Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Origins of altruism

Just watched an ARC video on YouTube - excerpted from the "Capitalism Without Guilt" lecture - Yaron Brook giving his thoughts on the possible origins of altruism.

Interesting that he specifically associates it with Christianity. If altruism rose and spread along with Christianity, that would mean that it was the early Christian philosophers who came up with the idea, which was spread by Rome's adoption of Christianity as the state religion - by Constantine - in 300-something.

Which raises the question, what was it about about altruism that early Christian leaders saw that made it not merely a "superior" morality - at least, in their eyes - but a more effective political strategy? I can see the idea of self-sacrifice being very appealing to someone like Constantine, who might have seen it as a way of consolidating the power of the state. But were the early Christian leaders a bunch of petty tyrants drunk on the adulation of worshippers eager to sacrifice themselves? I can see the possibility of this from what little I know about the early days of Christianity, and the way some bishops were willing to stir up their followers over doctrinal disputes, leading to accounts of enraged mobs tearing each other apart over whether a particular verse belonged in the bible, or whether God, Jesus & the Holy Spirit were actually one and the same, or some such.

Definitely not pretty. And, of course, when Constantine adopted Christianity, it - and altruism - doomed Rome to eventual destruction, ushering in the Dark Ages, during which the residents of Rome forgot even how to write, among other things.

Update: Well, looks like I need to do some more research on the early history of Christianity. On perusing Wikipedia I discovered that it was not Constantine, but Theodosius I who made Christianity the official state religion of Rome - on February 27th, 380, to be exact.


  1. Professor John Lewis, in a lecture delivered in London, I believe, shows that all the major ideas of the Christians were already present among pagan Roman intellectuals.

    Based on my limited reading of the history of the Roman Empire, I would say the empire was doomed before the Christians became more than just one more mystery cult. Rome's intellectuals failed Rome, just as intellectuals in the USA have largely failed her.

    I do recommend Dr. Lewis's lecture, "Ideas and the Fall of Rome," available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. Search for "John Lewis."

  2. That still leaves the question of why Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome. Did the story of Christ's death on the cross give those ideas a focus - a way of integrating them - that they didn't have before? Was Christianity just another mystery cult or did it have a specific approach to the idea of sacrifice that made it more - um - useful?

  3. Andrew Bernstein's free Objective Standard essay "The Tragedy of Theology" discusses this topic.

  4. Rob, you have asked intriguing questions. I am not a specialist in this Constantinian period--c. 300-c. 337, but also the centuries leading up to this time. My contribution is mostly to ask questions about the questions--a first step for one of us to someday find an answer to the original question.

    1. Rob: "That still leaves the question of why Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome."

    According to secondary sources ("Constantine I," Oxford Classical Dictionary; and LeGlay, History of Rome, 2nd ed., p. 462), Constantine was presumably first a conventional pagan polytheist (revering a pantheon of gods). Then, after receiving a "vision," he became a henotheistic follower of the Eastern cult god Apollo. (Henotheism is the belief that one god [henos in Greek] is supreme over other gods.) Then, in some confused manner not clear to modern historians, he somehow identified Apollo with Christ; ordered his soldiers to use a cross as a battle symbol; won such a battle against great odds; and thereafter became a Christian, but not an intellectual one. Two main personal advisers were a pope and a wealthy Christian intellectual activist. They were the witch doctors for Constantine's Attila. In other words, they were the mystics of the spirit that complemented Constantine's mysticism of muscle.

    I think your question needs to be segmented:

    (1) Why did Constantine switch from standard pagan polytheism to the cult of Apollo? (If that is what he actually did.)

    (2) Why did Constantine switch from the henotheistic cult of Apollo to the monotheistic (but trinitarian!) religion of Christianity, an evolved form of the ancient religion of Judaism?

    (3) Why did Constantine, once he actually became a monarch (by killing off his rivals for power) then decide to use state money to support Christians, particularly Catholic Christians (as distinct from other brands such as Arians and Donatists).

    In regard to (3): My tentative suggestion is that (a) a general belief in his time was that the state prospered only if the gods liked what the state was doing. It follows naturally that Constantine, like other emperors, supported some religion. Constantine gave state support to Christians in particular because he thought Christ was the all-powerful god and deserved reverence.

    Constantine, a nonintellectual, was merely drawing elements from his culture, elements that had magical power. The question then becomes: Why had Christians managed to spread their ideas (in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics) so widely in the Empire that the top brute might draw on them from individuals already in his trust? To answer that would require reviewing 300 years of the history of the whole Christian movement: Why did it succeed?

    My short, nonspecialist's answer is that:

    (1) Christianity uncompromisingly offered everything that most everyone wanted: a coherent (though evolving) explanation for the state of the world (and the supernatural world), a radical form of faith, and a willingness to absorb Greek philosophy, especially the neo-Platonism dominant at the time.

    (2) Christianity featured being saved as a core belief (looking for a "savior" was common at this time).

    (3) Christianity had an enormously energetic evangelism that arose "logically" from the very (supposed) existence of Jesus, God's own son who became incarnate in order to evangelize.

    If I have time, I will suggest answers to your other questions. My hope is that individuals more knowledgeable than I will correct me.

  5. > 2. "Did the story of Christ's death on the cross give those ideas a focus - a way of integrating them - that they didn't have before?"

    The ideas that are important here include more than the idea of sacrifice. They also include metaphysical (supernatural), epistemological (faith-based) ideas, and ethical ideas supposedly designed to guide the individual's life.

    My understanding is that, yes, in one sense the crucifixtion was an integrating idea. It was a sort of nexus of other ideas. E.g., it was a metaphor for suffering here on earth; and the subsequent resurrection was a promise of everlasting life. That must have been very attractive to certain types living in a world where the lifespan was short and, for many, miserable because of disease, poverty, and political oppression.

    The idea of God becoming incarnate (taking a bodily form), suffering for humanity, and showing the way to eternal life was exciting to many. Around 90 AD, the anonymous writer of The Letter to the Hebrews Ch. 11., verse 1 captured this attraction when he defined faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

    Would-be Christians hoped for "a way" to live, especially one that (1) avoided the never-ending debates among the philosophers, and (2) offered everlasting life. These would-be Christians wanted to believe (have "conviction") in things like heaven and the raising of the dead, that is, things for which there was no evidence based on sense-perception ("not seen").

    The integration of all these ideas came from Christians who had been trained since youth in pagan philosophical culture. Prominent examples were Justin Martyr (died 165) and Origen of Alexandria (died 254). Such intellectuals were, over time, able to "integrate" various elements into a rationalistic web--at least for those who asked questions.

    Other Christians were notorious for being "simple." They took things on faith without any questioning.

    Christianity was unsual in asking for total faith and offering an intellectual explanation.

  6. WOW! Interesting comments!

    Burgess, you wrote: "Would-be Christians hoped for "a way" to live, especially one that (1) avoided the never-ending debates among the philosophers"

    That suggests to me that what early Christians were looking for was moral certainty, and they WEREN'T getting it from the Greek & Roman philosphers of the time, who were - correct me if I'm wrong - heavy into neo-Platonism & skepticism around then. Which makes sense to me if they were seeking something that would give them confidence that they were making the right decisions in their daily lives.

    What a parallel to our current sitiation!

  7. Rob, yes, I agree with you in that there are parallels to our own time--disturbing ones. The Christians, at least after Justin and Origen (who were both philosophically trained evangelists), offered a comprehensive, "integrated" worldview--an explanation of the world and man's place in it, an explanation that offered both the (contextless) certainty of faith and the persuasive arguments of the intellectuals.

    The "integrated" worldview was, of course, exactly what Dr. Peikoff has called it: misintegration. But because it was both coherent and tied to another world, the supernatural, it persisted for more than a thousand years with no competition.

    As the years pass, I am increasingly convinced that Objectivists do have time to change, if not reverse, the course of our culture. It will require more work from more Objectivists, and, I think, their work will need to be more specialized. But we can succeed.

    We have something the ancient pagans didn't have (because they failed to do with Aristotle's philosophy what The Ayn Rand Institute and various individuals have been doing with Objectivism): promote an explicit, integrated philosophy seen as a whole.