All words are more or less misconstrued and misunderstood; none more grievously than the word "Paganism". Paganism is conceived generally to be that state of the ancient world, Greek and Roman, but chiefly Greek, in which men lived in a kind of Abbey of Thelema, doing what they would, satisfying the flesh according to their desires, devoid of morals altogether, using the word "morals" in its customary modern sense. Insensibly, when anyone speaks of Paganism, one thinks of garlands and dances, of the Bacchic fury, of the breasts of the nymph in the brake, of the Satyrs lurking in the grove of dark ilexes. You could do as you pleased; there was no law to restrain you, from within or from without. As for the gods, they were but pleasing fictions, invented by the poets as a kind of gilt on the gingerbread of lechery; but nobody took the gods seriously. Such, we are apt to think, was Paganism.
It was nothing of the kind; that is, in the heroic age of Greece, certainly not in the age when Socrates, about to drink the hemlock, discoursed to his disciples of immortal life in the essence of the Godhead. They were no flowery and careless voluptuaries who listened to certain rituals of predestination that have survived to our days. We can read in them still of the doom that awaits proud and insolent men, owning no master in heaven or earth; of the manner in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation; of the vengeance that lies in wait for the spiller of blood; of the remorseless decrees of destiny; and of making atonement for transgression. Such are the topics of these sermons and rituals, which are known to us as Greek Plays. Paganism, in its pure and uncorrupted state was, evidently, a good deal more than an elegant and poetic Bank Holiday, a perpetual riot, a rosy debauch. It had its austere side; perhaps it was, in its essence, as austere as New England in the seventeenth century; though, to be sure, it wore its robes with a better grace and had somewhat a different set of taboos and commands. The descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers hanged witches; the Athenians judged the men who profaned or divulged the holy Mysteries of Eleusis to be worthy of death.
Such then was Paganism in the days of its covenant; something more than a bedecked and fleshy revel. But in the time of its dissolution, I have no doubt that it had taken on some semblance of our popular notion of it.
The Alexandria which Mr. Buck has shown in such glowing and coloured pictures, on which the ancient and golden sunlight still shines and burns, was in a sense, an Abbey of Thelema. Men did as they pleased, and all that pleased them was sensual pleasure. To be sure, they still talked of the gods. They talked of Aphrodite; but Aphrodite was only an excuse; just as, to the bad Mason, a certain very solemn and awful ceremony is only an excuse for the banquet which follows it.
Yet all the while there was a sense, sometimes conscious, sometimes sub-conscious, that it wouldn't do. In Mr. Buck's pages you will find this half-murmur of dissatisfaction, the sad murmur which finds its expression in the lines:
Surgit amari aliquid.
In the long run it was felt that mere pleasure failed to please. Men were evidently unable to live wholly in the body and by the body and for the body; there was some unknown element missing, and all became savourless, even deadly. Everywhere there was pleasure; nowhere was there joy. For this people had lost the old austere joys of true Paganism; they were nowise of the race of those Spartans who perished so splendidly in resisting the invasion of Greece by the Persian King; the Greek theatre had given place to the gaudy savagery of the Circus games; the old patriot city states were submerged by an orientalized cosmopolitanism. One got tired, it seemed, of wearing roses and worshipping Aphrodite; but what else was there to do? Really, it seemed, nothing; or nothing what was worth doing. One might say that Paganism was dissolving into a melancholy boredom, into that state of mind which afterwards was called accidia and accounted one of the deadly sins. Indeed, the sun had set. The sky was still lighted; but black clouds were gathering from all quarters of the heavens; and that red light in the west—was it not as if the roses were being changed into burning flames. Well has Mr. Buck named these pastels of his "Afterglow".
One may say that the failure of this Paganism, which had become a decorated materialism, was the failure of a great experiment. The world of that day was endeavouring to live by bread alone; bread being understood to include:
"A profusion of meats and viands, oysters, lampreys, quails, roasted swans, wild boar, sauces and relishes, cakes of various grains mingled with honey, fruits and sherbets: all that the caprices of taste could suggest."
Add to this definition of bread: "Kraters of rich wine, cooled in snow brought laboriously from long distances", add even, "a group of slave girls . . . of selected beauty, nude except for their conventional girdles"—such was the bread on which the Alexandrian world tried to live. And, really, they did their best. They avoided the error of spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar. The Great Experiment was made completely, splendidly. The dough of this bread of theirs was of the very finest flour; it was served on a lordly dish, in a hall of great worship; it was brought to the board with all the daughters of music singing before it. I doubt whether this assay of bread can ever be conducted with such gorgeous circumstance again. And, besides, the whole thing was done without any self-consciousness. The company wore their wreaths of roses naturally, without the slightest sense of dressing up or "making-believe"—or of making fools of themselves. In these days, the attempt at the revel is still made; but it is somewhat pathetic. We have lost the art of wearing garlands, and our attempts at revelry are more depressing that the spectacle of High School mistresses dancing the Morris. No; Alexandria did the thing in style; and yet, it seems, it was all a failure at best. Man found that he could not live on bread alone; that is, purely in the material world.
But let it not be supposed that I consider this Great Experiment as a self-evident absurdity, foredoomed to failure from the very nature of the quest. Very far from it. On the contrary, so much is the Alexandrian plan the obvious plan, that to this day many of us attempt to carry it out, in spite of its failure, in spite of the disadvantageous circumstances under which we must conduct our operations, in spite of the fact that the Kraters of rare wine cooled with snow have given place to whiskey that is dubious in England and not at all dubious in America. In spite of all, we do our best to be Alexandrians, since their way seems after all the certain way, the only way that is certain. Mr. Buck's Philosopher found the talk of the priests intolerable; and so many of us find the talk of our priests intolerable. After all, it is only the body and the things of the body which appear certain to the natural man. The philosophers may call them shadows and phantoms, but we are not philosophers. There is a legend that the great Newman was wont to regard his Cardinal's Hat and to murmur to himself: "Everything is uncertain except this: that there is a Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and that I am a Cardinal of it: for here is the hat—there is no doubt about that, at all events." The legend is, of course, a lie; but one understands the sentiment beneath it. We are quite sure of our bodies. We know that ginger is hot in the mouth. We may not know why it is hot; but as to the fact of the heat of the ginger, there is no room for argument about that. And that fact and other facts congruous therewith, the pleasant uses of wine and women, the delight of coolness afforded in summer, of a flaming hearth in winter, of a noble feast when one is hungry: these are beyond denial. And, as to all else, what do we know? "Is there a God?" asks St. Thomas Aquinas, opening his great treatise; and his answer is, "Apparently not". Mark the emphasis on "apparently"; but do not most of us live only in appearances, in phenomena, in the world wherein ginger is hot, and meat satisfies hunger, and drink quenches thirst, and women appease desire? All this we know certainly; beyond this we are in a world of conjecture, theory, dream, mystery, vague possibility. There may be a God, our bodies may be the mere veils of the spirit, the mind may be one of this spirit's instruments. All this may be so, but we do not know that it is so. We do know that when men who believe in these unseen realities, as they call them, begin to discuss matters of God, soul, mind or spirit, they immediately begin to differ violently, to enter into endless arguments, to start debates that endure for aeons and yet are never resolved. Now, we may urge, there is no argument, no quarrel, when it is a question of a hungry man eating or of a thirsty man quenching his thirst; here there are no two opinions but the undivided consent of all mankind; here, in a word, we are on sure ground. Why should we leave it for a territory which is all uncertain, misty, doubtful and, it is possible, fabulous? There are charts of the unknown ocean, it is true, but there are too many of them and no two are alike, and each pilot utterly derides and abhors the navigation of the others, and they only agree in this: that the voyage is certainly dark and dangerous. Is it not better to remain on the firm land, in the sunlight, satisfying the desires of the body?
Such was the Alexandrian position. It seems to me a very strong one; almost, one would say, inexpugnable. Yet these people, who lived as they pleased, who were untroubled by ethical systems or the reproach of conscience, who could satisfy the desires of the body without fear of reproach from within or of censure and punishment from without, were ill at ease. As Mr. W. L. Courtney tells us, when the first century before Christ was drawing to its close, the whole of the Mediterranean shore was anxiously and restlessly seeking for something that it called soteria or salvation. And it seems clear that, whatever soteria may be, it is not good to eat or to drink. In fine, the red roses and the ivory flesh of the girls had alike grown grey; meat and drink were bitter in the mouth.
The only thing that can be urged against the Alexandrian theory of life is this: it didn't work.