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Thus in degree as the empire fell Christianity arose. During the third century Christianity sucked ancient society like a vampire, drawing out all its forces and creating that general enervation against which the patriotic empires vainly struggled. Christianity had no need to attack it with lively vigour; it had only to shut itself up in its churches. It revenged itself by not serving the State, for it kept nearly to itself alone certain principles without which the State cannot prosper. It is the grand battle which we see to-day waged 338in the State by our Conservatives. The army, the magistracy, the public services, require a certain amount of seriousness and honesty. Where the classes which can furnish that seriousness shut themselves up in abstention, the whole body suffers.

The Church in the third century, by monopolising life, drained civil society, bled it, made it empty. The little societies killed the great society. The ancient life, a life all exterior and manly; a life of glory, of heroism, of patriotism; a life of the forum, the theatre, and the gymnasium is conquered by the Jewish life—a life anti-military, a friend of shade, a life of pale immured people. Politics are not served by men too much withdrawn from the world. When a man decides to aspire only to heaven, he is no longer of the country here below. A nation cannot be made up of monks, or of Yoguis; the hatred and despisal of the world do not prepare for the struggle of life. India, which of all known countries is the most versed in asceticism, has not been since time immemorial anything but a land open to all conquerors. It was the same in some respect with Egypt. The inevitable consequence of asceticism is to make one consider everything which is not religious frivolous and inferior. The sovereign, the warrior, compared with the priest, are only rustic and brutal; civil order is taken for a vexatious tyranny. Christianity softened the manners of the ancient world; but, from the military and patriotic point of view, it destroyed the ancient world. The city and the State will not accommodate themselves later on to Christianity otherwise than by making it submit to the most profound modifications.

“They dwell on the earth,” said the author of the Epistle to Diognetes, “but really their country 339is in heaven.” When they ask the martyr as to his country, “I am a Christian,” he says. The country and the civil laws, behold the mother, the father, which the true Gnostic, according to Clement of Alexandria, ought to despise that he may sit down at the right hand of God. The Christian is embarrassed, incapable, when the affairs of the world are concerned; the Gospel found believers, not citizens. It was the same of Islamism and Buddhism. The advent of these great universal religions puts an end to the old idea of native country: one was no longer a Roman, an Athenian; they were Christian, Mussulmans and Buddhists. Men henceforth are to be taught according to their cult, not according to their native land: they shall divide over heresies, not over questions of nationality.

This is what Marcus-Aurelius saw perfectly, and this renders him so favourable to Christianity. The Church appeared to him a State in a State. “The camp of piety,” that new “system of native land founded on the divine Logos,” had nothing to see in the Roman camp, which does not pretend to form subjects for heaven. The Church, in fact, avows itself to be a complete society, quite superior to civil society: the pastor is worth more than the magistrate. The Church is the native land of the Christian, as the synagogue is the native country of the Jew: the Christian and the Jew live in the country where they look upon themselves as strangers. The Christian has scarcely any father or mother. He owes nothing to the empire, but the empire owes everything to him, for it is the presence of the faithful scattered through the Roman world which stays the heavenly anger, and saves the State from its ruin. The Christian does not rejoice in the victories of the empire; the public disasters appear to him a confirmation of the prophecies which condemn the world to perish by the 340barbarians and by fire. The cosmopolitanism of the Stoics has as many dangers; but an ardent love of civilisation and of Greek culture served as the counterpoise to the excess of their indifference.

In many points of view, certainly, the Christians were loyal subjects. They never revolted; they prayed for their persecutors. In spite of their complaints against Marcus-Aurelius, they did not take any part in the revolt of Avidius Cassius. They affected the principles of the most complete legitimism. God giving power to whom he pleases, it is necessary to obey, without examination, him who possesses it officially. But this apparent political orthodoxy was at bottom only the cult of success. “There has never been among us any partisan of Albin, or of Niger,” said Tertullian with ostentation, under the reign of Septimus Severus. But, really, in what was Septimus Severus more legitimate than Albin, and than Pescennius Niger? He succeeded better than they, that is all. The Christian principle, “We must acknowledge him who exercises the power,” ought to contribute to establish the worship of an accomplished fact, that is to say, the worship of force. Liberal policy owes nothing, and will never owe anything, to Christianity. The idea of representative government is the contrary of that which Jesus, St. Peter, and Clement of Rome expressly professed.

The most important of civic duties, military service, the Christians could not fulfil. That service implied, besides the necessity of shedding blood, which appeared criminal to the enthusiasts, certain acts which timorous consciences considered idolatrous. There were, no doubt, many Christian soldiers in the second century; but very quickly the incompatibility of the two professions disclosed itself, and the soldier laid down his sword or became a martyr. The antipathy was decided; in becoming 341a Christian, he quitted the army. “One cannot serve two masters,” was the principle repeated without ceasing. The representation of a sword or a bow on a ring was forbidden. “It is the same to fight for the emperor as to pray for him.” The grand weakness which was remarked in the Roman at the end of the second century, and which is visible especially in the third century, has its cause in Christianity. Celsus perceived the truth here with wonderful sagacity. The military courage which, according to the German, alone can open the Walhalla, is not in itself a virtue in the eyes of the Christian. If it is employed for a good cause, it is right; if not, it is only barbarity. Certainly a man very brave in war may be a man of mediocre morality; but a society of perfect people would be so weak! By being too consistent, the Christian East lost all military valour. Islam has profited by it, and has given to the world the melancholy spectacle of that eternal Christian of the East, always the same in spite of the difference of race, always beaten, always massacred, perpetually offering its neck to the sabre, a very uninteresting victim, for he does not revolt and does not know how to hold a weapon even when one puts it into his hand.

The Christian shunned likewise the magistracy, the public offices, and civil honours. To pursue these honours, to exercise ambition for these functions, or only to accept them, was to give a mark of faith in a world which, as principles, they declared condemned and stained by idolatry to the very depths. A law of Septimus Severus permits the “adherents of the Jewish superstition” to attain to honours with a dispensation from obligations contrary to their creed. The Christians could certainly have profited by these dispensations; they did not. To crown one’s door with the announcement of 342festival days, to take part in the amusements and public rejoicings, was apostasy. They were even forbidden to go to the tribunals. Christians ought never to carry their cases there, they ought to hand them over to their pastors for arbitration. The impossibility of mixed marriages erected a wall that was insurmountable between the Church and the society. It was forbidden to the faithful to promenade in the streets, or to mingle in public conversations; they must live only among themselves. Even the taverns could not be in common: Christians on a journey went to the church, and there shared in the agapes, in the distributions of the remainder of the sacred offerings.

A crowd of arts and trades, whose profession drew with it association with idolatry, were forbidden to the Christians. Sculpture and painting, especially, came nearly to be objectless; they were treated as enemies. Here is the explanation of one of the most singular facts of history—I mean the disappearance of sculpture in the first half of the third century. What Christianity killed first in the old civilisation was art. It slowly killed riches, but in that respect its action has not been less decisive. Christianity was, before everything, an immense economic revolution. The first became the last, and the last first. That was really the realisation of the kingdom of God, according to the Jews. One day Rab Joseph, son of Rab Josua Ben Levi, having fallen into a lethargy, his father asked him, when he came to himself, “What have you seen in heaven, my son?” “I have seen,” replied Joseph, “the world upside down; the most powerful were in the last rank; the most humble in the first.” “It is the normal world which you have seen, my son.”

The Roman empire, by humbling the nobility and by reducing almost to nothing the privilege of 343blood, increased, on the other hand, the advantages of chance. Far from establishing effective equality among the citizens, the Roman empire, opening to two knockers the doors of the Roman city, created a deep difference — that of honestiores (the notables, the rich) and the humiliores or tenuiores (the poor). In proclaiming the equality of all, they introduced inequality into the law, especially the penal law. Poverty rendered the title of “Roman citizen “ nearly useless, and the great majority were poor. The error of Greece, which had been to despise the workman and the peasant, had not disappeared. Christianity at first did nothing for the peasant; it even hurt the rural populations by the institution of the episcopate, in the influence and benefit of which the towns alone had part; but it had an influence of the first degree in the rehabilitation of the artisan. One of the recommendations which the Church made to the tradesman was to acquit himself in his occupation with taste and industry. The word operarius appears again; in their epitaphs the workman and workwoman are praised for having been good workers.

The workman honestly gaining his livelihood every day—this was indeed the Christian ideal. Avarice was a supreme crime in the eyes of the Primitive Church. Now the most frequent avarice was simply economy. Almsgiving was a strict duty. Judaism had already a precept as to it. In the Psalms and prophetical books the ebion is the friend of God, and to give to the ebion is to give to God. Almsgiving in Hebrew is synonymous with justice (sedaka). The earnestness of pious people needed to be limited to justify itself in this way: one of the precepts of Ouscha forbids that more than a fifth of one’s goods should be given to the poor. Christianity, which at its origin was 344a society of ebionim, fully accepted the idea that the rich, if he did not give of his superfluity, is keeping back the property of others. God gives all his creation to all. “Imitate the equality of God, and no one will be poor,” we read in a text which was for some time held as sacred. The Church herself became an establishment of charity. The agapes and the distributions made of the superfluity of offerings kept the poor and travellers.

It was the rich man who all along the line was sacrificed. Few of the rich entered the Church, and their position there was most difficult. The poor, proud of the evangelical promises, treated them with an air which might appear arrogant. The rich man’s fortune required to be pardoned, as if it were some derogation from the spirit of Christianity. By right the kingdom of God was closed to him, at least unless he purified his riches by almsgiving when he did not expiate it by martyrdom. They held him for an egotist, who fattened on the sweat of others. The community of goods, if it ever existed, existed no longer; it was called “the apostolic life,” that is to say, the ideal of the Primitive Church of Jerusalem was a dream lost in the distance; but the property of the believer was only half property; he held little of it, and the Church really shared it as much as he.

It was in the fourth century that the struggle became great and desperate. The rich classes, nearly all attached to the ancient religion, fought energetically; but the poor carried the day. In the East, where the action of Christianity was even more complete, or rather, less opposed than in the West, there were scarcely any rich at the beginning of the middle of the fifth century. Syria, and especially Egypt, became quite ecclesiastical and monastic countries. The Church and the monastery—that is to say, the two forms of the 345community—were the only rich there. The Arabian conquest, throwing itself on these countries, after some battles on the frontier, found nothing more than a flock to lead away. Liberty of worship being once assured, the Christians of the East submitted to all tyrannies. In the West, the Germanic invasions and other causes did not allow pauperism to triumph completely. But human life was suspended for a thousand years. Great industry became impossible; consequently false ideas spread as to usury; all the operations of banking and assurance were interdicted. The Jew alone could handle money; they forced him to be rich; then they reproached him with that fortune to which they had condemned him. Here was the greatest error of Christianity. It would not have been so bad to say to the poor, instead of “Enrich yourselves at the expense of the rich,” “Riches are nothing.” It cut capital by the root; it forbade the most legitimate thing, the interest of money, by having the air of guaranteeing to the rich his riches; it took away its fruits from him; it rendered it unproductive. This fatal error spread across all the society of the Middle Ages, for the pretended crime of usury was the obstacle which opposed for more than ten centuries the progress of civilisation.

The amount of work in the world diminished considerably. Some countries, such as Syria, where the comfortable was not connected with so much pleasure as pain, and where slavery was a condition of material civilisation, were lowered to a considerable degree in the human ladder. The ancient ruins remained there like the vestiges of a world that had disappeared and had been misunderstood. The joys of the other life, not acquired by work, were dwelt upon as much as that which leads man to action. The bird of heaven, the lily 346do not toil nor spin, and yet they occupy through their beauty a rank of the first order in the hierarchy of creatures. Great is the joy of the poor when they thus announced to him happiness without work. The mendicant whom you tell that the world is going to be his, and that, passing his life in doing nothing, he is a noble in the Church, so much so that his prayers are the most efficacious of all—this mendicant soon becomes dangerous. We see this in the movements of the last Messianists of Tuscany. The peasants, indoctrinated by Lazaretti, having lost the habit of work, did not wish to resume their habitual life. As in Galilee, as in Umbria in the time of Francis d’Assisi, the people imagined that they could conquer heaven by poverty. After such dreams they did not resign themselves to take up the yoke again. They acted the apostle sooner than take up the chain which had been broken. It is so hard to bend every day under a humiliating and ungrateful task.

The goal of Christianity was not in any way the perfecting of human society, nor the increase of the sum of happiness of the individuals. Man strives to endure the least evil possible upon the earth when he looks seriously at the earth and the few days that he will pass there. But when he has been told that the earth is upon the point of finishing, and that life is nothing but a day’s trial, the insignificant preface of an eternal idea, what good is there in beautifying it? They do not set themselves to adorn it, and to render comfortable the hovel where they must wait but an instant. It is especially in the relation of Christianity that this appears with clearness. Christianity eminently contributed to comfort the slave and to make his lot better. But it does not work directly to suppress slavery. We have seen that the great school of jurisconsultes, arising from the Antonines, is entirely possessed 347by this idea that slavery is an abuse which must be gently suppressed. Christianity never said, “Slavery is an abuse.” Nevertheless, by its exalted idealism, it serves powerfully the philosophical tendency which for a long time back has made itself felt in the laws and manners.

Primitive Christianity was a movement essentially religious. Everything which in the social organisation of the time was not associated with idolatry appeared to it good to keep. The idea never came to the Christian doctors to protest against the established fact of slavery. That would have been a fashion of acting in a revolutionary way altogether contrary to their spirit. The rights of men were not in any way a Christian affair. St. Paul completely recognised the legitimacy of a master’s position. No word occurs in all the ancient Christian literature to preach revolt to the slave, nor to advise the master to manumission, nor even to agitate the problem of public law which has been produced among us concerning slavery. There were some dangerous sectaries, like the Carpocratians, who spoke of suppressing the differences between people. The orthodox admitted the property as fixed, as it had for its object a man or a thing. The terrible lot of the slave does not touch them nearly so much as us. For the few hours that life lasts what matters the condition of man? “Hast thou been called a slave? care not for it; if thou canst free thyself, profit by it. . . . The slave is the Lord’s freeman; the freeman is the slave of Christ. In Christ, there is no more Greek nor Jew, slave nor freeman, male nor woman.” The words servus and libertus are extremely rare on the Christian tombs. The slave and the freeman are equally servus Dei, as the soldier is miles Christi. The slave, on another side, calls himself proudly the freeman of Jesus.

Submission and conscientious attachment of the 348slave towards the master, gentleness and brotherhood on the part of the slave—by this is bounded, in practice, the morality of primitive Christianity on this delicate point. The number of slaves and of freedmen was very considerable in the Church. Never is the master Christian, who has Christian slaves, counselled to free them: it is not forbidden even to use corporal chastisement towards them, and this is the nearly inevitable consequence of slavery. Under Constantine the favour of liberty appeared to retrograde. If the movement which dates from the Antonines had continued in the second half of the third century, and in the fourth century, the suppression of slavery would have come about as a legal measure and by redemption money. The ruin of the liberal polity, and the misfortunes of the times, caused all the ground which had been gained to be lost. The Fathers of the Church speak of the ignominy of slavery, and the baseness of slaves, in the same terms as the Pagans. John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, is almost the only doctor who formally counsels the master to enfranchise his slave as a good action. Later on the Church possessed slaves, and treated them like everybody else, that is to say, harshly. The condition of the Church slave was governed, indeed, by one circumstance, viz., the impossibility of alienating the property of the Church. Who was his proprietor? Who could enfranchise him? The difficulty of solving this question eternised ecclesiastical slavery, and brought about this singular result, that the Church, which really had done so much for the slaves, had been the last to possess slaves. The enfranchisements were generally made by will; now the Church had no wills to make. The ecclesiastical freeman remained under the patronage of a mistress who did not die.


It is in an indirect fashion, and by way of consequence, that Christianity contributed powerfully to change the situation of the slave, and to suppress slavery. The rôle of Christianity in the question of slavery has been that of an enlightened Conservative who serves Radicalism by his principles, while holding very reactionary language. While showing the slave to be capable of virtue, heroic in martyrdom, equal to his master, and probably his superior in point of view of the Kingdom of God, the new faith made slavery impossible. To give a moral value to the slave is to suppress slavery. The gatherings in the church, and they alone, were sufficient to ruin this cruel institution. Antiquity had not preserved slavery, except by excluding the slaves from the cults of the country. If they had sacrificed with their masters, they would have been morally elevated. Frequenting the church was the most perfect lesson of religious equality. What shall be said of the eucharist, of martyrdom endured in common? From the moment that the slave has the same religion as his master, prays in the same temple as he, slavery is nearly at an end. The sentiments of Blandina and her “carnal mistress” are those of a mother and daughter. In the Church the master and the slave were called brethren. Even on the most delicate matter, that of marriage, we see some miracles—certain freedmen marrying noble ladies, some feminæ clarisimæ.

As it is natural to suppose, the Christian master led his slaves more frequently to the faith, without committing any indiscretion which would people the Church with unworthy subjects. It was a good action to go to the slave market, and, allowing oneself to be guided by grace, to choose some poor creature to purchase to make sure of his salvation. “To purchase a slave is to gain a soul” became a current proverb. A kind of proselytism, more 350common and more legitimate, still consisted in receiving foundlings, who became the alumni Christians. Sometimes certain churches ransomed at their expense one of their members from a servile condition. This excited the desires of the unfortunate ones less favoured. The orthodox doctors did not encourage these dangerous pretensions: “Let them continue to serve for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a much better liberty.” The slave, or rather the freedman, rose to the most important ecclesiastical functions, provided that his patron or his master made no opposition.

What Christianity founded is equality before God. Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom especially did not lose an occasion of consoling the slave, of proclaiming him the freeman and as noble as he, if he accepts his condition and serves for God willingly and from the heart. In its liturgy the Church has a prayer “for those who pine in bitter slavery.” Already Judaism on the same subject had professed some relatively humane maxims. It had thus opened as widely as possible the door for ransoms. Slavery among the Hebrews was much ameliorated. The Essenes and the Therapeutists went further; they declared servitude contrary to natural law, and did entirely without servile work. Christianity, less radical, did not suppress slavery, but it suppressed the manners of slavery. Slavery is founded on the absence of the idea of brotherhood among men; the idea of brotherhood is the dissolving of it. At the beginning of the fifth century, enfranchisement and the ransom of captives were the acts of charity most recommended by the Church.

Those who have pretended to see in Christianity the revolutionary doctrine of the rights of man, and in Jesus a precursor of Toussaint Louverture, are 351completely deceived. Christianity has inspired no Spartacus; the true Christian does not revolt. But let us hasten to say it, it was not Spartacus who suppressed slavery; it was much more done by Blandina; it is especially the ruin of the Græco-Roman world. Ancient slavery has never really been abolished; it has fallen, or rather it is transformed. The inertia into which the East sunk at the beginning of the complete triumph of the Church, in the fifth century, rendered slavery useless. The barbarian invasions in the West were an analogous effect. The kind of general indifference in which humanity was wrapped after the fall of the Roman empire led to numerous manumissions. The slave was a surviving victim of Pagan civilisation, a nearly useless remnant of a world of luxury and leisure. It was believed that a man could ransom his soul from the terrors of the other life by delivering this suffering brother here below. Slavery, besides, became especially rural, and implied a bond between man and the earth, which should one day become property. As to the philosophic principle that man ought not to belong to any but himself, it is much later when it appears as a social dogma. Seneca and Ulpian had proclaimed it in a theoretical way; Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French Revolution have made from it the basis of the new faith of humanity.

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