Why did Christianity Triumph? (4)18 December 2019
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Gnosticism and Christianity
The Late Roman era was clearly steeped in Gnosticism, then:
a) the world is a prison
b) all things human are mere vanity
c) life is a dream and a nightmare
d) the authentic (what is not a dream) is to be found, ‘elsewhere’, in the ‘inner world’
e) disdain for the body, but salvation for the soul.
The Gnostic spirit is not, of course, a phenomenon confined to the Late Roman era. It exists in every age. If it is not an object of interest, that is because it is of a marginal nature. The issue is to see why it was the dominant spiritual position at the time we are examining.
It is, for a start, an oversimplified suggestion of an interpretation to reduce Gnosticism to material ‘insecurity’, because it is free of this. It demonstrates no particular preference for the poor. On the contrary, those who, at that time, seem to have been especially receptive to Gnostic ideas were those who had an excess of material comforts. Perhaps, though, we may find an answer in moral and spiritual insecurity? In reality, however, such an approach would simply distance us further from the problem, would give it a trite label. Stripped of material concomitants, the word ‘insecurity’ does not actually mean anything specific, whereas the description of the Gnostic spirit can be very particular and precise. The Gnostic spirit certainly expresses an ‘anxiety’ but that is of a very existential nature, not merely personal but also collective. Gnosticism finds meaning not in personal or collective life. What, then, more natural in this case than the attitude of ‘flight from the world’? Than the ‘inward turn’ and the search for meaning ‘on the inside’.
When the world has lost its meaning, it is reasonable to seek this outside it, because, as Wittgenstein said, the meaning of the world is to be found outside the world. What does ‘outside the world mean, other than ‘within oneself’?
The collapse of the individual
Anxiety exists, then and is apparent. But it is a of a different order. It is the concern of individuals about the meaning of their existence.
Dodds [ibid, see part (3)] confuses this kind of anxiety with that of people who had been uprooted from their traditional society and from collectivist structures in general. People who had been thrown into the inhospitable alleys of large Greco-Roman cities. It is certainly true that this form of anxiety, that of collectivist people who were forced to act as individuals, played a very important role. But it was not true of the Greeks, did not welcome Christianity merely as an escape route for people of a collectivist background. When we speak of the conversion of the Greeks to Christianity, we are talking about individual citizens in individual-centered cities. This community, the polis, had collapsed, leaving Greek individual life up in the air. In other words, we are talking about the crisis of Greek individualism.
Individualism can be looked at from two perspectives: from that of the collective and from that of the individual person. In the first instance, it is the equivalent of crossing from a collectivist society into one that is individual-centered. In the second case, the significance lies in the ‘dissolution’ of the group and the transformation of people into ‘unrelated individuals’. The second use is deceptive, because it conceals something which is still a group, to which the individuals continue to belong. Aristotle said that a person entirely alone is either a wild beast or a god. In other words, we will always belong to some group. Even living in the margins is a form of belonging. For example, the underworld is part of the world. The way we are using the word individualism here is the first, because it is a precise and full definition. So when we talk of a crisis of individualism, we mean the point after which people have already become individuals, when the individual-centered society has replaced the collectivist and has reached such a point of development that the individual has become more important than the collective framework. This latter had previously given meaning to life, but the development of individualism led to its internal collapse. In other words, we are speaking of that phase of individualism where the individualistic society was beginning to lose its meaning. Greek anxiety was different from that described by Dodds because it had to do with the concept of individuality and the social community which corresponded to it.
So, if we are being logical, we should associate the acceptance of Christianity on the part of the Greeks with this special [Greek] form of anxiety. Did it provide new meaning for their individuality, which had been problematic for long enough by then. This is the crucial question.