Quotes by "Catherine Nixey"
The pages of history go silent. But the stones of Athens provide a small coda to the story of the seven philosophers. It is clear, from the archaeological evidence, that the grand villa on the slopes of the Acropolis was confiscated not long after the philosophers left. It is also clear that it was given to a new Christian owner. Whoever this Christian was, they had little time for the ancient art that filled the house. The beautiful pool was turned into a baptistery. The statues above it were evidently considered intolerable: the finely wrought images of Zeus, Apollo and Pan were hacked away. Mutilated stumps are now all that remain of the faces of the gods; ugly and incongruous above the still-delicate bodies. The statues were tossed into the well. The mosaic on the floor of the dining room fared little better. Its great central panel, which had contained another pagan scene, was roughly removed. A crude cross pattern, of vastly inferior workmanship, was laid in its place. The lovely statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, suffered as badly as the statue of Athena in Palmyra had. Not only was she beheaded she was then, a final humiliation, placed face down in the corner of a courtyard to be used as a step. Over the coming years, her back would be worn away as the goddess of wisdom was ground down by generations of Christian feet. The ‘triumph’ of Christianity was complete.
Gnosticism, a highly intellectual second-century movement (the word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’) that was later declared heretical, didn’t help. Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect. So ran the syllogism. Intellectual simplicity or, to put a less flattering name on it, ignorance was widely celebrated. The biography of St Antony records with approval that he ‘refused to learn to read and write or to join in the silly games of the other little children’. Education and silly games are here bracketed together, and both are put in opposition to holiness. Instead of this, we learn, Antony ‘burned with the desire for God’. That this wasn’t quite true – Antony’s letters reveal a much more careful thinker than this implies – didn’t much matter: it appealed to a powerful ideal. No need to read: give up both books and bread and you will win God’s favour. Even intellectuals were susceptible to this pretty picture: it was hearing about how the simple, unlettered Antony had inspired so many to turn to Christ that led Augustine to start striking himself on the head, tearing his hair and asking, ‘What is wrong with us?’ Ignorance was power.
The philosophy they had lived for starts to die itself. Some strands of ancient philosophy live on, preserved by the hands of some Christian philosophers – but it is not the same. Works that have to agree with the pre-ordained doctrines of a church are theology, not philosophy. Free philosophy has gone. The great destruction of classical texts gathers pace. The writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’: that was what John Chrysostom had said. He hadn’t been quite right, then: but time would bring greater truth to his boast. Undefended by pagan philosophers or institutions, and disliked by many of the monks who were copying them out, these texts start to disappear. Monasteries start to erase the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and Archimedes. ‘Heretical’ – and brilliant – ideas crumble into dust. Pliny is scraped from the page. Cicero and Seneca are overwritten. Archimedes is covered over. Every single work of Democritus and his heretical ‘atomism’ vanishes. Ninety per cent of all classical literature fades away. Centuries later, an Arab traveller would visit a town on the edge of Europe and reflect on what had happened in the Roman Empire. ‘During the early days of the empire of the Rum,’ he wrote – meaning the Roman and Byzantine Empire – ‘the sciences were honoured and enjoyed universal respect. From an already solid and grandiose foundation, they were raised to greater heights every day, until the Christian religion made its appearance among the Rum; this was a fatal blow to the edifice of learning; its traces disappeared and its pathways were effaced.
To many intellectuals such as Celsus, the whole idea of a ‘Creation myth’ was not only implausible but redundant. During this period in Rome, a popular and influential philosophical theory offered an alternative view. This theory – an Epicurean one – stated that everything in the world was made not by any divine being but by the collision and combination of atoms. According to this school of thought, these particles were invisible to the naked eye but they had their own structure and could not be cut (temno) into any smaller particles: they were a-temnos – ‘the uncuttable thing’: the atom. Everything that you see or feel, these materialists argued, was made up of two things: atoms and space ‘in which these bodies are and through which they move this way and that’. Even living creatures were made from them: humans were, as one (hostile) author summarized, not made by God but were instead nothing more than ‘a haphazard union of elements’. The distinct species of animals were explained by a form of proto-Darwinism. As the Roman poet and atomist Lucretius wrote, nature put forth many species. Those that had useful characteristics – the fox and its cunning, say, or the dog and its intelligence – survived, thrived and reproduced. Those creatures that lacked these ‘lay at the mercy of others for prey and profit . . . until nature brought that race to destruction’.