The Morals and Manners of Christendom



MAN in the jungle or hunting stage had to be greedy—to seek food eagerly and gorge himself zealously—because, when food came, he could not be sure when it would come again. He had to be sexually sensitive, often promiscuous, because a high death rate compelled a high birth rate; every woman had to be made a mother whenever possible, and the function of the male was to be always in heat. He had to be pugnacious, ever ready to fight for food or mate. Vices were once virtues, indispensable to survival.

But when man found that the best means of survival, for individual as well as species, was social organization, he expanded the hunting pack into a system of social order in which the instincts once so useful in the hunting stage had to be checked at every turn to make society possible. Ethically every civilization is a balance and tension between the jungle instincts of men and the inhibitions of a moral code. The instincts without the inhibitions would end civilization; the inhibitions without the instincts would end life. The problem of morality is to adjust inhibitions to protect civilization without enfeebling life.

In the task of moderating human violence, promiscuity, and greed, certain instincts, chiefly social, took the lead, and provided a biological basis for civilization. Parental love, in beast and man, created the natural social order of the family, with its educative discipline and mutual aid. Parental authority, half a pain of love and half a joy of tyranny, transmitted a life-saving code of social conduct to the individualistic child. The organized force wielded by chieftain, baron, city, or state circumscribed and largely circumvented the unorganized force of individuals. Love of approval bent the ego to the will of the group. Custom and imitation guided the adolescent, now and then, into ways sanctioned by the trial-and-error experience of the race. Law frightened instinct with the specter of punishment. Conscience tamed youth with the detritus of an endless stream of prohibitions.

The Church believed that these natural or secular sources of morality could not suffice to control the impulses that preserve life in the jungle but destroy order in a society. Those impulses are too strong to be deterred by any human authority that cannot be everywhere at once with awesome police. A moral code bitterly uncongenial to the flesh must bear the seal of a supernatural origin if it is to be obeyed; it must carry a divine sanction and prestige that will be respected by the soul in the absence of any force, and in the most secret moments and coverts of life. Even parental authority, so vital to moral and social order, breaks down in the contest with primitive instincts unless it is buttressed by religious belief inculcated in the child. To serve and save a society, a religion must oppose to insistent instinct no disputable man-made directives, but the undebatable, categorical imperatives of God Himself. And those divine commandments (so sinful or savage is man) must be supported not only by praise and honor bestowed for obeying them, nor only by disgrace and penalties imposed for violating them, but also by the hope of heaven for unrequited virtue, and the fear of hell for unpunished sin. The commandments must come not from Moses but from God.

The biological theory of primitive instincts unfitting man for civilization was symbolized in Christian theology by the doctrine of original sin. Like the Hindu conception of karma, this was an attempt to explain apparently unmerited suffering: the good endured evil here because of some ancestral sin. In Christian theory the whole human race had been tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve. Said Gratian’s Decretum (c. 1150), unofficially accepted by the Church as her teaching, “Every human being who is conceived by the coition of a man with a woman is born with original sin, subject to impiety and death, and therefore a child of wrath”;1 and only divine grace, and the atoning death of Christ, could save him from wickedness and damnation (only the gentle example of the martyred Christ could redeem man from violence, lust, and greed, and save him and his society from destruction). The preaching of this doctrine, combined with natural catastrophes that seemed unintelligible except as punishments for sin, gave many medieval Christians a sense of inborn impurity, depravity, and guilt, which colored much of their literature before 1200. Thereafter that sense of sin and fear of hell diminished till the Reformation, to reappear with fresh terror among the Puritans.

Gregory I and later theologians spoke of seven deadly sins—pride, avarice, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth; and opposed to them the seven cardinal virtues: four “natural” or pagan virtues praised by Pythagoras and Plato-wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance; and three “theological” virtues —faith, hope, and charity. But though accepting the pagan virtues, Christianity never assimilated them. It preferred faith to knowledge, patience to courage, love and mercy to justice, abstention and purity to temperance. It exalted humility, and ranked pride (so prominent in Aristotle’s ideal man) as the deadliest of the Deadly Sins. It spoke occasionally of the rights of man, but it stressed rather the duties of man—to himself, his fellow man, his Church, and God. In preaching a “gentle Jesus meek and mild” the Church had no fear of making men effeminate; on the contrary, the men of medieval Latin Christendom were more masculine—because they met more hardships—than their modern beneficiaries and heirs. Theologies and philosophies, like men and states, are what they are because in their time and place they have to be.

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