John Lord.

The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

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entered into Christianity at a later period, and formed an alliance with
it. But, practically, it did not have much effect on life and manners.
It was regarded as a system of mysticism, cherished by a very small
esoteric body of believers, who were spurned as dreamers. They were
looked upon very much as the transcendentalists of our own day are
regarded, with whom the great body of even thinkers had but little
sympathy. There was no more respect for Plato at Rome than there is for
Kant among the merchants of London. His name may have been pronounced
with an oracular admiration, but there was no profound appreciation of
him, no general knowledge of his writings, no sympathy for his
doctrines. They were to the Romans foolishness, somewhat after the sense
that Christianity was to the Greeks. They transcended their experience,
went beyond the limits of their thoughts, and sought spiritual
certitudes which they disdained.

[Sidenote: The Aristotelian philosophy.]

[Sidenote: Its failure.]

The philosophy of Aristotle was nearly as distasteful to the Romans as
that of Plato, and it was less lofty. It had a skeptical tendency, and
excluded scientific light from the sphere of activity, and inculcated a
proud and self-reliant spirit. The academics denied the possibility of
arriving at truth with certainty; and, therefore, held it uncertain
whether the gods existed or not, whether the soul is mortal or survives
the body, whether virtue is preferable to vice, or the contrary. They
sneered at religious earnestness, and tacitly encouraged influences
greatly to be dreaded. They held in supreme contempt the popular
religion, and made a mockery of religious ceremonies. They undermined
superstition, but weakened religion also by substituting nothing instead
of the absurdities they brushed away. Lucian was a type of these
philosophers, and his bitter sarcasms were more powerful than the logic
of Cicero to destroy what could not be proved. The academics may be said
to have been the rationalists of antiquity. The old religions could not
maintain their ground before the inquiring skepticism and sarcastic wit
of these irreligious philosophers, who contented themselves with a
lifeless deism - a system which did not, indeed, deny the existence and
providence of God, but which attributed to the Deity an indifference
respecting the affairs of men. Dr. Neander, in the first volume of the
"History of the Church," has shown the effects of the unbelief of the
academics on the state of society at Rome, especially on the men of rank
and fashion. Infidelity, in any form, can have no conservative
influence. It is designed to pull down, and not to build up.
Superstition, with all its puerilities, is better than a scornful and
proud philosophy which takes no cognizance of popular wants and

[Sidenote: The Stoical philosophy.]

If any form of ancient philosophy could have renovated society, it was
the Stoical school, which Zeno had founded. It commended itself, in a
corrupt age, to many noble and powerful minds, because it raised them
above the corruption around them, and proclaimed an ideal standard of
morality. The Romans cared very little for mere speculations on God or
the universe; but they did revere that which proposed a practical aim.
The Stoics despised prevailing baseness, and set examples of a severe
morality. Marcus Aurelius, one of the loftiest followers of this school,
was a model of every virtue, and he looked upon his philosophy as a
means of salvation to a crumbling empire. But the Stoics, with all their
morality, were the Pharisees of pagan antiquity. They held themselves
superior to all other classes of men. They gloried in their proud
isolation. And with all the loftiness of Stoicism, it did not teach of a
God who governed the world in mercy and love, but according to the iron
decrees of necessity. It attacked error with a stern severity, but had
no toleration for human weakness. It confounded the idea of God with
that of the universe, and therefore destroyed his personality, making
the Deity himself an influence, or a development. The Stoic despised the
age, and despised every influence to elevate it which did not come from
himself. He treated the most wholesome truths so partially as to be led
into the greatest absurdities of doctrine and inconsistencies with their
general principle. Epictetus, indeed, infused a new life into the
Stoical philosophy. He taught the doctrine of passive endurance so
forcibly that the Christians claimed him for their own. But there was
nothing which appealed to the people in Stoicism. It was too stern and
cold. It had no humanity. Hence they stood aloof, as they did from all
the systems of Grecian philosophy. It was not for them, but for the
learned and the cultivated. It was a system of thought; it was not a
religion - a speculation and not a life. Like Platonism, the Stoical
philosophy was esoteric, and only appealed to a few elevated minds, who
had affected indifference to the evils of life, and had learned to
conquer natural affections. The Stoical doctrines of Epictetus had a
more practical end in view than those of Zeno, since they were applied
to Roman thought and life. We cannot deny the purity and beauty of his
aphorisms, but he was like Noah preaching before the flood. He had his
disciples and admirers, but they made a feeble barrier against
corruptions. It was the protest of a man before a mob of excited and
angry persecutors resolved on his death. It was no more heard than the
dying speech of Stephen. It was lost utterly on a people abandoned to
inglorious pleasure.

[Sidenote: The Epicurean philosophy.]

The only form of philosophy which was popular with the Romans, and which
was appreciated, was the Epicurean. The disciples of this school were,
of course, the luxurious, the fashionable, the worldly, and it exercised
upon them but a feeble restraining influence. It denied the providence
of God; it maintained that the world was governed by chance; it denied
the existence of moral goodness; it affirmed that the soul was mortal,
and that pleasure was the only good. If the more contemplative and the
least passionate rebuked gross vices, they still advocated a tranquil
indifference to outward events that showed neither loftiness nor fear of
judgment. Their system was openly based upon atheism. Self-love was the
foundation of all action, and self-indulgence was the ultimate good. The
Epicureans were the patrons of the circus, and the theatre, and the
banquet, and, indeed, of all those vanities and follies which disgraced
the latter days of Rome. Their influence tended to enervate and corrupt.
Their philosophy, instead of preserving old forms of life, old customs,
old institutions, old traditions and associations, made a mockery of
them all, and was as efficient in producing decay as was the philosophy
of the eighteenth century in France in paving the way for the
revolution. The purest type of Epicureanism may have refined a few of
the better sort, but the prevailing influence, doubtless, undermined
society. The god of the reason was allied with the god of the sense, and
the maniac soul of the lying prophet entered the schools. Education, as
directed by them, served only to make youth worldly and frivolous.
Teachers sought to amuse and not to instruct, to make royal roads to
knowledge, to exalt the omnipotence of money, to set a high value on
what passes away. They limited man to himself, and acknowledged no other
object of human exertion than is to be found within the compass of the
fleeting phenomena of the present life. They had no wish beyond the
present hour, and only aimed to console man in the corruption and misery
which he saw around him. They had no high aims; nor did they seek to
produce profound impressions. They adapted themselves to what was,
rather than what ought to be. They were easy and gracious, but utterly
without earnestness. The Peripatetic inquired, sneeringly, "What
_is_ truth?" The Epicurean languidly said, "What is truth to
_me_. There is no truth nor virtue, nor is there a God, nor a place
of rewards and punishments. This world is my theatre. Let me eat and
drink, for to-morrow I die. I will abstain from inordinate self-
indulgence, for it will shorten my life, or produce satiety, ennui,
disgust - not because it is wrong. I will make the most of earth and of
my faculties for pleasure. Wealth is the greatest blessing, poverty the
greatest calamity. Friends are of no account, unless they amuse me or
help me. The sentiment of friendship is impossible, and would be
unsatisfactory." The true Epicurean quarreled with no person and with no
opinions. Nothing was of consequence but ease, prosperity, self-
forgetfulness. The soul of man could aspire to nothing beyond this life;
and when death came, it was a release, a thing neither to be regretted
nor rejoiced in, but an irresistible fate. What could be expected from
such a system? What renovation in such a cold, barren, negative faith,
without hope, without God in the world? The most prevalent of all the
systems of philosophy, so far from doing good, did evil. How could it
save when its ends were destructive of all those sentiments on which
true greatness rests? What could be expected of a philosophy which only
served to amuse the great, to throw contempt on the people, to undermine
religious aspirations, to vitiate the moral sense, to ignore God and
duty and a life to come?

Thus every influence at Rome, whether proceeding from art, or
literature, or philosophy, or government, instead of saving, tended to
destroy. All these things came from man, and could not elevate him
beyond himself. Even religion was a compound of superstitions, ritual
observances, and puerilities. It did not come from God. It was neither
lofty nor pure. What good there was soon became perverted, and the evil
was reproduced more rapidly than good. Only error seemed to have
vitality. The false lights which sin had kindled shed only a delusive
gleam. The soul occasionally asserted the dignity which God had given
it, and great men swept and garnished houses, but devils reentered, and
the normal condition of humanity was what the Bible declares it to be
since Adam was expelled from Paradise. Genius, energy, ambition, were
allowed to win their victories, and they shed a glorious light, and for
a time exalted the reason of man, but alas, were soon followed by shame
and degradation.

[Sidenote: All forms of civilization fail to be conservative.]

And what is the logical inference - the deduction which we are compelled
to draw from this mournful history of the failure of all those grand
trophies of the civilization which man has made? Can it be other than
this: that man cannot save himself; that nothing which comes from him,
whether of genius or will, proves to be a conservative force from
generation to generation; that it will be perverted, however true, or
beautiful, or glorious, because "men love darkness rather than light."
All that is truly conservative, all that grows brighter and brighter
with the progress of ages, all that is indestructible and of permanent
beauty, must come from a power higher than that of man, whether
supernatural or not - must be a revelation to man from Heaven, assisted
by divine grace. It must be divine truth in conjunction with divine
love. It must be a light from Him who made us, and which alone baffles
the power of evil.

He did send Christianity, when every thing else had signally failed, as
it will forever fail. And this is the seed of the woman which shall
bruise the serpent's head.

We have now to show why this great renovating and life-giving influence
did not prevent the destruction of the empire; and we may be convinced
that if this great end could not be accomplished in accordance with the
plans of Providence, and in accordance with the laws by which He rules
the world, Christianity was in no sense a failure, as man's devices
were; but, through the mouths and writings of great bishops, saints, and
doctors, projected its saving truths far into the shadows of barbaric
Europe, and laid the foundation for a new and more glorious
civilization - a civilization not destined to perish, so far as it is in
harmony with divine revelation.



One of the most interesting inquiries which is suggested by history is,
Why Christianity did not prevent the glory of the old civilization from
being succeeded by shame? This is not only a grand inquiry, but it is
mysterious. We are naturally surprised that literature, art, science,
laws, and the perfect mechanism of government should have proved such
feeble barriers against degeneracy, for these are among the highest
triumphs of the human mind, and such as the world will not willingly let
die. But a still more potent and majestic influence than any thing which
proceeds from man still remained to the haughty masters of the ancient
world. A new religion had been proclaimed with the establishment of the
empire, which gradually broke down the old superstitions, conquered the
hatred and prejudices of both Greeks and Romans, supplanted the old
systems of Paganism, and went on from conquering to conquer, until it
seated itself on the imperial throne, and proved itself to be the wisdom
and the power of God.

But we see that as this wonderful religion gained ground, whether in
changing the lives of individuals, or in allying itself with dominant
institutions, the Roman Empire declined. When Christianity was first
proclaimed, the Roman eagles surmounted the principal cities of
antiquity, and the central despotism on the banks of the Tiber was the
law of the world. When it was a feeble light on the mountains of
Galilee, the glory of Rome was the object of universal panegyric, and
the city of the seven hills rejoiced in a magnificence which promised to
be eternal. But when Paganism yielded to Christianity, and when the
latter had spread to every city and village in the empire, with its
grand hierarchy of bishops and doctors, the proud empire was in ruins.
It would even seem that its decline and fall kept pace with the triumphs
of a religion it had spurned and persecuted.

[Sidenote: Society retrograded as Christianity spread.]

What is the explanation of this grand mystery? Why should society have
declined as Christianity spread, if, as we believe, Christianity is the
great conservative force of the world, and is destined to regenerate all
government, science, and social life? If the stability of the empire
rested on virtues, and was undermined by vices, virtue must have
declined and vice increased. But how can we reconcile such a fact with
the progress of a religion which is the mainspring of all virtue, and
the destruction of all vice? We do know that Christianity did not
prevent the empire from falling, but also we have the testimony of poets
and historians to the exceeding wickedness of society when Christianity
was fairly established.

[Sidenote: A mysterious fact.]

In presenting the strange phenomenon of a falling empire with an all-
conquering religion, it is necessary to grapple with the gloomy problem.
We have unbounded faith in the power of Christianity to save the world,
and yet we see a mighty empire crumbling to pieces from vices which
Christianity did not subdue. What a deduction might be drawn from this
strange fact, that Christianity _can_, _but did not, save_.
How mournful the future of modern Christian nations if the
same fact should be repeated - if civilization should decline as
Christianity achieves its triumphs! Is it possible that civilization,
the triumph of human genius and will, may fade away as Christianity,
which gives vitality to society, advances? Has civilization nothing to
do with Christianity?

[Sidenote: Christianity not however a failure.]

But there can be nothing mournful in the developments of a divine
religion - nothing discouraging in the conquests which seemed incomplete.
Nor did it really, in any important task, prove a failure; but amid the
ashes of the old world, as it disappeared, we see the new creation, and
listen to melodious birth-songs. Indeed, the fall of the empire, when we
profoundly survey it, instead of detracting from Christianity, only
prepared the way for higher triumphs, and for a loftier development of
civilization itself. Future ages have probably lost nothing by the ruin
of Rome, while the world has gained by the establishment of
Christianity, even by the seeds of truth planted by the early church.

Still, it cannot be questioned that, in the Roman empire, vices and
corruptions spread with terrific and mournful rapidity even after
Christianity was revealed - so rapidly, indeed, that Christianity opposed
but a feeble barrier.

The history of Christianity among the Romans suggests these three
inquiries: -

First, why it proved so feeble in arresting degeneracy; secondly, how
far it conserved old institutions; and thirdly, how far it created a new
and higher civilization.

[Sidenote: Christianity fails to check degeneracy.]

The first inquiry, on a superficial view, is discouraging. We see a
sublime realism making quietly its converts by thousands, without
seemingly checking ordinary vices. We are reminded of Socrates creating
Platos, yet failing to reform Athens. We behold witnesses of the truth
in every land, which gradually sinks deeper and deeper in infamy as the
witnesses increase. And, when the land is about to be overrun by
barbarians, when despair seizes the public mind, and desolation
overspreads the earth, and good men hide in rocks, and dens, and caves,
we see the church resplendent with wealth and glory, her bishops
enthroned as dignitaries, princes doing homage to saints, and even the
barbarians themselves bowing down in reverence and awe. How barren these
ecclesiastical victories seem to a superficial or infidel eye! If
Christianity is what its converts claim, why did it accomplish so

[Sidenote: Yet still a conquering religion.]

But, in another aspect, the victories do not seem so barren; and they
even appear more and more majestic the more they are contemplated. There
is something grand in the spread of new ideas which are unpalatable to
the mighty and the wise. Considering the humble characters of the early
Apostles and their disciples, their triumphs were really magnificent. It
is astonishing that the teachings of fishermen should have supplanted
the teachings of Jewish rabbis and Grecian philosophers, amid so great
and general opposition. It is remarkable that their doctrines should
have so completely changed the lives of those who embraced them. It is
wonderful that emperors who persecuted and sages who spurned the
religion of Jesus, should have been won over by a moral force superior
to all the venerated influences of the old religion of which they were
guardians and expounders. It is surprising that such relentless and
bloody persecutions as took place for three hundred years should have
been so futile. When we remember the extension of Christianity into all
the countries known to the ancients, and the marvelous fruits it bore
among its converts, making them brothers, heroes, martyrs, saints,
doctors - a benediction and a blessing wherever they went; and when we
see these little esoteric bands, in upper chambers or in catacombs,
persecuted, tormented, despised, yet gaining daily new adherents,
without the aid of wealth, or learning, or social position, or political
power, until generals, senators, and kings came willingly into their
fraternity, and bound themselves by their rules, and changed the whole
habits of their lives, looking to the future rather than the present -
the infinite rather than the finite; blameless in morals, lofty in
faith, heavenly in love; sheep among wolves, yet not devoured - we feel
that Christianity cannot be too highly exalted as a conquering power.

But the point is, not that Christianity failed to conquer, but that it
failed to save the Roman world. The conquests of the church are
universally admitted and universally admired. They were the most
wonderful moral victories ever achieved. But, while Christianity
conquered Rome, why did she fail to arrest its ruin? Vice gained on
virtue, rather than virtue gained on vice, even when the cross was
planted on the battlements of the imperial palaces.

[Sidenote: Christianity too late to save.]

The victories of Christianity came not too late for the human race, but
for the stability of the Roman empire. Had Christianity completely
triumphed when Julius Caesar overturned the republic, the empire might
have lasted. But when Constantine was converted, the empire was shaken
to its foundations, and the barbarians were advancing. No medicine could
have prevented the diseased old body from dying. The time had come. When
the wretched inebriate embraces a spiritual religion with one foot in
the grave, with a constitution completely undermined, and the seeds of
death planted, then no repentance or lofty aspiration can prevent
physical death. It was so in Rome. Society was completely undermined
long before the emperors became Christians. The fruits of iniquity were
being reaped when Chrysostom and Augustine lifted up their voices. The
body was diseased, so that no spiritual influence could work upon it.
Had every man in the empire been a Christian, yet, when, the army had
lost its discipline and efficiency, when patriotism had fled, when
centuries of vices had enfeebled the physical forces, when puny races
had lost all martial ardor, and could present nothing but weakness and
cowardice - all from physical causes, how could they have successfully
contended with the new and powerful barbaric armies? Christianity saves
the soul; it does not restore exhausted physical functions. The vices
which had undermined were learned before Christianity protested, and
were dominant when Christianity was feeble. The effects of those vices
were universal before a remedy could be applied.

[Sidenote: Limited number of the converts.]

[Sidenote: Early Christians unimportant.]

Moreover, when Christianity itself was a vital and conquering force, the
number of its converts formed but a small proportion of the inhabitants
of the empire. Witnesses of the truth were sent into every important
city in the world, but they simply protested in a dark corner. Their
warning voice was unheeded except by a few, and these were unimportant
people in a social or political or intellectual point of view. Even when
Constantine was converted, the number of Christians in the empire,
according to Gibbon, whose statement has not been refuted, was only one
fifth of the whole population. And this accounts for the insignificant
social changes that Christianity wrought. A vast majority was opposed to
them even in the fourth century. There were doubtless large numbers of
Christians at Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, and other
populous cities, in the third century, and also there were powerful
churches in the great centres of trade, where people of all nations
congregated; but they were exposed to bitter persecutions, and they
durst not be ostentatious, not even in those edifices where they
congregated for the worship of Jehovah. For two centuries they worshiped
God in secret and lonely places, exposed to persecution and scorn. Not
only were the Christians few in number, when compared with the whole
population, but they were chiefly confined to the humble classes. In the
first century not many wise or noble were called. No great names have
been handed down to us. Now and then a centurion was converted, or some
dependent on a great man's household, or some servant in the imperial
family; but no philosophers, or statesmen, or nobles, or generals, or
governors, or judges, or magistrates. In the first century the
Christians were not of sufficient importance to be generally persecuted
by the government. They had not even arrested public attention. Nobody
wrote against them, not even Greek philosophers. We do not read of
protests or apologies from the Christians themselves. No contemporary
historian or poet alludes to them. They had no great men in their ranks,
either for learning, or talents, or wealth, or social position. In the
cities they were chiefly artisans, slaves, servants, or mechanics, and
in the country they were peasants. They were unlettered, plebeian,
unimportant. If there were distinguished converts, we do not know their
names. Ecclesiastical history is silent as to distinguished persons
except as persecutors, or as great contemporaries. We read of the

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 44 of 50)