Thomas De Quincey

Why the pagans could not invest their gods with any iota of grandeur

It is not for so idle a purpose as that of showing the Pagan backsliding—that is too evident—but for a far subtler purpose, and one which no man has touched, viz., the incapacity of creating grandeur for the Pagans, even with carte blanch [freedom to act as one wishes or thinks best—Q]. in their favour, that I write this paper. Nothing is more incomprehensible than the following fact—nothing than this when mastered and understood is more thoroughly instructive—the fact that having a wide, a limitless field open before them, free to give and to take away at their own pleasure, the Pagans could not invest their Gods with any iota of grandeur. Diana, when you translate her into the Moon, then indeed partakes in all the natural grandeur of a planet associated with a dreamy light, with forests, forest lawns, etc., or the wild accidents of a huntress. But the Moon and the Huntress are surely not the creations of Pagans, nor indebted to them for anything but the murderous depluming which Pagan mythology has operated upon all that is in earth or in the waters that are under the earth. Now, why could not the ancients raise one little scintillating glory in behalf of their monstrous deities? So far are they from thus raising Jupiter, that he is sometimes made the ground of nature (not, observe, for any positive reason that they had for any relation that Jupiter had to Creation, but simply for the negative reason that they had nobody else)—never does Jupiter seem more disgusting than when as just now in a translation of the ‘Batrachia’ I read that Jupiter had given to frogs an amphibious nature, making the awful, ancient, first-born secrets of Chaos to be his, and thus forcing into contrast and remembrance his odious personality.

Why, why, why could not the Romans, etc., make a grandeur for their Gods? Not being able to make them grand, they daubed them with finery. All that people imagine in the Jupiter Olympus of Phidias — they themselves confer. But an apostle is beyond their reach.

When, be it well observed, the cruel and dark religions are far more successful than those of Greece and Rome, for Osiris, etc., by the might of the devil, of darkness, are truly terrific. Cybele stands as a middle term half-way between these dark forms and the Greek or Roman. Pluto is the very model of a puny attempt at darkness utterly failing. He looks big; he paints himself histrionically; he soots his face; he has a masterful dog, nothing half so fearful as a wolf-dog or bloodhound; and he raises his own manes, poor, stridulous Struldbrugs.

Vainly did the ancient Pagans fight against this fatal weakness.

They may confer upon their Gods glittering titles of ‘ambrosial,’ ‘immortal’; but the human mind is careless of positive assertion, and of clamorous iteration in however angry a tone, when silently it observes stealing out of facts already conceded some fatal consequence at war with all these empty pretensions—mortal even in the virtual conceptions of the Pagans. If the Pagan Gods were really immortal, if essentially they repelled the touch of mortality, and not through the adulatory homage of their worshippers causing their true aspects to unsettle or altogether to disappear in clouds of incense, then how came whole dynasties of Gods to pass away, and no man could tell whither? If really they defied the grave, then how was it that age and the infirmities of age passed upon them like the shadow of eclipse upon the golden faces of the planets? If Apollo were a beardless young man, his father was not such—he was in the vigour of maturity; maturity is a flattering term for expressing it, but it means past youth—and his grandfather was superannuated. But even this grandfather, who had been once what Apollo was now, could not pretend to more than a transitory station in the long succession of Gods. Other dynasties, known even to man, there had been before his; and elder dynasties before that, of whom only rumours and suspicions survived. Even this taint, however, this direct access of mortality, was less shocking to my mind in after-years than the abominable fact of its reflex or indirect access in the shape of grief for others who had died. I need not multiply instances; they are without end. The reader has but to throw his memory back upon the anguish of Jupiter, in the ‘Iliad,’ for the approaching death of his son Sarpedon, and his vain struggles to deliver himself from this ghastly net; or upon Thetis, fighting against the vision of her matchless Pelides caught in the same vortex; or upon the Muse in Euripides, hovering in the air and wailing over her young Rhesus, her brave, her beautiful one, of whom she trusted that he had been destined to confound the Grecian host. What! a God, and liable to the pollution of grief! A Goddess, and standing every hour within the peril of that dismal shadow! Here in one moment mark the recoil, the intolerable recoil, upon the Pagan mind, of that sting which vainly they pretended to have conquered on behalf of their Pantheon. Did the reader fancy that I was fatiguing myself with any task so superfluous as that of proving the Gods of the heathen to be no Gods? In that case he has not understood me. My object is to show that the ancients, that even the Greeks, could not support the idea of immortality. The idea crumbled to pieces under their touch. In realizing that idea unconsciously, they suffered elements to slip in which defeated its very essence in the result; and not by accident: other elements they could not have found. Doubtless an insolent Grecian philosopher would say, ‘Surely, I knew that immortality meant the being liberated from mortality.’ Yes, but this is no more than the negative idea, and the demand is to give the affirmative idea. Or perhaps I shall better explain my meaning by substituting other terms with my own illustration of their value. I say, then, that the Greek idea of immortality involves only the nominal idea, not the real idea. Now, the nominal idea (or, which is the same thing, the nominal definition) is that which simply sketches the outline of an object in the shape of a problem; whereas the real definition fills up that outline and solves that problem. The nominal definition states the conditions under which an object would be realized for the mind; the real definition executes those conditions. The nominal definition, that I may express it most briefly and pointedly, puts a question; the real definition answers that question. Thus, to give our illustration, the insoluble problem of squaring the circle presents us with a good nominal idea. There is no vagueness at all in the idea of such a square; it is that square which, when a given circle is laid before you, would present the same superficial contents in such exquisite truth of repetition that the eye of God could detect no shadow of more or of less. Nothing can be plainer than the demand—than the question. But as to the answer, as to the real conditions under which this demand can be realized, all the wit of man has not been able to do more than approach it. Or, again, the idea of a perfect commonwealth, clear enough as a nominal idea, is in its infancy as a real idea. Or, perhaps, a still more lively illustration to some readers may be the idea of perpetual motion. Nominally—that is, as an idea sketched problem-wise—what is plainer? You are required to assign some principle of motion such that it shall revolve through the parts of a mechanism self-sustained. Suppose those parts to be called by the names of our English alphabet, and to stand in the order of our alphabet, then A is through B C D, etc., to pass down with its total power upon Z, which reciprocally is to come round undiminished upon A B C, etc., for ever. Never was anominal definition of what you want more simple and luminous. But coming to the real definition, and finding that every letter in succession must still give something less than is received—that O, for instance, cannot give to P all which it received from N—then no matter for the triviality of the loss in each separate case, always it is gathering and accumulating; your hands drop down in despair; you feel that a principle of death pervades the machinery; retard it you may, but come it will at last. And a proof remains behind, as your only result, that whilst the nominal definition may sometimes run before the real definition for ages, and yet finally be overtaken by it, in other cases the one flies hopelessly before the pursuit of the other, defies it, and never will be overtaken to the end of time.

That fate, that necessity, besieged the Grecian idea of immortality. Rise from forgotten dust, my Plato; Stagyrite, stand up from the grave; Anaxagoras, with thy bright, cloudless intellect that searched the skies, Heraclitus, with thy gloomy, mysterious intellect that fathomed the deeps, come forward and execute for me this demand. How shall that immortality, which you give, which you must give as a trophy of honour to your Pantheon, sustain itself against the blights from those humanities which also, by an equal necessity, starting from your basis, give you must to that Pantheon? How will you prevent the sad reflux of that tide which finally engulfs all things under any attempt to execute the nominal idea of a Deity? You cannot do it. Weave your divinities in that Grecian loom of yours, and no skill in the workmanship, nor care that wisdom can devise, will ever cure the fatal flaws in the texture: for the mortal taint lies not so much in your work as in the original errors of your loom.


MLA Citation

De Quincey, Thomas. “Why the pagans could not invest their gods with any iota of grandeur.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 18 Jul 2024 <>.

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