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Mahommedan invasion terminated the long decrepitude of the Eastern Empire. Constantinople sank beneath the Crescent, its inhabitants wrangling about theological differences to the very moment of their fall.
The Asiatic Churches had already perished. The Christian faith, planted in the dissolute cities of Asia Minor, had
produced many fanatical ascetics and a few illustrious theologians, but it had no renovating effect upon the people at large. It introduced among them a principle of interminable and implacable dissension, but it scarcely tempered in any appreciable degree their luxury or their sensuality. The frenzy of pleasure continued unabated, and in a great part of the Empire it seemed, indeed, only to have attained its climax after the triumph of Christianity.
The condition of the Western Empire was somewhat different. Not quite a century after the conversion of Çonstantine, the Imperial city was captured by Alaric, and a long series of barbarian invasions at last dissolved the whole framework of Roman society, wbile the barbarians themselves, having adopted the Christian faith and submitted absolutely to the Christian priests, the Church, which remained the guardian of all the treasures of antiquity, was left with a virgin soil to realise her ideal of human excellence. Nor did she fall short of what might have been expected. She exercised for many centuries an almost absolute empire over the thoughts and actions of mankind, and created a civilisation which was permeated in every part with ecclesiastical influence. And the dark ages, as the period of Catholic ascendancy is justly called, do undoubtedly display many features of great and genuine excellence. In active benevolence, in the spirit of reverence, in loyalty, in co-operative habits, they far transcend the noblest ages of Pagan antiquity, while in that humanity which shrinks from the infliction of suffering, they were superior to Roman, and in their respect for chastity, to Greek civilisation. On the other hand, they rank
immeasurably below the best Pagan civilisations in civic and patriotic virtues, in the love of liberty, in the number and splendour of the great characters they produced, in the dignity and beauty of the type of character they formed. They had their full share of tumult, anarchy, injustice, and war, and they should probably be placed, in all intellectual virtues, lower than any other period in the history of mankind. A boundless intolerance of all divergence of opinion was united with an equally boundless toleration of all falsehood and deliberate fraud that could favour received opinions. Credulity being taught as a virtue, and all conclusions dictated by authority, a deadly turpor sank upon the human mind, which for many
centuries almost suspended its action, and was only effectually broken by the scrutinising, innovating, and freethinking habits that accompanied the rise of the industrial republics in Italy. Few men who are not either priests or monks would not have preferred to live in the best days of the Athenian or of the Roman republics, in the age of Augustus or in the age of the Antonines, rather than in any period that elapsed between the triumph of Christianity and the fourteenth century.
It is, indeed, difficult to conceive any clearer proof than was furnished by the history of the twelve hundred years after the conversion of Constantine, that while theology has undoubtedly introduced into the world certain elements and principles of good, scarcely if at all known to antiquity, while its value as a tincture or modifying influence in society can hardly be overrated, it is by no means for the advantage of mankind that, in the form which the Greek and Catholic Churches present, it should become a controlling arbiter of civilisation. It is often said that the Roman world before Constantine was in a period of rapid decay; that the traditions and vitality of half-suppressed Paganism account for many of the aberrations of later times; that the influence of the Church was often rather nominal and superficial than supreme; and that, in judging the ignorance of the dark ages, we must make large allowance for the dislocations of society by the barbarians. In all this there is much truth ; but when we remember that in the Byzantine Empire the renovating power of theology was tried in a new capital free from Pagan traditions, and for more than one thousand years unsubdued by barbarians, and that in the West the Church, for at least seven hundred years after the shocks of the invasions had subsided, exercised a control more absolute than any other moral or intellectual agency has ever attained, it will appear, I think, that the experiment was very sufficiently tried. It is easy to make a catalogue of the glaring vices of antiquity, and to contrast them with the pure morality of Christian writings; but, if we desire to form a just estimate of the realised improvement, we must compare the classical and ecclesiastical civilisations as wholes, and must observe in each case not only the vices that were repressed, but also the degree and variety of positive excellence attained. In the first two centuries of the Christian Church the moral elevation was extremely high, and was continually appealed to as a proof of the divinity of the creed. In the century before the conversion of Constantine, a marked depression was already manifest. The two centuries after Constantine are uniformly represented by the Fathers as a period of general and scandalous vice. The ecclesiastical civilisation that followed, though not without its distinctive merits, assuredly supplies no justification of the common boast about the regeneration of society by the Church. That the civilisation of the last three centuries has risen in most respects to a higher level than any that had preceded it, I at least firmly believe ; but theological ethics, though very important, form but one of the many and complex elements of its excellence. Mechanical inventions, the habits of industrial life, the discoveries of physical science, the improvements of government, the expansion of literature, the traditions of Pagan antiquity, have all a distinguished place, while, the more fully its history is investigated, the more clearly two capital truths are disclosed. The first is that the influence of theology having for centuries numbed and paralysed the whole intellect of Christian Europe, the revival, which forms the starting-point of our modern civilisation, was mainly due to the fact that two spheres of intellect still remained uncontrolled by the sceptre of Catholicism. The Pagan literature of antiquity, and the Mahommedan schools of science, were the chief agencies in resuscitating the dormant energies of Christendom. The second fact, which I have elsewhere endeavoured to establish in detail, is that during more than three centuries the decadence of theological influence has been one of the most invariable signs and measures of our progress.
In medicine, physical science, commercial interests, politics, and even ethics, the reformer has been confronted with theological affirmations which barred his way, which were all defended as of vital importance, and were all in turn compelled to yield before the secularising influence of civilisation.
We have here, then, a problem of deep interest and importance, which I propose to investigate in the present chapter. We have to enquire why it was that a religion which was not more remarkable for the beauty of its moral teaching than for the power with which it acted upon mankind, and which during the last few centuries has been the source of countless blessings to the world, should have proved itself for so long a period, and under such a variety of conditions, altogether unable to regenerate Europe. The question is not one of languid or imperfect action, but of conflicting agencies. In the vast and complex organism of Catholicity there were some parts which acted with admirable force in improving and elevating mankind. There were others which had a directly opposite effect.
The first aspect in which Christianity presented itself to the world was as a declaration of the fraternity of men in
Christ. Considered as immortal beings, destined for the extremes of happiness or of misery, and united to one another by a special community of redemption, the first and most manifest duty of a Christian man was to look upon his fellowmen as sacred beings, and from this notion grew up the eminently Christian idea of the sanctity of all human life. I have already endeavoured to show-and the fact is of such capital importance in meeting the common objections to the reality of natural moral perceptions, that I venture, at the risk of tediousness, to recur to it—that nature does not tell man that it is wrong to slay without provocation his fellow
Not to dwell upon those early stages of barbarism in which the higher faculties of human nature are still undeveloped, and almost in the condition of embryo, it is an historical fact beyond all dispute, that refined, and even moral societies have existed, in which the slaughter of men of some particular class or nation has been regarded with no more compunction than the slaughter of animals in the chase. The early Greeks, in their dealings with the barbarians ; the Romans, in their dealings with gladiators, and in some periods of their history, with slaves; the Spaniards, in their dealings with Indians; nearly all colonists removed from European supervision, in their dealings with an inferior race; an immense proportion of the nations of antiquity, in their dealings with new-born infants, display this complete and absolute callousness, and we may discover traces of it even in our own islands and within the last three hundred years. I And difficult as it may be to realise it in our day, when the atrocity of all wanton slaughter of men has become an essential part of our moral feelings, it is nevertheless an incontestable fact
See the masterly description Macaulay's description of the feelof the relations of the English to ings of the Master of Stair towards the Irish in the reign of Queen the Highlanders. (History of EngElizabeth, in Froude's History of land, ch. xviii.) England, ch. xxiv.; and also Lord