Montaigne’s Treatment Of Julian The Apostate Influenced By The Judgment Of Prudentius, Which Upset Gibbon

I finished reading M. A. Screech‘s Montaigne And Melancholy a couple of weeks ago now.

Among the many interesting passages there is one in which Screech discusses s treatment of Julian the Apostate. Montaigne, the orthodox Catholic, “never blackened a man he did not agree with.”

In the case of Julian, his conclusion is that Julian was “good for the Empire, bad for the Church” (Screech, p. 73). Screech points out that in treating Julian fairly, Montaigne was “giving a lesson to his warring countrymen.” (p. 73). Montaigne lists Julian’s virtues and then comments that “‘in matters of religion he was totally vicious’ (vicieux partout)” (p. 73). However, in his death he reminds Montainge of his hero, Epaminondas, which is, says Screech, “high praise: Epaminondas was a very special hero for Montaigne” (p. 73).

In treating Julian evenhandedly Montaigne was cutting through the “legends which had been foisted upon Julian by pious hatred” and recalling the evenhanded assessment of Julian made by Prudentius, who was a Roman Christian poet who lived through Julian’s reign. In a poem on the divinity of Christ, Prudentius writes:

I remember that in my boyhood there was the most valiant leader in war of all the emperors, a founder of laws, famed for his skill with tongue and hand. He was devoted to our country but not to the maintenance of true religion – loving as he did three thousand gods. He was faithless to God, not faithless to the world he governed:

Perfidus ille deo: quamvis non perfidus orbi (Apotheosis, 450-5)

(Screech, p. 73)

Was Gibbon upset by Prudentius' serene judgement of Julian?

Screech adds an interesting aside on the effect of this “serene judgment” on Gibbon, which is worth noting:

This serene judgment, which upset Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire XXII, end), since he wanted Christians to appear as intolerant bigots, is the one adopted by Montaigne.

(Screech p. 74)

Here is what Gibbon wrote at the end of the 22nd chapter of his work:

Even faction, and religious faction, was constrained to acknowledge the superiority of his genius in peace as well as in war, and to confess, with a sigh, that the apostate Julian was a lover of his country, and that he deserved the empire of the world.

Incidentally, while Googling “MA Screech” I discovered a sermon preached by him in the Chapel of All Souls College, Oxford, November 1989, which reveals Screech to be in the venerable tradition of enlightened Christians stretching back to Justin Martyr:

It was my Methodist minister who set me reading Justin Martyr, whom for some reason he had in Latin… The words that struck me in that second-century Father are ones often quoted, though I did not know then that they were:

Whatever has been declared aright by anyone anywhere belongs to us Christians: for next to God we worship and love the Logos Who is from God, unbegotten and ineffable. Christ is the Logos of Whom… the whole human race partake.

And if that reason leading to truth applied (as Justin said it did) to Socrates and Heracleitus, then (I concluded) it also applied to Darwin, to Huxley and to anyone else who sought or discovered truth. So the enemy of true religion cannot be truth – not any truth whatsoever. The enemies of true religion are untruth, flabby thinking and false religions, as well as philosophies and commercial or political systems which make idols out of rulers, races, power, money, or any other creature.

Justin led me eventually to that liberating doctrine of the Logos as conceived by St John which considers the Christian faith to be not a static and increasingly barbarous ‘deposit’ but a living growing expanding awareness, guided not by a dead and inadequately known Saviour but by the now Risen one Who, from the beginning, works through reason in all men, women, children devoted to truth…

Here is the link to the whole sermon.

David Hurley