A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress

For the first time, I think, Quillette has published an article that I substantially disagree with by Ben Basset, which is titled Progress and Polytheism: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity? Here, Bassett argues that Christianity did not represent a moral schism from the entire realm of prior Greco-Roman morality and that people who claim so tend to turn the Greco-Roman world into a monolithic entity by which they gloss over the moral progress made by some Greco-Romans, which, if was allowed to continue developing and hadn’t been cut off by the Christianity’s rise, may have brought about significant moral progress on its own. I think the evidence he cites for this claim are dubious and selective, and I hope to make some progress in refuting his thesis here.

Imagine a Europe that resembles India. In Germany, France and England, in place of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals stand temples devoted to a kaleidoscopic pantheon of local and state-sanctioned gods… India is a provocative analogue for this alternate history because its temples remain open and enthusiastically attended; its ancient religions, though much evolved, are still practiced; there is a continuity, however vivisected, between the present and the deep past. By comparison, Europe’s Christian character represents a historical schism, between new and old, of unfathomable proportion: The ancient pre-Christian world of the west, though spectacular in its achievements, is a cultural enigma to us.

India, we are told, represents a historical analog by which Europe may have looked like today, hadn’t Europe left the mythologies and sacred practices and priority of the pre-Christian pagans. This may seem impressive to many if considered, despite India’s current situation, it ranks one of the strongest and most rapidly growing economies today, and just this year India no longer ranked as the country with the most people in poverty in the world (that place has been taken by Nigeria), and may even be third in the world by the end of this year (with Ethiopia also potentially surpassing it). Luminary figures and achievements in the 20th century like Gandhi and the banning of the caste system perhaps stand behind this proclamation, surely signs of immense progress that show an alternate history of how we could have been (when I say ‘we’, I mean Europe, and that technically excludes myself anyways).

However, it’s not clear at all whether or not modern India would represent an analogous history to how we would have developed without Christianity. For one, it isn’t clear just how similar Indian polytheism is to the beliefs of the Greek and Roman mythologies, nor is it clear just how much the system and government of modern India has been influenced by Western ideals and contributions, such as technology, the precepts of equality, modern democracy (contrasting to ancient Greek democracy which was, though an improvement, not the ideal it’s made out to be), architecture and construction (the British did wreak much havoc, but some good things also came out of their lengthy occupation). In fact, given these facts, it seems to me that the modern state of India couldn’t possibly represent an analog to the development to the West because it is entirely (well, not entirely) predicated on a Western predecessor, which does have Judeo-Christian roots (as we’ll find out soon enough, in contrast to Bassett’s following claim that as revolutionary as Christianity seems, its moral precepts were not unknown).

Bassett quickly admits that the ancient pagan world was full of horrid atrocities and that this was the norm. However, he adds, this was not absolute, and that the Roman world was full of self-criticism. Really? He cites Tacitus, the 2nd-century Roman historian and his critiques of imperialism and Romanisation of the Roman government, but however unique these critiques were to Tacitus (‘they create desolation, and call it peace’), Tacitus still was an imperialist. He critiqued some of the emperors for their failure to implement expansionist policies and claimed that prolonged peace had broken the spirits of the people of Italy, among other things (see Iiro Kajanto’s “Tacitus’ attitude to war and the soldier.” Latomus (1970): 699-718). Not to mention, since Christianity is on the topic, Tacitus seems to have been more then pleased with the persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero (described as a class hated for their abominations with a hatred against mankind, with Nero’s persecution of them as a “check for the moment” of the “mischevious superstition”, see Tacitus’s Annals 15.44). Perhaps Bassett will update us with a better example.

Bassett goes on and tries to provide another source for incredible moral progress that shows Christianity was not unique by speaking of the Stoic philosophies;

For example, the second century Stoic Hierocles posited an early form of “cosmopolitanism,” whereby the ego, the ‘I’ at the centre of our ethical life, was enfolded by concentric circles of moral concern. The closer the circle to the centre, to the I, the more demanding on our affections its subjects tend to be. The family was closest, and eventually one would reach all humankind in the outermost circle… It is true that these insights did not lead the Stoics to condemn slavery—even if, in a general sense, the ethical universalism explicit in Stoic philosophy theoretically encompassed all human beings regardless of status or creed. And in this failing, the Stoics were morally deficient. But then again, the early Christians didn’t condemn slavery either. In its pure ethical form, Stoicism actually expresses a less contingent attitude toward the object of ethical concern than does Christianity. As the scholar Runar Thorsteinsson has argued, the ethical character of early Christianity as expressed through the writings of Paul and in 1 Peter are best conceived as urging obedience and toleration toward non-Christian society, but advise a more generous ethical dispensation only toward fellow believers. The point here is not that early Christianity was particularly morally deficient—merely that it was not extraordinary in the context of the ethical beliefs and arguments known to educated people in the first, second and third centuries CE.

There’s a lot to address here. Firstly, as I’ve recently explained, while Christianity did not condemn slavery as a concept, the scholar Murray Vaser has shown that the New Testament clearly condemns the contemporary slave trade, especially by contrasting in Revelation how slaves are treated by Babylon (which represents Rome) to how they’re treated in New Jerusalem — in Babylon, the slaves are sold alongside animals, whereas in New Jerusalem the (God’s) slaves reign eternally as His friends in eternal happiness. On top of Vaser’s argument, a reference to 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be added, where slave traders who kidnap people themselves are condemned alongside those who kill their parents, the sexually immoral and those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” Slavery declined throughout the European continent during the Middle Ages (the slavery we’re familiar with now is a product of the Atlantic Slave Trade which originated during the 16th century) because Christians believed it was immoral to enslave fellow Christians and, as the pagan numbers dried out as all turned to Christianity, slavery (though not serfdom) significantly decline in medieval Christian Europe. In total contrast, Stoics not only were completely fine with slave trading, but thought that being enslaved was the result of divine providence (just like everything else) and it was completely fine since the slave could still act virtuously. Really?

Secondly, for all the philosophical and abstract talk of the Stoics about this kind of morality, it looks like the Stoics completely failed to apply these principles in practice at all — in fact, one Bassett’s prize Stoics is the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned between AD 161-180, and under whom the greatest persecution against Christianity by any emperor up until his time (see Paul Keresztes, Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?, 321-341; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, pg. 38, 569) took place. After championing Stoicism, Bassett asks us a very kind rhetorical question that he goes on to defend by citation of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Can it be said that Christianity improved upon this world? Did its spiritual consolations somehow spur society toward a more ethical future, or did they kill the impulse toward truth telling at the heart of Greco-Roman Stoicism, and thereby further derange a society that, by the fourth century, would become worn out by war, pestilence and almost complete political collapse? In championing the latter view, psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that true ethical progress has been a recent historical phenomenon, ultimately resulting from the triumph of rational ethical doctrine over the Catholic and then Calvinist superstitions of Christian dogma that held sway during the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s view of history, the Christian period was one of moral and political stagnation, thanks in part to its reliance on superstitious “revelation.”

Unfortunately, though, it appears that the response of historians to Steven Pinker, who is not a historian by any means, is fatally devastating. Just a few months ago, in the March of 2018, the academic journal Historical Reflections published a full issue of twelve renowned historians and their responses to Pinker’s thesis. Mark Micale, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, and Philip Dwyer, Professor of History and founding Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, scathingly conclude the following in the introductory paper.

Not all of the scholars included in this journal agree on everything, but the overall verdict is that Pinker’s thesis, for all the stimulus it may have given to discussions around violence, is seriously, if not fatally, flawed. The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world. (pg. 4)

I would seriously push Bassett to read all twelve essays (I’m not including the introductory paper in these twelve), as they reveal just how seriously dubious much of Pinker’s claims and ‘evidence’ are, especially when it comes to piling all this onto Enlightenment thinking. In other words, Bassett’s citation for his claim is dead wrong and he is either ignoring, downplaying or just blissfully unaware of what the consensus of historians is on the validity of Pinker’s thesis in the actual literature. It doesn’t get any better.

On the other hand, it is also true that while Christianity did codify much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought, it also cast a damnatio memoriae— condemnation of memory—over the rigorously open “pensive gaze” of Marcus Aurelius. In doing so, it closed the gates of history on one of the most creative and morally experimental periods in philosophy. The Roman emperor Justinian took this process to its end point in 529 CE, when he shuttered the Academy in Athens, making the cultural conquest of Christianity complete.

Bassett’s claim that Christianity simply “codif[ied] much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought” is dead wrong. The majority of scholars for about a generation now think that Christianity’s primary context is in its ancient Jewish, not Hellenistic, context. That’s not to say that Judaism itself was not Hellenized to any degree, although that gets us nowhere near Bassett’s position of a nearly entire ethical copy and pasting. A few scholars, mostly inside the Jesus Seminar, proposed that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophers though at this point it’s an essentially refuted hypothesis. I must wonder whether Basset is aware of the work of Geza Vermes on establishing Christianity within a strict Jewish context and, as time goes on, the evidence for this continues to stack and the arguments for Hellenistic influence become more and more dubious. For example, the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q521 was only published in the early 1980’s and provides an incredibly close verbal parallel to the messianic expectations of the Jews and what the Gospels say Jesus came to do (see this excellent article on this connection by James Tabor, a Professor of Christian Origins and Ancient Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte). Just yesterday, I read a recently published paper titled Praising Christ the King: Royal Discourse and Ideology in Revelation 5 in the journal Novum Testamentum, and it demonstrates how the Book of Revelation actually inverts Hellenistic/Roman morality, regarding how Hellenistic monarchs claimed their right to rule through their conquest and the blood they spilled to acquire their power (something the Stoics also probably considered another element of divine providence), whereas Jesus assumes the right to rule through the blood He spilled on the cross. Surely, Richard B. Hays has shown in his paradigm shifting monograph Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul that Christianity, including Paul, operated on a fundamentally Jewish level.

I’ll interrupt in an edit here. Bassett wrote a response to his critics on his blog (which was essentially a response to the comment I wrote under the Quillette article), and he makes a fair point where he makes his claim more clear;

Nevertheless I ought to have drawn a clearer a distinction between Stoic thought and Greco-Roman culture (in the last few centuries BCE and the first few CE) in general, which indeed permitted particular practices that today we rightly condemn and find abhorrent… Still, recent scholarship has shown the indebtedness of early Christian thought to Stoicism, so I don’t believe my position is ridiculous on its face. If I compose a second response, I might try to delve deeper into this topic.

When he claims that recent scholarship has “shown” Christianity is indebted to Stoic thought, I assume he’s referring to Runar Thorsteinsson’s Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford 2010). However, scholarship has not shown this at all — at the very least, Thorsteinsson’s thesis reopens the debate but this is far from any consensus at this point. I admit to not having read this book yet, though I will note this critical review of the book in Themelios which makes some good points, at least assuming that the author isn’t wholly misrepresenting Thorsteinsson. If at least, I’ll give Bassett that his position isn’t ridiculous on its face.

Bassett also cites Justinian’s closing of Plato’s Academy in the 6th century AD as completing “the cultural conquest of Christianity”. Of course, Bassett seems to leave out the fact that the Plato’s Academy that Justinian closed never went back to Plato at all, rather that Platonic academy was closed when the pagan Romans invaded Athens in the 2nd century BC, and the one Justinian closed was actually just reopened later as a neo-Platonic school for “espousing the mystical doctrines of Plotinus and and Proclus”, as historian James Hannam explains. In fact, it seems to me that if anything, the Hellenistic monarchs were much better at conquering their own culture, since Bassett doesn’t ever mention the fact that, besides the Romans closing down Plato’s Academy in the 2nd century BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy VII Psychon also expelled all scholars out of Alexandria in the 2nd century BC, and as a further insult to education, the last pagan emperor of Rome Julian banned all Christians from being able to teach in the public schools in the 4th century AD. Nor does Bassett mention that the reason why Justinian closed down the Academy was because it was espousing anti-Christian doctrines that was being paid for out of the public purse (see again James Hannam’s article). All this seems, at least to me, to be especially relevant and besides not seeming like a “cultural conquest”, it appears that, with the decline of Greco-Roman paganism, their institutions would have inevitably passed away anyways (not to mention that their philosophies were all so dead wrong about physics that the Condemnations of 1277 of Aristotle’s work at the Arts Faculty in the University of Paris actually had the effect of helping science progress; see Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, pp. 78–83, 147–48). It’s hard to see an extinction of Greco-Roman culture in the 6th century when this was the same century that Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most important and influential treatises of the Middle Ages. What makes Bassett’s claim even more dubious that this was some kind of conquest is the fact that so many of the church fathers in the classical period praised and even applied Greek learning (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Damascene, etc) such as that, for example, the most learned Christian of the 3rd century Origen of Alexandria used Pythagorean terminology to describe the Trinity. The philosophers died, but philosophy lived on. What’s so bad about that?

Is it so hard to imagine that this world could have come into being without the cultural dominance of Christianity? I submit that it is not. The ancient world contained within it the possibility for moral change. But the ancient experiment was aborted because it was eventually deemed unacceptable to practice any doctrine except that espoused by Peter and Paul.

I wonder how the Aristotelian scholars during the 12th century European Renaissance would have felt had Bassett told them that all doctrines other than those espoused by Peter and Paul weren’t permitted to be practiced. Anyways, there’s a whole slew of immediate and enormous steps towards moral progress made immediately when Christianity took precedent that Bassett either considers too unimportant to mention or, at the very least, not conducive to the advancement of his thesis. Once Christians first came into power, gladiator battles and crucifixion were almost immediately banned. The practice of exposing infants, where you would simply dispose of your newborn if you didn’t like them (read this academic paper if you want to know how horrid and widespread this practice was) was rapidly diminished by the Christian people and within a few decades of Christianity becoming the religion of the emperor, it was made illegal (though, like all wicked practices in the ancient world, did not cease from existence).

At around the same time that child exposure was made illegal, the great Christian Basil of Caesarea established the first Christian hospital (in contrast to the ancient model), an event which has an importance that cannot be overstated. Albert Jonson, in his monograph A Short History of Medical Ethics (Oxford 2000) writes that the “second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia” (pg. 13). In the final paragraph of Bassett’s article, he writes “To posit that the ancient world, deprived of Christianity, contained within it no moral prospect is to deny history.” But to claim that anyone has argued that no moral prospect existed in the pagan world is a strawman. Though Bassett likes to tell us about Stoicism, which certainly was much better than any other moral system among the pagans at the time, in its over 600 years of existence since Zeno of Elea founded it in the 3rd century BC to the time Constantine became emperor, it seems to have failed to change the system in any way at all. In contrast, as we’ve seen, the effects Christianity had on the world were immediate, even if we didn’t get to the present level of tolerance and sophistication until a long time. Interestingly enough, the final pagan emperor Julian himself shows us the moral schism between Christian and pagan morality. Julian, unable to comprehend why, chastised his fellow pagans to become more generous, as the Christians simply were far outpacing them in donations and help to those in need. There certainly was a moral schism, and Bassett should stop trying to downplay it and, like Tom Holland (a fellow non-believer he targets in the article, perhaps Bassett should have at least let Holland publish the book he’s working on when it comes to this topic instead of trying to stomp around on an argument he doesn’t yet know), should start trying to be very grateful for this schism. We are heirs of Christ, rather than Caesar. And thank God for that.

2 thoughts on “A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress

  1. “Scientific Christian” is rock solid oxymoron.
    Nothing remotely “scientific” about Christianity.
    And employing the word is a charade, if not tendentious, like donning a superficial coat of respectability.
    Like so many evangelists today wallowing in pseudo-science.
    Delusional folly.
    Of course a signature property of science is it never stands still.
    Is always open to change based on scrutiny and experiment.
    The very antithesis of Belief.


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