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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

The Derivation from "Relegere."

The Derivation from "Relegere."

Cicero, the greatest of Roman writers, who flourished three hundred years and more before Lactantius, and who certainly should be regarded as no mean authority on his native language, has a passage which I should translate as follows: "Not philosophers alone, but also our own ancestors, distinguished superstition from religion. For those who were wont to offer prayer and sacrifice, during entire days, that their children might survive them [superstites essent], were called superstitious; a word which was afterwards applied more widely. But they who carefully meditated and, as it were, considered and re-considered all those things which pertained to the worship of the gods, were called religious from relegere [De Nat. Deor., ii, 28.1 Now it is true that the derivation of the word superstition here given is at least dubious; and this fact justifies suspicion of the other derivation. But even he who mistakes once should not therefore be immediately set down as mistaking always. There is other evidence, very strong evidence, showing that Cicero was right in his second derivation. There is a participle religens, signifying religious, which cannot possibly be derived from religare, but must be referred to relegere (or religere, as sometimes spelled.) This participle is contained in a verse quoted from an old poet by Aulus Gellius, author of the Noctes Atticœ, who lived more than a century before Lactantius:

"Rellgentem esse oportet, religiosum nefas."

That is, "it is right to be religious, wrong to be religiose, or superstitious." Such evidence as this must have immense weight with scholars who are free from prepossession. Furthermore, the use of the word religio itself was quite com- page 10 mon at Rome in the simple sense of a "scruple," conscientious or otherwise, implying the consciousness of a natural obligation wholly irrespective of the gods. For instance, the comic poet Terence, who flourished nearly two hundred years before Christ, makes one of his characters exclaim: "I scruple (or am ashamed) to say that I have nothing—nam nil esse mihi religiost dicere." [Heaut., i, 228. Teubner's ed., 1857.] Faithfulness, sincerity, veracity, honor, punctiliousness, conscientiousness—these were frequent popular meanings of the word; and it is evident that they mark its original, radical signification far more clearly than the use made of it as applied to worship of the gods. They point directly to relegere as the true root.

Not to rest the case, however, on any assertions or arguments of my own, let me cite the direct testimony of the highest authorities.

The Universal Latin Lexicon of Facciolatus and Forcellinus [Bailey's edition, 1828], the Wörterbuch der Lateinischen Sprache of Dr. Wilhelm Freund [Leipzig, 1840], and the Latin-English Lexicon of Dr. Andrews, which is better known in this country than the great lexicon of Dr. Freund on which it is based, all give the weight of their authority to the derivation from relegere. No better authorities could be adduced.

Dr. Ramshorn, whose Latin Synonymes is a work of the highest reputation, derives the word religion from relegere, and gives as its fundamental or root-meaning—"conscientiousness, scruple of conscience, scrupulousness." ["Etwas bei sich wiederholen, iminer wieder überlegen; daher die Gewissenhaftigkeit, der Gewissenscrupel, die Bedenklichkeit." Lateinische Synonymik. Leipzig: 1831.]

Dr. John William Donaldson, one of the finest of English scholars, referring to the same derivation, says very emphatically: "There can be no doubt that it is perfectly true. It is clear from the use of the word, that it is not derived from religare, 'to bind back,' but from religere, 'to gather over and over again,' 'to think perpetually and carefully on the same subject,' 'to dwell page 11 with anxious thought on some idea or recollection.' . . . . Hence, practically, relligio signifies, (1) 'religious worship,' considered as scrupulous obedience to the exactions of conscience, and with especial reference to the act of worship; etc." [Varronianus: A Critical and Historical Introduction to the Ethnography of Ancient Italy and to the Philological Study of the Latin Languaqe. p. 407. London: 1852.]

Lest I should transgress beyond all hope of pardon by my citations, permit me simply to refer here to Dr. Paulus [Der Denkglaubige, i, 50]; to Dr. Klotz [Handwörterbuch der Lateinisclien Sprache]; and to Pott, the great philologist [Etymologische Forschungen, ii. 161]. These scholars are unanimous in favoring the derivation relegere and rejecting that from religare. So far as my very imperfect studies have gone, they have led me wholly in the same direction; and I venture to think that no one who sits down faithfully to study the subject in the spirit of pure scholarship, regardless of all dogmatic bias, can come to a different conclusion. I took up the investigation two or three years ago, in order to satisfy my own mind whether radicals ought to discard the word religion as I believe they ought to discard the word Christianity, and with perfect willingness to do it myself, if necessary; and the conclusion has forced itself upon me with irresistible force that the word most certainly belongs to us by its etymology, and, as I hope to show, quite as much by its usage and by its essential meaning.

I would only add that Doderlein, who proposes a third derivation for the word religion, namely, from re and a Greek verb signifying to look to, to have a care for, assigns to it the same radical signification: "Pictas is the natural feeling of innate love; religio, the feeling of a sacred duty come to consciousness. . . . Furthermore, religio rests on an inward obligation by conscience; fides, on the other hand, on an outward obligation by a promise." [Lateinische Synonyme und Etymologieen. Leipzig: 1838.] It will be seen, therefore, that Doderlein, differing from the foregoing in point of derivation, strik- page 12 ingly agrees with them in point of fundamental meaning.

Of the two chief derivations which are assigned to the word religion, I think I have shown conclusively that religare. is not, and that relegere is, the true root. The former implies the idea of bondage, and assumes the belief in a supernatural God, whose simple will is the rightful law of human life, as the very essence of religion itself. The latter assumes the great fact of duty, of conscience, of moral obligation to a natural law of right, and implies not the faintest restriction upon any human faculty other than the natural obligation of right and truth, So far, then, as etymology is concerned, the pretence that the phrase Free Religion contains an inherent contradiction is seen to be based either upon philological ignorance or dogmatic narrowness.