Friday, July 3, 2009

On the Emperor Julian's supposed admiration and emulation of Christian "charity"

In their anthology The Paganism Reader, editors Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey introduce the Emperor Julian's "Letter to a Priest" by claiming that it provides evidence for the contention that "Julian attempted to give Pagan religions an improved theological footing and a social conscience...." [p. 22]

Even Rowland Smith, a scholar with a far deeper understanding of Julian than Clifton and Harvey, feels compelled to state that in that same letter, Julian "showed himself ready to take a leaf from the Christian book" because of his exhortations concerning the practice of philanthropy [p. 111 of his Julian's Gods].

However, it is clear from what he actually wrote in that letter (as opposed to how others have chosen to characterize what he wrote), as well as from the known history of Pagan philanthropy itself, that Julian never believed, nor had he any reason to believe, that Paganism was lacking in any way in it's traditions with respect to philanthropy. Rather, Julian clearly believed, and rightly so, that philanthropy is an ancient Pagan virtue long predating Christianity, not something that Pagans had to "copy" from the Christians.

Julian states, among other things, that "we ought to share our money ... with the helpless and the poor so as to suffice for their need." And he also asserts that prisoners "have a right to the same sort" of philanthropy as the poor. In addition, hospitality should always be shown to strangers. Julian then quotes Homer: "from Zeus come all beggars and strangers."

Julian states that he is "wholly amazed" when he observes a Pagan who "sees his neighbors in need of money [but] does not give them so much as a drachma." This amazement is due to the fact that "from the beginning of the world", Zeus has been called "the God of Strangers", "the God of Comrades", and "the God of Kindred". Julian also emphasizes that "every man is akin to every other man", and that as important as differences "in habits and laws" are from one culture to another, nevertheless "the sacred tradition of the Gods", by which all humans are akin, is "higher and more precious and more authoritative" than the differences among human beings, for "we are all descended from the Gods."

At the end of this letter, Julian show just how little he admires or seeks to emulate the Galileans (or "take a page from their book"). For Julian compares the "charitable" Christians to
those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them twice or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves, and that which for the moment seemed sweet, proves to be bitter for all the rest of their lives...
So just where exactly did the idea come from that Julian admired and sought to emulate the Christians because they had a "social conscience" which Pagans, up to then, had lacked?

In his "Invectives Against Julian" Gregory Nazianzen (330-390 AD) claimed that Julian's religious policies consisted largely of imitating "things that evidently belong to our constitution" and "things that he admired in our institutions. " Among the things that Gregory claimed as Christian inventions admired and imitated by Julian were charity, the establishment of places of meditation, relief work among prisoners, the building of inns and hospices for pilgrims, the establishment of "schools in every town, with pulpits and higher or lower rows of benches, for lectures and expositions of the heathen doctrines... ." and so forth. [First Invective, paragraphs 110-11]

A little later Gregory refers to Julian's supposed emulation of the Galileans as "this wonderful copying of theirs, or rather their parodying as it were on the stage." [para 113]

To get an idea of what kind of man this Gregory was, in those same Invectives he bitterly laments the fact that Julian was not murdered as a child, and Gregory maligns those who saved the life of the six year-old Julian when his father and brothers were being slaughtered, while praising the Christian Emperor Constantius (317-361), who ordered the slaughter (of members of his own family!) and whose only fault, in Gregory's eyes, was that he didn't go far enough! [First Invective, para 91] In fact, Gregory, even while praising Constantius as "the most celebrated of all the sovereigns" still feels compelled to criticize him for "mak[ing] a mistake highly unworthy of his hereditary piety" in allowing the child who would become Julian the Apostate to live. [para 3]

Gregory's mentality is further illustrated by the fact that he criticizes Julian for ... not killing Christians: "[H]e begrudged the honor of martyrdom, and for this reason he contrives now to use compulsion and yet not seem to do so."!! [para 58]

This is the man whose opinions modern day "Pagans", like Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, are aping when they claim that Julian was an admirer and imitator of the Galileans. Since "Pagans" like Hutton and Clifton have no qualms when it comes to questioning the validity of Julian's Paganism, why should anyone hesitate to question the validity of theirs?

(1) The translations from Julian's "Letter to a Priest" are taken from the Loeb Classical Library's The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume II, which can be downloaded in pdf format from googlebooks. Volume I is also available from googlebooks.
(2) The translations of Gregory's Invectives are taken from C.W. King's Julian the Emperor.
(3) The idea that Paganism found itself in need of a theological overhaul in order to be able to compete intellectually with the religion that gave us Jerry Fallwell is dealt with by an earlier post on Ancient Pagans and Theology: Did They or Didn't They?.
(4) More on philanthropic traditions among ancient Pagans can be found in another post: Pagans, Christians and Charity.
(5) Also see these three posts: Contra diZerega, Contra diZerega Part Deux, and Liberte, Egalite, Apoplexie, dealing with the general theme of whether or not ancient Pagans lacked a "social conscience".