A response to criticism

In response to my article, “Progress and Polytheism: Could an ethical west exist without Christianity?” several commenters have raised a series of objections, some of which are valid and some of which, I think, miss the mark. This post will tackle a selection of them, but I might also write another depending on how this is received.

First, I want to admit that the tone of the article was at times glib or blasé where it ought to have read more seriously, and in several instances I regret including particular ‘rhetorical flourishes’. One such instance, regarding the closing of the ‘Academy’ in Athens in the 6th Century CE, was dismissed by one commentator (‘Scientific Christian’) in the comments section as an ignorant jab. Surely I was aware that this academy was not identical to Plato’s, and that it was in fact founded in the 5th Century CE? Well yes, I am aware of the fact, and I should have provided more context. Still, criticisms such as this, and those discussed below, are misleading in that they mistake historical omission (yes, I should have mentioned the difference between the Platonic and the Neoplatonic academies) for historical misunderstanding.

The argument that I am making in that instance is that Christianity achieved a cultural dominance over pre-Christian Hellenistic and Roman forms of scholarship and philosophy which would not be challenged for centuries. This point stands, I would submit, regardless of which Academy it actually was that succumbed to the final closure of Justinian. The great difference between the closure of the Neoplatonic Academy in 529 CE and the destruction of the original Academy in the 1st Century BCE is that by the 6th Century CE, Christianity had become so culturally dominant that there were no other institution of note where it was possible for scholars to practice and propagate pre-Christian Greco-Roman science or philosophy in the Roman Empire. This is the point I should have emphasised in the original article. That is not to say that all classical learning died out immediately, but that some traditions of classical philosophical thought were either expunged or died out, and were bereft of much of the institutional apparatus which made them viable in the first place.

A similar objection was raised by the same commentator with regards to the Museion (or Museum) of Alexandria, and its closing in 145 BCE at the behest of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (‘the fat’). Yes, Aristarchus of Samothrace is the last head of the Museum that we know of, but historians are also fully aware that Greek science and Greek philosophy continued to be taught and practiced throughout the Hellenistic and then the Roman worlds following the dispersion of the Alexandrian scholars during the second century BCE. Some of antiquity’s greatest scientists, including Ptolemy and Galen, practiced long after the closure of the original Museum. Again, the institutional apparatus of ancient science and philosophy was not destroyed in general; these particular instances were no doubt setbacks but ancient science and ancient philosophy continued as living traditions of thought for centuries following Ptolemy VIII’s persecutions.

More serious objections concern my use of counterfactual history and my apparent ignorance of Christian condemnations or certain practices including gladiatorial combats and infanticide; these are related criticisms.

I address the question of counterfactual first. There are many possible counterfactual histories of course, but in the article I sought to posit that pre-Christian Roman society already possessed the necessary moral foundations on which to build a much more coherently ethical society; my example was Stoicism. In arguing a counterfactual approach to Christianity, I was urging readers to see its emergence not as an inevitable or preordained cultural or religious outcome in history but as a highly conditional accident.  Other paths were possible which might have produced even worse social outcomes, but there were also paths available (or so I deem) which might have contributed to the development of societies more ethical than those born during the Christian middle-ages. Such societies might have been motivated by particular currents of Greco-Roman thought, including Stoicism.

The article would have benefited from a longer and more discursive exploration of this idea, I agree, and I might thereby have avoided some confusion on the part of readers. Regardless, the piece was fairly clear that my counterfactual history was positioned specifically in relation to the claim that only Christian society (when compared with pre-Christian Greco-Roman thought) could have produced an ‘ethical West’. This, it seems to me, as at least implicit in Tom Holland’s argument that we are heirs not of Caesar but of Christ. Without Christianity, there can be no modernity, at least in a moral sense. I find this claim to be absurd. Of course, any non-Christian ‘modernity’ would look quite different to that with which we are familiar, but not wholly distinct.

Nevertheless I ought to have drawn a clearer a distinction between Stoic thought and Greco-Roman culture (in the last few centuries BCE and the first few CE) in general, which indeed permitted particular practices that today we rightly condemn and find abhorrent. My argument was not that Stoicism had already condemned such practices, but that within its teachings were contained the ethical resources with which to do so  (and indeed that such condemnations were implicit within its universalist conception of ethics), and that these resources might eventually have been brought to bear against slavery and other moral abominations. This may be hard to swallow for many, and might have to stand as a point of absolute disagreement. Still, recent scholarship has shown the indebtedness of early Christian thought to Stoicism, so I don’t believe my position is ridiculous on its face. If I compose a second response, I might try to delve deeper into this topic.