Marius the Epicurean

By John Kelman.

Much has been written, before and after the day of Walter Pater, concerning that singularly pure and yet singularly disappointing character, Marcus Aurelius, and his times. The ethical and religious ferment of the period has been described with great fullness and sympathy by Professor Dill. Yet it may be said, without fear of contradiction, that no book has ever been written, nor is likely ever to appear, which has conveyed to those who came under its spell a more intimate and familiar conception of that remarkable period and man than that which has been given by Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean.

Opinion is divided about the value of Pater's work, and if it be true that some of his admirers have provoked criticism by their unqualified praise, it is no less true that many of his detractors appear never to have come in contact with his mind at all. Born in 1839, he spent the greater part of his life in Queen's College, Oxford, where he died in 1894. As literary critic, humanist, and master of a thoroughly original style, he made a considerable impression upon his generation from the first; but it may be safely said that it is only now, when readers are able to look upon his work in a more spacious and leisurely way, that he and his contribution to English thought and letters have come to their own.

The family was of Dutch extraction, and while the sons of his grandfather were trained in the Roman Catholic religion, the daughters were Protestants from their childhood. His father left the Roman Catholic communion early in life, without adopting any other form of Christian faith. It is not surprising that out of so strongly marked and widely mingled a heredity there should have emerged a writer prone to symbolism and open to the sense of beauty in ritual, and yet too cosmopolitan to accept easily the conventional religious forms. Before his twentieth year he had come under the influence of Ruskin's writings, but he soon parted from that wayward and contradictory master, whose brilliant dogmatism enslaved so thoroughly, but so briefly, the taste of young England. Ruskin, however, had awakened Pater, although to a style of criticism very different from his own, and for this service we owe him much.  The environment of Oxford subjected his spirit to two widely different sets of influences. On the one hand, he was in contact with such men as Jowett, Nettleship, and Thomas Hill Green: on the other hand, with Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and the pre-Raphaelites. Thus the awakened spirit felt the dominion both of a high spiritual rationalism, and of the beauty of flesh and the charm of the earth. A visit to Italy in company with Shadwell, and his study of the Renaissance there, made him an enthusiastic humanist. The immediate product of this second awakening was the Renaissance Essays, a very remarkable volume of his early work. Twelve years later, Marius the Epicurean, his second book, appeared in 1885. In Dr. Gosse, Pater has found an interpreter of rare sympathy and insight, whose appreciations of his contemporaries are, in their own right, fine contributions to modern literature.

The characteristics of his style were also those both of his thought and of his character. Dr. Gosse has summed up the reserve and shy reticence and the fastidious taste which always characterise his work, in saying that he was "one of the most exquisite, most self-respecting, the most individual prose writers of the age." Even in the matter of style he consciously respected his own individuality, refusing to read  either Stevenson or Kipling for fear that their masterful strength might lead him out of his path. Certainly his bitterest enemies could not accuse him of borrowing from either of them. Mr. Kipling is apt to sacrifice everything to force, while Pater is perhaps the gentlest writer of our time. In Stevenson there is a delicate and yet vigorous human passion, but also a sense of fitness, a consciousness of style that is all his own. He is preaching, and not swearing at you, as you often feel Mr. Kipling to be doing. To preach at one may be indeed to take a great liberty, but of course much will depend upon whether the preaching is good preaching. Be that as it may, Pater is distinctive, and borrows nothing from any writer whose influence can be traced in his work. He neither swears nor preaches, but weaves about his reader a subtle film of thought, through whose gossamer all things seem to suffer a curious change, and to become harmonious and suggestive, as dark and quiet-coloured things often are. The writer does not force himself upon his readers, nor tempt even the most susceptible to imitate him; rather he presupposes himself, and dominates without appearing. His reticence, to which we have already referred, is one of his most characteristic qualities. Dr. Gosse ascribes it to a somewhat low and sluggish vitality of physical  spirits. For one in this condition "the first idea in the presence of anything too vivacious is to retreat, and the most obvious form of social retreat is what we call affectation." That Pater's style has impressed many readers as affected there can be no question, and it is as unquestionable that Dr. Gosse's explanation is the true one.

His style has been much abused by critics who have found it easy to say smart things about such tempting peculiarities. We may admit at once that the writing is laboured and shows constant marks of the tool. The same criticism applies, for that matter, to much that Stevenson has written. But unless a man's style is absolutely offensive, which Pater's emphatically is not, it is a wise rule to accept it rather as a revelation of the man than as a chance for saying clever things. As one reads the work of some of our modern critics, one cannot but perceive and regret how much of pleasure and of profit their cleverness has cost them. Acknowledging his laboriousness and even his affectation, we still maintain that the style of Walter Pater is a very adequate expression of his mind. There is a calm suggestive atmosphere, a spirit half-childish and half-aged about his work. It is the work of a solemn and sensitive child, who has kept the innocence of his eye for impressions, and yet brought to his speech the experience, not of years  only, but of centuries. He has many things to teach directly; but even when he is not teaching so, the air you breathe with its delicate suggestion of faint odours, the perfect taste in selection, the preferences and shrinkings and shy delights, all proclaim a real and high culture. And, after all, the most notable point in his style is just its exactness. Over-precise it may be sometimes, and even meticulous, yet that is because it is the exact expression of a delicate and subtle mind. In his Appreciations he lays down, as a first canon for style, Flaubert's principle of the search, the unwearied search, not for the smooth, or winsome, or forcible word as such, but, quite simply and honestly, for the word's adjustment to its meaning. It will be said in reply to any such defence that the highest art is to conceal art. That is an old saying and a hard one, and it is not possible to apply its rule in every instance. Pater's immense sense of the value of words, and his choice of exact expressions, resulted in language marvellously adapted to indicate the almost inexpressible shades of thought. When a German struggles for the utterance of some mental complexity he fashions new compounds of words; a Frenchman helps out his meaning by gesture, as the Greek long ago did by tone. Pater knows only one way of overcoming such situations, and that is by the painful search for the unique word that he ought to use.

One result of this habit is that he has enriched our literature with a large number of pregnant phrases which, it is safe to prophesy, will take their place in the vernacular of literary speech. "Hard gem-like flame," "Drift of flowers," "Tacitness of mind,"—such are some memorable examples of the exact expression of elusive ideas. The house of literature built in this fashion is a notable achievement in the architecture of language. It reminds us of his own description of a temple of Æsculapius: "His heart bounded as the refined and dainty magnificence of the place came upon him suddenly, in the flood of early sunshine, with the ceremonial lights burning here and there, and with all the singular expression of sacred order, a surprising cleanliness and simplicity." Who would not give much to be able to say the thing he wants to say so exactly and so beautifully as that is said? Indeed the love of beauty is the key both to the humanistic thought and to the simple and lingering style of Pater's writing. If it is not always obviously simple, that is never due either to any vagueness or confusion of thought, but rather to a struggle to express precise shades of meaning which may be manifold, but which are perfectly clear to himself.

A mind so sensitive to beauty and so fastidious in judging of it and expressing it, must necessarily afford a fine arena for the conflict between the tendencies of idealism and paganism. Here the great struggle between conscience and desire, the rivalry of culture and restraint, the choice between Athens and Jerusalem, will present a peculiarly interesting spectacle. In Walter Pater both elements are strongly marked. The love of ritual, and a constitutional delight in solemnities of all kinds, was engrained in his nature. The rationalism of Green and Jowett, with its high spirituality lighting it from within, drove off the ritual for a time at least. The result of these various elements is a humanism for which he abandoned the profession of Christianity with which he had begun. Yet he could not really part from that earlier faith, and for a time he was, as Dr. Gosse has expressed it, "not all for Apollo, and not all for Christ." The same writer quotes as applicable to him an interesting phrase of Daudet's, "His brain was a disaffected cathedral," and likens him to that mysterious face of Mona Lisa, of whose fantastic enigma Pater himself has given the most brilliant and the most intricate description. From an early Christian idealism, through a period of humanistic paganism, he passed gradually and  naturally back to the abandoned faith again, but in readopting it he never surrendered the humanistic gains of the time between. He accepted in their fullness both ideals, and so spiritualised his humanism and humanised his idealism. Anything less rich and complete than this could never have satisfied him. Self-denial is obviously not an end in itself; and yet the real end, the fulfilment of nature, can never by any possibility be attained by directly aiming at it, but must ever involve self-denial as a means towards its attainment. It is Pater's clear sight of the necessity of these two facts, and his lifelong attempt to reconcile them, that give him, from the ethical and religious point of view, his greatest importance.

The story of this reconciliation is Marius the Epicurean. It is a spiritual biography telling the inner history of a Roman youth of the time of Marcus Aurelius. It begins with an appreciative interpretation of the old Roman religion as it was then, and depicts the family celebrations by which the devout were wont to seek "to produce an agreement with the gods." Among the various and beautiful tableaux of that Roman life, we see the solemn thoughtful boy reading hard and becoming a precocious idealist, too old already for his years, but relieving the inward tension by much pleasure in the country and the open air. A time of delicate health brings him and us to a temple of Aesculapius. The priesthood there is a kind of hospital college brotherhood, whose teaching and way of life inculcate a mysteriously sacramental character in all matters of health and the body.

Like all other vital youths, Marius must eat of the tree of knowledge and become a questioner of hitherto accepted views. "The tyrannous reality of things visible," and all the eager desire and delight of youth, make their strong appeal. Two influences favour the temptation. First there is his friend, Flavian the Epicurean, of the school that delights in pleasure without afterthought, and is free from the burden and restraint of conscience; and later on, The Golden Book of Apuleius, with its exquisite story of Cupid and Psyche, and its search for perfectness in the frankly material life. The moral of its main story is that the soul must not look upon the face of its love, nor seek to analyse too closely the elements from which it springs. Spirituality will be left desolate if it breaks this ban, and its wiser course is to enjoy without speculation. Thus we see the youth drawn earthwards, yet with a clinging sense of far mystic reaches, which he refuses as yet to explore. The death of Flavian rudely shatters this phase of his experience, and we find him face to face with death. The section  begins with the wonderful hymn of the Emperor Hadrian to his dying soul—

Dear wanderer, gipsy soul of mine,

Sweet stranger, pleasing guest and comrade of my flesh,

Whither away? Into what new land,

Pallid one, stoney one, naked one?

But the sheer spectacle and fact of death is too violent an experience for such sweet consolations, and the death of Flavian comes like a final revelation of nothing less than the soul's extinction. Not unnaturally, the next phase is a rebound into epicureanism, spiritual indeed in the sense that it could not stoop to low pleasures, but living wholly in the present none the less, with a strong and imperative appreciation of the fullness of earthly life.

The next phase of the life of Marius opens with a journey to Rome, during which he meets a second friend, the soldier Cornelius. This very distinctly drawn character fascinates the eye from the first. In him we meet a kind of earnestness which seems to interpret and fit in with the austere aspects of the landscape. It is different from that disciplined hardness which was to be seen in Roman soldiers as the result of their military training; indeed, it seems as if this were some new kind of knighthood, whose mingled austerity and blithe ness were strangely suggestive of hitherto unheard-of achievements in character.

The impression made by Rome upon the mind of Marius was a somewhat morbid one. He was haunted more or less by the thought of its passing and its eventual ruin, and he found much, both in its religion and its pleasure, to criticise. The dominant figure in the imperial city was that of Marcus Aurelius the Emperor, so famous in his day that for two hundred years after his death his image was cherished among the Penates of many pious families. Amid much that was admirable in him, there was a certain chill in his stoicism, and a sense of lights fading out into the night. His words in praise of death, and much else of his, had of course a great distinction. Yet in his private intercourse with Marcus Aurelius, Marius was not satisfied, nor was it the bleak sense that all is vanity which troubled him, but rather a feeling of mediocrity—of a too easy acceptance of the world—in the imperial philosophy. For in the companionship of Cornelius there was a foil to the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, and his friend was more truly an aristocrat than his Emperor. Cornelius did not accept the world in its entirety, either sadly or otherwise. In him there was "some inward standard ... of distinction, selection, refusal, amid the various elements of the  period and the corrupt life across which they were moving together." And, apparently as a consequence of this spirit of selection, "with all the severity of Cornelius, there was a breeze of hopefulness—freshness and hopefulness—as of new morning, about him." Already, it may be, the quick intelligence of the reader has guessed what is coming. Jesus Christ said of Himself on one occasion, "For distinctions I am come into the world." Marius' criticism of the Emperor reached its climax in his disgust at the amusements of the amphitheatre, which also Marcus Aurelius accepted.

There follows a long account of Roman life and thought, with much speculation as to the ideal commonwealth. That dream of the philosophers remains for ever in the air, detached from actual experiences and institutions, but Marius felt himself passing beyond it to something in which it would be actually realised and visibly localised, "the unseen Rome on high." Thus in correcting and supplementing the philosophies, and in insisting upon some actual embodiment of them on the earth, he is groping his way point by point to Christ. The late Dean Church has said: "No one can read the wonderful sayings of Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, without being impressed, abashed perhaps, by their grandeur. No one can read them  without wondering the next moment why they fell so dead—how little response they seem to have awakened round them." It is precisely at this point that the young Christian Church found its opportunity. Pagan idealisms were indeed in the air. The Christian idealism was being realised upon the earth, and it was this with which Marius was now coming into contact.

So he goes on until he is led up to two curious houses. The first of these was the house of Apuleius, where in a subtle and brilliant system of ideas it seemed as if a ladder had been set up from earth to heaven. But Marius discovered that what he wanted was the thing itself and not its mere theory, a life of realised ideals and not a dialectic. The second house was more curious still. Much pains is spent upon the description of it with its "quiet signs of wealth, and of a noble taste," in which both colour and form, alike of stones and flowers, seemed expressive of a rare and potent beauty in the personality that inhabited them. There were inscriptions there to the dead martyrs, inscriptions full of confidence and peace. Old pagan symbols were there also—Herakles wrestling with death for possession of Alkestis, and Orpheus taming the wild beasts—blended naturally with new symbols such as the Shepherd and the sheep, and the Good Shepherd carrying the sick lamb upon  his shoulder. The voice of singers was heard in the house of an evening singing the candle hymn, "Hail, Heavenly Light." Altogether there seemed here to be a combination of exquisite and obvious beauty with "a transporting discovery of some fact, or series of facts, in which the old puzzle of life had found its solution."

It was none other than the Church of the early Christian days that Marius had stumbled on, under the guidance of his new friend; and already in heart he had actually become a Christian without knowing it, for these friends of comeliness seemed to him to have discovered the secret of actualising the ideal as none others had done. At such a moment in his spiritual career it is not surprising that he should hesitate to look upon that which would "define the critical turning-point," yet he looked. He saw the blend of Greek and Christian, each at its best—the martyrs' hope, the singers' joy and health. In this "minor peace of the Church," so pure, so delicate, and so vital that it made the Roman life just then "seem like some stifling forest of bronze-work, transformed, as if by malign enchantment, out of the generations of living trees," he seemed to see the possibility of satisfaction at last. For here there was a perfect love and self-sacrifice, outwardly expressed with a mystic grace better than the Greek blitheness, and a new beauty  which contrasted brightly with the Roman insipidity. It was the humanism of Christianity that so satisfied him, standing as it did for the fullness of life, in spite of all its readiness for sacrifice. And it was effective too, for it seemed to be doing rapidly what the best paganism was doing very slowly—attaining, almost without thinking about it, the realisation of the noblest ideals.

"And so it came to pass that on this morning Marius saw for the first time the wonderful spectacle—wonderful, especially, in its evidential power over himself, over his own thoughts—of those who believe. There were noticeable, among those present, great varieties of rank, of age, of personal type. The Roman ingenuus, with the white toga and gold ring, stood side by side with his slave; and the air of the whole company was, above all, a grave one, an air of recollection. Coming thus unexpectedly upon this large assembly, so entirely united, in a silence so profound, for purposes unknown to him, Marius felt for a moment as if he had stumbled by chance upon some great conspiracy. Yet that could scarcely be, for the people here collected might have figured as the earliest handsel, or pattern, of a new world, from the very face of which discontent had passed away. Corresponding to the variety of human type there present, was the various expression of every form  of human sorrow assuaged. What desire, what fulfilment of desire, had wrought so pathetically on the features of these ranks of aged men and women of humble condition? Those young men, bent down so discreetly on the details of their sacred service, had faced life and were glad, by some science, or light of knowledge they had, to which there had certainly been no parallel in the older world. Was some credible message from beyond 'the flaming rampart of the world'—a message of hope regarding the place of men's souls and their interest in the sum of things—already moulding anew their very bodies, and looks, and voices, now and here? At least, there was a cleansing and kindling flame at work in them, which seemed to make everything else Marius had ever known look comparatively vulgar and mean."

The spectacle of the Sacrament adds its deep impression, "bread and wine especially—pure wheaten bread, the pure white wine of the Tusculan vineyards. There was here a veritable consecration, hopeful and animating, of the earth's gifts, of old dead and dark matter itself, now in some way redeemed at last, of all that we can touch and see, in the midst of a jaded world that had lost the true sense of such things."

The sense of youth in it all was perhaps the dominating impression—the youth that was yet old  as the world in experience and discovery of the true meaning of life. The young Christ was rejuvenating the world, and all things were being made new by him.

This is the climax of the book. He meets Lucian the aged, who for a moment darkens his dawning faith, but that which has come to him has been no casual emotion, no forced or spectacular conviction. He does not leap to the recognition of Christianity at first sight, but very quietly realises and accepts it as that secret after which his pagan idealism had been all the time groping. The story closes amid scenes of plague and earthquake and martyrdom in which he and Cornelius are taken prisoners, and he dies at last a Christian. "It was the same people who, in the grey, austere evening of that day, took up his remains, and buried them secretly, with their accustomed prayers; but with joy also, holding his death, according to their generous view in this matter, to have been of the nature of a martyrdom; and martyrdom, as the Church had always said, was a kind of Sacrament with plenary grace."

Such is some very brief and inadequate conception of one of the most remarkable books of our time, a book "written to illustrate the highest ideal of the æsthetic life, and to prove that beauty may be made the object of the soul in a career as  pure, as concentrated, and as austere as any that asceticism inspires. Marius is an apology for the highest Epicureanism, and at the same time it is a texture which the author has embroidered with exquisite flowers of imagination, learning, and passion. Modern humanism has produced no more admirable product than this noble dream of a pursuit through life of the spirit of heavenly beauty." Nothing could be more true, so far as it goes, than this admirable paragraph, yet Pater's book is more than that. The main drift of it is the reconciliation of Hellenism with Christianity in the experience of a man "bent on living in the full stream of refined sensation," who finds Christianity in every point fulfilling the ideals of Epicureanism at its best.

The spiritual stages through which Marius passes on his journey towards this goal are most delicately portrayed. In the main these are three, which, though they recur and intertwine in his experience, yet may be fairly stated in their natural order and sequence as normal types of such spiritual progress.

The first of these stages is a certain vague fear of evil, which seems to be conscience hardly aware of itself as such. It is "the sense of some unexplored evil ever dogging his footsteps," which reached its keenest poignancy in a constitutional horror of serpents, but which is a very subtle and  undefinable thing, observable rather as an undertone to his consciousness of life than as anything tangible enough to be defined or accounted for by particular causes. On the journey to Rome, the vague misgivings took shape in one definite experience. "From the steep slope a heavy mass of stone was detached, after some whisperings among the trees above his head, and rushing down through the stillness fell to pieces in a cloud of dust across the road just behind him, so that he felt the touch upon his heel." That was sufficient, just then, to rouse out of its hiding-place his old vague fear of evil—of one's "enemies." Such distress was so much a matter of constitution with him, that at times it would seem that the best pleasures of life could but be snatched hastily, in one moment's forgetfulness of its dark besetting influence. A sudden suspicion of hatred against him, of the nearness of enemies, seemed all at once to alter the visible form of things. When tempted by the earth-bound philosophy of the early period of his development, "he hardly knew how strong that old religious sense of responsibility, the conscience, as we call it, still was within him—a body of inward impressions, as real as those so highly valued outward ones—to offend against which, brought with it a strange feeling of disloyalty, as to a person." Later on, when the  "acceptance of things" which he found in Marcus Aurelius had offended him, and seemed to mark the Emperor as his inferior, we find that there is "the loyal conscience within him, deciding, judging himself and every one else, with a wonderful sort of authority." This development of conscience from a vague fear of enemies to a definite court of appeal in a man's judgment of life, goes side by side with his approach to Christianity. The pagan idealism of the early days had never been able to cope with that sense of enemies, nor indeed to understand it; but in the light of his growing Christian faith, conscience disentangles itself and becomes clearly defined.

Another element in the spiritual development of Marius is that which may be called his consciousness of an unseen companion. Marius was constitutionally personel, and never could be satisfied with the dry light of pure reason, or with any impersonal ideal whatsoever. For him the universe was alive in a very real sense. At first, however, this was the vaguest of sentiments, and it needed much development before it became clear enough to act as one of the actual forces which played upon his life. We first meet with it in connection with the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and his habit of inward conversation with himself, made possible by means of the Logos, "the reason able spark in man, common to him with the gods." "There could be no inward conversation with oneself such as this, unless there were indeed some one else aware of our actual thoughts and feelings, pleased or displeased at one's disposition of oneself." This, in a dim way, seemed a fundamental necessity of experience—one of those "beliefs, without which life itself must be almost impossible, principles which had their sufficient ground of evidence in that very fact." So far Marcus Aurelius. But the conviction of some august yet friendly companionship in life beyond the veil of things seen, took form for Marius in a way far more picturesque. The passage which describes it is one of the finest in the book, and may be given at length.

"Through a dreamy land he could see himself moving, as if in another life, and like another person, through all his fortunes and misfortunes, passing from point to point, weeping, delighted, escaping from various dangers. That prospect brought him, first of all, an impulse of lively gratitude: it was as if he must look round for some one else to share his joy with: for some one to whom he might tell the thing, for his own relief. Companionship, indeed, familiarity with others, gifted in this way or that, or at least pleasant to him, had been, through one or another long  span of it, the chief delight of the journey. And was it only the resultant general sense of such familiarity, diffused through his memory, that in a while suggested the question whether there had not been—besides Flavian, besides Cornelius even, and amid the solitude which in spite of ardent friendship he had perhaps loved best of all things—some other companion, an unfailing companion, ever at his side throughout; doubling his pleasure in the roses by the way, patient of his peevishness or depression, sympathetic above all with his grateful recognition, onward from his earliest days, of the fact that he was there at all? Must not the whole world around have faded away for him altogether, had he been left for one moment really alone in it?" One can see in this sense of constant companionship the untranslated and indeed the unexamined Christian doctrine of God. And, because this God is responsive to all the many-sided human experience which reveals Him, it will be an actual preparation not for Theism only, but for that complexity in unity known as the Christian Trinity. Nothing could better summarise this whole achievement in religion than Pater's apt sentence, "To have apprehended the Great Ideal, so palpably that it defined personal gratitude and the sense of a friendly hand laid upon him amid the shadows of the world."

The third essential development of Marius' thought is that of the City of God, which for him assumes the shape of a perfected and purified Rome, the concrete embodiment of the ideals of life and character. This is indeed the inevitable sequel of any such spiritual developments as the fear of enemies and the sense of an unseen companion. Man moves inevitably to the city, and all his ideals demand an embodiment in social form before they reach their full power and truth. In that house of life which he calls society, he longs to see his noblest dreams find a local habitation and a name. This is the grand ideal passed from hand to hand by the greatest and most outstanding of the world's seers—from Plato to Augustine, from Augustine to Dante—the ideal of the City of God. It is but little developed in the book which we are now considering, for that would be beside the purpose of so intimate and inward a history. Yet we see, as it were, the towers and palaces of this "dear City of Zeus" shining in the clear light of the early Christian time, like the break of day over some vast prospect, with the new City, as it were some celestial new Rome, in the midst of it.

These are but a few glimpses at this very significant and far-reaching book, which indeed takes for its theme the very development from pagan to  Christian idealism with which we are dealing. In it, in countless bright and vivid glances, the beauty of the world is seen with virgin eye. Many phases of that beauty belong to the paganism which surrounds us as we read, yet these are purified from all elements that would make them pagan in the lower sense, and under our eyes they free themselves for spiritual flights which find their resting-place at last and become at once intelligible and permanent in the faith of Jesus Christ.


This is taken from Among Famous Books.





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