, might know, that it is not they themselves, who speak those excellent things, since they have not then the use of their understanding, and that it is God, who speaks by them." Socrates is represented by Plato, as conversing to the same effect.
What higher authority could language express? If the assertions, here made, had been true, the assent given by the ancient heathen to poetical representations, ought not to have been less than that, which christians yield to the sacred scriptures. And it must be considered, that this is not *You may imagine, says Lord Bacon what kind of faith theirs was, when the chief fathers and doctors of the church were the poets. Vol. I. 449.
the language of the illiterate vulgar, but of two among the wisest and best of men of the heathen world. If men of such character attribute to the ancient bards a real inspiration, it can hardly be doubted, that the credulous multitude would receive poetical rhapsodies, as the standard of theological truth. It is just therefore, to form our opinion of the religious sentiments, which prevailed among the heathen, by the works of the most admired poems.
The multiplicity of heathen gods has already been mentioned, on the authority of Hesiod. The same theolgy was taught by Homer among the Greeks; by Virgil and Horace among the Latins; and, in general by the poets of both nations.
So far there is no doubt. But in what light these numerous deities were considered, is in some degree less obvious. Dr. Cudworth has employed his extraordinary talents to prove, that, notwithstanding the objects of pagan worship were so numerous, the unity of God was still maintained. He supposes the ancient pagans to have thought, that there was one Supreme Deity, from whom all the rest proceeded, and on whom they were dependent. The dependence of these deities, he does not consider, as being in popular estimation, inconsistent with their eternity; as the Supreme God was supposed not only to have possessed, but, from eternity, to have exerted the power of producing others. He makes numerous quotatations to prove that his distinction was maintained both among philosophers and poets.
To this it may be answered, that though it is perfectly clear, that the poets denominated Jupiter, almighty, the king and father of gods and men; yet as these deities were made the object of distinct worship, and were considered as sovereign, each in his own dominions, and all as possessing moral characters, not essentially different, it is not very important, so far as human feelings and conduct are concerned, whether these numerous gods held their exist ence by the power of Jove, or independently of such power. Whatever supremacy was enjoyed by Jupiter in heaven, it
was Neptune, that governed the ocean; it was Pluto, that presided over the realms of death. And though it is true, that Homer, Virgil, and Horace, occasionally speak of Jupiter in terms, the most sublime and majestic, it is not less true, that on other occasions, their language is exceedingly different. The same father of gods and men, who is represented as grasping the thunder, and as governing the world's destiny, is acknowledged to have been once a Cretan boy. The dangers of his infancy are recorded; the savage temper and the jealousy of his father; the expedients, used by his mother, for his preservation; the manner in which he was nourished in his youth; the insurrection, which he made against paternal authority, and the rebellion, which was commenced against his own; the number of wives, which he married, and the family, which he reared.
The same Homer, who speaks of Jupiter, in language of such peculiar sublimity; as of him, who rules both gods and men, mentions his being in danger from a combination of Juno, Neptune, and Pallas, who had conspired to bind him in fetters; and that Thetis delivered him, and averted the danger, by calling in Briareus to his assistance.
Hesiod applies to Jupiter epithets, not less magnificient, than those, who are used by Homer. Notwithstanding
this, he informs us, that Jupiter was born of Saturn and Rhea; that Pluto and Neptune were his brothers; and that Vesta, Ceres, and Juno were his sisters.
The language, in which Jupiter is mentioned by Virgil, seems to have been copied from Homer. He represents Venus, as addressing him thus, "O thou, who, by thine eternal sovereignty, governest the affairs of gods and men."t Yet in other parts of the poem, we behold Jupiter with no ensigns of eternal majesty, and not only under the influence of mortal passions, but perplexed by human embarrassments. He has a sister and daughter, importuning him to opposite measures; neither of whom can be gratified, but at the expense of the other.