Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Paganism may be said to have survived its apparent destruction.

THE DEMISE OF PAGANISM [[*]] BY JAMES J. O'DONNELL Traditio 35(1979), 45-88
There exists a large, remarkably homogeneous literature on the conflict between paganism and Christianity in the last decades of the fourth century.[[1]]This study is a preliminary attempt to re-examine that conflict and point out new lines for interpretation of familiar evidence. A redefinition of our conceptions of what paganism was at this period will be followed by a close study of the men and events around whom the traditional narratives of its last revivals have been constructed. A concluding section will outline the ways in which, according to the new definitions proposed here, paganism may be said to have survived its apparent destruction.
This is only, to repeat, a preliminary study. It focuses chiefly upon the same relatively narrow body of evidence which has formed the core of previous studies of the subject, in an attempt to show how even that evidence is susceptible of some radically new interpretations. The ideas contained in this paper grew out of a long-standing fascination with Augustine's De civitate Dei and a desire to appreciate more precisely the polemical situation in which that work is to be understood. If the conclusions of this preliminary study have any merit, they will need to be refined and strengthened by further work on just such subjects as Augustine's monument of apologetic. It is to facilitate such work and to excite discussion that this paper is published now...
The non-Christian side of society was nothing if not diverse in its religious inclinations. Ancient religion always recognized that differences of ancestry, geography, class, and culture led individuals to seek religious affiliations peculiar to themselves and to people like themselves. The panoply of religious experience in the Roman world before Constantine was simply bewildering: from back-yard fertility rites through public, state- supported cults to the mystical ascents of which Platonic philosophers wrote with such devotion -- and everything between, over, under, and all around such phenomena. There were public cults indigenous to the various parts of the empire, certain generally (if often lukewarmly) accepted devotions such as that to the divinity of the emperors, and a vast array of private enthusiasms. That such a spectrum of religious experiences should produce a single-minded population capable of forming itself into a single pagan movement with which Christianity could struggle is simply not probable. It was convenient for the Christians to believe that this was the case, that the world they opposed could be so easily lumped into one hated 'pagan' movement. But we need not follow the Christians of the period in this easy solution to the problem.
A more reasonable approach to the problem begins this way. It is certain that by the late fourth century the word paganus could be introduced by Christian writers and thinkers to apply to something their audience would recognize. It may have been a Christian idiosyncrasy to lump all non-Christians into one mass, but it was not necessarily mere paranoia. We need not assume that the success of the term represents any essential feature of the various cults and creeds themselves. It manifests instead a growing consciousness on the part of Christianity that it was itself something different from all other creeds; that Christianity was not merely another oriental mystery cult which had gotten control of the empire by fair means or foul; that dividing the world into Christians and non- Christians was a useful intellectual distinction, not for anything held in common by non- Christians so much as for something which the Christians had which no other religious movement in the Roman Empire (except Judaism) could lay claim to.
To understand the peculiarity of Christianity (perhaps we should say its uniqueness) we may have recourse to the most famous early document of the confrontation of Roman tradition and Christian stubbornness: the exchange of letters between Pliny and Trajan.[[13]] The texts are well-known and often discussed, yet perhaps one or two features could be profitably emphasized. Pliny had three questions for Trajan, of increasing seriousness: first, whether in punishing Christians he should make exceptions for those not of an age to be completely responsible for their actions; second, whether he should make allowance for those who repented their Christian past and abandoned the new creed; and third, whether it was the very name of 'Christian' that was to be punished or whether he was to examine for crimes committed as a result of adherence to that faith. Trajan's response was simple: avoid witch-hunts and punish only those who refused to make their abhorrence of Christianity public by sacrificing to 'our gods.'[[14]] In answering this way, Trajan was obviously speaking to the underlying concern, beyond all legalisms, which had troubled Pliny in the first place. What Pliny could not stand about these people, in fact, was their pig-headedness: 'Neque enim dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri.'[[15]]...
A more typical example of the way in which Christianity was kept from absolute triumph can be found at the court of Theodosius II in the 430s. Theodosius chose for his wife the beautiful Eudocia, daughter of a non-Christian sophist, Leontius of Athens. She herself patronized Cyrus of Panopolis, praetorian prefect for the Orient- and prefect of the city of Constantinople around 439. He was a poet, a friend of the verbose poet Nonnus,[[150]]and is distinctly reported to have been a 'Hellene.' But Cyrus, failing into disgrace around 442, was rusticated to the post of bishop of Cotyaeum. His first sermon was a model of its kind, hinting at the ambivalence which marked his true feelings. The complete text of the sermon: 'Brethren, let the birth of God, our savior, Jesus Christ, be honored by silence, because the Word was conceived by the holy Virgin through hearing only. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.'[[151]]
In the Roman West, what is remarkable at this period is the way in which considerations of class and culture prevailed in the end. Peter Brown has astutely pointed out that the continuation of Roman secular traditions was perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy, and probably the way in which the transformation of society was made palatable.[[152]]The most striking document of this transformation is surely Macrobius' Saturnalia. With the work now redated to the 430s, we can see it in new light. It is not, surely, any kind of pagan 'propaganda.'[[153]] Macrobius, as best we can tell, was a philosophically minded man (his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis reveals his own views), who felt a nostalgic affection for the generation of Praetextatus. The hallmark of the religion of both Praetextatus and Flavianus in the Saturnalia, however, is erudition. Macrobius went to great pains to counterfeit a lofty level of learning for these two men, and what they share with their fellow participants in the dialogue is just that learned character, equally manifest in each of them. There is nothing tendentious about the presentation of religion in the Saturnalia; it is treated simply as part of the tradition to which these great and learned men of the former generation had belonged. There is equally no bashfulness about its presentation.
There was no bashfulness, moreover, half a century later when (a manuscript subscription informs us) an apparent descendant of the Saturnalia's author, Macrobius Plotinus Eudoxius, joined with yet another Symmachus (the great-grandson of the orator of 384) to have the works of Macrobius recopied.[[154]]This bit of evidence takes us further into the last generations of the senatoriaI aristocracy, of whom this Symmachus, his step-son and son-in-law Boethius, and their contemporary Cassiodorus are the figures best known to us.
There can no longer be any doubt that all of these figures were themselves believing Christians. Their involvement in the ecclesiastical struggles of their time gives evidence too clear to be denied that they cared deeply about how such disputes were resolved, and on grounds of principle rather than self- interest.[[155]] Yet the ambivalences of their traditionalism, occasioned by their fidelity to ideals of class and culture, have led some modern scholars to see an allegiance to paganism, open or covert, in both Boethius and Cassiodorus. In the latter case, the accusation is simply preposterous, but it is more plausible in the case of Boethius.[[156]]
Boethius, despite his active involvement in theological politics, had no difficulty in pursuing his own true career as a philosopher. According to the most credible recent scholarship, he may have studied in the Platonic school at Alexandria, under teachers who were not Christian but occasionally quarreled over abstruse points with Christian thinkers.[[157]] Some of the controversial positions of these non-Christian teachers seem to be represented, moreover, in Boethius' own work.[[158]] His great project was to translate all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, provide commentaries, and demonstrate the essential harmony of their two systems.[[159]] Deflected in that purpose, he found himself under house arrest far from home, and sought to pass the time composing the famous Consolatio Philosophiae.
This is not the place to determine the motives behind that work with certainty. The two principal possibilities, however, can be canvassed. Even if we accept the romantic theory that, in the hour of his greatest trial, Boethius deserted his religion and fled to the consolations of philosophy, we must recognize that he could do this in good conscience. His pagan philosophy must not have seemed to him so very inconsistent with his Christian religion, whatever ecclesiastical dignitaries of his own day might have thought. The Consolatio shows definite traces of this. On every point the argument is directed in such a way as to be as innocuous as possible to a Christian audience (and the success of the work in the Middle Ages shows how effective Boethius was in achieving this). The more moderate position, to which I subscribe, is that Boethius' religion was never in doubt. He may even have vaguely contemplated the production of a 'Consolation of Theology' to complement the work we have. In any event, he wrote as a professional philosopher. That his work is squarely in the middle of completely non- Christian philosophical traditions is probably no more than evidence of the general acceptability of these traditions by the middle of the sixth century.
And yet the essentially pagan teachings of the Consolatio did find a lasting audience. This itself must tell us something about the nature of medieval Christianity. In our haste to dismiss the period as an age of faith, we do not often do justice to the tensions and ambiguities which have remained in Christianity at all periods. If paganism is, as I have described it, an attitude toward one's religion more than a religion itself, the eradication of non-Christian cults did not necessarily lead to the eradication of that attitude. Even Christians might come up with the curious notion, in the late fifth century, of reviving some of the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, much to the dismay of Pope Gelasius.[[160]] Curious isolated survivals of pagan rites lasted well beyond the time when the last imperial laws were thought to have stamped out the pest.[[161]]
Moreover, medieval Christendom was never an entirely insular world. While there were, in any medieval century, relatively few individuals inside the boundaries of the great Christian kingdoms and empires who openly rejected the Christian faith, there were always new races to convert and new groups to assimilate, however imperfectly. That the core of Augustinian, rigorist, orthodox Christianity was mingled with a more vulnerable idea of Christianity as a success religion left the permanent possibility that Christianity would be embraced for the power it possessed, not for the truth it taught.[[162]]
The innovation of Christianity was its insistence that religions were to be judged by their essential relation to objective reality, not by the wonders they could perform or the protection they could offer. And yet the purity of Christianity on this point was never absolute. In the positive virtue of tolerating different opinions lay the seed of the notion that one's own opinions might be no better than those of one's neighbors. In that form, if in no other, paganism survived the triumph of Christianity. Cornell University

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