A CURIOUS chance led me lately to stumble over an incident which happened some time ago. It was concerned with one of the most interesting men of our time; and also one of the problems which are peculiar to our civilization and our time. I give the story as I heard it; it reflects on nobody, whether it is true or untrue.
It seems that Mr Eric Gill, the distinguished sculptor, was engaged to erect a sculptural memorial for the League of Nations, expressing that need for Peace which is now the most direct and vital, not to say deadly, necessity, for all Christians and for all sane men. Apparently he planned a design which involved a Christian symbol; and this was resisted, on the ground that non-Christians might not accept it. I suspect that it was not so much a question of the non-Christians outside Europe as of the Anti-Christians inside Europe. It is very unlike all the little I know of the intellectual leaders of those who follow Confucius or Buddha to object especially to a mystical emblem connected with Christ; and nobody supposes that any body except leaders and intellectuals has very much to say in such modern political problems. And as for Islam, it is enough to say that Christ is already given at least as high a place by all Moslems as He is by many Modernists.
What produces a practical embarrassment in this case is the sincere and savage hatred felt by many Europeans for the religion of their own European past. And this interests me, simply as a historical comparison, because it is really a historical curiosity. It is a difficulty quite peculiar to Christendom. There does not seem to have been anything like it in Paganism. In the last phase of Paganism there was every sort of doubt; there was every sort of denial; but there was not this particular sort of difficulty. The old gods were once perhaps really worshipped as gods; they were then enjoyed as legends; they were even treated lightly as jokes; but they were never hated as symbols. There may have been a time, though I rather doubt it, when people did actually believe that Apollo drove a golden chariot through the sky; but, anyhow, long after Apollo had become an abstraction, an allegory of music or poetry, a tradition that nobody but the most remote rustics took quite seriously, there was most certainly no sculptor from one end of the Roman Empire to the other who would have felt any difficulty, or found any difficulty, in carving Apollo as driving a chariot. The heathens grew cold towards their religion, or even contemptuous of their religion, but they never had any irritation against it that could make them refuse to use its images, or its imagery, in the realm of imagination.
There must have been multitudes of intellectuals, living on the tradition of Euripides or Lucian, who took even a bitter or mocking or pessimistic view of the gods; or simply thought there were no such things as gods in the world; but they would never have objected to gods as graven images. I never heard of any case of any heathen sceptics becoming iconoclasts; and going out and smashing the popular deities as a protest on behalf of abstract truth. They accepted the lyre of Apollo or the wand of Mercury, just as we still accept a Cupid on a Valentine or a nymph on a stone fountain. We may say that the cupid has been vulgarized and is no longer truly a god. We may say that the nymph has met the gorgon, and been turned to stone. And they may have known in their hearts that their religion was dead. But because it was dead, they had even less desire to make exhausting efforts to kill it. If Christianity were really one of the cults studied in comparative religion, if it were really, as its critics sometimes say, a thing made up of materials borrowed from Pagan ism, if it were really only the last myth or ritual of the long undying death of the Roman Empire, then there is no reason why its symbolism should not be used forever by anybody; as the symbolism of nymphs and cupids is still used forever by anybody. The real reason is that this religion does differ in one detail from all those ancient and beautiful religions. It is not dead. Everybody knows in his heart that it is not dead; and none better than those who want it to die.
The people arranging for the Peace Memorial of the League of Nations would not have the slightest objection to covering it with signs and symbols which were once religious. They would not object to a statue of Peace holding the olive branch like a statue of Minerva; they would not object to a symbolic figure of Sunrise which had the lyre or the horses of Apollo; they would not be annoyed if somebody conceived womanhood under the form of Diana hunting or manhood under the form of Hercules at rest. All these things are now really an allegory. And if Christians could accept so trifling a modernist modification of their view as to agree that Christianity is dead, they could safely go on using all their great historical and hagiological wealth of imagery and illustration; and nobody would object to ten thousand angels or a million martyrs or any number of crosses and haloes. But the ground of the resistance is that the whole modern comparison between the decline of Paganism and the decline of Christianity is false. Paganism, in the historic sense of Polytheism, did decline once and for all. Christianity has declined twenty times; but nobody who hated it was ever quite certain that it was dead. The rationalist historians of the nineteenth century found it easy to trace in a curve the rise and fall of a religion. They showed very lucidly, to their own satisfaction, that such a historical monstrosity was first a myth, and then a superstition, and then a tradition, and then an abstraction and an allegory. And what they wrote was largely true, if they had happened to be writing the history of Jupiter-Ammon. But as a history of post-Pagan Europe, commonly called Christendom, it is simply not true. It is not the story of something that ruled the whole world, as a pagan deity ruled the whole city. It is not the story of something which was lost when a man left his own city, and enlarged his mind by considering the gods of other cities. It did not begin by being so powerful as Paganism; it never came to being so impotent as Paganism. It was the story of some thing that was unsafe at its safest and living still at its lowest; something which is always coming out of the Catacombs and going back again; something that is never entirely acceptable when it appears; and never entirely forgotten when it disappears.
It is this utterly unique and even unnatural vigilance that can alone explain a difficulty like that raised about the graven image of Peace. It is that even in proclaiming political peace it proclaims spiritual war. Its things cannot be used as dead things to deck out any alien triumph; we will not be the skeleton at any pagan feast or the corpse for any scientific body-snatching. But, quite apart from our various individual views on such questions of philosophy, there remains a very practical problem of history. These mysteries are the background of the modern European’s past, just as those myths were the background of the most sceptical Pagan’s past. And the matter can be put to a perfectly practical test. If you had told one of the last Greek sculptors that he must not represent anything out of the great Greek myths, he would probably have answered, ‘What shall I represent?’ These things were the whole imagery of his imagination. If you tell an artist of the Christian culture, whatever his opinions, that he is to represent peace or charity or universal love by a familiar and obvious emblem — what is the poor devil to do? Pause and think of that point; for it is a perfectly practical point. What are the popular emblems of peace, if we are to cut out all that comes from myths or mysteries or the past?