The letter A has been accounted sacred in almost every nation, because it was the first letter. The Egyptians added this to their numberless superstitions; hence it was that the Greeks of Alexandria called it hier'alpha; and, as omega was the last of the letters, these words alpha and omega signified the beginning and the end of all things. This was the origin of the cabalistic art, and of more than one mysterious folly.
The letters served as ciphers, and to express musical notes. Judge what an infinity of useful knowledge must thus have been produced. A, b, c, d, e, f, g, were the seven heavens; the harmony of the celestial spheres was composed of the seven first letters; and an acrostic accounted for everything among the ever venerable Ancients.
Why has not the alphabet a name in any European language? Alphabet signifies nothing more than A, B, and A, B, signifies nothing, or but indicates two sounds, which two sounds have no relation to each other. Beta is not formed from alpha; one is first, the other is second, and no one knows why.
How can it have happened that terms are still wanting to express the portal of all the sciences? The knowledge of numbers, the art of numeration, is not called the one-two; yet the first rudiment of the art of expressing our thoughts has not in all Europe obtained a proper designation.
The alphabet is the first part of grammar; perhaps those who are acquainted with Arabic, of which I have not the slightest notion, can inform me whether that language, which is said to contain no fewer than eighty words to express a horse, has one which signifies the alphabet.
I protest that I know no more of Chinese than of Arabic, but I have read, in a small Chinese vocabulary, that this nation has always had two words to express the catalogue or list of the characters of its language: one is ko-tou, the other hai-pien; we have neither ko-tou nor hai-pien in our Occidental tongues. The Greeks, who were no more adroit than ourselves, also said alphabet. Seneca, the philosopher, used the Greek phrase to designate an old man who, like me, asks questions on grammar, calling him Skedon analphabetos. Now the Greeks had this same alphabet from the Phœnicians – from that people called the letter nation by the Hebrews themselves, when the latter, at so late a period, went to settle in their neighborhood.
It may well be supposed that the Phœnicians, by communicating their characters to the Greeks, rendered them a great service in delivering them from the embarrassment occasioned by the Egyptian mode of writing taught them by Cecrops. The Phœnicians, in the capacity of merchants, sought to make everything easy of comprehension; while the Egyptians, in their capacity of interpreters of the gods, strove to make everything difficult.
I can imagine I hear a Phœnician merchant landed in Achaia saying to a Greek correspondent: "Our characters are not only easy to write, and communicate the thoughts as well as the sound of the voice; they also express our respective debts. My aleph, which you choose to pronounce alpha, stands for an ounce of silver, beta for two ounces, tau for a hundred, sigma for two hundred. I owe you two hundred ounces; I pay you a tau, and still owe you another tau; thus we shall soon make our reckoning."
It was most probably by mutual traffic which administered to their wants, that society was first established among men; and it is necessary that those between whom commerce is carried on should understand one another.
The Egyptians did not apply themselves to commerce until a very late period; they had a horror of the sea; it was their Typhon. The Tyrians, on the contrary, were navigators from time immemorial; they brought together those nations which Nature had separated, and repaired those calamities into which the revolutions of the world frequently plunged a large portion of mankind. The Greeks, in their turn, carried to other nations their commerce and their convenient alphabet, which latter was altered a little, as the Greeks had altered that of the Tyrians. When their merchants, who were afterwards made demi-gods, went to Colchis to establish a trade in sheepskins – whence we have the fable of the golden fleece– they communicated their letters to the people of the country, who still retain them with some alteration. They have not adopted the alphabet of the Turks, to whom they are at present subject, but whose yoke, thanks to the Empress of Russia, I hope they will throw off.
It is very likely (I do not say it is certain – God forbid!) that neither Tyre nor Egypt, nor any other country situated near the Mediterranean Sea, communicated its alphabet to the nations of Eastern Asia. If, for example, the Tyrians, or the Chaldæans, who dwelt near the Euphrates, had communicated their method to the Chinese, some traces of it would have remained; we should have had the signs of the twenty-two, twenty-three, or twenty-four letters, whereas they have a sign for each word in their language; and the number of their words, we are told, is eighty thousand. This method has nothing in common with that of Tyre; it is seventy-nine thousand nine hundred and seventy-six times more learned and more embarrassing than our own. Besides this prodigious difference, they write from the top to the bottom of the page; while the Tyrians and the Chaldæans wrote from right to left, and the Greeks, like ourselves, wrote from left to right.
Examine the Tartar, the Hindoo, the Siamese, the Japanese characters; you will not find the least resemblance to the Greek or the Phœnician alphabet.
Yet all these nations, and not these alone, but even the Hottentots and Kaffirs, pronounce the vowels and consonants as we do, because the larynx in them is essentially the same as in us – just as the throat of the rudest boor is made like that of the finest opera-singer, the difference, which makes of one a rough, discordant, insupportable bass, and of the other a voice sweeter than the nightingale's, being imperceptible to the most acute anatomist; or, as the brain of a fool is for all the world like the brain of a great genius.
When we said that the Tyrian merchants taught the Greeks their A, B, C, we did not pretend that they also taught them to speak. It is probable that the Athenians already expressed themselves in a better manner than the people of Lower Syria; their throats were more flexible, and their words were a more happy assemblage of vowels, consonants, and diphthongs. The language of the Phœnician people was rude and gross, consisting of such words as Shasiroth, Ashtaroth, Shabaoth, Chotiket, Thopheth, etc. – enough to terrify a songstress from the opera of Naples. Suppose that the Romans of the present day had retained the ancient Etrurian alphabet, and some Dutch traders brought them that which they now use; the Romans would do very well to receive their characters, but it is not at all likely that they would speak the Batavian language. Just so would the people of Athens deal with the sailors of Capthor, who had come from Tyre or Baireuth; they would adopt their alphabet as being better than that of Misraim or Egypt, but would reject their speech.
Philosophically speaking, and setting aside all inferences to be drawn from the Holy Scriptures, which certainly are not here the subject of discussion, is not the primitive language a truly laughable chimera?
What would be thought of a man who should seek to discover what had been the primitive cry of all animals; and how it happens that, after a series of ages, sheep bleat, cats mew, doves coo, linnets whistle? They understand one another perfectly in their respective idioms, and much better than we do. Every species has its language; that of the Esquimaux was never that of Peru; there has no more been a primitive language or a primitive alphabet than there have been primitive oaks or primitive grass.
Several rabbis assert that the Samaritan was the original tongue; other persons say that it was that of Lower Brittany. We may surely, without offending either the people of Brittany or those of Samaria, admit no original tongue.
May we not, also, without offending any one, suppose that the alphabet originated in cries and exclamations? Infants of themselves articulate one sound when an object catches their attention, another when they laugh, and a third when they are whipped, which they ought not to be.
As for the two little boys whom the Egyptian king Psammeticus– which, by the by, is not an Egyptian word – brought up, in order to know what was the primitive language, it seems hardly possible that they should both have cried bee bee when they wanted their breakfast.
From exclamations formed by vowels as natural to children as croaking is to frogs, the transition to a complete alphabet is not so great as it may be thought. A mother must always have said to her child the equivalent of come, go, take, leave, hush! etc. These words represent nothing; they describe nothing; but a gesture makes them intelligible.
From these shapeless rudiments we have, it is true, an immense distance to travel before we arrive at syntax. It is almost terrifying to contemplate that from the simple word come, we have arrived at such sentences as the following: Mother, I should have come with pleasure, and should have obeyed your commands, which are ever dear to me, if I had not, when running towards you, fallen backwards, which caused a thorn to run into my left leg.
It appears to my astonished imagination that it must have required ages to adjust this sentence, and ages more to put it into language. Here we might tell, or endeavor to tell, the reader how such words are expressed and pronounced in every language of the earth, as father, mother, land, water, day, night, eating, drinking, etc., but we must, as much as possible, avoid appearing ridiculous.
The alphabetical characters, denoting at once the names of things, their number, and the dates of events, the ideas of men, soon became mysteries even to those who had invented the signs. The Chaldæans, the Syrians, and the Egyptians attributed something divine to the combination of the letters and the manner of pronouncing them. They believed that names had a force – a virtue – independently of the things which they represented; they went so far as to pretend that the word which signified power was powerful in itself; that which expressed an angel was angelic, and that which gave the idea of God was divine. The science of numbers naturally became a part of necromancy, and no magical operation could be performed without the letters of the alphabet.
Thus the clue to all knowledge led to every error. The magi of every country used it to conduct themselves into the labyrinth which they had constructed, and which the rest of mankind were not permitted to enter. The manner of pronouncing vowels and consonants became the most profound of mysteries, and often the most terrible. There was, among the Syrians and Egyptians, a manner of pronouncing Jehovah which would cause a man to fall dead.
St. Clement of Alexandria relates that Moses killed a king of Egypt on the spot by sounding this name in his ear, after which he brought him to life again by pronouncing the same word. St. Clement is very exact; he cites the author, the learned Artapanus. Who can impeach the testimony of Artapanus?
Nothing tended more to retard the progress of the human mind that this profound science of error which sprung up among the Asiatics with the origin of truth. The universe was brutalized by the very art that should have enlightened it. Of this we have great examples in Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, etc.
Origen, in particular, expressly says: "If, when invoking God, or swearing by him, you call him the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob you will, by these words, do things the nature and force of which are such that the evil spirits submit to those who pronounce them; but if you call him by another name as God of the roaring sea, etc., no effort will be produced. The name of Israel rendered in Greek will work nothing; but pronounce it in Hebrew with the other words required, and you will effect the conjuration."
The same Origen had these remarkable words: "There are names which are powerful from their own nature. Such are those used by the sages of Egypt, the magi of Persia, and the Brahmins of India. What is called magic is not a vain and chimerical art, as the Stoics and Epicureans pretend. The name Sabaoth and Adonai were not made for created beings, but belong to a mysterious theology which has reference to the creator; hence the virtue of these names when they are arranged and pronounced according to rule," etc.
It was by pronouncing letters according to the magical method, that the moon was made to descend to the earth. Virgil must be pardoned for having faith in this nonsense, and speaking of it seriously in his eighth eclogue:
Carmina de cœlo possunt de duecere lunam.
Pale Phœbe, drawn by verse, from heaven descends.
– DRYDEN'S VIRGIL.
In short, the alphabet was the origin, of all man's knowledge, and of all his errors.
The word abbé, let it be remembered, signifies father. If you become one you render a service to the state; you doubtless perform the best work that a man can perform; you give birth to a thinking being: in this action there is something divine. But if you are only Monsieur l'Abbé because you have had your head shaved, wear a small collar, and a short cloak, and are waiting for a fat benefice, you do not deserve the name of abbé.
The ancient monks gave this name to the superior whom they elected; the abbé was their spiritual father. What different things do the same words signify at different times! The spiritual abbé was once a poor man at the head of others equally poor: but the poor spiritual fathers have since had incomes of two hundred or four hundred thousand livres, and there are poor spiritual fathers in Germany who have regiments of guards.
A poor man, making a vow of poverty, and in consequence becoming a sovereign? Truly, this is intolerable. The laws exclaim against such an abuse; religion is indignant at it, and the really poor, who want food and clothing, appeal to heaven against Monsieur l'Abbé.
But I hear the abbés of Italy, Germany, Flanders, and Burgundy ask: "Why are not we to accumulate wealth and honors? Why are we not to become princes? The bishops are, who were originally poor, like us; they have enriched and elevated themselves; one of them has become superior even to kings; let us imitate them as far as we are able."
Gentlemen, you are right. Invade the land; it belongs to him whose strength or skill obtains possession of it. You have made ample use of the times of ignorance, superstition, and infatuation, to strip us of our inheritances, and trample us under your feet, that you might fatten on the substance of the unfortunate. Tremble, for fear that the day of reason will arrive!
An abbey is a religious community, governed by an abbot or an abbess.
The word abbot—abbas in Latin and Greek, abba in Chaldee and Syriac – came from the Hebrew ab, meaning father. The Jewish doctors took this title through pride; therefore Jesus said to his disciples: "Call no one your father upon the earth, for one is your Father who is in heaven."
Although St. Jerome was much enraged against the monks of his time, who, in spite of our Lord's command, gave or received the title of abbot, the Sixth Council of Paris decided that if abbots are spiritual fathers and beget spiritual sons for the Lord, it is with reason that they are called abbots.
According to this decree, if any one deserved this appellation it belonged most assuredly to St. Benedict, who, in the year 528, founded on Mount Cassino, in the kingdom of Naples, that society so eminent for wisdom and discretion, and so grave in its speech and in its style. These are the terms used by Pope St. Gregory, who does not fail to mention the singular privilege which it pleased God to grant to this holy founder – that all Benedictines who die on Mount Cassino are saved. It is not, then, surprising that these monks reckon sixteen thousand canonized saints of their order. The Benedictine sisters even assert that they are warned of their approaching dissolution by some nocturnal noise, which they call the knocks of St. Benedict.
It may well be supposed that this holy abbot did not forget himself when begging the salvation of his disciples. Accordingly, on the 21st of March, 543, the eve of Passion Sunday, which was the day of his death, two monks – one of them in the monastery, the other at a distance from it – had the same vision. They saw a long road covered with carpets, and lighted by an infinite number of torches, extending eastward from the monastery to heaven. A venerable personage appeared, and asked them for whom this road was made. They said they did not know. "It is that," rejoined he, "by which Benedict, the well-beloved of God, has ascended into heaven."
An order in which salvation was so well secured soon extended itself into other states, whose sovereigns allowed themselves to be persuaded that, to be sure of a place in Paradise, it was only necessary to make themselves a friend in it, and that by donations to the churches they might atone for the most crying injustices and the most enormous crimes.
Confining ourselves to France, we read in the "Exploits of King Dagobert" (Gestes du Roi Dagobert), the founder of the abbey of St. Denis, near Paris, that this prince, after death, was condemned by the judgment of God, and that a hermit named John, who dwelt on the coast of Italy, saw his soul chained in a boat and beaten by devils, who were taking him towards Sicily to throw him into the fiery mouth of Etna; but all at once St. Denis appeared on a luminous globe, preceded by thunder and lightning, and, having put the evil spirits to flight, and rescued the poor soul from the clutches of the most cruel, bore it to heaven in triumph.
Charles Martel, on the contrary, was damned – body and soul – for having rewarded his captains by giving them abbeys. These, though laymen, bore the title of abbot, as married women have since borne that of abbess, and had convents of females. A holy bishop of Lyons, named Eucher, being at prayer, had the following vision: He thought he was led by an angel into hell, where he saw Charles Martel, who, the angel informed him, had been condemned to everlasting flames by the saints whose churches he had despoiled. St. Eucher wrote an account of this revelation to Boniface, bishop of Mayence, and to Fulrad, grand chaplain to Pepin-le-bref, praying them to open the tomb of Charles Martel and see if his body were there. The tomb was opened. The interior of it bore marks of fire, but nothing was found in it except a great serpent, which issued forth with a cloud of offensive smoke.
Boniface was so kind as to write to Pepin-le-bref and to Carloman all these particulars relative to the damnation of their father; and when, in 858, Louis of Germany seized some ecclesiastical property, the bishops of the assembly of Créci reminded him, in a letter, of all the particulars of this terrible story, adding that they had them from aged men, on whose word they could rely, and who had been eye-witnesses of the whole.
St. Bernard, first abbot of Clairvaux, in 1115 had likewise had it revealed to him that all who received the monastic habit from his hand should be saved. Nevertheless, Pope Urban II., having, in a bull dated 1092, given to the abbey of Mount Cassino the title of chief of all monasteries, because from that spot the venerable religion of the monastic order had flowed from the bosom of Benedict as from a celestial spring, the Emperor Lothario continued this prerogative by a charter of the year 1137, which gave to the monastery of Mount Cassino the pre-eminence in power and glory over all the monasteries which were or might be founded throughout the world, and called upon all the abbots and monks in Christendom to honor and reverence it.
Paschal II., in a bull of the year 1113, addressed to the abbot of Mount Cassino, expresses himself thus: "We decree that you, as likewise all your successors, shall, as being superior to all abbots, be allowed to sit in every assembly of bishops or princes; and that in all judgments you shall give your opinion before any other of your order." The abbot of Cluni having also dared to call himself the abbot of abbots, the pope's chancellor decided, in a council held at Rome in 1112, that this distinction belonged to the abbot of Mount Cassino. He of Cluni contented himself with the title of cardinal abbot, which he afterwards obtained from Calixtus II., and which the abbot of The Trinity of Vendôme and some others have since assumed.
Pope John XX., in 1326 granted to the abbot of Mount Cassino the title of bishop, and he continued to discharge the episcopal functions until 1367; but Urban V., having then thought proper to deprive him of that dignity, he now simply entitles himself Patriarch of the Holy Religion, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Mount Cassino, Chancellor and Grand Chaplain of the Holy Roman Empire, Abbot of Abbots, Chief of the Benedictine Hierarchy, Chancellor Collateral of the Kingdom of Sicily, Count and Governor of the Campagna and of the maritime province, Prince of Peace.
He lives, with a part of his officers, at San-Germano, a little town at the foot of Mount Cassino, in a spacious house, where all passengers, from the pope down to the meanest beggar, are received, lodged, fed, and treated according to their rank. The abbot each day visits all his guests, who sometimes amount to three hundred. In 1538, St. Ignatius shared his hospitality, but he was lodged in a house on Mount Cassino, six hundred paces west of the abbey. There he composed his celebrated Institute – whence a Dominican, in a work entitled, "The Turtle-Dove of the Soul," says: "Ignatius dwelt for twelve months on this mountain of contemplation, and, like another Moses, framed those second tables of religious laws which are inferior in nothing to the first."
Truly, this founder of the Jesuits was not received by the Benedictines with that complaisance which St. Benedict, on his arrival at Mount Cassino, had found in St. Martin the hermit, who gave up to him the place in his possession, and retired to Mount Marsica, near Carniola. On the contrary, the Benedictine Ambrose Cajeta, in a voluminous work written for the purpose, has endeavored to trace the origin of the Jesuits to the order of St. Benedict.
The laxity of manners which has always prevailed in the world, even among the clergy, induced St. Basil, so early as the fourth century, to adopt the idea of assembling in one community the solitaries who had fled into deserts to follow the law; but, as will be elsewhere seen, even the regulars have not always been regular.
As for the secular clergy, let us see what St. Cyprian says of them, even from the third century: "Many bishops, instead of exhorting and setting an example to others, neglected the affairs of God, busied themselves with temporal concerns, quitted their pulpits, abandoned their flocks, and travelled in other provinces, in order to attend fairs and enrich themselves by traffic; they succored not their brethren who were dying of hunger; they sought only to amass heaps of money, to gain possession of lands by unjust artifices, and to make immense profits by usury."
Charlemagne, in a digest of what he intended to propose to the parliament of 811, thus expresses himself: "We wish to know the duties of ecclesiastics, in order that we may not ask of them what they are not permitted to give, and that they may not demand of us what we ought not to grant. We beg of them to explain to us clearly what they call quitting the world, and by what those who quit it may be distinguished from those who remain in it; if it is only by their not bearing arms, and not being married in public; if that man has quitted the world who continues to add to his possessions by means of every sort, preaching Paradise and threatening with damnation; employing the name of God or of some saint to persuade the simple to strip themselves of their property, thus entailing want upon their lawful heirs, who therefore think themselves justified in committing theft and pillage; if to quit the world is to carry the passion of covetousness to such a length as to bribe false witnesses in order to obtain what belongs to another, and to seek out judges who are cruel, interested, and without the fear of God."
To conclude: We may judge of the morals of the regular clergy from a harangue delivered in 1493, in which the Abbé Tritême said to his brethren: "You abbés, who are ignorant and hostile to the knowledge of salvation; who pass your days in shameless pleasures, in drinking and gaming; who fix your affections on the things of this life; what answer will you make to God and to your founder, St. Benedict?"
The same abbé nevertheless asserted that one-third of all the property of Christians belonged of right to the order of St. Benedict, and that if they had it not, it was because they had been robbed of it. "They are so poor at present," added he, "that their revenues do not amount to more than a hundred millions of louis d'ors." Tritême does not tell us to whom the other two-thirds belong, but as in his time there were only fifteen thousand abbeys of Benedictines, besides the small convents of the same order, while in the seventeenth century their number had increased to thirty-seven thousand, it is clear, by the rule of proportion, that this holy order ought now to possess five-sixths of the property in Christendom, but for the fatal progress of heresy during the latter ages.
In addition to all other misfortunes, since the Concordat was signed, in 1515, between Leo X. and Francis I., the king of France nominating to nearly all the abbeys in his kingdom, most of them have been given to seculars with shaven crowns. It was in consequence of this custom being but little known in England that Dr. Gregory said pleasantly to the Abbé Gallois, whom he took for a Benedictine: "The good father imagines that we have returned to those fabulous times when a monk was permitted to say what he pleased."
Those who fly from the world are wise; those who devote themselves to God are to be respected. Perhaps time has corrupted so holy an institution.
To the Jewish therapeuts succeeded the Egyptian monks —idiotoi, monoi—idiot– then signifying only solitary. They soon formed themselves into bodies and became the opposite of solitaries. Each society of monks elected its superior; for, in the early ages of the church, everything was done by the plurality of voices. Men sought to regain the primitive liberty of human nature by escaping through piety from the tumult and slavery inseparably attendant on great empires. Every society of monks chose its father– its abba– its abbot, although it is said in the gospel, "call no man your father."
Neither abbots nor monks were priests in the early ages; they went in troops to hear mass at the nearest village; their numbers, in time, became considerable. It is said that there were upwards of fifty thousand monks in Egypt.
St. Basil, who was first a monk and afterwards Bishop of Cæsarea and Cappadocia, composed a code for all the monks of the fourth century. This rule of St. Basil's was received in the East and in the West; no monks were known but those of St. Basil; they were rich, took part in all public affairs, and contributed to the revolutions of empires.
No order but this was known until, in the sixth century, St. Benedict established a new power on Mount Cassino. St. Gregory the Great assures us, in his Dialogues, that God granted him a special privilege, by which all the Benedictines who should die on Mount Cassino were to be saved. Consequently, Pope Urban II., in a bull of the year 1092, declared the abbot of Mount Cassino chief of all the abbeys in the world. Paschal II. gave him the title of Abbot of Abbots, Patriarch of the Holy Religion, Chancellor Collateral of the Kingdom of Sicily, Count and Governor of the Campagna, Prince of Peace, etc. All these titles would avail but little were they not supported by immense riches.
Not long ago I received a letter from one of my German correspondents, which began with these words: "The abbots, princes of Kempten, Elvengen, Eudestet, Musbach, Berghsgaden, Vissemburg, Prum, Stablo, and Corvey, and the other abbots who are not princes, enjoy together a revenue of about nine hundred thousand florins, or two millions and fifty thousand French livres of the present currency. Whence I conclude that Jesus Christ's circumstances were not quite so easy as theirs." I replied: "Sir, you must confess that the French are more pious than the Germans, in the proportion of 4 16-41 to unity; for our consistorial benefices alone, that is, those which pay annats to the Pope, produce a revenue of nine millions; and two millions fifty thousand livres are to nine millions as 1 is to 4 16-41. Whence I conclude that your abbots are not sufficiently rich, and that they ought to have ten times more. I have the honor to be," etc. He answered me by the following short letter: "Dear Sir, I do not understand you. You doubtless feel, with me, that nine millions of your money are rather too much for those who have made a vow of poverty; yet you wish that they had ninety. I beg you will explain this enigma." I had the honor of immediately replying: "Dear Sir, there was once a young man to whom it was proposed to marry a woman of sixty, who would leave him all her property. He answered that she was not old enough." The German understood my enigma.
The reader must be informed that, in 1575, it was proposed in a council of Henry III., King of France, to erect all the abbeys of monks into secular commendams, and to give them to the officers of his court and his army; but this monarch, happening afterwards to be excommunicated and assassinated, the project was of course not carried into effect.