Christianity’s ethical transformation of antiquity

Christianity bequeathed to its members a pervasive sense of a personal God’s direct interest in human affairs and vital concern for every human soul, no matter what level of intelligence or culture was brought to the spiritual enterprise, and without regard to physical strength or beauty or social status. In contrast to the Hellenic focus on great heroes and rare philosophers, Christianity universalized salvation, asserting its availability to slaves as well as kings, to simple souls as well as profound thinkers, to the ugly as well as the beautiful, to the sick and suffering as well as the strong and fortunate, even tending to reverse the former hierarchies. In Christ, all divisions of humanity were overcome — barbarian and Greek, Jew and Gentile, master and slave, male and female — all were now as one. The ultimate wisdom and heroism of Christ made redemption possible for all, not just the few: Christ was the Sun, who shone alike on all mankind. Christianity therefore placed high value on each individual soul as one of God’s children, but in this new context the Greek ideal of the self-determining individual and the heroic genius was diminished in favor of a collective Christian identity. This elevation of the communal self, the human reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven, founded on the shared love of God and faith in Christ’s redemption, encouraged an altruistic sublimation, and at times subjugation, of the individual self in favor of a greater allegiance to the good of others and the will of God. Yet on the other hand, by granting immortality and value to the individual soul, Christianity encouraged the growth of the individual conscience, self-responsibility, and personal autonomy relative to temporal powers — all decisive traits for the formation of the Western character.

In its moral teachings, Christianity brought to the pagan world a new sense of the sanctity of all human life, the spiritual value of the family, the spiritual superiority of self-denial over egoistic fulfillment, of unworldly holiness over worldly ambition, of gentleness and forgiveness over violence and retribution; a condemnation of murder, suicide, the killing of infants, the massacre of prisoners, the degradation of slaves, sexual licentiousness and prostitution, bloody circus spectacles — all in the new awareness of God’s love for humanity, and the moral purity that love required in the human soul. Christian love, whether divine or human, was not so much the realm of Aphrodite, nor even primarily the Eros of the philosophers, but was the love, epitomized in Christ, that expressed itself through sacrifice, suffering, and universal compassion. This Christian ethical ideal of goodness and charity was strongly promulgated and at times widely observed, an ideal certainly not lacking in the moral imperatives of Greek philosophy — particularly in Stoicism, which in several ways anticipated Christian ethics — but now having a more pervasive influence on the mass culture in the Christian era than had Greek philosophical ethics in the classical world.

Robert Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, pp. 116-7

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