Sunday, March 31, 2019


The Rot Had Set In

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), Caesar's Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (1990; rpt. London: Faber & Faber, 1995), pp. 135-136:
The rot had set in, the slow spiral of disharmony and disintegration had started to sap the foundations of the Roman ethos, the civic ethos which linked together, in firm religious union, civic sense, civic order, and the public happiness and social well-being which flowed from and shaped a comforting sense of wholeness. The idea of an individual and private religious field of understanding and operation was literally shocking to the Roman — perturbing even, for it bred sects which categorically refused to have anything to do with the formal worship of the people. 'You refuse to go to our shows and processions,' writes the outraged Minucius Felix in his Octavius, 'You are never present at our public banquets, you shrink in disgust from our sacred games . . .' When Tacitus writes that the Christians were 'the enemies of mankind,' he was thinking of their explicit denial of everything which for the Roman spelt truth in practically a scientific sense. It was what made the world go round! For them there was no fact of human behaviour which was not distinguished by a profound piety. To share the behaviour of Jews and Christians — it was unthinkably dangerous: it might stop the grass growing or the sun rising on the morrow. Quite apart from the fact that their behaviour was unctuous and self-righteous beyond belief, they believed themselves the chosen race, chosen by the monotheistic projection they worshipped, having duly warned all and sundry that this phantom was 'a jealous god and would tolerate no other to compete with him.' What a contrast to the tolerant, easy-going pluralism of Roman pantheism with its generous outlines, its gods and goddesses who were ever-present, in every communal activity, and as familiar to the devout public as film stars are today. They attested to the prime link with Mother Nature, not a withdrawal from it into a snobbish seclusion of sectarianism, each believer with his or her private and exclusive version of God.
Minucius Felix's Octavius is of course a pro-Christian tract — the quotation comes from the mouth of the "outraged" pagan interlocutor Caecilius and doesn't represent the views of the author.

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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