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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    This was a most satisfying elucidation. Thank you. I am tempted to think that Jesus tended to agree with Greco-Roman civilization in its attitude toward what Judaism was, or became, except that throughout Jewish history there was always a small, but true minority which he came to instruct and expand. I have often thought that even at the height of “Christendom” there was only ever a small minority of Christians who were truly committed to Christ. In adopting Greco-Roman self control, however, it seems that maybe even a majority were able to put themselves at least in the neighborhood of the Kingdom. There seems, however, to have been a substantial number of Greek inquirers into the Jewish faith in preparation for possible conversion during the Apostolic period. If this is true, what would have been worldly impetus to their interest, outside, of course, of the action of the Holy Spirit to put the Greeks and Romans into a better position to receive the Word.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    My Strenk,
    . I have often thought that even at the height of “Christendom” there was only ever a small minority of Christians who were truly committed to Christ.
    You are definitely in crowded company today in thinking this but I think it is preposterous.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Does one’s judgment depend in part on the word “truly.” If it is intended to mean something like what the Stoics meant by wise, which for them meant perfectly wise with no imperfections, then one can surely say that few Christians are truly, that is perfectly committed to Christ. In the early days of the Apostles, they believed that such a commitment was incompatible with ordinary human concerns, such as private property and marriage. After a brief experiment, a distinction began to be made between those who dedicated their lives to His Church and those who led normal lives within the Church.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    It’s hard for us to read history in any way but backwards. We speak of the thirty years war as something extravagantly horrible ignoring our own noble efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as praiseworthy but based on bad intelligence. We speak of a 60% divorce rate as familiar to christian history, abortion as something always practiced by the multitudes, economics as always the end of human endeavors, or sex, or glory, or fame, or many loves. We think the ringing of the Angelus as uncommon, the building of Churches an adventure in creating worship space, the monastic as a historical aberration and the spiritual ass something associated with UFO’s or a sentiment in need of a kind gesture,
    Thankfully the medieval is one of the most ignored and clumsily portrayed periods of history studied today and any discussion of it in our times is like throwing pearls before
    swine. If the observation is that in any given age, men whose feet are made of clay, are often divided by a small numerator of excellence, and a large denominator embracing the zeitgeist, I can agree. If the observation is that the spirit of historical ages is really the same throughout, both before and after the Incarnation, then let us give the 1th, 12th and 13th century their due meed of praise and not pretend they were just a stage in the evolutionary development from darkness to enlightenment.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    There is undoubtedly and ebb and flow to the course of Christianity and we are certainly at a point of extreme low tide, like when a tsunami is building. We are called to perfection and perfection is found in the most unusual places. I believe that it was St. Anthony the Great who was directed by an angel to a shoemaker with a family when he sought a tangible example of a perfect Christian life. St. Zosimas, a great saint in his own right with significant spiritual accomplishments as a monk, when he asked what more is there to achieve, was directed to St. Mary of Egypt, one of the greatest saints in the Orthodox Church, a woman whom we would consider to have been the very lowest of the low in terms of her previous character and behavior. Simply thinking that we’ve done the best that we can by following all of the rules is never good enough. Living in an age wherein extreme self-satisfaction is the norm, perhaps I do make the mistake that things have always been thus to some degree. However, I do not believe that human nature is infinitely malleable and if we now live in the most extremely permissive society that has ever existed then the impulses toward this have always existed, controlled, of course, by the council of the Holy Spirit (Who never abandons us) but also, in the past, largely by societal norms, the rules. St. Paul makes a strong distinction between The Law and The Way as it ought to be, written on our hearts. He struggled mightily in his own worldly life to keep the communities that he served straight in this matter. In a sense those who lived in the thousand year period of which Dr. Fleming speaks, wherein people were free and, in fact, encouraged to pursue the Christian virtues in societies that valued self-control as practiced in Greco-Roman civilization, had it easy. We now seem to be in or headed toward that time that Christ warned us about when simply declaring our faith would be a monumental task. Or has it always really been thus since His resurrection?

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes, indeed. One can certainly find periods when a culture was more favorable or receptive to the way, the truth and abundant life than others but ours is especially anti-Christ in its principles. Yet as you say there have always been a few from the beginning, who persevered until the end.
    There is a story of St Polycarp minding his own business when a more popular sophist and heretic denounced the him for not recognizing him or his genius. The humble saint replied, “I know who you are. The eldest son of satan.” And then offered his life as a witness.
    I am told that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are devout Christians of the same tradition but simply more enlightened from the passage of time and progress but I don’t believe it.

  7. Joshua Smith says:

    In these pages, Dr. Fleming has often reminded us that most of us are largely sheep and our proper reaction to our fellow sheep is pity and long-suffering–at least the sheep we actually meet in real life. Those we don’t actually meet…well who has time to give meaningful thought to hypothetical sheep. I have also heard Dr. Patrick refer to Christianity as the Kingdom of the New Heart. We are reminded in several places that the New Heart will be like that of a child. And I, for one, can easily imagine the children of today as being very similar to children of the middle ages, just like a man on his deathbed in America today is probably very similarly pathetic to a man on his deathbed at the height of Christendom. I think, for most of us Christians, our hope ultimately will lie in that similarity rather than in any difference of our lives in between. Not that being pathetic itself is virtuous, but it may actually facilitate a blessed humility and helplessness, enough to finally accept that New Heart at the crucial time. An old priest in Columbus, OH, one of the very few who would answer the phone at any hour for Last Rites any place in town (and thus has witnessed thousands of deaths), expressed something similar to me many years ago over some beers and meatloaf.

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    This conversation reminds me of a recent reflection I read on the influences of genetics on a culture, or the cultural influence on the genetic potential of a people. I spent a slow summer a few years ago in the Anasazi’s Mesa Verde region walking their cliff dwellings admiring some of their pottery their ingenuity in designing their homes and cities and their domestication of some plants and animals indigenous to the region.
    It made me wonder and compare what these humans in Colorado were doing here at the same time Japan was cultivating Samari Warriors across the Pacific and Carolinians, the old territory of Gaul on the other side of the Atlantic.
    The archaeologists that summer mostly from Germany, were telling me climate change eliminated the Asazis while an old Ute elder said we really don’t know because they did not have a written language to tell us and the oral traditions passed down for generations and centuries have been mostly lost. Or to paraphrase a poet “ We only know that summer sang in them a little while, that in them sings no more.”
    The Europeans we know more about and the demise of the Samari has been popularized, some say trivialized, in Hollywood movies. But here you have three different peoples inhabiting the same earth during similar times at different locations creating different cultures and then fading into history or obscurity, while others enter the stage.
    It makes a Christian wonder about the full meaning of the “gates of Hell not prevailing” ,the endless renditions of Amazing grace or the vanity of all vanities.

  9. Dom says:

    An interesting point about Greek monogamy. I have wondered what happened to Jewish polygamy by the time of the New Testament. Polygamy is on display throughout the Old Testament, but throughout the Gospels and Acts everybody seems to be monogamous. Christ’s teachings on marriage seem to revolve around the image of a monogamous relationship. Based on this I suspected that somehow or somewhere Jewish teaching evolved to favor monogamy, but as far as I know none of the writing prophets ever weighed in on the matter.
    Is it possible Jewish marriage custom was influenced by Greek conquest? From Maccabees it is clear that Hellenic practices were creeping into Jewish society at that time.
    Dr. Fleming noted that Judaism still makes allowance for polygamy, so maybe I have read too much into these things. Where, then, would the Christian tradition of monogamy originate? Pagan Greco-Roman customs? Marriage seems to be such a fundamental aspect of human existence that any Christian teaching would have roots in Christian theology. I don’t recall any specific Scriptural teachings regarding one-man-and-one-woman relationships, but I am certainly no authority on the matter.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The short answer to Dom’s good question is: The Jews in the ancient world never renounced polygamy or even, so far as I know, criticized it. They why, you ask (in an even better question) does Our Lord take monogamy for granted?

    There are two parts to the answer. First, the Romans, who gave great latitude to the people they ruled, did not tolerate certain customs they found repellant, such as human sacrifice. I do not have evidence of any systematic outlawing of polygamy, but it would have been hard to exist as a Roman citizen–as, for example Paul was–or even as a successful non-citizen if one practiced such an abomination–it’s just not the thing old man. Then how did Jews retain the practice, as they certainly did in the Middle East and fairly late in Europe? The truth is that most Jews did not return from the Babylonian and Assyrian captivities, and from the time of the Captivity until today, most Jews have not lived in Israel. In the Roman Empire, the centers of Jewish civilization were to a large extent in Babylonia and in Alexandria, where a rival family claiming the high priesthood actually built and maintained a Temple.

    There were rabbinical declarations, with a sunset clause, in Russia and elsewhere–I’m too lazy to look up dates, but post-Renaissance–to renounce, temporarily, polygamy, very much as the Mormons did–their ban, too, is temporary. The renunciation was a practical measure designed to ward off persecution. This is a problem for Israel, founded by European Zionists and based on European laws. Polygamy is officially illegal, but when Jews from the Middle East and North Africa move to Israel, they bring their households with them and for the most part are left along.

    Now we are ready for part two of the answer. Jesus’ teaching on marriage explicitly forbids divorce and remarriage and implicitly rejects polygamy. He knows perfectly well that Jews learned in then law will take him to task, which is why in the Great Sermon, he proclaims the marriage of Adam and Eve ass normative and condemns. the law of Moses permitting divorce (and, I would argue, polygamy) as a concession to the Children of Israel’s harness of heart.

  11. Brent says:

    In the greeting to his letter to the saints at Rome, St. Paul says that he is “under obligation both to Greeks (Hellenes) and to barbarians (barbaroi).” In the very next sentence he calls the Gospel the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Hellene).” By this juxtaposition, was Paul, at least rhetorically, acknowledging the Greco-Roman view of the Jew as barbarian?
    As to barbaros being an imitation of the way non-Greeks sounded to Greek speakers, the same St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner (barbaros) to the speaker and the speaker a (barbaros) to me.”

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    I agree with Mr. Smith that the concerns of a man near death might be assumed to be the same now as then. The problem with this is that the culture is extremely hostile toward allowing us to die like men anymore. I offer the example of my grandmother’s death, not to blow my own horn for my role in it as an advocate for being allowed a Christian death, but as an example of the insanity around end-of-life decisions these days. My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 93, not in the bowel but affecting it and causing some bleeding, which seemed to necessitate transfusions. My wife and I were of the opinion that the bleeding could be mitigated through non-invasive means, and for awhile it was, but no treatment of the cancer itself was advisable because of her age and because of the slow progression of cancer in older people. We were bulldozed over by my cousin who, for reasons still unknown to me, was put in charge of her healthcare decisions despite her having three mentally competent children. So she endured biopsies and radiation treatment and deteriorated rapidly ultimately falling by the toilet and breaking a couple of vertebrae which put her in extreme pain from then on. Entering my uncle’s house one day, where she was staying, I witnessed them trying to move her while she screamed to break your heart. She had always been very stoic, once putting a pitchfork through her foot while digging potatoes with not much more reaction than, “Oh, dear there’s a pitchfork in my foot.” (I’m not sure that she even went to the doctor). I had to pull my uncle aside and forcefully explain to him that she was dying and that this is what morphine is for. They had refused to give it to her because they thought that it would interfere with her cancer treatment. Some small time later when I visited, she was indeed tranquilized, but they had installed a TV in the bedroom at ceiling height, like in hospitals, and some demonic crap was blaring at full volume so as to get through the morphine. I was furious and told my aunt so, shutting off the TV. My aunt said that she liked it, but the look on my grandmother’s dear face was that of someone being beaten with sticks. With the box off, she relaxed and I gave a recording of my grandmother’s cousin’s choir (he was a well regarded Greek Catholic choir director) to my other aunt to play for her. Her face gradually changed from calm to beatific. Just months before she had still been a pillar of her own church choir, which activity she valued almost above all else. After a few minutes she motioned to her younger daughter toward the window at the foot of the bed and whispered, “The angels.” At best she may have gained a few months from all of this, but she might have lived longer without it and almost certainly would have been spared all the pain and suffering. She was only feeling tired before (at 93) and was having some bowel trouble, which was mostly just very inconvenient.
    As Christians we are all members of the body of Christ, Mr. Reavis, and every person and, even more so, every people that accepts Christ adds to the beauty of His Church.

  13. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes, and thank you for the beautiful story too, Mr Strenk. Any consolation provided to the sick and dying is a great mercy and I admire you for doing so.