4.2 – Read W.E.H. Lecky
- Read the following selection by W.E.H. Lecky.
- Write a short essay or discuss with your instructor the following questions: How does Lecky show the difference between Christianity and paganism? How did Christianity change ancient culture?
SELECTION: Excerpt from A History of European Morals, ch. 4,by W.E.H. Lecky
But it was the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity that its moral influence was not indirect, casual, remote, or spasmodic. Unlike all Pagan religions, it made moral teaching a main function of its clergy, moral discipline the leading object of its services, moral dispositions the necessary condition of the due performance of its rites. By the pulpit, by its ceremonies, by all the agencies of power it possessed, it labored systematically and perseveringly for the regeneration of mankind. Under its influence, doctrines concerning the nature of God, the immortality of the soul, and the duties of man, which the noblest intellects of antiquity could barely grasp, have become the truisms of the village school, the proverbs of the cottage and of the alley.
The first aspect in which Christianity presented itself to the world was as a declaration of the fraternity of men in Christ. Considered as immortal beings, destined for the extremes of happiness or of misery, and united to one another by a special community of redemption, the first and most manifest duty of a Christian man was to look upon his fellow men as sacred beings, and from this notion grew up the eminently Christian idea of the sanctity of all human life. I have already endeavored to show—and the fact is of such capital importance in meeting the common objections to the reality of natural moral perceptions, that I venture, at the risk of tediousness, to recur to it—that nature does not tell man that it is wrong to slay without provocation his fellow men. Not to dwell upon those early stages of barbarism in which the higher faculties of human nature are still undeveloped, and almost in the condition of embryo, it is an historical fact beyond all dispute, that refined, and even moral societies have existed, in which the slaughter of men of some particular class or nation has been regarded with no more compunction than the slaughter of animals in the chase. The early Greeks, in their dealings with the barbarians the Romans, in their dealings with gladiators, and in some periods of their history, with slaves; the Spaniards, in their dealings with Indians; nearly all colonists removed from European supervision, in their dealings with an inferior race an immense proportion of the nations of antiquity, in their dealings with new-born infants, display this complete and absolute callousness, and we may discover traces of it even in our own islands and within the last three hundred years. And difficult as it may be to realize it in our day, when the atrocity of all wanton slaughter of men has become an essential part of our moral feelings, it is nevertheless an incontestable fact that this callousness has been continually shown by good men, by men who in all other respects would be regarded in any age conspicuous for their humanity. In the days of the Tudors, the best Englishmen delighted in what we should now deem the most barbarous sports, and it is absolutely certain that in antiquity men of genuine humanity—tender relations, loving friends, charitable neighbours—men in whose eyes the murder of a fellow-citizen would have appeared as atrocious as in our own, attended, instituted, and applauded gladiatorial games, or counselled without a scruple the exposition of infants. But it is, as I conceive, a complete confusion of thought to imagine, as is so commonly done, that any accumulation of facts of this nature throws the smallest doubt upon the reality of innate moral perceptions. All that the intuitive moralist asserts is that we know by nature that there is a distinction between humanity and cruelty; that the first belongs to the higher or better part of our nature, and that it is our duty to cultivate it. The standard of the age, which is itself determined by the general condition of society, constitutes the natural line of duty for he who falls below it contributes to depress it. Now, there is no fact more absolutely certain than that nations and ages which have differed most widely as to the standard have been perfectly unanimous as to the excellence of humanity. Plato, who recommended infanticide; Cato, who sold his aged slaves; Pliny, who applauded the games of the arena the old generals, who made their prisoners slaves or gladiators, as well as the modern generals, who refuse to impose upon them any degrading labour the old legislators, who filled their codes with sentences of torture, mutilation, and hideous forms of death, as well as the modern legislators, who are continually seeking to abridge the punishment of the most guilty; the old disciplinarian, who governed by force, as well as the modern instructor, who governs by sympathy; the Spanish girl, whose dark eye glows with rapture as she watches the frantic bull, while the fire streams from the explosive dart that quivers in its neck as well as the reformers We sometimes meet, who are scandalized by all field sports, or by the sacrifice of animal life for food or who will eat only the larger animals, in order to reduce the sacrifice of life to minimum or who are continually inventing new methods of quickening animal death—all these persons, widely as they differ in their acts and in their judgments of what things should be called ‘ brutal,’ and of what things should be called ‘ fantastic,’ agree in believing humanity to be better than cruelty, and in attaching a definite condemnation to acts that fall below the standard of their country and their time. Now, it was one of the most important services of Christianity, that besides quickening greatly our benevolent affections it definitely and dogmatically asserted the sinfulness of all destruction of human life as a matter of amusement, or of simple convenience, and thereby formed a new standard higher than any which then existed in the world.