Friday, March 09, 2012

Brown on the End of the Old World
and the Beginning of the New

Peter Brown is one of those scholars who can claim virtually to have defined the field in which they make their career.  Before Brown "late antiquity" was not exactly unknown or unexplored but it remained a hazy concept since the time of Gibbon--i.e., some two centuries before. From his biography of Augustine (first published when Brown was 32) he produced a steady stream--no, a dignified procession--of works that broadened and deepened his chosen field.

Now he is 75ish; one can hope he will still offer us a summing-up, his best autumnal wisdom after 50 or more years in the field.  This talk may count as a good start, although one may hope for more.  Meanwhile, if you want a takeaway account of the transition from the pagan world to Christendom (as redefined by Brown), I can scarcely imagine a more convincing account than these few paragraphs, seemingly tossed off with effortless ease in a review in the New York Review of Books:

[L]ong-established codes of living in this world (propounded by philosophers since classical times) were transformed. They came to be seen as divinely sanctioned precepts with which to achieve entrance to the other world.

The ancient codes of living had never been easy. They had always called for courage in the face of bullies, for respect for the integrity of the soul in a violent and stratified society, and, above all, for the need to maintain a high-pitched hierarchy that placed the soul firmly above the body. “Dualism” is not a popular notion nowadays. The ancient insistence on the absolute superiority and separateness of the soul from the body has lost its edge. But the sharp division between mind and body served for millennia to help the desperate—the victims of torture, of illness, and of bereavement—to raise themselves, if only a little, above the huge pain of the world. Christian congregations expected their preachers to harp on these themes. ... Indeed, congregations would continue to demand such preaching until well into the modern age.

[T]hese codes changed direction. They “flipped” upward, as it were, toward heaven. It was not enough that precepts of courage, continence, and self-denial should help to steer men and women through the dangers and temptations of this life alone. These virtues, if practiced with heroic abandon, were held to lead directly to heaven—to “the true days, full of light and everlasting brilliance.”

The result was not as we might expect. ... [For Bishops Ambrose and John Chrysostom] asceticism did not mean flight from the world. It meant engagement in the world in the name of another world, more brilliant, more enduring, and more certain than their own. Both emerged from the ascetic battle against the “inertia of flesh and blood” with their traditional codes not abandoned but transformed. They took on the hardness of an industrial diamond. Both “believed that they knew God’s plan for the human race.” To bring these plans to fruition, both strove to combine the classical tradition of public courage, summed up in the long-cherished virtue of outspokenness—parrésia—with the tone of a Hebrew prophet bearing a message from God.
  Link.  Is there anything else to be said?

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