I just picked up Robert Royal’s The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. A passage early in the book gives us an excellent follow-up to the charity-philanthropy post of a few days back. Royal is commenting specifically on Julian’s observation that “The impious Galileans support not only their poor; bur ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
The Roman emperor Julian (331-363 A.D.)…, called “the Apostate” because he had grown up as a Christian and then abandoned the faith for a rabid polytheism, crafted one of the strongest early critiques of Christian beliefs and made great efforts to stop Christianity’s growth as a social force in the empire. Yet Julian conceded, in a realistic appraisal of what he had to overcome, that the Christian churches were carrying out relief efforts among the poor, pagan as well as Christian, that the pagans themselves were not.
Julian — and the whole classical world — suffered two disadvantages in competing with the new faith. First there was no substantial set of principles within classical religion and philosophy to inspire such charitable works. The Stoics had come closest with their conception of the entire world as one city, the cosmopolis. But by Julian’s day, Platonism was the only real pagan philosophy still standing and even the old Stoic principle was a far cry from the active and lively sense of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood within the Kingdom of God that the Christians called caritas. Had such ideas been influential in pagan societies, they would not have faced a second problem: the absence of the social structures needed to implement large-scale works of charity. The empire and its municipalities sometimes provided a public dole. But love and empowerment of the common people is something quite different from a state subsidy. No ancient city, let alone the whole empire, had ever even attempted that. In the world of Late Antiquity, Christianity introduced not only new beliefs and ideas, but new social practices that transformed ancient Mediterranean life.