Quarrel of a dying empire poisoning modernity

The chasm between philosophies began in the dying days of Rome, and we have never escaped them, nor do we seem any closer to escaping them, as the same ideas reappear generation after generation, most pernicious in prosperous times.

I wrote before on The Noble Savage, Caliban, and Hobbes, and made passing mention of Augustine and Pelagius, whom Anthony Burgess made the architypes of the division, but who were they?

Pelagius was a preacher from Britain who taught in the late fourth and early fifth centuries; his name might originally have been ‘Morgan’ or similar, turned into Greek for the benefit of the Roman world. He has for sixteen centuries been condemned as a heretic. We know little of his writings, as it has come through the filter of his enemies.

Augustine of Hippo was one of the great doctors of the early church. Born in Hippo in North Africa, he studied in Carthage: his complex life is set out in his autobiographical Confessions, but he rose to be the most respected theologian of his time and is still highly regarded by all churches. In fact, even his non-theological writings pondering on such things as the nature of time, of sense, of the workings of the brain, were way ahead of their time, showing an intelligence working against the restraints of contemporary knowledge.

Pelagius who appeared to say that a man or woman may reach perfection on his own. It may be that he taught that perfection is reached by following rules – that is one version which comes down to us. It is most commonly related that he taught that man stripped of all else and in his own nature is good, and simply corrupted by society. Either one appears to render Christ’s sacrifice, and all his teaching, pointless. That latter conclusion is the point on which theological arguments hung, but the ideas behind it as as relevant today.

Augustine taught that man stripped of all else and in his own nature is sinful, evil, and to be redeemed of his original sin he must receive forgiveness from God, which is a free gift of grace, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice of himself. That is Protestant Christian doctrine in a nutshell.

Ultimately, Augustine triumphed, man’s animal nature was accepted as scripture sets out and Pelagius was declared a heretic. He disappears from the record about 410, when Alaric the Goth took Rome and Britain was lost to the Empire. Pelagian doctrines were popular – who does not want to be told that he is good really and someone else its to blame for his wickedness? However they were suppressed in the Empire. In the heretic’s native Britain though, newly ‘Brexited’ from the Roman Empire, Pelagianism flourished apparently until the mission of St Germanus which is obscured in hagiography and even Arthurian legend.

This is more than a dispute for ecclesiastical councils: the idea of man as perfectible has immense implications for public policy if it is believed. It is nonsense though: Augustine is right that man is inherently sinful, and that has its implications for shaping law and practice

A third wheel comes into this: the Sicilian Briton (whose name is not known). He wrote at the same time as Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius were disputing. Like Pelagius, the man was British and they may have met, both being in Sicily for a time. The Sicilian Briton wrote pamphlets claiming that the cause of poverty was inequality, and he concluded that “abolish the rich and you will find no more poor”. He had no idea of the dynamics of finance; that to share a cake, you cannot start by removing the baker and to fill the pockets of labourers you cannot remove their employers or the motive for their work. The “abolish the rich” idea is the most foolish and dangerous fallacy, and it was about as the Roman Empire was about to fall to the free-enterprising Goths. If the bright young things of Corbyn’s Momentum think they have a modern policy, no: it is sixteen centuries old, and as wrong then as it is now.

Today, the choice of many policies depends on the policy-maker’s ideas of how people will react: if all condemnation of society is removed and a man or a woman is handed opportunity without responsibility, will they use it altruistically as Pelagius might imagine of the man good at heart, or abuse it for personal gratification, as Augustine, and Hobbes, would assert? If a state body takes control of an activity, will the civil servants left in charge act benevolently for the benefit of the public, or lazily or corruptly as Augustine and Hobbes would suggest? In prison policy, do we treat prisoners with a light touch and let them calm down to come to their natural goodness, or break their arrogance with force and give them a rigid social structure as the only way to bring some goodness out in them? In every case Augustine of Hippo, and Hobbes of Malmesbury, win.

Conservatism generally accepts that mankind is flawed and only a stable, supportive social structure can channel the natural instincts of man. Socialism is the opposite, being based on two late-fourth century British fallacies, namely the Pelagian idea of inherent goodness, and the Sicilian Briton’s idea that wealth causes poverty.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short