From Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948.
AS I WAS RE-READING my notes for this essay during the last few days, there floated into my mind the picture of a scene which was transacted in the capital of a great empire about fourteen hundred years ago, when that capital was full of war — not a war on a front but a war in the rear, a war of turmoil and street fighting.
The emperor of that empire was holding council to decide whether he should carry on the struggle or whether he should take ship and sail away to safety. At the crown council his wife, the empress, was present and spoke, and she said: ‘You, Justinian, can sail away if you like; the ship is at the quay and the sea is still open but I am going to stay and see it out, because καλὸν ἐντάφιον ἡ βασιλεία: “Empire is a fine winding sheet.”
I thought of this passage and my colleague, Professor Baynes, found it for me; and, as I thought of it, and also thought of the day and the circumstances in which I was writing, I decided to emend it; and I emended it to κάλλιον ἐντάφιον ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ: ‘a finer winding-sheet is the Kingdom of God’ — a finer because that is a winding-sheet from which there is a resurrection.
Now that paraphrase of a famous phrase of Greek comes, I venture to think, rather near to the three Latin words which are the motto of the University of Oxford; and, if we believe in these three words, Dominus Illuminatio Mea, and can live up to them, we can look forward without dismay to any future that may be coming to us.
The material future is very little in our power. Storms might come which might lay low that noble and beloved building and leave not one stone upon another. But, if the truth about this university and about ourselves is told in those three Latin words, then we know for certain that, though the stones may fall, the light by which we live will not go out.
Now let me come by a very easy transition to what is my subject in this essay — the relation between Christianity and civilization. This is a question which has always been at issue since the foundation of the Christian Church, and of course there have been a number of alternative views on it.
One of the oldest and most persistent views is that Christianity was the destroyer of the civilization within whose framework it grew up. That was, I suppose, the view of the Emperor Marcus, as far as he was aware of the presence of Christianity in his world. It was most emphatically and violently the view of his successor the Emperor Julian, and it was also the view of the English historian Gibbon, who recorded the decline and fall of the Roman Empire long after the event.
In the last chapter of Gibbon’s history there is one sentence in which he sums up the theme of the whole work. Looking back, he says: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” And, to understand his meaning, you have to turn from the middle of Chapter LXXI to the opening passage of Chapter I, that extraordinarily majestic description of the Roman Empire at peace in the age of the Antonines, in the second century after Christ. He starts you there, and at the end of the long story he says “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion,” meaning that it was Christianity as well as barbarism which overthrew the civilization for which the Antonines stood.
One hesitates to question Gibbon’s authority, but I believe there is a fallacy in this view which vitiates the whole of it. Gibbon assumes that the Graeco-Roman civilization stood at its height in the age of the Antonines and that in tracing its decline from that moment he is tracing that decline from the beginning. Evidently, if you take that view, Christianity rises as the empire sinks, and the rise of Christianity is the fall of civilization. I think Gibbon’s initial error lies in supposing that the ancient civilization of the Graeco- Roman world began to decline in the second century after Christ and that the age of the Antonines was that civilization’s highest point. I think it really began to decline in the fifth century before Christ.