Saturday, May 16, 2009


On the moral and historical bequests of Christianity

A correspondent is carrying on a long campaign of polemic about how great the Christian tradition is, how it is still holding up our moral universe, and how we are going to end up in heck when it dies. Putting aside the question of whether the historical origin of moral ideas is relevant to their continued utility and propagation, and also putting aside the question of how our culture ever swallowed the tribal propaganda of "Christianity=goodness", the simple question is: would we have gotten to the rights-granting, cosmopolitan, quasi-egalitarian, humanistic western culture of today faster or slower had it not been for Christianity?

The question is one of alternative histories. What was Christianity really responsible for? What would have happened in its absence? While it is easy to point to the high-lights and low-lights of Christian history, it is much more difficult to do more than speculate about what would have happened in its absence. In scientific terms, with a single sample and no controls, how can the historian draw any conclusions?

Economists also have a term for this problem- "opportunity cost". These are the costs of all options and opportunities foregone when one makes a choice to invest money one way. If I put my money into a savings account, I forego the opportunity of investing it in the next big stock ... or the next big ponzi scheme. Only in hindsight do such opportunity costs become even partly clear, to our pleasure or regret, though of course we never know the half of what would really have been possible. But in the larger swaths of history, such alternatives are neigh-well incalculable. We do not know how a western culture bereft of monotheisms might have fared. We know how things were going in the classical world, but then Constantine, Justinian, and Muhammed arrived.

Christians typically point to the bad aspects of antiquity- slavery, infanticide, and brutal entertainments. Non-Christians can point to many bad aspects of the age that followed- economic collapse (whether due to religious naval-gazing and un-realism or to other issues of cultural decline coincident with Christianity), intolerance and persecution, the evaporation of serious philosophy, sciences, etc.

Ironically enough, the learning of pre-Christian antiquity was revered by all sides right up into the enlightenment and beyond, though understood rather differently by humanists and by the theists influenced by Augustinian and Thomist re-readings of classical works. Edward Gibbon certainly took a very sour view of Christianity, blaming it for sapping the ancient vitality of Rome and leaving it in ruins. And slavery was hardly foreign to more recent Christian cultures such as the American South. Each side has plenty of ammunition, but can the causality of any of this be nailed down? Can we conclude anything about what would have happened in the absence of Christianity? Was it bad or good?

Speaking rigorously, I don't think we can. We have no time machines and no alternative universes for experimentation. Relative to scientific experiment, history is both endlessly complex and unrepeatable, not to mention recorded with bias the minute anyone puts pen to paper. Thus it is likewise impossible to say based on historical arguments whether losing Christianity in the present age will be good or bad either. Nevertheless, I am happy enough to paint my own picture of the situation, calling out what historical scholarship there is and emphasizing the progress that had taken place in the ancient world, with Hellenism being a strong progressive influence as Rome softened in its various cruelties as time went on.

Perhaps the most pointed question is- did the ancients have any concept of human rights, and was this concept ascendant or not in the pre-Christian age? That may be the most likely wedge into the door of alternative history, indicating whether antiquity was on a path to modernism which Christianity nipped in the bud, delaying for over a millenium, or on the other hand whether Christianity revolutionized the moral order of the ancient world in a way that laid the foundations, as nothing else could have, of the goodness of our current system.

The modern history of formal human rights traces a complex enough path, from the Magna Carta to the American and French revolutions, and on to World War 2 and its aftermath. But there are plenty of ancient antecedents as well. It is fair to say that every culture, insofar as it differentiates itself from the state of nature, has ideas about personal rights and moral status that, while rarely giving equal status to all, accord some kind of status and thus right to each person, be she at the lowliest level of untouchability in traditional India.

The Greek and Roman worlds had highly developed philosophies of morals and ethics- which the early church held in substantial reverence, insofar as they could be reconciled with its own systems. Plutarch's ethics have been appreciated up to the present time, including his advocacy of humane treatment of slaves and animals, as have those of Plato and Aristotle, though none (other than the Stoics, in a spiritual sense) speak of universal egalitarianism. Several cultures of the ancient world had complex written forms of law, including Hammurabi's code (1750 BCE) and its descendents in Babylonia, and Rome, with its baroque constitution and primary division between plebians and aristocrats/senators dating to the 300's BCE. So while the Magna Carta is a touchstone of Anglophone jurisprudence and rights, it is far from the first word on the matter.

Slavery in the ancient world was a substantially different affair from what it was in the American South, with substantial mobility between the status of free, slave, recently liberated, and back to fully free. Large influxes of slaves arrived with military capture, and their fate was various- a practical death sentence when sent to the mines or sea galleys, less harsh in agricultural work, crafts, industry, or domestic service. Slaves were employed in all sorts of work, skilled and unskilled, with very few lines of work deemed exclusive either to slaves or to nonslaves. Slaves of the imperial household could become very high-ranking administrators throughout the empire. (The Bible's story of Joseph in Egypt makes the same point at an earlier time.)

The system in some ways resembled the early US colonial system of indenture as much as the more radical system of negro slavery. Slaves were often trained in advanced technical arts/crafts and treated as income-producting investments. Slaves could be and often were freed, and while they then still lacked some rights, their children became full Roman citizens, completing the cycle of mobility. Free persons could be sold into slavery for debt or children by their parents, but this became rarer with time as society became less comfortable with slavery, and by far the main source was conquest, so that when the Roman empire ceased to expand, the population of slaves gradually declined as well. Another general trend was the common subjection of all to the state, which became more onerous in taxation as time went on, to some extent levelling the status of free and slave, ultimately arriving at the common position of feudal tennancy for each.

The cultural trend was towards increased rights for slaves, and while slavery continued to be accepted throughout antiquity, by Christian and pagan alike, it is not hard to imagine that had other systems of thought and economics prevailed, especially if the ancient economy hadn't taken a nosedive, slavery might have been abolished long before it actually was in the West.

My primary source is a book by William Westerman (1955) "The slave systems of Greek and Roman antiquity", from which (by way of Google books) I offer a series of quotes below. Another source is Rodney Stark's "The rise of Christianity", where he estimates the overall numbers of Christians in the period (based on a 40% growth rate from an estimated 1000 adherents circa 30 CE), from which we can conclude that before about 300 CE, they would have had no general influence in society. By 200 CE, the population of Christians in the empire was by this estimate roughly as high as the number of Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims in the US currently- visible in some settings, but more exotic than influential.
  • 50 0.0023%
  • 100 0.0126% (7,530 in the entire empire)
  • 150 0.07%
  • 200 0.36%
  • 250 1.9%
  • 300 10.5%
  • 350 57%

"It is generally conceded that the condition of the slaves of Italy and the public attitude toward them, as compared with that which had existed previously in Italy and Sicily, had undergone a marked change during the first two centuries of the Empire [roughly 30 BCE to 170 CE] in the direction of an increased humanity in respect to them. At this time the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana [3 BCE to 97 CE] states that everyone except barbarians accepts the fact that slavery is degrading, and that only barbarians will heedlessly sell their children into slavery. This indicates that the society of the time had reached the humanitarian realization that, in the institution of slavery, damage other than that of purely material kind was inflicted upon a human being by the simple fact of his enslavement. This movement may be connected with the growth of the prerogatives gained by the servi publici throughout Italy and in the Roman and Latin colonies of the West: it was probably abetted by the honorable position attained by the slaves and freedmen of the imperial household through their efficient services in the administration of the Empire."

"One may respect Seneca as an early and bold exponent of this general change in feeling regarding slavery which was so characteristic of the early Empire. But the sources our of which this transformation arose in the acceptance of slaves lay deeper than the teachings of the Roman Stoicism of Seneca. Chronological reasons regarding the spread of Christianity, and the acceptance of the institution of slavery by the new religion, make it apparent, also, that the new attitude did not spring from Christian doctrine. This does not mean, however, that Christian teaching did no contribute, within the limits of its own communities, to the feeling or equality between slave and free labor which appeared in the early Empire."

As late as 410, well after the triumph of Christianity in the Empire, slaves were still about:

"It is, nevertheless, not to be denied that a fairly large group of Gothic, German, and Hunnish were to be found in Italy who must be classified as legally enslaved persons, subject to transfer by sale and lacking recognized legal personality. This become clear from the terms dictated in A. D. 410 by Alaric, the Visigothic chieftain, to ensure his withdrawal from Rome. This lay in the demand that all the barbarians held as slaves in Rome must be turned over to him if he were to leave the city. This stipulation would have no meaning if these captives were men free to move and so to join the forces of Alaric."

Conversely, Constantine participated in the reduction of free labor to virtual slave status:

"The reduction of free agrarian workers to a state of actual bondage is officially recorded in a mandate of Constantine I issues A. D. 332. It provided that the coloni who might flee or might plan to flee from their overlords must be returned to them and be shackled in irons- 'so that they might fulfill, under the compulsion of a merited condemnation to servitude, the obligations which befitted them as free men.'"

.. "The bestowal upon the landowners, by the enactment of Constantine I in A. D. 332, of the right of punishing their coloni as they might punish their own slaves is clear."

.. " the coloni later come to be referred to as 'slaves of the land itself to which they were born.' This change in terminology expresses realistically the degree of the descent toward enslavement which the coloni had undergone."

"A distinct tendency to lessen the old Roman Republican harshness in the treatment of slaves had already become evidence in special enactments of the first two centuries of the Empire. Generally these took the form of legislation designated to better specific external conditions of enslavement practice which obviously needed to be changed. The continuation into the post-Diocletian period of legislation of this type may be regarded both as an indication and as a result of the drying up of the older sources of slave supply."

"So long as the Christian communities were unconcerned about the underlying justice and injustice of enslavement as a part of the labor system it was impossible for Christian doctrine to conceive the idea of its abandonment, much less formulate a plan to that end. A contradiction was thus established, which continued for many centuries, between Christian acceptance of slavery and its tenet of the equality of all in the sight of God. Anti-Christian writers had been conscious of that paradox between Christian ownership of slaves and their tenet of equality of all who accepted Jesus as the Anointed One."

"An unexpressed feeling of malaise about the institution of slavery was neither new to Christianity in antiquity nor peculiarly the result of its teachings. In the history of the system of slave labor, from the time of the earliest written records of man's experience with it, a certain discomfort about it can be detected in the applied or suggested restrictions which were imposed upon its operation."

"In the formulation of the Christian attitude toward slavery the discussion of it by the Apostle Paul was the determining factor. Fundamentally, Paul's view of the institution did not diverge widely from that of the early and middle Stoic teaching. For those converted to the belief in Christ, free or slave status was not a matter of consequence."

"To Saint Augustine, also, the explanation of the system of slavery in the world at large, presumably including enslavement of Christians to fellow Christians, lay in the fact that it existed by the decision of God as punishment for original sin. In God there is no injustice. Therefore the slave system is justified since God nows how to assign different punishments according to the deserts of the wicked."

"The canons of the Council of Elvira are now customarily dated to A. D. 306. At this meeting it was provided that freedmen whose patrons were of the laity should not be appointed to positions in the clergy. This is a retrogressive movement, presumably in protection of the property interests of slave-owners, whether they be Christians or non-Christians. The same type of decision, in this case respecting the admission of slaves into the monastic life, was taken by the council of Chalcedon held in 451. At that meeting it was provided that slaves should not be accepted by the monasteries except with the express consent of their owners. Anyone concerned in an evasion of this canon was threatened with excommunication."

"There is another facet of the problem which must also be evaluated. If Christian thought was, from its origin in the teaching of Jesus, invested with ideas so incompatible with slavery that it must in the end break the long hold upon human societies which the system had held, why was this inevitable consequence delayed for eighteen centuries after the brief mission of the Nazarene?"

On the slave trade ...

"The food supplied the slaves was probably neither good nor too abundant. We hear no such complaint about it in the ancient literature- which may not mean much. Despite the comparison, favorable as it may be to antiquity in this one respect, [the hardships of slave trafficking being worse in the modern age], one still misses in the Christian literature some note of protest against the trade in slaves or against those who participated in it. For in the pagan literature, both that in Greek and that in Latin, the slave trader stood in low esteem."

And Westermann concludes:

"The failure of Christianity over the succession of the centuries to bring the inner opposition of its ideal into an open conflict with the stark realism of slavery must be acknowledged and faced. It can only be explained in terms of time-conditioning and of difference of environment.
The lines on which he [Alfred North Whitehead] has sketched the moral bases of the antislavery feeling are, nevertheless, boldly and correctly drawn. He ascribes its beginnings to Plato's evaluation of the supreme importance of the human soul and carries it through the long period of the influence of Christian thought in developing it.
'In the Middle Ages institutional Christianity became an instrument of conservatism instead of an instrument of progress.' It was the convergence of the effects of different ideas- those of Christianity, the humanitarianism of the eighteenth century, and finally the idea of democracy- which eventually brought about the abolishing of human enslavement. It was the necessity of the development of these ideas, and the long wait for their convergence until the time arrived when the material conditions were favorable to it, which best explains the failure of the anti-slavery feeling for so many centuries to culminate in abolition."

As a side-light on our current upheaval, slavery could be seen as a primitive form of bankrupcy law, with insolvent debtors first, in historical sequence, becoming slaves, then feudal tenants, then imprisoned paupers, and finally now, liberated entrepreneurs, trailed only by the faintest whiff of their latest bankruptcy.

Anyhow, the conclusion I would draw from all this is that Christianity was by no means the essential ingredient in the rise of human rights, liberality, and egalitarianism in the West. What would have happened in its absence is unknown, but many threads of antiquity were already trending in the direction of amelioration and humane treatment, which are the typical precursors to abolition.

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