The Tough Lesson of Augustine’s “Dear Marcellinus”

At the beginning of Augustine’s City of God we have this opening:

My dear Marcellinus: This work which I have begun makes good my promise to you.  In it I am undertaking nothing less than the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to its Founder.

Flavius Marcellinus was a high official of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius.  In 410–the year Alaric sacked Rome–he was given orders to suppress the Donatist churches in North Africa, which he proceeded to do.  But the Donatists resorted to the old Late Roman trick of laying a charge of treason against Marcellinus and his brother, accusing them of supporting a separate rebellion.  The Roman general Marinus, who had just put down the rebellion, put them on trial, secured a conviction, and had them executed just two short years after Augustine began the City of God.  Honorius exonerated Marcellinus the following year, but by that time it was too late.

Jean-Paul Laurens’ portrait of the Roman Emperor Honorius

When it came to “what happens when careerism goes south,” Rome was never a walk in the park, but after Marcus Aurelius things really got bad.  Careers of the great and incompetent alike ended in execution; Honorius, the weakest emperor at the most critical time, had his capable general Stilicho executed a few years earlier because he saw him as a rival.  The informant system–with information true and false–was destructive or deadly for many Romans, carried out by such masters of the art as Paul the Chain.  The river of blood continued after Rome fell apart, with Boethius writing his classic The Consolation of Philosophy while waiting execution, which came, after his fall.  Gregory of Tours’ account of Gaul beginning its transition to France was likewise a river of blood of those who ended up on the wrong side of ruthless power-holders such as Fredegund.

Christians tend to consider the fall of Rome as a result of a decline in their sexual morality, but there’s no evidence that Rome’s sexual morals were worse in the late period than the earlier one.  What was worse was what the French historian Ferdinand Lot referred to as the “corruption of the public spirit,” the decline of civic life and the communal idea that goes with it.  The Roman system was patronage driven from top to bottom, but when it was working properly it meant that those who aspired created a clientele which benefited from them while they moved up.  When the system broke down it was replace by an autocratic system where money and resources were forcibly pushed to the top to be dispensed to a bureaucracy which kept the power holders in place.  This led to the onerous taxation system of which Lactantius was the most famous chronicler.  Lactantius also noted that those who lived off of the tax system were more numerous than those who paid the taxes, and although that may have been an exaggeration there was definitely a retreat of the productive portion of the society, which in the end led to the system’s bankruptcy.

Christianity was unprepared for its legalization under Constantine, but its response to the deteriorating situation–and the corrupt morals of the political system–was to call at least some of its flock to a higher, if withdrawn, calling.  How this played out depended upon the end of the Empire in question.  In the East it led both to the growth of monasticism (withdrawal from the evils of the world) and to the Caesero-papism that complicated the doctrinal disputes that raged in the fourth and fifth centuries.  In the West monasticism took longer to get started but when it did the result was the same: the withdrawal from a system in breakdown which Christianity couldn’t quite get the upper hand with.  (It’s worth noting that Pope Siricius wouldn’t let people who had been in the civil service become priests.)

Protestants generally put down monasticism, but it represented an attempt to live in a more Christlike fashion in a world which made that very difficult.  Is ours any better?  To some extent it never has been, but in a world where laid, high or drunk is the battle cry of those at the top, and which is prepared to ignore blatant influence peddling and employ cancel culture (and also vindictive prosecution, as Marcellinus experienced) to enforce their idea, it’s time for American Christians to re-examine their naive belief in the lack of moral and personal hazard in moving up.  That may seem like blowing retreat, but in blowing retreat Late Roman Christians laid the groundwork for the advance which transformed European civilization, and ultimately ours.

Today our left is making “little lists” of people to destroy.  Our current game is to intimidate law firms from representing clients we don’t like; that’s a quick way to skew our justice system, and not in good ways.  Most of those lists are those who might achieve high position; they don’t want the competition.  Is it worth it to find yourself on one of those?  There are times when we have to endure persecution for bearing the name of Christ, but if it’s for our careerist ambition, that puts things in a new light.  It’s time for American Christians to stop being so reflexive about moving up, and to look at their eternal objectives more than their temporal ones.  This empire, like Rome, will pass, and we need to take some lessons from those who responded to its decay.

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