Ancient book burning

Excerpts from Roger Pearse’s review of Joseph Hoffmann’s Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains:

The sixteen-book work by the Neoplatonist Porphyry Against the Christians is lost. Constantine ordered that all copies should be destroyed; a century later Theodosius tacitly acknowledged that this had not occurred by issuing a similar edict.

Constantine burning Arian books

Porphyry adopted an “idiot-boy” literalism as his tool to debunk. Anything that could be made to sound discreditable, anything that did not fit with the tenor of contemporary prejudice, any statement that could be made to sound contradictory, could be presented as a reason to deride the Christians. However, such a approach is unimpressive to anyone except a believer. Such people could have their faith in anti-Christianism bolstered, and be encouraged to sneer and have gibes ready to throw. But the unconvinced reader would see easily that such statements can be made about anything, however worthy.

Instead, the essential argument is an appeal to the irrational herd-instinct of mankind and its need to conform. Many of Porphyry’s arguments consist simply of assertion that something is shameful or embarrassing, rather than rational discussion. This can only work if the flavour of the times is such that the subject is unfashionable. To look for a modern analogy, modern readers will be aware that “anti-racism” has not acquired the power it has in our society by rational argument. Instead it relies on repeated assertion and intimidation, to create a climate in which only certain ideas can be said. In the ancient world, likewise, certain ideas went without saying. The Christian ethos was not part of this; and indeed, as a novelty, was embarrassing. The idea that the poor might be important was disgusting. Porphyry simply harps on the subconscious need to the reader to conform to what he knows society expects, rather than reasoning objectively what is right.

But once the times changed, the approach worked in reverse. It was Porphyry’s ideas that went against the tenor of the times.