As I’ve indicated, my plan is, or rather was, to write a book that argued that Christians radically changed the understandings of wealth and the practices of “giving” once they took over the empire. They, in effect, invented what we think of as “charity.”
As I have talked it over with my literary agent and the editors at Simon & Schuster, I have decided that my study needs to be placed in a broader cultural context. Rather than focusing exclusively on the transformation of ancient understandings of wealth and the concomitant social practices of giving in isolation from their larger ideological contexts, the book will address an even more transformative Christian innovation in ancient ethical discourse, one that provided the impetus for these understandings and use of wealth.
It will take several posts to explain the shift in my thinking. Here’s the starting point:
Ethics were just as important to inhabitants of the Greek and Roman worlds as they are to people today. But the criteria for evaluating “proper” behavior were very different, focusing almost entirely on personal happiness and character. By contrast, largely because of Jesus’ own Jewish roots, Christianity adopted a razor-like focus on “others,” urging attitudes and actions directed to their best interests. Unlike anything the pagan world had ever seen, Christians insisted that all human interaction be guided by love.
The Broader Context
“Love” in this context was not an emotion, a feeling, or an attitude. It was a practice. Love meant helping those who were in need, in emotional and practical ways, even if it involved personal sacrifice. The Christian rhetoric that placed care and service for others at the heart of ethical behavior was not simply different from the Greek and Roman moral discourse that proceeded it, it was precisely contrary.
I am obviously not trying to say that Greeks, Romans, and others in antiquity were unacquainted with the concept of love. Ancient Greek — the lingua franca of the empire – employs numerous terms for “love” (e.g., PHILIA, EROS, STERGŌ, AGAPĒ,); each term can suggest a different nuance (roughly: PHILIA, fondness for another; EROS, passionate love; STERGŌ, familial love; AGAPĒ, love that is interested in the well-being of the other), but their meanings overlap and some of them can be used interchangeably. Moreover, Greek and Roman literature of all kinds – epics, tragedies, comedies, novels, biographies, essays, moral treatises, poetry — is replete with themes of love, whether erotic, family, friendly, or communal. But on virtually every linguistic and literary level, the understandings of love differed from the practices envisioned by the emerging Christian rhetoric. In pagan literature and broadly throughout Greek and Roman culture, love as an altruistic practice – that is, activity meant to promote the well-being of others – was virtually always directed toward those connected to a person related by blood, status, or socio-economic class. Those outside these connections – that is, the vast majority of “others” – were not only beyond the reach of loving action, they were explicitly to be outside of it, according to both actual moral discourse and almost universally attested common sense.
Enemies were to be hated (some ethicists insisted on the point); foreign towns, cities, and empires could be conquered without remorse; enforced slavery was everywhere accepted (it was nowhere considered ethically problematic); the powerful were to dominate the weak, the men the women, the adults the children. Domination was, so to speak, the dominant ideology, simply accepted rather than queried.
Were there no ethics? Yes indeed, ethics were a prominent part of ancient discourse. Both philosophical and popular writings addressed and promoted “proper” or “virtuous” behavior. But with remarkable consistency, these prescriptions focused on one’s own well-being and personal character. From classical Greek times (especially with Aristotle), decisions connected with personal behavior were principally driven by a concern for eudaimonia, which can be translated as (personal) “prosperity,” “well-being,” or “happiness.” Soon afterward and into the Roman period, the major Hellenistic philosophical schools (e.g., Stoicism, Platonism, Epicureanism) began to focus almost exclusively on ethical concerns (as opposed, for example, to metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics), and promoted ways of living that could bring meaning, self-satisfaction, and inner contentment in a troubled and difficult world, where everyone – from emperor to slave – was necessarily confronted with the realities of existence and, therefore, unpleasant, awful, and truly terrible circumstances. Some of “virtues” variously advocated were meant to shelter a person from emotional pain (e.g., “self-sufficiency”), others to control anxiety and agitation (e.g., “self-control”), others to earn the respect of others (e.g., “generosity”). But none of them was directed to the well-being of other people per se. There was no ethical imperative to “love” another or promote their well-being, especially through an act of self-sacrifice.
This may sound counter-intuitive, exaggerated, and hopelessly generalized. But on my desk right now are a Routledge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, a college-level introduction to Ancient Ethics, and a monograph on Greek and Roman ethics by one of the great historians of philosophy of our time, Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness. In none of them does “love” appear in the index (though there are plenty of references to courage, desire, happiness, human nature, justice, pleasure, self-sufficiency, temperance, wisdom, and so on). Next to them sits the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Ethics, which does have three brief discussions of “love,” – but only “erotic/passionate love,” not love directed to the benefit of another. The Christian idea that someone should treat others in a way to promote their well-being is simply not part of the ancient Greek and Roman discourse.
I am not saying that ancient people did not feel affection for others or act in ways that displayed their feelings. Most spouses, parents, and friends were just as affectionate then as now, and normally acted accordingly. But I am saying that this kind of natural affection was not part of the ethical discourse designed to promote right behavior. There was no “ought” in acts of heart-felt tenderness.
I will continue with these thoughts in posts to come.