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Title: Pagan Ideas of Immortality During the Early Roman Empire
Author: Moore, Clifford Herschel
Language: English
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                   Ingersoll Lectures on Immortality

     IMMORTALITY AND THE NEW THEODICY. By George A. Gordon. 1896.

     HUMAN IMMORTALITY. Two supposed Objections to the Doctrine. By
     William James. 1897.

     DIONYSOS AND IMMORTALITY: The Greek Faith in Immortality as
     affected by the rise of Individualism. By Benjamin Ide Wheeler.

     THE CONCEPTION OF IMMORTALITY. By Josiah Royce. 1899.

     LIFE EVERLASTING. By John Fiske. 1900.

     SCIENCE AND IMMORTALITY. By William Osler. 1904.

     THE ENDLESS LIFE. By Samuel M. Crothers. 1905.

     INDIVIDUALITY AND IMMORTALITY. By Wilhelm Ostwald. 1906.

     THE HOPE OF IMMORTALITY. By Charles F. Dole. 1907.

     BUDDHISM AND IMMORTALITY. By William S. Bigelow. 1908.

     IS IMMORTALITY DESIRABLE? By G. Lowes Dickinson. 1909.


     H. Palmer. 1912.

     METEMPSYCHOSIS. By George Foot Moore. 1914.

     Clifford Herschel Moore. 1918.

                            PAGAN IDEAS OF

                        IMMORTALITY DURING THE

                          EARLY ROMAN EMPIRE

                      The Ingersoll Lecture, 1918

                            Pagan Ideas of

                        Immortality During the

                          Early Roman Empire


                Clifford Herschel Moore, Ph.D., Litt.D.

              _Professor of Latin in Harvard University_

                       [Illustration: colophon]

                       Harvard University Press
                       London: Humphrey Milford
                        Oxford University Press


                            COPYRIGHT, 1918
                       HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS

                       THE INGERSOLL LECTURESHIP

_Extract from the will of Miss Caroline Haskell Ingersoll, who died in
       Keene, County of Cheshire, New Hampshire, Jan. 26, 1893_

_First._ In carrying out the wishes of my late beloved father, George
Goldthwait Ingersoll, as declared by him in his last will and testament,
I give and bequeath to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where my
late father was graduated, and which he always held in love and honor,
the sum of Five thousand dollars ($5,000) as a fund for the
establishment of a Lectureship on a plan somewhat similar to that of the
Dudleian lecture, that is--one lecture to be delivered each year, on any
convenient day between the last day of May and the first day of
December, on this subject, “the Immortality of Man,” said lecture not to
form a part of the usual college course, nor to be delivered by any
Professor or Tutor as part of his usual routine of instruction, though
any such Professor or Tutor may be appointed to such service. The choice
of said lecturer is not to be limited to any one religious denomination,
nor to any one profession, but may be that of either clergyman or
layman, the appointment to take place at least six months before the
delivery of said lecture. The above sum to be safely invested and three
fourths of the annual interest thereof to be paid to the lecturer for
his services and the remaining fourth to be expended in the publishment
and gratuitous distribution of the lecture, a copy of which is always to
be furnished by the lecturer for such purpose. The same lecture to be
named and known as “the Ingersoll lecture on the Immortality of Man.”



The invitation of the committee charged with the administration of the
Ingersoll lectureship and my own inclination have agreed in indicating
that aspect of the general subject of immortality, which I shall try to
present tonight. I shall not venture on this occasion to advance
arguments for or against belief in a life after death; my present task
is a humbler one: I propose to ask you to review with me some of the
more significant ideas concerning an existence beyond the grave, which
were current in the Greco-Roman world in the time of Jesus and during
the earlier Christian centuries, and to consider briefly the relation
of these pagan beliefs to Christian ideas on the same subject. In
dealing with a topic so vast as this in a single hour, we must select
those elements which historically showed themselves to be fundamental
and vital; but even then we cannot examine much detail. It may prove,
however, that a rapid survey of those concepts of the future life, whose
influence lasted long during the Christian centuries, and indeed has
continued to the present day, may not be without profit.

The most important single religious document from the Augustan Age is
the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid; for although the Aeneid was written
primarily to glorify Roman imperial aims, the sixth book gives full
expression to many philosophic and popular ideas of the other world and
of the future life, which were current among both Greeks and Romans.[1]
It therefore makes a fitting point of departure for our considerations.
In this book, as you will remember, the poet’s hero, having reached
Italian soil at last, is led down to the lower world by the Cumaean
Sybil. This descent to Hades belongs historically to that long series of
apocalyptic writings which begins with the eleventh book of the Odyssey
and closes with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Warde Fowler deserves credit for
clearly pointing out that this visit of Aeneas to the world below is the
final ordeal for him, a mystic initiation, in which he receives
“enlightenment for the toil, peril, and triumph that await him in the
accomplishment of his divine mission.” When the Trojan hero has learned
from his father’s shade the mysteries of life and death, and has been
taught the magnitude of the work which lies before him, and the great
things that are to be, he casts off the timidity which he has hitherto
shown and, strengthened by his experiences, advances to the perfect
accomplishment of his task.[2]

But we are not concerned so much with Virgil’s purpose in writing this
apocalyptic book, as with its contents and with the evidence it gives as
to the current ideas of the other world and the fate of the human soul.
What then does the poet tell us of these great matters? We can hardly do
better than to follow Aeneas and his guide on their journey. This side
of Acheron they meet the souls of those whose bodies are unburied, and
who therefore must tarry a hundred years--the maximum of human
life--before they may be ferried over the river which bounds Hades. When
Charon has set the earthly visitors across that stream, they find
themselves in a place where are gathered spirits of many kinds, who have
not yet been admitted to Tartarus or Elysium: first the souls of infants
and those who met their end by violence--men condemned to death though
innocent, suicides, those who died for love, and warriors--all of whom
must here wait until the span of life allotted them has been completed.
These spirits passed, the mortal visitors come to the walls of Tartarus,
on whose torments Aeneas is not allowed to look, for

    “The feet of innocence may never pass
    Into this house of sin.”

But the Sybil, herself taught by Hecate, reveals to him the eternal
punishments there inflicted for monstrous crimes. Then the visitors pass
to Elysium, where dwell the souls of those whose deserts on earth have
won for them a happy lot. Nearby in a green valley, Aeneas finds the
shade of his own father, Anchises, looking eagerly at the souls
which are waiting to be born into the upper world. In answer to
his son’s questions, the heroic shade discloses the doctrine of
rebirths--metempsychosis--with its tenets of penance and of
purification.[3] Finally, to fulfill the poet’s purpose, Anchises’
spirit points out the souls of the heroes who are to come on earth in
due season; the spirits of future Romans pass before Aeneas in long
array; and at the climax he sees the soul of Augustus, that prince who
was destined in the fullness of time to bring back the Golden Age and to
impose peace on the wide world. This prophetic revelation ended, Aeneas
enlightened and strengthened for his task, returns to the upper world.

This book seems at first a strange compound indeed of popular belief,
philosophy, and theology, which is not without its contradictions. On
these, however, we need not pause; but for our present interest we must
ask what are the main ideas on which this apocalypse is based. First of
all, a future life is taken for granted by the poet; otherwise the book
could never have been written. Secondly, we notice that, according to
ancient popular belief, the souls of those who had not received the
proper burial rites, were doomed to wander on this side of Acheron until
a hundred years were completed, and also that souls which were
disembodied by violence or by early death, were destined to live out
their allotted span of earthly existence before they could enter the
inner precincts of Hades. Again the poet represents some few as
suffering eternal torments for their monstrous sins or enjoying immortal
bliss because of their great deserts. And finally, he shows that the
majority of souls must pass through successive lives and deaths, until,
purified from the sin and dross of the body by millennial sojourns in
the world below, and by virtuous lives on earth, they at last find
repose and satisfaction. The popular beliefs which concern details of
the future life we shall leave one side for the moment; let us rather
first observe that Virgil’s ideas as to rewards and punishments in the
next world, as well as his doctrine of successive rebirths and deaths
with their accompanying purifications, rest on a moral basis, so that
the other world is conceived to be a complement of this: life on earth
and life below are opportunities for moral advance without which final
happiness cannot be attained. Whence came these ideas of the future life
and how far were they current in the ancient world of Virgil’s day?

Naturally it does not follow that, because Rome’s greatest poet chose to
picture souls surviving their corporeal homes, the average man believed
in a future life, but there is abundant evidence that the poet was
appealing to widespread beliefs, when he wrote his apocalyptic book.[4]
In fact from the earliest times known to us, both Greeks and Romans held
to a belief in some kind of extended life for souls after the death of
the body.[5] Both peoples had their cults of the dead, rites of tendance
and of riddance, festivals both public and private, which leave no doubt
that the great majority of men never questioned that the spirits of the
departed existed after this life, and that those spirits were endowed
with power to harm or to bless the living.[6] But beyond this rather
elementary stage of belief the Romans never went of themselves. The
Greeks, however, began early to develop eschatological ideas which had,
and which still have, great importance.

The eleventh book of the Odyssey, as I have already said, is the oldest
“Descent to Hades” in European literature. The souls of the dead are
there represented as dwelling in the land of shadows, having no life,
but leading an insubstantial existence, without punishment or reward.
Such a future world could have no moral or other value; it could only
hang over men as a gloomy prospect of that which awaited them when the
suns of this world had forever set. But in the seventh and sixth
centuries B.C. other ideas came to the front, which were influential
throughout later history. In those two centuries fall the first period
of Greek individualism and a religious revival--two things not wholly
disconnected. The Orphic sect, which appeared in the sixth century, was
made up of religious devotees who adopted a purified form of the
religion of Dionysus.[7] The center of the Orphic faith and mystic
ceremonial was the myth of the birth, destruction, and rebirth of the
god. According to the story, Dionysus was pursued by the Titans, powers
hostile to Zeus. In his distress the god changed himself into various
creatures, finally taking on the form of a bull, which the Titans tore
in pieces and devoured. But the goddess Athena saved the heart and gave
it to Zeus who swallowed it. Hence sprang the new Dionysus. The Titans
Zeus destroyed with his thunderbolt and had the ashes scattered to the
winds. From these ashes, in one form of the myth, man was made, and
therefore he was thought to unite in his person the sinful Titanic
nature and the divine Dionysiac spark. The parallelism between this
story and the myths of Osiris, Attis, and Adonis is at once evident.
They are all gods who die and live again, and thus become lords of death
and life, through whom man gains assurance of his own immortality.

Our chief concern with the Orphics here is that they seem to have
introduced among the Greeks the idea that the soul of man was divine,
was a [Greek: daimôn] which had fallen, and for its punishment was
imprisoned in the body as in a tomb. In its corporeal cell it was
condemned to suffer defilement until released by death, when it passed
to Hades. Its lot there depended on its life on earth. As an Orphic
fragment says: “They who are righteous beneath the rays of the sun, when
they die, have a gentler lot in a fair meadow by deep flowing
Acheron.... But they who have worked wrong and insolence under the rays
of the sun are led down beneath Cocytus’s watery plain into chill
Tartarus.”[8] The soul’s sojourn in Hades therefore was a time of
punishment and of purification, even as life itself was a penance for
sin. According to a common belief, at least in Plato’s day, after a
thousand years the soul entered a new incarnation, and so on through ten
rounds of earth and Hades, until at last, freed from sin and earthly
dross by faithful observance of a holy life on earth and by the
purification which it underwent below, it returned to its divine abode;
but those who persisted in sin were condemned to all the punishments
which man’s imagination could devise; the wicked were doomed to lie in
mud and filth, while evil demons rent their vitals. Indeed the horrors
which the medieval Christian loved to depict in order to terrify the
wicked and to rejoice the faithful, were first devised by the Orphics
and their heirs, for exactly the same purpose.

But what bases did the Orphics find for their belief in the divine
nature of the soul? In their mythology they had said that man was
created out of the ashes of the Titans in which a spark of Dionysus
still remained. But in fact they seem to have rested on faith or
intuition, without working out clearly a philosophic answer. They were
indeed deeply conscious of man’s dual nature; they perceived that on the
one hand he is pulled by his baser instincts and desires, which they
naturally attributed to the body, and that on the other hand he is
prompted by nobler aspirations, which they assigned to his soul. This
higher part of man’s dual self was, for them, the Dionysiac element in
him. And man’s moral obligation they held to be to free this divine
element from the clogging weight of the body, to cease to “blind his
soul with clay.” So far as we are aware, the Orphics were the first
among the Greeks to make the divinity of the soul a motive for the
religious life, and perhaps the first to see that, if the soul is
divine, it may naturally be regarded as eternally so, and therefore as
immortal. What more momentous thoughts as to the soul’s nature and its
destiny could any sect have introduced than these? They were shared by
their contemporaries, the Pythagoreans; in fact it is hard to say with
certainty which sect developed these concepts first.[9]

But the Orphic-Pythagorean confidence in the immortality of the soul
was at the most only an emotional belief. It remained for Plato in the
early fourth century to give that belief a philosophic basis and thereby
to transform it into a reasonable article of religion. This he
fundamentally did, when he brought his concept of the reasoning soul
into connection with his doctrine of “forms” or “ideas.” He maintained
that behind this transient phenomenal world known to us through the
senses, lies another world, the world of ideas, invisible, permanent,
and real, which can be grasped by the reason only. These permanent
ideas, he said, are of various grades and degrees, the supreme idea
being that of the Good and the Beautiful, which is the cause of all
existence, truth, and knowledge; it at once comprehends these things
within itself and is superior to them; it is the Absolute, God.[10]

But all the ideas, including the Absolute, are, as I have just said,
apprehended not by man’s senses but by his intellect. Therefore, argues
Plato, man’s reasoning soul must have the same nature as the ideas; like
them, it must belong to the world above the senses and with them it must
partake of the Absolute. Moreover, since the ideas are eternal and
immortal, it inevitably follows that man’s reasoning soul has existed
from eternity and will exist forever.[11]

This is not the occasion to discuss the validity of Plato’s doctrine.
Aristotle stated, once for all, the fundamental objections to his
teacher’s views.[12] But we shall readily grant that, if we accept
Plato’s doctrine, his conclusions as to the immortality of the soul may
logically follow and that no further evidence is needed to convince us.
Yet Plato was not content to let the matter rest on this single
argument, for in other dialogues he adduces proofs which do not seem so
convincing to us as to their author. He attempts to prove immortality
from the self-motion of the soul, again from the dim recollections out
of an earlier existence which enable one to recall axiomatic truths or
to recognize relations, as in mathematics--things which one has never
learned in this present life. On another occasion he argues from the
unchanging nature of the soul and from the soul’s superiority to the
body. But he seems to have thought the most convincing proof was the
fact that the notion of life is inseparable from our concept of the
soul; that is, a dead soul is unthinkable. For all these reasons,
therefore, he argued that the soul must be immortal.[13]

Whatever we may think of Plato’s different proofs, they have furnished
the armories of apologists almost down to our own day. In antiquity they
were constantly repeated, in whole or in part, not only by devoted
members of the Academy and later by the Neoplatonists, but by the
Eclectics and others, like Cicero in the first book of his Tusculan
Disputations, and at the close of Scipio’s Dream; they were borrowed by
the Stoics, and some eight hundred years after Plato had first
formulated them, they were employed by St. Augustine in his tract _De
Immortalitate Animae_. The religious intuition of the Orphic and
Pythagorean then was given a rational basis by Plato, and thus
supported, proved so convincing to antiquity that Plato’s views were the
most important of all in supporting belief in the soul’s immortality.
They were in large measure taken up by the Christian church, and, as has
been often shown, the doctrine of a spiritual immortality apart and free
from the body, was of immense service to primitive Christianity, when
the hope of the early return of Christ to found a new kingdom on earth
faded before the lengthening years.

To Plato himself his belief in immortality was of the greatest moment,
for the whole fabric of his ethical and political philosophy is built
against the background of that doctrine. And indeed we should all grant
much validity to the argument that the human reason, though weak and
limited, is one with the divine and infinite reason; otherwise the human
could have no understanding of the divine. But when it is further argued
that if the human reason is of the same nature with the divine, it must
be eternal and immortal, we may reply that, even so, we are not
convinced that the individual soul must therefore have a conscious and
separate existence through all eternity; its identity may be lost by
absorption into the universal reason, the supreme idea. This is a matter
on which Plato nowhere delivers a clear opinion, but his thought is so
plainly centered on the individual soul that we can hardly believe that
it was possible for him to conceive of the soul’s personality ever being
lost in the Absolute.

Although Plato and his greatest pupil, Aristotle, regarded man’s
reasoning soul as spiritual, something distinct from matter, few ancient
thinkers were able to rise to the concept of the immateriality of man’s
reasoning nature. The Stoics, who in their eclectic system borrowed from
both Plato and Aristotle, as well as from many other predecessors, held
to a strict materialism which they took from Heraclitus. But to their
material principle they applied a concept which they took from
Aristotle, for they recognized in all things the existence of an active
and a passive principle, and they said that by the action of the former
on the latter, all phenomena were produced. The active principle they
called reason, intelligence, the cause of all things. It was the
world-reason which, according to their view, permeated every part of
the cosmos, causing and directing all things. To express their concept
of its nature, they often named it Fire, the most powerful and active of
the elements, or rather the primordial element; again they often called
it God, for they did not hesitate to speak of this immanent principle as
a person. Furthermore, since man is a part of the cosmos, the
world-reason expresses itself in him. Indeed man’s reason, the directing
element of the human soul, is itself a part of the world-reason, or in
Epictetus’ striking phrase, man is “a fragment of God.”[14] At this
point the Stoic and the Platonist were in accord, although the paths of
thought which they had travelled were very different. Yet the Stoic
could not agree with the Platonist that the individual soul survived
forever, since he held to a cyclical theory of the cosmos, according to
which this present universe was temporal. It had been created by the
eternal fire, by the world-reason, from itself, and it was destined in
due season to sink back again into universal fire. Meantime, according
to the views of most Stoics, the souls of the just would survive this
body, ascending to the spheres above the world, where they would dwell
until absorbed once more into the divine element from which they sprang.
To the souls of the wicked only a short period at most of post-corporeal
existence was granted--brevity of life or annihilation was their

Strictly speaking, the prospect of the limited existence after death,
which the Stoics held out as virtue’s reward, should have had little
value for the philosophic mind, especially as their philosophy offered
no warrant that personality would survive at all. But it would seem that
men at every period of human history have had immortal longings in them
so strong that they have eagerly embraced the assurance of even a brief
respite from annihilation; certain it is that to many Greeks and Romans
the Stoic doctrine of a limited existence after death was a strong
incentive to virtue and a consolation in the midst of this world’s

But no doctrine of the post-corporeal existence of the soul has ever had
the field entirely to itself. We know that in antiquity even the Stoic
conception of the soul’s limited survival, to say nothing of Platonic
beliefs in actual immortality, met with much opposition and denial among
the intellectual classes. The Epicureans, with their thorough-going
atomistic materialism, would not allow that the soul had any existence
apart from the body; on the contrary, they held that the soul came into
being at the moment of conception, grew with the body, and, at the
body’s death, was once more dissolved into the atoms from which it
first was formed. Epicurean polemics were directed against both popular
superstitions and Platonic metaphysics; the attacks had the advantage of
offering rational, and for the day scientific, explanations of natural
phenomena, which fed human curiosity as to the causes of things, and
which, if accepted, might logically lead to that freedom from the soul’s
perturbation which was the aim of the teaching. Moreover, the noble
resignation, the high moral and humane zeal, which characterized the
Epicurean School at its best, as well as its easy decline into
hedonistic appeals, made it popular, especially in the last two
centuries before our era. But the very fire and passion of Lucretius,
its most gifted Latin exponent, give us the impression that after all
most men were not moved to find the peace which the poet promised them,
if they would but accept the doctrine of the soul’s dissolution at the
moment of death.

The Sceptics also, who claimed not an inconsiderable number of
intellectuals, doubted the possibility of a future life, or found
themselves unable to decide the matter at all. Like Tennyson’s Sage they
would declare:

    “Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
    Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
    Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
    Thou canst not prove that thou art immortal, no,
    Nor yet that thou art mortal.”

Indeed it is true that of all the philosophic sects at the beginning of
our era, only those which were imbued with Platonic and
Orphic-Pythagorean ideas, had confidence in the soul’s immortality. The
Stoic position we have already discussed. Some scholars, following
Rohde,[16] claim that there was little belief in any kind of a future
life among the educated classes at the time we are considering; this I
hold to be an error, although it is certain that the Epicureans and
Sceptics had a large following. In any case we need to remind ourselves
that the intellectuals are always a small minority, whose views may not
represent in any way popular beliefs.

We are, however, not without evidence that there were doubters among the
common people. Flippant epigrams and epitaphs show that men could at
least assume a cynicism toward life and a light-heartedness toward death
which equal Lucian’s. More than once we can read funerary inscriptions
to this effect: “I was nothing, I am nothing. Do thou who art still
alive, eat, drink, be merry, come.”[17] Or sentiments like this: “Once I
had no existence; now I have none. I am not aware of it. It does not
concern me.”[18] Again we find the denial: “In Hades there is no boat,
no Charon, no Aeacus who holds the keys, no Cerberus. All of us, whom
death has taken away are rotten bones and ashes; nothing more.”[19] The
sentiments are perhaps as old as thinking man. They have at times
touches of humor which call forth a smile, as in the anxious inquiries
of Callimachus’ epigram: “Charidas, what is below?” “Deep darkness.”
“But what of the paths upward?” “All a lie.” “And Pluto?” “Mere talk.”
“Then we’re lost.”[20]

Such expressions, of course, must not be given too much weight in our
reckoning. The longing for annihilation, which appeals at times to most
weary mortals, also led to dedications “to eternal rest” or “to eternal
sleep.”[21] But after all the number of such epitaphs is comparatively
small. In the nature of the case many funerary inscriptions give no
testimony for or against a belief in immortality; but large numbers
show confidence, or a hope, in a future life.


The time has now come for us to return from our rather long historical
survey to Virgil’s Apocalypse, and to listen to the words with which
Anchises’ shade taught his eager son:

    “Know first that heaven and earth and ocean’s plain,
    The moon’s bright orb, and stars of Titan birth
    Are nourished by one Life; one primal Mind,
    Immingled with the vast and general frame,
    Fills every part and stirs the mighty whole.
    Thence man and beast, thence creatures of the air,
    And all the swarming monsters that be found
    Beneath the level of the marbled sea;
    A fiery virtue, a celestial power,
    Their native seeds retain; but bodies vile,
    With limbs of clay and members born to die,
    Encumber and o’ercloud; whence also spring
    Terrors and passions, suffering and joy;
    For from deep darkness and captivity
    All gaze but blindly on the radiant world.
    Nor when to life’s last beam they bid farewell
    May sufferers cease from pain, nor quite be freed
    From all their fleshly plagues; but by fixed law,
    The strange, inveterate taint works deeply in.
    For this, the chastisement of evils past
    Is suffered here, and full requital paid.
    Some hang on high, outstretched to viewless winds;
    For some their sin’s contagion must be purged
    In vast ablution of deep-rolling seas,
    Or burned away in fire. Each man receives
    His ghostly portion in the world of dark;
    But thence to realms Elysian we go free,
    Where for a few these seats of bliss abide,
    Till time’s long lapse a perfect orb fulfills,
    And takes all taint away, restoring so
    The pure, ethereal soul’s first virgin fire.
    At last, when the millennial aeon strikes,
    God calls them forth to yon Lethaean stream,
    In numerous host, that thence, oblivious all,
    They may behold once more the vaulted sky,
    And willingly to shapes of flesh return.”[22]

These words express the commingled beliefs of Orphic, Pythagorean,
Platonist, and Stoic. How extensively such beliefs were held by Virgil’s
contemporaries we cannot say with accuracy, but certain it is that this
book and this passage would never have made the religious appeal which
they made in antiquity, if they had not corresponded to widespread

But Virgil’s sixth book contains much more than the eschatological views
of philosophic schools; it reflects to an extraordinary degree popular
ideas and practices. I have already referred to the fact that it
represents a mystic initiation of Virgil’s hero as preparation for his
holy task. Now we know that at all times the convictions of the majority
of men are founded not on the arguments which thinkers can supply, but
on hopes, intuitions, and emotional experiences. Such were the grounds
on which the Orphic built his hope of the purified soul’s ultimate
happiness. More popular than Orphism were the Greek mysteries, of which
the most important were those celebrated annually at Eleusis in Attica.
There the story of the rape of Proserpina, of Demeter’s search for her
daughter, and of the daughter’s recovery, formed the center of a mystic
ceremonial. Originally these mysteries were no doubt agricultural rites
intended to call to life the dead grain in the spring. But before the
seventh century, B.C., the festival had been transformed; the miracle of
the reviving vegetation, of the grain which dies and lives again, here,
as so many times elsewhere, had become the symbol and assurance of human

Before admission to the annual celebration the would-be initiate was
duly purified. During the celebration the initiated, by their own acts,
recalled Demeter’s hunt for her daughter, roaming the shore with
lighted torches; like the goddess, they fasted and then broke their fast
by drinking a holy potion of meal and water; in the great hall of
initiation they witnessed a mystic drama, perhaps saw holy objects
exhibited and explained. In any case they underwent an emotional
experience which so confirmed their intuitional belief in immortality,
that they were confident of peace and happiness in this life and of
blessedness in the life to come, where they would join in the sacred
dance, while the uninitiated would be wretched. Many are the expressions
of this ecclesiastical confidence. The Homeric hymn of Demeter promised:
“Blessed is he among mortal men who has seen these rites.”[24] Pindar,
early in the fifth century, wrote: “Happy he who has seen these things
and then goes beneath the earth, for he knows the end of life and its
Zeus-given beginning.”[25] Sophocles said: “Thrice blessed are they who
have seen these rites, and then go to the house of Hades, for they alone
have life there, but all others have only woe.”[26] At the close of the
fifth century Aristophanes made his chorus of mystae sing: “For we alone
have a sun and a holy light, we who have been initiated, and who live
honorably toward friends and strangers, reverencing the gods.”[27] In
the third century of the Christian era, an official of the mysteries set
up an inscription which declares: “Verily glorious is that mystery
vouchsafed by the blessed gods, for death is no ill for mortals, but
rather a good.”[28]

It is difficult for us now to appreciate the widespread influence of
these Eleusinian mysteries. They had many branches; at Eleusis they
continued to be celebrated until 396 A.D., when Alaric the Goth
destroyed Demeter’s ancient shrine. Other Greek mysteries also
flourished in the Mediterranean world: those of Samothrace; the
mysteries of Bacchus, whose excesses brought down the displeasure of the
Roman Senate in 186 B.C.; and in later times the mysteries of Hecate or
Diana. All had this in common, that they gave the initiate assurance of
a happy immortality.

Under the Roman Empire the longing for religious satisfaction through
mystic rites and revelations found new and exotic sources of
gratification. Slaves, traders, and finally soldiers from Hellenized
Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, carried their gods throughout the
Mediterranean world, and even beyond, to the Atlantic Ocean, to
Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, to the Rhine and Danube, and to the borders
of the African desert. The invasion of the West by these oriental gods
began in 204 B.C., when, in answer to the Roman Senate’s invitation, the
Asiatic Great Mother of the Gods took up her residence in Rome. Many
other divinities came during the succeeding centuries; but three
remained most prominent: the Great Mother of the Gods, whom I have just
mentioned, with her attendant Attis; Egyptian Isis and her associate
divinities, who were worshipped in Rome as early as Cicero’s day; and
the Persian Mithras, whose cult became influential in the West toward
the close of the first century of our era.[29] These religions added to
their exotic charm that spell which great age casts over men’s
imaginations. Osiris, the husband of Isis, had been lord of the dead in
Egypt for more than two thousand years; Attis and the Great Mother
belonged to an immemorial antiquity; while Mithras had his origin in the
remoter East, at a period to which neither Greek nor Roman knowledge
ran. Moreover, Attis and Osiris, like Dionysus and Persephone among the
Greeks, or the Semitic Adonis and Tammuz, were gods who died and lived
again, and who therefore became warrants of man’s immortality. Mithras
belonged to another class of divinities. He was held to be the
benefactor and constant supporter of mankind. According to the sacred
legend, he had himself wrestled with the powers of darkness and had
established civilization on earth, before he ascended to heaven, whence
he was believed to aid his faithful followers in their constant struggle
against the servants of Ahriman, the lord of wickedness.

The devotees of these gods formed sacred communities, admission to which
was obtained by secret initiation; the rituals were mysteries in which
the devotee had pictured to him, or himself acted out, the sacred drama,
whereby he received assurance of divine protection here and of a happy
immortality hereafter. The initiate, moreover, was believed to
experience a new birth and to enter into union with his god, so that he
became Osiris-Serapis, or Attis, or Mithras, even as the Dionysiac
devotee became a Bacchus.

To the question how the comforting assurance of present safety and of
future immortality was given the initiate, we can return no more
satisfactory answer than we can make in the case of the Greek mysteries;
yet we may get some hint from the words which the Latin writer,
Apuleius, puts into the mouth of his hero, Lucius, who was initiated
into the rites of Isis. This is all that he might tell: “I approached
the bounds of death. I trod the threshold of Proserpina. I was carried
through all the elements and returned again to the upper air. At dead of
night I saw the sun glowing with a brilliant light. The gods of heaven
and of hell I approached in very person and worshipped face to
face.”[30] Obscure as these words are, much is plain. In some way the
devotee was made to believe that he, like Virgil’s hero, had passed
through the world of the dead and had been born again into a new life;
he had touched the elements--earth, air, water, and fire, the very
foundations of the visible cosmos; he had seen the sun which ever shines
on the consecrated; and he had been granted the beatific vision.
Therefore he knew that his salvation was secure forever.

Furthermore in these mystery religions preparation for the emotional
experiences of initiation was made by means of lustral baths, fasting,
abstinence, and penance; once consecrated, the devotee supported his
religious life by following a prescribed regimen and by participating in
frequent holy offices; degrees of initiation and grades of office marked
his advance in faithful proficiency; while magic words and formulae,
committed to memory, assured him a safe passage from this world to the

The oriental mysteries enjoyed a widespread popularity, except in
Greece, under the Roman Empire down to the latter half of the third
century. Then they began to lose their hold in the Roman provinces
before the growing power of Christianity; yet in the city of Rome they
stubbornly held their ground until the end of the fourth century. The
first St. Peter’s was built hard beside a shrine of the Great Mother of
the Gods; there for three-quarters of a century the old and the new
mysteries strove in conscious rivalry, until at last Cybele was forced
to yield to Christ.

The last centuries before the birth of Jesus and the opening centuries
of our era were marked by an increasing religious longing and unrest,
first among the Greeks and then among the Romans. There was a weariness
and a dissatisfaction with the inherited forms of religious expression;
and many felt a sense of separation from God, of a gulf between the
human and the divine, which they hoped might be bridged by a direct
revelation, by a vision, which would grant immediate knowledge of God.
These eager desires led in part to an increase in superstition and
credulity, over which we need not now pause; in part to the resort to
the oriental mysteries of which I have just spoken; and in part to a
revival of Pythagorean mysticism and of mystic Platonism among the
intellectuals, who no longer felt that the reason and the will gave them
the assurance which they required.

The later mystic philosophies laid much stress on an ascetic discipline
in this life, to secure the soul’s purification, and all taught that the
great end of man was to attain to the knowledge of God, wherein lay
man’s supreme happiness. Such knowledge, it was thought, could come only
through a revelation. Here these philosophies agreed with the teaching
of the oriental mysteries, and indeed with popular belief as well. On
the question of the immortality of the soul, however, the later mystics
brought forward no new arguments. Plotinus, the greatest of the
Neoplatonists, virtually repeats the proofs adduced by the founder of
the Academy.[31] Undoubtedly during the opening centuries of the
Christian era there was a growing belief in the soul’s immortality, or
at least an increasing hope of a future life, but such hopes and
beliefs, outside Christianity, were not based on new arguments. Plato
had once for all in antiquity, supplied the philosophic grounds for
confidence. Only in modern times have new arguments of any weight been

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us now pause to summarize the results of the considerations which
have thus far occupied us. We may fairly say that, in spite of popular
doubt, intellectual scepticism, and philosophic denial, beliefs in some
kind of existence beyond the grave were widespread in the Greco-Roman
world at the beginning of our era. For many, probably for most, belief
did not advance beyond inherited intuitions, fears, or hopes, which were
fostered by tendance of the dead, prescribed by immemorial custom. Many,
both the simple and the learned, found their assurance in diverse forms
of Greek mysteries; others, again, strengthened to endure the buffetings
of this life by the resolute doctrines of Stoicism, were satisfied with
the extended, though limited, future existence vouchsafed the virtuous;
while the later Platonists, returning to the mystic Orphic-Pythagorean
elements which had influenced the founder of their school, offered
their disciples arguments in favor of a genuine immortality. Under the
Empire the supports of faith became more numerous and appealing. At the
lowest end of the scale were charlatans, as there had been since Plato’s
day,[32] who imposed on the fears and hopes of their victims for their
own mercenary ends. Higher were those inspiring Eastern mysteries which
were carried to the remotest provinces, binding their devotees by
initiation, ritual service, and a prescribed regimen, more constantly to
a religious life than Greek mysteries had ever done; and the great end
of all was the assurance that the souls of the faithful should not die,
but should mount to the upper heavens to be at one with God.

The last vital philosophy of antiquity was Neoplatonism, on which we
have just touched; the chief aim of the Neoplatonist also was to secure
union with the Divine, and his greatest article of faith was the soul’s
immortality. If this theosophic philosophy seem to any of poor account,
I would remind him that by Origen and Augustine Neoplatonism was brought
into Christian thought, where it has been operative ever since.


In view of the facts with which we have been occupied we shall not make
the error of thinking that Christianity brought the hope of immortality
among men, for, as we have seen, hope--nay, sure confidence, in the
soul’s survival was widespread throughout the ancient world when Jesus
began his ministry. What can we say of early Christian teaching, and how
was it related to its pagan environment?

Christianity grew out of Judaism. Now it is a striking fact that the
Jews were later than most of the peoples about them in conceiving of
individual immortality.[33] Clinging to monotheism and absorbed in the
life of their nation, they had cut themselves off from some of the ideas
developed by their neighbors. To follow out the intricate and uncertain
history of eschatological ideas among the Jews would be too difficult
here. We may simply say that when Jesus began his ministry a
considerable part of the Jews had abandoned the expectation of a
material kingdom of God and looked forward to a spiritual kingdom on a
transformed earth or in heaven. In this kingdom those would share, who
through God’s grace and their own righteousness had won a place therein;
but the wicked were either to be punished forever or to be utterly
destroyed. To these ideas Jesus’ teaching was closely related, although
he gave a nobler meaning to Jewish doctrine, and he did not limit the
hope of a future existence so narrowly as some would do. Moreover, he
adopted from the law the teaching which made salvation and future
happiness depend on a love for God and for one’s fellow-men, which would
result in an unselfish life of righteousness. Salvation, he taught, was
a present experience, open to every man who conformed to the

After the crucifixion of Jesus, the Apostles and their successors
naturally made his person, death, and resurrection the great means
through which his followers secured salvation. Paul, moreover, taught
that through faith--using the word in a somewhat unusual sense--the
believer secured the actual presence of Christ within him, entered into
a mystic union with the divine Saviour, by which the man was freed from
sin and reborn into a new spiritual life; this new life was confirmed by
the indwelling Holy Spirit which completed the man’s moral
regeneration. In the Fourth Gospel we find a similar doctrine of a
mystic union with Christ, secured by belief in Him as the incarnate
Word--a belief which brought about a spiritual rebirth and therewith
gave a present warrant of eternal life.[34]

It is unnecessary for our present purpose to examine the beliefs of the
earliest Christians as to the resurrection or the second coming of
Christ, which they expected to take place within their own time--these
beliefs and many others the Apostolic Church derived naturally from
their Jewish tradition and from the teachings of Jesus. I shall ask you
rather to focus your thought on the fundamental ideas of this early
Christianity: that is to say, on the revelation of God, the punishment
of sin by suffering or annihilation, the mystic union with the Divine,
and a happy immortality as a reward for faith and righteousness. Were
these ideas foreign to the peoples of the Mediterranean area? No, our
survey has reminded us that on the contrary they were familiar over wide
stretches of the Greco-Roman world.

Do not misunderstand me here. Of course I am not making the elementary
blunder of saying that because certain beliefs of the Christians and the
Pagans were similar, they therefore were identical, or that they were
derived from one another, or that the many factors of which they were
composed were the same. No one with any knowledge of the history of
religious thought could maintain that. But the point which I do wish to
emphasize is this, viz.: that the eschatological ideas widely current in
the Mediterranean world were such that Christianity found a favorable
environment when it began its proselyting work. This seems to me one of
the most significant facts in the relation of early Christianity to
paganism. The Christian teachings as to the means by which the assurance
of a happy immortality was to be secured could hardly seem very strange
at first hearing to any one who was familiar with mystery religions or
with much of the religious philosophy current in the pagan world during
the early Christian centuries. Closer examination would reveal
fundamental differences between Christian belief and the pagan hope. But
it is not insignificant that Christianity spread most rapidly at first
in Syria and Asia Minor, countries long familiar with those mystic
religions, which had promised what the nobler faith supplied.


Although we now have examined the conditions which, to my mind, are the
most significant in the relation of pagan ideas of immortality to those
of early Christianity, there yet remain matters which, if less
important, are still of more than merely curious interest. We shall now
look at some of these questions.

What notions of heaven and of hell did the Greeks and Romans have? This
inquiry is often made. The reply is easily given. Man has always painted
hell and paradise after his own conception of suffering and of
happiness, just as truly as he has made God after his own image.
Consequently the ancient’s ideas of the future life ranged all the way
from the grossest materialistic concepts to highly spiritualized
beliefs. Plato in the Republic makes Adeimantus say that some seem to
think that an immortality of drunkenness is virtue’s highest meed.[35]
But Socrates conceived the future state to be something very different;
a place in which he could hold high discourse with the great ones of the
past.[36] In general, however, punishment and rewards were of a material
sort, for such are most easily imagined and understood. Has it been
otherwise with Christians? The answer is to be found in Christian
apocalypses, medieval monuments, renaissance art, and in our own minds.
Of course there developed in Greek thought what we might call an
orthodox geography and scheme for the other world, of which Virgil gives
us a just picture. Interesting as it might prove to examine the details
of this picture, we will rather turn to other matters.

When Christianity spread among the Gentiles, it at once came under
influences which inevitably left their marks in its thought and
practice. Let me offer two illustrations.

Early in the hour I spoke of Aeneas’ journey through the lower world as
an initiation by which he was enlightened and strengthened for the great
task that lay before him; and we have now seen that in all the
mysteries, both Greek and oriental, there were initiatory rites, in
which the novice symbolically died to the old life and was born again
into a new existence. Moreover, through his emotional experience he
received assurance that his salvation was secure forever. The idea of
the new birth belongs to Christianity also from the first. Paul held
that it was brought about by faith; the author of the Fourth Gospel
taught that it was secured by love and belief. Baptism in primitive
Christianity was at first symbolical--an act of ritual purification,
which was believed to indicate the remission of sins and the bestowal of
the Holy Spirit.[37] But by the second century Christianity had become a
mystery in the Greek sense, into which the novice, after a period of
preparation, was duly initiated by baptism; and indeed the act was
believed to have a magic power to secure immortality, closely parallel
to that of the pagan initiation.[38] We all know that the
ecclesiastical confidence which such belief inspires is far from unknown

Again you will recall that when Anchises’ shade was instructing Aeneas
in the meaning of life and death, he said:

    “Nor when to life’s last beam they bid farewell
    May sufferers cease from pain, nor quite be freed
    From all their fleshly plagues; but by fixed law,
    The strange, inveterate taint works deeply in.
    For this, the chastisement of evils past
    Is suffered here, and full requital paid.
    Some hang on high, outstretched to viewless winds;
    For some their sin’s contagion must be purged
    In vast ablution of deep-rolling seas,
    Or burned away in fire. Each man receives
    His ghostly portion in the world of dark.”

Thus the sojourn of the soul in the world below for the thousand years
which must elapse before it could be born again, was a period of
cleansing from ancient sin. This idea of purification we have already
seen to be as old as the Orphics; it was made an important element by
Plato; and indeed all who held to the doctrine of rebirths regarded the
periods between earthly existences as times of moral punishment and
cleansing. There were certain analogies in Mithraism. Orthodox
Christianity could not adopt the doctrine of metempsychosis, although
some Gnostics found this possible, by rejecting the resurrection of the
body. But beyond question the Greek doctrine of post-mortem purgation
from sin, combining with ideas inherited from the Old Testament, has
been influential in the development of a Christian belief in
purification, especially by fire, in an intermediate state between death
and paradise. The doctrine of purgatory, in somewhat different forms,
has been held by both the Eastern and the Western Churches. Although
this doctrine did not become a definite part of the theology of the
Western Church until the time of Gregory the Great (590-604),
nevertheless traces of it can be found in the earlier Church writers.
Origen held that even the perfect must pass through fire after
death;[39] St. Augustine was less confident, but he thought it not past
belief that imperfect souls might be saved by cleansing flames.[40] The
Western Church, from St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth to Bellarmino
in the sixteenth century held the doctrine that the cleansing fire was
as material as that of any Stoic; but today that view has in large part
been abandoned.[41]

These two illustrations must suffice to suggest the ways in which
Christian thought was influenced by its pagan environment.

Finally we will consider an example of parallelism between pagan and
Christian ideas. It is evident that the Greeks, who made such large use
of successive rebirths, following periods of punishment and
purification below, thought of these repeated lives and deaths as
forming a moral series, so that moral progress, or degeneracy, at one
stage was inseparably connected with both the preceding and the
following stages. To them life here and life in the other world were
indissolubly bound together. This was also as true of Stoicism with its
limited reward for uprightness, as it was of Platonism. The Greek
mysteries, which did not concern themselves with metempsychosis, by the
fifth century before our era likewise made future happiness depend in
part at least on righteousness in this life; the oriental mysteries too
made this existence the condition of the next. In short, we may say that
wherever men believed in any kind of a future existence, they almost
universally held to the common belief that future happiness was to be
the reward of a virtuous life on earth. But this is one of the
fundamental principles of Christianity. Paganism, therefore, was in
accord on this point with its enemy, and thereby favored the propagation
of the new religion; moreover, the superior ethical demands of
Christianity and its humanitarian principles no doubt found a ready
response, especially in enlightened circles.

So we have returned to that which seems to me most important in the
relations of paganism and of early Christianity. In many ways paganism
provided an environment favorable for the spread of the religion which
Jesus founded. The two were at many points irreconcilable, and the
former has not always benefited the latter by its influence; but it is a
grave historical error not to recognize the areas in which the thought
of the two ran parallel. Is the nobler faith the poorer because its
paths were made broad by the pagan in his search after Immortality?


1. Eduard Norden, _Aeneis_, _Buch VI_, Leipzig, 1903, is most useful for
its commentary, especially on religious and philosophic matters.

2. W. Warde Fowler, _The Religious Experience of the Roman People_,
Macmillan Co., 1911, pp. 419 ff.

So Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise secured his
conversion and salvation, bringing him finally to freedom and to
knowledge. _Paradiso_, XXXI, 85-87 and XXXIII entire.

3. Metempsychosis was the subject of the Ingersoll lecture by Professor
George Foot Moore in 1914. Therefore that theme is not discussed here.

4. Cf. Friedländer, _Roman Life and Manners_, Routledge, London, 1910,
iii, chap. II.

5. On the pre-Hellenic periods, see Schuchhardt, _Schliemann’s
Excavations_, New York, 1891, passim; Lagrange, _La Crète Ancienne_,
Paris, 1908, chap. II; Baikie, _The Sea-Kings of Crete_, London, 1910,
chap. XI.

6. Cf. Fairbanks, _Greek Religion_, New York, 1910, pp. 168-188;
Stengel, _Griechische Kultusaltertümer_, 2d ed., Munich, 1898, § 80;
Wissowa, _Religion und Kultus der Römer_, 2d ed., Munich, 1912, § 36; W.
Warde Fowler, _Religious Experience of the Roman People_, London, 1911,
passim; and especially Lecture XVII, “Mysticism--Ideas of the Future
Life;” C. Pascal, _Le Credenze d’Oltretomba_, 2 vols., 1912.

7. B. I. Wheeler, _Dionysos and Immortality_, Ingersoll Lecture for
1898-99. The classic work on Orphism is Rohde, _Psyche: Seelencult und
Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen_, 3d ed., Tübingen, 1903, vol. ii.

8. _Frg._ 154 Abel.

9. Apparently Orphism was already established at Croton in southern
Italy when Pythagoras arrived there about 530 B.C.; but the matter is
very uncertain. It is clear that Orphism and Pythagoreanism soon
coalesced, even if they were originally distinct.

10. _Rep._, vi, 508 f. It should be said that the identity of Plato’s
supreme idea with God is denied by some Platonists; but cf. _Phil._ 22C;
_Tim._ 28A-29E, 57A, 92C.

11. The doctrine of ideas is developed in the _Phaedo_, _Phaedrus_,
_Meno_, _Symposium_, and especially in the _Republic_. In the _Sophist_
and the _Parmenides_, Plato criticizes his own views acutely.

12. _Metaphys._, i, 9; vi, 8; xii, 10; xiii, 3.

13. _Phaedrus_, 245 (cf. _Laws_, x, 894B ff., xii, 966E); _Phaedo_, 72
ff., 86, 105; _Meno_, 81 ff.

14. _Diss._, i, 14, 6; ii, 8, 11.

15. Cf. E. V. Arnold, _Roman Stoicism_, University Press, Cambridge
(Eng.), 1911, chap. XI.

16. Rohde, _Psyche_, ii^3, 379 ff.

17. _CIL._, ii, 1434; cf. 1877, 2262.

18. _CIL._, v, 1939.

19. _CIL._, vi, 14672 = _Ins. Graec._, xiv, 1746.

20. Call., _Epig._, 13, 3 ff.

21. _CIL._, iii, 5825; vi, 9280, 10848; x, 6706; etc.

22. _Aen._, vi, 723-751. Translation by Theodore C. Williams, Houghton
Mifflin Company, Boston, 1908.

23. On these mysteries, see Rohde, _Psyche_, i^3, pp. 278 ff.; Farnell,
_Cults of the Greek States_, iii, 126-213; A. Mommsen, _Feste der Stadt
Athen_, pp. 204-277, 405-421.

24. 480 f.

25. _Frg._ 137.

26. _Frg._ 753.

27. 454 ff.

28. _Eph. Arch._, iii (1883), p. 81, 8.

29. On these and other oriental gods, see F. Cumont, _The Oriental
Religions in Roman Paganism_, Chicago, 1911; also G. Showerman, _The
Great Mother of the Gods_, 1901; Hepding, _Attis_, 1903; W. Budge,
_Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection_, 2 vols., 1911; G. A. Reisner,
_The Egyptian Conception of Immortality_, Ingersoll Lecture for 1911; F.
Cumont, _Textes et Monuments relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra_, 2 vols.,
1894-1900; Id., _Les Mystères de Mithra_, 2 ed., 1902; English
translation, 1910.

30. Apuleius, _Metamorphoses_, xi, 23.

31. _Enn._, iv, 7.

32. Cf. Plato, _Rep._, 364 B ff.; _Demosth._, xviii, 259; Apul., _Met._,
viii, 24 ff.

33. R. H. Charles, _A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life
in Israel, in Judaism, and in Christianity_, London, 1899, is a
convenient book, but one which must be used with caution.

34. A. Harnack, _Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte_, i, 4th ed., 1909;
English translation from the third German edition, 1901; G. B. Stevens,
_The Theology of the New Testament_, 1903; H. Holtzmann, _Lehrbuch der
neutestamentlichen Theologie_, 2 vols., 2d ed., 1911.

35. _Rep._, ii, 363 D.

36. _Apol._, 41.

37. It should be said that even in the earliest period Christian baptism
had certain magical notions attached to it; not, however, the belief
that it secured immortality.

38. Cf. Hatch, _The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages on the Christian
Church_, X, B; Anrich, _Das antike Mysterienwesen in seinem Einfluss auf
das Christentum_, 1894, pp. 168 ff., especially 179 ff.

39. _Hom. in Num._, xxv; _in Ps._ xxxvi, 3.

40. _C. D._, xx, 25; xxi, 13 (where Virgil’s verses given above are
quoted), 26; _de octo Dulcitii Quaest._, _Qu._ i, 13; _Enchiridion_,

41. St. Thomas, _Opera_ (Venice, 1759), xii, p. 575, _Distinctio_ xxi,
_Quaes._ 1, _Sol._ 3; xiii, p. 347 ff., _Distinctio_ xliv, _Quaes._ 3,
_Art._ 4, _Quaestiunc._ 3; Bellarmino, _de Purgatorio_, II, x-xii.

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