California Literary Review

Book Review: Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown

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November 12th, 2012 at 6:00 am

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Book jacket: Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
by Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, 759 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½


The Two Cities

Peter Brown’s latest book, Through the Eye of a Needle, is a predictably brilliant re-appraisal of the Roman world during the fourth through sixth centuries. This historical era is now referred to as “late antiquity.” That sounds a lot better than the “Dark Ages.” Such negativity was commonly held before Brown, an eminent scholar now at Princeton University, began researching and writing about the period in the 1960’s. We still view much of this fascinating time as “through a glass, darkly,” but increasingly we are coming to know “face to face” one of the most crucial epochs in world history.

Through the Eye of a Needle is much more than a study of the transition from ancient times to the Middle Ages. In a very real way, Brown’s book hearkens back to 1776 and the publication of two documents that embodied the debate on human liberty and tyranny during the 1700’s. That the Declaration of Independence is one of these should come as no surprise. But the printing of the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 was a pivotal moment of the Age of the Enlightenment. Gibbon’s history remains a seminal text in comprehending the vital tasks of preserving freedom and maintaining civilized society.

Gibbon, like Thomas Jefferson, took a dim view of the participation of organized religion in government, ancient and modern. In majestic prose, Gibbon assailed the Christian Church for undermining the zeal of the Roman citizenry in defending the empire. Gibbon contended that Christian clergymen – “proud prelates” like St. Ambrose – filled the Roman mind with empty doctrinal disputes during the fourth and fifth centuries when the Visigoths and Vandals were battering down the very gates of the Eternal City.

Christian leaders in England and ultimately throughout Europe reacted with rage at Gibbon’s views. Gibbon made an attempt at fair-minded impartiality, stating that “If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” But the controversy, once sparked, has smoldered to the present day.

Brown grapples with the issue of the duties owed by citizens to the state, in this case the Christian populace of a Roman Empire that no-longer persecuted them. He focuses on the issue of Christian use/misuse of wealth. It was a controversial subject then and remains so today.

In terms of taxation, Christians had been advised by Jesus to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But as the Roman Empire began to founder in the late fourth century, some fundamental changes began to occur in the minds of its citizens. With Rome increasingly beset by civil wars and besieged by foreign enemies, a number of prominent Christians sought to renounce the glittering titles and trappings of power that service in the Roman government had once offered. Some of the disenchanted were people of enormous wealth and social status, worthy of the title vir clarissimus or “most brilliant person.” One of them was Paulinus of Nola, who devoted his vast fortune to building a great church or basilica in southern Italy.

The renunciation of his wealth by Paulinus sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. Why was such a charitable act viewed as an unthinkable deed, akin to “amputating parts of one’s own body?”

The Roman nobility, during the fourth century, was especially notable for flaunting a lavish life style and display of power. The public demonstration of their political clout was reinforced by a vast system of patronage, wire-pulling and tit-for-tat favoritism. Brown follows the career of one notable vir clarissimus, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome during the years, 384-385, and Consul in 391. Symmachus called in favors from all over the empire and spent a staggering sum of 2,000 pounds of gold, one-third more than his annual income, on chariot races, wild-beast hunts and gladiator duels to celebrate the elevation of his son to the post of praetor in 401. Letters for assistance were dispatched to insure that the Dalmation bears that Symmachus purchased to be killed in the arena would be waved through customs without further draining his coin pouch.

The following year, Paulinus threw over his position as vir clarissimus. By devoting his wealth to building a basilica in honor of St. Felix, Paulinus renounced his position in the “old-boy” network that sustained the Roman Empire. His timing was impeccable. Only a few years later, the Pax Romanum and the privileged position of the Roman nobility took a direct hit from which neither ever recovered.

In 410, Gothic mercenary troops stormed Rome because they had not been paid. Compared with later attacks (or the brutal destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. by the Romans themselves) the “sack of Rome” does not rank as one of history’s great atrocities. But it stunned the ancient world. The loss of mystique suffered by the Roman nobility was far greater than the damage inflicted by the rampaging Goths. More to the point, it showed that Paulinus might have had the right idea, by divesting himself of his earthly wealth to gain “treasure in heaven.”

“Cometh the hour,” as the old proverb states, “cometh the man.”

In the years following the sack of Rome, St. Augustine (354-430) was the man who rose to the occasion and put together ideas of far-reaching significance for Western civilization. A Latin-speaking native of North Africa, Augustine held a comparatively minor position as the Bishop of Hippo Regius in present-day Algeria. His writings, chiefly his book, The City of God, formulated much of the intellectual and theological ideology of Christianity, especially in Christian lands dominated by Roman Catholicism during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Augustine wrote The City of God because many non-Christian citizens, increasingly referred to as “pagans,” blamed the sack of Rome on Christian pacifism and disloyalty. Centuries before Gibbon echoed this accusation in the Decline and Fall, Augustine responded in a supremely eloquent and thoughtful way. Human affairs, he wrote, were determined by the existence of two cities, the Earthly City and the Heavenly City. The former, like fallen Rome, was consumed by “the love of self, even to the contempt of God.” The Heavenly City, by contrast, was devoted to “the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”

In the course of his great book, Augustine counseled Christians on ways that they might live ethical lives in the Earthly City, while preparing themselves for eternal life in the Heavenly City.

Augustine’s true concern was thus in helping Christians in their quest for peace in the next world. Perhaps the most moving testament of his views comes in another of his works, a marriage-counseling tract, entitled The Excellence of Marriage. This may seem ironical, given that Augustine’s private life during his early years does not bear close inspection. But one can hardly find a more succinct summation of the other-worldly orientation of Christendom during late antiquity and the Middle Ages:

“Out of many souls, there will arise a city of people with a single soul and a single heart turned to God. This perfection of our unity will come about only after this pilgrimage when no longer will anyone’s thoughts be hidden from another, and no longer will anyone be in conflict with anyone about anything.”

Opposition to Augustine’s world view came from a surprising source, from a Christian philosopher rather than a “pagan” one. This was Pelagius, who came from Britain, the northernmost province of the the Roman Empire which was soon to be abandoned to the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of Gibbon’s England. Pelagius accused Augustine and his adherents of a fatalistic interpretation of Christian doctrine. By promoting an early version of “God helps those who help themselves,” Pelagius tried encourage a sense of self-reliance and practical religious values among Rome’s citizens as the barbarian menace began to grow acute.

The controversy between Augustine and Pelagius initiated the faith vs. good works debate that has resounded throughout Christian history. This dispute often took on political overtones, as it did in Puritan Massachusetts during the 1630’s when the followers of a woman preacher, Anne Hutchinson, held that they followed the “immediate voice” of God rather than the rules and regulations of the colonial government under John Winthrop.

In the case of Augustine vs. Pelagius, the argument really heated-up when a follower of Pelagius wrote a diatribe entitled De divitiis (On Riches). This tract denounced the wealthy in tones that the Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917 would have approved. The objects of its withering scorn included Paulinus and his basilica building and Augustine too, who promoted regular alms-giving to the poor. De divitiis was a revolutionary manifesto, a threat to the Heavenly City as well as the Earthly one.

Get rid of the rich and you will not find the poor. Let no man have more than he really needs, and everyone will have as much as they need, since the few who are rich are the reason for the many who are poor.

The Christian hierarchy, many of whom had earlier supported Pelagius, rallied to the cause of Augustine. Pelagius and his followers were condemned in 418. This success cannot have eased Augustine’s concerns over the condition of the Earthly City. By the time he died in 430, the Roman government in the West had largely collapsed. The Christian clergy and faithful had to adapt to the rule of Germanic warlords, some of whom practiced a heretical version of the Christian faith known as Arianism which denied the divinity of Jesus.

Through the Eye of a Needle is a vast book, but is remarkably readable. Brown’s intimate knowledge of Augustine and his times is presented with human empathy and a sense of the relevance of these long-ago events. There is something of a let-down in his book, perhaps unavoidable, when Augustine and Pelagius pass from the scene. But the latter chapters of Through the Eye of a Needle contain much essential information about the establishment of Christian influence throughout Europe following Rome’s fall.

Brown writes that Christian leaders had to carefully deploy Church resources, spiritual and financial, to create a new society to take over after the Roman one had collapsed. In the place of Roman municipal buildings and fortresses came Christian basilicas, monasteries and what Brown brilliantly calls “a coral reef of institutions devoted to intercession,” hospitals, hostels and eventually schools administered by the Church. This was the civilization of the Middle Ages, the foundation of a new vision for the Western world.

This Medieval civilization was an attempt to bring at least some of the elements of the Heavenly City down to Earth. But it is worth noting that by the time that Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall and the framers of the U.S. Constitution were laying the foundation of their new republic, a renewed sense of the power of the individual, of Pelagian (or Emersonian) self-reliance had triumphed. But this great tide of Anglo-American progressivism has receded quite a bit and fears for the safety of Western culture have multiplied in the post 9/11 world.

Although Brown certainly does not preach in this vein, I could not help thinking that, in putting down his wonderful book, a careful re-reading of Augustine’s The City of God might not be a bad idea.

  • Beth Randall

    Fascinating. Here we are again wondering how much we should allow the rich to steal from the poor. And we’re discovering, again, that self-reliance will only get you so far in a rigged game.

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