Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book review: AD 381

A couple years ago I wrote a post about Charles Freeman's book The Closing of the Western Mind, which argues, in a nutshell, that the triumph of Christianity in late Antiquity truly did usher in an intellectual Dark Age, wherein philosophical and scientific questions (and there was not yet a distinction between the two) were settled by theological arguments from authority and free inquiry was discouraged. In A.D. 381, Freeman continues his argument, exploring in more detail how the late Roman emperors injected themselves and the state into theological disputes.

Several reviewer of the book have complained that Freeman in simply updating Edward Gibbon and blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome. This is not how I read Freeman. He blames Christianity – or, to be more precise, certain later Christians and Roman emperors, and the precedent they established – for killing off a great and ancient Greek tradition of free inquiry. But he does not blame Christianity for bringing down the Empire itself.

By the end of the 4th century, while Christianity was growing but did not yet dominate, the Empire was barely maintaining itself. Grown too large for its own governance, it had split into two coeval sections, with capitals at both Rome and Constantinople governing the West and East. The powerful Persian Empire threatened the East, numerous Germanic tribes were invading from the North, and Roman armies were spread across borders that had grown too long and too distant to be efficiently defended. With the military removed so far from the core of the empire, the interior trade routes were less well-guarded and commerce became more difficult and expensive.

Although the East retained a cohesive state for another thousand years, the West disintegrated both politically and economically. After 400, trade all but disappeared in Western Europe. Cities became small towns; the money economy disappeared; well-manufactured goods, once common in even a peasant household, disappear from the archaeological record. Rome's famous aqueducts went dry for a millennium, and even the lead and copper pollution levels recorded in ice cores testify today to the demise of manufacturing during the Medieval Period.


None of this does Freeman blame on Christianity. Given the entirely worldly difficulties that Rome faced, it should be no surprise if the Empire failed to overcome them all. As I read Freeman, he would instead blame the fall of Rome for the intellectually authoritarian turn that Christianity took following the 4th Century. Throughout the Roman world, the scholarly decline was almost comparable to the economic and political collapse. According to Freeman's account, even the renowned Medieval scholars are recognized to have written poorly and less grammatically than their predecessors; where a rich Roman citizen could possess a library with thousands of works, medieval monasteries would be considered impressive if they contained a few hundred. Theology replaced naturalistic inquiry. A Christian mob probably destroyed the remnants of the Great Library at Alexandria1 in 391, and in AD 529, Plato's Academy was shut down after 900 years of free inquiry. Had the Christian authorities not been so hostile to non-Christian literature, more would likely have survived to the present day.

What happened? By Freeman's reckoning, the emperors meddled in theology and set a precedent of resolving scholarly disputes through authority instead of inquiry. As the Empire's organization became ever less adequate to meet external threats, the later emperors were prone to blaming their ineffectiveness on a lack of internal unity. And as Christianity absorbed more and more of the Empire's inhabitants, the emperors began to see the divisiveness of the Church as a principle weakness of the empire. In the centuries after Jesus's death, Christian clergy had taken the Greek practice of philosophical disputation, applied it to theology, and then – disastrously – made it a matter of eternal life or death to declare and defend a single position. “I don't know” was not an acceptable answer, even though it would have been the best answer to questions which were essentially unknowable.

One of the major, unknowable, questions concerned the exact nature of Christ – was he fully human, or fully divine? Maybe he was a human who was temporarily occupied by God? Or was he entirely God all along and only appeared human? However you answer the question, some unpleasant consequences seem to follow. If he was human, then why should we be worshiping him? Or if he wasn't human, then he could hardly have suffered through his crucifixion, in which case his great sacrifice would seem to be greatly overtouted. According to the disputants, immortal souls were at stake, although a cynic might notice that the emperors' habit of extending patronage to certain churches meant there was a lot of money and status at stake in elevating one's own views and disparaging a rival's.

The emperors began to take sides in these disputes, something that had never happened with philosophy or pagan religion. In AD 381, the emperor Theodosius issued an edict declaring the Nicene faith – an incoherent declaration that Jesus was simultaneously fully God and fully human, and you could conveniently flip from one to another whenever you needed to dodge a contradiction2 – was orthodox and that all other views were heretical. Clergy with contrary views were disfranchised and their churches closed. A decade later, Theodosius banned pagan rituals and sacrifices altogether.

Theodosius's efforts did not succeed in solving theological questions; all he managed to do was thoroughly politicize these disputes and cement the role of the state in establishing religious orthodoxy. Through the following century, Christians continued to gain strength and began to suppress pagan practices even more thoroughly than had been Christianity in earlier eras.3 Curiously, the disputatious eastern empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453; it was the western empire, where theological questions seemed less urgent and there was no such thing yet as “papal authority,” that thoroughly fell apart.

As for the promises of orthodoxy … Freeman tells this story. In AD 428 the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, put the case as baldly and boldly as could be: “Give me, king, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Aid me in destroying heretics and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians.” A few years later, Nestorius himelf was condemned for portraying Jesus as too human. Not that he had adopted any known heresy; he just wasn't orthodox enough. Thus the promise of fundamentalism; thus the all-too-often-delivered reality.

1. The case is ambiguous and disputed. It seems likely that the Library suffered several episodes of destruction after its zenith in the last couple centuries BC. It's not clear how much was left to be destroyed by the mob in 391, but they did destroy what they found.

2. Yes, that's my own definition.

3. It comes as a surprise today to be told that the Romans were religiously tolerant, but it's fairly true to say they were. In conquered territories, they did their best to amalgamate local religion with their own, while polytheism would naturally tolerate anyone's decision to choose a certain god as his particular patron. An upstanding citizen would be expected to make a show of honoring a city's gods, just to keep them happy, but this didn't require him to reject any other gods. Jews refused to adopt polytheism, but they were never upstanding citizens (generally not legal citizens at all). I'm not well-studied enough to say this with confidence, but I suspect Christians would never have suffered persecution if the religion had remained confined to the lower classes; their religious views wouldn't have mattered to anyone.


James Hanley said...

So you're saying we shouldn't vote for Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?

Scott Hanley said...

Fortunately, a US President doesn't have as much power as a Roman emperor did. But now that you bring it up ... yeah, you shouldn't do that.

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