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In antiquity everything is symbol or emblem. In Chaldea it starts by putting a ram, two kids, a bull in the sky, to mark the productions of the earth in the spring. Fire is the symbol of the Deity in Persia; the celestial dog warns the Egyptians of the Nile floods; the serpent which hides its tail in its head, becomes the image of eternity. The whole of nature is represented and disguised.
In India again you find many of those old statues, uncouth and frightful, of which we have already spoken, representing virtue provided with ten great arms with which to combat vice, and which our poor missionaries have taken for the picture of the devil.
Put all these symbols of antiquity before the eyes of a man of the soundest sense, who has never heard speak of them, he will not understand anything: it is a language to be learned.
The old theological poets were in the necessity of giving God eyes, hands, feet; of announcing Him in the form of a man. St. Clement of Alexandria records some verses of Xenophanes the Colophonian (Stromates liv. v.), from which one sees that it is not merely from to-day that men have made God in their own image. Orpheus of Thrace, the first theologian of the Greeks, long before Homer, expresses himself similarly, according to the same Clement of Alexandria.
Everything being symbol and emblem, the philosophers, and especially those who had travelled in India, employed this method; their precepts were emblems and enigmas.
Do not stir the fire with a sword, that is, do not irritate angry men.
Do not hide the light under the bushel.--Do not hide the truth from men.
Abstain from beans.--Flee frequently public assemblies in which one gave one's suffrage with black or white beans.
Do not have swallows in your house.--That it may not be filled with chatterers.
In the tempest worship the echo.--In times of public trouble retire to the country.
Do not write on the snow.--Do not teach feeble and sluggish minds.
Do not eat either your heart or your brain.--Do not give yourself up to either grief or to too difficult enterprises, etc.
Such are the maxims of Pythagoras, the sense of which is not hard to understand.
The most beautiful of all the emblems is that of God, whom TimŠus of Locres represents by this idea: A circle the centre of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. Plato adopted this emblem; Pascal had inserted it among the material which he intended using, and which has been called his "Thoughts."
In metaphysics, in moral philosophy, the ancients have said everything. We coincide with them, or we repeat them. All modern books of this kind are only repetitions.
It is above all among the Indians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, that these emblems, which to us appear most strange, were consecrated. It is there that the two organs of generation, the two symbols of life, were carried in procession with the greatest respect. We laugh at it, we dare treat these peoples as barbarous idiots, because they innocently thanked God for having given them existence. What would they have said if they had seen us enter our temples with the instrument of destruction at our side?
At Thebes the sins of the people were represented by a goat. On the coast of Phoenicia a naked woman, with a fish's tail, was the emblem of nature.
One must not be astonished, therefore, if this use of symbols reached the Hebrews when they had formed a body of people near the Syrian desert.
One of the most beautiful emblems of the Judaic books is this passage of Ecclesiastes: "... when the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, when the almond-tree shall flourish and the grasshopper shall be a burden: or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain...."
That signifies that the old men lose their teeth, that their sight is dim, that their hair whitens like the flower of the almond-tree, that their feet swell like the grasshopper, that they are no more fit for engendering children, and that then they must prepare for the great journey.
The "Song of Songs" is (as one knows) a continual emblem of the marriage of Jesus Christ with the Church. It is an emblem from beginning to end. Especially does the ingenious Dom Calmet demonstrate that the palm-tree to which the well-beloved goes is the cross to which our Lord Jesus Christ was condemned. But it must be avowed that a pure and healthy moral philosophy is still preferable to these allegories.
One sees in this people's books a crowd of typical emblems which revolt us to-day and which exercise our incredulity and our mockery, but which appeared ordinary and simple to the Asiatic peoples.
In Ezekiel are images which appear to us as licentious and revolting: in those times they were merely natural. There are thirty examples in the "Song of Songs," model of the most chaste union. Remark carefully that these expressions, these images are always quite serious, and that in no book of this distant antiquity will you find the least mockery on the great subject of generation. When lust is condemned it is in definite terms; but never to excite to passion, nor to make the smallest pleasantry. This far-distant antiquity did not have its Martial, its Catullus, or its Petronius.
It results from all the Jewish prophets and from all the Jewish books, as from all the books which instruct us in the usages of the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Phoenicians, the Syrians, the Indians, the Egyptians; it results, I say, that their customs were not ours, that this ancient world in no way resembled our world. Go from Gibraltar to Mequinez merely, the manners are no longer the same; no longer does one find the same ideas; two leagues of sea have changed everything.
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