Christianity and Classical Culture, Episode 0: Government Will Not Save Us

In this origin episode of the podcast Dr. Fleming talks about the inexorable and necessary link between Christianity and classical culture: why the superstructure of the best of the pagan world often provided good foundations for Christian beliefs, teachings, and practices.


Original Air Date: November 23, 2015
Show Run Time: 20 minutes
Show Guest(s): Dr. Thomas Fleming
Show Host(s): Stephen Heiner

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Christianity and Classical Culture℗ is a Production of the Fleming Foundation. Copyright 2015. All Rights are Reserved.

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Nenad Radulovich says:

    Thank you for another another wonderful podcast. As would be said in Pittsburgh, we are, indeed, an “alloy” of the Roman, Greek and Judaic traditions.
    Dr. Fleming, if you would allow me, I have a few questions: one, many historians of medieval Europe identify a “Germanic” element as being at least as important as the classical tradition in the realm of customs, law and language. What are your thoughts on this matter?
    Second, the Byzantine Empire was the main conduit of transmission of Christianity for those of us of the Eastern Orthodox faith and heritage. Despite such figures as Justinian, it has always seemed to me that the Roman element has been de-emphasized. Has it been? Or, is just more subtle, buried deeply within?

  2. Avatar Dot says:

    Although the Roman, Hellenic and Judaic traditions formed an intersection of cultures, I find these traditions are receding further and further into the background such that, in the 21th century, we are looking into that age of the beginning of Christianity through dark glasses – if at all. We live in another age – an age of distractions. Looking at the planet from space it is a beautiful peaceful blue; looking more closely it is red.

  3. Avatar Robert says:

    As arrogant as it may seem today to say it, It remains true that while there may be many or even hundreds of different human cultures, there is only one civilization. The Greeks did business with other cultures but there is no doubt whatsoever in their minds that there own culture was superior and time has only proven them correct. This is not an opinion but a historical fact that is so large and so obvious that occasionally,as in our own time,it is disputed until the death rattle is heard and one reaches for health again from the same Greek sources that supplied it in the first place

  4. Avatar Robert says:

    These pod casts are very good.

  5. Avatar Dot says:

    “There is no doubt whatsoever in THEIR minds that their own culture was superior……”? And, “occasionally as in our own time, it is disputed, until the death rattle is heard and one reaches for health again from the same Greek sources that supplied it in the first place.” And it wasn’t long ago they were acting like children demonstrating in the streets demanding more from the EU? Their superior culture may be so in antiquity but future centuries and generations changed the picture. Life is not stagnant. And if they did think their own culture was superior to others, that may have been their downfall.

  6. Avatar Robert says:

    Dot, thank you for the reminder. Yes, I was referring to Homer, Plato and Aristotle. Of course we have all abandoned our traditional heritage these days.

  7. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Nenad, yes, indeed, Medieval historians have correctly and usefully emphasized the influence of Germanic (and Celtic) customs on the development of Medieval Europe. In my book, I discuss such aspects as collective responsibility, blood-feuds, and dueling. In this podcast series, however, the emphasis is on the classical and Christian inheritance.

    Perhaps we should be a bit careful in speaking too generally of a people and its downfall. Greeks, in the period from roughly 800 to 300 BC created most of the important arts of our civilization. Even after being conquered by the Romans and amalgamated more generally into a Mediterranean civilization, the Greek language and cultural traditions remained dominant , let us, say, down to the early Byzantine period–say the time of Charlemagne. That poor Byzantine Empire had to fight on many fronts and, for all its faults and failures, was still a beacon of civilization in the 15th century. Not a bad run, two and a half millennia!

    Greeks today are, of course, a mixed bag ethnically, but let us not be so Greek to write off an entire nation because its character has been corrupted by Marxism. On moral questions, Greece and Slovakia are still the most conservative in Europe; Modern Greek poets, over the past 100 years, have produced as much good work as any of the much larger nations, and Greek folk/popular music is perhaps the most serious musical enterprise in our tradition today. It is a small country, without resources, torn apart by civil war in the 1940’s and victimized by the European/North American cultural left. They are, for all their faults and corruption, better than Americans. They elected Tspiraas, it is true, but we–the richest and most powerful country in the world–have elected Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Our elections are a way of putting up a “Going Out of Business” sign.

  8. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I should add that while the Greeks certainly knew their culture was superior to anything that had ever existed–indeed, the word “barbarian” means non-Greek–they were curious and open-minded about other cultures. There is no more open-minded historian than Herodotus, whose work has long sections on Egyptians and Persians, and Xenophon is more than fair to the Persians. Even Aeschylus, who fought them in the wars, portrays his Persian characters with a good deal respect than Shakespeare uses toward the French in Henry V–a play about English aggression rather than an attempted French conquest of England. There never has been a people so creative and never will be again.

  9. Avatar Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming, First thank you for you interesting podcast and look forward to others. I especially thank you for your response and think that I can get a bit myopic. I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church 16 years ago. For me, it was one of the best decisions I have made. I love not only the Liturgy but also the people. They are the most positive minded people I have ever met. They work hard, play hard, worship seriously.

  10. Avatar Nenad Radulovich says:

    To Mrs. Dot: Axios!
    To Dr. Fleming: thank you for your generous response.

  11. Avatar Robert says:

    Dr. Fleming, They were perhaps confident enough in what they were to be interested in the other without ceasing to surrender their own character. Herodotus is a good example of that fact. He is the “father of history” because of all that you said about him and even more but there is never a doubt that he was all of those things because he was a Greek first, last and always.

  12. Avatar Dot says:

    Mr. Nadulovich, Thank you! This past May the dean of Holy Trinity in Charlotte, Fr. Michael Varvarelis and his presbytera moved to Pittsburg. Perhaps you may know them. Also we have a brilliant organist at my church who comes from Kiev.
    Dr. Fleming, As always, thank you for the education. In addition, the new priest who replaced Fr. Michael comes from the Madison, Wisconsin/ Illinois area. Small world.

  13. Avatar RR says:

    The Greeks’ achievements have been rarely matched and never surpassed. But they have always been snobbish, especially towards the Romans. Peculiar that, because the Romans were/are the one non-Greek culture most receptive and supportive of the Hellenes. (Caesar was fluent in Greek. Cato’s great granfather referred to them however as “Graeculi.”)

    The Byzantines, degenerate pseudo-Greeks, were downright mean and nasty. Justinian’s unnecessary and criminal war against the Goths of Italy is one of the greatest crimes ever committed (And so, naturally passed over in silence or supported by misguided critics of Caesar’s justified Gallic conquest). Hannibal and Attila the Hun combined were less destructive of Romanitas than were the Byzantines. they got what they had coming to them in 1204. I’m glad the Venetians worked them over.

  14. Avatar Dot says:

    RR, Agree. Justinian’s name belies the intolerance and persecutions of other Christians who lived in the Byzantine empire.

  15. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    RR’s unutterable silliness must be deliberate. I simply don’t have time to correct his absurdities. Constantinople’s elite included and was perhaps dominated by Romans who had fled the Gothic terror. Justinian was not a Greek but a man of the Balkans and his official language was Latin. Many people had looked up to the Greeks and adopted their culture. Indeed, Hellinistic culture is dominated by Easterners. Greeks could hardly be expected to like a nation that conquered them though by imperial times many Greeks supported the Empire and played a distinguished part in it. Try reading Plutarch some time.

    The restoration of the Empire could not be achieved without putting the Goths in their place. They had looted Italy, bullying, robbing, rapping the inhabitants. Theodoric was smart enough to realize that his Goths by themselves could not run a Chinese fire drill and so relied on Romans like Boethius, whose heroic and brilliant labors he rewarded bu condemning him to be executed by having cords wrapped around his head and twisted unti his brains popped out. Apes are cute when they are young but as they get old they rip your face off. No more nonsense, please!

  16. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Another small point but important. The term Byzantine is often applied in a misleading and derogatory manner that does not at all encourage rational discourse. A more accurate term for the earlier periods is East Roman. Different historians would divide differently. I incline to apply East Roman from Theodosius to the death of Heraclius. It is by no means fair or accurate to describe the reign of Justinian as “Byzantine.” It ws the period that saw advances in Roman architecture and engineering, the works of the major historian (Procopius), and more than a few witers of note: John Philoponus whose critique of Aristotle’s theory of motion anticipates Galileo, Agathias the poet and historian, Romanus the Melode. Roman Italy at this time could show Boethius–but then the Goths got rid of him.

  17. Avatar Robert says:

    ” Apes are cute when they are young but as they get old they rip your face off. ”

    This is so true. Especially about the current state of affairs in at least some areas of our beloved country— or what is left of it. Liberal experiments that conclude with verifiable results are never reported if the result is different than that promised or predicted. I remember when letting kids grow up like feral street rats was, like Coca-Cola, the “real thing” in certain enlightened psychological circles and now that those results are in, we are studying other unnatural experiments with the same great minds predicting still more progress for our children’s future.

  18. Avatar RR says:

    There was no Gothic terror.

    Justinian’s policy was in keeping with the substance and style of ‘Byzantine’ statecraft, both before and after his reign.

    The ‘restoration’ destroyed Italy.

    Who put those Goths there to begin with?

    Boethius was executed because he was suspected of disloyalty and collusion with a hostile foreign power with designs on Italy. Unfortunate what happened to him, but any other monarch would have done the same, or worse. Theoderic’s reign was mild and beneficial on balance. At least he didn’t do anything near as barbarous as closing the Platonic Academy.

    You are quibbling over labels.

    P.S. Am I ever going to get the name of that company that handles applications for tax exempt status?

    Distinti Saluti!

  19. Avatar RR says:

    P.P.S. Those “Goths” you despise so much were Christian.

  20. Avatar Robert says:

    RR, I thought the Goths were mostly Arian heretics but am I in the wrong century of history?

  21. Avatar RR says:

    Robert, yes. But every Christian is a heretic-or worse- according to some other type of Christian. If Robert M. Peters and St Robert Bellermine can both be included in the category “Christian”, I see no reason why Theoderic can’t be tossed onto the same heap. Theoderic’s claim is at least as strong as Mr. Peters’.

    I hope I haven’t upset il Maestro. I do enjoy his work and the chance to engage in disputes with him. No offense intended.

  22. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The Goths were indeed Arians, but perhaps through the historical accident of their conversion. They were too dumb to understand any but the most primitive theology. Besides, the greater simplicity of Arianism appealed to them. I don’t think RR understands either Bellermine or Mr. Peters, much less Theoderic. RR is only annoying because he is derailing a discussion based on his own Nordicist fantasies that have too little connection with historical evidence to be of interest. The Eastern Empire was not a foreign power–the Emperor was technically Theoderic’s liege lord. No one “brought in” the Goths–Alaric made his own way in, while Theoderic was sent in to deal with Odovacer. I did not record this broadcast to get drawn into penny-ante counter-historical fantasizing that has nothing to do with the subject. And I am not going to permit anti-Christian Nietzzechean obscurantists to gabble about a religion they do not understand.

  23. Avatar Robert says:

    RR and Dr. Fleming, I am in over my cowboy head in this thread but what little I do know about this conflict, I have always thought that Boethius and the Pope at the time extended every conceivable effort and distinction to the Arians short of denying the Christian doctrine on the incarnation. Both were essentially martyred in spite of their efforts. Boethius by a turnicutt tightened around his his head until his eyeballs exploded out of their sockets and the Pope imprisoned and later executed for failing in his attempt to resolve the conflict. It reminds me of a Cuban doctor I once knew who told a nun singing the praises of communist leaders in Central America that he remembered religious nuns and sisters being hung on street lamps and set afire during the Castro revolution. He told the catholic sister he hoped that would happen to her someday if she trusted them as true humanitarians.

  24. Avatar Dot says:

    Good grief!!!! And Thanksgiving a few hours away! Dr. Fleming, I have two Plutarch volumes – Vol. X and Vol. XII Part II of Moralia. I will add them to my reading list. Meanwhile, may all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving with family and friends and may your favorite football team win.

  25. Avatar Robert M. Peters says:

    RR, I have always liked Theoderic despite his shortcomings. I am glad to see that you allow both of us to be at least within the penumbra of the Christian fold.

  26. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Theoderic, indeed, had elements of greatness, as did some other Gothic leaders such as Alaric and his brother, but in most of these cases they were mixed in with elements of treachery, suspicion, envy, arrogance, and brutality. It took many centuries to Romanize the German barbarians. Even Charlemagne was as much looter and berserker as Christian soldier. Romanization of the barbarian might be the title of this series.

  27. Avatar Harry Heller says:

    A fascinating discussion, though perhaps Dr. Fleming ought to supply the questions to be asked in advance. Mr. Heiner is trying, but I don’t think he (yet) possesses the background, or perhaps intellectual self-confidence, to conduct these interviews in a sufficiently probing way. I’d love it if a learned ‘sola scriptura’ Protestant like Aaron Wolf were doing the interviewing (though perhaps that’s only because I always like to see the points of divergence between Catholics and Protestants intelligently and vigorously explored).

    On that point, here is a suggestion for a future podcast: an examination of Dr. Fleming’s own faith journey. Why did he move from his youthful atheism to the Christian faith (is this common among intellectuals? I think loss of early faith among the learned is the norm, which is why it would be so interesting to hear why someone of importance and unusually sound social and political insights went the other way)? And why did he choose Catholicism, instead of a more “conservative” (and Middle American) Reformed creed, like traditional Lutheranism, or perhaps some variant of evangelicalism (or, given TJF’s particular academic speciality and “area affinity”, Eastern Orthodoxy)? Was it a personal epiphany, or a matter of long study and deliberation? Seriously, this would be very interesting to me (and I suspect others).

    As to this podcast, I agree with the thrust of what I heard, especially about the tendency of too many contemporary Christians to try to de-historicize (or is it “de-contextualize”?) their theology, as if the Bible alone were some kind of “cosmic rule book” for life (it is in fact, but not in the simplistic, “if A, then B” way that many, at least among “low Church” Protestants, seem to imagine it). Approaching the Faith in this “fundamental” way makes Christians look hidebound or simply stupid to intellectual unbelievers (and these days, unbelievers seem to comprise the overwhelming majority of intellectuals).

    I think all political issues need to be examined from two perspectives: functionality or utility, and ethics (or in more primary form, from the perspectives of what is reality, and what is morally right action). I’m not sure which question comes first, though I incline to the former; that is, we need to know the empirical facets of any issue, and then the moral boundaries within which we may respond. I have alluded to this in earlier posts on this site, particularly in reference to what the proper response should be to the “refugee” crisis afflicting Europe. There are hard questions here, as Raspail understood four decades ago. Obviously, the idiot Merkel should not have thrown open Germany’s borders. But even before that recent act of treason – for what seems like several years – Southern Europe has been receiving boatloads of itinerant, illegal migrants. Western governments are clearly morally paralyzed in responding to this demographic threat. The Left is clearly using these migrants as “agents of subversion” to further their centuries-long cultural assault against what’s left of traditional European civilization. But it’s conservatives and (presumably non-subversive) Christians who are adrift in their responses. As Raspail once expressed the matter, they know that admitting these aliens into their polities will ultimately destroy them (especially as each wave of colonizers admitted makes it that much harder to resist the next wave). But they also refuse to act with decisive violence to resist this “passive conquest”.

    There is no more important task in our time than recovering the original and proper Christian understandings of morality as applied to political action – or, where there are truly new issues (as might be the case with respect to practical applications of growing biological knowledge), formulating new ethical paradigms that are philosophically consonant with the true tradition.

  28. Avatar Harry Heller says:

    Addendum: I also wanted to express my hope that Dr. Fleming will be generous with bibliographic recommendations. Many of us might want to learn *something* about, say, the Byzantine period, but really don’t have the time to make any kind of proper, in-depth study of it. Hence, a book rec (“the one book everyone should read about Topic X is …”) is much appreciated.

  29. Avatar Dot says:

    There is no more important task at hand than to be grateful for what we have. When I walked around my neighborhood yesterday, I noticed that my neighbor already had his home decorated for the Christmas season. He and his family are grateful. Grateful to be able to attend and serve their only daughter who is unable to move her limbs and lost control of her body temperature and blood pressure due to an accident just before she was to graduate from high school. I am blessed to know them.

  30. Avatar Harry Heller says:

    Dot: I think this country is very niggardly towards the TRULY disabled. As long as we have a huge (and unconstitutional) welfare state, I would like to see monies reallocated away from, say, Islamicist “refugee” resettlement, and used to aid the disabled. I think Trump should use this idea as a way of resuscitating the older understanding of “deserving” v. “undeserving” poor – a first step towards ratcheting down the scale of FedGov spending. Let the Right advocate FAR MORE SPENDING for the truly deserving, and an END to any welfare for able-bodied slackers (and all immigrants – noting, of course, that the optimal position is to end immigration completely). I’ve forwarded my thoughts to the Trump campaign, but alas, they have not given any indication that they read them.

  31. Avatar Robert says:

    Mr. Heller, I too would be curious to know such things but remain basically opposed to such personal revelations in the public square. I am more of the opinion (not a strong conviction) of the advice given to King Arthur by Merlin, that in some cases we must simply admire. Or as Belloc said in refusing the papal honor of Defender of the Faith, ” What if I change my mind? Dot, Yes of course you are correct. Gratitude comes before praise and praise is a noble gesture perhaps the most noble. I have often been accused of being a psychophant of Dr. Flemings and other teachers I have known and admired in friendship so forgive my acerbic tone at times,it is all pretension for a reason.

  32. Avatar Dot says:

    Mr. Heller, Arrangements were made through social work so that she can receive the care that she needs.
    Robert, I do admire this family and think that we would do the same out of love. Otherwise, I’m not sure of what else you said. I tend to be more direct. I’m thinking of not posting comments any more. It disturbs me that I am the only female who does this. However, this site satisfies me because the work I did involved analyzing a lab results. It doesn’t make sense but does to me.

  33. Avatar Robert says:

    Dot, I would miss your presence and what you offer to the blog. Also real men act a little nicer in the presence of a woman. But if it’s anything more than a hobby. I would always recommend a good book over a blog.

  34. Avatar Jo Shore says:

    Dot, please don’t leave as I have almost garnered courage enough to jump in with 82 year old responses to this erudite and civilized conversation.
    Josephine