Review: Seven Books Against the Pagans

Paulus Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.  Translated by Roy Deferrari.  Fathers of the Church Series, no. 50.  (Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

Lately I have had a deep interest in late antiquity.  The establishment of the Church, the shifting of the Roman Empire from the west to the east, the struggles of Christianization—all of it continues to have a strong influence on our world today.  What better way to get a handle on it than to delve into primary sources?

I was initially attracted to one such primary source, the Seven Books against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius, written in the early 5th century, because it promised to be an important witness for the life of the Emperor Theodosius the Great.  While it kept that promise, it also raised another important question:  how do we answer critics who claim that things used to be better before Christianity?  Or perhaps a little wider, what do we say to the complaint that truth divides and causes more problems than it solves?

Orosius studied under St. Augustine in a time of tremendous upheaval.  In the year 410, Alaric, the first king of the Visigoths, sacked the city of Rome.  Even though the center of the Roman world had been shifting steadily eastward since Constantine founded Constantinople in 330, Rome remained a symbolic bulwark in the Roman imagination.  Its fall meant that everything had gone horribly wrong, and consequently it seemed as if the very world was coming to an end.  Though Christianity was well established in the Empire by this point, suddenly a strong criticism arose:  what happened to the good old days?  Why have we fallen so far?  For many, the only change between the heady days of Augustus four hundred years earlier and now was the introduction of a foreign element in the Christian religion.  It must be the reason why.  The old ways kept the peace.  The old gods had been forgotten, and therefore everything has gone off track.

Augustine himself famously addressed this argument in the monumental City of God, but he felt that the argument needed to be strengthened further.  Where he focused specifically on Roman history, he felt that it needed expansion.  He therefore asked Orosius to compose a similar work, but to expand his view to the world as a whole.  Orosius, like Augustine, therefore wrote Seven Books against the Pagans to prove a remarkable thesis:  things used to be far worse, and only with the coming of Christ and the Church has the world seen improvement.  Even if things are bad now, it is like complaining of the cold at the first sign of winter, forgetting the blizzards of years gone by.  Using various sources, he covers thousands of years of history in an effort to prove just that.

Admittedly, this thesis seems to ring hollow for many.  Especially as Orosius enters the Christian era, his coloring of people and events tends to grow.  He expresses confusion as to how Constantine could put members of his own family to death.  His connection of the ten persecutions prior to Constantine to the plagues of Egypt, while imaginative, seems forced.  His triumphalism leads him to downplay the very real problems in his own day, even as he admits them.

Yet Orosius leads us to address the question seriously.  Seeking the truth often means stirring up trouble.  Men frequently prefer peace to truth, and addressing old problems means disturbing that peace.  Orosius answers by saying that the good old days weren’t as good as they seemed.  There is truth to that.  Peace at the cost of truth cannot be good in any circumstance.  We don’t have to follow Orosius by arguing that the present time is necessarily much better.  There will always be division and problems in this life.  Christ promises a cross, not peace.  Yet at the same time, he ought to be commended for pointing out an obvious truth in a somewhat distorted way:  what God does is always good, and truth is to be preferred to peace if it comes to that choice.  Things may be as terrible in this sin-filled world as they have always been, but how blessed are the eyes of those who see the things which former generations longed to see!