Friday, March 09, 2018

Catherine Nixey

I've written on the blog before about how, in the hands of untrained historians, topics of historical interest can quickly be transformed into readable, but not entirely convincing, works of history. This is certainly the case with The Darkening Age, Catherine Nixey's account of the tumultuous period between the birth of Christ and the closing of the Athenian Academy in 532. 

On one hand, I admire how direct Nixey can be, how confident she is in her thesis -- that Christianity, in its uncompromising, violent nature -- transformed a world of rationality, of culture and art, into one of irrationality, of cultish fascination with unlikely tales of creation and rebirth. Nixey does not shy away from this point, highlighting repeatedly the extent to which Christianity engaged in a deliberate attempt to eradicate classical thought, and replace it with a focus on punishment and the afterlife.  

What is missing here is a sense of balance -- the balance that a professional historian might provide. In her rush to reinforce her thesis, Nixey writes more, I think, as novelist might: her book is history, sure, but it verges at times on historical fiction. There's too much flourish here, too much writing of personality and the weather. These things matter, but when they're used as a rhetorical device, chapter after chapter, they become tiresome and ineffective. 

No doubt, Nixey has selected a fascinating period of history: the end of the old and the beginning of the new. But there's something missing here: there's a lack of intensity, I think: there's too much polemic and not enough context; there's too much story-telling and not enough analysis. Maybe, in the end, that's the nature of these types of books. For me to accept the thesis, though, to fully applaud the argument, I need more of just that: argument and engagement.

Nixey is certainly onto something: this was a period of awful, regrettable violence. But there are larger questions to explore: How does a civilization -- one like Greece or Rome -- fully disappear? What forces are capable of enacting this sort of destruction, and does their power owe to human nature itself? The triumph of Christianity does, I think, suggest the human capacity for superstition, for a willful suspension of reason. How is it possible then that this dynamic -- which seems so antithetical to Roman bureaucracy or to Greek philosophy -- overcame a millenium of history and tradition? 

These are the sorts of questions with which Nixey flirts, but to which she does not ultimately provide answers. The result, for me, is a book teetering on the edge of something special, but which disappoints at key moments. My next step is to read the work of professional historians: I think there I'll find some of the answers, at least, that Nixey leaves unspoken.


  1. This is an interesting review Jesse thanks. I am fairly familiar with classical type history of this era. For the author here to claim that Christianity was more violent than what it replaced means she begins with inaccuracy. It wasn't. Nor was religion prior to Christianity bereft of superstition -- Rome (nor Greece) was not a hotbed of rationality. sigh. I appreciate trying to reevaluate history with new knowledge, but one must start both with history and knowledge to do so -- not grad school polemics.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Julie. I'd be curious to get your read on this volume!

  3. Jesse - it's interesting that you've detected that Nixey's polemical book is unbalanced. I can assure you that for those of us who know the historical period she refers to, it is maddeningly so. So much so that historian of that period consider her book to be junk. See my detailed critique for more:

  4. Thank you for sharing this, TIm. I've read your review with great interest. I so appreciate the context - and the rigor. Sounds like my suspicions here have been confirmed.