Excerpt #15 — Charles T. Mathewes on The Alienness of the Classical World

We introduced Charles Mathewes in an earlier post.

In one section of his online course on Augustine’s City of God titled “The Classical Worldview” Mathewes notes that

Modern thought offers two ways of imagining the ancient world: 

First is the imagination of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, of the classical world as grand, magnificent, calm, and orderly. Christianity is missing from it. This vision sees the coming of Christianity as a collapse, the coming of the “Dark Ages.” Edward Gibbon is the greatest proponent of this view, still the commonly accepted one.

In the second view, the classical world is full of unbridled passion, divine enthusiasm, madness, great cruelty, and great achievement. This is the view of Nietzsche, a classicist before he was a philosopher, who indicted the educators of his age for failing to grasp the psychological profundity of the classical world. For Nietzsche, Christianity is not a light cloak we can throw off and return to  our classical roots. There is no going back. There is no rebirth. There is only going forward in full cognizance of all that has made us.

The Romans were not like contemporary secularist thinkers. They were deeply religious and deeply passionate, and their morality was real, though much of it we would find terrifyingly inhuman. Are there limits to our humanist  identification with one another? How far can we identify with people radically different from us? Or are they so radically different after all?

We’ll return to this question again and again in these lectures, directly and indirectly, because Augustine himself had to think about it a lot, as well. For now, just keep it in mind, and understand the following two facts about the Romans, Christian and pagan, which make them simultaneously like us and unlike us.

On the one hand, as we’ll see, they fully understood religious and metaphysical skepticism. The elites of Rome were just as able as we are today to imagine that religion is a bunch of stories made up by people long ago, stories whose human origins are forgotten in time. Never think that atheism is an invention of the modern world.

On the other hand, they had a vision of moral order and purpose that we would, I hope, find shocking. They were very comfortable with extreme violence, deployed publicly. When Augustine talks about the theater, he’s not talking about people putting on sensitive plays by Shakespeare or Thornton Wilder or Wendy Wasserstein. He’s talking about sex shows and snuff films, performed live and on stage. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the Romans were willing to countenance in the way of morality, public and private.

There is a kind of mythology in the background of the modern period, a myth that slips itself into the guise of “mere nature” and what is “natural”, ignoring just how historical both our culture (and nature) are. We habitually project ourselves into the past. Reading widely in the primary sources of history, however, can help to prevent this.

 

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