Augustine’s argument against paganism was the last rebuttal in the greatest of historic debates. Paganism survived in the moral sense, as a joyous indulgence of natural appetites; as a religion it remained only in the form of ancient rites and customs condoned, or accepted and transformed, by an often indulgent Church. An intimate and trustful worship of saints replaced the cult of the pagan gods, and satisfied the congenial polytheism of simple or poetic minds. Statues of Isis and Horus were renamed Mary and Jesus; the Roman Lupercalia and the feast of the purification of Isis became the Feast of the Nativity;99 the Saturnalia were replaced by Christmas celebrations, the Floralia by Pentecost, an ancient festival of the dead by All Souls’ Day,100 the resurrection of Attis by the resurrection of Christ.101 Pagan altars were rededicated to Christian heroes; incense, lights, flowers, processions, vestments, hymns, which had pleased the people in older cults were domesticated and cleansed in the ritual of the Church; and the harsh slaughter of a living victim was sublimated in the spiritual sacrifice of the Mass.
Augustine had protested against the adoration of saints, and in terms that Voltaire might have used in dedicating his chapel at Ferney: “Let us not treat the saints as gods; we do not wish to imitate those pagans who adore the dead. Let us not build them temples, nor raise altars to them; but with their relics let us raise an altar to the one god.”102 The Church, however, wisely accepted the inevitable anthropomorphism of popular theology. She resisted,103 then used, then abused, the cult of martyrs and relics. She opposed the worship of images and icons, and warned her faithful that these should be reverenced only as symbols;104 but the ardor of public feeling overcame these cautions, and led to the excesses that aroused the Byzantine iconoclasts. The Church denounced magic, astrology, and divination, but medieval, like ancient, literature, was full of them; soon people and priests would use the sign of the cross as a magic incantation to expel or drive away demons. Exorcisms were pronounced over the candidate for baptism, and total nude immersion was required lest a devil should hide in some clothing or ornament.105 The dream cures once sought in the temples of Aesculapius could now be obtained in the sanctuary of Sts. Cosmas and Damian in Rome, and would soon be available at a hundred shrines. In such matters it was not the priests who corrupted the people, but the people who persuaded the priests. The soul of the simple man can be moved only through the senses and the imagination, by ceremony and miracle, by myth and fear and hope; he will reject or transform any religion that does not give him these. It was natural that amid war and desolation, poverty and disease, a frightened people should find refuge and solace in chapels, churches, and cathedrals, in mystic lights and rejoicing bells, in processions, festivals, and colorful ritual.
By yielding to these popular necessities the Church was enabled to incul-cate a new morality. Ambrose, always the Roman administrator, had tried to formulate the ethics of Christianity in Stoic terms, converting Cicero to his needs; and in the greater Christians of the Middle Ages, from Augustine to Savonarola, the Stoic ideal of self-control and uncompromising virtue informed the Christian mold. But that masculine morality was not the ideal of the people. They had had Stoics long enough; they had seen the masculine virtues incarnadine half the world; they longed for gentler, quieter ways, by which men might be persuaded to live in stability and peace. For the first time in European history the teachers of mankind preached an ethic of kindliness, obedience, humility, patience, mercy, purity, chastity, and tenderness—virtues perhaps derived from the lowly social origins of the Church, and their popularity among women, but admirably adapted to restore order to a de-moralized people, to tame the marauding barbarian, to moderate the violence of a falling world.
The reforms of the Church were greatest in the realm of sex. Paganism had tolerated the prostitute as a necessary mitigation of an arduous monogamy; the Church denounced prostitution without compromise, and demanded a single standard of fidelity for both sexes in marriage. She did’not quite succeed; she raised the morals of the home, but prostitution remained, driven into stealth and degradation. Perhaps to counterbalance a sexual instinct that had run wild, the new morality exaggerated chastity into an obsession, and subordinated marriage and parentage to a lifelong virginity or celibacy as an ideal; and it took the Fathers of the Church some time to realize that no society could survive on such sterile principles. But this puritanic reaction can be understood if we recall the licentiousness of the Roman stage, the schools of prostitution in some Greek and Oriental temples, the widespread abortion and infanticide, the obscene paintings on Pompeian walls, the unnatural vice so popular in Greece and Rome, the excesses of the early emperors, the sensuality of the upper classes as revealed in Catullus and Martial, Tacitus and Juvenal. The Church finally reached a healthier view, and indeed came in time to take a lenient attitude to sins of the flesh. Meanwhile some injury was done to the conception of parentage and the family. Too many Christians of these early centuries thought that they could serve God best—or, rather, most easily escape hell—by abandoning their parents, mates, or children, and fleeing from the responsibilities of life in the frightened pursuit of a selfishly individual salvation. In paganism the family had been the social and religious unit; it was a loss that in medieval Christianity this unit became the individual.
Nevertheless the Church strengthened the family by surrounding marriage with solemn ceremony, and exalting it from a contract to a sacrament. By making matrimony indissoluble she raised the security and dignity of the wife, and encouraged the patience that comes from hopelessness. For a time the status of woman was hurt by the doctrine of some Christian Fathers that woman was the origin of sin and the instrument of Satan; but some amends were made by the honors paid to the Mother of God. Having accepted marriage, the Church blessed abundant motherhood, and sternly forbade abortion or infanticide; perhaps it was to discourage these practices that her theologians damned to a limbo of eternal darkness any child that died without baptism. It was through the influence of the Church that Valentinian I, in 374, made infanticide a capital crime.
The Church did not condemn slavery. Orthodox and heretic, Roman and barbarian alike assumed the institution to be natural and indestructible; a few philosophers protested, but they too had slaves. The legislation of the Christian emperors in this matter does not compare favorably with the laws of Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Pagan laws condemned to slavery any free woman who married a slave; the laws of Constantine ordered the woman to be executed, and the slave to be burned alive. The Emperor Gratian decreed that a slave who accused his master of any offense except high treason to the state should be burned alive at once, without inquiry into the justice of the charge.106 But though the Church accepted slavery as part of the law of war, she did more than any other institution of the time to mitigate the evils of servitude. She proclaimed, through the Fathers, the principle that all men are by nature equal—presumably meaning in legal and moral rights; she practiced the principle in so far as she received into her communion all ranks and classes: though no slave could be ordained to the priesthood, the poorest freedman could rise to high places in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Church repudiated the distinction made in pagan law between wrongs done to a freeman and those done to a slave. She encouraged manumission, made emancipation of slaves a mode of expiating sins, or of celebrating some good fortune, or of approaching the judgment seat of God. She spent great sums freeing from slavery Christians captured in war.107Nevertheless slavery continued throughout the Middle Ages, and died without benefit of clergy.
The outstanding moral distinction of the Church was her extensive provision of charity. The pagan emperors had provided state funds for poor families, and pagan magnates had done something for their “clients” and the poor. But never had the world seen such a dispensation of alms as was now organized by the Church. She encouraged bequests to the poor, to be administered by her; some abuses and malversation crept in, but that the Church carried out her obligations abundantly is attested by the jealous emulation of Julian. She helped widows, orphans, the sick or infirm, prisoners, victims of natural catastrophes; and she frequently intervened to protect the lower orders from unusual exploitation or excessive taxation.108 In many cases priests, on attaining the episcopacy, gave all their property to the poor. Christian women like, Fabiola, Paula, and Melania devoted fortunes to charitable work. Following the example of pagan valetudinaria, the Church or her rich laymen founded public hospitals on a scale never known before. Basil established a famous hospital, and the first asylum for lepers, at Caesarea in Cappadocia. Xenodochia—refuges for wayfarers—rose along pilgrim routes; the Council of Nicaea ordered that one should be provided in every city Widows were enlisted to distribute charity, and found in this work a new significance for their lonely lives. Pagans admired the steadfastness of Christians in caring for the sick in cities stricken with famine or pestilence.109
What did the Church do in these centuries for the minds of men? As Roman schools still existed, she did not feel it her function to promote intellectual development. She exalted feeling above intellect; in this sense Christianity was a “romantic” reaction against the “classic” trust in reason; Rousseau was merely a lesser Augustine. Convinced that survival demanded organization, that organization required agreement on basic principles and beliefs, and that the vast majority of her adherents longed for authoritatively established beliefs, the Church defined her creed in unchangeable dogmas, made doubt a sin, and entered upon an unending conflict with the fluent intellect and changeable ideas of men. She claimed that through divine revelation she had found the answers to the old problems of origin, nature, and destiny; “we who are instructed in the knowledge of truth by the Holy Scriptures,” wrote Lactantius (307), “know the beginning of the world and its end.”110 Tertullian had said as much a century before (197), and had suggested a cloture on philosophy.111 Having displaced the axis of man’s concern from this world to the next, Christianity offered supernatural explanations for historical events, and thereby passively discouraged the investigation of natural causes; many of the advances made by Greek science through seven centuries were sacrificed to the cosmology and biology of Genesis.
Did Christianity bring a literary decline? Most of the Fathers were hostile to pagan literature, as permeated with a demonic polytheism and a degrading immorality; but the greatest of the Fathers loved the classics notwithstanding, and Christians like Fortunatus, Prudentius, Jerome, Sidonius, and Ausonius aspired to write verse like Virgil’s or prose like Cicero’s. Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine outweigh, even in a literary sense, their pagan contemporaries—Ammianus, Symmachus, Claudian, Julian. But after Augustine prose style decayed; written Latin took over the rough vocabulary and careless syntax of the popular speech; and Latin verse for a time deteriorated into doggerel before molding new forms into majestic hymns.
The basic cause of cultural retrogression was not Christianity but barbarism; not religion but war. The human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist. Perhaps the destruction would have been worse had not the Church maintained some measure of order in a crumbling civilization. “Amid the agitations of the world,” said Ambrose, “the Church remains unmoved; the waves cannot shake her. While around her everything is in a horrible chaos, she offers to all the shipwrecked a tranquil port where they will find safety.”112 And often it was so.
The Roman Empire had raised science, prosperity, and power to their ancient peaks. The decay of the Empire in the West, the growth of poverty and the spread of violence, necessitated some new ideal and hope to give men consolation in their suffering and courage in their toil: an age of power gave way to an age of faith. Not till wealth and pride should return in the Renaissance would reason reject faith, and abandon heaven for utopia. But if, thereafter, reason should fail, and science should find no answers, but should multiply knowledge and power without improving conscience or purpose; if all utopias should brutally collapse in the changeless abuse of the weak by the strong: then men would understand why once their ancestors, in the barbarism of those early Christian centuries, turned from science, knowledge, power, and pride, and took refuge for a thousand years in humble faith, hope, and charity.