What Christianity taught the Romans and the Greeks

The teachings of Jesus have given us a unique perspective on morality

There has been an interesting discussion recently about what our fundamental values are, and from whence they come. Tom Holland and Theo Hobson are both onto something rather important, namely the realisation that if we try to deny our Christian heritage, then we risk losing much of value. Let me not count the ways, but at least give a few pointers, to what we have inherited that is uniquely Christian.

First of all, humility. The idea of being self-effacing, not boastful, but modest, is a uniquely Christian idea. It is something that we inherit from Jesus Christ Himself who told us that the first would be last and the last first, and who, moreover, was meek and mild, even when mocked by His tormentors. The idea of humility was anathema to the Greeks and the Romans, who believed in magnificentia, that is, making a show of your virtues, and showing off your talents for the edification of your fellow citizens. Just walk around an ancient city like Rome, Palmyra and Pompeii and see the monuments that great men built to themselves, or consider Virgil’s paean of praise to Augustus in The Aeneid. No, the ancients did not believe in hiding your light under a bushel, and they would not have found anything to dislike in braggarts like Donald Trump.

Secondly, the concept of equality. Christ died for all, for slave and free, citizen and non-citizen, male and female, as Saint Paul specifically remarks in Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28. This idea would have been anathema to Aristotle, whose vision of the city state was one where everything was decided by the citizens, who were less than one in five of the population. Women, slaves, foreigners and children were to be kept in their places. The Romans too had a similar vision and despised early Christianity because, among other things, at acts of worship slaves rubbed shoulders with aristocrats, which they saw as damaging to social order. For them, as for Aristotle, different classes of people were simply not equal; indeed, they were right to an extent, for we are all very different: our equality in dignity is only really understood in the light of the fact that Christ thought we were all worth dying for.

Thirdly, the concept of sexual restraint. The ancients did not believe in a free for all in sexual matters, as that would not have been conducive to public order, but neither did they believe that sexual desires could have a moral meaning, any more than the pangs of hunger could. To gratify one’s sexual desires was as natural and as normal as gratifying your thirst. Hence the Roman hero Aeneas is not criticised for sexual incontinence when he falls in love with Dido, but rather for disobedience to Jove’s command. Christianity, by contrast, sees a value in sexual relations: hence to us, Aeneas’s desertion of Dido is a crime, not an act of supreme virtue. Conversely, to renounce sexual relations to embrace a higher value is something that would make no sense to a Roman or a Greek, given that sexual relations have little value in the first place. Of course, they believed in breeding, but not in romantic love. In the time of Augustus, marriage was social and political, as was the raising of children; but it had very little to do with love. Of course the Romans experienced love, but it was not the supreme virtue. That was pietas, or duty. It is Christianity that has exalted love above all else.

Finally, the concept of peace. The ancient Greek city states were constantly at war with each other. The Roman Empire was also constantly at war, either internally, or with the barbarians, except for brief periods. We Christians are not particularly good at keeping the peace, to our shame, but the idea that peace is better than war, and that war is an evil, rather than the natural vocation of man, and the path to glory, surely stems from devotion to the Good Shepherd and the Prince of Peace, as opposed to Mars, Bellona and Jove the hurler of thunderbolts.

As a Catholic I firmly believe that all moral principles can be arrived at through the use of natural reason. At the same time, I think it obvious that human reason is frail, and that it needs the help of Divine Revelation. So, it is necessary that our morality have a good grounding in secular, which will often mean classical, thought. The more we study Aristotle and Plato, the better it will be. But at the same time, let us acknowledge that among the qualities that we hold most dear, are things that are derived from the gospel of Christ, which, as it happens, harmonise well with many of the insights gained from the Ancient World.