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A Unique Moment In History

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The observation from Flaubert about a little discussed pivot point of Western Civilization.

“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”

What he is referring to is the period between the fall of the gods and the rise of God. Flaubert isn’t strictly correct, as Christianity was a rising, powerful sect well before Marcus Aurelius (Seneca’s brother Gallio is in the Bible), and indeed one of the most shameful parts of Marcus’s regime is his persecution of Christians, but Flaubert’s point is generally an interesting one. Because there was this period between polytheism and Christianity as we know it, and that period included some of the most glorious days of the Roman Empire.

So what did these people do instead of worshipping God? Well, many of them practiced philosophy. The Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans. This was their heyday. In fact, we can see Stoicism as a kind of civic religion, a guide for behavior and a framework for living. It was a time when man was alone in the universe and forced to come up with, on his own, an answer to that timeless question: What is the meaning of life and how should I live it?

Why we turned away from the Stoic answer cannot be said (though it is clear that the Christians cribbed from and incorporated many philosophical insights into their teachings), but an amateur historian can’t help but look back and ask how things might have been different, for better or for worse.

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