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The manners of the Christians were the best preaching of Christianity. One word summed them up—piety. It was the life of good little people without worldly prejudices, but of a perfect honesty. The Messianic expectation grew weaker every day, and they passed from the somewhat strained morality, which was suitable to a state of crisis, to the stable morality of a settled society. Marriage was invested with a high religious character. They did not require to abolish polygamy; the Jewish manners, if not the Jewish law, had, in fact, nearly suppressed that. The harem was not, to tell the truth, among the ancient Jews but an exceptional abuse—a privilege of royalty. The prophets always showed themselves hostile to it; the practice of Solomon and his imitators was a subject of blame and scandal. In the first centuries of our era the cases of polygamy became very rare among the Jews; neither the Christians nor the Pagans reproached them with it. By the double influence of the Roman and Jewish marriage, there arose also that high ideal of the family which is still in our days the basis of European civilisation, so much so that it has become an essential part of natural law. It is necessary to recognise nevertheless that upon this point the Roman influence was superior to the Jewish influence, since it is only through the influence of the modern codes, drawn from the Roman law, that polygamy has disappeared from among the Jews.
The Roman, or it may be the Aryan influence, is also more traceable than the Jewish influence in the disfavour with which second marriages were regarded. These appear to them like an adultery decently disguised. As to the question of divorce, in which certain Jewish schools had yielded a blamable relaxation, they did not show themselves less strict. Marriage could not be broken but by the adultery of the wives. Not to separate “that which God has united” became the basis of the Christian law. At last the Church placed itself in full contradiction to Judaism by the fact of considering celibacy and virginity as a preferable state to marriage. Here Christianity, preceded, besides, in that by the Therapeutists, came near no doubt to the ideas which among the ancient Aryan peoples presented the virgin as a sacred being. The synagogue always held marriage as obligatory; in its eyes the celibate is guilty of homicide; he is not of the race of Adam, for man is not complete except when he is united to the woman; marriage ought not to be deferred after the age of eighteen. They made an exception to him who gave himself up to the study of the law, and who feared that the necessity of ministering to the needs of a family would take him from his work. “Let those who are not like me, absorbed by the law, people the earth,” said Rabbi ben Azai.
The Christian sects which remained connected with Judaism advised, like the synagogue, early marriages, and even wished that the pastors should keep an eye open upon the old men that they might be restrained from the danger of adultery. All at once, however, Christianity turned to the opinion of Ben Azai. Jesus, although he lived for more than thirty years, had never married. The expectation of an approaching end of the world rendered useless the desire for children, and the idea was established that there is no perfect Christian except through virginity. “The patriarchs had reason to see to the multiplication of their posterity; the world was young then; now, on the contrary, all things were declining and drawing to their close.” The Gnostic and Manichean sects were only consistent in forbidding marriage and the act of generation. The orthodox Church, always moderate, avoided this extreme; but continence, even chastity in marriage, were recommended, and excessive shame attached to the execution of the natural desires; women took a foolish horror of marriage; the shocking timidity of the Church in everything relating to the legitimate relations of the two sexes shall provoke one day more than one well-founded jest.
Following the same current of ideas the state of widowhood was looked upon as sacred; the widows constituted an ecclesiastical order. Woman must always be subject; when she has no longer a husband to obey, she serves the Church. The modesty of Christian ladies answered to these severe principles, and in many communities they did not go out without being veiled. The custom of the veil covering the whole figure in the fashion of the East did not become universal for young or unmarried women. The Montanists looked upon this custom as obligatory; if it did not prevail it was because of the opposition which the excesses of the Phrygian or African sectaries provoked, and especially by the influence of Greek and Latin countries, which had no need to found a true reformation of manners on this hideous mark of physical and moral weakness.
Ornaments at least were entirely forbidden. Beauty is a temptation of Satan. Why add to the temptation? The use of jewels, of paint, of dye for the hair, and of transparent garments, was an offence against modesty. False hair was a still graver sin; it lost the benediction of the priest, which, falling upon dead hair taken from another head, could not tell where to rest. Indeed, the most modest arrangements of the hair were held to be dangerous. St. Jerome, going farther, considered women’s hair as a simple nest for vermin, and recommended its being cut off.
The defect of Christianity appeared to be here. It was too singularly moral; beauty, according to it, is to be entirely sacrificed. Now, in the eyes of a complete philosophy, beauty, far from being a superficial advantage, a danger, an inconvenience, is a gift of God, like virtue. It is as good as virtue; the beautiful woman expresses an aspect of the divine purpose, one of the designs of God, like the man of genius or the virtuous woman. It knows him, and hence its pride. It feels instinctively the treasure which it bears in its body; it knows well that, without mind, talent, or great virtue, it is reckoned among the first manifestations of God. And why forbid her from putting into use the gift which has been given her, to set the diamond which has been cut? The woman by adorning herself accomplishes a duty; she practises an art, an exquisite art, in one sense the most charming of arts. We do not allow ourselves to be misled by the smile which certain words provoke among frivolous people. We decree the palm of genius to the Greek artist who knew how to solve the most delicate of problems, to ornament the human body, that is to say, to adorn perfection itself; and we do not see only a question of frippery in the attempt to work together in the finest work of God, in the beauty of woman! The toilette of the woman, with all its refinements, is a grand art in its way. The centuries and the countries which have succeeded in that are the great centuries, the great countries; and Christianity showed, by the exclusion with which it marked that kind of elegance, that the social idea it conceived would not become the framework of a complete society, as, indeed, it did later on, when the revolt of people of the world should have broken the firm yoke primitively imposed upon the sect by an exalted pietism.
It was, to tell the truth, everything which could be called luxury and worldly life which we see marked as forbidden. Spectacles were held as abominable and indecent, not only the bloody spectacles of the theatre, which all honest people detested, but even the more innocent spectacles. Every theatre, if for this only, that men and women assembled there to see and to be seen, is a dangerous place. There was no less horror for the thermæ, the gymnasia, the baths and the xysts, because of the nudities they produced. Christianity inherited there a Jewish sentiment. The public places were avoided by the Jews, because of circumcision, which exposed them to all sorts of disagreeables. If the games, the concourse, which make for a single day a mortal equal to the gods, and of which inscriptions preserve the memory, quite disappeared in the third century, Christianity was the cause of it. A blank was made by the disappearance of these ancient institutions; they taxed them with vanity. They were right; but human life is over when one has succeeded too well in proving to man that all is vanity.
The sobriety of the Christians equalled their modesty. The prescriptions relating to meats were nearly all suppressed; the principle “to the pure all things are pure” prevailed. Many, nevertheless, imposed abstinence from things that have had life. Fasts were frequent, and caused among many that nervous debility which caused many tears to flow. Readiness to weep was considered a heavenly favour, the gift of tears. The Christians wept unceasingly; a sort of sweet sadness was their habitual condition. In the churches, gentleness, piety, and love were marked on their faces. The rigorists complained that often, in leaving the holy place, that meditative attitude gave place to discipline; but in general they recognised the Christians by nothing but their air. They had in some sort some faces apart, good faces, impressed by a calm, not excluding the smile of an amiable contentment. That made a sensible contrast to the easy appearance of the Pagans, which often was wanting in distinction and reserve. In Montanist Africa, certain practices, in particular that of making at every turn the sign of the cross on the forehead, revealed still more clearly the disciples of Jesus.
The Christian was then essentially a separate being, vowed to a profession quite external to virtue, an ascetic indeed. If monastic life only appears about the end of the third century, it is because up till then the Church was a true monastery, an ideal city where perfect life was practised. When the century shall enter en masse into the Church, when the Council of Gangres in 325 shall have declared that the maxims of the Church upon poverty, upon renunciation of the family, and on virginity, are not addressed to the simple believers, the perfect ones shall create certain separate places, where the evangelical life, too high for common men, can be practised without reserve. Martyrdom had presented till then the means of putting in practice the most exaggerated precepts of Christ, particularly on the despising of the affections of blood relationship; the monastery will take the place of martyrdom, so that the counsel of Jesus may be practised somewhere. The example of Egypt, where the monastic life had always existed, might contribute to that result; but monachism was in the very essence of Christianity. Since the Church is opened to all, it was inevitable that there should be formed little churches for those who claimed to live as Jesus and the apostles at Jerusalem had lived.
A great struggle was thus indicated for the future. Christian piety and worldly honour shall be two antagonists which will rudely fight with each other. The awakening of the worldly spirit shall be the awakening of unbelief. Honour will be revolted, and maintain that it values more that morality which permits a man to be a saint without being always a gallant man. There shall be the voice of the sirens to rehabilitate all those exquisite things which the Church has declared profane in the first days. The Church, an association of holy people, shall preserve that character in spite of all its transformations. The worldling shall be its worst enemy. Voltaire will show that these diabolic frivolities, so severely excluded from a pietistic society, are in their way both good and necessary. Father Canaye will try indeed to show that. nothing is more gallant than Christianity, and that no one is more a gentleman than a Jesuit. He will not convince Hocquincourt. In any case, the people of mind will be unconvertible. They will never induce Ninon de l’Enclos, Saint-Evremond, Voltaire, Merimée, to be of the same religion as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the good Hermas.
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