The Darkening Age is nothing new and is just the latest iteration of the now tired and decrepit Whig “Myth of Progress” which presents Antiquity in some amazing light, the “Christian Era” as the dark age, and that the light of Antiquity was rekindled in the Enlightenment. Anyone with even a elementary knowledge of philosophy, literature, and social history would not have made the same mistakes of Catherine Nixey, who simply joins the ranks of the latest writers trying to revive the current liberal project which is as much a rejection of antiquity as Christianity subsumed antiquity.
For basic facts that Nixey lies about—she states that Aristotle was erased by Christian monks. Clearly, she has no knowledge of how Aristotle was incorporated into Catholic thinking from the first centuries of the church, visibly in St. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule (or the fact that it was monks in France who preserved copies of Aristotle in the Latin West long before he was “reintroduced” by Muslims either). And certainly the erasure of Aristotle would have been news to the Aristotelian revivalists among the Scholastics and St. Thomas Aquinas who didn’t “rediscover” Aristotle but elevated his hylormorphic philosophy to advance new church teachings and codifying doctrines. Christian Neoplatonism, and Neoplatonism already contained an extensive appropriation of Aristotle thanks to Plotinus and then picked up into Christianity because of St. Augustine, ensured that Aristotle was never erased from history but actually saved thanks to Christianity. Aristotle is more important than ever for those who have any basic familiarity with Christian philosophy.
Nixey also cherry picks her facts concerning supposed Christian iconoclasm and militancy. It was the Roman military, rather than Christian mobs, who were responsible for the destruction of the library at Antioch which Nixey paints as evidence of Christian iconoclastic and anti-intellectual mob violence. The Roman military was also one of the last institutions in the post-Constantinian settlement that was Christianized. (Hint, read through Nixey’s screeds of ignorant Christian mobs of yesteryear—which evidence of is actually scant—to contemporary religious zealots of today.)
Likewise, Nixey’s claim that Latin literature and literacy collapsed after the Christianization of the Roman Empire is the most egregious of cherry-picked examples. Barbarization and the internal moral decline of Roman society on its own accord were the more guilty culprits—especially considering the Gothic and Frankish tribes that settled into an already decadent Roman Empire didn’t speak Latin, didn’t write, and didn’t produce the same litany of great works preserved by Christianity that were already in decline by the 2nd century A.D. long before the rise of Christianity.
Latin literature was not killed by Christianity as all professors of Latin literature know. Apuleius was the last great pagan Latin literati but the history of the reception of Latin literature and the growing scoffing toward the Latin literary tradition was at the hands of “pagans” and not Christians who saw much good and truth in pagan literature and reinvigorated the Latin literary tradition with Christianized interpretations to be sure, but pumped life into the old Latin epics and stories that Latin speaking “pagans” rejected as backward and worthless. The old myths of Latin literature and religion were already in decline by profligate sons of Latin pagan culture who turned their back and began mocking their own history and literary tradition before Christianity rose to reinvigorate the Latin language and literary tradition by writing new Latin language myths and works of literature. But why bother with these facts rather than cherry picking and writing seductively deceptive statements as if the claim that classical Latin literature plummeted after the Christianization of the empire as if it was causality. Any first-year statistician in Stats 101 knows that the association of two “stats” (in Nixey’s case, dates) don’t prove causality.
While Nixey tries to cast Christians as the brutalistic animals of antiquity, the far superior historian of antiquity Tom Holland has acknowledged the opposite. It was bloodthirsty and death-obsessed Greeks and Romans who were tamed by mild-manner and life-affirming Christians. Holland, like Nixey, is an atheist. But Holland, without Nixey’s hubris or ignorance, proudly declares himself to be an ethical Christian who loathes the ethics of ancient Greece and Rome as a dog-eat-dog world reminiscent of Thrasymachus’s presentation of justice in Plato’s Republic. And Plato’s corpus was preserved because Plato was baptized by Christianity as even Nietzsche knew. The ethics of classical antiquity were a dark bloodbath of the lust to dominate; anyone who accepts the histories and stories of the Greeks and Romans as they are should be able to see that. No one needs to a Christianized reading of the Greek and Roman classics to see the brutality, lust, rape, murder, violence, and chopping up penises and breasts as being something worthy of extoling or saying that Christians invented this image of a bloody Athens and Rome when all you need to do is read Hesiod, Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Titus Livy, and others to get that yourself.
Furthermore, Nixey has no knowledge of the Christians she berates. Augustine, for instance, wrote in De Doctrina Christiana that “truth wherever it is found belongs to [God]” and that Christians shouldn’t be ashamed from learning the truths of classical culture. It was Augustine who also acknowledged Virgil and Cicero as having led him to belief in God that prepared him for his infamous conversion moment in the gardens of Milan. St. Justin Martyr wrote glowingly of Socrates and Plato in his Apologies. Boethius, a Christian, is evidently more familiar with the classics than Nixey is despite Nixey crying over the apparent loss of classical literature and philosophy.
Moreover, Nixey’s attempt to re-indoctrinate the world of the “Dark Age” completely steps over the fact that the modern academy has finally pitched this otherwise uniquely English-speaking (read: Whig and anti-Catholic) worldview begun by the likes of Edward Gibbon whose History of the Decline of Fall of the Roman Empire is generally dismissed as little more than, in the words of James J, O’Donnell, the bloated imaginary screed of a “little fat man.” And O’Donnell, like Holland, is another atheist who doesn’t let his atheism distort the facts of history as Nixey’s atheism does. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I own and wrote an extensive historiographical commentary on as an undergraduate in history, may have exceptional English prose but few historians today look to his work as anything more than a typical Enlightenment moralist’s condemnation of the miseries of the medieval past in anticipation for modernity’s heavenly triumph.
Nixey’s want to reintroduce the concept of a dark age was pulverized by the most eminent historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown. Ever since Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity (1971), a revolution in “Dark Age” scholarship began with the emergence of the historical epoch of Late Antiquity (distinct from preceding Antiquity) and then the Medieval Age. A litany of works refute Nixey’s screed like Peter Wells’ Barbarians to Angels, Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians and Restoration of Rome, Roger Collins’ Early Medieval Europe, Peter Brown’s aforementioned The World of Late Antiquity and magisterial The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, and Averil Cameron’s The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity to name of few which I own and recommend to any serious student seeking to understand the transitionary age between 150-750 A.D.
There is also little evidence to suggest the mass cleansing of art and imagery as Nixey portrays either. My first academic article was on the Eastern Roman and early Christian inheritance of Mesopotamian religious symbolism and iconography. For example, the Mesopotamian god of the moon, Nanna-Sin, was considered the chief deity in the Ur period of the Mesopotamian golden age and knew and decreed the fates of all persons. The earliest icons of Jesus in the eastern church often show him flanked by the crescent moon that was also used in the iconography of Nanna-Sin.
Moreover, most pagan shrines and temples were simply rededicated to the Christian God as a myriad of Christian letters between bishops and the Papacy testify to. Archeological evidence discovered going back to the 1930s equally affirmed this as the discoveries of Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann made manifestly clear. When Protestants accused Catholics during the Reformation of being pagans there is a reason why they did so—Catholicism had subsumed classical paganism in many respects and took over pagan feasts days, festivals, and temples and simply “converted” them into Christian holidays, celebrations, and houses of worship.
While I could go on I’ll spare Nixey’s cutting down to size and deservedly so by simply quoting from actual historians of antiquity reviewing Nixey’s pathetic screed. There is a reason why “journalistic” screeds sell well over academic tomes, but when it comes to actually learning about facts, history, and truth, journalists always fall short of the mark for obvious reasons.
Professor Averil Cameron, in her review, remarked, “Hearts will sink among historians of early Christianity and late antiquity, as well as medievalists and, needless to say, Byzantinists, when they see the title of this pugnacious and energetically written book…The words ‘darkening age’ evoke everything they have been trying for years to overturn, implying as they do the notion of the ‘dark ages’, when the glories of classical civilisation were supposedly obliterated for centuries, until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made possible the triumph of Western European liberalism and secularism.”
I should note as a published philosopher that the stereotypical depiction of the Enlightenment recovering Greek philosophy to be demonstrably untrue. “Enlightenment” philosophy rejected Greek philosophy outright. Modern philosophy, beginning with Francis Bacon, and carried onward by his devotees, had nothing but contempt for Platonic rationalism and Aristotelian pluralism. Their god was nothing short of monistic materialism, a return to the sophists of old who had been displaced by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus—those venerable souls of antiquity inherited and whose thoughts were continually developed in Christianity. But hey, facts don’t matter nowadays as long as you could produce an entertaining work which Nixey has certainly done at the expense of anything of scholarly substance. Catholic philosophy is the true reactionary intellectual tradition desperately maintaining the Greek philosophical tradition against the onslaught of modernity.
Professor J. van Oort (from Holland) wrote, “Nixey overwhelms her hand with her fierce tone and gross exaggeration…Nixey’s book lacks any historical structure and thus becomes, chapter after chapter, a long, but random (and ultimately exhausting), requisition against Christianity.”
Professor Josh Herring equally remarked, “[Nixey’s] arguments, however, are not sound. She bases her conclusions on faulty premises which illustrate a lack of awareness in three areas: Christianity, history, and logic…The scholars she assembles are uniformly opposed to Christianity, presenting it as a destructive force that ended the ‘merry, jolly days’ of pagan festivity. The prose she uses is filled with judgmental adjectives, indicating that she does not trust readers to draw their conclusion from the evidence; we must be told how to feel about the person she describes. Her book was several years in the making, but it does not reflect a clear understanding of Christianity, the complexities of Late Antiquity, or the nuances of historical craft. While this book is sold under the guise of popular history, treat it instead as an insight into how a secular journalist views Christianity.”
And Professor Peter Thonemann stated, “Like every good polemic, The Darkening Age is sardonic, well-informed and quite properly lacking in sympathy for its hapless target. But the argument depends on quite a bit of nifty footwork. Nixey vividly evokes the fundamentalist bonfires that ‘blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.’ Inconveniently, we have no evidence for a single poem by Ovid or Catullus having been put to the flames: Christian book-burning was always directed at heretical Christian literature or ‘magical’ writings.”
Long before moving into the realm of philosophy and political philosophy, I anticipated Late Antiquity to be my destined field of study. As mentioned, my first academic article was in the field and points to evidence contrary to Nixey’s polemical and unfounded thesis. Histories of Late Antiquity have a soft spot in my heart and I eagerly look forward to works in the era. This work from Catherine Nixey, however, is nothing short of a pathetic, disheveled, unscholarly, screed from a journalist who hates Christianity and, as such, allows her hatred to obscure facts, distort history, and be rightly panned by professional historians of Antiquity and Late Antiquity with a far greater command of the material than her. I admit I didn’t have high expectations for this book, but entertaining popular histories certainly have a room in the historical genre—sans the works that deliberately distort already well-known facts and evidence to fit a predisposed ideological agenda which is what Nixey managed to accomplish.
If you’re looking for a journalistic screed to satisfy your anti-religious sentiment then this is the book you’ve been waiting for. If you’re actually, actually, actually—i.e. don’t think Christianity is the cause of all evils in the Western World—interested in the era of Late Antiquity, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the death of classical Latin literature, and the rise of Christianity, go elsewhere. Some of the books I listed which refute Nixey’s republished screed of the Gibbonite view of late antiquity is where you should start. Of course, in our infotainment and consumeristic age, this book will likely be swallowed by gullible and shallow “lay” or “armchair” historians and wannabes; or the militant atheists already convinced that everything wrong in the world can be traced back to religion.
*This essay is slightly edited from my Amazon review of the book, published there on August 12, 2018.
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World
London: Macmillan, 2017; 352pp.