Chiastic Kingship

On the Symbolic World website Cormac Jones recently published an article of immense depth on the concept of the “Chiasmus,” the cross or “Chi” literary structure found in many older texts. The concept gets its name from the Greek letter “Chi” which is written in the form of an “X.” Jones makes many startling observations about the biblical texts, noting that chiastic structure runs rampant throughout the Bible. He gives numerous examples, among them, this one from Matthew 7:4-5

Or here in Matthew 13:13-18

As Jones points out, the word “parable” has geometric implications–the parabolic arc bends up or down and then returns on its former path, so it makes sense that a parable would do likewise. We must not assume it mere coincidence that Jesus’ used the parable as His primary method of teaching. As St. Nikolai Velimirović noted,

The whole world is one long parable, made up of innumerable parables. This world and all that is in it is as ephemeral as a tale that is told. But the spiritual kernel that is hidden within the layers of every parable is enduring and does not decay. Those who nourish only their eyes and ears by these parables remain spiritually hungry, for the spirit is nourished by the kernel of these parables, and they are not capable of penetrating to this kernel. An unspiritual, sensual man feeds on the green leaves of many parables, and remains always hungry and restless from this hunger. A spiritual man seeks the kernel of these manifold parables and, feeding on it, becomes satisfied and filled with peace. All things that exist are parables, for they are all, like green leaves or layers, wrapped round the hidden kernel. All that happens is the stuff of parable, for it is the clothing for the spiritual content, kernel, and nourishment.

Placed in this world, man is as though encompassed by a sea of God’s wisdom expressed in parables. But he who looks on this wisdom only with his eyes sees nothing but the vesture in which this wisdom is clothed; he looks, and sees the vesture of nature, but does not see its spirit and kernel; he listens, and hears nature, but he hears only empty voices, not understanding their meaning. The eye is not given to see nature’s kernel, nor the ear given to hear its meaning. Spirit finds spirit; meaning looks to meaning; understanding meets understanding; love senses love.

All spiritual truth is from the other world — the spiritual, heavenly world — and it can be perceived and grasped only with spiritual sight, hearing, and understanding. But these spiritual truths are set forth in this world under the form of things and incidents. Many have lost the sight, hearing, and understanding of spiritual truths. Many only see the form, and only listen to the outward voice, and understand only the outward content, form, and nature of things and incidents. This is bodily sight, bodily hearing, and bodily understanding. The Lord Jesus knew men’s blindness and therefore, as a most wise Teacher, led men from bodily subjects to spiritual, and from physical facts to spiritual. He therefore spoke to them in parables — in a form that was able to be grasped by their sight, hearing, and understanding.

Jones continues to point out the chiastic structure not just of certain biblical passages, but whole books of the Bible (you can find such outlines and commentary on his website), and why the chiastic structure is ideally five-fold, rooted in St. Maximus’ concept of being, well-being, and eternal being:

. . . that there are three modes, inasmuch as the total principle of the whole coming into being of rational substances is seen to have mode of being, of well-being, and eternal-being; and that of being is first given to beings by essence; that of well-being is granted to them second, by their power to choose, inasmuch as they are self-moved; and that of eternal-being is lavished on them third, by grace. And the first contains potential, the second activity, and the third, rest from activity

St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigum 65

He gives a quick outline of this as

He then goes on to argue that chiasm ideally functions in a five fold manner, writing,

So when the B in the A-B-A’ itself expands to a-b-a’ you end up with something fivefold, something expressible as A-B-C-B’-A’. You could acknowledge this basic form as the result of the threefold chiastic minimum combined with the most basic fractal understanding, or you could see in the expansion from three to five the wedding between man and God — between God’s agency and man’s agency. That’s the cosmic story. It can be expressed in simplest terms thus:

More specifically:

Which also has expression as a parabola [i.e., a “parable,”] or cosmic mountain:

I will spare the reader an entire recapitulation of his excellent article, but it is this space in the middle, the center of the ‘X,’ that allows the “division” between the A and B elements of chiasms to have resolution.

Coincidentally, the number 5 has a long history of importance within the Christian tradition. This may have its origin in the symbolic role of the hand itself as what orients, directs, and confers power and blessing. The Church developed this further with the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary, and other emblems around the number five.

Sympathy stands as one mark of the best historians, and that quality shines out in Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies, which examines medieval political theology. He begins his study by looking at Edmund Plowden’s Reports, which date from the 16th century. The issue involved whether or not King Edward VI could dispense with property he held privately, though he was legally underage to do so? Plowden writes,

By the Common Law no Act which the King does as King shall be defeated by his Nonage [i.e., being underage].  For the King has in him two Bodies, a body natural and a Body politic.  His Body natural, if it be considered in itself, is a Body mortal, subject to all infirmities that come by Nature or Accident . . . . But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the direction of the People and the management of the Public weal.  This body is utterly void of infancy, and of old age, and other natural defects which the Body natural is subject to.  For this cause, what the king does in his Body politic cannot be frustrated by any disability in his natural Body.

Therefore, when the two Bodies are become as one Body, to which no Body is equal, this double Body, whereof the Body politic is greater, cannot hold in jointure with any single one.

Yet, despite the unity of the two Bodies, his capacity to take in the Body natural is not confounded by the Body politic, but remains still.

Notwithstanding that these two Bodies are at one Time conjoined together, yet the Capacity of of the one does not confound the other, but they remain distinct Capacities.

Ergo, the Body natural and the Body politic are not distinct, but united as one Body.

Another earlier commentator known only as the “Norman Anonymous” wrote in a similar vein,

We thus have to recognize in the king a twin person, one descended from nature, the other from grace . .  One through which, through nature, he shares with other men: another through which . . . he excels all others.  Concerning one, he was by nature, an individual man: concerning his other personality, he was, by grace, a Christus.  

To the modern eye, raised on Occam’s Razor, this sounds at best convoluted, and perhaps even ridiculous–“byzantine” in its overwrought complexity. But Kantorowicz rightly points out that, while medievals viewed there theories as complex, they had an internal logic to them. Medievals took seriously the strange mystical nature of leadership, and applied their theology directly to difficulty political questions. Some may note the connection above with Trinitarian and Christological doctrines developed in the early church. Christianity is neither monistic or polytheistic–we have one God in three Persons. But more particularly, the theory of two bodies for the king has roots in the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), which affirmed that:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως – in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

In other words, Christ is one person, with two natures, and these two natures exist in concert with each other. The king reigns as an icon of Christ, and this means that he must show forth not just his power but his humility as well. Kantorowicz points out that for the first several centuries, Christian kingship had strong liturgical connections, especially related to Christ’s offering of Himself not just on the cross but continually in the eucharist, as Gregory of Bergamo explained,

One is the body which is the sacrament, another the body of which it is the sacrament . . . . One body of Christ which is he himself, and another body of which he is the head.

Kantorowicz asserts that problems with monarchy in the 17th century developed perhaps only when western civilization abandoned this theological tension. He quotes from the Puritans who remarked regarding Charles I along the lines of, “We fight the king to save the King,” as indicative of straying near the Monophysite heresy. Monophysites denied the Chalcedonian symbol, arguing that Christ essentially had only one divine nature, reducing his humanity to an outer shell. With this theological shift de-emphasizing Christ’s incarnation, the use of Christ as a model for kingship went out of fashion. Instead, Kantorowicz argues, God, or perhaps God the Father, became the image of earthly kingship. With the liturgical connection of descent, sacrifice, ascent then lost, the legal powers of kingship increased, and kingship became more absolute. This so-called growth of the power of the king actually foreshadowed its demise. Monarchy grew severed from its proper source, and came ripe for a fall.

The King’s Two Bodies has a great deal of thought provoking detail, tracing the development of the “two bodies” idea thoroughly. I thought Kantorowicz missed something in his analysis, however, something akin to the missing center of the chiasm when it has only an oppositional structure. Something must hold it together beyond merely the distinction between the two bodies, just as Christ is one person with two natures. Kantorowicz describes some of the historical mechanics of monarchy admirably but misses some of the real point of the main question: Why has monarchy been the historical, traditional “go-to” form of government?

This question Jean Hani gets at more directly in Sacred Royalty: From the Pharaoh to the Most Christian King. Hani understands that the modern man has no real understanding of monarchy. Some might even favor monarchy, but see it only as a convenient way to concentrate power, such as Adolphe Thiers, who commented in 1871 that, “the monarchy is at root a republic, a republic with a hereditary president.” Others perhaps might wish to say more, and allow that kingship has roots in nature, or in fatherhood. The philosophy Denis Diderot notes, however, that “nature gives no one the right to rule others,” and that the power of paternity recedes as the children grow up. Diderot’s implication, of course, was that France, and the world, had reached such an age.

Hani concedes that any genuine idea of monarchy must have roots beyond efficiency, practicality, and hereditary. It must be, “a paternity raised to the second power, sacred by nature, but whose sacredness is conferred by means of rites”–that is, by what is above.

Any full unpacking of Hani’s work exceeds my capacity here. What I found most illuminating, however, is that Hani discovers the secret to kingship through the mystery of chiasm, though he never sought to attempt any such thing (as far as I know).

First, Hani notes that mankind, in Jewish, Christian, Chinese, and other religious traditions, occupies a central place in the cosmos, one that lies at the midpoint between heaven and earth. “True Man,” he states, “is a synthesis of the Universe,” an idea echoed in St. Maximos, among others. As one Chinese sage put it,

The square pertains to Earth, and the circle pertains to Heaven.  Heaven is a circle, and Earth is a square.

Zhou Bi Suan

As the Taoist Change-Tzu stated,

The emperor concentrates on non-action, which is the Way of Heaven . . . . The ancient rulers abstained from acting on their own, allowing Heaven to govern through them . . . . At the summit of the Universe, the Principle unites Heaven and Earth, which transmits its influence to all beings, and which, entering the world of men, becomes good government.

But this “heaven” must touch earth to receive body and enactment in the world. Hani includes several pictures of the layout of ancient cities which symbolically represent this in their circular design, first with ancient Mansura:

and with the Viking fortress of Trelleborg:

and Firuzabad:

and Darabgerd:

This “squaring the circle” motif (with the earth upon which the city rests being the “square”) brings Heaven to Earth, in a sense. Even the Assyrians, depicting something as prosaic as a military camp, understood this.

What surrounded the king had this same pattern, such as the chariots of China and yes, also Assyria (not noted as a civilization that always appreciated the finer things):

The key element here is the square bottom and circular top–Earth connecting with Heaven:

For China, at least, Hani shows how this all comes together even in their language, writing,

But the most profound symbolism of the imperial residence was the central edifice, the Ming-tang, or “Temple of Light . . .   this building had a square base and a round roof; the same structure governed the chariot of the emperor . . . . Thus, dress, chariot, and palace, by their fundamental structure, analogous to the character “wang,” expressed the nature of the sovereign as incarnating the function of “True Man,” or “Transcendent Man,” fixed in the “Invariable Middle” (symbolized by the central cross of the character “wang”) and ultimately identified with the Axis of the World.

Here is the Chinese character for “king.”*

This brings us back to the five-fold chiasm.

Cormac Jones writes,

Have you ever considered it odd that Man, . . . is not given his own day on which to be made? He rather shares the sixth day with all the beasts of the field and creeping things of the earth. . . . what this grouping seems to suggest is that–not only are humans of like essence with the animals according to their bodies, symmetrical to the [angels] according to their spirits–but also the featured creation of the sixth day is specifically the five senses, which men and animals share alike. First you have all material creation made in a symbolic five days, then you have the five senses which circumscribe them by their powers of perception made on the sixth day.

And St. Maximos writes,

Manifold is the relation between intellects and what they perceive and between the senses and what they experience. . . . So it is in two parts divided between these things, and it draws these things through their own parts into itself in unity.

Here we have our window through which to understand kingship, at least in the ancient and medieval world. We as humans must square the circle in some place, and since, (as St. Maximos and others have stated) man is a macrocosmos, it must come to a point not in some place, but first in the Man by nature, and then in a man through grace. Other cultures intuited many important aspects of this truth, as we see above. Christianity’s crucial, seminal contribution is to put this power of Heaven and Earth on a cross, to fix our five fold nature into both sorrow and joy. It is one of the paradoxes of the Faith that the way Up involves going down.


*The Chinese Lo Shu number square, rooted in the origin myth of 9 rivers, 9 mountains, and the 9 provinces of China looks like

and not coincidentally, has the number 5 in the middle as the midpoint of 9, as what holds together the four cardinal directions. This surely has something to do with the designation of China as the “Middle Kingdom.”

9th/10th Grade: The World Charlemagne Made


Few reigns have had more significance than that of Charlemagne.  When he assumed the throne of the Franks in 768 the “dark ages” had run of things on the European continent.  Little settled political order existed, and the world of most villagers narrowed to their immediate sphere.  Travel and mobility came with far too much unpredictability.

Upon his death in 814, Europe had begun its transformation into what we might recognize as civilization.  Not only had a discernible political order emerged, but the “Carolingian Renaissance” started to bring back the rudiments of culture and learning.  The geography of Europe changed, as these “before” (ca. AD 700) and “after” (AD 814) maps of Europe indicate. . .

Europe AD 700

Map of Europe, AD 814

. . . but the change involved much more than geography alone.  With Charlemagne came the return of building with stone.  We discussed in class about the significance of building with stone, and what it reveals about a time period that introduces it:

  • Building with stone requires a higher degree of specialized skill than either mud-brick or wood, showing advancement.
  • Building with stone is more costly, showing economic improvement
  • Stone is more time-consuming, but also more durable.  No one would build with stone who thought about moving anytime soon.

The use of stone in the 9th century AD shows more than mere political stability, it shows a return of confidence, what historian Kenneth Clark argues is one of the unseen foundations of any civilization.  Clark may or may not have been a Christian, but he recognized the key truth that civilization rests ultimately on psychological/spiritual factors, rather than mere “physical” factors like good laws and good economies.  He is one of the few historians I’ve come across who gives the lion’s share of credit to the Church for recovering civilization after Rome’s fall.

Last week the students go their first introduction to Clark, one of my favorite historians.  This site’s title is in fact an homage to Clark.  I realize that students may not go ga-ga over a mildly stuffy British lord with bad teeth, but Clark has much to teach us.  He possessed a discerning eye and a careful mind, one that could read a great deal from the creative works left by the past.  Here is the first few minutes of the first episode, though I recommend just about everything he did. . .

Charlemagne’s times raised difficult questions for the Church then, and by proxy for the Church today.  The Church has an interest in good government and good order for society.  All in all, the Church would prefer a government friendly to its interests.  But all government rests in the end, on owning the monopoly on violence in a particular geography.  This is inevitable in any age.  The Church then, and the Church today, has hard choices about what to support and what to protest.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing, as St. Paul stated in Romans.  But the state has its own interests apart from the Kingdom that the Church should critique.  In this intricate dance, it’s easy to miss a few steps.

Charlemagne’s constant wars mean we can find much to dislike about him.  After his death his kingdom got divided amongst his sons, and with this political division came instability and the return of violence, and this raises two possibilities:

  1. However much we might deplore Charlemagne’s violence we might be forced to see it as necessary for the “reboot” of civilization to have one strong-man impose his singular vision. While this vision may have been less than perfect, it stood superior to anything before it.
  2. Or, we can say that the breakup of his kingdom after his death comes as a byproduct of the violence of his reign.  Charlemagne taught his successors that violence was the pathway to getting what you wanted.

Division of Charlemagne's Kingdom

Civilization took a few backward steps after Charlemagne, but the seeds planted during his reign bore fruit later. This is why I personally can’t fully accept argument #2 above.  Charlemagne had an eye to something other than just violence.  Take for example the development of the elegant “Carolingian” script during his time, which shows a different side of the man.  First, the script that preceded it, the “Merovingian” style . . .


And now the Carolingian . . .

One can perhaps see Charlemagne’s practical, decisive, hand in the handwriting that bears his namesake.  I think it an improvement over the Merovingian — it’s more accessible to the common man.  But Carolingian script is not strictly a “military” in nature, it shows a softer side of Charlemagne — it has a decided elegance about it.

While handwriting styles shouldn’t always be taken as decisive evidence, I think it telling in this instance.  The undercurrent of some semblance of Christian civilization had taken root, though the prevailing winds might blow in various directions.

After the break we will look at the Norman Conquest and the subsequent formation of an identity called “Europe.”



Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction when we find profound differences. We can judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we might see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us. This, in turn, would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of our major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

The Burden of Nineveh

David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology starts with an intriguing premise. Many, he argues, assume that religion and technology have a long standing enmity with each other. This narrative, bolstered by the urban legend of the church’s opposition to Columbus, and a misunderstanding of what happened with Galileo, runs deep in our cultural mindset. The triumph of Enlightenment thinking for some seals the deal in religion’s ultimate defeat by the march of progress and reason. Noble’s book sets out to show the opposite, that the creation of technology has always stemmed from a religious impulse, and that many of the world’s great technological pioneers created with a distinctly religious aim in mind.

Noble makes a few interesting claims. On the one hand, he points out that the church sponsored, or helped create certain technologies, such as the heavy plow in the Frankish empire, and a variety of other things. He also attempts to show such sponsorship meant a departure from established Orthodoxy, assuming that such ‘orthodoxy’ stood against technical development, and then traces this religious impulse down to the modern day. I can appreciate any attempt to help understand and heal the divide between religion and science, and Noble’s work accomplishes this to a slight degree. His problems stem from his lack of understanding of the meaning of technology, and the Scriptural tradition related to the topic. He misses crucial nuance and context.*

For starters, how anti-technology can Christian orthodoxy be if

  • The Old Testament has a variety of sections in which craftsmen are praised, especially those who build the temple.
  • Adam was told to tend and develop the garden. One might suppose that he would do so with more than just his hands.
  • Jesus was the (earthly) son of a carpenter

But Noble rightly points out ambiguity in the text and tradition, for we also see

  • That Cain’s line was the first to develop technology
  • That the early chapters of Genesis show that those that develop technology use it first for bad ends
  • That cities get a bad rap in OT at least, with Cain, Babel, Sodom, Egypt, and the like.

Noble makes no attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions and place technology in its proper context.

First we need to understand the meaning of mankind in creation, and why Cain developed tools and cities.

One can read Genesis 1 in a variety of ways. I think it best read as, at its core, an explication of the meaning of creation. Mankind comes last, but throughout the process of creation we see continual duality, first cosmically between light and dark, and then later between sea and dry land, fishes and birds, plants and animals, and so on. This dualities get closer together until we get the creation of man and woman. Mankind has the role of mediating between heaven and earth, of being the center point of the ladder of meaning that travels between what lies above and below.

The picture deepens when we see the Garden in Genesis residing on a mountain. The idea of a mountain bursting with life–this kind of paradox permeates the Christian faith, a paradox that we need to understand to interpret technologies role correctly. When Adam and Eve leave the garden, they descend down the mountain, a descent away from heaven toward earth, from meaning to fact. This “fall” downwards also gives one more earthly power, which makes sense as a kind of parody of heavenly wisdom.

In the Old Testament, as well as in other mythic traditions, the problem with technology comes not with the thing itself, but mankind receiving or grasping it before the proper time. We see this in the myth of Prometheus, for example. In the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was declared “good” along with the rest of creation. To help destroy man the snake tempts them to take it before the proper time.** Cain’s subsequent wandering takes him down under the mountain, in fact. He begins to look not up to heaven but under the earth. He and his descendants build cities, tools, and even musical instruments. All of this has its roots in death–even the earliest instruments came from the horns or skins of dead animals. Naturally, actual physical death comes right on the heels of these technologies (Gen. 4:23-24).

Alienated from God, mankind no longer can properly unite heaven and earth. Many have speculated on the proper interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. The early church saw these verses as the Book of Enoch interprets them. Fallen angels have, likely through demonic possession of some sort, join with women and their offspring become the Nephilim, a race of giants. Others see it in simpler terms, with the godly line of Seth intermarrying with the ungodly line of Cain. I prefer the former option, but either way, we see again the same problem, that of improper mixing, and mankind failing to properly mediate between heaven and earth. Once again, this results in violence and the flood. The flood represents chaos and a return to a formless void, but it only mirror the chaos already introduced by mankind who fell to the temptations of technology.

Science participates in the same pattern of uniting heaven and earth as other areas of life. No contradiction should exist between science and religion. Scientists take an idea, a hypothesis, and try and coherently unite that idea (what is ‘above’) to observable phenomena (what is ‘below’). One might argue that the power Science grants has a kinship with the power of words properly structured in a great speech. But, science seems to operate on a different scale. We many not initially see that the increase of power granted by technology serves in turn to make us more vulnerable. This shows itself in any number of ways in our experience. For example, if in traveling from New York to California we

  • walked, it would take us a long time, but the worst that could happen more or less is that we would sprain our ankle, or
  • ran, we could go a bit faster, but in falling, with the extra momentum, we could do more damage to our legs and feet, or
  • drove, we would get there faster still, but if something went wrong with the car we could get badly hurt in an accident, or
  • flew in a plane, we would go fastest of all, but if even a small thing goes wrong with the craft, death would be the likely outcome.

This quick sketch no doubt leaves many unanswered questions, but hopefully this shows that reticence the Church expresses about technology has nothing to do with fear of change, or control, but in something far deeper and more important. However, the biblical narrative develops another parallel track regarding the use of technology that begins just as the detrimental effects of the Fall take root. With Adam and Eve now naked and ashamed, God makes them a “garment of skin,” a covering, that allows them to encounter the world and each other. Such garments come from the death of animals, and we can see them as the first “technology.” This technology allows mankind to interact with the world. The garments come from death and are a concession to death, but serve a good purpose.

This turning of death into life also forms part of the pattern of creation, for “Christ was slain from the foundation of the world.” For, while the OT shows us the problem of cities within the patterns, the NT shows us that even the idea of the city becomes part of the glorification of all things (Rev. 20-21). We see hints of this in the OT as well, with the construction of the Tabernacle, which can be seen as a “covering,” a means for us to encounter God, since seeing Him directly would destroy us. The Temple later serves something of the the same purpose, but interestingly, many of the materials and craftsmen for the Temple came from foreign nations. such as Tyre and Lebanon, which allows to see two things simultaneously:

  • A foreshadowing of the gathering in of all nations to under the coming Messiah, of God reconciling all things to Himself in Christ, and
  • That these coverings come from Outside, they are not quite part of the “core” of kingdom culture, that the Temple is “tainted” in some way.

Noble makes the great point that our technological impulse is essentially religious. Done rightly, it can manifest our calling to unite Heaven and Earth properly. But a wrong application leads toward a potentially demonic path, where our worst impulses to make ourselves into one of the old gods. Noble fails to see this pattern and so he cannot coherently organize his thoughts to make a point beyond mere observations of particulars. To say that technological development cuts against “religious orthodoxy” is too strong a claim. To say that Church tradition has usually expressed a wariness with new inventions puts us nearer the truth. We need such caution on today’s rapidly expanding digital technology to give us a chance to navigate it rightly, and give us the best chance avoiding violence and destabilization.

In War and Civilization, a short work compiling Arnold Toynbee’s thoughts on the relationship between war and society, Arnold Toynbee quotes from a prominent biologist that,

One seductive and ultimately fatal path [of Evolution] has been the development of protective armor. An organism can protect itself by concealment, by swiftness in flight, by counter-attack, by uniting for counter-attack by others of his species and also by encasing itself within bony plates and spines. The last course was adopted by ganoid fishes of the Devonian with their shining armor. Some of the great lizards of the later Mesozoic were elaborately encased. Always the experiment of armor failed. Creatures adopting it tended to become unwieldy. They had to move relatively slowly. Hence they were forced to live on vegetative matter compared to living on more “profitable” animal food. The repeated failure of armor shows that, even a somewhat low evolutionary level, mind triumphed over mere matter. It is this sort of triumph which has been supremely exemplified in Man.

Toynbee used this analogy of armor as a reference point to the David and Goliath story. David’s rejection of armor gave him more than a potential tactical advantage over Goliath. We can see David refusing armor as a putting off of the Garments of Skin, as a return to something like the Garden. Jesus cursing the fig tree accomplishes much the same thing, which we can see as Christ reversing the fall–fig leaves formed the first covering for man (Gen. 3:7). And, when Jesus tells us that “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” He refers directly to the humility of His poverty. But he also hearkens back to the fact that He has no covering, that He shed his garments, so to speak.

With his commitment to seeing history through a spiritual lens, Toynbee arrived, perhaps unwittingly, had some of these same hesitations regarding power–another “covering” akin to the Garments in Genesis. He writes about the Roman Empire:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially. 

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C.  was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.  

War and Civilization centers around Toynbee’s examination of Assyrian civilization. Assyria stands as the poster child of how a quick, massive expansion of power actually can bring about a swift ruin and complete dissipation of that power. Such near instant bursts of physical growth bring with them commensurate problems, hence Toynbee’s chapter entitled, “The Burden of Nineveh.” With this in mind, we have a possible lens through which we can know whether or not we choose our garments well or poorly. We can begin by realizing that whatever coverings we put on will not actually solve our psychological, spiritual, or physical longings, though they can deceive us not thinking so. Sometimes these coverings hinder and obscure the best parts of us. But at times they are a necessary expedient to cope with challenges we face. Different people, and different civilizations might need to choose differently depending on circumstance. We should walk these paths with caution. The only way to avoid the deception of our garments of skin is to wear them with humility.


*Noble annoyed me early on by quoting with approval Max Weber’s idea that Christianity revived Roman polytheism. I can appreciate that Christianity is not strictly monistic as is Islam and perhaps Judaism, but Noble should know better. I suppose he left it in for supposed shock value, since it adds nothing to his thesis.

**We can see this same element in human sexuality. It is good, created by God. Only when we are properly prepared, in the right context (marriage between a man and a woman) can this “power” be wielded in a good and proper manner.

Tolerating Toleration

I have written on a few occasions that those who write history books can fall into one of two errors:

  • Over-emphasizing the differences between things, which means that nothing can be compared to anything with any confidence, and
  • Over-emphasizing the similarities between things, which these days means that everyone is either Hitler or Stalin.

The best historians combine factual mastery with poetic gifts. They see rhyme and rhythm, but they never force it, letting the “occasional” square pegs stand aside from the round holes when appropriate.*

The first error (the “differences” error) is more useful. If you over-emphasize particular facts at the expense of synthesis, you have hopefully uncovered many useful pieces of information. But these kinds of historians are in my view not really historians, but researchers. They have definite skills, but play too close to the vest. Without extending themselves and taking a risk, they limit their impact.

The second error involves more chutzpah and dash, and so I tend to be more forgiving to those who synthesize too much. Toynbee, one of my great heroes, conflated Greek and Roman civilizations to such a degree that he claimed that Rome began its decline in 431 B.C., the year the Peloponnesian War started in Greece. Such an assertion perhaps has some grandeur in its theatricality. But no one could claim that this whopper arose from intellectual laziness on his part.

Other times, however, errors of the second kind can only arise from a combination of laziness and willful blindness. These types of errors of the “Over-emphasizing similarities” school are more dangerous than the “differences” school. When you aim higher, you fall farther.

One “similarities” error that has lingered on in the scholarship of late antiquity, and subsequently in the public consciousness, involves the interplay between Christianity post-Constantine and the older paganism. Sir Geoffrey Elton–a knight no less!–expresses this basic idea concisely, writing,

. . . religions organized in powerful churches and in command of the field persecute as a matter of course and tend to regard toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards whatever deity they worship. Among the religious, toleration is demanded by the persecuted who need it if they are to be triumphant, when, all too often, they then persecute in their turn. . . . To say this is not cynicism but sobriety of judgment.

Ugh–one can just imagine Sir Geoffrey Elton saying this with some British smugness. Intolerable, I say! It just won’t do!

So, Elton, followed by Peter Garnsey, and Francois Paschoud on the French side–and a host of others–mash everything up and declare that basically no difference existed between the intolerance of Rome towards Christians, and intolerance of Christians towards Roman pagans.

But even a brief look at this assertion shows its utter fatuity.

How did Rome persecute Christians? Over a span of 250 years (though not continuous over that period, but sporadic in its intensity) Rome imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Christians. Many died in a gruesome manner, as even Roman sources hostile to Christians attest. By the late empire, feeding Christians to lions in the arena was old hat. Even mild, tolerant, and “good” emperors like Trajan admitted that, yes, if push came to shove, Pliny should arrest and even execute Christians.

How did Christians persecute pagan Romans once in “command of the field?” They closed and sometimes destroyed temples. They refused to give state funding for pagan rites. They closed the Academy of Athens. Some sporadic–and important to note–non-state sponsored violence probably happened in some instances. One can cite the era of Theodosius I, from AD 379-395, where

hands and feet . . . were broken; their faces and genitals smashed . . .

But this violence was not directed at people but at the statues of gods and goddesses. However “purposeful” and “vindictive” (as one historian terms it) such actions may have been, it is not quite the same thing as watching people eaten alive for entertainment.**

Enter historian Peter Brown to set the record partially aright. Alas, I have only slight exposure to Brown, an acknowledged master of late Roman antiquity. My first impressions peg him tending towards the “differences” error, but this might suit him well to clean up the typical sludge created by Elton et. al. on this issue. He entitled chapter 1 of his work Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World, “Christianization: Narratives and Processes,” which can only elicit one response:

But chapter two deals with the question of religious toleration in a much more promising manner.

Brown points out a few helpful counterpoints to Elton and his crew.

Most every ruler’s first priority involves money, which comes mostly through taxation. Any ruler of moderate ability understands the tricky nature of taxation, and how it relies upon a network of trust and compliance that is not easily enforced. Brown comments,

It is easy to assume that a tax system . . . so successful, indicated the indomitable will of the emperors to control the souls of their subjects as surely as they had come to control their wealth. In fact, the exact opposite may be the case. In most areas, the system of negotiated consensus was usually stretched to its limits by the task of exacting taxes. It had little energy left to give ‘bite’ to intolerant policies in matters of religion. It is no surprise that many sources indicate a clear relation between taxation and toleration. Faced by demands of Porphyry of Gaza for permission to destroy the temples of the city, supposedly in 400, the emperor Arcadius is presented as having said: ‘I know the city is full of idols, but it shows “devotio” in paying taxes and contributes much to the treasury. If we suddenly terrorize these people, they will run away, and we lose considerable revenues.”

Brown also stresses that late imperial Rome even in the Christian era involved shared power among elites. And these elites had strong common bonds between them that crossed religious lines. Brown writes again,

As far as the formation of the new governing class of the post-Constantinian empire was concerned, the fourth century was very definitely not a century overshadowed by [religious conflict]. Nothing could have been more distressing to the Roman upper-classes than the suggestion that ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ were overriding designations in their style of life and choice of friends and allies. . . . Rather . . . studied ambiguity and strong loyalty to common symbolic forms . . . prevailed at this time.

Pagan and Jewish religious leaders, Brown notes, received not just toleration, but sometimes even support from the empire.

It would be wrong to imply, as Menachem Stern has done, that [Libanius and the rabbi Hillel] . . . found themselves drawn together “under the yoke of Christian emperors.” They were drawn together by common enjoyment of an imperial system that conferred high status on them both. . . . Both enjoyed high honorary rank, conferred by imperial codicilli–those precious purple letters of personal esteem signed by Theodosius in his own hand.

Theodosius, it bears mentioning, is often thought of as one of the great “intolerant” emperors.

So far, well and good. Brown, with his eye for detail and his great reluctance to generalize, gives an admirable riposte to the traditional academic narrative. But something still needs addressed. Brown blocks effectively, but asserts little beyond, “It wasn’t as clear cut as many think,” he seems to say. But everything is complicated. The historian should at least offer a way to make the complicated intelligible.

Alas, the elephant is still in the room, in the form of two important questions for scholars like Elton and Garnsey–questions that Brown fails to ask:

The first: toleration may be a good thing, but what are its limits? One can praise the virtue of getting along despite differences. Everyone knows this already, however. It’s not a hard thing to say. The hard thing means saying when the differences have become so great that co-existence no longer works, when the house divided cannot stand.

Drawing this line ultimately comes down to values, and values come from religious beliefs. My second question to Elton, etc. would be, “What is your religion? You seem to be neither pagan, nor Christian–and that’s fine. But what or who is your God/god? And what does He/She/It not like? What do you not tolerate? Surely He/She/It can’t like everything.

Brown avoids such questions, and that’s too bad. He has my respect, and a historian of his heft should apply his knowledge to this problem. As for our own situation in our own time, such questions have unfortunately become more than just theoretical. I believe that the media accentuates the differences between Americans for profit. Also, professional tweeters are more divided than average Americans. But a breaking point lies out there somewhere for all of us. We must acknowledge this, and at the same time, hope that we never find it.


*This observation might seem quite obvious, and so it is. But it is rooted in the profound truth of the nature of the Trinity–unity and diversity at the root of all being.

**I admit this is not the whole truth of all of Christian history. There were times and places where it got worse than this in the next 1000 years. But though it did at times get worse than what I describe above, it never equaled what Rome did.

Symbolic Matters

In Ezra Klein’s podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.


*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.

Slant Deeds to Straight Times

I very much appreciate Peter Thiel’s contributions to public discourse. I likely lean away from his overall optimism about technology–I wish we could think of a way to grow economically without needing to radically altering the labor market and public discourse with the latest invention every few years. That said, those who can combine business acumen, incisive cultural commentary, and theological insight deserve a listen.

The subject of Constantine came up in his recent interview on the Meeting of Minds podcast with Jerry Bowyer. Thiel alluded to the problems of governance in accordance with truth and goodness. Politics is inevitably icky, and linking Christianity with such ickiness has always proved problematic. Thiel made the intriguing comment that given the chaotic nature of the times, perhaps Constantine had it right in postponing his baptism and official conversion until near his death.

I had never thought this way before about Constantine, and while I wished Thiel had continued his thoughts on this point, the fact that he left it at that leaves me room to speculate with abandon.

To understand politics, and to try and have some sympathy with Constantine’s decision, we need to see the difference between Authority and Power. Hopefully both have a strong relation to each other. But in strange times, they tend to move further apart.

“Authority” contains the core, and the origin, of a particular action. The core must be solid, and stable. For Authority to work, it has to embody this reality. Authority gives legitimacy, or impetus, or perhaps even permission, to Power.

“Power” applies Authority, and so must have more fluidity and movement. It is this movement which gives Power, well, its power. This motion will have an effect, however, regardless of its association to Authority. That is why we hope that Power will always stay connected to legitimate Authority.

Some examples of this Authority-Power dynamic at work . . .

  • An army waits to go right or left. The general, back at HQ, gives the order. The corporals and privates eventually start to move and they begin the attack. The general has authority, but has no power by himself. What can one man do? But, the general actuates Power, and gives Power its purpose. The army starts to move. Authority (hopefully) tames and directs Power.
  • In chess the King/Authority moves little, and hence has little Power. Power belongs to the Queen, and so she has the most freedom of movement. But everything depends on the existence of the King/Authority.
  • People often stated about Queen Elizabeth that she had no real power. Very true. But she was beloved nearly the world over because we instinctively realized that she embodied Authority to near perfection. Her bearing, countenance, and behavior all spoke of Authority. It was crucial, in fact, that she rarely sought to have Power–this allowed her to maintain Authority.
  • We see these patterns on Earth because it is the foundation of all things in the life of the Trinity. God the Father does not “move.”** He is, in a way, the Origin. God the Son moves more, but His movement is somewhat “restricted” to going down and then up again in a specific place. It is the Holy Spirit, the “power of God,” which “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) going to a fro throughout the Earth.

When Authority and Power have no clear connection, then things get a little weird, and actually have to get a little weird, to set the times right again. Think of King Saul pursuing David. God’s anointed king (Saul) betrayed his calling, making authority in the realm more or less of no effect. Note, for example, the story of Jonathan and the honey, or the fact that Saul cannot catch David. David must then resort to weirdness to come to a place where things get right again, even to the extent of

  • Feigning insanity to ingratiate himself with the Philistines, and
  • Leading a portion of the Philistine army

Centuries later, with the Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish religious leaders failing the people, no true Authority existed among the people of God. It took a man dressed in camel skins who ate bugs to bring hope and point to the one who “taught with authority” (Lk. 4:32).

Many legends and folklore point to this same dynamic. When King Richard languished in prison and King John took the throne, the only honest men were the thieves in the forest with Robin Hood. When we remember that the forest for medievals meant a dark, dangerous, unpredictable place, this dynamic looks even stranger. Once King Richard returned, the merry band disbanded.

Understanding this dynamic gives us a good lens to understand controversial political actions. For example, some criticize Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, usually on two fronts:

  • Lincoln had no Constitutional authority to issue the edict, and
  • The edict actually accomplished nothing, serving as a mere empty symbol

Though I am no Lincoln expert, I suspect that he thought that Authority (i.e., the Constitution) had fled the scene by 1860. The Constitution already suffered mightily “de facto” by the very fact of the secession of several states. The Constitution was designed to bind the states together. More importantly, “Authority” failed to solve slavery, our most pressing moral, cultural, and political problem. Not only could operating under the Constitution not solve the slavery problem, slavery got much worse from 1788-1860.

This meant that Lincoln might have to lean into the weird, and use Power to knock Authority back into place. The Emancipation Proclamation was weird, no question. One can argue that it actually freed no slaves at all. But if one looks at a bit of a slant, we might see that it set in motion events that led to Authority set back in place with the 13th Amendment banning slavery. Lincoln rightly intuited that the U.S. could not exist on any other basis, because otherwise the Constitution could not serve the role of Authority for the nation.

All of this brings us to Constantine.

Constantine remains an ambiguous and problematic figure for many westerners for a few different reasons.

  • Some see him as corrupting the church by linking it with the state
  • Some see him as using the church to further his own power
  • Some see him as a hypocrite, using Christianity as a cover to accomplish certain political ends.

Of course, Christians at the time saw him much differently.

  • He ended Diocletian’s persecution of Christians
  • He commissioned the building of numerous churches, including the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
  • He restored property taken by Diocletian to Christians/Churches
  • He used the Church as the main arm of charity for the state
  • He made Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” a holy day with no work mandated, allowing space for everyone to attend church
  • He exempted clergy from civic duties, significantly contributing to the church’s freedom
  • Perhaps most importantly, by “neutering” pagan religion and removing the foundation of the state from pagan sacrifices, he made it possible to found civilizations on an entirely new basis.

But for sure, many of his other actions raise eyebrows, such as the possible execution of his son, his turning on Licinius, Crispus, and the like. And then, if he was such a Christian, why postpone baptism until the end of his life?

Certainly, Constantine presents us with many conundrums. But we might get more clarity if we think of him as exercising Power in an attempt to create a new Authority. His behavior will look odd and wrong looking straight on, but if we look from angle, we might see different things.

Rome experienced an almost absurd amount of political instability in the 3rd century AD, as the following list shows:

  • Septimius 193–211 
  • Caracalla 211–217 
  • Geta 211–212
  • Macrinus 217–218 A.D.
  • Diadumenianus 218 A.D.
  • Elagabalus 218–222 A.D.
  • Alexander Severus 222-235

The Soldier Emperors

  • Maximinus I 235–238 
  • Gordian 238 A.D.
  • Balbinus and 238
  • Pupienus (in Italy) 238
  • Gordian III 238–244 A.D.
  • Philip the Arab 244–249 A.D.
  • Trajan Decius 249–251 A.D.
  • Trebonianus Gallus 
  • (with Volusian) 251–253 A.D.
  • Aemilianus 253 A.D.
  • Gallienus 253–268 
  • with Valerian 253–260 A.D.

Gallic Empire (West)

following the death of Valerian

  • Postumus 260–269 A.D.
  • Laelian 268 A.D.
  • Marius 268 A.D.
  • Victorinus 268–270 A.D.
  • Domitianus 271 A.D.
  • Tetricus I and II 270–274 A.D.

Palmyrene Empire

  • Odenathus c. 250–267 A.D.
  • Vaballathus 
  • (with Zenobia) 267–272 A.D.

The Soldier Emperors (continued)

  • Claudius II Gothicus 268–270 A.D.
  • Quintillus 270 A.D.
  • Aurelian 270–275 A.D.
  • Tacitus 275–276 A.D.
  • Florianus 276 A.D.
  • Probus 276–282 A.D.
  • Carus 282–283 A.D.
  • Carinus 283–284 A.D.
  • Numerianus 283–284 A.D.

Obviously, any reality of Authority had flown the coop in Rome, and only Power remained. After winning the battle at Milvan Bridge, Constantine entered Rome as someone not yet a Christian, but sympathetic to Christianity, where Christianity remained a distinct minority faith. The life of any Roman general at this time meant dancing on the edge of a knife. Those too ambitious too soon would likely get noticed in a bad way by those in power. But armies wanted their generals ambitious. The success of the general inevitably meant good things for them. Generals–and Emperors as well–not ambitious enough might have their army turn on them and kill them.

In interpreting Constantine, we must take into account that he tried simultaneously to a) End a century of civil wars, and b) Not just re-establish an old Authority but install a new one. His situation was more precarious, and more weird, than that of Lincoln. In this light, establishing New Rome (what would later be Constantinople) went far beyond politics or military policy. In New Rome he could lay the foundation of a new Authority, from whence could flow a moderated, tamed Power. Those who simultaneously blame him for hypocrisy and for postponing his baptism should look again. In delaying joining the Church officially, Constantine perhaps tried to avoid the very things he gets blamed for. Maybe what he did had to be done. To do them as a Christian would have sullied the Church.

Neither Lincoln or Constantine stand without blemish.^ Neither of them had the chance to play entirely fair, but both used Power rightly. The proof lies with the Authority they established.


*These next few paragraphs have a deep debt to Jonathan Pageau’s thoughts found here.

**I lack the knowledge to know if Thomas Aquinas meant something like this Authority/Power distinction in his “Unmoved Mover” argument for the existence of God. If so, I find that argument more convincing.

9th/10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again


This week we continued with Rome’s decline and saw the rise of Constantine, and with it a significant change in the history of the west.

The 3rd century AD was a bad one for Rome.  General after general assumed power, with no real progress or change to show for it.  In 284 Emperor Diocletian took control, and one might surmise, here for the first time in a while was a sane man.  He realized that:

1. Rome was too big to control himself.  He divided up the empire into administrative regions and delegated much of his power, which was quite unusual for a Roman emperor.

2. Rome’s problems went far beyond the military.  They had a ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ problem at heart.  Diocletian sought to revive Roman values, tradition, and religion.

Diocletian was a man of insight in this regard, but his solution begs the following questions:

1. Can you ‘go home again’?  Can you use force to create things like patriotism, or belief in general, for that matter?

2. Was Christianity a threat to Rome?  In one sense the answer is of course, ‘no.’  In general Christians were good citizens who could have breathed new spiritual life into Rome.  But in another sense, Diocletian shows his insight by recognizing that Christians were indeed a threat to Rome’s values of strength, pride, and power.  Christianity baffled Rome by preaching weakness and humility.  His persecution of Christians was Rome’s last and most intense.  It’s failure only helped contribute to the ‘triumph’ of the Church.

I mentioned in class that I feel bad for Diocletian.  Far from being mad with power, he actually sought to divest himself of power to make Rome more secure.  He saw the various political and economic problems Rome faced and realized that their real problems lie deeper — in culture and morality.  He had some keen insights, but came to disastrous conclusions from those insights.

We see some of this transition in the busts made of Diocletian.  Here, early in his life, he reflects the typical Greek image so prevalent among his predecessors:

But later in life, he abandoned that for a much more Roman look, consistent with his goal of revitalizing Rome:

Still, Diocletian’s persecution of Christians only continued Rome’s blindness.  They failed to see their own selves as the problem.  Typically, they projected their problems onto others.  As many historians have noted, Rome’s own decadence, decline, and violence helped create a spiritual vacuum that Christianity filled.

Not surprisingly, Diocletian’s passion for re-ordering Rome through direct control spilled over into his desire to control Rome’s economy and manage prices throughout the empire.  Price-controls in any circumstance almost always have negative effects.  Price-controls across an expanse as vast and diverse as the Roman empire would without question bring disaster.

With the rise of Constantine, some new questions emerge:

1. Would Constantine’s support of the Church be good for society?  Would it be good for the Church?  If we arrive at different answers for those questions, should we favor the Church or society?

2. Constantine claimed to be a Christian, but as emperor he had many official duties related to the old Roman religion.   Can a leader have ‘two bodies,’ one public and the other private?  If he represents more than just himself, might he have duties that put him in conflict with his private convictions?  What should leaders do in these situations?  Does Constantine’s dual roles put his ‘conversion’ into doubt?

On another note. . .

Next week I want to show the students another kind of archeological evidence.  Roman fort design changed over the centuries, and these changes tell a story.

In the second century AD, their forts looked like this:

2nd Century Roman Fort

The relatively little effort put towards defense shows the openness and confidence of not just the army itself, but the army’s sense of security in occupied territory.  Rome may very well have expected a good relationship in its provinces.

But we see things change in the next century:

3rd Century Roman Fort

Now they placed much more emphasis on defense, and the trend continues in the 4th century, where Rome not only focused on defense, but made sure to build forts on the high ground:

4th Century Fort Design


The nature of Rome’s army, and the nature of its relationship to the world outside Rome, had changed dramatically.

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: The Window of Roman Architecture

Greetings to all,

I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization.  There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual.  One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization.  Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.

The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).

But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:

And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)

And another personal monument column to add to that. . .

If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past.  Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates).  Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this?  As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.

A bored and uncreative people will  tend to think bigger is better all the time.  The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response.  As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns.  As we began our discussion of the games, we saw  how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands.  How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?

We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well.  The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them.  One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain.  The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time.  No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful.  The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money.  After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back.  When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.”  I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others.  Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle.  Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends.  This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help.  I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others.  Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).

9th/10th Grade: Bad Roman Fathers


This week we looked at the aftermath of Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D.  Having no heirs, Nero did not establish any process for a succession.  Three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius ended up holding power alternately before the last, Vespasian, remained standing and took up Imperium himself and stability returned.

The Civil Wars did not last long and probably did not impact the common people very much, but this “Year of 3 Emperors,” portended ill for Rome.

  • It showed that in the absence of any family successor, power could simply go to the strongest
  • The system Augustus established at least maintained a fictional role for the Senate.  Some emperors (like Claudius) used the Senate to a moderate degree.  Now however, the Senate lost all role in who governed Rome.  The mask was off the pig.  Power belonged to the army, not to any of the pre-existing public institutions.

Vespasian looks like a solid sort, and he ruled well by most standards.  He eliminated a massive debt (largely through raising taxes).  He had no obvious vices to bring himself or Rome down.  He began the project that turned the land that housed Nero’s ridiculous private palace into a large public building for all people, known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (after his family name), known to us as the Colosseum.

One of the main functions of this intricately engineered building was to house the gladiator contests, that by Vespasian’s time, became more and central to Rome’s way of life.  What began as a holdover from old Etruscan funeral rite ca. 600 B.C. then became ad hoc neighborhood entertainment by 50 B.C., and finally turned into a horrendous spectacle where criminals (and Christians) were tortured and killed for amusement by 100 A.D.  When we realize that Rome financed much of the construction from looting the Temple in Jerusalem, and that thousands of Jewish slaves built it, we see that even when Rome tried to go “good” it brought about a terrible evil.  We discussed how this could happen. . .

1. Among other things, the Romans demonstrated what happens to addicts.  More and more is needed as the ‘drug’ gives less and less back, but it becomes so much a part of you that stopping is near impossible, at least humanly speaking.  Along those lines we discussed how in Scripture sin is described as a ‘power,’ a kind of black hole like vortex.  We delude ourselves when we think that we can easily jump back and forth between sinning and not sinning.  Quicksand doesn’t work that way.

2. The games satisfied Rome’s need for glory and courage.  Rome believed that they were still Rome, but very few citizens fought anymore.  Cicero, among others, thought the games served the purpose of ‘toughening’ the citizens. The Pax Romana created a breathing space for Rome that they could have used to transform themselves to some degree.  However, the very foundation of the Augustus’s principate system was built on the idea that Rome had not changed.  The games allowed the Romans to imagine that they were just like their ancestors, tough and able to deal with violence.

3. The games were also related to Rome’s broken political system.  Like the Wizard of Oz, Rome’s emperors could ill afford the citizens a look behind the curtain.  The games proved a marvelous distraction for the populace.  Also, since all power became centralized with the emperor, he needed to appear all powerful.  The bigger the spectacle, the better it tended to reflect on the emperor.

But the political problem had broader foundations than this.  With the rise of wealthy landowners gobbling up the small farms, thousands ended up flocking to the cities to find work, especially Rome.  What could be done with these people? Ultimately. . .

4. The games also show Rome’s continual band-aid approach to its problems.  They were not good at making hard choices about who they were at this point in their history.  The games distracted people and bought the short term favor of the lower classes, but it produced nothing for their society.  Whole armies of soldiers, slaves, and animals perished, countless money was spent, merely to enhance the image of the emperor and entertain the people.   But no creative or productive activity flowed from the games.  It was all ‘sunk costs.’

5. The Romans viewed the games as a means of displaying their power, in at least two ways.  First, it meant that Romans could say something to the effect of, “Look at what we can make people do for us!”  Perhaps this was more subconsciously believed than stated.  But the variety of people and the different fighting styles they employed did serve as a visual reminder of the scope of their power.

Had Rome been more productive or creative economically, this population influx might have led to a economic revolution of sorts for Rome, if we imagine the mid-late 19th century Industrial Revolution on a smaller, less technical scale.  However, being economically creative can’t just happen when you want it to.  It takes a foundation in education and attitude that Rome did not have.

Thus, the games reveal not only Rome’s moral bankruptcy, but its political and economic stagnation.

7. Finally, the games reflect Rome’s social and cultural climate “gone bad.”

When thinking of how the empire functioned we cannot lose hold of the context of Rome’s past Republican history.  Rome’s revolution in 508 B.C. created some measure of what we would call democracy, but it mainly gave the aristocracy/patricians more direct control over policy.  Americans view aristocracy as a dirty word, but Rome’s Republic functioned very well for many centuries.  One reason for this is that Rome’s aristocracy usually considered themselves patrons and acted as “patrons of Rome” without being overly “patronizing.”  The “patrons” sought to look after the lower classes, to provide for them, give them gifts, and sometimes be the stern father figure.  In fact, the patrons of Rome came from the “patrician” class, i.e. the “fathers.”

Good Roman fathers have many roles.  They lead worship.  They provide law.  They provide continuance of the family line.  Sometimes, too, they give gifts.  “Here’s 20 bucks, go have a good time at the movies with your friends,” and so on.  Emperors served as Rome’s ultimate patrons.  The Civil Wars of 133-31 B.C. decimated Rome’s aristocracy and left the Senate impotent.  Thus, whereas before Rome had many “fathers,” now for the most part, they have just one, the Emperor.

We understand Roman reaction to their emperors better if we view it through this lens.

  • Augustus cast the perfect balance between stern, reliable Roman father upholding the morals of Rome, with a sprinkling of gifts (of money, bread, etc.) and indulgence.
  • Tiberius was a great manager of money, but viewed as a miser.  He never threw a party, never gave gifts, etc.  He had no “heart.”
  • Caligula was a disaster — completely unreliable, giving no family stability
  • Claudius didn’t look the part, which was a drawback.  He had some problems with women — also a drawback.  But in the main he followed Augustus’ model.
  • Nero was the dad in perpetual mid-life crisis, who spent your inheritance and that of his brothers. He steals from other families when that runs dry.  He quits his job to become a very unsuccessful opera-singer and provides no leadership, no example, for his children.

Roman fathers had to show that they identified with their children’s interests.  The Roman Games were one big party, given as a gift.  Of course because Rome’s political system meant that they had just one father, the party had to be huge to cover the whole population.  The expense, the expectation, and the length of the games (by the 2nd century the games might last 4-5 months) all grew as each emperor tried to establish his credentials as a proper Roman father.*

All of this is bound to catch up with them at some point.  This week we will take a look at Rome’s decline through the lens of economics and architecture, and begin to find our way towards the coming of Constantine.


 *We want dads to provide the party for his teenage children, but not really to join in the party.  That would be weird and off-putting, most “un-fatherly” conduct.  Hence, the Romans did not like it when Emperor Commodus “joined the party” by participating personally in the gladiatorial games.

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.


I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings


+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).



9th/10th Grade: Fiddling with Flames


This week we looked at Emperors Claudius and Nero and the problems he caused Rome.

Claudius had his good points.  He was intelligent and hard working.  Some of his legislative and judicial reforms improved things in Rome.  His bust tells us that he was a “normal” guy, and he did not demonstrate any of the insanely cruel tendencies of Caligula.

But generally he is known for three things:

1. The conquest of Britain

What Julius Caesar began in the most tentative way, Claudius finished.  Ostensibly, Rome did this because Gaul may have been receiving aid from across the channel.  To me at least, however, this conquest served no real purpose for Rome accept to continue to delude itself that it was still strong as ever.  Some conquests could potentially make geographical sense even if based on shaky moral grounds.  It’s hard to see how the conquest of Britain fits into any category except that of  Claudius’s ego.  But it may simply been a way to solidify his legitimacy as emperor.  In other words, Claudius (a scholar, a man with a speech impediment and slightly deformed shoulder — not things Romans would have valued) may have thought that some kind of conquest was necessary to prove himself as a Roman leader.

Claudius may have further justified the action as ‘for the good of Rome,’ because if his regime faltered civil war might result, and Rome as a whole would suffer.  If we accept this line of reasoning we see how Rome’s system of government may have worked against the chances of Rome’s success.

We talked of how empire expansion can in some ways, resemble acquisitions done by companies.  I I listened months ago to an interview with the CEO of Ebay, who mentioned that the company’s mission was to “connect buyers and sellers.”  Previously Ebay bought Skype, and then under his tenure, sold it off again.  I asked the students if they had ever used Skype to call a business or seller, or if they had ever received a business call on Skype.  No one had, and this was Ebay’s CEO main point.  However neat Skype may be, it did not fit within their company mission.  Dumping even a “neat” product made their company healthier.

So too, territorial acquisitions have to make some sense, have to fit within the “mission” of the conqueror for it to have any hope of benefitting them (I realize that for the moment, I am not directly considering the moral issue of conquest).  I can’t see how Britain’s conquest could possibly fit within Rome’ s interests, though one student suggested that it fit perfectly well — Rome only cared about being bigger than before.

2. The expansion of the civil service

Claudius can be admired for having a soft spot for recently freed slaves who showed intelligence.  But, being clever, he used them to expand his own power.  The civil service was in many ways necessary, but it was also a tool to bypass whatever vestiges remained of Republican government in the Senate and other elected officers.  The Senate did little to object.  Some have commented that our own predilection for appointing ‘Czars’ (“Education Czar,” “Drug Czar,” over the last 20-25 years for the war on drugs, the economy, trade, etc. does the same thing, putting more and more in the hands of the executive branch.

3. His taste in women

For all his intelligence, Claudius had a blind spot when it came to women.  His first wife was named Urganulilla (enough said there), who may have murdered his sister.  Some suggest he divorced his second wife for emotional abuse.  His third wife had numerous affairs and probably involved herself in a plot to overthrow him.  Grudgingly, he executed her for treason.  His fourth wife probably instigated his death via poisoned mushrooms.  Well, no one’s perfect!

Claudius seemed to have a thing for women stronger in personality than him, and maybe was a glutton for punishment.  Perhaps a connection exists between his taste in women and his love for the gladitorial games, which he frequented.

Nero’s reign, like that of Caligula and other bad emperors, raises a question: Can anyone be, in historian Will Durant’s words, “both omnipotent and sane?”  Nero was not on the scale of say, Caligula, but clearly he distanced himself from reality.

He had a passion for the arts.  He spent much of his time devoted to singing.  He held concerts, where attendance was unofficially mandatory for Rome’s political class.  The Roman historian Seutonius writes that some  feigned death or heart attack in hopes of being carried out of these concerts early.  No doubt many volunteers rushed to the scene to “help” if they could.  Nero appears not to have noticed.

Nero’s passion surely must have struck the Romans as bizarre.  Imagine a campaign ad for a president that showed him, not shaking hands or looking smart at a desk, but taking lessons in how to sing an opera aria.

Nero attended the Greek Olympics in AD 68, giving many concerts to “wild applause.”  Nero also entered the chariot race, but alas, his chariot broke during the competition and he did not finish.  Nevertheless the Greeks awarded Nero first prize, and gave him their most distinguished award for excellence in competition.  Any normal person should have seen right through this, but Nero appears to have missed what the Greeks were trying to accomplish.  He proclaimed that the Greeks recognized “true greatness” and in appreciation removed Greece from the list of provinces that paid annual tributes to Rome.

Whatever their faults, no one ever said the Greeks were idiots.

I find something almost childlike about Nero’s utter lack of self-awareness.  But as we have said in previous updates, distancing oneself from reality to such a degree, combined with great power, would inevitably lead to disaster.  Nero’s self-delusion manifested itself in other ways.  He may have murdered his mother to obtain the divorce and remarriage he sought.  He may have had a hand in the great fire of 64 AD that burned much of Rome.  Nero had always talked of redesigning Rome on more aesthetic lines, and now with much of the city destroyed he could (Christians became a convenient scapegoat).  He almost certainly did not really “fiddle while Rome burned,” but the story points to a truth about his character.

When he died by suicide, he is reported to have lamented, “What a great artist dies with me!” delusional to the bitter end.  Few of us will always like the limits imposed on us by law, custom, circumstance, and conscience, but maybe these are some of the things God uses to keep us from being enslaved to our own self, and trapped in our own view of reality.

The aftermath of Nero’s death removed all traces of what remained of the Republic.  While under Augustus, the Senate at least served as a rubber stamp, now the position of emperor simply went to the general who could control Rome.

The Romans were glad enough to get rid of Nero, but eliminating him meant the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and a power vacuum that needed filled.  Rome burned in A.D. 64, but Rome itself played with fire with a political system bound to rupture at some point.



Seeing is not Believing

Imagine a large group attending a traditional bull fight in Spain, replete with the attendant pageantry. You would all witness the same actions, and the same events. But, interpretations of the events and their ultimate meaning would likely differ widely, and thus, what what one “sees” would diverge strongly as well. A possible smattering of interpretations might include

  • Some would find the event barbaric, shameful, and cruel–a terrible relic of some pre-modern past.
  • Some, a la Hemingway, would see an exhilarating, if not slightly problematic, affirmation of masculinity
  • Some would not go any deeper than pure entertainment–they would see a spectacle and be glad they had that chance.
  • Some would see a noble re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, and his traveling the Via Dolorosa, the path of sorrow.

This last suggestion no doubt strikes many moderns, Christians included, as absurd. And yet, the Catholic faithful called the passing of the bull through the cape the “Veronica Pass,” after the story of a young woman named Veronica (translation–“true image”–think veracity, verdict, and ‘icon’) who offered Christ her veil to wipe his face as he carried the cross. Some say that Christ accepted the offer, and an image of His face remained imprinted on the veil, the “icon made without hands.”

Some might accuse Christians here of very conveniently glomming on to something pagan like a bullfight, to make sure that Christians 1) could still have fun, 2) or still have a dark side, 3) or to appease a paganism that they could not expunge. A variety of pre-Christian cultures made extensive use of bulls and bull imagery, as did other pagan European cultures the church encountered as it grew throughout Europe. Certainly in general Christianity incorporated and transformed certain pagan customs from different cultures. But all in all, the practice likely has most of its roots in a vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 1 of his prophesy, within a larger vision of a wheel of fire, Ezekiel sees something else:

there was as it were the likeness of four living creatures. This was their appearance, and the likeness of man upon them. Each had four faces, and each had four wings. . . . This was the likeness of their faces: the face of a man, the face of a lion on the right side of the foursome, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle

Ezekiel 1:5-6, 10

Traditionally, according to St. Gregory the Great (late 6th century AD) and other commentators* from the early church

  • Matthew and his gospel is identified with the man, for he begins with a geneology
  • Mark is the lion, the “voice crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:1)
  • Luke is the ox, who begins with a sacrifice (Lk. 1:8)
  • John is the eagle, “who stretched towards the very substance of God” (St. Gregory, Jn. 1:1)–it is John who is regarded as the Theologian par excellence, hence his association with what is high above.

Ezekiel also mentions the essential unity of the four creatures as well, just as the four evangelists have an essential harmony, which leant early commentators to ultimately see each creature as a partial image of Christ.

Along with other cultures we also today associate the bull with virility and the source of life. This association naturally leads one to the idea of a supreme sacrifice, the outpouring of the fullness of life. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice of a bull was the highest sacrifice one could offer, the fullest outward expression of devotion (Ps. 51:19, etc.). In this light, linking the bullfight with Christ’s death makes much more sense, but nothing in what we physically saw would lead us to that conclusion. We would need the proper interpretive framework to “see” this in what we saw.

Historically speaking, the way we see now has very little to do with how most people have seen in the past. The difference probably boils down to the idea of symbols. One author writes,

The simplest way of defining this difference [between the old world and the modern] is to recall the changed meaning and function of the word “symbol.” For us the symbol is an in am image that invests physical reality with poetic meaning. For medieval man, the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol. But even the term “symbol” is misleading. For us the symbol is the creation of poetic fancy; for medieval man what we would call symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality. We find it necessary to suppress the symbolic instinct if we seek to understand the world as it is rather than as it seems. Medieval man conceived the symbolic instinct as the only reliable guide to to such an understanding. Maximus the Confessor . . . actually defines what he calls “symbolic vision” as the ability to apprehend within the objects of sense perception the invisible reality of the intelligible that lays beyond them.

But still some might object that realm of symbol has far too much subjectivity to rely on these associations and intuitions. After all, bull imagery has a variety of pagan associations. One need only think of Assyria, one of the more cruel empires, and their winged bulls, or Egypt and their Apis bull.

However ambiguous some of these association might be (is the Assyrian depiction meant to be somewhat demonic or angelic?), we have no doubt when we look at images of Bel/Baal and the bull horn attendant imagery, or even the golden calf.

Noting this ambiguity, the materialist will assert that this proves the arbitrary nature of language and our symbols, that nothing has any meaning in itself. But this position in fact makes a grand metaphysical claim about reality, that it is univocal, that if it speaks it must speak with one voice only. But our experience tells us this is false. Meaning has multiple layers.

Mircea Eliade continues,

It is therefore the image as such, as the whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings, nor one alone of its many frames of reference. To translate an image into a concrete terminology by restricting it to any one of these frames of reference is to do worse than multilate it–it is to annihilate, to annul it as an instrument of cognition.” — Eliade, Images and Symbols, 13

We can see that the New Testament is well aware of the tension inherent in symbols. Christ is the “Lion of Judah,” but Peter also compares a lion to Satan, a merciless prowler (1 Pet. 5:8). We shouldn’t say that Peter rejects one form of symbolism for another, however. Both are possible at the same time. Our experience of objects manifests a reality that does not belong strictly to the physical, observable world. The “real” world is full of grace, yet fallen, and our symbols naturally reflect this as well.

We can go further. As I mentioned above, I think the bull image has Christian roots, for I count the Old Testament as part of the Christian tradition. But suppose I throw this out and say that any associations with a bull/ox and Christ has purely pagan roots. Well, the very act of taking something fallen, baptizing it, “cleaning it up,” and re-presenting it to God anew–this has everything to do with our role as image-bearers of God and stewards of creation.** Through repentance, we hopefully do this with ourselves every day. This is, in part, what it means to grow the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately, however, one cannot “prove” any of this in a strictly rational way. I propose, however, that we can see the superiority of the symbolic way of thinking by examining what happens when we assume a more materialistic approach.

We can start with our very selves. I have participated in discussions where a strict materialist argued that all things beyond neurons, chemicals, synapses, etc. were simply fabrications of evolution. Whatever he could not measure he discarded. Yet, this meant that everything he valued, his friends, his choices, even food he liked, would ultimately mean nothing. Thankfully, he agreed that things like love, friendship, etc. were important, just not real. Without this thin anchor, actual existence in the world for him would not be possible. To believe that chemicals are “real” and friendship is not puts one quite near the wind, as they say.

We can scale up a bit to a family. If you think in a purely materialistic manner, one could easily argue that the concept of a family is only social convention. “Names” are certain phonetic sounds, “families” just a group of people whose DNA has more in common with each other than with other people. “Marriage” gets reduced to a convenient, or not so convenient, voluntary arrangement. Marriages only really work, however, when the people involved believe that what they cannot see or measure about their relationship has a greater reality than themselves as individuals. Participating in this greater intangible reality makes the lesser reality possible.

We can only live through symbols. Our experience of objects involves the manifestation of something other, a reality that transcends our world while including it at the same time.

But we must use caution with these symbols. We can take the corporate identity of a political party, for example. Political parties can serve good ends. They bring people together across geographical space. They help aggregate ideas and should, in theory at least, filter out extremism. They can give a sense of identity. But if one makes that identity supreme, it becomes a demon instead of an angel. The person loses agency to the party–whatever the party says, they think. Like rooting for a sports team, the key is the color of the laundry, not the particular ideology. Initially being a Republican/Democrat likely bestowed a sense of belonging and purpose. Now–you are food. You exist to vote and feed the machine. The same can happen with a family. The “higher reality” of the family can give one guidance and meaning beyond our own individual existence. But if we make family the highest reality, it too will eat us. This happens in gangs, organized crime, and so on–Michael Corleone’s Godfather tragedy.

The bull can and should scale up to Christ, but if we miss the mark, or stop too short, we end up with the devil.


*St. Bruno d’ Asti, St. Yves of Chartes, among others. Perhaps we might see further symbolism in that the three synoptic gospels have more similarity in their “earthiness,” but John’s gospel departs significantly in emphasis, thus his association with the heavenly eagle(?).

**This is why the obvious fact that the church refashioned certain pagan festivals and images for Christian use is not anything to apologize for, but something to celebrate. It is part of the triumph of the Church.

Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.


*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?


9th/10th Grade: Pride and Insanity


This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors.  After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

There is  good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all.  Duty bound, he did not shrink from service.  In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite.  His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man.  As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.

His time in power raises a few questions:

As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant?  Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster?   I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of.  He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians.  It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.

Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively.  But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image.  They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.

Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem.   Tiberius took his unpopularity personally.  He grew distant and sullen.  The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri.  His isolation forced him to trust a select few.  When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails.  Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges.  Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.”  Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.

So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula.  With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.

Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms.  Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims.  In normal society he would have been an annoying brat.  Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.

As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.

Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes).  We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality.  This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear.  A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.

Can a person make oneself insane through their actions?  We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity.  The same might be said of Caligula.

Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.


Dave Mathwin