I recently told a friend that I don't study history so as to avoid repeating it. That is an exercise in futility. I study history so that when it repeats, I can ride along in style.
We live in a time when things are changing, perhaps more than they ever have in the history of man. The times are volatile, and there is no common footing, mutual understanding, the narratives have been destroyed, our leaders no longer even know their history much less understand it. The problems of the third fourth and fifth centuries, the problems of late antiquity have returned.
For that reason Peter Brown's insights into that fateful era are of infinite worth for understanding what is happening today, and perhaps understanding what needs to be done to help things along, to ride it out, to capture influence. The book gives phenomenal insights into the economy of power, what gained a man power, how power was to be wielded, what went in to being a citizen, and what was at stake. Perhaps I betray my own Christian background when I say these things have not changed, perhaps they have morphed a little since then, but people are people. We still need the same things, we want the same things, and our deepest needs and wants are sometimes things we are unaware of. This book allows a person to reflect on the differences and parallels to our own times and society.
As always Peter Brown writes in a fascinating and engaging manner with interesting insight gleaned from what could pass as boring material if you were someone else. In short he understands the paideia of which he writes. In doing so he elucidates late antiquity with daylight of understanding, rectifying false interpretations of history, perhaps correcting myths of understanding. I could not put this book down. Peter Brown shows why a degree in political science is really a degree in history.
For pastors, this book is of incredible value. This is a period of time in which giants of the church and theology took great strides in shaping and forming who we are as Western Christians. It was a time when the church began, perhaps not as innocently as we would like to believe, to wield power. But that power came with a price. As bishops and other church men took over positions of power in the politics of empire, and the Bible came to replace Homer, interpretations of the Bible were given new meaning. When the position of "philosopher", who was to be a buffer and arbitrator, was taken over by priests, monks, and holy men then the ascetic lifestyle of the philosopher came to be their lifestyle. To this day this is reflected in the piety a pastor or priest is supposed to have, a piety not so much derived from scripture, as it is from the philosopher's paideia, the his learning, instruction and manner of life which gave him power in the face of governors and emperors. The idea of being baptized later in life, after you had sown your oats, and were willing to truly take on "true Christianity" as the higher paideia of the philosopher, came about at this time, and is reflected in the life of Gregory Nazianzen. This became a time when becoming a bishop was good reason to divorce your wife, and then to converse with her for the purpose of taking care of family business was reason enough to be deposed. (Pg. 138, ftn 93.) One can see from this how the idea of digamy, and not, bigamy, polygamy or womanizing, comes to form the interpretation of 1 Timothy 3 as justification for this new form of asceticism among the clergy, in a letter meant to speak out against such asceticism!