Fair Use IX

Today an extended passage from Chapter II Volume I of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire :

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily
seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their
subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all
considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the
magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even
religious concord. 

The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was
it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly
attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.
Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey,
perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his
protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not
discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had
died for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was
universally confessed, that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all
mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their
local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber,
deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible
powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe. The
invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and
allegory. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession
its patron, whose attributes, in the most distant ages and countries, were uniformly derived from
the character of their peculiar votaries. A republic of gods of such opposite tempers and interests
required, in every system, the moderating hand of a supreme magistrate, who, by the progress of
knowledge and flattery, was gradually invested with the sublime perfections of an Eternal
Parent, and an Omnipotent Monarch.  Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were
less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek,
the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded
themselves, that under various names, and with various ceremonies, they adored the same
deities.  The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost a regular form, to the
polytheism of the ancient world. 


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