Cyprian: The James Watt of the Third Century?
July 9, 2009
For today’s dose of apocalyptic rhetoric, we turn to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, explaining to the Pro-Consul Demetrianus why Christian disdain for the pagan gods isn’t to blame for the empire’s decline:
You have said that to us should be attributed the calamities by which the world is now shaken and distressed, because your gods are not now worshipped by us. Now, since you are ignorant of divine knowledge, and a stranger to truth, you must in the first place realize this, that the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood. This we would know , even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals… This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has had a beginning shall hav an end, that everything which as flourished shall fall, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.
-Excerpted from Rebecca West’s Augustine.
Stray thought: One of the more interesting points Popper raised in The Open Society and its Enemies was how Platonism, despite its emphasis on the eternal and undying forms, contained in itself the grains of a historicist outlook in its insistence on the inevitable decline of the material world. Popper claimed this put it at the beginning of the line of thought that eventually led to Marxism, though he did relatively little exploration of the very complex role those kinds of views played in the early Middle Ages. Though I’m not really convinced Popper’s take is really a fair read of Plato, its still interesting to see how that kind of pessimism showing up in the mindset of the Early Christians, and how they employed it against the powers of the day… And what an intriguing contrast it’s emphasis on physical decay makes to the moral reversals of the Sermon on the Mount…