Before Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313, it was illegal to practice the Christian faith in the Roman Empire. In fact, many religious sects were outlawed before the Edict was issued. The Edict mentions Christians specifically, but it also makes it clear that “others” will also have the “full authority to observe that religion which they prefer.” This tolerant atmosphere was short-lived: less than a century later, the emperor Theodosius I would declare Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The line from Constantine’s Edict to Theodosius’ momentous declaration is usually portrayed as a very direct one, but there was a significant reversal in between. In 361, Constantine’s nephew Flavius Claudius Julianus became emperor. He only reigned for a short time, dying in battle with Persia in 363. However, he made a valiant attempt during his reign to stem the tide of Christianity and restore the worship of the Hellenic gods. His contempt for Christianity was quite extreme: he referred to Christians as “Galileans” and churches as “charnel houses” in Against the Gallileans, his treatise opposing the faith. Of course, the young emperor failed and the victors gave him the name by which he is remembered today: Julian the Apostate.
Sixteen centuries later, an American admirer of Julian’s resurrected the vanquished emperor as a character in a historical novel. As a narrative description of Christianity’s triumph, and the atrocities and compromises that secured it, Gore Vidal’s Julian can’t be beat. Buy it here.
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The philosophic tradition with the strongest emphasis on “realism,” as opposed to “idealism,” is undoubtedly the British. From the empirical philosophy of John Locke to the economic theories of Adam Smith, the great contributions of British philosophy have almost all been of a “realist” bent. There have been British idealists, though. Perhaps the most famous was Bishop Berkeley, who called his theory “immaterialism” and summed it up with the Latin expression, “Esse est percipi” or “To be is to be perceived.” This is the phrase by which Berkeley is largely remembered today, but he expounded his theory over hundreds of pages in his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous.
But as the theories grew more elaborate the refutations grew more abrupt. After reading Berkeley’s work, the writer and critic Dr. Samuel Johnson simply kicked a large stone and shouted, “I refute it thus!” This habit of glib refutation continued for centuries. Another famous realist was Bertrand Russell, who wrote on everything from the foundations of mathematics to the case for nuclear disarmament. During one of his seminars at Oxford, a student who recently arrived from Austria argued that it was impossible to prove anything using sense data alone. Russell amused his class by running about and looking under chairs for a rhinoceros. When he couldn’t find one, he declared the non-presence of a rhino in the room proven. But, in this case, the joke was on Russell. The student he was arguing with was Ludwig Wittgenstein. While Russell’s works of pure philosophy are almost completely ignored today, Wittgenstein is considered by many to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century.
Another great debate between an idealist and a realist was a famous 10 minute encounter between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Read a wonderful account of that debate here.
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