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Pope Francis’ Letter to the Priests of Rome, on Ministry During the Pandemic
Dear Readers, A number of people have asked about Pope Francis’ March 13 letter to the priests of Rome, which was mentioned briefly in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”  It appears that this letter has not … Continue reading → The post Pope Francis’ Letter to the Priests of Rome, on Ministry During the Pandemic appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Holy Week in the Era of Coronavirus
Q:  The pastor of my parish told me that your recent article is wrong.  He says that both Cardinal Sarah [Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship] and Pope Francis approved of the bishops’ decision to cancel all Masses.  The … Continue reading → The post Holy Week in the Era of Coronavirus appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
The Great Myths 8: The Loss of Ancient Learning
The idea that we only have a fraction of Greek and Roman learning and literature because most of it was destroyed by Christians is a common assumed truism in much New Atheist discourse. But this is substantially a simplistic myth based on a number of misconceptions and errors of fact. If anything, we have a succession of Christian scholars to thank for all of the ancient learning that survives. The wicked destruction of the wondrous learning of the ancients by ignorant Christians is a key trope in New Atheist historiography and one regularly repeated without question by anti-theistic polemicists. It is the nexus of a cluster of related historical myths, including the supposed Christian burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, the alleged murder of Hypatia as a martyr for science, the Archimedes Palimpsest as evidence of Christians literally erasing technical learning and many more. In the fairy tale version of history used by these polemicists, the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational and scientific and on the brink of a scientific and industrial revolution until the evil Christians came along, destroyed almost all of their learning and plunged us into a dark age. What little we have of Greco-Roman learning survived this holocaust of ignorance by chance, largely thanks to Arabic scholars who preserved these fragments until they could be rescued from medieval ignorance by the marvellous rationalists of the Renaissance. As usual, this simple and pretty picture is almost entirely nonsense. There are thousands of examples of this cluster of myths being articulated by New Atheists of all levels of prominence. But, as I noted in my recent review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, it has recently been given a vocal and vehement expression by A.C. Grayling in a testy exchange with Holland on Justin Brierley’s Christian radio show/podcast Unbelievable in December 2019. Grayling is a former Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, and the current master of the New College of the Humanities. And he also has a book of history on the bookshop shelves – his recent A History of Philosophy (Penguin, 2019). So it is quite startling to find that this supposedly learned gentleman accepts a bizarre grab-bag of pseudo historical myths and patent errors of fact on the subject of Christianity and the transmission of ancient learning. The Twilight of the Philosophers? In a slightly rambling diatribe, Grayling rehearses a whole string of hoary nonsense about the supposed Christian destruction of ancient learning. Beginning at 23.35 mins into the video above, he really warms to this theme: There’s no contradiction between saying that the early Christians tried to efface a pagan culture – they failed. They smashed a lot of temples and they burned a lot of books. …. [L]et me give you an example. We have seven of Aeschylus’ plays and we know the titles of 70 We have something like you know a dozen or so of … ummm … Euripides … Here Holland quite reasonably interjects, asking “But what makes you think we don’t have them because Christians destroyed them?” Grayling fumbles around in response, asserting vaguely that we “know” this because “we know the Christians destroyed a great deal of the material culture of antiquity”. When pressed on the point of how he “knows” there was a Christian campaign to eliminate ancient learning, he claims this began in “the first couple of decades after 380 under Theodosius the First” and continued for centuries: Right up to 529 AD when Justinian closed the School of Athens after 900 years of Plato’s Academy … was closed and the philosophers were driven out, there’d been a systematic attempt to try to efface that … the record and … and the remains of classical civilisation in order to impose the Christian view on it. It didn’t work in the end because in the end Christianity had to absorb and adopt it. Look at Aquinas … That’s the reason why Thomism is the official religion – the official philosophy, beg your pardon – of the Roman Catholic religion … is because Aquinas had to take over the Aristotelian corpus wholesale. So you know that in itself is and enough of an example. This is almost entirely nonsense. As Holland later goes on to point out, there is actually no evidence of any such “systematic” or even sporadic but extensive attempt at extinguishing ancient learning. And if this had happened as Grayling claims, we would indeed have plenty of such evidence. After all, it is not like the Christian emperors of the fourth to sixth centuries were shy about letting everyone know of which ideas, people and works they disapproved. Grayling points to Theodosius as the point of origin of this imagined campaign of destruction, and Theodosius’ laws and edicts as collected in the Theodosian Code certainly do contain some references to books and writings he decreed were to be found, gathered and destroyed. But these were the Christian writings of those deemed “heretics”, not pagan philosophers and playwrights. For example: “Eunomians and Montanists are to be expelled from the cities, and if they reside in the country and should hold assemblies, they are to be deported and the owners of the land they inhabited punished.  Heretical books are to be destroyed. (C Th. 16.5.34 )“Nestorianism is condemned. Their books are banned and shall be burned. (C Th. 16.5.66) Similarly Theodosius and other emperors of the time condemned divination and astrology and ordered astrological books to be burned (see C Th. 9.16.12). But nowhere in this compendium or in any subsequent collections of imperial edicts do we find any injunctions to burn pagan learning. Nor do we find any references to any such orders anywhere else, even in the writings of enthusiastic anti-pagan Christian polemicists, who celebrated any examples of the humiliation of their former persecutors. Grayling says “they smashed a lot of temples” and this is more or less true (though often wildly overstated), but it does not follow that they also deliberately destroyed pagan learning as well, for the reasons discussed in more detail below. So what of Grayling’s claim that Justinian closed “Plato’s Academy” in 529 AD – an idea that he gets rather agitated about and mentions twice in his exchange with Holland? According to Grayling’s breathless retelling, this brought to an end a venerable 900 year academic legacy and saw “the philosophers … driven out”. That certainly sounds like the dramatic culmination of a successful campaign of suppression of ancient learning, but unfortunately, Grayling is perpetuating a periwigged Gibbonian fantasy here as well. Contrary to Grayling’s claims, the Academy founded by Plato came to an end before Christianity even existed and centuries before Justinian. Plato founded the Academy in a leafy suburb of Athens around 387 BC and it was headed by his successors until the First Mithradatic War (89-85 BC) dragged Athens into conflict with the Romans. The Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla besieged the city in 86 BC and then sacked it, causing massive destruction and disruption. Plutarch relates that “[Sulla] laid hands upon the sacred groves and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city’s suburbs, as well as the Lyceum” (Sulla, XII). The last head of the Academy, Antiochus of Ascalon, fled to Alexandria and when he returned to Athens he did not refound the ruined Academy and instead set up his own small school elsewhere. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, a student of Antiochus, visited the site of the former Academy a generation later, describing it as “quiet and deserted” (De Finibus, V). So much for Grayling’s claim. The Academy he is referring to was not that of Plato, but a later pale imitation of it founded in the fourth century AD by the neo-Platonist scholar Plutarch. This small private school was dominated by the teachings of Proclus and it was far from the centre of rationalist science and learning that Grayling seems to imagine. Proclus and the neo-Platonic devotees of the new Academy before him were of the late neo-Platonic school of Iamblicus. This means they held to a semi-Gnostic cosmology whereby humans were mired in a physical world that separated them from their true intellectual and spiritual nature. They saw the gods as manifestations and emanations from the divine, cosmic “One” and as beings who needed to be invoked by ritual, sacrifice, hymns and the pronouncement of nonsensical-sounding “words of power”, as well as apprehended by sacred and divinely inspired scriptures. The rationalist Grayling would almost certainly find their beliefs weird and their practices – animal sacrifices, relating stories of visions, miracles and talking statues, as well as the practice of ritual magic – totally alien and superstitious nonsense. Yet this is the institution whose end he laments as the destruction of rational learning. You would think an academic who has just written a history of philosophy would know all this, but it appears Grayling’s grasp of actual history is weak indeed. And was this small school of hymn-chanting, magical mystics closed by Justinian as part of some Empire-wide campaign against learning? No, it was not. As Edward J. Watts details comprehensively in his excellent article on the subject (“Justinian, Malalas and the End of Athenian Philosophical Teaching in A.D. 529”, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 2004, pp. 168-182), Justinian issued a general decree that the few remaining overtly pagan schools were no longer to be funded from the Imperial treasury. The Athens Iamblican school was clearly not financially viable without this funding, so its last master, Damascius, closed up shop himself – evidence that his mystical philosophy was more a hobby of aristocratic dilettantes than a vibrant force. So what about Grayling’s dramatic claim that “the philosophers were driven out”? Again, this is a bit of myth. Damascius and his small group certainly did decide to go into exile and abandoned the Roman Empire to take refuge at the court of the Sassanian Persian king Khosrow I in around 532 AD. Unfortunately, Persia did not prove the idyllic refuge they imagined and a few years later they petitioned to come home and were accepted back into the Empire. There they continued to teach unmolested, though not on the taxpayer’s dime. So much for “driven out”. Finally, the implication that this dramatic “closing of the Academy of Plato” and philosophers being “driven out” somehow meant the death knell for ancient learning is also total nonsense. Other major schools, far larger and more important than Damascius’ mystical little salon, continued to operate in cities Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria and continued to teach the late Roman curriculum of the classics, rhetoric, philosophy and science as they always had. The intellectual apocalypse that Grayling imagines and fulminates against … never happened. “The Gold of the Egyptians” Grayling seems totally oblivious to the fact that, far from condemning all pagan learning, Christianity had long since come to accommodate the Classical intellectual tradition and had done so well before Theodosius’ time, let alone that of Justinian. This is why those major academies in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria and hundreds of others elsewhere continued to teach the traditional subjects and texts, even as schools that were overtly pagan in their religious teaching and practice faded away. As I have detailed several times before (here, here and here, for example), there was indeed a debate about the worth of “pagan” works among the early Christians. And it was those who argued that they should be rejected or even just neglected who had lost that debate. So while Tertullian famously asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Damascene and many others answered “quite a bit”. They argued that all truth ultimately came from God, even if the conduit for it was Jewish revelation or Greek reasoning. So to reject all potential sources of truth other than scripture was to reject gifts from God. Augustine gave the triumphant argument its classic and most influential expression: Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use. …. In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, …. but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of the one God are discovered among them. (De Doctrina Christiana, II.40.60) This set the precedent that was then followed in both the east and west: pagan learning could and should be preserved and examined for “the uses of truth”. Not everything in them was to be accepted, but neither should it all necessarily be rejected either. Philosophy was seen as “the handmaiden of theology”, but even in his subordinate category it had very high status. And that status meant that it was preserved. As leading historian of ancient and medieval thought Edward Grant notes: “The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning. …. With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive. They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not.”(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages), Cambridge, 1996, p. 4 “But they did not”. Grayling’s claim that they, in fact, did is total fantasy and he seems woefully unaware of the real status of pagan learning in the transition to the medieval world. Blinded by his comic book-level grasp of the relevant history and his wild fantasies of burned books, closed schools and fleeing philosophers, the actual events are obscured to him by his wilful ignorance. That this person is considered a leading academic, and one worthy of penning a popular history of philosophy, is rather disturbing. Of course, he is not so totally ignorant that he is not aware that they did, in fact, copy and study these earlier pagan works. After all, later in his testy exchange with Holland he actually takes medieval scholars to task for being too reliant on Aristotle and Pliny and praises his “Renaissance” heroes for being sceptical of these pagan authorities (it seems for people like Grayling medieval scholars are “damned if they don’t and also damned if they do”). So he explains this by claiming this veneration only happened “much later on” and making his strange comments about Aquinas. From his exchange with Holland: [The supposed Christian suppression of pagan knowledge] didn’t work in the end, because in the end Christianity had to absorb and adopt it. Look at Aquinas … That’s the reason why Thomism is the official religion – the official philosophy, beg your pardon – of the Roman Catholic religion … is because Aquinas had to take over the Aristotelian corpus wholesale. So you know that in itself is and enough of an example. The only thing this is an example of is more of Grayling’s weird mangling of history. His supposed “systematic” campaign of suppression and destruction is feverish fantasy, so the claim it “didn’t work in the end” is nonsense because it never happened in the first place. Therefore the claim that this supposed failure forced Aquinas “to take over the Aristotelian corpus wholesale” is more nonsense. Aquinas was simply working in the centuries-long Christian tradition of accepting, analysing and absorbing pagan learning and synthesising it with the rest of his received intellectual tradition: carrying off the gold of the Egyptians. After all, Aristotle had been at the core of the medieval curriculum for nearly eight centuries; ever since Boethius (c. 477–524 AD) translated his Categories and De Interpretatione and added them to the Isagoge of Porphyry to make up what came to be known as the logica vetus – the “old logic” that formed one third of the foundational Trivium in all western medieval education. Far from being somehow forced to accept Aristotle and his ilk, Aquinas was merely doing what medieval scholars had always done: using pagan texts that had been accepted since the ancient arguments of Origen and Augustine. Once again, Grayling does not have a clue what he is talking about. Then Transmission of Ancient Texts: Cliches vs Realities One of the more remarkable examples of Grayling’s distinctly spotty grasp of the relevant history is the tangle he gets into over how we moderns manage to read any classical Greek and Roman works at all. In his weird version, the Christians from Theodosius onward supposedly indulged in a “systematic” attempt to destroy these works, which ultimately failed. So then Aquinas, working a whole 900 years later, is forced to accept them in some way. But how did they survive the intervening almost-millennium of alleged Christian destruction and neglect? Grayling has an answer. He begins by talking about the Greek works preserved in Arabic translation in the Muslim world, citing “the library lists in the tenth century of [sic] Baghdad”. When Holland asks “who do you think was translating them?” he responds: The Arab and Persian scholars …. I forget the name of the caliph now, who had a dream and said that these texts must be translated from the Greek into Arabic …. [they] preserved technical and medical and astronomical and mathematical texts from the Greek. Once again, this is a garbled pastiche of things that actually happened and ignorance of context or key details. What Grayling ignores (despite Holland’s repeated and increasingly exasperated attempts to tell him) is that the texts that these “Arab and Persian scholars” translated into Arabic did not fall from the sky – they were given to them by Byzantine and Nestorian scholars. Christian scholars. Christian scholars who had been preserving, studying and commenting on them for centuries and who continued to do so for centuries more. The real story of how these texts were preserved and passed down to us is far more complex and interesting than Grayling’s confused comic book version. But it is one he has to reject, irritably brush aside or brazenly ignore because it does not fit his ideologically driven anti-Christian narrative at all. The essential monograph on the subject is L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, now in its fourth edition and a book that Grayling has clearly never read. Reynolds and Wilson note that “many influential clergy” disliked pagans and their literature and learning equally, but they go on to observe that “if this attitude had been adopted by all the clergy it would in due course, as the new religion became universal by the fifth century, have imposed an effective censorship on classical literature” (p. 48) but make it clear – contra Grayling – that this did not happen. What definitely did happen is that tastes in what books and ideas were most popular clearly changed with the conversion to Christianity and, unsurprisingly in a period before printing, this affected what books did or did not get copied, which in turn had an impact on what books survived. So Reynolds and Wilson are also clear that this did affect the survival of some ancient books: [T]here can be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.(p. 48) But this had always been the case. The lyric poet Sappho was highly praised by the Greeks and often referred to simply as “the Poetess” or even “the Tenth Muse”. But she was also depicted as both licentious and bisexual not long after her death and while many Roman poets imitated her style (e.g. Ovid) other Romans disapproved of her supposed “immorality” and especially her homoeroticism – Horace dismissed her as “mascula Sappho“. Prim Roman disapproval aside, she became a poet who was more praised than read, largely because she wrote in the Aeolic dialect of her native Lesbos, which Attic Greeks regarded as ‘barbaric”. By Roman times Attic literature was the norm and Aeolic poetry was less read and so less copied. Like many of her contemporaries, Sappho probably just fell victim to a general narrowing of interest in the literature of the past, which resulted eventually in a drastic reduction in the number of texts in circulation.(Margaret Williamson, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters, Harvard, 1995, 41–2.) Late Roman Christian and Byzantine scholars inherited both the Roman view of Sappho as licentious and their preference for Attic literature, so this combination meant more of the earlier praise of Sappho survives than her actual poetry. There were also trends and preferences in pre-Christian philosophy that affected the transmission of certain texts. As Nathan Johnston has discussed, New Atheist like Hitchens and Stenger praise a romanticised version of Democritus’ atomism, mistaking it for a modern-style scientific idea and lamenting the supposed destruction of his works by wicked Christians. But pre-Socratic philosophers like Democritus had already fallen from favour long before Christianity. Diogenes Laërtius tells us that Plato declared that he wished to burn all the works of Democritus that he could collect and was talked out of doing so by Amyclas and Clinias, who pointed out that his works were already widely circulated (see R. Ferwerda, “Democritus and Plato.” Mnemosyne, vol. 25, no. 4, 1972, pp. 337–378.). That may have been so in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, but later trends in philosophy meant other philosophical schools, including Platonic ones, predominated and Democritus’ works were copied less and less. Indeed, by the time the late Roman Empire converted to Christianity, forms of Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophical force and other schools of thought were already, to varying degrees, comparatively on the wane. Not surprisingly, Christianity adopted a great deal of Neoplatonic thought; both because of its prevalence from the third century onward and because it was broadly compatible with Christian theology. But this does not mean that other philosophies were totally neglected, let alone banned or marked for “systematic” destruction. John of Damascus encouraged his readers to study “the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks” arguing that “whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since ‘every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’”(Philosophical Chapters, 1958,5). Similarly, Clement argued that philosophy was worth study because “[t]he way of truth is therefore one. But into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides.” (Stromata, I.5).  So not only was Neoplatonism widely studied, but Stoic and Aristotelian works were also commonplace in Christian schools. And even works that were broadly incompatible with Christian ideas were still preserved and studied. Ever since Renaissance literature scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s dubious book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2012) became a bestseller, many polemicists have parroted Greenblatt’s claims that Christianity “suppressed” the Epicurean writer Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Of course, this ignores the fact that Greenblatt’s humanist hero Poggio “discovered” Lucretius in a copy preserved by medieval monks. And other evidence shows that this copy was actually one of many. So much for suppression. What is actually surprising is not how little of this kind of material that was fairly incompatible with Christianity survives, but actually how much of it made it to our time. Even some of the pagan hymns written by the fervently anti-Christian Iamblican, Proclus, – whose mystical Academy in Athens Grayling laments – can be read today because they were preserved by Christians. And if works like this have survived to our time, they represent a fraction of what was actually preserved. On the whole, therefore, pagan works were not the great threat to Christianity that polemicists like Grayling imagine. Even ones that were not compatible with Christian theology were often still preserved and studied and the rest were either broadly compatible – Plato minus the transmigration of souls, or Aristotle ignoring his eternal, uncreated cosmos, for example – or theologically neutral. After all, works of mathematics or natural philosophy were not exactly going to excite the alarm of even religious zealots. Contrary to Grayling’s fantasies, schools and academies continued to operate across the Christian world both after Theodosius and after Justinian and, as Reynolds and Wilson state categorically, “there was in general no attempt to alter the school curriculum by banishing the classical authors” (p. 50). They note that, as already discussed, “heretical” Christian works were sometime subject to orders for their destruction but stress: On the other hand, no case has yet come to light in which the Church took such drastic methods against a classical text: even the works of the detested apostate Julian survived.(p. 51) Far from being closed by wicked emperors, in the time of Justinian and his successors, “higher education in the Eastern part of the empire was more flourishing than ever before” (p. 51-2), with major schools not only in Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria but also Athens, Beirut and Gaza. Far from suppressing ancient learning, Christian expansion eastward spread and propagated it. Nestorian Christians translated key pagan works into Syriac and studied and commented on them in major schools within the Sassanian Persian Empire at Nisibis and Edessa. There Christian scholars translated and studied Aristotle, Theophrastus, Lucian, Dionysius Thrax and many others. Some of these works only survive to us thanks to these Syriac speaking monks. Learning within the Eastern Empire declined in the eighth century (see below), but saw a revival in the ninth, with the refounding of the Imperial University at Constantinople, directed by the remarkable scholar Leo the Mathematician. Leo, despite his cognomen, was a brilliant polymath who, as well as mathematics, studied Aristotelian logic, astronomy, medicine and philology and created elaborate mechanical automata. Contrary to another persistent New Atheist myth, we also have Leo to thank for the preservation of the works of Archimedes. Leo’s revival fostered other wide ranging scholars such as Theodore (who specialised in geometry), Theodegius (astronomy) and Cometas (literary criticism and rhetoric). All of these scholars worked with, expanded on and preserved ancient classical learning. They were assisted by the adoption of literary technology that helped preserve texts better. Ancient books were generally written on scrolls of papyrus. Shorter works could be preserved on wax tablets and parchment was certainly known, but papyrus was the most common writing medium because it was cheap and plentiful. It was also relatively delicate, prone to break as it aged and highly susceptible to damp, vermin and fire. But while there was plenty of papyrus coming out of Egypt and plenty of slaves to produce new copies of crumbling works, this was not a problem. The break up of the Roman Empire meant that the trade networks which had brought Egyptian papyrus to the western provinces broke down and then the loss of Egypt to Arab conquerors restricted supply in the Eastern Empire also. Parchment was a more expensive alternative, but it had the advantage of being highly durable. Parchment can last for centuries and survive all kinds of conditions, while papyrus disintegrated unless very carefully preserved in a dry atmosphere. Parchment can also be folded and bound, lending itself to the form of book that Christians had already adopted widely because it was durable and portable: the codex, which is the ancestor of all books today. Leo’s schools developed a smaller, neater and faster book hand – minuscule script – which occupied far less space on a page than previous hands and could be written legibly at high speed by a practised scribe. This meant more text could be copied faster onto fewer pages. All of these developments increased the chances that a work could survive in a period when many texts – due to their length, obscurity or technical nature – were only preserved in a few copies. As I have explained before, the odds of survival were stacked against any book in the pre-printing period and Christian works were every bit as likely to be lost as classical pagan ones. See “The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca” for analysis on this point. So in an age where the life of any book and therefore any text was precarious, these Christian scholars preserved and shared the classical texts they inherited from the pagan world, spreading them beyond the confines of Christendom. And this is where we return to Grayling’s “Arab and Persian scholars”. In his fantasy version of history, Christians destroyed pagan learning but “Arab and Persian scholars” managed to preserve some of it, which allows us to read it today. He thinks that a Muslim caliph – he forgets the name, but he is talking about Abdallah al-Ma’mun (786-833 AD) – ordered the translation of key works into Arabic after having a dream about Aristotle and this is why we have these works today. This ignores the fact that such translations pre-date this ruler by almost a century; the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Ja’far al Mansur, had established his capital at Baghdad and began the sponsorship of translations of a variety of texts. This was continued by his successors, including the great Harun al-Rashid. These Abbasid rulers attracted scholars from all over the Islamic world, including the Nestorian Christian scholars already mentioned, who brought with them the knowledge of the Greeks that they had preserved. In his clash with Holland, Grayling repeatedly tries to brush aside the inconvenient fact that it was Christians who gave his “Arab and Persian scholars” their classical texts in the first place. It is only by this wilful and irrational ignoring of key elements in the story that Grayling and those like him can keep their fantasy version aloft. At its first encounter with real history, the whole thing comes crashing down. The Dark Ages and New Dawns One of the ways Grayling tries to sustain his narrative of Christian destruction of learning is to point to evidence of the loss of pre-Christian works, saying things like “[f]or something like five centuries about the only thing that was known of Plato was the Timaeus.” He tries to use this to sustain his claims about Christians generally, from Theodosius onwards, suppressing and destroying ancient learning. But Holland quite correctly pulls him up by noting that this loss of Plato was only “in the Latin West” and so it does not actually support Grayling’s claims about Christians destroying and neglecting ancient learning generally. When Holland tries to correct this piece of fancy footwork by noting – again correctly – that Christians in the Byzantine and Nestorian east were actually preserving the works of Plato and many others, all Grayling can do is bluster nonsense like “that is simply not true”. But it is what Grayling is claiming that is not true. It certainly is true that by around the eighth century the Timaeus was the only work of Plato available in western Europe. But this was not because of any imaginary campaign of destruction or neglect by wicked Christians. It was because of a long series of periods of decay in western intellectual life, caused primarily by economic decline and spiralling political collapse. By the late sixth century, despite several periods of relative stabilisation and slight recovery, Roman civilisation had catastrophically fallen apart in western Europe and what intellectuals there were – all of whom were churchmen – were left to pick up and piece together the fragments that remained. One of the main effects of this long catastrophe was the almost total loss of literacy in Greek, which meant that only the few classical Greek works which had been translated into Latin were preserved in the chaos. Thus Calcidius’ Latin translation of the Timaeus in the fourth century made it the only work of Plato’s available in the Middle Ages before the twelth century. This is not because of any dislike or disregard for Plato; on the contrary, as already noted Christian theology was heavily influenced by later Platonism. It was simply because the texts were not available. People like Grayling find it impossible to imagine that the texts of great works could simply be lost, and leap to the erroneous conclusion that there had to be foul play involved. But this misunderstands ancient literary culture. While a reasonable proportion of ancient people were somewhat literate, it was only a tiny elite that received the education that allowed access to the corpus of ancient higher learning and literature. And it was only this elite and a tiny few other beneficiaries who had the time and money to study, expand on and preserve these texts. This means that only a few works – mainly the poetry of Homer and perhaps Virgil – that existed in many thousands of copies. Most other works existed in the hundreds or, more usually, the dozens. Many, especially technical works with a very small audience, would only have existed in a handful of copies at any given time. This made any text, regardless of content, a precarious item at the best of times. In the worst of times – and in western Europe the period leading up to the ninth century was definitely that – books were destroyed and the intellectual infrastructure to preserve their texts degraded catastrophically. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the “Dark Age” that followed it was certainly catastrophic in most respects, but it was neither sudden nor uniform across western Europe. While Roman civilisation collapsed almost completely in northern regions like Britain and north Gaul and did so in the space of a generation in the fifth century, things went on much as they had been in places like Italy and Aquitaine. And while the deposing of the last Western Emperor in 476 AD makes a convenient date marker for “the end”, the decline in intellectual culture dated all the way back to the chaos of the third century and was slowed to some extent by attempts at revival, for example in Ostrogothic Italy in the sixth century. But the cumulative effect was ultimately devastating and even the most learned seventh century Visigothic or eight century Frankish scholar had access little more than scraps of what had once been. The decline in literacy in Greek seems to have been due to the massive disruptions of the third century. In the “Military Anarchy” period of 235–284 AD the Roman Empire saw no less than 26 claimants to the throne a succession of seemingly endless civil wars and barbarian invasions. At one point the Empire effectively broke into three parts and seemed on the verge of total collapse. Diocletian and his successors managed to pull the Empire back together, but the Empire of the fourth century was very different to earlier periods and new military and administrative structures and priorities meant old institutions changed radically or declined. Education, particularly in the west, was one thing that changed considerably. A new and vastly enlarged bureaucracy required literate and effective administrators and the former education system gave way to one that emphasised rhetoric and the law over literature and philosophy. As already discussed, the classics were still studied, especially in the east where the Attic Greek in which most of them were written was the literary language of the educated. But in the west an education in Greek increasingly became an option for higher learning rather than the norm and fewer and fewer students progressed to it rather than taking up an administrative, legal or military position. Greek literacy dwindled and therefore the number of Greek works in circulation in the west declined. By the sixth century some western scholars realised that knowledge of key classical works was declining around them as a result of this loss of the ability to read Greek fluently. In the relative stability of the post-Roman Ostrogoth kingdom, Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585) and Boethius began a program of translation of essential Greek works into Latin. Boethius began by concentrating on works of “dialectic” – the logical works of Aristotle and Porphyry mentioned earlier – and these formed a foundation for all later medieval education. Unfortunately Boethius fell victim to court intrigues and was executed by Theodoric the Great in 524. Cassiodorus established a monastery school at Vavarium that was to become a model for medieval monastic institutions and made the preservation and study of a range of texts, including classical books, central to its activity. He also took the late Roman curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts – the foundational Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) followed by the more advanced Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy) – and made it the core of study in his schools. This too was adopted across the medieval world in the following centuries. But the long collapse continued with the fall of the Ostrogothic and Vandalic kingdoms in the late sixth century and the hundreds of years of war, economic contraction, political fragmentation and continued invasions that followed. The educational infrastructure established in Late Antiquity survived in monasteries and cathedral schools, but only just. Education was theoretically still based on the Seven Liberal Arts, but in practice this dwindled in many places to the rudiments of grammar and rhetoric and enough arithmetic and astronomy to maintain a calendar and little more. Much Latin literature was neglected as institutions concentrated on the basics only. This began to change thanks to some unlikely sources of new vigor. Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire but Christianity established itself there in the fifth century and took on its own unique forms. Contact between Irish monasteries and several in Italy and Gaul in the sixth century meant that works and learning that were neglected and lost in the intellectual low point of the seventh and eighth centuries were preserved in Ireland, including Greek literacy and so some works in Greek. Then Irish missionaries expanded into Britain and continental Europe, establishing what were to become highly influential centres of learning. Irish monasticism cross-fertilised the Christianity of the converted Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and so much of this preserved classical knowledge was to be found there when it had been long since lost to most of western Europe. This meant when Charlemagne mandated a program of educational reform and intellectual revival across his vast Frankish realm in the late eighth century, he attracted scholars from Visigothic Spain and northern Italy, but also from Ireland and England. The scholar who led his program of reform was the brilliant Alcuin of York (c. 735-804 AD). It is hard to over emphasise how close western Europe came to losing the thread of classical learning completely in that period of low ebb or how important the partnership between the warlike Charlemagne and the learned Alcuin was for everything that followed in western intellectual history. Alcuin had been the student of Archbishop Ecgbert of York (d. 766 AD), who in turn had been a student of Bede (c. 763-735 AD), learned abbot of the monastery of Jarrow. Like Bede, both Ecgbert and Alcuin after him were inheritors of the learning preserved in Ireland and transferred to the rest of the British Isles. Both established a versatile educational curriculum that taught all of the Seven Arts and included a wide range of classical authors. In 782 Alcuin became the master of Charlemagne’s Palace School at Aachen. He brought with him both copies of and a love for classical texts. His writings alone show he knew and drew from works of Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Terence. He and the other scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance established a educational system across the Frankish Empire that formed the foundation of the monastic and cathedral schools of the Middle Ages. In doing so, they almost certainly preserved a wide swathe of classical texts that had previously only been found in a few copies scattered across some British monasteries. And they did so just in time. Eleven years before he died he was one of those who recorded the first Viking raid on Lindesfarne in 793 which marked the beginning of a long period of attacks and invasions that destroyed the contents of many monastic libraries in northern Europe. By the twelfth century the west saw a new period of stablity, prosperity and expansion. Western scholars had long since been aware of what they called the Latinorum penuria – “the poverty of the Latins”. This was a recognition that there were classical works they knew of from references or allusions in the works they did have, but they did not have copies of these lost works. It was also a recognition that other people did have these texts: namely the Byzantine Greeks and Muslim scholars in Sicily and Spain. The capture of the great Muslim centre of learning in Toledo in 1085 led many scholars to Spain in search of lost books and the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1091 opened up libraries of Arabic, Hebrew and Greek literary treasures. And by the twelfth century scholars flocked to Sicily, southern Italy and Spain to translate these books into Latin and bring them home. One of them was a young Englishman, Daniel of Morely: I heard that the doctrine of the Arabs, which is devoted almost entirely to the quadrivium, was all the fashion in Toledo in those days, I hurried there as quickly as I could, so that I could hear the wisest philosophers of the world … Eventually my friends begged me to come back from Spain; so, on their invitation, I arrived in England, bringing a precious multitude of books with me. Over the next two centuries many more “precious multitudes of books” made their way north to the schools and burgeoning universities of Europe and “new” Greek learning began to flood into Europe at precisely the point where the intellectual culture there was ready for stimulation. These scholars were less interested in Greek and Roman plays, poems and histories and much more keen on philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and natural philosophical proto-science. These works flooded into a newly vigorous western Europe at exactly the time that more complex political structures and royal and ecclesiastical administrations created a market for scholars. The successful students from the network of cathedral schools set up by Charlemagne and Alcuin and their copiers centuries earlier saw an opportunity and began to take on students of their own. They banded together to form trade unions to pool resources and get privilages from towns and local magnates and the universities were born – the direct ancestors of the modern system of higher learning. Of course, Grayling is dimly aware of all this, but has to be typically dismissive of it, as it does not fit his agenda: [I]t took some time before the idea, the necessity, of a more advanced education – or, indeed, even any education – to come back into the picture. The medieval universities were law, medicine and theology. This was because the growing centralisation of power required bureaucrats; required educated people who could write, who could manage taxation, who could … who could run a kingdom … so, you know, this wasn’t just a matter of trying to understand God’s plan for that for the universe. This was a … this was itself a rebirth of an educational ideal that had been founded in classical antiquity. Yet again, this is a melange of actual facts and total nonsense. Medieval universities were different to the more informally organised schools of the Classical world in that they had a common structure and adopted an idea from craft guilds whereby students could be assessed by their Masters and then granted a “degree” that made them a Master or a Doctor themselves. This in turn would be recognised in any university across Christendom: a system which nurtured a community of agreed and cumulative scholarship that was later to be the incubator of the rise of the Scientific Method. Grayling’s slightly dismissive reference to how “medieval universities were law, medicine and theology” is actually wrong, or only half right. Those were the higher degrees that a student went on to once they had been granted a degree in the Seven Liberal Arts and that included the study of logic, some astronomy and natural philosophical proto-science – most of which were based squarely on classical texts. Universities may have begun in response to a need for administrators and theologians, but they developed into something much more sophisticated fairly quickly. Renaissances (plural) In the cartoonish caricature of history beloved by polemicists like Grayling, “the Renaissance” (singular) is the point where western civilisation is saved from Christian ignorance and the glories of the ancients are rescued from “the dark ages”. To Grayling, the self-conscious revival of Greco-Roman art, architecture, culture and learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth rescued us from religious obscurantism and set us on the wide, straight, Whiggish road to becoming … well, us. Here is Grayling waxing lyrical about one of his Renaissance heroes: [A] very, very significant thing happened in [1492, the] publication of book called ‘On the Errors of Pliny’ by a man called Leonicini [sic – Niccolò Leoniceno] who had gone through the ‘Natural History’ of Pliny and they discovered many, many, many errors there. And this was in itself revolutionary because for so long people had looked at authorities … the fact that so few people were literate that things that were written, scriptures – “it is written and therefore has great authority”. And in the Renaissance, you had the repudiation of that and the insistence that we should look again and think again and make use of our own powers. That’s what led eventually to the liberation of the European mind from efforts to control it by dogma. Grayling’s childish view of history is populated by “good guys” and “bad guys”. So Aquinas is a “bad guy” because he depends too heavily on authorities like Aristotle (despite Aristotle being a “good guy” – yes, it gets confusing). But his “Leonicini” (sic) is a “good guy” because he doubts ancient authorities like Pliny (who in other parts of Grayling’s fairy tale is also a “good guy”, if you follow) and that marks a dramatic break with the stupidity of the preceding Christian centuries. Or something. Which is, of course, total nonsense. Medieval scholars certainly did place great store in the words of the ancient auctoritates like Aristotle and Pliny. This is precisely because – contra Grayling – they held them in high esteem as “the ones who know”, after saving them from the wreckage of the collapse of the Roman Empire. But they did not regard them as infallible. As already noted, Aristotle was accepted despite his “error” in believing the cosmos was eternal rather than created. Similarly Plato was held in high regard despite believing many things Christians considered wrong. And they did not only dismiss the auctoritates when they contradicted theology. Medieval explorers were finding the “errors of Pliny” when they, unlike ancients like Pliny, actually ventured into the distant lands the ancient had written about and found much in the old texts was wrong.  John of Marignolli, a far-travelled Papal emissary to the Mongol khans, wrote in 1348 that the monstrous races Pliny thought lived in the far east did not exist, “though there may be an individual monster here and there”. He debunked Pliny’s claim that there was a race of one-footed Sciapods, arguing that this was a garbled account of Indians carrying parasols to shade themselves – “a thing like a little tent-roof on a cane handle [that] they call a chatyr“, noting “I brought one to Florence with me”. Other Papal envoys to the Mongols, like William of Rubruck and John of Montecorvino , were similarly sceptical of Pliny, Solinus and Macrobius, noting that many of the marvels and monsters found in the works of the ancients were clearly fantasies (see “Medieval Maps and Monsters” for details). Grayling’s “Leonicini”, on the other hand, was actually far less sceptical than these medieval churchmen. The “errors” he wrote of were mainly linguistic ones – fussy quibbles about Pliny mistranslating and misunderstanding his Greek sources. I suspect Grayling has never actually read Leoniceno much beyond the title of his tract. It certainly did not represent the radical intellectual departure he imagines. Nor was “the Renaissance” the unique break people like Grayling suppose, which is why Holland has to object that “THE Renaissance was not the Renaissance! There were many renaissances.” Holland notes, correctly, the Carolingian Renaissance of Alcuin and Charlemagne and the Twelfth Century Renaissance which saw the influx of lost Greek works into a revived medieval Europe. To these western revivals of learning he could add the eastern intellectual movements such as the Macedonian Renaissance of the tenth century, led by Leo the Mathematician, and the Palaeologan Renaissance of the thirteenth century. All of these revivals have something in common – they come after a period of prolonged political disintegration and economic decline that led to a decay in learning and a loss of or neglect of texts. And they were instigated by or at least sustained by a new and more stable political order and led by intellectuals who valued and revered ancient learning. Simplistic polemicists like Grayling tend to ignore politics and completely disregard economics, pretending that intellectual movements happen in some kind of rarefied vacuum. So, for him, the decline in learning in the early medieval “dark ages” can only be because of his imaginary book burning Theodosian and Justinianian zealots and not because of anything as trivial as the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, with its attendant political and economic turmoil. The loss of Greek literacy in the west came after the chaos and near collapse of the third century. The intellectual low ebb of the period before Alcuin and Charlemagne came after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Leo the Mathematician and his fellow scholars led a revival after the long centuries of loss, infighting and turmoil following the Arab conquest of much of the Eastern Empire and the political chaos that followed. It was politics and economics which caused these declines, not religion. But Grayling does not want to know any of this and so irritably brushes it all aside. The silly historians have simply got it all wrong, he assures us: [I]t is now the sort of fashion among historians to find any number of renaissances and reformations and so on. And indeed, in a way, there were. But let us remember that Petrarch is the person who made a very explicit claim to the effect that his age was the one in which they had rediscovered and were bringing back into the light the great values that had been suppressed and lost during the darkness of the period that he described as “the age between” – the Middle Age … the medieval period. So this was a self-conscious recognition by people like Petrarch and all those who therefore went mad looking for manuscripts and digging in, you know, old library collections and so on order to get to get manuscripts back. But it is not “fashion” that causes historians to note that Grayling’s simplistic cartoon is wrong, it is facts. His grudgingly dismissive acceptance that “in a way” the historians are right does not get him off the hook. Petrarch could indulge in his literary hobbies precisely because those earlier renaissances had preserved the ancient texts he loved so much. He could also convince himself that he was the equal of the ancients and pour lofty scorn on the medieval scholars who went before him because they had provided him with shoulders on which to stand. Grayling may decide he wants to agree with Petrarch’s delusions about where he was in the history of western thought and tradition, but that does not make Petrarch’s self-indulgence correct. We know better than Petrarch, despite Grayling’s recalcitrant insistence that this is merely some passing “fashion” among historians. History simply does not agree with Grayling. This is because Grayling is not interested in history unless he can cherry-pick at it for snippets that he uses to preach a sermon. As Nathan Johnstone’s excellent critique of New Atheist pseudo historiography shows, anti-theistic polemicists like Grayling approach it with their conclusions already firmly fixed in place and then carefully select the “evidence” they believe supports them. They are, as Johnstone puts it “hunter-gatherers” not “explorers”, for whom “the humanities are treated as a grab-bag from which to seize examples of the peculiar malefaction of believers” (The New Atheism, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion, p. 7). This is why so much of Grayling’s argument with Holland rests on half-remembered anecdotes and vague snippets of story. He is so convinced that his imaginary “systematic” destruction of ancient texts by Christians happened that he has never bothered to actually check his facts. Similarly, he is so righteously outraged at the story of Justinian closing the Academy of Plato and other schools and driving the philosophers into exile that he has never taken the time to notice that this never happened. He simply knows that Christians had little or nothing to do with the transmission of ancient texts, so he has never bothered to actually study the subject and discover they were actually integral to it. The sad fact is that Grayling is a highly intelligent man and, in his field (philosophy) he is very learned. The tragedy is not that he is profoundly ignorant of history, though he most certainly is. It is rather than this ignorance is completely self-imposed. He has trapped himself in a stupid and erroneous story about the past that is so emotionally important to him that he cannot break out of it. He does not even know he is trapped. Yet again, prejudices and bigotry have made a smart man very, very stupid. The post The Great Myths 8: The Loss of Ancient Learning appeared first on History for Atheists.
Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?
Q1: The Irish Bishops have decided to cancel all public Masses and have told us that we have a dispensation from Sunday Mass obligations as a result of the Coronavirus.  Is this permissible? –Eileen Q2:  As a follow up to … Continue reading → The post Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?
Q: The bishop of my diocese has decreed that because of the Coronavirus outbreak, we Catholics can only receive Communion in the hand, not on the tongue.  Can he do that? –Kayla A: Absolutely not. It’s astonishing that in quite … Continue reading → The post Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Can a Baby be Baptized During Lent?
Q: Many churches that I and my friends have gone to refuse to perform infant baptisms during Lent, but we know that Canon Law states that Catholic parents are required to have their children baptized within a few weeks of … Continue reading → The post Can a Baby be Baptized During Lent? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
2020 Lenten Retreat!
If you want to work on your prayer life this Lent, then you should consider signing up for the Pray More Lenten Retreat! The Pray More Lenten Retreat is a self-paced, online retreat. It’s just like an in-person retreat that you can experience at home — anywhere, anytime. There are five speakers for this retreat, […] The post 2020 Lenten Retreat! appeared first on About Catholics.
Why is This Method of Baptizing Invalid?
Q: A family member was recently baptized in a non-emergency manner, but the priest only said the words of baptism (form), while a layperson concurrently only poured the water (matter). Was the baptism valid? –Steve A: As we’ve seen many … Continue reading → The post Why is This Method of Baptizing Invalid? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Holydays of Obligation, Part II
Q1:  It seems like this year [2019] the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is transferred to December 9, Monday.  So, we have a kind of double obligation.  (I know that in some countries bishops lift the obligation in such cases, … Continue reading → The post Holydays of Obligation, Part II appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
How Can A Priest’s Ministry Be Illicit?
Q:  I am a seminarian, and recently heard a priest tell a story of when he was a catechist, prior to seminary, and had to do a communion service. He had expected a priest to show up and start Mass … Continue reading → The post How Can A Priest’s Ministry Be Illicit? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Review – Tom Holland “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind”
Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Little, Brown, 2019) 624 pp. Tom Holland is the best kind of popular history writer. He is a good researcher who knows what can be stated with emphasis and what needs to be judiciously hedged. He is a fine story-teller, who can weave bare facts into a smooth and engaging narrative. He is provocative and startling enough to keep the reader on their toes and turning pages. And he is quietly and wryly funny. He displays all of these qualities in this fine new book, but it is his role as wily provocateur that will cause it to ruffle feathers in certain quarters. One of the things that often startles me about the way most anti-theist activists speak or write about Christianity is their almost visceral emotionalism. I happen to be a person raised a Christian who abandoned any faith pretty readily in my late teens and who lives in a highly secular country in a largely post-Christian society. On occasion certain Christians, particularly some prelates or politicians, will annoy me with a particularly stupid statement or action, but on the whole I can regard Christianity as I regard any faith – something that other people do that interests me largely as a historical phenomenon. Many of those who are the focus of this blog, however, cannot seem to get Christianity out of their systems. A large number of them are, like me, ex-Christians, but ones who seem still mentally entangled in their former faith. Never able to emerge from a kind of juvenile angry apostasy, they seem impelled to strike out at it at every turn. They have to constantly remind others – and, it seems, themselves – of its manifest stupidity and wickedness. This is why many of them cannot fathom how I can debunk myths about Christian history without also somehow being a kind of “Christian apologist” or “crypto-Christian”. It is why noting that the Church actually did not teach the earth was flat, that Christians did not burn down the Great Library of Alexandria or that the Galileo Affair was not some black-and-white moral parable of “science versus religion” elicits frantic efforts on the part of some to salvage something of these stories so that Christianity does not get off scot-free. It is also why the Jesus Myth thesis seems so convincing to many of these anti-Christian zealots while it appears clumsy and contrived to pretty much everyone else. Bias makes people do and think strange things. It also clouds and blinkers vision. A true unbeliever is someone who can look at their former faith and not just see the warts, but can see the all. A true post-Christian can see the oppression, murder, persecution and horror done as a result of Christianity, but can also see the other side of the historical ledger: the beneficial elements that Christianity has given to western culture and, through it, to the modern world generally. Tom Holland is an unbeliever and also someone who was raised a Christian. And he too is someone who abandoned that belief early in life: he blames a fascination with dinosaurs – a gateway drug for many a budding young historian and religious sceptic. But in his latest book he turns his attention to Christianity’s impact on western thinking and to what will be, to many, an uncomfortable thesis. He argues that most of the things that we consider to be intrinsic and instinctive human values are actually nothing of the sort; they are primarily and fundamentally the product of Christianity and would not exist without the last 2000 years of Christian dominance on our culture. He knows this claim will not sit well with some and so early in the book he invokes Richard Dawkins: “‘It is the case that since we are all 21st century people, we all subscribe to a pretty widespread consensus of what’s right and what’s wrong.’ So Richard Dawkins, the world’s most evangelical atheist, has declared. To argue that, in the West, the ‘pretty widespread consensus of what’s right and what’s wrong’ derives from Christian teachings and presumptions can risk seeming, in societies of many faiths and none, almost offensive.”(Holland, p. xxvi) There is probably no “almost” about it – some have already found Holland’s argument decidedly offensive and said so in no uncertain terms (see below). But Holland is a wide-ranging reader and, as a result, a well-rounded thinker. This is not light pop history, even though it is an entertaining read. This is a book to provoke thought and to change perspectives. Which is, of course, the best kind of book. Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free Paul of Tarsus was not a man to do anything by half. He tells us that when he first encountered the Jesus sect he did not just disagree with its claims, he also went out of his way to shut it down through active persecution. Then, on having what he believed was a vision of the risen Jesus, he switched his zeal completely in the opposite direction and became the sect’s most vigorous promoter, founding communities of believers in the new message of a crucified Messiah across the eastern Mediterranean. He also drove his thinking about his new beliefs to their logical extremes, much to the discomfort of some of his fellow believers. The idea that the coming Messiah was not simply coming to redeem and restore Israel, but would rule and redeem the earth and so all nations already existed in some forms of Jewish thought at the time. But Paul took this idea and ran with it – hard. In his view, this meant Jesus had replaced the old covenant with a new one – one that applied equally to everyone, Jew and Gentile. It meant that practices of the old covenant that he, like his fellow devout Jews, had always considered so important, were now no longer necessary at all. And, to Paul, it had to mean that everyone was saved equally. And that meant everyone: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”(Gal 3:28) This idea of universal equality did have some precedent in Paul’s world. He was a Jew, but he spoke Greek and lived in an environment permeated by the influence of Hellenic culture and thinking; the Judaism of his time had, despite conservative suspicion of all things pagan, absorbed a great deal of Greek philosophy. So Holland notes that the Greeks developed the notion of “natural law” that applied to all people equally. The Stoics were insistent on this as a basis for their moral understanding of the universe: “Animating the entire universe, God was active reason: the Logos. …. To live in accordance with nature, therefore, was to live in accordance with God. Male or female, Greek or barbarian, free or slave, all were equally endowed with the ability to distinguish right from wrong.(Holland, p. 27) But while both the Stoics and Paul accepted this intrinsic equality in principle, and Paul derived it specifically from a crucified and risen Messiah, neither radically questioned their own deeply hierarchical society – a culture that accepted men as superior to women, saw “barbarians” as inferior to the “civilised” and was built on the backs of millions of slaves, who could be bought, sold, bred, tortured, raped and killed. Aristotle justified slavery as natural, claiming some humans were slaves by nature, lacking the moral reason to be regarded as the equals of free men. The Stoics, with their greater acknowledgement of the implications of natural law, had a more humane and egalitarian attitude toward slavery. But while they disagreed that nature made some people slaves, they accepted it as inevitable that fortune would result in some people being subjugated by others and so saw slavery as distasteful but inevitable: a necessary evil. Even the great Stoic writer, Epictetus – himself a former slave – never criticised the institution of slavery as unjust. He too saw it as an outworking of fate and a result of the great chain of cause and effect stretching back and forth in time. Slavery, for Epictetus and the Stoics, was in the category of things “not up to us”. Of course, a learned Stoic was far more likely to be a slave owner than a slave, and one like Seneca owned many thousands of human beings thanks to his immense wealth. His ethical advice and that of other Stoics did tend toward humane treatment of slaves, but this was primarily for the moral good of the master, not on account of the intrinsic worth of the slave. Seneca could write “‘They are slaves!’ some say. I say they are humans!” to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better, but he never condemned the whole institution as evil. No ancient philosopher did. Similarly, early Christians stopped short of the – to us, rather obvious – implications of “there is no longer slave or free …. you are one in Christ Jesus”. Paul himself seems to have held a very Stoic attitude to slavery in practice, advising Christian slaves in Corinth “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it.” (1Cor 7:21) Though he adds an enigmatic comment that has been variously interpreted as “although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (NIV) or perhaps “even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever” (NRSV). Epictetus would have approved of either version. Later texts attributed to Paul were more explicit in their endorsement of slavery as an institution, with Ephesians 6:5 ordering “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”, though Ephesians 6:9 advises “Masters …. stop threatening [your slaves], for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.” Colossians 3:22–25 assures slaves that they should obey their masters “in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly” because assigned work “is done for the Lord and not for your masters” – a text Christian slave masters in later centuries cherished, for obvious reasons. So Christians of the first three centuries of the faith had plenty of scriptural and cultural reasons to justify slavery as an institution. Some saw it as a regrettable but inevitably natural result of the Fall of Man and Original Sin: a position expressed by Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, “Ambrosiaster” and, most forcibly and most influentially by Augustine. Others saw slavery as beneficial for the slave as a remedy for their own sins, with shades of the Aristotelian idea that some people were just naturally servile: here we find Basil of Caesarea, but there are elements of this view in Ambrose and Augustine. Or it could be held that, ultimately, only the body of a man can be enslaved, not his mind nor his soul: so thought “Ambrosiaster” and, again, Ambrose, who had not entirely consistent thoughts on the matter. But the very first ancient thinker to question whether slavery was intrinsically evil as an institution was the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and family friend of Gregory of Nazianzus – the “Cappadocian Father”, Gregory of Nyssa. “The Equivalent of the Likeness of God” Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) was a remarkable member of a remarkable family. As already mentioned, he was younger brother of Basil but was one of nine children, five of whom are considered saints. The family was aristocratic, learned and fiercely Christian; Gregory’s paternal grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was also regarded as a saint and his maternal grandfather had been executed in the Persecution of Maximinus II. He later piously claimed that his only teachers were his brother Basil and “Paul, John and the rest of the Apostles and prophets”, but he clearly received a traditional education in the classics, philosophy and rhetoric and was heavily influenced by the neoplatonist school of Plotinus. Christian theologians today note his writings on the Trinity, but it was his conception the equal salvation of all that seems to have led to his radical condemnation of slavery. Here he was influenced by Origen. As Holland notes, it was Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) who had greatly developed the idea, formerly championed by Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, that far from rejecting “pagan” philosophy, it gave Christian theologians a superb toolkit: “Christianity, in Origen’s opinion, was not merely compatible with philosophy, but the ultimate expression of it. ‘No one can truly do duty to God,’ he declared, ‘who does not think like a philosopher’. …. ‘No subject was forbidden to us,’ one of his pupils would later recall, ….’Every doctrine – Greek or not – we were encouraged to study. All of the good things of the mind were ours to enjoy.'”(Holland, p. 104) Origen set about trying to apply a philosophical rigour to Christian beliefs, which was no easy task since there was a great deal in those beliefs that were strange, contradictory and paradoxical. Exactly how Jesus could be both God and Man was a question that would vex theology for centuries to come, but Origen – a fierce opponent of “heretics”, many of whom denied the genuine humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a mystical abstraction – was greatly struck by the power of the idea of God becoming a weak human: “‘For since we see in Christ some things so human that they appear to share every aspect in the common frailty of humanity, and some things so divine that they are manifestly the expression of the primal and ineffable nature of the Divine, the narrowness of human understanding is inadequate to cope.'”(Quoted in Holland, p. 106-7) Origen wondered at seeing man in God through Christ. Thinking in the opposite direction, Gregory of Nyssa wondered at seeing God in man; and by this he meant all men, including slaves. In his Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes, Gregory does not mince words: “What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? ‘God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness’ (Gen 1:26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller?” There is a great deal of Seneca in what Gregory says, but unlike the Stoics, Gregory of Nazianzus or his brother Basil, Gregory does not temper his condemnation by making excuses for the institution of slavery to justify its continuation. In defiance of all ancient thinkers before him, he declares it to be simply wrong – end of story. Unfortunately, it was not the end of the story. Gregory was not the great speaker or influential thinker his brother was and, as Holland notes “Gregory’s impassioned insistence that to own slaves was ‘to set one’s own power above God’s’ … fell like seed among thorns” (p. 124-5). It would be centuries before later Christians would come to the same conclusions and preach an equality of all men that would give rise to the modern Abolition Movement. Christianity, drawing on Basil, Ambrose and Augustine, continued to justify slavery more or less as Aristotle or the Stoics had done. While Gregory noted his brother Basil as his teacher, in his insistence on the equal worth of all humans he was more influenced by his older sister Macrina. The eldest child in the family, it was Macrina who had convinced Gregory to abandon an aristocratic civil career and take up an ecclesiastical post. She was also well educated and highly intelligent, but she took on an ascetic life and devoted herself to caring for the sick and the poor with the passionate intensity that marked all of the family’s endeavours. In a world where infanticide was widely practised, with infant girls being the most commonly abandoned to death, Macrina searched garbage dumps for babies left to die and brought them home to raise. When she died, Holland notes, “it was not his brother, the celebrated bishop …. whom Gregory thought to compare to Christ, but his sister” (p. 126). Today, the idea that we should care for others, help the weak, give to assist the needy and feel sorrow at the afflictions of the vulnerable and exploited is thought to be normal and obvious. TV ads for charities and aid organisations do not have to argue all humans have a right to dignity by merit of being human, they simply assume we all understand this. So it is difficult for us to imagine how radical it was for people like Gregory and Macrina or the others Holland highlights in this part of his book (Martin of Tours, Paulinus of Nola) to help the helpless purely because they recognised the paradox of a divine Christ as a suffering human being in these fellow humans. Rich people had done good works before. Ancient nobles were expected to endow great public buildings, hold games, races and gladiatorial shows, give free grain and bread to the populace of their city or support centres of learning or healing. But this was because that was seen as reflecting their dignitas and to their glory and esteem. It was not because they saw the people these acts assisted as their equals, equally reflecting the divine and so intrinsically worthy of equal dignity. That idea would have been alien, bizarre and even repellant. The fact that it is familiar, normal and attractive to us shows, as Holland argues, that we are like fish swimming in essentially Christian water. We barely even notice we are doing it. ‘Reformatio’, Revolutions and Enlightenment One of the things that makes Holland’s book thought provoking (and perhaps, for some, provocative) is the way he teases out ideas that we take for granted and shows them to have Christian origins. The division between “religion” and the “secular”, for example, is so fundamental to the western understanding that most people simply assume it and would never consider that it had an origin, let alone an one rooted in Christian theology. But before Christianity a saeculum was a length of time roughly equal to the likely length of a person’s life or the span of human recollection. The passing of a saeculum was a significant event for the Etruscans and its sacredness was marked by the Romans with spectacles and games. To the Romans, religio did not refer to something distinct from what we would call “secular” affairs – no such separation existed. It referred, as Cicero defined it, to the proper performance of the rites owed to the gods or a fitting level of piety and reverence for them. But writing in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410 and the increasing tumult of the accelerating collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Augustine of Hippo needed a way to contrast the transitory and fleeting nature of the world around him, with its cities that fall to barbarians and abandoned estates and villas that crumble to ruins, with the eternity of the things of God, that endure unchanged forever: This was why Augustine, looking for a word to counterpoint the unchanging eternity of the City of God … seized upon [saeculum]. Things caught up in the flux of mortals’ existence, bounded by their memories, forever changing upon the passage of the generations: all these, so Augustine declared, were secularia – ‘secular things’.(Holland, p. 160) “Religion” or religio was to have an even longer evolution: from “the proper performance of rites” to the word used to describe the separated life of monks and ascetics to, finally, our modern understanding of it as the opposite of “secular”. This division of life into that which is “secular” and that which is “religious” is peculiarly western and relatively recent. In a later chapter Holland traces the strange effects of its imposition by colonial westerners on cultures where it really did not fit. So Indian rites and cultural practices that were intrinsic to life on the sub-continent were made to conform to western conceptions of “religion” and “the secular” by creating the concept of something called “the Hindu religion” or “Hinduism”, where a whole variety of “religious”-looking practices, traditions, ceremonial and ideas were jammed, rather awkwardly, into the western concept of “religion” and given a neat label. In medieval Europe, however, this new conception of a division between “the secular” and “the religious” was to have revolutionary effects. With the fall of the Western Empire and the centuries of chaos and fragmentation that followed, the Church in the west needed new powerful patrons for protection. The barbarian warlords and kings converted to the Catholic faith, but in the process the Church came to be dominated by its new protectors. Much of Western Christianity took on a distinct and oddly Germanic flavour, with Christ often depicted as a chieftain surrounded by his disciples as a comitatus, or warband of followers. Off on the western fringes of Europe, Celtic Christianity took on even more strange characteristics. And the Church became increasingly subsumed within a complex network of obligations, exchanges of favours and lordship over lands in return for services and dues. Bishops and priests were appointed by local potentates, rich church benefices were reserved for relatives and allies of the dominant lord in a given region and ecclesiastical offices were regularly bought and sold. But, beginning in the tenth century, a new breed of churchmen began to preach for reformatio – a reshaping of the Church to purify it. Beginning at the great independent monastery of Cluny, these reformers first condemned outside interference in the running of monasteries, the imposition of relatives of local lords as abbots and the requirement of dues from monastic lands. Preaching libertas, these monastic reformers’ ideas of a separation of their religio from secularia spread to the wider church and in 1073 a fervent Cluniac reforming monk became pope. Hildebrand of Sovana, as Pope Gregory VII, took the idea of reformatio to new heights, imposing clerical celibacy, condemning the practice of buying church appointments and fiercely resisting the “secular” dominance of the Church by worldly rulers. This led to a famous showdown with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV that eventually saw an excommunicated and penitent Henry forced to walk barefoot in the snow to seek the pope’s forgiveness at Canossa in January 1077. This clash was just the first skirmish in the long Empire-Papacy disputes and – contrary to the New Atheist fantasy of the medieval world as some kind of “theocracy” where the Church was dominant and supreme – was just one of many bitter conflicts between the Medieval Church and secular rulers. One of the effects of these conflicts was the evolution of a new and uniquely western European idea that we now take for granted: a division between what we call “church and state”, with the “secular” and the “religious” interacting, but occupying distinct conceptual spheres. All of this would have been baffling to Cicero. The concept of reformatio also never went away. Even though the reformers of Cluny staged a successul revolution and effectively captured the Church, remaking it in their image, successive waves of reform would continue, with new reformers calling for renewal, purification and change. Luther and what we call “the Reformation” was just one of these cycles of renewal and notable mainly because, unlike the monks of Cluny, the reformers did not manage to capture the Church wholesale and so formed their own national churches. And the spirit of reformatio lived on into the modern era, with the language and the impulses of Voltaire and the philosophes of the Enlightenment acknowledging they were, in many ways, following in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin. Voltaire was, of course, famously anti-clerical and sceptical of the Church, but the impulses of the Enlightenment were deeply rooted in a now well-established tradition of renewal, purification, a freeing from unnecessary constraints, an overturning of the old to refresh and revive. Similarly, the revolutions that reshaped the modern western world from Europe to America also had their origin in this very western and, ultimately, Christian idea of renewal and purification. It is ironic that movements that saw Notre-Dame (briefly) reconsecrated as “the Temple of Reason” in Revolutionary France or the establishment of a 3.5 million strong “League of Militant Atheists” in Soviet Russia had a fundamentally Christian impulse deep in their genes. Tolkien versus Hitler Holland has a good eye for illustrative symmetries. In August 1914 a young Adolf Hitler was delighted at the outbreak of war but failed his physical when he tried to join the Austrian Army and so managed to join the Bavarian Army instead and ended up fighting for Germany. In Britain, a twenty-two year old J.R.R. Tolkien was recently married to his childhood sweetheart and still finishing his degree at Oxford, so he was far less enthusiastic about the war and delayed enlistment until July 1915. But this meant, a year later, these two very different men faced each other across the battlefield of the Somme. Both saw the world as a clash between darkness and light, though each had a vastly different conception of what “the light” was. A devout Catholic, Tolkien accepted a theology derived ultimately from Augustine: with the eternity of “the City of God” standing against secularia in a fallen world stained by Original Sin. This can make Tolkien’s vision seem somewhat gloomy, especially to those who do not share his beliefs, though there is a stolid (and very British) nobility in what he has the elf queen Galadriel call “the Long Defeat”; the ongoing, impossible but still important battle against evil. For Tolkien, no victory was complete, evil would always rise again and even victory brings loss. But he also held up hope and friendship as essential in the struggle. Holland tells a touching anecdote about an older Tolkien in 1944, now an Oxford don and also a volunteer air raid warden, sitting up talking with his fellow warden, the great Jewish historian Cecil Roth. When they went to bed, Roth noticed that Tolkien did not have a watch, so he loaned him his own to ensure he did not oversleep and miss morning mass. And early the next morning the Jew looked in on the devout Catholic to make sure he was up. “It seemed” Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son later that day, “like a fleeting glimpse of an unfallen world” (p. 461). If the vision of the world Tolkien brought from the Somme was one of hope and friendship in a long defeat, Hitler’s was of merciless dominance and raw willpower resulting in a ultimate glorious victory. A natural pessimist, Tolkien had hope because he saw God’s grace as “like the light from an invisible lamp”, deriving ultimately from God’s sacrifice as a broken figure on the cross. A fierce optimist, Hitler made sure his followers had no time for this weak, Jewish stuff. One SS magazine was typically scornful of useless Christian qualities like compassion: “Harping on and on that God died on the cross out of pity for the weak, the sick and the sinners, they then demand that the genetically diseased be kept alive in the name of a doctrine of pity that goes against nature, and of a misconceived notion of humanity.” (quoted in Holland, p. 460) The Nazis had a notion of humanity based on the strong rightfully dominating the weak, the healthy removing the sick and the “superior race” exterminating the “genetically diseased”. While they were forced by political expediency to pretend otherwise, their doctrine of mercilessness was patently and knowingly anti-Christian – it represented a rejection and reversal of everything people like Tolkien stood for and everything the world had inherited from Christianity. Yet it was Hitler who came to be rejected and defeated 988 years short of the Nazi’s projected “thousand year Reich”, while Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a paean to compassion, humility and friendship, came to be one of the most loved and most read novels of the twentieth century. Holland’s final chapters explore the paradox that, in the west at least, we live in a post-Christian world but one that is so permeated by the ideas and principles that he traces over the course of his history of Christianity that we are like fish swimming in the water of Christian thinking – so used to it that we do not notice it is there. So the Beatles could sing “all you need is love” and not need to explain what that means or why it “makes sense”. Or rich, self-indulgent rock stars can put on a concert to preach compassion and aid for an African famine and see a global audience raise millions of dollars to help strangers on the other side of the planet. Both messages would be at least rather odd to the citizens of ancient Rome or Athens, but they are perfectly normal to us; so much so that we struggle to articulate why. Holland’s book does not shy away from the dark side of Christian history. On the contrary, he emphasises it to the point that some Christian reviewers believe he overdoes that part of the narrative: a likely sign he has actually got the balance about right. But his point is that “the standards by which [these Christians] stand condemned are themselves Christian” (p. 525). He concludes: “Nor, even if the churches across the West continue to empty does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ [1Cor 1:27] This is the myth that we in the West persist in clinging to. Christendom, in that sense, remains Christendom still.”(Holland, p. 525) Criticism Holland’s book is long and wide ranging and so it is unlikely that everyone is going to agree with everything he argues. That said, reading it as a harsh critic of any work of popular history, I found nothing I can say was factually wrong, at least in the sections that cover periods and subjects I know well. Holland is very careful in his language and fully aware that sources cannot be taken at face value and much is history is uncertain. For example, many popular authors choose drama over care when they describe the Albigensian Crusade and the infamous declaration by the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury when asked how the crusaders could tell which inhabitants of the fallen city of Béziers were heretics: “Kill them all, God knows his own”. Holland tells the anecdote, but adds judiciously “So, at any rate, it was later reported”. He then notes that the later story, at the very least “spoke powerfully of the peculiar horror that shadowed the crusaders’ minds” (p. 245). Even if the lurid story is untrue (and it probably is), the fact is tens of thousands of citizens of Béziers were put to the sword in the name of faith. On other points Holland takes a position which is highly defensible, even though there are other interpretations. One of the problems with the kind of popular historical overview the Dominion represents is the author usually cannot stop the flow of his narrative to pause and present alternative views and then argue for a particular position. Holland usually at least indicates that there are other views, though at times he presents a single view with a great deal of emphasis and without any indication of an alternative. For example, he argues that our whole concept of homosexuality is a recent development and one ultimately based on Pauline theology. Before Christianity, Holland argues, there was no conception of a homosexual orientation: some men – many of them, actually – had sex with other men. This was not seen as some kind of “orientation”, but definitely was seen in terms of power relationships. There was no shame in having sex with a man, but there was great shame attached to being the passive partner. Of course, all this is highly debatable and the debate continues. In particular, James Davidson has argued in The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World (2007) that something very much like our modern conception of homosexuality actually did exist in the ancient world. Others have taken up this argument, while many retain the older position of Kenneth J. Dover that Holland favours. Some of Holland’s more over-eager online critics have tried to claim, erroneously, that Davidson’s view is the current consensus (it is not) and that Holland is simply ignorant of the debate. I know from personal correspondence with Holland that he certainly is not, but an indication that there is such a debate would have been useful. I have been harshly critical of Catherine Nixey for presenting one view as though it is fact, and while Holland is not as guilty of it as Nixey, it does leave him open to being dismissed for being slanted in what he presents. Many of his critics have little interest in the nuances of his argument, however: they simply reject his thesis wholesale. And here, gentle reader, we find – yet again and with wearisome inevitability – the indefatigable polemicist, failed academic and unemployed blogger, Dr. Richard C. Carrier (PhD – he has a doctorate, you see). Carrier has not actually read Holland’s book: he is much too busy peddling his fringe Jesus Mythicism thesis and writing his latest effort, Jesus From Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, which seems to be a kind of “Mythicism for Dummies” and will be released, appropriately, on April Fool’s Day this year. But Carrier took a little time out from his busy unemployment to write a briskly dismissive rejection of Holland’s argument. He was responding to a pre-publication teaser piece Holland wrote for the Spectator, “Thank God for Western Values” (20 April, 2019), which was a broad summary of the themes of his forthcoming book. Holland concludes: “The cross, that ancient tool of imperial power, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of a transfiguration in the affairs of humanity as profound and far-reaching as any in history. …. It is the audacity of it …. that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth.” Carrier, the reflex anti-theist and anti-Christian activist, was having none of this. In a characteristically splenetic piece entitled “No, Tom Holland, It Wasn’t Christian Values That Saved the West”, Carrier dismisses Holland as “another amateur” and a “novelist” with “no degrees in history, and no advanced degrees whatever” and declares categorically “everything he says is false”. Carrier then congratulates himself, declaring “I’ve already refuted Holland’s entire thesis”, linking to several of his blog posts and book chapters in atheist polemics, all of which dispute various things that … Holland does not actually say. But when he does bother to contend with Holland’s Spectator piece as opposed to what he imagines is Holland’s thesis, it is the idea that the conception of God as a pitiful crucified human victim that was uniquely significant that gets Carrier especially grumpy. First he sneers at the idea that the key Easter story was unique in any way: “That idea did not come from Christianity. Even insofar as Easter itself is even Christian. After all, it actually incorporates a bunch of pagan holiday stuff now—there are no bunnies laying eggs in the Bible; and Eastre, the German goddess of fertility after which Easter even takes its name, is very definitely a pagan deity. “ This is typically sloppy stuff from Carrier, given that there is no evidence that the bunnies and eggs of Easter are “pagan” at all, no evidence that Eostre (not “Eastre”) was “German” and the name of this local Anglo-Saxon deity is about the only pagan thing about Easter (see “Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs” for a summary of the evidence and scholarship on this). As usual, Carrier’s bluster and bravado outweigh his knowledge and competence. Nuanced points are, as usual, lost on Carrier. Holland notes Richard Dawkins musing on why he, an atheist and secularist, prefers the sound of church bells to that of the Islamic call to prayer and says that “a preference for church bells over the sound of Muslims praising God does not just emerge by magic”; pretty obviously making the point that we are all products of our cultural context. Yet Carrier misses this simple point completely, sneering: “Holland’s following implication that Christian music (specifically, the lamest kind: church bells chiming) is “prettier” than Muslim’s singing (or even the Arabic language) is pretty much just imperialist pap. I don’t even agree. Perhaps because I’m not an imperialist dick.” Anyone who is not a sophomoric jerk (“lamest”, “I don’t even”, “dick”) would notice that Holland makes no claim that church bells are “prettier” (though Dawkins certainly does) and that Carrier clearly did not understand what Holland is actually saying. Much of his piece is at this level of undergraduate spluttering and blundering. When Carrier does manage to actually engage with something Holland is saying, the results are not much better. In sweeping strokes, he declares grandly that “dignitas and its related ideas, even in the sense of the common worth of persons, was already a widely known pagan concept. So Christianity can’t claim to have invented it”. But Holland does not say that it was invented by Christians, rather that it was given a new and far wider application by them – one we accept so naturally now that people like Carrier mistakenly read it back into the writings of his “Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Stoics”. Much of the rest of his piece is pettifogging mixed with near constant self-promotion and aggrandisement. The remainder is simply wrongheaded. Objecting to Holland noting that Christianity, uniquely, gave us the idea of a God who was “closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich” Carrier declares (citing himself, yet again) “humiliated, humbled, crippled, castrated, crucified, and defiled gods and heroes already abounded in paganism”. Leaving aside infelicities like his claim the Sumerian goddess Inanna was “crucified”, the problem is that no story of any pagan deity who happened to suffer some humiliation took on the significance of the crucified Jesus in Christianity. No-one taught we should be kind to strangers by citing Inanna’s death or Attis’ castration. Again, Carrier completely misses the point. Then again, Holland’s points tend to require a degree of nuanced thinking and, as with all fundamentalist apologists, that is definitely not Carrier’s strong point. Turning from a blogger ranting to his peanut gallery, Holland’s arguments got a slightly more measured and intelligent critical analysis when New Atheist luminary and philosopher, A.C. Grayling, debated him on Justin Brierley’s Christian radio show/podcast Unbelievable in December 2019. A video of their conversation can be found below: The whole discussion is well worth watching and a full analysis of the points argued on both sides would take an article in itself. But what is astonishing is the way many of Grayling’s arguments are based on a bizarre caricature of history. A caricature so ludicrous and riddled with hoary myths, misconceptions and howlers that Holland, at several points, seems almost at a loss as to how to respond. And Grayling is, it needs to be remembered, a former Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, and the current master of the New College of the Humanities. That he has such a pathetically bad grasp of history is testament, yet again, to how crippling biases can make intelligent people very stupid. Some of the things Grayling accepts as historical are complete myths, such as his invocation of the so-called “droit de seigneur” whereby medieval lords were supposed to have a legal right to have sex with the wife of any of his vassals on the night of their wedding. Grayling seems to actually think this happened, even though whole books have been written debunking this myth and showing how it arose – see Alain Boureau The Lord’s First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage (University of Chicago Press, 1998). This myth was a favourite of Voltaire, who never let facts get in the way of a nice jab at the Middle Ages, and is perpetuated in popular culture to this day by things like Mel Gibson’s gloriously silly movie Braveheart. Which gives us an indication of where the master of the New College of the Humanities is getting his information about history. Other elements of Grayling’s weird understanding of the past involves a hopelessly mangled understanding of things. At around the 27 minute mark in the video above, Holland gets understandably annoyed at Grayling’s claims about Christians destroying ancient texts, taking issue with the idea that “bands of Christians roamed around destroying copies of Aeschylus”. He notes that not only is there no evidence of any orders to destroy classical texts in anything like the Theodosian Code, but that we know that these works continued to be copied and studied by the very Christian monks Grayling scorns. Grayling then interjects forcefully, saying that this happened “much later on” and tries to claim that these works only survived thanks to Muslim scholars. Holland notes, correctly, that these Muslim scholars were working from copies preserved by Byzantine and Nestorian monks working in the lands conquered by the Muslims, which Grayling tries to simply wave away with a fumbled memory some “Muslim caliph” who ordered the Greek works be translated. But his stumbling reply cannot get around the fact that Holland keeps hammering – the texts they worked from did not fall from the skies or were not found in a hidden cache from pre-Christian times. They were preserved by the Byzantine and Nestorian scholars who had been copying them and studying them for centuries. Holland is right and Grayling is simply totally and grotesquely wrong. Grayling then plays a shifty game of referring, correctly, to the great loss of Greek learning in the Latin west in the early Middle Ages and then trying to pretend this was also the case in the Greek and Syriac east. Holland does not let him get away with this and Grayling simply responds by getting snooty. I must say by this stage Holland was exhibiting a degree of very English restraint and good manners – if I had been there Grayling would have received a heavy dose of blistering Australian forthrightness and obscenity. But he bumbles on. Grayling tells us the dramatic bedtime story of bad, wicked Justinian, who “closed the Academy of Plato” in Athens and shut down all the ancient schools of learning in 529 AD, plunging us into a terrible dark age. He seems very fond of this story, since he invokes it twice and gets quite exercised each time he mentions it. And it is a great story. The only problem is … it is nonsense. As I have detailed before, there was no Empire-wide closing of schools of wisdom in 529. As Edward J. Watts shows in his excellent article on the subject (see “Justinian, Malalas and the End of Athenian Philosophical Teaching in A.D. 529”, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 2004, pp. 168-182), Justinian simply withdrew state funding of schools run by pagans. Pagan teachers could and did continue to teach. And Christian teachers continued to teach the classics and the philosophy that had always been the curriculum of Roman learning. There was no “closing of the western mind”. Grayling is also labouring under the misconception that the Academy in Athens that shut up shop when its state funding was withdrawn by Justinian’s edict was the one established by Plato 900 years earlier. After all, this makes for a much more sensational and dramatic story. But, yet again, the esteemed master of the New College of the Humanities had completely bungled things. Plato’s original Academy was shut down back in 86 BC when the Roman general Sulla laid waste to Athens. The Academy that closed itself down in 529 was a much later institution set up in the early fifth century AD. And it was a small group of Iamblichan neo-Platonists who practised thaumaturgical magic and held strange mystical views that Plato would have found rather bizarre – it simply was not the centre of venerable ancient wisdom Grayling fondly imagines. The “history” Grayling invokes is consistently garbled myth. There is much, much more that Grayling gets badly wrong and Christian writer Esther O’Reilly has written an amusing article on the Unbelievable website, skewering him further. Yet again, a wilfully ignorant atheist, spouting dusty eighteenth century myths about history, has let himself open to wry ridicule by Christians because he gets things hopelessly wrong. When are my fellow atheists going to stop doing this? Provocation and Reflection I noted at the beginning of this review that Holland’s Dominion is the best kind of book – one that provokes thought and changes perspectives. It is not necessary to agree with every point or accept every argument in such a book for it to be this kind of good work. After all, I was not wholly convinced that the Christian concept of reformatio, reformation or revolution was as radical a departure from earlier revolutions as Holland claims. Holland argues that things like Augustus’ hijacking of the Roman Republic was presented more as a re-establishment of former, traditional governance (even though it was not) and so was not really a revolution per se. But this is undercut by the fact that the medieval reformatio and the Protestant Reformation were also presented as a return to earlier, purer forms of the Church. I am also still in two minds about Holland’s arguments regarding sexual mores and the shift in ancient attitudes to what we call homosexuality. But I feel the sign of a good book is that it is one that stays in the mind after it is read and shapes the way you read and see what comes afterwards. Since finishing Dominion I keep finding its arguments coming back to me as I watch the news, read the paper, listen to friends or read other history books. Few books have the weight of influence to do this, and that this one does so is a testament to its profound significance. That is no small feat for a popular history writer. The post Review – Tom Holland “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind” appeared first on History for Atheists.
Can the Bishop Refuse to Ordain Me Because I’m Too Old?
Q: I’m interested in becoming a permanent deacon, but the director of the program in my diocese says the upper age limit, which I have passed, is set by canon law.  He wrote to me, “The upper age limit for … Continue reading → The post Can the Bishop Refuse to Ordain Me Because I’m Too Old? appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
Confession and General Absolution (Repost)
Reposting this piece is unfortunately becoming a Christmas tradition, since reports continue to surface of abuses of the Sacrament of Penance during this busy season.  For that reason it may be worthwhile to read it once again.   A very … Continue reading → The post Confession and General Absolution (Repost) appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part III)
Q: Neither me or my wife are baptized, but we both desire to be and plan on going through the RCIA process in order to do so. I believe I understand that our marriage is valid according to natural law … Continue reading → The post If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part III) appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.
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Canon Law and Selling a Church
Q: Peace!  Lately, members of a local sect had posted online their acquisitions of supposed Catholic parishes in the US and UK. I wonder if that is canonically lawful, selling Parish Churches especially to sects? —Chadwick A: In “Canon Law … Continue reading → The post Canon Law and Selling a Church appeared first on Canon Law Made Easy.