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Cerberus. Similar marvellous narratives formed the subjects of two tragedies of Æschylus, the Psychagogia and the Adventures of Sisyphus, both unfortunately lost to us. These fables were well adapted to please the imaginative inhabitants of Greece, who were always inclined to look beyond this world for that retribution which cannot be found in our present state of existence.
But we must not seek in the works of the Greek poets for any thing beyond fine descriptions and poetical images of a future state.
We must not look for those pure and spiritual delineations of eternal life which Plato alone had dimly conceived before they were fully brought to light by divine revelation. The Greek poets, in so frequently laying the scene of dramatic and epic action in another world, have merely shown that this was a favorite subject with the people for whom they wrote. Plato has done more; he has led us still farther into the kingdom of Death. He has shown, with a sense of justice which had never before been witnessed in pagan antiquity, the punishments and rewards reserved for those who have left this world. In the narrative of Her, an Armenian soldier, Plato has given a description of the invisible world.* This soldier, says Plato, was killed in battle. Ten days after his death, his body was found on the field in a perfect state of preservation. It was placed on a funeral pile to be burned, when life returned, and Her rose to relate to the bystanders what he had seen.
“ As soon as my soul had left the body,” said he, “ I arrived, together with a great number of other souls, at a most wonderful place. In the ground were two openings, close together, and in the heavens were two other openings, which corresponded with those in the earth. Between these two regions were seated the Judges. As soon as they had passed sentence on a soul, they or. dered it, if it was one of the just, to take the road up to heaven, which was to the right; they had previously placed on its breast a label inscribed with the judgment which had been pronounced in its favor. If, on the contrary, it was the soul of one condemned, it was ordered to turn to the left
, and to enter one of the openings in the ground; each carried on its back an inscription enumerating all the wicked actions it had committed during its life. When I presented myself, the judges decreed that I should return to the world to relate what I had seen, and ordered me to hear and to notice every thing that should take place."
* The Republic. Book X.
Her then describes the manner in which the souls were punished or rewarded. His narrative does not at all resemble the descriptions of the infernal regions so common among the poets of antiquity. There is something in it more elevated, more pure, more terrible ; it seems to be the first step towards that doctrine which, a few centuries later, regenerated the world. We must not say that Plato placed unlimited trust in such narratives ; but he knew the vast importance of these symbolic representations of moral truths. In his Phædo, he has said, — “ To maintain that all these things are as I relate them would not be possible for a man of sense ; but whether all I have said about the souls and the place of their abode is true or not, if the soul is really immortal, it seems to me that it may be believed without danger.
Five centuries after Plato, we find a similar narrative in a work of Plutarch : De his qui a numine serò puniuntur, Thespesius of Cilicia returns to the world after his death, and relates what he had seen. 6. He had lived,” says Plutarch, “in the indulgence of sensual pleasures. His vision of eternity sanctified and purified him.”
The Romans, whose literature is, after all, but an admirable imitation of that of Greece, the reflection of a brilliant light, naturally transferred to their works the taste of the former for the marvellous. Cicero, in the last book of his Republic, has given us the Dream of Scipio, which, in the work of the Roman philosopher, takes the place of Plato's Vision of Her. Scipio the younger, in a dream, imagined that his ancestor, Scipio Africanus, appeared to him, and, after pointing out to him the brilliant career which awaited him, prepared him for his destiny by explaining to him the economy of the system of the universe. Transported to the top of a celestial temple, Scipio, in the midst of the souls which are wandering along the milky way, listens to the seven notes of the eternal music of the spheres. He gazes upon the stars which surround him, and contemplates with awe the immense spaces in which they are suspended ; and when at last he discovers our little world, and the small space which the Roman empire occupies, he turns away to hide his shame. Struck by the admirable spectacle which he has witnessed, he vows to rise above this world, and to aspire with all his power to this supreme felicity. In this admirable fragment, Cicero has collected all his doctrines on God, on nature, and on man.
But the images of a world of spirits are still more vivid in another and more popular work, Virgil's Æneid. In the sixth book of this poem, the Roman poet has given an epitome of the whole religious system of his country. He has shown the origin and destiny of the soul, and has combined the philosophical doctrines of his times with all the pomp and majesty of the Greek mythology. In fact, he may be said to have opened the road to the infernal regions; for all his imitators faithfully crowd after him, and follow him to the cavern of the terrible sibyl. The descent to the regions of death and darkness becomes an easy undertaking, — facilis descensus Averno. Ovid leads Orpheus and Juno to them ; Silius Italicus shows Scipio visiting Avernus ; Statius has given no less than three descriptions of the infernal regions ; and Valerius Flaccus and Claudian have followed the common example. The dramatists are not in this respect outdone by the epic poets. It is remarkable, also, that in the fights of the gladiators a figure bearing the attributes of Pluto, with a hammer in his hand, came into the arena to take away the bodies of the dead. The poets of the time of the decline of the Roman empire treat these popular descriptions, and the belief of the multitude, with the greatest contempt. Seneca says, that they are nothing but words devoid of sense.* In the eyes of Juvenal, they are fables to be believed only by "children too young to pay at the public baths.” |
Dante, it is probable, was only indirectly indebted to the Greeks for the general conception or the details of his poem, , for it is still a question how far he was acquainted with the Greek language ; but to the Romans he certainly owed much. He tells us, that, after the death of Beatrice, he sought for consolation in the works of Cicero. He then read the Somnium Scipionis, and, like the great Roman general, overpowered by the admirable vision there related, he determined to rise above the world, and to concentrate all his thoughts on the mysteries of another life. But to Virgil he was particularly indebted. There is ample evidence of this in the first canto of the Inferno, for there he has himself said, in speaking to Virgil :-“ Thou art my master and my guide, thou art he from whom I took the beautiful style which has done me so much honor."* The part which he has ascribed, in his poem, to the great Latin poet shows how well he must have been acquainted with the Æneid. In his eyes, as in those of most inen of the Middle Ages, Virgil was the representative of the religious belief of the ancients, in its purest form. He had, as it was then believed, prophesied in one of his Eclogues the advent of Christ. As we have already said, he did not, in the sixth book of the Æneid, follow exclusively the precepts of any one school of philosophy. Whilst he professed the pure and spiritual doctrines of Plato, he did not express any contempt for the mysteries of Eleusis, or the poetic conceptions of the Pythagoreans. These considerations had given rise during the Middle Ages to a peculiar veneration for the name of Virgil. By the people he was considered as a magician ; by the men of learning, as a prophet. On the subject of his life and death the most curious legends were in circulation. He figured in the old Mysteries, and there is even an old Spanish ballad entitled Vergilios. It is not surprising, then, that Dante should have chosen him for his guide during the first part of his supernatural initiation in the mysteries of eternity. He was probably acquainted, also, with a number of the minor Latin poets; for, notwithstanding the religious zeal of these times, and the treasures of learning and eloquence which Christianity had given to the world, the cultivation of Greek and Roman letters was never entirely abandoned. In 1325, we find a master of grammar, named Vital, employed in the University of Bologna, at a fixed stipend, to comment upon the works of Cicero and of Ovid. In the monasteries, the passion for antiquity was carried to such an extent, that, even as early as the eleventh century, a German monk complains bitterly of the great abuses to which this taste for Juvenal and Horace might give rise, and accuses himself of having given too
* " Rumores vacui, verbaque inania.” — Troad, Act II.
t“ Nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum ære lavantur." - Juv., Sat. II., 152.
Convito, 11, 13.
**. Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
Tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
Inferno, Canto I., 85 - 88.
much time to the reading of Lucan. But, as M. Ozanam very justly observes, it is in Latin and in making use of the same measure as these poets, that this monk expresses his complaints and regrets.
Such are the sources, in the ancient literature of the Greeks and the Romans, to which Dante is chiefly indebted. If we now turn to the literature of the East for descriptions of another world, we shall find an abundance of curious and instructive material. But it must be remarked, that the Jewish and Hindoo writers can have exercised on Dante's poem but an indirect and rather vague influence, and that it is only when we consider them as one more link of that chain which unites the inspiration of the Florentine poet with those traditions which have occupied and interested the human race at all times, that they can be studied in connection with the Divina Commedia. A rapid analysis of these works will show what were the notions of these people on the subject of a future state.
Although full of the most poetic images, the Hebrew Scriptures contain little or nothing on this topic. There is no complete description of hell to be found, and the few expressions which are used to designate it convey but a vague idea to the mind of the reader. Even the visions of Elias, of Ezekiel, or of Enoch, do not give any details respecting it. In the Hindoo literature, on the contrary, there is much on the subject. In the Maha-Barata, we find the description of the journey of Ardjuna to the heaven of India. In the Atharva-Veda, that most ancient of poems, we see the young Brahmin Tadjkita sent by his father to the king of Death, from whose kingdom no living man ever returned. The king, touched by the obedience of Tadjkita, sends him back to earth, after having granted him three gifts, which he may choose as he likes. After he has asked for two, which are granted, the conversation between them continues thus. Tadkjita says, -“This is my third request ; among those who discuss these matters, there are many contradictions. Some say there is nothing beyond this world, and that, when the body perishes, nothing remains ; others, think that the soul is distinct from the body, and that, when the body dies, the soul enters another world, where it is treated according as it has merited. I therefore wish that you should instruct me, in order that I may learn which