Thursday, August 30, 2012

Defining Paganism: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also."

In the year 375 AD, during Lent, Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius (c. 347-420), known to us simply as Jerome, had a dream. In the dream an angel asked Jerome what his religion was, and Jerome replied that he was a Christian. But the angel informed Jerome bluntly that because of his excessive love for classical literature he was not a Christian, for "where your treasure is, there is your heart also" (a quote from the Gospel of Matthew). Since Jerome treasured his beloved Cicero, Vergil, Ovid, etc., above the Christian scriptures, his heart was Pagan, not Christian.

Having judged him to be a non-Christian, the angel ordered his minions to begin viciously lashing Jerome with whips. As Jerome begged for mercy and cried out in agony, a crowd of onlookers gathered, and they pleaded on Jerome's behalf. The crowd negotiated with the angel, proposing that Jerome should be given a second chance, and following that if he "ever again read the works of the Gentiles" then the angel could punish Jerome with "extreme torture" (cruciatus) to his heart's content, and they would offer no further objections.

Finally the angel relented and called off his henchmen, and Jerome swore an oath saying: "Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied You." (Quotes are from a letter written by Jerome nearly a decade later: source1, source2.)

In Jerome's account of his dream, quoted in translation above, he uses the Latin adjective Gentilis to refer to the Pagan writings of Cicero, etc. As a matter of fact, there is no record of Jerome ever using the term Paganus. So what exactly did the angel accuse Jerome of being, if not a Pagan? A Gentile, perhaps? No. Amazingly, the angel responded to Jerome's initial claim to be a Christian with "You lie. You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian"! ("Mentiris. Ciceronianus es, non Christianus.")

Two centuries before Jerome and his dream, however, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225, aka: "The Father of Western Theology") had made extensive use of the term Paganus to refer to non-Christians. Scholars tend to agree that Tertullian provides the first written evidence of Christians using Paganus to refer to non-Christians. Scholars also agree that Tertullian was not using Paganus in the sense of "rustic", but in its sense as "civilian" to distinguish those who were not "soldiers of Christ" (miles Christi) from those who were.

According to James J. O'Donnell, in his invaluable paper titled simply Paganus, there is a century (plus) long period of "silence" following Tertullian, during which the term Paganus does not appear in the surviving writings of Christian authors as an epithet for non-Christians. During this time Christians instead employed the terms "nationes, gentes, gentiles, ethnici, occasionally Graecus". After this gap, O'Donnel states that Paganus then returns to the written record by way of the pen of "Marius Victorinus, who converted to Christianity c. 355, died in 361. Victorinus uses the term frequently in scriptural commentary, equating it to Graecus." Around the same time (but slightly later), the term Paganus is also found throughout Emperor Theodosius' anti-Pagan legislation (it's first appearance in Christian Imperial Law was in 370). According to O'Donnel Augustine (354-430) and Orosius (c.375-c.420) were the ones who really solidified Paganus as a widely accepted term used by Christians to refer to non-Chistians.

It is particularly important to take note of Augustine's use of Paganus, especially in his magnum opus: De Civitate Dei contra Paganos. Who are the "Pagans" against whom Augustine was writing? Were they illiterate peasants still clinging to their folk beliefs and customs? Definitely not, for Augustine's anti-Pagan polemic was composed as a self-conscious literary tour de force, which would have little meaning to uneducated rustics, even if it were read aloud to them.

In his magisterial biography of Augustine, the scholar Peter Brown explains that in the early fifth century the remnants of Hellenic-Roman Paganism included highly educated Pagans who constituted "a wide intelligentsia, spreading throughout all the provinces of the West." And far from being just a bunch of eccentric troublemakers and social misfits, this Pagan intelligentsia was comprised of "deeply religious" men and women committed to "the preservation of a whole way of life", despite the fact that their way of life was already officially abolished and consigned to Damnatio Memoriae.

"The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry," Peter Brown tells us, painting a vivid picture of the mental universe of these deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century, "could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation. For such a man ... to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements." [pp. 301-302]

O'Donnel's paper, mentioned above, is highly useful not only because he documents the way in which the usage of the term Paganus evolved among early Christians, but also because of his very nice summary of the work of modern scholars who have ventured opinions on this matter. But O'Donnel's paper was written in 1977, and one of the sources he relies on most heavily is the (still extremely important) 1952 paper by Christine Morhmann (see bibliography at end of post). Fortunately, a much more recent work provides an updated snapshot of the current state of scholarly thinking on the term Paganus: Alan Cameron's The Last Pagans of Rome.

"There can be little doubt that in the absence of an existing term, paganus came to be treated as the Latin equivalent of 'hellene'," writes Cameron (on page 22). Cameron favorably cites Mohrmann (1952), and states that the "impressive number of illustrations given by her" could be even further extended. Mohrmann's gloss for "paganus" is usually rendered in English as "outsider" in the general sense of "anyone not belonging to a particular group," according to Cameron's reading of Mohrmann. Cameron further states that "the most conspicuous feature of paganus is that, in all its meaning, it takes its precise color from an antonym. Originally rural as opposed to urban, then civilians as opposed to military, and finally pagan as opposed to Christian." Despite his insistence that the "rural as opposed to urban" meaning was the "original" one, Cameron himself cites a passage from Vergil (70BC - 19AD) in which pagani are counterposed to montani, so that in this "archaic" usage, the entire population of Rome was comprised of Pagans.

In summary, the actual usage of Paganus makes it very clear who is being denoted: all those who resist the process of Christianization, be they peasant or scholar, Hellene or barbarian. This very much includes those who successfully resist, and even reverse Christianization, as modern Pagans are doing.

It might be tempting to posit Paganism as something like a "culture of resistance". But that would mean mistaking the superficial for the essential. Paganism resists Christianization for the sake of the "preservation of a whole way of life," as Peter Brown put it so nicely. This way of life is at heart religious, because of what it "treasures": the Gods. This way of life is also traditional because it participates in and perpetuates ancient lifeways that grow and evolve organically over time spans measured in centuries and millennia, and that are interwoven throughout every aspect of both society at large and the psyche within. It is only secondarily, although inescapably and inexorably, the case that to defend and preserve ancient religious traditions requires resistance to that which is the sworn and implacable enemy of all Tradition.


Christine Mohrmann

"Encore une fois: paganus," Études sur le latin des chrétiens 3.277-89; orig. pub. in Vigiliae Christianae 6(1952) 109-21.

James J. O'Donnell
Classical Folia 31(1977) 163-69

Peter Brown
Augustine of Hippo (U. Cal. Press, revised edition, 2000)

Fritz Muntean
The Meaning of 'Pagan' (online essay, 2007)

Christopher Francese
Ancient Rome In So Many Words (Hippocrene Books, 2007, see especially pp. 192-193)

Alan Cameron
The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford, 2010)