Loving the Poor

In one of his most quoted sayings, Jesus is reported to have warned: “You have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7). It was not original. He was reiterating an ages-old prophetic utterance from the Hebrew scriptures: “The poor will always be with you” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Certainly today the claim seems never to have been truer, and precisely in connection with political power. Since 1995, the United Nations alone has staged no fewer than three global conferences on the problem of world poverty. The divide between the rich and the poor throughout the world is one of the most pressing items of international concern in the rhetoric of contemporary politics. Although definitions of who is poor have always posed as many problems as the poor themselves, there seems little doubt that, according to almost any measurement, the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening at a dizzying pace. The confrontation between wealth and poverty has become a central problem for the world community in a way that was simply untrue only a century ago. The key term in this transformation of our concerns and attitudes, however, is not so much poverty as it is community.

Few historians have literally created their own periods of inquiry and their own subjects. Peter Brown is one of these exceedingly rare spirits. To him we owe the creation of the age of Late Antiquity as a standard field of historical inquiry. He has transformed the three or four centuries of Mediterranean history that marked the transition from the world of the Greek and Roman city-states to the post-Roman kingdoms of Europe and the Near East into something other than a doomed afterthought to the classical ages of ancient history. No longer an epoch of decadence, despair, and decline, the centuries in which the Roman Empire was transformed into a feudal order in the West and into a Byzantine one in the East have become, in his hands, a vital age teeming with people who demand and deserve our attention. No historian achieves this sort of daring revision permanently without taking risks and confronting daunting problems that more pedestrian researchers prefer to avoid.

Understanding the poor and the problem of poverty is one of these great challenges—and not just for the social orders of the later Roman Empire. For any period, even the very best historical minds have found this particular problem almost as intractable and resistant to understanding as the solving of the real dangers of poverty in our own age. The poor are a troubling challenge to moral sensibilities, an embarrassment reflected in the odd and skewed euphemisms with which each society has represented the quintessentially powerless—humans once described in terms of dirt and disgust, but now in the patronizing language applied to victims. Entering into this frightening world, the historian descends into a quagmire of slipping and eliding sentiments and meanings that resist rational analysis.1 He risks continuing the immense condescension of both posterity and the past.2

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.