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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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3. The Christianized Empire. After the failure of
a great persecution and a tyrannical development of
the empire, the Emperor Constantine granted to the
Church in A.D. 313 full freedom of worship and the
restitution of confiscated goods. Henceforward, he in-
creased his favors to the Christians, and the Church
began to move into a privileged position. It could be
argued that his interests as an emperor would recom-
mend an alliance with an institution that carried
power; but there are signs that he was a sincere be-
liever, though pagan in his manner of believing—too
sure that the Christian God was the one who was
victorious in battle and helped him to outwit his ene-
mies. All this came as the climax of the Christian
interpretation of history that had been developing—
with the Hebrews regarded as the fathers of civili-
zation, their language the original one, the language
of God; Christianity being the return to the original
religion of mankind, the one from which the Jews had
lapsed (only to be partially rescued by Moses) while
the Greeks had declined still more—the Church being
the heir of the wisdom of both Jews and Greeks, how-
ever, and the Incarnation coinciding neatly with the


establishment of the Roman Empire, the era of peace.
It seemed that, at this culminating moment, when the
empire itself was becoming Christian, churchmen were
willing to attribute to a Christian emperor the kind
of divinity that they had refused to concede to his

Henceforward it became almost consistently true
that all who wished to gain imperial favor or to hold
office or to make their way in society would have every
motive for joining the Church; and the conversion of
the Roman Empire—hitherto a matter of persuasion
and not without its risks—was to be continued by the
strong arm of the state. This was almost bound to
introduce corruptions in the Church itself, and to in-
crease the danger of a formal Christianity, mixed with
paganism and thinking in pagan terms—the danger also
of official compromises with paganism. It was perhaps
natural, but it was unfortunate, that when there were
parties in the Church, one or more of these (not merely
the orthodox, but sometimes the heretical) should ap-
peal to the emperor, even when he was not inclined
to intervene. This had its special dangers, for in A.D.
325 Constantine himself, having called the first ecu-
menical council at Nicaea, put himself behind the
decree of that Council, condemning the Arian heresy,
but within less than three years was induced to change
his mind.

Stranger still, men so convinced that they spoke for
the right religion—and so sure that government and
power should be at the service of God—were soon
advocates of persecution; and the process in this case
was so understandable that nobody today can feel sure
that, living in the same period and sharing the same
assumptions about religion, he would have decided
differently. Some who were slow in their conversion
to the practice appear to have been brought over when
the victims of persecution declared later in life that
they were now glad that they had been coerced.

Already, in the reign of Constantine, there arose
issues which were to trouble the Church for a long
time. One of them was the Donatist schism, which
arose out of the later persecutions and was directed
against bishops who had consented to the handing over
of sacred books to the magistrates. It led to the erection
of a counter-church in Africa—bishop confronting
antibishop—with violence, persecution, atrocities,
self-immolation, and streaks of the revolutionary and
the apocalyptic. An extravagant, though serious and
understandable, religious issue received tremendous
leverage from social discontent and possibly a sort of
nationalism, and from hostility to the Roman establish-
ment. The trouble lasted for a century, almost until
the barbarians overran the province.

Shortly before 325, Arius, who wished to guard the
sovereignty of God the Father, and may not have been
far enough from paganism to reject all ideas of subor-
dination in the deity, produced a doctrine which, while
asserting the divinity of the Son, secured a clear reduc-
tion of status for Him. The controversy tore the Church
apart until A.D. 381, and it is perhaps not too much
to say that for a longer period than this a great deal
of the ecclesiastical conflict lay between men who
wished to assert both the complete divinity and the
complete humanity of Christ, but could not agree on
the formula that would ensure the one without deplet-
ing the other. The formula adopted at Nicaea,
homoousion (consubstantial with the Father) had al-
ready been rejected in a part of the eastern Church
that had reacted against a heresy of an opposite tend-
ency. It was uncongenial to some because in any case
it could not claim to be scriptural. Various shades of
the Arian and Nicene formulas were attempted by one
party and another, who suggested “like the Father”
and “of like substance with the Father,” though there
emerged one group that diverged further than Arius
and declared that there was no likeness at all. The
emperors provided a complicating factor—now hesi-
tating, now changing their minds, now plumping for
a form of Arianism. The West remained firm in its
support of the Nicene formula, but subtle differences
arose when technical terms had been translated into
Latin, and the West was later than the East in con-
fronting the earlier heresy that had constituted the
opposite danger. At a moment when a great work of
reconciliation was being achieved, there emerged an
emperor who was a Westerner and a pious man, and
he clinched the matter by an edict in 380, and a second
ecumenical council, that of Constantinople, 381, which
confirmed Nicaea.

If the Church had become more worldly and more
contentious, its power to inspire renunciation and the
life of the spirit was reasserted in the development of
monasteries. There had been analogies to this in other
parts of the globe, but Christianity had had from the
first an ideal of chastity and poverty, and the sufferings
of the martyrs had kept its self-denying aspects alive.
The Egyptian anchorites are anterior to the victory
of the Church in the empire, and, when they appear,
they have strange features, particularly their obsession
with the battle against the vast multiplicity of
demons—a battle which could only be won by the
repudiation of the world, a tremendous disciplining of
the body, and a conquest of all ordinary emotions. It
was a battle not to be won by the man who lived as
a citizen in society; and, though prayers—sometimes
repeated in what seems to be an incredibly mechanical
manner—contributed to the objective, the movement
was one which needed the greatest care by the Church.
Nor is it clear how much of its deeper Christian char-
acter may not have been contributed retrospectively


by the influential literature that it provoked. We are
told, however, that Saint Anthony, when he went to
a solitary life in the desert in A.D. 271, was moved by
the injunction: “Sell all that thou hast and give to the
poor and follow me.” The Egyptian desert offered a
remarkable opportunity, and great numbers followed
his example. Something that almost seems like a com-
petition in asceticism may have developed here and
there—and warnings against spiritual pride in this
connection appear early in Egypt—but out of his very
loneliness the hermit was to contribute something of
rare quality to the inner life of the Church.

The anchorites came to rudimentary forms of
grouping for certain purposes, but it was Saint
Pachomius who, in about A.D. 320 or 323, brought to
the problem an essentially organizing mind and estab-
lished the community principle. He prescribed rules
for a whole order of monasteries; and, now not only
renunciation but also obedience was important, while,
besides vigils, readings from the Bible, prayer, and
contemplation, there was greater emphasis on manual
labor. The hermit was to have a significant history in
Palestine and Syria, but Saint Basil the Great, from
about A.D. 357, produced a community ideal which
superseded this and became current throughout the
Greek world. Before the middle of the century the
news had reached the West and very soon ascetic
groups were being founded there, though it was not
until something like two hundred years later that Saint
Benedict established his famous Rule that became the
guide for Westerners. The whole movement, the liter-
ature that arose from it, and the spiritual teaching it
produced had a great effect on the Church in general;
and in the fourth century important people, including
a surprising number of the leading intellects, associated
themselves with it, at least during part of their lives.
In its ultimate extension, it was to have by-products
of an unpredictable kind—especially its contributions
to cultural and even economic life. It may have been
in one sense a protest against the growing worldliness
of the fourth-century Church, or an attempt to find
a new pattern of renunciation, in some cases perhaps
even an escape from civic obligations. But it became,
from the religious point of view, an eminently creative

It is a whole Christian version of civilization that
comes to the front in the fourth century. Biblical
scholarship has advanced and become a technical affair.
Eusebius not only reconstructs the story of the Church
but has an interpretation of world history. The ancient
culture receives a Christian shape, and the transmuta-
tion sometimes shows originality. The greatest intel-
lects of the time, and some of the most imposing Chris-
tian figures of any age are the Fathers of the Church
who cluster in the latter half of the century—almost
all of them highborn, enjoying the best education of
the time, and trained in the monastic movement, yet
emerging also as great men of the world—Saint Basil,
Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and
many more. In a period of influential bishops, particu-
larly Saint Ambrose in Milan, the reign of Theodosius
I (379-95) saw paganism forbidden, heretics pursued
by the government, Catholic orthodoxy the official
religion of the whole empire, and the spiritual author-
ity boldly asserting its right against the temporal. The
piety of the lower sections of society made itself evi-
dent in the further development of the cult of martyrs
and the veneration for relics, as well as in the eagerness
for pilgrimages.

Early in the fifth century, Saint Augustine had to
meet an important accusation from the paganism that
still asserted itself, particularly in some of the aristoc-
racy. Barbarian raiders had even reached the city of
Rome. The tragedy that was falling upon the West was
being ascribed to the desertion of the pagan deities.
Augustine answered the charge in his City of God.