'Pagan and Medieval Religious Sentiment' by Matthew Arnold (1864)

Delivered as a lecture at Oxford in March 1864 and later published in Essays in Criticism (1865) under the title 'Pagan and Medieval Religious Sentiment.'

...the poetry of Theocritus's hymn [fifteenth idyll] is poetry treating the world according to the demand of the senses; the poetry of St Francis's hymn [to the sun] is poetry treating the world according to the demand of the heart and imagination. The first takes the world by its outward, sensible side; the second by its inward, symbolical side. The first admits as much of the world as is pleasure-giving; the second admits the whole world,... painful and pleasure-giving, all alike, but all transfigured by the power of a spiritual emotion, all brought under a law of supersensual love, having its seat in the soul.
When we see Pompeii [i.e., the frescoes depicting sexual love], we can put our finger upon the pagan sentiment in its extreme. And when we read of Monte Alverno and the stigmata; when we read of the repulsive, because self-caused, sufferings of the end of St Francis's life; ...when we find him assailed, even himself, by the doubt 'whether he who had destroyed himself by the severity of his penances could find mercy in eternity', we can put our finger on the medieval Christian sentiment in its extreme. Human nature is neither all senses and understanding, nor all heart and imagination. Pompeii was a sign that for humanity at large the measure of sensualism had been over-passed; St Francis's doubt was a sign that for humanity at large the measure of spiritualism had been over-passed. Humanity, in its violent rebound from one extreme, had swung from Pompeii to Monte Alverno; but it was sure not to stay there.
The Renascence is, in part, a return towards the pagan spirit... ; a return towards the life of the senses and the understanding. The Reformation, on the other hand, is the very opposite to this; in Luther there is nothing Greek or pagan; vehemently as he attacked the adoration of St Francis, Luther had himself something of St Francis in him... . The Reformation-- I do not mean the inferior piece given under that name, by Henry the Eighth... but the real Reformation, the German Reformation, Luther's Reformation-- was a reaction of the moral and spiritual sense against the carnal and pagan sense; it was a religious revival like St Francis's, but this time against the Church of Rome, not within her; for the carnal and pagan sense had now, in the government of the Church of Rome herself, its prime representative. But the grand reaction against the rule of the heart and imagination, the strong return towards the rule of the senses and understanding, is in the eighteenth century.

I have said a great deal of harm of paganism; and... no more harm than it well deserved. Yet I must not end without reminding the reader that, before this state of things appeared, there was an epoch in Greek life-- in pagan life-- of the highest possible beauty and value; an epoch which alone goes far towards making Greece the Greece we mean when we speak of Greece,-- a country hardly less important to mankind than Judaea. The poetry of later paganism lived by the senses and understanding; the poetry of medieval Christianity lived by the heart and imagination. But the main element of the modern spirit's life is neither the senses and understanding, nor the heart and imagination; it is the imaginative reason. And there is a century in Greek life,-- the century preceding the Peloponnesian war, from about the year 530 to the year 430 B.C.,-- in which poetry made, it seems to me, the noblest, the most successful effort she has ever made as the priestess of the imaginative reason, of the element by which the modern spirit, if it would live right, has chiefly to live. Of this effort, ...the four great names are Simonides, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles... . [...] Perhaps, even of the life of Pindar's time, Pompeii was the inevitable bourne. [...] Perhaps in Sophocles the thinking-power a little overbalances the religious sense, as in Dante the religious sense overbalances the thinking-power. The present has to make its own poetry, and not even Sophocles and his compeers, any more than Dante and Shakespeare, are enough for it. That I will not dispute; nor will I set up the Greek poets, from Pindar to Sophocles, as objects of blind worship. But no other poets so well show to the poetry of the present the way it must take; no other poets have lived so much by the imaginative reason... ; no other poets, who have so well satisfied the thinking-power, have so well satisfied the religious sense:

Oh! that my lot may lead me in the path of holy innocence of word and deed, the path which august laws ordain, laws that in the highest empyrean had their birth, of which Heaven is the father alone, neither did the race of mortal men beget them, nor shall oblivion ever put them to sleep. The power of God is mighty in them, and groweth not old. [Sophocles]

Let St Francis-- nay, or Luther either-- beat that!