Is there really a resurgent modern variation of Roman paganism present in developed liberal democracies, including the United States?
People like to quote movie lines. Who hasn’t had a friend say, “Hasta la vista, baby”? A favorite of many is Mel Gibson’s cry of “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart. That scene tells us something about ourselves. William Wallace was publicly hung, drawn, and quartered. In the film, he appears to shout “Freedom!” at the moment the executioner is showing him his own entrails. We cannot be sure, however, because the camera does not show us: it is fixed on Wallace’s pained, but defiant face. What 14th-century Londoners watched up close and personal, we cannot even see represented on the silver screen. Why? Are we not an “anything-goes” people, freer than those benighted medieval Londoners?
We do not watch Wallace being drawn, because we do not want to see others humiliated. We are too nice for that.
This is the thesis of Tom Holland’s, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Holland hosts history programs on British television and is the author of prize-winning books like Rubicon and Persian Fire. He is a historian of the ancient world, so Dominion, a fantastic 500-page read, is a departure for him. It is a sweeping survey of world history, seeking to explain why we are sweeter than those Londoners of the Middle Ages.
Someone might think a clue to the explanation lies in the government buildings of Washington, D.C.: Enlightenment classicism at its grandest. We are better than the medievals, this person may propose, because they were Christians, but we are heirs to the rational clarity and humanity of Greece and Rome. Indeed, such a person might be very assured, for the message that Christianity stunts and twists our sensibility is spread widely abroad. Yuval Noah Harari is author of Sapiens, a book translated into nearly 50 languages, with over 10 million copies in print. President Barack Obama even wrote the blurb on the back. Harari writes:
In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in the three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.
This depiction—tolerant polytheists versus maniacal monotheists—owes much to thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom sought a return to the ancients. About Christian falsity, Nietzsche writes:
Here you can have an unobserved view into this dark workshop. Wait just another moment, my dear Mr. Daredevil Curiosity: your eyes must first get used to this false shimmering light…There! All right! Now tell us! What is going on down there? There is a cautious, sly, soft mumbling and whispering coming from all corners. It seems to me that lies are being told; a sugary sweetness clings to every sound. Weakness is to be transformed into a merit.
For years, Tom Holland preferred the ancients over Christian “virtue.” However, Dominion relates that these last few years, he has become increasingly disturbed and anxious when researching Athens and Rome. He is now disturbed by ancient cruelty and anxious after realizing that his kind-hearted, benevolent humanitarianism (his wokeness, in other words) is a Christian sentiment. Why are we sweeter than medieval Londoners? Not because we are heirs of Athens, but because we are even more Christian than they were.
St. Paul’s Revolution
Having fallen in love with stories of the glory of the ancients as a boy, Holland now recoils from the pervasive cruelty of the age. No longer a Nietzschean, Holland still thinks Nietzsche—who became a professor of classics at age 24—got his history right. Nietzsche:
It appears to me that the delicacy, even more the hypocrisy of tame domestic animals (by this, I mean modern man, I mean us) is loath to envisage to what extent cruelty constituted the great festivity and pleasure of mankind in earlier days, and even an ingredient in almost all of its pleasures.
Holland’s thesis is that those least likely to feel comfortable acknowledging any debt to Christianity—the woke—are, in fact, Christian revolutionaries. Contrary to the commentariat, Dominion arrestingly claims that Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary—that Western (or even world) history is best viewed as a series of ruptures wrought by Christian revolutions making us all kinder: “to dream of a world transformed by a reformation, or an enlightenment, or a revolution is nothing exclusively modern. Rather, it is to dream as medieval visionaries dreamed: to dream in the manner of a Christian.”
Put differently, history is really a contending with the writings of St. Paul. Paul’s letters, argues Holland, are the most powerful letters ever written. Penned about a decade after the death of Jesus—the Gospels were written years later—Holland likens them to depth-charges sounding down the ages, scrambling settled patterns of life. For Paul, the crucified criminal Jesus is, in fact, a metaphysical, personal love structuring the core of reality. Love dissolves the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman. Henceforth, citizenship in the real kingdom would be a matter of belief, not social standing. Paul announced a Spirit permeating all people, no matter their status, and permeating the world: “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
When set against corruption and injustice, this Spirit, by animating human hearts, has shaken dynasties and, in Holland’s telling, still does. As Nietzsche puts it, the carpet-maker Paul defeated the Roman Empire.
Glory is what first enticed Holland to study the ancients, enamored as he was of their glamour and danger. He observes that there is nothing in ancient sources that recommends caring for the poor and broken. Quite the opposite, in fact. “It was only by putting others in the shade that a man most fully became a man.” To the ancients, the poor, weak, and sick were objects of contempt. Amongst many examples, he notes that women dreaded running into Roman legionnaires as it invariably meant rape. Ancient fascination with the exhibition of power meant a consecration of violence: “Beauty was everywhere—and invariably it hinted at violence. To blaze like a golden flame, and to attain a godlike pitch of strength and valour: this it was, in the Iliad, to be most fully a man. Physical perfection and moral superiority were indissoluble: this was the assumption.”
This sensibility explains the punishment of crucifixion. The book begins with the startling claim that there is scant historical record about the practice. It is as though it were so shameful the ancients themselves could barely bring themselves to discuss it. What evidence there is, however, is clear: crucifixion was a punishment designed, not merely to kill, but to inflict maximum ridicule and humiliation through torture. Likely an innovation of the Athenians, they were keen to fob off its invention on the Persians. Holland points out that Christian art only started depicting Christ crucified around 400 AD and even then, his body is rendered not broken, but as an athlete in the prime of glory.
The great puzzle—which I am not sure Holland actually explains—is how a religion built around the idea of a crucified God-man came to be adopted by Rome’s aristocracy. That the poor, sick, and enslaved turned to Christianity once Paul had assured them of citizenship in the true kingdom makes sense, but why would a man like Constantine? Holland suggests that monotheism made sense to Constantine—one God, one Emperor—but this does not quite get to the problem of the profound change in taste: “No ancient artist would have thought to honour a Caesar by representing him as Caravaggio represented Peter: tortured, humiliated, stripped almost bare.” I wish Holland had documented a bit more how Roman tastes and mores morphed.
Dominion moves chronologically. After segments on the ancient and medieval worlds, Holland gets to the most provocative claim: modern Western history—and thus, world history—has been a series of Christian revolutions. This thesis clearly owes something to the eminent American legal historian, Harold J. Berman. Law professor at Harvard and Emory, Berman’s seminal work Law and Revolution—cited in the bibliography—argues that Western law took a decisive turn toward the rule of law during the papacy of Gregory VII. This was no mere wave of an administrative wand, however, but a militarily enforced transformation of property and power. Gregory enforced a new establishment on an old Europe. The same was to happen when Luther caught the Spirit. Then, Gregory’s establishment was on the receiving end, and new forms of social and political organization were put in place by the armies of princes loyal to the talented theologian. For the sake of righting wrongs, Paul, Gregory, and Luther shattered ancient, abiding orders.
Holland’s is not exactly a progressive theory of history. He does not say that each Christian revolution is an improvement on the last; just that each sought to correct wrongs and make us milder. He does not shy away from the gory stories of the blood-letting that happened in each revolution. Nonetheless, each revolution had the same moral core, “a desperation to be cleansed of original sin.” He sees this motivation today in the woke, who ask for forgiveness for their white privilege. Likely, such people are avowedly anti-Christian, but the gesture remains Christian. No Greek or Roman would ask for such forgiveness: it can only happen today because the air we breathe is Christian. “Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists, and those who never paused so much as to think about religion.”
A similar case is that of Angela Merkel. As Chancellor of Germany, she opened her country’s borders to one million migrants in 2015. She acted, she argued, without regard to religion: she was no Good Samaritan, just doing what any human being would do given the situation. Holland is quite sure this is false. The brutality of the ancients shows there is no natural law making us good. Holland’s is a bleak outlook. The way of the world is brutality and dread. Yours might be too if, like him, you’d gone to the town of Sinjar to make a TV show—a town where ISIS had crucified Yazidis and, like the ancients, had left the bodies to rot in the sun.
Our meekness and gentleness are hard-earned, the product of centuries of intra-Christian conflict. The woke are naïve if they think rights stand on anything other than historical contingency. The idea of human rights was worked out by Pope Gregory’s canon lawyers. They are an historical artefact, like Christianity itself. Holland is not a believer, but he does want the West, and the woke, to acknowledge their on-going reliance on St. Paul’s belief that a crucified criminal was God.
Our commercial civilization was defended by the likes of David Hume as a world of luxury that made us more humane. It would be interesting to know whether Holland thinks capitalism—doux commerce—was also a Christian revolution? Sadly, the business world is barely mentioned.
The book closes with an idea adopted from J. R. R. Tolkien. Christianity is an “audacity,” a proposal that a defeated corpse is the glory of a universe of love. The very strangeness of this idea reminds Holland of Tolkien’s enigmatic claim that some myths are true. Pauline Christianity is an historical phenomenon, it is a myth, but myths are not lies. In this claim rests our thirst for justice, our sweetness battling against the bleakness of the world.