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Ethnicity and Argument in Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica$

Aaron P. Johnson

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199296132

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199296132.001.0001

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(p.237) APPENDIX 2: The Concept of Progress in Eusebius

(p.237) APPENDIX 2: The Concept of Progress in Eusebius

Ethnicity and Argument in Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica
Oxford University Press

(p.237) APPENDIX 2:

The Concept of Progress in Eusebius

Ethnicity and Argument The Concept of Progress in Eusebius

An important element in Eusebius' portrayal of ancient peoples is the motif of moral and religious decline. Important expressions of this theme occur at numerous points in his argument.1 In these instances, Eusebius characterizes the historical development of the nations as following a trend from less irrational and impious beliefs to completely mindless and wicked practices and doctrines. An original astral polytheism gradually gave way to the worship of elements or fruits of the earth, the principle of pleasure or the sources thereof, humans, and even animals. Sacrificial cult developed from offerings of plants or incense to animals and humans.

Nevertheless, some Eusebian scholars have asserted that Eusebius was a proponent of a ‘theory of progress’ in world history.2 Chesnut, for example, claims that Eusebius held ‘a rather optimistic view of the world, seeing real, continuous progress in all areas—civilization, culture, morality, and religion’, and ‘rejected the basic premise of romantic primitivism, which held that civilization was necessarily evil and corrupting in itself’.3 The starting point of such assertions is Eusebius' HE 1.2.17–23, which is a supposedly unmistakable declaration of progress theory. A primitive state of ignorance and lawlessness, when humans lived like wild beasts,4 was followed by a later stage of mildness and peacefulness in human relations.5 Unlike other formulations of progress in the ancient world (e.g. that of Diodorus), however, Eusebius' account includes intermediate stages between the earlier chaotic beastliness and the later orderliness that significantly delimits his narrative of historical progress. As a result of early humanity's violence and impiety, God chastened them by sending disasters (p.238) of various kinds, plagues and wars.6 This manner of divine discipline seems to have failed, however, as humanity sunk further into immorality and impiety, ‘like a deep fit of drunkenness’.7 This historical stage, marked by decline in religion and morals, troubles any attempt to see this as a straightforward account of progress. Furthermore, the state of wickedness to which human life had sunk only began to be remedied when the divine Word, induced by philanthropy, began to offer manifestations of himself to members of the Hebrew nation.8 Significantly, the transformation to peace and orderliness among all peoples occurred only as a result of the spread of the Hebrew teachings and legislation.9 Any account of Eusebius' theory of progress must be nuanced by these two features: the initial decline among other nations, and the progress of the early Hebrews as a result of theophanic encounters. Historical progress was a nation‐specific affair.

A similarly nuanced reading is required in the case of a comparable passage at Demonstratio 8.praef.5–12. Early humans are again portrayed as having lived a beastly existence, without cities, constitutions or laws. Here, Eusebius adds that innate conceptions of the existence of God only became muddled as to the nature of that God, unable to transcend the limits of the visible world. Hence, these primitive humans deified other humans and animals.10 Divine Justice chastised their immorality with disasters and wars.11 To only a few holy men did Justice (to be equated, of course, with the Word of the HE) reveal herself in oracles and theophanies. The legislation and teachings of these ancient Hebrews eventually spread throughout the other nations, pacifying them and bringing about the establishment of laws and constitutions.12 Then the Incarnation, the fullest theophany, took place. As with the passage from the HE, progress made its advance along national trajectories. The other nations' decline was arrested and progress achieved only in connection with the Hebrews.

Hence, any apparent contradiction between the themes of historical decline (as in the Praeparatio) and progress (as in the HE and Demonstratio) in the works of Eusebius is alleviated, at least to some degree, by attending to the declarations of decline within his supposed narratives of progress and by focusing more closely on the national dimensions of progress.13 Decline and progress are not monolithic historical forces for Eusebius; rather, they exist simultaneously in human history emerging distinctly only within the fabric of particular nations' historical narratives.

An important discussion from a later work, the Theophania, which some have supposed to be merely a summation of his earlier arguments in both the (p.239) Demonstratio and Praeparatio,14 remarkably exhibits the two opposing themes side by side. In the second book of the Theophania, Eusebius describes the decline from the worship of astral phenomena to the fruits of the earth, the rational faculties, the passions, humans, animals, idols, and finally daemons.15 The discord of Greek philosophers also plays an important role in this narrative of decline.16 Then, the narrative shifts dramatically to portray the steady historical advance of moral and spiritual progress as a result of Providence.17 The life of humanity, Eusebius claims, was brought to a stage of peacefulness, and was prepared to receive the perfect doctrine of God (at the time of the Incarnation).18 Yet, just as in the earlier cases, what seems to be a narrative of progress is simultaneously marked by decline among the non‐Hebrew nations. In fact, elements of decline are more noticeable here than in the HE and Demonstratio. God is described as giving instruction, through the Word, only to the Hebrews—‘men who were worthy’;19 and it was through the Hebrew prophets that the seeds of truth were sown among all peoples.20 The other nations, in spite of the providential efforts of the Word, remained recalcitrant and unrestrained in their impious behaviour.21 The Incarnation was necessary, avers Eusebius, since humans could not learn the truth on their own.22

As with the earlier narratives of progress, the histories of the other nations are characterized by decline, while progress remains reserved for the Hebrews. The other nations only partake of this progress in so far as they join themselves to the stream of Hebrew history. Eusebius' conception of the direction(s) of national history, while at first appearing contradictory, upon closer reading offers a more complex picture of the risings and fallings of national character, religion, and philosophical thought. The contrast between progress and decline in the writings of Eusebius is a contrast between nations. Because of the Word's manifestations to the Hebrews, they are able to make progress in wisdom and virtue. The other ancient nations, stained by impiety and marked by decline, are able to participate in such moral and intellectual progress only in so far as they are influenced by the Hebrews. This conception of progress and decline is closely aligned with his ethnic argumentation, both in the Praeparatio and elsewhere.


(1) See, e.g., PE 1.9.13–14, 16–19; 2.5.4–5; 2.6.11–15; 7.2.1–6; cp. Eusebius, SC 13.16; Athanasius C. Gentes 3–11 (especially 9). See, König‐Ockenfels, ‘Christliche Deutung der Weltgeschichte bei Eusebs von Cäsarea’, 354–8.

(2) See, Droge, Homer or Moses, 168–93; R. Grant, ‘Civilization as a Preparation for Christianity in the Thought of Eusebius’, 62–70; Chesnut, The First Christian Histories, 66–95; Kofsky, Eusebius of Caesarea Against the Pagans, 135–6 (despite the fact that Kofsky earlier had described a theory of decline in the PE); and W. Kinzig, Novitas Christiana Die Idee des Fortschritts in der Alten kirche bis Eusebius (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994), 517–53.

(3) Chesnut, The First Christian Histories, 66, 93.

(4) HE 1.2.18–19.

(5) HE 1.2.23.

(6) HE 1.2.20.

(7) HE 1.2.21.

(8) HE 1.2.21–22.

(9) HE 1.2.23.

(10) DE 8.praef. [364ab].

(11) DE 8.praef. [364cd].

(12) DE 8.praef. [364d–365a].

(13) Though he emphasizes progress, Farina has argued that Eusebius' claims to decline and to progress are not contradictory; see L'Impero e l'imperatore cristiano in Eusebio di Cesarea, 77–8.

(14) See, e.g. Kofsky, Eusebius of Caesarea Against Paganism, 276–82.

(15) Theoph. 2.1–82.

(16) See esp. Theoph. 2.47–52.

(17) Theoph. 2.83–97.

(18) Theoph. 2.93.

(19) Theoph. 2.85.

(20) Theoph. 2.96.

(21) Theoph. 2.86.

(22) Theoph. 2.94.