MARIUS THE EPICUREAN.*
A READER who brings to the study of Mr. Pater's romance the
popular conception of the Epicurean will find himself in the presence of an individuality of a very different kind. Marius is a youth of a severely introspective, self-examining character, who carries into the practical working-out of the philosophy which he adopts all the sense of obligation, the religion, in the first meaning of that word, with which he was possessed while he still held to the hereditary faith of his people. For when he is first introduced to us he is a devout worshipper of the ancient gods, a scrupulous performer of the services with which they are honoured. A beautiful passage in the first chapter shows him to us officiating as head of the family, for such he was, though but a boy in age, at the festival of the private Ambarvalia. The victims led about the cornfields and vineyard, which are to be lustrated with their blood, the strewing of the spring blossoms before the images of Bacchus and Ceres, the invocation of the" little gods," the divinities of daily life, that strange Pantheon, busy with all the details of existence which so moves the wrath and scorn of St. Augustine in the De Civitate Dei, the pathetic offerings to the family dead, are the chief scenes in this picture, to which the style, with its grave and chastened beauty, gives a remarkable charm. To this earnest-minded, thoughtful lad these observances, which sat so lightly on the ordinary Roman as to be absolutely inoperative on his moral conduct, are an impressive reality, which affects his whole being. This attitude of his mind is thus described :—
" Had the Romans a word for unworldly ? The beautiful word unzbratilis comes nearest to it, perhaps ; and, in that precise sense, might describe the spirit in which he prepared himself for the sacerdotal function, hereditary in his family—the sort of mystic enjoyment he had in the abstinence, the strenuous self-control and maga, which such preparation involved. Like the young Ion in the beautiful opening of the play of Euripides, who every morning sweeps the temple floor with such a fund of cheerfulness in his service, he was apt to be happy in sacred places, with a susceptibility to their peculiar influences which he never outgrew; so that often in aftertimes, quite unexpectedly, this feeling would revive in him, still fresh and strong. That first, early, boyish, ideal of priesthood, the sense of dedication, survived through all the distraction of the world, when all thought of such vocations had finally passed from him, as a ministry, in spirit at least, towards a sort of hieratic beauty and orderliness in the conduct of life."
The first step in the movement from this early stage of thought is happily described. Marius, affected by some malady of youth, is taken to a temple of 2Esculapius, situated among the Etruscan hills. He sleeps, according to the prescribed ritual, within the sacred precincts ; there he waits, so to speak, for the divine intimation which is to reveal to him what he seeks. It comes to him, just when he is in the attitude of eager attention, in the voice of a young priest, who discourses to him "on the skilled cultivation of life, of experience, of opportunity." It is thus, in a place and amidst associations which would have seemed wholly alien, that his first introduction takes place to. the philosophy which he was to embrace in after-life; for the young priest's teaching would easily blend with that of the Cyrenaic teacher whose aim it was to make the best of life, and on whom, therefore, "all things eat gracefully."
Then comes a great change in the boy's life. He goes to school at Pisa, and there falls-in with a certain Flavianns, an older fellow-student, who is appointed to help him in his studies. Flavian is a Cyrenaic, or, to use the more popular but less appropriate word, Epicurean, not as that philosophy is interpreted by a pure, mystically inclined nature like that of Marius, but as it is translated into practical life by characters of the ordinary type. He is handsome, brilliantly clever,—Mr. Pater uses the liberty of romance to make him the author of the anonymous Pervigiliunt Venerie—tinged with cynicism by the circumstances of his birth ; for he was a freedman's son and protégé of a wealthy patron ; and unrestrained by any conscience in the eager snatching at the pleasures of life. In the bloom of his youth this friend is struck down by the new pestilence which Lucius Verus had brought back with him from the East, set free, it was believed, to ravage the Western world by the sacrilegious plunderers of Apollo's temple at Seleucia. This sudden end of one who had seemed a very incarnation of life and enjoyment makes a revolution in Marius's mental history :— " Flavian was no more. The little marble cheat with its dust and tears lay cold among the faded flowers. For most people the actual spectacle of death brings out into greater reality, at least for the imagination, whatever confidence they may entertain as to the soul's survival in another life. To Marius, greatly agitated by that event, the earthly end of Flavian came like a final revelation of nothing less than the soul's extinction. He had gone out as utterly as the fire among those still beloved ashes. Even such wistful suspense of judgment as that expressed by the dying Hadrian, regarding further stages of being still possible for his soul in some dim journey hence, seemed wholly untenable, and, with it, almost all that remained of the religion of his childhood. Future extinction seemed just then to be what the unforced witness of his own nature pointed to. On the other hand, there came a novel curiosity as to what the varietal, schools of ancient philosophy had had to say concerning that strange, fluttering creature ; and that curiosity impelled him to certain severe studies, in which, as before, his earlier religious conscience seemed still to survive, as a principle of hieratic scrupulousness or integrity of thought, in this new service to intellectual light."
The whole of this chapter is an able and lucid setting-forth of the processes by which the young Roman makes for himself a philosophy of life, nominally based on the Cyrenaic teaching, but built up into larger developments by the workings of his own temperament. Much is summed-up in the following :—
" Conceded that what is secure in our existence is but the sharp apex of the present moment between two hypothetical eternities, and all that is real in our experience but a series of fleeting impressions —so he continued the sceptical argument he had condensed, as the matter to hold by, from his various philosophical reading—given, that we are never to get beyond the walls of this closely-shut cell of our own subjective personality ; if the ideas we are somehow impelled to form of an outer world, and even of other minds akin to our own, are, it may be, but a day-dream, and the thought of a world beyond, a day-dream probably thinner still ; then he, at least, in whom those fleeting impressions—faces, voices, material, sunshine—were very real and imperious, might well set himself to the consideration, how such actual moments as they passed might be made to yield him their utmost, by the most dexterous training of his capacities. Amid abstract metaphysical doubts as to what might lie one step only beyond that experience, reinforcing the deep original materialism or earthliness of human nature itself, bound so intimately to the visible world, let him at least make the most of what was here and now.' In the actual dimness of ways from means to ends—ends though in themselves excellent, yet for the most part distant, and for him, certainly, below the visible horizon—he would at all events be sure that the means, to use the well-worn phraseology, should have something of finality or perfection about them, and themselves partake, in a measure, of that more excellent nature of ends—that the means should justify the end."
Then comes another stage in the youth's life. He goes to Rome. After a singularly effective description of the journey thither, and of the first impressions made on his mind by the great city, we are brought into the presence of the Imperial philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, then receiving the honours of an ovation, with his candid gaze and "bland capacity of the brow:*
—a brow "low, broad, and still without a trace of the trouble of the lips." With the Emperor Marius was to be brought into • contact, for he had been appointed cone of his secretaries. The earlier part of the second volume is specially devoted to the bringing-out the contrast between the Emperor's stoicism, modified as it was by the practical necessities of life, and the spiritualised epicureanism of his young attendant.
The latter part of the second volume brings us to two new experiences in the student's life. We say "two," though the first is really introductory to the second, of which, by the force of contrast, it greatly deepens the impression. Of Two Curious Houses," the first is one of a Roman
exquisite. Here Marius is a guest at a feast, "in which the -various exciting elements of Roman life,—its physical and intellectual accomplishments, its frivolity and far-fetched
elegances, its strange, mystic essays after the unseen, were elaborately combined." The principal figure at this feast is Apuleius, and we have a glimpse of the young prince Corn modus already giving proof of what is, perhaps, the most signal instance of degeneracy in the history of the world. Then, in vivid opposition to this scene, in which the only spiritual element is a dreamy neo-Platonic speculation of Apuleius about an order of unseen existences that mediate between gods and man, is the second "curious house," the home of a Christian family, the family of a, certain Cornelius, whose acquaintance Marius had made years before in his journey to Rome. For the young philosopher does not escape the contagion of the " superstition " that was then fast emptying both the temples of the gods and the schools of the philosophers. As the hero of Moore's romance meets this world-pervading influence on the Nile, so Marius meets it in the suburbs of Rome. And it appeals to exactly that feeling of the cruelty of death that had so changed the current of his thoughts in early days. The "Pagan death" of his friend Flavian, with all its bitterness and hopelessness, is contrasted with the different aspect which death assumed in the light of Christian faith. As he stands in the family buryingplace of the Crecilii, a new light breaks in upon him :—
"And it was with a curious novelty of feeling, of the dawning of a fresh order of experiences upon him, that, standing beside those mournful relics, snatched in haste from the common place of execution not many years before, Matins became, as by some gleam of foresight, aware of the whole possible force of evidence for a strange, new hope, defining a new and weighty motive of action in the world, in those tragic deaths for the Christian superstition,' of which he bad heard something indeed, but which had seemed to him hitherto but one savagery, one selfprovoked savagery, the more, in a cruel and stupid world.. And that poignant memory of suffering seemed to draw him on towards a still more vivid and pathetic image of suffering, in a distant but not dim background. Yes ! the interest, the expression of the entire place was filled with that like the savour of some precious incense. Penetrating the whole atmosphere, touching everything around with its peculiar sentiment, it seemed to make all this visible mortality, death itself, more beautiful than any fantastic dream of old mythology had over hoped to make it ; and that, in a simple sincerity of feeling about a supposed actual fact. The thought, the word, Pax—Pax Tecunt !—was put forth everywhere, with images of hope, snatched sometimes even from that jaded pagan world, which had really afforded men so little of it, from first to last—the consoling images it had thrown off, of succour, of regeneration, of escape from death—Hercules wrestling with Death for possession of Alcestis, Orpheus taming the wild beasts, the Shepherd with his sheep, the Shepherd carrying the sick lamb upon his shoulders."
The carefully-wrought description of Christian worship which follows, and the way in which this earnest seeker after a philosophy of life finds, without knowing, we may say, an answer, we can but mention as perhaps the happiest parts of a singularly attractive book. Not to wholly omit the censure which is one of the critic's functions, we may point out that it was not Calvin, but Jonathan Edwards, who had "the vision of infants not a span long on the floor of hell."