To find out how the Irish saved civilization, we first need to find out what civilization was. By the fourth century, the Roman Empire was a static place, especially for the nobility that had the leisure for education and literature. The expectation was that you would continue doing what was always done, and this is illustrated perfectly by the poet Ausonius. He was widely acclaimed as a great poet during his lifetime, but all of his work is formulaic, without emotion, and generally composed of references to famous poets like Virgil. The only way his poetry could be great was if the requirement for greatness is complete lack of innovation.
Likewise, everyone knew that the Empire was unassailable, from the legions that defended the borders to the barbarians who attacked it. The legions saw the barbarians as a neusance, not a threat. The barbarians, themselves, knew quite well that it was much better to be Roman than barbarian, and had been migrating into the Empire for decades by joining the army, finding employment as a craftsman, or simply buying land. The fearful Chaos lay on the outside of the Empire, but within it lay centuries of order and predictability.
Financially the empire depended on taxes collected by the curiales, the minor nobility. The tax collector was responsible for raising a set level of money, and was personally responsible for the funds if he were unable to raise them. However, the rich nobles were increasingly powerful enough to avoid the tax, which meant that the curiales had financial troubles, often borrowing money from the rich nobles and eventually selling their land to the rich nobles and becoming a land-slave. The Emperor, then was unable to raise the funds he needed for paying the army, which made the Empire unstable.
At the end of this came Augustine, who was the last great classically trained writer; after his death the Empire became to unstable to devote time to learning. Classical training involved learning from the storytelling of Homer, the language and style of Virgil, and the art of rhetorical persuasion by Cicero and Demosthenes. For Cicero, every word is calculated for effect; he would never dream of speaking “from the heart.” A few people went on from this training to philosophy, although many thought that Truth was not knowable. Here the training is from Plato, who speaks with metaphors so persuasive and mystical that you think it may not actually be a metaphor but reality. After a licentious youth, Augustine started seeking Truth, eventually finding the Apostle Paul to be the only other person who talks like Plato. After becoming a Christian, he wrote Confessions, which is notable because it is the first book in history to use the word “I” in talking about himself. Prior to this all self-observation was of oneself as a Man and not at all personal; Augustine now talks about his specific self. This laid the foundation for autobiography as well as for the modern novel. All this compendium of art, rhetoric, style, and mystic philosophy that was alive within the Classical civilization would be lost as the barbarians destroy the stability necessary to perpetuate itself, and henceforth it would survive only in books.
Pre-Christian Ireland was a place of constant warfare between kingdoms so small that one was likely to know the king on a personal basis. People tended to sleep in a group for safety, so you tended to know the people around you fairly well. Celtic social values were generosity, beauty, and bravery. Like other heroic-era societies, loyalty was a value among same-sex friendships, but not among male-female relationships. (Gilgamesh has an unbreakable friendship, as does Achilles.) In fact, Celtic marriages were renewed (or, presumably, not renewed) on February 1 every year. Celtic poetry was full of love of nature, joy of living, and authentic—characters in the oral narratives were very free with their feelings, including sexual feelings. This is very different from the Classical perspective, which viewed feelings as something that got in the way of rational acting.
The Irish were also very skilled at capturing slaves, and a few years before Alaric sacked Rome, the future St. Patrick was kidnapped out of civilization in Britain and taken to be a shepherd slave, where he went unclothed and unfed for a number of years. His plight caused him to seek his parents’ God, and developed in faith over the years. Eventually God told him that his ship was ready to sail, so he went to the coast two hundred miles away without being seen, and is taken aboard by the sailors. He eventually makes it back to Civilization, and discovers that he no longer fits in. He has a dream where a multitude of Irish people ask him to walk among them. Eventually Patrick studies for the priesthood and returns, being wildly successful in bringing the Irish to Christ. He was so successful against the slave trade that it disappeared by around the time of his death.
Patrick was successful for a number of reasons. He earned the respect of the Irish because his trust of God, honed through long, dangerous years as a shepherd, made him unafraid of them. He held similar virtues as they did: faith, hope, and charity. He showed that it was possible to be brave yet be a man of peace; every day Patrick expected to be killed from marauding bands or highway men, yet lived peaceably trusting in God. Patrick’s success was probably because he touched a deeper nerve. Cahill notes that conscious bravery is a companion to subconscious fear. The Irish world was not a secure one. The gods were capricious and set hidden traps around every turn. One king in the oral tales was told he was to be king, but then required to keep a number of impossible requirements, and events conspire to force him to break each requirement. Even nature was unstable; shape-shifting was a normal part of the world, and anything in touch with the magical world could shape-shift. Even the warrior who became a powerful monster through a warp-spasm on the battlefield (and something to this effect was noted by their Roman enemies). Furthermore, Patrick could announce that the human sacrifices (probably often of a willing victim selected at birth to eventually become a sacrifice) were no longer necessary, that the Christian God was not angry, and had offered Himself as the sacrifice.
The Irish church had a definite non-Roman flavor to it. Patrick adopted the Celtic view that all of nature was holy (since God had made it), in contrast with the Greek dualism of Augustine where spirit is sacred and matter is profane. In fact, the Irish view of nature and God was troubling near the line of being Pantheism (nature is God or God is nature). Irish Christians tended to retain a fairly loose view of sexuality (since the body was holy), quite unlike Augustine, who felt that sex was practically evil. Women had a strong place in Irish society, and continued to have a strong place in the Irish church, even being ordained as bishops and abbots of monastic communities. The Roman form of confession was public, and penance only worked once in a lifetime; it was Ireland that pioneered private confession, nor was the confessor necessarily a priest, but rather a trusted soul-friend. Since Ireland had no cities, but sparse farms, the high king was far away and his wishes were not known (or consulted); the Irish church felt similarly about the Pope.
Patrick taught the Irish Christians to read through martyrologies, so, not surprisingly, many Christians wanted to be a martyr. Despite the violence of pre-Christian Irish society, nobody was killing Christians for their faith, so a Red Martyrdom was not really an option. Instead, people opted to do a Green Martyrdom, by being ascetic like the Egyptian ascetics (many of whom, along with other monks, had been escaping to Ireland and other areas). This did not work well, since Ireland is quite fertile, and a hermitage set up in a forest near a stream could easily provide salmon, leeks, poultry, and game, plus the Irish sociability naturally led hermits to congregate near each other. It did start creating monastic communities, however, which soon grew into centers of learning where people from as far away as Britain came to learn. The Irish loved books and language (one community of monks created a secret language), and the escaping monks of the Empire brought with them many books, which were copied. The monks valued every form of literature, even if it did not seem profitable for a Christian, so they copied all the Greek and Roman works, and wrote down much of their Celtic oral tradition, as well.
A monk named Columcille, who had gone to war over a beautiful manuscript he wanted, was exiled from Ireland, a fate worse than death. He chose to go to Scotland, just out of sight of Ireland, and ended up starting dozens of monastic communities. This started the White Martyrdom, where people would go into voluntary exile for the sake of the Gospel, sailing into the white sky of morning. They started monasteries all the way down into Italy, brought Christ to the Britons, Franks, Angles, Germans, Swiss, and even as far as Kiev. They also brought civilization back to Europe—books and the learning of Rome.
Soon, however, the monasteries were discovered by the Vikings, full of undefended treasure. Repeated sackings caused the monks to leave for other places and destroyed the centers of culture descended from Irish influence. Thus, just as war destroyed the civilization of Rome, so it also destroyed the civilization of Irish-influenced Christianity. Cahill ends with a warning that, while technology has improved health and created a free flow of information roughly equivalent to the Roman roads, much of the planet still lives in poverty. He wonders what we will lose if the third-world “barbarians” overwhelm the first-world Empire. Cahill does not know how to prevent civilization from disappearing, but he asserts that civilization cannot be saved by “Romans” (representing a top-heavy society where there is no means to oppose the top, and a stagnant, hierarchical society). Instead, civilization can only be saved saints, people who see all people as one family of equal children of God, and that God will provide.
Throughout the book Cahill throws in all sort of interesting tidbits. He notes that Roman Christians had a lot of the Roman prejudices—Paul evangelized everywhere in the Empire but not the barbarians, because the Empire was the world. Roman Christians never had a problem with slavery; Patrick was the first person to speak against it (and vehemently). Cahill tosses in the fact that the red dots that Irish monks used came from the Egyptian ascetic. We learn that Patrick was the first cross-cultural missionary; there were two others before him, but they were sent to Christians living in Ireland and Germany, respectively. The wandering monks were apparently well-loved, and were asked all sorts of questions. One of them explains what an eclipse is to one of the royalty, and another makes jokes with Charlemagne.
Personally, I love the flavor of the monasteries that Cahill describes. Although they began with ascetics, often on the edge of the sea where life was as harsh as you could get in Ireland, they feel like a book-lover’s paradise. The White Martyrs come across as lovers of learning, people who actually enjoy making books, people who are not religious but who are not afraid to insult the king or Pope with a joke (often including a bit of truth). These are people that seem to love the world around them, people that celebrate beauty in all its places. These strike me as curious people, broad minded people who probably thought deeply instead of just accepting the party line. I have wondered for a long time what the essence of “Merry England” and the appeal of monasteries to me, and I think these White Martyrs may be it.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is a brilliant look at a little-known time of history. Cahill specifically wanted to examine the transition time-period, as the times before and after were well-studied. Cahill has a clear grasp of Classical literature, having read the Classics extensively. He pulls in sources from all over history, from as far away in time and distances as the Babylon of the Epic of Gilgamesh to English historian Bede. He clearly understands and explains the value system behind the cultures that he discusses, as well as a colorful understanding of the individual actors of history. Each person and culture that Cahill describes has flavor, especially the Irish, who he paints through their lively, fun-loving poetry. This is solidly researched history, well-understood culture, told with enough rigor for an academic, enough of story for everyone else. Yet it is elegantly written, humorous, and imparts deep connections to the cultures he describes. I laughed, I cried, I learned a lot, and I came away with an awe of these saintly monks who not preserved Roman civilization and embodied a higher civilization all their own.