THE recognition of Christianity as a lawful religion by Constantine ensured its ascendancy. It differed from all others because in it alone religion and morals were inseparably bound together, whereas the ethics of the pagan world, based on custom by the many and derived from the philosophers by the few, were practically dissociated from the worship of the gods. But the Christian, to whom this world was no abiding city, held that an eternity of torment was in store for unbelievers and unrepentant sinners. Hell was such a deterrent from sin as the pagan world had not known. It was a creed for the multitude, since the portals of heaven were open to the poorest and meanest no less than to the rich and the wise. The virtues it especially stressed were those of the weak, humble and helpless, to whom it brought healing and consolation.
Specifically it gave a new sanctity to human life. Abortion and infanticide had been condemned before, but only as venial offences; they assumed a new aspect when the death of the unbaptised meant their condemnation to endless agony. Philosophers might denounce gladiatorial shows as degrading; it was Christianity that condemned them as the deadly sin of murder, though nearly a century passed before their final abolition.
Christianity moreover recognized no distinctions of race or social position; if it enjoined obedience and submission in the slave it enjoined also humanity in the master who received the Sacrament side by side with the slave. It sanctioned the institution of slavery, but under its influence the slave gradually ceased to be a legal chattel. Above all, it insisted on the claims of charity, of alms-giving, of relieving distress; though by undiscriminating methods which had a deleterious side.
Most of all it softened the characters of men by accustoming the imagination to dwell upon images of tenderness and pathos, the winning, almost feminine beauty of the Christian Founder, the Virgin Mother, the agonies of Gethsemane or of Calvary. The high conception that has been formed of the sanctity of human life, the protection of infancy, the elevation and final emancipation of the slave classes, the suppression of barbarous games, the creation of a vast and multifarious organization of charity, and the education of the imagination by the Christian type, constitute together a great movement of philanthropy which has at no time been paralleled or approached in the pagan world.
A movement, however, which profoundly affected the whole scheme of medieval Christian morals had already been initiated in the days of the Decian persecution: the ascetic movement which in its first stage led great numbers of devotees to flee into the desert and become anchorites, and later developed into monachism. It was not without Oriental and pagan precedent, and rested on the doctrine that the flesh is the enemy of the soul, that all carnal appetites and affections ought to be ruthlessly crushed, and that the safest way to salvation is through separation from the world and its temptations, by living either the solitary or the cenobitic life--especially by the exclusion of female allurements.
To such a life in the most repulsively exaggerated forms the highest sanctity attached. It belittled those virtues which belong to a vigorous physical development and denounced those tender family affections which are at the root of the domestic virtues; while it directly repressed, if it did not positively condemn, the civic virtues which had been the moral glory of ancient Rome. By its denunciation of all social intercourse it was destructive of all the social virtues and tended to intensify the general corruption.
The transition however from the eremitic to the monastic life involved a change not only of circumstances but also of character. The habit of obedience and the virtue of humility assumed a position which they had never previously held; and went far to preserve the spirit of charity so seriously threatened by the spiritual pride of the anchorite. Even here, however, the doctrine of obedience, carried to excess, crushed the spirit of intellectual criticism and political freedom; and the corruption of humility into servility is more dangerous to moral progress than the pride which may become an invaluable moral agent.
MOST disastrous was the subversion of intellectual honesty involved. The Church, assumed the truth of its dogmas as axiomatic denounced inquiry or doubt as heretical, penalised criticism and did not hesitate to forge evidence in order to make the dogmas acceptable--on the hypothesis that their acceptance was necessary to salvation. Forbidding the pursuit of truth for its own sake, it placed impenetrable barriers in the path of knowledge and undermined the foundations of veracity. The search for secular knowledge or for classical learning being positively discouraged, intellectual advance was virtually prohibited, and literature unassociated with theology almost ceased to exist.
When the fiercest denunciations uttered by the ecclesiastical authorities were directed not against wickedness but against heresy, and the most portentous crimes escaped reproof if the perpetrators were enthusiastically orthodox, it is not surprising that the superstition and the vice of the period between the dissolution of the empire and the reign of Charlemagne can hardly be exaggerated.
Yet in the chaos we can detect the elements of the new society which ultimately issued in the crusades, the feudal system and chivalry. It consisted in two parts, the fusion of Christianity with the military spirit, and an increasing reverence for secular rank.
Early Christianity had been vigorously antagonistic to the military spirit; but the general conviction that the intervention of the Lord of Hosts was particularly conspicuous in war, associating military success with orthodoxy, gave a new sanction to the militarism of the barbarian champions of Catholicism; and the process was furthered when Christianity found itself embattled against the armed hosts of militant Mahomedanism. And the idea of the divine right of kings was inaugurated with the accession of Pepin to the throne of the Franks and the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by the Pope.
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