If you like it, why don’t you marry it?

Many of us I’m sure remember this elementary school taunt. Often you would be unknowingly baited in some way, i.e., “What do you think of Cheetos?” and then declare that you thoughts Cheetos were pretty great. The “Then why don’t you marry it?!” response is of course colossally dumb, but I admit that it often had its intended unsettling effect on me. Be careful of declaring that you liked something! I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves that loving anything at all, even a plant or a sunset, opens oneself up to pain and loss.

Historians of a traditional mindset such as myself often express admiration for the past. We may even pine for a return of the past in some way, and this naturally opens us up to the old school taunt: if you like knights and cathedrals and gilds so much, why don’t you marry medieval society? It is easy to “date” any civilization and pick out just the things you like. But all of what you like, about medieval civilization, for example, also came with a near total lack of indoor plumbing, and no mouth wash either. You have to accept everything, and if you are not willing to do so, one’s admiration is stupid fancy at best, dangerous idealism at worst.

This charge has some of the same flaws as the old schoolyard taunt. The past surely can offer some salutary guidance even if reliving it remains obviously impossible. Aren’t we allowed to like things? But I acknowledge that one must not selectively pick, choose, and romanticize. One must “marry” the civilizations we study.

Books on the Middle Ages almost always fall into one of three camps:

  • Look at how dumb, superstitious, and oppressive they were. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live then?*
  • Look at how smart, chivalrous, beautiful they were. Don’t you wish you lived then?
  • Look at this culture. I examine it thoroughly, and discover that they did things, upon which I pronounce no judgments whatsoever.

Of the three, most fall into the first two, but I like the last the least. The first two types of authors at least strike me as human beings with something to say. Henry Charles Lea’s The Ordeal, written in an era when the progressive ascent of democratic modernism seemed the only future, falls into the first camp. He examines the medieval practice of trial by various ordeals to illuminate the progress we have made since then. He comes not to praise, but bury.

We can admire much about this book. It is not an uninformed screed, nor is it a hit-piece on the Middle Ages itself, for he mentions that trial by ordeal happened in many other ancient cultures. He has a lot of primary source texts and reports things with some air of detachment. If his overall point is clear, as I said earlier, at least he has a point. Like Chesterton, Lewis, and other of my literary heroes, I like the Middle Ages but need to contend with the fact that they did have trials by ordeal, and do I really want to substitute a jury for a hot piece of iron?

In what follows, then, I hope to fall into neither of the three aforementioned camps.

I appreciated that Lea took time to show that other cultures also used trial by ordeal, such as Hindu and Islamic civilizations, as well as many ancient cultures. Lea also used a lot of primary sources–indeed most of his book involves simply recounting the sources and commenting on them briefly. I also admired the fact that he included a section on the eucharist as an ordeal, for every other treatment I have seen ignores this aspect of medieval life, focusing on the more sensational ordeals by fire, water, and so on. Lea buries his treatment of this towards the back, but I feel this is where one should start if we want to have some understanding of the practices of ordeal in general.

If the central aspect of medieval life was the church, then the pearl within the oyster was the eucharist, where the faithful feed upon God Himself. Certainly I make no attempt here to develop any theology of the eucharist. But we may gain more insight if we pan out further to the last judgment. Many today have the idea that God’s final judgment involves Him declaring some fit and others unfit, and then banishing the unfit. Rather, the picture the early church gives us is that God’s love (and the presence of God is the love of God) both saves and condemns. God’s showers His love upon all, but His love is so strong that it resembles a refining fire. For some made strong, made holy, the love of God warms and comforts. For others who reject the love of God, God’s love leads to their further destruction, for the hate the love of God, and it burns them. As St. Isaac the Syrian stated,

. . .those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.

An icon of the Last Judgment shows forth this same idea:

Salvation in a Christian context means that one is not so much declared righteous but made righteous through the grace of God–made able to receive the love of God as blessing and not as curse (I acknowledge that both terms have their place, however, in discussing the meaning of salvation).

So too communion, when even thought about for a moment, takes on monumental proportions. As Fr. Schmemman stated in his classic For the Life of the World, Fuerbach’s “you are what you eat,” quip, meant as a materialistic taunt, actually expresses a profound religious truth. To eat anything means to take the life of the fruit, meat, etc. into oneself. So too, in the eucharist God offers us the chance to take His life into our own. But this free gift does not come cheap. Scripture warns us about taking communion unworthily. We must realize that the presence of God can heal and transform or destroy us. As one prayer from perhaps the 8th century states,

Though I am hindered by so many and such great evils, I now add to them by approaching holy mysteries so heavenly and divine that even the angels desire to understand them. . . . Because of my unworthiness, I fear that, rather than receive divine enlightenment and a share of grace, I will be condemned . . . What am I to do? By partaking of the awesome mysteries, I subject myself to these and greater punishments. By abstaining from them, I shall fall into greater evils . . .

Lea’s work has many merits, but his leaving this background out of the discussion can lead one to a more superstitious understanding of the practice then is warranted. As an example we can take the ordeal of boiling water. Before the ordeal the water would be prayed over by a priest:

O creature of water, I adjure thee by the living God, by the holy God, who in the beginning separated thee from the dry land; I adjure thee by the living God who led thee from the fountain of Paradise, and in four rivers commanded thee to encompass the world; I adjure thee by Him who in Cana of Galilee by His will changed thee to wine, who trod on thee with His holy feet . . . water which washes away the dust and sins of the world, I adjure thee . . . to make manifest and bring to light all truth . . .

This prayer, quite similar to the prayers said for baptism, ask that God make the water a revealer of truth in the same way that water is used to fashion the world. That is–water must serve truth, which is a manifestation of God Himself, who is Truth.** The 3rd century bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker stated, “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water),” with Christ imparting to all water, “a sign of heavenly streams” of grace.”

For the early medievals, the same held true for the ordeal of fire/the hot iron. Prayers recalled how fire revealed much in Scripture–Fire found Sodom guilty but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego innocent, and the burning bush of Horeb reveals God Himself. Again, I don’t think we should see the verdict’s rendered by the fire ordeal as merely forensic. The fire, the water (and other types of ordeals) manifest God to men. Some by their holiness and innocence are able to stand, some by their sin cannot. Lea writes with a seemingly exclusive legal bent, and so misses the theological import.

Lea stated that, “The History of Jurisprudence is the History of Civilization.” The sentiment has nobility but is misplaced. One must go deeper at least to culture, and preferably to religion, to see its influence on jurisprudence. This too means that he overemphasizes looking at the technical matters of the law and misses some important caveats to the use of ordeals, two of which are worth noting.

First–Lea gives the impression that the medievals used ordeals willy-nilly at the drop of a hat. Rather, I believe they used ordeals usually as a last resort when they exhausted other means of determining the truth of the matter. Perhaps it is easier for modern, depersonalized society to let matters such as hung-juries or mistrials stand. For those in a pre-modern, more personal and local context, having a unresolved verdict on a matter of great importance might put an unbearable strain on the community.

Second–Lea misses something of the “objectivity” of the ordeal. With no such measure justice might tend toward the “justice” of the strong and powerful. It was not always the case that ordeals vindicated the weak against the strong, but it seems to me that it happened much more often than Lea cared to admit or notice.^

Lea’s anti-religious cards come into full display with certain choice vocabulary words like “superstition,” and “fetish.” Indeed, when the Catholic church issued a general condemnation of ordeals in 1215, Lea does not see the triumph of a more reasonable religion, but a political power play. So Lea blames the church for fostering and encouraging ordeals (including a quip about how they preferred the ordeal of fire, no doubt for its impressive aesthetic qualities), then fails to credit them for dramatically curtailing the practice.

By now the reader may assume that in seeking to explain ordeals more fully and expressing guarded appreciation, I now should “marry” them. I object to such a burden placed on the historian. A practice may have been less onerous than some suppose, but that wouldn’t mean that the practice has no issues. No Church today (with the exception of the snake-handler cult), indeed no churchman I am aware of for basically the last 500 years has recommended the practice. I don’t feel the need to do so either.

Historians usually come in absolutist or relativist garb. The absolutist would say that, “If ordeals are wrong now, it was wrong then. The stories of people emerging unscathed from ordeals are either lies, exaggerations, or works of the devil, for no good can come from such an unjust practice.” A relativist might tell us that we should not judge the past–and indeed cannot judge anyone ever for anything. The historian should work for “understanding” and should avoid “judgment.”

One should use from both perspectives to a degree, but embracing either one in its totality leads to incoherence. Will Durant posed a generous means of interpreting people and cultures from the past. If a man shares the vices of the past, that was unfortunate, but does he have virtues that cut against the grain of his society? How does a culture compare relatively to other cultures of its time? I find the medievals did not so badly on the relative scale, but on the absolute scale, I would not want to bring them back.

I have the feeling that Lea would dismiss all of the accounts of God working through the ordeals as fabrications and propaganda. I will not so glibly dismiss numerous testimonies, and so that leaves me the position of believing that God used an imperfect and “arbitrary” means to achieve His ends. But this is hardly a problem–He has done this since the beginning of time.

The Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which attempted to ban trial by ordeal, gave as one reason the fact that ordeals “tested God.” That is, God pledges Himself to act in certain ways in the sacraments of the Church, but we cannot take this pledge and extrapolate it to any sticky situation we face. We have not the power to call God down and demand He reveal Himself when we are stuck. As C.S. Lewis famously noted regarding Aslan–“He is not a tame Lion.” It may be, then, that the story of trial by ordeal involves not so much the folly of men, but the humility of God, who accommodated Himself to our weakness patiently for a time.

Dave

*It is interesting that no one really writes about the ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, etc. in the way that we write about the Middle Ages.

**To his credit Lea cites several instances from saints lives of people putting their arms in boiling cauldrons, either to test obedience or another point of dispute, and emerging unscathed.

^As an example, see Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, which chronicled the plight of a woman who accused another prominent nobleman of raping her. The issue could not be definitively resolved at trial, and her husband agreed to fight the accused to the death to determine the verdict. He won, and the accused was pronounced guilty.

We should pause for a moment and flip the script, putting jury trials under a touch of scrutiny. One can read online a plethora of articles about the fairness of juries, the random nature of verdicts, and so forth. Again, I would not suggest replacing jury trials with medieval ordeals, but for someone like Lea, who believed that ordeals were entirely arbitrary, modern evidence about juries does not give us as much separation from the past as we might wish. And yet, we too have to invest the jury trial with a kind of sacredness if we are to have any kind of society at all.

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape. Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable, if still slightly monotonous read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that he had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

 

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

 

 

9th Grade: ‘Faith,’ Reason, and The Crusades

Greetings,

This difficult era of the crusades raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

  • God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.
  • But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.
  • Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.
  • Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades ended in utter disaster.*  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?

  • That they were foolishly stubborn?
  • That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
  • That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
  • That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave Mathwin

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class will be the traditional story.

A Flip of the Script

A few days ago I came across the trailer for a mini-series on Amazon called Redbad, a harbinger of Europe’s (and perhaps ours as well) cultural moment. The movie involves the advancement of Christianity into a pagan land. The story proceeds from the pagans’ perspective. A few things immediately stand out:

  • The cross is associated not with sacrificial love, but with a ‘dark god’ who presumably loves punishment, an enormous ‘flip’ of its symbolic meaning for the last two millennia.
  • The series depicts Christians as intolerant bigots, the pagans as allowing something akin to freedom of conscience.
  • The Christians are usually filmed amidst darkness and smoke. Scenes with pagans alone seem to give them brighter light.

A few comments . . .

  • I would not say that Charlemagne allowed for freedom of conscience, but the idea that the pagans did . . . well–no one practiced this in the 8th century.
  • Charlemagne’s reign had plenty of messiness. But ‘messiness’ reigned in the West politically more or less since the time of Roman emperor Septimus Severus ca. 200 A.D. What historians should look for, as Will Durant suggested, was not how particular people shared in the vices of their time, but whether or not they swam against the current in any way with their virtues. With this standard, the cultural impact of the “Carolingian Renaissance” gleams brightly. As Kenneth Clark stated, paraphrasing Ruskin, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their words, the book of their deeds, and the book of their art.” If we think, like Clark, that the last is the most trustworthy, Charlemagne’s reign comes off rather well.

A few examples:

  • The invention of a beautiful script (the Carolingian).
  • The creation of books, and the elevation of books as highly prized articles (studding the cover with jewels couldn’t make their value more obvious to their contemporaries).
  • Architectural innovations. Charlemagne put of the building talent of his empire not into palaces and castles, but the church at Aachen:

None of these things belong to pagan achievement.

One should not criticize Redbad for ‘historical inaccuracy’ per se. The medium of film works differently and tells stories differently. “Accuracy” is not my real concern. The mythos surrounding Charlemagne in the centuries after his death lacked “accuracy” in the strict sense of the word, just as any reporting or retelling of any event lacks “accuracy.” We edit and shape all the time, this is how our brain works as well as our souls. The problem with Redbad comes from the replacement of the standard Christian mythos entirely, and inventing another out of whole cloth, a perverse parody of creation ‘ex nihilo.’ As we see from the “book of their art,” the mythos surrounding Charlemagne has basis in fact.

Per Fexneld

When seeing a book titled, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in the 19th Century, one should proceed with caution. The book could be written by a crazy feminist, or a crazy anti-feminist. The book could hardly be a book at all, and instead a mere rant. But this book stands as a work of scholarship, carefully (mostly too carefully) written with extensive bibliography and footnotes. The author, Per Fexneld, teaches at the University of Stockholm and seems an ordinary professorial sort, with perhaps a small chip on his shoulder. Digging a bit further, you see that he intends not necessarily to praise or condemn with what he finds, but merely to put the facts before the dear reader. I will usually at least pick up books with bold titles like these, merely out of curiosity and admiration for the sense of dash the writer displays.*

I kept reading the book because Fexneld faithfully executes his task of providing copious information, albeit at arms length from the material. But his perspective seems trustworthy because of this distance. He clearly has no love for Christianity and has much sympathy with women of the 19th century. He never identifies as a “Satanist” himself but seems to value, or at least understand, the role the idea of Satan plays in transgressing norms for the sake of liberation as it relates to feminism.

A few things I did not like:

  • As an Orthodox Christian, naturally I would be sensitive as to how Fexneld uses ancient Christian sources. I found to my chagrin that when discussing them, he uses secondary sources rather than direct quotes from the primary texts. I sense that these secondary sources shaped his opinions of the early fathers, not reading the primary texts directly. Despite this, he treats early Christian commentators mostly with fairness, but he could have done much better than this for what aims to be a serious scholarly study. My sense is that he cherrypicked what early Christian witnesses said about women, and to his credit, he partially admits this at least one point.
  • Fexneld takes his place among the many (mostly European? it seems to me) “historians” that don’t write history at all, but reference books. He has good information, but writes with such obviously posed dry detachment that his style could light a fire on a wet day. Where are the Abbot Suger’s, the Thomas Carlyle’s? Alas, gone are the poet historians from the world.
  • The “reference book” feel means that he tries hard not let the reader in on how one should interpret his information. Should we denounce the “satanic” feminists? Should we praise them? Or should we merely observe and think nothing about these feminists, besides concluding that a=a?

But in the end I have to confess that he created an effective and interesting reference book. My frustration above stems from the fact that he has talent that he holds back through fear or misperceptions regarding his chosen profession. If you want to do research, well and good. If you want to write, at least make an attempt at poetry that seeks meaning and synthesis.

To the thrust of his work, then . . .

With copious notes and numerous examples, Fexneld amply shows a “Satanic” strain that ran through many early feminists. He distinguishes full blown “Satanists” (of which there were a few) from those that merely used Satanic tropes (the majority of his examples). With different particular manifestations, these women

  • Built upon Romantic ideas from Byron and Shelley that recast Satan as a tragic hero of the Biblical narrative. He attempted to bring knowledge and liberation, and so on.
  • Recast Eve as the mankind’s savior, of sorts, a figure akin to Prometheus. She boldly went where Adam refused to go and paid the price, but she gave mankind knowledge and self-awareness.
  • Thus, for these women, feminism represented a real social and theological revolution, not just icing on a semi-Christian foundation. They wanted an overthrow of the Christian narrative and the patriarchy which it established. To do so, it simultaneously exalted Eve, Satan, and the fall itself.

The multitude of examples is the strength of the book, but Fexneld throws them together in ‘one after another’ fashion. Worse, one cannot sense if any one example or group of examples accurately embodies or represents the whole. He very carefully hedges many of his statements. This caution has its place in parts, but not for the whole. When writing a book like this you have to actually say something. To mitigate this, the breadth of his treatment touches on

  • The rise of the occult in the period
  • The focus from the pre-Raphaelites on feminine figures from classical cultures, “strange” women, and even Lillith, Adam’s first wife in certain Jewish texts.
  • How popular literature and art veered into occult themes with the thinnest Christian veneer, with significant attacks on “Christian patriarchy” hidden below the surface.
  • The popularity of certain occult female writers like Mary McClane and Sylvia Townsend
  • The connection of feminist social inversion to sexual inversion (lesbianism).
  • The rise of women depicted as Satan (in a positive sense) or at least, womanly figures depicted as Satan.
  • The publication of The Woman’s Bible which inverted the basic biblical narrative, praising Eve, etc.

. . . and other things. One gets the sense of a tidal wave of either direct, or mostly indirect, Satanism flooding the feminist movement from 1880-1920. But the central question–was 1st wave feminism driven primarily by “Satanism” or not? I have the feeling Fexneld would recoil at the thought of the volumes of his research intended to answer that question one way or the other. No doubt he would see such a commitment as a grave faux pas.

Let us deal with this crucial question which Fexneld leaves untouched.

First, the feminist movement obviously challenged and successfully upended certain elements of society. Certainly Satan, among other things, sought to upend the order God established in creation. So perhaps feminist women found themselves naturally drawn to satanic symbols or Satan himself. But, not all orders should stay in place. Scripture has numerous examples of the established order needing “flipped” or inverted to attain proper wholeness again. David, the youngest son of Jesse and a shepherd, will overthrow Saul, the “demonic” king who consulted with witches. Herod, for example, rightly feared that Christ would give him a run for his money.

So, second . . . was the feminist movement a proper or improper inversion? I don’t think we should answer this question based on the rote numbers of “satanic” vs. non-satanic feminists. I think the question has its roots in the nature of the inversion. If the inversion was proper, then we can relegate the trends Fexneld observes to the fringe. If improper, then we can say that even the “good” feminists participated in something wrong.

This is a very tricky question, and I can see why Fexneld failed to tackle it. But how can we truly avoid it? I’m sure that Fexneld has an answer for this conundrum somewhere in his own mind, or at least I hope he has answered it. I cannot claim to know enough to answer it definitively. I will try a pass at it, however–why not?

I begin with the obvious statement that calling upon Satan in reality or in tropes, for any cause, will ultimately destroy you, just as the flood and chaos will destroy anyone.

Not surprisingly, the feminist movements occurred within democratic societies. One can see democracy itself as a kind of inversion against traditional monarchy, replacing a “top down” political order with one from the “bottom up.” Just like Saturn eating his children in a fruitless attempt to stop the slippery slope of revolution, so too the feminist movement seems like an inevitable byproduct of democracy itself–the revolt of “Earth” against “Heaven.” Feminist detractors could not prevent this ‘revolt’ even as they might praise and affirm a democratic way of life.

Were Victorian era women “oppressed” in some sense of the word? If we look at women’s fashion as a piece of evidence, we see that–whether or not women created/embraced these fashions, their movement, the way for them to show themselves to the world, was certainly restricted–especially if we accept Fexneld’s “proto-feminists” from the mid-19th century starting the modern feminist movement. This may shed light on their overall place in society. But the place of women in Victorian society is something which I know too little about to comment on.

I suspect that the “oppression” of women lacked the severity that some claimed, but disconnects from equality are hard to bear within a democracy. I withhold sympathy from many of Fexneld’s female examples, but would extend it to more moderate feminists.

The age old problem of revolutions has always been, however, where and when do they stop?

Obviously, I oppose the rebellion against Christianity that at least some feminists then and now espouse, on historical as well as religious grounds. I trust my religious objections are obvious. As to the historical, we can briefly consider Regine Pernoud’s Women in the Days of Cathedrals, which shows us an era where

  • The earliest medieval treatise on education was written by a woman
  • We see the invention of romantic love (at least as an accepted part of general society)
  • Women regularly practiced medicine
  • Women in monastic orders could get more or less the same education men in the church received

In short, the status of women at the height of medievalism–a patriarchal society in most respects–far surpassed that of any pagan society. Pernoud suggests, however, that the Renaissance and subsequent ages introduced more Roman and classical pagan concepts of property and ownership. Possibly this did have an impact on women’s status in the Renaissance and future centuries.

Of course, one cannot construct a society entirely of “Heaven” anymore than entirely out of “Earth.” Mankind itself is both “heavenly” and “earthly,” (just as mankind is not just men or just women) made from the dust of the earth and the spirit from above. Strikingly, many of the cathedrals in the “Age of Cathedrals” reference by Pernoud were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, including Chartes, Notre Dame, Burgos, and Cologne, just to name a few. Here, I am convinced, lies the heart of the matter Fexneld misses entirely. Yes, Christianity is obviously patriarchal. We pray to our Father in Heaven. But Christians made the “Woman” (John 2:24, 19:26) the representative of Creation itself. On the one hand, Mary flips the hierarchy. As a young girl, she resided in the Holy of Holies–unheard of within Judaism. This seems a radical inversion. But it is her assent to God “flips” everything– she sets what was askew right again, the harm of Eve healed.** But what Mary put back in place is not a revolutionary society but a the right hierarchy, the reign of the true king–the subject of her Magnificat.

A blessed Advent to all.

A 13th century manuscript drawing showing Mary punching a devil.

*Some of Fexneld’s other work includes a published article: “Bleed for the Devil: Self-injury as Transgressive Practice in Contemporary Satanism, and the Re-enchantment of Late Modernity.” Clearly he has Satan on the brain. As an aside, should I ever become President my first executive order would ban all titles that that have something short and arresting to start, and then ruin it with a long and boring subtitle.

**Many of the fathers from St. Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150) onward develop the Eve-Mary parallel. Both are approached by an angel, and both assent to the angel, but it is Mary who in questioning Gabriel shows wisdom–Eve should have questioned the serpent. Eve’s pride humbles her, whereas Mary’s humility exalts her to the highest place.

Time in Joint

Historians tend towards the romantic, which means they can develop an undue fascination with decay. The best historians add to this a grand sweeping view of all things and thus see (with good reason) the vicissitudes of time and the sin to which all men are drawn. Historians hopefully are not cranks or kill-joys–rather they at least believe themselves saying, “I’ve seen this movie before . . . . ”

Exceptions exist of course, but Polybius, while writing of the glorious successes of the Republic saw the wheel of time moving that same Republic inexorably towards decline. Oswald Spengler also shared the basic assumption that civilizations, like every living thing, had its inevitable death built into their DNA. Plato too saw forms of government moving in a definite cycle, and Machiavelli–though departing from Plato as much as he could philosophically–shared this basic assumption. He hoped that practical wisdom could elongate the good parts of the cycle and shorten the bad ones, but sought nothing beyond that. Toynbee, being more influenced by Christianity than any of the aforementioned greats, saw more hope but still admitted that every civilization he studied had declined and disappeared.

All of these historians (others could be mentioned, such as Thucydides, and though Herodotus may have been the most hopeful, he did not write about the Peloponnesian War) dealt with civilizational decline but not with the concept of time itself. Some might say that historians should not bother about “Time” and let it stand as the purview of either science or theology. Well, history involves a degree of science, and no one can write about mankind without at least subconsciously thinking about God.

Enter Olivier Clement, and his dense, difficult, but still fascinating Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in Light of the Orthodox Tradition. I cannot claim to have understood him thoroughly, but I hope to have gleaned the most important aspects of his work.

History shows us that civilizations had two main ways of conceiving of time, either as cyclical or linear. The cyclical view dominated most pre-Christian civilizations. Clement writes that

For primitive society, authentic time is the dawning moment of creation. At that moment . . . heaven was still very close to earth. . . . This first blessedness disappeared as a result of a fall, a cataclysm that separated heaven and earth . . . Thereafter he was isolated from the divine and from the cosmos.

The whole effort of fallen man was therefore to seek an end of this fallen state in order once again to be in paradise.

One sees this in the mythologies of most civilizations I am aware of. For the Greeks, Egyptians, Meso-Americans, etc. history begins with the gods ruling on earth in some capacity, a golden age of harmony and justice.

As the gods fled, all people had left to them was mimicry. By participating in the “cycles” initiated by the gods they could perhaps glean something. So we marry because heaven and earth were once married. We farm because of the motif of life from death, death from life we see played out in agriculture. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Clement writes,

One important symbol (and ritual), the dance, sums up this conception of time. According to a very ancient tantric expression, the cosmos is the “game of god,” the divine dance. Primitive cyclical time is nothing less than the rhythm of this dance, ever tighter cycle in which the dancer is drawn in and assimilated.

Clement acknowledges that much truth exists in this conception of time, but emphasizes that it is fruitless in the end and thus, hopeless, a “hellish” repetition.* “Time is always experienced as degradation” as we move further out from the original marriage of heaven and earth. As we move further out, our connection lessens, hence the origin of ecstatic religious manifestations as an attempt to escape the cycle of reality and return to innocence. The Dionysian cult, for example, was universally acknowledged as “new” by the Greeks in the 5th century. Toynbee mentions that in the aftermath of Hannibal’s invasion, the more disciplined Romans found themselves “plagued” with an onslaught of much more emotional religious expressions. The old gods could no longer meet the new needs

This severing of man from meaning makes time itself meaningless. Eventually not even the regularity of the cycles can entice. One sees this clearly in the Viking epic Egil’s Saga. The prose sparkles, and the poetry is even better. But in the end we have feast, feud, violence, victory–rinse and repeat. So too in other cultures. Clement cites the famous story of Narada from the Sayings of Sri Ramikrishna which illustrate this well:

Narada, the model of piety, gained the favor of Vishnu by his fervent devotion and asceticism.  Narada demanded of Vishnu that he reveal to him the secret of his “maya.” Vishnu replied with an ambiguous smile, “Will you go over yonder to fetch me a little water?”  “Certainly, master,” he replied, and began to walk to a distant village. Vishnu waited in the cool shade of a rock for him to return.

Narada knocked at the first door he came to, eager to complete the errand.  A very beautiful young woman opened the door and the saintly man experienced something entirely new in his life.  He was spellbound by her eyes, which resembled those of Vishnu. He stood transfixed, forgetting why he had come. The young woman welcomed him in a friendly and straightforward way.  Her voice was like that of a gold cord passed around the neck of a stranger. 

He entered the house as if in a dream.  The occupants of the house greeted him respectfully.  He was greeted with honor, treated as a long lost friend.  After some time he asked the father of the house for permission to marry his daughter who greeted him at the door.  This is what everyone had been waiting for. He became a member of the household, sharing its burdens and joys.  

Twelve years passed.  He had three children and when his father-in-law died he became head of the family.  In the 12th year the rainy season was especially violent. The rivers swelled and floods came down from the mountains and the village was swamped with water.  During the night the waters swept away houses and cattle. Everyone fled.  

Holding his wife with one hand and two of his children with the other, with the third perched on his shoulders, Narada left with great haste.  He staggered along, battered by torrents of water. Suddenly he stumbled, and the child on his shoulders fell and plunged into the flood. With a cry of despair Narada let go of his two other children and flailed away to try and reach the littlest one, but he was too late.  At this moment, the raging water swept away his wife and two other children.  

He lost his own footing, and the flood took him away, dashing his head against a rock.  He lost consciousness. We he awoke he could see only a vast plain of muddy water, and he wept for his loss.  He heard a familiar voice, “My child, where is the water you said you would fetch me. I have been waiting for almost ½ an hour.”  

Narada turned and saw only desert scorched by the mid-day sun.  Vishnu sat beside him and smiled with cruel tenderness, “Do you now understand the secret of my maya?”

Commenting on this story, Clement cites two Hindu scholars, who write that,

The nature of each existing thing is its own instantaneity, created from an incalculable number of destructions of stasis.

and

Because the transformation from existence non-existence is instantaneous, there is no movement.

Thus, for Hindus as well as Greeks, eternity is seen in opposition to time, with immobility being the means of entering into eternity, which is again, in opposition to all that is transitory on earth.**

Viewed against other pre-Christian societies, Israel of the Old Testament looks quite different in their view of time and space. Some comment on the “crudeness” of the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament about God, but this language, “demonstrates that eternity is oriented towards time, and that eternity marches with time towards encounter and fulfillment.” Clement uses the word “courtship” to describe this relationship, which I find most apt. One might then say that the Old Testament culminates in the Virgin Mary bearing the union of Heaven and Earth in the person of Christ. Time takes on a linear dimension and events take on definite meaning. True–time is part of creation and thus partakes of the curse of the fall–it marches us towards death and non-being. Existence gets mechanized. But this also means time will be redeemed, and this process of redemption begins not at the future “Day of the Lord,” but in the Incarnation itself, and in the everyday “now.”

The Christian worldview has elements of the cyclical time of many pre-Christian civilizations. Many medieval calendars, for example were often expressed in a circular, not linear, manner.

The Church is both eschatological and paradisal–a paradise regained–though importantly, a paradise regained that will be greater than that which was lost. Levitical liturgical life prescribed yearly festivals that mirrored the seasons of the year. In some ways, the world is a “game of God,” as St. Maximos the Confessor states.^ The liturgy recapitulates not our vain longings for a return as in pagan cultures, but the real interaction of time and eternity at the heart of existence.

In the Old Testament, time had meaning in part because it moved to a definite fulfillment with the coming of the Messiah. With the Messiah rejected, the Jewish people lost their connection with the eternal purpose of time. Now time as a straight line simply ends in death, and proclaims the reign of death just as strongly as the vain repetitive cycles of the most ancient cultures.

If I understood Clement rightly, he argues that the Christian sense of time preserves the best of both Jewish and pagan time–the cyclical and the linear–while introducing an entirely new element. The liturgical cycles give us continual entrance into a defined pattern life as we move in a distinctly forward direction towards the Day of the Lord. But these cycles don’t just recall the past or proclaim the future, but bring about an intersection of eternal and temporal. Liturgical prayers often speak of the “today” of the historical event celebrated. And if time is part of creation, then the “line” of history too will be redeemed and circumscribed by eternity.

As to the implications on blog about history and culture, well, here I have less confidence than in my attempts to understand Clement. But if I may venture forth . . . it does seem that an undue amount of political commentators have fallen prey to the romantic idea of cyclical and irretrievable decay. Right after Trump was elected, for example, a new edition of Plutarch’s lives detailing the end of the Roman Republic got published. Some now on the right feel a leftist totalitarianism on the rise. But Clement would tell us that is at precisely these times that we must remember: time no longer bears us unceasingly towards decay. If we so choose, we can live in a world infused with the paradise of eternity.

Dave

*Clement mentions that many ancient societies buried their dead in the fetal position as an indication that the cycle of life/death was to repeat ad infinitum. Many Native American tribes did this, as did the Egyptians, apparently. As far as I know, Christians have never buried their dead in a like position, testifying to a different theology of time and redemption.

Egyptian Mummy

Cremation practiced at times by the Greeks and others also testifies in some ways to the futility of the cycle–we began as nothing and return to nothing.

**Clement notes some similarity between this concept of “immobility” and Orthodox ascesis. Many monastic fathers speak of “stillness of heart” and “remaining in your cell.” Again, Clement acknowledges the complexity of the topic and the need to emphasize that sometimes the differences are not of “kind” but of degree & orientation.

^The idea being not something arbitrary but something playful and in flux, compared to the stability of the heavenly realms.

9th/10th Grade: Matter and Spirit in the Dark Ages

Greetings,

After our Rome unit we transition out of Roman civilization into the medieval world.  This transition will involve rebuilding civilization along a whole new foundation with a different view of reality and consequently, society.  Early next week we will examine the question of the relationship between the physical and spiritual reality, and to what extent (if any) they can be separated.

Can a physical thing be a spiritual thing at the same time?  Or vice-versa?

The modern west tends to view reality in binary form.  We have a spiritual world and a physical world and for the most part the two live separately and do not mingle.  But the medievals would answer the above question affirmatively, and for them the divide between the physical and spiritual had much less rigid separation.

As an entry point into their mindset, we might think of mankind itself.  We are physical and spiritual beings.  Our bodies and souls have a mutual relationship.  We cannot separate them, just as we cannot extract the sugar from the eggs in a cake mix once we mix them together.  We exist as physical and spiritual beings simultaneously.

Medieval people applied this concept to many other areas of theology and life in general.  The elements in the eucharist can be both the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine at the same time.  Certain physical places were holy and important to see on pilgrimages, which were spiritual journeys often undertaken barefoot.  God’s presence hallowed certain physical objects, and God used them in various ways.  The medievals called them relics, and some Biblical examples of this might be Moses’ staff, the cloaks of Elijah and Jesus, and Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12).  The saints don’t reside “out there” so much as they dwell in the here and now as a cloud of witnesses.  The presence of God and the saints link Heaven and Earth and we should (according to early Church doctrine and practice) ask the saints to intercede for us in prayer, just as we ask those on Earth to pray for us.

These theological ideas did not stay purely in the spiritual life of Christians, but impacted the values and shape of society in unique ways.  As we might expect these theological ideas took some time to trickle down into society itself, but eventually we will see their impact when we examine feudalism.

This week we also looked at the chaos in Europe after Rome’s fall.  As the only transnational organized group, the Church inevitably ended up bearing the brunt of the load in bringing about the return of civilization.  At first glance, the proliferation of monasteries has little to do with the recovery of civilization.  But monasteries performed at least 3 crucial functions to aid civilization:

1. Geographical Stability

As this map indicates,

the 5th and 6th centuries saw a great deal of chaos.  Semi-nomadic barbarian tribes wandered and fought as they went.  At bare minimum, civilization needs a defined location upon which to build.  Monasteries provided that, not only be dedicating themselves to prayer, but also to agriculture.  Farmers have to stay put and establish roots to successfully grow crops.

2. Refugees

With barbarians on the move many lost their homes and families.  Monasteries often served as places of refuge to care for, or possibly even educate, thousands of unfortunates.

3. Manuscripts

Many of you, like me, grew up in a time when parents said something akin to, “If we ever have a fire the house, the first and only thing to grab is the photo album.”  As a kid, this never made sense to me.  How about grabbing the tv?  But my parents had the right idea.  Part of our identity means having a connection to the past and those around us.  We don’t just exist as individuals in the ‘now,’ we know who we are based at least in part on our connection to others.

Monks copied many manuscripts such as the Bible and Church fathers, but also other Latin texts from Rome’s past.  We owe a great deal of our ancient Latin literature today to monks from the 6th-10th centuries preserving and copying them.  These books, I think, helped enhance their collective cultural memories.  It helped them connect to a past, reminding them that not all was lost.

The prevalence of monasteries raises the question of what exactly civilizations build upon.  Many critics of the Church accused Christians of “dropping out” by going to monasteries.  This withdrawal showed a heart that did not care.

In his monumental work, The City of God, St. Augustine asks his audience what exactly makes civilization work (among other topics).  It is not, he argues, a good economy, a powerful military, or even a workable political system.  What makes civilization tick is an established pattern of interacting with others both within and without one’s borders.  These interactions get formed from our values, and our values come from what we worship.

Perhaps monasteries can be viewed as a civilizational act of faith, akin to tithing.  They declare that we put our roots in the worship of God, in prayer and in praise, and not in our economy, our military, etc.  Only after recognizing the source of all things can things be properly enjoyed and properly used.  Rome, like nearly every other civilization, mistakenly believed that enough power, enough effort, enough careful application of resources, could hold things together.  They put the cart before the horse.

9th Grade: The World Charlemagne Made

Greetings,

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 . . .

994b135a41e90a4376d0274d17fbd81f

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.”

Blessings,

Dave

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 to find profound differences, and we judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we would see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us, and this 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, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. 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 as part of western civilization. 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 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.

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this in light of a more recent post on another book by Steven D. Smith.

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.

And now, the original post . . . .

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.

Dave

*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.


G.L. Cheesman: “The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army”

The author knows he is writing about something arcane and of little general interest. He does little to spruce up the writing — he at times seems to wallow in the details, perhaps getting a secret laugh out of boring his readers. My eyes glazed over more than once.

The book is thorough, but still brief enough for someone with just enough interest to glean some tidbits. I am far, far from having any comprehensive knowledge about Rome, but I wanted to read this to test a theory. Gibbon puts the fall of Rome essentially beginning after Marcus Aurelius. Others, like Toynbee put it far earlier. I tend to see it happening sometime after the 2nd and before the 3rd Punic War, and I wanted to see what Cheesman analysis of the Roman army had to contribute to this debate.

Early on Cheesman makes some interesting observations, namely that the imperial army was more versatile and specialized than any army of the Republic. This probably has do with the fact that they encountered different cultures and fighting styles as they expanded. They added cavalry (one may recall the serious weakness of the Roman cavalry when they faced Hannibal), usually getting them from far flung conquered provinces.  But no one would think that the Imperial armies were superior to say, those under Scipio Africanus ca. 210 BC. In other words, increasing complexity and specialization may not have been a sign of strength, but subtle weakness.  The increased specialization shows they had too many burdens in too many places around the globe to maintain a coherent fighting force with a fixed identity.

Also, Cheesman points out that many of the recruited ‘auxilia’ (auxiliary troops attached to the legions, recruited from conquered provinces) often rebelled against their new masters when stationed near their home territory. This could be fixed by shipping them elsewhere, but this created awkward burdens and costs involving transport.  Surely it also lessened the effectiveness of these auxiliaries, as they had to fight far from familiar territory.

The fact that Rome faced so many rebellions within its ranks tells me that Rome lost its mojo long before Marcus Aurelius, contra Gibbon. These rebellions came despite the fact that some emperors fast-tracked the path to rights and citizenship for many auxiliary regiments. They were being more ‘progressive’ in a sense, but it made no difference — things were not working as they used to for Rome. One need only recall the general solidity of their alliance system during the much greater stress of the 2nd Punic War to see this happening.

With more knowledge of Imperial Rome, more patience, and more military background I might have gleaned more from this work.  Still, one always likes their theories backed by neutral observers! So, my gratitude to G.L. Cheesman for his somewhat tedious, partially sleep inducing, yet still occasionally quite insightful book.

Dave

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: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

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

To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.

DM

*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.

 

 

 

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.

Maybe.

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

Dave

+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).