Gibbon, The Immortality of the Soul, and Epicureanism Among Women – Part I

Several recent emails and Facebook posts have me thinking about a phenomena that seems even more rare today than that of men who publicly embrace Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines:  women who embrace those doctrines.  It has been brought to my attention that in Europe today, significantly more women than men are being converted to Islam.  As an American, I find that shocking and unexpected, but on second thought perhaps it should not be.

I recall from my reading of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Christianity spread most quickly among women in the ancient Roman world, so the issue of whether women in general are more disposed to religious conversion is worthy of thoughtful consideration.  In preparing this post, I turned back to Gibbon with the intent of compiling his references on this topic and moving on to discuss them.  Unfortunately, I failed to find what I was looking for in the time I had allotted, but I now see that I need to elevate Gibbon generally in my list of resources from which to pull for this blog.

I will continue looking for Gibbon’s references on the religious disposition of women, but in starting with Gibbon’s famous Chapter XV on the progress of Christianity I was reminded of much that is even more fundamental.  In regard to the development of the idea of the immortality of the soul, Gibbon smartly observes that this doctrine was — strangely enough (!)  — not originally among the religious principles of the ancient Hebrews.  For those who might not be familiar with Gibbon, be sure to note that it is expressed in his characteristic mix of irony and sarcasm so that the real meaning is approximately the opposite of that which appears on the surface:

“We might naturally expect that a principle [of an afterlife or immortality of the soul], so essential to religion, would have been revealed in the clearest terms to the chosen people of Palestine, and that it might safely have been entrusted to the hereditary priesthood of Aaron. It is incumbent on us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses; it is darkly insinuated by the prophets, and during the long period which elapsed between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life.  After Cyrus had permitted the exiled nation to return into the promised land, and after Ezra had restored the ancient records of their religion, two celebrated sects, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, insensibly arose at Jerusalem.  The former, selected from the more opulent and distinguished ranks of society, were strictly attached to the literal sense of the Mosaic law, and they piously rejected the immortality of the soul, as an opinion that received no countenance from the Divine book, which they revered as the only rule of their faith. To the authority of scripture the Pharisees added that of tradition, and they accepted, under the name of traditions, several speculative tenets from the philosophy or religion of the Eastern nations. The doctrines of fate or predestination, of angels and spirits, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, were in the number of these new articles of belief; and, as the punishments, were in the number of these new articles of belief; and, as the Pharisees, by the austerity of their manners, had drawn into their party the body of the Jewish people, the immortality of the soul became the prevailing sentiment of the synagogue, under the reign of the Asmonæan princes and pontiffs. The temper of the Jews was incapable of contenting itself with such a cold and languid assent as might satisfy the mind of a Polytheist; and, as soon as they admitted the idea of a future state, they embraced it with the zeal which has always formed the characteristic of the nation. Their zeal, however, added nothing to its evidence, or even probability: and it was still necessary that the doctrine of life and immortality, which had been dictated by nature, approved by reason, and received by superstition, should obtain the sanction of Divine truth from the authority and example of Christ.”

“When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind, on condition of adopting the faith and of observing the precepts of the gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire. The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion.”

And so it seems that the view that the soul survives death was not among those held originally by the nation that gave rise to modern Judaism and Christianity.  As Gibbon observed, neither the zeal of the priests who advocate the existence of an immortal soul nor the zeal of the disciples who embrace it adds a thing to its evidence or its probability.

The lure of the promise of eternal happiness is strong, especially among those who hold their present existence in contempt.  But is it fair to say that — in general — women are more disposed to accept the view that the soul survives death than are men?

Gibbon’s Chapter XV contains much food for thought, and much which applies to the world even today.  I will continue looking for my original target, Gibbon’s references to the spread of ideas such as these among the women of the Roman world, and I will continue these thoughts in future posts.

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