Philosophy is the primary pursuit proper to man. I have no use, however, for either pies in the sky or for their ostensible opposite in pessimistic pontifications on the utterly hopeless situation of man. While rejecting philosophy as too heady, too complex, or too impractical is the mistaken notion of those who have rejected philosophy, the greater sin against philosophy has been committed by those who have professed to adopt it and to nurture it. It is the greater sin because it has been committed by those who have been the most intimate with philosophy1 and because the commission of such a sin by these intimates of philosophy has driven away so many who would have been among its greatest lovers.2
Throughout the greater portion of its history, nearly since the Socratic spirit entered it, the proponents of philosophy have engaged most frequently in the former abuse, focusing their intellectual endeavors upon the utterly transcendent and the entirely theoretical, and therefore the ultimately meaningless. Perhaps the most notorious instance of this concern for the superfluous which has become nearly synonymous with philosophy in many modern minds is the infamously medieval debate over how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin.3 Philosophy, however, is not synonymous with conjecture about the unknowable and the unnecessary, no matter how adamantly some may insist that this must be the case.
Modern philosophers, by which terminology I hereby designate those of and since the Enlightenment, have tended to view themselves as having transcended their predecessors’ concerns for such matters. On the contrary, however, rather than replacing superstition with reason moderns have instead substituted reason as their greatest superstition. The modern mind has trained itself to see past what scientist Carl Sagan famously referred to as “the demon-haunted world” of so-called “primitive” man, but has instead cultivated new blind spots and new beliefs without foundation (i.e. superstitions). Perhaps the most obvious modern superstition is really a continuation and modification of the old and human, all-too-human, habit of assuming that one’s own viewpoint is the most natural and the default viewpoint. This, of course, breeds the kind of incredulity that leads nearly in a straight line to the spirit of the Holy Inquisition. Just as the medieval Christian could not fathom how the Jew, equipped with the Sacred Scriptures and the Mosaic traditions, could possibly fail to see that Jesus the Christ was undoubtedly the Messiah foretold in the Law and the Prophets, the modern secular man cannot understand how anyone anywhere could believe differently than he believes about the world, about himself, and about the nature of things. “What is the matter with you? Can’t you see it? It is so obvious! – to me.” It is so obvious that one could only miss it if one is either altogether stupid or if one is not missing it at all but is in fact in active and conscious rebellion against it. Through this reasoning, the Jew becomes insidiousness incarnate, the Christ-despising deicide who abducts and consumes Christian children for his Passover motzah and poisons wells with the bubonic plague. Through this reasoning, the man of ardent faith who refuses to concede to the program of eugenics, to the possibility of concocting a workers’ paradise, to the inherent desirability of “progress,” to whatever agenda happens to be fashionable among men without chests who build their houses on sand, becomes the misguided, the ignorant, the obnoxious, the dangerous, the one upon whose blood the architecture of the future can be built. This spirit, the spirit of the Inquisition, pervades the minds of modern man. Sometimes, it leads to concentration camps and gulags. In tamer periods, such as our own (at least within the confines of the so-called “First World” as well as large portions of the former “Second World”), it makes dialogue often arduous and sometimes impossible. One need only read the comments section on nearly anything published online as evidence of this.
Simone de Beauvoir saw to the root of the superstitious pseudo-reasoning in man’s assumption of the masculine perspective as natural and default and the feminine perspective (that is, the perspective of nearly any female whatsoever on nearly any subject whatsoever in any instance whatsoever in which said female’s opinion happens to run contrary to that of any given male whatsoever) as inherently subject to and circumscribed by her femininity. What he fails to realize, de Beauvoir aptly points out, is that he too has “glands;” he is, in other words, equally a body and equally subject to the influence of hormones, equally trapped in a subjectivity that can never be escaped and that perpetually governs his consciousness and his interactions with the world and with others. No one has a direct connection with the world; the world is, rather, experienced through the lens of each individual’s perceptive and cognitive faculties; there is no escaping our own subjectivity.4
An appreciation of this fact-of-the-matter is the first step toward a meaningful dialogue across intellectual paradigms. Modern man must no longer indulge in the superstitious belief that his assumptions are the most natural assumptions. On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton, David Bentley Hart, T.S. Eliot, and many others of a similar bent – men and women with a good knowledge of history, a keen eye for observation, and an even keener mind for drawing the necessary inferences – have pointed out and exhibited time and again, there is no post-Christian society that was not first a Christian society. There is hardly an idea regarded with admiration or interest in the modern world which does not have Christianity as its parent or at least its grandparent. The political institutions, the social ideals, the ethical predispositions – all of these smell like Christianity; it is often a watered-down, heavily sedated Christianity, but it is Christianity nonetheless.
Let us take up the case of equality, an idea – even an obsession – beloved by modern man. It is the idea that has led to most of the great revolutions of the last several centuries, including the American and French revolutions, with their disdain of the monarchical and aristocratic orders of the so-called colonial and feudal eras; the movement against slavery which became the movement against racial segregation and inequality; and all of the great movements of feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries. All of these movements have taken as their motto and underlying basis the idea most succinctly expressed by Thomas Jefferson that it is “self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal.” But is this really “self-evident”? Not at all! Clearly, the very opposite assertion is the more self-evident. What about the great mass of humanity makes each particular member of it ontological equals? Human beings are of greatly varying intellectual, physical, artistic, musical, etc. (ad nauseum) abilities; there is no natural or observable equality among them. Early generations “knew” this as much we “know” the contrary. Plato, Aristotle, and the Twelve Tables of Roman law – in short, all of the great authorities of the ancient Western world and those outside of the so-called West as well – stand as authorities on man’s inherent inequality and on the necessity of destroying or at least making marginalized and castrated subjects of those that are so unequal as to make a society itself weaker.
Erudite intellectual historian Thomas Cahill offers succinctly the reason for the modern man’s love of equality: “There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.”5 At its root, this modern notion of and emphasis upon equality has entered the realm of ideas through the influence of a specific system of thought, namely Judaism via the Hellenic-Jewish synthesis achieved in the medieval Christian Church; in shorthand, it is the biblical worldview which has given birth to and placed emphasis upon this idea. Separated from this context, the idea lacks foundation and quickly crumbles when subjected to the slightest interrogation. In the perpetually poignant words of Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the keenest observer of and thinker on the state of the emerging post-Christian world,
When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth — it stands or falls with the belief in God.6
In order to achieve a real and meaningful dialogue across paradigms, in order to achieve any meaningful thought whatsoever, modern thinkers must conquer, subdue, and eliminate the spirit of the Inquisition which begins with this superstitious belief that one’s ideas can be taken for granted. All ideas must be subject to question, all ideas must be interrogated, and no idea can be safe from this investigation. Our first step must be to uncover and expose the genealogy of all ideas.
Included in this investigation and exposure must also be the very reason which modern man depends upon as his primary tool for the investigation and exposure. In other words, man must doubt his own doubting and very rational faculty which he uses to doubt. What reason is there for man to rely upon his reason that is not itself given by reason? But any logician knows that a thing cannot justify itself; this is circular reasoning, this is question-begging. Yet man must have faith in reason. Detached from reason man is no longer man; apart from reason, man becomes an animal. Faith in reason is essential not only to the possibility of dialogue, but to humanity itself. We must, however, be aware of the limitations of reason, aware of our own bodies (our “glands” and “hormones,” as De Beauvoir phrased it), and aware of the trust we place in reason. The implicit must be made explicit.
The next step in overcoming the errors of others, past and present, in this our grand process of restoring life to philosophy and philosophy to life, will derive naturally enough from this process of making the implicit become explicit. In addition to specific ideas, modes of thought and movements of concept must also be discovered and exposed. A modern thinker who has done much in this direction is Jacques Barzun. One example among many is his discovery of the roots of genetic determinism in earlier Calvinistic conceptions of predestination.
In this single example we find a clear demonstration of perhaps the greatest sin against philosophy committed by modern thinkers. In a nearly equal-and-opposite movement against the pies in the sky and angels dancing on pinheads of the medieval philosopher, the modern philosopher has adopted a pessimism he imagines to be more “realistic,” a more accurate description of the reality of things. But we have seen already the flaw in this sort of thinking; in his belief that his negative assessment of the way of things is closer to how things really are, modern man is committing the sin of believing himself to possess a closer and clearer connection with the world than did men of earlier times. In fact, he is assuming that his connection is closer and clearer than it actually is or is capable of being – he is forgetting about his perpetual imprisonment in subjectivity.
He is also committing the same sin as those medieval philosophers who insisted on debating the numbers of angels who could dance on a pinhead. He is committing perhaps the greatest sin that can be committed against philosophy, the sin of irrelevancy. It has absolutely no relevance to the life of any particular human being to insist, as does scientist Steven Weinberg and so many along with him, that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”7 It is, in fact, less than relevant, because it is a distraction that has the potential to depress and even destroy the mind which is not trained to recognize it as irrelevant. Any deterministic scheme, whether that of the Calvinist or that of the geneticist, also belongs to this category. If the way of things really is predetermined, if man’s free will really is an illusion, it does not need to be stated. It is really quite absurd to think it at all, much less to say it. It is irrelevant. Whether anyone believes it is true or not makes no difference to anything at all. If you believe it, you believe it because you were predestined to believe it; if you disbelieve it, you disbelieve it because you were predestined to disbelieve it. Even if you argue it and debate it and try to convince others of it, you are merely doing what was predestined. All activity becomes useless on this theory; all determinism inevitably becomes fatalism. I have no use for what is useless. I want only what is relevant, what is human.
It is only once the sins of philosophy are recognized and overcome that we begin to approach philosophy properly.
1 “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” – Luke 12.47 (New King James Version).
2 “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” – Luke 17.1-2 (NKJV).
3 Although I mention this subject as an example of meaningless debate in philosophy, the particulars are in fact fictitious. The charge was brought against the scholastic philosophers by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who saw their own movement away from the superstitions of religion as the adoption of a more reasonable stance and saw fit to therefore mock the unreasonableness of their philosophical predecessors. In reality, historians have been unable to uncover any evidence of this debate aside, perhaps, from a few scattered comments by various philosophers of the High Middle Ages which yet bear strikingly little resemblance to the charge as filed. In fact, the entire debate seems to run contrary to the spirit of scholastic and medieval thought on angels, which insisted upon their being incorporeal and intellectual bodies lacking altogether the possession of the gross, the material, and the carnal. Interestingly, this is itself an example of a point in philosophy which may seem superfluous at first gander and yet reveals itself, when finally considered in depth, to possess a startling relevance.
4 This has bearing upon the previous footnote concerning the incorporeality of angels; as incorporeal and intellectual beings, angels lack the organs of perception and cognition and therefore interact with the world in a more direct manner than human beings.
5 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, p. 249.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” 5.
6 This is the same man who has insisted elsewhere that “religion is an insult to human dignity”! This is a stunning example of precisely the lack of context and depth of thought which results from the lack of knowledge of the origins of one’s ideas. He has accomplished a true feat in dearth of self-awareness by coupling his ignorance of the history of ideas with an appalling amount of compartmentalization.
The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.
The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77
While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.
Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.
76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.
Christianity began as a sect of Judaism in the middle of the first century AD and emerged as a separate religion altogether by the end of that century. Among the most distinctive doctrines of early Christianity were the beliefs that God had become incarnate as a human being and, through a process of recapitulation, had opened the possibility of spiritual salvation to all people. The idea of the incarnation is perhaps the most central and distinctive belief of Christianity. The doctrine’s classic and arguably most eloquent statement is found in the opening to the Gospel of John, composed probably in the last decade of the first century AD: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”17 Christians believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby redeeming and sanctifying human nature. The doctrine of the incarnation was linked with the idea of the Imago Dei from a very early point in Christian thought and served to significantly strengthen and solidify the importance and content of that idea.18 The early Christian author and bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180, summarized the relationship of the two doctrines and their implications for humanity, writing,
And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.19
In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus also offered the earliest expanded explanations of early Christian soteriology. In his explanations, he asserts that “the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred.”20 To that end, according to Irenaeus, he passed through every age and state, “not despising or evading any condition of humanity” and “sanctifying every age” as he passed through each without sinning.21 Finally, he suffered and died in perfect obedience, undoing the sin of Adam, and resurrected, defeating death. In doing all of this, he made spiritual salvation possible; in the most succinct soteriological statement of Irenaeus: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”22 By the fourth century, the standard statement of Christian soteriology was even more succinct and direct: “He was made man that we might be made God.”23 Significantly, this salvation and deification was made available to all people of any age, class, or gender. The declaration of the universality of salvation by the important early Christian leader Paul in about AD 50-60 seems as if it had been formulated to run directly contrary to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”24
For those who heard of these beliefs in Late Antiquity, they were shocking. These unique Christian beliefs were seen as perplexing, subversive, and worthy of mockery by both Jews as well as followers of Greco-Roman pagan religions and philosophies.25 Christianity was particularly threatening to members of the latter groups as its simultaneous continuation of the zeal for social justice present in Judaism coupled with the reinvigoration and expansion of this zeal in conjunction with its own original ideas proved very attractive to the oppressed and marginalized classes of the Roman Empire. One early Christian text, written in the second half of the first century, records Roman opponents of Christianity claiming Christians “have turned the world upside down.”26 In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, “Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current.”27 As a result, Christians faced persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities as well as disdain and suspicion from their neighbors. In spite of this persecution, however, the poor, slaves, women, and other marginalized and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire flocked to the new religion. Such was the pull that Christianity exerted on these groups and, simultaneously, the disgust it excited in the Roman Empire’s elite, that Celsus, one of Christianity’s early detractors, was able to write in about 178 that it was “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word [that is, Christian evangelists] wish to make converts.”28
The practical ramifications of Christian ideas about personhood were tremendous. With the introduction of the idea of a Kingdom of God which stood over and in opposition to the world and which all Christians, by virtue of membership in the Church, were members of, the idea of nationhood, and therefore any possibility of xenophobia, receded into superfluity. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic text written sometime in the mid to late second century, delights in the diversity of Christians and their ubiquitous presence in “Greek as well as barbarian cities,” asserting “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”29 The treatment of the poor, slaves, and other low social classes in early Christian writings similarly revels in the counterintuitive assertion that they are in fact the “happy” and “blessed” bearers of a better spiritual condition than the materially prosperous and socially powerful.30
Perhaps the most powerful and practical explication of early Christian views on slavery is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. At 335 words in the original Greek, it is the shortest surviving letter of Paul and one of the shortest books of the New Testament. Onesimus, a Christian slave whose master, Philemon, was also a Christian, had run away from his master and joined up with Paul. Paul, however, decided to send Onesimus back to his master with this letter. It must be remembered that Philemon was a Roman pater familias, or male head of household. According to the laws cited earlier in this paper, Philemon had the right of deciding life and death within his household and Onesimus was his property. Paul’s words, in this historical context, are remarkable and astounding; he admonishes Philemon to “receive” Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [that is, as a sharer in a common human nature] and in the Lord [that is, as a fellow Christian].”31
By the end of the fourth century, this assertion of an ontological equality, shared nature, and spiritual brotherhood of master and slave would become, in the minds of some of the greatest and most influential Christian thinkers and leaders, arguably, the world’s first full-fledged ideology of abolitionism. Gregory of Nyssa, an important fourth century bishop, for instance, was one of the first writers in history to condemn slavery as an institution. Significantly, he based his arguments against slavery on Christian anthropology, writing,
What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?32
Not all Christian leaders were willing to go as far as Gregory in their condemnation of slavery. Many, including such important figures as John Chrysostom, a late fourth and early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single greatest influence on subsequent theological development in Western Christianity, were more equivocal in their condemnation. Both Chrysostom and Augustine insisted, for instance, that slavery was a necessary evil that had been instituted by God as a result of man’s primeval fall into sin.
As ambiguous as some of these condemnations of slavery were, they were, nonetheless, condemnations, and such a condemnatory attitude had obvious ramifications in Christian practice. Several slaves and former slaves, for example, were elected to the highest positions of leadership in the Church. In fact, one Onesimus was named as the bishop of Ephesus by Ignatius of Antioch in a letter written in about 107; while some modern historians doubt the identification, Christian hagiography has traditionally identified this Onesimus with the Onesimus about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.33 34 In the third century, one former slave, Callistus, who was elected bishop of Rome, the most prominent see in the Christian Church, even decreed, in defiance of the Roman law contained in the Twelve Tables, that “among Christians a slave could marry a free person with the blessing of the Church.”35 By the fifth century, Patrick, the famous missionary and bishop of Ireland who was also a former slave, was able to write in a way that assumed rather than argued the innate immorality of Christians enslaving fellow Christians.36 Slavery declined throughout the Middle Ages, replaced by serfdom throughout much of Europe, and was not revived as a major institution again until the early modern era.
Early Christian ideas regarding women also presented a major challenge to Greco-Roman conceptions of personhood. Henry Chadwick, in his classic treatment of early Christianity, points out that, in Late Antiquity, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”37 For this belief, early Christians drew not only on the ideas of the Imago Dei and the incarnation, but a specific recognition of the distinctive role that had been played by the Virgin Mary in the redemptive work of Jesus according to the framework of early Christian soteriology. In one of his discussions of the process of salvation through recapitulation, Irenaeus of Lyons summarized this role:
The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.38
This understanding of the role played by the Virgin Mary in the scheme of salvation as well as the individual life of the believer would continue to expand throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second century documents such as the Infancy Gospel of James make such claims as that Mary was dedicated to the service of God by her parents before her birth, raised in the Temple of Jerusalem, and remained a virgin consecrated to God throughout her life.39 By the middle of the third century, prayers were being addressed to her; the earliest surviving example of such prayers dates from about 250: “Under thy compassion we take refuge, Theotokos [Birthgiver-of-God]; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”40 In 431, the Council of Ephesus, considered the Third Ecumenical Council, officially approved the Virgin Mary’s popular title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” and often, though incorrectly, translated as “Mother of God”).41 The Middle Ages would see such expansions in Mariology and in Marian devotion as the advent of the Rosary, the addition of holidays to the Christian festal calendar which celebrated her sinless birth and assumption into heaven, and her acquisition of such titles as “Queen of Heaven.”42 These views and practices surrounding Mary clearly had important implications for views about women more generally.
By the end of the fourth century, Gregory Nazienzen, the bishop of Constantinople who presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in that city in 381, was proclaiming the full ontological equality of men and women on the basis of distinctively Christian beliefs, simultaneously calling for the legal and social equality of women. In his “Fifth Theological Oration,” he wrote, addressing Roman men,
What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.
… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.43
Like slaves, women were also able to attain important positions in the early Church. The gospels record that Jesus had many followers who were women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, was the first to see and speak with him following his resurrection and was sent by him to tell the other followers that he had come back from the dead.44 For fulfilling this role, she was designated “equal to the apostles” and “apostle to the apostles” in the later Christian hagiographic tradition. Paul also mentions several important women in the first century Church throughout his letters, such as Junia, whom he describes as “of note among the apostles.”45
Christianity also offered women an opportunity to adopt a way of life which freed them from the atmosphere of subjugation and androcentrism which permeated Greco-Roman family life. From an early point, Christians adopted celibacy as their ideal. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written in about AD 55, for instance, Paul recommended that virgins remain unmarried and that widows not remarry.46 For women in the Roman Empire, a life of celibacy represented a means of escape from the patriarchal system of the Roman family in which women were subject to their fathers, husbands, and other male family members. According to Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels, “their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”47
This idealization of celibacy developed into institutional monasticism by the end of the fourth century. The monastic way of life continued throughout the Middle Ages to attract many women who desired independence from patriarchal family structures. Significantly, female monastics, like the female martyrs before them, attracted a great deal of reverence by Medieval Christians of both genders. One example of this reverence is found in the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, written by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. According to his hagiography, Mary had renounced her former sinful lifestyle and, like many others before her, retreated into the deserts of Egypt to adopt a life of fasting and prayer. While walking through the desert, she was discovered by Zosimas, a priest and monk at a nearby monastery, who immediately recognized her holiness. In contradiction to the traditional Eastern Christian practice, in which it is customary for anyone meeting a priest to bow, ask for his blessing, and kiss his hand, “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.”48 Sophronius’ account continues,
She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both:
“Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:
“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”
This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:
“O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”
Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:
“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”
One of the most important roles that women served in the early Church was to bring Christianity into the households of Rome’s aristocracy, which eventually allowed the Church to attain a measure of wealth, prestige, and power. According to Chadwick, “it was often through the wives that it [Christianity] penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”50 Even the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine I, probably did so under the influence of women. Although he and his hagiographers attributed his conversion to a divine vision he claimed to have witnessed the night before an important battle,51 there was no lack in Christian influence from the women in his life. His mother, Helena, was a Christian and, though the date of her conversion is debated, may have provided him with an education in and exposure to Christianity as a child.52 In addition, his half-sister, Anastasia, bore a name which was largely unique to and popular among Christians and which, in Greek, means “resurrection.” This may indicate that his step-mother, Theodora, who would have been responsible for naming her daughter, was a Christian as well.53 Though it is difficult to discern the details, it is clear that Constantine’s initial exposure to Christianity almost certainly came to him through the influence of the women in his life.
The views of early Christians about children also differed substantially from those which predominated throughout the Greco-Roman world around them. According to O.M. Bakke, a historian of Christianity whose studies have focused on the development of ideas about childhood in Late Antiquity, “whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.”54 He concludes from his examination of the basis for this belief that “this positive assessment of the worth of babies is connected with the idea that all human beings, even small children, are created in the image of God.”55 This reasoning about the spiritual status of children is evident in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, an influential North African bishop of the third century, who argued that infants should be baptized on the eighth day after their birth in parallel with the Old Testament admonition to circumcise male children on the eighth day.56 According to Cyprian, infants must be baptized so that “no soul be lost.”57 He continues,
For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.58
In another work, the same Cyprian also indicates that it was standard practice in the Christian Church for infants to receive communion before they were even “able to speak” or “able to understand” the Eucharist.59 That infants took part in the sacraments of the Church indicates that they were recognized as possessing full personhood and a status of spiritual equality with adult Christians.
These beliefs led early Christians to condemn practices such as abortion, infanticide, and the use of children for the sexual gratification of adults, all common practices of the Greco-Roman world. The Didache, a late first or early second century text which may be the earliest surviving Christian text not included in the New Testament and which was attributed to the apostles by early Christians, explicitly condemns all three practices in its second chapter. In regards to sexual relations between adults and children, the Didache states simply, “you shall not commit pederasty,” listing the practice along with murder, fornication, and theft.60 In its condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the Didache explicitly equates these practices with murder, commanding, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”61
These early Christian ideas concerning barbarians, slaves, women, and children ran directly counter to the ideas prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, which ideas had been written into law in the Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, Constantine became the first Christian Roman emperor. Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, whose brief reign lasted only two years, was the only non-Christian emperor after Constantine, and even he had been raised as a Christian and left the Church as an adolescent. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. A long process by which the early Christian views of barbarians, slaves, women, and children replaced those of the Greco-Roman world in both thought and law ensued. It is this process that characterizes much of the culture, law, and philosophy of the Middle Ages.
17 John 1:1, 14 (NKJV).
18 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3, for example, all explicitly link the Imago Dei and the incarnation. This connection would play a particularly pivotal role in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire, becoming an especially important idea on Eastern Christianity as a result.
19 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 16, par. 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
20 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.
21 Ibid., book 2, ch. 22, par. 4.
22 Ibid., book 5, preface.
23 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).
24 Galatians 3:28 (NKJV).
25 According to St. Paul, writing in about AD 54, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).
26 Acts 17:6 (NKJV).
27 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.
28 Celsus, as quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, book 3, ch. 49, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
29 Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
30 The word μακάριος (makarios) used, for example, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), although commonly translated into English as “blessed” carries connotations of both blessedness and happiness.
31 Philemon 15-16.
32 International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Ecclesiastes: An EnglishVersion with Commentary and Supporting Studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Hall, Stuart George, trans. Hall, Stuart George (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 73-74. This entire discussion depends upon Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, http://www.academia.edu/1485109/The_First_Abolitionist_Gregory_of_Nyssa_on_Ancient_Roman_Slavery (accessed 23 December 2012).
33 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
34 “Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy,” Orthodox Church in America, http://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/04/100036-apostle-onesimus-of-the-seventy (accessed 16 April 2013).
35 R. S. Milward, Apostles and Martyrs (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 1997), 98.
36 Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/epistola_english# (accessed 16 April 2013).
37 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.
38 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.
39 Infancy Gospel of James, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
40 “Under thy compassion we take refuge…”, Frederica.com, http://www.frederica.com/gallery/places-and-things/1067611 (accessed 16 April 2013).
41 “Medieval Sourcebook: Council of Ephesus, 431,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/ephesus.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).
42 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
43 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).
44 Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:10, John. 20:2.
45 Romans 16:7 (NKJV).
46 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.
47 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 20.
48 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” (March 1996), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/maryegypt.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).
50 Chadwick, 58.
51 That is the story, provided by Constantine himself, recorded in his earliest hagiography, written by a companion, admirer, and Christian bishop. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 1, ch. 28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 2004).
52 N. D’Anvers, Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, With Other Contemporary Saints (London: George Bells & Sons, 1902), 106.
53 Christopher Bush Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 74.
54 O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 109.
56 Genesis 17:12.
57 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle LVIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
59 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 25, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
60 Didache, 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).
The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9
In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.
8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).
9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.
10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).
11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).
12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).
13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).
14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).
15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.
16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).
Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.
Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6
These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.
1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.
2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.
3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.
4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.
5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.
6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.
7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, http://www.constitution.org/sps/sps01_1.htm (accessed 24 March 2013).