“Balliol blacklisters are only following Christian tradition”, writes Catherine Nixey in The Times, referring to Oxford students who banned the Christian Union from their freshers’ fair.
I wrote about that outrage yesterday, so I won’t repeat myself. But Miss Nixey invokes broader issues than the shenanigans of some post-pubescent youngsters, and these merit a comment.
The tradition she refers to is that of censorship, and she co-opts St Augustine to support her argument. Accusing those Balliol youths of suppressing freedom of speech, she writes, is dishonest because Christians did it too.
I haven’t read Miss Nixey’s book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, but the title is self-explanatory. Now she says that what was sauce for the Christian goose should be sauce for the atheist gander.
If I were making the same argument, I’d cite an even earlier source than St Augustine: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
Miss Nixey uses an old trick. She holds something she finds distasteful, in this case Christianity, to some nonexistent absolute standard. Then she uses non-compliance to argue the moral equivalence of all creeds (provided they don’t impinge on liberal orthodoxies).
Christians had censorship, so did Soviets, so did Nazis – what’s the difference?
She clearly dislikes Christianity and adores the classical world that Christianity supposedly destroyed. That’s fair enough: she’s entitled to hold that view, much as I find it dubious.
What shouldn’t be an automatic entitlement is the crepuscular thinking she deploys, nor the selective treatment of history she favours. Both are typical of the Left, which Miss Nixey’s article demonstrates yet again.
For, contrary to the liberal cliché, freedom of speech can’t possibly be absolute. It has to be a matter of consensus, which by definition makes it relative. Every civilisation is justified in censoring speech it finds deleterious to its survival.
Hence freedom of speech isn’t always good, nor is censorship always bad. It depends on how we feel about the civilisation using it.
Specifically in culture there are two types of censorship: proscriptive and prescriptive. The former tells artists what they can’t do; the latter tells them what they must do.
While the latter kills art stone dead, there’s no evidence that the former unduly inhibits self-expression. In fact, one could argue that the greatest masterpieces of art and literature were created in the conditions of some censorship, while its absence seems to have a stifling effect.
Comparing, say, the Russian literature created in the nineteenth century under conditions of strict censorship to contemporaneous American literature free of such constraints, it’s hard to insist on the stifling effect of any censorship – and the liberating effect of its absence.
The argument in favour of free speech über alles doesn’t work in politics either.
Free speech can’t be allowed to act as a weapon in the hands of those who wish to destroy free speech. A group promoting fascist, jihadist or communist propaganda thereby relinquishes its right either to defend free speech or to claim its protection.
It’s civilised people who should do so, and at times they may also have to limit free speech within the law. However, they must be careful not to overstep the line beyond which justifiable social self-defence ends and tyranny begins. Yet they’re unlikely to confuse the two – for otherwise they wouldn’t be civilised.
Using Augustine as a witness to Christianity’s oppressive tendencies is disingenuous, to put it mildly. When Augustine wrote, in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity was struggling for survival, and it was touch and go.
Advocating unbridled freedom of speech then was tantamount to letting any heresy run unopposed, thereby destroying the religion. Expecting Augustine to cling to liberal abstractions some 1,500 years before they became fashionable is expecting him to sign up to a suicide pact.
However, even then debate certainly wasn’t nonexistent within the ranks of the Church, as anyone who knows anything about the great Councils will tell you. And when Christianity gathered strength, debate became common currency.
Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, great Christian thinkers, from Anselm to Aquinas, not only conducted the liveliest of debates with their adversaries within or without Christianity, but also used the tools of Greek philosophy to do so.
Accusing Christianity of destroying the classical world is wrong on many counts, historical, intellectual and moral. In fact, Christendom always was an asset-stripping civilisation: it took from other civilisations what it found useful and dumped the rest.
Miss Nixey obviously wishes Christianity had kept such practices of Hellenic antiquity as killing feeble children (Sparta) or leaving unwanted baby girls by the roadside to be devoured by wild animals (Rome). She’d probably also welcome a return to paganism, with its false metaphysical premises that made real science impossible.
But to say that Christianity destroyed the classical world means ignoring the very nature of Christian thought, formed as it was by Jerusalem and Athens coming together.
It would also take a myopic eye not to notice the classical antecedents of Christian architectural styles, such as Byzantine (VI to early XV centuries), Romanesque (XI-XII), Renaissance (XV-XIV) and Neo-Classical (XVII-early XIX).
And it would take a Van Gogh ear for music not to discern the debt Christian music owes to classical modes. That would be a useful accompaniment to the ignorance of not realising that Christian poetry owes so much to Virgil, Horace and Ovid as to owe them practically everything.
Christianity has always relied on discernment, and therefore some discrimination and censorship, to create the greatest civilisation the world has ever known. That was based on a tradition of free thought unmatched by any other creed – including liberalism, which is the modern term for illiberalism.
That Balliol lot are driven by the urge not to create a new civilisation but to destroy the old one. Hence their censorship proceeds not from love, as Miss Nixey claims, but from hate – not from a desire to protect, but from the itch to dominate.
As I said earlier, our view of censorship can’t be absolute. It all depends on how we feel about the agents, purposes, nature and scope of censorship.
Deploying it in defence of a great civilisation is no vice; using it to put a tyrannical foot down is no virtue. Miss Nixey and those pimply Balliol youths obviously feel differently. One just wishes they could make their case in an intellectually sound manner.