A Phenomenon In Church History -- By: Leonard Withington
BSac 3:12 (Nov 1846) p. 673
A Phenomenon In Church History
Sapientia praecedit; religio sequitur.—Lactantius, Lib. IV. c. 4.
In order to understand the spirit of antiquity, it seems necessary for us, not only to receive single customs and insulated impressions, but to trace their associated ideas as they are connected in the whole mental chain. This is very difficult; and here is the source of our inevitable ignorance. We are told by Niebuhr, in his prelections on Roman history, that “as there is nothing the Asiatics find it harder to conceive than the idea of a republican constitution, as the Hindoos are utterly unable to look upon the India-Company as an association of proprietors, as in any other light than princes, so it fares with the acutest of the moderns in the history of antiquity, unless by critical and philological studies they have stripped themselves of their habitual associations.—P. 20, Introd., ed. 1835, Philadelphia. This is true in insulated cases. But this is not all. Though our moral ideas are far more permanent than the impression of material objects, and an ancient description of the one more easily comprehended than that of the other, yet our moral conceptions are linked in a chain; they reflect each other’s hue and color, and we must almost comprehend the whole spirit of a given age to understand fully any single term presented to our contemplation. Take the words for example: virtue, patriotism, slavery, for-
BSac 3:12 (Nov 1846) p. 674
nication, marriage; and who would suppose at first sight that ancient manners could form any connection between them that should modify our ideas of the merit or delinquency expressed? Yet so it is. The ancients, like all other men, received their ideas and painted them from their own condition and circumstances. The world, in the primitive ages of downing civilization, was divided into a number of small States; in Greece, into free cities and commonwealths, often at war with each other, and struggling with a self-denying energy for their own existence. In such a state of society, every man was necessitated to feel a strong love for his country; to lose his benevolence in his patriotism; and to feel, and applaud himself in feeling, an attachment to the little section of humanity which demanded all his efforts to shield it from destruction. To an Athenian, a citizen of Sparta was an object of terror; he met him often on the field of battle; and he was frequently alarmed lest by his luck or valor, he should overthrow his own city. But Athens, on the other hand, his own beloved Athens, was the citadel of his pride and the source of his protection. Its roofs sheltered him; its walls defended him; its laws regulated his public conduct, and the morals of its teachers rul...
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