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Historia Ecclesiastica

Equal and Opposite

On a strange relationship between Epicurianism and Christianity.


The pagans of antiquity were deadly. Archaeologists have found the bones of butchered children in a Minoan palace, apparently an offering to forefend the very earthquake that preserved the bloody ritual room. Homer’s memory is long: he knew about Achilles’ funeral rites for the dead Patroclus, the hostages paraded and slaughtered before the pyres. The tragedians remembered how Agamemnon’s wind turned. By historical times, human sacrifice had been rendered ritual dead letter in the classical world—mostly. Pericles still uses the language of human sacrifice in his funeral oration for the war dead; it was darkly intimated that Octavian sacrificed hostages to propitiate Julius before the walls of Perugia. Yet the real successor of human sacrifice was commonplace and uncontroversial: the games, transformed from the funeral rites for Etruscan kings to a propitiation of the people and the gods of national welfare. The Romans’ cousins, the Celts across the Alps, claimed to be descended from Pater Dis, to whom they would return; their more distant cousins in India would practice thuggee into the nineteenth century. Bloody cults for bloody peoples, the far-scattered children of the steppe.

The pagan world was mysterious and enchanted, the realm of adventure in the original sense. Roman religious practice developed as an elaborate exercise in base-covering, with its highly qualified invocations and its proliferation of impersonal gods, the little deities of hinges and corn rust. The magistracies and priesthoods of the republican state cult very carefully preserved the specific duties and practices of the Indo-European sacred king, the चक्रवर्तिन्. They split rites and powers among particular offices and colleges; in so doing, they invented the distinction between the secular and religious, although both strains of life remained interwoven within the state. (It was a priest, the flamen Dialis, who maintained the ultimate insignia of sovereignty. No knot could bind his clothes, and he wore no head covering out of doors, because Jupiter alone could be over him. Not coincidentally, perhaps, he was forbidden from so much as seeing an army arrayed for war.)

The philosophical schools had more or less equivocal relations with this complicated and gloomy system. The Academy’s disciples were mostly accommodating. (Did not Socrates himself ask his students to sacrifice a cock to Asclepias so he might enjoy a painless death?) The Stoa and the Lyceum, whatever theological reservations they held, subordinated truth to public-mindedness.

Yet not all. Lucian, a rhetorician and lawyer of the Antonine era, reported an unusual occurrence in the Abonoteichus, on the Paphlagonian coast in Asia Minor. One Alexander, a handsome young medical student, claimed to be in possession of a snake that was an avatar of that Asclepias, the culture hero and demigod responsible for introducing medicine to humanity. Alexander had established a mystery cult around the snake, whose oracle he claimed to be. Lucian, a skeptic and a canny fellow, set out on a debunking mission to the shores of the Euxine. In his investigations, he witnessed a peculiar ritual among Alexander’s devotees:

Καὶ ἐν μὲν τῇ πρώτῃ πρόρρησις ἦν ὥσπερ Ἀθήνησι τοιαύτη· “Εἴ τις ἄθεος ἢ Χριστιανὸς ἢ Ἐπικούρειος ἥκει κατάσκοπος τῶν ὀργίων, φευγέτω· οἱ δὲ πιστεύοντες τῷ θεῷ τελείσθωσαν τύχῃ τῇ ἀγαθῇ.” εἶτ’ εὐθὺς ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐξέλασις ἐγίγνετο· καὶ ὁ μὲν ἡγεῖτο λέγων “Ἔξω Χριστιανούς,” τὸ δὲ πλῆθος ἅπαν ἐπεφθέγγετο “Ἔξω Ἐπικουρείους.”

And at the beginning, there was a warning like the one at Athens [i.e., the Eleusinian mysteries]: “If any atheist, whether Christian or Epicurean, has come to see the rites, let him fly; let those believing in the god be initiated in due course.” And straightaway at the beginning there was an expulsion; on the one hand, the speaker led with, “Out with the Christians,” and the whole crowd echoed back, “Out with the Epicureans.”

Odd brothers by modern lights, to be sure, particularly under the shared label of “atheist.” Roughly a thousand years later, the long-defunct “Epicureans” earned their own suburb of Dis in the Inferno for their denial of the immortality of the soul. Yet both the historical Epicureans and the Christians shared a dim view of paganism, the mess of incestuous, finite gods and the bloody trappings of ritual slaughter.

Epicurus, born at Samos in the tumultuous late decades of the fourth century before Christ, had as his fundamental insight the observation that human unhappiness is born foremost from fear—especially fear of the gods, those celestial mechanics and sowers of plague, satisfied only erratically by the gore and frenzy of antique religion. Set against this, he developed a rationalistic and mechanistic theory of the universe. He taught that everything was composed of void and of a variety of infinite atoms in motion through the void; the atoms were individually without sensible properties, but in combination gave rise to the world we know, and many other worlds besides. Among these were the spheres of the gods, who were mortal and took no notice of human affairs and so were not very godly at all, and whose very existence was only known through their atomic residues appearing to men in dreams.

Of the founders of the great schools, Epicurus was peculiar in that his physics proceeded backwards from his ethical commitments. His oddly modern vision of free will—by contrast, even Aristotle’s doctrines would be regarded as fatalistic today—was used to “derive” his doctrine of the random motion of the atoms, although even the ancients were unsure of the exact connection between the two assertions. (Cicero brings this pairing of doctrines in for particular abuse; the modern commentator Cyril Bailey notes wryly that it is “difficult.”) The Samian aimed to remove the mystery from the workings of the world, and so to foster a self-contained tranquility in the individual, who would be free to enjoy the simple pleasures of life without fear of the future.

The notorious doctrine that pleasure is the highest good referred to this sort of muted, Horatian enjoyment rather than the untrammeled hedonism with which Epicureanism became synonymous—the practice of erotic non-attachment in particular, it turns out, was both popular and easily abused. Plucking a phrase from Solon, Epicurus taught that the happy man is like a calm sea. Meditation on the nature of things and actions that do not fight that nature would clear the tempests of the spirit. (Not so far off in spirit, perhaps, from the old Baltimore Catechism’s pithy summary of the meaning of life: “Q: Why did God make me? A: To know him, love him, and serve him in this life, and to be happy together with him forever in the next.”)

An almost singular focus on the happiness of the individual—under which end friendship and social relations were subsumed—set Epicureanism apart from the other great schools, which tended to be deeply concerned with the proper workings of the state, including religious practice. No wonder. Epicurus lived in the era of the Hellenistic despots, the little would-be Alexanders who ended the primacy of Greek political life in favor of rule by imperial camarilla—brutal men who in the cities were, like the gods, decreed statues and hecatombs. Who wouldn’t turn inward toward a private garden—which was, incidentally, the name the Epicureans gave their school.

It is perhaps for this reason that Epicureanism became so popular in late republican Rome. Cicero complains that in his own time the doctrine of the Garden had overrun Italy. How could it not in the face of the domination of the state by magnates and dynasts, the overt abuses of law and custom, the decay of public religion? Caesar, for a time the chief priest of the Roman state, was reportedly an Epicurean; so were some of his assassins, including the lean and hungry Cassius. (Brutus, the political idealist, was a disciple of the Stoa.)

Yet the Garden was happy to make use of the state when it could. Epicurus’ political philosophy can be distilled to a single dictum, μὴ πολιτεύεσθαι, “Don’t politick,” yet at his surcease he left a notarized copy of his writings at the public records office in Athens. At that time, this was an unprecedented use of state bureaucracy—a private will had never been registered as an official document. Yet Epicurus decided, perhaps thinking of the official state copies of the classic tragedians, that it was the best way to ensure the persistence of his philosophical school. Despite this measure, organized Epicureanism was defunct by the time of Augustine—“even their ashes are not so warm as that a single spark can be struck out from them against the Christian faith,” the Bishop of Hippo writes triumphantly in a letter to Dioscorus—and Epicurus’ writings survive today only in fragments. All things, even our brothers, pass.

The best-known and by some measure fullest treatment of the Epicurean system was written a full two centuries after the Master’s death, and in a language that he did not know: De Rerum Natura, a six-book didactic epic by Titus Lucretius Carus. We think that was his name; we’re sure about the nomen, at any rate. The poet seems to have taken the Master’s political theory seriously. Despite having lived in one of the best-documented periods of ancient history, his surviving prosopography hangs on a single cryptic reference in his contemporary Cicero’s letters. That slippery customer writes in a brief note to his brother:

Lucreti poemata ut scribis ita sunt, multis luminibus ingeni, multae tamen artis. sed cum veneris. virum te putabo si Sallusti Empedoclea legeris; hominem non putabo.

Lucretius’ verses are as you write—with many flashes of genius, yet of much art. But when you come, I’ll think you’re a man if you’ve read Sallust’s Empedoclea; I won’t think you’re a human.

Hardly a glowing review, but not exactly a bad one, either. It is difficult to know what to make of the most accessible personality of the ancient world going sphinx-like; perhaps he disliked Lucretius’ stated rivalry with the hero of Latin verse to that date, Cicero’s beloved Ennius. He was certainly not keen on Epicureanism, which he found insufficiently public-minded for his tastes. “Don’t politick” was not a directive that washed with the man from Tarentum.

To Cicero’s puzzling sentence, we can add a comment from Saint Jerome, who records Lucretius’ date of death and claims, venomously, that the poet died after taking a love-philter. Because of the threadbare fabric of biography we have to work with, it is difficult to evaluate the hermit’s notice; despite his sanctity, the last man of great classical learning was not averse to polemic verging on libel.

The towering isolation that enshrouds Lucretius is odd. From Asia Minor to Naples (and doubtlessly Rome herself), Epicureans organized in communities much like those of the Christians to discuss the teachings of the Master and his successors and to celebrate the peculiar quasi-religious memorials of an atheistic sect—dinners on the twentieth of the month, annual festivals to commemorate the birthdays of Epicurus and Metrodorus, his successor as the leader of the Garden. The poet appears to have been something of a fundamentalist, a lone genius who discovered the writings of a master and convinced himself of their truth. In this respect, he seems very modern.

The path to authorial intent has much treacherous footing. Perhaps we are fooled, and Lucretius was a light personality, a crossword-puzzler taking up the challenge of translating a hard-headed Greek school’s teachings into the verse of his own language. Yet it is difficult to read the end of his third book, an impassioned discourse on death framed in part as an oration by Nature personified, and not feel that thing we call faith, a man forcing himself to stare at an unlovely doctrine and affirm its truth, reaching out toward the limit of his being and touching the threshold of the blind unknown:

respice item quam nil ad nos ante acta vetustas
temporis aeterni fuerit, quam nascimur ante.
hoc igitur speculum nobis natura futuri
temporis exponit post mortem denique nostram.
numquid ibi horribile apparet, num triste videtur
quicquam, non omni somno securius exstat?

Look again how the finished-off age of eternal time will be nothing to us, as before we were born. Nature thus lays out this image of the time to come after our death. Wherefore should anything seem horrible or sorrowful, that is not more reposeful than every sleep?

Here is the voice of someone in the midst of convincing himself—and what is more compelling than a man at war with his own inborn fears? Lucretius burrows his way into that vast darkness where only the greatest mystics have been able to find a god. And, like them, at the end of human affairs he finds only pestilence, death, and the destruction of the world—De Rerum Natura, which begins with generation and birth, ends with a graphic account of the plague at Athens.

In the fifth book, which is concerned with the true cause of the heavens’ movements and opens with a messianic rhapsody on Epicurus, the teacher of men and soother of souls (ille deus fuit, deus . . . / qui princeps vitae rationem invenit eam quae/nunc apellatur sapientia. . .), Lucretius turns to eschatology and faith:

nec me animi fallit quam res nova miraque menti
accidat exitium caeli terraeque futurum,
et quam difficile id mihi sit pervincere dictis;
ut fit ubi insolitam rem adportes auribus ante
nec tamen hanc possis oculorum subdere visu
nec iacere indu manus, via qua munita fidei
proxima fert humanum in pectus templaque mentis.
sed tamen effabor. dictis dabit ipsa fidem res
forsitan et graviter terrarum motibus ortis
omnia conquassari in parvo tempore cernes.
quod procul a nobis flectat fortuna gubernans,
et ratio potius quam res persuadeat ipsa
succidere horrisono posse omnia victa fragore.

Nor am I deceived how the coming ruin of heaven and earth strikes the mind as a new and awful thing, and how difficult it is for me to overcome this in words; as it happens when you take up an unaccustomed thing in your ears yet you cannot subject it to the sight of your eyes nor cast it into your hands, whereby the closest road provided to faith bears into the heart and the temples of the mind. Yet nevertheless I will speak out. Perhaps the event itself will give faith to my words, and in a little time you will perceive all things in earth shaken to the core by the sudden movements. Which thing let guiding fortune bend far from us; and may reason more than the event itself persuade that it is possible for all things to end in a horrible crash.

A generation later, a Christian preacher of some note would write: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (And, on the eschatological coda, one might write the scholium: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) Here in Lucretius is the elder rhyme for the Christian existentialism running from Paul to Kierkegaard.

The structure of De Rerum Natura is, at its heart, very simple. Lucretius holds out the promise of Epicureanism, tranquility of mind; he explains the doctrines; he demonstrates the explanatory power of the doctrines with accounts of phenomena. The trend is to present the reader with more and more extreme and disturbing cases. The fifth book holds earthquakes and the end of the world; the sixth and final book concludes with a horrific description of the plague at Athens, the physiological particulars of individual deaths, perhaps of the reader’s individual death—the sort of death that he may face without disturbance if sufficiently tutored in the ways of the Master. It is a graded primer in what might be called the devout life.

Perhaps he was ahead of his time. Polite respect more than enthusiasm seems to have been the ancients’ definitive judgement on Lucretius. His style of poetry—grand, austere, always chasing Homer at its metaphoric heights, crabbed and involuted in the depths of technical doctrine—was on the way out in his own lifetime. The “neoterics,” or modernists, brought a Hellenistic flair to Latin letters; they replaced the polyphloesboean Homer with Callimachus and the nightingale.

Virgil seems to have rated Lucretius well enough—he echoes the De Rerum Natura in a handful of places, most noticeably in the Georgics’ cattle plague and the Aeneid’s description of the primeval forests of mythic Italy—and Ovid appears to have him in mind in a couple passages late in the Metamorphoses. Yet for the most part the retiring Epicurean appears to have faded into the earth deep under the thickly strewn leaves of Latin poetry—an archaic oddity of unfashionable scansion preaching a dead philosophy.

He must have had a partisan, though. De Rerum Natura survived from a single archetype copied at the court of Charlemagne around 800. This was proven by Karl Lachmann, that genius of almost legendary stature, who in 1850 used Lucretius for the first demonstration of modern stemmatic textual criticism—there was just enough there, but not too much. The sweet spot for the critic.

Lachmann was not the first modern scholar to take an interest in Lucretius, although he was perhaps the greatest. The poet first came into print in a 1473 edition from Brescia; he received two editions from the great Venetian printer Aldus Manutius shortly thereafter. Lachmann’s predecessors in the heroic age of criticism, Scaliger and Heinsius, both made their emendations to the received text of De Rerum Natura. The work was known to Robert Burton, for whom it, along with the reports of Seneca, was the main source of Epicurean doctrine. (Oddly, Burton never cites the actual writings of Epicurus preserved in Diogenes Laertius, even as he draws upon Diogenes for other information.)

Burton, that gentle soul, although he condemns the Epicureans’ atheism, finds a sympathy for their ethics: “A quiet mind is that voluptas, or summum bonum, of Epicurus, non dolere, curis vacare, animo tranquillo esse, not to grieve, but to want cares and have a quiet soul, is the only pleasure of the world, as Seneca truly recites his opinion, not that of eating and drinking, which injurious Aristotle maliciously puts on him, and for which he is still mistaken, male audit et vapulat, slandered without a cause, and lashed by all posterity.” One suspects also an affinity for atomism from the man who monikered himself Democritus Junior.

Even while Burton was writing to cure himself in Protestant Britain, the Epicureans (and with them Lucretius) underwent a revival over the water in Catholic Europe. Just as Neoplatonism and the mysteries of the occult were renewed in the sixteenth century, flirtations with materialism became fashionable in the seventeenth. Pierre Gassendi, a French churchman and astronomer, took issue with the reign of the Aristotelians in the schools. Casting about for a weapon, he found Diogenes Laertius, Lucretius, and the cold ashes of Epicureanism; in 1647, he published De vita et moribus Epicuri, a defense of a modified form of Epicurean doctrine. In 1656, a gargantuan posthumous Syntagma philosophicum followed.

Gassendi’s modifications, granted, were drastic. The good professor, who enjoyed Richelieu’s patronage and desired an uncomplicated relationship with the Church and the Holy Office, conceded to Christian doctrine the immortality of the soul, the existence and eternity of the Deity, and ex nihilo creation, not to mention the particulars of salvation history. One might reasonably ask what of Epicureanism was left with the reintroduction of religion and the divine.

Yet Gassendi’s bowdlerization of the doctrines handed down by the Samian and his Latin prophet stirred the waters of the European academy. The English, who so recently had thrown off the Roman Church and Her affinity for Aristotle (as well as, yet more recently, the monarchy and its affinity for the Roman Church), proved especially susceptible to the promise of a Christianized materialism. The year 1654 saw the publication of the magnificently titled Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletoniana, or A Fabrick of Science Natural, upon a Hypothesis of Atoms, Founded by Epicurus, Repaired by Petrus Gassendus, and Augmented by Walter Charleton. Atomic theories were the object of intense interest at the Royal Academy.

When in England the king was restored, the Church of England adopted a dim view of the Epicurean question. (Joseph Butler’s sermons are generous but firm in their rejection of the Garden’s valorization of pleasure.) Meanwhile, in France, Richelieu died. When the followers of Descartes controverted with the Aristotelian orthodoxy of the universities and seminaries, they did not spare an aging generation of would-be Christian Epicures, older brothers in heterodoxy.

Melchior de Polignac was born in 1661 to an excellent family that claimed ennoblement from Carolingian times; the Grimaldis, the rulers of Monaco, claim Polignac blood. Melchior studied at Clermont, Harcourt, and at last the Sorbonne; as one might expect from such a background and such an education, he was a cleric at the court of the Sun King by the age of twenty-four. Despite Descartes’s addition to the Index, the young nobleman-cleric embraced the new anti-materialist doctrines of Mind. Then as now, brilliance is an excuse for almost anything; his heterodox dissertation was widely admired.

Melchior seemed fated to follow Richelieu as France’s pre-eminent cleric-statesman, the defining character of an era. He was given the diocese of Auch in the far northern reaches of France; he was also given the ancient abbey of Anchin, founded in 1079 by a follower of Bernard of Clairveaux. (The rigors of the Cistercian reform did not persist at Anchin; it was habitually held in commendam by powerful prelates, including, eventually, Benedict Cardinal Stuart, Duke of York, whose royal ancestors were beginning their final struggles in Polignac’s time.) Unfortunately, Polignac ran into difficulties; while posted as a diplomat at Krakow, he became fruitlessly embroiled in a Polish succession dispute, and, worse, he ran into debt—a difficulty that would plague him for the rest of his life. Louis XIV recalled him for a temporary but embarrassing retirement.

Polignac regained his feet, politically if not financially. Louis sent him to the Roman Rota as an auditor in 1706; in 1712, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. He accumulated an impressive collection of antiquities at Rome—among other sources was the villa of Marius the dictator, which he discovered and excavated—and ran up such debts in the pursuit of Renaissance masters that he was afraid to show himself back in the city for the papal election of 1724. This hoard was purchased outright by Frederick II of Prussia upon Polignac’s death.

Yet, despite his lavish way of living and his antiquarian interests, his modern anti-materialism never waned. His life’s avocation, which consumed more time and attention as he grew old, was a twelve-thousand-line Latin verse refutation of Epicureanism in the style of De Rerum Natura: the Anti-Lucretius.

The Anti-Lucretius was conceived after an argument with a Protestant skeptic at the Polish court, Pierre Baye; his poetic witness of preference was the shy old Roman. Along the way, he makes asides condemning the teachings of the Cartesians’ other enemies—Aristotle, Spinoza, Newton. At the time of his death, having already written and rewritten ten books, Polignac was devising two additional books on the errors of the deists. The work as it existed in manuscript was left to his friend, Abbe Charles d’Orléans de Rothelin, who prepared it for publication before his own death.

Polignac’s invective, though courtier-elegant, is unforgiving. He has little patience for the internal difficulties of the Garden’s doctrines; like Cicero, he brings the Epicurean doctrine of free will in for particular abuse. If free will is predicated on the atoms’ random clinamina, isn’t it still just a matter of mechanistic compulsion?

Omnia namque ad se referens, se cogitat unum
Vivere, cum vivat multis e millibus unus:
Centrum se mundi, rerum caput, atque Tyrannum
Fingit; et ipse suo, quae non sunt subdita, subdit
Imperio; pariterque volens et peccat et errat.

For referring all things to himself, he thinks that he lives as one, when he lives as one out of many thousands; he fancies himself the center of the world, the head of things, and the Tyrant; and he himself subjects those things that have not been subjected to his command; and in will he both sins and errs.

Much of the Anti-Lucretius is devoted to a Cartesian debunking of the Epicurean physics—an entire book is devoted to argument in favor of the Cartesian ether and against the existence of void—but, playing by Epicurus’ own terms, Polignac always returns to the ethical consequences of the philosophy. Tyranny is a recurring bogey. The cardinal argues that the retreat to the Garden, the dictate μὴ πολιτεύεσθαι, inevitably leads to rule by tyrants. (Here, at least, the clever schoolboy could not shake Aristotle):

Quin urbem exuro patriam, si pascere flammis
Crudeles oculos juvat, et superare Neronem?
Namque Voluptatem sequiter germana Tyrannis.

Do I burn my home city, if it is pleasure to feast cruel eyes on the flames and to best Nero? For the twin sister Tyranny follows pleasure.

Polignac sees that the pursuit of pleasure does not only goad the tyrant; it also obviates the courage of those who would stand against him:

An Recti conftans atque obfirmata cupido,
Contra delicias, et cuncta pericula contra,
Propositique tenax, vel cum malesuada Voluptas
Obstiterit, terrorve minantiaque ora Tyranni?
Non ita; sed placiti, quodcunque fit, integer usus,
Absque dolore, metu, vel sollicitudinis umbra.

Is [Epicurus’ virtue] constant and confirmed in righteous desire, against delights and against all dangers, clinging to its intention, even when evil-urging Pleasure stands athwart, or the terror and baleful visage of a Tyrant?

It is not so; but always given over to the use of whatever happens that is pleasing, and safe from sorrow, fear, or the shadow of concern.

Entering the Garden is literally a retreat; it not only avoids tyrants but enables them.

Controversy and invective aside, Polignac has a generous streak. He concedes Lucretius’ genius even as he disputes his philosophy:

Haec et plura canens, avide bibat ore diserto
Pegaseos latices; et nomen grande Poetae,
Non Sapientis amet. Lauro insignire Poetam
Quis dubitet? Primus viridantes ipse coronas
Imponam capiti, et meritas pro carmine laudes
Ante alios dicam: dum scilicet ille docendo
Abstineat; nec mortifero, ceu perfida Siren,
Gestiat ignaras cantu male perdere gentes.

Singing many such things, let him drink with his eloquent mouth the Pegasean waters; and let him enjoy the great name of the Poet, but not of the Sage. Who could hesitate to mark the Poet with a laurel crown? I myself will be the first to put those green garlands on his head, and I before all others shall speak well-earned praises for his song; at the same time, of course, let him abstain from teaching; let him not, like a perfidious Siren, work wickedly to damn the ignorant peoples with a deadly song.

The Anti-Lucretius was successful, but not to excess. It received French translations in 1749 and 1786; yet Rothelin’s Latin text only went to two editions.

In Britain, an Irish lawyer and literary dilettante named George Canning produced an English verse translation of the first five books of the Anti-Lucretius in 1766. He boldly dedicated it to Queen Charlotte, declaring that his translation had been “calculated to promote the cause of RELIGION, and VIRTUE, by overturning the pillars of IMMORALITY, and ATHEISM.”

In his preface, Canning avowed faithfulness to Polignac’s original with one whiggish concession: “But where I have found him bear hard upon the general idea of Liberty, the universal birthright of all Mankind, I confess I have not been altogether so delicate; for I thought it incumbent on me, as a faithful Translator, to make his Eminence, to the best of my ability, an Englishman, as well in point of Sentiment, as of Language.” Generously, but no less whiggishly, he added, “I must, nevertheless, do him the justice to allow that I have not had such frequent occasion for exercising a licence in this particular, as I had reason to expect, considering the place of his birth, and the high Rank he bore in a Church, which has ever been the Nurse of arbitrary principles.” (No sympathy for Cardinal Stuart here.)

In truth, Canning’s verse was not perhaps the best Augustan poetry on offer:

At length, my Friend, your easy credit, lent
To a false SOPHIST’s blandishments, repent:
Blush to have paid as such a paltry shrine
Those honours due to essences divine.
. . .
Whate’er exists by its own proper force,
With its idea being’s link’d of course,
We can’t so much as feign it not to be,
thus ’tis existent through necessity.

Pope it is not. Canning was, it seems, a somewhat hapless character in many respects; he married an actress on an impulse and was disowned by his family for it. While he produced a handful of other renderings from the Latin and some original poems, the translation of Polignac was his only real literary success. Nor did lawyering go well for him. He died in poverty; at the time of his death, he was considering a bizarre venture to publish his love letters. His son, also named George, was adopted by an uncle.

Within a generation of Polignac’s death, and but a few years after Canning the elder’s, the convulsions of the French Revolution would sweep away France’s gentle world of courtly letters. Over a thousand Benedictine monasteries were suppressed; Anchin was disestablished in 1790. An atheistic state religion was established in 1793—the Cult of Reason—only to be followed a year later by the Cult of the Supreme Being, which posited a universal governing principle, a vaguely (but only vaguely) more personalized natura or ratio. (The Cult of Reason, however, remained popular with more radical elements in the revolutionary state.) Epicurean atheism or near-atheism seemed ascendant. In due course, tyranny: first Robespierre, then Bonaparte. Europe quailed before the blood in the streets.

George Canning the Younger was more successful than his father. He became, like so many of the ambitious but downwardly mobile, a scribbler. Like so many scribblers, he was well informed about doings in the wide world. (Readers like that sort of thing.) From there he turned to politics, especially to foreign affairs. When Anchin and the thousand other institutions like it were subjected to the tender attentions of the Cult of Reason, perhaps he was moved by some gentle memory of his father—a reading of his rendering of a French churchman’s poem, an idiosyncratic but impassioned fusillade against materialism and the tyranny that follows. As a young Tory member of Parliament, he deplored the idea of negotiating peace with Revolutionary France. (“Is his understanding, and his heart, still impenetrable to the sense and meaning of the deliverance of Europe?” he asked of the man who would support ending the war.)

Canning fils started a magazine, the Anti-Jacobin. The editorial line was rather rough on irreligion and philosophical indifference. From one submission:

Philosophy, proud phantom, undismay’d,
With cold regard the ghastly train survey’d;
Saw Persecution gnash her iron teeth,
While Atheists preach’d th’ eternal sleep of death;
Saw Anarchy the social chain unbind,
And Discord sour the blood of human kind;
Then talk’d of Nature’s rights, and equal sway;
And saw her system safe—AND STALK’D AWAY!

Like most magazines, the Anti-Jacobin failed. Canning didn’t, though; nor did his sentiments. He became the foreign minister, overseeing the wars against France’s little tyrant; shortly before his death, he achieved the pinnacle of British public life and became prime minister. It is difficult to imagine a life that so soundly repudiated the teaching of μὴ πολιτεύεσθαι.

Who could have foreseen such a long-running and bitter relation on that cold winter day in Paphlagonia, when the Garden and the Church were joined against a false prophet? Both the Epicureans and the Christians were, to the enthusiasts of Glaucon, atheists; they denied the gods. To the Epicureans, the gods were tranquil superhumans living in spheres of perfect calm, a sort of best version of ourselves; to the Christians, there was but one God, and He became a man and died. Ancient Christianity is sometimes described as a mystery cult, but nothing could be further from the case. Like Epicureanism, Christianity posits a Divinity Who is closer to us than expected, Who, with the world He made, can be subjected to human reason. Like Epicureanism, Christianity gives its proof by faith, and asks the initiate to judge by the fruits of that faith in his own life. Like Epicureanism, Christianity valorizes an unwavering death. No wonder the two schools were treated as equivalent enemies by the popular exponents of the religious powers that be. It goes to show that the devil is in the details, and that brothers can grow apart.

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