Chapter 2

The victory of Christianity

But from the earliest, the initial emissaries of this Prince had died rather than deny what they had seen with their own eyes; and this gave credibility to their testimony. So the belief spread that this crook who was killed was in fact the incarnation of the one God, and that by believing in him the sins each and all had committed could be erased and we could all be brought to sonship with God and brotherhood with one another--and that eternal life and happiness was waiting for those who remained faithful.

This created, of course, the bond that Rome had been trying to achieve with emperor-worship. But the kingdom that the Christians believed in was not in this world; even the visible leader of Christianity held no territory. There was therefore a complete divorce between religious and secular authority at the time, with the secular power relegated to the external order only, and the Prince of Christianity taking over hearts and minds.

But once Rome lost its grip on religion, it no longer could hold the empire together; and the result was a resurgence of nationalism and tribalism, even in the midst of the Empire; and the barbarian hordes began their attacks.

Christianity was accused of being responsible for this decline of the Roman Empire, and with a good deal of truth. But St. Augustine defended Christianity against guilt for what was happening, showing (in the City of God) that the corruption of the Empire itself was what was making it crumble, not some kind of raid upon it by Christians because they were Christian.

St. Augustine also performed a magnificent amalgamation of Christianity with the scientific knowledge of the time (i.e. the secular philosophies), interpreting Plotinus and the Stoics particularly in the light of what he knew from Christian revelation. His brilliant synthesis destroyed what intellectual underpinnings were left of pagan life, and its decline from then on was precipitous.

But before this happened, the victory of Christianity over secularism was made complete--or at least apparently complete--when Constantine went over to the new religion and commanded that it be adopted by everyone in the Empire. He also moved to Constantinople in the eastern part of the empire, which in turn led Christianity itself into being more or less divided into two centers, with increasingly differing practices, though the same faith was preserved.

The attacks by the barbarians also brought about another factor in the shift from ancient society to medieval society. It became necessary for the people to defend themselves against these attackers, since the central army of Rome could no longer do so. Hence, those with wealth, fortified houses and horses (the knights) would take their Christian brothers of the lower classes into their houses for the duration of the attack, and would defend them from the northern invaders.

This led to an agreement between the wealthy and the poor in their environs: the wealthy promised to undertake the defense of all the people in exchange for the farmers' sharing their produce with their defenders. In theory, this was no longer a master-slave arrangement, but an agreement among equals (or at least, people of equal dignity before the Lord of lords). Everyone was recognized as human; it was just that the division of labor had shifted.

At this point, then, the whole world was Christian, and so everyone was a brother or sister of everyone else. In the spiritual realm, the "we" had expanded in theory to include all of humanity. But this was merely implicit, and potential. People did not think of themselves as members of the whole world as a community; their real world was fragmented into small dukedoms with the lords defending their people against the attacking enemies; and the "we" in their consciousness ("for itself") became those living under the protection of a lord.

The lord technically had no real authority over his vassals, because he was their servant in the sense of their protector, while they were independent, as it were, except for the portion of their produce that they handed over in payment for his service. But in practice, since he held the forces of destruction while the people only held the forces of production, they became his slaves and he their master. Note that it is not simply the forces of production that give one power; the forces of destruction are much more efficient in achieving this, and they quickly acquire control over the forces of production.

Nevertheless, this new master/slave relationship was not what it was in appearance; and in this age, appearance was taken for what reality really was. Note the negative moment, the "for itself" here. Love for itself, the "we" for itself amounted to external fealty. The lord received homage for his service to the people, and the practice of noblesse oblige was supposed to (and did, really) provide duties for him to perform. The real truth about humanity was now something outside itself: "honor"; and one put his physical life at risk to keep the appearances intact. Here, the respect shown was not like that in China (to one's progenitors), but had a much more economic cast to it: the deference was not due to age or authority, but to the service the protector was performing for the community; it was a deference which at least in principle recognized that all were fundamentally equal.

Of course, the protectors then had to justify their existence from time to time; and so they changed from simply defending the people from the barbarian invaders to defending the people from encroachments by neighboring dukes. But these dukes were also justifying their existence, and so the wars became as much a game as a serious enterprise (once again a matter of appearances), and alliances and enmities were formed and broken constantly--but everything looked right and proper. And, of course, the war activities eventually degenerated into games of tournaments and so on, and so the sham became aware of itself as not something really serious.

Since the protectors were in fact the ones in secular authority, then they acted as judges; and so trial by combat became the way of settling disputes, with the disputants choosing a champion, who fought a joust, on the assumption that God would only let the person whose cause was just win. This amounted, of course, to a manipulation of God, demanding that he make the person who was in the (spiritual) right the one who was physically victorious; but by the laws of nature, victory goes to the stronger, not the one who happens to support the correct side. And God does not act contrary to nature.

So not surprisingly, it didn't work, and great injustices were perpetrated.

All during this period there were religious disputes, some even involving bizarre practices such as getting oneself into a state of holiness and then starving oneself to death. There was, however, a centralized body, the ecumenical council, which met to decide such questions, and which excommunicated the dissenters, which generally speaking then dwindled into sects of no importance.