Posted by: ken98 | November 19, 2009

The Threat of Hell and the Decline of the Arts

Day 70 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.15, pp.470-480)

Gibbon continues with his Chapter on Christianity (15) with the reasons for the success of Christianity. It’s interesting that he just doesn’t come out and say it’s because it’s right. But then, I guess, that would make it a pretty short chapter.

The Story

Reasons for Christianity’s Success
2. Reason for Success: Zeal of Christians (cont)

  • Interesting tangent – a rant by Tertullian (North African Roman Christian – the wildest kind) (Late 100’s CE) on the joy he will experience, witnessing the tortures of the unbelievers in hell
  • Discussion of miraculous speaking in tongues (per Gibbon: tongues did not always work – early Christian preachers (ex. Irenaeus) seemed to have problems converting Gaul because of difficulties with barbarian languages)
    3. Reason for Success: Miracles

  • Discussion of miraculous resurrections
  • Discussion of miracles in the Church and when the “Period of Miracles” ended – as we have none (and expect none) today (1770’s)
    4. Reason for Success: Virtue of the Christians

  • Repentance – or the desire for excellence and purity was an example to the majority culture
  • Charity, and extreme virute/asceticism admired by pagan
  • Hell,  Medieval view of damned souls - from the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue

    Hell, Medieval view of damned souls - from the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue

    The Joys of Hell: A Prominent Early Christian Lets Loose Less-Than-Christian Delight in Torture
    Granted early Christians were libelled repeatedly and not taken seriously by educated (and uneducated) Romans, but I think Tertullian is reacting with something other than love when he imagines his persecutors’ futures.
    Per Gibbon (on the point of quoting Tertullian): The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph. “You are fond of spectacles,” exclaims the stern Tertullian, “expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red hot flames with their deluded scholars; so many celebrated poets trembling before the tribunal, not of Minos, but of Christ; so many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers – ” But the humanity of the reader will permit me to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description, which the zealous African pursues in a long variety of affected and unfeeling witticisms.” (DEF, v1., ch.15, pp.476-477). ‘Nuff said.

    Hell - modern painting of the Lake of Fire

    Hell - modern painting of the Lake of Fire

    Historical Note
    The Decline (or just Dramatic Change?) of Art and Civilization in General
    Two small books with huge impacts. Conventional history (including Gibbon) sees the decline of the empire as a simple downward spiral of forgetfulness and vulgarization or barbarization of the “high” classic Roman culture (100 B.C.E – late 100’s C.E.). Brown and L’Orange see something much more complex and plausible.

    Peter Brown's The Making of Late Antiquity versus H.P. L'Orange's Art Forms and Civic Life - optimism versus pessimism regarding late Roman culture

    Peter Brown's The Making of Late Antiquity versus H.P. L'Orange's Art Forms and Civic Life - optimism versus pessimism regarding late Roman culture

    Peter Brown sees growth in Late Antique culture, not decay. In classical culture, society, state, and religion are one, Late Antique culture is the beginning of private religions of all types, and the beginning of a definite separation of public and private life. The breakdown of the small city-state with its small city-state religion gives rise of to an independent monolithic world-state. It is a messy time of experimentation and personal exploration which dovetails nicely with Constantine’s conversion of the empire to a supremely personal religion: christianity. The inner life of a citizen is no longer focussed on the state, but is focussed on a personal spirituality: a person’s inner and outer worlds are irrevocably divided now – both are much freer to change without influencing the other. This, according to Brown, is a good thing.

    H.P. L’Orange concentrates on the relationship between art (becoming cruder and cruder), and the development of the great Stalin-esqe world state of Diocletian’s reforms. The decline of the local economy, paired with the rise of the empire-wide economy driven by a state bureaucracy results in quantity, not quality (sounds very Soviet-like) in the realms of civic art, architecture, and even literature. Massive building projects are completed, but with (what we would say) incredibly poor workmanship. Why? Because the economy is now state-based. The sculpture is not done by talented, interested individuals, but by state employees in vast state factories, according to state plans. The empire has changed, and is now concerned with the millions, not the individual. A very bad thing, and the beginning of the Dark Ages per L’Orange. What happens when the state falls and there’s no local production of art/engineering/architecture/literature? It all disappears with the state – and this is exactly what happens in the West.

    And, yes, that stern, young, inadvertently abstract head on the cover of H.P.L’Orange looks suspiciously like our favorite rough-and-ready emperor Maximin Daia, (or maybe… Galerius). It’s hard to tell with inadvertent abstraction – or just plain incompetent sculptors. The best you can say I guess, is that all emperors are turning into the idea of “emperor” and the sculptures are merely following that abstract cultural drift.


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