18 September 2015


John Marenbon. Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz. Princeton University Press, 2015.

The problem discussed in this book arose as a result of the rise of Christianity, when philosophers and theologians began to discuss the relationship between pagans and Christians. Pagans, for the purposes of this book, are defined as those who were not Christians, Jews or Muslims. The central issue of the Problem of Paganism is the discrepancy between the status of some pagans as moral, intellectual and cultural heroes and their being denied salvation, according to Christian doctrines.
As the author notes: "Either the doctrines must be altered or negotiated, as they often were--many medieval writers considered that people like Virgil had been saved--or it must be explained how, despite appearances, they do not make God unjust". This kind of argument often occurs in discussions about God and is an example of theodicy, a word which I was surprised not to find mentioned anywhere in this book.

Although the book appears to be mainly about the development of Christian theology, we are told that it is really about the history of philosophy. The period considered by Marenbon is from about 200 to 1700, which for the purpose of this work he calls the Long Middle Ages.

In 410, Rome was sacked by the Goths, who though not pagans but Christians, were adherents of the Aryan heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Although by this time most Romans were Christian, their faith seemed weak and, and this inspired Augustine to produce his most ambitious work, the City of God (begun about 412 and finished about 14 years later) in which he examined the main strands of the problem of paganism--wisdom, salvation and virtue--which influenced all later discussion.

Marenbon remarks that Augustine's answer to the problem about pagan salvation is to deny its possibility, except to those who were really hidden Christians. He contrasts his thinking on this with that of Boethius (thought to have been born in 476), particularly in his Consolation of Philosophy. This work was written when he was in prison on charges including treason and sentenced to death. It takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a figure of Philosophy, a woman 'with burning eyes that saw more clearly than the run of humans'.

For scholars, the main problem of that work is that it is not obviously written by a Christian, with the result that there are several different interpretations of it. Marenbon's interpretation is that Boethius follows philosophy's path in his reasoning, which is also the Christian path, to the point where human understanding fails, where the Christian path is the right one.

There is a rather demanding chapter on the arguments among medieval university theologians on the question of whether those who know nothing of Christianity can be saved. It is tempting to imagine the reactions of modern atheists and, indeed, many Christians to such ideas.

The last major philosopher considered is Leibniz, who agreed with those who argued that some would be given no chance to be saved would mean that God would be unjust and concluded that 'there are an infinity of ways open to God which give him the means to satisfy both his justice and his goodness'.

This is clearly a book for readers who are seriously interested in the history of religious thought, and the development of philosophy, but it is obviously not intended for the casual reader. -- John Harney

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