Catherine Nixey’s Fluid Window into the Developments of Early Christianity
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Catherine Nixey’s 2017 book “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World” is a very interesting primer on the development of early Christianity and its effects on pre-Christian antiquity in Europe and the Mediterranean. Praised for its style as well as criticized by some for its simply-written narrative, it remains a very useful read for those unfamiliar with how the early Christians over the course of a few centuries essentially started to replace the religious and philosophical traditions that sat within a vast polytheistic framework.
The all-important inflection point where the Christians finally became recognized as not just a minor cult but a State-approved religion happened during the time of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century CE. The evidence for whether Emperor Constantine actually converted is not fully known, but the effects of conferring State patronage and, importantly, tax benefits, started a long process of Christian take-over which, by the late 4th century, resulted in the steady replacement of prior belief-systems and the steady diminution of pagan philosophies. Nixey refers to this, like many other scholars and philosophers before her, as a backward un-intellectual turn, with horrific consequences for polytheistic theology and philosophy. But it can’t simply be an Emperor’s acceptance that allows any theology or philosophical idea to continue well past his lifetime. History, theology and philosophy-watchers will find some recurring themes, which are highlighted below.
Violent Methods & the Bonfire of Knowledge
The first is the Christian propensity for violence, vandalism, eviction and ultimate replacement, using various types of tactics. The earliest converts were the under-classes, the less literate, the impoverished, who were promised salvation, even riches, a much better life through conversion. The elite, the philosophers, the intellectuals in antiquity till that point would be the last to convert, many carrying much disdain for the intellectual aspects of this new theology, and a fear of its violent approach. This theme of superseding the past, supersessionism, would be replicated by the next Abrahamic theology to spring up, Islam. And, as many have observed, such supersessionistic impulses continue much later with Marxism and even Liberalism, with their monotonist approach being a theological carry-over. Violent bands of monks and militias ruled by bishops and priests who slowly became the State steadily squeezed out prior beliefs through any means necessary, with fear being the biggest driver for conversion, and vandalism considered a virtue. A love for suffering and martyrdom in the cause of their new theology became entrenched, with the Roman Empire rulers struggling to manage the notoriety of these willing martyrs. Exaggerated stories of persecution were then disseminated in the writings of subsequent centuries. These 4th century tactics continued, reaching at least one major peak in the late 15th and 16th century inquisitions within Europe itself and then exported across the world. The entire colonial endeavour from the late Middle Ages well into the 19th century is an off-shoot, a continuation.
Secondly, accompanying the violence was the systematic epistemic destruction. Past knowledge would be selectively appropriated and absorbed, but much of it was lost. Knowledge preservation across generations is hard work and requires people in the tradition to survive and carry it forward, something that slowly becomes impossible if people in those traditions no longer have the critical mass, and are approaching the extinction of their self, let alone their belief-systems. The ignorant and the unintellectual will never value what they do not understand, and happily participate in book burning festivals, into a new beginning where their base minds arrogate power and prestige. Censorship, a hostility to intellectuals and their ideas, all head to a bonfire of past knowledge. These become replaced with fanciful genealogies, origin stories of faith that replace critical reasoning which lower minds rarely put the effort or have the capabilities to absorb, leave alone propagate.
Recurring Themes into the ‘Modern’ Era
Nixey has provided a very easily readable primer on the early centuries of Christianity, but there are additional story-lines in early Christian developments that scholars and researchers will need to grasp through other writings. For example, Nixey doesn’t get into the details of the actual earliest formulation of Christianity itself, which comes via Paul in the 1st century CE. Christianity, as some have pointed out, could just as easily or more accurately be referred to as ‘Paulinism’. Paul’s Letters, the Gospels of the 4 Apostles, both products of the mid-late 1st century CE, would slowly contribute to the formation and structuring of the Christian canon which went on almost till the 3rd century CE. The all-important beginnings of the 4th century with Constantine and the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE (in modern day Turkey) would be a major inflection point. Nevertheless, Nixey’s fluid and easily digestible work will provide the spark of interest that leads to other works on this very interesting subject, the consequences of which remain very much alive 17 centuries later.
While the scope of the book places natural restrictions on related topics of interest, there are some important connections that interested readers can make. The very nature of spirituality and the philosophical view of the world is one such area. Nixey’s work provides no real window into why polytheism, both ancient and current, is very much a viable and humane approach, nor is there any reference to Eastern philosophical systems that continue till this day, and how they too face the continual onslaught of conversions, especially in Asia and Africa. Nor is there reference to certain turns within later Christianity which restored some sense of reason, with Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century being one example, or 19th century developments in the Age of the Enlightenment as it moved away from Biblical genealogies into ‘science’ and ‘reason’, and whether those moves were correct or another type of un-intellectual turn. It is also unclear what direction Nixey herself has taken in her own belief-system as a result of her exploration into this subject and period, and what guidance she might offer us.
It remains a wonder that at least some of the brilliance of classical Greek antiquity has survived at all. It is an even bigger achievement that many Eastern traditions in Asia, especially but not only the Sanatani Hindu, have carried on since antiquity. The pressures of monotheistic destruction and monotonist ideologies continue well into the 21st century, but it is to be seen whether the ancients through those of us who appreciate tradition can survive what the ever ‘progressive’ ‘moderns’ offer, and reverse these destructive approaches. A good question to ask would be: to what are they ‘progressing’?
Image: The Action Institute