Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The change wrought in the moral sentiments of Christendom

I was discussing with a fellow blogger the effect of Christianity on Western culture. It reminded me of a recent post by John C. Wright where he denied that increasing wealth has led to increasing freedoms. He argues that it is not wealth and education, or civility and law, that effects good social change, rather the Christian worldview which is in stark contrast to world it arrived in. It may be tempting to think the West was always like it was but this merely betrays historical ignorance. The West may be in decline now but its height was not a product of the evolution of European culture, it was the transformation of it by Christian belief.
I propose a radically different reading of history from yours. I propose that Christ introduced a view of man so remarkably different from that known in the ancient world, or in the East, as to be without compare or parallel. The change wrought in the moral sentiments of Christendom was so significant and widespread that you and every other scion of Christian philosophy have not even any awareness of it.

The Greeks with their infanticide, divorce, and slavery, held men to be innately unequal. Barbarians were fit only for servitude. The Romans, even worse, held it to be noble to condemn gladiators to fight to death for the amusement of idle crowds. Lavish executions by slow torture were commonplace. The idea of killing a man quickly, painlessly, even offering him a blindfold and cigarette so that he will not die without dignity is as alien to the ancient mind as non-Euclidean geometry. It is literally something from another universe.

The Indians with their caste system and the Chinese with their Confucianism and Legalism held the same view of man. Rulers rule. Servants serve. Slaves slave. Women bear children, which, when unwanted, are killed.

Imagine the scene of Jesus, a man of a conquered people, standing in chains before Pilot, the epitome of Roman power, law, and dignity. In the eyes of the ancient world, by the philosophy of the greatest and noblest sages of East and West, that scene would look like a clown confronting a demigod, with Jesus, the slave, in the role of the slapstick clown, someone whose role was to be hit with a pie or blown up by dynamite, and Pilot, speaking with the divine authority of Caesar, as the voice of heaven. The idea that the slapstick clown, whose mission in life was to die in torment for the amusement of the mob, was somehow greater than the voice of Caesar was inconceivable, radical, paradoxical, and backward by every ancient standard.

The Jewish notion that God was good is radically different from the Greek notion -- in Greek myth, after all, Cyclopes is the child of Neptune, and the gods are not always on the side of humanity -- just ask Ulysses. The Jewish notion that creation is GOOD is a radical defiance of the Greek notion that the world arose from chaos without purpose.

The adoption of the Christian world-view is what led to notions like the separation of church and state, the subordination of kings to the laws they make, the equality of men in the eyes of God, and so on. Without these ideas, the additional ideas of the security of property and the equality of slaves and women could not have surfaced. They are not natural ideas; they are not even rational ideas; they are mystical ideas having roots nowhere but Christendom.

The industrial revolution, the rising capital base, the specialization of labor, the rule of law and all other things you name or might name as sources of the increased felicity of man are products of nothing but Christendom.

Why did the industrial revolution happen in Europe, and nowhere else?

Why did modern science arise in the so called Dark Ages, and not earlier?

Why did the modern university system, with the notions of free inquiry and academic freedom, arise in Christian countries, and no where else?

Why did no one, no one, no one except the Christians ever free slaves, and why does slavery reappear within a few years in any land where Christians powers once ruled and now have withdrawn?

Why is Monogamy the rule, rather than the exception, in Christian lands, and why does the ruthless exploitation of women reappear within a few years in any land where Christians powers once ruled and now have withdrawn? -- We have God Damned HONOR KILLINGS happening in the United Kingdom these days. Is that just a coincidence or happenstance that this arose just when England moved sharply and clearly away from Christianity?

I humbly submit that you are conflating cause and effect. The cause of the improvement of man is the rise of highminded moral sentiments informing the laws and customs of man, producing such minor side effects as respect for reason, rights, and property, and which do not long last in the absence of the underlying moral sentiments.

5 comments:

  1. Very good stuff. Additionally, rather than pandering to man's vanity or promising riches and comfort, Christ tells us, "you will be persecuted", and "take up your cross".

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  2. Nice read .. the spelling of Pilate's name grated though .. :)

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  3. Not certain spelling in Wright's strong point. See the title of the post linked to! I couldn't work out if it was a play on words but assuming it is just misspelt.

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  4. hmmmm thought provoking

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