The Sanctity of Life and its Discontents
- Monday, July 19, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity by David Brog (Encounter).
[I]t may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value…. -- Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University
The Romans were not the first anti-Semites. But they embraced, at times enthusiastically, this most ancient of hatreds. The Romans conquered most of Europe and the Mediterranean world. They pacified peoples far more powerful, numerous and wealthy than the Jews. But they could never fully subdue this small tribe in the far, southeastern corner of the Empire.
The Jewish rebellions were not merely military. The Jews also engaged in a determined cultural resistance. Unlike other conquered peoples who eagerly adopted Roman ways, the Jews clung with persistence to their ancient religion and distinctive morality. As Jews migrated to the Empire's leading cities, they even began attracting Roman citizens to their synagogues.
In the year 70 AD, Roman legions crushed a major Jewish revolt and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Not long thereafter, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus tried to quash the Jewish cultural challenge. In his major work, the Histories, Tacitus attacks the Jews as "wicked," stubborn," and "lascivious." Turning his attention to the Jewish religion, he notes that:
Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral.
Tacitus then lists a number of these Jewish moral perversions. Among the beliefs he found particularly "sinister and revolting" was the fact that, for Jews, "it is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child."
The Romans were proud practitioners of infanticide. So were the Greeks before them. Both Plato and Aristotle recommended that the state embrace a policy of killing deformed infants. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote approvingly of the common practice of drowning abnormal or weak children at birth. The earliest known Roman legal code, written in 450 BC, permitted fathers to kill any "deformed or weak" male infant or any female infant no matter how healthy. Indeed, female babies were the primary victims of Roman infanticide.
The Roman approach to human life was strictly utilitarian. They believed that females and weak males were never going to grow up to be effective farmers, soldiers or leaders. They would therefore contribute little to the families and society that sustained them. With nothing in the Roman moral code to dictate otherwise, many parents decided that killing these babies made much more sense than raising them.
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