Saturday, October 1, 2011

Did Christianity cause the fall of the Roman Empire?

I'm taking a break from the topics of electricity generation and the Federal Reserve.

Note: this post should not be construed as an attack on the Christian faith. While I am not Christian, I respect most forms of Christianity because there are plenty of hard working people around me, like my wife, my mom, my dad, my grandparents, my extended family, my friends, my co-workers, and my neighbors who have learned to reconcile the tenets of Christianity with a love of their country and with a love for hard work. I care more about their actions than the details of their beliefs. The issue I want to address here is to what extent did the particular Christian faith of the second to fourth centuries A.D. lead to and stem from a hatred of the Roman state, and to what extent did this cause the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Edward Gibbon's main theme in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was that Christianity was a major reason for the Roman Empire's decline and fall. He listed other reasons, including: (a) various abusive, almost independent military organizations; and (b) a series of inept, blood-line emperors who wasted the government's money on lavish parties and gladiator competitions. The history of Rome (as well as the extensive history of monarchy) teaches us that passing on power via birth is not as stable as it seems at first. While the idea of monarchy addresses the question of who follows next, the person chosen is often unfit for the job of managing the state, and often just leads to major and bloody fights over who should rule next.

But in today's post, I'd like to address the main theme that Gibbon addresses: did Christianity cause the fall of the Roman Empire? In particular, did the Church cause ordinary Roman citizens to give us their allegiance to the Empire in favor of an allegiance to God and the Church, such that Rome was left incapable of managing the affairs of such a large empire?

In my opinion, the state must be powerful, but it must remember that the source of its power is its people. This is the paradox of government power. Too little government is a problem because it leaves a set of disjointed individuals, competing with each other over every little detail. Too much government is a problem because it saps the strength of the people. It kills their ability to make choices at a local level. It creates dependency and despotism. There is a balance to be found somewhere in the middle. A strong and growing society needs to find the middle-ground.

Or as I like to put it:  the philosophy of individualism leads to a state where nobody can trust their neighbor, and the philosophy of altruism leads to a state in which one con-artist can dupe everybody out of their money. We need a mix of individualism and altruism. Both Ayn Rand and Karl Marx were wrong and at the opposite extremes of an optimal middle ground.

Where does early Christianity fit into the mix of philosophies discussed above?  I see the early Church as an anti-state mix of individualism and altruism. By individualism, I mean the desire of individuals to avoid having to become a part of the brutality of the Roman state and military (think of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars as the Rome of its day.) But more importantly, early Christianity was a philosophy of extreme altruism, turning the cheek and forgiving even as the Roman emperors tossed Christians into the Colosseum to be killed by lions or gladiators. The early Christians were the antithesis of Virgil's hero, Aeneas, who carries the weight of the Roman state on his shoulders. Some Christians would rather go to their deaths than to take part in the Roman Empire's philosophy of law, order & peace through dominance and violence (once again think of the Empire in Star Wars.) The goals of the early Christians reminds me of some of the protest groups in today's society (either environmentalist or anti-capitalist.) Some of today's protesters would probably rather go to their deaths (saving dolphins or fighting the capitalist) than to be productive members of our mixed socialist-capitalist society. (Don't get me wrong, I think that dolphins deserve more rights, and that there is corruption within the Federal Reserve Bank, but I'm not going to let that stop me from changing the system from within...not from without.) Many today would rather go to their deaths fighting growth than working at a Sam's Club or Walmart or Shell Oil or BP or Exxon-Mobile or Consol Energy as agents of change.

What's so interesting is that most of today's protesters are not "Christian", but they seem to have a lot of similarities to the early Christian church, and a few of today's "Christians" seem to have a lot of similarities to the roman emperors of the second century A.D. (George W. Bush would be an example of a Christian who seems to be more interested in questions of power on Earth rather than questions about how to fight the 'man' and save his 'soul.') When the Christian church eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became difficult to separate between Christianity as a protest movement and Christianity as the official state religion. This is part of the reason why I have such a hard time using the word Christian and George W. Bush in the same sentence. It doesn't make sense to me because, from what I learned about Christianity growing up, there's no way to be Christ-like and the leader of any nation. There's no overlap between them. And this was clearly a problem for some Gnostic Christians who took on the role of protesters once the orthodox Church became the official state religion.

But regardless of the names and titles that we use to describe people, what I'm more interested in knowing is people's underlying philosophy of life. What do you think is the goal of life?  [Please post in the comment section below if you would like to share with me and others what you think is the goal of life.]

My philosophy of life is that the goal of life is to grow life. And since human life appears to be the only form of life that can spread life to other planets, I'm interested in the questions of how best to form governments that allow humans to grow and for humans to develop the technology to spread life to other planets. My understanding of history is that growth is only possible if the state respects the citizens and if the citizens respect the state.

And so we are left with the chicken or the egg argument: which came first  (a) the Roman state not respecting its citizens? or (b) the citizens not respecting the Roman state?

And we are left with the Catch-22 for any and every state looking to recover from past debacles (which is as equally important today as it was in the Roman Empire):
How can the state gain the respect of its citizens when there is such a level of distrust that average citizens don't want to join its ranks or pay taxes to it? To do well, the state needs good leaders, but since potential good leaders don't trust the government, some of them join protest groups fighting the state or religious groups that focus on the next world rather than this world.

I think that the solution to this Catch-22 is what it has always been and will always be: (a) focus on this world, not the next; (b) change the system from within (unless you are Luke and Leia Skywalker and have Jedi powers...but remember that it was Darth Vader who actually took down the Emperor); (c) a good human has to reconcile both the light and dark sides of the Force in order to grow life; and (d) focus on what you have control of and make sound investment decisions on the money/time that you do have in your control.

So, in conclusion, looking for a single cause of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is like asking was it the chicken or the egg? Before both the egg and the chicken, there was only the Force. And the force that causes life to grow (i.e. the self-propagation of work by dissipative structures, which include everything from bacteria to animals) uses elements of both the dark side of the force (think survival of the fittest) and the light side of the force (think of the symbolic relationships with different plant and animal species.)

So, I think that we should stop trying to blame either just the brutality of the Roman Empire or the pacifism of the early Christians. If you focus too much on either the dark side or the light side of the force, you lose your balance, and you lose contact with the force that drives life, which is neither good or evil.


  1. i'm writing a paper on this and i found this helpful. I didn't plagiarize or anything. I just got inspired..haha

  2. I plagiarized the hell out of this article.

    1. Dude you plagiarism is illeagal

  3. im guessing that this must be the worldview essay the people above me are talking about...?