Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Gregory the Great
By Henry Hart Milman (17911868)
From Latin Christianity
THE HISTORIAN of Christianity is arrested by certain characters and certain epochs, which stand as landmarks between the close of one age of religion and the commencement of another. Such a character is Gregory the Great; such an epoch his pontificate, the termination of the sixth century.
Gregory, not from his station alone, but by the acknowledgment of the admiring world, was, intellectually as well as spiritually, the great model of his age. He was proficient in all the arts and sciences cultivated at that time; the vast volumes of his writings show his indefatigable powers; their popularity and their authority his ability to clothe those thoughts and those reasonings in language which would awaken and command the general mind.
His epoch was that of the final Christianisation of the world, not in outward worship alone, not in its establishment as the imperial religion, the rise of the church upon the ruin of the temple, and the recognition of the hierarchy as an indispensable rank in the social system, but in its full possession of the whole mind of man, in letters, arts, as far as arts were cultivated, habits, usages, modes of thought, and in popular superstition.
Not only was heathenism, but, excepting in the laws and municipal institutions, Romanity itself, absolutely extinct. The reign of Theodoric had been an attempt to fuse together Roman, Teutonic, and Christian usages. Cassiodorus, though half a monk, aspired to be a Roman statesman. Boetius to be a heathen philosopher. The influence of the Roman schools of rhetoric is betrayed even in the writers of Gaul, such as Sidonius Apollinaris; there is an attempt to preserve some lingering cadence of Roman poetry in the Christian versifiers of that age. At the close of the sixth century all this has expired; ecclesiastical Latin is the only language of letters, or rather, letters themselves are become purely ecclesiastical. The fable of Gregorys destruction of the Palatine Library is now rejected, as injurious to his fame; but probably the Palatine Library, if it existed, would have been so utterly neglected that Gregory would hardly have condescended to fear its influence. His aversion to such studies is not that of dread or hatred, but of religious contempt; profane letters are a disgrace to a Christian bishop; the truly religious spirit would loathe them of itself.
What, then, was this Christianity by which Gregory ruled the world? Not merely the speculative and dogmatic theology, but the popular, vital, active Christianity, which was working in the heart of man; the dominant motive of his actions, as far as they were affected by religion; the principal element of his hopes and fears as regards the invisible world and that future life which had now become part of his conscious belief.
The history of Christianity cannot be understood without pausing at stated periods to survey the progress and development of this Christian mythology, which, gradually growing up and springing as it did from natural and universal instincts, took a more perfect and systematic form, and at length, at the height of the Middle Ages, was as much a part of Latin Christianity as the primal truths of the Gospel. This growth, which had long before begun, had reached a kind of adolescence in the age of Gregory, to expand into full maturity during succeeding ages. Already the creeds of the Church formed but a small portion of Christian belief. The highest and most speculative questions of theology, especially in Alexandria and Constantinople, had become watchwords of strife and faction, had stirred the passions of the lowest orders; the two Natures, or the single or double Will in Christ had agitated the workshop of the artisan and the seats in the Circus. But when these great questions had sunk into quiescence, or, as in Latin Christianity, had never so fully occupied the general mind; when either the triumph of one party, or the general weariness, had worn out their absorbing interest, the religious mind subsided into its more ordinary occupations, and these bore but remote relation to the sublime truths of the Divine Unity and the revelation of God in Christ. As God the Father had receded, as it were, from the sight of man into a vague and unapproachable sanctity; as the human soul had been entirely centred on the more immediate divine presence in the Saviour; so the Saviour himself might seem to withdraw from the actual, at least the exclusive, devotion of the human heart, which was busied with intermediate objects of worship. Christ assumed gradually more and more of the awfulness, the immateriality, the incomprehensibleness, of the Deity, and men sought out beings more akin to themselves, more open, it might seem, to human sympathies. The Eucharist, in which the Redeemers spiritual presence, yet undefined and untransubstantiated, was directly and immediately in communion with the soul, had become more and more wrapped in mystery; though the great crowning act of faith, the interdiction of which was almost tantamount to a sentence of spiritual death, it was more rarely approached, except by the clergy. Believers delighted in those ceremonials to which they might have recourse with less timidity; the shrines and the relics of martyrs might deign to receive the homage of those who were too profane to tread the holier ground. Already the worship of these lower objects of homage begins to intercept that to the higher; the popular mind is filling with images either not suggested at all, or suggested but very dimly, by the sacred writings; legends of saints are supplanting, or rivalling at least, in their general respect and attention, the narratives of the Bible.