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Saturday, October 23, 2004


LI has been reading, lately, of an early generation that tried to suppress, as it could, a terrorist threat that eventually destroyed their entire society. I mean, of course, the terrorist threat posed by the early Christians, and their persecution by the defenders of that inflation of the status quo known as Empire.

Unfortunately, the edition of Gibbon from which I am getting my unbiased account of the Christian pissants and the Roman mercies is the one e-booked for, I believe, CCEL. This edition contains not one but two sets of notes from defenders of the faith, who ardently gibber contradictions of Gibbon’s calm, implacable destruction of Christian myths of martyrdom. To read it, as I am doing, on an Microsoft Reader means going from a page of main text to a page of footnote, inside of which is nested another footnote, and so on. Thus, Gibbon’s eviscerations, which already punctuate his marmoreal dismissals with extensive and confusing abbreviations of ecclessiastical obscurities, are pursued by the further citing of ecclesiastical authorities by his pygmy Christian commentators, all trying to kick his ankles. It all gets to be too much of a mix.

Virginia Woolf wrote an appreciation of Gibbon that catches a lot of what he does. She notes that the famous style can seem, in the remembrance, monotonous – a rocking horse of predictable phrases, chosen to balance each other out on a principle of decorum that, in prolonged doses, induces sleep. But to return to Gibbon and read him, after that image and experience has been impressed on one’s memory, is to find that he is a sharper writer than you would expect:

“…we forget the style, and are only aware that we are safe in the keeping of a great artist. He is able to make us see what he wants us to see and in the right proportions. Here he compresses; there he
expands. He transposes, emphasizes, omits in the interests of order and
drama. The features of the individual faces are singularly conventionalized. Here are none of those violent gestures and
unmistakable voices that fill the pages of Carlyle and Macaulay with
living human beings who are related to ourselves. There are no Whigs and Tories here; no eternal verities and implacable destinies. Time has cut off those quick reactions that make us love and hate. The innumerable figures are suffused in the equal blue of the far distance.”

Woolf has a weakness for Carlyle that comes from the Stephen family – her father and uncle regarded Carlyle as the Victorian Bwana. But her assessment of the innumerable figures suffused “in the equal blue of the far distance” is exactly right – even if it is the impression over the long haul. For, as Woolf also writes, “Sometimes a
phrase is turned edgewise, so that as it slips with the usual suavity
into its place it leaves a scratch. "He was even destitute of a sense of honour, which so frequently supplies the sense of public virtue."

What we see, in Gibbon, is the construction of that curious thing, Enlightenment Regret. The effect for which Gibbon strove, in his history, was to make the intellectuals of Europe feel the loss brought about by the advent of Christianity as a sort of evening chill, a sort of sunset. This is a whole other thing from casting a skeptical glance at its mysteries. It is, rather, to claim that the effect of Christianity was vastly injurious to the course of civilization, the infusion of an alien fanaticism that poisoned the simple joy of life. Enlightenment regret, given this idea, twists the Christian version of the fall – the West’s original sin was to adopt a creed as ridiculous, undignified, objectionable, and productive of crimes both mental and social as the worship of Jesus Christ.

In order to make his point, Gibbon becomes the apologist for the persecutors of the Christians. It is interesting how he couches this point of view by drawing a contrast between the acts of such cultivated men as Nero and Pliny and the host of ragtag bishops who, three hundred years after the era of martyrdom, instituted their own reigns of terror:

“The total disregard of truth and probability in the representation of these primitive martyrdoms was occasioned by a very natural mistake. The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth or fifth centuries ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times. It is not improbable that some of those persons who were raised to the dignities of the empire, might have imbibed the prejudices of the populace, and that the cruel disposition of others might occasionally be stimulated by motives of avarice or of personal resentment. ^66 But it is certain, and we may appeal to the grateful confessions of the first Christians, that the greatest part of those magistrates who exercised in the provinces the authority of the emperor, or of the senate, and to whose hands alone the jurisdiction of life and death was intrusted, behaved like men of polished manners and liberal education, who respected the rules of justice, and who were conversant with the precepts of philosophy. They frequently declined the odious task of persecution, dismissed the charge with contempt, or suggested to the accused Christian some legal evasion, by which he might elude the severity of the laws. ^67 Whenever they were invested with a discretionary power, ^68 they used it much less for the oppression, than for the relief and benefit of the afflicted church. They were far from condemning all the Christians who were accused before their tribunal, and very far from punishing with death all those who were convicted of an obstinate adherence to the new superstition. Contenting themselves, for the most part, with the milder chastisements of imprisonment, exile, or slavery in the mines, ^69 they left the unhappy victims of their justice some reason to hope, that a prosperous event, the accession, the marriage, or the triumph of an emperor, might speedily restore them, by a general pardon, to their former state. The martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; ^70 or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value, and whose sufferings were viewed by the ancients with too careless an indifference.”

There’s a certain feline cruelty just underneath the surface, here, as the defense of civilization calls for the “milder chastisements” of such things as slavery in the mines. It is part of Gibbon’s irony that the reader faces a dilemma, reading a phrase like that: does Gibbon know what it meant to be a slave in the mines? To be worked to death, in other words, in a dark salt pit? On the other hand, of course, Gibbon did know that the numberless victims of Christianity had endured the salt pits and worse – the devastation of Africa, the silver and gold mines of the New World, the violent persecution of any ray of light that would make for human happiness – a liberal attitude towards sex, a love of material things, science, etc., etc. It is always to be remembered that the Roman world was the greatest slave society every assembled in the West, and that Christianity bore, as its most burning truth, a contradiction to those “sufferings [which were] viewed by the ancients with too careless an indifference.”

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