This is a transcript of a I talk I gave yesterday at the LSE Literary Festival. My thanks to Arthur Bradley who also took part and responded to many of the themes I raised here and to Danielle Sands of the Forum for European Philosophy for organising the discussion.
‘If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’
That is the arresting final line to intellectual historian Larry Siedentop’s new book Inventing the Individual. For Siedentop, the notions that underlie modern liberalism – individualism, equality, agency, secularism – all derive from Christianity. It is, he insists, important to recognize liberal secularism as the child of Christianity because it is under threat from non-Christian traditions – Islam in particular. Without recognizing that Christianity provides the moral and cultural foundations to ‘Western civilization’, the threat modern liberal values cannot be repelled.
It is an argument that has received a widespread hearing. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop Emeritus of Prague, has argued, for instance, that in denying its Christian roots, Europe is undermining its ability to withstand the challenge to its values. ‘At the end of the Middle Ages’, he suggested, ‘Islam failed to conquer Europe with arms… Today, when the fighting is done with spiritual weapons which Europe lacks while Muslims are perfectly armed, the fall of Europe is looming.’ Non-believers and non-Christians too – from the historian Niall Ferguson to the Jewish writer and broadcaster Melanie Phillips – make similar arguments. Christianity, as Phillips has put it, ‘is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’
Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of Western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the ‘bedrock values of Western civilization’, and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values, is a Janet and John reading of history. The philosophical, cultural and moral roots of modern Europe are highly diverse. And while the idea of ‘Christian Europe’ may make sense from a certain perspective, it serves also to ignore that diversity.
The discussion about Christian Europe takes place in the context of the debate about the ‘clash of civilizations’, an idea popularized by the late US political scientist Samuel Huntingdon. Past conflicts in Europe , Huntington wrote, were mainly ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. Huntingdon identified a number of distinct civilizations, including Confucian, Japanese, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin American and African. The primary struggle, however, would, he thought, be between the Christian West and the Islamic East. It is, as part of the ‘war on terror’ that the thesis has primarily been deployed over the past decade.
The idea of singular, homogenous, fixed ‘civilizations’ is deeply problematic. What we call ‘civilizations’, whether European, or Islamic or Chinese, are complex constructions. They are ‘civilizations’ precisely because they are porous, fluid, open to wider influences.
Not only are ‘civilizations’ culturally and conceptually diverse, but ideas and concepts are historically malleable. The meanings of many of the values which modern Europe supposedly draws from Christianity – such as equality, democracy, universality and tolerance – are significantly different today than they were 500, 1000 or 2000 years ago, within the Christian tradition, let alone beyond it.
Consider, for instance, two of the concepts for which advocates of a Christian Europe often claim that Europe is indebted to Christianity: that of moral equality and of a universal humanity, on the one hand, and of human agency, on the other. These values lie at the heart, for instance, of Siedentop’s argument, and of his insistence that modern liberalism is a child of Christianity.
It is true that, historically, Christianity played a major role in developing these notions. But, inevitably, the story is far more complex than the simple argument for a Christian Europe allows. The concepts of equality, universality and agency developed not merely within Christianity but within a number of traditions, both Western and non-Western, and through the interactions between them.
The idea of God as having created Man in his own image helped Christian thinkers enlarge the meaning of ‘humanity’. The dignity of the individual derived not from his or her participation in a specific community but through their God-created nature. Yet what God giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other. Within the Christian tradition, the idea of a universal humanity was constrained by the very nature of faith. Equality was equality in the eyes of a Christian God. Hence the long and fractious debates, well into the early modern period, about whether non-Christians were equal, or even possessed souls.
Other premodern traditions, the Greek Stoics, for instance, faced no such constraints. In his famous Elements of Ethics the Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines very individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the community of neighbouring towns, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. Or, as another Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it,
Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian but that you are a citizen of the world.
It is a cosmopolitan vision that would be startling today, let alone two thousand years ago, a vision far more revolutionary than that of Christian theologians and one that came to influence many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.
Ideas of social hierarchy and of inequality remained central to the Christian tradition. ‘It is in the natural order of things’, Augustine, the greatest of Christian theologians, certainly before Thomas Aquinas, preached, ‘that women should serve men, and children their parents, because this is just in itself, that the weaker reason should serve the stronger.’ As with the family, so with society. It was given by nature for the lower orders to serve the upper orders, and for all to serve the Emperor. Slavery, too, was ‘ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disturbance.’ While the rulers of a society could take punitive action – including even the torture of innocent men – to defend social peace, individuals had no such right. In Augustine, as the theologian John Rist observes, ‘the powers of ordinary citizens are almost non-existent.’ Plato and Aristotle, Rist adds, who themselves worried about the ‘mob’, ‘would have shuddered at such an empty concept of citizenship.’
Such beliefs were not, of course, specific to Christianity. Difference and inequality were stitched into the social fabric in the premodern world. Not till the coming of modernity, and the social possibilities it forged, could equality take on new meaning.
Similar problems attend the claim that modern notions of agency and will derive primarily from the Christian tradition. Siedentop argues that the new vision of God established in the Christian worldview led to new thinking about human agency. For the Ancients, he suggests, gods were constrained by the rational structure of reality. The monotheistic God, whether Jewish, Christian or, later, Islamic, was all-powerful and constrained by nothing. He could act as He chose. This allowed for radically new concepts of agency and will.
It is true that the Christian tradition developed new ways of thinking about the individual and about human agency, just as it had developed notions of equality and universalism. But just as faith constrained the ways in which Christians could conceive of equality, so it constrained the ways in which they could imagine agency and will. ‘Will’ in the Christian tradition could be understood only in the context of belief in the Fall and in Original Sin, the insistence that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The doctrine of Original Sin is perhaps the most original and profound contribution of Christianity to the ‘Western’ tradition. It is also perhaps its most pernicious. It is a doctrine that has led to a bleak view of human nature; in the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace could humans achieve salvation. ‘It is through the grace of God alone’, the modern theologian Alister McGrath explains ‘that that our illness is diagnosed (sin) and a cure made available (grace)’. If the all-powerful, unconstrained monotheistic God had introduced a revolutionary notion of agency, the Christian concept of the Fall and of Original Sin ensured that human agency was viewed in a very different way.
The story of Adam and Eve, and of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole, nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God.In the Christian tradition, God created humanity to be immortal. In eating the apple, Adam and Eve brought mortality upon themselves. Jews have always seen humans as mortal beings. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were as children. Having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. This is seen not as a ’fall’ but as a ‘gift’ – the gift of free will.
The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of the Adam and Eve’s transgression that Christianity has perhaps secured its greatest influence, a bleak description of human nature that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place.
Not all Christians were willing to accept this desolate, guilt-ridden view of human nature. A major theological debate erupted within Western Christendom in the fifth century when a Welsh monk, Pelagius, challenged Augustine’s vision. Pelagius argued that it was possible for humans to achieve salvation independently of God’s grace through the power of reason and the exercise of free will, though he accepted that God’s grace assisted every good work. It is the responsibility of human beings to follow the Gospels, and to suggest that ‘the frailty of our own nature’ makes us incapable of doing so was, in Pelagius’ view, ‘to indulge in pointless evasions’.
At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine was the question of whether humans are to be defined by depravity and sinfulness or by reason and the capacity for good. Are humans moral agents? Or are we so crippled by sin that it is impossible for us to have a clear idea of right and wrong? Augustine won the dispute. Pelagius, and those who supported him, were declared heretics.
In the struggle between Augustine and Pelagius we can see two threads of Christian thought, two contradictory views of God, salvation and human nature that Christianity has never truly resolved. Augustine’s victory set the tone for how Christians came to see what it was to be human. Not for another millennium did a truly new vision of human nature and of human agency begin to develop.
What are now often called ‘Western values’ – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech, etc – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. A complex debate has arisen about the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Christian tradition. As the notion of the Christian tradition and of ‘Western civilization’ have become fused, and as the Enlightenment has come to be seen as embodying Western values, so some have tried to co-opt the Enlightenment into the Christian tradition. The Enlightenment ideas of tolerance, equality and universalism, they argue, derive from the reworking of notions already established within the Christian tradition. Others, more ambiguous about the legacy of the Enlightenment, argue that true liberal, democratic values are Christian and that the radicalism and secularism of the Enlightenment has only helped undermine such values.
Both views are wrong. For a start, the historic origins of many of these ideas lie, as we have seen, outside the Christian tradition. It is as apt to describe a concept such as equality or universalism as Greek as it is to be describe it as Christian. In truth, though, contemporary ideas of equality or universality are neither Greek nor Christian. Whatever their historical origins, they have become peculiarly modern concepts, the product of the specific social, political and intellectual currents of the modern world.
The crumbling of belief in a God-ordained order helped, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to develop a new, radical, inclusive form of egalitarianism. Having dispensed with God, there was, as the historian Jonathan Israel has put it, no ‘meaningful alternative’ to grounding morality in a ‘generalized radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’ The new egalitarians drew upon radical strands of Christian thought. But they transformed the very meaning of equality.
Not only are modern concepts of equality or universality distinct from historical ones, but what today we describe as ‘Western’ values would have left the great figures of the Christian tradition Aquinas and Augustine, for instance, bewildered. On the other hand, Aquinas, at least, would have understood the Islamic values of Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd. There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history and binds together ‘the Christian tradition’ in opposition to a single corpus of timeless set-in-stone Islamic values.
What is particularly ironic, given the way that the defence of Christian Europe is today often seen as a necessary bulwark against the encroachments of Islam, is that not only are there no historically transcendent civilizational values, but Islam has been central to the creation of the so called Judeo-Christian tradition. To understand why we have to go back to early days of the Christian era, to the destruction of the Roman empire in the middle decades of the first millennium CE. The collapse of Roman imperial institutions left the Church as almost the only body capable of maintaining some semblance of social order in Western Europe. It also left the clergy as the sole literate class in the Western world and the Church as the lone patron of knowledge and the arts.
But if the Church kept alive elements of a learned culture, Church leaders, particularly in Western Europe, were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge. ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?’, asked Tertullian, the first significant theologian to write in Latin. So preoccupied were devout Christians with the demands of the next world that to study nature or history or philosophy for its own sake seemed to them almost perverse. Augustine came to see uninhibited curiosity as an evil, in his Confessions condemning as a ‘disease’ the yearning to discover ‘the hidden powers of nature… which to know profits not’.
The Greek philosopher upon whom theologians most leaned was Plato; Timaeus, a work that Plato wrote late in his life, became particularly important to Christian thinkers. It is among Plato’s more obscure works, the down-to-earth dialectical investigation characteristic of most of his dialogues giving way to grandiose cosmic theorizing. In Timaeus, Plato creates a new conception of God, as a craftsman who has sculpted the universe, transforming it ‘from a state of disorder to order’. It became highly influential in the early Middle Ages, probably because it was more mystical than philosophical.
The most significant casualty of the Christianising of learning, and of the rise of what came to be called Neoplatonism, was Aristotle, whose empirical, this-worldly approach to knowledge was most at odds with the dictates of faith. In the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s beguiling philosophical whodunit, the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his novice, Adso of Melk, investigate a series of murders at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. They uncover a plot to keep hidden a single book in the abbey’s library, the greatest in Christendom. In the novel’s denouement, amidst the ruins of a burning library, William asks the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos why he has devoted his life to protecting the world from any knowledge of this single work. ‘Because it was by the Philosopher’, replies Jorge. ‘Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries.’ The Philosopher was Aristotle. Despite the Book of Genesis revealing ‘what has to be known about the composition of the cosmos’, Jorge bemoans, ‘it sufficed to rediscover the Physics of the Philosopher to have the universe reconceived in terms of dull and slimy matter.’
Not until the thirteenth century did Christian Western Europe truly rediscover its Greek heritage, and Aristotle in particular, a rediscovery that helped transform European intellectual culture. It did so primarily through the Muslim Empire. In the early Middle Ages, an intellectual tradition flowered in the Islamic world as lustrous as that of Ancient Athens before or Renaissance Florence after. Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just in preserving the gains of the Greeks but in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge, both in philosophy and in science.
The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate. Ibn Rushd especially, the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam, his commentaries shaping the thinking of a galaxy of thinkers from Maimonides to Aquinas himself.
Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. One of Raphael’s most famous paintings, The School of Athens, is a fresco on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicting the world’s great philosophers. Among the pantheon of celebrated Greek philosophers including Aristotle, Plato and Socrates stands Ibn Rushd.
Today that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. There is a tendency to think of Islam as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking, a view that has helped cement the idea of the clash of civilizations, Much of the Islamic world certainly came to be that way. But the fact remains that the scholarship of the golden age of Islamic thinking helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, it is possible that neither may have happened in Europe, at least in the fashion that they did.
To argue all this is not to deny the distinctive character of the Christian tradition (or traditions), nor the important role that Christianity has played in incubating what we now call ‘Western’ thought, nor yet the significant philosophical advances made within that tradition. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast. The history of Christianity, its relationship to other traditions, and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular societies is far more complex than the trite ‘Western civilization is collapsing’ arguments allow.
The reason for challenging the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition. It also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values. The crass defence of ‘Christian Europe’ against the supposed barbarian hordes may well do.
The paintings are, from top down, a Byzantine icon of St George, Tintoretto’s ‘Constantinople Under Siege’, Jaume Huguet’s ‘The Consecration of St Augustine’, Caravaggio’s ‘St Jerome Writing’, Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion of Adam and Eve’ and Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’