The Pagan Problem In Western Thought

“By all means, let the wicked fry in Hell—but why should they find themselves frying alongside innocent and virtuous pagans?”

Books Classics Faith History Literature Philosophy The Catholic Church The West
The pagan’s fate? “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (1850) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Is there something essentially illiberal about revealed religion? The question is not as Dawkinsite as it sounds; the point it raises is an entirely general one. Put it this way. If religion depends on special revelation, that revelation must tell us things that we could not have known otherwise. Some of those things may be historical and biographical details, of the kind found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran; but some will consist of special precepts and commands, or of theological information which we could never have arrived at by unaided reason.

This in itself implies that those principles of duty or theological belief must differ in some ways from, or at least go beyond, what ordinary human reasonableness would have come up with. But there is a deeper and sharper problem here. The “liberal” view is that it is wrong to penalise people for failings which are not their own fault; good intentions and best efforts must be accepted as sufficient. Yet a human being who happens not to have been informed about the contents of divine revelation stands — if that revelation really does give the essential and otherwise unavailable key to eternal life — at a stupendous disadvantage. That people who have rejected Christianity should go to Hell may seem, at least to a believing Christian, entirely right and proper. But what about the ones who never even had a chance to accept it?

The problem raised by the idea that good pagans will burn in Hell-fire is more troubling than the other familiar problems that arise over the apparent injustice of God. There is the problem of undeserved pain and suffering in this life, for example, or the fact that we see wicked men prospering. In those cases, at least one part of the answer will be that the afflicted may be compensated in the next life, and the wrongdoers will be punished. By all means, let the wicked fry in Hell — but why should they find themselves frying alongside innocent and virtuous pagans?

The robust answer to all these questions is to say: God is simply not “fair”, if by fairness you mean the paltry and inadequate human version of that concept. God’s justice is absolute, more pure and more perfect than anything we can grasp. And it is bound up with the purpose for which He made us, which is also beyond our comprehension. How can the creature judge the Creator? Hath not the potter power over the clay?

In the Christian tradition, few thinkers have taken the robust line more robustly than Saint Augustine. Only those who believed in Jesus Christ, he declared, could be saved. Like other Fathers of the Church, he assumed that after the coming of Christ on earth the Gospel had rapidly become available to the entire human race, which meant that all post-Christ pagans were somehow guilty of rejecting the truth. For the period before Christ, Augustine allowed that God did grant miraculous prophetic knowledge of the advent of Jesus to some individuals (above all, the leading Jewish figures of the Old Testament). But whereas a more liberal-minded thinker might have used this escape-clause to claim that God had granted salvation to huge numbers of virtuous pre-Christian pagans, Augustine was scornful about the very idea that pagans could, by their own efforts, be morally good at all. Any virtues which are not animated by the love of God are, he argued, not in fact real virtues. They are self-regarding performances, tainted by pride — or, in the words popularised by a later writer in the Augustinian tradition, splendida peccata, shining or splendiferous sins.

John Marenbon’s fascinating new book on what he calls the Problem of Paganism takes Augustine’s position as its historical starting-point, and traces subsequent debates all the way to the end of the 17th century. This is much more than, and quite different from, a chronological survey of well-known arguments. While some of the thinkers discussed here (Boethius, Aquinas, Thomas More, Leibniz) are the subjects of huge modern secondary literatures, Marenbon constantly cuts across the standard discussions at a fresh angle, bringing new connections to light. This book is also no routine exercise in the history of medieval (and post-medieval) philosophy; it focuses on literary texts (Dante, Boccaccio, Langland, Chaucer), and on medieval and Renaissance works describing contacts with actual contemporary pagans. Those who know of Marenbon as a world authority on some dauntingly technical areas of medieval philosophy will be pleasantly surprised to encounter, in these pages, Peter of Dusberg’s description of pagan Prussian funerary practices, or Garcilaso de la Vega’s defence of the monotheism of the Incas, or Jean de Léry’s account of the virtues of the cannibalistic Tupí Indians of Brazil.

The long-running debate about whether pagans can be saved has attracted some historical studies in the past, of course. But Marenbon’s Problem of Paganism goes beyond the story of that theological question, embracing two other, closely related issues: whether pagans can have true virtue, and whether they can acquire true wisdom or philosophical understanding. The most liberal position would be to say “yes” to the second of these, and then, on the basis that true wisdom must include true ethics, “yes” to the first; in which case, with the help of some liberal assumptions about how and why God will grant people salvation, one can also give a “yes” to the theological question about whether pagans can go to Heaven. The relation between these three issues was seldom as straightforward as that, however. Much of the fascination of this book lies in seeing how attitudes and arguments shifted to and fro, as the pieces in this three-cornered puzzle were constantly altered and rearranged.

One thing is very clear: the hardline Augustinian position never went away. There were medieval writers who reasserted it (including some very fierce-sounding Franciscans), and in the 17th century Cornelius Jansenius, founder of the French “Jansenist” movement, would stonily insist that the virtues of the best pagans were “not true virtues, but vices hidden by the name and appearance of virtues”.

In the hands of some writers, the hard-line position became more obdurate even as it became less Augustinian. In a marvellously illuminating chapter on Dante, Marenbon points out that, far from representing a standard medieval view (as generations of readers have assumed), his treatment of the pagans is peculiarly severe. Dante does allow that pagans can have real virtue, yet still he insists that virtue is of no help in enabling pagans to avoid Hell: “I am Virgil,” says his virtuous guide, “and I have lost heaven for no other fault than not having faith.” The whole discussion of Dante here justifies Marenbon’s three-cornered approach to the “Problem of Paganism”; by studying the poet’s attitude to pagan wisdom, and placing him in a tradition of what he calls “limited relativism”, he helps us to see how it was that Dante simultaneously softened the Augustinian criticism of merely human virtue, and strengthened the distinction between the sphere of human wisdom and the sphere of faith.

Augustine’s doctrine was always present, but it was seldom a dominant orthodoxy. There were many ways of countering, evading or adapting its arguments. The great and highly original 12th-century theologian Peter Abelard laid down a path which many would follow later. His idea was that if you studied the works of ancient pagan philosophers (those, at least, that were available in the 12th century — one of whom, “Hermes Trismegistus”, was in fact much less ancient than people imagined), you could find clear hints of Christian theology, including knowledge of the Holy Trinity. To some extent, he thought, sheer unassisted human reason had been able to work out not only that there was one God (omnipotent, Creator, etc), but also that that God must have a threefold or triune identity.

As a good Christian, however, Abelard thought that only belief in the incarnated Christ could bring salvation; so he also supposed that where an ancient pagan thinker had tiptoed towards this threshold of Christian belief, God had then stepped in to bestow, by supernatural means, some prophetic knowledge of Christ’s human existence on earth.

In this way Abelard supplied later writers with not one but two very fertile ideas: the notion that valid theological knowledge did circulate among ancient pagans, and the claim that people could be turned, by a “special inspiration” from God, into Christians, long before the actual coming of Christ. (As a theoretical possibility that last idea had already been put forward by Augustine himself, whose “City of God” existed, interspersed among the human race, in all ages; but Abelard’s argument that wise pagans had reached the very threshold of Christian belief by their own efforts was deeply un-Augustinian.)

The most influential opponent of Augustine was Thomas Aquinas. His answer to the question of whether pagans could acquire real wisdom was a resounding “yes”: the towering philosophical structure which he spent a lifetime building had the teachings of Aristotle as its foundations, and the nature of the construction was meant to demonstrate a seamless transition, above a certain level, from the truths of human philosophy to the ones supplied by divine revelation.

On the issue of pagan virtue, Aquinas respected the theological principle that virtue in the full sense must be animated by the love of God, but he dismissed the Augustinian idea that pagans cannot be virtuous at all: they can indeed do “those good works for which the good of nature suffices”.

As for salvation: on this point Aquinas seems most radical of all, but, as Marenbon shows, he was simply developing a line of thought set out by previous writers. While he supposed that God might use “special inspiration” in exceptional cases (including Kaspar Hauser-like children, brought up among wolves without any human instruction), for his general solution to the problem he turned to a quite different concept: “implicit faith”. Pagan philosophers who had arrived at a basic monotheistic understanding could vow to believe whatever might be known about God by those whose knowledge was greater than theirs. In the ancient world, those superior figures were in fact the Jewish prophets, illuminated by God. But it was not necessary for pagans to meet them, or even to know who they were; a sincere belief that such people must exist was quite sufficient. The flexibility — or, if you prefer, generosity — of this argument is rather breathtaking.

All these positions, pro- and anti-Augustinian, were adopted primarily in order to argue about pagans of the ancient world, especially the most virtuous Greeks and Romans. Any interaction between these debates and discussions of contemporary pagans was quite limited, thanks to the continuing belief that, in the words of St Jerome, “no people remains which does not know the name of Jesus, and, even if they have not had a preacher, they cannot however be unaware of the faith from neighbouring peoples”. The discovery of the New World would shake that assumption to its foundations.

The last part of this book is dominated by the effects of that discovery — not just the jolt it gave to abstract knowledge, but the practical effects of a process of conquest which brought Christian governors, and Christian priests, into close contact with real live pagans. Some parts of the resulting ferment of ideas are fairly well known, such as the great mid-16th-century disputation at Valladolid between the humanist scholar and pro-conquest hardliner Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and the Dominican defender of the Amerindians, Bartolomé de las Casas. But Marenbon’s account sets them in a longer context of theological argument which few previous writers have considered in such depth. (Even so, Las Casas’s justification of human sacrifice may still take the reader by surprise.)

Marenbon’s survey of the 16th- and 17th-century debates may be a little more schematic than his searching account of the medieval arguments, but it does suffice to make one large point, which he emphasises in his conclusion: while we may think that the shift from medieval mentalities to early modern ones was a move away from rigid religious dogmas towards more human and tolerant positions, the evidence of these debates fails to support that view. There was no clear direction of “progress”, and the anti-pagan positions of some 17th-century Protestants and Jansenists were more uncompromising than those of almost any previous writers in the Augustinian tradition. Marenbon does not speculate about the reasons for this; one, surely, is the fact that “Socinianism”, from the late 16th century, and “Deism”, from the late 17th, were bugbears that genuinely frightened many mainstream theologians. Both were forms of “rational theology” (the former with a strongly biblical basis, at least to begin with, but the latter not even with that), with far-reaching implications about the power of human reason to work out what God would, or would not, do. The danger that the information provided by the Bible might turn out to be quite secondary (or even irrelevant) to human intuitions about the nature of divine justice now seemed very real, as it had never done before.

Which brings us back to revelation, and our liberal understanding of what is reasonable. It would be easy to read the story told in this book as a struggle between, on the one hand, people who were Augustinian because they were illiberal, and, on the other, their opponents, whose essentially liberal impulses drove them to find ways of accommodating virtuous pagans in the divine scheme of things. Such a portrayal would surely have been unrecognisable to the people involved. The idea that human ethical intuitions were primary, and that theological principles were secondary things, to be moulded to fit them, would have bewildered these thinkers. Today we live in a world where the expectations, and hence also the bewilderment, go in the opposite direction. That is, at the very least, another reason why we need an expert such as John Marenbon to guide us through the thinking of such a very different age.