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Ages Of Fetichism And Polytheism

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE historical analysis now to be sketched will concentrate itself upon one social series ; that is to say, it will consider exclusively the actual development of the most advanced populations ; putting aside the other centres of independent civilization whose evolution has hitherto been impeded : unless the comparative examination of these accessory series should be of use in throwing light upon the principal subject. It is only after having thus determined what is suitable to the elect of the human race, that it becomes possible to regulate a rational interference in the development of the less advanced races.

The first intellectual condition of man must have necessarily begun by a state of pure fetichism; i. e. by our primitive tendency to conceive all exterior bodies as animated with a life essentially analogous to our own. Although we are now sufficiently removed from Fetichism; to have some difficulty in conceiving it, each of us has but to retrace his own individual history to find it a faithful representation of such an initial state. Fetichism constitutes the foundation of the theological spirit, both in its elementary simplicity and in its intellectual plenitude. It is there that the celebrated formula of Bossuet, " Every thing was God, except God himself," would be eminently appropriate. Never could the spirit of religion have been more directly opposed to any true spirit of science, with respect to even the simplest phenomena, as in that first age.

The idea of invariable laws must at that time have appeared eminently chimerical ; indeed, had it arisen it would have been immediately, repulsed as radically opposed to the consecrated method, which attached the explanation of every phenomenon to the arbitrary will of the corresponding fetiche. Considered in its relation to the Fine Arts, the general action of Fetichism upon the human intellect is certainly not nearly so oppressive as it is in a scientific point of view. It is, indeed, evident that a philosophy which animated directly the whole of nature, must have tended to favour the spontaneous impulse of the imagination, at that time necessarily having a mental preponderance. Thus, the earliest attempts in all the fine arts, not excepting poetry, are to be traced to the age of Fetichism. As to industrial development, philosophically defined, that is to say, embracing the entire action of man upon the exterior world, it is to be traced to this firs social age ; when man laid the basis of his conquest of the terrestrial globe.

Industry owes to this age the first indication of its most powerful resources : the association of man with animals capable of being disciplined, the permanent use of fire, and the employment of mechanical powers; indeed, Commerce properly so called here finds its first distinct impulse in the institution of money. In one word, almost all the industrial arts and agencies have here necessarily their origin. Fetichism presents in an eminent degree that valuable quality inherent in the theological system, of favouring the first efforts of human activity by the illusions which it inspires concerning the supremacy of Man, to whom the whole world must appear to be subordinate as long as the invariability of the laws of nature remains unrecognised.

Although that supremacy could not be realisable at the time except by the intervention of divine agency, it is evident that the continuous sentiment of this supreme protection must have been, at that epoch, eminently calculated to excite and sustain the active energy of man. Lastly, in the social point of view, Fetichism displays real properties of the highest importance. A careful induction will make us feel the necessity of a theological consecration in those social modifications in which we are now-a-days the least disposed to conceive its influence. It is thus we find even the simplest hygienic precepts could at first be established only under the high authority of religious prescription. In the same way it appears very probable that a religious influence contributed greatly, in early times, to establish, and above all regulate, the continuous use of dress, justly regarded as one of the principal indices of a rising civilization.

In spite of the vain reputation of extreme political ability which we are so strangely tempted to attribute to dissimulation and even to hypocrisy, it is happily indisputable that the legislators of primitive times were as sincere, in general, in their theological conceptions regarding society, as in those which regarded the external world.

All the great successive modifications of the religious spirit have been determined at first by the development of the scientific spirit. The insensibly increasing generalization of the diverse observations upon Humanity must necessarily have led to analogies in corresponding theological conceptions, and thus determined the trans-formation of Fetichism into a simple Polytheism. For the gods differ essentially from the pure fetiches in their more general and abstract character. Each administers a special order of phenomena, but at the same time in a great number of bodies, so that each has a more or less extensive department, whereas the humble fetiche governs only one object, from which he is inseparable.

Thus, in proportion as the essential similitude of certain phenomena was recognised in diverse substances, it became necessary to assimilate the corresponding fetiches, and finally to reduce them to the principal amongst them, who from that moment was raised to the rank of a god; that is to say, of an ideal and habitually invisible agent, whose residence was no longer rigorously determined. Properly speaking there could not exist a fetiche common to various bodies. That would be a contradiction, each fetiche being necessarily endowed with a material individuality. When, for example, the similar vegetation of the different trees in a forest of oaks led men at last to represent in their theological conceptions the phenomena common to all, this abstract being was no longer the fetiche of any particular tree ; he became the god of the forest.

Here, then, is the intellectual passage from Fetichism to Polytheism reduced to the inevitable preponder once of general over individual ideas in the second age of our infancy, social or personal. The impulse given by Polytheism to the imagination of man, as well as its eminent social efficacy, should incline us to look upon this second age as the true date of the most intense development of the religious spirit. If we compare in thought the daily course of active life of a sincere polytheist with that of the most devout mono-theist, we shall recognize, contrary to ordinary prejudices, the more intimate supremacy of . the religious spirit in the former, whose intelligence is perpetually assailed on almost every occasion and under the most varied forms, with a crowd of theological explanations of the most detailed description.

Confining ourselves, for example, to the single ease of visions or apparitions, according to modern theology they are eminently exceptional, and exclusively reserved for some privileged individuals, with whom they have almost always an important destination; whereas in pagan times every man had experienced, even on slight occasions, frequent personal relations with various divinities, with whom he was even sometimes united by direct relationship. The moral and social efficacy of Polytheism can be thoroughly appreciated only by comparing it with its principal office in human development, an office which essentially differs from that of Mono-theism from this point of view it is evident that the political influence of the one was certainly neither less extended nor less indispensable than that of the other.

In order to appreciate more completely the general participation of Polytheism in the evolution of human intelligence, it is necessary to examine it separately,—first under the scientific point of view, afterwards under the artistic or poetic point of view, and lastly under the industrial point of view. Under the first of these aspects, philosophers have hitherto appreciated too lightly the capital importance of the decisive step taken by the human intellect, when it raised itself from Fetichism to Polytheism, properly so called. This grand creation of gods constitutes the first general effort of purely speculative activity, which had hitherto in fact done nothing but yield to the spontaneous tendency to give direct animation to all objects in proportion to the intensity of their phenomena.

Whilst Polytheism, after having awakened speculative activity, gave thus a feeble rudimentary impulse to the scientific spirit, it tended on the other hand to philosophical meditation, by establishing a primary fundamental connexion between all ideas whatsoever, which, in spite of its essentially chimerical nature, was then of infinite value. Never since that epoch have human conceptions possessed in any comparable degree that grand character of unity of method and homogeneity of doctrine, which constitutes the absolutely normal state of our intelligence, and which it had then spontaneously acquired under the free and uniform dominion of the theological system, placing itself immediately at the source of everything, and leaving nothing without some sort of connexion and application, through the uniform application of its religious conceptions. It is only to the yet more pure and more universal preponderance of Positive Philosophy that it will pertain, in the approaching future, to realize in a much more perfect and durable manner this fundamental property.

In a more special and direct point of view, we cannot but recognize that this religious philosophy, although made up of fiction and inspiration, tended directly to excite a certain elementary development of the spirit of observation and induction. Even the superstitions which at this day appear to us the most absurd, such as divination by the flight of birds, by the entrails of victims, &c. &c., had primarily, besides their great poli tical importance, a progressive character which may truly be called philosophical.

It is, for example, undeniable, as Kepler has justly remarked, that astrological chimeras served for a long time to keep up the taste for astronomical observations, after having first inspired it ; it is thus, like wise, that anatomy must necessarily have collected its first materials from the discoveries resulting spontaneously from the attentive examination of the liver, heart, lungs, &c., of the sacrificed animals.

As regards the artistic influence of Polytheism, it is necessary to rectify an irrational exaggeration which is still too common, and which attributes to the fine arts so fundamental an office in the society of antiquity, that its general economy would have had really no other intellectual basis. In the age of Polytheism, as in every other age of Humanity, the aim and action of the fine arts has always reposed upon a pre-existent and unanimously admitted philosophy. Although, by an unavoidable reaction, the poetic influence doubtless contributed greatly to extend and consolidate the theological empire, it certainly could never have established it. Neither in the individual nor in the species, could the faculty of expression ever have had dominion over the faculty of conception, to which it is by its very nature subordinate, whatever may have been the successive development of the one or the other. Any real inversion of this elementary relation would tend directly to the fundamental disorganization of the human economy, individual or social.

After this explanation, we shall be able to appreciate the impulse which polytheism must have given to the fine arts, and which raised them at that time to a degree of social importance never since equalled.

We must in the first place consider as eminently favourable to the general advance of the fine arts, the fundamental property of Polytheism : that of awakening in the most spontaneous manner the free development of imagination, erected thus into the principal arbiter of primitive philosophy, inasmuch as it was directly invested with the special designation of the various fictitious beings, to whom the production of all phenomena whatsoever was attributed. Such a religious constitution attributed to the aesthetic faculties a participation accessory, and nevertheless direct, in all theological operations; whilst under monotheism the fine arts have been reduced to the office of ministry, or at the utmost of propagation, without being allowed any part in dogmatic elaboration. Lastly, the general development of the fine arts was directly favoured by Polytheism, on account of the eminently popular basis which such a religion insured to the aesthetic action.

The fine arts, more especially dedicated to the masses, anust from their nature feel the need of resting upon a system of familiar and common opinions, the supremacy of which is equally indispensable to their production and enjoyment. It is the absence of this condition in modern art which explains the small effect produced by so many chef-d'oeuvres. Now the aesthetic superiority of Polytheism is yet more irrefutable in this respect than in any other, for no other philosophy could have since obtained popularity at all comparable at the period of its preponderance: Monotheism itself, at the time of its greatest splendour, was certainly not as popular as this antique religion, the moral imperfections of which helped to increase and propagate its influence.

The necessary aptitude of Polytheism to second the æsthetic evolution of Humanity is thus explained. In the true system of human economy, social or individual, the aesthetic faculties are, in some sort, intermediate between the purely moral and the purely intellectual faculties. Their proper development may happily react at once upon the mind and the heart ; thus constituting one of the most powerful agents of education, intellectual or moral, that we can conceive.

If the characteristic of the human race began to announce itself from its earliest infancy by the ascen dancy of sentiment over animal instincts, which was the result of Fetichism, it is impossible to doubt that the preponderance of imagination over sentiment, i. e., the aesthetic evolution in a state of Polytheism, must have been a great step towards the definitive state in which reason will openly take the reins of human govern ment: a situation into which Monotheism tended strongly to bring, us, but which cannot be completely realized except under the universal empire of positive philosophy. This appreciation serves to solve the great objection which the fine arts offer to the theory of human progress, by the single fact of their undeniable pre-eminence at a time which in every other respect evidently represents, but the infancy of our species.

We see now, indeed, by what a concourse of natural causes the principal rise of the fine arts must have taken place under the empire of Polytheism, with-out such e correspondence giving any reasonable indication of a real ulterior diminution in the integrity of our aesthetic faculties. The fine arts having to depict our moral and social existence, it is clear that although suitable to every phase of Humanity, they must adapt themselves by preference to the most homogeneous and fixed state of society, the character of which being more complete and well marked, admits of a more definite representation ; and this was the case under the empire of Polytheism. We shall recognize, on the other hand, that from the beginning of the middle ages the modern social condition was, so to speak, one immense transition, without any sufficiently marked physiognomy. Various causes have concurred to slacken the march of the fine arts; and yet, far from having undergone any real degeneration, facts prove with startling evidence that the genius of Art has raised itself; in almost every line, to the level and even above the level of the most eminent productions of antiquity, independently of the new path which it has- opened to itself by many admirable chef-d'oeuvres. When, after a long and severe preparation, modern civilization shall have finally developed its true character by the general ascendaney of positive philosophy, - Humanity will elevate itself to a social state at once eminently progressive and yet more homogeneous and stable than that of polytheistic antiquity, in which the fine arts will find a new scope and new attributes, as soon as their genius shall have adapted itself to the new intellectual system.

Polytheism, whilst it constituted the sole philosophy capable of giving a primary impulse, whether scientific or aesthetic, to the human mind, caused on the other hand the double institution of a regular worship and a distinct priesthood, which alone can allow of the growing establishment, among different families, of a true social organization susceptible of consistency and duration. In this phase of society, the nature of the worship, admirably adapted to the correlative condition of Humanity, consists, for the most part, of numerous and varied festivals, in which the first efforts of the fine arts find daily a happy means of exercise, and which frequently constitute the principal motive for habitual assemblies, among populations connected by a common language. Polytheism was hr political harmony with the wants and condition of the human race, as well as with the true nature of the then prevailing system.

Social activity would be essentially military. Al-though, in modem times, war, radically exceptional, has become rather fatal than favourable to the extension of the social relations, it is clear that with the ancients the successive annexation by means of conquest of divers secondary, nations to one preponderant people, constituted the only means of increasing society, of instituting permanent peace, and of conducting man to a purely industrial life. When we believe that with the ancients wars had nothing to do with religion, it is in consequence of an abusive extension of the point of view peculiar to modern nations, with whom the spiritual and the temporal are distinctly separated, whereas, in ancient times, they were intimately connected. If we may say, in one sense, that the ancients knew no such thing as a "religious war," it is precisely because all their wars had necessarily a religious character, as we may still see in analogous phases of society since the gods were then essentially national, their quarrels were inevitably mixed up with those of the nations in whose triumphs and reverses they always partook.

Polytheism thus gave a direct stimulus to the spirit of conquest, and insured the principal social destination, by facilitating the gradual assimilation of the subjugated peoples, who could then incorporate themselves with the preponderating nation without renouncing the religious creeds and practices which were dear to them. Mono-theistic fanaticism does not inspire the spirit of conquest properly so called, because such a religion cannot admit of a real union with other creeds its exclusive genius must naturally provoke it to the entire extermination of the vanquished idolaters, or to their perpetual servitude, except in cases of immediate and. complete conversion.

It would be useless to explain how Polytheism afforded the most powerful resources for the establishment and maintenance of a rigorous military discipline, whose various prescriptions could then be so easily placed under a divine protection, always aptly selected, by means of oracles, auguries, &c. &c. constantly at command in accordance with the regular system of supernatural communications which Polytheism had organized, and which Monotheism was forced to suppress.

To complete this appreciation of the political properties of Polytheism, we have now only to consider the instititution of Slavery, and the confusion of the spiritual and the temporal powers ; a twofold capital difference between the polytheistic organization of ancient society and the monotheistic social organization of modern times. One may easily perceive how war engenders slavery, which finds in it at once its principal source and its first general corrective. The horror with which this institution inspires us now, prevents our appreciating the immense progress which must have resulted from its original establishment, since it everywhere succeeded to anthropophagy or immolation of prisoners ; a progress which supposes a far more extended development, both industrial and moral, than is generally believed. Slavery had another office most important to the ulterior development of the human race : it instituted labour !

The more we meditate upon the profound aversion which any regular and sustained labour inspires in our defective nature, primitively to be roused from its dearly loved idleness by warlike instincts alone, the more clearly we shall perceive that slavery afforded the only issue for the industrial development of the human raft. This dislike to a laborious life could, indeed, only be radically surmounted, with the mass of mankind, by the combined and sustained action of the most energetic stimulants and this would be the result of slavery, in which labour, accepted at first in exchange for life, became in the sequel the means of acquiring free-dom. Such is the method by which the slavery of ancient times constituted; in the evolution of humanity, a means of general education, and at the same time a condition of special development.

Let us now examine the second character of ancient social economy; that is, the confusion manifested in every way between the spiritual and the temporal power, habitually concentrated in the same person, while their regular separation constitutes one of the principal political attributes of modern civilization. Speculative authority, at that time purely sacerdotal, and executive power 'essentially military, were always united; and this unavoidable combination had a necessary relation to the general destination recognized above, as proper to this system for the entire evolution of humanity. It is clear, indeed, that military activity could not have developed itself so as to fulfil its principal mission, if spiritual authority and temporal power had not been habitually concentrated in one directing class.

This two fold character of the military chiefs, at once pontiffs and warriors, constituted the most powerful support of that severe internal discipline rendered necessary by the nature of the wars, and which could not otherwise have acquired the necessary energy and stability. In the same way, the collective actions of every nation upon exterior societies would have been radically checked by any separation between the two authorities, whose conflicts would then have tended almost always to trouble the direction of the wars, and to hinder the final realization of the principal results. Thus, within and without, the continuous development of the spirit of conquest required, in ancient times, a plenitude of obedience and a -unity of conception and execution, equally incompatible with our modern ideas of the elementary division of the two great social powers. Now polytheism was radically incompatible with any such division. It is evident, indeed, that the multiplicity of the gods, by the dispersion of theological action resulting therefrom, opposes itself directly to the acquirement by the priest-hood of the homogeneity and consistency proper to it, and without which its independence of the temporal power can never be at all insured.

The principal properties of polytheism being now distinctly characterized, we have only to examine it under the moral point of view. Under whatever aspect we regard morality, personal, domestic, or social, we cannot but recognize how profoundly vitiated it must have been, among the ancients, by the sole fact of the existence of slavery. In all that concerns individual morality it would be superfluous to pause here to demonstrate the degradation to the greater part of our species which directly results from it. Relatively to domestic morality, in particular, we cannot doubt that slavery tended to corrupt the most important family relations, by the deplorable facilities it afforded to libertinism, so as to render almost illusory the attempt to establish monogamy.

As regards social ethics, of which general love of human nature ought to constitute the principal character, it is only too easy to perceive how much the universal habits of cruelty, familiarly contracted to-wards unfortunate slaves, tended to develope the sentiments of harshness and even ferocity which in so many respects were ordinary characteristics of ancient manners.

Considering the other political conditions of ancient societies, we recognize upon no less certain evidence the fatal influence which must in general result from the confusion between the spiritual and the temporal power. It is, indeed, a consequence of such confusion that morality with the ancients was made essentially subordinate to policy: whereas with the moderns, especially under the reign of Catholicism, morality, radically independent of policy, has tended more or less to direct it. So vicious a subjection of the general and permanent point of view—morality, to the special and vacillating point of viewpolicy,—must have affected the efficacy of moral prescriptions.

However unavoidable such an imperfection may then have been, it is not the less to be deplored. it is evident that the morality of the ancients was in general, like their policy, eminently military : that is to say, essentially subordinate to the warlike destination which especially characterized this age of humanity. By applying the general morality of the ancients according to their own spirit, that is, with an eye to their policy, we shall find it very satisfactory, from its admirable fitness to assist the characteristic development of their military activity. But it is, on the contrary, very imperfect when considered as a phase in the purely moral education of mankind.

Such was ancient Polytheism, considered in its essontial properties, social or intellectual, and its tendency to produce the new theological phase, which in the middle ages, after having realized all the social efficiency of which such a philosophy was susceptible, rendered the ulterior advent of positive philosophy not only possible but indispensable; as now remains to be shown.

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