It died not by murder, but by suicide; and that act of suicide was committed before the fifth century B.C. was out. It was not even the philosophies which preceded Christianity that were responsible for the death of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization. The philosophies arose because the civic life of that civilization had already destroyed itself by turning itself into an idol to which men paid an exorbitant worship. And the rise of the philosophies, and the subsequent rise of the religions out of which Christianity emerged as the final successor of them all, was something that happened after the Graeco-Roman civilization had already put itself to death. The rise of the philosophies, and a fortiori that of the religions, was not a cause; it was a consequence.
When Gibbon in that opening passage of his work looks as the Roman Empire in that age of the Antonines, he does not say explicitly –but I am sure this was in his mind– that he is also thinking of himself as standing on another peak of civilization and looking back towards that distant peak in the past across a broad trough of barbarism in between. Gibbon thought to himself: “On the morrow of the death of the Emperor Marcus the Roman Empire went into decline. All the values that I, Gibbon, and my kind care for began to be degraded. Religion and barbarism began to triumph. This lamentable state of affairs continued to prevail for hundreds and hundreds of years; and then, a few generations before my time, no longer ago than the close of the seventeenth century, a rational civilization began to emerge again.” From his peak in the eighteenth century Gibbon looks back to the Antonine peak in the second century, and that view –which is, I think, implicit in Gibbon’s work– has been put very clearly and sharply by a writer of the twentieth century, from whom I propose to quote a passage somewhat at length because it is, so to speak, the formal antithesis of the thesis which I want to maintain.
“Greek and Roman society was built on the conception of the subordination of the individual to the community, of the citizen to the state; it set the safety of the commonwealth, as the supreme aim of conduct, above the safety of the individual whether in this world or in a world to come. Trained from infancy in this unselfish ideal, the citizens devoted their lives to the public service and were ready to lay them down for the common good; or, if they shrank from the supreme sacrifice, it never occured to them that they acted otherwise than basely in preferring their personal existence to the interests of their country. All this was changed by the spread of Oriental religions which inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation as the only objects worth living for, objects in comparison with which the prosperity and even the existence of the state sank into insignificance. The inevitable result of this selfish and immoral doctrine was to withdraw the devotee more and more, to concentrate his thoughts on his own spiritual emotions, and to breed in him a contempt for the present life, which he regarded merely as a probation for a better and eternal.
The saint and the recluse, disdainful of earth and rapt in ecstatic contemplation of heaven, became in popular opinion the highest ideal of humanity, displacing the old ideal of the patriot and hero who, forgetful of self, lives and is ready to die for the good of his country. The earthly city seemed poor and contemptible to men whose eyes beheld the City of God coming in the clouds of heaven. Thus the centre of gravity, so to say, was shifted from the present to a future life, and, however much the other world may have gained, there can be little doubt that this one lost heavily by the change. A general disintegration of the body politic set in. The ties of the state and the family were loosened: the structure of society tended to resolve itself into its individual elements and thereby to relapse into barbarism; for civilization is only possible through the active co-operation of the citizens and their willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good. Men refused to defend their country and even to continue their kind. In their anxiety to save their own souls and the souls of others, they were content to leave the material world, which they identified with the principle of evil, to perish around them. This obsession lasted for a thousand years. The revival of Roman law, of the Aristotelian philosophy, of ancient art and literature at the close of the Middle Ages, marked the return of Europe to native ideals of life and conduct, to saner, manlier views of the world, The long halt in the march of civilization was over. The tide of Oriental invasion had turned at last. It is ebbing still.”