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
_Do not hide the light under the bushel._--Do not hide the truth from
_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
_In the tempest worship the echo._--In times of public trouble retire to
_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
The most beautiful of all the emblems is that of God, whom Timaeus 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
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
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
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
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.
_ON THE ENGLISH THEATRE_
I have cast my eyes on an edition of Shakespeare issued by Master Samuel
Johnson. I saw there that foreigners who are astonished that in the
plays of the great Shakespeare a Roman senator plays the buffoon, and
that a king appears on the stage drunk, are treated as little-minded. I
do not desire to suspect Master Johnson of being a sorry jester, and of
being too fond of wine; but I find it somewhat extraordinary that he
counts buffoonery and drunkenness among the beauties of the tragic
stage: and no less singular is the reason he gives, that the poet
disdains accidental distinctions of circumstance and country, like a
painter who, content with having painted the figure, neglects the
drapery. The comparison would be more just if he were speaking of a
painter who in a noble subject should introduce ridiculous grotesques,
should paint Alexander the Great mounted on an ass in the battle of
Arbela, and Darius' wife drinking at an inn with rapscallions.
But there is one thing more extraordinary than all, that is that
Shakespeare is a genius. The Italians, the French, the men of letters of
all other countries, who have not spent some time in England, take him
only for a clown, for a joker far inferior to Harlequin, for the most
contemptible buffoon who has ever amused the populace. Nevertheless, it
is in this same man that one finds pieces which exalt the imagination
and which stir the heart to its depths. It is Truth, it is Nature
herself who speaks her own language with no admixture of artifice. It is
of the sublime, and the author has in no wise sought it.
What can one conclude from this contrast of grandeur and sordidness, of
sublime reason and uncouth folly, in short from all the contrasts that
we see in Shakespeare? That he would have been a perfect poet had he
lived in the time of Addison.
The famous Addison, who flourished under Queen Anne, is perhaps of all
English writers the one who best knew how to guide genius with taste. He
had a correct style, an imagination discreet in expression, elegance,
strength and simplicity in his verse and in his prose. A friend of
propriety and orderliness, he wanted tragedy to be written with dignity,
and it is thus that his "Cato" is composed.
From the very first act the verses are worthy of Virgil, and the
sentiments worthy of Cato. There is no theatre in Europe where the scene
of Juba and Syphax was not applauded as a masterpiece of skill, of
well-developed characters, of fine contrasts, and of pure and noble
diction. Literary Europe, which knows the translations of this piece,
applauded even to the philosophic traits with which the role of Cato is
The piece had the great success which its beauty of detail merited, and
which was assured to it by the troubles in England to which this tragedy
was in more than one place a striking allusion. But the appositeness of
these allusions having passed, the verse being only beautiful, the
maxims being only noble and just, and the piece being cold, people no
longer felt anything more than the coldness. Nothing is more beautiful
than Virgil's second canto; recite it on the stage, it will bore: on the
stage one must have passion, live dialogue, action. People soon returned
to Shakespeare's uncouth but captivating aberrations.