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One Nights. All the origins of nations are evidently fables. The reason is, that men must have lived long in society, and have learnt to make bread and clothing, (which would be matters of some difficulty) before they acquired the art of transmitting all their thoughts to posterity, (a matter of greater difficulty still). The art of writing is certainly not more than six thousand years old, even among the Chinese; and, whatever may be the boast of the Chaldeans and Egyptians, it appears not at all likely that they were able to read and write sooner.
The history, therefore, of preceding periods, could be transmitted only by memory; and we well know how the memory of past events changes from one generation to another. The first histories were written only from the imagination. Not only did every people invent its own origin, but it invented also the origin of the whole world.
If we may believe Sanchoniathon, the origin of things was a thick air, which was rarified by the wind; hence sprang desire and love, and from the union of desire and love were formed animals. The stars were later productions, and intended merely to adorn the heavens, and to rejoice the sight of the animals upon earth.
The Knef of the Egyptians, their Oshiret and Ishet, which we call Osiris and Isis, are neither less ingenious nor ridiculous. The Greeks embellished all these fictions. Ovid collected them, and ornamented them with the charms of the most beautiful poetry. What he says of a god who develops or disembroils chaos, and of the formation of man, is sublime.
Sanctius his animal, mentisque capacius altæ
OVID. Metam. i. v. 76.
A creature of a more exalted kind
Was wanting yet, and then was man design'd:
Pronaque cum spectent animalia cætera terram;
Metam. i. v. 84.
Thus, while the mute creation downward bend
Hesiod, and other writers who lived so long before, would have been very far from expressing themselves with this elegant sublimity. But, from the interesting moment of man's formation down to the era of the Olympiads, everything is plunged in profound obscurity.
Herodotus is present at the Olympic games, and, like an old woman to children, recites his narratives, or rather tales, to the assembled Greeks. He begins by saying, that the Phenicians sailed from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean; which, if true, must necessarily imply, that they had doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and made the circuit of Africa.
Then comes the rape of Iö; then the fable of Gyges and Candaules; then the wondrous stories of banditti, and that of the daughter of Cheops, king of Egypt, having required a hewn stone from each of her many lovers, and obtained, in consequence, a number large enough to build one of the pyramids.
To this, add the oracles, prodigies, and frauds of priests, and you have the history of the human race.
The first periods of the Roman history, appear to have been written by Herodotus; our conquerors and legislators knew no other way of counting their years as they passed away, than by driving nails into a wall by the hand of the sacred pontiff.
The great Romulus, the king of a village, is the son of the god Mars, and a recluse, who was proceeding to a well to draw water in a pitcher. He has a god for his father, a woman of loose manners for his mother, and a she-wolf for his nurse. A buckler falls from heaven expressly for Numa. The invaluable
books of the Sibyls are found by accident. An augur, by divine permission, divides a large flint-stone with a razor. A vestal, with her mere girdle, draws into the water a large vessel that has been stranded. Castor and Pollux come down to fight for the Romans, and the marks of their horses' feet are imprinted on the stones. The transalpine Gauls advanced to pillage Rome; some relate, that they were driven away by geese, others, that they carried away with them much gold and silver; but it is probable that, at that time, in Italy, geese were far more abundant than silver. We have imitated the first Roman historians, at least in their taste for fables. We have our oriflamme, our great standard brought from heaven by an angel, and the holy phial by a pigeon; and, when to these, we add the mantle of St. Martin, we feel not a little formidable.
What would constitute useful history? That which should teach us our duties and our rights, without appearing to teach them.
It is often asked, Whether the fable of the sacrifice of Iphigenia is taken from the history of Jephtha? Whether the deluge of Deucaleon is invented in imitation of that of Noah? Whether the adventure of Philemon and Baucis is copied from that of Lot and his wife? The Jews admit that they had no communication with strangers, that their books were unknown to the Greeks, till the translation made by the order of Ptolemy. The Jews were, long before that period, money-brokers and usurers among the Greeks at Alexandria; but the Greeks never went to sell old clothes at Jerusalem. It is evident that no people imitated the Jews, and also that the Jews imitated or adopted many things from the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks.
All Jewish antiquities are sacred in our estimation, notwithstanding the hatred and contempt in which we hold that people. We cannot indeed believe them by reason, but we bring ourselves under subjection to the Jews by faith. There are about fourscore systems in existence on the subject of their chronology, and a
far greater number of ways of explaining the events recorded in their histories; we know not which is the true one, but we reserve our faith for it in store against the time when that true one shall be discovered.
We have so many things to believe of this sensible and magnanimous people, that all our faith is exhausted by them, and we have none left for the prodigies with which the other nations abound. Rollin may go on repeating to us the oracles of Apollo, and the miraculous achievements of Semiramis; he may continue to transcribe all that has been narrated of the justice of those ancient Scythians who so frequently pillaged Africa, and occasionally ate men for their breakfast; yet sensible and well-educated people will still feel and express some degree of incredulity.
What I most admire in our modern compilers is, the judgment and zeal with which they prove to us, that whatever happened in former ages, in the most extensive and powerful empires of the world, took place solely for the instruction of the inhabitants of Palestine. If the kings of Babylon, in the course of their conquests, overrun the territories of the Hebrew people, it is only to correct that people for their sins. If the monarch, who has been commonly named Cyrus, becomes master of Babylon, it is that he may grant permission to some captive Jews to return home. If Alexander conquers Darius, it is for the settlement of some Jew old-clothes-men at Alexandria. When the Romans join Syria to their vast dominions, and round their empire with the little district of Judea, this is still with a view to teach a moral lesson to the Jews. The Arabs and the Turks appear upon the stage of the world solely for the correction of this amiable people. We must ac-. knowledge that they have had an excellent education; never had any pupil so many preceptors. Such is the utility of history!
But what is still more instructive is, the exact justice which the clergy have dealt out to all those sovereigns with whom they were dissatisfied. Observe with what impartial candour St. Gregory of Nazianzen
judges the emperor Julian, the philosopher. He declares that that prince, who did not believe in the existence of the devil, held secret communication with that personage, and that, on a particular occasion, when the demons appeared to him under the most hideous forms, and in the midst of the most raging flames, he drove them away by making inadvertently the sign of the cross.
He denominates him madman and wretch; he asserts, that Julian immolated young men and womén every night in caves. Such is the description he gives of the most candid and clement of men, and who never exercised the slightest revenge against this same Gregory, notwithstanding the abuse and invectives. with which he pursued him throughout his reign.
To apologize for the guilty, is a happy way of justifying calumny against the innocent. Compensation is thus effected; and such compensation was amply afforded by St. Gregory. The emperor Constantius, Julian's uncle and predecessor, upon his accession to the throne, had massacred Julius, his mother's brother, and his two sons, all three of whom had been declared august; this was a system which he had adopted from his father. He afterwards procured the assassination of Gallus, Julian's brother. The cruelty which he thus displayed to his own family, he extended to the empire at large; but he was a man of prayer, and, even at the decisive battle with Maxentius, he was praying to God in a neighbouring church, during the whole time in which the armies were engaged. Such was the man who was eulogized by Gregory; and, if such is the way in which the saints bring us acquainted with the truth, what may we not expect from the profane, particularly when they are ignorant, superstitious, and irritable?
At the present day, the study of history is occasionally applied to a purpose somewhat whimsical and absurd. Certain charters of the time of Dagobert are discovered and brought forward, the greater part of them of a somewhat suspicious character in point of genuineness, and ill-understood; and from these