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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shaking Mistel Branches at Statues is not Science

A Common Conflation

One Tim O'Neill raises an interesting point on his blog Armariam Magnum in response to a communication received regarding his post ""Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again":  Mr. O'Neill is himself an atheist, but is devoted to empirical evidence and sound reasoning.  I've edited out his direct responses to the communicator. 

It's bizarre the way whenever these people who scream so hysterically about how Christianity murdered ancient learning and philosophy are challenged to produce some evidence they are always forced to fall back on some vague reference to the Christian suppression of pagan cults. As though this irrelevant side issue somehow supports their case.

What the hell the trashing of some gloomy Mithraeums and the closing down of weird superstitious cults where men in silly hats waved incense at painted statues had to do with the preservation of science and reason.

The truth is that these people have a misty-eyed romanticised view of the ancient world that conflates anything "pagan" with the things they like (eg science and reason). Therefore any attack on anything pagan simply has to be an attack on the things they like.

This is nonsense.

The early Christians who defended the use of pagan wisdom (and who won the debate on that topic, thus enshrining the rational analysis of the world in the Western tradition for centuries to come) were perfectly capable of differentiating the wisdom of philosophers who happened to be pagans from the silly superstitions of gelded priests shaking rattles at garish statues of Cybele. 

Because our view of the ancients is filtered through the lens of what our ancestors chose to preserve, we think of the Greeks as paragons of Reason and Science.  The account of the destruction of the Serapeum in Rufinus' Ecclesiastical History Book 11:22-24 et seq. mentions some of the things discovered inside the temples: the decapitated heads of babies, for example.  There were also a giant phallus, disemboweled women, seduction, magic tricks with astronomy and magnets, etc.  (See and search for the string "In Alexandria meanwhile fresh disturbances").  Because we have preferentially preserved the rationalistic works of the great philosophers, we tend to think of the Greeks in general as great rationalists and extend this notion to their religions.  But the utter irrationalism can take us by surprise. (See book below, left). 

When we read in Socrates Scholasticus that Hypatia "succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus," we have to suppose that she was deeply versed in Neoplatonism, the dominant philosophy of late antiquity.  This means that she would have held to a single transcendent God (not a multitude of immanent gods) and that this single God had three "hypotstases": The One, the Intellect, and the Soul.  (The which bears more than passing resemblance to the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.)  This was far removed from gelded priests shaking rattles at statues.  It would be far easier for a Christian to hold such things than for a pagan. 

Side note, there is no reference to Hypatia as a pagan in the primary sources!  Given that Augistine of Hippo and Hypatia's student, Bishop Synesius of Cyrene, were both well-versed in Neoplatonism -- and that, as Peter Brown (right) points out, Neoplatonism was the dominant philosophy of the upper class, both Christian and non-Christian -- there is no reason to suppose that anyone "succeeding to the school of Plato and Plotinus" would necessarily have been a non-Christian.  Certainly, her custom of going about in the company of men was more in line with Christian than with pagan Greek practice; and apparently her known pupils were Christian.  See frb's comments here:

Tim O'Neill's point leads to some interesting counterfactual speculation.  Suppose Neoplatonism had triumphed as thoroughly in Romania Aeterna as Confucianism did in China; and Christianity had been co-opted as thoroughly as Buddhism.  We can easily imagine the old pagan cults being suppressed by the Neoplatonists on the basis that they were irrational superstitions.  And with far more "pagan" thoroughness. 


  1. Thanks for the plug. I would caution that Rufinus' account of baby skulls and disembowelled virgins smacks of lurid slander however. The Romans had a revulsion for human sacrifice (despite indulging in it themselves very occasionally in Republican times). The idea that it was going on in the Serapeum in this period is pretty implausible.

    BTW I'm adding your blog to my Blog List. It would be nice if you did the same for mine. ;>

  2. I'm willing to suppose that the Egyptians possessed rituals more crude than the Romans or the Greeks. That may be why the revelations resulted in a) conversions and b) rioting. The ones who took refuge in the Serapeum were said to be vastly outnumbered in the fighting, and Roman outrage over such things could account for it.

    The disemboweled virgins matches the story of the virgins of Heliopolis during Julian's reign, told by Sozomen. And it was common in the old days to expose unwanted infants. The Syriac folk even sacrificed their children in extreme circumstances. So while we cannot suppose such things were routine, or openly engaged in by that time, it may have been relict evidences from older times - or even clandestine actions by people with only a dim notion of what they were trying to resurrect.


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