Sin, as a concept, stands in opposition to virtue. Aristotle examined both these concepts in his writing on Ethics. But he drew the line between deliberate acts of vice and ‘passionate’ ones, saying that there was a difference between a sin committed with intent, and a sin committed out of weakness. It is a pragmatic way of thinking about sin, and it would be taken up by modern psychologists centuries later. But in the meantime, Europe had given itself over to other ideas, which were mostly religious in nature.
Sin was not a new concept at the dawn of Christianity, but Christianity gave it fresh impetus by linking it to the idea of divine judgement. Those who resisted sin were brought closer to God, and saved from the threat of damnation. Those that did not would be cast down to hell. But it soon became evident that none were excluded from the evils of temptation, not even the Christian clergy, and while Christian doctrine tried to dissuade its followers from a life of sin, the fact remains that the conditions for virtue during the Dark Ages were not making things any easier. The only law was a feudal one; gone were the great social systems of the Greeks and the Romans. Europe fell into a feudal pattern of rich versus poor, nobleman versus serf. Fairness and justice for all had fallen foul to the acquisition of power and favours.
Christian theologians, meanwhile, continued to write widely on the subject of sin, but the first to do so was Saint Paul, who lived around the time the Gospels later gave for the birth of Jesus.
Christian morality begins with Saint Paul. And although there is controversy about how many of his beliefs and teachings were inspired by the Greeks, the message he delivered became the mainstay of early Christian thinking. It is, at root, the message of love that Christianity first set out to diffuse. Sin is anger and hatred. Virtue’s goal is peace and forgiveness. These are fine ideas, and they are as vital now as they ever were. But they are equally as hard to achieve. Humankind has a way of twisting things; perhaps, as sins go, our ability to turn things to a profit is the worst sin of all. As the Church gained in power and influence, it would be tested against its early message of peace, love and piety. Whether it would stand up to the test or not, has been the subject of more than one historical novel — but in any event, during the course of the next few hundred years the true Christian message ultimately failed to deliver its promised peace. Instead, Christian thinking took a new turn; one could almost say it travelled full circle back to its point of departure: the Genesis.
In the Old Testament, the first sinner was female. It was Eve, not Adam, who plucked the apple, and led mankind to a state of sinfulness. As a result Adam and Eve were thrown out of their heavenly paradise and made to face an earthly reality of suffering and pain. And later, when the Church came to realise that the battle against sin was hard to win, it established a new order to counter it. The name of this order was the Inquisition, and the outcome of its work was anything but peaceful and nothing if not painful.
Heresy, or dissidence against the Church, became the ultimate sin. And the weight of a great deal of this heresy fell once again on Eve.
Witch-hunting is recorded as having begun officially in the 1200s, when Pope Gregory IX encouraged the pursuit of witches by Inquisitors. Thousands of women were eventually condemned, right up until the seventeenth century. But women had been demonised much earlier, by priests such as Saint Jerome who lived and preached in the fifth century, when the period historicists called The Dark Ages was in full swing.
Saint Jerome was not just any priest; he translated the Bible from the Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate, a version still used today. All previous translations had been from the Greek, and Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew has since been called into question. Nevertheless, the translation was accepted, and Jerome, who was known for his teachings on Christian morality, took his place as a major player in the story of Christianity.
His view of sinfulness, however, was a complex one. There was little of forgiveness in it, and much of anger. “What will ye do, ye sinners, and whither will ye flee on that day of judgement…?” And again, “Ye sinners shall be cursed forever, and ye shall have no peace.” Jerome hints of scandalous behaviour in his youth, and his dislike of women comes through in his writings, where he refers to woman as “the root of all evil”. In fact, a great deal of Jerome’s sermonising was devoted to the subject of women; he warned women of the importance of virginity, and encouraged them to pursue a monastic life, determined, perhaps, to remove the source of the temptation that devoured him.
Women were really only released from their bondage to sin around the time of the Enlightenment. Science would shed new light on the miraculous workings of the female reproductive system; woman would become not so much the root of all evil as the purveyor of miracles. Besides, with the advent of the Industrial Age and the dawn of urban living, sin would acquire a whole new criminal dimension that would make heresy the least of everybody’s problems. Old questions would rise up to the surface in another form. Had Aristotle missed the point? Were people inherently evil, right from the start? And if they were, how could they be saved at all?
Next Week: A Short History of Ideas examines Evil…
Read more about the Greeks and Western Christendom in
The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, HERE