The title of this post is a chapter title in Peter Brown’s land-mark book, “The World of Late Antiquity”. Brown is a celebrated historian who deserves far more recognition and credit than many of the “popular” historians of the television world. Late antiquity is a period that generally receives little attention outside of Christian theological circles. The high medieval period and the classical arguably draw greater audiences. When we do think of late antiquity, one phrase always comes to mind: decline and fall. Gibbon’s work continues to overshadow both the lay and academic engagement with late antiquity: lay audiences generally accept his assertions, while the academic world is coming to a synthesis or counter-reaction to his revisionist detractors.
This period was formative for the course of world history and the history of the Church. The shape of all three Branches owes much to the life and writings of men like Ambrose of Milan; Athanasius of Alexandria; Gregory Nazianzen; Augustine of Hippo; Ausonius; Emperors Constantine, Valentinian I, Valens, Julian, and Theodosius; Quintus Aurelius Symmachus; St. Jerome; Pelagius; Arius; and many more. This was the period when Christianity obtained what some have called its “triumph” and others an “own goal” in the conversion of Constantine and the suppression of paganism by Theodosius.
Christianity was itself irrevocably changed in this period. Champions of these changes saw Christianity as an ark that received the best of human culture: secular and religious. Into her hold Christianity drew the culture and philosophical precepts of the people now defined as “pagans”, but once simply the “civilized”. The word “pagan” is itself a product of this period. “Paganus” means “someone from the countryside” in Latin: the French word “pays” and the English word “peasant” come from this root. This is because the cities had become almost totally Christianized by the end of this period: the cults of the gods clung to life in the countryside amongst the peasants and in the palaces and villas of the old-world aristocrats. Paganism died a slow death here: in both the West and the East there were pagans well into the 7th century – and I don’t mean the Slavs and Germanic groups outside the formal boundaries of the old Roman empire.
But paganism did eventually die (though its gods have not). The neo-pagans of today, in truth, have little in common with their ancestors. For paganism was not simply a religion (nor was it ever unified). To interpret it as such is to make the same mistake as Julian the Apostate, who could be described as a “Christian pagan” without that term implying a contradiction. The death (or murder?) of paganism in the late antique world was a complex process: on the one hand lay opposition expressed in the violence of monks towards ancient shrines; on the other lay the assimilation of the aristocratic rural bishops who eagerly read Plato and his Neo-Platonist devotees.
Even today formal theology owes much to this world: the Catholic Scholastic movement of the Middle Ages owes much to Aristotle (e.g. the concepts of genus and species), while the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment work of Protestant and Catholic scholars alike owes much to the humanist Renaissance writers, whose reverence for their conception of the classical past was an echo of the myth of “Roma aeterna”, cherished by late antique senators and aristocrats like the Symmachi.
As time has moved on and we have engaged with our past, as ever seeking to find answers to our current malaise, different assessments have been made of the claim that Christianity was converted at this time and whether that conversion was beneficial. Should we acknowledge that such a conversion took place, we must also admit that its roots go back into the classical period. The causes of this conversion were not simply social or economic: in order to convert people from the literate middle and upper classes, Christianity had to present a coherent apologetic that addressed their values and concerns. The successors to the Apostles were under an injunction to do just that:
- But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15)
- Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Col. 4:6)
The question is: did they (and,by extension, we) become too much like the people they hoped to convert? In the Apostle John’s terms, did those who were in the world become of the world?
This is not an easy question to answer, but my instinctive reaction is that there are lessons to be learned from late antiquity regarding the Church’s engagement with the world. This period saw the Church become the establishment and in some places fall from being the establishment: the Catholic bishops exercised little authority in the kingdoms of the Arian barbarians. Nevertheless, we must continue to use both the intellectual and spiritual resources available to us to present a sound apologetic to people in our own countries. Perhaps it is time to revive desire of some medieval Catholic scholars and priests to see a greater engagement with Plato.
Philip Augustine said:
Indeed, it’s interesting how celebrated Gibbon still is in the public eye, but giving credit to current academics, how much he appears to be repudiated as being driven by typical Anti-Catholic, or even Christian, bigotry.
It’s true that Christian Saints and Scholars owe much to other peoples; however, I think that this echoes more to the fact that Truth is not relative but rather absolutely created by a cosmic power.
Those who propose Scientism as a new religion or belief system–not to be confused with actual science, which is a method of material observation–I suppose are hoping for the slow death of the Abrahamic religions. I think as Christians, you make a good point that we cannot let secular Atheist dictate what can be presented as true evidence to explaining our world and existence. We have to stand firm within the roots of all humanity and show that philosophy is a valid method of discovering what is Truth. Whether we use the methods of philosophical moral argument–In nature, we can see there is clear right and wrong–and couple that with the argument of finely tuned universe. Of course, as Thomistic principles are based on Aristotelian, let us not be persuaded as declaring there has been no sufficient argument to declare Aquinas’ five ways as null and void.
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Indeed. I always place Philosophy above science in my taxonomy since science presupposes philosophical ideas and methods to determine the rules for constructing and interpreting experiments. As I often say to my philosophy students: philosophy leads to faith – ironically – through scepticism. Once you realize that the axioms upon which logic is founded cannot be proven by logic itself, you realize there is a higher reality, a need for faith even for the most basic aspects of daily living. What we ought to be doing in our secular discourse is promoting virtue epistemology: then people might think more about the role of the conscience within reason and belief.
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