Cato's Letters/Letter 54
SIR, I shall bestow this paper in considering what Dr. Prideaux says of Brennus the Gaul, his expedition, death, and crime. This man, at the head of a great number of his countrymen, sent abroad to seek new habitations, passing through Hungary, Illyriam, and Macedonia, plundering, pillaging, and destroying as they went, at last invaded Greece, and "marched on towards Delphos, to plunder the temple in that city of the vast riches which were there laid up. But he there met a wonderful defeat: For on his approaching the place, there happened a terrible storm of thunder, lightning, and hail, which destroyed great numbers of his men; and at the same time there was as terrible an earthquake, which rending the mountains in pieces, threw down whole rocks upon them, which overwhelmed them by hundreds at a time; by which the whole army being much dismayed, they were the following night seized with such a panick fear, that every man supposing him that was next to him to be a Grecian enemy, they fell upon each other; so that before there was day-light enough to make them see the mistake, one half of the army had destroyed the other. By all this the Greeks, who were now come together from all parts to defend their temple, being much animated, fell furiously on them; and although now Acichorus was come up with Brennus, yet both their forces together could not stand the assault; but great numbers of them were slain, and great numbers were wounded; and amongst these last was Brennus himself, who had received several wounds; and although none of them were mortal, yet seeing all now lost, and the whole expedition, which he had been the author of, thus ended in a dismal ruin, he was so confounded at the miscarriage, that he resolved not to outlive it: And therefore calling to him as many of the chief leaders as he could get together amidst calamitous hurry, he advised them to slay all the wounded, and with the remainder make as good a retreat backward as they could; and then having guzzled down as much wine as he could drink, he ran himself through and died. The rest being to march through enemies' countries, they were, as they passed, so distressed for want of provisions, which they were every where to fight for, so incommoded at night by lodging mostly upon the ground in a winter season, and in such a manner harrassed and fallen upon where-ever they came by the people of those countries through which they passed, that what with famine, cold, and sickness, and what with the sword of their enemies, they were all cut off and destroyed: So that of the numerous company which did first set out on this expedition, not so much as one man escaped the calamitous fate of miserably perishing in it."
This is the story of Brennus, which I have told in the Doctor’s own words: Now follows his reflection upon it:
"Thus God was pleased in a very extraordinary manner to execute his vengeance upon those sacrilegious wretches, for the sake of religion in general, how false and idolatrous soever that particular religion was, for which that temple at Delphos was erected. For, to believe a religion true, and offer sacrilegious violences to the places consecrated to the devotions of that religion, is absolute impiety, and a sin against all religion; and there are many instances of very signal judgments with which God hath punished it even amongst the worst of heathens and infidels; and much more may they expect it, who, having the truth of God established among them, shall become guilty hereof."
If this unhappy end of Brennus and his followers was a judgment, as doubtless this reverend and worthy author thinks, I cannot see why an intention to pillage a stupid idol of his useless wealth and devout baubles, given and used for the ends of idolatry and delusion, should be reckoned the cause of it. I would be glad to know how any part of mankind would have suffered in their religion and fortune, though the shrine and temple of Apollo had been stripped of their superstitious and ill-got finery; or how God Almighty came to shew himself thus miraculously the guardian of an idol, set up to rival him, and to deceive the world by uttering oraculous lies; or, how the taking away those riches that were acquired by belying God and deceiving man, and employed for the ornament and support of a blasphemous imposture, could be called sacrilege or robbing of God, who was really robbed by an idol of that only which he can be robbed of, divine worship and homage.
But because people are apt to be misguided and terrified by words, especially by such as are applied to devotion and holy things, I shall here bestow some reflections upon the awful word sacrilege, and shew that it is ill understood.
Sacrilege, we are told by some, signifies the robbing or stealing from God any thing which is peculiarly his. Now nothing can be stolen from God, nor can any thing be concealed from him. Every thing being his, it is as much his in the hands of one man as in the hands of another; for, let who will have the use of it, the property cannot be altered: God, who has all things, can never be put out of possession of any thing; and as nothing can be taken from him, so neither can any thing be given to him, because all the world and every thing in it is already his; and it is absurd to imagine that any form of words, or change of place or position, can enlarge or lessen his property in any thing. All that we have, we have from him; and to return him his own gifts back again, which we want, and he does not, is no compliment nor any part of religion or of reason: It is shewing ourselves wiser than him, in setting apart for his use those things which he has graciously created and set apart for ours. Can we feed him? Or can we clothe, adorn, or enrich him? Can we build him a city to dwell in, or furnish him with guards for the security of his person?
Sacrilege therefore is either the robbing of men, or no robbery at all. And this crime is greater or less, according to the measure or mischief done. To rob a poor man of his loaf, is a greater crime, in foro conscientiae, than to rob a rich man of an ox: To rob a man of a small part of a thing that is necessary to him, is a greater crime, than the robbing him of a great superfluity; and if I rob a man of a thing that will do him hurt, I hope I do him less an injury, than if I robbed him of a thing which does him good. But if I take a thing which no man has a right to, I myself have a right to it, by possessing it.
To apply all this to the business of sacrilege; if a man take away any of the books, vestments, or utensils, made use of in devotion, he only robs the congregation, who must buy more; and many being more able than one to bear this loss, the offence, as to its effects, is less than if he robbed but one man. But if he take away from a heathen temple, plate, or hidden treasure, laid up there, but not used, he indeed does an action that he has no right to do, but an action that however does good to the world, by turning into use that which was of none, or of bad use.
Dead treasure, first drawn from the people in superstitious offerings, and then laid up in a heathen temple, and kept and used for impious and idolatrous ends, but never to return again into the world, for the necessary purposes of life and commerce, is the plunder of mankind; and the worst of all plunders, because it never circulates; and people are greatly the worse for it, in respect both of soul and body, but never can be the better. It is first taking from them, and afterwards denying them, the great and chief means of life and convenience. He therefore, whoever he be, that takes it from thence, let him take it in what manner he will, does a better and more publick thing than he who keeps it there.
No man can be robbed of a thing in which he has no property. Of this sort was Apollo's wealth; and no body was robbed in taking it away. So that whoever takes away golden images, or other dead wealth, the means and objects of false adoration, is guilty of no other crime, than that of disturbing erroneous consciences: Nor need such consciences be much disturbed, since the crime being committed without their consent, they have no share in it. And therefore if such idolatrous images, and such superstitious, useless, and pernicious riches, be taken away by a lawful authority, or in a lawful war, it is no crime at all. So that in every sense Brennus committed a greater crime in plundering one village, than he could have committed, had he plundered, as he intended, the temple of Delphos.
If Brennus had believed in Apollo, he sinned against his conscience, in designing to rob him. But we do not know that Brennus, or those that followed him, believed thus. I do not remember that Apollo was the god of the Gauls, or that the druids owned him: All nations agreed not in worshipping the same gods, but often disputed about the quality, birth, and precedence of their gods. And if Brennus despised or disregarded Apollo, he committed no sacrilege; at least with respect to himself, it was no sacrilege, but only rapine; but if, believing in him, though an idol, he would have sinned in pillaging him, as doubtless he would, here is an argument, that a good conscience may be an erroneous conscience; and that if no man must act against his own conscience, though it be erroneous, as doubtless he must not, then much less has any other man whatsoever a right to punish or distress him for it. If God approve, who is it that condemns? And none but God knows the heart of another.
If Brennus had worshipped Apollo, he was guilty of idolatry, in the opinion of all Christians: And if he had robbed him, he was guilty of sacrilege in the opinion of most. Now we hear of no judgment falling upon those that worshipped Apollo, and supported that idol with superstitious donations; all which was idolatry. And is idolatry, which God has declared abominable in his eyes, a less sin than robbing an idolatrous temple, which action God has no where declared a sin? The good kings of the Jews destroyed all idols and idolatrous temples, where-ever they had power; and the wrath of God was kindled against all that did not. If it was therefore a sin against the true God, not to destroy them; how came it to be sin only to rob them?
I think all this is enough to shew, that an intention to plunder Apollo of his idle and unhallowed wealth, was not the probable cause of any judgment upon Brennus and his followers: But if there must be a judgment in the case, there were reasons for it much more powerful, and much more likely to provoke God to send it. He was a wild and barbarous robber, at the head of an army of savages, who cruelly ravaged many nations, made spoil of all men's property, and inhumanly massacred those that defended their own. They were invaders, plunderers, and murderers, who, by numbers, barbarity, rapine, and slaughter, laid waste whole countries, and destroyed, unprovoked, men and property. In this general pillage, they had already passed through and desolated Hungary, Illyrium, Macedonia, and were now got into Greece. Was not here guilt enough to call down a thousand judgments? And after all this bloody and brutish violence done to the world, and to the laws of God and man; can we imagine that these Gauls suffered that terrible doom for barely intending a thing, in which neither God would have been dishonoured, nor man injured? At least in any degree of comparison, with the least of the other great and terrible calamities, which they suffered from these destroying barbarians?
I shall now add something more particularly concerning the wretched end of these Gauls, and enquire how far it can be reckoned a judgment. And here I am of opinion, that either every calamity, publick or private, must be accounted ajudgment; which doctrine, I believe, no man holds; or else we must determine, by what means we can know a judgment from a calamity: Nor do I know of any sufficient marks to direct us in this matter, but an immediate miracle, and declaration from Almighty God, that he means it so: And in such a miraculous declaration, the crime must be expressly specified, for which such judgment is inflicted; because for every crime judgments are not indicted, nor always for the latest crimes; but sometimes overtake the sinner, long after the sin is committed. All this I take to be self-evident. We must remember that men, biassed by passions and prejudices, do often confound good and evil, and mistake the greatest wickedness for the greatest merit, and the highest merit for the highest wickedness: Publick massacres have been applauded, publick incendiaries have been sainted, publick tyrants deified. While on the other side, public virtue has passed for a publick crime, truth for blasphemy, and Christianity has been rewarded with fire and sword. So that men thus blind and perverse do frequently entitle vice to the blessing and favour of God, and virtue and merit to his severest judgments.
Where-ever therefore there is a great complication of crimes, and sometimes of great crimes, how can we distinguish for which of them the judgment is sent, unless he that sends it declare the same? If he send it for more crimes than one, how shall we distinguish where he, who only can, does not? And if the judgment be sent for one sin only, by what certain token can we discover it? If one man hurt or disoblige twenty, in twenty different ways; rob one, steal from another, deceive a third, calumniate a fourth, wound a fifth, bear false witness against a sixth, and so on till he has as many enemies as crimes, and afterwards die by a disaster or the law; every one of the twenty will be apt to call it a judgment, and a particular judgment, for the particular offence done to himself. Now where is the rule, by which certainly to know either that this man's death was a judgment, or to find out the certain crime that brought it upon him? Or is ever such a rule like to be found, as long as all sorts of evils befall all sorts of men?
As to the thunder, lightning, hail, and earthquakes, that destroyed so many of the Gauls, were they not the usual operations and effects of nature? And have they not been from the beginning? Have not whole cities and countries been destroyed by them? And has not their impartial fury been felt by the good and the bad, without distinction? In destroying storms by land and sea, are the wicked only overtaken? And do not the virtuous perish undistinguished with the latter? And are not just men, going upon just expeditions, frequently overwhelmed by them? And do not wicked men, in wicked enterprizes, often escape them? When an impetuous shock of an earthquake overturns a city, or opens a devouring chasm to swallow it up; do the dwellings of the righteous remain unmoved, and their persons unhurt!
Nor is it at all wonderful and uncommon, that this ignorant multitude, dismayed by so many and so alarming misfortunes, thus suddenly checked in their progress, at a great distance from home, beset with enemies in an enemy's country, unskilled in the phaenomena of nature, suffering many calamities, and dreading more, fell into a panick; and, having lost their senses, attacked one another, by a mistake, in the dark. Wicked armies have fallen into the like terror upon the sight of an eclipse: And the same unaccountable fear, but without the same effect, seized the victorious Macedonian army of Alexander the Great, the very night before they fought one of their greatest and most successful battles. And we have still a much later instance at home: At the battle of Naseby, King Charles I who was in it, being pressed by some of his own people that were behind them, bid them keep back; which words being repeated by others to those next them, and by these to others, the word back was catched up, and running from man to man through all the ranks, was understood as a sign to fly; and accordingly the royal army fled, and the field was lost. And thus a chance word threw a whole army into a panick. None of the royal party have yet told us, that this was a judgment upon that king and his cause; nor, I dare say, would they have believed the other party, had the other party alledged that it was.
Considering all these calamities and losses suffered by the Gauls, and the consternation which they were in, I suppose there was no great miracle in their being vanquished by the Greeks, who were now come together from all parts, to fall furiously on a defeated enemy. And as small is the wonder of Brennus's killing himself: He was a resolute man, and took this method to cure himself of that grief and disappointment which he could not bear, and to preserve himself from falling alive into the hands of his enemies, to whom he had given a right of using him very ill.
Neither is it any thing surprizing that the rest, "being to march through enemies' countries, were, as they passed, so distressed for want of provisions, which they were every where to fight for; so incommoded at night by lodging mostly on the ground in a winter season, and in such a manner, harassed and fallen upon where-ever they came by the people of those countries through which they passed, that what with famine, cold, and sickness, and what with the sword of their enemies, they were all cut off and destroyed."
All this misfortune is thus fairly accounted for, and the thing is not uncommon. The whole nation of the Cimbrians were destroyed in much greater numbers, when they left their old habitations in quest of new; though it does not appear that they intended to rob temples. And yet Xerxes destroyed and plunder'd all the idolatrous temples in the East, except that of Diana at Ephesus, without thriving the worse for it.
They were all cut off and destroyed! for which plain, natural, and necessary causes are assigned; and yet it was a judgment! Surely this is strange and unaccountable! Doubtless there were degrees and great differences of guilt and innocence amongst Brennus's followers; and why should they, who were not all equally guilty, all equally suffer? Why should subjects and soldiers be punished for the sins of a prince or a general? Soldiers are often pressed into the service, and rarely or never know the reasons of the commander's orders; and it is mutiny and death to disobey him. And princes often run into wild wars, without the consent of their subjects, and against their interest; and yet if their subjects oppose them in it, they are guilty of resistance, which is reckoned rebellion; a very terrible and crying crime, to which the judgment of God has been pronounced due: And yet the judgments of God, which sometimes fall upon princes for an unjust war, fall also upon their subjects, who were utterly guiltless of it, What strange doctrine is this? that every man in a nation shall suffer for the sins of one man, whom they could not restrain; or that any man shall suffer for the crimes of another? And that the best men in an army or a nation shall bear the calamities inflicted upon them for the sins of the worst; as if it were a crime in a good man to live where his lot has cast him, without his own consent, next door to a wicked man, or within ten miles of him?
This paper, which I could make much longer, grows already too long. I shall conclude with observing, that we either apply God's judgments at random, without his authority, always in opposition to his commands, and, for aught we know, as often contrary to his ends and intention; or we do it out of prejudices to men and opinions: And by this we give advantage to infidels and men of no religion, to reproach us with presumption upon our own principles, in meddling with the secret councils of God, in confounding his mercy and justice, in making him act capriciously, and in confounding one religion with another, the good with the bad, as if we thought them all alike. Let us give no more ground for this reproach; and as a specimen of our candour and equitable judgment, let us own, in the instance before us, that the liberty, prosperity, and peace of the world, and, amongst the rest, the liberty of Greece, were things somewhat more sacred and inviolable than Apollo's consecrated baubles.
I am, &c.
P. S. The story about King Charles I relate upon memory, and may mistake in names or circumstances.