Persecution, Platonism, and the Virulence of Metaphysics

I. The Persecution of Christianity
  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


The history of Christianity affords ample opportunities for reflection on the nature of religious persecution. Christians endured it from the Roman state, fellow Christians, Jews, and pagan adversaries. In turn, Christians inflected it upon pagans, Jews, and heretics. Certainly, as moralists and as critics of Christianity, Hume and Gibbon occupied themselves with the phenomenon of religious persecution, particularly when Christians were the agents. They viewed it as eighteenth-century secular-oriented skeptics, disdainful of religious enthusiasm and in a vein of virtual rational incomprehensibility. Cruelty, fanaticism, arrogance were all elements that composed the mentality of religious fanatics. Hume wrote graphically of the religious persecution in sixteenth-century England and France that was a grisly feature of the Protestant-Catholic rupture of Christendom. Gibbon wove many twists and turns of Christian persecution into his narrative—it was a persistent, recurring element in his treatment of religion. The history of religion and the history of persecution seemed to be inexorably interwoven. His attention, however, was focused primarily on the unfolding of the history of Christian persecution: it is the Christian religion that triumphs over pagan Rome and imposes itself on the Western world.


Ancient Philosopher Christian Religion Original Italic Religious Toleration Philosophical Speculation 
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    For a detailed historical study of persecution in Christianity, see E. S. P. Haynes, Religious Persecution: A Study in Political Psychology (London: Duckworth and Co., 1904). Wilbur Jordan’s The Development of Religious Toleration In England 4 vols. (1932–1940; reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965 ) is a massive but splendid historical study dealing with the themes of religious persecution and religious toleration. Also see Scott L. Waugh and Peter D. Diehl, eds., Christendom and Its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution, and Rebellion, 1000–1500 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 ).Google Scholar
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    G. C. Coulton, Inquisition and Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), 15–16, writes that Constantine was more severe against heretical priests than against pagans.Google Scholar
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    See, H. A. Drake, “Lambs Into Lions: Explaining Early Christian Intolerance,” Past and Present 153 (Nov. 1996): 3–34. Drake faults Gibbon for an unfair and unbalanced presentation of Christianity as an intolerant, persecuting religion. Gibbon, he argues, plays down pagan persecutors and fails to acknowledge that Christians also spoke for freedom of conscience and toleration. Because of Gibbon, Christianity has born the odium of being a persecuting religion. “Here then is the problem: if early Christians could speak for toleration as well as intolerance, it is no longer possible to account for the turn to coercion by a newly empowered Christianity in the fourth century with the premise that such coercion was a natural, logical, or inevitable outcome of predictions inherent in and unique to that faith.” While I believe that Drake is correct in his assessment of Gibbon’s bias toward pagan Rome and his animus toward the early Christians, in Gibbon’s defense, it should be said that Gibbon did not, as Drake seems to suggest, hold Christianity to be uniquely intolerant. He argued that fanaticism is a pitfall for many forms of faith, particular for monotheistic forms such as Islam and Judaism, as well as Christianity.Google Scholar
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    See Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book,75–76 who defines Platonism and explains its coercive features. “By generic Platonism I mean the kind of ideology that makes its appearance with the religious use of writing, and which is sustained by an organized clerisy.... Generic Platonism clearly delineates the Transcendent, and makes it morally and doctrinally authoritative without bounds, i.e., universalistic in its claims.”Google Scholar
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    Giuseppe Giarrizzo, “Toward the Decline and Fall: Gibbon’s Other Historical Interests,” in Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,235. “In February, 1761 Gibbon published the Essai cur l’étude de la littérature. The structure and methodological objectives of this work, which was written partly in Lausanne and partly in Buriton, are very complex. The chapters written in Lausanne deal with the polemic against ’l’esprit de système’ as distinct from the ‘esprit philosophique, and here Gibbon espouses Montesquieu’s thought. In England, however, after reading Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757), Gibbon wrote chapters 57 and 58 which deal with the pagan ‘system.”’Google Scholar
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    Giarrizzo, “Toward the Decline and Fall: Gibbon’s Other Historical Interests,” 236 writes that the Es.sai’s theme is “the historical erudition that rejects the ’esprit de.système, when research and facts demonstrate the abstract and superficially all-embracing nature of the ‘system’ while at the same time attempting to liberate knowledge of the past—which is necessary to legitimize or modify the present—from the tenets of Pyrrhonism.”Google Scholar
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    See P. Russell, “Epigram, Pantheists, and Freethought in Hume’s Treatise,660–61. Russell argues that the Treatise is fully anti-Christian in its intentions and that it was aimed specifically at the Christian rationalism of Samuel Clarke, an argument that would support my contention that Hume had a strong desire to refute claims for the rationality of Christianity. Moreover, Russell argues that Hume writes in a conscious spirit of free thinking that traces its pedigree back through the deists and anti-Christians such as John Toland and Anthony Collins to Hobbes and Spinoza.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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