I remember being taught as a student of the considerable, if not unbridgeable, gap between the polytheistic pagans and the monotheistic Christians who, though they may have borrowed from their predecessors, eventually delivered a civilization completely of their own. The roots of the West were supposed to lie in Christianity, which either invented a new world or shaped the pagan one into a new one.
I must confess I have become more and more unable to adhere to this view, as I find it increasingly obvious that, apart from one notable difference, the Christian and the pagan doctrines are essentially two different ways of expressing exactly the same vision of the world.
Who can conceive of a creature endowed with thought who does not try to make some sort of sense of the world around him? Nevertheless, what is so notable about what came to be known as the Greek miracle was, some five or six centuries before Christ, on a teeny peninsula of the Mediterranean coast, the emergence of a city where, amidst the turmoil of its troubled life, a sort of devotion to the understanding of the world blossomed in a most extraordinary way. There may have been elsewhere, and earlier, other endeavors, but a city has yet to appear where so many have considered nothing to be more important for a man to do than to understand the world, a world believed to be such that nothing in it can exist that does not have a reason to exist, and man believed to be that exceptional creature endowed with a capacity and an inner propensity to look for the reason for all things.
It is no happenstance that Athens was the city of Athena, the goddess of reason, the daughter of Zeus, the god of all gods, in whom could be found the reason for the whole universe. In other words, the gist of the famed Greek wisdom was that, at the principle of all things, there was first of all not an infinite power, but an infinite wisdom endowed with infinite power. The universe was the way it was because it could not be otherwise without being faulty; it was because it was good that it was what it was, a cosmos whose sun was reason.
Obviously, such a vision of the universe required not only human reason but something beyond its grasp: It required faith. When Socrates claims it is better to suffer from injustice than to perpetrate it, whereas evil is so often blatantly rewarded with profit, he does not advise that crime does not pay. Instead, he teaches faith in the wisdom of the world and in the ultimate destination of man: to take one’s place in the encompassing order of the universe and find happiness in doing just that, whereas by trying to disturb that order he ends up only disturbing his own soul. This is nothing Socrates can prove rationally, which is why Callicles laughs at him, but this is Socrates’ belief. And he sticks to it, because the alternative is precisely the senseless world of Callicles or Democritus, men who somehow loom over the ancient world as an omen of another world, to be born later.
In other words, at the risk of being mistaken for a heretic, I think it impossible not to notice beneath the obvious differences the basic identity that obtains between the pagan and the Christian outlook. I think what they have in common far outweighs almost whatever they disagree upon, for what is the universe for Christians if not the embodiment of an infinite wisdom in which man should have faith whenever he is unable to understand it? Is there any other civilization in which the transcendence of the god they believe in nevertheless allows man to understand, if only partially, divine designs? Is there any in which man is called by God to participate, be it modestly, in His wisdom?
I am tempted to go so far as to deny a certain number of differences, which are usually put forward, as being significantly different. One will say, for instance, Christians, and not pagans, believe the world was created. I would answer that the world has eternally existed in the eternal wisdom of the Christian God, who obviously did not one day feel like creating the cosmos because He had nothing else on His agenda. (I’m not saying the notion of creation is to be bypassed, only that it should be revisited.) Or again, one will say pagans are polytheists, and Christians monotheists. I’m ready to reply: This is assuming all the gods to be of equal ranking for the pagans, or no supreme god to exist as the ordering principle of the world, whose lesser gods could be mere emanations, mere intermediaries between the Logos and mankind. But this amounts to contradicting the very notion of a cosmos. (Moreover, after all, do not Christians themselves believe in such mediators?) Or, again, could it be objected that only the Christians believe in the immortality of the soul, not the pagans? This would be gross intellectual dishonesty: Just read Plato—for instance, the Myth of Er in The Republic.
There have been pagans, on the other side, who believed they would make their stand stronger by hurling unfair charges at the Christians. I think the case can be made that the charges were trumped up for shady reasons. It has repeatedly been argued that Christian moral standards are lower than the pagans’, since the former seem to bargain with God for their salvation, whereas the pagans love virtue for its own sake. This is grossly overlooking the disinterested joy of the saint, who reaches, even briefly, communion with God. The accusation has been made by otherwise-not-stupid moderns that Christians are bad citizens or cowards, because their true City is an otherworldly one; or are bad friends, parents, spouses, because they do not care about this world. But this is misrepresenting, as a total indifference to the temporal world, what is actually the conviction that temporal good should not be mistaken for the ultimate one, a stance that has always been praised by pagan wisdom. And so forth. Indeed, would the main Christian thinkers have proclaimed their debt to the pagans if the pagan spirit had been so foreign to the Christian one?
To conclude on the basic congruence of paganism and Christianity, I must allude to what I think is, at bottom, the reason why so many consider these two bodies of ideas totally at odds with each other. Indeed, to put in a few words what would deserve many more, there are two ways to understand the God of the Bible, depending on what is considered as His dominant attribute. For if He must be both absolute wisdom and absolute power (omniscience and omnipotence), it is far from a moot point whether He must be defined first of all as omniscient or as omnipotent. Is He to be conceived mainly as an all-powerful will, which is beyond all human grasp, but is behind anything and everything that may happen in the world and within man’s affairs? Or should He be seen primarily as a wisdom (endowed with infinite power) Who, out of love, has decided men could share in? In one case men are expected to be God’s coadjutors; in the other they are puppets, merely stooping to whatever they perceive as His will, which translates notably either as yielding to sheer force, or in a sort of bargaining relationship with Him. (If I stoop to an order I don’t understand, at least I should be rewarded.) Such an understanding of God cannot be but repugnant to the pagan devotion to reason. Thus, there can be no antagonism between pagans and Christians but that which stems from a Christianity renouncing its own basic inspiration. The birth of Jesus shed a new light on the teachings of the Old Testament, which emphasized the power of God, whereas Jesus emphasized the wisdom and the love of men that presided over His Father’s creation. In other words, two kinds of faith were actually derived from the Book: One comprises the Talmudic and the Islamic varieties, and the other, Christianity proper, is sympathetic to the pagan notion that the world embodies a reason accessible to man. A very simple idea, but one which, I think, has consequences.
That being said, there is no question but that there remains a significant difference between the general outlook of the pagans and the Christians: Christianity has integrated paganism, but has gone beyond it and begotten a new world, which has its bright side, Christian civilization, and its dark side, the anti-Christian modern world.
Indeed, what Christ’s sacrifice meant was that man had so clearly sinned out of his free choice that man had somehow to die to himself to be reborn as a new man. In other words Christianity means the acknowledgement that man is not only a fool who suffers from his passions and therefore can err and is in need of a wise mentor to advance his comprehension of the world—which was the pagan idea—but also a creature endowed with freedom so complete as to enable him to go against his own Creator, and is therefore in need of a redeemer, which is the Christian idea. Freedom is God’s special gift to man, proof of the perfection of His creature and His love for him (as well as the key to understanding why God is a creator), but also of His trust in man, trust being something that can be betrayed. Christianity is the declaration of man’s freedom, but also of man’s essential ambivalence: Freedom is not by and of itself a virtue but a risk, for it enables man to be perfect and enjoy the bliss of an ordered liberty, but also to behave like an animal and revel in hubris—which makes man a depraved animal, for the nature of an animal is nothing but measure. That is being both more pessimistic and more optimistic than paganism: more optimistic, for Christianity is confident that brute freedom may be tamed by love (which is not, I hasten to add, permissiveness), whereas no stupidity can morph into intelligence. (Paganism is aristocratic.) But isn’t paganism more optimistic when it ascribes man’s weaknesses to his ignorance, and not to his free choice? (Oedipus, after all, is defeated by fate.)
In any case Christianity is responsible for a decisive, though involuntary, turn in the history of the West—an unfortunate turn that somehow estranged the West from itself. Just as the word freedom refers to two entirely different realities, the words Western civilization have two not only different, but opposite, meanings. Starting roughly (nothing considerable comes out of the blue) with the 16th century, there began to emerge a new West whose prevailing inspiration was quite purposefully to ruin the old one and start a novus ordo sæculorum: To paraphrase Rousseau, until then man had been in chains; it appeared to be time to free him. From the Renaissance to the French Revolution, traditional Christianity was seen as the first barrier to be undermined and replaced by an open society, using all available explosive material (including a paganism understood as the primacy of nature over Christian culture), but mainly appealing to man’s natural, meaning unfettered, freedom. By and by these trends ended up in a vast revolution whose political and intellectual promoters became more and more frenzied about creating the world anew, complete with a religion of their own, and with this purpose in mind, they availed themselves of a new power for which nothing, including the past, was sacred: the so-called will of the people. The whole history of the West is that of the overwhelming of the Christian tradition by a Christian heresy: Proof of man’s redemption is the availability to all men of what the West had always perceived as the means of his sin.
It is doubtful the promoters of the new West were geniuses, but they certainly believed they could play God, and the masses followed, because masses are usually crazy about demagogic promises. Nothing ever after was as it had been before: The West has become the playground of moronic creatures, ceaselessly claiming their right to complete freedom. Today, what with the drawbacks (to speak tersely) of socialism and capitalism, the new world is somehow like a rudderless ship.
Under these circumstances, some seem to look again at a revival of an anti-Christian paganism as a new haven to be towed into. The idea is so hollow that it does not deserve lengthy treatment. Much as I see true paganism impossible to dissociate from true Christianity, I fail to see any sense in what can only be a fake paganism. Why fake? Simply because it is then presented as an alternative to Christianity, which shows either ignorance of what both doctrines truly are, or malignity toward Christianity that runs contrary to the defense of paganism itself. What then may be this new paganism—as it is dubbed by its own advocates—if not a mere, though maybe unwitting, exaltation of the hubris that is the core disease of the modern West?
There is hardly any doubt in my mind that, since modernity is simply a Christian heresy, nothing is better qualified to cure a Christian disease than Christianity itself. This means of course a Christianity faithful to its own essence, to its pagan legacy, a Christianity that has reverted to its old self.