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 …

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