Through the Eye of a Needle
Another book for the reading list. Darn. How am I supposed to keep up? Especially with my New Year’s resolution in force to read fewer books this year.
Yesterday’s NYT book review had an interview with Gary Wills that opened with the question, “What was the best book you read last year?” His reply: “Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle. Puts a stethoscope to the fourth through sixth centuries C.E.”
Following the link takes us to the book’s Princeton University Press webpage and the following description:
Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.
Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.
Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.
Still not convinced that this is a must-read book? I wasn’t either, but then it occurred to me that Wills must have written a review—one that escaped my attention—for the New York Review of Books. Sure enough, here it is.
Check out Wills’ conclusion:
Brown is not vulnerable to the things that made the old conjectural historians lose their credibility. They had a narrow range of material evidence from which to calculate their probabilities, and Brown has a huge range. Also, they were sure that human nature was the same in all times and places, and Brown knows better—which is why he so usefully brings in cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts. These things mark his difference from even so brilliant a conjectural historian as Gibbon. And surely we have the most convincing picture of the period Brown covers here that we are likely to get. To compare it with earlier surveys of this period is to move from the X-ray to the cinema. He marshals masses of evidence, much of it heterogeneous and unfamiliar, yet he is never tedious. Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.
See too Tim Whitmarsh’s review in the Guardian.
The story is built around two narrative strands, interwoven like a double helix. The first is the rise of Christianity in the fourth century AD from a niche cult in the multi-religious world of the Roman empire to the dominant religion of the west. The second is the collapse of centralised imperial authority in the fifth century, and the transition to what Brown calls a “local Roman empire”. These two combined processes allowed Christianity to move from a counterculture based around an ideology of renunciation of worldly goods to an institutional infrastructure built on corporate wealth.
It is hard for modern readers to shed their cynicism towards attempts to justify the hoarding of vast wealth, especially in the context of subsistence economies. What makes this such a fine book is, ultimately, the challenge it issues to overcome that cynicism and to enter a very different imaginative world – one where corporate wealth was not yet tainted with corruption and capitalist acquisitiveness, where the possibility of a divine purpose for riches was still alive.
This is a book I have to read. Not just yet, but it’s on my list.