The Holocaust Pope?

The controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust is so extensive that the controversy has gained its own name, “The Pius Wars.”

After the Eichmann Trial, historians began to expand their understanding of what it meant to be a perpetrator in the Holocaust.

The burden of guilt fell on the shoulders of those who failed to act. To be a bystander was considered a form of passive collaboration.

As the world contemplated this new paradigm, more individuals were considered to be guilty in their relationship to the Holocaust, and before long the ghost of Pius XII was dragged into the fray.

After his death in 1958, debate stirred in post-war Germany about the Pope’s diplomatic agreements with the fascist governments, and his relationship to Hitler.

In the mist of these debates, in 1963, Rolf Hochhuth released his controversial German play, The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy.

The play depicted Pius XII as a greedy, power-hungry, and anti-Semitic goon, who callously turned away from the suffering of the Jews.

In addition, books like Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness claimed to have linked the Pontiff to dubious activities, such as helping the escape of mass murders like Franz Stangl.

In contrast, the deceased Pope had high approval from both Catholic and Jewish communities. In fact, consideration for Pius XII’s canonization were set in place in 1965.

As new Vatican archival material became available, the controversy was reignited, with John Cornwell controversial history, Hitler’s Pope.

Examining the Pope’s early career, Cornwell argued that Pius XII was a hypocritical anti-Semitic, and an authoritarian Pontiff who sought to expand Church power, from his earliest days at the Vatican. According to Cornwell, Pius XII was the Pope that Hitler needed in order to carry out the Holocaust.

Cornwell didn’t just get 15 minutes of fame, he got 60 minute on CBS. And so the myth began.

The controversy gathered steam, as scholars scrambled to either criticize or defend the Pope. All of this took place in the shadow of John Paul II’s decision, in 1990, to declare Pius XII a Servant of God, and in 2009, he was made  Venerable, a major path to sainthood.

From this accusatory storm, Rabbi David G. Dalin released his cogent work, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: Pope Pius XII And His Secret War Against Nazi Germany. This book was written as a direct response to Cornwell’s initial attack.

Building on the works of other Pius XII’s defenders, like Ronald J. Rychlak, Dalin disputed nearly everything that Cornwell contends, especially the alleged papal anti-Semitism and the “silence” of the Pontiff.

Although Dalin’s work seemed like the final nail in the coffin of Cornwell’s false narrative, the myth of the “Nazi Pope” has yet to die.

Let us take a look at the DNA of the myth, item-by-item, so we can finally kill it off.

ITEM 1: Was Pope Pius XII A Nazi Collaborator?

Myth I: Yes, because the Pope was power-hungry!

Reasons given to support this myth…

  • The Pope wanted to centralize the Catholic Church in order to increase his own power.
  • He had already passed the Code of Canon Law by 1917, which required Catholics to be more observant of the dictates of the Vatican, and which gave the Church more control over schools, the appointment of Bishops, and regional legislation.
  • This authoritarian pope seized his chance to increase his power by making a deal with Hitler in the Reich Concordat of 1933. This agreement would disband the Catholic Center Party, Hitler’s main opposition to power, but give the Pope greater control over Catholics in Germany.
  • The Pope willingly became Hitler’s “pawn,” against the will of the German Bishops.

Myth II: Yes, because the Pope did not speak out against Hitler or the Nazis!

Reasons given to support this myth…

  • As Hitler would came to wreak havoc on the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Pope remained silent.
  • After the invasion of Poland, Pius issued an encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (1939), which emphasized “the unity of the human race,” as “neither Jew nor Greek,” but the Pope never mentioned Poland by name.
  • He never explicitly condemned the atrocities of the Nazis.
  • Worst of all, the Pope’s Christmas Eve Address of 1942, further continued his silence about the Holocaust.
  • This address mentioned only the sufferings of “hundreds of thousands”, not millions.
  • This address did not even mention the words “Jew” or “Nazi” because the Pope was Hitler’s pawn, a tool of the Nazi regime.

Myth III: Yes, because the Pope did not try to stop Hitler and the Nazis!

Reasons given to support this myth…

  • The Pope did nothing to stop the Nazis. He simply watched countless Jews taken by Einsatzgruppen from “his very windows.”
  • There is no evidence that the Pope spoke out against the Nazis, let alone mobilize against them.
  • He didn’t do enough because he was most likely a Nazi stooge.

Myth IV: Yes, because the Pope was a Nazi ideologue who hated Communists!

Reasons given to support this myth…

  • In his younger days, Pacelli (the future Pius XII) was a diplomat for the Vatican to the German Kaiser Reich. He had even negotiated with the Kaiser himself, making him no stranger to dealing with egotistical autocrats.
  • But as the Kaiser Reich fell in the sunset of WWI, the future pope found himself in Munich. It was there that a group of violent communists proclaimed the city as their own. Proper Marxists, they despised religion as an obstacle to human progress.
  • A Jew by the name of Levien was among their number. Wanting to put the Catholic Church in its place, he entered Pacelli’s workplace. Howling blasphemy and profanities in the entrance hall, he found Pacelli. Levien demanded the papal limousine, but Pacelli refused to give it to him. Levien pressed his gun to Pacelli’s chest and asked once more of the papal limousine. Pacelli kept a cool head and explained to the shooter that he did not fear death. The Marxist took flight after being called back by his superior.
  • This experience must have traumatized Pacelli, and thus created a hatred for both Communists and Jews. This is why he would always seek neutral diplomatic solutions later in his life.
  • Hitler and Pacelli were anti-Semitic, and both opposed Communism; their alliance was only natural.

Myth V: Yes, because the Pope was anti-Semitic!

Reasons given to explain this myth…

  • What else but anti-Semitism can explain the Pope’s silence in the face of the Holocaust?
  • Why did he not act to save the Jews as they were dragged through the streets of Rome?
  • Pius XII was an Anti-Semitic authoritarian who was against the Jews, or at the very least indifferent to their extermination.
  • For these reasons he was happy to cooperate with Hitler.

Rebuttal To Item 1 And To The Myths.

In the words of Rabbi David G. Dalin, what John Cornwell and others concocted in regard to the character of Pope Pius XII is nothing but “an abominable slander.”

Pope Pius XII was not “Hitler’s Pope.” He sought to save the German Catholics, not forsake them. Nor was he truly silent about the Nazis, since his words were, in fact, clearly understood by all Catholics across the world as specific instructions to resist the Nazi oppressors.

Acting in love, against the will of the Nazis, Pius XII saved thousands of Jews across the Third Reich. In fact, he mobilized the Catholic Church as a spy network which reported to British Intelligence. In many ways, Pius XII out-maneuvered Hitler.

But let us look more clearly at the myths themselves.

MYTH I Dismantled… The Pope was not power-hungry.

  • The Pope did not betray the Catholics of Germany, he tried to save them.
  • Contrary to what the accusers say, the German Bishops were in favor of the Reich Concordat, not against it.
  • The Pope sought to centralize power so that he could protect his Catholic subjects. He agonized over reports of Hitler youth groups violently fighting Catholic youth groups in Bavaria.
  • The persecution of Catholics did not happen because of the Reich Concordat – rather the Concordat happened because of the persecutions.

MYTH II Dismantled… The Pope was not silent about Hitler and the Nazis.

  • Summi Pontificatus (1939), was understood by Catholics as a denouncement of the invasion of Poland.
  • The 1942 Christmas Eve Address was understood as a denunciation of the Nazi atrocities towards the Jews of Eastern Europe
  • It was understood as such by the Nazi’s German Foreign Office as an assault against them. They were outraged.
  • Fellow Catholics, and even Jews, understood the message as a denouncement against the Nazi war crimes despite of its vagueness.

Thus, the Pope’s message was heard, understood, and acted upon. But, his message was not an explicit denouncement of the Nazi regime – but maybe this was for a very good reason.

Rabbi Dalin, argues that if Pius XII had more explicitly denounced the Nazis, then the Nazis would have retaliated and simply “invaded” the Vatican (which they actually had plans to do!)

The Pope had no army of his own. The retaliation would have destroyed the papacy and the Church, and completed the circle of persecution. The Pope’s implicit rather than explicit condemnation was far more effective.

But why did the Pope act this way? Because he was using the Church to bring down Hitler and save the Jews.

MYTH III Dismantled… The Pope did try to stop Hitler and the Nazis.

  • The Pope created a major spy network known as The Orders Committee, headed by Josef Muller, codename “Joey Ox.”
  • Muller gathered information from the Abwehr with the help of fellow Nazi-resistors.
  • Muller would then fly his sports plane over the Alps and inform Ludwig Kass (the former high-ranking member of the Catholic Center Party) about what was going on in Germany. Kass would then report to Pius XII.
  • But it didn’t stop there; the Pope then conveyed the highly classified data to British intelligence at the Vatican.
  • The Pope was behind many of the conspiracies against Hitler.
  • He was the main link in a connecting agreement between German and Italian conspirators to act in a coordinated fashion.
  • Plans to assassinate Hitler were aided by the Pope’s participation, including talks to kill Hitler shortly after the invasion of Poland, an attempt to slip a bomb into Hitler’s plane, and finally the famous Operation Valkyrie.
  • This is why the Pope wasn’t the loudest critic of Hitler – he had to protect the many people who relied on him in their opposition to the Nazis.
  • Historians like Hurbert Wolf rightly argue that some in the German Catholic Church liked Hitler, and if the Pope loudly criticized the Nazis, there would have been a full-blown revolt among such German Catholics. This which would have started an undesired crisis and could only end in the Nazis gaining more power over the German Roman Catholics.

But didn’t the libellers of Pius XII know that the Pope was spy master? They did! Although Cornwell briefly concedes a large degree of bravery to Pius XII for his participation in intelligence gathering, Cornwell uses it to claim that Pius XII was silent not because of cowardice, but because of his indifference to the plight of the Jews.

The fact remains, the Pope was hardly indifferent to Nazi Power. He actively aided the conspiracies against Hitler.

MYTH IV Dismantled…The Pope was not a Nazi ideologue who hated Communists.

The Pope was well aware of the many atrocities being committed by the Communists in the Soviet Union. The Russian Civil War, the Red Terror, and Stalin’s Gulags of the 1930s were common knowledge. So, certainly, the Pope opposed the Communists – because they were avowed atheists, who were intent on destroying Christianity.

Did this opposition make him a Nazi? Of course not.

The Pope was also aware that the only thing keeping the Soviets at bay were the Nazis.

The best the Pope could do was aid the allies (which he did by channelling highly classified information to them).

To say that the Pope was Nazi ideologue is just calumny. Why did Pius XII conspire against Hitler, if he were a Nazi? The Pope regarded Nazism as “perhaps the most dangerous heresy of our times.

MYTH V Dismantled… The Pope was not anti-Semitic.

  • Perhaps the greatest injustice against the Pope is the false accusation of anti-Semitism.
  • Pius XII did so much to help the Jewish people in their time of need that the first major historical work against John Cornwell’s libels was written by a Rabbi named David G. Dalin, to set the record straight.

But the dismantling of Myth V requires fuller elaboration, as follows…

ITEM 2: Did Pope Pius XII care about the Jews?

MYTH I: No, because the Pope did not speak up for the Jews.

  • In the face of Jewish annihilation, the “Vicar of Christ” was silent. Where was the voice of moral truth when the world needed it most?
  • After the invasion of Poland, his encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (1939), never mentions Poland by name let alone the Nazi atrocities committed there.
  • In his Christmas Eve Address in 1942, he never even uses the word Jew. Hence, the Pope did not speak up for the Jews.

MYTH II: No, because the Pope did not act to save the Jews.

  • The Pope did not try to save the Jews because he was indifferent to their suffering.
  • Susan Zuccotti brings up a case where the Pope remained silent as the Jews of Rome were being rounded up the Einsatzgruppen “under the Pope’s own windows.

MYTH III: No, because the Pope smuggled Nazi’s out of Europe.

  • The Catholic Church smuggled high ranking Nazi officials like Klaus Barbie, Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, and Franz Stangl using the Vatican “Ratlines” after the war.
  • The “Ratlines” were escape routes that were originally designed for the Catholic clergy to escape from Fascist or Communist persecution. But, the Catholic Church used them to smuggle out Nazis after the war.
  • Why would the Catholic Church aid Nazis? Simple – because Pius XII was an anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator.

Rebuttal To Item 2 And To The Myths.

Pope Pius XII was a pontiff who loved the Jews. He loved them enough to risk his life to save theirs. His words inspired hundreds of Catholics across Europe to risk their lives to save the Jews as well. Furthermore, he gave them sanctuary when they needed it most. As for the “Ratlines,” they can hardly be said to be connected with the Pope. And even if they were, there is more reason to believe that they were an act of human love, not anti-Semitic hatred.

MYTH I Dismantled… The Pope was not silent about the Nazis.

  • In Summi Pontificatus (1939), the Pope emphasized “the unity of the human race” as “neither Jew nor Greek.”
  • Furthermore, in his Christmas Eve Address of 1942, the Pope explicitly talks about the suffering of “hundreds of thousands” of innocent people.
  • Everybody seemed to understand the message, even the Nazis. In fact, the Nazi German Foreign Office saw it as an assault against them.
  • One must realize that the Pope was working behind enemy lines. Very simply, if the Pope became a loud critic of the Nazis, then they would retaliate against the Church and the many Jews that the Church was hiding. In Holland, for example, when the Pope told the bishops to speak out, the number of Nazi atrocities against the Jews increased.
  • When Clements von Galen, the Bishop of Munster, sought to speak out against the Nazi’s, the Jewish leaders told him not too.
  • The Pope received many letters telling him that denouncing the Nazis would only make things worse, not better. Even Susan Zuccotti (an early accuser) admitted that the Pope may have been silent for the Jews’ sake.
  • Rabbi Dalin argues that if the Church had more explicitly denounced the Nazis, then the Nazis would have retaliated. The retaliation would have destroyed the power of the papacy and inflamed the persecutions.
  • Michael Phayer, a very reputable Holocaust historian, who had originally criticized the silence of Pope Pius XII, reversed his position saying that the Pope was understood as speaking out against the Nazis throughout the war.

MYTH II Dismantled… The Pope did act to save the Jews.

  • Pius XII risked his life to save the Jews. For example, in the capture of Jews from Rome, Pope Pius XII told his clergy to hide Jews from the Nazis. He not only hid Jews in the Vatican, he also hid 3,000 in his summer home, Castel Gandalfo.
  • The Pope was not indifferent. Rather, he was a hero of the Jewish people. He risked the safety of the Church, his flock, and himself for the sake of the Jews.
  • Endless testimonies speak of the clergy saving Jews in Italy from the Einsatgruppen. This evidence was ignored by authors, such as, like Susan Zuccotti. Such actions are not those of an anti-Semite.
  • What kind of anti-Semite would tell his priests to split their wartime rations with Jews? One could argue that he wasn’t as vocal as he could have been, but there are no grounds whatsoever to claim that Pius XII was an anti-Semite.

MYTH III Dismantled… The Pope did not smuggle Nazis out of Europe after the war.

There is no evidence to claim that Pius XII knew about the Ratlines.

Michael Phayer (the historian who first spoke about “Ratlines”) cannot even manage to the Austrian Bishop, Alois Hudal, to the Nazi “Ratlines”, let alone the Pope.

Phayer argues that because Hudal was responsible for the Austrian refugees, he could be linked to the “Ratlines.” But he cannot prove his assertion by any definitive evidence.

Then, Phayer is forced to admit that his “source” is “incomplete.” All he say is that he “thinks” the Catholic Church helped fleeing Nazis.

We must be careful in the judgement of the dead. The truths of their character come with time.

Here are the words of Joey-Ox, which aptly summarize German Roman Catholic resistance and defiance of Nazism…

““I am philosophically opposed to you. I am a practising Catholic, and my brother is a Catholic priest. Where could I find the possibility of a compromise here?”

These words were spoken to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the dreaded SS.

Where, indeed, is the “possibility of a compromise here?”




The Enlightenment Misunderstood, Again

As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book.

On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions.

His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting.  On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

I like Pinker for his clarity of mind.  And since I have been reading a steady diet of books whose central claim is that the Enlightenment was a mistake, and moreover I am personally enamored of Reaction, the idea of creating a new thing by reference to the old, it is only fair that I consider the opposite ideas presented as well as possible.

Moreover, this book claims to answer exactly a current question of mine—is the material marvel that is the modern world the child of the Enlightenment?  I was not disappointed; this book is just what the doctor ordered, at least to clarify my own thoughts, though probably not with the result Pinker intended.

He wants to prove the Enlightenment is responsible for everything that is good in the modern world, and every good thing that will be in the future, but he ends up, for the most part, refuting himself on all his key claims.  Still, the ride is interesting enough and that alone makes his book worth reading.

On the second page of his book, Pinker enunciates the core of his argument, by referring to “the Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.”

The next sentence, by implication, defines the Enlightenment further as “the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress.”  The following paragraph says the Enlightenment is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism.”

All this creates a somewhat confused definition, but once you read the whole book, it’s evident that to Pinker, the middle sentence is the key—the Enlightenment consists in the primacy to human societies of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” His book revolves around these four concepts, and we will return to each of these concepts in turn.

Pinker divides his book into three parts.  The first, shortest, part expands on what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.”  Here, Pinker begins by turning to the driver of all the progress that he details at great length later in the book, namely, the Scientific Revolution.  “The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century.”

Given that the term “Age of Reason” is only used in one other place in this book, at the very end in a similar context, while the terms “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” are used continuously, it seems fair to conclude that Pinker believes that the Scientific Revolution (actually beginning in the 1500s, and possibly earlier, not “in the 17th century”) was the necessary first step that combined with the Enlightenment to produce the benefits of the modern world.

Pinker reinforces this conclusion by summarizing the modern understanding of scientific progress to include entropy, evolution, and information.  Grasping these three underlying drivers of scientific progress, Pinker tells us, allows a more complete approach to scientific understanding, and thus of the Enlightenment.

All this is true.  The problem with this definition of the Enlightenment, though, is that it is all about the Scientific Revolution, from its inception to today, and when you look closely at it, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment.

The Scientific Revolution led to technology, which ultimately (with some other drivers that are endlessly debated) led to the Industrial Revolution, which created nearly all the progress Pinker spends the second part of his book documenting.  But this eliding of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution is the fatal error of Pinker’s entire book—every chapter, and practically every page, is shot through with it.

Pinker claims for the Enlightenment, a system of political and philosophical principles with a nearly exclusive focus on increasing liberty, the advantages of created by the Scientific Revolution, a pre-Enlightenment happening whose success, and whose single-handed creation of the modern world, had essentially nothing to do with the Enlightenment.

Pinker does this because he wishes to advocate for Enlightenment principles (in particular, emancipation and atheism), but justify those principles almost wholly by reference to the achievements of the Scientific Revolution.  This is a neat parlor trick, but intellectually dishonest.

I cannot tell whether Pinker realizes the dishonesty, or merely has wandered so far into the weeds he cannot think clearly.  In either case, the effect is to make some parts of the book fascinating, and others risible.

There are many, many claimed reasons for why the Industrial Revolution occurred, and why it only occurred in the West.  But no serious historian claims that it was the Enlightenment that caused the Industrial Revolution, which is no doubt why Pinker glosses over the supposed linkage and offers no citations tying the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, to the Scientific Revolution).

For a man dedicated to carefully parsing the evidence and linking causal chains through reasoning, this is a glaring omission.  Fortunately for the reader, though, these first philosophical musings, or ramblings, only take up the first thirty-five pages of the book.

The next 300 are an endless, and endlessly fascinating, series of statistical analyses about various forms of (mostly material) progress.  In the final sixty pages, the last third of the book, Pinker returns to philosophy, attempting to synthesize the progress he has demonstrated with his other claimed keystones of the modern world, reason, science, and humanism.

Pinker’s basic point about progress is a broadening of his claims about peace in The Better Angels of Our Nature—that those who think the world is getting worse are wrong, not (mostly) from malice, but from various forms of psychological bias, such as the “Optimism Gap” (people see their own lives as better than other people’s); “Availability Bias” (we make decisions based on data easily available to us, which is often weighted toward the negative); and “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine how things could be dramatically worse than how they could be dramatically better).

To prove this, Pinker offers fourteen separate chapters, each covering a totally different area of progress, demonstrating that since the Scientific Revolution human conditions have gotten better.

Pinker starts with Life—he shows how life expectancy, both at birth and at later periods of life, has dramatically increased over time—or, rather, since the Industrial Revolution in the West, and since the early twentieth century in much of the rest of the world.  Next is Health, to much the same effect.

In both chapters, Pinker relies heavily on Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, a fascinating book.  But Pinker’s philosophical confusion shows up every time he makes other than statistical claims—for example, he tells us that “Deaton notes that even the idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment—knowledge can make us better off—may come as a revelation” to some (i.e., the non-Western) parts of the world.  There are two problems with this.

First, that is not the “idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment,” it is in an idea that, in the West, far pre-dated the Enlightenment, as I discuss further below.  More to the immediate point, that’s not what Deaton says (since I have a copy of his book, I checked).

What Deaton actually says is that people in poor countries are often satisfied with their health, not knowing it can be better.  He saying nothing about the Enlightenment, or knowledge in general.  Unfortunately, such appeals to authority are common in Pinker’s book (surprising, since appeal to authority has been identified as a basic logical fallacy for millennia), and when the authority is mis-cited, it makes matters worse.

(The reader’s suspicion is further exacerbated by Pinker’s frequent habit of not offering page cites, just footnotes to books as a whole, though he does give a page cite to Deaton’s book.)

Anyway, Pinker next turns to food (Sustenance), where he again talks about the Scientific Revolution (including its modern continuation in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution) feeding the world, and then tries to claim that it was an accomplishment of the Enlightenment, and failure to feed people as shown by Stalin’s terror famines was because (supposed) Enlightenment values weren’t honored. That’s a stretch.

Next is wealth, where Pinker focuses on GDP per capita, showing the takeoff since the Industrial Revolution in the West and more recently in some Asian countries, and the reductions in extreme poverty in other countries that have not experienced the same kind of takeoff.

Following is Inequality, which Pinker acutely and subtly analyzes (channeling Thomas Sowell in some cases—you can tell that Pinker is, in many areas, broad-minded by the several times he cites Sowell for different propositions, since Sowell is anathema to doctrinaire leftists).

Then Environment, noting that other than global warming, the environment is doing just fine and shows every sign of doing better in the future, on every metric.

In particular, he notes how resource apocalypses, from Peak Oil to supposed shortages of rare earth elements, are invariably falsified, by technology in general and by hard work enabling us to produce better things with less material.  He also covers Peace, updating his earlier book Better Angels, and Safety, noting the declines in homicides and accidents.  He quickly dismisses Terrorism as a tempest in a teapot.

It’s not just material progress that Pinker covers, although that’s the focus.  It’s also moral progress—we are, among other things, nicer to people.  Less torture, fewer executions, more value assigned to human life and happiness.

True enough, but a necessary leg of Pinker’s entire argument is that there was no significant moral progress prior to the Enlightenment, since prior progress would disprove the causation he claims.  But prior progress in the West was very great, as anyone with any grasp of history knows.

Christianity immediately obviated many of the worst moral behaviors of the Ancient World (variants of which are still common in non-Christian cultures), from infanticide to the Roman practice of starving children to death in sight of a banquet, to distill their organs into love potions that would enhance desire.

Christianity further led to the rule of law and was instrumental in the creation of the institutions that made possible the Scientific Revolution.  All these moves forward, as Pinker documents while glossing over their cause, led to further moral gains.  To hide his embarrassment at these pre-Enlightenment advances, Pinker chants, over and over again, the same trite phrases about “endless religious wars” and repeats boring anecdotes about witchcraft and bearbaiting.

After these convincing chapters (convincing for their substance, at least), Pinker covers some softer topics, somewhat less successfully.  Generally, the less harder-edged and susceptible to statistical analysis the topic, the worse Pinker does in showing that actual progress is being made.

In fairness, though, it is true these softer topics, to the extent one agrees they constitute actual progress comparable to that covered in the earlier chapters, are more tied to actual Enlightenment ideas.

First up is Democracy, which he claims is increasing, but Pinker helps himself over the finish line by defining democracy as basically any good government, one which “threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.”

That, along with other definitional broadening from Karl Popper and John Mueller, means that democracy is redefined as any government with the rule of law and some responsiveness to public opinion.  But in any case, there’s more democracy, however defined, and that’s Progress.

Next is Equal Rights, where Pinker goes full Left, trumpeting all emancipation as good for what ails a society, and all failure to emancipate as evil incarnate (although he seems confused, since what is evil, anyway, to someone who denies the reality of moral abstractions other than utilitarian ones)?

He does try to give a scientific gloss to his philosophical attachment to emancipation, ascribing it to more wealth means more people seek self-actualization, and want the same for others.  This he then extrapolates to a claim that liberal values are spreading everywhere, with a lot of graphs (though we’re never told what “liberal values” are being measured, but by implication they overlap with “emancipative values”).

Then Knowledge (we know more, and we’re getting smarter); Quality of Life (we work less and both the necessities and luxuries of life are cheaper); and Happiness (we are happier, largely because we’re richer, though Deaton covers this much better and more subtly).

Along with Daniel T. Rodgers, Pinker huffily rejects Robert Putnam and others who point to the atomization of American lives as a problem, with the flip response that “Users of the Internet and social media have more contact with friends” and they “remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as in the decade of Gerald Ford and Happy Days.”

But this is obtuse.  Putnam’s claim wasn’t that people didn’t have friends anymore, it was that the intermediary institutions that were the entire basis of the success of any successful, and in particular, the successful American, society had been completely destroyed, resulting in the cascading baleful effects that Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet had earlier identified and feared.

Pinker totally fails to make this connection, or more likely deliberately obfuscates it (which is probably why he refers to fears of social atomization as a “hysterical misconception”—that’s protesting too much).  Not to mention that Putnam would have told him, too, that the problem was well under way by the time of Gerald Ford, so the 1970s are probably not the best comparison decade to today.

Finally, Pinker points out that Existential Threats, from Y2K to bioterror, are grossly exaggerated.  Sure, we can’t know the future, but on balance, we’re not all likely to wink out of existence next week, or next millennium.

Of the supposed threat from artificial intelligence, he says “the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle.”  Ha ha.  He’s also heinously sexist.  “There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors.  Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women.”

I like all this, and agree with much of it (although I could do without the constant references to Mama Cass and the Beatles, reminding me Pinker is stuck, in many ways, in the 1960s—and he is writing primarily for aging Boomers, staring down both barrels of their mortality, wondering if their lives of self-indulgence were really as pointless as they now seem).

I am mostly a techno-optimist myself.  However, Pinker’s greatest technical error, as opposed to failure of vision, is to believe (like Joseph Tainter) that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist.  I’m a quantitative guy, personally—I have an MBA with finance and accounting concentrations from the Booth School of Business, and my wife correctly says I view the world as Neo does in the last scenes of The Matrix—as cascading columns of numbers underlying the perceived, but merely surface, reality of things.  Certainly, non-quantifiable views of human flourishing are subject to errors of perception, which is probably why Pinker repeatedly excoriates the Romantics.

But Pinker is too quick to reject that humans seek transcendence, and all the new flavors of Doritos and life extension in the world isn’t going to change that.  “Man shall not live by bread alone.”  Pinker is fond of quoting Jesus, always with a sneer, but he does not offer us that truth, because it scares him, since it cannot be quantified.

But the unquantifiable aspects of progress are a topic too long to get into in this review.  Pinker wraps up Progress by talking about its future. He does this by making totally unsupported claims about the origin of Progress.  “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81.”  “The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Therefore, it’s going to continue, don’t you know?  No logic is offered, just repetition of the mantra of “knowledge” and trying to tie the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution by repeatedly mentioning them in the same breath.  It’s not convincing; in fact, it comes across as desperate.

Embedded within all this proof of progress (for proof is what it is—we can quibble, or call it incomplete, but only a fool would say that material progress since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution has not been immense), is the truth, difficult for some to accept, that all this progress was caused purely by, and until recently only affected, the West.

It is the Western world that has gotten better—and finally, after 400 years, some of those benefits have been adopted by others.  That’s it. This is not a global phenomenon in cause, and it may not be a global phenomenon in effect, if the inferior cultures of the world, for whatever reason, refuse to accept the gifts offered by the Western Scientific Revolution.

Pinker doesn’t make this point, either, though I can see why—it’s inflammatory and distracts from his argument.  (He does admit that his first love, the Enlightenment, was a wholly Western phenomenon, a topic he shuffles away from quickly, mumbling about how ideas have no home, which may be true, but they do have a birthplace.)

There are two topics related to Progress that Pinker avoids like the plague, mentioning them only in passing and in lists of other, related topics.  Those are slavery and abortion.  Why he avoids them is obvious, if you give it a little thought.  Slavery he avoids because all progress toward eradicating it was based on religious belief; the Enlightenment had nothing to do with it.

Slavery had been increasingly frowned upon by the Church, to the point of disappearing in Europe long before the High Middle Ages.  It made a comeback outside Europe with the conquest of the Americas, with intense debate about its morality applied to Africans and Indians within a Christian framework, and it was solely Christian believers in England and America who ultimately pushed for the ending of, and ended, slavery.

Pinker’s beloved Enlightenment had nothing to do with it, and in fact most of his precious Enlightenment thinkers, like Jefferson, were fine with slavery.  This is not convenient to the thesis that religion is poison and the Enlightenment made us all free, so it is glossed over.  For similar reasons, Pinker avoids abortion.  If violence is decreasing, and infanticide is a horror equivalent to public torture-executions, why is abortion OK?  Pinker never explains, and in fact he once lists abortion in a list of bad things in which the United States leads, including homicide and incarceration.

The reader suspects that Pinker is either unable to overcome his own internal cognitive dissonance, or is afraid of no longer being invited to the right parties if he suggests that abortion should be treated as a moral bad.  (In fairness, he did address this in Better Angels, where he admitted that abortion logically is indistinguishable from infanticide.)

Another topic that Pinker studiously avoids is China.  Yes, he mentions China in various sections on Progress.  But since China embodies the very opposite of Enlightenment political thought, in particular “emancipatory values,” its progress is hard to square with Pinker’s thesis that the Enlightenment is solely responsible for all progress.

It is easy to square, though, with China adopting Western science and rejecting Western political values.   Which is exactly what has happened, which suggests those political values are not, in fact, important for, or even related to, progress.  Again, though, the reader is offered no thoughts in this direction.

Pinker only sees two possible threats to ever more progress.  The first is economic stagnation, which he dismisses the possibility of with, in essence, “not going to happen because I say so.”  Not for Pinker grappling with Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth and its claims that productivity is likely to stay low (which he does mention), or Peter Thiel’s lament, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Mostly he doesn’t grapple with those arguments because he’s falling all over himself to get to the real threat to progress:  Donald Trump.  Pinker offers an insane list of caricatures and falsehoods about Trump and, more generally, all Republicans, for good measure throwing in pro-Brexit Britons. Did you know that Trump opposes all of Life, Health, Wealth, the Environment, Safety, Peace, Democracy, and more?  That is, Trump is opposed to Progress, and wants to strangle it, then throw its body into a fire and dance naked around it.

Pinker does everything but Photoshop a picture of Trump with a red suit, a tail, horns, and a pitchfork and fold it into the center of his book. This section goes on in this vein at great length, but in the entire book, every few pages, Pinker snarls and foams at the mouth about Trump, attacking him irrelevantly while discussing unrelated topics.  I suppose, like the mad dog he resembles here, Pinker can’t help it, since he very evidently suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome, which relates to the older Leftist Derangement Syndrome in the same way that Ebola does the common cold.

But it’s at this point that Pinker’s book starts to go off the rails.  Not the stuff about Trump—that’s just boring, and par for the course in these days of #Resistance (though it is certain to make the book date badly, whatever the future holds—authors do themselves no favors by ranting about the politics of the moment in books not about the politics of the moment).

And Pinker generally appears to have none but the most simplistic grasp of politics—not for him any references to any political thinker, from Spartans to Athenians to Machiavelli.  No, it’s his final three chapters, on Reason, Science, and Humanism, that cause Pinker to implode.

This is where Pinker exalts what he claims are the principles of the Enlightenment, without making any attempt to actually show they were the basis of the Enlightenment, re-defining them to avoid the inconvenient truth that reason and science pre-dated the Enlightenment, and Humanism has nothing to do with progress.

As far as reason, Pinker first rambles about various cognitive biases that limit reasoning.  Then he notes that conservatives and liberals are equally subject to these biases.  Having established his impartiality, he throws it in the trash, attacking only conservatives viciously and at length (Jonathan Haidt would be appalled).

He starts by claiming “the first modern conservative, Edmund Burke, suggested that humans were too flawed to think up schemes for improving their condition and were better off sticking with traditions and institutions that kept from the abyss,” which falsely suggests (without quite saying it) that Burke, and by extension all conservatives, are opposed to all reason and therefore all progress (and miscasts Burke, of course).  After various sonorous paragraphs about predictive bias and the like, Pinker returns to “the major enemy of reason in the public sphere today—which is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization.”

It’s a little bit of a problem that all academia has been politicized by the Left, but the real problem is “a Republican Party that has become synonymous with the extreme right,” which “has undermined the institutions of democracy.”  Only Republicans gerrymander.  Only Republicans “encourage unregulated donations from moneyed interests.”

Only Republicans politicize the Supreme Court.  Only Republicans “shut down the government when their maximum demands aren’t met” (this book went to press before the Democrats did just that three weeks ago to get amnesty for illegal aliens).

But help is on the way!  It’s in the form of “fact checking,” by PolitiFact and Snopes, neutral helpers who can help the virtuous, neutral, public-minded media show the masses the Truth.  Yawn.  Pinker really beclowns himself here; he would have done himself a service by deliberately selecting some non-#Resistance editors, for his book, so he could have avoided demonstrating so effectively the cognitive biases he is only too eager to point out in others.

But the even bigger problem is that reason is not a feature of the Enlightenment. Pinker really, honestly, seems to think reason was invented in 1750.  This is laughable.  Reasoning about first principles, about reason itself, has always characterized the West.

The idea that people were irrational until the Enlightenment is totally bizarre (and for good measure Pinker seems to think anyone living before 1600 was somewhere between credulous and stupid).  An obsessive pursuit of reason in the most refined forms possible has always been the hallmark of the West, starting with the Ancient Greeks, through the Neoplatonists (many Christian); and into its rediscovery in the court of Charlemagne, where Alcuin and Theodulf began the process of re-introducing rigid patterns of reason into the philosophical toolkit of the West.

This pattern continued through the Middle Ages, Early, Middle and High. (Only dolts believe in the “Dark Ages” anymore, and to be fair, Pinker never mentions such a thing—but then, he mentions nothing at all substantive about any era prior to A.D. 1600.)  The Western search for reason (which had no analogue anywhere else on Earth) led directly to the Scientific Revolution, in which the Church played a critical funding and organizational role.

Then that led into the Industrial Revolution.  Where was the Enlightenment in this process?  Nowhere. The Enlightenment was about political reasoning, which is interesting in its own right, and has to do with progress to the extent political change is progress, but not beyond, and most people would rate being able to eat and live as much more important progress than any form of political advancement.

Pinker next (briefly) covers Science, by which he explicitly doesn’t mean to repeat what he said earlier about progress being based on science, but to focus on hostility to science. By this he means that anyone who sees any value to any philosophical system that is not purely based on hard science is a fool.

Most attacked is Leon Kass (who is attacked throughout the book, not just here), but most of the chapter serves for Pinker to channel the British intellectual C. P. Snow (who, along with a physicist named David Deutsch, of whom I have never heard, is cited scores of times in this book).

While Pinker meanders on about the need not to separate science and the humanities, what he is really getting at is that religion must be exterminated.  “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.”

Why this should be, precisely, is never explained, any more than Pinker ever explains anywhere in this book what one’s “moral worldview” should be, other than utilitarianism, while simultaneously telling us that it is an absolute certainty that “the fate of the black rhinoceros [is] a significant moral concern” and that a bedrock moral principle is that “life is sacred.”  Anyway, mercifully, this chapter ends quickly.

So Pinker’s chapter on Reason isn’t great, nor is his one on Science.  But they are written with a golden quill by an angel, compared to his chapter on Humanism, by which he means Atheism.  Here, Pinker’s unhinged bigotry is let fly.  Still, he starts slow, saying “The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.”  So it may be, even if he cribbed that list from Martha Nussbaum (whom he repeatedly praises for making up these types of lists).

So far, fair enough, if simplistic enough.  Then he flips that into a claim that “there is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.”  Why this logically follows is anyone’s guess, given that maximizing human flourishing is hardly incompatible with religion, or at least with Christianity.

In fact, most of the human flourishing Pinker documents in his book is the result of, at least in part and often nearly wholly, of Christianity, a direct result of how it created the ethos of the West, whether Pinker wants to admit it or not.

The reader weeps in this chapter.  Howler follows howler.  Throughout the book, it’s clear that Pinker has no grasp of history, and what history he knows, is wrong, but it shows up the most here.  The Golden Rule was “rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions.”

Of course, Pinker names none, since no religion other than Christianity has ever made the Golden Rule a central or even important principle, and many, like Islam, affirmatively reject it.  (Pinker, to nobody’s surprise, is careful to always respectfully add “the Prophet” before “Mohammed,” while he constantly ridicules and makes sarcastic comments about Jesus, whom he most definitely never refers to as “the Lord Jesus Christ”).

He claims that the Nazis were Christian, among other things not seeming to grasp what “German Christians” were, and more broadly which is a claim that is intellectually and morally equivalent to Holocaust denial.

For this claim, his cited sources are “Hellier 2011,” which if you slog through the Bibliography, is not a book but some random astrophysicist’s personal blog, and a website called, whose only stated mission, in the first line of the site, is that it is “designed to spread the vicious truth about the Bible.”  (I am not making this up.)  Pinker claims that “starting with the Enlightenment, the West initiated a process (still ongoing) of separating the church from the state [and] carving out a space for secular civil society.”

He glibly rejects all arguments about the “fine tuning” of the universe (which, to be fair, say nothing about the actual characteristics of God) with a faith-based appeal to an unproved and probably unprovable concept, the multiverse, compounding his error with the logical fallacy that because some things amazed us in the past yet were true, things that seem amazing now, like the multiverse, are more likely to be true.

All this gives us a view into the mind of someone who, like a man selling magnets when mesmerism was a thing, desperately flogs his wares twice as hard as the customers drift away, shrieking that if they know what’s good for them, they’ll come back.  The reader really doesn’t believe Pinker when he claims that religion is withering away, because it certainly seems to exercise him out of all proportion to something that is not a threat.

Finally, we can distill the entire problem with this part of the book down to one sentence not directly about religion.  It occurs when Pinker discusses consciousness; he naturally rejects any possibility of mind-body duality and spatters the reader with conclusory statements about the solely materialistic origins of consciousness.

Having offered no evidence (but, as he likes to do, having praised third-rate philosophers like Daniel Dennett at great length), he says “Nothing that we know about consciousness is inconsistent with the understanding that it depends entirely on neural activity.”  Let’s unpack that.  Pinker suggests we have an “understanding”—but he offers no evidence of that at all, including any possible actual mechanism.

He conditions that with a “not inconsistent,” which is another way of saying “I don’t know.”  A more accurate rephrasing would be “We know of no way in which consciousness, which we don’t understand in any meaningful way, could depend for its existence on neural activity, though we may discover one in the future.”  But the sentence he offers sounds like a windup to a successful argument, when in reality it’s just a magician’s trick to distract the reader from the hollowness of Pinker’s rantings.

I suppose the basic problem with this book, other than not proving much, if anything, about the responsibility of the Enlightenment for the modern world, is that Pinker wants to offer readers, and the world, the meaning of life, and he can’t, because he’s a straitjacketed materialist.  He puts at the very beginning of his book an episode of which he is extremely proud—when he answered a student’s philosophical question, “Why should I live?”

Pinker’s answer was that life allowed the student to flourish—to “make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction,” and to engage in sympathy, able to “enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.”  But she also has “the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself,” which will lead to human progress.  Fine words, but they don’t answer the question, whatever Pinker thinks.

They are circular; they offer things which might be good, or might not, depending on how one views things.  But they don’t respond to the actual query, which is really one about whether there is a transcendent purpose to life.  Pinker thinks he hit the platform with a sledgehammer and rang the bell, when really, he missed and hit his foot.

I can only recommend reading this book for one reason—to load up on ammunition if you are a techno-optimist and need support in arguments with doomsayers, Romantics or those who claim all material progress necessarily violates the teleology of Man.  And if you’re stranded on a desert island, it’s reasonably interesting reading material, in the abstract.  Other than that, this book is a failure.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Le Dernier banquet des Girondins,” by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, painted in 1860.

The Early History Of The Cross

As often happens in matters of scholarly opinion, what is accepted as “true” turns out not to be so upon deeper analysis or newer evidence.

Thus, for the longest while, it was customary to read in books dealing with early Christian history that the use of the cross only gained currency after endorsement by Constantine.

This view was fully expounded by Graydon Snyder in his now “classic” work, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Christian Life Before Constantine.

Many may not know or remember, but poor Professor Graydon was an early casualty in the now-normal “social justice wars.” He was an ordained minister, and had the misfortune of reading a Talmudic account of a man falling from a tree on a woman and “knowing” her by accident.

The Talmud said that this could not be rape. But a female student in the lecture thought otherwise and declared the reading of this passage as the justification of the sexual brutalization of women and forthwith lodged a complaint.

The university, ever eager to forestall offence no matter who gets destroyed in the process, slapped the then-63-year-old professor with a formal reprimand and distributed a memo campus-wide which stated that Graydon had “engaged in verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that had the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive” space in his classes.

This was not the end of – the university then assigned a monitor that sat in each of Graydon’s classes and lectures, taking notes of anything that might be considered offensive. Graydon soon retired.

Let the date of this incident come as a valuable lesson to all – the demise of the university system happened long ago. This annihilation of a good man’s character occurred back in 1994…twenty-four years ago.

The 1990s were the halcyon days of such random acts of social justice, when universities eagerly dragged the Trojan horse of postmodernism into the Academy, worshipped it with much fawning, drank the heady wine of relativism and feel into the deep sleep of nihilism – from which they never awoke, for the barbarians descended from the belly of the wooden beast and conquered the hapless “intellectuals.”

And, now only various forms of self-indulgent destruction are offered by universities, where once a proud tradition of civilization held sway. Such is the fate of all Troys, if given into the hands of fools.

But let us return to the matter at hand.

In his book, Graydon categorically decided that no evidence existed for the cross as a Christian emblem before Constantine. This led to the false assumption that Constantine “invented” the cross as a religious sign, because he chose to use it during the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

Given the popularity of Graydon’s book, this view became the “Gospel truth,” and is still widely repeated without question by historians of early Christianity.

Embedded in Graydon’s argument was a curious turn to psychology…since the cross was a method of execution of criminals, it was, thus, an emblem of shame, and could never have been elevated to a sign of the faith before Constantine’s imperial sponsorship of Christianity.

Popularizers then went to work, imagining Christians in the Roman world desperate to hide their faith, even descending down into catacombs to carry out their worship. And that they invented arcane signs to recognize each other, which only fellow-Christians would know (like the “Jesus-Fish” now often found on car-bumpers).

It all sounds plausible, but is simply not true.

Rather, the primary sign of the faith from its earliest beginnings was not the fish or the anchor or the wheel, or even the Sator-Square – but the cross itself. Graydon’s view is nothing other than an exercise in myth-making, which is finally destroyed by a new book that takes a fresh look at the entire “cross-debate” and offers facts rather than myths.

This book is The Cross Before Constantine. The Early Life of a Christian Symbol by Bruce W. Longenecker, which offers incontrovertible evidence that, from earliest times, the cross bore not only symbolic value but also theological significance.

The evidence Longenecker marshals to bolster this conclusion is impressive indeed, for it engages not only extensive material remains, but also solid literary testimony.

Such an approach also fully justifies the unique character given the cross in Scripture, such as, St. Paul’s famous exposition of the double conundrum of the cross – as a mark of utter shame and the very token of final triumph: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).

Such singularity of the cross links back to Jesus himself, with his well-known exhortation – “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

In, effect, then, Longenecker proceeds to uncover not simply the “life,” but the double-life, of the cross – as an instrument of painful execution, and as a symbol of life eternal.

He begins by examining the recent discoveries of various Jewish ossuaries that are engraved with crosses, either erect (+) or recumbent (x) – and these engravings are neither masons’ marks nor decorations.

Thus, the cross had significance in Jewish religious life during the Roman era. And this significance is grounded in Ezekiel 9: 4-6, where the cross is also the “mark” of God, which sets apart the faithful from the rest condemned to death, and is thus the emblem of life, a particular gift of divine grace.

Among the examples Longenecker shows are the Nicanor, Yehudah, Shalamsion, and the Jehosah ossuaries.

Thus, the “prehistory” of the cross is deeply rooted in the very “prehistory” of Christianity itself, namely, Judaic religiosity.

And because the early Jesus movement branched out of the faith of the Jews, Longenecker uncovers the earliest record of the cross’s double-life, both as a mark of God for mankind’s salvation, and as the process of execution that God, in Jesus, bears himself to bring eternal life to mankind.

Thus, the cross has importance far older than Constantine.

Next, Longenecker lays out an elaborate inventory of material and literary evidence.

He discusses the Alexamenos Inscription, the inscriptions in the Baths of Neptune in Ostia, the inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome, rings showing the cross, the famous Crucifixion Gem amulet in the British museum, the various inscriptions in Asia Minor, the graphic use of the cross in the gnostic Books of Jeu, the staurogram in Manuscript P66, and even the rather mysterious cross in a Pompeii bakery (Longenecker has devoted an entire book to the crosses in Pompeii, which is reviewed elsewhere in this magazine).

The literary testimony is even more extensive, and Longenecker deftly moves through it all to strengthen his case.

Thus, he makes use of the earliest witnesses from the first half the of the first century, namely, the Acts of Thomas; the Works of Hippolytus; Cyprian’s Testimonies and To Demetrianus; Tertullian’s De corona, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Against Marcion; and Letters; Lactantius’s Divine Institutes; Clement of Alexandria’s Miscellanies; Minucius Felix’s Octavius (the first Christian work in Latin, little known outside scholarly discussion).

Moving on to the second century, Longenecker musters the Acts of Peter; the Acts of Paul and Thecla; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Dialogue with Trypho; the Odes of Solomon; the commentaries of Ignatius of Antioch’s on Ephesians, the Smyrneans, the Trallians; and the famous Fifth Ezra; the Epistle of Barnabas; the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul; and the Johannine Apocalypse (Revelation).

The conclusions that Longenecker draws from this extensive evidence is as follows:

  • The cross is found in various locations, always in Christian contexts – from Gaza and Jerusalem, out to Rome, Spain, North Africa, Egypt and East into Asia Minor and Syria.
  • Time-wise, the cross can be located as a Christian symbol from the first century down to the early parts of the third century AD. In other words, it is clearly used by Christians as an emblem of faith before Constantine.
  • Over the centuries, the shape of the cross evolved from the Jewish erect cross (like a +plus sign) to the more familiar body cross.
  • Longenecker also points out that the crosses found on rings may well have had an apotropaic function – to protect the wearer from demons and evil spirits (an attitude revived by Bram Stoker in Dracula’s aversion to the cross).

With his impressive and sedulous book, Longenecker has finally put out to pasture all the old myths about the cross, perpetrated by Graydon and his followers.

In other words, the cross was a well-established Judeo-Christian religious emblem long before Constantine took it up as his “coat-of-arms.”

For Christians, from the very beginnings of their faith, the cross had a double-meaning: it was the “mark” of God which set apart the believer from the non-believer, with all the significance of life and grace which this election signified. And, secondly, by extension, the cross became the “mark” that Jesus, the God incarnate, himself bore to embody an eternal life bought through horrific sacrifice.

The paradox becomes the solution – the “mark” of God becomes the instrument of torture, and then returns as a greater sign of life.

It is this paradox that St Paul explains: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Torture brings about glory, death leads to life eternal.

The cross is, in effect, the summation of the entire Christian proclamation – because of Jesus, death, though horrid, is not the end.

Longenecker persuasively demonstrates this historico-theological process in the great gyre of history.



The photo shows, “Christ on the Cross,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1870.

Yes, There Were Christians In Pompeii

One of the more famous volcanic eruptions took place in the late summer of the 79 AD not far from Naples.

In the aftermath, the Roman resort towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii lay buried in neatly ten feet of ash. When these towns were excavated, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they showed themselves to be time-capsules, capturing daily Roman life.

Many have been the explorations and questions about Pompeii – one of the more persistent ones being…Were there any Christians living there in that fateful year of 79 AD?

At that time, Christianity was spreading (and rather quickly) throughout the Roman world, and it would not be too great a stretch to imagine the presence of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii. We do know that St. Paul landed in the harbor town of Puteoli (modern-day Puzzuoli) in the year 61 AD (Acts 28: 130-14), which lies about thirty miles west of Pompeii.

Paul mentions that there were Christians in Puteoli, which means that followers of Jesus were already to be found in smaller towns around Naples.

About a hundred years ago, it was a common assumption that there were indeed Christians living in Pompeii. There is, for example, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Last Days of Pompeii, which imagines the lives of ordinary Christians living in Pompeii just before the volcano erupts. This novel became became the basis of many film adaptations.

This view, however, fell out of favor, and scholarly opinion swung the other way, maintaining that there was, in fact, no real evidence of Christian presence at all.

In a rather remarkable study, filled with great insight as well erudition, Bruce W. Longenecker has upended this scholarly assumption (for it is no more than that), and has shown once and for all that there were indeed Christians in the fated Vesuvian town.

His book, The Crosses of Pompeii. Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (which follows his earlier work on the cross as a Christian symbol before Constantine, also reviewed in this magazine), offers evidence that cannot be ignored by scholars of Christian presence in Pompeii.

As in his previous work, Longenecker makes use of material remains to make his point.

It can be said without a doubt that books such as this are rare in historical studies – for it has succeeded in rewriting a misunderstood and ignored aspect of Roman Christian life.

The most fascinating part of this book is Longenecker’s own documentation of examples of crosses carved into the Pompeian street paving stones. Through his own endeavor, he has searched and found eighteen such crosses so far. He feels that there might well be more.

The important thing to note here is that these crosses are not just notches or mason marks. They are, in fact, Christian crosses.

How does Longenecker know this? As the book reveals, these crosses function first as pointers, which might lead a Christian to the most important Christian place in Pompeii, namely, the bakery in the Insula Arriana Pollians, where a cross was found, in a prominent place on the wall, made out of raised plaster.

As well, these crosses serve a protective function, in that they are incised onto busy streets to offer protection. The use of apotropaic objects and symbols was prevalent and common in the Roman world, and the cross certainly fulfilled that purpose in Pompeii.

Longenecker rather cogently points out that since these crosses are not modern surveying marks, nor mason marks, nor ancient traffic signs to keep everything moving on the street, they can only be what they look like, Christian crosses.

They have been laid out, with great effort, in a discernible pattern, or plan – to lead the wayfarer to a Christian place.

This, of course, immediately suggests that Christians did not hide their faith, but rather openly displayed it, for all to see. This also very much underscores the behavior of the various martyrs who never hid their faith, when they could easily have done so to escape death.

These street crosses, then, strengthen the other evidence that exists in Pompeii for Christianity, namely, the Christianos Graffito; the Vivit Cross in Insula 1.13; and the Meges stamp-ring.

The graffito, found in a large residence (7.11.11), reads, “audi Christianos…” (“listen to the Christians…), and hints at the practice of preaching which was so helped the quick spread of the faith in the Roman world.

The Vivit Cross, when interpreted means, “he lives,” which is a very powerful summary of the early kerygma – Jesus lives.

The Meges ring shows a cross surmounting a symbol for eternal life. Again, a very concise summation of the Christian message.

These three pieces of evidence have largely been ignored in the scholarly literature dealing with Pompeii. Bur such has been the fate of Pompeii, when it comes to scholarship, which is notorious for being shoddy and haphazard.

This explains the lack of attention given to the question of Christian presence in Pompeii.

Added to this is the fact that scholarly opinion tends to the blind leading the blind, where something is assumed to be settled and done with, and it is then endlessly repeated as proven fact, when it is no more than an opinion that has gained currency.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has captured this problem with Vesuvian scholarship clearly when he stated: “Each generation discovers with horror the extent to which information has been ignored, neglected, destroyed, and (the most wanton damage of all) left unreported and unpublished.”

Thus, for many decades scholars, who should have known better, kept repeating what they themselves had only heard – that there were no Christians in Pompeii.

Bruce Longenecker has finally set the record straight. Indeed, there were Christians in Pompeii, and they were an integrated part of daily Roman life, who openly displayed the prime symbol of their faith – the cross.

This remarkable book comes to a moving conclusion in this way… “When the end came on that fateful day in 79, one thing might have caused them (the Pompeian Christians) to look different from their contemporaries. Many of their peers, desperately fleeing the doomed town, fearfully clutched apotropaic devices and statuettes of their deities, from whom they sought deliverance from death. By contrast…Jesus-followers may have left their hands intentionally empty. And perhaps a few with empty hands died with one word on their scorched lips, vivit [He lives].”

The history of Vesuvian Christianity has finally taken a step forward.



The photo shows, “The Last Day of Pompeii,” by Karl Bryulov, painted between 1830-1833.

The Abuse Of History Is The Abuse Of Humanity

What is history good for? Should it serve truth, or should it promote ideology? Some may argue that everything is ideology – but that is simply lazy thinking, which is typical of postmodernism. How can notions of socio-political action determine all of reality?

Everything cannot be ideology because there is such a thing as truth which remains unsullied by ideology. What does this mean?

The twin pillars of truth are morality and beauty, neither of which are the consequence of ideology. In other words, truth cannot be ideology because it has nothing to do with human action and does not derive from it (humans can only absorb truth and beauty, like lungs need air).

Truth, thus, is not a derivation – but a manifestation of eternity, which is truth.

This may sound nonsensical, but it really isn’t. Here’s how…

Truth is Logos – the eternal structure of reality, both physical and spiritual. This structure permeates all of life, guiding it to its true and final purpose, or end.

The process of getting to the final end is physical reality. The arrival into the final end, the true purpose, is spiritual reality. Existence cannot be otherwise. It has nothing to do with degraded notions, such as, “ideology.”

The great heresy of modern-day thinking is to ignore, or deride, spiritual reality by claiming that it simply does not exist, or is akin to childish fairy stories.

But whether one acknowledges truth or not makes no difference whatsoever, since truth has nothing to do with ideology…the sun continues to shine, and dark energy behaves as it must.

This means that the concern of history, therefore, is not only human actions and their consequences, in order to explain man to men – but also the interaction of humanity with truth – to explain man to eternity.

In other words, when history considers human actions and their consequences, it is engaged in both physical and spiritual reality. This is why Herodotus is correct when he explains history as cyclical, for the truth, or eternal pattern of history, is occurrence and therefore recurrence.

This means that human handiwork may also be construed into patterns, which are truths, in that these patterns are linked to the moral, or eternal, life of mankind. In other words, in considering human actions and their consequences, history either shows the workings of morality, or its absence.

Such is the use of history.

But there is also another, myopic method of analyzing human actions, which holds truth to be nothing more than political expedience. This method sees the past as a vast storehouse of examples to be trundled out whenever needed to justify ideology.

In other words, there is no intrinsic truth in history – it is just a vast array of information which may be manipulated for rhetorical advantage.

Such is the abuse of history.

Given that the preferred default position in the West is historical amnesia, the abuse of history is now so prevalent that it passes for orthodoxy – and those that might point out this abuse are quickly labeled as, “revisionists.”

Thus, all history is viewed through the lens of Presentism.

Very briefly, Presentism holds that how and what we think today is right – and permanent. After us, people will, forever into eternity, think as we do. We have reached all rightness and there can be no deviation from it. Change in thinking is now impossible, because we have now achieved whatever the human mind is capable of.

Therefore, the past, because it could not think as we do, is forever wrong and must be continually judged by our superior standards so that it might be condemned. (This is one of Michel Foucault’s vilest contributions to modern thought).

In other words, history can only belong in the dustbin – because its sole purpose is to show how very wrong everything was, and how very right we now are.

A refinement of Presentism is Intersectionality (the hallmark of feminism), which seeks to uncover systems of oppression which linger in the present, like some foul odor, and which need to be eliminated by the rightness of the present.

Thus, the past has not given us anything good – only the evils of oppression.

The purpose, then, of education becomes the training of young minds to ferret out “ingrained” systems of oppression, lay them bare in the open air of social condemnation, where they may be destroyed by legal and political decrees. This is the true purpose of human life. All hail, The New Man!

This is why western education has degraded into mental abuse of children – and it remains a point of constant astonishment that parents agree to send their children to undergo such abuse (which can pass under the euphemism of “indoctrination”).

In such a world, it is the highest heresy to ask two questions – “Why?” and “What next?” Condemnation of these questions passes for “morality,” which can then justify censorship, for the best and highest form of Presentist thought is that which conforms and then affirms how and what we think today – by condemning the past.

And what is the telos of Presentism, its endgame? To make humanity as machine-like as possible. In other words, transhumanism.

This is why the sexes must be confused, and then young children taught this confusion as biological fact. This is why sexuality has been unhinged from procreation and transformed into a mechanism to achieve self-gratification.

Indeed, normal procreation is the direst sin in Presentism, which is why abortion is widely and wildly defended as an intrinsic good, and euthanasia is simply declared a human right.

Transhumanism is the true purpose of Presentism. And thus far it is succeeding very well, for it has western society in its thrall – because the acceptance of slavery is far easier than to die resisting it.

Perhaps this explains why western society continues to dive so eagerly into the dark waters of Lethe.

“An educational course in which no reference is made to religion is an absurdity” (Simone Weil).

In the same way, history without morality degrades into propaganda, and becomes an absurdity, leaving men fit only for “treasons, stratagems and spoils.”

In this way, we abuse ourselves and each other, for we practice cruelty as the highest good.



This photo shows, “The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium,” painted in 1880 by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.

St. Augustine On The Eternal

Despite the wide-ranging topics in which he engages, Augustine’s thought is determined by one essential theme: The of interplay of two opposites, or as he would have it, seeing the eternal in the temporal.

But he has not neglected the one for the other, for he understands that the temporal is meaningless without the eternal, and vice versa, just as the body has no purpose without the soul, so human society cannot be free and just without the model of the City of Heaven.

It is precisely when eternity and mortality meet that truth can be discerned, and this truth has various definitions. For a person it means the discovery of one’s soul, which leads to happiness in the deepest sense. For society it means the embodiment of peace and justice, where equality is held supreme.

But Augustine is first and foremost a theologian; he has a purpose in mind; his philosophy is not merely speculative thought, but it serves a religious end. He is interested in knowing God and uncovering His plan for redemption through the use of reason. In other words, Augustine believes in order to understand, and understands in order to believe.

The interplay of eternity and temporality mirrors the relationship between a human being and God. Thus, in the Confessions Augustine describes the chaos that ensues when a person does not recognize the coherence of God’s plan.

Our lives are filled with unpredictability and uncertainty; we never know when death will strike, or when tragedy or hardship will destroy the stability we have built. His point is to show that history is neither autonomous nor independent, and the laws of cause and effect cannot lead to particular goals or ends. Rather, history only makes sense when it is placed within the context of eternity, that is, the unfolding of God’s grand scheme of things.

As is typical of Augustine, he begins with the particular and proceeds to the universal, as he does in the Confessions wherein he gives first an autobiographical account, from which he draws forth universal truths, and in The City of God he begins with the fall of Rome and proceeds to the eternity of the City of Heaven, in that the true Rome is not in Italy, but it is the heavenly Rome, which can never fall.

The theme of contending opposites no doubt harks back to his Manichean days, when he believed that the world was a battleground between two powerful forces, one good and the other evil, But after his conversion, Augustine takes this doctrine of opposites and transforms it.

He suggests that heaven and earth may well have contending and contrasting forces, yet from these two extremes, a person may choose the middle point between the two, which is the best course; and such is the process of virtue, which is the ability to make the best choice.

However, such a choice is not only a question of choosing between two extremes, for rationality is involved, which guides us to the rightness of a thing, which is also truth, which is also goodness and beauty.

Without the assistance of reason, Augustine reminds us, even virtue becomes a vice, since it is only pure excess. This is a crucial point in his philosophy, because he suggests that without ethics, virtue is nothing more than extreme belief, which exists for its own end and has no clear, or rather good, end.

Thus, to seek virtue, without any reference to God, is nothing more than arrogance, or as Augustine states, paraphrasing Aristotle, that a human being is not the best thing in the world. It is the soul that animates the body, and thus the soul is linked to the reality that lies outside the body.

Consequently, virtue properly belongs to the City of Heaven, and not to the City of the World. When we say we are being virtuous but have no perception of God, we are taking that which properly does not belong to us or the earth and forcing it to do our bidding, rather than using virtue to lead us to goodness and to beauty.

Therefore, virtue without God is nothing more ambition and pride, which were the very states that Augustine was in the beginning of the Confessions, when his life had no room for the City of Heaven.

When Augustine speaks of opposites, he does so not simply to draw attention to their nature, or to their machinations in our lives and in our world. Instead, he has a bigger and more philosophical purpose than either the Manicheans or the Neoplatonists, who were engaged in a similar process of thought. Augustine takes he argument to a wider, higher level by suggesting that despite this pull of opposites, harmony is possible, in the embrace of God’s love through Christ.

Without this love, the Manicheans are right, and creation is nothing more than a grand chess game between Good and Evil, with move followed by countermove; the end result of this game never to be known.

And without this love, the Neoplatonists are forever caught in the web of doubt, since the world is nothing more than corruption and change and impermanence, and we being of this world cannot ever perceive that which is perfect, permanent and eternal.

Augustine overcomes both these extremes by suggesting that we must seek to imitate and emulate that which is perfect, and once we have gained this understanding, we must seek to implement what we have learned upon this earth, so that all our actions, thoughts and concerns mirror that which exists in the City of Heaven. Therefore,

Augustine teaches not only the pursuit of spirituality, but also the striving for justice, peace, truth, goodness and harmony, which are all the result of love. In effect, it is love that must forever mark human life, and define it. Here, then, is the beginning and end of Augustine’s philosophy.


The photo shows, “St Augustine” by Philippe de Champaigne, painted in 1645-1650.