Friday, October 04, 2019

Evening Note for Friday, October 4

Thought for the Evening: A New Way to Live

I'm almost finished reading Larry Hurtado's Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press [Waco, TX: 2016]), on the subject of the innovations that Christianity introduced into the Roman empire, and I've so far found Chapter 5, "A New Way to Live", particularly interesting. In it, Hurtado discusses early Christian opposition to certain common practices in Roman life.

Christian opposition to infant exposure is particularly easy to establish. Leaving infants out to die was a relatively common practice; it was not always regarded favorably, but it was generally not seen as wrong. The infants would often die, but they could also be picked up by slave traders and sold; Hurtado notes that some scholars have estimated that more than a fifth of new slaves in the Roman Empire each year were foundlings of this sort, and that they were often a relatively easy way for brothel-keepers to get prostitutes. There were a few people here and there who opposed it; the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus was a rare pagan voice against it. But most of the opposition from it came from Jews, like Philo of Alexandria, and Christians. St. Justin Martyr has an extended attack on the practice in his First Apology, in which he explicitly condemns it, when the infant ends up a prostitute, as a shameful sexual practice (chapter 27) and, when the infant dies, as murder (chapter 29). It serves as part of his countercharge to those who claimed that the Christians did wicked deeds. The Epistle to Diognetus also mentions that refusal to expose infants is a distinguishing mark of Christian behavior (chapter 5).

Gladiatorial combat is another one, although Hurtado doesn't say much about the specifics of Christian opposition. But an example might be Athenagoras's A Plea for Christians, written to Marcus Aurelius; in chapter 35, he argues against various non-Christian cruelties, among which he includes abortion, infant exposure, and gladiatorial fights. (As with St. Justin, he is retorting to charges made against Christians.)

The Romans had a fairly strong view of marriage, as one of their foundational institutions, but Christianity greatly intensified it. The Roman view typically allowed men to have slaves to use for sexual purposes, and sex with prostitutes was extremely common. Christians expanded what was counted as sexual immorality to include both of these very common cultural practices, and insisted that sexual interaction should occur only in marriage; in doing so, they explicitly held that husbands had to hold themselves to sexual standards that had previously only been imposed on wives. Again, one finds some analogies in philosophers like Musonius Rufus -- but Musonius Rufus, Hurtado argues, was not disseminating these ideas widely; they were for him something that should be done by students devoted to philosophy, and he tended to back it by considerations of honor. Christians, on the other hand, took the principle to be something that should apply widely, and based it not on honor but on relations with God and mutual responsibility. As Hurtado puts it, "Early Christianity 'took it to the streets,' generating a novel social project in that time" (p. 181).

Likewise, Christians were vehemently opposed to the use of children for sexual purposes, even changing the standard vocabulary for it, coining the term paidophthoros, corrupter of children, to express their disgust at it. Hurtado mentions the Didache (chapter 2) and the Epistle of Barnabas (chapter 19) as clear early examples of this.

Thus Hurtado. It has had me thinking of the way in which the early Christians should serve as templates for our own behavior today, regardless of the tendencies and preferences of the world at large around us. When I did Gunnar's Daughter, I noted that, despite the fact that she was an agnostic at the time she wrote it, Undset can be read as taking a stance of protest against what she saw as a regression to pre-Christian practice, and the clear line is drawn in that work by precisely the Christian refusal to expose infants, a refusal in direct opposition to the increasing demands of eugenicists in her day that defective children should be killed for the greater good. The lives of our predecessors in the faith are not irrelevant to our own; the precise details shift about, but those who have come before us have provided a template for how we too should act. The new way to live is always and ever the new way to live.

Various Links of Interest

* Chelsea Wald, Why Red Means Red in Nearly Every Language

* Quassim Cassam's website on Professional Virtues in Modern Medicine

* Sudip Bose discusses Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. It should be noted, though, that Bose's opinion that Newman's poem is "at times a clunky piece of writing, inelegant and metaphorically dull", was not widely shared in Elgar's time; it was in fact greatly admired. And the admirers, I think, have the better of the argument.

* Lyndsey Stonebridge, Simone de Beauvoir's second coming

* Nabeel Hamid, Wolff's Science of Teleology and Kant's Critique

* James Jeffrey discusses the Painted Churches of Central Texas.

* Carrie Arnold looks at the chemicals that go into giving old books their distinctive smell.

* Gary Saul Morson, Leninthink

* James Darcy turns a discussion of replay review in sports into a remarkably good discussion of philosophical positions on vagueness.

* C. D. C. Reeve discusses Aristotle on education

* Jennifer Stitt discusses Rachel Carson on wonder. Carson's posthumous The Sense of Wonder is an excellent work, well worth reading.

Currently Reading

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars
Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods
Graeme Hunter, Pascal the Philosopher
Catharine Wilson, Descartes's Meditations

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