In a famous passage in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Jesus returns to earth, is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor and is thrown into prison for threatening to subvert the Church. His message of universal freedom had proved impossible to follow. As the Inquisitor taunts Jesus:
Did you forget that a tranquil mind and even death is dearer to man than a free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? . . . Instead of the strict ancient law, [when you came] man had in future to decide for himself with a free heart what is good and what is evil . . . But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?
You hoped, the Inquisitor tells Jesus, that people would worship you out of free will and without the need for miracles, but what they really yearn for is good order. Otherwise they tear themselves apart.
Freedom, a free mind and science will lead them into such a jungle and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries that some of them will destroy themselves, others will destroy one another, and the rest, weak and unhappy, will come crawling to our [the church’s] feet and cry aloud: “Yes, you were right, you alone possessed his mystery and we come back to you—save us from ourselves.”
The Church, the Inquisitor concludes, had, through the use of “mystery, magic and authority,” soothed the anxieties that Jesus had aroused. Hence the threat posed by his return.1
“Mystery, magic and authority” are particularly relevant words in attempting to define Christianity as it had developed by the end of the fourth century. The century had been characterized by destructive conflicts over doctrine in which personal animosities had often prevailed over reasoned debate. Within Christian tradition, of course, the debate has been seen in terms of a “truth” (finally consolidated in the Nicene Creed in the version of 381) assailed by a host of heresies that had to be defeated. Epiphanius, the intensely orthodox bishop of Salamis in the late fourth century, was able to list no less than eighty heresies extending back over history (he was assured his total was correct when he discovered exactly the same number of concubines in the Song of Songs!), and Augustine in his old age came up with eighty-three. The heretics, said their opponents, were demons in disguise who “employed sophistry and insolence. Through the former they won over the less intelligent by specious argument; through the latter they attacked the weaker, terrified them with fear of their effrontery, and tried to make them submit to their heresies.”2 From a modern perspective, however, it would appear that the real problem was not that evil men or demons were trying to subvert doctrine but that the diversity of sources for Christian doctrine—the scriptures, “tradition,” the writings of the Church Fathers, the decrees of councils and synods—and the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy made any kind of coherent “truth” difficult to sustain, even by such sophisticated thinkers as the Cappadocian Fathers. Both church and state wanted secure definitions of orthodoxy, but there were no agreed axioms or first principles that could be used as foundations for the debate. As soon as the essentials of Christianity were explored, a mass of underlying philosophical problems emerged—witness the many different ways of conceiving the supreme deity. As we have seen, the scriptures were so diverse that texts, none of which had been written with the theological issues of the fourth and fifth centuries in mind, could be produced to support a wide variety of doctrines. The very fact that Augustine and Epiphanius could each list over eighty different interpretations of Christian doctrine (“heresies”) makes the point. A desperation to establish doctrinal certainty, a desperation made more intense by the fear of eternal punishment in an area where certainty was, in rational terms, so hard to achieve, helps explain why the level of bitterness in Christian debate was so high, much higher than it was in the more open world of pagan philosophy. It is hard to imagine a situation more conducive to frustration. It was not that Christians were any less able or forgiving than their pagan fellows. It was rather that they had become trapped in a philosophical cul-de-sac. The resulting tension explains why the emperors, concerned with maintaining good order in times of stress, would eventually be forced to intervene to declare one or other position in the debate “orthodox” and its rivals “heretical.” This in its turn led to the heretical groups being deprived of imperial patronage. Hence the widespread rioting reported in the east when Arianism was finally condemned in the 380s.
One way of calming the theological turmoil was to declare that ultimately God was unknowable and that therefore speculation about his nature was futile, even blasphemous. We see such an approach in the preaching of Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–90), already encountered as one of the Cappadocian Fathers and as a thinker very much at home with Greek philosophy.3 Gregory’s enthusiasm for public speaking conflicted with a fundamentally shy nature, and throughout his life he was torn between the demands of public life and the attractions of asceticism and personal study. The conflict was crystallized by his arrival in 379 in Constantinople, where he was asked to become preacher to the small Nicene community in the city (at a time when Homoeanism and Arianism were still the most popular forms of Christianity there). With the arrival of the emperor Theodosius and his declaration of Trinitarian orthodoxy he found himself thrust into unexpected prominence. As leader of a minority position now declared by the emperor to be the “truth,” he was confronted by a maelstrom of debate, as much in the streets as elsewhere. 4 His reaction was to try to find a rationale to defuse it. In his Theological Orations, delivered in Constantinople in 380, he drew on a tradition established by his fellow Cappadocian Basil that ultimately the nature of God is a mystery and that the proper response to questions about his nature should be silence. Basil had argued:
It should be enough for you to know that there is a good shepherd who gave his soul for his sheep. The knowledge of God is comprised within these limits. How big God is, what His limits are, and of what essence He is, such questions are dangerous on the part of the interrogator; they are as unanswerable on the part of the interrogated. Consequently they should be taken care of with silence.5
In his Orations Gregory follows Basil’s lead. Unlike many of his contemporaries he avoids attacking specific heresies but instead confronts the tradition of questioning itself. So much speculation, he claims, is purely for effect, reminiscent of the promoters of wrestling bouts who stage-manage contests “to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause.” The questioners are manipulating others’ minds, trying to mould men into holiness, but they produce instead “ready-made councils of ignorant intellectuals.” Only those who are pure in heart, by which he appears to mean ascetics, and have theological grounding, in effect priests and bishops, should contemplate the mystery of the divine and even then “to tell of God is not possible.”6
Whether Gregory was right even to include bishops as worthy participants in the debates was brought into question when he was asked to preside over the Council of Constantinople, which passed the final formulation of the Nicene Creed. The experience appalled him. He records of one meeting of the bishops:
I finished my speech, but they squawked in every direction, a flock of jackdaws combining together, a rabble of adolescents, a gang of youths, a whirlwind raising dust under the pressure of air currents, people whom nobody who was mature either in the fear of God or in years would pay any attention, they splutter confused stuff or like wasps rush directly at what is in front of their faces.7
He was challenged over whether he should be bishop at all (a challenge rooted in the struggle for primacy between Alexandria and Constantinople), and in 381, complaining of ill health, real or imagined, he left Constantinople for good, dying in Nazianzus some nine years later. “We are quiet here without strife and disputes,” he wrote before his death, “since above all else we honour the privilege of silence which is without peril.” 8 It is telling that after Gregory of Nazianzus was deposed as bishop, his replacement was the urban prefect Nectarius, like Ambrose of Milan an unbaptized layman when he was appointed. Clearly the priority was the maintenance of good order in an unsettled city, and one assumes that another “Nicene” appointment would have threatened this.
Gregory’s views were echoed by his much more outspoken and confident contemporary John Chrysostom. In a series of sermons preached in his native Antioch between 386 and 387 John inveighed against those who speculated on God. It is faith that matters, says John; it provides the limits within which one can know about God, but “they [the speculators] invent and meddle in everything so that faith is excluded from the understanding of their listeners . . . Whenever God reveals something, it is necessary to accept what is said in faith, not to pry impetuously.” John compares the subservience of the angels in heaven to the irreverent prattle of those on earth: “Did you see how great the holy dread in heaven and how great the arrogant presumption here below? The angels in heaven give God glory; these on earth carry on meddlesome investigations.” In fact, God was beyond human understanding, and human language was unable to capture his true nature.9 A century later the mystical theologian known as Pseudo-Dionysius (who probably wrote in Syria c. 500–520) summarized the essence of the debate: “It is most fitting to the mysterious passages of scripture that the saved and hidden truth about the celestial intelligences be concealed through the inexpressible and the sacred and be inaccessible to the hoi polloi.” Dionysius, who has proved a highly influential figure in Christian mysticism, partly because for many centuries his writings were believed to be those of a first-century Dionysius, a convert of Paul, until modern textual analysis showed the extent to which they were influenced by Neoplatonism, argued that the soul should progress beyond the senses and reason, entering “a darkness beyond understanding” in which God cannot be conceptualized at all. “God is in no way like the things that have being and we have no knowledge at all of His incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence and invisibility.” 10 Perhaps consciously Dionysius echoed Paul, who famously noted (1 Corinthians 13:12): “We are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face. The knowledge I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I am known.”
There were, of course, conceptual issues raised by the idea of an unknowable God. Could a creed which consisted overwhelmingly of positive assertions about the nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (the only negative assertion in the Nicene Creed is the phrase “not made” in “begotten, not made”) co-exist with the belief that God is unknowable? Conversely, how was it possible to say we have “no knowledge” of a God who has frequently revealed himself in the Old Testament, and, through Christ, in the New? Gregory of Nyssa was forced to admit that this might indeed be the case: “Whoever searches the whole of revelation will find there no doctrine of divine nature at all, nor indeed a doctrine of anything else that has a substantial existence, so that we pass our lives in ignorance of much, being ignorant first of all of ourselves as human beings and then of all other things besides.” 11 There was surely a fundamental conceptual incoherence here. If God is essentially unknowable, what implications does this have for the authority of the Church so far as doctrine is concerned? Could Christian doctrine be divided into some areas where certainty is possible and others where it is accepted that it is not; if so, where is the boundary between the two to be drawn and the distinction justified in any coherent way? Essentially, the problem was that the Christian concept of God had evolved in too many different and conflicting contexts. As we saw earlier, this did not trouble a pagan like the orator Themistius, who revelled in the 300 ways of describing God, but Christians were forced to narrow their definitions of God to a few fundamental attributes. It could not be done in any philosophically coherent way, and claiming that God was unknowable can perhaps be seen a pragmatic response to the difficulties.
By the end of the fourth century this theological development (or it might equally be described as the extinction of theology in that the freedom to explore the nature of God was becoming restricted to the point of extinction) suited the political needs of the emperors. They too wished to defuse the acrimony of Christian debate in a world that seemed increasingly beyond their control politically as well as spiritually. Theodosius II was particularly anxious to bring order into government and religion. His Code of Laws, an accumulation of some 2,500 imperial laws since the time of Constantine, promulgated in 438, brought together an extensive range of edicts defending Christianity and condemning its rivals. When preparations were under way for the Council of Ephesus of 431, Theodosius II tried to settle the Nestorian debate without engendering the chaos and acrimony of earlier councils. Recognizing how easily debates could degenerate into personalized abuse, he pleaded with Cyril of Alexandria that “true doctrine with respect to religion ” should be sought “by means of research rather than by arrogant disputations concerning words.”12 He planned that the council should be presided over by an imperial commissioner who would guide the assembled bishops towards consensus. As we have seen, Theodosius was outmanoeuvred by Cyril, who pushed through a doctrine for which he then attempted to gain the support of the imperial authorities through massive bribery. However, in 451 at Chalcedon, the imperial authorities were, as we have seen, better prepared. A compromise formula on the nature of Christ was prepared and imposed and an attempt (unsuccessful in this instance) made to silence further debate through an imperial decree.
In the west, however, which after the fall of the Latin empire in the 470s was increasingly free of imperial control, it became possible to construct alternative structures of authority. Gregory the Great consolidated a rationale of papal supremacy that once again stressed the bishop of Rome’s precedence in both west and east. Inevitably much tidying up of Christianity’s turbulent past needed to be done to give it ideological coherence. The doctrines of orthodox Christianity, it was now said, had been known throughout the ages. Even the patriarchs, who had lived before the time of Moses, “knew that one Almighty God is the Holy Trinity,” though Gregory admitted that “they did not preach very much publicly about the Trinity whom they knew.” Now that it was claimed that the scriptures, of both the Old and New Testaments, spoke with one voice, the Church Fathers’ impassioned and bitter disagreements over the interpretation of contradictory passages could be expunged from the record; in fact, they were now said to have spoken with unanimity. What the scriptures taught, Gregory argued, had been upheld by the four councils that could be associated with orthodoxy—Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; Chalcedon, 451—and these were given status as ecumenical councils at which the genuine voice of the Church had been heard. “In like manner,” wrote Gregory, “all the four holy synods of the holy universal church we receive as we do the four books of the Holy Gospels.” Orthodoxy is seamless and given unanimous and consistent backing from scriptures, Apostles, Church Fathers and ecumenical councils. The role of the emperors in calling the councils and pressuring them into consensus was, perhaps understandably, passed over, as was the lack of significant western participation. As orthodox doctrine was now presented as though it had been settled and accepted from the beginning of time, heretics were consequently accused of “bringing forth as something new which is not contained in the old books of the ancient fathers.” So, whatever inspection of the historical record might suggest, it became impossible to see Christian doctrine as the product of a process of evolution. A “heresy” could not have “matured” into “orthodoxy.” Isolated in the west and free of the imperial presence, Gregory was free to proclaim papal supremacy. When new disputes arose, it was to be the pope, as successor of Peter, who would have the final say, even if a council had made its own decisions: “Without the authority and consent of the apostolic see [Rome],” said Gregory, “none of the matters transacted [by a council] have any binding force.” The supremacy of the pope in all matters of doctrine was now fully asserted.13
Confronted by the terrible animosities of Christian debate in the fourth century, one has reason to be relieved that silence fell in the churches (even if this silence did not extend to Nestorians and Monophysites). One can sympathize with the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “It is better to remain silent, than to speak with malice.” Yet there is a difference between accepting that ultimately the nature of God (or any spiritual force) cannot be known (a view which mainstream Greek philosophy would have accepted as perfectly valid)14 and proscribing speculation about it altogether. The ancient Greek tradition that one should be free to speculate without fear and be encouraged to take individual moral responsibility for one’s views was rejected. This was especially clear in rhetoric. Previously (in the writings of Isocrates and Quintilian, for instance) good rhetoric had been inseparable from the speaker who composed it. The words said could not be isolated from the character of the one who said them; this is why both Isocrates and Quintilian laid such stress on the moral goodness of the speaker. In the Christian tradition, on the other hand, it was God who spoke through his preachers, who were merely the conductors of his words. Here again it was Paul who initiated the new approach, turning his back on traditional philosophy in the process. From 1 Corinthians 2:4–5: “In my speeches and sermons that I gave, there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy; only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. And I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God.” In other words, it is the Spirit rather than the individual who speaks, and “human philosophy” is specifically rejected as a means of finding truth. With the integration of aspects of the Greek philosophical tradition into Christianity, pagan rhetoric came again to be valued; in his funeral oration to Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus is still able to present rhetoric as an art dependent on the skill of the speaker. Yet it was Paul’s view that the speaker is only an intermediary that came to predominate. As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “The human voice was fashioned for one reason alone—to be the threshold through which the sentiments of the heart, inspired by the Holy Spirit, might be translated clearly into the Word itself.”15 No longer is coherence of argument valued. Augustine follows Tertullian in arguing that it is the very irrationality of the Christian message that is its strength: “If by calling yourself wise, you become a fool, call yourself a fool, and you will become wise,” he says, echoing Paul’s observation to the Corinthians, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 16 In his De Doctrina Christiana Augustine argued that the moral quality of the speaker was not relevant so long as the doctrine he preached was orthodox. “It is possible,” he wrote, “for a person who is eloquent but evil actually to compose a sermon proclaiming the truth for another, who is not eloquent but who is good to deliver.”17 So much for the tradition of Isocrates and Quintilian. Here again the influence of Platonism was strong. Truth exists eternally and totally independently of the one who speaks it, and there is evidence that priests increasingly used approved sermons, such as those by Augustine or other recognized orthodox thinkers, rather than their own.18 So the art of rhetoric declined as was inevitable with the devaluation of reasoned argument and individual creativity. Richard Lim has noted how councils were now dominated by texts prepared for the occasion rather than by spontaneous speeches.19
Aristotle was another casuality of this. Attacks were focused on his work the Categories. The Categories sets out ten questions that needed to be asked about any entity, such as its size, its qualities, its relationship to other entities and its place in time. In the debates of the fourth century, some participants, such as Aetius the Syrian, had used the Categories as a framework for speculating about the divine and had taught that dialectical questioning on the Aristotelian model was the way to progress in theological matters. By the mid fifth century, however, it was no longer possible to enjoy open-ended discussion as to the nature of God, and the Categories became “a prime villain.” In the seventh century Anastasius, abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, was to argue that the ten horns of the dragon in the Book of Revelation (12:4) were none other than the ten categories (“heresies” as he termed them) of Aristotle.20 With the exception of two works of logic, Aristotle vanishes from the western world; his work only reappears in the thirteenth century thanks to its preservation by Arab interpreters.
It was perhaps particularly unfortunate that the silencing of debate extended beyond the spiritual and across the whole Greek intellectual tradition. The effects of Paul’s condemnation of “the philosophers” could not have been put more clearly than by John Chrysostom, an enthusiastic follower of Paul. “Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words.”21 Basil echoes him: “Let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason . . . For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church.” This represented no less than a total abdication of independent intellectual thought, and it resulted in a turning away from any speculation about the natural world as well as the divine. “What purpose does knowledge serve—for as to knowledge of natural causes, what blessing is there for me if I should know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the ‘scientists’ rave about?” wrote Lactantius in the early fourth century. One Philastrius of Brescia implicitly declared that the search for empirical knowledge was in itself a heresy.
There is a certain heresy concerning earthquakes that they come not from God’s command, but, it is thought, from the very nature of the elements . . . Paying no attention to God’s power, they [the heretics] presume to attribute the motions of force to the elements of nature . . . like certain foolish philosophers who, ascribing this to nature, know not the power of God.22
(There is an intriguing echo here of Plato’s “We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what’s in the sky, if we intend to get a real grasp of astronomy.”)
The impact of this fundamental change in approach on intellectual life was profound. One effect, noted by Averil Cameron, was the decline of book learning. “Books ceased to be readily available and learning became an increasingly ecclesiastical preserve; even those who were not ecclesiastics were likely to get their education from the scriptures or from Christian texts.”23 And one contemporary observer, questioned on the state of philosophy in that former great centre of intellectual life, Alexandria, replied that “philosophy and culture are now at a point of a most horrible desolation.”24Edward Gibbon notes the story that Bishop Theophilus of the city allowed the celebrated library to be pillaged “and nearly twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.”25 No less a figure than Basil of Caesarea lamented the atrophy of debate in his home city. “Now we have no more meetings, no more debates, no more gatherings of wise men in the agora, nothing more of all that made our city famous.” The change of atmosphere can be seen in a letter written by the metropolitan bishop of Melitene in Armenia in 457. One of a group of bishops asked by the emperor Leo I whether they wished to reopen the declaration of Chalcedon, he replied, “We uphold the Nicene creed but avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp. Clever theologians soon become heretics.” It was a shrewd appreciation of the limitations of intellectual debate. There was no longer any joy to be had in the cut and thrust of discussion—the penalties for transgressing the boundaries, in this world and the next, were too great. 26 The diminution of learning appears to have been greater in the east than in the west, where, in the middle of the sixth century, Cassiodorus was still stressing the importance of an education in secular matters—the seven liberal arts—even if it must take second place to theology. However, when Isidore of Seville began compiling his collection of Etymologies, an ambitious summary of sacred and secular knowledge, at the end of the same century he was already finding it difficult to locate the texts of classical authors. The authors stood, he said, like blue hills on the far distant horizon and now it was hard to place them even chronologically. A hundred years on we have details of the library of the Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian scholar (672–73 to 735). The library consisted overwhelmingly of commentaries on scripture, the patristic treatises of the Latin Fathers (the Greek Fathers were not represented) and secular works like Pliny’s Natural History, which would be of value in biblical exegesis. This was already a much more limited range of books than that enjoyed by Cassiodorus— books on the liberal arts had now disappeared, and there may not even have been a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid in Bede’s library. Bede’s most famous work, the Ecclesiastical History, could be seen to be modelled on Eusebius’ own history of the church, and like his life of St. Cuthbert it resounds with the miraculous. The scholar Gerald Bonner sees Bede as working within the parameters established by Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana, in which secular knowledge is of use only in so far as it helps biblical exegesis. Fine writer though he is, Bede can hardly be called an original thinker, and this reflects an age when learning had become circumscribed and available sources limited compared to what they had been.27
In the east, there came to be increasing emphasis on learning by rote from a select list of texts and a shift from written material to the visual. The rise of a fixed repertoire of images, icons, especially of the Virgin and Child, was another means by which the church defined what it was acceptable to believe, or in this case, to see. Icons not only played their part in defining correctness but acquired their own prestige, as “not made by human hands,” together with the power to effect miracles, in the case of one icon of the Virgin even to the point of saving Constantinople from defeat when it was stormed by the Persians in 626.28
If the Greek intellectual tradition was to be so comprehensively rejected, what was to be done with its great thinkers? Should the Christian simply ignore Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy? Plato could become an honorary Christian—there is a statue of him on the twelfth-century facade of the Siena cathedral and his dialogue Timaeus was used to support the idea of an orderly universe created by God, the “Master-Craftsman.” However, by the twelfth century the Timaeus was the only one of his many works known in the west, and even then only in an incomplete translation. Two more of his dialogues, the Phaedo (on the soul) and the Meno, were to be rediscovered in the thirteenth.29 The approach to the others was the same: either simply to ignore them as thinkers or to transform them into authorities whose views were integrated into a “Christian” view of the world. The sheer breadth and originality of much of Ptolemy’s work, both in astronomy and geography, suggest that he was always open to the possibility of new understandings based on fresh empirical evidence; by contrast, his cosmology, including his view that the universe had the earth at its centre, was frozen into Christian Platonism, becoming itself a matter of doctrinal orthodoxy. In his late work Planetary Hypotheses, Ptolemy had suggested that the planets could be arranged into a unified system in which each planet occupied its distinct orbit and did not intrude on the orbits of the others as they moved around the earth. (In other words, the earth was surrounded by a series of layers each occupied by a single planet.) Now a Platonist gloss was added in which the earth was seen as not only the centre point of creation but also its “lowest” part, where all was change, decay and fragility. Moving away from the earth, from the moon to the planets and then to the apparently fixed stars, each sphere was closer to “the unchanging,” with heaven, the ultimate immutable sphere, lying beyond the stars. Then Genesis was integrated into this model so that “the firmament” was identified with the eighth layer of Ptolemy’s universe and “the waters above the firmament” (Genesis 1:7) with the ninth. The outermost layer of all consisted of the heavens created by God on the first day. Ptolemy’s works were thus absorbed into a Christian cosmology.30
A comparable process took place in medicine. Galen, the great physician of the second century A.D., had argued that a supreme god (here he was within the mainstream pagan monotheistic tradition, as most pagan intellectuals were) had created the body with a purpose to which all its parts tended. This fitted nicely with Christianity, and so the pagan Galen (who had in his time criticized Christians for their failure to think rationally) also became absorbed into Christian tradition, in effect, “frozen” into it in so far as some of his writings were collected into sixteen volumes of canonical medical texts around 500 and then remained unquestioned for another thousand years. While Greek physicians had certainly made little progress in finding actual cures, they had nevertheless instituted a rational method of approaching and attempting to understand the workings of the human body. This vanished. In effect, we see the preservation of the “magic” of traditional Greek medicine, which had never been eclipsed by the rise of the Hippocratic tradition, and the abandonment of later “scientific” approaches. The sacred springs of the pagan world came to be associated with saints offering the possibility of miraculous cures. In the early fifth century the Asclepion (a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine) in Athens was adopted by Christians, and the stoa of incubation (where the sick slept in the hope of receiving an advisory dream from the god), the sacred spring and the adjoining hostel were all incorporated into the church built on the site. Accounts of healing experiences at Christian shrines, the saint appearing, offering a cure and then being thanked with hymns and offerings, mirror those at shrines dedicated to Asclepius. While in Homer’s world, before the rise of Greek philosophy, it is Apollo who is responsible for visiting plague on the Greeks at Troy to punish them for their misdeeds, now it is the Christian God who sends plagues as punishment. In medieval Italy, paintings still depicted plague as being transmitted by God through arrows, as it had been by Apollo, and in some remarkable cases, the Virgin Mary shields the populace with her cloak against the Lord’s wrath.31 When a crowd of pagans who had crammed into a theatre at Neocaesarea in Asia Minor for a local festival desperately needed more space and called on Zeus to provide it, the local Christian “wonder-worker” Gregory, who had previously brought plagues to an end, successfully petitioned God that disease should spread among those who had unwisely called on a pagan god.32
Despite these continuities with the past, however, sickness is now understood within a specifically Christian perspective. The rejection of a scientific approach to medicine is underlined by the belief (again rooted in Platonism) that the soul is of greater value than the body and that suffering is part of the Christian condition, even to be welcomed as a test of faith. A sick man in danger of death urgently needed, it was said, a priest for his soul rather than a doctor for his body. It is undoubtedly true that Christians cared for the sick “as if Christ were being directly served by waiting on them,” and that hospitals attached to the ordered life of the monastery achieved much good, but there was a risk of caring becoming an end in itself, a means of salvation for the carer, rather than being primarily focused on curing the diseased. There is a story told, for instance, by St. Bonaventura (1221–74) of St. Francis of Assisi, who
rendered humble service to the lepers with humane concern in order that he might completely despise himself [my italics], because of Christ crucified, who according to the prophet Isaiah was despised as a leper. He visited their homes frequently, generously distributed alms to them, and with great compassion kissed their hands and their mouths.33
The sick risk being used here to fulfill the spiritual needs of their carer. The causes of sickness were seen within a religious perspective. So leprosy, which we now understand to be spread by any kind of physical contact, was said to be a punishment sent by God for lust. Meanwhile saints become associated with specific diseases, often ones related to their own life experiences. Two martyrs from Asia Minor, Damian and Cosmas, who went through a particularly brutal martyrdom in which their bodies were cut up, re-emerge as patron saints of surgery. Similarly, St. Apollonia, whose teeth were knocked out during her martyrdom, is the patron saint of toothache. St. Margaret of Antioch had been swallowed by a dragon. Making the sign of the cross while inside its belly, she was miraculously delivered and subsequently became a patron saint of childbirth.
The relics of martyrs, sacred texts and icons became mechanisms through which miracles are effected. John Chrysostom noted that children in Antioch were given a small codex of the Gospels to hang round their necks to protect them from harm. Epilepsy, which Hippocrates described as a natural illness, is now placed under the care of St. Christopher; the English physician John of Gaddesden (1280–1349) recommended a composite cure—the reading of the Gospel over the epileptic while simultaneously placing on him the hair of a white dog. The relics of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury were believed to cure blindness, insanity, leprosy and deafness.
So a different and increasingly “magic” Christian world emerges. Demons are to be found everywhere. One Byzantine source lists them as to be found in seas, rivers, wells, cliffs, ponds, marshes, forests, trees, and pagan tombs and describes the need for them to be driven from such places into the wilderness.34 The world becomes suffused with miraculous happenings, and they become part of the repertoire of any successful holy man. (Even today no saint can be declared by the Catholic Church without evidence of at least two miracles effected by him or her.) Accounts of miracles were repeated and elaborated so extensively that miracle literature becomes a genre in its own right, the founding texts being, of course, the Gospels themselves. A sick man visits a monk, he is healed, he converts. On the other hand holy men promise to effect a miraculous cure, or disperse demons who have brought a crop failure, if the suppliant will convert in advance. Miracles become so commonplace in the records that Edward Gibbon was led to remark sarcastically that “we may surely be allowed to observe that a miracle, in that age of superstition and credulity, lost its name and merit, since it could scarcely be considered as a deviation from the ordinary and established laws of nature.”35 While the miraculous had long been part of everyday life, in the Christian world it was further highlighted as a mark of status. In short, the subversion of the natural order of things by miracles becomes one of the distinguishing features of Christianity and, necessarily, goes hand in hand with the waning of scientific thought.
There is increasing scientific evidence that reason and emotion need to live side by side in the healthy mind. It appears that some degree of irrationality acts as a healthy corrective to the aridity of narrowly logical thought.36 So when Christians talked in apparent paradoxes, claiming that the ignorant was closer to the truth than the educated, or that the foolishness of God was greater than the wisdom of the wise, there was much that was healthy in their approach. There are areas of the human psyche which reason cannot reach and they may provide “truths” of their own—one is reminded of the paradox attributed to the physicist Niels Bohr, “The opposite of one profound truth is often another profound truth.” Jesus’ insistence that the poor, the rejected and the unloved may have something to contribute was a major development in the western ethical tradition. However, Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws.37 After the defeat of Pelagius, the possibility that man was free to manage his own destiny was diminished. This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradition and was, among other things, used to sustain the authority of the church. Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation. It is hard to see how mathematics, science or associated disciplines that depended on empirical observation could have made any progress in this atmosphere. The last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient Greek world was one by the Athenian philosopher Proclus in A.D. 475, nearly 1,100 years after the prediction of an eclipse by Thales in 585 B.C., which traditionally marks the beginning of Greek science. It would be over 1,000 years—with the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543—before these studies began to move forward again.38