Editor’s note: Here we see once again some passages on the historical Libanius: a central character in Gore Vidal’s Julian. What Deschner says here about Libanius is splendidly novelized by Vidal in the very final paragraph of his novel.
To contextualise these translations of Karlheinz Deschner’s encyclopaedic history of the Church in 10-volumes, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, read the abridged translation of Volume I.
The Western world darkens more and more
Culture was highly esteemed in the 4th and 5th centuries. It was one of the legacies of antiquity and enjoyed an ‘almost religious veneration’ (Dannenbauer). Still in the year 360 a law of the emperor Constantius could declare that education was the supreme virtue. And really many noble families of that time, Gallic and Roman, were consecrated to it and particularly in the bosom of the Senatorial proceedings.
But they were already simple custodians of the culture, to which they did not enrich. And everywhere there were circles and social forces of a very different kind, even in the highest positions. The Christian king Theodoric the Great was no longer able to write his own name on the documents: neither could most of the Christian princes. Theodoric wrote the four letters LEGI (‘I read it’) by means of an aureus mold expressly forged for him. The instruction of the Goth children was practically forbidden by him, since, as he seems to have said, he who trembled before the master’s blows would never know how to despise the cuts and rushes of the sword in battle.
In Gaul, apparently, where the school system had flourished from the beginning of the 2nd century until the end of the 4th century, public schools are disappearing over the course of the next century, no matter how much here and there, in Lyon, Vienne, Bordeaux and Clermont there still are schools of grammar and rhetoric in addition to, naturally, the private ones. But all the teachings, at least the literary, served exclusively for the collection of material for sermons and treatises, to deal with the Bible and for the consolidation of the faith. Scientific inquiry was already a thing of the past: it no longer counted or was appreciated. The knowledge of Greek, which for centuries was the requirement of every authentic culture, became a rarity. Even the Roman classics, such as Horace, Ovid and Catullus, were cited less and less.
Libanius, the champion of Hellenistic culture, the most famous professor of rhetoric of the century, complains about the aversion aroused by that profession. ‘They see’, he says, referring to his students, ‘that this cause is despised and thrown on the floor; that does not bring fame, power or wealth but a painful servitude under many lords, parents, mothers, pedagogues and other students, who put things upside down and believe that it is the teacher who needs them. When they see all this they avoid this depreciated profession like a boat the pitfalls’.
In the time of Augustine there are hardly any schools of philosophy in the West. Philosophy is frowned upon, it is a thing of the devil, the original father of all ‘heresy’, and it causes fear to the pious. Even in a centre of culture as important as Bordeaux philosophy is no longer taught. And even in the East, the largest and most important of the universities of the Roman Empire, that of Constantinople, has only one chair of philosophy out of a total of 31.
The knowledge of something that had existed for a long time was lost in almost all areas. The spiritual horizon became increasingly narrower. Ancient culture languished from Gaul to Africa, while in Italy it practically disappeared. The interest in natural science vanished. Also jurisprudence, at least in the West, suffers ‘havoc’, an ‘astonishing demolition’ (Wieacker).
The bishop Paulinus of Nola, who died in 431, never read a historian: a typical attitude of the moment. Whole eras fall in the oblivion, for example, the time of the Roman emperors. The only renowned historian in the late 4th century is Ammianus Marcellinus, a non-Christian. Entire synods forbid the bishops to read ‘pagan’ books. In short: scientific research ceases; experimental testing stops; people think increasingly with less autonomy.
A few decades later no doctor could heal Bishop Gregory de Tours, a man with a mind full of superstitions, but he could miraculously be healed through a drink of water with some dust taken from the tomb of St. Martin.
Only clerics will still read.