I recently noted that I have been reading Catherine Nixey's book, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, while watching local officials make our public sculptures disappear here in Charlottesville. I also noted that this choice of reading was not a coincidence. The book holds up some unflattering parallels to our own age and prompts us to ask some hard questions about how we are dealing with the clashing visions of our culture wars.
Nixey book's came out in 2017, intended as a rejoinder to the self-exculpatory Christian narrative that it was the church and its monasteries that saved the gems of Classical civilization during a period of chaos and collapse by assiduously copying out the old manuscripts in monasteries.
But as Nixey argues, and summons a persuasive body of evidence to support, the entire reason these manuscripts so desperately needed saving in the first place is because Christians had destroyed them en masse—and much else besides.
She tells the story, not of the Dark Ages, but of a darkening age, the late Roman period when Christianity was taking over, culturally and politically, and set the stage for the West's collapse. She points us to countless stories in which, as Christians rose to power in the fourth century AD, they tore down fabled temples, toppled and literally de-faced exquisite sculptures, seized and burned books, and murdered and persecuted scientists and philosophers—all in an attempt to stamp out the old rival religion and, in the words of the early Byzantine emperor Justinian, "close all the roads which lead to error."
We tend to think of the great cultural and architectural treasures of the Classical world as being destroyed by marauding barbarian invaders, so much so that the very name for this kind of destruction is derived from one those tribes, the Vandals. Yet the record shows that many of these treasures were destroyed by Rome's rising Christian faction well before the barbarians arrived.
Nixey's final chapter, for example, details the extinguishing of the Classical tradition in a place that would not fall to outsiders for another thousand years: the closing of the Academy in Athens under the edicts of Justinian in 529, and the destruction of the priceless books and artworks that remained at its abandoned headquarters.
But like I said, I'm reading this in a different context than Nixey perhaps intended, and rather than seeing this history merely as a rebuke to Christian triumphalism, I can't help being struck by the parallels to today's cult of wokeness, which seems just as fanatically committed to closing all the roads which lead to error.
Consider the scene with which Nixey opens her book, in which "marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars, and an iron sense of righteousness" come in from the desert to destroy the temple of Athena in Palmyra. The attack culminates with the toppling and smashing of the temple's statue of Athena.
How similar is that to what we saw in the summer of 2020, when mobs of woke activists—also dressed in black—converged on city centers to deface or cast down statues they regard as offensive and as paths to error? And they have often been equally indifferent to the actual meaning or value of the things they are destroying, targeting abolitionists, an elk, and in the ultimate irony, an allegorical figure of Progress.
But the parallels run deeper. Nixey's most interesting chapter is on the fundamental shift in worldview and priorities that differentiates the Classical era from the Christian. A disparaging attitude toward reason and a tendency to see literal demons as the hidden forces behind everything is part of it. But the most striking change is that the Classical world largely accepted that the purpose of life is enjoyment, pleasure (including very notably sexual pleasure), and prosperity. This was not necessarily a reckless hedonism—after all, this was the civilization that brought us the Stoic philosophers—but it was a basic presumption that happiness in this world is the goal of life.
By contrast, the Christians embraced suffering as the goal of life in this world. The Christian world was swept by the veneration of martyrs, and since there wasn't enough official persecution to go around, they created a monastic movement that was ascetic to the point of masochism. More broadly, for the Christians, everyday life was dominated by a set of restriction and denials, with every choice and preference dictated by the need to subordinate oneself to religious discipline. Nixey describes "the perpetual anxiety of people who believed that not only their every deed, nor even their every word, but their every thought was now being watched"—not just by God but also by their neighbors.
So the Christians didn't destroy the Classical world through mere foolishness or incompetence. They destroyed it deliberately and systematically, and the resulting loss and suffering, the increasing grimness of life as Europe entered the Middle Ages, was not an accidental consequences but part of their purpose.
As for whether such a goal is inherent to Christianity, Nixey's forthcoming follow-up book is intriguing: an exploration of how the multiple visions of Christianity that flourished in its early years were eventually collapsed into a single one, with every dissenting version stamped out. But we can at least lay much of the blame for the destruction of the Classical world at the feet of the version of Christianity that prevailed.
Yet we are still in this Christian Era, in our own secularized way, because we still regard martyrdom and victimhood as conferring an elevated moral status, and we still measure virtue in terms of our willingness to adhere to a quasi-ascetic set of rules and restrictions. Everything is judged by its correctness under this regime, particularly our art.
They are now doing to Titian what they've already done to Renoir. A New York Times review of an exhibit of Titian's work is organized around this question: "[T]he whole cycle [of paintings], with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however 'great,' can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny." It reminds me of one art historian's trenchant analysis of the campaign against Renoir. "The current Renoir aversion, more than reflecting the actual goodness or badness of his art, reflects shifting cultural politics, a change in American art theory and practice, and a change in our attitude towards pleasure in art. Pleasure, once celebrated, now sets off alarm bells."
This is exactly what Nixey identifies as the driver of the Christian departure from the Classical world: the fear of personal pleasure. We, too, are letting ourselves become paralyzed by a fear of falling short of puritanical restrictions.
Nixey's book dispels the notion that a return to Christian traditionalism is an answer to this. In fact, her book first came to my attention in a private conversation among conservatives, where the reaction followed the pattern I've grown to expect for defending the indefensible: The Christian destruction of Classical treasures (specifically, the sculptures of the Parthenon) never happened—but it would have been totally justified if it did. And why would it have been justified? Because there really were demons speaking to people from the stones and tempting them away from the true faith.
If we believe absurdities we will commit atrocities, so there is no protection for thought and culture to be expected from those who believe in a demon-haunted world. Nor is there for those who summon a set of secular bogey-men in the form of a lurking racism that we are assured can be found everywhere—and if you don't see it, you just need to look harder.
We need a new revival of the Classical spirit, not just of learning and inquiry, but of the idea that life is supposed to be about growth and enjoyment and happiness, rather than an endless exploration of our own guilt.
Nixey makes a good argument that the Classical world, despite its many problems and injustices and cruelties, was the most liberal society the world would see for a thousand years—the one with the greatest diversity of ideas and beliefs, the most freedom to explore ideas, the fewest artificial barriers to human flourishing and happiness. Yet the inhabitants of the Roman Empire deliberately threw it all away for the sake of a harsh new faith.
Let's make sure that we don't do the same.