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Heresies

Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety

by E.R. Dodds
Cambridge University Press, 144 pp., $5.50

Seventy years ago, undergraduates in revolt against their respectable churchgoing parents used to chant exultantly in chorus:

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake:
Breasts more soft than a dove’s, that tremble with tenderer breath:
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death.

Alas, as these lectures demonstrate, the tidy contrast in Swinburne’s lines between jolly, good-looking, sexy, extrovert Pagans on the one hand, and gloomy, emaciated, guilt-ridden, introvert Christians on the other was a romantic myth without any basis in historical fact. During the period between the accession of Marcus Aurelius in A. D. 161 and the conversion of Constantine in 313, the writings of Pagans and Christians alike seem to indicate that “men were ceasing to observe the external world and to try to understand it, utilize it or improve it. They were driven in upon themselves…the idea of the beauty of the heavens and of the world went out of fashion and was replaced by that of the Infinite.”

Of his own attitude towards his material, Professor Dodds has this to say:

As an agnostic I cannot share the standpoint of those who see the triumph of Christianity as the divine event to which the whole creation moved. But equally I cannot see it as the blotting out of the sunshine of Hellenism by what Proclus called “the barbarian theosophy.” If there is more about Pagans in these lectures than about Christians, it is not because I like them better; it is merely because I know them better. I stand outside this particular battle, though not above it. I am interested less in the issues which separated the combatants than in the attitudes and experiences which bound them together.

As his reviewer, it is only fair that I should follow the author’s example and state mine. As an Episcopalian, I do not believe that Christianity did triumph or has triumphed. Thus, while I consider the fourth-century victory of Christian doctrine over Neoplatonism, Manicheism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, etc., to have been what school history books used to call “a good thing,” I consider the adoption of Christianity as the official State religion, backed by the coercive powers of the State, however desirable it may have seemed at the time, to have been a “bad,” that is to say, an unchristian thing. So far as the writers with whom Professor Dodds deals are concerned, I like his Pagans much better than his Christians, but, in his determination to be impartial, he seems to me to overlook the fact that only one of his Christians, Clement of Alexandria, can be called an orthodox Christian as orthodoxy was to be defined in the succeeding centuries. My favorite theologian of the period is Irenaeus, and I am surprised that Professor Dodds says so little about him. He tells us that Irenaeus came to the defense of the Montanists, not, surely, because he agreed with them but because, gentle soul that he was, he disliked persecution, even of cranks. But there is no discussion of his writings. Lastly, though not explicitly stated, I think the moral of Professor Dodds’s book is that, in any serious controversy where it is impossible for both parties to be right, the points upon which they agree are likely to be just those upon which, to later generations, they will appear to have both been wrong.

In his first lecture Professor Dodds examines the attitudes of the period towards the phenomenal world and the human body, and the various theories put forward to account for the existence of evil; in his second the relations between men and the daimonic world, the world of spirits which were believed to act as intermediaries between the human and the divine; in his third he discusses mystical experience in the strict sense, that is to say, the direct encounter of the human and the divine.

However different in their conceptions of the relation between God and the Cosmos, orthodox Platonism and orthodox Christianity were agreed that the existence of the Cosmos is a good and in some manner a manifestation of the Divine goodness. The psalmist says: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Plato says that the Cosmos is “an image of the intelligible, a perceptible god, supreme in greatness and excellence, in beauty and perfection, single in its kind and one.” It was this agreement which permitted Christendom to accept the Cosmic Model of Aristotle and the Hellenistic astronomers, and for the poets of the Middle Ages to find in it a constant source of joy and inspiration, in spite of the disparity between the Aristotelian God the Model presupposes, the impassive One who is loved by his creatures but cannot return their love, and the Christian God who became flesh and suffered for man on a cross. (As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Discarded Image, references to the Model, so common in medieval poetry, are for the most part absent from medieval devotional and mystical writings.)

Even during the prosperous years of the Antonine peace, radically dualistic theories which were neither Platonic nor Christian began to be propounded and their influence grew stronger as the political and economic conditions in the Empire grew worse. Some held that the Cosmos had been created either by an Evil Spirit, or by an ignorant one, or by “bodiless intelligences who became bored with contemplating God and turned to the inferior”; others concluded that it had somehow or other fallen into the power of star-demons. The incarnation of the human soul in a fleshly body, living and dying on earth, was felt by many to be a curse not a blessing, and accounted for as being either “the punishment for an earlier sin committed in Heaven, or the result of a false choice made by the soul itself.” Consequently, to an increasing number the body became an object of disgust and resentment. “Plotinus appeared ashamed of having a body at all; St. Anthony blushed every time he had to eat or satisfy any other bodily function.” Among some Christians—the Pagans seem to have been less afflicted—it was fornication, not pride, which came more and more to be regarded as the archetypal sin, and violent mortification of the flesh as the only road to salvation.

To judge from the documents it would appear that in the third century Christianity was in grave danger of turning into Gnosticism. It did not, which suggests that the most vociferous and articulate were not typically representative of their Christian brethren. Not all, not even the majority, can have held Marcion’s doctrine of the creation, or castrated themselves like Origen, or indulged in glossolalia like Montanus, or behaved like Simeon Stylites. Orthodox Christianity, it is true, did accept the existence of the Devil, but it denied that he could create anything. When the New Testament speaks of “The Prince of this world,” it certainly does not mean the Prince of the Cosmos nor assert that, so long as they are on earth, human souls have no option but to obey the orders of the Devil. By this world is meant, I should guess, Leviathan, the Social Beast. One may or may not hold the Devil responsible, but, when one considers the behavior of large organized social groups throughout human history, this much is certain; it has been characterized neither by love nor by logic. As for the more repellant and exhibitionistic kinds of asceticism, it was not long before the Church authorities set limits to them, condemning, for example, those who abstained from wine and meat on feast-days for “blasphemously inveighing against the creation.”

Much of Professor Dodds’s second, and most entertaining, lecture is devoted to dreams, in particular to the dream book of a certain Aelius Aristides—a fascinating “nut” and an ideal subject, surely, for E. M. Forster—and to the dreams which Perpetua, a young Christian convert, had while she lay in prison awaiting martyrdom. I will not spoil the reader’s pleasure by giving quotations. Whatever the social conditions, in all ages the uneducated have considered dreams significant and it was only, I should imagine, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the cultured dismissed them as meaningless. Since Freud we are all again agreed that “dreams are purposive.”

A fascination with the “occult,” on the other hand, with astrology, spiritualism, magic, and the like, is generally, I suspect, a symptom of social alienation. In the third century, astrologers, oracles, and mediums were taken seriously by Pagans and Christians alike. The Christian “belly-talkers,” male and female, called themselves prophetes, but nothing that Professor Dodds has to tell us about them convinces me that they had anything of value to prophesy. Genuine inspiration, whether in artistic or religious utterance, may be mysterious but it is always comprehensible. Of The Third Testament, a montanist document, Professor Dodds says: “Only a few scraps have been preserved, and like most communications from the Beyond, these scraps, it must be confessed, are extremely disappointing.” And he quotes Professor Greenslade’s verdict on Montanus: “The Holy Spirit seemed to say nothing of any religious or intellectual value to him.” In due time the prophetes were suppressed by the ecclesiastical authorities, but one must not allow one’s natural dislike of stuffy bishops to deceive one into imagining that the suppression was a great spiritual loss.

Professor Dodds classifies mystical experiences as being either “extrovertive,” conveyed to the subject through his physical senses, or “introvertive,” reached by the via negativa; a training of the mind to empty itself of all sensory images.

The two typical extrovertive visions are the Vision of Dame Kind and the Vision of Eros. There is no record of either in the third century. Plato had described the Vision of Eros, but we find no more descriptions of it until those of the Provençal poets in the twelfth century. Of the Vision of Dame Kind, there are hints in the Bacchae of Euripides but no unmistakeable description, so far as I know, before Traherne’s in the late seventeenth century.

Of the introvertive, specifically religious, mystical experience, there are, rather oddly, no surviving Christian examples from the third century. The two men, Plotinus and Porphyry, whose writings were later to have a great influence upon Christian mystics, were both Neoplatonists. A problem posed by all descriptions of mystical experience is the impossibility of knowing to what extent the intellectual and theological presuppositions of the mystic modify the experience itself. To a Neoplatonist, the vision of the One must necessarily be one-sided: What he sees cannot see him. To a Christian, it must necessarily be felt as an encounter between two persons. To say, as some theologians have, that in the mystical vision it is “God who takes the first step” seems to me meaningless, unless all that is meant is that it is the Grace of God which causes such-and-such an individual to desire and seek to attain it through ascetic discipline and habits of prayer. If he fails, he can, of course, explain this by saying that God does not wish to reveal Himself to him. This the Neoplatonist cannot say; he is faced with the problem of explaining why, once he has discovered the correct technique of meditation, he cannot enjoy the vision at will: In the course of a lifetime, Plotinus experienced it four times, Porphyry once.

Professor Dodds says that he agrees with Festugière’s dictum: “Misery and Mysticism are related facts.” Are they always? I would agree that when mystical theories are fashionable, talked about at parties by people who have no intention of submitting themselves to the arduous discipline required for practice, society is probably not in a very healthy state, but most of the practicing mystics we know about do not seem to have been miserable persons; on the contrary, they were often not only jolly but active, practically-minded organizers.

In fact it now looks as if the cultivation of extrovertive mystical experience—the Vision of Dame Kind can, it seems, be induced by the hallucenogenic drugs—is more likely in practice to lead to a loss of concern for other human beings than the introvertive.

In his last lecture Professor Dodds discusses the ways in which Pagans and Christians thought about each other. From being an obscure sect, disliked by the crowds, as oddities always are, and suspected of horrid secret rites, but people no man of education would give a thought to, by the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Christians had become numerous and influential enough to be taken seriously both by the authorities and by intellectuals. Persecution, hitherto sporadic and incoherent, became under Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Diocletian a deliberate planned State policy. Intellectuals like Celsus and Porphyry felt that Christianity was a cultural threat dangerous enough to deserve attack and, on the Christian side, there were now converts like Tertullian and Origen educated enough to explain and defend their beliefs. To the authorities the obstinate refusal of Christians to pay formal homage to the god-emperor made them enemies of society. Today it seems strange that they should have made such a fuss, since nobody seriously believed that the Emperors were divine, but then it seems equally strange that the Emperors should have imagined a stable social order depended upon their subjects politely saying that they were. More understandably, their proselytizing zeal caused indignation: the more fanatic and tactless among them were quite prepared, for the sake of saving a soul, to wreck marriages and encourage children to disobey their parents.

To the educated Pagan, the importance they attached to pistis, or blind faith, their indifference to logismos, or reasoned conviction, seemed willfully irrational, though, as the century progressed, both sides shifted their ground. Tertullian might say defiantly credo quia absurdum est, but Origen and Clement recognized the value to apologetics of learning, literature, and philosophical argument, while the Neoplatonists came to realize that their position did not rest on logic alone, that they, too, held certain absolute presuppositions by faith. What strikes one now about the debates between them is that they seem to have been mostly concerned with minor issues. The fundamental doctrines on which they disagreed, the relation of God to the Cosmos, and the possibility of incarnate deity, were seldom seriously discussed. Instead, they argued endlessly about miracles and prophecies, a barren topic since both sides agreed that miracles could be wrought and prophecies made by evil spirits and men as well as good. They accused each other, probably justly, of reading meanings into texts which were not there, but both sides went in for allegorical interpretation, Christians of the Bible, Neoplatonists of Homer.

No certain or complete explanations can ever be given why one religion or Weltanschauung is accepted by a society in preference to its rivals, and Professor Dodds would be the first to say that his suggestions are tentative and partial. First, he thinks, there was the impression made by the Christian martyrs.

It is evident that Lucan, Marcus Aurelius, Galen and Celsus were all, despite themselves, impressed by the courage of the Christians in face of death and torture…. We know from modern experience of political martyrdoms that the blood of the martyrs really is the seed of the Church, always provided that the seed falls on suitable ground and is not sown too thickly.

Secondly, the Church was open to all men, without regard to social class, education, or their past lives. While, at most times, the Church has welcomed the intellectual, the artist, the mystic, it has never limited its membership to a cultural elite nor regarded mystical experience as necessary to salvation. Further, though organized hierarchically, high office has been open, in theory if not always in practice, to any man of talent and character irrespective of his birth. Thirdly, it was more successful than its rivals in giving its converts a sense of belonging to a community. Not only did it provide the essentials of social security by caring for widows, orphans, the old, the sick, the unemployed, but also to “the uprooted and lonely, the urbanized tribesman, the peasant come to town in search of work, the demobilized soldier, the rentier ruined by inflation, and the manumitted slave, it offered human warmth: Some one was interested in them, both here and hereafter.”

I should like to venture a fourth suggestion. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Christian faith, by virtue of its doctrines about creation, the nature of man and the revelation of Divine purpose in historical time, was really a more this-worldly religion than any of its competitors, so that, when its opportunity came in the following centuries with the collapse of civil government in the West, it was the Church which took on the task of creating such social order and of preserving such cultural heritage as there was. On the evidence of its history, it would seem that Christianity has always been more tempted by worldliness, by love of money and power than, say, Islam or Buddhism. The charge which may justly be brought against the Church is, not that it has been unpractical or a-political, but that it has so often been all too political, all too ready to make shady deals with any temporal power which would advance what it believed to be its interests.

For the majority of mankind life has always been uncertain and painful, but not every kind of uncertainty and suffering causes anxiety, only the unexpected kinds. Men can take most natural disasters like famine and flood in their stride because they know that harvests are bound to fail sometimes and rivers to overflow their banks. An epidemic of plague, however, can work psychological havoc because, although men have always known they must die, they are now suddenly faced by an unexpected kind of death.

Still deeper and more widespread is the anxiety caused when the techniques a society has invented for coping with life, which hitherto have been successful, no longer work. The Roman Empire had evolved legal, military and economic techniques for maintaining internal law and order, defending itself against external enemies, and managing the production and exchange of goods; in the third century these proved inadequate to prevent civil war, invasion by barbarians and depreciation of the currency. In the twentieth century, it is not the failure but the fantastic success of our techniques of production that is creating a society in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a human life. In our reactions to this one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians; instead of Neoplatonists, “humanist” professors; instead of desert eremites, heroin-addicts and Beats; instead of the cult of virginity; do-it-yourself sex manuals and sado-masochistic pornography. Now as then, a proper balance between detachment and commitment seems impossible to find or to hold. Both lead to evil. The introvert, intent upon improving himself, is deaf to his neighbor when he cries for help; the extrovert, intent upon improving the world, pinches his neighbor (for his own good of course) until he cries for help. We are not, any of us, very nice.

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