9. We know little of the Pagan Hell except through the recitals of the ancient poets; the descriptions given by Homer and Virgil are the most complete, but, in these, we have to make allowance for the necessities imposed by the poetic form. On the contrary, the description of the infernal regions given by Fénélon, in his Telemachus—though drawn, as regards the fundamental beliefs of the Ancients, from the same sources—has the greater simplicity and precision of prose. Even while describing the bleak and cheerless aspect of those regions, he takes care to show the kind of suffering endured by the guilty; and, if he gives special prominence to the fate of bad kings, he does so for the sake of impressing the mind of his royal pupil with the gravity of the responsibility that will one day rest upon him. However popular the work referred to, there are doubtless many who have not retained any clear remembrance of its details, or who have not reflected on them with sufficient attention to establish a comparison between the idea of “Hell” thus presented and the “Hell” of the Christians; and we therefore think it useful to reproduce portions of the work referred to which treat directly of the subject we are considering, that is to say, of the punishment of the individuals in the other life.
10. On entering, Telemachus heard the groans of a shade who appeared to be inconsolable. ‘What,’ he inquired, ‘is the cause of you unhappiness? Who were you when upon the Earth?’
‘I was Nabopharzan, king of proud Babylon,’ replied the shade; ‘all the people of the East trembled at the mere sound of my name. I caused myself to be adored by the Babylonians in a marble temple wherein I was represented by a statue of gold, before which were burned, night and day, the most precious perfumes of Ethiopia. Whoever dared to contradict me was immediately punished; and my servants invented new pleasures each day in order to render my life more and more delightful. I was still young and robust; alas! How many kinds of prosperity still remained for me to enjoy upon the throne! But a woman whom I loved, and who did not love me, has shown me very plainly that I was not a god; she has poisoned me; and I am reduced to nothingness. My ashes were placed, with great pomp, yesterday, in a golden urn; the people wept, and tore their hair; they made a pretense of longing to throw themselves into the flame of my funeral pyre, in order to die with me. They will come in crowds to groan and lament at the foot of the superb tomb in which my ashes have been deposited; but no one regrets my death; my memory is detested, even by my own family, and, down here, I am already undergoing horrible treatment.’
Telemachus, touched by this spectacle, asked the shade: ‘Were you really happy during your reign? Did you feel the inner peace without which the heart remains oppressed and blighted in the midst of pleasures?’
‘No,’ replied the Babylonian; ‘I know nothing of the sentiment of which you speak. The sages praise this peace as the only good; but I never felt it; my heart was incessantly agitated by new desires, new fears, and new hopes. I sought to stun myself with the shock of my passions, and I did my utmost to render this sort of intoxication perpetual. The shortest interval of calm reason would have been too bitter an awakening. Such is the only peace I ever enjoyed; any other seems to me to be only a fable and a dream; such are the pleasures I regret.’
While speaking thus, the Babylonian wept like a craven, who, weakened by prosperity, has not accustomed himself to support misfortune with equanimity. Near him were several slaves who had been put to death to honor his funeral; Mercury had delivered them over to Charon with their king, and had given them absolute power over this sovereign whom they had served upon the Earth. These shades of slaves no longer feared the shade of Nabopharzan; they kept him in chains, and wreaked upon him the most galling insults. One of them said to him, ‘Were we not men just as you? How could you be so insensate as to fancy yourself a god, and ought you not to have remembered that you were of the same race as other men?’ Another, to mortify him, said to him, ‘You were right in trying to make people believe that you were not a man; for you were a monster, with nothing human about you!’ A third scornfully asked him, ‘Where are now your flatterers? Wretch! You have no longer anything to give. You can no longer do harm to anyone. You have become the slave of your former slaves. The gods are slow to punish; but they punish at last!’
At these cruel words, Nabopharzan threw himself down with his face upon the ground, tearing his hair in a fit of rage and despair. But Charon said to the slaves, ‘Pull him up by his chain; make him stand up in spite of himself; he shall not even have the satisfaction of hiding his shame. All the shades on the banks of the Styx must witness his punishment in order that they may recognize the justice of the gods, who allowed this impious mortal to reign so long upon the Earth.’
“Soon afterwards Telemachus perceived, near at hand, the gloomy realm of Tartarus that exhaled a thick black smoke, the pestiferous smell of which would have caused death, had it penetrated into the abode of the living. This smoke rose from a river of fire, and was full of masses of flame, the roar of which, like that of the most impetuous torrents when they leap from the summit of the highest rocks into the deepest abysses, rendered it impossible to hear anything distinctly in the dreary place.
Telemachus, secretly urged on by Minerva, entered fearlessly into the yawning gulf. He at once perceived in it a great number of men who had lived on Earth in low conditions, and who were being punished for having sought to obtain wealth through frauds, treasons, and cruelties. He remarked there many impious hypocrites who, feigning to love religion, had made their pretended piety a pretext for serving their ambition and deceiving the credulous; these men, who had thus insulted virtue itself, the greatest gift of the gods, were punished as being the very worst of criminals. Children who had murdered their parents, husbands who had killed their wives, traitors who, breaking their vows, had betrayed their country, underwent punishments less severe than those that were meted out to these hypocrites. The three judges of the infernal regions had thus ordered it, and for this reason, viz., that hypocrites are not satisfied with being wicked, like other impious people, but also seek to pass themselves off as being good, and thus, by their false virtue, make it impossible for men to trust the truest virtue. The gods, whom they have mocked, take pleasure in employing all their power to avenge the insults of these wretches.
Near to these were the shades of other men whom the vulgar scarcely regard as guilty, but who are pitilessly pursued by the Divine vengeance, viz., those who are ungrateful, liars, flatterers of vice, malicious critics who have sought to malign the good, and those who have rashly pronounced judgment on matters of which they had no clear and thorough knowledge, and who have thus injured the reputation of innocent persons.
Telemachus, seeing the three judges seated at their tribunal, in the act of passing sentence on a man, ventured to inquire of them what crimes he had committed, when the condemned immediately exclaimed, ‘I have never done anything wrong; all my pleasure was in doing good. I was magnificent, liberal, just, and compassionate; with what then can I be reproached?’ But Minus replied, ‘You are not reproached with any wrongdoing as regards to men; but did you not owe yet more to the gods than to men? What is the justice of which you boast? You have not failed in any of your duties towards men, who are nothing; you were virtuous, but you took all the credit of your virtue to yourself, instead of attributing it to the gods, who had given it to you, for you wished to enjoy the fruit of your virtue as something of your own and you thus shut yourself up in yourself; you were your own divinity. But the gods, who are the authors of all things, and to whom the honor of all things should revert, cannot renounce their rights; you forgot them, they will now forget you. They now give you over to yourself, since you chose to live for yourself instead of living for them. You must now find your happiness, if you can, in your own heart. You are separated, forever, from those whom you sought to please, and you are left alone with yourself, the self which was your idol; for you have now to learn that there can be no true virtue without the respect and love of the gods, to whom all things are due. Your false virtue, which has so long deceived men, who are easily taken in, will now be seen in its true light. Men, judging of vices and virtues only according to the convenience or inconvenience caused to them thereby, are blind to the real nature of good and of evil. Here, all their superficial judgments are overthrown by the Divine light, for that light often condemns what is admired by men, and shows the excellence of what is condemned by them.’
At these words, the vainglorious philosopher was struck, as though by the thunderbolt, with horror of himself. The pleasure that he had formerly felt contemplating his own moderation, his courage, and his generous tendencies, was changed into despair. The sight of his own heart, as an enemy of the gods, became a torture for him; he saw himself as a spectacle of which he could never escape the sight; he saw the worthlessness of the judgment of men, whose approbation had been the aim and motive of all his actions. An entire revolution took place in his inner being, as though his very entrails had been overturned. He seemed to himself to be no longer the same; his heart failed him; and his conscience—whose flatteries had hitherto been so agreeable to him—now raised its voice against him, reproaching him bitterly with the unsound and illusory nature of his imaginary virtues, that had not had the worship of the Divinity for their motive and aim: he was overwhelmed with confusion, consternation, shame, remorse, and despair. The Furies exercised no torments upon him, because it sufficed, for his punishment, to abandon him to himself, and because the action of his own heart was all that was needed to avenge the gods, whom he had forgotten. He tried to find some dark recess in which to hide himself, at least, from the shades about him, since he could no longer hide himself from himself. He sought for darkness, but could not find it, for an unwelcome and persistent light incessantly accompanied him; wherever he went, the piercing rays of truth went with him, avenging the truth that he had neglected to follow. * All that he had formerly loved became odious to him, as being the source of his misery; —a misery that would have no end!
‘Insensate fool that I have been!’ he cried aloud, speaking to himself; ‘I see that I have never truly known either the gods, my fellow-men, or myself! No, I have never truly known anything, since I did not set my affections on the only real good! Every step of my life was but a wandering out of the right road; my wisdom was only folly; my virtue was only a blind and impious pride; I was my own idol!’
Telemachus next perceived the Kings who had been condemned for having made a bad use of their power. On the one hand, an avenging Fury held up before them a mirror that showed them all the deformity of their vices; they saw, and could not help seeing, their gross vanity and their avidity for the most ridiculous praises; their hardness towards their fellow-men, whose happiness they ought to have ensured; their indifference for the virtuous; their unwillingness to hear the truth; their preference for base and cowardly flatterers; their want of application; their indolence and idleness; their unjust suspicions; their pomp and magnificence based on the ruin of their peoples; their ambition, which caused them to purchase a little empty glory with the blood of their subjects; their cruelty, which sought, each day, for new delights in the tears and despair of their innumerable victims. They beheld themselves incessantly in this mirror; they saw themselves to be more horrible and monstrous than was the Chimaera, vanquished by Bellerophon, or the Hydra destroyed by Hercules, or even Cerberus himself, though, from his three yawning mouths, he vomits streams of black and venomous blood that would poison the whole race of mortals living upon the Earth.
At the same time, on the other hand, another Fury repeated, insultingly, all the praises that had been offered to them by their flatterers during their life, and held up to them a second mirror, in which they beheld themselves as they had been depicted by these flatterers. The contrast between these pictures was torture for their vanity, and all the more excruciating because the kings on whom the most magnificent encomiums are lavished during their life, are usually those who are the most wicked of all; for wicked kings are always more feared than the good ones, and have no scruple in exacting base adulation from the poets and orators of their day.
The groans of these wretches resound through the thick darkness by which they are surrounded, and which allows them to perceive only the insults and mockeries they are condemned to endure. Everything around them repels, contradicts, and confounds them, whereas, when they lived upon the Earth, they sported with the lives of men and imagined that everything existed for their service. In Tartarus, they are abandoned to the caprices of their former slaves, who, in their turn, cause them to feel all the bitterness of slavery; they serve these tormentors in pain and suffering, and without any hope of a mitigation of their misery, for they are subjected to the blows and ill-treatment of their former victims, as completely as is the anvil to the strokes of the hammer of the Cyclops, when Vulcan urges them to their tasks in the fiery furnaces of Etna.
Pale, hideous, filled with consternation, were the countenances of the criminals seen by Telemachus in that abode of retribution. Gnawed by despair, they are objects of horror to themselves, and can no more shake off this sense of self-loathing than they can shake off their own nature; they need no other chastisement, for their former crimes, than those crimes themselves, which are beheld by them incessantly, in all their deformity, glowering on them, and pursuing them, like so many horrible specters. To escape from them, they seek for a death that shall be more potent than that which has separated them from their body. In their despair, they would call to their help a death that should extinguish in them all feeling and all consciousness; they call upon the abyss to swallow them up and hide them from the avenging rays of truth that pierce them like arrows, but they are condemned to suffer the vengeance that falls slowly upon them, drop by drop, as from a spring that will never be dried up. Truth, which they formerly shunned, is now their torment; they see it, and it alone, always standing before them as an accusation: a sight that pierces them through and through, that rends them, as it were, limb from limb, and tears them from themselves. For Truth is like lightning; without destroying them outwardly, it penetrates the most hidden recesses of their being.
Among these woeful spectacles, which caused the hair of his head to stand on end, Telemachus beheld the fate of several of the ancient kings of Lydia, punished for having preferred the pleasures of an idle and luxurious life to nobly laboring for the amelioration of the condition of the mass of their subjects, which is an aspiration that should be inseparable from the concept of royalty.
Those kings reproached each other with their former blindness. One of them, addressing the other, who had been his son, exclaimed, ‘Did I not urge you, repeatedly, in my old age, and before my death, to repair the evils that I had caused by my negligence?’ ‘Ah! Wretched father!’ returned the son, ‘it is you who have been my ruin! It was your example that inspired me with the love of vainglorious pomp and voluptuous delights, with pride, and hard-heartedness for the rest of mankind! It was through seeing you reign with such luxurious indolence and surrounded by base flatterers, that I acquired the love of pleasure and of flattery. I thought that all other men, in relation to kings, were only what horses and other beasts of burden are in relation to men; that is to say, animals valued only for the services they render and the uses they sub-serve. I believed this, because you made me believe it; and now I suffer all this misery for having followed your example!’ To these reciprocal reproaches they added the most frightful curses, and manifested such violent rage against one another that they seemed to be about to tear each other to pieces.
Around these unfaithful kings there hovered, like so many birds of the night, the cruel suspicions, the baseless terrors and mistrust, which avenge, upon them, the sufferings caused to their subjects by their hard-heartedness; —the insatiable thirst for riches, the tyrannous desire for false glory, and the base indolence that intensifies every suffering, and fails to yield any solid satisfaction.
Many of these kings were seen undergoing severe punishment, not for any evil that they had done, but for not having done the good that they might have done. All the wrongdoing, on the part of their subjects, caused by their lax administration of the laws, was laid to the charge of the kings, who only reign in order that the laws may reign through their instrumentality. All the disorders that result from the display of pomp, luxury, and all the other excesses that tempt men to violate the laws in their haste to be rich, were imputed to these unfaithful kings. And those kings, who, instead of being the kind and watchful shepherds of their people, had only sought to devour them, like hungry wolves, were the most severely punished of them all.
But what most astounded Telemachus was to see, in this abyss of darkness and of suffering, a great number of kings who, although they had been reputed, upon the Earth as tolerably good, had been condemned to the sufferings of Tartarus for having allowed themselves to be governed by wicked and artful counselors. They were punished by the evils that they had allowed to be done under their authority. Moreover, the greater number of these kings had been neither good nor bad, weakness having been their distinguishing characteristic. They had never had any desire to know the truth; they had never had any aspirations after virtue; and they had never taken any pleasure in doing good.
* Vide Chap. VII, “The Punishment of Light.”