Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization

The previous post (very) briefly introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture by him on Constantine I and Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. This sense of the horizons of possibility changed during the course of the fourth century. The fact that Brown felt he needed to clarify what was distinctive about the Constantinian age and its hopes indicates something about how later history and later narratives were afterwards projected onto earlier times within the same century, making it difficult to see the world of the early- and mid-fourth century for what it was apart from these narratives. What can be said about the history that resists being assimilated by the narrative of Christianization we have inherited today? Continue reading

Peter Brown on Christianization, Part I: Eusebius and Constantine

If one did not know the name of “Peter Brown” (above, photo), then it is likely that one would have a radically limited understanding of the religious landscape of Late Antiquity. Should one do any real digging, or suffer any serious historical training in this period, it would be impossible to totally avoid him, much less to fail to take notice of his work.

His work is in academia. Brown currently enjoys the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, having previously been a lecturer at All Souls College in Oxford and having enjoyed a position at the University of California, Berkeley. He lectures widely, and just finished a major book. Together with Robert A. Markus, he has largely pioneered the study of the period known as “Late Antiquity” — some would say he inaugurated it (wresting it away from the narrative of decline still presided over by the ghost of Edward Gibbon). (One of Markus’ books, The End of Ancient Christianity, was dedicated to Brown.) Brown is the recipient of numerous awards (some of which pay quite substantially), and a member of many societies. He can read in more languages than most professional translators can (26, if Wikipedia is correct, and his books seem to bear this out).

As for these books of his, which bear out his familiarity with a high number of languages: they are many. His books include staple introductions to Late Antiquity, and standard surveys of Church history from A.D. 200-1000, primary syllabus texts for topics such as marriage and sexual renunciation and the cult of the saints (as well as the way that wealth might be marshaled to aid the departed), the highly-acclaimed biography of Augustine of Hippo that seems to reign as king, and his recent, magnificent book on the economic dimensions of cultural transformation –specifically religious ideas surrounding wealth and poverty– in the Roman West between A.D. 200-550. He has returned several times to at least three of his major earlier works to update them, decades later, in the light of more recent scholarship.


I noted that he lectures widely. In a paper he delivered in 2013 at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary titled “Constantine, Eusebius, and the Future of Christianity” (audio here), Brown addressed the question:

what did Constantine himself and the Christians of his age think that the future of Christianity would be and should be? What were for them the horizons of the possible? And so, what would they settle for as the measure of success? [118]

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On Might and Right

Most people plot all things with reference to wherever they are, interpret all things from the little realm they occupy. We craft entire false narratives for the meaning of the artifacts we come across through the lens of the history that is familiar to us; thus, we misinterpret the word “good” when we read it in our earliest sources, plastering over it senses that are more familiar to us, and forget that we occupy a history, a world that began, and that will end.

Historical consciousness may be one of the characteristic features of the Secular Modern, but we are quite adept at parochial amnesia. This is a threat to what we have achieved, and obscures the principles that emerge in the reasons for the transition from the early aristocratic ideas about  “the good” to the more social and cooperative ideas about “the good”.

Without understanding the role of power in the aristocratic ideals of the earliest rulers, we cannot understand the problems that Plato addressed when he narrates Socrates’ interactions with Meno or Thrasymachus, nor can we understand Augustine of Hippo’s presentation of what lies at the heart of the civitas terrena, the earthly (rather than divine) city.

–but what is this model of power and authority, and more specifically, what was this earliest sense of “goodness”? Continue reading

Excerpt #1 — Heidegger, On Nihilism

From Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) transl Richard Rojcewicz & Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012), 109-110.

I make no claim to perfectly understand the later Heidegger (1889–1976), who, I am told by many specialists, is notoriously difficult even in German. (Contributions was written between 1936-1938, and most consider this to be after the date of his famous “turn”.) The editorial insertions in brackets are my own. Please do correct me if my reading is wrong.

I have often tried to press home the idea that Secularism is not simply something that a society does, or an idea that an individual might hold to (or might not hold to), but is the result of several unique historical events that have changed our horizons through events that were not engineered and cannot be reversed, that is the entire framework of our age, and determines every option we might take within it, even seemingly opposite ones. This is not a recipe for hopelessness, but for honesty. (Secularism too shall pass, I suggest, and it is yet to be seen what comes after it, although it will not simply reverse secularity, or a return to some supposed earlier golden age, or even a better one, much less shall it realize our pet ideology.) Heidegger, for all I can tell, seems to be saying something similar about Nihilism.

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