Why Christian Monasteries had to Preserve Classical Literature

The rediscovery of classical literature, starting in the 12th Century CE, initiated the process of relearning about the literature and knowledge of the ancient world that had been lost in Europe during the Middle Ages. Much of this literature, consisting of vast subjects including poetry, history, and philosophy, that initiated the Renaissance in the following centuries was found in the libraries of Christian monasteries. These institutions, which also provided some education in places where there otherwise was none, are lauded for their positive effect on preserving the knowledge of the classical World. The Catholic church has therefore often been the institution to which the preservation of classical literature is attributed. Meanwhile, Western Europe had fallen into what is known as the Dark Ages, due to its scarcity of literacy, population decline, and decline in trade. Interest in classical writings had been in decline since Late Antiquity and with the decline in literacy this only worsened. However, before the Church should be lauded for their preservation work, it is important to know what caused the decline in interest in classical writings during Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages in the first place.

Paradigm shift 

In the 2nd Century CE, Ancient Literature and philosophy were still widely practiced and highly regarded in Western Europe; the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was even a (Stoic) philosopher himself. He wrote a series of personal writings, known as Meditations that became a incredibly important work of philosophy. Yet in 391 CE the Serapeum of Alexandria, the most important library and school of philosophy in the Roman world was demolished. A few years later, in the year 415, the Alexandria-based, Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia was torn to pieces and then burned for being an influential pagan. In 529 the Platonic Academy of Athens was closed and a history of nearly a millennium of philosophy in Athens came to an end. Within this time Roman society must have changed significantly for the paradigm shift regarding philosophy and literature to happen.

Not just public opinion regarding literature had changed in the Roman Empire during this period; the entire world view of much of the population had changed. When Constantine the Great (272-337) became Emperor in 306 CE only about 10% of the population in the Roman Empire was Christian (others were “pagan” polytheists, Epicurean Atomists/Atheists, Manicheans, Mithraists, Jews, followers of cults like those of Sol Invictus and Isis, etc.). By the early 6th centuries there had been several declarations by both Bishops and Emperors that the “pagans” were extinct. Although this was not completely true, it was indeed so that the vast majority of the population in the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.

Censorship and Persecution

These Christians reveled in their ignorance and illiteracy. As stated in Corinthians 3:19, “For the Wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Practicing any philosophical or scientific work was considered redundant by Christian bishops who believed that all knowledge that humanity needed could be found in scripture. They believed it was arrogant to believe that one could understand the universe; one could not comprehend God’s creation. This was a very different worldview from that of the philosophers who had been popular before, they wanted to comprehend the world and had incredible discoveries in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, biology, and logic. As Christians gained more power, declarations and laws were enforced that forbade pagan literature that contradicted the Christian doctrines. For example, the worldview held by Epicurean Atomists that the world was eternal, and therefore did not need a creation, contradicted Genesis, leading to their works being prohibited.

Not only were the works of literature by pagans attacked, physical violence also began to increase. The attack on non-Christians began with the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great. He ordered the pillaging and tearing down of pagan temples, among them the aforementioned Serapeum of Alexandria in 325 CE. Those that murdered of Hypatia were Christian fanatics. In 529 CE the emperor Justinian instituted in his famous Corpus Juris Civilis, also referred to as the Code of Justinian, a law that stated: “Moreover, we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism.” This legally forbade any works by non-Christians.

The Debt to Christianity

It was the Christians who forbade the existence and reading of a vast amount of classical literature. Monasteries were the only place where a small amount of classical literature was preserved. However,  the reason that preservation was necessary is because Christians elsewhere destroyed the other copies. This conclusion changes the debt we are supposed to owe to Christian institutions for preserving a few of these works. One does not hold a debt to a person who destroys all their possessions but leaves you with a few. One should not have to thank such a person for doing so. We, as Western Civilisation, are not indebted to Christianity for the preservation of classical literature.  A fraction of classical literature was preserved despite Christianity.

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