Lectio praecursoria 1998


Pagans and Christians – The deconstruction of binary oppositions

(Tästä muokattu suomenkielinen artikkeli ”Pakanat ja kristityt – vastakkaisparien dekonstruktiota”, Historiallinen Aikakauskirja 3 /1999)


The subject of my doctoral dissertation is saeculum Praetextati, the century of Praetextatus, that is, the lifetime of an eminent Roman senator called Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. In studying Praetextatus, I have illuminated the political, cultural and particularly the religious atmosphere in the fourth century C.E.


In introducing my doctoral thesis in this lectio, I discuss one aspect of my research: Praetextatus was a pagan in the crucial period of transition when the Roman Empire was gradually Christianized. I just called Praetextatus a pagan in order to make it clear that he was not a Christian. I am defining him in the Christian terms as a non-Christian. The crucial question to be asked now is why I am calling him a pagan?


The term ‘pagan’ is loaded with innumerable connotations, mainly derogatory, because ‘pagan’ has represented the otherness in the Western culture dominated by Christianity. Christians usually referred to non-Christians as gentes or gentiles in the Latin West, and later, in the fifth century, as pagani – originally meaning ‘country-dwellers, peasants’. Christians needed to label non-Christians as one recognizable group, pagans. However, polytheistic religions was not a homogeneous religion but rather a wide range of various cults and beliefs, practices and attitudes.


Would Praetextatus or his contemporaries have made as sharp difference between pagans and Christians as people in the later European history have done? Would this dichotomy between pagans and Christians have been important for him? Would there perhaps have been other kinds of dichotomies which were more crucial in the Graeco-Roman antiquity? Graeco-Roman antiquity did not necessarily usually make such sharp divisions – at least in religious issues – as we, modern Western scholars tend to do.


Christian apologists, because of their polemical ends, certainly sharpened the division and labelled the vast collection of polytheistic various religions as ‘paganism’. They needed to do this to clarify their own self-identity, their own self-consciousness. Thus, the history of the term ‘pagan’ illustrates the growing Christian self-consciousness, Christian awareness of being separate and different from other religions.


We, modern scholars have tended to interpret pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity in terms of sharp dichotomy. Our modern preunderstanding of ancient paganism and ancient Christianity has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian culture and tradition. Thus, we perceive and label people of late antiquity through our own culture, in the Christian-centred way, dividing them into Christians, that is, us, and non-Christians, that is, others.


The way in which modern scholarship has interpreted the relationship between the pagans and Christians has varied from time to time and will probably also vary several times in the future: The pagan-Christian antagonism and the conflictual aspect in the relations between pagans and Christians were emphasized particularly during World War II and the Cold War. The so-called pagan motifs in many texts and artefacts were interpreted as hidden protests or pagan propaganda against Christianity. Alliances and revolts were explained and interpreted as conscious reactions and movements against Christian emperors. Religious adherence was regarded as an important criterion in the appointments to administrative posts in the Roman Empire. This may be our modern construction of what we regard as important. Pagans and Christians were appointed alike to high posts during the fourth century. Religious adherence has also been over-emphasized in explaining networks of aristocratic families though many examples – for instance Symmachus’ vast correspondence – show that pagan aristocrats established relations with Christians as well as with pagans.


The later atmosphere of détente and peaceful coexistence has clearly broadened the conceptions of the relationship between pagans and Christians. In recent late antique studies, many scholars have reflected brilliantly upon the pagan-Christian dichotomy and tried to break away from this binary model. Instead of pagan-Christian antagonism, people in fourth-century Rome have been described as having an ambience of assimilation and compromise. There was ‘a wide no-man’s land’ and ample room for uncertainty between explicit pagans and uncompromising Christians. For instance, we have evidence of a Christian who functioned as a flamen, a priest of the traditional Roman religion.


The traditional division of pagans and Christians could be replaced with a scheme of tolerant and intolerant attitudes toward religious issues – another division into binary oppositions again! Paganism could be understood not as a religion but as an attitude toward religion and tolerance of religious plurality.


The simplifying dualism, that is, a tendency to understand everything through binary oppositions, which haunts in the modern scholarly literature, always reminds me of the images of aliens in science fiction literature and films. In a very similar way, aliens – the otherness – in science fiction during the World War and the Cold War were depicted as enemies. In the atmosphere of détente and peaceful coexistence later in the sixties and seventies the otherness were interpreted in much friendlier terms: aliens in science fiction were depicted more as companions and partners than enemies, for instance, in Star Trek and in the famous E.T. Sharp dichotomies reappeared in science fiction in the simple and dualistic Star Wars which illustrates change in the political atmosphere in the period of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the United States. Dichotomies appear again in the 90s in a film called Independence Day in which aliens clearly are enemies and in the TV-series Babylon 5 which introduces very Manichaean dualism between the forces of Light and Darkness (Shadows). (though Babylon 5 also depicts a multipolar world instead of a two-polar world).


Let us return to late antique studies. It is understandable that simplifications cannot be avoided. It is impossible to express any ideas without simplifying the multiplicity of the world – and, well, saying this I also just made a simplification! I wonder if human thinking is ever possible without simplifying classifications, especially dichotomies. At least, these classifications are deeply rooted in our western way of perceiving the world.


The western dualism is highlighted in Augustine’s City of God which has had an immense influence on the later European thought. For the church father Augustine, there are only ’two kinds of people’ who form the two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem: 

“I classify the human race into two branches: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to god’s will. I also call these two classes the two cities, (speaking allegorically). By two cities I mean two societies of human beings, (one of which is predestined to reign with god for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the devil”. 

However, in spite of its pejorative connotations, I have used the term ‘pagan’ in my doctoral dissertation. I could have tried to express ‘pagan’, for instance, saying “people in late antiquity who were not Christians” or “non-Christians” but changing the word would not make any difference. Even if we replaced a ‘pagan’, for example, with a ‘polytheist’, we would still be stuck in our Christian – non-Christian dichotomy.


The deconstruction of binary oppositions has been a theme much discussed in theoretical discourse. An eminent French philosopher Jacques Derrida, for instance, has developed a general strategy of deconstruction of binary oppositions (stratégie générale de la déconstruction): a double move in which

1) first, the hierarchically ordered oppositions in the conceptual pairs operative in the text are reversed;

2) secondly, a novel ‘concept’ with a cancelling effect on the original conceptual order is invented. However, “deconstruction is not a method or some tool that you apply to something from the outside. Deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside”.


Binary oppositions need each other, in fact, binary oppositions are one. The one side needs and includes its opposite side. In the black colour, there is included the non-black colour. One cannot be defined without otherness. In a similar way, Christian and non-Christian are the same: Christian includes non-Christian; Christians cannot be defined without a conceptual opposite, non-Christian. There was no such word as ‘pagan’ or ‘paganism’ before Christianity.


There was no such concept as ‘pagan’, and in fact, there was no ‘paganism’ before Christianity. There was something else, varieties of religions, cults, practices, beliefs, ceremonies etc. As Christians construed themselves as Christians, they had to construe also pagans. Without pagans there would not have been Christians. Paganism is included in Christianity.


I am not saying that I have succeeded completely in reversing the pagan-Christian dichotomy. I am just aware of the problem, aware that there is a problem. And I am reflecting upon it.


To conclude this discussion on dualistic binary oppositions, “there are only two kinds of people: those who classify others into categories and those do not”.



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