At the Yorktown surrender in 1781, the British band played a tune traditional to the ballad “The World Turned Upside Down.” In the 1640s the ballad had been written as a broadside against the suppression of Christmas festivities by the Puritan parliament. In some ways, the world had indeed been turned upside down, at least in the civil order. Sir Edward Grey was right in a way, too, when he saw the lamps going out all over Europe at the start of World War I. President Nixon’s unmeasured hyperbole had a measure of logic at least for physics, when he called the days of the Apollo 11 moon landing “the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.” There are seminal moments that rattle the course of history and, as in James Russell Lowell’s hymn, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” No event approaches the Resurrection of Christ in its effect on the world. It turned the world upside down or, given the Fall of Man, it turned the world right side up again. A flaccid B.C.E/C.E. instead of B.C./A.D. anesthetizes consciousness of its importance.
When witnesses to the Resurrection, and their followers, became conspicuous in Rome, having found a name for themselves in Antioch as “Christians,” the imperial establishment scorned them for contemptissima inertia, which “most disgusting laziness” was in fact modesty, rejection of divorce, indifference to public honors and celebrity, failure to attend the gross entertainments of the circus, and refusal to abort babies. It was inconceivable to the Roman culture, expressed by its temple cults, that religion should have anything to do with morals. There was a complex system of priests with flamines leading the worship of particular gods, pontifices supervising the whole system and preserving the pax deorum or religious order, and a rex sacrorum who supervised the feasts.
That basic sacral structure of the old Republic was altered after Julius Caesar arrogated to himself the role of Pontifex Maximus, not to mention divinity. Before then, the life-long office had been conferred by a Comitia Tributa, but it devolved into an almost ex-officio role of the emperors. Then there were the augurs who daily examined the behavior of birds and the haruspex who divined with animal entrails to recommend courses of action. The whole system, however, was based on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy: there was no creed, rituals had nothing to do with dogma, and the rituals themselves consisted in a pedantic and coarse economy of bartering with the gods for favors (noncupatio) in return for which some gift or favor (solutio) was promised.
Around 150 A.D., the philosopher Justin Martyr politely but boldly wrote to the emperor Antonius Pius of the respectable Nerva-Antonine dynasty, saying that if he truly were a guardian of justice and lover of learning, he would investigate what Christians truly are but, if he acted only on rumors, then he would be “governing affairs by emotions rather than by intelligence.” Confidence in the Resurrection was not the result of an emotive myth but of an intelligible fact, to which all behavior must adjust. Every step the Christians took in the shadowy alleys of Rome echoed the Master:
I, the light, have come into the world, so that whoever believes in me need not stay in the dark any more. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them faithfully, it is not I who shall condemn him, since I have come not to condemn the world, but to save the world. He who rejects me and refuses my words has his judge already: the word itself that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. (John 12:46-48)
The noblest pagans of the Roman Republic were appalled at the later imperial decadence, and were models for the “Cincinnatus” type of our nation’s Founding Fathers. But they imbued the wistfulness, melancholy, anxiety, and superstition of their civic cults. Even their more sophisticated philosophers did not surmount anxiety about the Underworld, physically portrayed by hideously masked actors in their funeral rites. They were bewildered by the Christians like Justin Martyr who in the light of the Resurrection could confront an absolute emperor with the warning: “You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us.” The imperium was more shaken when the patricians joined the plebians, and such rich families as the Acilii Glabriones and relatives of the Flavians embraced slaves at the Eucharist.
Pessimists in troubled ages have warned that they were repeating the decline of the Roman Empire. To say so may be a cliché but even clichés are truisms because they contain some truth. Our culture is becoming neo-pagan, and that is paganism bereft of its frequently benevolent intuitions, so that it is riddled with neurosis, surrounded by the monuments of a civilization that is cracking up. As for “going back to paganism,” C.S. Lewis said: “A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past….” But as in pagan Rome, the practical god now is the political power of which the cults were only metaphors or tools of the pontifices. Anyone who secures that power is justified by the securing, and the basest political figures are admired for being “slick.” The Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus, was achieved by throwing their closest relatives and friends under the bus, that is, the chariot. They justified their power grabs by appropriating justice through a bloated legal complex of tribunes, praetors, quaestors, consuls, and aediles. If you climb the steps of the United States Supreme Court, you may feel like the Roman clients climbing the steps of the Temple of Jupiter, uncertain of what will be declared the justice of the moment. As pagan augury and haruspicy consulted birds and entrails, so now do the media consult “talking heads” and opinion polls to indicate the future. If all else fails, the Chief Executive acts as Pontifex Maximus, imposing his will by executive order.
The Catholic Church, with its loftier Pontifex Maximus, a title relinquished by the emperor Gratian (375-383) and assumed by the Bishop of Rome, admonishes mankind that the best of Roman culture prepared the way for a World After the Resurrection, and the worst of it ushered in a World Denying the Resurrection. What we are becoming today is in contrast to the Resurrection Culture described perhaps around 130 A.D. in the Epistles to Diognetes: “(Christians) marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. To sum it all up in one word—what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”
Christianity was a shock to the complacency with which Roman culture killed infants and gave complete authority to the Paterfamilias to do so. Abortion for inconvenient births or infanticide by exposure or drowning or what we now call “partial-birth abortion” in the case of deformities, was not only tolerated but encouraged. But the Roman senate drew the line at ritual infant sacrifice as practiced in Carthage, where unwanted babies were bought from slaves in order to slit their throats at the altars. This was background in part to the scorn of Cato the Elder in the second century B.C.: Carthago delenda est. Even the pagan Romans might have censured Planned Parenthood for selling the organs of babies, if only because of patrician aesthetics. The boldness of Christians in the fresh light of the Resurrection was no more evident than in their practice of marriage as sacred and indissoluble. It may be that the desultory social consequences of easy divorce, such as the impoverishment of wives, was as much a motive as Christianity itself in Constantine’s edict against unilateral divorce, which was repealed by the apostate emperor Julian, but the Christian doctrine of marriage was not just an ideal: it was what Christ had taught as the constitutive norm for his Bride the Church.
Christian declamations before emperors, even with the sound of lions not far away in the amphitheater, are in contrast to the languid language of some current Christian apologetics. As with the ancient Roman shrines, Liberal Protestantism has decayed in result of denuding ritual of dogma and giving primacy to manners over morals. The tendency now also threatens the Holy Church herself. Consider how the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia quotes Aquinas in treating of mercy: “…every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.” That is one of its thirteen salutary citations of the Angelic Doctor, and it represents the best of pagan comity, but the second part is omitted: “…for the sake of some good that will result, or in order to avoid some evil, the virtuous man will sometimes not shrink from bringing sorrow to those among whom he lives.” (S.Th. II-II, q. 114, art 2, ad.1) To neglect that virile Christian admonition, to melt prophecy into sentimentality, to cherry pick the Summa, is like treating the word “not” as an interpolation in some of the Ten Commandments. The first Christians radiated the Resurrection in their contention even before emperors that there is no love without justice, and that the imperium was mistaken about both.
Neo-pagans in our generation are pagans without panache. They have the vices of ancient pagans with none of their natural virtues and erudition. In the universities neo-pagans have frail recollection of the sciences and ideals that architected the Corinthian buildings in which they chant against free speech and call lewdness a right. Spoiled and culturally illiterate, they are what Shakespeare’s Brabantino called “The wealthy curled darlings of our nation.” Some candidates running for public office today were not taken seriously when they cavorted on the campuses in the 1960s and ’70s in mockery of Christian civilization, but their anarchic subjectivism has raucous consequences now. Their offspring, the indulged youth of the new generation who cannot debate logically and who contend that a man can be a woman just by saying so, will be hammering the gavels in the halls of government soon. They may well be in the mold of Julius Caesar, without his strengths, whose combination of Cynicism and Epicureanism, ruined the Republic.
The greatest change in history was a factual event in a tomb in Jerusalem when Tiberius was emperor. To live as though it did not happen is to inhabit a social illusion. As that anonymous writer to the perplexed Diognetes said of Christians: “The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.”