By Thomas Cahill
New York: Doubleday, 1995
ISBN # 0-385-41849-3
236 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2010 2008

I chanced upon this book at a YMCA book fare a couple months ago. I wasn’t sure what it was – a serious book or something humorous, but the title was attractive to this American with Irish roots. It turned out to be a serious book of history, but written with a good deal of wit, cleverness and a strong dose of insouciance, all of which I enjoyed. I found the book to be grippingly interesting, utterly fascinating, good reading despite the seriousness of the ancient history, but much more like a book of essays that a single developed thesis.

The title of the book is also the title of the key and longest essay, and the earlier chapters certainly set the stage for the main thesis, but do come across as separate pieces on their own. I came away from the book delighted with what I had read, but feeling as though I had read several loosely related “set-up” essays which gave richness and detail to the background of the main thesis.

No matter of the structure. It is a delightful read and I recommend it for all. The claim that the Irish “saved civilization” is a bit of a limited claim. It isn’t so much “civilization” that gets saved as a huge portion of the body of literature from Western antiquity that was saved by the patient, if playful, Irish monks, who, from the 6th century onward, copied these texts preserving them for posterity, often becoming the dominant and/or only such texts which survived the Dark and Medieval ages.

The supportive essays trace the conditions that led to the fall of Rome, the role of Augustine of Hippo in developing and preserving a “westernized” Christianity, an early and later history of St. Patrick and his role in establishing the body a somewhat different “Irish Catholicism” and the institutions of the Irish monasteries of the mid 5th century.

Below, more for my memory than anything else, I summarize these various essays.

The book is a great read, I highly recommend it to all.

Chapter 1. The End of the World – How Rome Fell – and Why
pp. 9-32

In December 406 the “barbari” crossed the Danube and Rhine (rivers separating north and western Europe from “Rome.)

The Center of the Roman Empire was the Mediterranean (sea of middle earth) for 11 centuries.

The Pax Romana had been the comfortable rule of the land.

The Germans adapted agriculture from the Romans. This created a population explosion and they needed more land. They expanded south. For the two centuries before the fifth, Rome had lost much of its vitality, was stagnating and weakening. The barbarians wanted to be like the Romans, but in control. The battle was on, featuring a new and industrious warlike people versus an aging empire without the insight of what was happening and without its former vitality.

Chapter 2. What Was Lost: The Complexity of the Classical Tradition.
pp. 35-67

This was an interesting chapter, but rather scattered in organization. The chapter title asks what was lost, indicates there was some complexity in the tradition that was lost, and in how to describe it. It begins with general instability -- between the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 and the death of the last emperor in 476, the empire was increasingly unstable. More power was in the hands of fewer people.

Over all Cahill will see the ultimate loss being one of loss of confidence which often follows a loss of material stability.

What is really lost when a civilization wearies and grows small is confidence, a confidence built on the order and balance that leisure makes possible. Again, Clark: "Civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence -- confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one's own mental powers.

“Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilizations -- or civilising epochs have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilization, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.”

Cahill then chooses Augustine of Hippa as his model to make the chapter’s main point, seeing him as sort of the “last classical man” and almost the first “Medieveal man.

There were three critical arts in the Roman tradition: rhetoric, persuasion and philosophy, the latter attempted only by a few serious intellectuals. Augustine was one of these.

In his earlier adult years Augustine was a Platonist, but after reading the Epistles of Paul he converted to Christianity. There was a close cohesion between Paul’s position and Plato’s except that Paul’s was a religious understanding and Plato’s philosophical.

The books and art work were majorly lost nearly forever, and the civilization did die. Exception:

“There is, however, one classical tradition that survived the transition – the still-living tradition of Roman law.”

And this fact indirectly leads to Augustine’s ascendency and the tradition which is to be saved:

After the 5th century the primary functioning law was carried on by Catholic bishops.

Augustine fought and won battles against views that were then called heretical, but not trusting in goodness or wisdom of the people he embraced a notion of forced baptism and what followed. The mellow, honest and serious scholar of the early Augustinian days gave way to an authoritarian older bishop.

Chapter 3. A Shifting World of Darkness: Unholy Ireland
pp. 71-97

The point of the chapter is to set the tone of who the Irish were, what the culture was like and how it gave rise to Patrick.

The dominate cultural roots are Celtic, most likely of Spanish Celts who entered Ireland in 4th century BC.

“What hints we have suggest that Ireland was, during the entire period, a land outside of time -- . . . This was an illiterate, aristocratic, semi nomadic, Iron Age warrior culture, its wealth based on animal husbandry, and slavery . . . Such cultures have been known to exist for many hundreds of years without undergoing appreciable alteration.”

So it was for Ireland from 300 BC to the fall of Rome.

Early Irish lore was preserved in Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). That classic work sets the tone of who the Irish were.

Chapter 4. Good News From Far Off: The First Missionary
Pp 101 – 119

Patrick’s “Confession” is the basis of his life story. From England, he returned to Ireland as a missionary bishop (first ever) and used not the sword but the “word” to somewhat tame a people.

With the Irish -- even with the kings -- he succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased. In reforming Irish sexual mores, he was rather less successful, though he established indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inmates by their way of life reminded the Irish that the virtues of lifelong faithfulness, courage, and generosity were actually attainable by ordinary human beings and that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society.

Patrick was:

He is the first public figure known to speak out against slavery.

Chapter 5. A Solid World of Light: Holy Ireland
pp. 123 - 144

Patrick offers peace and hope. (Heaven in the place of brutal Irish myths.)

Patrick's peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance. And in a damp land where people lived and slept in close proximity, everyone would have known sooner or later if Patrick's sleep was brought on by the goddess of intoxication or broken by the goddesses of fear. Patrick slept soundly and soberly.

The Irish also believed many unpredictable supernatural forces – including shape shifting hidden dangers. Patrick too believed in supernatural force but all coming from a good and loving God.

“The magical world though full of adventure and surprise, is not longer full of dread."

Even Irish tradition of placating human sacrifice was undercut by Patrick’s notion that since God died for us so no more human sacrifice was needed.

Chapter 6. What Was Found: How the Irish Saved Civilization
pp. 147 – 196
“But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home – they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their own stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.”


“As these transformed warrior children of Patrick’s heart lay down the swords of battle, flung away the knives of sacrifice, and cast aside the chains of slavery, they very much remained Irishmen and Irishwomen. Indeed, the survival of an Irish psychological identity is one of the marvels of the Irish story.”

Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. There are no Irish martyrs (at least not till Elizabeth I began to create them eleven centuries after Patrick). And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom -- something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called "martyrologies," from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.

Patrick introduced “green martyrdom to replace the red martyrdom of the Irish battles and myths. Young converts would move into a craggy rock or remote hill and live a subsistence life of begging and simply farming and gathering. Their martyrdom was one of leaving society, not killing enemies or being killed. They also dispense spiritual advice and many people not only sought them out their advice, but began to come out and live with or near them.

This “green martyrdom” quickly led to the monastic tradition

“Since Ireland had no cities, these monastic establishments grew rapidly into the first population centers, hubs of unprecedented prosperity, art, and learning.”

An important notion for Cahill’s central title thesis is capture by him when he writes:

“As unconcerned about orthodoxy of thought as they were about uniformity of monastic practice, they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing. Not for them the scruples of Saint Jerome, who feared he might burn in hell for reading Cicero. Once they had learned to read the Gospels and the other books of the Holy Bible, the lives of the martyrs and ascetics, and the sermons and commentaries of the fathers of the church, they began to devour all of the old Greek and Latin pagan literature that came their way. In their unrestrained catholicity, they shocked conventional churchmen, who had been trained to value Christian literature principally and give a wide berth to the dubious morality of the pagan classics.”

A major second generation Irish monk was Columba who was born in Dec of 521, 89 years after Patrick’s arrival as bishop.

Following Columba in the next generation was Columbanus, some 20 years the junior of Columba.

Columbanus was:

In 25 years he founded between 60 and 100 monasteries

There is much we do not know about these Irish exiles. Their clay and wattle buildings have long since disappeared, and even most of their precious books have perished. But what they knew -- the Bible and the literatures of Greece, Rome, and Ireland -- we know, because they passed these things on to us. The Hebrew Bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to our time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium, and might be still available to us somewhere – if we had the interest to seek them out. But Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans – just scatter tribes of animals, ready for a new identify.

The achievements were done by the “white martyrs.”

These monasteries were establish the length and breadth of Europe.

As late as 870 Heiric of Auxerre says:

“Almost all of Ireland, despising the sea, is migrating to our shores with a herd of philosophers.”

Perhaps the clearest expression of Cahill’s thesis is this:

“By this point, the transmission of European civilization was assured. Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies' heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.”

“And that is how the Irish saved civilization."
Chapter 7. The End of the World: Is There Any Hope?
pp. 199 – 218

Romanized Augustinian Christianity was spreading from Canterbury toward a clash with Celtic Christianity.

In 666 at the Abby of Whitby, the Northumberland king rules in favor of the “Roman party.”

The people of this time had the TEXTS, but not the KNOWLEDGE. The “Dark Ages” were upon us.

The intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers of the Dark Ages, whose apprehension of the world was simple and immediate, framed by myth and magic. A man no longer subordinated one thought to another with mathematical precision; instead, he apprehended similarities and balances, types and paradigms, parallels and symbols. It was a world not of thoughts, but of images.

In 800 Charlemagne was coronate by the pope as the Holy Roman Emperor.

Short-lived first renaissance. John Scotus (not the much later famous Duns Scotus) b. about 810 was first philosopher of the Middle Ages. “First Christian philosopher since Augustine.”

“. . . first man in three hundred years who was able to think.”

He argued a sort of a pantheistic philosophical identification with God and nature. Given the time this was totally unacceptable. “Pope Honorius III ordered all copies of “De Divisione Naturae to be burned. Some, obviously, escaped the bonfire.”

The Irish world went hugely downhill after 800:

He concludes, in relation to the entire of western culture, not just Ireland:

“If our civilization is to be saved – forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind” – if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett