Cultural change

In the thread below Ingo Bading made a few comments which I’d like to address real quickly before “The Week of Science” kicks off and we move away from this sort of material. Ingo says:

And: I think Augustine is more or less representative for the IQ-elite of Rome. A lot of smart people went into the monasteries in those times, because the former roman ethic and polytheism failed to convince people.

There are two points I would like to make. The first is more meta, and that is that intellectuals are the ones interested in the details of history and they are the ones who record it. What we know of ancient Rome we know through the lens of Cicero, or Caesar’s propoganda about the Gallic Wars, or St. Paul and St. Augustine, elite Christians who were firmly ensconsed in the Roman elite (remember that Saul of Tarsus was a Roman citizen). When it comes to high culture we have a pretty good sense of what was going on because the people who were writing down their sense of the times would be from the literate and elite slice. In the modern world with near ubiquitous literacy, and a relative disenagement from the world of pure subsistence the concerns and worldview of Roman aristocrats, steeped in philosophy and rhetoric, is not wholly alien to us because more or less all Westerners are persons of some leisure. This does not mean that intellectual pursuits are modal, but, those of us who might reflect upon the arc of human history are the sorts who would privilege intellectual pursuits in any case.

But aside from this elite level there is the daily life of the masses of humans. The bronze age peasant, the classical peasant and the medieval peasant, are fundamentally detached from this elite stream of thought. Their daily concerns are focused subsistence and status within their own social circle. Gruels made from cereal and fish sauce were far more consequential to the Italian peasant for thousands of years than the theses of Pythagoras or the conflict between the followers of Aquinas and Occam within the Church. When we talk about evolutionary changes we need to keep in mind gruel and fish sauce, because this is what was of consequence in the lives of the modal human, not the theses and propositions which were of some concern for around 0.1% of the population. This does not mean the propositions are irrelevant, people kill each other over these propositions because the elite uses these ideas to coalesce around factions, and these factions have mass supporters who will kill in the name of a word. But that doesn’t mean that the theses and propositions themselves have any societally deep traction as internalized memes.

The second point I want to make is more specific, and this is the idea that ancient Romans and Greeks turned away from polytheism because they found it intellectually unappealing compared to Christianity. This is a common idea, and one until recently triumphantly proclaimed by the Christian Zeitgeist, as the winners do write history. Now that an anti-Christian streak is powerful in the intellgensia materialist narratives make Christianization a conspiratorial affair which resulted in the death of classical civilization (this counter-tendency starts with the
Renaissance). The reality, I believe, is more subtle.

First, if you read books like The Making of a Christian Aristocracy, you see that the transition from a pagan elite to a Christian one was a slow affair. In fact, until 400 the Western Senatorial elite was almost entirely pagan, as attested by the anti-Christian rebellion which Theodosius the Great defeated at the Battle of Frigidus. A powerful locus of anti-Christian feeling remained in the intellectual elites, especially around the Academy in Athens, which was closed in the early 6th century by the devout Christian Emperor Justinian. Augustine’s City of God was written in part as a response to pagans who criticized Christianization as leading to the fall of the Empire (the Christian Goths has just sacked Rome), and the historian Zosimus could make an anti-Christian conservative case as late as 500. Why did the elite eventually become Christian? Consider that early in the 5th century officers who were pagan were banned, that as time passed public officials had to be Christian, and pagan temples were divested, torn down, and private pagan worship was banned. The point is that there were some very powerful inducements to becoming Christian, and the process at the elites where we can document it took about 2 centuries to complete (Emperors were still being deified as late as the late 5th century, though they were official Christian themselves).

Additionally, there is the reality that elite pagan opinion was not crassly polytheistic, but monistic. St. Augustine himself drank from the Neo-Platonic well of religious philosophy, and the ascetic outlook of Stoicis and Neo-Platonists likely influenced early Christian thinkers.

Finally, there is the reality that mass Christian worship in the countryside was operationally pagan for quite a long time, and some Protestant thinkers would contend that Christianity as a conscious profession of faith and values was not internalized into the European peasantry until mass literacy after the Reformation. During the 6th century requirements for an understanding of Christian doctrine were waived as mass conversions of peoples occurred via elite mediation (e.g., the king would convert and nominally bring over his nation). This resulted in an operational paganism among many Christans, even among the illiterate barbarian warlords, who focused on the cult of saints and relics to a far greater extent than the abstract philsophy of the Triune God. There is also the reality that psychological studies strongly suggest that the cognitive model of the divine in the minds of polytheists and monotheists is operationally the same, so on the non-semantic level (i.e., how a believer conceptualizes their divine entity) there might have been no change between the transition between paganism and Christianity.

OK, that’s a lot to throw at you. But, I wanted that to get out there because if we’re to talk about the past, and how it intersects with our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, we need a clear and distinct concept of how the past was, not how we view it because of the limited sample space of documentation and our own personal biases.

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