Like a good many nineteenth-century novels from The Nemesis of Faith to Marius the Epicurean, The Last Days of Pompeii has a central character whose intellectual sophistication leads him to reject common believes. Arbaces, the wealthy Egyptian priest who is the descendant of kings, leads a mystery religion in which he himself has no belief. When young Apæcides, the junior priest whom he will later murder, comes to him in spiritual crisis, Arbaces begins, sounding much like any Victorian preacher
Placed like children in the dark, and but for a little while, in this dim and confined existence, we shape our spectres in the obscurity; our thoughts now sink back into ourselves in terror, now wildly plunge themselves into the guideless gloom, guessing what it may contain; stretching our helpless hands here and there, lest, blindly, we stumble upon some hidden danger; not knowing the limits of our boundary, now feeling them suffocate us with compression, now seeing them extend far away till they vanish into eternity. In this state all wisdom consists necessarily in the solution of two questions: "What are we to believe? and What are we to reject?" These questions you desire me to decide.'
And like many Victorians, Arbaces employs the paradigmatic image of drifting on a destructive ocean to convey the experience of unbelief:
'Man must have some belief,' continued the Egyptian, in a tone of sadness. 'He must fasten his hope to something: is our common nature that you inherit when, aghast and terrified to see that in which you have been taught to place your faith swept away, you float over a dreary and shoreless sea of incertitude, you cry for help, you ask for some plank to cling to, some land, however dim and distant, to attain. Well, then, have not forgotten our conversation of to-day?'
In a previous conversation Egyptian had admitted to his companion "that those deities for whom smoke so many altars were but inventions. I confessed to you that our rites and ceremonies were but mummeries, to delude and lure the herd to their proper good. I explained to you that from those delusions came the bonds of society, the harmony of the world, the power of the wise; that power is in the obedience of the vulgar.": For this reason, like so many Victorian intellectuals, such as Matthew Arnold, who lost their faith, Arbaces argues that one cannot destroy religion without destroying society. Those who have abandons such childish illusions nonetheless have a social duty to cultivate "these salutary delusions," since "if man must have some belief, continue to him that which his fathers have made dear to him, and which custom sanctifies and strengthens.. . . This is wise—it is benevolent.'
Arbaces then proceeds to set forth his true beliefs, the first part of which turn out to be a kind of what T. H. Huxley later termed agnosticism. "Look round the world," he tells the young man, "observe its order—its regularity—its design. Something must have created it—the design speaks a designer. . . . Of that which created the world, we know, we can know, nothing, save these attributes—power and unvarying regularity—stern, crushing, relentless regularity—heeding no individual cases—rolling—sweeping—burning on; no matter what scattered hearts, severed from the general mass, fall ground and scorched beneath its wheels."
This mixture of good and evil "—the existence of suffering and of crime—in all times have perplexed the wise," who created a supposedly beneficent divinity and then had to find explanations for the presence of evil and suffering, all of which the Egyptian rejects, proclaiming there is only nature and necessity, only they exist:
Necessity, say the Greeks, compels the gods. Then why the gods?—their agency becomes unnecessary—dismiss them at once. Necessity is the ruler of all we see—power, regularity—these two qualities make its nature. Would you ask more?—you can learn nothing: whether it be eternal—whether it compel us, its creatures, to new careers after that darkness which we call death—we cannot tell. There leave we this ancient, unseen, unfathomable power, and come to that which, to our eyes, is the great minister of its functions. This we can task more, from this we can learn more: its evidence is around us—its name is NATURE. The error of the sages has been to direct their researches to the attributes of necessity, where all is gloom and blindness. Had they confined their researches to Nature—what of knowledge might we not already have achieved? Here patience, examination, are never directed in vain.
If when speaking of the need to keep the truth about religion from all but a few Arbaces voices something like the Tractarian notion of reserve, here he sounds like modern scientists of a secular bent and those who believe that science and religion concern different aspects of human reality. "What morality," asks Arbaces,
do we glean from this religion?—for religion it is. . . . This—all things are subject but to general rules; the sun shines for the joy of the many—it may bring sorrow to the few; the night sheds sleep on the multitude—but it harbors murder as well as rest; the forests adorn the earth—but shelter the serpent and the lion; the ocean supports a thousand barks—but it engulfs the one. It is only thus for the general, and not for the universal benefit, that Nature acts, and Necessity speeds on her awful course. This is the morality of the dread agents of the world—it is mine, who am their creature. I would preserve the delusions of priestcraft, for they are serviceable to the multitude; I would impart to man the arts I discover, the sciences I perfect; I would speed the vast career of civilizing lore: in this I serve the mass, I fulfill the general law, I execute the great moral that Nature preaches.
If the high priest stopped at this point, he would appear to be a noble agnostic, but he continues, telling young Apæcides the believes himself free to act above all laws of morality — perhaps Nietzsche's Übermensch (superman) before the fact:
Satisfied that the product of my knowledge can give greater blessings to the mass than my desires can operate evil on the few (for the first can extend to remotest regions and humanize nations yet unborn), I give to the world wisdom, to myself freedom. I enlighten the lives of others, and I enjoy my own. Yes; our wisdom is eternal, but our life is short: make the most of it while it lasts. Surrender thy youth to pleasure, and thy senses to delight. Soon comes the hour when the wine-cup is shattered, and the garlands shall cease to bloom. Enjoy while you may. Be still, O Apaecides, my pupil and my follower! . . . . But I will lead thee also to pleasures of which the vulgar do not dream; and the day which thou givest to men shall be followed by the sweet night which thou surrenderest to thyself.' [Ch. 8]
Arbaces's emphasis on nature and necessity sounds very much like Carlyle, who is writing at about the same time that The Last Days of Pompeii appeared, but this emphasis upon carpe diem &mdash seizing the day and indulging in sensual and sexual pleasures is at a far remove from Carlyle, whose attitudes in many ways never moved far from his early Presbyterian puritanism.
Last modified 5 March 2007