To the philosopher equally false

July 17, 2009 at 11:13 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

Mark Kleiman and Robert Wright posted a bloggingheads diavlog (here’s the mp3 link*). In it Mark describes the UCLA faculty Tanakh discussion group and I can confirm that it’s exactly as he describes it and is really good. Although I haven’t actually attended in a few years I enjoyed it very much when I did and since then I have followed it vicariously through the excellent set of notes that Mark circulates every week.

Since Wright is obsessed with the evolution of cooperation, and his new book is about the social contingencies of religion supporting inter-group cooperation, Wright and Kleiman share a few thoughts on the “intolerant monotheism” thesis. This reminded me of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The thesis of the book is that Rome was destroyed by “immoderate greatness” and “superstition” (read: Christianity). The latter is often interpreted by people who haven’t read the book as meaning that Gibbon is arguing that the Christianized Romans took all that “turn the other cheek” stuff seriously and became a bunch of pussies. Of course, Gibbon wasn’t that stupid and was well aware that, for instance, the (Christian) Byzantine emperors especially weren’t shy about having their rivals murdered or blinded. What he was really arguing was that Christianity is a religion of orthodoxy, which implies conflict with heretics. Indeed, Constantine had scarcely legalized Christianity when bishops started asking him to take sides in various theological disputes. In contrast the concept of “heresy” was absurd to the pagan Roman mind. The pagan Romans acknowledged different versions of myth and ceremony, but they just kind of bracketed them and moved on as being kind of the same thing, kind of different, but who cares, we’ll do it both ways if we have to.

To this day the parishioners at a Catholic mass still recite “Lord Jesus Christ … begotten not made, being of one substance with the father” and “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.” Most of them don’t know that these two clauses are references to extremely violent 4th century church controversies.

The “begotten” phrase is part of the perennially controversial “Christological” question as to what sort of entity exactly was Jesus. The orthodox answer is, as it says in John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Among the many heretical answers are the good and abstract god as compared to the evil and material father (Gnosticism), a single person with the father (Unitarianism), and a subordinate spiritual entity created by the father (Arianism). The last of these in particular caused a lot of trouble as Arianist missionaries got to the various German tribes before the Catholic Church and the fact that the German foederati were heretics created all sorts of headaches for Roman diplomacy for centuries.

The “one baptism” language is mostly a reference to the Donatist controversy. During the Diocletian persecution there were some very famous martyrs but a much larger number of collaborators. After the Edict of Milan the official policy of the church was amnesty, but the followers of the bishop Donatus disagreed and did things like trying to impeach collaborator bishops. Long story short, the legions marched through the province of Africa massacring Donatists but even a century later they were still a problem for Augustine.

Gibbon’s thesis as to Christianity is thus that religion created a source of cleavage within the empire. Of course this can’t be the whole story because even before the birth of Christ, Rome saw plenty of civil wars and succession movements brought on by such fractious figures as: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Quintus Sertorius, Pompey Magnus, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Mark Antony, and Octavian. Likewise in the Kleiman-Wright conversation Wright flat out asserts that “wars of religion aren’t really about religion.” I half agree.

On the one hand, Rome was almost always a fractious place — especially in the century immediately preceding Christianization. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the interjection of accusations of “heresy” was only super-structure or window-dressing. Basically I think that a cognitive toolkit approach is a useful way to approach the issue. Roman civil wars continued to have terrestrial motives, sometimes ethnic/provincial separatism and other times the personal ambitions of usurpers. Nonetheless, the accusation of heresy (or as the heretics themselves might put it, a new conception of orthodoxy) provided an ideological rallying point for fraction. I think it’s telling to compare the accounts of pre-Christian strife in Plutarch with those of Christian strife in Eusebius or Augustine. The civil wars of the (pagan) late Republic and the principate were almost exclusively about the personal ambitions of noblemen with their followers mostly being organized around a mix of patron-client ties and social class interests (I think the easiest way to understand Julius Caesar is to imagine Hugo Chavez in a toga). In contrast, the religious wars of the dominate were less personality-driven and more ideological and ethnic in character, often providing a unifying agenda to revolt of the sort that is very recognizable to us modern people used to ideological wars between, say, fascists and communists or anti-colonial wars of national liberation. Note that Arius himself was an Egyptian and the Germans he converted were across the frontier. The Donatists were mostly Berbers. Thus underlying theological disputes about Christology or reconciliation were essentially political differences. However, this is not to say that the theological disputes did not matter in that these theological disputes provided an ideological tool for framing the struggle in a way that changed their character.

Likewise you see similar issues at play in early modern history. For instance on one level the English civil war was about social class with the emerging middle class opposed to the aristocracy whereas on the other hand it was about Calvinism versus high church Anglicanism. I think it’s fair to say that the roundheads would not have been nearly so tenacious if the war were only about the power of parliament versus that of the king. Calvinism served as an organizing toolkit to impose sense on the underlying class and political issues in a way that changed the character of those issues.


*I love text because I can skim it, and I love audio because it’s conducive to multi-tasking (while driving, etc), but I really don’t get the point of videos where the visual element adds essentially no entertainment or information. I can’t even imagine having so much time (or attention span) that I’d sit in front of my computer staring at a lo-resolution image of a couple of bush-league pundits for an hour. As far as I’m concerned it could be instead of

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1 Comment

  • 1. Social Structures « Code and Culture  |  August 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    […] restricted to the transition from early modern to modern. As is known to any reader of Gibbon, there was a similar pattern in late antiquity in how esoteric theological disputes over adoptionist Christology and reconciliation of sinners […]

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