Wednesday, 13 April 2016


M. Cayla has undertaken a taste of some difficulty—nothing less, in fact, than the complete abolition of the infernal regions—in a spirit worthy of a Frenchman. He begins, as Frenchman are apt to begin, by a formal invocation of Liberty and in the Principles of 1789. These principles have subverted a good many terrestrial institutions, and are now about to revolutionise hell. M. Cayla confidently announces himself as the leader of the assault upon the unearthly Bastille. He is ready, he says, to besiege the palace of Satan till not one stone is left upon another ; he will demolish purgatory, which learned theologians hold to be a compartment of hell ; "demons, phantoms, unquenchable flames, the apparatus of torture, will disappear as by  enchantment ; day will replace night, and superstition will have lost its last stronghold." And M. Cayla apparently believes that he has carried out the programme announced in this characterise p├Žan of exultation, for at the end of his work he salutes the dawn of the new day which is beaming upon the ruins of " l'enfer demoli."  Notwithstanding this exultation, we may say that a few people will probably cling to a favourite article of belief in spite of Lord Chancellors and of M. Cayla. Its fortificatoin must be weak indeed if they fall down before M, Cayla's blast of trumpets. "For in truth his only argument is that as, according to all poetry, theology, and popular tradition, hell is a very unpleasant place, and purgatory not materially better, it would be more agreeable  not to believe in them.  It would be trespassing too far into the province of theologians to endeavour to estimate the logical value of this piece of reasoning. We need only remark that it is not always a destructive argument against any doctrine that, if true, it involves unpleasant consequences—especially if the consequences  are presumed to affect other people. The matter, however, which M. Cayla introduces in support of his argument is more interesting, and more suitable for notice in our pages, than  the argument itself. He has made a collection of the various forms taken by the assailed doctrine in different creeds from the time of  the Egyptians to our own, but chiefly amongst  the various Christian sects.  The assertions of the Bible as to a future state of rewards and punishments, however free from ambiguity, were not sufficiently precise and explicit to satisfy the imagination of the middle ages. Every hint was therefore seized with greediness, and the intentionally vague outlines filled up with elaborate detail. A whole system of infernal machinery was constructed partly  based upon Biblical statements, but chiefly in vented or imported from rabbinical or pagan sources. Every diseased monkish imagination took pleasure in the congenial task of adding new horrors to hell. A fantastic structure was thus raised, in which we may trace the ancient materials constantly reappearing under slightly modified forms. Theology has, of course, no interest in the permanence of this baseless edifice.  It must be considered as a mere work of art, to be criticised according to aesthetic principles, and as incidentally illustrating the theological principles of its architects. A great deal might be learnt as to the character of any man by ascertaining what were his habitual daydreams. The hideous nightmares which must have given rise to the popular images of hell would lead one to unpleasant conjectures as to the digestions of their inventors.

 There is perhaps less variety than might be expected in the tortures inflicted upon the damned in the commonly received legends. We are told, indeed, that the Esquimaux believe that hell is a place of fearful cold—a natural inversion of the creed which prevails in warmer regions of the earth. In all the temperate countries the punishment is inflicted by fire, the devils acting as the executioners at an ever-lasting auto-da-fe. As one of the authorities quoted by M. Cayla tells us with unhesitating confidence, "without any doubt hell is situated beneath the earth, where the reprobate are eternally tormented. The damned are burnt by a fire which does not consume; the degree of incandescence is proportioned to the crimes to be expiated." This appears to be the groundwork of all the theories about hell, although many other tortures bearing marks of the inventor's personal tastes are thrown in to increase the horror. Thus, for example, we hear of "bad smells, vermin, sulphur, melted lead, devouring hunger, cold, ulcers, and the most hideous and insupportable insects." This recurrence to vermin and "insupportable in sects" no doubt implies that the saint was just then abstaining, on religions motives, from the luxury of washing. St. Theresa, who was permitted to make an experimental voyage in to hell, describes the entrance as leading down at very narrow and very muddy lane, of an unbearable smell, and full of venomous reptiles—a thoroughly lady-like picture of the most unpleasant place conceivable. We have read somewhere of a hell invented by some of the South Sea Islanders. The blessed are supposed to eat on an eternal feast inside of an open wicker-work house. The damned crawl about on the outside, the pangs of hunger being aggravated by the glimpses of festivity within. This moderate allowance of torture speaks much for the natural mildness of the inventors. It is also remarkable, inasmuch as heaven is thus a more positive conception than its antithesis. This is the reverse of the civilised practice. Our ideas of heaven have necessarily been left far more indefinite than our ideas of torment. The heaven of the savages, or even the Elysium of more civilised pagans, is a mere continuation of the present life, with the most prominent evils omitted. But the early  Christian's conception of life made it necessary to purify heaven from everything worldly, even from intellectual amusements or pleasures. His notion of a future world was material enough, as was proved by the tortures to which he subjected the damned. Gregory of Tours, for example, reports a vision in which the soul of Chilperic I. was cast into a boiling pot, after having all its limbs broken, where the heat was so intense that in an instant there was " only a little bit of it left." But in heaven, as a place of religious ecstasy, there was no room for the material enjoyments which would be the natural antithesis to the material suffering. The description of it thus presented much greater difficulties to the imagination. The task was wisely left unattempted, or the description tended to become somewhat monotonous. There is a hymn which speaks of a place where "congregations ne'er break up, and Sabbaths have no end" ; and we doubt whether the statement can be very attractive to most minds. But there was no source from which the poet might not draw for his descriptions of hell. Every variety of physical torment, and every foul and loathsome image might be freely used. A great poet might ennoble the resulting legends, like Dante ; or they might form a raw material fit for Voltaire's ribaldry in the Pucelle d'Orleans ; or they might appeal to mere vulgar terror, like the coarse pictures of flames and devils scrawled upon the outside of Italian chapels.

M. Cayla often speaks as if he supposed these legends to be kept up from interested motives by the priesthood. Though this would, of course, be an absurd explanation of a belief so general, and fitting in so well with his sincere opinions of the age, some particular stories were doubtless started by design. The well known purgatory of St. Patrick, which does credit to Irish ingenuity, seems to have been one of these inventions. This saint established a kind of back-door to purgatory in an island in Lough Derg, where in twenty-four hours a penitent might be purged from his sins. A pilgrim was kept for nine days meditating, and praying in a small cell, with no food but a little bread and water. On the ninth day, he had no food at all. He was then conducted with due ceremonies into a cave. It seems to be doubtful whether an Irishman, after nine days of this treatment, might not be safely left to provide his own torments. If, however, his delirium did not supply him with devils enough the monks appear to have acted the character with great vigour. Other legends may be considered as having been invented either for selfish purposes or as mere exhibitions of spite They were the threatening letters of the age, intended to extort money from their victim, or merely as lampoons to cause him pain. A landgrave of Thuringia having died, his sons offered a good farm to any one who would bring certain news from the soul of the defunct. A priest who knew something of necromancy immediately summoned the devil, and rode off on his back to hell. There, after some dangers, the deceased landgrave appeared, and said that his position would be improved if his heirs would restore certain possessions to the Church. The heirs were so much struck by the accuracy of the priest's account that they offered him the farm, though they refused to restore the possessions. The various other travellers who reach ed the infernal regions daring the middle ages often, of course, brought back news of the sufferings of those who had defrauded the Church They sometimes showed a different spirit, by discovering apparently virtuous bishops and saints in a state of torment. A certain English monk, to his great surprise,observed a holy bishop in the claws of the devil, whose relics were at that very time working miracles. A canon of Notre Dame, in Paris, died, in the eleventh century, in the odour of sanctity. They attempted to bury him in one of the chapels, when the dead man cried out that he had been damned by the just judgment of God His body was accordingly thrown on to a dung-hill, and the chapel was long afterwards known as la chapelle du damne.

M. Cayla gives many instances of the grotesque and terrible effects of this great medieval instrument of religious terrorism. There is undoubtedly something revolting to modern ideas in their coarse materialism. Their gradual extenuation is a proof of intellectual improvement. Dante was a greater poet than Milton, and his hell is poetically superior ; but we prefer the vagueness of Milton's hell in an article of belief. Mr. Ruskin,  in one of his ingenious criticisms, has remarked that it is a proof of Dante's greater imaginative power that, whereas Milton only speaks of Satan as " floating many a rood;" Dante carefully gives us his exact dimensions. It may be doubted whether it requires more imagination to say that the devil is seventy yards in height than to say that he covers many a rood. The test of the imaginative power of a description is not the quantity of detail, but the extent to which it excites the desired emotions. Viewed in this way. Milton's vague outlines probably show less power than Dante's but not on account of their vagueness. They correspond to the picture which an educated mind would naturally form, rejecting the material images of an earlier period as too shocking for even poetical belief. In this way the distance between the conceptions of Milton and Dante measures a refinement in our opinions. We are no longer capable of accepting the gross concrete images which were once satisfactory, but it does not at all follow that our belief in some spiritual truth shadowed forth by them need be weaker. We cannot believe in the flames, and the boiling lead, and the devils with hooks and instruments of torture. But it is certainly possible to believe nevertheless in a future state of eternal punishment, and to enjoy the dear delight of worrying and abusing those who do not believe.—Saturday Review.

* L'Enfer Demoli. Par J. M. Cayla. Paris: 1865

Empire 13 Dec 1865

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