I’m a huge fan of the website The Reading Lists. Every few days or so the site’s producer, Phil, a self-identifying book nerd in the United Kingdom, interviews a successful academic, business leader, writer or artist and gets that notable person talking about books. An interviewee might share a list of his/her favorite books, or a particular book that was inspiring or even life-changing. Some will mention books they’re forever recommending or what they’re currently reading. If you’re the kind of person who loves book recommendations I highly recommend The Reading Lists.
Back in March Phil interviewed theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss. When asked what Krauss was currently reading and what made him want to read it he said the book was Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It was recommended to him by his friend Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, social critic and political theorist because “we were discussing the evils of modern religion. It describes in harrowing detail how Christianity in the first few centuries AD makes ISIS look like a kindergarten bully.” Well, with a provocative statement like that how could I not take a chance on The Darkening Age? I immediately borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. I was not disappointed.
In The Darkening Age, Nixey clearly and vividly makes a compelling case the early Christians mercilessly and at times violently worked to suppress classical civilization. According to Nixey, it was a centuries long all out assault on pagan art, literature, philosophy and religion. So successful was this zealous crusade only a fraction, perhaps estimated between 5 to 10 per cent of the ancient world’s body of knowledge exists today.
Once Christianity went from being a offbeat cult practiced by small number of unlettered, uncultured lower class believers to the dominant religion of Rome’s high and mighty the war on pre-Christian classical heritage began. Church leaders encouraged their flock to rat out their nonbeliever or backslidden neighbors and relatives suspected of exhibiting pagan tendencies. One Egyptian abbot ordered his goons to break into the homes of those he deemed insufficiently Christian and destroy any offending works of art or written texts. Temples were invaded and desecrated, beautiful statues smashed or wrecked and entire libraries were put to the torch. Great luminaries like Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most brilliant women in ancient history (a world-class expert in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy) was brutally murdered in 415 at the hands of a mob acting on behalf of the local Bishop.
According to Nixey, attacks like these and countless others throughout the old Roman Empire arrested intellectual and cultural growth and thus changed the course of history. Gone, suppressed or ignored were works of brilliant satirists who poked fun at the established order and the foibles of the rich and powerful. So also was a cacophony of philosophical writings from a diverse multitude of deep thinkers, some critical of religion, and some who couldn’t care one way or another about it. Last but not least so were the works of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius whose views on atomic theory and the physical universe were long before their time. One wonders what the world would look like today had the early Christians not been so inimical to classical culture.