The Year of Covid 19: Political religion and the culture wars. Part 2. 1. Europe’s legacy: the first fifteen hundred years to AD 410.

The draft Constitution for Europe, and then the Lisbon Treaty finally signed by all EU member states in late 2007, failed to reference Europe’s Christian legacy in its Preamble. The text that made it through to the preamble of the Lisbon treaty specified “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” but made no direct mention of Christianity which had played a central role in European religion, culture and politics for nearly two thousand years. Europe’s secularists celebrated, but not in unison. Chancellor Merkel said she would like the text to refer to Christianity, but did not insist; the ex-Communist President of Poland, Alexsander Kwasniewski, campaigning for votes in a still largely Catholic Poland was more forthright: “I am an atheist, he proudly asserted, and everybody knows it, but there are no excuses for making reference to ancient Greece and Rome, and the Enlightenment, without making references to the Christian values which are so important to the development of Europe”.[1]

The secularists’ intent, though, was not just to ignore, but to blackball self-confessed Christians, as Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian centrist conservative nominee for a portfolio in the European Commission, found out. In his hearing before the European parliament, his candidature was rejected by an alliance of Progressives, Liberals and Greens. As Italy’s Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli stated, the decision revealed the “fundamentalist” face of the EU.  [2]  

In his monumental A History of Christianity, Diarmaird MacCulloch writes that the story of Christianity does not start with the birth, life, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus, but is to be traced to at least a millenia before in the two literatures of Greece and Israel. In the following sections, we examine this legacy in terms of the Jewish and Greek traditions; the first millenia and the Latin tradition following Christ’s life, death and Resurrection; the impact of the Black Death of 1349, where up to 40% of Europe’s population died of the plague; the divisions and expansion of Western Christianity through to the French Revolution, and the development of secularism; the papal response to modernism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and  the continent’s descent into the barbarism of the two world wars. 

In the  post-1945 era, the dominant note in European Christianity is “aggiornamento”. My theme here is that the same cultural wars have raged for at least two hundred years, with the same protagonists; in one corner, the defenders of Europe’s Judeo-Christian legacy, and in the other their progressive opponents, determined to install their own religion- a new, untried, so therefore always experimental theocracy. This section of the article on cultural wars traces the roots of European civilization to the Jews, the Greeks and to Rome, ending in a summary of the legacy of the first 1500 in the third and fourth centuries AD. What, the question runs, is this legacy as of say 410 AD, the year that Alaric’s troops sacked Rome? The picture on the front is of Michelangelo’s Conversion of St Paul on the way to Damascus, and on display in the Vatican. It is there because “All Christians alive today are heirs of the Church which Paul created”, in the words of Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The first thousand years: The Jews.

Judaism is a religion of the book, whose fundamental tenet is belief in a spiritual God who created the world and is omnipotent and omniscient. The books, which the Bible contains, tells how Yahweh made the special covenant with Moses, and of  Israel’s subsequent travails. The covenant, Norman Cantor writes in his classic, The Civilization of the Middle Ages[3] imposed religious, moral, social and political obligations upon the Jews; and when they deviated, God sent his prophets, who spoke as what would now be called “populists”, criticizing the élites for the violations of the covenant, and their failure to live up to their moral obligations as God’s witnesses. The Bible is thus a history book, in which God manifests his presence as a God of history, conceived as the working out of Logos, or God’s  Word. In this drama, man has the freedom to love God or to reject Him.[4] God takes seven days to make the world, but he creates the Garden of Eden which appears initially as a timeless paradise. Adam’s fall, his eating of the forbidden fruit on the suggestion of Eve, is the paradigm of man’s rebellion against God’s command. He and Eve are thrown out of the Garden, out of Paradise. So how can man redeem himself?  By atonement and repentance is the Judaic response. Through the Grace of Christ, who died upon the Cross, is the Christian solution. The great divide between Judaism and Christianity is about Logos, identified by Christians as the Messiah who died for all on the Cross

The Christian book  reflects this duality.  The Bible is composed of the Old Testament, incorporating 39 books, corresponding to the Jewish Tanakh, and the  New Testament, composed of 27 books, including the four gospels, the letters of Paul, and at the end, the book of Revelation. The early chapters of Genesis tell the story of God’s creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, the institution of marriage between man and woman, the eviction of Adam and Eve from paradise, and then into the history of Israel in the rest of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. All these books share the theme of Israel’s journey into Egypt, the centuries of enslavement, and the subsequent “exodus” from Egypt to the land of Canaan- roughly the territory of present-day Israel. The Old Testament also shares the discovery of monotheism, of one God, not many, who speaks  to Moses out of the burning bush “by my name Yahweh”. Yahweh is a personal God, who delivers the law- the Ten Commandments- to Moses, whose task it is to convey the revelation to the people. 

In the Old Testament, David is a central figure whose life is recounted in the first Book of Samuel and the First Book of Chronicles. He starts out as a shepherd, but gains fame as a musician. As a warrior, his reputation is confirmed when he slays the giant Goliath, with his slingshot. King Saul takes the young man into his service, and through much intrigue and murder, David becomes King, establishes the kingdom, conquers Jerusalem, and  takes the Ark of the Covenant into the city. He dies a peaceful death around 970 BC, having appointed Salomon, his son, as successor. In the Old Testament, he is ascribed the authorship of the Psalms and is revered as a model King, from whom- the Gospels of Matthew and Luke aver- Jesus is descended. Before his death, he admonishes Solomon to “..keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgements, and his testimonies, as is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest…for thou art a wise man…” ( I Kings 2, verses 3-9).  

The Ark of the Covenant is one of the many passerelles between Old and New Testaments, that find their way into western law, music, theology, prophesy and prayer. The Ark is described in the Book of Exodus as containing two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. Famously, Joshua had the Ark carried around the city of Jericho, preceded by armed men and seven priests. As the words of the spiritual phrase it, “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho, and de walls came a tumblin’ down”. The Ark is also mentioned in various places in the New Testament, notably in a reference to “thy servants the prophets”, who “shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth”, and see that “the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament”. (Revelations, 11, verses 18-19). An elaborate theology is built on these references, whereby the Ark becomes personified by Christ; some of the early fathers of the Church considered that the subsequent verse, Chapter 12 verse 1, which refers to “ a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, identifies the Blessed Virgin Mary as “the Ark of the new Covenant”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells”. [5]

The First Temple was located in Jerusalem on what is now called Temple Mount, and construction was completed in 957 BC during King Solomon’s reign. Solomon had the Ark placed in the Temple’s innermost room, which only the high priest was allowed to enter on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Judaic calendar, the central theme of which is atonement and repentance. The day is traditionally kept in fasting and prayer. But the Israelites clearly failed to live up to David’s admonition to Solomon, because the Hebrew Bible records God’s wrath in delivering his people  into the Babylonian captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem in 587 BC, destroyed the city wall and the Temple, and hauled the inhabitants into exile. “Babylon” becomes a metaphor for the diaspora, and is celebrated in Psalm 137,” by the waters of Babylon”,  which formed the inspiration for  Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Nabucco, and the song of the slaves-one of the most celebrated moments of European music. “Mindful of the fate of Solomon’s Temple, they sing, let me cry out with sad lamentation, or else may the Lord strengthen me to hear these sufferings”. The song has been proposed, to no effect,  as Italy’s national anthem. Here,  Ricardo Muti, the famous conductor,  has “Va pensiero” replayed, and asks the audience to sing along.

The Babylonian captivity-the second captivity following the Egyptian -marks a watershed for the history of Israel. The Israelites returned to Jerusalem, where the Second Temple was constructed in the years 521-516 BC. Subsequently, much of religious significance occurs: the Torah, the authoritative text for Jews, is redacted during this time; the figure of Ha-satan, the devil, takes shape; the mystery of suffering is explored; the figure of the Messiah appears, [6] a human leader who is to be descended from the line of David, and will emerge to  unify the twelve tribes into a recognizable Israelite nation; restore,  in the Roman period, the kingdom of Israel; usher in an age of universal peace, and announce “the life of the world to come. » The Jewish sect, as MacCulloch writes, which became Christianity borrowed this sacred literature and fashioned Christian belief in its founder-messiah along lines shaped by the stories of the Tanakh.

Into the second millennium: Christianity and the Jews.

When Jesus was born remains controversial. What is not controversial is that his teaching was both radical and simple . It was radical as illustrated by the fact that  the Jewish high priest “rent his clothes” on hearing Jesus allude to the Son of Man-a phrase used by Jews to refer to the Messiah. His teaching was also simple, in the sense of being accessible to his illiterate disciples but also replete with paradox, full of subtle meditations on theology and ethics, and so easily misunderstood by them. He often upbraided them as “fools and slow of heart”. His sayings and actions are recorded in very similar form in all the gospels – the “evangelion” or good news in Greek-  of Matthew, Mark and Luke, all written within less than fifty years after Jesus’ death. 

In their accounts, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and was arrested as a troublemaker. Famously, the Roman Governor was Pontius Pilate.  The gospels record that Pilate considered Jesus was innocent, but the people answered “let him be crucified”. “Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us, and on our children”. (Matthew Ch 27, v. 25).  These words echoed down the centuries as justification for Christians to persecute Jews. Only at the Vatican Council (1962-1965), after the Holocaust, did the Church-in the words of Zechariah Shuster, the European leader of the American Jewish Committee-make “a total rejection of the myth of Jewish guilt for crucifixion”. [7]

The fourth gospel, John, opens with the famous verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The English “Word”, or Logos in the Greek, means also “Discourse” or “Reason”, and is the title applied to Jesus Christ. Since the early days of Christianity, the verse has been central for establishing the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. In a lecture in 2005 on the crisis in Europe’s culture, Cardinal Ratzinger, two weeks before coming Pope, said that “ Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the “Logos.” It is faith in the “Creator Spiritus,” in the Creator Spirit, from which proceeds everything that exists. …. Only creative reason, which in the crucified God is manifested as love, can really show us the way. In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the “Logos,” from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.” [8]  

Jesus’ teaching was simple, and understandable to his illiterate disciples. He advised men and women not to worry about social revolution or national redemption, but to tend to their own souls.  Salvation, he preached in the Sermon on the Mount, requires that men and women become humble and poor in spirit. The revolution that mattered was the revolution of the human heart.   Do not divorce your wife, he said: “.. from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh…what therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”. And further, “ Suffer the children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark, Chapter 10. v. 6 -14). 

On politics, he made the crucial statement, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s , and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew Chapter 22. v. 21) Clearly, Christ’s teaching is at odds with policies of off-the-shelf divorce, abortion at nine months, and the abandonment of children by irresponsible biological, fathers. Yet when confronted by scribes and Pharisees by a woman taken in adultery, where the law of Moses commanded that she be stoned, Jesus answered: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John, Chapter 8. v.7). 

A central figure in the New Testament is Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus, a Jew in the Pharisaic tradition, who was highly educated, and a citizen of the Roman empire. His conversion on the road to Damascus, in the years immediately following Christ’s death and resurrection, is recounted in The Acts, and in the Epistles, in the New Testament, and is depicted by Michelangelo, in The Conversion of Saul, housed in the Cappella Paolina, in the Vatican, and by countless other masters.  The conversion was a crucial turning point in Christianity’s evolution away from first-century Judaism, to a faith centred on Jesus Christ, and a commissioning of Paul as an Apostle to the Gentiles. [9] It has been said of Paul that he made a complete revisioning of the Old Testament in his own Judeo-Hellenistic terms.

Paul is the vehicle whereby Christ’s teachings are elaborated into a new and universal religion.  “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and were all made to drink of one Spirit”. ( I Corinthians 12, 13). With Paul’s Epistles, the Church spreads its wings as Catholic, “katholikos”, universal. They shape what becomes over the following centuries the theology of the Church, concentrating “ on the effect of his death and resurrection in god’s cosmic plan”, and show “curiously little interest in the life and teaching of Jesus.” “All Christians alive today”, MacCullock writes, “are heirs of the Church which Paul created”. 

According to that Church, the descendants of Adam and Eve live in sin since the expulsion from the garden of Eden.  Simply, sin  is a transgression against divine law, or human disobedience to the laws of God, as revealed to Abraham, Moses and the prophets, and as preached by Christ, whose death upon the Cross and resurrection is understood by Christians as God’s taking upon himself the sins of mankind. 

The human condition of sin also involves a sense of history.  The Fall stands at the beginning of time, and resurrection recurs regularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, and continues until the End Time, which may be closer or further off, but is definitely located in the future and therefore mysterious. In a fuller sense, “sin” is understood as human alienation from God’s Logos, as defined above. This Christian Logos nonetheless  stands in stark contrast to Herodotus’ Logos, understood as the workings of Nature that overshadow the cold and self-centred reason on display in the Melian dialogue. As St Augustine writes in Book V of The City of  God, “everything must be referred to divine providence” .  Events do not occur haphazardly. They do not materialize as part of an automatic process;  because the fates have been charted in the stars; or by pure chance.   In the Christian perspective,   history is the working of God’s providence in time, and its significance is “the life of the world to come”. “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ”, writes St. Paul (Romans, 14.10).

The first generations of Christians were Jews, living mainly in the eastern Mediterranean and whose world was shaped by Greek culture and language. Jesus spoke Aramaic, but he is also known as Christ, meaning “messiah” or “anointed one”. This Greco-Jewish world of early Christianity endured for three centuries, and began to diverge into three distinct language zones:  the Latin speaking West and Mediterranean; the Greek-speaking East, and those in what we call the Mid-East, who spoke oriental languages. Towards the end of the first century, Judaism and its offshoot of Christianity grew apart. Rome rather than Jerusalem or Antioch, became the seat of the new bishopric, whose first bishop, tradition holds, was Peter, one of Christ’s Apostles.

It was  Rome’s imperial power  which killed the Christian messiah, and in Rome that both Peter and Paul were martyred on the orders of the Emperor Nero. Rome also sacked Jerusalem in AD 70, destroyed the Temple, slaughtered countless of its citizens, or carted  survivors to captivity. Others dispersed around the Mediterranean and some abjured their Judaism. The Church grew slowly into its Roman milieu, vulnerable to repeated persecutions, becoming over time a vast and wealthy organisation.  Christianity, writes Norman Cantor, was transformed into a new religion, “ -a mystical , sacramental, hierarchical, Platonized religion that was acceptable to Roman citizens”. [10]

In 312 AD, the Church triumphed when the Emperor Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge, an important route over the Tiber, that started him on the path to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Eusebius of Caesarea recounts that Constantine and his soldiers had a vision sent by God. The vision was interpreted as meaning a promise of victory if the sign of the Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in the Greek alphabet, were painted on the soldiers shields. The battle went Constantine’s way, as predicted. Maxentius, Constantine’s opponent, drowned in the Tiber, but his body was recuperated, and his head paraded through the streets of Rome.  

A grateful Constantine showered Christians with favours, and in AD 325, convened an ecumenical council of bishops at the city of Nicaea (now Iznik, in Turkey). This council was the first attempt to reach consensus in the church representing all of Christendom. Its main accomplishment was settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of Christ, and the construction of the first part of the Nicean crede. Initial steps were taken to establish a calendar for Easter. In AD 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, the definition was settled of “our Lord Jesus Christ”, as “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood”. But the Council left unresolved the relation of the See of Rome to the Sees of Constantinople and of Alexandria.

The separation between the churches developed over the subsequent millennium, oriental Christianity being centred in Baghdad, which- writes MacCulloch- would  have been a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome; the western Latin Church, centred on Rome where the Pope’s primacy came to be confirmed; and thirdly, eastern Orthodoxy emerging from the Greek world, came to be centred first on  Constantinople- the city on the Bosphorus founded by Constantine- and then on  Russian Christianity in Muscovy.  The split between the Western and Eastern Churches occurred in 1054. The stories of these Christianities is entangled consistently with Judaism, and after the seventh century, with Islam. The three stories then tend to converge, but not to merge, as the world became united under the aegis of the western empires. The Nicaean crede is still prayed in the universal Church. The union of Church and State, initiated by  Constantine, endured in multiple forms until the French Revolution, and arguably through to 1914. By the time of the convocation of Vatican II in 1962, the one state in western Europe that was visibly in the tradition of Constantine, and that placed its law under the Vatican,  was Franco Spain. [11]  

The first 1000 years: The Greeks. 

If Israel is the people of one God and one book, the Greeks were the people of many gods and many books. The books of the Greeks were the Iliad and Odyssey, the Homeric epics about the final weeks of the Trojan war, and Ulysses’  subsequent ten-year journey to Ithaca after the war’s end. Whether or not the wars actually occurred , scholars who consider that the epics recounted real events date it to the twelfth century BC. Others argue that  the Iliad recounts a fusion of tales of war from the late Bronze age, and the catastrophic events accompanying them.[12] The Homeric epics deal with the  drama of war and peace, and of wandering but for ever not finding, until the very end. The gods are constantly present; they never cease to intervene on one side or another in human affairs, argue among themselves, disobey their superiors, fall in love with humans or destroy them, are inconsistent, unpredictable and capricious. The heroes and gods of the epics inhabit two worlds-the human world, but also a world beyond man, inscrutable, mysterious and threatening. Ulysses is constantly wandering in and out of these two worlds, thereby prolonging his travels  following the Trojan war.[13]  He is eventually landed home in Ithaca by friendly sailors, and puts on disguise to find out whether his wife, Penelope, has been true to him. She stages a contest for her hand between her suitors and Ulysses, which he wins. He promptly puts all the suitors to death, orders the serving women who slept with the suitors to clean up the blood, then has them all hanged. Penelope, probably sagaciously,  is convinced that this is her husband, fulfilling thereby the long predicted triumph of the returning hero.[14]

Another great epic of Greek literature is the Peloponnesian war of 431-405 BC, when the two most powerful Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta,  went to war one with another, and Sparta triumphed, ushering in a period of decline that heralded the end of what is considered the Golden Age of ancient Greece. The formation of the Delian League united several Greek city-states in a military alliance under Athens, while the Peloponnesian League of city-states formed around Sparta. A first conflict ended in an uneasy peace. But full scale war broke out when peace talks failed. Athens then suffered from the plague, which killed nearly two-thirds of the population, including Pericles, Athens’ leading general. The war reignited, and eventually the Spartan general Lysander decimated the Athenian fleet  in 405 BC, and then held Athens under siege, forcing it to surrender to Sparta in 404 B.C. Athens lost its dominance in the region and was absorbed into the Spartan Empire. It continued to exist under a series of tyrants and then as a democracy. Less than a century later, both were absorbed into the kingdom of Macedonia,  Macedonia briefly became the largest empire in the world under the reign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.

The war is recounted in the 8 volume History of the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides, who has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, where men not gods drive the story forward.[15] In this, his philosophy as an historian diverges from that of his contemporary, Herodotus who, in his account of the Greco-Persian wars,  has the gods regularly intervening in human affairs, and altering the course of events. But he, Herodotus,  does borrow from the philosopher, Heraclitus, the idea of “logos”, which Heraclitus understood as the impersonal law of nature, and its four constituent elements of fire, air, water and earth. According to this view, the world is in permanent flux, “No man ever steps in the same river twice” says Heraclitus- and if there is a deus ex machina, it would seem to be very similar to Harold MacMillan’s “events, dear boy, events”, in describing how politicians are permanently being thrown by unexpected events. 

For instance, the  plague of 531 BC in Athens was an unmitigated disaster. Thucydides recounts its horror in Pericles’ funeral oration: “ Though many lay unburied, birds and beasts would not touch them, or died after tasting them […]. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons who had died there, just as they were; for, as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became equally contemptuous of the property of and the dues to the deities.”

Thucydides’ philosophy of history is also fed by his clear understanding of human nature. Nowhere is this better on display than in the famous dialogue between the Athenians and the islanders of Melos that occurs in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian war. The Athenians invite the islanders of Melos to surrender, their argument being that “”the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It would be wise to surrender, the Athenians say: we would both benefit. You would live, and we would benefit by exploiting you. This famous  dialogue is still studied in military academies:

Not surprisingly, Thomas Hobbes, theoretician of the dog-eats-dog view of human behavior, author of The  Leviathan, a book redacted at the time of the Cromwellian dictatorship, wrote approvingly: “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can get”. In the state of nature, wrote Hobbes,  life was “nasty, brutal and short”. The solution for Hobbes was for the Leviathan state to impose law and order by force, and then to turn outwards to ensure the survival and prosperity of the state in the jungle of international relations. There, the state’s prime objective is survival as an autonomous entity: survival entails building domestic capabilities, supplementing them through alliances, and always remaining alert to the rise of hegemons who seek to crush you. In this view, international law is nothing more than the law of the powerful applied to the less powerful. 

Thucydides is considered the pioneer of this “realist” approach to the study of politics, both internal to the state and in the state’s relations with other states. Harold Lasswell, the famous Yale political sociologist, defined politics as “who gets what, when, how”; in international politics, anarchy reigns, there is no overall sovereign, so hence a constant struggle for power and prestige. The great Anglo-Irish historian, J.B.Bury writes that the work of Thucydides “marks the longest and most decisive step that has ever been taken by a single man towards making history what it is today”.[16]

The Peloponnesian war came to its bitter conclusion in 405 BC; the great philosophers, Socrates,(c.469—399 BC) Plato (428-348 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) taught in Athens over the century contemporaneous to, and following  these dramatic events. These three are foundational to the western philosophical tradition, first Greek, then Roman. Their gifts to western culture, MacCulloch writes, were: Socrates’ idea that “priority should be given over received wisdom to logical argument and a rational procession of thought,” Plato’s observation that we are prisoners in a cave, and “the particular phenomena we perceive in our lives are shadows of their ideal “Forms” which represent truer forms and higher versions of reality than the ones which we can readily know”.

Where Plato is much appreciated by the Fathers of the Church is his idea that there is a lower man who should strive towards his own ideal form, his inner, higher man. Life lived well is thus an arduous journey towards virtue.  Norman Cantor writes that “ Plato convincingly tells us that human life is valuable because the soul grows and matures in the body,  and the soul of Socrates, the philosopher, is different from that of Socrates, the infant. “. “If the soul has been rightly educated, if it is beautiful and just and good, it will return to Beauty and Justice and Good after death. Obviously, this concept entered into the Christian view of immortality, of ascension into heaven at the end of a good life and descent into hell at the end of a bad one”. [17]

Plato discusses politics in three books: The RepublicThe Statesman and The Laws. In this life, statesmanship, says Plato,  is the supreme science. Power must be in the hands of those who know, and what they must know is the essence of the type of state they operate in.  The special curse of democracies, Plato considered, is the ignorance, incompetence and pettiness of its politicians, for ever prone to factionalism. The root of factionalism is property, so the eradication of factionalism requires that the soldiers and rulers- Plato’s Guardians- own neither possessions, wives nor family. In such an ideal state,  the rule of knowledge becomes possible, or failing that, rule by laws. In the seventh letter of The Laws, Plato’s advise to Dion is: “ Let not Sicily nor any city anywhere be subject to human master…but to laws”. The law is the repository of accumulated knowledge which Plato places as a supreme value in the state. Wisdom may be  accumulated therein, but so may decay. In all three of Plato’s classifications of states: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, decay is forever lurking: monarchy can readily switch to tyranny; aristocracy to oligarchy and rule of the rich; democracy and rule of the many can be dragged to extremes peopled by demagogues. These writings are from the fourth century BC. But they resonate as much today as they did for the intervening two and a half millenia.

Aristotle was Plato’s pupil for twenty years. But the two were very different. Plato was the contemplative type, interested in thinking through to the essence of things, in search of ideal types. Aristotle believed, writes Cantor, “ that if one investigates, examines data, collects information and does research, one can set out all the gathered material and come to a decision. His was the first scientific mind, and he believed that if all the data are collected and put together, a pattern will emerge. This is a different theory of knowledge from that of Plato: it assumes that the human mind is an active, conditioning receptacle for experience, that the mind interacts with its environment and receives sensory data. On the basis of the data, the mind discriminates, generalizes and develops, universal concepts. Our concepts are generalizations from experience, not necessarily parts of the divine order of the universe. This is basically, a scientific academic attitude”. [18]

It cannot be much of a surprise that initially Plato appealed to the early Fathers of the Church. There was little understanding about Christ’s life to be culled from an empirical assessment of the Virgin Birth, the miracles or the Resurrection. But the rediscovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries  fueled the great renewal of Christian scholarship.The renewal is most evident in Thomas Aquinas ‘ Summae Theologica. This unfinished book is considered “one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature.”[19] “Right down to the seventeenth century”, writes MacCulloch, “Christian debate about faith and the world involved  a debate between two Greek ghosts, Plato and Aristotle, who had never heard the name of Jesus Christ.” [20]The  61 volumes of his Summae Theologica,[21] is still taught as the prime manual to trainee priests. 

Aristotle’s legacy to western culture is nothing less than the idea of constitutional government. Aristotle is adamant that the Guardians, no matter how knowledgeable, must be subject to the law. Even the wisest ruler cannot dispense with law. Constitutional rule requires that governments rule in the general interest, and not in that of a faction; hence lawful government requires regulations that can be applied consistently and not by arbitrary decree. Over time, good laws will become rooted in the consent of the citizens.  The  best practicable state is a mixed constitution in which the rights of property and the welfare of the greater number are balanced. The social foundation of a polity should be the existence of a large middle class. In other words, Aristotle suggests a path towards constitutionalism, through the pragmatic learning of states over time in history. 

The city-states,  in which Plato and Aristotle taught, were super-ceded by the Macedonian empire, created by Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s pupil until his sixteenth year. Alexander succeeded his father Philip, who was assassinated in 336 BC.  The young heir  inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army , leading his troops to a series of blinding victories, creating thereby, at the age of thirty, one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to north-eastern Africa and to northwestern India. He broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, and is widely considered as one of history’s most successful military commanders. [22] The key moment of the new world in gestation came  at a banquet at Opis, where Alexander prayed for a union of hearts (homonoia), between his Macedonian soldiers and Persian subjects. In an effort to craft this union, he himself married Stateira, the daughter of the Persian emperor, Darius, and celebrated a mass marriage of his senior officers to Persian noble women.  He then moved on to Babylon, where he died in 323 BC. Aristotle died a year later. 

The death of Alexander and of Aristotle mark the transition from the city-states of Greece, to the idea of universal empire, the successor to Macedonia being Rome. What was known of the world, the ecumene, would be joined under a single political rule. The political philosophy that would have to prevail in the ecumene would hold that all men were brothers of the human family, and that therefore there are rules of justice applying to all men. The idea found its way into Christianity through the teachings of the Stoics, with which St Paul was very familiar. The fundamental teaching of the Stoics was a religious conviction of the oneness and perfection of a true moral order. As Paul wrote, “for we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have all been made to drink into one Spirit”.[23]

St Augustine, writing in the preface to The City of God, conveys clearly the message of every  individual’s value  in an ecumene: “This heavenly city, then, when it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace”.  Here we have it: citizens of all nations, pilgrims of all languages, diversities of manners and institutions, and peace secured through the City of God’s penetration and prevalence in the Earthly City. 


What then is the Christian legacy of Europe as of the fourth century AD? It is already vast, and there is another sixteen hundred years to go. In failing to mention Christianity in its constitutional treaty, the EU is turning its back on the following deeply embedded ideas in the European world: the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent God; the idea of God-given law; the moral obligation to follow that law; the concept of the Fall, of sin or of disobedience, and hence the justification for rebellion ; the umbilical chord linking the Old to the New Testaments; the split which gradually emerged in the many forms which Christianity began to take, expressed in language, culture, music, architecture, or law; the simplicity and all encompassing guide to living constituted by the Judeo-Christian traditions, and involving man and woman, marriage, the bringing up of children, the laws commanding human behaviour as expounded in the Ten Commandments or in the Sermon on the Mount;  the Christian idea of Logos as the workings of the Holy Spirit over time in this world, as contrasted to the Logos of the Greeks, or the workings of Nature in this world, both being forces beyond human ability to control; the crucial idea of the Fall, of salvation and forgiveness; the relation of the state to religion, of the emperor to the Pope ; the many legacies of the Emperor Constantine, both political and theological; the incorporation into the Christian tradition of Greek reasoning, of Plato’s many legacies such as the dichotomy of body and soul, the vital role of statecraft, the particular reasoning which is encrusted in statecraft as expounded in the Melian dialogue; Aristotle’s scientific insistence on evidence, and his conception of good government as constitutional, requiring the rule of law, consent of the governed, and of a permanent learning process; not least, of the idea of the individual’s worth in the universe of humanity, with all its differences, linquistic, institutional or cultural. 

That is an awful lot of inheritance to be neglecting. As someone who has taught for nearly forty years in one of the world’s leading business schools, it may be worth recording the importance my colleagues attach to self-knowledge. Without it, there can be no leadership, there will be no followership. The EU by neglecting such a vast panoply of its continent’s past cannot begin to succeed.  The next section of this series will review books , older and more recent, on what is called “the Middle Ages”, the years from 300 to 1500 AD. 

[1]  “Atheist premier attacks lack of Christianity in EU Constitution”, Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2003. 

[2] “Italians ‘affronted’ by EU official row” BBC News, 13 October, 2004. 

[3] Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, HarperCollins, 1994. Pp. 32-33.

[4] For a discussion on the history of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, see Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Harper Collins, 1994. pp.1-40. 

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 4: Christian Prayer, The exegesis explains the content of the Ave Maria, Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. 2676.

[6]Prof. Dr. Gerald J. Blidstein, “The Messiah in Rabbinic Thought” Messiah. Jewish Virtual Library and Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2008 The Gale Group.

[7] As quoted in Peter Seewald, Benedikt XVI: A Life, Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927-1965, Bloomsbury, 2020. P453.

[8]  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Cardinal Ratzinger on Europe’s Crisis of Culture”, Catholic Education Resource Center. April 1, 2005. . 

[9] James D. G. Dunn, “Paul’s Conversion: A Light to Twentieth Century Disputes”, The New Perspective on Paul, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B.Erdmans, 2008. Pp. 347-365.

[10] Cantor, 40.

[11] John Courtney Murray S.J., “The Issue of Church and State at Vatican II,” Theological Studies 27, , December 1966, pp.16-16

[12]  See Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: the changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca 1200 BC, Princeton University Press,  1993. 

[13] Agathe Thornton, “The Wanderings of Odysseus.” in People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey. Dunedin:University of Otago, Methuen, 1970. pp. 16–37

[14]  Bernard Knox, Introduction to Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, p.55.

[15]  Charles Norris Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History, Oxford University Press, 1929. p.179.

[16]  J. B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians. New York: Dover Publications, 1958.  p. 147.

[17] Cantor, p.18. 

[18] Cantor ; p.19.

[19] James F. Ross, “Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologicae”(ca 1273), Christian Wisdom Explained Philosophically, in The Classics of Western Philosophy: A Reader’s Guide, ed. J.J.E.Gracia, G.M.Reichberg, B.N.Schumacher, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003, p.165.

[20] MacCulloch, p.31-34. 

[21] The Oxford Handbooks Online considers that to date, the best English edition of the Summa theologiae (with notes and commentaries) is the Blackfriars edition, 61 vols., Latin and English with notes and introductions, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, and New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964–80.

[22] Bill Yenne, Alexander the Great: Lessons From History’s Undefeated General, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010, p.159.  

[23] I Corinthians, 12.1. 

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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2 Responses to The Year of Covid 19: Political religion and the culture wars. Part 2. 1. Europe’s legacy: the first fifteen hundred years to AD 410.

  1. Pingback: The Year of Covid 19: Political Religion and the Culture Wars: Part 2.2: The EU’s Legacy from the Middle Ages. | Writing about history, politics & economics

  2. Pingback: The Year of Covid 19: Political Religion and the Culture Wars. Part 2.5. The Utilitarians I: Elie Halévy and the Philosophical Radicals 1750-1867. | Writing about history, politics & economics

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