Early Christians fretted over the dangers of pagan, secular literature; but few wanted to toss out baby and bathwater. Basil of Caesarea opined that pagan literature actually prepared students for Christianity. Augustine wished to pillage the classics of anything useful to Christian teaching and throw away the rest. (So he turned Roman rhetoric to the task of improving Christian preaching.) And yet all through his life Augustine grappled with Vergil, as Sabine MacCormack has shown, “whether by way of imitation, of adaptation, or of contradiction.” One fifth-century Roman aristocrat in Gaul kept his Christian books at one end of the library, where ladies sat, his pagan classics at the other, ‘male’ end. Cassiodorus, who in the sixth century adopted Augustine’s more severe precept, found room in it for Martianus Capella, whose pagan allegory he baptized for centuries of medieval readers. Cautiously, Christianity made itself more or less at home with pagan philology.
This is exactly the bind the newly triumphant Bolsheviks found themselves in in 1917: should they introduce the deprived proletarian masses to the classics (now stigmatized as bourgeois rather than pagan), or raze the whole edifice and start from scratch? There were loud voices in favor of the latter, but Lenin and Stalin were wedded to the art they’d grown up with, and the former view prevailed.